| Historia y conciencia de clase y el marxismo de Georg Lukács Dialektika | MR Online Historia y conciencia de clase y el marxismo de Georg Lukács – Dialektika

From Commodity Fetishism to Teleological Positing: Lukács’s Concept of Labor and Its Relevance

The concept of labor constituted a pivotal problematic in Georg Lukács’s theoretical development throughout his Marxist years. His 1922 essay, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat”—the central piece of his work History and Class Consciousness, famously opens with the phrase phantom objectivity. The idea of phantom (or phantom-like) objectivity derives from Karl Marx’s discussion of commodity and labor in Capital. The question of labor becomes especially crucial in the third section of History and Class Consciousness, where the young Lukács argues that the proletariat will become conscious of being the object-subject of history. On one hand, labor is reduced to the pure abstractness of labor-time, which marks the nadir of capitalist reification; on the other, it is within the immediate experience of reified labor that the proletarian consciousness is rendered possible. In this sense, labor under capitalism not only determines the lowest point of reification, but also forms “the vantage point of the proletariat.”1

Lukács’s later criticism of History and Class Consciousness revolved around the issues of labor and human praxis in general. In his preface to the 1967 edition, he wrote that “the purview of economics [in History and Class Consciousness] is narrowed down because its basic Marxist category, labor as the mediator of the metabolic interaction between society and nature, is missing.” Thus, labor refers not only to the historical phenomenon of reification (that is, wage-labor), but also stands for a more general, even ontological, question. In the same preface, Lukács later wrote that labor, characterized by its “teleological system,” should be taken as “the original form and model” of all human praxis.2 He described his own development in the following way:

Once I had gained a definite and fundamental insight into what was wrong with my whole approach in History and Class Consciousness, this search became a plan to investigate the philosophical connections between economics and dialectics. My first attempt to put this plan into practice came early in the thirties, in Moscow and Berlin, with the first draft of my book The Young Hegel (which was not completed until autumn 1937). Only now, thirty years later, am I attempting to discover a real solution to this whole problem in the ontology of social existence, on which I am currently engaged.3

The first attempt produced his book The Young Hegel, in which the discussion of labor is associated with his reading of G. W. F. Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit and his encounter with Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. The outcome of this project, on which he was working in the 1960s, was The Ontology of Social Being, one chapter of which was devoted to the question of labor. In that chapter, labor is philosophically defined as the fundamental teleological positing that forms the model for social praxis.

His 1923 essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” and later works, The Young Hegel and TheOntology of Social Being, constitute a trajectory in his theorization of labor. Here, we trace emergence of the question of labor in “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” and the ambiguity it causes in the Hegelian-Marxian tradition.

Dualism of Wage-Labor: Labor-Time and the Soul

It is no accident that the issue of the of labor emerges in third section of essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in which Lukács discusses immediacy and mediation. The reification confronting the proletariat differs little from the rigid immediacy imprisoning the bourgeoisie. However, the proletariat contains the potential of unveiling and overcoming the “opposition of subject and object.” For the proletarian consciousness to emerge, both the immediacy and the mediating force must consist of reified labor. When writing this essay, Lukács was highly concerned with “the Marxist analysis of labor under capitalism.” What he referred to as labor was wage-labor, rather than labor per se. He conceived of wage-labor as the point of departure for the identity of immediacy and mediation for the proletariat.4

Above all, Lukács wrestled with the issue of labor-time. While bourgeois thought always assumes a rigidly double form, “for the proletariat social reality does not exist in this double form.” To substantiate this thesis, Lukács followed Marx’s abstraction of labor into labor-time in the first volume of Capital. This abstraction is identical to the historical “process of abstraction of which [the proletarian] is the victim.” Yet Lukács also went on to claim that it is this very fact of quantification into labor-time that “forces [the worker] to surpass the immediacy of his condition.” At this point, the young Lukács’s eloquence and ambiguity become intertwined. He continued thus: “the quantitative differences in exploitation which appear to the capitalist in the form of quantitative determinants of the objects of his calculation, must appear to the worker as the decisive, qualitative categories of his whole physical, mental and moral existence.” The emergence of this consciousness hinges on the fact that “the worker is forced to objectify his labor-power over against his total personality and to sell it as a commodity.” In this sense, labor-time is not merely considered the immediate social existence of reification and abstraction in which the worker is dehumanized; it is also the mediation for class consciousness.5

