G. Lukács and His Criticism of Marxism

Abram Moiseyevich Deborin

The following essay was written by Abram Moiseyevich Deborin, a major Soviet Marxist philosopher, in 1924. It was published in the theoretical journal Under the Banner of Marxism, which was founded in 1922 in the Soviet Union at the urging of Leon Trotsky. Deborin reviews the book of Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, and opposes the effort of Lukács to counterpose Engels to Marx, and to argue that Engels alone, and not Marx, believed that the laws of dialectics are applicable to nature. [1][2]


Abram Moiseyevich Deborin

Communism is the practice of materialism,
materialism is the theory of communism.


In his book, Geschichte und Klassenbewußtsein [History and Class Consciousness], comrade Lukács writes as a philosophical critic of Marxism. We must give the author his due. He has very skillfully disguised his idealist and even mystical tendencies. However, it is not so easy to hide one’s idealist ears, despite all the fine diplomacy which comrade Lukács employs. And any even somewhat educated Marxist who makes the effort to think will easily notice these idealist tendencies emerging from a sea of ornate phrases.

The device to which comrade Lukács resorts, which consists of counterposing Engels to Marx, cannot be called successful or original. Every variety of critic of Marxism has repeatedly resorted to this device, both from the bourgeois camp and from that of the revisionists. Some of them have tried to show that Engels slipped into materialism, but Marx was supposedly never guilty of this sin. Others have tried to demonstrate just the opposite. On the other hand, all the “critics” have considered it impossible to combine dialectics with materialism, and have accused both the founders of Marxism of being equally guilty of howling inconsistency. Dialectics, they say, can only occur in the realm of the spirit or consciousness, operating with concepts. But how can one speak of dialectics in the realm of the material world? They have all heard that Hegel, the dialectician, was an idealist; that from his standpoint the basis of being is the concept, or spirit; therefore, they have concluded, dialectics is compatible only with idealism. They have declared materialist dialectics, or dialectical materialism, to be a logical absurdity. A belated critic of this latter type is Wendorf, [3] who repeats the old nonsense that dialectics cannot be applied to empirical reality. It is not difficult to understand why bourgeois critics of Marxism are so disdainful of materialism or so “intolerant” of materialist dialectics. Their “intolerance” is explained by the fact that they cannot “tolerate,” as Plekhanov put it, a certain revolution and a certain dictatorship.

Wendorf’s views are shared by Werner Sombart, who, in his last article, “On Marx’s Concept of Lawfulness,” [4] declares that the application of Hegelian dialectics to empirical reality is a “monstrous” error. In addition, W. Sombart sympathetically quotes the passage in comrade Lukács’s book where the latter, in criticizing Engels, reveals his supposed differences with Marx on the question of the applicability of dialectics to nature. “In his book, History and Class Consciousness, G. Lukács is now defending a new view of the essence of Marx’s dialectical method,” writes Sombart. In his opinion, Engels absolutely failed to understand the teachings of his friend. In contrast to Engels, the application of the dialectical method must be limited to social and historical reality. [5] Later, Sombart presents the definition of dialectics given by Lukács.

And so, Lukács offers a new view of the essence of dialectics. On one extremely important and substantive point, comrade Lukács is in full agreement with Wendorf and Sombart: on the issue of the applicability of dialectics to nature. Unfortunately, comrade Lukács is very restrained in his arguments in places where he should develop his ideas to their conclusion. He is stubbornly silent when he should speak. For this reason, his writings leave a disappointing impression of ambiguity.

Indeed, the question of the applicability or inapplicability of dialectics to nature is inextricably linked to the question of world outlook as a whole. Comrade Lukács stands on the ground of those who in one way or another acknowledge historical materialism, but reject philosophical materialism. In full agreement once again with bourgeois critics of Marxism, comrade Lukács and his co-thinkers speak with disdain of the “naturalistic metaphysics” shared by Engels and Plekhanov. “Naturalistic metaphysics” is a pseudonym for materialism. Saturated by the prejudices of bourgeois philosophical writers, comrade Lukács has assimilated both their jargon and their negative attitude toward materialism. It is true that comrade Lukács refrains from extensively outlining his doubts on this issue. We therefore remain completely in the dark with regard to the philosophical conceptions which compel him to reject philosophical materialism. But one thing for us is beyond doubt: comrade Lukács rejects both materialism and dialectics as applied to nature. This conclusion is extremely important, but for now we will only make note of it. From this conclusion, it would be possible to infer that our author is a dualist: an idealist insofar as nature is concerned, but a dialectical materialist with regard to social and historical reality. However, we must acknowledge that this conclusion is too hasty, since a further investigation will show that we are truly dealing with a new understanding of the dialectical method, i.e., with an understanding which is at cross currents with Marxism, —with dialectical materialism. Or, to put it another way, we will become convinced that comrade Lukács adopts completely an idealist point of view with regard to social and historical reality as well, since, for him, as a matter of fact, the category of consciousness is, in a certain sense, substance, or true reality. In this regard, comrade Lukács is extremely reminiscent of Bruno Bauer and his “philosophy of self-consciousness,” which was so caustically derided by Karl Marx. In general, the views of comrade Lukács are an amazingly colorful mixture of the ideas of orthodox Hegelianism, spiced up with the ideas of Lask, Bergson, Weber, Rickert and … Marx and Lenin. We may say a priori that, if this is so, then we truly have an innovator in the person of comrade Lukács.


Comrade Lukács has followers and is somewhat the head of a whole tendency which includes comrades Korsch, [6] Fogarasi, Revai and others. In such a situation, it is impossible to pass by this phenomenon. At the very least, we must subject to criticism the basic principles of this “new current” in Marxism.

