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

Les Schaffer schaffer at SPAMoptonline.net
Sat Feb 10 20:33:34 MST 2001

[ bounced > 30 kB from Philip Ferguson <plf13 at it.canterbury.ac.nz> and just
as well as it had so much staircase, it would have given the list owner a
heart attack. reformatted. Part I]

                Weekly Worker 367 Thursday January 18 2000

SWP and Lukács

Significant engagement

Georg Lukács A defence of 'History and class consciousness': tailism
and the dialectic Verso, 2000, pp182, £16

The recent publication of Tailism and the dialectic, apparently
written in 1925-26 but never referred to by the author in his numerous
autobiographical writings and interviews, marks another stage in the
attempt of the Socialist Workers Party to appropriate the work of
Georg Lukács as one of their own.

The book has a thought-provoking introduction from John Rees, one of
the SWP's leading theoreticians (pp1-38) and has received a number of
complimentary reviews in various SWP publications, alongside some
critical comment in its International Socialism journal.

The most positive thing about the SWP's engagement has been its
recognition of the need to fuse the understanding of complex
philosophical themes with revolutionary praxis. When Althusserian
'Marxism' was fashionable amongst academics in the 1960s and 1970s,
the almost overriding motif was its complete divorce from practice
(although this failed to discourage the SWP's Alex Callinicos - a
writer who was always more sceptical of Lukács - from embracing

It should be stressed, however, that the SWP's project is not without
its contradictions: indeed John Rees illustrates that it is likely to
become intensely problematic. The root of this is the SWP's need to
find theoretical sustenance for its current practice, which in its
essentials is both formalistic and economistic. Alongside this is the
organisation's traditional hostility to 'official' communism. In this
review we will show how the dual commitment to idealistic political
practice and defending Trotskyism leads Rees and others into any
number of theoretical knots.

It is surely not an overstatement to say that History and class
consciousness (1923) is the seminal text of 20th century Marxism. For
those unfamiliar with the work, Lukács subjected the primitive,
mechanistic 'Marxism' of the Second International to a blistering
theoretical assault, making Marxist theory the object of an incisive
revolutionary practice, in contrast to a dusty rehearsal of
disembodied 'objective' laws. Lukács's negative comprehension of the
development of bourgeois philosophical trends and their
cross-fertilisation into the theoretical fallacies of the likes of
Kautsky and Bernstein was essentially a response to the Second
International's miserable surrender to nationalism in August 1914 and
the subsequent success of the Russian Revolution in 1917.  Lukács
himself had played a courageous role in the failed Hungarian
Revolution of 1919 and in the later illegal organisation of the
Communist Party of Hungary.

History and class consciousness (hereafter HCC) was to receive a
controversial reception inside the communist movement, the debate
beginning shortly after its publication and running through the 5th
Congress of Comintern in mid-1924.  Tailism and the dialectic contains
an extended polemic against two of Lukács's major critics at the time,
Lazslo Rudas, a former associate of Lukács in the Hungarian movement,
and the former Menshevik philosopher, Abram Deborin.

John Rees is quite clear that what we have here is Georg Lukács
defending "his masterpiece, History and class consciousness" (p1). In
case we are in any doubt, Rees adds: "Lukács's reply to Rudas and
Deborin makes an unequivocal case for seeing a fundamental unity
between History and class consciousness, Lenin and Tailism and the
dialectic" (p27).

However, the title, A defence of 'History and class consciousness', is
something not written on Lukács's unpublished manuscript, but added
posthumously (partly because the publishers want to feed off HCC's
international reputation), his own title being merely Tailism and the

On the very first page of his manuscript Lukács casts considerable
doubt on the status of such a 'defence': "There are many things in the
book [HCC] that I deem needful of correction. I would formulate many
of the things contained therein quite differently today. It is
certainly not my intention to defend the book itself " (original
emphasis - p47). Which is not to say that Lukács does not vigorously
defend elements of HCC, but he instantly casts doubt on Rees's whole
project. It was not Lukács's intention to defend HCC, but John Rees
wants to do so.

