Georg Lukacs
History & Class Consciousness

III: The Standpoint of the Proletariat


Thus man has become the measure of all (societal) things. The conceptual and historical foundation for this has been laid by the methodological problems of economics: by dissolving the fetishistic objects into processes that take place among men and are objectified in concrete relations between them; by deriving the indissoluble fetishistic forms from the primary forms of human relations. At the conceptual level the structure of the world of men stands revealed as a system of dynamically changing relations in which the conflicts between man and nature, man and man (in the class struggle, etc.) are fought out. The structure and the hierarchy of the categories are the index of the degree of clarity to which man has attained concerning the foundations of his existence in these relations, i.e. the degree of consciousness of himself.

At the same time this structure and this hierarchy are the central theme of history. History is no longer an enigmatic flux to which men and things are subjected. It is no longer a thing to be explained by the intervention of transcendental powers or made meaningful by reference to transcendental values. History is, on the one hand, the product (albeit the unconscious one) of man’s own activity, on the other hand it is the succession of those processes in which the forms taken by this activity and the relations of man to himself (to nature, to other men) are overthrown. So that if – as we emphasised earlier on – the categories describing the structure of a social system are not immediately historical, i.e. if the empirical succession of historical events does not suffice to explain the origins of a particular form of thought or existence, then it can be said that despite this, or better, because of it, any such conceptual system will describe in its totality a definite stage in the society as a whole.

And the nature of history is precisely that every definition degenerates into an illusion: history is the history of the unceasing overthrow of the objective forms that shape the life of man. It is therefore not possible to reach an understanding of particular forms by studying their successive appearances in an empirical and historical manner. This is not because they transcend history, though this is and must be the bourgeois view with its addiction to thinking about isolated ‘facts’ in isolated mental categories. The truth is rather that these particular forms are not immediately connected with each other either by their simultaneity or by their consecutiveness. What connects them is their place and function in the totality and by rejecting the idea of a ‘purely historical’ explanation the notion of history as a universal discipline is brought nearer. When the problem of connecting isolated phenomena has become a problem of categories, by the same dialectical process every problem of categories becomes transformed into a historical problem. Though it should be stressed: it is transformed into a problem of universal history which now appears – more clearly than in our introductory polemical remarks – simultaneously as a problem of method and a problem of our knowledge of the present.

From this standpoint alone does history really become a history of mankind. For it contains nothing that does not lead back ultimately to men and to the relations between men. It is because Feuerbach gave this new direction to philosophy that he was able to exercise such a decisive influence on the origins of historical materialism. However, by transforming philosophy into ‘anthropology’ he caused man to become frozen in a fixed objectivity and thus pushed both dialectics and history to one side. And precisely this is the great danger in every ‘humanism’ or anthropological point of view.[51] For if man is made the measure of all things, and if with the aid of that assumption all transcendence is to be eliminated without man himself being measured against this criterion, without applying the same ‘standard’ to himself or – more exactly – without making man himself dialectical, then man himself is made into an absolute and he simply puts himself in the place of those transcendental forces he was supposed to explain, dissolve and systematically replace. At best, then, a dogmatic metaphysics is superseded by an equally dogmatic relativism.

This dogmatism arises because the failure to make man dialectical is complemented by an equal failure to make, reality dialectical. Hence relativism moves within an essentially static world. As it cannot become conscious of the immobility of the world and the rigidity of its own standpoint it inevitably reverts to the dogmatic position of those thinkers who likewise offered to explain the world from premises they did not consciously acknowledge and which, therefore, they adopted uncritically. For it is one thing to relativise the truth about an individual or a species in an ultimately static world (masked though this stasis may be by an illusory movement like the “eternal recurrence of the same things” or the biological or morphological ‘organic’ succession of periods). And it is quite another matter when the concrete, historical function and meaning of the various ‘truths’ is revealed within a unique, concretised historical process. Only in the former case can we accurately speak of relativism. But in that case it inevitably becomes dogmatic. For it is only meaningful to speak of relativism where an ‘absolute’ is in some sense assumed. The weakness and the half-heartedness of such ‘daring thinkers’ as Nietzsche or Spengler is that their relativism only abolishes the absolute in appearance.

For, from the standpoint of both logic and method, the ‘systematic location’ of the absolute is to be found just where the apparent movement stops. The absolute is nothing but the fixation of thought, it is the projection into myth of the intellectual failure to understand reality concretely as a historical process. Just as the relativists have only appeared to dissolve the world into movement, so too they have only appeared to exile the absolute from their systems. Every ‘biological’ relativism, etc., that turns its limits into ‘eternal’ limits thereby involuntarily reintroduces the absolute, the ‘timeless’ principle of thought. And as long as the absolute survives in a system (even unconsciously) it will prove logically stronger than all attempts at relativism. For it represents the highest principle of thought attainable in an undialectical universe, in a world of ossified things and a logical world of ossified concepts. So that here both logically and methodologically Socrates must be in the right as against the sophists, and logic and value theory must be in the right as against pragmatism and relativism.

What these relativists are doing is to take the present philosophy of man with its social and historical limits and to allow these to ossify into an ‘eternal’ limit of a biological or pragmatic sort. Actuated either by doubt or despair they thus stand revealed as a decadent version of the very rationalism or religiosity they mean to oppose. Hence they may sometimes be a not unimportant symptom of the inner weakness of the society which produced the rationalism they are ‘combating’. But they are significant only as symptoms. It is always the culture they assail, the culture of the class that has not yet been broken, that embodies the authentic spiritual values.

Only the dialectics of history can create a radically new situation. This is not only because it relativises all limits, or better, because it puts them in a state of flux. Nor is it just because all those forms of existence that constitute the counterpart of the absolute are dissolved into processes and viewed as concrete manifestations of history so that the absolute is not so much denied as endowed with its concrete historical shape and treated as an aspect of the process itself.

But, in addition to these factors, it is also true that the historical process is something unique and its dialectical advances and reverses are an incessant struggle to reach higher stages of the truth and of the (societal) self-knowledge of man. The ‘relativisation’ of truth in Hegel means that the higher factor is always the truth of the factor beneath it in the system. This does not imply the destruction of ‘objective’ truth at the lower stages but only that it means something different as a result of being integrated in a more concrete and comprehensive totality. When Marx makes dialectics the essence of history, the movement of thought also becomes just a part of the overall movement of history. History becomes the history of the objective forms from which man’s environment and inner world are constructed and which he strives to master in thought, action and art, etc. (Whereas relativism always works with rigid and immutable objective forms.)

