Lukacs and Adorno


Lucien Goldmann once remarked that Heidegger’s magnum opus was in part reply and polemic against György Lukács’ History and Class consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (1923). Cemented now as a founding work of the ‘tradition’ of ‘Western Marxism’[1], Lukács’ most original and ground breaking essay ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’ revitalised interest in using Marxian categories for analysing and understanding social phenomena comprising modern experience. Lukács’ subsequent work in aesthetics and literary criticism is deeply informed by his work History and Class Consciousness[2]; as one of the major lifelong preoccupations Lukács has with art and indeed politics is working out a socialist practice able to transform existing social conditions and ultimately society into a more humane one[3], informed and contributed by all facets of social life. This can be seen when Lukács writes about the Popular Front as not founding a ‘popular culture’ but ‘it means finding the guidelines and slogans which can emerge out of this life of the people and rouse progressive forces to new, politically effective activity’[4]. So, art and literature are afforded a privileged position in the struggle for not only a life free from exploitation, inequality, hunger and alienation but a new way of seeing, feeling and perception–collective empowerment. To understand the challenges ahead of such a momentous social struggle is to grasp and thoroughly comprehend the existing problems that yield overcoming, and therefore this will seat literature’s position in such a radical programme of political action.

Lukács in ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’ asserts that if one centralises the commodity-structure in a sociological analysis of that society, only then, will it’s true objective and subjective nature fully emerge.[5] Tracing Marx’s development in Das Kapital of the transition from merchants dictating the trading value of goods and capital, to modern capitalism’s greater dependency on exchangeable commodities, Lukács argues that this evolution to the dominance of commodities has ‘become the universal category of society as a whole’.[6] The implications are profound. For commodities to have reached such prestige in the capitalist markets of production and distribution was really only secured by the industrial revolution, the introduction of factories and beginning of rationalised labour.  Here, ‘rationalisation’ is a term inherited from Max Weber a hugely influential Prussian Sociologist. Which refers to how the seeming necessity arises–with the increased technological methods of production in capitalism–to quantify human labour into formal and calculable standards, for the purely economic interests of maximum efficiency. The processes of work, according to both Lukács and Marx, destroys a sense of ‘organic unity’ the labourer previously had with his product for example, found in the handicraft cooperative work of guilds, by the increasing specialisation of manufacturing procedures. What now follows is that the rationalised and objectified division of labour–here Lukács’ insight begins to surface–not only fragments the working process of its workers but the worker itself; his experience as a human being, his humanity and consciousness.

The atomisation of the worker, on another level occurs now, for Lukács when, this entire process of labour is assumed as natural; ‘already pre-existing’, the consciousness of the labourer is programmed more and more into forms which complement the law-like structure and operations of the commodities he makes. Lukács names this way of interacting with social reality as a contemplative stance; one that resigns from the interactive, energetic and critical. This phenomena is labelled as Reification, when the qualitatively unique nature of humankind’s consciousness is reduced to mechanical, ossified and formalistic ways of seeing: ‘it reduces space and time to a common denominator’[7]. Being no less an abstraction mimicking a pathological malady of things insofar as investing them with the ‘mirage of a libidinal materiality’[8]–commodities are also fetishised with a sexual energy.

Humans appear as objects, alongside the commodities they produce; as now the objects of labour, their life processes, their idiosyncrasies and personality, as a result, become removed and alien. Nothing is free from this universal objectification ‘the fate of the worker becomes the fate of society as a whole’[9]. Meaning, that the now universal impact of the commodity penetrates all social actors, all social relations, all social activities (philosophy, science, art and civil institutions) and no longer remains an effect isolated to the marketplace; as the market’s laws of exchange underpins the development of capitalist enterprise and therefore society as a whole.

