The necessary class consciousness

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By ANTONINO INFRANCA*

Considerations on the relationship between István Mészáros and György Lukács.

The relationship between György Lukács and István Mészáros is the typical one between teacher and student, born, therefore, when the first, the teacher, is already of a certain age – 60 years old, in the case of Lukács – and the second, the student, has just left from adolescence – 19 years old, in the case of Mészáros – both are able to establish almost symmetrical relationships; I say “almost” because it is obvious that the relationship, initially, is one-sided, that is, from teacher to student, with time it may become completely bidirectional.

And so it happened between Lukács and Mészáros: first Mészáros drank at Lukács' fountain, then he began to argue about the master's thought, and then to discuss the master's thought. The first phase is now difficult to reconstruct, as the relationship was completely personal. Unfortunately, we do not have Lukács's possible reactions to Mészáros's changes which are likely contained in the letters the two exchanged since Mészáros left Hungary following the repression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution until Lukács' death in 1971. .

But it would have been even more interesting to know the discussions that the two established, even after Mészáros' exile, since, after a few years, he was able to return to Hungary. But these conversations had no witnesses, nor were they recorded or even reported by either of them. Throughout the course of their friendship, that is to say, for more than twenty years, a relationship of deep respect, esteem and reciprocal affection was maintained.

One of the themes on which Mészáros insists in his analysis of Lukács' thought is the incessant struggle, carried out throughout Lukács' entire philosophical production, against irrationalism, subjectivism and the destruction of objective values. Precisely in order to find a confrontation that would feed his own ethical and theoretical tension against these opponents, always present throughout Lukács's existence, he relied on the great classics of philosophy and literature, that is, on Marx and Hegel, on philosophy , and in Goethe and Thomas Mann, in literature.

In this struggle, Lukács stood against modern philosophy which, excluding Hegel, came ever closer, to the point of allying them with the theses of subjectivism and individualism and the Nietzschean transvaluation of values. Mészáros remembers that these theses, in part, interested the young Lukács, but that he later abandoned them, when he entered the study of Marx's thought. Subjectivism, however, also began to infiltrate the field of the labor movement, when a revolutionary historical subject was sought, the proletariat. Due to the struggle to defend existing socialism, the conception of the proletariat changed from revolutionary to conservative. Mészáros remembers that these theses, in part, interested the young Lukács, but that he later abandoned them, when he entered the study of Marx's thought.

Subjectivism, however, also began to infiltrate the field of the labor movement, when a revolutionary historical subject was sought, the proletariat. Due to the struggle to defend existing socialism, the conception of the proletariat changed from revolutionary to conservative. Mészáros does not hide what Lukács was insinuating in a disingenuous way: Stalinism is a phenomenon of subjectivism and, therefore, of a metaphysical dogmatism and an extreme subjective idealism, in the style of Fichte. In addition, Stalinism was a phenomenon that slowed down the revolutionary impulse, not only outside the Soviet Union (socialism in a single country), but also facilitated the dismantling of the most revolutionary institutions, such as the Soviets, increasingly reducing the political action of bottom to top of civil society.

Lukács, to these theoretical and political opponents, who attacked him from outside – irrationalist philosophy – and from the political field itself – Stalinism – opposed a weapon, which even today attracts criticism from philosophical conservatives: the dialectic. Mészáros – as mentioned above – explains what Lukács was hinting at: the two opposing trends of irrationalism and Stalinism ended up converging against rational and dialectical thought, denying the totality and integrity of the human being. Lukács, therefore, occupies a position of tertium datur, trying to survive, even theoretically, in an era of “resignation”, as defined by Mészáros, that is, in the era of Stalinist totalitarianism.

The dialectic proves to be a refined and effective weapon to survive in this era of “resignation”. In the first place, it allows Lukács to face the vulgarization of Marxism which from the time of the Second International had also passed into the Third International – think of Stalin's difficulty in understanding the Hegelian dialectic. Naturally, Mészáros remembers that for Lukács dialectics and reason always went together, giving life to a “dialectical rationality”, in a capacity to give objective theories of the world.

Another aspect that is always present in Lukács' thought is the must-be. Mészáros traces this theoretical approach back to Lukács' youth and his first theoretical experiences, but it continues into old age. Mészáros' first distance from Lukács is perceived when, regarding Lukács' adherence to the communist movement, therefore, in the final moment of his youth, Lukács confronts Lenin's theory and practice. Lukács always maintained that, after the publication of History and class consciousness, based on the criticism he received, dedicated himself entirely to the study of Lenin's thought and this represented his effective theoretical entry into Marxism. Mészáros, however, highlights the fact that Lenin's unity of theory and practice is not comparable to that of Lukács, because the objective conditions and circumstances in which the two acted and thought are different. Lenin finds himself operating in an iridescent and revolutionary situation, that of the Russian revolution, Lukács in a “rarified atmosphere”, that of Hungary, where change is difficult and slow, and will be so even after 1945.

