The Scientific Socialism of Georg Lukács

This article has since been taken up and posted by SocialistWorker.org.

Socialists are often accused of being unjustly boastful for their claim that Marxism is a “science.” Science taken very broadly in our society has the reputation and status as something objective, that it is the container of truth and closet we can come to to an understanding of what is truly real. So to compare Marxism as a political theory to science is seen as the height of arrogance, especially in this post-modernist world of competing subjective “narratives.”

In truth this is a straw man argument and a characterization of Marxism that is profoundly un-Marxist. Part of Marxism is an understanding of the social context of ideas, that no ideas, including scientific ideas, are beyond the effects of the society that birthed them. So to say that Marxism is the universal objective truth irrespective of time and space in human history is an incredibly ahistorical and therefore un-Marxist claim.

But this isn’t to renounce the search for truth as the post-modernist do. Rather it is to root the truth in the concrete context of that given society. So the “scientific” part of Scientific Socialism comes from two main interrelated places, the how we understand society and the how we reach this understanding.

This method of understanding is in part similar to the scientific method of experimentation, where ideas or hypothesis are tested against reality to see how correct they are and thus building up our understanding. This process of fusing theory with practice, where the two are constantly acting back and refining each other, in Marxist terminology is called ‘praxis,’ except here what’s the object of experimentation is class society and the class struggle. To quote John Rees from his The Algebra of Revolution, “[Marxism’s] validity must be proven by its superior explanatory power – more internally coherent, more widely applicable, capable of greater empirical verification – in comparison with its competitors. Indeed, this is a condition … of it being ‘proved in practice.’”[i]

The ‘proof is in the pudding’ as they say.

But this is just the starting point for the Marxist method. Socialism only becomes a ‘science’ when it puts for itself the theoretical goal of understanding the totality of the system’s aspects and its inner workings, as a means to change it. It is here that Frederick Engels puts the dividing line between Utopian and Scientific Socialism. “The socialism of earlier days [that is the Utopians] certainly criticized the existing capitalistic mode of production and its consequences. But it could not explain them, and, therefore, could not get the mastery of them.”[ii]

How does that old cartoon’s slogan go, “knowing is half the battle?” To change the world we have to understand it, and that combined mission is the goal that Marxism sets out for itself theoretically. This deeper analysis of the capitalist system is what defines Marxism, as Engels said, “These two great discoveries, the materialistic conception of history and the revelation of the secret of capitalistic production through surplus value, we owe to Marx. With these discoveries socialism became a science.”[iii]

But to get to that point of a deeper structural understanding of the inner workings of capitalism also requires a ‘scientific’ method of sorts, and to better understand that method we need to investigate the contributions to Marxism of Georg Lukács.

Lukács, who previously had floated around various intellectual circles, joined the fledging Hungarian Communist Party in 1918 and was part of the government and a commissar in their Red Army during the brief existence of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. In was out that spectacular experience of the rise and quick fall of the Hungarian Revolution that Lukács developed as a thinker. Prior to his capitulation to Stalinism in the ‘30s (he would vacillate back and forth from this position, joining in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and then capitulating back after its defeat) his early works, notably Lenin and History and Class Consciousness stand as some of the most original and inspired pieces of thought in the Marxist pantheon.

There are many exceptional observations and ideas in these works by Lukács, but I just want to focus on one idea in particular. As he said in History and Class Consciousness working off a quote from Marx, “If the facts are to be understood, this distinction between their real existence and their inner core must be grasped clearly and precisely. This distinction is the first premise of a truly scientific study which in Marx’s words, “would be superfluous if the outward appearance of things coincided with their essence.” Thus we must detach the phenomena from the form in which they are immediately given and discover the intervening links which connect them to their core, their essence…. This twofold character, the simultaneous recognition and transcendence of immediate appearances is precisely the dialectical nexus.”[iv]

So what he is saying in all of this is essentially you can’t take things at face value. An analysis that basis itself purely on the surface appearance of something is very likely missing out on a real understanding of what that thing is. That there is a driving process underneath the surface of many phenomenon that’s not immediately apparent at a cursory glance of it.