This commentary so far, on the development of Lukács’ notion of reification, will tremendously sharpen the dilemma of the realist novel (A chief concern for Lukács himself) in transforming social reality–how to overcome reification. Furthermore, why does Lukács privilege the ‘realist novel’ (authors such as the Mann brothers Thomas and Heinrich, Balzac, Dickens and Tolstoy) over other forms of artistic expression such as poetry and drama?[10]

Here as Jameson argues, the use of Realism obfuscates underlying tensions and distinctions between aesthetics, epistemology and history[11]. What is concealed in the concept of realism is shifting terrain of oppositions and complexes: for example, a description of a street eager to be understood as a social truth will necessarily lead to ‘ideology’; canons of the ideal, beauty and ugliness will be drawn in if one focuses too narrowly upon the novels poetics; and if that description of the ‘street’ is to be taken as historical and of its time, the ineffable historiographical dilemmas of history as a science or art, can the ontological quality of the past even be re-presented? Seemingly thus, the whole ‘literariness’ of this initial project is marginalised. But this is a necessary and essential process of understanding, a dialectical approach. One derived from G.W.F Hegel’s dialectical thinking concerning consciousness, altered in Karl Marx’s analysis of German Idealism and Economic theory[12], and in Lukács himself altered and transformed again with his theory of praxis. Underpinning the use of dialectics as a method for understanding, is essentially its corresponding notion of Totality, which as we shall see is intimately tied up with Lukács’ account of the realist novel: ‘If a writer strives to represent reality as it truly is…then the question of totality plays a decisive role.’[13]

In The Ideology of Modernism Lukács formidably attacks the avant-garde novel from several interlinking positions. A moral responsibility on behalf of the writer; the cognitive value of modernist techniques such as stream of consciousness etc.; and, an urgent need for reflecting the objective structures of society. This cluster of points (ethical, epistemological and political) is underscored by another, or rather, dominating theme unifying them all, the writer’s commitment to emancipation, in Lukács words, finding the identical subject-object of history.

The structure of the novel, Lukács stresses, is one determined by the historical socio-economic conditions of society and it’s author is granted the agency to articulate how these determinations are represented in the interaction between the protagonist and plot. Invoking Aristotle’s definition of man as a zoonpolikiton (a social animal), Lukács charges that at the heart of the protagonists engagement with the outside world, has unwittingly universalised the reified, solitary and cosmic pessimism of Heideggerian existentialism, thus eliminating any realisable liberated reality materialising: the world is reduced to a purely defeated subjectivism. Therefore, Lukács claims that modernism is essentially an ideology conditioned intro retreating from the concrete potentiality of man into the abstract realm of alienation. Realism, on the other hand, includes the surface reality of alienated humankind but wishes to recollect the entirety network of relations, and its constitutive laws[14],  which produce the historical circumstances to begin with. Content seizes form. Taken from Hegel’s critique of empiricism, the immediacy of felt alienation of man, loss and homelessness characteristic of modernity[15], appears to be the firmest and most veritable truth. However, as Hegel showed with consciousness such immediacy, ‘sense-certainity’[16], merely shows it exists, and fails to recognise it’s constituted basis and connexion with reality as a whole, as a totality of determinative forces; consequently, this form of expression champions a further atomisation and fragmentation of the subject. The act of transferring the abstract immediacy of relations between things, being essentially a loss of Totality, is the essence of reification.


 After Adorno’s death (1969), Max Horkeimer, a close friend and colleague, in an interview characterised the potency of Adorno’s thought as a ‘negative theology’[17]. A form of philosophical inquiry rooted in the deep material discrepancies of life, contradictions of a reality which engineers abject poverty with avaricious means to extract more; of philosophy’s own deficiencies in it’s quest to capture, totalise and standardise experience in hands of specialists, as we find in traditional phenomenology, social-science and science itself[18]. Of history, the industrial slaughter houses of the Third Reich, and the popular thesis amongst world leaders, taken from Enlightenments programme, of humanity’s ceaseless progress. Arts loss of once pre-eminence for divine insight to being shelved and consumed as commodities, yet retains a critical distance from this loss of it’s aura in the works of modernism by nature of form. Through the oppositions and seemingly insurmountable issues that philosophy, social life, art and history present themselves and between one another, truth now, rather than a compilation of abstract concepts, can only be found in these very moments of gridlock, irremediably fractured from an indifferent outside world by virtue of the very estrangement of reification ‘art remains alive only through its essentially social powers of resisting society; unless it submits to reification, it becomes a mere commodity.’ [19]

The power of the negative, of negation[20] from Hegel is at the core of this form of thinking. This is the pivotal pulse that animates Adorno’s ‘negative’ dialectic, at once explicitly ethical in it’s emphatic drive to safeguard consciousness from becoming a bureaucratic instrument; and tied up in showing how philosophy and art are both determined by history, socio-economic structures and forces but not reducible to those elements; one which risks everything on the dialectic, for a glimpse of an emancipatory moment, to reveal the subterranean forces of social relations, that so often mystify a possibility of seeing the world differently.

