Lukács’ Lost Manuscript Tailism and the Dialectic Reviewed

by Ralph Dumain

A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic, by Georg Lukács; translated by Esther Leslie, with an introduction by John Rees and a postface by Slavoj Žižek. London; New York: Verso, 2000.  vii, 182 pp. 

Lukács’ lost ms. comes to 100 pages (45-149) of text nestled amidst the commentary of others.  The structure of the ms. is as follows: I. Problems of Class Consciousness—1. Subjectivism, 2. Imputation, 3. The peasantry as class; II. Dialectic of Nature—1. Exchange of matter with nature, 2. Simple and higher categories of the dialectic, 3. Once again: exchange of matter with nature, 4. For us and for itself.  The text is Lukács’ defense of his seminal work History and Class Consciousness (1923) against his principal intellectual attackers in the Comintern, Abram Deborin and Laszlo Rudas.  Lukács argues that his book is a philosophical expression of Bolshevism and characterizes Deborin as a Menshevik and Rudas as a tailist.  Lukács convincingly argues that these two, operating with an implicit Kantianism and uncritically importing a limited natural-scientific perspective into Marxist theory, are trapped in a subject-object dualism they cannot overcome and have completely missed the boat on the nature of dialectical consciousness and revolutionary praxis. 

In part I, Lukács demonstrates that Deborin and Rudas are caught within a dualism of subject and object and therefore are incapable of addressing the nature of class consciousness, revolutionary praxis (as opposed to fatalism and spontaneity), and the Bolshevik party as the vehicle for the mediation of the objective and subjective dimensions of class struggle.  (See esp. pp. 56, 63, 65, 67, 72, 75, 76, 79.)  Lukács argues at length for his conception of 'imputed class consciousness', i.e. the standpoint of the totality of the working class situation and its interests rather than from that of immediacy.  Mediation in contradistinction to immediacy is a central concept for Lukács.  Also of note is the natural-scientific perspective of Lukács' opponents, the notion of 'laws of history' on the objective side, and subjectivity and consciousness across the great divide. 

Part II is of especial importance.  Lukács’ criticisms of Engels’ dialectics of nature and his remarks about the ‘contemplative’ nature of scientific experiment have always been controversial, but here we see that the real issue for Lukács is the misbegotten transposition of a dialectic of nature to social theory (in this case on the part of Rudas and Deborin), effecting a fundamental distortion of Marxism.  Lukács harbors no animus against the notion of a dialectic of nature per se, but he offers an interesting if obscure argument that such a bare bones dialectic cannot even do justice to the dialectics of scientific practice, let alone account for the social determination of scientific practice. 

In section 1,  Lukács counterposes historical materialism to the old materialism that Marx and Engels criticized.  Key here is the notion of mediation, opposed to the naive positing of immediacy. (95)  The relationship to nature is socially mediated, not immediate. (96)  (Intermixed here is the argument that social being determines social consciousness—see also p. 100.)  Rudas, imprisoned in Kantianism, cannot overcome his dualism, by which people and society fall on the subjective side of the dividing line and nature on the objective. (100ff)  Rudas' notion of objective reality is too parsimonious.  Of course society arose from nature, nature and its laws existed prior to society, dialectic must have existed in nature in order for dialectic to exist in society.  However, without the mediation provided by new social dialectical forms, neither knowledge of nature nor of society would be possible.  (102)  The dialectical understanding of knowledge is part of the objective process of social development. Knowledge of nature, however restricted, is a basic condition of survival, and goes hand in hand with the 'exchange of matter between society and nature', which corresponds to the economic development of society. (103)

Section 2 is rather cryptic, but it merits close scrutiny, for it gets to the heart of Lukács’ argument about science.  While objective dialectical interconnections may exist, they may or may not show up as dialectical thought, depending on the historical development of society.  Deborin, citing Hegel, objects to Lukács' ‘neglect of the simple categories of the dialectic in favour of the higher ones.'  But even if Hegel supports Deborin's view, for Marx, just the opposite is the case: the lower form can only be understood from the vantage point of the higher.  (Human anatomy is key to ape's anatomy; the advance from the abstract to the concrete is way of thought, not of reality.)  Thus Lukács is not interested in 'transformation of quantity into quality, etc., but rather interaction of subject and object, unity of theory and praxis, alteration of the categories as effect of the change of material (reality underlying the categories).' 

