Note 6: Georg Lukacs: On Social Evolution. 9/18/99

A serious impediment to granting Marxian theory its due measure of validity has always stood on the ground where time, and its duration, intersects with the rise and development of human social structures. Georg Lukacs, in History and Class Consciousness (trans. Rodney Livingstone, MIT Press, 1988), has articulated most of the issues involved in what I see as a serious problem for Marxian thought in clear and precise language. He notes, for instance, in his discussion of Marxian orthodoxy, that a primary difference between Marx and Engels and bourgeois economic theory rests in the fact that they perceived economic reality as a consequence of relations between persons and not as relations between things. He goes on to assert that "It is by virtue of this insight that the dialectical method and its concept of totality can be seen to provide real knowledge of what goes on in society" (15). For Lukacs this is a crucial, even an all-inclusive, distinction. The introduction of the deep forms of dialectical methodology, the ones Marx and Engels derived and then improved from Hegel, according to Lukacs, are what gives Marxian theory its unique ability to see through and beyond the "unmediated formulae of bourgeois economics" and penetrate to the deeper and more significant levels of the social relationships that generate economic activity among people. He says that

"At every stage of social evolution each economic category reveals a definite relation between men. This relation becomes conscious and is conceptualised. Because of this the inner logic of the movement of human society can be understood at once as the product of men themselves and from forces that arise from their relations with each other and which have escaped their control." (15)

Lukacs goes on to argue that the actual "process of social evolution becomes visible" in the interaction between persons engaged in economic activity because the relations underlying that activity are responsible for the transformations that occur in society. In other words, if you can see the relations between men (and also presumably between women) that conceptualize economic reality clearly, that is, dialectically, then you can also see social evolution as it occurs, or as it has occurred in the past, at the same time, because economic relations are the driving force behind social transformations.

There is one other concept in Lukacs's thinking that is a necessary component of the position he is articulating here. In his analysis of the effects bourgeois capitalism have produced in the world. Lukacs argues that

"In its universe there is a formal equality for all men; the economic relations that directly determined the metabolic exchange between men and nature progressively disappear. Man becomes, in the true sense of the word, a social being. Society becomes the reality for man." (19)

The idea here, as noted elsewhere in this document with regard to Marxian ideology, is that capitalism, in its unfettered drive to exploit nature for the sake of economic growth and expansion, in its unbridled lust to create capital, has nearly succeeded in the annihilation of nature by transforming natural resources into the goods and commodities it manufactures and sells to the workers who produce those commodities. Since most manufactured goods are designed to insulate people from direct contact with natural forces, (wo)man has become more and more separated, and alienated, from the natural world as capitalism has converted nature from raw material into conveniences that serve only social and socializing functions. Marxists generally do not condemn capitalism for its unhindered destruction of natural reality, however, but only complain about the way in which the wealth generated by that destruction is distributed among the people who own the means of production, on the one hand, and the ones who produce the commodities through their labor, on the other. After fixing the notion that society has become the only reality for human consciousness firmly in place, Lukacs goes on to assert that Marxism does not recognize the existence of individual sciences anymore but perceives only "a single, unified--dialectical and historical--science of the evolution of society as a totality" (28).

There is only one compelling problem with Lukacs's vision in the way he articulates it in these early attempts (the essays quoted here were written around 1918) to justify Marxian ideology: while it might be disingenuous to characterize them as a kind of naive scientism, the inescapable fact remains that Darwin's theory of evolution deals with change and transformation in animal species that occur over geological epochs of time and not over decades and centuries of a social development restricted to a moment or two in the historical life of that species. Even if it makes sense to factor the intervals of time in evolutionary theory down from tens of millions of years to a few generations or decades of historical time, it will not be clear that whatever happens in terms of social change in that restricted period of time can be legitimately referred to as evolutionary change.

An example might be useful here in drawing a distinction between change in behavior as opposed to change in an evolutionary sense. I have noticed, for instance, that squirrels in New Orleans cross streets on the electrical wires above intersections and never do so at ground level. I have never seen a squirrel cross any street on the ground. This fact of behavior, of course, could be attributed to an essential squirrelness because they do live mostly in trees and get from one to the other by crossing over on the small branches that interconnect the arboreal canopy. I have seen them leap across gaps between the outer branches of one tree to another. When the gap is too wide for the leap to be made safely, however, I have seen them crossing from one tree to the next on the ground but they never do this to get from one side of a street to the other. One can argue that squirrels learned this behavior through a natural inclination to move from place to place above ground and use the electrical highways in the city to accomplish their goals but, at the same time, the practice also has a practical necessity involved in it because of the danger that exists in trying to beat the traffic across the heavily traveled streets of city. Two facts are evident in this example: both automobiles and electrical wires above the street have existed for less than a hundred years but in that time the squirrel population of New Orleans has been conditioned to cross the street by using the wires above the dangers of the traffic. What is obvious is that the squirrels who did not made that adaptation early on in the rise of automobile traffic after the turn of the century did not live long enough to reproduce and ground-crossing squirrels were weeded out of the population leaving behind only the ones who crossed on the wires.