Lukács’s book opens with a criticism of Engels. In the very foreword to the book the author declares that he intends to defend orthodox Marxism, even from Engels. Later, in the same foreword, the author stresses that he has no intention of revising or improving Marx’s doctrine, only of giving an interpretation of Marxism in the spirit of Marx. The task, as the reader can see, is highly respectable. But posing the question in this way might quickly arouse doubts about its correctness, especially if one remembers that Engels worked in a close and cordial alliance with Marx for forty years, and that the basic philosophical work by Engels was written with the immediate participation of Marx himself. But meanwhile, this work by Engels—we are talking about Anti-Dühring—does not satisfy comrade Lukács and his followers. After this, what sense does it make to hide behind Marx’s broad back and make a gesture of contempt at Engels? It could be said that Engels did not publish a single line during Marx’s lifetime without his approval. Moreover, in the foreword to the second edition of Anti-Dühring, Engels writes the following about their joint work: “I shall note in passing that the world outlook presented in this book was mainly laid down and developed by Marx and only to the most insignificant degree by me, and it goes without saying that this work of mine could not have appeared without knowledge of the latter. I read him the entire manuscript before giving it to be published, and the tenth chapter of the second part (“From Critical History”) was written by Marx; it was only due to extraneous considerations that it unfortunately had to be somewhat shortened. Such was our longstanding custom of helping each other in special areas.” It would seem that this testimony from Engels would somewhat mitigate the “critical” zeal of our reformers. In any case, our venerable “critics” have no grounds for shielding Marx, who read Anti-Dühring in manuscript. Not only that, the world outlook presented by Engels had been laid down and developed by Marx…

Comrade Lukács asserts that Engels diverged from Marx by distorting the views of his friend. Marx, he says, limited the use of the dialectical method to social and historical reality, whereas Engels extended dialectics to nature as well. But this accusation, as we already saw, is based on absolutely nothing. Marx and Engels are equally “guilty” of extending the laws of dialectics to nature. The founders of Marxism were not eclectics, like Lukács, but outstanding thinkers. But it is natural that every person considers himself the “measure of all things” and judges others according to himself. Comrade Lukács wants Marx to be on his side, and therefore he ascribes to him his own thoughts, his own ideas, his own understanding of dialectics. Thus it turns out that it was not Engels, but Lukács, who distorted Marx’s views.

Lukács differs from Marx and Engels not only on the question of the applicability of dialectics to nature, but on the very understanding of the essence of dialectics. It turns out that Engels created great confusion in this question as well, by overlooking the most essential and by concentrating his attention on secondary and insignificant aspects of dialectics. Lukács claims that in this question, too, Marx is on his side, and therefore he considers himself called upon to defend Marx against Engels.

Lukács formulates both accusations against Engels in one brief comment which we will provide verbatim: “Limiting the method to social and historical reality is very important,” our author writes. “The confusion flowing from Engels’s presentation of dialectics rests mainly on the fact that Engels, by following Hegel’s bad example, extends the dialectical method to the cognition of nature. But, after all, the most essential definitions of dialectics—the relationship of subject and object; the unity of theory and practice; the historical change of the substrata of categories as the basis of their changes in thought, and so forth, —are not applicable to the cognition of nature.” [7] The author then hastily adds that he, unfortunately, has no opportunity to deal with this question at greater length. We do not understand why he has no opportunity to explain to us his differences with Engels. It would seem that he would be obligated, after making such a serious accusation against Engels, to provide at least some reasons in support of his view. But, as they say, you can’t judge what doesn’t exist.

Thus, we have with Lukács a new understanding of dialectics; or, to be more precise, we have a limitation, a narrowing of dialectics to the three aforementioned definitions. But neither Marx nor Hegel, —whom the author so avidly cites in trying to prove that he is right and that he agrees with them—would have agreed with his understanding of dialectics.

But let us first listen a while to comrade Lukács. In the first chapter of his book, “What is Orthodox Marxism?,” the author demonstrates or, more precisely, points to the significance of the method of Marxism. Method, undoubtedly, has enormous significance: the dialectical method is the soul, to use Hegel’s expression, of any scientific cognition. Nevertheless, we cannot agree with Georg Lukács’s assertion that what is demanded from orthodox Marxism is merely an acknowledgment of method. We, of course, are in full agreement with comrade Lukács that the correct method of investigation is found in dialectical materialism, and that this method must be worked out, deepened and developed further in the spirit of its founders. But we cannot agree with the declaration of our author that the content of theory is of secondary significance. One could allow, he says, that new research might demonstrate the incorrectness of “all separate” judgments by Marx. In such a case, any serious “orthodox” Marxist would, without doubt, acknowledge all the new results and reject “all the separate” propositions from Marx, remaining all the while an orthodox Marxist, for orthodox Marxism does not mean accepting on faith the results of Marx’s research, or “belief” in this or that proposition, or one or another interpretation of a “sacred” book. The reader must admit that this declaration is extremely ambiguous. First of all, what is meant by the words: “all separate” (sämmtliche einzelnen) propositions? Any theory comprises an aggregate of separate propositions. It therefore follows, that if we reject all the separate propositions of a given theory, then it is obvious that we reject along with them the theory as a whole. But comrade Lukács loves to express himself “diplomatically” and sinuously.

In his Capital, Marx revealed the inner mechanism of capitalist society by using the dialectical method. According to Engels, socialism became a science due to the discovery by Marx of the materialist understanding of history and to the elucidation of the secret of the capitalist mode of production by means of surplus value. Who will deny that Capital arrives at definite results? It turns out that, from G. Lukács’s point of view, these results by themselves have no significance and can easily by overturned by new research, and Marxism will suffer not the slightest loss from this, for it will still have its method. Comrade Lukács, we humbly thank you for your kindness, but there is no Marxist who can adopt such an idealist point of view. For us, the results are just as important as the method. Friedrich Engels, whom comrade Lukács has placed under suspicion with regard to “orthodoxy,” justly ascribed enormous significance to “results.”

In connection with Dühring’s criticism of Capital, Engels notes that Dühring had previously been able “to distinguish method from the results obtained by it, and to understand that the latter, in particular, by no means are overturned by the fact that the former has generally come under severe criticism.” Engels, as we see, valued exceedingly the results of the research in Capital.

