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International Socialism, Winter 2000


Mark O’Brien

A comment on Tailism and the Dialectic


From International Socialism 2:89, Winter 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Jim Wolfreys gives a clear and succinct account of Tailism and the Dialectic, Luckács’s recently discovered defence of History and Class Consciousness in International Socialism 86. However, there is a contradiction in one important area between the two works. This is Lukács’s discussion of mediation – the way in which human beings conceptualise the world and categorise it into a rational framework of thought. More specifically there is an ambiguity over the question of the possibility of an immediate – that is unconceptualised – relationship between humanity and the world as well as the place that such an idea has in Lukács’s account of consciousness. This is fundamental to what Lukács argues both about the relationship between human beings and nature, and between labour and consciousness. Lukács makes clear the importance he attaches to this question in his rebuttal of the attacks on Rudas and Deborin:

… do people stand in an immediate relationship to nature, or is this metabolic interchange with nature mediated socially? This is the actual core of my controversy with comrades Deborin and Rudas. [1]

At one point Lukács appears to allow for such an unmediated relationship with nature as an occasional possibility in the development of science. [2] But a short time later he returns to the question of immediacy in a very different way. In a striking passage Lukács answers his question with an emphatic rejection of the possibility of an unmediated relationship to nature:

… what my critics call my agnosticism is nothing other than my denial that there is a socially unmediated, ie an immediate, relationship of humans to nature in the present stage of social development – self evidently I reject getting into disputes over utopian future possibilities. Therefore I am of the opinion that our knowledge of nature is socially mediated, because its material foundation is socially mediated; and so I remain true to the Marxian formulation of the method of historical materialism: it is social being that determines consciousness. How a dualism (a dualism of nature and society) is supposed to arise out of this conception is unfathomable for me. If one – as Deborin and Rudas quite obviously do – holds on to the possibility of an immediate relationship to nature, then according to this understanding the knowledge of nature and society develop alongside each other, independently from each other, dualistically. [3]

Lukács does not believe that immediate contact with the world is possible. It is not that Lukács sees consciousness as occupying a separate realm in the way that his opponents claim. Indeed later in the same passage he makes it clear that, for him, changes in thought are preceded by changes in the objective world – he wishes to locate the roots of consciousness in the material world. Time and again Lukács insists that there is a ‘real’ relationship between consciousness and nature, and that nature exists independently of and prior to human society. In fact it is a point that he labours. Lukács will not, however, relate this ‘real’ relationship to the process of mediation. He aims to defend his materialism, having rejected the possibility of an immediate connection between consciousness and the real world. This is where the problem lies.

The reason that Lukács is so emphatic on this point is that he sees in Rudas’s and Deborin’s position a key philosophical underpinning to a reflectionist theory of consciousness in which ideas are the passive result of objective reality. This way of looking at things belonged to the tradition of the Second International and the reformist parties which capitulated so catastrophically to war nationalism. For them, the development of capitalism as a system and the economic position of the working class would automatically produce a dominant socialist consciousness and be reflected in the returning of more and more socialist deputies to parliament. Kautsky was the great theorist of this tradition before the war. In Russia too Plekhanov had been a key theorist of these ideas. Lenin also, in Materialism and Empirico-criticism and before he re-worked his own philosophical thinking in the wake of the collapse of the Second International parties, put forward a reflectionist position to explain the process of conceptualisation in which concepts ‘mirror’ the objects which form their content. Since a major theme in both works is the re-establishment of the subject (the cognitive self, the revolutionary party, the proletariat, the individual in history, the revolutionary in the workplace, etc.) as an active element, both as an agent of history and in the production of knowledge this area becomes a key point of departure. For Lukács, to argue that an unmediated relationship between humanity and the world can exist is the same as saying that the objective world produces ideas in an otherwise passive subject. However, this does not follow.

