Dialectical Rationality: Andrew Feenberg on Marx, Lukács, and the Frankfurt School

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In 1981, Andrew Feenberg published Lukács, Marx and the Sources of Critical Theory, a book that positioned Hungarian philosopher György Lukács at the forefront of Western Marxism. Feenberg cited Lukács’s 1923 History and Class Consciousness as the pivotal text of the what he named “the philosophy of praxis”: a tradition that seeks the realization of philosophy through revolution.

This week, Verso releases Feenberg’s timely update to the canonical text, The Philosophy of Praxis: Marx, Lukács, and the Frankfurt School, with a new introduction and insight into how the philosophy of praxis relates to the unfolding critical response to technology. We bring you the introduciton to the new edition in full.

Introduction to the New Edition

It is one of the great ironies of intellectual history that Marx and Lukács failed to appreciate the significance of their own early works. Marx’s Manuscripts were written in 1844 but had to wait nearly 100 years to see the light of day. Since its publication this unfinished early work has come to rival Capital as the text of reference for Marxists and others interested in Marxism. During the first half-century after the publication of History and Class Consciousness, Lukács’s book became an underground classic, rejected by its author and known only to a few European scholars, among them the philosophers of the Frankfurt School.

Marx and Lukács’s critical self-interpretation is only partially warranted. It is true that their early works reflect a “messianic moment” to which they responded with an implausible revolutionary eschatology. But the authority of their self-interpretation has misled commentators into projecting far too much unity and consistency on the early works. In reality, the theoretical resources deployed by these philosophers are not entirely congruent with their political program.

Philosophy resembles art in that the tools and materials have their own logic. The interpreter must uncover the tensions between the creator’s ends and means, not simply assume the ends to be realized in the work. This is especially true of Lukács, whose text is full of contradictions between his Hegelian framework and his politics. In Marx’s case the consequences appear later in his suppression of his own most interesting philosophical writings, the Manuscripts and the Grundrisse, published long after his death. Thus arose a whole tradition of interpretation according to which the later Marx abandoned philosophy as a youthful error.

The seminal importance of the early works was not widely recognized until the 1960s and 1970s. At that time the influence of thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School contributed significantly to the receptiveness of a youthful audience to what might be called “early Marxism.” Marcuse, in particular, lived through a second messianic moment in old age in response to the New Left. In his case too there is a tension between his theoretical resources and his politics. Nevertheless, his writings from Eros and Civilization on excited unprecedented interest in philosophy of praxis.

The long eclipse of both Marx’s Manuscripts and Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, left to what Engels once called “the nibbling of the mice,” can be explained by their transitional position in the intellectual biographies of their authors. Both were trained as philosophers and steeped in romantic revolutionism. Their early works were written at similar turning points in their spiritual trajectories, at times when they felt the need to move beyond these intellectual origins and believed they could do so without violent rupture through a dialectical transcendence. Later, they judged this transcendence inadequate, still internal to positions they uncompromisingly rejected in elaborating their mature outlook. There is little doubt that after the break their judgment on their early work was too harsh, that it contains more of value and had more impact on the later work than the authors were willing to admit.

The romantic influence is undoubtedly present in these early writings. By romanticism is usually meant that trend in modern culture that exalts subjectivity against objectivity, life against rationality, concreteness against abstraction, traditional values against capitalist mercantilism. Certainly these philosophers’ antagonism toward capitalism, analyzed and condemned in parallel critiques of “alienation” and “reification,” is to some degree tributary of that trend. And yet it would grossly distort the theories of alienation and reification to reduce them to a romantic protest against reason as is frequently suggested by contemporary critics.

While Marx and Lukács were influenced by the romantic critique of capitalism, they were still more profoundly influenced by the Hegelian critique of that critique. For Hegel, as for a number of other major figures in modern thought, romanticism has the value of a transcended moment. It plays a propaedeutic role in the development of a rational outlook on the world that is not merely philistine and complacent but critical and rich in inwardness. It was Hegel who first systematically elaborated this “post-romantic” reconciliation with rational necessity and human finitude.