Adorno defines negative dialectics as ‘a dialectics not of identity but of non-identity.’ [21] Identity, a twofold interpretation underlying the logic of conceptualisation, and the interaction between subjects and objects. Conceptualisation in this sense means in its most emphatic sense the logic of reducing a phenomenon’s rich particularity and complexity into a something which can be readily handled, managed and utilised in relation to other concepts. Adorno sees this subsumption of a phenomenons characteristics to a unity of similarity, as indicative of an inclination to dominate nature–the mindset of bureaucracy–inherent in the logic of identity. Identity, on the other hand, also holds it’s opposite; residues of what fails to be completely eliminated by the laws of non-contradiction and points to a non-identity.

A staunch champion of modernism, Adorno’s The Position of the Narrator in the Contemporary Novel operates by setting up the limits and ranges of possible experience. Taking up a position that narration is no longer possible, yet the novel by default dictates narration, is a startling claim. Adorno inverses Lukacs central claim that content determines form–that objective reality is reflected directly as the structure of a work–arguing that a primacy of the formal aspects of aesthetic representation holds sway, through its own moment; and actually are dialectically formed, negatively through loss, within the socio-historical materials themselves“[c]ontent makes its mark in those works that distance themselves from it…Art gains its content through the latter’s determinate negation”. The world of relations in the realist novel, between humans and nature, and essences and appearances, outside world of relations and the inwardness of man, were more or less able to be represented realistically by virtue of the emerging capitalist market had yet to achieve total hegemony–the reified the inversion of relations between humans to things being its characteristic result.

This deeply historical moment–quintessential to bohemian styled poets and artists of the mid 19th century–birthed art’s autonomy: the secularisation of art, aesthetically distancing itself from the religious cannons, Baudelaire and Balzac founding a modern traumatic experience[22]; and exemplifying the bourgeois creed of individuality and freedom from a cultic function of renaissance tutelage, and so the break of the ‘[u]nity of art and religion is not simply due to subjective convictions and decisions but to the underlying social reality and its objective trend.’[23] Continuing this line of thought between the divorce of art and myth, moving into a newly constructed aesthetic space by fact of the increasing means of reproduction and development of technical forms (think, for example, of Zola’s zeal for perfecting social description) and the disenchanted artist, rejecting society’s moral conventions and ways of life in toto social life and artist practice become more at odds, expressed by Adorno: ‘[a]rt is the social antithesis of society, not directly deducible from it’[24].What this entails centralises the whole notion of capturing a totality of dead ends, of irreconcilable issues and biting paradoxes; not looking for an exit but understanding why it is so. By being produced in society does not wholly amount to art’s social essence but since if it is a ‘social thing’ and opposed to society, of becoming a commodity, it’s contention appears to be the source of the very social antithesis; by embodying Kant’s idea that art is a ‘purposefulness without a purpose’ art does away with mere self-preservation as artist practice can indeed symbolically speak about social issues but maintains a distance from physical action.

By having created a space away from direct social conflicts, autonomous art yet by their very existence of being in a society surfaces a radical self-critique through it’s material practices ‘artworks are only able to become other than thing by becoming a thing’[25], that is to say this is a necessary process of being incorporated into the thing it wishes to critique. Adorno had a name for the nature of how society and the art work interact: a social monad. Borrowing Leibniz’s concept, the monad is windowless entity, internally constructed, totally individual and built imperviously towards one another, yet the key here is that they strive to encapsulate the universe from within their borders. The art work maintains a forcefield of dynamic relations within itself, generating an individuation of experience unique to itself; the further one is lost into the labyrinthine of readings, experiences and interactions within it’s very physical construction the louder it speaks of the outside reality to which it was originally dedicated.  By being built upon a very profound contradiction of representing a universe from a single perspective, of the division of labour between intellectual and physical labour, the artistic object seeks to draw attention to the very antinomies of social reality. It is explicitly social in drawing out and pointing to the non-identity by way of identity.

