100 YEARS OF History and class consciousness

Image: Andrea Piacquadio


The importance of a work that left visible marks on some of the most prominent thinkers of the XNUMXth century

“1922 […] I can still hear around me the roar of bullets from the Red War against the imperialists, the agitation of illegality in Hungary still shakes within me; no fiber of my being wants to accept the fact that the first great revolutionary wave has passed, that the determined revolutionary will of the communist vanguard is not in a position to overthrow capitalism. Therefore, subjective basis: revolutionary impatience. Objective result: the work Geschichte und Klassenbewuβtsein (History and class consciousness). "[I]

This is György Lukács' reminiscent account of his intense experience throughout the period initiated by the Hungarian revolution of 1919, a movement soon suffocated by conservative forces. It was around this period that the philosopher wrote the essays of his most famous work, History and class consciousness, published in 1923, exactly 100 years ago.

In this account, as well as in others later by György Lukács, attention is drawn to the critical look directed at his own work: the will of the avant-garde, he tells us, is an insufficient basis for carrying out a revolution. In the Afterword to the 1968 edition of his famous book, György Lukács will refer to “messianic sectarianism”[ii] that their social group then represented. But wasn't György Lukács's judgment excessively severe on the text that brought his name to international recognition?

Without intending to answer this question (which has strongly divided the philosopher's commentators), this brief text only intends to highlight the importance of a work that left visible marks on some of the most prominent thinkers of the XNUMXth century. It would be possible to write a voluminous book about the repercussions of History and class consciousness in human sciences and philosophy: Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, Guy Debord, Lucien Goldmann, these are just some of the names affected by the text and who extracted reasons for their own elaboration. .

And what is this seminal work about? In an extremely summarized way, it is correct to state that in the existing essays György Lukács takes a stand in defense of Marxism, differentiating it from at least two different interlocutors. The first was what he called “vulgar Marxism” - simplified and caricatured version of Marx's thought – which exacerbated economic determinations in such a way that it ended up minimizing the importance of organized human action.

The second set of interlocutors from History and class consciousness appears as “bourgeois science”; this one that infinitely fractionates and subdivides its objects, in a practice that “makes every historical object treated an immutable monad, excluded from all interaction with other monads – conceived in the same way” (p. 315). In both cases, what is lost is the Marxist dialectic, which investigates the constitutive and contradictory links of a complex totality. Since it is not feasible to expose the density of this work here, I would just like to highlight a category developed in one of the essays that had an especially fruitful development. I refer to verdinglichung, a concept usually translated into Portuguese as reification or objectification (the core Thing of the word in German means thing).

To formulate the characteristics of reification, Lukács relies on the theory developed by Marx in The capital, particularly in the section on commodity fetishism. Let us remember that the Marxian text highlights the characteristics of fractioning the production of goods, carried out by independent producers, who from the beginning direct their activity towards exchange. This mercantile production generates a peculiar form of objectivity, unknown in earlier times. In it, one of its most disconcerting characteristics turns out to be that the relations between the producing human beings assume the appearance of a relation between things that have acquired a life of their own. The emergence of merchandise, far from revealing its genesis in human labor, says György Lukács in the wake of the Marxian text, transforms it into a “reified envelope” (p. 197).

The structure of commodity production had already been precisely X-rayed by Karl Marx; on this basis, György Lukács points out and develops the enormous subjective impact that reification has on all those who fall into its net. Not that this subjective dimension was absent in Marx: today there is already a consistent bibliography that shows the error of considering Marxism as a philosophical objectivism. But György Lukács took on the task of unfolding and deepening – giving the theme an authorial diction – what Nicolas Tertulian called a “phenomenology of subjectivity”.[iii]

In my opinion, one of the most fascinating moments of History and class consciousness occurs when György Lukács examines the consequences of reification in the consciousness of different groups and social classes, mainly when the advent of a more accentuated mechanization in production: “this rational mechanization even penetrates the worker’s “soul”: even his psychological qualities are separated from his set of his personality and are objectified in relation to the latter, in order to be able to be integrated into special and rational systems and brought back to the calculating concept” (p. 202).

