Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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Lukács, Georg (1885-1971)

core definition

Lukács was a Marxist philosopher, writer, and literary critic who was influential the first half of the 20th century.

explanatory context

Lukács major contributions include the formulation of a Marxist system of aesthetics that opposed political control of artists and defended humanism and an elaboration of Marx's theory of alienation within industrial society. Born into a wealthy Hungarian Jewish family, he fled the White Terror, after the overthrow of Béla Kun's short-lived Hungarian Communist régime in 1919, in which Lukács served as Commissar for Culture and Education, and moved to Vienna, where he remained for 10 years. He edited the review Kommunismus, which for a time became a focal point for the ultra-left currents in the Third International and and was a member of the Hungarian underground movement. In his book History and Class Consciousness (1923), he developed these ideas and laid the basis for his critical literary tenets by linking the development of form in art with the history of the class struggle. He came under sharp criticism from the Comintern, and facing expulsion from the Party and consequent exclusion from the struggle against fascism, he recanted.

Lukács, in his most influential work, History and Class Consciousness (1923) reflects many of the philosophical ideas of the 'Heidelberg School' of hermeneutic historicism in his re-reading of the Hegel-Early Marx tradition. Lacking a strong positivist tradition (Stedman Jones, 1971) German philosophy continued to engage Kantian thought and Hegel's reconceptualisation of idealism. Lukács work is grounded in this tradition and represents a distinct shift in Marxism as it is expressly hostile to the natural sciences and introduces a serious re-evaluation of Hegel.

Lukács also confronted the apparent economic determinism of the Marxism of the Second International.

However, despite Hegelian 'failings' to which Lukács has subsequently pointed (Lukács, 1967), notably the confusion of Hegelian and Marxist views of alienation (the former relates to the objectivity of nature and the latter with commodification) he provides a Marxist critique of the positivistic sociological theories of Comte, Spencer and Durkheim, arguing that they merely gloss the surface of social life in their attempts to find abstract , universal laws. They fail to probe more deeply to the inner movement determining social structure and history. Such ahistorical theorising focuses only on the part in isolation from the social whole in which it is located, thus obscuring the real problem of social science.

It is then essential, for Lukács, that any understanding of the social world be grounded in history oriented to social wholes. The social world has evolved historically, and history is the result of conscious praxis. History is 'man-made' through the agency of social classes. For Lukács, class consciousness is fundamental to the production of knowledge. Such knowledge is part of the superstructure the social milieu , determined by the infrastructure of basic socio-economic relations. Class consciouness, as manifested praxiologically in class struggle, informs superstructural relations, including the production of scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge serves the interest of classes (the dominant, bourgeois class) and is encapsulated in a class Weltanschauung (and is imposed on non-dominant classes against their interest). For Lukács, then, knowledge is ideological in the positive sense. Knowledge resides in, and is formulated by class Weltanschauung.

The development of base-superstructure distinction in Marxist thought, by first Engels and later Lenin, led to the gradual erosion of the negative sense of ideology . While Engels did the negative meaning, as the base-superstructure dichotomy became more elaborated and ideology became located within the superstructure, so it lost its specific inverted character. The idea that the base determined all forms of consciousness meant that the distinction between inverted and non-inverted forms of consciousness began to disappear and ideology came to incorporate all forms of social consciousness. In the political struggles of the late nineteenth century proletarian ideology was counterposed to bourgeois ideology.

Lenin had begun to use the concept of ideology in the sense of a set of cognitions and theories that express the interests of a class. Ideology lost its negative meaning. There was no necessary inversion of 'reality' implied by ideological statements. The falsity of bourgeois ideology is due to its bourgeois origin not to its ideological character.

Lukács, in taking up this positive view of ideology, entrenched ideology as class Weltanschauung. For Marx, ideology always referred to distorted knowledge irrespective of its class origin, whereas, in its positive sense as class Weltanshauung the cognitive validity of ideology is no longer the central problem. Indeed, in the positive sense, all class knowledge is regarded as ideological and validity tends to be imputed on the basis of class origin, rather than critically. The whole notion of the contradictory nature of society is submerged beneath a view of bourgeois ideology as pre-scientific or erroneous and with proletarian ideology as scientific.