Mészáros addresses the great question of the development of Lukács' Marxist thought: the relationship with Stalinism. Mészáros defends the thesis that Lukács' association with Stalinism was the only way to put into practice his general conception of Marxism and philosophy. Lukács had very clear the general dimension of what Stalinism meant, that is, first the reduction, then the annihilation of revolutionary enthusiasm and impetus. We add that for Lukács there were few alternatives left, so Mészáros' thesis can basically be defined as correct. Lukács was being pursued by a death sentence, issued by the Horthy government for his participation in the 1919 Republic of Councils. We say “persecuted”, because that death sentence, recognized by the Austrian Republic, was about to become an extradition to Hungary, where the sentence would have been carried out, if Thomas Mann had not intervened with a campaign in support of Lukács. Thus, Lukács was able to take refuge in Germany, but Hitler's seizure of power made extradition completely certain, if not physical elimination in Germany itself.

The only alternative was to take refuge in the Soviet Union, a state that did not recognize fascist Hungary and therefore would never have extradited Lukács. Living in the Soviet Union in the 1930s meant adapting to an existential condition that was extremely cautious and dramatic at the same time. But Lukács fought a covert war of position, giving in where he could not resist (for example, the citations of Stalin's name in his works), but maintaining his ideas and interpretations, masking them to a certain extent. Obviously, he abandoned the field of politics and devoted himself exclusively to literary criticism, not respecting the dictates of Jdanovism at all.

Philosophical criticism was entrusted to the drawer; indeed, his masterpiece The Young Hegel it was only published after the war, as were critical essays on irrationalism. He was arrested when Hungary invaded the Soviet Union and a generic purge of all “enemies” was triggered and he, from being a Hungarian, became an enemy and, despite what Mészáros writes, his release was due to the rediscovery of an old relationship of friendship with Dimitrov, certainly not through the intervention of German intellectuals, as can be seen in his political testament.

Even in post-war Hungary, Hungarian Stalinism remained its most dangerous enemy. In fact, after the first four years of partial freedom, once the Stalinist dictatorship of Rákosi had been established, Lukács was violently attacked by official Party intellectuals and forced to leave university teaching, to return, as in Moscow, to the study of aesthetics. He came out of this isolation in the days of that “spring”, which was the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. After the revolution was defeated, Lukács was deported to Romania along with the entire group of revolutionaries, where he became, thanks to his worldwide fame, the guarantor of all the group, forcing the Hungarian Stalinists to kidnap him in order to release him and start without obstacles the trials against the revolutionaries, obviously considered traitors.

Its relation to Stalinism, then, is another case of Sollensein, of must-be. Already in his youth Lukács had maintained a relationship of duty with his family, establishing compromises where there were no possible alternatives, now he has the same attitude towards the Stalinist dictatorship. According to Mészáros, Lukács with the behavior of Sollensein made a synthesis between freedom of thought and real necessity, as he had already done with adherence to communism, when reviewing some theses of History and class consciousness, leaving valid the premises of its general conception, that is, that human phenomena are mediated in different ways and measures by the relationship with the economic sphere of the social totality.

Another element that allows Lukács to live with Stalinism is his perspicacity. Lukács, after the defeat of the Republic of Councils, considered the Stalinist conception of “socialism in one country” valid. Then the attacks of naturalist Marxism against History and class consciousness, with the typical upheavals of Stalin's front, made him go over to the side of those who were right against his accusers, the same happened in the disputes for realism and there Lukács was able to be forgotten. So the anti-fascist struggle forced Stalin to seek allies everywhere, even among the hated Social Democrats, creating an alliance that had been Lukács's political project of the Blum's theses.

Meanwhile, Lukács begins his radical critique of irrationalism, which parallels his critique of subjectivism, which up to that point had been supported by Stalinism, but which had since been abandoned. Lukács thus found himself in the same position as those who had criticized and accused him, but it was his critics who changed their position, he had remained fixed in his position. Mészáros recalls that the Stalinist Russia in which Lukács lived was one of immediacy and irrationality, the same aspects that Lukács criticized in capitalism and whose criticism could also be extended to Stalinism. Mészáros, however, accuses Lukács of not keeping his conception of mediation entirely free of this immediacy. Lukács is forced to resort to abstraction to define his own political dimension and Mészáros highlights this, distancing himself from his teacher.