The “orthodox” Marxist Lukács, however, is ready to sacrifice the “results” of the research in Capital, with which we can in no way agree. But what significance can method have by itself, if its correctness is not confirmed by practice, if the “results” of research contradict it? It is obvious that method has no self-contained significance, that it is not a purely logical schema which can be utilized only in the realm of pure thought. If method is examined not from an idealist, but from a materialist and dialectical, point of view, then one must acknowledge that method is indissolubly linked with content, with “results,” and that given the correct method there cannot be a contradiction between it and its content. For Lukács this circumstance has no significance, for he is an idealist from head to toe. For him, theory, or method, acquires something of an absolute significance, and if reality does not fit in, then “so much the worse for the facts.” However, posing the question in this way originates with Lukács in his peculiar, idealist understanding of consciousness, and therefore theory, which is opposed to reality, or even, more precisely, subsumes it.

The only correct, materialist understanding of things, says Engels, is that “principles are not the point of departure for investigation, but its final result; they are not applied to nature and the history of mankind, but abstracted from both of them; it is not nature and the human world which move according to principles, but principles are just insofar as they agree with nature and history.” Dialectical categories, which make up the content of method, do not lead an independent existence, but are given along with the object and the subject of investigation.

One might ask: how is it possible to renounce the results of an investigation and remain with the method? On the contrary, method is more fully confirmed to the extent that it more fully “corresponds” to the results and content of the reality under investigation. Method is, most of all, a means or an instrument for seeking new results. Dialectics pursues the same goal, but it also “contains within itself the embryo of a broader world outlook, since it bursts through the constrained horizons of formal logic,” as Engels put it. If the historical process were to contradict the dialectical process, as comrade Lukács allows, then the dialectical method would thereby demonstrate its uselessness. The dialectical process cannot exist apart from the historical process.


In turning to an explanation of the essence of dialectics, comrade Lukács stresses that the unity of theory and practice is the premise for the revolutionary function of theory. Theory is the expression in thought of the revolutionary process itself. However, even Engels did not grasp this significance of theory. In his elucidation of dialectics, the most essential element is missing. Engels describes, he writes, the dialectical nature of the concept as opposed to the metaphysical; he stresses that in dialectics there is no place for the immobility of concepts and of the objects corresponding to them; that dialectics is a continuous process, the uninterrupted overcoming of contradictions and the transition of them into each other. But the most essential aspect, namely: the dialectical interaction of subject and object in the historical process, is neither touched on nor even mentioned by Engels in his explanation of dialectics. Meanwhile it is precisely this interaction which should have occupied center stage, for without it, the dialectical method, despite the “fluidity” of concepts, ceases to be a revolutionary method. After all, for the dialectical method the central problem is the changing of reality.

If the central function of theory remains neglected, continues Lukács, then the superiority of the dialectical method, which deals with the “fluidity” of concepts, becomes highly problematic: this superiority merely becomes purely “scholastic” in nature. Method by itself, —we are talking about the dialectical method, of course, —can be, depending on the state of science, acknowledged or rejected, without anything changing in reality. “Moreover, the impenetrability, the fatalistically unchanging character of reality, its ‘lawfulness’ in the sense of bourgeois, contemplative materialism and classical economy which is internally connected with it, can still grow, as we have seen with the Machists among the followers of Marx.” Later on, comrade Lukács stresses that even Machism can give birth to “voluntarism,” but a bourgeois voluntarism. For fatalism and voluntarism, from the standpoint of dialectics, do not exclude but supplement each other; they are only dialectical opposites, or relative concepts.

All of these arguments are extremely vague and ambiguous; it turns out that Engels, who did not place at the center of his methodological investigation the problem of the relationship of subject to object in the historical process, slid toward bourgeois, contemplative materialism, toward Machism, toward fatalism and so forth. And Lukács reproaches Engels because the central problem of the dialectical method is to change reality, as if it was not Marx and Engels who were the first not only to advance this proposition, but in their entire activity strictly adhered to it; and as if they were not the ones who first formulated communism as practical materialism. If the materialism (of Marx and Engels) is theoretical communism, and communism is practical materialism, then it is obvious that in this formula, the unity of theory and practice, as well as the “revolutionary function of theory,” to use Lukács’s words, is dialectically expressed as well as can be. The question arises: what more does Lukács want, and what is this reformer trying to achieve? This we shall see in what follows. But, while anticipating what comes next, we can already say that, for him, theory, and therefore consciousness as well, have independent significance, independent of “matter,” or reality; that he understands practice just as idealistically as theory; and that his understanding of dialectics is different from the way Marx and Engels understood it.

We must admit that it is extremely odd to see the identification of lawfulness with fatalism and of practice with voluntarism; moreover, lawfulness is mockingly placed by comrade Lukács in quotation marks and declared to be a “bourgeois” category. And if comrade Lukács is disapproving of Machism, then it seems to us that the reason for such an attitude is that Machism, in Lukács’s opinion, is insufficiently idealist, that it is supposedly a variety of bourgeois, contemplative materialism. By the way, what contemporary bourgeois materialism does Lukács have in mind? Doesn’t he know that the bourgeoisie is extremely hostile to any materialism, including contemplative materialism and the materialism of natural science?

As for Machism, it is thoroughly subjectivist; generally speaking, physical lawfulness is denied by Machism. After all, necessity and lawfulness, as Mach and his followers say, relate not to the external world, but to the world of concepts. And as for “voluntarism” in Machism, there is indeed much of it, too much in fact. But what kind of voluntarism is it which Lukács “diplomatically” contrasts with the voluntarism of Marxism? On the one hand, as I have shown elsewhere, the voluntarism of Mach hinges on a metaphysics of the will, drawing close to Schopenhauer in this regard. [8] But this voluntarism, of course, has nothing in common with Marxism.