Lukács on nature and consciousness

Before we explore this point and its consequences further it is worth looking at what Lukács actually says about the relationship between consciousness and nature. In History and Class Consciousness Lukács puts his position as follows:

Nature is a societal category. That is to say, whatever is held to be natural at any given stage of social development, however this nature is related to man and whatever form his involvement with it takes, i.e. nature’s form, its content, its range and its objectivity are all socially conditioned. [4]

For Lukács’s critics this was evidence of his having a dualistic understanding of things. If nature could only be approached through ideas that were specific to a particular historical epoch and social position, then nature could not be understood objectively as it really is. They accused Lukács of holding to a philosophical position which had been propounded with great rigour by the late 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant. This was a dualist position in which the world as it really is – independent of thought – was inaccessible to understanding and became the mysterious ‘thing in itself’ which transcended reality as we made sense of it. Nature, in this philosophy, could only be known as ‘for us’ and never ‘in itself’.

This was a travesty of what Lukács was arguing, and was based on a profoundly mistaken interpretation of History and Class Consciousness. To say that ‘nature is a social category’ means two things that are relevant to this discussion. Firstly, it is simply to point out that our relationship with nature is mediated through industry, that is labour as it is socially organised. We do not experience nature as isolated individuals, but as part of society, and as part of a particular society in which social labour is organised in a particular way. Everything from manufacture – what Lukács calls the ‘exchange of matter’ – through to our relationship with our own bodies (our health, our appetites, for example) is mediated via social categories in a concrete – that is a specific – historical form. Far from representing a ‘subjectivism’ as argued by Lukács’s attackers, this is a very objective way of looking at the question. Society, after all, is an objective thing.

The second sense in which Lukács says that nature is social is at first glance more problematic, and on a superficial reading could be taken to represent a relativist understanding of nature and especially of our knowledge of nature, that is, science. Lukács says that the notions through which we interpret the world, the actual ideas through which we approach nature, are historically determined. Nature here is social in an epistemological sense, that is, in terms of the way in which we come to know the world. But what Lukács stresses throughout History and Class Consciousness and Tailism and the Dialectic is the fundamentally contradictory character of thought. The ideological forms which arise in any given society may certainly distort and even mystify reality. However, they may also allow for objective insights into nature. Ideology both conceals and reveals reality to different degrees. The way in which society and nature appear to human beings in a particular period of history may with hindsight have been wrong. However, the appearance of things is also objective in the sense that it is the product of the interaction between our senses and the real world. Even an ‘untrue’ idea can reveal something that is true about the world and may contain insights that will be later incorporated into stronger theories. But Lukács is saying more than this. As he puts it:

The dialectical conception of knowledge as a process does not only include the possibility that in the course of history we get to know new contents, new objects, that we have not known until now. It also means that new contents can emerge, which can be understood only with the aid of principles of knowledge that are just newly available. We are aware that at this very moment we know only one part of infinite objective reality (and that part quite certainly is known only partially correctly). But understanding the process of knowledge dialectically, as a process, we must also understand this process, as at the same time, part of the objective social process of development. That is to say, we must understand that the what, the how, the how far, etc., of our knowledge is determined by the stage of development of the objective process of development of society. In so far as we grasp the dialectical character of knowledge, we understand it simultaneously as a historical process. [5]

In other words the degree to which science can obtain a greater and greater approximation to the truth is a function of the level of productive development within any given society. Industry and science are both mutually reinforcing and mutually limiting. In terms of technology this is easy to grasp. But it is true conceptually as well. The greater the productive capacity of any given society, the greater is its ability to see beneath the surface of society and of nature. The degree to which industry is able to harness the inner essence of nature, of the object, is a correlate of the degree to which science can conceptualise, can mediate that essence. The relationship between industry and the form of labour in society is objectively related to the ability of that society to correctly theorise nature. It is in this sense that Lukács insists upon the status of nature as a social category and also on the superior nature of science produced under capitalism compared to that produced in pre-capitalist societies. For Lukács, the more total the level of conceptualisation, the more able science is to incorporate the insights and theories produced by previous societies, and the more able it is to explain the social roots of theorisation. This ability to expose the social roots of science does not render science subjective. Rather it enables us to achieve a more complete understanding of science – and of historical materialism itself – as a product of human history.