According to the student, the professor, realizing that the immediacy of the political-social reality did not allow him a meditated reflection of his general Marxist theory, took refuge in ethics, that is, in a new way of having to be. The last Lukács, the one who met the young Mészáros at the University of Budapest, experiences a kind of “ethical utopianism”, made of reason and responsibility. Mészáros strongly criticizes the Lukácsian reference to the experience of brain trust kennedian that Lukács does in an interview. For Mészáros, all this is essentially a lack of mediation and the search for simple and easy solutions. Perhaps his criticism is too radical, but it is the fate of teachers to be criticized by students, as we wrote at the beginning.

For example, Mészáros recalls a passage from the interview Political Testament, in which Lukács argues that residents of a neighborhood must decide where to open a pharmacy. For Mészáros it seems like an almost irrelevant political measure, but in reality it is a struggle for citizens to decide their daily lives. At unknown interview, which Mészáros probably did not know about, Lukács accuses the Hungarian Party of having lost direct contact with the citizens and this does not seem to us to be an irrelevant criticism.

There is an essay by Mészáros, “Contingent and Necessary Class Consciousness”, in which Lukács is apparently very little in question, which marks a first moment of emancipation of the student's thinking in relation to that of the teacher. The essay, in addition to the theme of class consciousness, represents a way of subsuming Lukács's ideas at a higher level. Mészáros starts precisely from the polemic with vulgar English Marxism, mechanistic and positivist, devoid of mediations, and incapable, in this sense, of understanding the relationship between historical necessity and class consciousness.

Quoting Gramsci, Mészáros points out that a class is a global synthesis of all the factors that operate in a society; would therefore be a complex of complexes, to say to the Lukács Ontology, which would be the conception that, better than others, allows us to apprehend the pluridimensionality and intrinsic historicity of Marxist categories. Mészáros takes up the Marxist conception of overcoming the natural material conditions of human beings, that is, a liberation from economic determinations, so that the consciousness of the proletarian class becomes aware of its own historical task of abolishing all social classes.

This is an overvaluation of the political factor, which is, however, also a slip towards a subjectivist conception of political action, after all, Mészáros consciously takes up Lukács's conception of class consciousness, but justifies himself, arguing that it is Lukács who takes up, almost terminologically, the Marxist conception of class consciousness. It is true that Lukács was referring to a “presumed” or “attributed” conscience to the proletariat, a fact, therefore, almost objective. Mészáros, referring to the scientific character of the Marxist conception of class consciousness, tries to reject any form of subjectivism, as Sorel had imagined them with his voluntarism. With this refusal, Mészáros continues the fight already waged by his master.

Mészáros is also opposed to the universalism of the operating laws of “modern industrial society”, which is basically the capitalist mode of production. He denounces the attempt to normalize capitalist exploitation by passing it off as the only way in which modern industrial production can function, that is, by confusing the structure of the capitalist mode of production with its function. One could ask with Ricardo Antunes, a Brazilian sociologist strongly influenced by the thought of Mészáros, who theorized the class-that-lives-from-work: in modern industrial society, work tends to disappear, but what happens to workers ?

Mészáros recalls that the contrast between the dominant group and the subordinated group – note the use of Gramscian terms – can lead to the integration of some reforms or concessions to subordinates, but this does not alter the antagonism between the two groups. Deep down, the contradiction between the ability to work and work as a commodity cannot be overcome in any way and, therefore, the class consciousness, formed within this contradiction, will always remain contingent, if it does not project itself to overcome this contradiction. For Marx, the proletariat was the necessary antagonist of the bourgeoisie, therefore, the necessary class consciousness trumps the class consciousness of strata or groups of workers.

Today we see group consciousness prevailing, but this, as mentioned, does not overcome the contradiction and consequent exploitation. Mészáros seems to suggest that Lukács examined supposed class consciousness, but in reality he remained at the level of consciousness of workers' groups. This impression also comes from the fact that Mészáros argues that class consciousness is inevitable, no longer presumed, and this inevitability requires a human agent aware of and responsible for the necessity of transforming political action itself. Need for transformation that has two levels, one for the social totality, another for the existence of the individual, since the transformation must be both objective, of the objective condition of existence itself, and subjective, that is, of the awareness of living together with others .

Group consciousness leads us to think like the Other, the stranger, the worker of another group, so that otherness is radicalized within the same class. This happens when class becomes the only boundary within which the individual acts. Behold, the class-that-lives-from-work is already a first step towards overcoming this limitation, the next steps are to recognize oneself in belonging to the gender, to say to the Lukács, that is, for humanity, for all human beings, for whom the rights of a single human being are the rights of all human beings, from class rights, economic rights, to the rights of gender, sex, race , age and so on.

The forms of social aggregation lead, first, to a necessary class consciousness, but we add, following the path opened by Mészáros, to an awareness of the human race, an awareness of belonging to gender.

*Antonino Infranca He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Author, among other books, of Work, individual, history – the concept of work in Lukács (Boitempo).

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