On the other hand, practice for the Machists is sharply distinguished from theory. Wasn’t it Mach who preached that “whoever defends extreme determinism in theory, inevitably must remain an indeterminist in practice”? “The correctness of the position of determinism and indeterminism,” says the same Mach, “cannot be demonstrated.” Consequently, Mach’s voluntarism is reduced to an acknowledgment of the essence of the world of will, i.e., to voluntaristic idealism, to which Lukács is also inclined. Voluntarism, not in theory, but in practice, means for the Machists, as Lenin correctly indicated, a “subjective method in sociology.” Machism does not even have anything in common with natural-scientific, bourgeois or contemplative materialism, as Lukács thinks.

The reader now sees how Lukács skillfully confuses the simplest things, and what a muddle he is capable of creating in the minds of his readers.

We have already seen that Engels, according to Lukács, neither uncovered nor understood the essence of the dialectical method, and as a consequence fell into the embrace of bourgeois materialism. But suddenly Lukács comes to his senses and on the very same page of his book declares just the opposite, which, by the way, does not prevent him from returning to his original accusation a few lines later. Thus he writes: “… every attempt to ‘critically’ deepen the dialectical method leads to its vulgarization. For the methodological (he writes: methodical.—A.D.) starting point of any ‘critical’ position consists in the separation of method from reality, of thinking from being. … But it is necessary to establish that this criticism by no means moves in the direction which comprises the inner essence of the dialectical method. Marx and Engels spoke about this in very definite terms, which allow no distorted interpretation whatsoever.” [9]

Immediately after this sentence Lukács cites both Engels and Marx. The citation from Engels reads: “Dialectics has been reduced by this to the science of the general laws of movement in the external world and in human thought: two sets of laws which in essence are identical, but different in form, since the human mind can use them consciously; meanwhile in nature, and until now in the greater part in human history, they act unconsciously, in the form of external necessity, by means of an endless multitude of apparent contingencies. Thus the dialectic of concepts itself only became the conscious reflection of the dialectical movement of the external world.” [10]

Unfortunately, Lukács breaks off this citation almost at the beginning, with the words “in essence are identical,” and not unintentionally. The second citation from Marx reads thus in the original: “Just as with any historical social science, when it comes to economic categories one must always keep in mind that both in reality, and in the head, the subject is given, —in our case it is contemporary bourgeois society, and that for this reason the categories express forms of being, conditions of existence, —often only separate aspects of this given society, of this subject…” [11]

Relying on these two quotations, our subtle dialectician arrives at the following conclusions. First of all, here, and that means with Engels included, the true essence of the dialectical method is expressed. Secondly, Marx limits the applicability of the dialectical method to social and historical reality. Thirdly, the alleged disagreement between Marx and Engels over the applicability of dialectics to nature follows from a comparison of these two citations. But Lukács does not notice what contradictions he has fallen into when, while agreeing with Engels that dialectics is the science of the general laws of motion in the external world and in human thought, he rejects dialectics “in the cognition of nature.” On the other hand, from the citation he gives from Marx, where he speaks particularly about economic categories, it by no means follows that Marx denied the applicability of dialectics to nature. Further, Lukács emphasizes that the essence of dialectics consists in the unity of thinking and being, of method and reality. In actual fact, both Engels and Marx are definitely speaking of categories as forms of being, as conditions of existence of the given subject, existing both in reality and in the mind.

Lukács’s co-thinker, comrade Revai, says directly that Engels and Plekhanov resolved the issue of the relationship of being and thinking not in the spirit of dialectics, but in the sense of naturalistic metaphysics. They distorted Hegel, who taught of the identity of subject and object, of being and thinking. But they distorted not only Hegel, but Marx as well, who also supposedly adopted the point of view of this identity. As for Plekhanov, he agreed even prior to that, writes Revai, that he felt it was possible to “seek the basis of psychology in the physiology of the nervous system.”

Engels, Plekhanov and their followers, —says the very same Revai, as a true disciple of Lukács, —adopt the standpoint of the “inexplicable glorification” of natural-scientific cognition. What our innovators want to say by that, Allah only knows. But in any case, it is true that Marx, Engels, Plekhanov, Lenin and their followers truly dare to “philosophically link Marxism with naturalistic materialism,” as our critics so magnificently expressed it, which does indeed horrify them.

All these orthodox Marxists tried to “make nature dialectical” (this remarkable turn of phrase belongs to comrade Revai). Of course, there is no sense whatsoever in these words. No one has ever tried to make nature dialectical. Only subjective idealists can express themselves this way, only those who are dismissive of “naturalistic materialism.” From the standpoint of dialectical materialism, nature is inherently dialectical. And only to that extent is our cognition of nature dialectical. But, evidently, our idealists are in no condition to understand the objective character of the dialectical process of nature and history. You see, reader, what idealist thickets Marxists who deny philosophical materialism are forced to penetrate.

In their desire to “make” nature dialectical, orthodox Marxists have made dialectics naturalistic, say our stern critics. For an attempt to view nature dialectically leads to a situation where historical dialectics remains neglected. The desire to include history in the kingdom of nature brings in its wake a distortion of the dialectical structure of history. Therefore, our innovators conclude, it is not coincidence that politically-revolutionary, orthodox people are naively indifferent to dogmatic “bourgeois” materialism, while at the same time they see immediate political danger in Kantianism, Machism, etc. And it is also no coincidence that dialectics, as a theoretical weapon, was wielded by those Marxists who distorted its philosophical meaning and only grasped it superficially; meanwhile those Marxists who critically overcame primitive materialism, rejected dialectics not only in the realm of philosophy, but in political theory. That is the tune the Lukácsians are singing. They are sharply critical of “dogmatic,” “bourgeois” materialism, but politely condescending toward Kantianism and Machism, which have critically overcome “primitive materialism.” They are incapable of understanding how it is that orthodox Marxists are “indifferent” toward “bourgeois” materialism, yet at the same time inveigh against Machism and Kantianism. But, however, it is very easy to understand. Orthodox Marxists have “inveighed against” and will “inveigh against” (this expression belongs to the Lukácsians, who are shedding tears in this regard) Machism and Kantianism precisely because they are idealist systems and not materialist ones. And they have a positive regard for materialism precisely because they are Marxists, i.e., materialists. Even French, i.e., bourgeois, materialism “fell right into socialism and communism,” to use Marx’s expression. In materialism he justly perceived socialist tendencies, the logical foundation of communism. But the old French materialism was distinguished by its metaphysical and mechanistic character. And Marx and Engels performed a great service by transforming it into dialectical materialism. The Lukácsians remain in confusion before this fact which they do not understand. How could it happen that materialist-Marxists, [12] who “distorted,” to be sure, the philosophical nature of dialectics and grasped it only superficially, nonetheless have mastered dialectics and stood in the realm of politics on the firm ground of revolutionary Marxism? And meanwhile the Machists and Kantians who “critically” overcame naïve materialism have thrown dialectics overboard and turned out to be the most vulgar revisionists. They are in no condition to explain this fact, although they consider it to be “no coincidence.”