Which naturally leads on to the question: why is Rees so concerned to
construct his case in this manner? I would argue that his willingness
to preserve Lukács's essentially Hegelian construct of the communist
party as the 'identical subject-object' of the historical process is a
complex theoretical rationalisation of how some sections of the SWP
see their organisation in relation to the class struggle.

The point that Lukács was attempting to make in the formulation of the
proletariat as the 'identical subject-object' of history was a simple
one.  Under the rule of capitalism, the working class is alienated
from the products of its labour.  Through the operation of the
commodity and exchange value, 'things' appear to be beyond rational
human control. Worse, the commodity appears to control the
producer. Social constructs in this instance become reified, seemingly
plucked out of the flow of human history. For Lukács it was the
position of the working class inside a process which consistently
degraded the means of social labour, allied to the conscious,
subjective force of the Leninist party, which meant it could overthrow
the capitalist order and be able to become the 'identical
subject-object' of history: i.e., objects would no longer be alien
entities, but henceforth amenable to human reason and control.

Rees lauds this sentiment in the following passage: "Subjective and
objective constantly trade places. Our wrong subjective decision today
will reappear as an objective determinant of our action tomorrow. The
objective process and such moments of decision are like a knotted
rope; each knot of decision forms part of the objective structure of
events stretching out behind us, determining what and how we can
decide today" (p30).

On the other hand, this is how Lukács formulates his position in
Tailism and the dialectic: "It is impossible to separate the 'moment'
from the 'process'. The subject does not face the object inflexibly
and unconnectedly. The dialectical method does not intend either an
undifferentiated unity or a definite separation of moments" (p56).

Now Rees has the intellectual honesty to present this alongside his
above argument and goes on to applaud the notion of 'differentiated
unity' in relation to the dialectic of nature.  Nevertheless, the
comparison is not flattering to Rees, who is still stuck with the idea
of the 'identical subject-object' ("Subjective and objective
constantly trade places ..." is actually an example of an
'undifferentiated unity'), whilst Lukács actually appears to be
pulling apart his earlier Hegelianism, something that was in fact
begun in HCC itself with its emphasis on concrete, historical action.

This is clearly recognised by SWPer Mark O'Brien, who argues that, in
Tailism and the dialectic, Lukács " ... aims to defend his
materialism, having rejected the possibility of an immediate
connection between consciousness and the real world", thus marking a
clear break with HCC (International Socialism No89, winter 2000).
Rees's notion of a "fundamental unity" between the two works begins to
look more and more shaky.

The reader will forgive the excursion into formal philosophical
arguments; we can now judge Rees's formulation more concretely. Do the
subjective and objective "constantly trade places"? Take the Bolshevik
Party's decision to launch the insurrection in 1917 - a perfectly
correct tactic considering the objective balance of forces that
existed internationally at the time. Now this act is certainly proof
of Lukács argument that subjective forces do not face the objective
world inflexibly, in that it wove itself into one of the key objective
determinants of 20th century politics. But the idea that the Russian
Revolution 'traded places' with its objective environs is laughable
when you consider the panoply of problems that the Soviet regime then
faced (civil war, allied intervention, the failure of the world
revolution), all of which went on to distort its liberatory
promise. Which pays testimony to the complexity of reality and its
subsequent impact on subjective decisions, often turning them into the
opposite of what was originally intended.

Rees does appear to have some understanding of this. His argument that
each decision "forms part of the objective structure of events" is a
partial corrective that remains distorted by the overall
presentation. Any attempt to pose the identity of subject-object is
pure idealism: it can only be achieved in thought. The subjective
direction of the proletarian party certainly has the ability to impact
on the outside world, but social mediations will take their share of
the proceeds. To argue anything else is merely the worst kind of
ultra-left voluntarism.

Why then does Rees argue in this way? In reality his desire to enhance
the status of HCC emanates from the present practice of the SWP. Even
those most sympathetic to the organisation would have to admit that
some of its recent analyses of the class struggle have been formalist
in the extreme. A good example is the current thesis that we are now
experiencing the '1930s in slow motion'.

At the CPGB's Communist University 2000, Chris Bambery illustrated
perfectly the superficial nature of this perspective by his elevation
of Seattle, various strike waves and the apathetic working class
discontent with New Labour into key determinants of a supposedly
growing class polarisation. Stuck at the level of peripheral
appearances, the SWP fails to acknowledge the period of ideological
reaction which was ushered in with the fall of the USSR in 1991.