However, Lukács, while agreeing that people make history argued that the real forces of history are independent of consciousness. History is a product of false consciousness and in order to understand history it is necessary to understand false consciousness. This involves two stages, first the investigation of the way false consciousness becomes rational and valid at the level of the individual actor and second, how it produced and related to the society in which it occurs. Dialectical materialism investigates false consciousness in its historical context as a manifestation of, and a stage in, the historical process rather than simply reveals its falsity. This investigation reveals the 'objective' difference between expressed false consciousness and the milieu that it claims to understand, while simultaneously revealing why it is understood as it is (in this distorted form).

In his historicist view of knowledge production Lukács insists on the role of the totality and the primacy of class consciousness. He tends to accentuate consciousness as the ascribed world view of the class to a point where it may replace concrete practice of the class. Thus ideology takes on the dual appearance of both precondition and consequence of the economic structure of the society. Proletarian consciousness is conceived as an imputed rationality flowing from class being rather than as being dependent upon historical practice.

'Practice is recognised as limited and conditioned because of the limitations of consciousness. Therefore consciousness tends to gain an autonomy more in accordance with Dilthey's concept of historical consciousness than with Marx's concept of consciousness. In the same way as Dilthey's 'current of life' manifested itself in partial objectivications, which were not total expressions of it, Lukács's class consciousness expresses itself in partial psychological forms which do not exhaust the real class consciousness.' (Larrain, 1979, p.79).


McDonagh, (1978, p. 41) endorsed this arguing that Lukács' historical view of ideology is 'saturating', it suggests that the 'inner logic' of the contradictory class situation of the proletariat 'will lead inexorably to throw off the shackles of its exploitation'. As the proletariat accede to true knowledge, Lukács argued, a modification of the class situation necessarily ensues. This, McDonough argued, conflates knowledge and action, theory and praxis. A conflation, identifying consciousness with class practice, based on a much wider confusion of ideology with power, as ideology is conceived in terms of its saturation of the social whole.

Craib (1998), however, argued that this view of Lukács misrepresents his work and is based on an inadequate reading of 'History and Class Consciousness'. To argue that Lukács, insists that all knowledge is contextualised and then argues that it is possible to choose between points of view as Stedman-Jones (1971, p. 47) does is to misconstrue Lukács.

Stedman-Jones summarised Lukács position as all truth is relative to the standpoint of individual classes, the proletariat is by its essence a universal class, its subjectivity is universal, but a universal subjectivity can only be objective . Craib suggested that Lukács position is far more complex than this.

For Lukács, what characterises Marxism as distinctive as a metascientific enterprise is its embracing of the concept of totality . This, Craib argued, means more than the bourgeois/positivist view of an all embracing theoretical scheme as is apparent in the way Lukács develops the construct. For Lukács, totality relates to the knowledge producing process. This productive moment involves an 'aspiration towards totality' that involves the penetration of external surface appearance. Craib argued that Lukács' use of totality reflects Marx's own methodology (at least as elaborated in Grundrisse) in its determination to penetrate reification and to reveal the 'determinations behind what bourgeois thought takes to be the given 'facts''. He cites commodity fetishism, the revelation of the foundation of social classes as examples of the way in which immediately evident 'fact' is understood

'not in terms of its independent existence, or in terms of an external causal relationship; rather in its existence is understood as the product of a number of relationships - a structure of relationships in Lukács' terms its immediacy is mediated, and these relationships are in turn mediated by others.' (Craib, 1998, p. 28).

The totalising moment then works out towards what Craib describes as 'wider, more complex, more fundamental' relations. The production of knowledge is thus reduced to the discovery of these structural forms.

For Lukács, we start with the 'reality' and finish with the 'concrete', reconstructing it in the process of theorising, through the relationships into which we place the apparent phenomena. This integration into totality, through reflective theorising changes fundamentally the actual content of the individual phenomenon as individual phenomenon.

Craib's reconstruction of Lukács' position appears to have closer affinities with Marx, and to be less less inclined to link scientific knowledge with the proletariat than do other commentators on Lukács. It may be that Craib is reading into Lukács what should be there given his avowed Marxian perspective. This would certainly seem to be how Swingewood (19**) would reply, for he sees Lukács as naively assuming that the concept of totality is all that distinguishes Marxist from bourgeois thought. Swingewood argued that central to Marx's metascience is the notion of dialectical analysis and that Lukács effectively lays this aside.

