Beneath the surface of things

October 16, 2012

Ben Silverman looks at one of Georg Lukács' most important contributions to Marxism.

SOCIALISTS ARE often accused of being unjustly boastful of their claim that Marxism is a "science," rather than a set of ideas that just represent a subjective point of view.

Science is viewed as being objective and a matter of facts and truth--the closest we can come to an understanding of what truly exists. To compare Marxism as a political theory to science is seen as the height of arrogance, especially in this post-modernist world of competing subjective "narratives."

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

The goal here, however, isn't to renounce the search for truth as the post-modernists do, but to root the truth in the concrete context of a given society. So the "scientific" part of scientific socialism comes from two main interrelated places--how we understand society and how we reach this understanding.

Georg Lukács
Georg Lukács (Horst Sturm)

This method of understanding is similar to the scientific method of experimentation, in which ideas or hypotheses are tested against reality to see how correct they are, and thus build up our understanding. This process of fusing theory with practice, in which the two are constantly acting back and refining each other, is called, in Marxist terminology, "praxis"--except here the object of experimentation is class society and the class struggle.

As John Rees points out in The Algebra of Revolution:

[Marxism's] validity must be proven by its superior explanatory power--more internally coherent, more widely applicable, capable of greater empirical verification--in comparison with its competitors. Indeed, this is a condition...of it being "proved in practice."

In other words, the "proof is in the pudding," as they say.

But this is just the starting point for the Marxist method. Socialism only becomes a "science" when it sets the theoretical goal of understanding the totality of the system's aspects and its inner workings--as a means to change it.

Here's where Frederick Engels puts the dividing line between utopian and scientific socialism. "The socialism of earlier days [that is the Utopians] certainly criticized the existing capitalistic mode of production and its consequences," wrote Engels in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. "But it could not explain them, and, therefore, could not get the mastery of them."

To change the world, we have to understand it, and that combined mission is the goal that Marxism sets for itself theoretically. This deeper analysis of the capitalist system is what defines Marxism. As Engels wrote, "These two great discoveries, the materialistic conception of history and the revelation of the secret of capitalistic production through surplus value, we owe to Marx. With these discoveries, socialism became a science."

But to get to that deeper structural understanding of the inner workings of capitalism also requires a "scientific" method of sorts. To better understand that method, we can look to the contributions of Hugarian Marxist Georg Lukács.

LUKÁCS JOINED the fledging Hungarian Communist Party in 1918 and was part of the government and a commissar in its Red Army during the brief existence of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. His experiences during the rise and quick fall of the Hungarian Revolution developed Lukács as a thinker.

Prior to his capitulation to Stalinism in the 1930s (he would vacillate back and forth from this position, joining in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and then reversing this after its defeat), his early works--notably Lenin and History and Class Consciousness---stand out as some of the most original pieces of thought in the Marxist pantheon.

There are many exceptional observations and ideas in these works by Lukács, but I want to focus on one idea in particular. As he wrote in History and Class Consciousness:

If the facts are to be understood, this distinction between their real existence and their inner core must be grasped clearly and precisely. This distinction is the first premise of a truly scientific study which, in Marx's words, "would be superfluous if the outward appearance of things coincided with their essence." Thus we must detach the phenomena from the form in which they are immediately given and discover the intervening links which connect them to their core, their essence...

This twofold character, the simultaneous recognition and transcendence of immediate appearances, is precisely the dialectical nexus.

Essentially, what he's saying is that you can't take everything at face value. An analysis that bases itself purely on the surface appearance of something is very likely missing out on a real understanding of what that thing is--there's a driving process underneath the surface of many phenomena that's not immediately apparent.

In science, we can take the example of the Sun. It appears as if the Sun rotates about the Earth, and the Earth is the center of the solar system. But through a more careful investigation of the Sun and the other planets' path across the sky, we learn that the Sun is the center of the solar system.

Take another example. If we look at most physical objects--chairs, books or shoes--it would appear that they are perfectly solid. But we know through physics that matter is primarily made up of the empty space between tiny particles.

Lukács isn't just rejecting the surface appearance of reality in favor of the essence at the core of things. Rather, he's seeing that there is truth in the appearance, and that the appearance directly flows from its relationship with the core essence.

So the appearance of the Sun orbiting the Earth stems from the objective essence of planetary orbits and the Earth's rotation. Or better yet, the appearance of solid objects is caused by the electrical magnetic forces of interlocking and repelling particles that give objects structure despite being the mostly empty space between the particles.

WE CAN see the implication of these ideas better when we look at the contradictory nature of capitalistic society. On the surface, capitalism looks, or is made to look, fair. You go to an employer, and in exchange for your work, the employer pays you wages. This appears to be a fair contract, freely engaged in by two adults, but this appearance, while partially true, hides the real essence of what's happening.

You have to work because you have bills to pay and student loans to pay back, and you need to eat. You might be able to choose your employer (though there are much fewer choices during a recession), but you have to work for someone or you will starve. And once you (hopefully) get that job, the essence of the transaction is anything but "fair."

From the perspective of the boss, they won't employ you unless they know they can get a good return on their investment--that they can extract more from you more than they are paying you. No matter where you work, who you work for or what you do, you will never be paid back the equivalent of what you produced for that company. That's what the appearance of free wage labor hides--the essence of exploitation.

Take the American judicial system. It also appears to be fair--we are all supposed to be equal before the law. But this formalistic equality conceals a system that is fundamentally oppressive in reality. Racial profiling, stop-and-frisk, mandatory minimum sentencing laws, three-strike laws and the entire war on drugs all help build a system that Michelle Alexander calls the "New Jim Crow."

Millions of poor people, and especially poor people of color, are thrown in jail for nonviolent drug charges, while the real criminals, such as those who caused the financial collapse, the BP oil spill or used torture in the so-called "war on terror," walk free. The system is, to paraphrase the socialist Eugene Debs, like a net that can only catch minnows while letting the sharks and whales slip free.

To understand something like capitalism, we must get to the heart of it and see the essence of the process and how that process acts on and through all aspects of it while being acted back upon in return.

Lukács writes in Lenin:

It may be the sacred duty of every genuine Marxist to face the facts squarely and without illusions, but for every genuine Marxist, there is always a reality more real and therefore more important than isolated facts and tendencies--namely, the reality of the total process, the totality of social development.

And it is only with that clarity earned through serious analysis of the system as a whole that we can effectively act to change it.

Further Reading

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