In reality such theses are not really intended to provide the SWP with
a compass in a variegated and contradictory social world: rather they
are intended to keep the membership on the boil - which is perfectly
buttressed by Rees's utilisation of Lukács's philosophy. If the
subject (SWP) and the objective (class struggle) manifest themselves
as an identity, if they "constantly trade places", then theories of
'the 1930s in slow motion' do not have to explain society in any
sophisticated sense. As long as the organisation is kept sufficiently
motivated, problems of revolutionary strategy will be solved by the
SWP's simple insertion into the social world. In this manner the SWP
kids itself that its analyses will turn themselves into a political
pot of gold. The strategy of the organisation thus becomes emasculated
around its narrow desire to keep itself together in the short term.

In a key section of Tailism and the dialectic Lukács gets to grips
with Rudas's lame critique of the idea of 'imputed' consciousness
(pp63-86), a passage that Rees lauds in his introduction.

Lukács gives a clear explanation of how a revolutionary organisation
can impute from a given situation what a correct strategy for the
working class should be: "By leaving out the inessential details of an
objective situation, one can distinguish what people acting according
to normal and correct knowledge of their situation were able to do or
to allow. According to this measure, their mistakes or their correct
insights, etc can be assessed" (p64). Lukács backed up this
fundamental Leninist tenet with a number of references to the practice
of Marx and Engels: "The criticism that Marx and Engels levelled at
the bourgeois parties in 1848-49 consists - methodologically - in
always showing what they could have done and should have done, given
the objective economic and political situation, and what they,
however, failed to do" (pp64-65).

Lukács thus spelled out an interventionist notion of class
consciousness: the task of the communist parties is always to point
out to the working class what they should and what they are able to do
in a given scenario. In other words, it has a clear idea of what is
correct and false consciousness on the part of the proletariat.

Rudas, on the other hand, thought this was idealism: "The
consciousness of humans is a product of the world that surrounds them
... This elementary truth is however incompatible with any
'imputation' [of what a correct class consciousness should be]
... there is no other hypothetical consciousness, which exists nowhere
but in the head of the philosopher ..."  (p22).

Lukács was not slow to point out that this proscribed the role of the
conscious elements of the revolutionary process, Rudas being seemingly
content to fall back into the mechanical determinism of Second
International 'Marxism'. For him, class consciousness arose
automatically out the objective processes of capitalism.  Rudas
writes: "The English and the French are already beginning to become
conscious of their historical tasks. And the others will follow. How
do I know that? Because - says Marx - I know as a materialist that
consciousness depends on social being, is a product of this social
being. Since this being is constituted such that the proletariat
through its suffering, etc is absolutely of necessity forced into
action, so too is it absolutely necessary that in time its
consciousness will awaken" (p67).

There you have it. Lukács pins the fate of revolution on the conscious
action of revolutionaries leading the class, while Rudas looks forward
to more proletarian "suffering".  As you might expect, Lukács destroys
Rudas's argument through his greater command of Leninism, making the
trenchant point that Rudas is actually making a case for tailing the
spontaneity of the class.

As we have stated above, John Rees gives his whole-hearted support to
Lukács's enterprise in this instance. Yet we must stop for a moment
and ask ourselves whether the contemporary practice of the SWP
appertains to that of a Rudas or a Lukács?

Let us take the example of the Socialist Alliance. Does the SWP impute
from this objective situation, where the working class has been
disenfranchised from New Labour, and the main revolutionary
organisations have come together, what is necessary and achievable?
Does it attempt to lead the Socialist Alliance toward a revolutionary
strategy? Does it propagandise for the formation of a single Communist
Party? Not at all.  Instead, it tails the social democratic elements
of the Alliance and seeks to make it an outlet for the low level of
discontent against Blairism.

The products of this classical economism can be seen in the
ahistorical manner in which the SWP refers to the Socialist Alliance
as a 'united front', which in reality is merely an attempt to step
around the fact that the SA is composed, in the main, of members of
existing revolutionary organisations. A more perfect example of the
kind of politics that Lukács was polemicising against would be hard to

[ end Part I]

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