In science we can see this in examples such as the Sun. It appears as if the Sun rotates about the Earth and the Earth is the center of the solar system. But through a more careful investigation of the Sun and the other planets path across the sky we learn that the Sun is the center of solar system. In another example, if we look at most physical objects – chairs, books, shoes – it would appear that they are perfectly solid. But we know through physics that matter is actually primarily empty space between tiny particles.

But what Lukács is saying is not just about rejecting the surface appearance of reality as a lie in favor of the essence at the core of things. Rather he’s seeing that there is truth in the appearance and that the appearance directly flows from and is relationship with the core essence. So the appearance of the sun orbiting the Earth stems from the objective essence of planetary orbits and the Earths rotation. Or better yet, the appearance of solid objects is caused by the electrical magnetic forces of interlocking and repelling particles that gives objects structure despite being mostly empty space between said particles.

We can see the implication of these ideas better when looking at the contradictory nature of capitalistic society. On the surface, capitalism looks, or is made to look, fair. You go to an employer, exchange your time, knowledge and energy at work, and the employer repays you back with wages. A fair contract freely engaged in by two adults. But this appearance, while partially true, hides the real essences of what’s happing here. You have to work, you have bills to pay, student loans to pay back, and you need to eat. You might be able to choose being this or that employer to work for (or at least you use to before this current recession) but you have to work for someone or else starve. And once you (hopefully) get that job, the essence of the transaction is anything but ‘fair.’ From the perspective of the boss, he will not employ you unless he knows he can get a good return on the investment that is extract out of you more then he has to pay you. No matter where you work, who you work for, what you do, you will never be paid back the equivalent of what you produced for that company. That’s what the appearance of free wage labor hides, the essence of exploitation.

In another example, take the American judicial system. Its appearance it is also fair, we are all supposed to be equal before the law, justice is blind. But this formalistic equality conceals a system that is fundamentally oppressive in reality. Racial profiling, stop and frisk, mandatory minimum sentencing laws, 3 strike laws, the entire war on drugs, all help build a system that Michelle Alexander has dubbed ‘the New Jim Crow.’  Millions of poor people, and especially poor people of color, are thrown in jail for non-violent drug charges, while the real criminals such as those who caused the financial collapse, the BP oil spill or used torture in the war on terror, walk free. The appearance is Dragnet or Law and Order, the essence is a special kind of net that can only catch minnows while letting the sharks and whales slip free.

To understand something like capitalism, a great mess of a conflicting totality, we must get to the heart of it. See the essence of the process and how that process acts on and through all aspects of it while being acted back upon in return. “It may be the sacred duty of every genuine Marxist to face the facts squarely and without illusions, but for every genuine Marxist there is always a reality more real and therefore more important than isolated facts and tendencies – namely, the reality of the total process, the totality of social development.”[v] And it is only with that clarity earned through serious analysis of the system as a whole that we can effectively act upon it and overthrow it.

In this messed up world of today, you might be mesmerized and led to pessimism if all you can see is gargantuan poverty and stratospheric inequality, without seeing the class dynamics that underscore those criminal facts and can lead to their total overturning.


[i] Rees, John. The Algebra of Revolution. Routledge, 1998. Page 237

[ii] Engels, Frederick. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. International, 2004. Page 52

[iii] Ibid, Page 53

[iv] Lukács, Georg. History and Class Conciousness. The Merlin Press, 1971. Page 8

[v] Lukács, Georg. Lenin. Verso, 2009. Page 18

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About redpleb

I'm a socialist, an activist, a worker and an all around troublemaker here in New Jersey. You can find me on twitter @RedPleb
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One Response to The Scientific Socialism of Georg Lukács

  1. Pingback: My Latest Reading | The Red Plebeian

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