In developing an assessment of Lukács' metascience, then, it is necessary to assess the extent to which Lukács invoked a dialectical analysis independent of a class based thesis of adequate knowledge.

Few commentators on Lukács have been able to extract from his work a dialectical analysis that develops the methodological relationship between totality, history and structure, as Marx does in his dialectical analyses in 'Capital'. Even Craib, who reconstructs a pseudo-structural element in Lukac's metascience actually only manages to show that Lukács' use of totality is deconstructive, but not the basis for reconstruction. Lukács, according to Craib is primarily concerned to reveal foundations historically.

'The totalising movement of Marxism, the ability to understand and penetrate reification and grasp the way in which the facts we are reconstructing are produced as factsin the totality of their determinations, reveals that these facts are the product of human activity and that social classes are the subject of that activity. This places the 'facts' we study in the ongoing movement of history... It is the mediation of history that enables us to grasp the concrete interpretations of the dualisms which have typified bourgeois thought.' (Craib, 1998, p. 16).

The shuttling between part and whole in order to reveal the processes beneath the surface that Lukács regards as important, is for him, then, only a partial development of the dialectical process. The totalising movement is historicist. This is reflected in Lukács' proposition that Marxism transcends the subject-object dualism that dogs bourgeois philosophy. This transcendence is through a grasp of the concrete unity of subject and object in the movement of history reached in the totalising movement x

History provides us with the means to awareness of how the 'subject produces itself as object'. For Lukács, it is the capitalist moment that provides the unique opportunity for history to be made consciously.

However, the bourgeoisie, trapped in 'science' cannot become universalistic. Scientific knowledge is the 'property' of the bourgeoisie and is reified and fragmented because it is based on an inadequate understanding of the social totality. Scientific knowledge is mere ideological expression of the class who bear it. Lukács argued as follows.

Under capitalism all use value including labour has an exchange value and commodification ensues. Reification is thus objectively rooted in social organisation. The labour process is similarly predetermined and beyond the control of workers who become increasingly contemplative. This is evident too in the social sciences because they investigate only appearances, attempt to construct predictive laws and become an ever tighter internalistic system unable to grasp their own subject matter. Science, like the contemplative attitude of the worker, stands in an external relationship to that which is being investigated. Science takes its data as given and is unable to account for how either the science itself or its subject matter is produced. The result is fragmentation and an inadequate basis for understanding the social totality.

'Thus the inability of bourgeois science to grasp bourgeois reality is not simply due to the "bias" of the bourgeoisie's standpoint, but is a result of the epistemological nature of bourgeois science itself'. (McDonough, 1978, p. 43).

The proletariat, because of its position in the production process, is the first class in history capable of becoming conscious of itself as the subject of history and simultaneously as the object of history.

Lukács in proposing a history aiming at 'revolutionary praxis', keeps living individuals at the centre of the stage.

'The fact that people are subsumed under oppressive structures does not mean that theory must resign itself merely to expressing this situation as precisely as possible' (Schmidt, 1981, pp. 104–5)

While Lukács is otherwise remarkably close to structuralists according to Schmidt (1981), it is this concern that the materialistic dialectic of the course of history which must be retained (but not deified) that differentiates him. (In short, Lukács does come close to reviving Marx's methodology, according to Schmidt's analysis.)

Steadman-Jones (1971, p. 53) has, however, interpreted this as idealistic, suggesting that Lukács has argued that the proletariat fulfils its vocation as the identical subject-object of history by aquiring an adequate consciousness of capitalism and in so doing abolishes capitalism by interiorising it.

This constitutes a misreading for Craib, one based upon the idea that Lukács asserts the unity of subject and object rather than grasps it in the concrete realm of history. Craib argued that Lukács, indeed, argued that this unity of subject and object be grasped in history.

'The proletariat becomes conscious of itself as both subject and object through the mediation of its own developing relationship with other classes. Its discovery of itself as an object produced in the past, and as an object of present production processes, is the precondition of its action as subject to produce itself as a new, future object through a transformation of those production processes and their accompanying social structures. The relationship of subject and object is in this sense one of identity and separation at the same time—a formulation which Lukács approaches on several occasions.' (Craib, 1998, p. 30).

