Much American discourse on Marxism is sloppy, sometimes intentionally so. According to some of on the right, Joe Biden is a Marxist, as is the entire Democratic Party platform and even the suburban high school teachers in Illinois.
In an effort to understand what Marxism actually is, let’s consider one influential Marxian thinker. Literary theorist and philosopher György Lukacs is generally understood to be the father of western Marxism, a strain that departed in subtle ways from Soviet Marxism. Lukacs saw his theoretical formalisms as an extension of Marx’s nineteenth-century writings. But to what extent is that true? Lukacs’ innovative theory of reification may provide a clue.
First introduced in his essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” published shortly after his conversion to communism in 1918, the theory of reification is built on two of Marx’s foundational concepts: the fetishization of commodities and the alienation of labour. It also incorporates philosophical work on subject-object relations and new materialism.
Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat
Reification is a twofold process comprising a subjective, qualitative consciousness and an objective, quantitative mode. The latter mode is the “fetishized” commodity mode that Marx outlines in Capital: the mode in which an apparent, quantifiable objective stratum of value exists between producers and commodities within a capitalist socioeconomic system.
Lukacs argues that, through the fetishization identified by Marx, this mode came to become the “dominant form in society” under modern capitalism, such that the commodity form itself can only be “understood in its undistorted essence when it becomes the universal category of society as a whole.” Thus, under capitalism, the appearance of objective value allows the commodity form to become the form of objectivity as such. The driving force of our relationship with the world is no longer connections between humans, but between things. This is physically manifested in the mechanized industrial method, through industrial specialization, which fragments the “organic, irrational unity” of the product.
Industry, then, facilitates the objective moments of the reification process and assigns the “commodity” feature to a product or object, universalizing that product or object such that a “subject commodity” is a contradiction in terms—and thus alien to the worker. Industry in this view is one of the “rational” elements of capitalist society.
Lukacs frequently uses the term “irrational” to describe the non-industrial (non-specialized) product.
He assumes that the principle underlying the physical fragmentation (essentially, Taylorism) of the industrial process is the principle of rationalization. Lukacs understands rationalization as the process by which one quantifies a system in order to be “able to predict with ever greater precision all the results to be achieved,” a predictive method that “is only to be acquired by the exact breakdown of every complex into its elements.”
In other words, rationalization within capitalist industry is the process of division of labour that assigns to each worker a specialised task governed by a system of laws, designed to achieve a predicted value outcome in the form of a commodity. This also impacts the subject.
While the objective aspect of reification involves, for Lukacs, the fragmentation of the work-production process, such that objective value features are assigned to the product through the fetishization of the commodity mode, for the subject this results in a fragmentation of human consciousness.
The rationalization of the industrial object also affects the subject because the predictive movements of industrial Taylorism supplant human qualities. Those human qualities are, in fact, seen as “sources of error.” The human subject is merely part of the objective, “thing like” synthesis produced by the subjective aspect of reification. It has no independent existence separate from industry, says Lukacs.
Thus, the individual is subordinated to the machine such that she cannot utilize her unique qualities in the labour process, but can only assume the position determined by the preconditions set out by the specialization faculties of the rational system.
This position is the contemplative state: that is, the state in which the rational process disallows active states and forces human qualities to be compartmentalized into “owned” and “discarded” categories, dependent on the rational laws of the productive system. This applies outside of the industrial system as well. Lukacs sees these rational laws, and thus the facilitation of reification, governing society as a whole, including its legal and social systems. Lukacs describes this symptomatic state (of reification) as having the following effect:
The contemplative stance adopted towards a process mechanically conforming to fixed laws and enacted independently of man’s consciousness and impervious to human intervention, i.e. a perfectly closed system, must likewise transform the basic categories of man’s immediate attitude to the world: it reduces space and time to a common denominator and degrades time to the dimension of space.
Thus, reification creates an “objective continuum” of thing-like faculties: i.e., the worker is not “himself” personally, but merely the quantified space that denotes his performance.
Reification is the modal objective-subjective commodity process of fragmenting the capital-industrial system through rationalization (Taylorism) and the human consciousness (contemplation) into thing-like quantities, separate from the irrational totality of the human experience and labour process that yield qualitative ownership.
Lukacs’ and Marx’s Value Criteria
Lukacs uses Marx’s “fetishization” of commodity as a foundational observation in his reification theory. He quotes Marx incessantly throughout the essay, drawing particularly on the commodity-as-value mode (or form) and the claim that it is the dominant objective mode, as evidence of the reification process, a mode that ensures its continuance as an ongoing cycle to which everyone is subjected within capitalist societies.
Lukacs uses Marx to establish new challenges to the bourgeois systems of his time. He does this both by using Marxian commodity fetishism as the basis of his theory of reification and by using the subjective and objective aspects of the process of reification to account for Marx’s materialism, which differs from eighteenth-century materialism in that it does not view subjective dynamics as merely passive.
Commodity fetishism is not merely the nominal basis of reification theory, but the consequential “thing-ifying” function operating upon objects in the physical world by furnishing them with value quantities.
This is something Marx says himself (in fewer words) in Capital. Lukacs was probably drawing heavily on Marx’s 1844 work Estranged Labour, in which he describes the labour process as alienating the worker from her work. The subject-object dualism present in Lukacs’ reification theory is a much more subtle attempt to draw on Marx.
Lukacs’ reification can be seen as the fragmentation of the objective (or apparently objective) world and the fragmentation of the subjective consciousness of an individual’s qualitative idiosyncrasies.
This dualism is perfectly in line with Marx’s materialism.
Marx’s materialism revised older concepts of materialism. As Bertrand Russell eloquently puts it, Marx thought that “the older materialism … mistakenly regarded sensation as passive, and thus attributed activity primarily to the object.” Marx thought that all sensation resulted from an unmistakable interaction between subject and object, by which the subject’s epistemological state changes from unknowing to knowing and that this necessitates a change in the object, transforming it from raw material to whatever it becomes known as through the interaction.
This knowledge does not enter the passive mind like liquid seeping into a dry sponge. Neither the liquid nor the sponge are static: they are both in a “dialectical” flux that changes both the knower and the known object. In his Eleven Theses on Feuerbach, Marx writes, “The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism—that of Feuerbach included—is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.”
That is, subjective “sensuousness” and objective material are both active; there is neither passive contemplation nor a static object that is the object of that contemplation: both are active through “practice” and the activity necessarily begins the mutual dialectic. Thus, it is no surprise that Lukacs maintains subject-object dualism, since the reification process affects both.
Here too, Marx would undoubtedly agree. We can therefore conclude that Lukacs’ work is an extension of Marxian thought and that he himself rightly perceived it as such.