Marx and Lukács aimed to preserve the moment of revolt in romanticism without recapitulating the subjectivist errors so effectively criticized by Hegel. I will show that they are only partially successful in this task, but also that the task itself was well chosen and indeed is still relevant to critical theory and practice.1 They approached this task with a similar method, which I will call “cultural” because of its orientation toward the most general patterns of meaning and practice, institutions and artifacts, of entire societies. Just such a pattern is signified by the concepts of alienation and reification that they employ to analyze capitalist society. At the same time, these concepts are derived from reflection on the philosophical tradition and function in the context of the authors’ discussion of fundamental philosophical problems. This unity of culture, philosophy, and politics is the distinctive trait of their early method.

They consider philosophy to be the discipline in which the operative horizon of everyday life is raised to consciousness and subjected to rational criticism. On this basis they argue that the conceptual dilemmas or “antinomies” of philosophy are symptomatic of deep contradictions in social life. Their most challenging conclusion is the demand for a “realization” of philosophy through the practical resolution of these contradictions. This is perhaps the least understood aspect of the early philosophy of praxis of Marx and Lukács, and the study of it will be a major theme uniting the various investigations making up this book.

Despite their critical relation to the philosophical tradition, both the early Marx and Lukács adhere to the fundamental Enlightenment values of freedom and equality. They depart from the tradition by arguing that under capitalism these values cannot be achieved by isolated individuals subject to the laws of the market. This argument is the bridge between philosophy and social theory. They not only dismiss the agency of the individual, they argue that subjectivity can no longer be identified with a version of the Cartesian cogito or transcendental ego. Only a collective, social subject can realize the values of philosophy. But a social subject is an object in the world, a phenomenon among others. And yet, this subject is still bound to the philosophical tradition by basic aspects of its logical structure, which Marx and Lukács rethink in social terms.

This hybrid approach leads to complications. The abstract individual subject of pure knowledge transcends nature and need. The freedom of a social subject is limited by both these determinations. The transcendental subject is purified of its materiality and enabled thereby to know the truth and even, in an idealistic framework, to constitute reality. But such a transcendence is unthinkable for a social group. A social subject cannot be purified of materiality since it is only through material ties of one sort or another that it can form from out of the relations of the individuals who make it up. Abstracted from geography, race, language, and technology, and nothing remains to hold the individuals together in a group. But include those factors in its definition and it is inescapably earthbound. The objectivity of the social subject situates it squarely within the real world.

Both common sense and the philosophical tradition would therefore argue that social subjects, should they exist at all, have no ontological significance. They are simply contingent assemblages of separate individuals with political powers and rights, perhaps, but no fundamental reality. If they had accepted this view, Marx and Lukács would have made a contribution to political philosophy but beyond that they would have had to rely on one or another traditional philosophical approach. But neither Marx nor Lukács accepted this view. Rather, they argue that the social subject must take over all the same powers that individual subjects enjoyed in the old philosophy. Somehow reality is to be understood in an essential relation to a subject situated within it and dependent on it. Is this not a vicious circle? Why adopt such an improbable position? I will argue that they brave the paradoxes that result from that move out of fidelity to the ambition of idealism to explain being starting out from human being, for example, from the forms and categories of transcendental subjectivity. These traditional explanatory schemes depend on an individual contemplative subject. But Marx and Lukács argue that the individual is derivative of one or another community in which it necessarily has its roots. The transcendental subject is an abstraction from the social being that grounds it. It cannot therefore resolve the ultimate problems of philosophy and the attempt to do so produces speculative myths. Only a social subject can provide the key to a resolution of the antinomies in practical life and philosophical theory.

The fact that Marx and Lukács share this conclusion is all the more remarkable since Lukács was unaware of the existence of Marx’s Manuscripts when he wrote History and Class Consciousness. Lukács found traces of Marx’s early philosophy of praxis in The German Ideology and Capital. This suggests a theory of the continuity of Marx’s intellectual development that I elaborate in a Lukácsian interpretation of the early Marx. Lukács himself developed the most complex version of the philosophy of praxis. In his writings the structure of this figure of thought becomes clear. The identification of such figures, which ultimately are defined in ideal-types such as “empiricism” or “idealism,” is an important contribution of philosophy to the history of ideas.

