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Georg Lukács

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Georg Lukács (1885-1971) 


Although his work predates the Critical Theorists,  Lukács is included here because his own work was extremely influential in directing the later members of the Frankfurt School towards their crucial revisionist perspective of Marxism. He was a Hungarian Marxist philosopher and literary critic.  He contributed the ideas of reification and class consciousness to Marxist philosophy and theory. He served briefly as Hungary's Minister of Culture following the 1956 Hungarian Revolution (Wikipedia). He was born in Budapest to a wealthy Jewish banking family. He studied at Universities in Berlin and Budapest and received his PhD in 1906. He spent a great deal of time in Berlin where he befriended a number of critical philosophers including Ernst Bloch, Georg Simmel and Max Weber. He returned to Budapest in 1915 and began a philosophical debating circle that eventually included such luminaries as Karl Mannheim.

Following the First World War and the October Revolution in Russia, he joined the Communist Party of Hungary and became very active before being forced to flee to Vienna where he barely avoided arrest through the intercession of writer friends. His major work History and Class Consciousness was published in 1925 and was soundly attacked by the Communist bureaucracy for its leftist ideology. He criticised centralised Communism and called for a true dictatorship of the proletariat. He lived in Berlin until the rise of Hitler forced him to move to Moscow in 1933. He remained there until the end of the war, returning to Budapest to become an important figure once again in the Hungarian Communist Party. During the Hubngarian Revolution of 1956 he was critical of the Soviet intervention and with the failure of the Revolution was deported to Romania. He survived this exile to return to Hungary in 1957 and thereafter took a much lower profile in politics.

His book of essays, History and Class Consciousness is an investigation into Marxist Orthodoxy. In the first chapter he lays out his position quite clearly:

"Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method. It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders."

In this he was critical of the dogma of Stalinist/Leninist orthodoxy and much more of a mind with such Marxists as Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg (to whom he devoted a chapter in his book). It was this willingness to critique received Marxist ideology that attracted him later to the Frankfurt theorists. He raised issues of ideology, alienation, reification, false consciousness, the place of culture. All of these were grist to the mill for the Frankfurt theorists. He died in Hungary in 1971.


Critics of orthodox marxism have pointed to this distinction between the economic base and the determined superstructure as the core cause of the failure of Soviet communism and the failure of marxism as a formative ideology for social change. Beginning with the anarcho-synicalists like Makhno, through powerful dissidents such as Luxemburg down to the New Left of the 1960s and later postmodernists, these critics have all maintained that the revolution which will emancipate the masses cannot wait until all of the conditions for its existence are in place.

In the face of the Gulag revelations, which emerged from the 1930s onwards, Western marxists searched for an adequate means to explain both this and the ap¬parent refusal of capitalism to collapse. The doctrinaire version of marxism to which the party was attached promised the inevitability of the capitalist collapse. Marxist economics were held to be a natural law, governed by the same kind of forces as determined other natural phenomena (such as gravity). This deterministic version of Marx's historical materialism was first seriously questioned by Lukács and Karl Korsch and has subsequently been taken up by numerous other authors.

Lucáks, particularly, argued against the mistaken orthodox view of marxism which saw the inexorability of change stemming from a defined economic "base", suggesting that this theory contradicted Marx's own phi¬losophy and amounted to what Marx had called a "contemplative materialism" - one which ignored the all-important factor of human subjectivity and action. By ignor¬ing the element of human subjectivity and agency, Lukacs suggested that "orthodox" marxists had also abandoned the very thing which could provide the basis for revolutionary action. This position was supported explicitly by Engels himself in his later writings. He maintained that:

"According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I ever asserted....The eco¬nomic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the super¬structure....the class struggle and its results- also exercise their in¬fluence on the course of historical struggles and in many cases pre¬ponderate in determining their form."

Yet the record is not so completely unambiguous. Marx himself seems to have taken a variety of positions and to have "softened" his insistence upon the primacy of the economic sphere in his later years. He suggested that the law, as a superstructural element was falsely characterised as being separate from and subordinated to capitalist production, whereas we have seen how they are mutually implicated.  Most often Marx portrayed the determining element of history as the sum total of the relations of production - which necessarily included the workers themselves, rather than only the machines, plant and raw materials. He noted, for instance, that this totality:

"...constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness."  

Occasionally, he isolated the actual instruments of production, but these instances are relatively few and minor, and as McLellan notes:

"He also makes it clear that the instruments of production can never be isolated from their social context....."It is not 'history'  which uses men as a means of achieving - as if it were an individual person - its own ends. History is nothing but the activity of men in pursuit of their own ends."

This seems to be consistent with one of Marx's most incisive ideas, reiterated innumerable times, that:

"Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past."

In other words, Marx seems to have seen the relationship between the economic and cultural realms as more reciprocal than later more conservative and Orthodox interpretations would seem to indicate. This was the perspective on marxism to which critics of orthodoxy, such as Luxemburg, Lucáks and Korsch subscribed. Revolution, for all of these critics, became an issue of process, rather than being viewed as an end product, and that process seems to involve an ongoing dialectic within the superstructural elements and the between them and the economic 'base' upon which they are supposed to be dependent. What this meant in simple terms was that it was now realised that elements of culture could and did affect the economic framework itself, and that change to the economic structure can and does take place in more than superficial ways as a result of changes taking place within the social and cultural spheres.

Although he was later to relent somewhat in this analysis (due to criticism from the Party) Lucáks’ work did open up a whole new way of looking at the practice of marxist theory. His work had a substantial influence after its publication in 1923, and was most systematically taken up by researchers at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt in the mid to late 1920's. Once liberated from its dependency upon economic change, the cultural component of everyday life could be investigated within its own frame of reference as an instrument of social transformation. As a major element in cultural production this meant that education could now also be investigated as playing an important part in the transformation of society. It is for this reason that we need to look more closely at the social implications of these later theories in regard to the whole issue of cultural production and reproduction and most specifically at the implications this might have for the educational enterprise. 
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