Monday, November 2, 2009

Class Consciousness v Class Feelings

by Gary Tedman

I must admit to being uncomfortable with the concepts that surround the idea of 'class consciousness', especially the concepts of praxis, reification, and hegemony (incidentally, none of these are to be found in Marx and Engels). Not least problematic for me is the implied insult (to workers) in the notion that some people are unconscious of what they should be conscious of, and that there is a 'real' and a 'false' consciousness.

To Lukács, each social class has a determined class consciousness which it can attain. Class consciousness, as described in his 'History and Class Consciousness' (1923), is opposed to any psychological understanding of consciousness, which forms the basis of individual or group psychology (i.e. Freud). Although rightly opposing the liberal conception of consciousness as the foundation of individual freedom and so the social contract, Lukacs goes to the other extreme and is dialectically Hegelian in his idea of a social totality and essence. For Lukács, "ideology" or "false consciousness" is really a projection of the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie, which functions to prevent the working class from gaining a true consciousness of its position; ideology to him determines the structure of knowledge itself.

Alternatively I believe that all consciousness can be regarded as 'real consciousness'. While it is obviously true that a person can have incorrect or wrong ideas, can be under illusions, this cannot really be a question of their consciousness, as such, being real or false, but just a question of its 'orientation', so to speak.

In any case, in the end there are reasons (material influences) that lead to a person being under the spell of an illusion about reality (for example the inversions and distortions generated by actual lived experience of the capitalist economy), so it is not a question, even, of being fooled by the ideology of the ruling class (not that Georg is this unsubtle). And often these same people still have their hearts in the right place, while I have noticed that those who talk a lot about 'raising consciousness' can be prone to wavering when the chips are down, mainly because their feelings are pointing in another direction.

The class bond, I would say, is always more a question of feeling than consciousness, and I think if you look for feelings you find a different landscape than if you expect to see evidence of 'consciousness' or not. The latter notion is after all very steeped in Idealist philosophy, which of course judges everything from the point of view of Ideas and 'consciousness'.

Nonetheless Lukacs and Gramsci's ideas about the importance of ideology and culture and its relative autonomy are certainly important (though I think Althusser's route with this is more productive, though Althusser as a person presents problems). But I maintain this is also an aesthetic struggle, not one of 'consciousness' especially.

It seems to me that the more Lukacs leans into a Kantian inspired dialectical Idealism in his Marxist philosophy, the more we find he defends the orthodox Marxist position on art (literary and visual), i.e. realism. It is as if he wishes to shore-up his tendency to a philosophical idealism contra Marx's materialism with overt shows of support for Marxism's most 'real' thesis. Wikipedia:

"It is clear that Lukacs regards the representation of reality as art’s chief purpose—in this he is perhaps not in disagreement with the modernists—but he maintains that “If a writer strives to represent reality as it truly is, i.e. if he is an authentic realist, then the question of totality plays a decisive role.” “True realists” demonstrate the importance of the social context, and since the unmasking of this objective totality is a crucial element in Lukacs’ Marxist ideology, he privileges their authorial approach."

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What Marxist would disagree with Lukacs on this? But the trouble is the objective totality that he understands is not in fact a complete one, which it needs to be to really perform the function he ascribes to it.

"Lukacs explains that good realists, such as Thomas Mann, create a contrast between the consciousnesses of their characters (appearance) and a reality independent of them (essence). According to Lukacs, Mann succeeds because he creates this contrast, conversely, modernist writers fail because they portray reality only as it appears to themselves and their characters—subjectively—and “fail to pierce the surface” of these immediate, subjective experiences “to discover the underlying essence, i.e. the real factors that relate their experiences to the hidden social forces that produce them.”…"

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This notion of an underlying essence/totality of capitalist society is a problem, because capitalism is not necessarily a totality or at least is not a unified totality, it is more of a chaotic whole which often comes into conflict with itself (contradiction). This fact means that a wide variety of literary techniques are and will be needed and can be justified to reveal the distinctions and differences between the psychology of a character (say, in a literary work) and the broad social dimensions. After all, the capitalist economic relations are only conventions, they are not natural, and so calling them an 'essence' is itself slightly mystifying about these relations.

Lukacs is right to be suspicious of subjective immediacy, for sure, but the alternative that he offers also has flaws that he fails to see or acknowledge. In this sense, realist art is only one type of art from one specific period of human history, we can understand and appreciate non-realist art from other (non-western) cultures and histories, yet they seem to be outside or excluded from Lukacs' scope: it is also a misnomer, 'realism' is not real (in the sense of materialism) but also a social convention, that of perspective, which indeed has become so common and well-understood that it seems natural to us: but it is not. So two aspects become over-validated and essentialized by Lukacs: the conventions of economic relations and the conventions of pictorial space (narrative realism in the novel).

I like Maxim Gorky's novels (Lukacs uses Gorky as a good realist example) for sure, but I do not rate them as highly as Dostoyevsky, Gogol, or Turgenev, or even Kafka. Gorky, like Zola, tends not to be able to provide a deep psychology for his characters, they seem a bit one dimensional in comparison, and while, like Zola, Gorky is able to describe things and situations very well so that we feel them, almost as well as Lawrence enables you to do, aesthetically, the inner life is missing the contradictions that should be present because of the conflictual circumstances, the 'crazy' contradictions of life in capitalist society. And unlike Lawrence, the inner psychology (or pathology) of the characters is not usually brought out by other alternative means such as in the contrast of this psychology with the natural (non-conventional) physical environment.

In short, Lukacs misses what I have termed the aesthetic level of practice, and his notion of ideological wholeness therefore jumps from the base to the superstructure and back again too quickly and suddenly to be able to capture these subtleties which nevertheless I think he wants to capture and save for us.

This is all mainly because Lukacs misunderstands Marx's initial concept of alienation as a spiritual rather than material-affective (Freudian, perhaps) one. The insistence on an autonomous struggle for class consciousness then in the end works out as yet another call (vulgar materialist Economism notwithstanding) for the supremacy of spirit over matter, and mysticism over science. As if the proletariat had only to grasp dialectical materialism in their consciousness (with the help of some specially 'conscious' people) and all would be solved. Lukacs tries very hard to escape Hegel's orbit, but does not quite succeed.