The articulation of the logic of philosophy of praxis is essential to understanding its later transformation in the Frankfurt School. Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse were influenced by Marx and Lukács’s philosophy of praxis that they were familiar with quite early. However, there is a deeper connection: even where they write without reference to these sources, they operate within the logic of the philosophy of praxis. That logic requires that philosophical abstractions be traced back to their roots in concrete social conditions. And once those conditions have been identified, the hypothetical construction of their revolutionary transformation rebounds back on the philosophical concepts and shows how their contradictions can be resolved.

But the realization of philosophy through social practice is frustrated by the historical situation of the Frankfurt School, which is very different from Lukács’s revolutionary context. Although the Frankfurt School works in a period of reaction, it remains bound by the demands of philosophy of praxis. Its focus shifts from the specific consequences of capitalism toward the more general problems of the domination of nature and the structure of modern experience, presumed to be the source of the failure of the revolution.

This approach leads to two possible outcomes: either the resolution of the antinomies through social transformation is treated as a utopian demand, devaluing social reality by contrast, or a new agent of revolution is discovered, able to carry through the project of social transformation. These alternatives correspond roughly to the difference between Adorno and Marcuse’s late work. In Adorno the historical thesis of the philosophy of praxis serves primarily to provide an independent point of view for social critique. Marcuse eventually finds hopeful signs in the New Left. He sees the social movements of the 1960s and ’70s not as a new agent of revolution but as prefiguring an emancipatory mode of experience. Revolution in an advanced society is at least possible in principle on the basis of a generalization of this new way of experiencing the world. This is sufficient for Marcuse to construct a final version of the philosophy of praxis in which the transformation of technology plays a central role. This version of philosophy of praxis is discussed in the concluding chapters of this book.

As noted above, Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse were deeply influenced by Lukács’s philosophy of praxis. They seized on his concept of reification that, in combination with other sources, became the basis of their critique of positivism and their dialectical reformulation of Marxist theory. Somewhat later, in the period after World War II, French Marxism came under the influence of the early Lukács as a whole generation of social theorists sought radical alternatives to the dominant Stalinist orthodoxy. The most famous text of this trend is Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Adventures of the Dialectic, which first introduced the term “Western Marxism” to describe the tradition stemming from History and Class Consciousness. The French were primarily interested in Lukács’s concept of praxis and his theory of class consciousness. They saw in these ideas an alternative to the official Marxist dogma of the party as surrogate subject of the revolution. With Lukács they reaffirmed the primacy of working-class praxis, articulated ideologically by the party but not replaced by it.

I had the good fortune to study with representatives of both these schools of thought, with Herbert Marcuse and Lucien Goldmann. Starting out from the disparate traditions and emphases they represent, I propose a new interpretation designed to reestablish the unity of Lukács’s early Marxism. This background may help to explain the difference between my approach to Lukács and that of scholars widely read in the English-speaking world such as Leszek Kołakowski, Gareth Stedman Jones, and George Lichtheim, who condemn the theory of reification as irrationalist and the theory of class consciousness as Stalinist. These very negative evaluations square neither with the content nor the historical impact of Lukács’s text.

When Lukács is compared, not with Bergson or Stalin, but with Marx’s early philosophical works and the Frankfurt School, a very different picture emerges. Like the early Marx, the early Marxist Lukács is a critic of the “alienation of reason” in modern capitalist society. But that critique is by no means irrationalist; rather, it aims at the establishment of a dialectical paradigm of rationality suited to the task of social self-understanding and human liberation. Such a dialectical rationality can be of no service to authoritarian regimes, but only to a socialist culture of self-rule. Not the least important dimension of these philosophers of praxis is the contribution they make to defining the broad outlines of such a culture.

For more information on The Philosophy of Praxis, click here.

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