And so, Engels and his followers solve the problem of the relationship of thinking and being, subject and object, in terms of “naturalistic metaphysics,” i.e., of materialism, which is very unsettling to our reformers. They, being truly “orthodox” in contrast to someone like Engels, renounce “naïve materialism” and assert the identity of subject and object, of thinking and being. In doing so, as we have already seen, they declare that Marx is on their side, and that they are simply restoring the genuine Marx whom Engels had so unceremoniously distorted or not understood. How just this is, we have already concluded in part.

The completely unfounded attempts to counterpose Engels to Marx must be met with the sharpest opposition. Marx never adopted nor could have adopted the standpoint of the identity of subject and object, of thinking and being. This is the purest idealism which could only be preached by orthodox Hegelians like Lukács and his co-thinkers, but which was absolutely alien to Marx. Lenin was absolutely correct in protesting when the question was framed in this way by Alexander Bogdanov, with whom, by the way, Lukács has much in common. On the question of the identity of being and consciousness, Lenin wrote the following: “Social being and social consciousness are not identical, just as being in general and consciousness in general are not identical. The fact that people, while entering into association do so as conscious beings by no means implies that social consciousness is identical to social being. Entering into association, people in all social formations which are complex to any degree—and especially in a capitalist social formation—are not conscious of what kind of social relations develop in this process, or according to what kind of laws they develop and so forth. … Social consciousness reflects social being—that is what Marx teaches. A reflection can be an approximately true copy of what is being reflected, but it is absurd to speak here about identity. Consciousness in general reflects being,—this is the general proposition of all materialism.” [13]

All orthodox Marxists adopt the standpoint which Lenin has indicated. Being and thinking are not identical, but different. For being exists independently of consciousness, as an objective reality. Consciousness or thinking only reflects being. For declaring this identity of being and thinking, Lenin pounced on the Machists as sharply as he could. The way that Lukács and his co-thinkers pose the question of the identity of thinking and being, subject and object, is even more idealist than it is with the Machists. But to deal in greater detail with this problem and in this connection is not possible. In order to avoid confusion, let us only note that the counterposing of being and thinking, and the difference between them, must be understood, not metaphysically, but dialectically. There is no absolute abyss between being and thinking, but neither is there that idealist identity which Lukács discusses.

The basic historical-materialist proposition, that consciousness is determined by being, is completely distorted in light of the philosophy that proposes an identity of consciousness and being. And this is particularly reflected in Lukács’s interpretation of the “problem” of the proletariat. The Lukácsians are not satisfied by the materialist resolution of the problem of the relationship between thinking and being given by Marx, Engels and Plekhanov. Let us see, using Plekhanov as an example, how materialists interpret this problem. “I am ‘I’ for myself and at the same time—‘you’ for another. I am the subject and at the same time an object. And we must note in addition that I am not the abstract being with which idealist philosophy operates. I am a real being; my body belongs to my essentiality, moreover, my body, as a whole is also my ‘I’, my true essentiality. It is not an abstract being which thinks, but precisely this real being, this body. Thus, in contrast to what the idealists assert, a real material being turns out to be the subject, and thinking—the predicate. And herein lies the only possible resolution of the contradiction between being and thinking, with which idealism struggles so vainly. Not a single element of the contradiction is eliminated here; they are both preserved while revealing their true unity.” [14] It seems to us that this is the only correct dialectical resolution of the problem. What is emphasized here is not only the moment of unity, but also the moment of contradiction. One might ask: why are Lukács and his followers dissatisfied by this materialist and at the same time dialectical presentation of the problem? They do not give an intelligible response to this question. But we would be very interested in knowing how they intend to replace this “naturalistic materialism.”

In protesting against the “transference” of dialectics to nature, the Lukácsians put forward truly laughable conceptions. On the one hand, they assert that nature, when viewed materialistically, is impenetrable. It remains an object metaphysically opposed to the subject; an object which cannot be grasped, so to speak, by the subject. But how are we to understand this claim? For is it not true that man changes nature by his activity? Or is it not true that nature is accessible to human cognition? But if this is so, then isn’t it absurd to speak of nature’s “impenetrability”? Another profound conception amounts to this: by “introducing” dialectics into nature we subject it to “historicization,” but such a historicization or dialectization of nature inevitably leads to the naturalization of history (or of dialectics). What is there to say about such an astounding argument? Evidently, our orthodox Hegelians are inclined to look at nature as some kind of frozen being, which is not subject to the laws of historical development. But to assert such an absurdity in our times is absolutely unforgiveable. None other than Marx, to whose authority the Lukácsians are so eager to refer, wrote that, essentially speaking, there is only one science—the science of history, which is subdivided into the history of nature and the history of people. [15] Of course, this by no means excludes the circumstance that the history of nature is governed by laws which are completely different from the history of people. What, then, remains of Lukács’s claim that Marx banishes dialectics from nature? Absolutely nothing remains, because Lukács has dreamt the whole thing up. We have already seen how Anti-Dühring, which, according to Lukács provides a supposedly distorted presentation of Marxism, was edited prior to publication by Marx. Which means that Marx distorted himself.