In the period of the “pre-history of human society” and of the struggles between classes the only possible function of truth is to establish the various possible attitudes to an essentially uncomprehended world in accordance with man’s needs in the struggle to master his environment. Truth could only achieve an ‘objectivity’ relative to the standpoint of the individual classes and the objective realities corresponding to it. But as soon as mankind has clearly understood and hence restructured the foundations of its existence truth acquires a wholly novel aspect. When theory and practice are united it becomes possible to change reality and when this happens the absolute and its ‘relativistic’ counterpart will have played their historical role for the last time. For as the result of these changes we shall see the disappearance of that reality which the absolute and the relative expressed in like manner.

This process begins when the proletariat becomes conscious of its own class point of view. Hence it is highly misleading to describe dialectical materialism as ‘relativism’. For although they share a common premise: man as the measure of all things, they each give it a different and even contradictory interpretation. The beginning of a ‘materialist anthropology’ in Feuerbach is in fact only a beginning and one that is in itself capable of a number of continuations. Marx took up Feuerbach’s suggestion and thought it out to its logical conclusion. In the process he takes issue very sharply with Hegel: “Hegel makes of man a man of self-consciousness instead of making self-consciousness the self-consciousness of man, i.e. of real man as he lives in the real world of objects by which he is conditioned.”[52]

Simultaneously, however, and this is moreover at the time when he was most under the influence of Feuerbach, he sees man historically and dialectically, and both are to be understood in a double sense. (1) He never speaks of man in general, of an abstractly absolutised man: he always thinks of him as a link in a concrete totality, in a society. The latter must be explained from the standpoint of man but only after man has himself been integrated in the concrete totality and has himself been made truly concrete. (2) Man himself is the objective foundation of the historical dialectic and the subject-object lying at its roots, and as such he is decisively involved in the dialectical process. To formulate it in the initial abstract categories of dialectics: he both is and at the same time is not. Religion, Marx says, in the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, “is the realisation in fantasy of the essence of man because the essence of man does not possess any true reality.”[53] And as this non-existent man is to be made the measure of all things, the true demiurge of history, his non-being must at once become the concrete and historically dialectical form of critical knowledge of the present in which man is necessarily condemned to non-existence. The negation of his being becomes concretised, then, in the understanding of bourgeois society. At the same time – as we have already seen – the dialectics of bourgeois society and the contradictions of its abstract categories stand out clearly when measured against the nature of man. Following the criticism of Hegel’s theory of consciousness we have just quoted, Marx announces his own programme in these terms: “It must be shown how the state and private property, etc., transform men into abstractions, or that they are the products of abstract man instead of being the reality of individual, concrete men.” And the fact that in later years Marx adhered to this view of the abstract non-existence of man can be seen from the well-known and oft-quoted words from the Preface to the Critique Political Economy in which bourgeois society is described as the last manifestation of the “pre-history of human society.”

It is here that Marx’s ‘humanism’ diverges most sharply from all the movements that seem so similar to it at first glance. Others have often recognised and described how capitalism violates and destroys everything human. I need refer only to Carlyle’s Past and Present whose descriptive sections received the approval and in part the enthusiastic admiration of the young Engels. In such accounts it is shown, on the one hand, that it is not possible to be human in bourgeois society, and, on the other hand, that man as he exists is opposed without mediation – or what amounts to the same thing, through the mediations of metaphysics and myth – to this non-existence of the human (whether this is thought of as something in the past, the future or merely an imperative).

But this does no more than present the problem in a confused form and certainly does not point the way to a solution. The solution can only be discovered by seeing these two aspects as they appear in the concrete and real process of capitalist development, namely inextricably bound up with one another: i.e. the categories of dialectics must be applied to man as the measure of all things in a manner that also includes simultaneously a complete description of the economic structure of bourgeois society and a correct knowledge of the present. For otherwise, any description will inevitably succumb to the dilemmas of empiricism and utopianism, of voluntarism and fatalism, even though it may give an accurate account of matters of detail. At best it will not advance beyond crude facticity on the one hand, while on the other it will confront the immanent course of history with alien and hence subjective and arbitrary demands.

This is without exception the fate that has befallen all those systems that start with man as their premise and strive in theory to solve the problems of his existence while in practice they seek to liberate him from them. This duality can be seen in all attempts of the type of the Christianity of the Gospels. Society as it actually exists is left unscathed. It makes no difference whether this takes the form of “giving to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s,” of Luther’s sanctification of the powers that be, or of Tolstoy’s “resist not evil.” For as long as society, as it is, is to be declared sacrosanct it is immaterial with what emotional force or what metaphysical and religious emphasis this is done. What is crucial is that reality as it seems to be should be thought of as something man cannot change and its unchangeability should have the force of a moral imperative.

There are two aspects of the utopian counterpart to this ontology. The first is seen in God’s annihilation of empirical reality in the Apocalypse, which can on occasion be absent (as with Tolstoy) without materially affecting the situation. The second lies in the utopian view of man as a ‘saint’ who can achieve an inner mastery over the external reality that cannot be eliminated. As long as such a view survives with all its original starkness its claims to offer a ‘humanistic’ solution to man’s problems are self-refuting. For it is forced to deny humanity to the vast majority of mankind and to exclude them from the ‘redemption’ which alone confers meaning upon a life which is meaningless on the level of empirical experience. In so doing it reproduces the inhumanity of class society on a metaphysical and religious plane, in the next world, in eternity – of course with the signs reversed, with altered criteria and with the class structure stood on its head. And the most elementary study of any monastic order as it advances from a community of ‘saints’ to the point where it becomes an economic and political power at the side of the ruling class will make it abundantly clear that every relaxation of the utopian’s requirements will mean an act of adaptation to the society of the day.

But the ‘revolutionary’ utopianism of such views cannot break out of the inner limits set to this undialectical ‘humanism’. Even the Anabaptists and similar sects preserve this duality. On the one hand, they leave the objective structure of man’s empirical existence unimpaired (consumption communism), while on the other hand they expect that reality will be changed by awakening man’s inwardness which, independent of his concrete historical life, has existed since time immemorial and must now be brought to life – perhaps through the intervention of a transcendental deity.

