Georg Lukacs

GEORG LUKACS (1884-1971)

Georg Lukacs was a Hungarian-born revolutionary and Marxist writer. His works dominated communist thought in the twentieth century. He tended to be of a liberal persuasion in that his concept of reification, in his classic History and Class Consciousness (1923), complemented Marx’s formulation of alienation in his Paris Manuscripts (1844). In particular, there is a correspondence with Marx’s formulation of the fetish-commodity in which workers sell their labor power for a wage. Hence, object/object relations substitute for social relationships in the spheres of work and civil society. The worker can never realize himself as a whole person because the capitalist has an interest only in that one factor. Labor is a factor of production and the capitalist wants to keep wages to the minimum level necessary to maximize profits. Class consciousness and so political praxis will be stifled by administrative discipline. The true power relations are obfuscated by the legal system wherein the worker has been deluded into thinking he is the equal of his capitalist employer. In legal terms, the answer is apparently yes. In reality, the answer is no because the disparities in power are hidden in the legal jargon of the sacrosanct contract. Bizarrely, this problem of the commodification of labor power arises from the social and technical division of labor that Adam Smith talked about and applauded in The Wealth of Nations. Smith foresaw that the stupefaction of the working man by his subdivided tasks would be a major drawback in any ethical vindication of a capitalist society. Smith saw the problem as inherent to the division of labor and in the immediate future not solvable.

In his withering critique of capitalism’s mechanical society, to which Heidegger was to respond in his 1927 classic Being and Time, Lukacs opens his attack with the following statement:

"We are concerned above all with the principle at work here: the principle of rationalization based on what is and can be calculated. The chief changes undergone by the subject and object of the economic process are as follows: (1) in the first place, the mathematical analysis of work-processes denotes a break with the organic, irrational and qualitatively determined unity of the product. Rationalization in the sense of being able to predict with ever greater precision all the results to be achieved is only to be acquired by the exact breakdown of every complex into its elements and by the study of the special laws governing production. Accordingly it must declare war on the organic manufacture of whole products based on the traditional amalgam of empirical experiences of work: rationalization is unthinkable without specialization." (History and Class Consciousness)

Lukacs wrote about aspects of the bureaucratization of life that result in its colonization by specialists. He writes from a revolutionary perspective, saying a worker’s life was not worth living in a modernized and reified capitalist society. Weber, in his classic The Protestant Work Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, had previously addressed the same problem from a capitalist perspective in which democratic forces open public spaces for individuals to achieve their goals in voluntary associations. Lukacs was more interested, especially in his early career, in soviets of workers, peasants, and soldiers, imitating the Russian Revolution. He eventually broke off from Stalin. Lukacs believed, in the final analysis, that socialism as a cause could only be justified if it protected the rights and integrity of the worker. Stalin's bureaucracy destroyed it in a state capitalist totalitarian regime.

Lukacs's greatest contribution to social theory is his concept of reification, in which he explains that the totality of the capitalist society renders the individual worker self-divided. His magnum opus had a humanistic ethical flavor uncharacteristic of the communist ideologues of his time. For his courage to stand up to Stalin, he is to be commended, asking forgiveness of the erring days of his youth. Heidegger, his lifetime nemesis, lacked that integrity. As for the intellectual class, including philosophers, Lukacs says they are just as much affected by overspecialization, that departments at a university really abide by different political grammars and narratives reflecting diverging economic interests. Likewise, he damned the fourth estate for selling out to economic interest groups rather than unmasking the powers behind the scene, and thus writing pulp.