Whoever is familiar with the correspondence of Marx and Engels knows that over a period of forty years both thinkers exchanged opinions on all the most important problems of the theory and practice of Marxism—and, in particular, on the question of dialectics in nature. This correspondence once again convinces us that full agreement on all questions of principle existed between Marx and Engels. Engels paid special attention to questions of natural science, while Marx devoted himself fully to the study and discovery of the laws of social development. But this division of labor was accompanied by a mutual exchange of ideas, and mutual, so to speak, oversight. Marx informed Engels in detail about all his works. Engels consulted Marx on everything. In particular, Engels touches on the question of dialectics in nature continuously in his letters. In Marx’s letters of response we always see his full agreement with Engels. It is obvious to everyone that, if Marx had not shared Engels’s views on “dialectics in nature,” he would have somehow called his friend to order, argued with him, or made him an appropriate and friendly suggestion. But this never happened; just the opposite occurred. Thus, in a letter from 16 June 1867, Engels writes about a new molecular theory attributed by Engels to Hofmann. “The molecule as the smallest part of matter capable of independent existence is a perfectly rational category, a ‘nodal point’, as Hegel calls it, in the infinite progression of subdivisions, which does not terminate it, but marks a qualitative change.” [16] In response to this letter Marx writes (the letter is from 22 June 1867): “You are quite right about Hofmann. Incidentally, you will see from the conclusion to my Chapter III, where I outline the transformation of the master of a trade into a capitalist—as a result of purely quantitativechanges—that in the text there I quote Hegel’s discovery of the law of the transformation of a merely quantitative change into a qualitative one as being attested by history and natural science alike.” [17],[18] In this manner, Marx definitely talks of a dialectical law which has been confirmed both in history and in nature. It would be possible to introduce a number of other citations and facts as proof that full agreement existed between Marx and Engels with regard to dialectics in nature. But it seems that this is not necessary, for it is clear to any Marxist, even without special quotations.


It now remains for us to say a few more words about dialectics in general. Comrade Lukács advances his own particular understanding of dialectics. Orthodox Marxist-materialists, with Engels in the lead, “distorted” not only Marx, but Hegel as well. Lukács considers himself called upon to restore both the true Marx and the genuine Hegel, cleansed of the “distortions” made by the orthodox. What, then, is the essence of dialectics? In response to this question, comrade Lukács gives the following answer: the foundation of dialectics is the interaction of subject and object, the unity of theory and practice, and a historical change in the substrate of categories as the basis for their changes in thought. Is this the way it is? No, it is not.

Let us turn to Hegel to see what he understands by dialectics. “True dialectics consists in the internal and progressive transition of one determination into another, in which it is discovered that these determinations of reason are one-sided and limited, i.e., they contain their own negation. A distinguishing feature of all that is finite is that it annuls itself” (Encyclopedia, § 81, note 1). Further, in addition I to the same paragraph, Hegel says the following: “It is very important to understand the true meaning of dialectics. It is the beginning of all movement, of all life and activity in the world of reality. In the same way, dialectics is the soul of all genuine scientific knowledge. Usually we step beyond the boundary of the abstract determinations of reason only out of a feeling of justice according to the Proverb: live and let live; and on this basis we allow certain determinations as well as their opposites. In actual fact, all that is finite is not bounded only from without, but by its very nature annuls itself and passes into its opposite. For instance, we say that man is mortal, and attribute death to the influence of external circumstances, i.e., we acknowledge in man two qualities: life and mortality. But life bears within itself a seed of death, and in general all that is finite contradicts itself and thereby sublates [annuls and preserves—translator] itself.” And later in the same “Supplement”: “Reason stubbornly rejects dialectics. But dialectics does not belong exclusively to philosophy. On the contrary, it is present even in everyday thinking about itself and in general. Everything that surrounds us can serve as an example of dialectics. We know that everything finite changes and is annihilated; its change and destruction is nothing but its dialectic; [19] it contains within itself its own other and therefore goes beyond the bounds of its immediate existence and passes into its opposite.” Thus, dialectics, according to Hegel’s doctrine (and also orthodox Marxism’s, of course), is not something external with regard to the subject, nor is it the movement of our subjective thought, nor the mechanical struggle of forces acting in opposite directions, as Dühring believed, but the internal life of subjects themselves, a process of change and destruction immanent to the subject. Therefore, Hegel says that change and destruction of the subject is its dialectic. It is in this sense that Engels speaks of contradiction which exists objectively in things themselves and in phenomena. [20]

In supplement II to the same § 81, Hegel further points to the positive result of dialectics. “But philosophy,” he says, “does not stop at the negative result of dialectics. … The result of dialectics is negation, but this negation is at the same time an affirmation, because it contains within itself, as sublated, that from which it came, and does not exist separately from it.” This unity of two opposite determinations is a higher, so-called positive-rational moment, in contrast to two lower moments of the idea: the abstract and the truly-dialectical, or negative-rational. [21]

The same ideas are developed by Hegel in the Greater Logic (as well as in The Phenomenology of Spirit). In the concluding chapter, entitled “The Absolute Idea,” Hegel once again develops the idea that the essence of dialectics consists in assuming and destroying contradictions which are inherent in concepts (as well as objects). Movement forward is accomplished through three moments and two negations—the assertion of the concept, contradiction and destruction of the contradiction, which is why dialectics is called by Hegel the method of absolute negativity. “The immediate, from this negative side, has passed into the other, but the other is in essence not an empty negative, the nothing that is recognized as the objective result of dialectics, but the other of the first, the negative of the immediate; consequently, it is determined as the mediated, and generally it contains within itself the determination of the first. Thereby the first is preserved and maintained even in the other.” [22]

Fully in the spirit of Hegel, Engels explains that dialectics consists in nothing other than the view “that the world must be seen not as a complex of ready things, but as a complex of processes; things which seem stable, exactly like their mental reflections in our head—concepts—experience continuous changes, continually arise and disappear, and despite all the apparent contingency, despite all temporary reverse currents, in the end, further development carves its way.” [23] And in full agreement with the very same Hegel, Engels teaches that the inner stimulus or principle of any development is the element of contradiction. Thus, in this issue there is no disagreement between Hegel, on the one hand, and Marx and Engels on the other.

