Our problem here is that of subjectivity in the context of Marxist philosophy. My aim is to establish with precision whether the principles and truths that constitute Marxism allow subjectivity to exist and have a function, or whether they reduce it to a set of facts that can be ignored in the dialectical study of human development. Taking Lukács as an example, I hope to convince you that an erroneous interpretation of certain undoubtedly ambiguous Marxist texts can give rise to what I would call an ‘idealist dialectics’, which in practice ignores the subject, and to show how such a position may be damaging for the development of Marxist studies. My topic is not subject and object, but rather subjectivity, or subjectivation, and objectivity or objectivation. The subject is a different, far more complex problem. When I speak of subjectivity, it is as a certain type of internal action, an interior system—système en intériorité—rather than the simple, immediate relationship of the subject to itself.

A superficial consideration of Marxist philosophy might tempt us to call it ‘pan-objectivism’, insofar as the Marxist dialectician is, it seems, interested only in objective reality. Some of Marx’s writings can be interpreted in this way, such as the well-known passage from The Holy Family: ‘The question is not what this or that proletarian, or even the whole of the proletariat at the moment considers as its aim. The question is what the proletariat is, and what, consequent on that being, it will be compelled to do.’footnote1 The subjective is thus pushed into the category of representation, which, taken in itself, is of no importance, underlying reality being merged with the process that makes the proletariat the agent of the destruction of the bourgeoisie and constrains it to be this agent in reality—that is, objectively, in actual fact. Other writings go further still, suggesting that the subjective lacks even the importance of a representation belonging to the subject or to a group of individuals, since it disappears completely as such. We need only recall this passage from Capital:

The belated scientific discovery that the products of labour, so far as they are values, are merely the material expressions of the human labour expended to produce them, marks an epoch in the history of mankind’s development, but by no means banishes the semblance of objectivity possessed by the social characteristics of labour. Something which is only valid for this particular form of production, the production of commodities, namely the fact that the specific social character of private labours carried on independently of each other consists in their equality as human labour, and, in the product, assumes the form of the existence of value, appears to those caught up in the relations of commodity production (and this is true both before and after the above-mentioned scientific discovery) to be just as ultimately valid as the fact that the scientific dissection of the air into its component parts left the atmosphere itself unaltered in its physical configuration.footnote2

It seems there is no difficulty here, since everyone agrees on this point. However, the ambiguity of the phrasing deceived some, notably Lukács. This is because in this text subjectivity seems to disappear completely. Appearances are as objective and real as their underlying ground, produced as they are by the economic process itself. The same is true of reification, which is an element produced by the process of capital, and of the fetishization of commodities, which is its direct result. So when we apprehend a particular commodity as a fetish, although we have been forewarned by Marxist theory, we settle for doing what reality demands of us, since, at a certain level this commodity is objectively and really fetishized. It is then that subjective reality seems to fade away, since the ‘carrier’ of economic relations realizes them where he is, as he must realize them, his idea of them being confined to reflecting them at the level of his praxis. This is why a thinker like Lukács can advance a theory of entirely objective class consciousness. Although he takes subjectivity as his starting point, it is solely to relate it to the individual subject, understood as a source of errors, or simply inadequate realization. He then regards class consciousness as more or less well developed, more or less clear or obscure, more or less contradictory, more or less effective, according to whether or not the class being analysed belongs directly to the fundamental process of production. For example, in a petty bourgeois, class consciousness remains objectively vague and, for reasons Lukács sets out, never forms into real class consciousness, whereas the proletariat, being deeply involved in the production process, can be brought to a complete form of class consciousness through the objective reality of work.

So, this conception pushes objectivism to the point where it obliterates all subjectivity and hence leads us into idealism. This is no doubt a dialectical idealism, with material conditions as its starting point, but it is still idealism. Neither Marx himself nor Marxism lend themselves to this. There are texts that are indeed ambiguous—by virtue of their depth—but none of them can be interpreted as though pan-objectivism were the goal of Marxism. When Marx speaks of ‘existence’—as he does, say, in the 1857 draft ‘Introduction’ to his critique of political economyfootnote3—he has in mind the total man, a being defined by a dialectic with three terms: need, work and enjoyment. So if we want to use Marx to understand the dialectics of production as a whole, we must first return to its ground, and to the being who has needs and seeks to meet them, in other words to produce and reproduce his life through work, and who, through the resulting economic process, attains more or less complete enjoyment.

If we take these three elements into account, we note first that the three together establish a rigorous connection between a real man and a real society and the surrounding material reality that is not himself. This is a synthetic connection between the man and the material world and, in and through this connection, it is also a mediated relationship between human beings. In other words, in this very text, the reality of human beings is theorized and linked to transcendence, to a beyond, to what is outside and before them. Human beings need something that is not them. The organism needs oxygen and this already constitutes a relationship with the surroundings, with transcendence. A man works to obtain tools that will enable him to appease his hunger and reproduces his existence in some form that depends on economic development.

Here again, need is an element located elsewhere, and enjoyment is an incorporation through certain internal processes of what this man needs, which is precisely external being. The first connection Marx reveals through these three terms is a connection with outside being, which we call transcendence. The three elements form a kind of explosion of the self into ‘outside being’ and, at the same time, a return to and re-appropriation of the self. As such these three terms can be objectively described and, at a particular level, can be an object of knowledge. But, through a regressive analysis, they are equally related to something like a self, which denies and goes beyond itself while conserving itself. To use Marx’s terms, since work is objectivation through the reproduction of life, we are entitled to ask who and what is objectified through work? Who or what is threatened by need? Who or what puts an end to need through enjoyment? The answer, obviously, is the practical, biological organism or—if we prefer, considering subjectivity—the psychosomatic unit. So now we are dealing with a reality that exceeds direct knowledge of the self through interiority.