They, too, start from the assumption of man as he exists and an empirical world whose structure is unalterable. That this is the consequence of their historical situation is self-evident, but needs no further discussion in this context. It was necessary to emphasise it only because it is no accident that it was the revolutionary religiosity of the sects that supplied the ideology for capitalism in its purest forms (in England and America). For the union of an inwardness, purified to the point of total abstraction and stripped of all traces of flesh and blood, with a transcendental philosophy of history does indeed correspond to the basic ideological structure of capitalism. It could even be maintained that the equally revolutionary Calvinist union of an ethics in which man has to prove himself (interiorised asceticism) with a thorough-going transcendentalism with regard to the objective forces that move the world and control the fate of man (deus absconditus and predestination) contain the bourgeois reified consciousness with its things-in-themselves in a mythologised but yet quite pure state.[54] In the actively revolutionary sects the elemental vigour of a Thomas Münzer seems at first glance to obscure the irreducible quality and unsynthesised amalgam of the empirical and the utopian. But closer inspection of the way in which the religious and utopian premises of the theory concretely impinge upon Münzer’s actions will reveal the same ‘dark and empty chasm’, the same ‘hiatus irrationalis’ between theory and practice that is everywhere apparent where a subjective and hence undialectical utopia directly assaults historical reality with the intention of changing it. Real actions then appear – precisely in their objective, revolutionary sense – wholly independent of the religious utopia: the latter can neither lead them in any real sense, nor can it offer concrete objectives or concrete proposals for their realisation.

When Ernst Bloch claims[55] that this union of religion with socio-economic revolution points the way to a deepening of the ‘merely economic’ outlook of historical materialism, he fails to notice that his deepening simply by-passes the real depth of historical materialism. When he then conceives of economics as a concern with objective things to which soul and inwardness are to be opposed, he overlooks the fact that the real social revolution can only mean the restructuring of the real and concrete life of man. He does not see that what is known as economics is nothing but the system of forms objectively defining this real life. The revolutionary sects were forced to evade this problem because in their historical situation such a restructuring of life and even of the definition of the problem was objectively impossible. But it will not do to fasten upon their weakness, their inability to discover the Archimedean point from which the whole of reality can be overthrown, and their predicament which forces them to aim too high or too low and to see in these things a sign of greater depth.

The individual can never become the measure of all things. For when the individual confronts objective reality he is faced by a complex of ready-made and unalterable objects which allow him only the subjective responses of recognition or rejection. Only the class can relate to the whole of reality in a practical revolutionary way. (The ‘species’ cannot do this as it is no more than an individual that has been mythologised and stylised in a spirit of contemplation.) And the class, too, can only manage it when it can see through the reified objectivity of the given world to the process that is also its own fate. For the individual, reification and hence determinism (determinism being the idea that things are necessarily connected) are irremovable. Every attempt to achieve ‘freedom’ from such premises must fail, for ‘inner freedom’ presupposes that the world cannot be changed. Hence, too, the cleavage of the ego into ‘is’ and ‘ought’, into the intelligible and the empirical ego, is unable to serve as the foundation for a dialectical process of becoming, even for the individual subject. The problem of the external world and with it the structure of the external world (of things) is referred to the category of the empirical ego. Psychologically and physiologically the latter is subject to the same deterministic laws as apply to the external world in the narrow sense. The intelligible ego becomes a transcendental idea (regardless of whether it is viewed as a metaphysical existent or an ideal to be realised). It is of the essence of this idea that it should preclude a dialectical interaction with the empirical components of the ego and a fortiori the possibility that the intelligible ego should recognise itself in the empirical ego. The impact of such an idea upon the empirical reality corresponding to it produces the same riddle that we described earlier in the relationship between ‘is’ and ’ought’.

This discovery makes it quite clear why all such views must end in mysticism and conceptual mythologies. Mythologies are always born where two terminal points, or at least two stages in a movement, have to be regarded as terminal points without its being possible to discover any concrete mediation between them and the movement. This is equally true of movements in the empirical world and of indirectly mediated movements of thought designed to encompass the totality. This failure almost always has the appearance of involving simultaneously the unbridgeable distance between the movement and the thing moved, between movement and mover, and between mover and thing moved. But mythology inevitably adopts the structure of the problem whose opacity had been the cause of its own birth. This insight confirms once again the value of Feuerbach’s ‘anthropological’ criticism.

And thus there arises what at first sight seems to be the paradoxical situation that this projected, mythological world seems closer to consciousness than does the immediate reality. But the paradox dissolves as soon as we remind ourselves that we must abandon the standpoint of immediacy and solve the problem if immediate reality is to be mastered in truth. Whereas mythology is simply the reproduction in imagination of the problem in its insolubility. Thus immediacy is merely reinstated on a higher level. The desert beyond God which, according to Master Eckhart, the soul must seek in order to find the deity is nearer to the isolated individual soul than is its concrete existence within the concrete totality of a human society which from this background must be indiscernible even in its general outlines. Thus for reified man a robust causal determinism is more accessible than those mediations that could lead him out of his reified existence. But to posit the individual man as the measure of all things is to lead thought into the labyrinths of mythology.