A presupposed duality, however, is already discernible, for the commodification of both the worker’s labor-power and “total personality” coexist in the same labor-time. Lukács then raised the question of the “work-situation” as the concrete experience of dualism within wage-labor, abstract labor-time versus “the soul”:

This enables us to understand why it is only in the proletariat that the process by which a man’s achievement is split off from his total personality and becomes a commodity leads to a revolutionary consciousness. It is true…that the basic structure of reification can be found in all the social forms of modern capitalism… but this structure can only be made fully conscious in the work-situation of the proletarian. For his work as he experiences it directly possesses the naked and abstract form of the commodity, while in other forms of work this is hidden behind the facade of ‘mental labor.’… The more deeply reification penetrates into the soul of the man… the more deceptive appearances are. Corresponding to the objective concealment of commodity form, there is the subjective element. This is the fact that while the process by which the worker is reified and becomes a commodity dehumanizes him and cripples and atrophies his ‘soul.’… It remains true that precisely his humanity and his soul are not changed into commodities.

Here, the word soul is especially worth pausing over. Lukács indicated that it is the coincidence of the reifying manual, machine-like labor and the resisting soul in the same work-situation that determines the proletariat’s “vantage point,” from which to grasp historical totality.6

To this point, we can summarize that Lukács’s dualism assumes two corresponding, yet incongruous, forms: the first, as shown above, is the dual meaning of labor-time, that is, that labor-time is simultaneously recognizable as the pure quantity and the determining category of personality. The second is a kind of internal division of the “total personality.” The worker is divided into two antagonistic parts: the commodified labor-power and the soul resisting dehumanization. To some extent, the second seems to be developed to mediate the first, but at any rate, the two forms highlight the ambiguity in the identification of immediacy with mediation. Between the two forms arises Lukács’ ambivalence.7

The reference to “the soul” reminds us of Lukács’s pre-Marxist aesthetic endeavor; his invocation of experience also is reminiscent of the Diltheyian categories and the Neo-Kantian atmosphere of German so-called spiritual sciences in the early twentieth century. We must also bear in mind that, as Harrt Liebersohn has tried to demonstrate, the young Lukács’s pre-Marxist conception of labor was in dialogue with Weber’s and Simmel’s discussions of work in the context of bourgeois life and Christian-Protestant culture. Yet what characterizes Lukács’ dualism on the issue of labor in “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” is his radical move from German sociology and Neo-Kantianism to revolutionary Marxism. The mediation for this move was nothing other than his turn toward Hegel.8

One of the philosophical origins for such correlation between labor and self-consciousness is found in Hegel’s “lord-bondsman dialectic.” According to his work The Phenomenology of Spirit self-consciousness springs from the triangular relationship among the lord, the bondsman, and the object on which the bondsman is working. Hegel asserted forcefully that “through work… the bondsman becomes conscious of what he truly is.” Thus, Hegel assumed the activity of labor as the “middle term” and concluded that “it is in this way, therefore, that consciousness, qua worker, comes to see in the independent being [of the object] its own independence.” What lies hidden the bondsman’s work is the issue of objectification. That is to say, the bondsman’s spiritual freedom is objectified in the “permanent independence” of the product of his labor, and thereby is made conscious.9

Though Lukács certainly drew upon Hegelian logic in the discussion concerning labor and consciousness, it is evident that his case was complicated by the fact that he wedged commodity fetishism into this context. The worker’s objectification through wage-labor is interlocked with the commodification of labor-power.10 As quoted above, wage-labor is shaped by the “compulsion to objectify [the worker] himself as a commodity.” Lukács then argued:

