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On Lukacs’ Reification Theory

Reification as an extesion of Marx’s commodity form

The Hungarian literary theorist and philosopher Georg Lukacs is generally understood to be the father of Western Marxism. This distinct strain of Marxism departed in subtle ways from the dogma of Soviet Marxism. Yet, often, Lukacs saw his theoretical formalisms as an extension of Marx’s writings of the nineteenth century. This tension is what I am primarily interested in within this discussion. That is, to what extent was Lukacs actually writing as an outgrowth of Marx? This seems to be an important question, nominally for the sake of intellectual historiography, but consequently for our understanding of Marxism qua coherent theory. Thus, it is through one of Lukacs’ most innovative theories that we might find an answer; namely his theory of reification.

The theory, first introduced in his essay Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, attempted to build up from two of Marx’s foundational concepts: the fetishization of commodity and the alienation of labor. However, there is much philosophical heavy work done regarding subject-object relations and new materialism — both of which we will soon see as aligning closely with the Marxian formula. Thus, in this paper, through an analysis of the theory of reification, I will attempt to show that, although Lukacs goes beyond Marx and what is put forth in his writings, he stays true to the Marxian angle and provides conclusions that seem to follow from Marx’s analysis on commodity form and materialism.

The theory, first introduced in his essay Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, attempted to build up from two of Marx’s foundational concepts: the fetishization of commodity and the alienation of labor. However, there is much philosophical heavy work done regarding subject-object relations and new materialism — both of which we will soon see as aligning closely with the Marxian formula. Thus, in this paper, through an analysis of the theory of reification, I will attempt to show that, although Lukacs goes beyond Marx and what is put forth in his writings, he stays true to the Marxian angle and provides conclusions that seem to follow from Marx’s analysis on commodity form and materialism.

Lukacs’ essay, Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, first saw light after the printing press following his conversion to communism in 1918. His newfound politics required a point of departure, and many scholars see this essay as just that. To begin, we must address what, precisely, comprises the theory of reification. There is much debate surrounding how one ought to interpret this theory. Many suggest that there is a proper reading that indicates a classically Marxist view; and another that reorients the interpretation to provide for its being an essay on the central problem of Critical Theory. I, for now, will not entertain this debate nor forward a position on whether his argument is better regarded in light of one theory over the other; I will merely be providing the structure of the argument (and its basic claims) and highlighting where reification theory falls in line with Marx’s value criteria and where it does not.

The argument

The phenomenon of reification is a divided process comprising a subjective, qualitative consciousness and an objective, quantitative mode. The latter is merely the “fetishized” commodity mode that Marx outlines in Capital I; that is, the mode by which a seemingly apparent objective strata of value exists between producers and commodities, quantifiably and without doubt in a capitalist socio-economic system. This is the mode that, for Lukacs, came to be, through the fetishization identified by Marx, 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 for the commodity form to become the form of objectivity as such. This is physically manifested in the mechanized industrial method, through specialization, which serves to fragment the “organic, irrational unity” of the product. This industry, then, is the facilitator of the objective moments of the reification process, and assigning the feature of “commodity” to a product or object universalizes that product or object such that a “subject commodity” is a contradiction in terms (and thus alien to the worker). The industry, as it is described, is one of the “rational” elements (as opposed to irrational) of capitalist society.

It is worth taking a moment to consider the term “irrational”, which Lukacs uses frequently to describe the non-industrial (non-specialized) product. He takes it to be the case that the underlying principle of the physical fragmentation of the industrial process is the principle of rationalization. Lukacs takes rationalization as the process by which one quantifies a system into “being able to predict with ever greater precision all the results to be achieved” such that this predictive method “is only to be acquired by the exact breakdown of every complex into its elements.” In other words, rationalization within capitalistic industry is the process, like the division of labor, which yields a specialized task for the worker governed by a system of laws to achieve a predicted value outcome in the form of a commodity. This has with it a subject impact as well, of which we will turn to at present.