Of course, ‘indeterminism’ does not lead to a way out of the difficulty for the individual. The indeterminism of the modern pragmatists was in origin nothing but the acquisition of that margin of ‘freedom’ that the conflicting claims and irrationality of the reified laws can offer the individual in capitalist society. It ultimately turns into a mystique of intuition which leaves the fatalism of the external reified world even more intact than before. Jacobi had rebelled in the name of ‘humanism’ against the tyranny of the ‘law’ in Kant and Fichte, he demanded that “laws should be made for the sake of man, not man for the sake of the law.” But we can see that where Kant had left the established order untouched in the name of rationalism, Jacobi did no more than offer to glorify the same empirical, merely existing reality in the spirit of irrationalism.[56]

Even worse, having failed to perceive that man in his negative immediacy was a moment in a dialectical process, such a philosophy, when consciously directed toward the restructuring of society, is forced to distort the social reality in order to discover the positive side, man as he exists, in one of its manifestations. In support of this we may cite as a typical illustration the well-known passage in Lassalle’s Bastiat-Schulze: “There is no social way that leads out of this social situation. The vain efforts of things to behave like human beings can be seen in the English strikes whose melancholy outcome is familiar enough. The only way out for the workers is to be found in that sphere within which they can still be human beings, i.e. in the state. Hence the instinctive but infinite hatred which the liberal bourgeoisie bears the concept of the state in its every manifestation.”[57]

It is not our concern here to pillory Lassalle for his material and historical misconceptions. But it is important to establish that the abstract and absolute separation of the state from the economy and the rigid division between man as thing on the one hand and man as man on the other, is not without consequences. (1) It is responsible for the birth of a fatalism that cannot escape from immediate empirical facticity (we should think here of Lassalle’s Iron Law of Wages). And (2) the ‘idea’ of the state is divorced from the development of capitalism and is credited with a completely utopian function, wholly alien to its concrete character. And this means that every path leading to a change in this reality is systematically blocked. Already the mechanical separation between economics and politics precludes any really effective action encompassing society in its totality, for this itself is based on the mutual interaction of both these factors. For a fatalism in economics would prohibit any thorough-going economic measure, while a state utopianism would either await a miracle or else pursue a policy of adventurist illusions.

This disintegration of a dialectical, practical unity into an inorganic aggregate of the empirical and the utopian, a clinging to the ‘facts’ (in their untranscended immediacy) and a faith in illusions as alien to the past as to the present is characteristic in increasing measure of the development of social democracy. We have only to consider it in the light of our systematic analysis of reification in order to establish that such a posture conceals a total capitulation before the bourgeoisie – and this notwithstanding the apparent ‘socialism’ of its policies. For it is wholly within the class interests of the bourgeoisie to separate the individual spheres of society from one another and to fragment the existence of men correspondingly. Above all we find, justified in different terms but essential to social democracy nevertheless, this very dualism of economic fatalism and ethical utopianism as applied to the ‘human’ functions of the state. It means inevitably that the proletariat will be drawn on to the territory of the bourgeoisie and naturally the bourgeoisie will maintain its superiority.[58]

The danger to which the proletariat has been exposed since its appearance on the historical stage was that it might remain imprisoned in its immediacy together with the bourgeoisie. With the growth of social democracy this threat acquired a real political organisation which artificially cancels out the mediations so laboriously won and forces the proletariat back into its immediate existence where it is merely a component of capitalist society and not at the same time the motor that drives it to its doom and destruction. Thus the proletariat submits to the ‘laws’ of bourgeois society either in a spirit of supine fatalism (e.g. towards the natural laws of production) or else in a spirit of ‘moral’ affirmation (the state as an ideal, a cultural positive). It is doubtless true that these ‘laws’ are part of an objective dialectic inaccessible to the reified consciousness and as such lead to the downfall of capitalism.[59] But as long as capitalism survives, such a view of society corresponds to the elementary class interests of the bourgeoisie. It derives every practical advantage from revealing aspects of the structure of immediate existence (regardless of how many insoluble problems may be concealed behind these abstract reflected forms) while veiling the overall unified dialectical structure.

On this territory, social democracy must inevitably remain in the weaker position. This is not just because it renounces of its own free will the historical mission of the proletariat to point to the way out of the problems of capitalism that the bourgeoisie cannot solve; nor is it because it looks on fatalistically as the ‘laws’ of capitalism drift towards the abyss. But social democracy must concede defeat on every particular issue also. For when confronted by the overwhelming resources of knowledge, culture and routine which the bourgeoisie undoubtedly possesses and will continue to possess as long as it remains the ruling class, the only effective superiority of the proletariat, its only decisive weapon is its ability to see the social totality as a concrete historical totality; to see the reified forms as processes between men; to see the immanent meaning of history that only appears negatively in the contradictions of abstract forms, to raise its positive side to consciousness and to put it into practice. With the ideology of social democracy the proletariat falls victim to all the antinomics of reification that we have hitherto analysed in such detail. The important role increasingly played in this ideology by ‘man’ as a value, an ideal, an imperative, accompanied, of course, by a growing ‘insight’ into the necessity and logic of the actual economic process, is only one symptom of this relapse into the reified immediacy of the bourgeoisie. For the unmediated juxtaposition of natural laws and imperatives is the logical expression of immediate societal existence in bourgeois society.


Reification is, then, the necessary, immediate reality of every person living in capitalist society. It can be overcome only by constant and constantly renewed efforts to disrupt the reified structure of existence by concretely relating to the concretely manifested contradictions of the total development, by becoming conscious of the immanent meanings of these contradictions for the total development. But it must be emphasised that (1) the structure can be disrupted only if the immanent contradictions of the process are made conscious. Only when the consciousness of the proletariat is able to point out the road along which the dialectics of history is objectively impelled, but which it cannot travel unaided, will the consciousness of the proletariat awaken to a consciousness of the process, and only then will the proletariat become the identical subject-object of history whose praxis will change reality. If the proletariat fails to take this step the contradiction will remain unresolved and will be reproduced by the dialectical mechanics of history at a higher level, in an altered form and with increased intensity. It is in this that the objective necessity of history consists. The deed of the proletariat can never be more than to take the next step[60] in the process. Whether it is ‘decisive’ or ‘episodic’ depends on the concrete circumstances, but in this context, where we are concerned with our knowledge of the structure, it does not much matter as we are talking about an unbroken process of such disruptions.

(2) Inseparable from this is the fact that the relation to totality does not need to become explicit, the plenitude of the totality does not need to be consciously integrated into the motives and objects of action. What is crucial is that there should be an aspiration towards totality, that action should serve the purpose, described above, in the totality of the process. Of course, with the mounting capitalist socialisation of society it becomes increasingly possible and hence necessary to integrate the content of each specific event into the totality of contents.[61] (World economics and world politics are much more immediate forms of existence today than they were in Marx’s time.) However, this does not in the least contradict what we have maintained here, namely that the decisive actions can involve an – apparently – trivial matter. For here we can see in operation the truth that in the dialectical totality the individual elements incorporate the structure of the whole. This was made clear on the level of theory by the fact that e.g. it was possible to gain an understanding of the whole of bourgeois society from its commodity structure. We now see the same state of affairs in practice, when the fate of a whole process of development can depend on a decision in an – apparently – trivial matter.