Above all, the worker can only become conscious of his existence in society when he becomes aware of himself as a commodity. As we have seen, his immediate existence integrates him as a pure, naked object into the production process. Once this immediacy turns out to be the consequence of a multiplicity of mediations, once it becomes evident how much it presupposes, then the fetishistic forms of the commodity system begin to dissolve: in the commodity the worker recognizes himself and his own relations with capital.11

Here, the mediating role of work in Hegel’s dialectics is repeated, yet reversed: while the Hegelian bondsman recognizes his freedom in his objectification, the Lukácsian worker recognizes his imprisonment. If the product of work attests to the bondsman’s humanity, as is shown in Hegel’s case, then the capitalist history in the Lukácsian sense is the opposite: the worker himself is commodified as the “pure, naked object.” To translate this into Marxian language: what the bondsman recognizes in the object is his own objectification; what the worker recognizes in the object/commodity, according to Lukács, is actually his own “phantom-like objectivity.”

Moreover, though this step forms a parallel with Hegel’s idea of labor as the “middle term,” in Lukács this very mediation itself is dualized—at least implicitly—corresponding to Marx’s fundamental insight about labor’s duality under capitalism (that is, use-value/value, objectivity/phantom-like objectivity). The antithesis between the qualitative objectivity and the quantitative “phantom objectivity” cannot be solved by a Marxian version of the Hegelian notion of labor that mediates self-consciousness. Rather, what is at stake here is how, in the crude immediacy of the “work-situation,” can commodity fetishism dissolve in the experience of the worker, rather than devour the worker’s whole humanity and absorb it into phantom objectivity? Despite Lukács’s theoretical vigor, the chasm between objectification (as found in Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit) and phantom objectivity (from the penetrating analysis offered by Marx) remains unbridgeable.12

Vergegenständlichung and Entäusserung13

It is interesting to note that, when writing History and Class Consciousness, Lukács, like V. I. Lenin, had no access to Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. In formulating his revolutionary labor theory of Entäusserung (or alienation, also translated as estrangement and externalization), the young Marx placed Entwirklichung (“the loss of realization”) in opposition to Vergegenständlichung (objectification), thereby launching a profound critique of Hegel’s phenomenology:

The object which labor produces—labor’s product—confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. In the sphere of political economy this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.14

Concerning the alienation of labor, Marx went on to say:

The fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his essential being; that in his worker, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself…does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home.15

This striking account, with no doubt, marks a Marxian subversion of Hegel’s dialectics of labor: the independence of the product does not testify the bondsman’s freedom, but stands as an alien power governing the worker’s existence. While the Hegelian concept of work humanizes the bondsman and realizes his being as self-consciousness, Marxian wage-labor dehumanizes the worker totally and alienates the worker from his or her own “essential being.”

Marx’s critique turned out to be a crucial intervention into Lukács’s theoretical practice following the debate about History and Class Consciousness. In his preface to the 1967 edition he recollected one of his “unexpected strokes of good luck” in the 1930s: “the text of the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts had just been completely deciphered and I was able to read it.… In the process of reading the Marx manuscript all the idealist prejudices of History and Class Consciousness were swept to one side.”16 This encounter with early Marx therefore helped initiate his study of early Hegel. The same passage from the young Marx was used in The Young Hegel to lay the foundation for Lukács’s analysis of the difference between Hegelian Entäusserung and Marxian Entäusserung. Lukács’s emphasized Hegel’s “confusion” concerning alienation: the young Hegel equated alienation (Entäusserung) with objectification (Vergegenständlichung), while the young Marx drew a “precise distinction between objectivity and alienation in human praxis.”17

Only when it comes to the question of labor can the relevance of such confusion or distinction be fully manifested. In the chapter “Hegel’s Economics During the Jena Period,” Lukács dealt with the young Hegel’s labor theory in relation to Entäusserung. Correspondingly, in the concluding chapter, “‘Entäusserung’ as the Central Philosophical Concept of The Phenomenology,” Lukács elaborated on this concept in relation to Marx’s labor theory. Through a close reading of the bondsman’s labor, Lukács believed that Hegel’s discovery of the origin of self-consciousness concerned labor as the universal mode of human existence. Whereas in “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” Lukács focused on wage-labor under capitalism, this time, Lukács wanted to seize the interpretation of labor (in a universal sense) found in Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit.18