They all see the world—nature and history—as a dialectical process of development, in which everything finite arises, changes and is destroyed, due to inner contradictions inherent in it. Such is the essence of dialectics. Now the question arises about the relationship of categories in the system of dialectics, about the relative significance of each of them taken separately and in particular—about the place in the system of dialectics of the categories of subject and object, theory and practice. These categories also are developed by Hegel in the last part of the Logic. It is precisely these categories that Lukács extracted from the entire system of dialectics as the most essential, the most intrinsic, having apparently cast aside all the rest.

Unfortunately, at this point we do not have the opportunity to spend time on an analysis and comparative evaluation of the significance of various categories with Hegel and within the system of Marxism. But we would only like to stress that Hegel always took the entire process of development in all its moments; that, having climbed to the summit of the absolute idea, he also indicated that the entire process of development served as its true content. Movement forward begins with abstract and simple determinations, or categories, passing into subsequent ones, which become ever richer and more concrete.

“At each stage of further determination, the entire mass of its previous content arises, and through its dialectical movement forward, not only loses nothing and leaves nothing behind, but carries with itself all that has been acquired, thereby enriching and concentrating itself within itself.” [24] So too, on the whole, was Marx’s point of view. “The simplest categories are expressions of conditions in which undeveloped concreteness might realize itself”; a concrete category is, to use Marx’s expression, the ideal expression of a more multi-faceted relationship.

“Developed concreteness preserves the simplest category as a subordinate relationship.” We would be taken too far afield if we were to engage in a detailed analysis of the ideas expressed by Marx in the words just cited. We must only emphasize that, from the standpoint of the dialectical method one cannot tear away results from the entire process of development, an expression of which the result actually is. Therefore, all “lower” categories at higher stages of development are preserved, and are not abolished, as Lukács evidently thinks when, in social and historical life, he gives decisive meaning to the “interaction of subject and object,” to the unity of theory and practice, not to mention that he has incorrectly understood these last dialectical opposites. According to Lukács, it turns out that “practice” is overcome by theory alone, by consciousness alone, and not by the self-development of reality, in which self-consciousness is a part. For Lukács, consciousness or theory is the true demiurge of reality.

As for the “interrelationship of subject and object,” then it acquires the meaning of identity, in full correspondence with the entirety of its idealist conception. But it is noteworthy that even the absolute idealist Hegel, with whom the dialectic often got the upper hand of his idealism, warned against a metaphysical understanding of the unity of subject and object. Thus, in one place in the Encyclopedia, he says: “The definition: ‘the absolute is the unity of subject and object’ is true, but incomplete, because here there is mention only of unity, and the emphasis is placed upon it, whereas the subjective and objective are not only identical, but they are also different” (Supplement to § 82).

We have already seen how materialists understand the unity of subject and object, thinking and being. In the quotations cited above from Engels and Marx, Lukács attended to the unity of thinking and being on the part of the founders of Marxism. But how must this “identity” be understood? In our opinion, it must be understood in the sense of the correspondence of our ideas, of the reality of our subjective thinking, to objective being. In a letter to Conrad Schmidt on 12 March 1895, Engels writes: “The identity of thinking and being (using Hegel’s expression) everywhere corresponds to your example of the circle and the polygon. Both one and the other—both the idea of the thing, and its reality—move side by side, like two asymptotes, always drawing closely to each other, but never meeting. This difference between the two is the same difference which makes it such that the idea is not immediately, without further ado, reality; and reality is not immediately its own idea.” [25] The idea does not coincide immediately with reality, but it is derived from reality: reality corresponds to the results of thinking, the idea corresponds to reality, only asymptotically approaching it, to use Engels’s expression. As we have seen, Lenin, too, develops the same point of view. If, therefore, Lukács sees the essence of dialectics in the identity of being and thinking, then he is profoundly mistaken, and he refers in vain to Marx and Engels.

In Hegel’s system, knowledge, as well as the idea of good, are objective stages in the development of the absolute idea. It [the absolute idea—translator] has itself as its object. The unity of the subjective and the objective form the idea proper. Knowledge is the theoretical activity of the idea; the need to realize the good is the practical activity of the idea. The absolute idea is the unity of the theoretical and practical idea. Lukács, following Hegel, advances, as the highest category of social and historical life, “the unity of subject and object,” i.e., knowledge, or the idea. Lukács does not develop his thought to the end. But it is by no means difficult to figure it out.

His understanding of the interrelationship between theory and practice—or, as Hegel expresses it, of the unity of knowledge and life—calls to mind the Hegelian absolute idea, which is the unity of the theoretical and practical idea; for Lukács understands this interrelationship not materialistically, but idealistically, according to Hegel. Thus Lukács includes knowledge and the idea in the foundation of social and historical dialectics. After the work he has done in transforming Marxism in the spirit of idealism, he waves his hands in confusion and asks: how could it happen that Engels did not notice the most crucial thing in dialectics, that he did not crown it with “the unity of subject and object”? It now becomes clear for us why Lukács rejects dialectics in nature. Once it is reduced to the “interaction of subject and object,” to a cognitive process, then, of course, there is no place for it in nature. [26]