Hence (3) when judging whether an action is right or wrong it is essential to relate it to its function in the total process. Proletarian thought is practical thought and as such is strongly pragmatic. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” Engels says, providing an idiomatic gloss on Marx’s second Thesis on Feuerbach: “The question whether human thinking can pretend to objective truth is not a theoretical but a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e. the reality and power, the ‘this-sidedness’ of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.” This pudding, however, is the making of the proletariat into a class: the process by which its class consciousness becomes real in practice. This gives a more concrete form to the proposition that the proletariat is the identical subject-object of the historical process, i.e. the first subject in history that is (objectively) capable of an adequate social consciousness. It turns out that the contradictions in which the antagonisms of the mechanics of history are expressed are only capable of an objective social solution in practice if the solution is at the same time a new, practically-won consciousness on the part of the proletariat.[62] Whether an action is functionally right or wrong is decided ultimately by the evolution of proletarian class consciousness.

The eminently practical nature of this consciousness is to be seen (4) in that an adequate, correct consciousness means a change in its own objects, and in the first instance, in itself. In Section II of this essay we discussed Kant’s view of the ontological proof of God’s existence, of the problem of existence and thought, and we quoted his very logical argument to the effect that if existence were a true predicate, then “I could not say that precisely the object of my concept exists.” Kant was being very consistent when he denied this. At the same time it is clear that from the standpoint of the proletariat the empirically given reality of the objects does dissolve into processes and tendencies; this process is no single, unrepeatable tearing of the veil that masks the process but the unbroken alternation of ossification, contradiction and movement; and thus the proletariat represents the true reality, namely the tendencies of history awakening into consciousness. We must therefore conclude that Kant’s seemingly paradoxical statement is a precise description of what actually follows from every functionally correct action of the proletariat.

This insight alone puts us in a position to see through the last vestiges of the reification of consciousness and its intellectual form, the problem of the thing-in-itself. Even Friedrich Engels has put the matter in a form that may easily give rise to misunderstandings. In his account of what separates Marx and himself from the school of Hegel, he says: “We comprehend the concepts in our heads once more materialistically – as reflections of real things instead of regarding the real things as reflections of this or that stage of the absolute concept.”[63]

But this leaves a question to be asked and Engels not only asks it but also answers it on the following page quite in agreement with us. There he says: “that the world is not to be comprehended as a complex of ready-made things, but as a complex of processes.” But if there are no things, what is ‘reflected’ in thought? We cannot hope to offer even an outline of the history of the ‘reflection theory’ even though we could only unravel the full implications of this problem with its aid. In the theory of ‘reflection’ we find the theoretical embodiment of the duality of thought and existence, consciousness and reality, that is so intractable to the reified consciousness. And from that point of view it is immaterial whether things are to be regarded as reflections of concepts or whether concepts are reflections of things. In both cases the duality is firmly established.

Kant’s grandiose and very cogent attempt to overcome this duality by logic, his theory of the synthetic function of consciousness in the creation of the domain of theory could not arrive at any philosophical solution to the question. For his duality was merely banished from logic to reappear in perpetuity in the form of the duality of phenomenon and the thing-in-itself. And in these terms it remained an insoluble philosophical problem. The later history of his theory shows how very unsatisfactory his solution was. To see Kant’s epistemology as scepticism and agnosticism is of course a misunderstanding. But it is one that has at least one root in the theory itself – not, be it admitted, in the logic but in the relation between the logic and the metaphysics, in the relation between thought and existence.

It must be clearly understood that every contemplative stance and thus every kind of ‘pure thought’ that must undertake the task of knowing an object outside itself raises the problem of subjectivity and objectivity. The object of thought (as something outside) becomes something alien to the subject. This raises the problem of whether thought corresponds to the object! The ‘purer’ the cognitive character of thought becomes and the more ‘critical’ thought is, the more vast and impassable does the abyss appear that yawns between the ‘subjective’ mode of thought and the objectivity of the (existing) object. Now it is possible – as with Kant – to view the object of thought as something ‘created’ by the forms of thought. But this does not suffice to solve the problem of existence, and Kant, by removing it from the sphere’ of epistemology, creates this philosophical situation for himself: even his excogitated objects must correspond to some ‘reality’ or other. But this reality is treated as a thing-in-itself and placed outside the realm of that which can be known by the ‘critical’ mind. It is with respect to this reality (which is the authentic, the metaphysical reality for Kant, as his ethics shows) that his position remains one of scepticism and agnosticism. This remains true however unsceptical was the solution he found for epistemological objectivity and the immanent theory of truth.

It is, therefore, no accident that it is from Kant that the various agnostic trends have taken their cue (one has only to think of Maimon or Schopenhauer). It is even less of an accident that Kant himself was responsible for the reintroduction into philosophy of the principle that is most violently opposed to his own synthetic principle of ‘creation’ (Erzeugung), namely the Platonic theory of ideas. For this theory is the most extreme attempt to rescue the objectivity of thought and its correspondence with its object, without having to resort to empirical and material reality to find a criterion for the correspondence.

Now it is evident that every consistent elaboration of the theory of ideas requires a principle that both links thought with the objects of the world of ideas and also connects these with the objects of the empirical world (recollection, intellectual intuition, etc.). But this in turn leads the theory of thought to transcend the limits of thought itself: and it becomes psychology, metaphysics or the history of philosophy. Thus instead of a solution to the problem we are left with complexities that have been doubled or tripled. And the problem remains without a solution. For the insight that a correspondence or relationship of ‘reflection’ cannot in principle be established between heterogeneous objects is precisely the driving force behind every view of the type of the Platonic theory of ideas. This. undertakes to prove that the same ultimate essence forms the core of the objects of thought as well as of thought itself. Hegel gives an apt description of the basic philosophical theme of the theory of recollection from this standpoint when he says that it provides a myth of man’s fundamental situation: “in him lies the truth and the only problem is to make it conscious.”[64] But how to prove this identity in thought and existence of the ultimate substance? – above all when it has been shown that they are completely heterogeneous in the way in which they present themselves to the intuitive, contemplative mind? It becomes necessary to invoke metaphysics and with the aid of its overt or concealed mythical mediations thought and existence can once again be reunited. And this despite the fact that their separation is not merely the starting-point of ‘pure’ thought but also a factor that constantly informs it whether it likes it or not.