Here arises the problem of Entäusserung. In short, at least two interrelated points made by Lukács are significant at this juncture. First, since Hegel had no insight into the “specifically capitalist form of ‘externalization’ (alienation or Entäusserung), i.e. what Marx would later call ‘fetishism,’” Hegel tended to equate Entäusserung with objectification.19 Second, as the alienation of labor was beyond his sight, Hegel made a “false equation of ‘externalization’ (Entäusserung) and ‘thinghood’ or objectivity.”20 This led to his central theme that “all alienation (Entäusserung) of the human essence is therefore nothing but alienation of self-consciousness.”21 As a consequence, alienation can always be superseded by returning to the subject-substance identity. Hegel’s characterization of labor as the origin of self-consciousness, therefore, conceals the starting point of what Lukács called the “mystification of alienation.” Drawing upon Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Lukács summarized Hegel’s confusion in a schematic manner: “on the subjective side, there is the mistaken identification of man and self-consciousness demonstrated and criticized by Marx; on the objective side, there is the equation of alienation and objectification in general.”22 Meanwhile, Lukács’s distinction between alienation and objectification is built solely upon a distinction between two modes of labor itself. The following passage, as a part of Lukács’s cross-reading of Hegel with Marx, is particularly lucid:

For alienation is sharply distinguished from objective reality, from objectification in the act of labor. The latter is a characteristic of work in general and of the relation of human praxis to the objects of the external world; the former is a consequence of the social division of labor under capitalism, of the emergence of the so-called free worker who has to work with the means of production belonging to another and for whom, therefore, these means of productions as well as his own product exist as an independent, alien power.23

One can even go so far as to say that if the act of labor is the universal mode of human praxis, objectification is the alienated labor under capitalism.

While Lukács asserted that “the socialist critique of ‘externalization’ (Entäusserung) has exposed the real alienation contained in the capitalist form of work, an alienation that has to be annulled in reality,” he nevertheless gave much credit to Hegel for uncovering labor as the origin of human essence: “the decisive factor…was that Hegel thought of work as the self-creating process of man, of the human species.” Rather than point out the road toward the supersession of alienation of labor (so-called bad labor), Lukács seemed more concerned with laying the philosophical foundation of labor as the genesis and model of praxis, that is, the universal and humanizing labor (or good labor).24

Between these two chapters of The Young Hegel, there is a chapter devoted to labor and the problem of teleology. There, Lukács turned to Marx for a definition of labor as “an exclusive characteristic” of human beings. He quoted from Marx: “at the end of every labor process, a result emerges which had already been conceived by the worker at the beginning, hence already existed ideally.” By linking it with Hegel’s philosophy, Lukács tried to elevate this Marxist insight into labor as a “purposeful activity” to a kind of teleology of labor, and, therefore, a teleology of history. Since labor is posited as the objective realization of purpose, Lukács’s teleology of labor comes back to Hegelian alienation/objectification and use-value. What he attempted to demonstrate is that “Hegel’s concrete analysis of the human labor-process shows that the antinomy of causality and teleology is in reality a dialectical contradiction in which the laws governing a complex pattern of objective reality become manifest in motion.” For the young Hegel, the bondsman’s labor—associated with a pre-capitalist, quasi-feudal economy—is a phenomenological agent; in early Marx, the worker’s labor testifies to the alienation of labor under capitalism. But in grounding labor as the model of human praxis, Lukács now reached a point of further generalizing labor as an ontological category.25

The If… then of Teleological Positing Versus the as if of Commodity Fetishism

In his post-Hungarian Uprising magnum opus, The Ontology of Social Being—written in the 1960s and still under revision until the last days of the author’s life—Lukács addressed the issue of labor in the first chapter of the second volume. His elaboration of labor teleology was a direct continuation of his discussion of the relationship between labor and teleology in The Young Hegel.26