Lukács on levels of mediation

Lukács draws a distinction between what he terms the ‘higher’ categories and the ‘simpler’ categories of mediation. The higher categories are more structured, more concrete and more historically specific. The simpler categories are much more general. So, for instance, whereas the appearance of the dominance of exchange value with the rise of capitalism would be considered a higher category, the production of use value both underlies this and precedes it as a simpler category. Similarly the form of exploitation that is unique to capitalism must be understood in terms of the highly theorised, that is mediated, terms that we see in Capital, whilst ‘labour’ is a much more abstract term which belongs to every human society and which in this sense is a simpler notion. Similar examples can be drawn from the natural sciences in terms of the relationship between theory and observation.

Crucially, for Lukács, it is the higher categories which are more determining in terms of the process of knowledge and of the formation of class consciousness. This means that even very general notions about human society, let us say the fact of human sexuality, must be understood in terms of the concrete and mediated form they take in a particular society. Most importantly in Lukács’s account the highly integrated categories of historical materialism – made possible only with the rise of capitalism – allow us to understand the most basic truths of the human condition and thereby to understanding every previous historical epoch. This is true also, as we have seen, in terms of understanding the social foundations of the natural sciences. As Lukács puts it:

… the so called simple categories are not trans-historical elements of the system, but are just as much products of historical development as the concrete totalities to which they belong ... therefore simple categories are correctly grasped from higher, more complicated, more concrete ones.

The category becomes properly dialectical only in the context of the dialectical totality, which can be achieved – mentally – only through the dialectical mediation of the ‘simple’ categories with the concrete ‘higher’ ones. [6]

But is it always the case that the more mediated forms of consciousness are more determining than the less mediated? Can it not also be true that the most highly developed forms of thought can be distorting or simply wrong? In the field of science anomalies – observations which cannot be integrated into established theories – occur, which introduce a tension within those theories and which may eventually lead to their replacement with new theories. The revolutions in thought that characterise historic scientific breakthroughs are precipitated by observations of nature that fall outside existing conceptualisations of the world. In 1886 the physicists Michelson and Morley measured the speed of light and found that it was the same when the Earth was moving towards the sun as when it was moving away from the sun. This could only be explained by inferring a contraction of space or an inflation of time, or both. These were fundamental notions that could not be integrated or mediated with Newtonian physics. Before Fitzgerald and Lorentz in 1890 proposed the contraction of objects moving close to the speed of light, and before Einstein had published his two 1905 papers on the special theory of relativity which could explain these observations, they remained stubbornly unmediated.

Within the Marxist tradition history has presented us with realities which have required reworkings of previously held notions. The collapse of the Second International parties in the face of national chauvinism in 1914, the long post-war economic boom, the deflection of Third World revolution into nationalism, and the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy are examples that spring easily to mind. The strength of Marxism in fact, and the characteristic which defines its scientific kernel, is its sensitivity to real and problematic events, and its ability to apprehend them and apply its principles creatively. Not to acknowledge this would be to adopt the sectarian notion of Marxism as a self enclosed body of thought. In the natural sciences theory and observation, and in Marxism theory and practice continuously interact. The elements do not exist in a static and hierarchical relationship to one another. The relative weight of the ‘higher’, more theorised categories and the ‘simpler’, less theorised categories is a matter of real history and not one of a priori assertion.

But the world is not only mediated in cognition. It is also, as Lukács emphasises so strongly, historically mediated. The categories which mediate reality are specific to each historical epoch. Lukács rules out of court ‘eternal’ notions of human experience in which bourgeois morality is ‘reified’ and transposed onto the past and, in the process, used to sanctify the values of capitalist society. However, he also rejects ‘trans-historical’ human experience. Lukács quotes Marx in relation to this point:

Hunger is hunger; but the hunger that is satisfied by cooked meat eaten with knife and fork differs from the hunger that devours raw meat with the help of hands, nails and teeth. [7]

