Nearly half a century after its original publication in Germany, Georg Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness footnote1 has at last become available in English. Those who now read the book for the first time may find its contents surprising. For the notoriety of this forbidden volume of the early Communist movement seems incommensurate at first sight with the familiarity of many of its themes. Despite the formal difficulty of Lukács’s language, contemporary readers are likely to find themselves at home with most of the central leitmotifs in the book. For in one form or another, these have by now become part of the common intellectual universe of a large part of the left in the advanced capitalist world. But to say this is not to imply that the themes developed by Lukács some fifty years ago and today diffused so generally among socialist intellectuals, are self-explanatory truths or even manifest axioms of Marxism. If they are treated as such, it is because of a second surprising feature of History and Class Consciousness—the virtual absence in almost fifty years of any comprehensive or coherent critique of the book.

Not that it has always been greeted with unanimous acclaim. Far from it: it is well known that it was condemned by the Comintern from the start, was subsequently renounced by Lukács himself, and when republished in Western Europe after 1956, evoked local dissent. Even so, for all the Marxist literature that has appeared since History and Class Consciousness resurfaced it is impossible to discover any systematic or substantial criticism of the book as a whole. footnote2

There is no doubt that in part the reason for this is the compelling scope and intensity of the work. Lukács’s book has seemed to constitute a definitive statement, the locus classicus, of certain themes which have been repeated and re-echoed again and again since it was first written. This essay aims to provide at least the beginnings of such a criticism. It will first resume what is taken to be the doctrinal core of the book: secondly, provide the essential historico-cultural background to it, without which it cannot be adequately be understood; thirdly, criticize the intellectual and political consequences of Lukács’s theory; and finally, discuss the fundamental problem the book raises—but does not answer—for historical materialism.

Despite its complexity of logical sequence, the reading of Marxism to be found in Lukács’s book represents a relatively systematic position footnote3 . The secret of capitalism is to be found in ‘the solution to the riddle of commodity structure’. footnote4 Marx’s chapter on the fetishism of commodities in Capital ‘contains within itself the whole of historical materialism and the whole self-knowledge of the proletariat seen as the knowledge of capitalist society’. footnote5 The essential feature, then, of capitalism is commodity fetishism and the essential product of commodity fetishism for Lukács is reification. Lukács identifies reification as the process through which relations between men take on the appearance of relations between things; human society and human history, the products of man, appear not as the products of social activity, but as alien and impersonal forces, laws of nature which impose themselves on humanity from without. As capitalism advances, reification becomes progressively more extensive and intensive. Just as the transition from handicraft via co-operation to manufacture leads to greater and greater fragmentation of the object of production, so this fragmenting process progressively encroaches upon the consciousness of man, the subject of production. Man is no longer the authentic master of the process, ‘he is a mechanical part incorporated into a mechanical system’. footnote6 Human activity becomes less active and more contemplative. Man must conform to the laws of the mechanical system. The activity of man in general becomes analogous to the ‘behaviour of the worker vis ` vis the machine he serves and observes, and whose functions he controls while he contemplates it’. footnote7

The hallmark of this reification process is the application of the principle of ‘rational mechanization’ and ‘calculability’ to ‘every aspect of life’. The process of rationalization develops with the division of labour. The result is a specialization of skills which ‘leads to the destruction of every image of the Whole’. footnote8 Rational calculability, the essence of the capitalist enterprise, increasingly comes to permeate all other features of society. Following Weber, the modern state is viewed as ‘a business concern’; ‘the judge is more or less an automatic statute-dispensing machine’, whose behaviour is ‘predictable’; similarly, bureaucracy manifests the same principle of ‘an inhuman standardized division of labour analagous to that . . . found in industry on the technological and mechanical plane’. footnote9 The process of reification is to be seen everywhere, whether it is in journalism where ‘the journalist’s lack of convictions, the prostitution of his experiences and beliefs is comprehensible only as the apogee of capitalist reification’, footnote10 or in modern marriage where man’s ‘qualities and abilities are no longer an organic part of his personality, they are things he can own or dispose of like the various objects of the external world’. footnote11

But for Lukács the most consummate expression of capitalist reification is undoubtedly the method of natural science. ‘There is something highly problematic in the fact that capitalist society is predisposed to harmonize with scientific method . . . when “science” maintains that the manner in which data immediately present themselves is an adequate foundation of scientific conceptualization and that the actual form of these data is the appropriate starting point for the formation of scientific concepts, it thereby takes its stand simply and dogmatically on the basis of capitalist society. It uncritically accepts the nature of the object as it is given and the laws of that society as the unalterable foundation of “science”.’ footnote12 When the ideal of scientific knowledge is applied to society ‘it turns out to be an ideological weapon of the bourgeoisie . . . it must think of capitalism as being predestined to eternal survival by the eternal laws of nature and reason’. footnote13

Scientific method is not merely a passive reflection of the onset of reification. For by its procedures it actively pulverises any organic conception of totality not attained by a formal rational mode of cognition. It thus destroys metaphysics and creates a world of ‘pure’ facts divided up into specialized partial systems of laws unrelated to any meaningful totality.