In the section on “teleological positing,” Lukács came to focus on what he found missing in his early writings (such as “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat”): labor as immediacy and mediation; as the metabolism between man and nature; and as a condition for human social being. In this way, he proceeded from the so-called general characteristic of labor to “elementary labor” in its “essential original nature.” In this chapter, most of Lukács’s examples come from primitive forms of labor, such as the making of a knife or an axe from stone. This generalization was undertaken by Lukács in order to fill the gap left by what he called the “leap” from nature to humanity. Again, labor is posited as the “genuine humanization of man.”27

At the beginning, Lukács cites Marx’s definition of labor as purposive activity: “labor, then, as the creator of use-value, as useful labor, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society.” Central here is use-value/objectivity in labor teleology. Lukács then articulated his ontological category of labor:

Through labor, a teleological positing is realized within material being, as the rise of a new objectivity. The first consequence of this is that labor becomes the model for any social practice, for in such social practice—no matter how ramified its mediations—teleological positings are always realized, and ultimately realized materially.28

Clearly, the Hegelian ideas of objectivity and realization again resurface. Here, the later Lukács reverts to the Hegelian/pre-Marxist idea of Entäusserung (alienation/objectification), which, according to Lukács’s interpretation, initially meant the positing of the object in the German idealist tradition.29 Ultimately, the “teleological positing of causality” is supposed to contain the “ontological kernel of freedom.” Consequently, every social practice, no matter how developed or complex it is, can be ontologically reduced to the original nature of labor, which, he maintained, is as elementary as everyday experience. Its basic rationality, as Lukács contended, can be formulated as if… vthen.30

Though Lukács often said that he would deal with the question of capitalist labor in subsequent chapters, one cannot help but realize that what is missing on this ontological landscape is precisely the phantom objectivity of capitalist labor, or commodity fetishism. According to Slavoj Žižek, commodity fetishism centers on the fantasy of as if rather than if… then For Žižek, the problem of fetishism happens on the side of objective reality: people act as if the money-form is the embodiment of the objective Universal; “they are fetishists in practice, not in theory.” It is in the sense of as if that the objectivity of capitalist labor becomes phantom-like at best. Interestingly enough, both the Žižekian as if and the Lukácsian if… then hinge on the famous Marxian formula to which both Lukács and Žižek frequently referred: “they do not know it, but they do it.” Žižek considered Marx’s formula to be a definition of ideology and related it to the “fetishistic illusion” Žižek attempted to demonstrate that commodity fetishism is “at work in the social reality itself, at the level of what the individuals are doing” and that it is in the reality of doing that people “are guided by the fetishistic illusion.” He then drew the following conclusion:

The illusion is not on the side of knowledge, it is already on the side of reality itself, of what the people are doing. What they do not know is that their social reality itself, their activity, is guided by an illusion, by a fetishistic inversion. What they overlook, what they misrecognize, is not the reality but the illusion which is structuring their reality, their real social activity. They know very well how things really are, but still they are doing it as if they did not know.

In this light, we can say that phantom-like objectivity is presupposed and performed as if it were the Universal the objective necessity.31

Yet for Lukács’s ontology, Marx’s formula means that, even though humans do not consciously recognize the causality of objective necessity, the teleological positing of causality is still constantly practiced in basic human labor. In this labor, objective causality is directed to human ends, and in turn contains the genesis of science and human knowledge. However, a closer look reveals that this rationality is not purged of as if. Above all, if labor teleology is indeed ultimately determined by social being itself, then objective necessity (the internal necessity of nature; the chain of causality; the logic condition of if… then; and so on) can be viewed as if it were necessity. The formula of if… then seems to be drawn closer to the “bourgeois philosophy” that had been criticized by the young Lukács in “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.” In the labor process of if… then, an illusion has to be presupposed as the internal necessity of nature in order to structure labor (doing/reality) itself. Under capitalism, a new layer of phantom-like objectivity is added upon the layer of presupposed objective necessity in order to structure capitalist labor. This is what Lukács depicted as the “doubly intensified” alienation (or objectification) of labor or, in Žižek’s language, the “doubled” illusion.32 At this point, Žižek came much closer to the critique of bourgeois idealism developed in “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.” Žižek wrote that “the roots of philosophical speculative idealism are in the social reality of the world of commodities; it is this world which behaves ‘idealistically.’” In this light, the later Lukács’s ontology of if…then has idealized—if not fetishized—labor per se with a concealed, yet presupposed, as if. Thus, if then actually represents an elementary level of fetishistic as if.33

