Notes on Lukacs and Reification I.

Rereading History and Class Consciousness this week to rewrite my chapter on fetishism in Lukacs. The first time I wrote the chapter I made a fairly straight forward argument that Lukacs’s theory of reification was inconsistent and contradictory. This time I think I know why it is. Here’s a few notes on the first part of my chapter.

I think Lukacs’ theory of reification is problematic because he has two types of reification: a Simmelian/Weberian type and a Marxian type. He attempts to synthesize these two types through his interpretation of fetishism as reification.

The Simmelian Weberian type of reification predates Lukacs’ conversion to Marxism. As Collettii, Frisby and Lowy show Lukacs’ pre-Marxist conception of reification was deployed in his various kultur critiques.

As Lukacs notes in his 1967 preface to History and Class Consciousness this type of critique ‘was in the air.’ It was the basis of Lukacs’s notable early works such as Soul and Form.

In these works Lukacs offers a variant of kultur critique levelled at intertwined conceptions of society and culture. Like other variants of kultur critique, Lukacs’ kultur critique was based on an opposition between a neo-romantic conception of organic wholeness and its anti-thesis in contemporary socio-cultural forms. These socio-cultural forms were theorized under the influence of Simmel’s conception of reification. In this conception, developed in works such as The Philosophy of Money, Simmel treated Marx’s theory of fetishism as a particular type of the ‘tragedy of culture.’ In Colletti’s words this tragedy of culture was conceived “in the fact that the ‘forms’ engendered by ‘life’ are solidified into objective institutions separated from it” where “these objective institutions acquire an autonomy of their own and set themselves over against the becoming that generated them originally.”[1] Simmel’s conception of reification also shares two other important features with Lukacs’s kultur critique: the conflation of alienation with objectification[2] and treating these reified forms as a problem of the understanding.[3] As others point out the kultur critique Lukacs advances in his early work also features other aspects that will resurface in History and Class Consciousness. These include a criticism of: (1) depersonalization (2) Weberian rationalization. (3) the scientific intellect [4] All of these aspects of Lukacs’ kultur critique can be seen in statements such as the following:

From the standpoint of the modern individual, the essence of the modern division of labour is perhaps that it makes work independent of the always irrational, thus only qualitatively determinable, capacities of the workers and places it under objective, goal-oriented critieria that lie outside of his personality and have no relationship to it. The major economic tendency of capitalism is this same objectification of production, its separation from the personality of the producers.[5]

This conception of reification echoes Lukacs’s later definition of reification in Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat. In contrast to Marx’s conception of fetishism as a chiasmus that reifies persons and personifies things, Lukacs defines reification solely in terms of a thing. This neglect of the personification of things hampers an explanation for the constitution of reification. However it does tie together his Simmelian/Weberian conception of reification with his Marxian conception:

The essence of commodity-structure has often been pointed out. Its basis is that a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity’, an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.

Here we see Simmelian influence in the conflation of objectification with alienation in the fact that the relation between people takes on the character of a thing. We also see it in the fact this thing is autonomous and rational. We see also see Lukacs Marxian conception in the conception of  autonomy and in the way that the commodity conceals a relation between people. (I’ll also add that Lukacs interpretation of fetishism ties together Marx conception of fetish characteristic forms of value with the fetishism of political economists. i’ll discuss this at greater length at some other point.)

In the next few sentences Lukacs moves to tie this definition– and the two conceptions of reification it grounds– to the methodology he utilizes in the reification essay.  Lukacs does this in three ways by: (1)  asserting  that his forthcoming analysis deals with the objective and subjective problems that grow out of the fetish character of commodities ( it is unclear whether Lukacs is referring to the concept of the fetish character itself or to the bundle of concepts deployed in the fetish character section. I also contend that he fudges up this objective subjective distinction in part III). (2) highlighting the historical specificity of his analysis. (3) asserting the extensiveness of the commodity form as the “universal structuring principle” that has “penetrat[ed] society in all its aspects and remold[ed] it in its image.”

In what follows Lukacs uses his initial definition of the commodity structure to deploy his two conceptions of reification and demonstrate how the commodity has remolded all of society in its image. Thus a multitude of different aspects of socio-cultural forms from bureaucracy to journalism are shown to be analogous with his conception of the commodity structure. In the initial paragraphs this analogy is with his Marxian conception of the commodity via the commensurability of abstract labour. But shortly afterwards he switches over to his Simmelian Weberian conception which actually takes up most of his social analysis of the phenomena of reification.

[1] (Colletti 1973) 169.

[2] (Frisby 1992) 95.

[3] Ibid. 169.

[4]CF  (Jay 1986; Colletti 1989; Frisby 1992)(Lowy 1979)

[5] Lukacs, zur soziologie des modernen dramas 665 cited in (Frisby 1992)


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