Since its publication in 1923, Georg Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness has inspired and antagonised in equal measure. Immediately, some Communists praised it for giving Marxism back its Hegelian roots, and with them, a concept of revolutionary subjectivity. Other Communists were quick to denounce it as heretical, and even demand Lukács write a ‘self-criticism’. Elsewhere, the Frankfurt School acknowledged a selective debt, while Martin Heidegger refused to acknowledge History and Class Consciousness even as he criticised it in Being and Time. French Existentialism was infused by aspects of the book, while what was known as Structuralism railed against its ‘humanism’. Most significant of all, perhaps, Lukács himself was later to hail its progressive intent even as he took apart its theoretical framework.
It’s not hard to see why History and Class Consciousness has proven such a powerful work. At a time when economic determinism was starting to dominate official Communist theory, Lukács, using Hegel, re-inserted the history-making role of the human subject. More than that, he proposed revolutionary solutions to age-old problems and crises. To the philosophical problem of knowing objects ‘in themselves’ – that is, aside from man’s understanding of them – Lukács offered up the idea of the subject-object of history, creating that which it proceeds to know. To the ethical problem of man’s alienation from others and the world, Lukács promised a future reunification. And to the political problem of the ‘total degradation’ of capitalism, Lukács envisaged communist redemption.
Marxist, humanist and frequently messianic, History and Class Consciousness is certainly a product of the still-to-be-dashed revolutionary hopes of the early 1920s. But, in our own fatalistic, even alienated times, it is still capable of speaking to us.
Dr Tim Black
books and essays editor, spiked
Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
retired GP; author, The Tyranny of Health: doctors and the regulation of lifestyle and Defeating Austism: a damaging delusion