The point here is that the phenomenon of wire-crossing squirrels meets most of the criteria for evolutionary change. It clearly involves the survival of the fittest, since only squirrels who were able to adapt to the pressures of environmental change were able to survive and reproduce. The question this example begs, however, is whether or not the change in behavior, which has occurred in less than a hundred years, even if it demonstrates the evolutionary principle of the survival of the fittest, really can be called an evolutionary change in squirreldom. My answer to this question is probably not, even definitely no. Changes in behavior, even when they look like, and might even be, survival strategies which result in the elimination of members of a community not able, or willing, to adapt to environmental pressures have nothing to do with evolution. If squirrels eventually grow another pair of legs or add toes to the feet, which makes it easier and more efficient for them to cross streets on high-tension wires, then the change would be evolutionary. A change like that, of course, would take longer than a hundred years--and that is exactly the point. I say that because, if automobile traffic were to suddenly disappear from the streets of New Orleans, and not return, squirrels would probably revert to crossing the street at ground level.

In general, social forms of practice do not involve alterations in the physical reality of the species that are affected by them and are far too changeable in the way they must be defined for anyone to assert that what exists politically, say, at this moment, will also be here and in place tomorrow, or next week, or in ten years. There is also no way to predict whether a previous political passion, or point of view, which is now considered to be declasse and culturally bankrupt, will not again rise in the consciousness of a majority of people and reassert its ideology against whatever forms of social practice replaced it in the first place. What this means is that evolutionary processes never go back to prior forms or previous incarnations. One can avoid this problem, of course, by looking for aspects of social reality that are deeper and more significant than mere political points of view. The problem with that approach, however, is that Marxism itself is as much a superficial political orientation as are most other kinds but manages to separate itself from them by claiming, as Lukacs does here, that it has a special knowledge of the human condition, a unique methodology, which elevates and removes it from their class.

Beyond this initial problem, one must also address the issue of whether or not there are any mechanisms in place in society at large and in general that actually control or influence the way in which relations between people are conducted. Here I am not referring to social norms, habits, mores, and the like, but rather to laws which exist outside the reach of human agency always already in place and functioning to cause only one predictable effect when circumstances warrant this or that specific change in a point of view or political orientation. If there are such laws, of course, no one has ever said what they are. In any given circumstance, whether its conditions are perceived as being positive, negative, or neutral, the response anyone affected by it has and expresses can, and probably will, be as varied as there are individuals in the collective that witnesses its occurrence or endures its coming into being. Marxism counters this objection by asserting that the concept of the "individual" is only part of the false consciousness of bourgeois ideology and therefore cannot be taken into account in this context because only the "collective" response has any meaning or significance. That is a useful assertion if, and only if, there is a coercive force available and in place which insures hegemony in the reaction engendered by this or that circumstance as it affects individual members of the proposed collective. Since the collective must exist in a hegemonic context before individual reactions to stimuli become irrelevant (because they affect everyone equally and in the same way), as social forces in the economy create change, person by person as it were, what immutable law is it that "coerces" every member of the class affected into that hegemonic collective?

Marxism has always argued that if a capitalist treats his/her workers "badly" enough, however that term might be defined, they will rise up and seize the means and modes of production for themselves and institute the perfect workers state where true democracy will eventually cause the withering away of all previous forms of government. That kind of revolution may have occurred in Russia, China, Cuba, etc. but so far as anyone can tell the ideal state has not followed in the wake of the emergence of the hegemonic collective that might, or might not, have been successfully established in those places. The coercive force necessary to insure the hegemony was certainly evident in the repressive totalitarian governments that emerged in most communist states but the realization of the ultimate goal has not come into existence as a natural and inevitable consequence of the rise of the workers' class. This fact alone, even in the face of every rationalization one can think of and offer as a reason why it did not happen as expected, calls the notion of historical determinism and social evolution into serious question.

A final point one can take here concerns the fact that much of the authority Marxism hoped to find in the science of evolution, in support of its theory about the existence of historical determinism, was transferred to it through the argument that (wo)man had generally managed to replace her/his dependence on nature and natural forces, where evolution certainly does function as a principle of change over geological epochs of time, and replace that relation with one defined as being essentially social in its reality. Since society replaced nature as the place where (wo)man lived, and since this happened naturally in terms of the way Marx and Engels tend to describe it, the same principles that ordered (wo)man's existence in nature must have been transferred into society and social relations as that transition was accomplished. What was true in nature must also be true in society, since one replaced the other in a process of historical determinism and in the natural evolution of the species from natural to social being. The problem with that argument is that it tends to confuse cause and effect, on the one hand, and uses its conclusion to prove the validity of its premise, instead of the other way around, on the other.

From a native American point of view, since we have never given up the idea that we are a natural people, a people who do not attempt to wall ourselves off from reality at the expense of nature, and are generally dedicated to preserving the old ways in which we have always lived, seeking progress in changing ourselves for the better, instead of changing our environment, arguments about historical determinism and social evolution, except where we have been made victims of deterministic elements of Eurocentric greed, are mostly beside any point of relevance in the way we have always conducted our lives. To say that Lukacsian theory means nothing at all to native American perceptions of reality is to give it more notice than it deserves.

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