While raising the question of teleology in The Young Hegel, Lukács cited Lenin: “in actual fact, men’s ends are engendered by the objective world and presuppose it… but it seems to man as if his ends are taken from outside the world, and are independent of the world.”34 This is a Leninian version of Marx’s formula, a version in favor of Lukács’s labor teleology. However, Lenin’s as if should be reversed to a Žižekian one. To translate it into Žižekian language: as if happens precisely on the side of presupposition; on the side of actual human activity. The presupposition of the objective world is an as if, which engenders the chain of if…then. The idea of teleological positing betrays the imprint of positing as if.35

All this leads us to the issue of the fundamental leap from nature to human. As we have seen, Lukács’s labor teleology is formulated in order to address this leap ontologically. Although—and also because—this leap cannot be historically reconstructed, Lukács believed that his labor teleology could fill the unfathomable chasm between nature and human beings. As he wrote: “the leap remains a leap, and in the last analysis it can only be made clear by intellectual comprehension.”36 Here, by “intellectual comprehension,” Lukács meant the Marxist method of abstraction. Yet his ontological abstraction—from every social practice to the elementary realization of use-value—runs counter to Marx’s historical abstraction which, following the abstracting power of capital itself, moves from use-value to phantom objectivity. Nevertheless, this ontologization/de-historicization is itself a structural positing, or presupposition like as if, in the understanding of human nature.

Conclusion and Further Questions

From the “phantom objectivity” of labor-time to “useful labor” as teleological positing, this theoretical trajectory can be sketchily characterized as a reversal in development of the historical abstraction from use-value to value that opens Marx’s Capital. Moreover, this counter-movement should be examined alongside the historical context in which Lukács was writing. As Lukács himself noted, History and Class Consciousness was related to the high tide of Bolshevism and Messianism in Central Europe, as well as his determination to become a communist in the wake of the catastrophic First World War and triumphant October Revolution. His study of Hegel was associated with his reflections on his early work, but also on the changed situation of European communist politics. After the defeat of the Hungarian Revolution and the controversy of his Blum Theses, he had to reorient himself amid a series of party struggles toward the new historical task of antifascism. This turn should be viewed as an effort to renew the linkage between Marx and Hegel under Stalinism. One should bear in mind, finally, that The Ontology of Social Being was undertaken in a post-1956 situation; it was written between his Specificity of the Aesthetic (finished in 1963) and his long-planned (yet constantly suspended) Ethics. When he dealt philosophically with the realization of freedom modeled on elementary labor, he was, practically speaking, concerned with the deterioration of everyday ethical life under socialism as it existed at the time.

This outline of Lukács’s theoretical development is not immune to doubt, for the teleology of labor was not intended to be the final chapter of Lukács’s The Ontology of Social Being. His philosophy of labor was written in preparation for subsequent chapters on reproduction, ideology, and alienation. Yet the other side of the story is also worth noting: according to his student István Mészáros, when Lukács began writing his Ethics, he realized in the process that it was necessary to write an introductory ontology. Not only did this introduction turn out to be a manuscript of more than two thousand pages, but the protracted writing of this social ontology “procede[d] very slowly” up until his death.37 The difficulty for our philosopher might be this: there is always an idealistic short-circuit in any materialistic ontology, just as in Žižekian sense, reality presupposes a fetishistic as if. Lukács’s theory of labor attains particular significance in that it shows how he was caught between historicization and ontologization—a structural yet symptomatic tension of his Marxist theory.