Now here we do see a clear consequence of the rejection of immediacy. Lukács rightly uses the above quotation to stress the fact that, for Marx, the meeting of human need and the relationship of humans with nature, indeed our knowledge of nature, is ‘determined by our social being’. However, in relation to the question of immediacy Lukács seems blind to the first part of his quote from Marx – ‘Hunger is hunger’. Humans have immediate needs which are invariant. If human experience were entirely historically mediated, there would be no underlying continuity between different epochs and Marx’s concept of ‘labour’ could never have been the key to understanding all other forms of society with their concrete historical mediations. And yet human beings – Homo sapiens sapiens – have been the same in body and brain for more than 100,000 years. This is the reason that Marxists do have an interest in areas such as anthropology, and this is why studying capitalism alone will not answer all of the questions we have about our condition. This is also why we can identify with human experience in very different epochs than our own and can be moved as much by Greek tragedy as by Shakespeare. It is why Marxists have a universal engagement with the entire world of human life. Quoting Marx, Lukács says as much himself in History and Class Consciousness:

Marx saw the problem clearly: ‘But the difficulty does not consist in realising that Greek art and epic are bound to social forms of development. The difficulty is that they still give us artistic pleasure and that, in a sense, they stand out as norms and as models that cannot be equalled.’

This stability in the value of art, the semblance of its nature as something wholly about history and society, rests upon the fact that in art we find above all a dialogue between man and nature. [8]

The question of the ‘immediate’

Lukács was not guilty of the crime of subjectivism. His argument points again and again towards reality not as the construction of cognition, but rather as the result of the interaction of objective reality and the active subject. But it is the nature of this interaction to which we must now turn. For Lukács, the relationship between subject and object in fact was not that of an interaction between two completely separate elements. Certainly subject and object were distinct – they were differentiated – but they also shared an underlying unity. An active process occurred which Lukács often refers to as the subject-object, within which an organic relationship exists resulting in consciousness. This notion was not Lukács’s discovery. It was the basic element of Hegel’s system, though, for Hegel, the process remained one of collective historical reason or a ‘world spirit’ expressing itself in different historical epochs with greater and greater self awareness. It had been Marx’s great breakthrough to locate this active subject-object process in labour – the means by which human beings work on and transform nature. In so doing humans develop consciousness which in turn feeds back through conceptualisation – crucially tool use and science – to enhance this process. At the most fundamental level the relationship between subject and object in Marx – in the process of labour – is both a direct and unmediated unity, and at one and the same time the cause and result of consciousness, of mediation. The immediate and the mediate are simultaneous moments in a dialectical reality. Lukács himself makes the point in History and Class Consciousness regarding the position of the labourer in capitalist society:

What is unmediated is the fact that, in the words of the Communist Manifesto, ‘these labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce’. And the fact that this commodity is able to become aware of its existence as a commodity does not suffice to eliminate the problem. For the unmediated consciousness of the commodity is, in conformity with the simple form in which it manifests itself, precisely an awareness of abstract isolation and of the merely abstract relationship – external to consciousness – to those factors that create it socially. I do not wish to enter here into a discussion of the conflict between the (immediate) interests of the individual and the (mediated) interests of the class that have been arrived at through experience and knowledge. [9]

The contradiction between the immediate status of the worker as a commodity and her mediated and conscious position as part of a class is at the very heart of Lukács’s analysis of working class consciousness. It seems extraordinary then that in so powerful a defence of his work Lukács throws out the notion of immediacy with such energy. For once the unmediated contact between the human subject and the world has been rejected, subject and object are indeed irredeemably thrown apart. Labour no longer has the centrality to consciousness that Marx descibed. We can no longer acknowledge the ultimate roots of consciousness in nature, and the world as it exists in itself – that of nature and of history and society – remains something beyond our comprehension. Lukács cannot really mean this since it wholly contradicts the entire project carried by the essays in History and Class Consciousness. Therefore one must conclude either that it is merely a careless formulation – very unlikely in so careful a thinker – or that in his desire to demolish the mechanical materialism of Rudas and Deborin by knocking away their reliance on an undialectical immediate reality he has fallen into an opposing one-sidedness that in fact leaves his position vulnerable to the charge of introducing a tendency towards idealism. ‘Throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ is a phrase that seems apt here.

The passage in question is short and yet it is not directly contradicted in any other part of the ‘defence’, and in so important a book it speaks loudly. To deal with the quandary it throws up we need to look at the question of how we can sensibly employ and defend a concept which is about our preconceptual relationship to the world. We can understand the category of non-mediation in two ways. Firstly, we can look at the process of consciousness itself. This means approaching the category of non-mediation from within our knowledge of the world as it exists ‘for us’ and by looking at the process of mediation itself. Secondly, we can step outside thought, albeit in a relative sense, that is we can adopt the perspective of the scientist. We can look ‘objectively’ at the relation between human consciousness and the physical world.