But people might object that, by the “interaction of subject and object” Lukács does not understand the process of cognition, but something completely different. To this we can respond that the only materialist sense of the “interaction” could be in understanding it as the labor process, the process of production as activity, as the struggle of society with nature. “Man not only changes the form of what is given by nature; in what is given by nature he simultaneously realizes his conscious goal, which, as a law, determines the means and character of his actions and to which he must subordinate his will,” says Marx. History is nothing other than the ceaseless changing of human nature. Acting on external nature, man in the process of this activity changes his own nature. The production of ideas and conceptions is most intimately dependent and connected with the material activity of people and with their material relations. The being of people is the actual process of their lives. Consciousness cannot be anything but cognized being. The relationship of the individual (subject) to nature (the object), the individual’s unity with it is the prerequisite for a theory of knowledge; the relationship of human society with nature—and this relationship is realized through the production of material life—is the foundation and point of departure of any historical process. In such conditions, the “interaction of subject and object” is reduced to human activity, to labor, to the process of production. And therefore we can definitely say that the “category” of productive forces, or of production, is the true “unity” of subject and object of the historical process, for in these “categories” is given the immediate relationship of subject (society) and object (nature); in them is given their true material unity. The limitations of subject and object are removed by a real process, by sensuous-human activity, by practice. What is the nature of the practice of social man? The process of production. “Production,” says Marx, “produces not only the object for the subject, but also the subject for the object.” If one understands “interaction between subject and object” in the sense we have developed, then it is obvious that it is the central “category” of all Marxism, that production is the concrete unity of the entire social and historical process. But if this is truly so, then how can one make the categorical statement—as Lukács does—that “the interaction of subject and object” in the historical process not only is not the central problem of Engels’s dialectics, but that poor Engels never even touched upon this question, for which Lukács issues him a strong rebuke. It is apparent that comrade Lukács understands this “interaction” to be something quite peculiar.

One more sin committed by Engels, if Lukács is to be believed, amounts to failing to understand the “unity of theory and practice.” And Lukács proceeds to instruct Engels with regard to the extraordinary importance of this unity. But what must be understood by the unity of theory and practice? Every seminarian knows that Marx and Engels taught that their materialism is not limited to explaining the world, but aims at changing it; that revolutionary theory is in the most intimate way bound up with, or should be bound up with, revolutionary practice. In correspondence with this understanding of the unity of theory and practice, they called communism practical materialism and they viewed their own theory as the immediate result of the revolutionary movement. The true unity of theory and practice is realized in the practical transformation of reality, in the revolutionary movement which rests on the theoretically discovered laws of development of this very reality. Obviously it is ridiculous and absurd to teach Engels these ABC’s.

But the point is that, when two people say the same thing, then it is far from being the same thing. After all, Lukács claims that Engels never even touches on this problem. Consequently, by the “unity of theory and practice” Lukács once again understands something peculiar, something that is astounding. He understands the unity of subject and object in the sense that the subject devours the object, in the sense of their idealist identity. He interprets the unity of theory and practice in such a way that practice is dissolved in theory and overcome by it. It is completely understandable that neither Marx nor Engels ever adopted this idealist standpoint.

In these hastily prepared remarks we have touched on only a few basic problems; we reserve the right to return to the content of comrade Lukács’s book as a whole at another time.

A. Deborin


Original article: А. Деборин, Г. Лукач и его критика марксизма, «Под знаменем марксизма», 1924, июнь-июль, № 6-7, стр. 49-69 [A. Deborin, “G. Lukács and his Criticism of Marxism,” “Under the Banner of Marxism,” 1924, June-July, № 6-7, pp. 49-69].


The present article has simultaneously been sent by the editors to the Society of Militant Materialists for publication as a separate pamphlet for the Vth Congress of the Communist International.


See the article: H. Wendorf, „Dialektik und materialistische Geschichtsauffassung“ (Historische Vierteljahrschrift, XXI Jahrgang, 2 H.).


Werner Sombart, „Der Begriff der Gesetzmäßigkeit bei Marx,“ Schmollers
Jahrbuch, 47 Jahrgang, 1924.


Ibid., p. 30.


See his book: Philosophie und Marxismus, (there is a Russian translation by G. Bammel).


Georg Lukács, Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein, S. 17.


See also: Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism, 1920, p. 158.


G. Lukács, Ibid., p. 16.


Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach, 1906, pp. 61-62.


K. Marx, Toward a Critique of Political Economy, p. XLIII.


Of course, we do not have in mind here E. Bernstein, whom Lukács through some monstrous misunderstanding includes among the materialists. Perhaps he does this in order to compromise the materialists?


N. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism, 1923, p. 27.


G. Plekhanov, Fundamental Problems of Marxism, edited by D. Riazanov, 1922, p. 19.


See: The Marx-Engels Archive, edited by D. Riazanov, Book I (Marx and Engels “On Feuerbach”).


MECW, vol. 42, p. 382.


“Here, as in natural science, there is confirmation of the correctness of the law discovered by Hegel in his Logic, that purely quantitative changes at a certain stage pass into qualitative differences.” (Karl Marx, Capital, 1920 [Russian edition], p. 285).


Ibid., p. 385.


My italics.


See: Engels, Anti-Dühring, Petrosovet, 1918, p. 108.


See also: Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, Lasson, 1922. „The higher dialectic of the concept understands determination not only as a limit and an opposite, but engenders a positive content from itself and a positive result; thanks to this alone it is development and an immanent movement forward. This dialectic further is not an external act of subjective thought, but is the very soul of the content, organically producing its branches and fruit. Thinking, as something subjective, only observes this development of the idea as the proper activity of its rationality, without adding anything on its part. To examine rationally some object means not to add reason from without to the object and to develop it in this way; it means that the object itself is rational … the purpose of science is only to become aware of this independent work of the reason of a thing.” (§ 31, p. 44).


Hegel, Science of Logic, Part II, p. 205 (Russian translation by Debolsky); [Hegel’s Science of Logic, translated by A.V. Miller, 1969, p. 834]


Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach. [See, MECW, vol. 26, p. 384].


Hegel, Science of Logic, Part II, pp. 210-211 (Russian translation). [Hegel’s Science of Logic, 1969, p. 840].


Cf. MECW, vol. 50, pp. 463-464.


“‘Nature and history!’ – as if these are two ‘things’ differentiated from each other,” says Marx, “as if man is not historical nature and does not have before himself a natural scientific history.’ Cf. Marx and Engels, “On L. Feuerbach,” Marx-Engels Archive, edited by D. Riazanov, book I, p. 217. [Cf. MECW, vol. 5, p. 39]