But we will not end this essay merely with this critical note. Criticism of a similar kind, in fact, have already surfaced in internal debates between Lukács himself and his disciples. “Notes on Lukács’ Ontology”—a document prepared by his students Ferenc Fehér, Agnes Heller, György Márkus when Lukács requested critical feedback in the late 1960s—records their discontent with their mentor’s manuscript. The first sentence of their commentary to the labor chapter reads thus: “In our view, the greatest defect of this chapter is that the problem of objectification remains unsolved—indeed, is not even posed—which is the same reproach that Comrade Lukács leveled against his own History and Class Consciousness.”38 In this, his students touched upon the ultimate aporia of Lukács’s lifelong philosophical inquiry. As they indicate in their notes, they became inclined to believe that a project of Marxist ontology may be a dead end. Upon receiving these critical yet insightful comments, the ailing Lukács submerged himself in painstaking revisions and suspended publication of the work. In “Lukács’ Later Philosophy,” Heller laments the futile effort–though “not a complete failure” of The Ontology of Social Being while lauding The Specificity of the Aesthetic as the true masterpiece of later Lukács.39

But should we simply consign the ontological issue of labor to the trash bin of the history of philosophy? I contend that precisely because of this aporia of ontologization that the role of the concept of labor in Lukács’s philosophical development should not be overlooked, and that his problematic conceptualization of labor spurs us on to re-problematize this classic Marxist category in a vastly changed historical context. Marxism holds that the fundamental contradiction of capitalism is the antinomy between capital and labor. Yet it seems to me that our current perception of labor—both as a concept and as human experience—has become ever-more confusing; vague and pallid. On one hand, the idea of labor has degenerated into a common positivistic word for sociology or economics, losing philosophical and political relevance. On the other hand, wage-labor has penetrated into every corner of social praxis and everyday life, becoming more amorphous and pervasive. Its contemporary dominant form is immaterial labor, which has less to do with the mediation between nature and humanity and more to do with the constant reconfiguration of effects within commodity fetishism itself. As a result, even the machine-like labor of industrial age seems backward and primitive, receding into the remote horizon. In this fully fetishized world, is an ontology of social being possible? To what extent can we revive and redeem the category of labor as a part of our de-fetishization and as a reflection of social praxis and its future? If we deny the possibility of the socio-anthropological-ontological issue of labor, we will surely avoid the idealistic abstractions we see in Lukács. At the same time, we risk giving up a task of critical philosophy and unintentionally succumbing to vulgar sociology, which is yet another product of bourgeois, limited consciousness. Therefore, Lukács’s conceptualization of labor, with all its insights and limitations, is not yet a closed case.