The situation is not improved in the slightest when the mythology is turned on its head and thought is deduced from empirical material reality. Rickert once described materialism as an inverted Platonism. And he was right in so doing. As long as thought and existence persist in their old, rigid opposition, as long as their own structure and the structure of their interconnections remain unchanged, then the view that thought is a product of the brain and hence must correspond to the objects of the empirical world is just such a mythology as those of recollection and the world of Platonic ideas. It is a mythology for it is incapable of explaining the specific problems that arise here by reference to this principle. It is forced to leave them unsolved, to solve them with the ‘old’ methods and to reinstate the mythology as a key to the whole unanalysed complex.[65] But as will already be clear, it is not possible to eliminate the distinction by means of an infinite progression. For that produces either a pseudo-solution or else the theory of reflection simply reappears in a different guise.[66]

Historical thought perceives the correspondence of thought and existence in their – immediate. but no more than immediate – rigid, reified structure. This is precisely the point at, which non-dialectical thought is confronted by this insoluble problem. From the fact of this rigid confrontation it follows (1) that thought and (empirical) existence cannot reflect each other, but also (2) that the criterion of correct thought can only be found in the realm of reflection. As long as man adopts a stance of intuition and contemplation he can only relate to his own thought and to the objects of the empirical world in an immediate way. He accepts both as ready-made – produced by historical reality. As he wishes only to know the world and not to change it he is forced to accept both the empirical, material rigidity of existence and the logical rigidity of concepts as unchangeable. His mythological analyses are not concerned with the concrete origins of this rigidity nor with the real factors inherent in them that could lead to its elimination. They are concerned solely to discover how the unchanged nature of these data could be conjoined whilst leaving them unchanged and how to explain them as such.

The solution proposed by Marx in his Theses on Feuerbach is to transform philosophy into praxis. But, as we have seen, this praxis has its objective and structural preconditions and complement in the view that reality is a “complex of processes.” That is to say, in the view that the movements of history represent the true reality; not indeed a transcendental one, but at all events a higher one than that of the rigid, reified facts of the empirical world, from which they arise. For the reflection theory this means that thought and consciousness are orientated towards reality but, at the same time, the criterion of truth is provided by relevance to reality. This reality is by no means identical with empirical existence. This reality is not, it becomes.

The process of Becoming is to be understood in a twofold sense. (1) In this Becoming, in this tendency, in this process the true nature of the object is revealed. This is meant in the sense that – as in the case of the instances we have cited and which could easily be multiplied – the transformation of things into a process provides a concrete solution to all the concrete problems created by the paradoxes of existent objects. The recognition that one cannot step into the same river twice is just an extreme way of highlighting the unbridgeable abyss between concept and reality. It does nothing to increase our concrete knowledge of the river.

In contrast with this, the recognition that capital as a process can only be accumulated. or rather accumulating, capital, provides the positive, concrete solution to a whole host of positive, concrete problems of method and of substance connected with capital. Hence only by overcoming the – theoretical – duality of philosophy and special discipline, of methodology and factual knowledge can the way be found by which to annul the duality of thought and existence. Every attempt to overcome the duality dialectically in logic, in a system of thought stripped of every concrete relation to existence, is doomed to failure. (And we may observe that despite many other opposing tendencies in his work, Hegel’s philosophy was of this type.) For every pure logic is Platonic: it is thought released from existence and hence ossified. Only by conceiving of thought as a form of reality, as a factor in the total process can philosophy overcome its own rigidity dialectically and take on the quality of Becoming.[67]

(2) Becoming is also the mediation between past and future. But it is the mediation between the concrete, i.e. historical past, and the equally concrete, i.e. historical future. When the concrete here and now dissolves into a process it is no longer a continuous, intangible moment, immediacy slipping away;[68] it is the focus of the deepest and most widely ramified mediation, the focus of decision and of the birth of the new. As long as man concentrates his interest contemplatively upon the past or future, both ossify into an alien existence. And between the subject and the object lies the unbridgeable “pernicious chasm” of the present. Man must be able to comprehend the present as a becoming. He can do this by seeing in it the tendencies out of whose dialectical opposition he can make the future. Only when he does this will the present be a process of becoming, that belongs to him. Only he who is willing and whose mission it is to create the future can see the present in its concrete truth. As Hegel says: “Truth is not to treat objects as alien.”[69]

But when the truth of becoming is the future that is to be created but has not yet been born, when it is the new that resides in the tendencies that (with our conscious aid) will be realised, then the question whether thought is a reflection appears quite senseless. It is true that reality is the criterion for the correctness of thought. But reality is not, it becomes – and to become the participation of thought is needed. We see here the fulfilment of the programme of classical philosophy: the principle of genesis means in fact that dogmatism is overcome (above all in its most important historical incarnation: the Platonic theory of reflection). But only concrete (historical) becoming can perform the function of such a genesis. And consciousness (the practical class consciousness of the proletariat) is a necessary, indispensable, integral part of that process of becoming.

Thus thought and existence are not identical in the sense that they ‘correspond’ to each other, or ‘reflect’ each other, that they ‘run parallel’ to each other or ‘coincide’ with each other (all expressions that conceal a rigid duality). Their identity is that they are aspects of one and the same real historical and dialectical process. What is ‘reflected’ in the consciousness of the proletariat is the new positive reality arising out of the dialectical contradictions of capitalism. And this is by no means the invention of the proletariat, nor was it ‘created’ out of the void. It is rather the inevitable consequence of the process in its totality; one which changed from being an abstract possibility to a concrete reality only after it had become part of the consciousness of the proletariat and had been made practical by it. And this is no mere formal transformation. For a possibility to be realised, for a tendency to become actual, what is required is that the objective components of a society should be transformed; their functions must be changed and with them the structure and content of every individual object.

