Introduction to Lukács on Bukharin

Merleau-Ponty once described Lukács’ work as a ‘too notional dialectic (which) does not convey the opacity, or at least obscurity of real history’. This remark probably expresses most readers’ immediate reaction to Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein. Recently, this abstraction has been cited as part of a general indictment of all Lukács’ work, and all that of those Marxists in the tradition which he initiated. Whatever our ultimate judgment of his work as a whole, Lukács’ celebrated criticism of Bukharin—never before translated into any language—shows that the impression of abstraction derives from the special purpose of Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein, not from the essence of Lukács’ Marxism. Lukács’ training in the social sciences was from Simmel and Weber, that is, classical German sociology. Weber’s work, the summation of this tradition, is notorious for two things: firstly its erudition, the wealth of detailed comparative analyses of every kind of society; and secondly its obsession with rationality, which took the form of a surreptitious evolutionism that saw increasing rationalization and socialization everywhere as the destiny of the West. As Weber refused a general theory of social development, this evolutionism, though all-pervasive in his work, remains untheorized. In Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein Lukács used concepts from this side of the tradition (socialization, reification) to reveal new aspects of what was a general historical scheme—Marx’s analyses of feudalism and capitalism and the passage between them. This is, of course, also the favourite field of Tönnies, Simmel and Weber, but Lukács’ concept of the historical totality enabled him to link their conceptual abstractions to the concrete history of the last few centuries. In the process Weber’s overall conceptions are concretized, but Marx’s highly specific historical analyses are etherealized. Hence the abstraction of Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein is relative to Das Kapital, not to Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft.

The other dimension of German sociology, however, is apparently highly concrete: its vast stock of comparative detail and historical example. It is here that Weber’s work is frequently at its strongest. In 1925, Lukács brought this part of the tradition to bear on the oversimplifications and false emphases of Bukharin’s Marxist primer, The Theory of Historical Materialism, a Popular Textbook of Marxist Sociology (1921). The weaknesses of this work are well-known (see Gramsci’s criticisms, for example) even though its presentation of Marxism as a technological determinism is still widely accepted by both Marxists and non-Marxists. What is as interesting, however, is that Lukács does not confine himself to a purely philosophical critique, but examines crucial areas of the Marxist interpretation of history to show the weakness of Bukharin’s work. The concreteness of this approach contrasts sharply with the abstraction of Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein. However, they are fundamentally in harmony, and have explicitly in common the concern to combat the evolutionist determinism which descended from the Second International, and replace it with a theory of revolutionary action.

Marx argued that the motor of historical change was the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production. If only the latter moment is regarded as social, the forces of production must mean pure technology. As in the last analysis the development of the forces of production produces a breakdown of existing relations of production and the creation of new relations, technology becomes the determining factor in the structure and change of all societies. This view has been widely debated and much effort has gone into attempts to prove or disprove the importance of technology with respect particularly to moral factors. Within American sociology, Alvin Gouldner has attempted a wide-ranging quantified analysis in Notes on Technology and the Moral Order. Whatever the results of such comparisons, it must be asked whether the historical relevant question can be posed in terms of this simple opposition. Lukács argues that it cannot; technology is only a moment of the forces of production which are in themselves social phenomena. The contradiction between forces and relations of production is that between the real conditions of appropriation of nature—all the social relations, cultural and physical factors that go into the process of production—and the conditions of expropriation—the relations determining the ownership and distribution of the product.

Naturally enough, Marxists have concentrated on the study of the transformations from feudalism to capitalism and from capitalism to socialism, as they have been closer to these transitions than to any other. It is therefore of great interest that Lukács here extends the analysis to a transition that is rarely discussed in depth in Marxist literature, though non-Marxist historians and sociologists have given it considerable attention: the transition from the Roman Empire to the feudal middle ages. If evolutionism is rejected, this transition cannot be regarded as just one more homologous link in the historical chain, of academic interest only, but as an immense, autonomous event whose consequences we are still living. It is a pity that neither the detailed work of non-Marxist theoreticians nor this initiative of Lukács’ have provoked much response from Marxists.