IFA’s homage to Georg Lukacs

Hungarian Marxist philosopher Georg Lukacs, one of the most powerful exponents and critics of alienation in capitalist society, is the subject of a two-day conference in Athens today and tomorrow. Lukacs originated the concept of «reification.» He believed the division of labor within capitalism placed the worker in a position of subordination and fragmentation. Being no more than a cog in the production line, the worker is obstructed from harboring a comprehensive picture of the overall process of production. He feels like a slave to the machine and not to the capitalist, the true cause of his misfortune. Furthermore, the worker is alienated from what comes off the assembly line but also from the others around him. This need not necessarily be a factory worker. One only has to think of modern-day cubicle-caged white-collar workers, telephone operators, cashiers and so on. It is hard to think of a more prescient aspect of Marxian critique of modern society than exposing the spread of commodification in all domains of life. One need not look hard to see examples of how human activities and relations have been reduced to what Marx called «callous cash payment.» Recent experimentation with human gene manipulation could well turn men themselves into marketable commodities. For Lukacs, of course, the factory division of labor is nothing but a microcosm of actual life in capitalist society. People are involved in various, seemingly disconnected activities that they take for granted because they are imposed from above. Life is like a text. You cannot understand the whole – the «totality,» the true essence of capitalism – if you do not understand the parts. The proletariat, Lukacs thought, is in a unique position, in that it possesses the class conscience to grasp the «totality» that capitalism tries to disguise. Lukacs also analyzed how the products of human labor are falsely objectified in the marketplace, how they are endowed with special qualities and, ultimately, acquire a life of their own. This is what Lukacs calls «reification.» People almost forget that they have themselves produced these objects and in the end become enslaved to them; they themselves become objects. Lukacs was born in Budapest in 1885, the son of a wealthy Jewish family. In 1918 he joined the Hungarian Communist Party, but was soon forced to flee to Austria after the collapse of Bela Kun’s short-lived coalition government. There he wrote his most prominent work, «History and Class Consciousness» (1923), which is considered to be the foundational work of «Western Marxism,» a tradition that encompasses the work of Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer and others. Lukacs settled in Berlin in 1931, moved to Moscow when Hitler came to power, and returned to Budapest in 1945 to become culture minister in the Nagy government. Lukacs played a major role in the 1956 Hungarian uprising and was deported to Romania, although he was allowed to return a year later. He died in his homeland in 1971. The capitalist system that Lukacs decried has proved capable of transforming and refining itself so as to accommodate the masses. This does not discredit Lukacs’s huge contribution to literary criticism, his defense of humanism and his lifelong opposition to Stalinism. Nor does it undo the importance of his critique of alienation in industrial societies. Because for Lukacs, Marxism was primarily a method, a way of grasping «totality,» not a prophecy. Jointly organized by the French Institute and «Utopia» review, the conference starts at 7 p.m. Speakers include scholars and academics from France and Greece. French Institute in Athens, 31 Sina, tel 210.339.8600.

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