In section 3, Lukács emphasizes the double determination of the exchange of matter with nature (out of which science is eventually born), i.e. interaction with nature, and the economic structure of society.  (Remember, for Lukács, the relationship to nature is always socially mediated.)  How could modern natural science be understood differently than anything else?  (113) Well, the capitalist organization of knowledge and technology is something new in history, and it is this organization that is requisite for capitalism to exist. (114)  Modern natural sciences are a product of capitalist development, but, contra relativism, this makes them no less objective. (115)  But is scientific knowledge conditioned by capitalism in some other way than being produced by it?  Must objective cognition always be dialectical?  Lukács' response is hard to decipher. (116)  Anyway, the specific problem is that historical knowledge depends on social self-criticism.  The transition from pre-capitalist forms of society to capitalism must be fundamentally different from the transformation of capitalism to socialism. If we cannot demonstrate the historical genesis of our cognition, then we have not matured objectively (not only subjectively) to be able to grasp this aspect of objective dialectic. Natural sciences do not lack elements of historical cognition, but historical and dialectical knowledge first comes into its own only with Marx. Perhaps these questions are not central to the concerns of these sciences now (though Lukács makes a cryptic prior reference to a crisis in the sciences).  We cannot answer the question as 'To what extent all knowledge of nature can ever be transformed into historical knowledge,' (i.e. whether there are transhistorical invariances), because our knowledge (i.e. objective situation) has not matured to be able to answer it.  Objective knowledge will advance in its usual impartial way.  Natural scientists do not have to be aware of this problem at all in order to create objective knowledge. However, they cannot understand in a dialectical manner contradictions that arise and come to a unified historical theoretical perspective. (118)  This material is very difficult to bring to a clear focus, but I believe the effort may be important for us today.

Section 4 begins with Lukács’ argument against one of Engels’ well-known statements: the claim that experiment and industry put an end to Kant's mysterious thing-in-itself.  While Engels may be positioned to draw such a philosophical conclusion from experiments, we know that experimenters do not necessarily do so themselves, nor are they immune from philosophical 'crotchets' like ‘agnosticism’. (See p. 136.)  Experimenters are not inherently primed to take their objective knowledge to the level of philosophical generalization, i.e. beyond the 'contemplative attitude'.   Entrapment within immediacy intensifies if experiment is used as a 'category of knowledge of society and history', for the methodological precision of experiment gets lost, and the contemplative attitude comes to the fore: i.e., on the one hand, political intervention is an 'experiment', which we can, on the other hand, observe from outside and take a wait-and-see attitude.  This kind of thinking is exemplified in Deborin's writings. (Lukács invokes Marx's theses on Feuerbach here.) But Lukács would not, in attempting to transcend the framework of the 'experimenter', recommend such nonsense as a proletarian physics, chemistry, etc. (125-127) 

Revolutionary praxis involves consciousness of the social and historical preconditions of human activity.  The experimenter does not have such consciousness of the basis of his activity (although some lucky exceptions may exist), though he has a correct grasp of some aspect of objective reality, just as any worker.  The dialectic of capitalist labor and technology may be objectively at work, but this does not imply subjective dialectical consciousness of these processes. (129-30)  'The dialectical transformation of the in-itself into a for-us always requires more than an immediate transposition into forms of consciousness.'

The ensuing argument involves a contrast between industry and revolutionary praxis.  This is all to show where Rudas and Deborin essentially go wrong.  Rudas shows up his tail-ending in implicitly positing an identity of capitalist and communist society.  Rudas and Deborin are incapable of distinguishing revolutionary praxis from what they take to be praxis in general.  Rudas “does not want to leave his noble scientific post as 'observer' of the law-bound course of history, where he can 'anticipate' revolutionary developments.” (135)

In sum, Lukács’ overarching goal is to characterize the nature of revolutionary praxis in contradistinction to the type of Marxism purveyed by his attackers.  His conception of dialectic is worth pursuing. His actual views of natural science are still very difficult to pin down.  The point, however, in attacking the 'contemplative attitude', is not so much to downgrade natural experimental science as to delegitimate it as the prototype of dialectical consciousness and revolutionary praxis.

Lukács’ ms. was not only utterly lost to history until recently, but these ideas of 1925-6 went nowhere.  Critical theory has never succeeded in penetrating the theoretical structure of the natural sciences, and mainstream philosophy of science is abysmally ignorant of critical theory.  Mainstream sociology of science is shot through with social constructivism, skepticism, relativism, and irrationalism.  Lukács offers a Hegelian-Marxist perspective that explicitly repudiates relativism.  (See p. 104, 115.)  What Lukács could not accomplish under highly constricting circumstances, we have failed to undertake under more advanced conditions.  The ideas presented here are arcane, but their implications merit the effort of teasing out.  Thus the publication of this hitherto unknown text may prove to be a crucial missing link in intellectual history in more ways than one.

Completed 14 December 2005
© Ralph Dumain 2005, 2006

SOURCE: Dumain, Ralph. Book Review: A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic by Georg Lukács, Nature, Society, and Thought, vol. 19, no. 1, January 2006, pp. 109-114.

Note: This is my original draft. The published version differs only in minor editorial stylistic changes.

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