In other words: for capitalist production to be carried out, it is necessary to create a determined disposition in the subjectivity of its agents, who begin to internalize and naturalize the demands arising from a system that works through the uninterrupted production of goods. This means that long before Norbert Elias and, years later, Pierre Bourdieu developed the theorization about the habitus – set of dispositions internalized in the subjects – György Lukács already conceptually elaborated the existence of a structure introjected in the social agents that fractions their own subjectivity.

As a general phenomenon, spread throughout society, reification subjugates the different groups and social classes involved in the production of goods. That said, it is necessary to take into account that the ruling class derives benefits – some of them very visible – from its alienated situation. As far as workers are concerned, reification adds to the brutality of capitalist exploitation.

In the words of György Lukács, “the quantitative difference of exploitation, which for capitalists has the immediate form of quantitative determinations of the objects of their calculation, must appear for the worker as the qualitative and decisive categories of his entire physical, intellectual, moral existence. etc." (p. 337).

While for the proprietary class the situation of its workers is measured in quantitative terms, depending on the amount of value they add to the products, in the exploited class this condition is lived qualitatively in all its impact, in the daily suffering to which it is submitted. This asymmetry between classes allows György Lukács to bet on the expropriated class as the subject of a more radical challenge to the system: “this transformation can only be the – free – act of the proletariat itself” (p. 411).

It is possible to differ from several aspects of History and class consciousness. Reading the text today, one perceives, for example, an idealization of what György Lukács categorizes as the consciousness of the proletariat, a generalization that does not always find the intended support in reality. We already know that György Lukács himself was very severe with this work. And he did it without any self-pity, without any regret for her, pointing out with all the letters to her “messianic utopianism” (p. 28). That said, the existence of fruitful vectors equally present in the text, which maintain its conceptual vigor, remains true.

We would say that the strong experience of the Hungarian revolution – described in extremely vivid terms in the passage that opens the article – left marks on our philosopher that spread even in his later work. Here, considerations could be made about what some authors call excess meaning, a property of a dense, stratified work, carrying interpretive nuclei that manage to go beyond the immediate moment in which they were generated and reach our present time.

Maybe that's why even today, when riding public transport in our 211st century, and watching people as if hypnotized and absorbed in their cell phones – condensed forms of a technological advance, but also of alienation – I remember the harsh words by György Lukács on reification: “For the reified consciousness, these forms of capital necessarily become the true representatives of its social life” (p. XNUMX).

*Mauricio Vieira Martins is a retired professor at the Department of Sociology and Methodology of Social Sciences at UFF. Author, among other books, of Marx, Spinoza and Darwin: materialism, subjectivity and critique of religion (Palgrave macmillan).

Originally published on the website plow word.


Lukács, György. History and class consciousness. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2003.

Lukács, György. It's about realism! In: Machado, Carlos Eduardo Jordan. A chapter in the history of aesthetic modernity. São Paulo: Editora Unesp, 2014.

Martins, Maurício Vieira. Social ontology and emergence in the work of the last Lukács. Scientiae Study, vol. 11, no. 3, 2013.

Tertullian, Nicholas. Afterword. In: Lukacs, G. Prolegomena for an ontology of social being. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2010.


[I] Lukács, G. It's about realism! In: Machado, Carlos Eduardo Jordan. A chapter in the history of aesthetic modernity. São Paulo: Editora Unesp, 2014, p. 266. This Lukácsian text dates from 1938.

[ii] Lukács, György. History and class consciousness. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2003, p. 10.

[iii] Tertullian uses this expression referring to the Ontology written towards the end of Lukács's life, but I understand that it is also adequate to designate several passages from History and class consciousness. Cf. Tertullian, Nicholas. Afterword. In: Lukacs, G. Prolegomena for an ontology of social being. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2010, p. 395. Regarding the uniqueness of Ontology lukácsiana, I approached it in my article “Social ontology and emergence in the work of the last Lukács, Scientiae Study”, vol. 11, no. 3, 2013.

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