[1]    Jay, M. Marxism and Totality, the Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas. University of California Press. 198
[2]    Upon its release in 1923, History and Class Consciousness was condemn by the Third International for promoting anti-economic grounds for praxis and ‘inflating’ the role of the proletariat in the future revolutions to ‘arise’. As a result,  Lukács was forced to dismiss his early to stay politically afloat.  However, it will be treated here as not merely the genesis of Lukács’ most decisive remarks on Marxist sociologist but as a reoccurring strand in his oeuvre.
[3]    Feenberg, A. Culture and Practice in the Early Marxist Work of Lukács. Berkeley Journal of Sociology
Vol. 26, (1981)
[4]    Aesthetic and Politics. Veros, London. 1977 pg. 57
[5]          Lukács, G. History and Class Consciousness: A Study in Marxist Dialectics. Translated by Rodney Livingstone, MIT press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (1971) see pg. 83
[6]    Ibid, pg. 86
[7]    Ibid, pg. 84
[8]    Jameson, F. Late Marxism: Adorno, or the Persistence of the Dialectic. London: Verso. 1990 see pg. 180
[9]          Lukács, G. History and Class Consciousness: A Study in Marxist Dialectics. Translated by Rodney Livingstone, MIT press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (1971) see pg. 83
[10]        Lukács in The Theory of the Novel and Soul and Form argued that the novel form represented ‘the normative incompleteness’ of the world of men ‘the problematic nature of the novel is a true-born form in the historico-philosophical sense and proves its legitimacy by attaining its substratum, the true conditions of the contemporary spirit’ see pg. 73 (of the former)
[11] Jameson, F. The Antinomies of Realism. Verso, London. 2013 see pg. 5-6
[12] Louis Althusser persuasively argues that Marx breaks with Hegel’s use of dialectical totality
[13]        Aesthetic and Politics. Translated by Rodney Livinstone, Anya Bostock, Harry Zohn, Francis, McDonash.Verso, London. 1977 (Anthology) see pg. 33
[14]        By ‘penetrating’ the ‘laws governing objective reality’ the Realist’s programme is to ‘uncover the deeper, hidden, mediated, not immediately perceptible network of relationships that go to make up society’ Aesthetic and Politics. Veros, London. 1977
[15]           Lukács, G. The Theory of the Novel. Translated by Anna Bostock. MIT press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.1971
[16] Hegel, G. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated A.V. Miller. Oxford University Press. (1977) see pg. 58-59.
[17] Die Spegel. Horkheimer. 1969
[18]        Adorno, T. The Actuality of Philosophy. Translated by Benjamin Snow. TELOS (Journal). 1980
[19] Adorno, T. Aesthetic Theory. Edited by, Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann; Newly translated, edited, and with a translator’s introduction by Robert Hullot-Kentor. New York: Continuum. 2002.
[20] Adorno, T.  Hegel: Three Studies. Translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen. Massachusetts, Cambridge: MIT press. 1993. see pg.4  Hegel’s dialectic of how consciousness transforms itself, through a process of bring presuppositions into the world which are then deemed as aedquate for apprehending reality. This is called the determinate negation. Consciousness is dialectical insofar as it generates it’s problems within itself and doing away with what was previously inadequate ,and according to Hegel, this gives rises to a more positive and reflective attitude towards experience.
[21]        Adorno, T. Lectures on Negative Dialectics. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann; Translated by Rodney Livingston. Cambridge, London: Polity. 2008. see pg. 6
[22]        Sanyal, D. The Violence of Modernity: Baudelaire, Irony, and the Politics of Form. JHU Press, 2006. see pg. 20
[23]        Adorno, T. Notes to Literature, vol 2. Translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen. New York: Columbia University Press.(Anthology) see pg.
[24] Adorno, T. Aesthetic Theory. Edited by, Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann; Newly translated, edited, and with a translator’s introduction by Robert Hullot-Kentor. New York: Continuum. 2002. see pg. 8
[25] Ibid, pg. 81