Lukács links abstract thought and the concrete world of structures and appearances via the concept of practice. Lukács does not accept that the proletariat can immediately and spontaneously achieve a fully developed theoretical awareness of its position, that rather the relationship is mediated by practice. According to Craib, this is indicative of the complex anti-relativism of Lukács, as opposed to the inferred relativism of his position as seen, for example, by McDonough (1978). The proletariat, through its actions achieves a practical consciousness of itself as simultaneously subject and object and this leaves the way open for a theoretical transcendence of the subject/object dualism and the possibility of a theoretical grasp of the totality of social relationships as a coherent whole. It is the revolutionary party which is the focus for proletarian practice and transcendent theory.

For Lukács, thought and reality are not two poles apprehended as the duality of 'true' and 'false'. Lukács sees truth and falsity as intertwined. To begin to unravel this intertwining requires a metascience that is prepared to engage the superficial appearance of reality.

However, even given Craib's sympathetic reading of Lukács, it is evident that the attempt to transcend relativism by subsuming the subject-object dichotomy within a practical grasp of totality is still an historicist endeavour with no regard for the material base of ideology and failing to engage the interpretive problem of history.

Marxism is, for Lukács, reduced to a dialectic method in opposition to the positivist method of bourgeois science which he condemns. Similarly, Lukács overidentifies Marxism with the theory of the proletariat and is thus a normative tautological thesis to account for the absence of an insurgent working class.

Lukács's historicist model (which is a Weltanshauung historicist model) lacks any firm analysis of the processes of science and the production of scientific knowledge and provides a weak thesis of class related knowledge. Weak in that it adopts a positive view of ideology and a dogmatic economic determinism of class interest. Knowledge still ultimately becomes equated with class Weltanshauung, although the process is more complex than Larrain or Stedman-Jones suggest, and the processes of the production of scientific knowledge become obscured behind the facade of ideology effectively ignored as no more than inevitable manifestation of the determined superstructure. Ideology for Lukács is simply the conscious projection of a class. He argued that the world appears differently from what it is in reality but ignores the idea that such an ideological inversion corresponds to a real inversion of the social relations, not only an inversion of appearances. Lukács overemphasises the role that the subject plays through consciousness in the origin of ideology.

analytical review

According to the Encyclopedia of Marxism (undated) :

In later years, Lukács repudiated many of the positions put in his early works which had formed the starting point for such writers as Adorno and Fromm, and other tendencies which not only rejected the Stalinised version of Marxism, but departed from Marx's central principles. He frequently clashed with Jean-Paul Sartre and others who combined Marxism with psychoanalysis, structuralism and other philosophical currents inherently incompatible with Marxism.

Lukács wrote more than 30 books and hundreds of essays and lectures. Among his other works are Soul and Form (1911), a collection of essays that established his reputation as a critic; The Historical Novel (1955); and books on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Hegel, Lenin, Marxism, and aesthetics. In his Destruction of Reason, he launched a furious attack on Heidegger's accommodation with Nazism and the whole current of irrationalism which was dominant in the pre-war years.

associated issues


related areas

See also




class consciousness

genetic structuralism


Craib, I., 1998, Experiencing Identity, London, Sage.

Encyclopedia of Marxism, undated, Lukács, Georg (1885-1971)', available at, accessed 26 February 2013, still available 22 December 2016.

Lukács, G., [1923], 1971, History and Class Consciousness, London, Merlin Press.

McDonough, R., 1978, 'Ideology as false consciousness: Lukacs', in Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies Working Paper in Cultural Studies, no. 10, On Ideology, pp. 33–44.

Schmidt, A., 1981, History and Structure: An Essay on Hegelian Marxist and Structuralist Theories of History. Boston, MIT.

Stedman Jones, G., 1971, 'The Marxism of the early Lukács: an evaluataion' in New Left Review 1/70, November December 1971, avalable at, accessed 26 February 2013, still available 22 December 2016.

Swingewood, 1975, Marx and Modern Social Theory. London, Macmillan.

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