SWP and Lukacs: review of new Lukacs book with intro by SWP leaderJohn Rees, Part II

Les Schaffer schaffer at SPAMoptonline.net
Sat Feb 10 20:33:32 MST 2001

[ Part II from Phil Ferguson]

Lukács also offers us another passage which has clear echoes in
today's ideological struggles. Lumbered with the idea that class
consciousness is essentially fixated on mass psychology, Rudas
attempts to mock Lukács: "Now one might believe that comrade Lukács
has discovered a third place, where class consciousness realises
itself. Perhaps in the head of a god or many gods, perhaps in the head
of Madame History or some such thing" (p74).

This extract could have been lifted out of any contemporary polemic
against the CPGB.  When you pose supposedly 'maximalist' demands
(abolition of the monarchy for example), the likes of the SWP
(alongside their economistic bedfellows in the Socialist Party, the
Alliance for Workers Liberty and Workers Power) will give you a
Rudas-like reply: 'real' workers aren't interested in that! Our
protagonists then move on to accuse us of being obsessed with

Lukács gives a pertinent reply to Rudas and his modern-day followers:
"But let me mollify comrade Rudas (or, better put, let me upset his
tail-ending): this 'third place' is not that difficult for a communist
to find: it is the Communist Party" (original emphases - ibid.).
Therefore Lukács makes it perfectly clear that any attempts to
proscribe a party putting forward slogans that are beyond the current
psychology of the working class actually leads on to the undermining
of the conscious element in the preparation of the revolution.

The above passages illustrate why the SWP's promotion of this book is
such an excellent thing. Mired in economism, it has continually failed
the test of Leninism throughout its existence. The fact that young
comrades will be picking up Lukács's text, and finding in it a
demolition of their world view can only be to the ultimate benefit of
the SWP.

The other major problem with Rees's introduction is its
conceptualisation of Lukács relationship with Stalinism (pp32-35). Now
admittedly Rees states that he does not have enough space to do
justice to this complex subject.  Nevertheless, he does make some
detrimental accusations concerning Lukács's mature development.

After producing HCC in 1923, Lukács brought himself to a tactical
accommodation with Stalin in the mid-1920s after perceiving that the
post-war revolutionary wave had run its course. Lukács subsequently
argued in 1968 that Trotsky's faction of the Communist Party of the
Soviet Union offered no alternative to those of Stalin, Zinoviev and
Bukharin, because it shared their subordination to the technical and
economic consolidation of the Russian Revolution at the expense of the
strategic perspective of working class democracy (G Lukács The process
of democratization New York 1991, pp107-115). Lukács remained
politically hostile to Trotskyism throughout his life, although he
never questioned either Trotsky's ability or his personal integrity.

Whilst the SWP is not an orthodox Trotskyite organisation, Trotskyism
remains one of the cornerstones of its world view. Hence writers such
as Rees are forced to limit their appreciation of Lukács to a
relatively thin band of work: HHC (1923), Lenin: a study in the unity
of his thought (1924) and now Tailism and the dialectic
(1925-26). Anything published after this (i.e., around 45 years of
work) is simply beyond the Stalinist pale.

As far as I can judge, Rees follows the thinking of Michael Löwy's
Georg Lukács - from romanticism to Bolshevism (which offers a
wonderful account of Lukács's early development, but falls to bits
when Löwy views 'Lukács and Stalinism' through orthodox-Trotskyite
spectacles). This is particularly evident in his treatment of 'Moses
Hess and the problems of idealistic dialectics' (1926), where Rees
sees Lukács's respect for Hegel's 'reconciliation with reality' as a
motif for his accommodation with Stalin and the partial collapse of
his dialectical outlook (p34).

Rees makes the questionable assumption that, "Thereafter, Lukács was
often a critic of Stalinism, but only ever a right critic" (p35). In a
similar vein he argues that, after the defeat of the 'Blum theses' in
1928 (in which Lukács attempted to steer the Hungarian Party away from
ultra-leftism), Lukács "decided to withdraw from active politics and
to cultivate philosophical and aesthetic concerns" (p34). Contained
within this compact analysis are a whole raft of misconceptions.