  1. Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 83; Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Vintage), 128.
  2. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, xvii, xviii, xx.
  3. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, xxxiv.
  4. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 167.
  5. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 165, 166, 167–8.
  6. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 171–2. Not only can one detect the duality between the dehumanization of labor power and the soul that resists such dehumanization, but there is also some trace of the latent division between the manual, mechanical labor and mental labor, the latter of which is doomed to fuller fetishization and therefore penetrates the soul. For the question of fetishism of intellectual labor, see Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labor: A Critique of Epistemology (London: MacMillan, 1978), 13–16.
  7. For one thing, the idea of “total personality” or “soul” seems to be too subjective to be historically grounded. In this respect, the soul is more like an enclave of overwhelming reification, further exposing an intense duality. This might account for what Lukács, in his later self-criticism, called subjectivism. More important, while labor-power can be reduced to the totalizing abstractness of labor-time, the “total personality” cannot be restored to the level of the historical totality. The furthest point Lukács could reach is labor’s daily experiential or phenomenological confrontation, or in his own language, appearance: the labor-time or work-situation “appears to the worker” as a qualitative category. Meanwhile, for the “mental laborer,” the appearance is too deceptive to be demystified. After all, according to the duality of capacity and personality that Agnes Heller, one of Lukács’s disciples, proposed in Everyday Life, the daily activity of work under capitalism does not necessarily involve any historical experience or historical consciousness. See Agnes Heller, Everyday Life, 60–70 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984). In other words, while in “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” the abstraction of labor is sufficiently formulated alongside historical abstraction, the mediating force of wage-labor turns out to be an invalid leap (or rebound) from the immediate work-situation to revolutionary consciousness, which itself remains unmediated. In short, rather than illustrate the identity between immediacy and mediation, Lukács became enmeshed in ambiguous dualism.
  8. Harry Liebbersohn, “Lukács and the Concept of Working German Sociology,” in Georg Lukács: Theory, Culture, and Politics, ed. Judith Marcus et al., (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1989), 63–71.
  9. G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 118, 114.  Here arises the question of recognition, or, in Hegel’s language, “recognition as an independent self-consciousness,” a question that has been (over)developed by Alexandre Kojève and others. When Kojève marked the lord-bondsman dialectic (which he translated as “master-slave”) as the starting point of so-called recognition politics, he downplayed the relationship between the bondsman and the object was downplayed, thus missing the point of labor in his account.
  10. Whereas Hegel’s lord-bondsman anecdote bears reference to feudalist conditions.
  11. Lukás, History and Class Consciousness, 168; emphasis added.
  12. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 128.
  13. I leave the two terms untranslated because people have translated Entäusserung into different words. For instance, Martin Milligan, the translator of Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 into English, translated Entäusserung as estrangement. Rodney Livingstone, a major translator of Lukács, translated Entäusserung as alienation when related to Marx, and as externalization when related to Hegel.
  14. Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, ed. D. J. Struik, trans. Martin Milligan (New York: International Publishers, 1984), 108.
  15. Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 110.
  16. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, xxxvi.
  17. Georg Lukács, The Young Hegel: Studies in the Relations between Dialectics and Economics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1976), 561. Also see Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, xxiv.
  18. Elsewhere in the book, Lukács was critical of Hegel’s myopic observation of labor under capitalism. Though the young Hegel, a reader of Adam Smith, was sensitive to the phenomena of labor division, abstraction or mechanization of labor, exchange of labor, and so on, his era simply did not allow for a dialectical understanding of capitalist labor. (See Georg Lukács, The Young Hegel, 329–31.)
  19. Livingstone explained why he translated Hegelian Entäusserung as externalization in his Translator’s Note: “I have preferred to translate it as ‘externalization’, since in Hegel’s usage it has a broader application than the current term.” See Luckács, The Young Hegel, i.
  20. Lukács, The Young Hegel, 540, 542.
  21. Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 178.
  22. Lukács, The Young Hegel, 551.
  23. Lukács, The Young Hegel, 549
  24. Lukács, The Young Hegel, 570, 553.
  25. Lukács, The Young Hegel, 338–64; Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 284, 346.
  26. This chapter includes sections of “Labor as a Teleological Positing” and “Labor as a Model for Social Practice,” translated into English as an independent volume entitled Labor.
  27. Marx, Capital, vol 1, 133; Georg Lukács, The Ontology of Social Being: Labor, trans. David Fernbach (London: Merlin, 1980), 42.
  28. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 133; Lukács, The Ontology of Social Being: Labor, 3.
  29. See Lukács, The Young Hegel, 538; especially Lukács’s etymological survey of Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s use of this term.
  30. Lukács, The Ontology of Social Being: Labor, 39.
  31. Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, (London: Verso, 1989), 31
  32. Lukács, The Ontology of Social Being: Labor, 18; The Young Hegel, 549.
  33. Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 32.
  34. Cited in Lukács, The Young Hegel, 350
  35. The disagreement between István Mészáros and Jean Hyppolite concerning Entäusserung can be viewed as a similar case. What was at issue was whether the transcendence of Entäusserung, which Mészáros insisted is a myth, or the “insurmountable otherness” (central to Hyppolite’s Hegelian version of Entäusserung), is a mystification. See Mészáros, Marx’s Theory of Alienation (London: Merlin, 1972), 243–44.
  36. Lukács, The Ontology of Social Being: Labor, iii
  37. István Mészáros, Lukács’ Concept of Dialectic (London: Merlin, 1972), 6–7
  38. Ferenc Fehér et al., “Notes on Lukács’ Ontology,” in Lukács Reappraised, ed. Agnes Heller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 141.
  39. Agnes Heller, “Lukács’ Later Philosophy,” Lukács Reappraised, ed. Agnes Heller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 190.