But it must never be forgotten: only the practical class consciousness of the proletariat possesses this ability to transform things. Every contemplative, purely cognitive stance leads ultimately to a divided relationship to its object. Simply to transplant the structure we have discerned here into any stance other than that of proletarian action – for only the class can be practical in its relation to the total process – would mean the creation of a new conceptual mythology and a regression to the standpoint of classical philosophy refuted by Marx. For every purely cognitive stance bears the stigma of immediacy. That is to say, it never ceases to be confronted by a whole series of ready-made objects that cannot be dissolved into processes. Its dialectical nature can survive only in the tendency towards praxis and in its orientation towards the actions of the proletariat. It can survive only if it remains critically aware of its own tendency to immediacy inherent in every non-practical stance and if it constantly strives to explain critically the mediations, the relations to the totality as a process, to the actions of the proletariat as a class.

The practical character of the thought of the proletariat is born and becomes real as the result of an equally dialectical process. In this thought self-criticism is more than the self-criticism of its object, i.e. the self-criticism of bourgeois society. It is also a critical awareness of how much of its own practical nature has really become manifest, which stage of the genuinely practicable is objectively possible and how much of what is objectively possible has been made real. For it is evident that however clearly we may have grasped the fact that society consists of processes, however thoroughly we may have unmasked the fiction of its rigid reification, this does not mean that we are able to annul the ‘reality’ of this fiction in capitalist society in practice. The moments in which this insight can really be converted into practice are determined by developments in society. Thus proletarian thought is in the first place merely a theory of praxis which only gradually (and indeed often spasmodically) transforms itself into a practical theory that overturns the real world. The individual stages of this process cannot be sketched in here. They alone would be able to show how proletarian class consciousness evolves dialectically (i.e. how the proletariat becomes a class). Only then would it be possible to throw light on the intimate dialectical process of interaction between the socio-historical situation and the class consciousness of the proletariat. Only then would the statement that the proletariat is the identical subject-object of the history of society become truly concrete.[70]

Even the proletariat can only overcome reification as long as it is oriented towards practice. And this means that there can be no single act that will eliminate reification in all its forms at one blow; it means that there will be a whole host of objects that at least in appearance remain more or less unaffected by the process. This is true in the first instance of nature. But it is also illuminating to observe how a whole set of social phenomena become dialecticised by a different path than the one we have traced out to show the nature of the dialectics of history and the process by which the barriers of reification can be shattered. We have observed, for instance, how certain works of art are extraordinarily sensitive to the qualitative nature of dialectical changes without their becoming conscious of the antagonisms which they lay bare and to which they give artistic form.

At the same time we observed other societal phenomena which contain inner antagonisms but only in an abstract form, i.e. their inner contradictions are merely the secondary effects of the inner contradictions of other, more primary phenomena. This means that these last contradictions can only become visible if mediated by the former and can only become dialectical when they do. (This is true of interest as opposed to profit.) It would be necessary to set forth the whole system of these qualitative gradations in the dialectical character of the different kinds of phenomena before we should be in a position to arrive at the concrete totality of the categories with which alone true knowledge of the present is possible. The hierarchy of these categories would determine at the same time the point where system and history meet, thus fulfilling Marx’s postulate (already cited) concerning the categories that “their sequence is determined by the relations they have to each other in modern bourgeois society.”

In every consciously dialectical system of thought, however, any sequence is itself dialectical – not only for Hegel, but also as early as Proclus. Moreover, the dialectical deduction of categories cannot possibly involve a simple juxtaposition or even the succession of identical forms. Indeed, if the method is not to degenerate into a rigid schematicism even identical formal patterns must not be allowed to function in a repetitively mechanical way (thus, the famous triad: thesis, antithesis and synthesis). When the dialectical method becomes rigid, as happens frequently in Hegel, to say nothing of his followers, the only control device and the only protection is the concrete historical method of Marx. But it is vital that we should draw all the conclusions possible from this situation. Hegel himself distinguishes between negative and positive dialectics.” By positive dialectics he understands the growth of a particular content, the elucidation of a concrete totality. In the process, however, we find that he almost always advances from the determinants of reflection to the positive dialectics even though his conception of nature, for example, as “otherness,” as the idea in a state of “being external to itself” directly precludes a positive dialectics. (It is here that we can find one of the theoretical sources for the frequently artificial constructs of his philosophy of nature.) Nevertheless, Hegel does perceive clearly at times that the dialectics of nature can never become anything more exalted than a dialectics of movement witnessed by the detached observer, as the subject cannot be integrated into the dialectical process, at least not at the stage reached hitherto. Thus he emphasises that Zeno’s antinomies reached the same level as those of Kant,[73] with the implication that it is not possible to go any higher.

From this we deduce the necessity of separating the merely objective dialectics of nature from those of society. For in the dialectics of society the subject is included in the reciprocal relation in which theory and practice become dialectical with reference to one another. (It goes without saying that the growth of knowledge about nature is a social phenomenon and therefore to be included in the second dialectical type.) Moreover, if the dialectical method is to be consolidated concretely it is essential that the different types of dialectics should be set out in concrete fashion. It would then become clear that the Hegelian distinction between positive and negative dialectics as well as the different levels of intuition, representation and concept [Anschauung, Vorstellung, Begriff] – (a terminology that need not be adhered to) are only some of the possible types of distinction to be drawn. For the others the economic works of Marx provide abundant material for a clearly elaborated analysis of structures. However, even to outline a typology of these dialectical forms would be well beyond the scope of this study.

Still more important than these systematic distinctions is the fact that even the objects in the very centre of the dialectical process can only slough off their reified form after a laborious process. A process in which the seizure of power by the proletariat and even the organisation of the state and the economy on socialist lines are only stages. They are, of course, extremely important stages, but they do not mean that the ultimate objective has been achieved. And it even appears as if the decisive crisis-period of capitalism may be characterised by the tendency to intensify reification, to bring it to a head. Roughly in the sense in which Lassalle wrote to Marx: “Hegel used to say in his old age that directly before the emergence of something qualitatively new, the old state of affairs gathers itself up into its original, purely general, essence, into its simple totality, transcending and absorbing back into itself all those marked differences and peculiarities which it evinced when it was still viable.”[74] On the other hand, Bukharin, too, is right when he observes that in the age of the dissolution of capitalism, the fetishistic categories collapse and it becomes necessary to have recourse to the ‘natural form’ underlying them.[75] The contradiction between these two views is, however, only apparent. For the contradiction has two aspects: on the one hand, there is the increasing undermining of the forms of reification – one might describe it as the cracking of the crust because of the inner emptiness – their growing inability to do justice to the phenomena, even as isolated phenomena, even as the objects of reflection and calculation. On the other hand, we find the quantitative increase of the forms of reification, their empty extension to cover the whole surface of manifest phenomena. And the fact that these two aspects together are in conflict provides the key signature to the decline of bourgeois society.

As the antagonism becomes more acute two possibilities open up for the proletariat. It is given the opportunity to substitute its own positive contents for the emptied and bursting husks. But also it is exposed to the danger that for a time at least it might adapt itself ideologically to conform to these, the emptiest and most decadent forms of bourgeois culture.

History is at its least automatic when it is the consciousness of the proletariat that is at issue. The truth that the old intuitive, mechanistic materialism could not grasp turns out to be doubly true for the proletariat, namely that it can be transformed and liberated only by its own actions, and that “the educator must himself be educated.” The objective economic evolution could do no more than create the position of the proletariat in the production process. It was this position that determined its point of view. But the objective evolution could only give the proletariat the opportunity and the necessity to change society. Any transformation can only come about as the product of the – free – action of the proletariat itself.


51. Modern pragmatism provides a model illustration of this.

52. Nachlass II (The Holy Family, chap. 8), p. 304.

53. Nachlass I, p. 384. (Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right in Bottomore, Early Writings, p. 43.) The italics are mine.

54. On this point, see Max Weber’s essays in Vol. I of his Sociology of Religion. Whether we accept his causal interpretation or not is irrelevant to a judgement of his factual material. On the connection between Calvinism and capitalism, see also Engels’ remarks in Ober historischen Materialismus, Neue Zeit XI, 1. p. 43. The same structure of ethics and existence is still active in the Kantian system. Cf. e.g. the passage in the Critique of Practical Reason, p. 120, which sounds wholly in line with Franklin’s acquisitive Calvinist ethics. An analysis of the profound similarities would lead us too far away from our theme.

55. Thomas Münzer, pp. 73 et seq.

56. Werke III, pp. 37-8. Except that there is also an echo of the nostalgia – here of no importance – for natural social formations. Cf. Hegel’s methodologically correct negative criticisms in Glauben und Wissen, Werke I, pp. 105 et seq. His positive conclusions, of course, amount to much the same thing.

57. Lassalle, Werke, Cassirer Verlag, V, pp. 275-6. The extent to which Lassalle, by exalting a notion of the state founded in natural law, moves on to the terrain of the bourgeoisie, can be seen not only in the development of particular theories of natural law that have deduced the impropriety of every organised movement of the proletariat from the very idea of ‘freedom’ and the ‘dignity of man’. (Cf. e.g. Max Weber, Wirkschaft und Gesellschaft, p. 497, on American natural law.) But also C. Hugo, the cynical founder of the historical school of law arrives at a similar theoretical construction – though he does so in order to prove the opposite of Lassalle – viz. the view that it is possible to devise certain rights that transform men into a commodity without negating their ‘human dignity’ in other spheres. Naturrecht, § 144.

58. Cf. the essay “Class Consciousness.”

59. These views can be found in an undiluted form in Kautsky’s latest programmatic statement. One need not go beyond the rigid, mechanical separation of politics and economics to see that he is treading the same mistaken path as Lassalle. His conception of democracy is too familiar to require a fresh analysis here. And as for his economic fatalism, it is symptomatic that even where Kautsky admits that it is impossible to make concrete predictions about the economic phenomenon of crises it remains self-evident for him that the course of events will unfold according to the laws of the capitalist economy, p. 57.

60. Lenin’s achievement is that he rediscovered this side of Marxism that points the way to an understanding of its practical core. His constantly reiterated warning to seize the ‘next link’ in the chain with all one’s might, that link on which the fate of the totality depends in that one moment, his dismissal of all utopian demands, i.e. his ‘relativism’ and his ‘Realpolitik’: all these things are nothing less than the practical realisation of the young Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach.

61. It must now be self-evident that totality is a problem of category and in particular a problem of revolutionary action. It is obvious that we cannot regard a method as authentically totalising if it deals with ‘all problems’ in a substantive manner (which is, of course, an impossibility) while remaining contemplative. This is to be referred above all to the social-democratic treatment of history in which a plethora of material is designed constantly to divert attention from social action.

62. Cf. the essay “Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation.”

63. Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, S.W. II, p. 350.

64. Hegel, Werke XI, p. 160.

65. This rejection of the metaphysical import of bourgeois materialism does not affect our historical evaluation of it: it was the ideological form of the bourgeois revolution, and as such it remains of practical relevance as long as the bourgeois revolution remains relevant (including its relevance as an aspect of the proletarian revolution). On this point, see my essays on “Moleschott,” “Feuerbach” and “Atheism” in the Rote Fahne, Berlin; and above all Lenin’s comprehensive essay “Under the Banner of Marxism,” The Communist International, 1922, No. 21.

66. Lask has very logically introduced a distinction between an antecedent and subsequent region [‘vorbildlich’ and ‘nachbildlich’] (Die Lehre vom Urteil.) This does indeed enable him to eliminate pure Platonism, the reflective duality of idea and reality – in the spirit of criticism – but it then experiences a logical resurrection.

67. Purely logical and systematic studies simply refer to the historical point at which we find ourselves: they signify our temporary inability to grasp and represent the totality of categoric problems as the problems of a historical reality in the process of revolutionising itself.

68. Cf. on this point Hegel’s Phenomenology, especially Werke II, pp. 73 et seq., where this problem receives its profoundest analysis. See also Ernst Bloch’s theory of the “opacity of the lived moment” and his theory of “knowledge that has not yet become conscious.”

69. Hegel, Werke XII, p. 207.

70. On the relationship between a theory of praxis to a practical theory, see the interesting essay by Josef Révai in Kommunismus 1, Nos. 46-9, “The Problem of Tactics,” even though I am not in agreement with all his conclusions.

71. Encyclopädie, §16.

72. Ibid., § 192.

73. Hegel, Werke XIII, pp. 299 et seq.

74. Letter dated 12 December, 1851. Ed. G. Mayer, p. 41.

75. Bukharin, Ökonomie der Transformationsperiode, pp. 50-1.