The latter statement makes it look as if Lukács ducked out of the
struggle at a time when the Stalinist regime was consolidating
itself. In fact this is only a very partial truth. This is how Lukács
judged his writings of the 1930s and 1940s at the end of his life: "It
is not hard to see today that the main direction of these essays was
in opposition to the dominant literary theory of the time. Stalin and
his followers demanded that literature provide tactical support to
their current political policies ... As everyone knows, no open
polemics were possible during that period. Yet I did protest
consistently against such a conception of literature. A revival of
Marx and Lenin's views regarding the complicated dialectic, rich in
contradiction, between the political and social positions of writers
and their actual works, ran counter to Zhdanov's prescriptions. In
expounding such and similar views through analyses of a Balzac or a
Tolstoy, I not only offered a theory in opposition to the official
line but also by clear implication a critique of the official
literature" (G Lukács Writer and critic and other essays London 1970,

The reader will forgive the length of the quote, but it does clarify
exactly what Lukács was trying to do in constructing a 'guerrilla
struggle' against the Stalinist bureaucracy. This is not to say that
this approach does not have its problems.  Mészáros has pointed out on
a number of occasions that the abstract nature of this conflict
eventually left Lukács bereft of concrete solutions to the crisis of
'official' communism.  Nevertheless, his concentration on aesthetics
and philosophical themes, which Rees refers to as "scholarly seclusion
in Moscow's Marx-Engels Institute"(p35), was not an idle fancy on his

In the above passage Lukács demonstrates the nature of the Stalinist
bureaucracy: its essentially subjective and manipulative approach to
the problems of constructing a socialist society - the logical outcome
of its inability to develop democratic control on the part of the
proletariat in the Soviet Union. Thus, as Jack Conrad has well
illustrated, this left the bureaucracy adrift in a society that it
simply could not control in any rational sense.  Therefore Lukács's
literary emphasis on realism, as opposed to mere tactical
manipulation, cut to the very core of the bureaucracy's oppressive
existence. In no sense can this so-called 'reconciliation with
reality' be judged as criticism from the 'right', precisely because of
the democratic questions it begged about the USSR.

Through his evident inability to conceptualise the nature of the
bureaucracy, Rees proves unable to give any sort of balanced
assessment of Lukács's opposition to Stalinism. His problems also stem
from the deeper source of squaring his views against a Trotskyite
assessment of the Soviet Union. In general terms Trotskyites impose a
rigid identity-reasoning on their perceptions of Stalinism and the
'official' communist movement.  All the facets of its existence are
ruled against its anti-Bolshevik usurping of the Russian
Revolution. The logical incoherence of this idealist standpoint is
beautifully illustrated by Rees's assessment of Lukács's relationship
with Stalinism.  Important contradictions fall from view, simply
because of his (completely correct) unwillingness to align himself
with Leon Trotsky.

Having dealt with John Rees, let us now move to deal with some of the
issues raised by Mark O'Brien in International Socialism No89

As we have seen above, O'Brien usefully backs up Lukács's statement
that the object of Tailism and the dialectic is not merely to defend
HCC in its entirety. O'Brien's critique is centred on the second part
of the book, where Lukács deals with the dialectics of nature
(pp94-137). Despite the interesting points raised by O'Brien it must
be said that he never really moves beyond abstract, philosophical
themes (although, as we shall see, he has a 'hidden' political case to
make), whereas Lukács is much more concrete about the context of the

The scenario which Lukács establishes is once again that of combating
economism and the tail-ending of spontaneity in the workers' movement:
"The bourgeois class, even its most significant scientific
representatives, sticks to the immediacy of social forms and is
therefore not able to recognise society in its totality, and in its
becoming: that is to say ... as theoretically and historically
dialectical. The opportunistic streams of the labour movement have
sensed instinctively why they have to direct their attacks precisely
against the dialectic: only by getting rid of the dialectic has it
become possible for them to forget historical materialism's advance
beyond the immediacy of bourgeois society, and for them to complete
their ideological capitulation in the face of the bourgeoisie" (p94).

Therefore it was Lukács's recognition of Lenin's long struggle against
all forms of economism that proved the foundation for his denial of an
immediate relationship between humans and nature (and the social
structures built on its foundation): " ... what my critics call my
agnosticism is nothing other than my denial that there is a socially
unmediated - i.e., an immediate - relationship of humans to nature in
the present stage of social development ... Therefore, I am of the
opinion that our knowledge of nature is socially mediated, because its
material foundation is socially mediated ..." (p106).

Rudas showed just how disastrous the rejection of such a standpoint
could be when he argued that natural scientists were spontaneously
coming toward dialectical materialism through contact with the natural
world: "They too are gradually realising that their science is
'drumming' dialectics into them" (p95). Lukács was not slow to link
this reliance on spontaneity and immediacy with Rudas's
miscomprehension of the role of the Party. The insistence that correct
knowledge can be gained through immediate contact with nature and
society effectively strips Marxism of its ability to criticise the
partiality of bourgeois science and the need for revolutionaries to
consciously intervene.

Lukács also rejects any reliance on simple categories of mediation
(the way in which humans conceptualise the world), arguing that their
determination and discernibility are dependent on higher, more
structured forms of mediation. He quotes Marx to suggest that, "the
method of advancing from the abstract to the concrete is ... the way
in which thinking assimilates the concrete and reproduces it as a
concrete mental category" (p110).

To make this point more concrete, Lukács goes on to quote a passage
from Marx's Theories of surplus value: " ... [capitalist] crisis ...
cannot exist without manifesting itself at the same time in its simple
form, as the contradiction between sale and purchase and the
contradiction of money as a means of payment. But these are merely
forms, general possibilities of crisis, and hence also forms, abstract
forms, of actual crisis. In them, the nature of crisis appears in its
simplest forms ... But the content is not yet substantiated ...  These
forms alone, therefore, do not explain why their crucial aspect
becomes prominent and why the potential contradiction contained in
them becomes a real contradiction" (p111).

Therefore, higher forms of mediation are vital if the working class is
to master an understanding of capitalism in its totality. If its
critique remains fixed at the level of appearances (i.e., the forms of
simple mediation such as sale and purchase) then it stays at the stage
of bourgeois political economy with its apologetic or reformist
political conclusions. Again we are brought against the necessity of
fighting any tendency towards spontaneity and immediacy on the part of
the workers' movement. Capitalism is fought with Marx's ascent from
the abstract to the concrete or it is not fought at all.

Mark O'Brien has immense problems with all this. Indeed the comrade
perceives much more clearly than John Rees that Tailism and the
dialectic cannot be simply squared off against existing SWP practice,
although he leaves us to read this from between the lines.

O'Brien shows that he is completely blind to the Leninist problematic
of Lukács's analysis, appearing confused as to why he throws out the
notion of humans having immediate contact with the world with such
"urgency": "For once the unmediated contact between the human subject
and the world has been rejected, subject and object are indeed
irredeemably thrown apart" (M O'Brien International Socialism No89,
winter 2000, p127). As we have demonstrated above, Lukács ditched the
notion of immediacy (and thus the idealist construct of the 'identical
subject-object') precisely because it would potentially lead in
practice to the disorganisation of the vanguard Party. If workers can
spontaneously gain a knowledge of capitalism through immediate contact
with its structures, then what price Bolshevism?

It therefore becomes clear why O'Brien finds Lukács's rigorous defence
of Leninism so uncomfortable. In its practice the SWP appears to rely
on the proletariat's immediate contact with capitalist economics as
enough to solve the development of class consciousness. That is why
Socialist Worker, its agitational paper, seeks to mirror the
spontaneous reality of the working class back to them in a more
concentrated form. Any project of developing the working class
politically (in other words, leading the class) is completely absent
from its pages. This approach precisely neglects the fact that even in
a 'radical' spontaneous outbreak of strikes, the culture of the
workers will be heavily mediated by the ideological superstructures of
capital. The SWP must cling on to this idea of immediacy, otherwise
its whole modus operandi begins to disintegrate.

We encounter similar errors when we move on to consider O'Brien's
rejection of Lukács's concentration on the higher, as opposed to
simple, forms of mediation. He argues: "... in relation to the
question of immediacy, Lukács seems blind to the first part of [a]
quote from Marx - 'Hunger is hunger'. Humans have immediate needs
which are invariant. If human experience were entirely historically
mediated, there would be no underlying continuity between epochs, and
Marx's concept of 'labour' could never have been the key to
understanding all other forms of society with their concrete
historical mediations" (p125).

Of course, Lukács was well aware of simple mediations such as
'hunger', but, in the context of defeating tailist politics, is an
'immediate' emphasis on this effective? O'Brien does give the game
away: "The relative weight of the 'higher', more theorised categories
and the 'simpler', less theorised categories is a matter of real
history and not one of a priori assertion" (ibid.).

You will not find a more complete distortion of Lukács's case. It was
precisely "real history" (and not some abstract ordering) that he was
interested in.  More specifically the Second International with its
simplistic economism, and the Bolshevik victory in 1917 with its
'higher', political categories. In short the difference between
tailism and Leninism.

Once again, the reason O'Brien defends simplistic forms of mediation
is that these are a staple diet of SWP practice. The organisation's
propaganda consists of simple economistic 'them-us', 'good-bad'
platitudes. Socialist Worker does not attempt to point the proletariat
to the sophisticated understanding it needs of the totality of
capitalist relations. Rather it suggests that 'real workers' are not
interested in all this. To which we answer that it is precisely the
job of Leninists to propagate it.

If it has done nothing else, this review has shown how the SWP's
attempt to laud Lukács is fraught with difficulty. His pre-1927 work
is saturated with polemical assaults on the economism that the SWP
practises today. Lukács's later output is similarly difficult because
of his rejection of Trotskyism. Precisely the reasons why the SWP's
engagement with the greatest Marxist theoretician of the 20th century
is so significant.

Phil Watson

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