But first we will consider consciousness itself. This first approach to the question is the most problematic since we cannot, of course, know that which is totally unconceptualised. We can, however, infer it – perhaps we should say impute it – from what we can observe about how consciousness develops. It is not the case that our conscious apprehension of the world proceeds in a smooth and predictable manner. Our consciousness displays degrees of integration between the objects and events and their conceptualisation. As we have seen in science and in Marxist practice the world frequently presents us with examples of relative non-mediation. But in the same way that a notion of ‘truth’ is required before we can produce theories which approximate to the truth, so immediate contact with the world must be acknowledged as a theoretical limit to the degrees of mediation that we observe in our consciousness. The world is real and independent of us and therefore, as we engage with it, it challenges our thought. This is how we come to know it.

The second sense in which we can talk of immediate contact with the world is from the perspective of the detached observer looking on at the ways in which human beings interact with nature at the most elemental level. Neuroscientists concern themselves with the ways in which our senses and brains receive and process sensory data from the world. Child development studies illuminate our understanding of the fundamentals of cognition. Anthropologists speculate as scientifically as they can on the origins of human consciousness. In each case immediate contact with the world and the mediation of that world in thought are present as simultaneous and co-dependent moments.

Finally, Lukács is keen to stress the different order of dialectics in history and human consciousness from that in the natural world. For Rudas and Deborin, this was proof enough for the charge that Lukács had rejected the dialectical character of the natural world and in so doing had cut off human consciousness from reality. The charge of idealism here is easy to refute, and quote after quote from History and Class Consciousness can be used to ridicule the claim. However, it is not enough to simply state and re-state that consciousness is ultimately rooted in nature as though in so doing the matter will be settled. For Lukács to be philosophically consistent, in the same way in which he exhorts Engels to be over the question of the development of the natural sciences, he cannot do without the notion of immediacy. For the conscious mind, the process that is the result of the living interaction between the natural world and the body and brain, is connected immediately to nature in two ways – firstly, in terms of its origins in the pre-history of the brain and secondly in terms of the moment by moment dialectical flow between the senses and the world. The dialectics of the natural world and the dialectics of the mind are intimately connected, even though the fact of consciousness also means that they work differently.

The logic required to refute both the mechanical materialism of Rudas and Deborin, as well as the philosophical idealism of which they accuse Lukács, is that of re-establishing the centrality of the dialectical relationship of the mind to the natural world – of the subject to the object. This is Lukács’s project and the celebrated achievement of History and Class Consciousness. It makes Lukács’s book, as Žižek puts it, ‘one of the few authentic events in the history of Marxism’. But the question of immediacy and its relation to mediation, as well as that of the relationship between more and less mediated categories, is fundamental to seeing consciousness both as the product of nature and as an active element in the historical process. Both the conscious subject – which Lukács rightly re-asserts in the face of dead ‘objective’ materialism – and the material world, are ever present in the constantly shifting dialectic between them. Immediate reality is a part of the process of consciousness and can be the dominant factor. There are sections of History and Class Consciousness where Lukács seems to acknowledge this. Yet in Tailism and the Dialectic the possibility of the immediate is dismissed and the ‘simpler’ categories are relegated beneath the ‘higher’. The question of whether this is the result of polemical excess or a deeper logical flaw is beyond the present discussion. The fact remains, however, that in Tailism and the Dialectic we need to clarify a fundamental issue which if left unchecked brings dialectical materialism to its knees.


1. G. Lukács, A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic (London 2000), p. 96.

2. Ibid., p. 96.

3. Ibid., p. 106.

4. G. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness (London 1983), p. 234.

5. G. Lukács, Tailism and the Dialectic, op. cit., pp. 102–103.

6. Ibid., pp. 112–113.

7. Ibid., p. 99.

8. G. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, op. cit., p. 235.

9. Ibid., p. 173.

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