While the objective aspect of reification has, for Lukacs, the fragmentation of the work-production process, such that there are objective value features assigned to the product through the fetishization of the commodity mode, the subject aspect obtains as a fragmentation of human consciousness. The rationalization of the industrial object also affects the subject; namely, by way of supplanting the human qualities for the predictive movements of industrial Taylorism; that is, making human qualities, in fact, “sources of error”. The human subject is merely part of the objective, “thing like” synthesis produced by the subjective aspect of reification. Thus, the individual is subordinated to the machine such that she can not utilize her unique qualities in the labor process, but merely assume the position of the pre-conditions 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 for active states and forces human qualities to be compartmentalized into those that are “owned” or “discarded”, depending 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, taking place in society as a whole, including 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, it is not merely that reification contains rationalized laws that enforce a subjective fragmentation and a contemplative state upon the subject; but, rather, that 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.

In a word, then, reification is the objective-subjective commodity modal process of fragmenting through rationalization the capital-industrial system (Taylorism), and the human consciousness (contemplation) into thing-like quantities, apart from the irrational totality of the human experience and labor process that yield qualitative ownership. At this point, we can now attempt to compare this process with Marx’s writings on value criteria, and show how Lukacs overlaps with Marx from the onset, but eventually goes beyond the postulates of the 19th century thinker.

Lukacs seems to clearly use Marx’s “fetishization” of commodity as a foundational observation to his reification theory. Besides the incessant quoting of Marx throughout the essay, he particularly draws on the commodity-as-value mode, and the claim that it is the dominant objective mode, as evidence of the reification process, securing it as an on-going cycle one is currently subjected to within capitalistic societies. However, I find Lukacs as a largely additive figure — one which used Marx as a foundation to establish new challenges to the bourgeois systems of his time. Take, for example, his use of Marxian commodity fetishism as a means to reification, or the use of subjective and objective aspects within the process of reification to account for Marx’s materialism, which differed from the materialism of the 18th century and did not see subjective dynamics as merely passive.

The former we might already say has been covered in our exposition of reification as such. Yet, it might be worth spending a few words more, as it is critical to understanding the position Lukacs holds. The fetishm of commodity is not merely the nominal beginning of the reification theory, but the consequential “thing-ifying” function operating upon objects in the physical world by way of furnishing value quantities upon them. This is very much a Marxian thought; one in which Marx might well be claimed to have said himself (in less words) in Capital I. Although it should not go without mention that Lukacs was likely drawing heavily from Marx’s Estranged Labor (1844), in which he described the labor process as alienating to the worker (i.e., alienating her from her work). The latter, subject-object dualism present in Lukacs’ reification theory is a much more subtle attempt to draw on Marx and will be the focus of the rest of this paper.

As we have said, Lukacs’ reification can be seen through 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, in fact, perfectly in line with Marx’s materialism. As above mentioned, Marx’s materialism was a revivalism of a new sort. He thought, as Bertrand Russel eloquently expressed, that “[t]he older materialism . . . mistakenly regarded sensation as passive, and thus attributed activity primarily to the object.” Marx thought all sensation an unmistakable interaction between subject and object, by which the subject’s epistemological states (from unknown to known) necessitate a change upon the object such that it transforms from raw material to whatever it is that becomes known through the interaction.

This knowledge, however, does not come into the mind passively, as liquid into a dry sponge. In fact, neither the liquid nor the sponge are static, but both are in a “dialectical” flux that presents changes both in the knower and the object known. In his Eleven Theses on Feuerbach, Marx says “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 a passive contemplation nor a static object to be an 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 the subject-object dualism, with the reification process affecting both. Here too, then, Marx would undoubtedly agree.

We have now seen that Lukacs overlaps with Marx in two major ways: through his use of commodity fetishism as the result of reification and the conception of a practical — that is active — subject and object. Here, I will say a word in conclusion.

In this paper I have provided an analysis of Lukacs’ essay Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat and his theory of reification understood as a modal process that, though rationalization (which utilizes specialization), fragments the subjective and objective aspects of reality, industry, and law according to the latter, and quality-consciousness according to the former. Thereafter, I showed how Lukacs aligns with the Marxian outlook in two important ways: (i.) maintaining the notion of commodity mode fetishm and (ii.) putting forth a type of implicit materialism that has with it an active subject and an active object.

Therefore, we can conclude that Lukacs, along with how he saw his work, was a furthering additive of Marx’s thought.

Anthony DiMauro is a freelance writer in New York City. J.D. Candidate. NYU philosophy alum. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonyMDiMauro