The Question of Educational Work [1]

Georg Lukács

Methodological and fundamental questions will in all likelihood dominate the coming discussions on the question of education. The theses of the Hungarian comrades have already raised the issue of the predominance of the social and historical sciences over the natural sciences. For this they have been applauded by Comrade Röbig (in no. 6 of the second volume of Jugend‑Internationale), but they will no doubt also encounter strong opposition. It is therefore perhaps not entirely irrelevant to examine briefly the methodological aspect of the question. [2]

First and foremost, let us remember that if the argument is to be conducted sensibly, it can and must revolve only around priorities of method, rather than subject matter. It must be evident to any intelligent person that the dictatorship of the proletariat, once it has survived the initial critical period, will engender an unprecedented flowering of the natural sciences and technology. Indeed, it is clear that technology cannot be free to realize its full and at present scarcely conceivable potentialities until the profit barrier has disappeared. Given all this, however, the question arises: will and should the method of the natural sciences play the same definitive and omnipotently influential role in the education, thinking, emotions, sciences and philosophy of the new society as it did in bourgeois society? For we have to be quite clear on this point: every aspect of human life in bourgeois society was dominated by that method. The mere fact that—discounting a few (as we shall see later) reactionary exceptions—the knowledge produced by the natural sciences was regarded as knowledge as such, or at least as the ideal type of knowledge; the fact that in this respect the main currents in bourgeois philosophy (materialism ŕ la Büchner, Kantianism and empirio‑criticism) were all in agreement—this is proof enough, which for lack of space we are neither able nor willing to elaborate upon at this juncture. That this was so is no mere coincidence. Not only did the natural sciences make possible the—capitalistic—rationalization of production, etc. for bourgeois society; their methodology also provided it with an excellent ideological weapon in the struggle against both the declining feudal system and the rising proletariat.

The primary function of the laws of nature (for the sake of simplicity we shall centre the issue on this one point) is generally known and easily understood. The personal ‘man‑to‑man’ oppression and exploitation characteristic of feudalism needed the ideological sanction of divine revelation and authority. If the nascent capitalist society was to prise the worker ‘free’ for its purposes, it had not only to remove the economic and political ties of the old order, but also to shatter its ideological foundations. It therefore had to replace the personal god with the impersonal law of nature; the old authority had to be destroyed, but a new one raised to the throne in its stead. This new authority is the law of nature. Its function is twofold. On the one hand it destroys the old authority, shattering the belief among the masses that the feudal form of oppression and exploitation is an eternally valid and divinely ordained order. On the other hand, however, it arouses in them the belief that the capitalist system of production, impersonal and ostensibly conforming to ‘the laws of nature’, corresponds to the ‘eternal’ laws of human reason, is independent of human volition and indestructible in the face of human strivings; that it is, in fact, a second nature. We can see here the connection between bourgeois economics and the method of the natural sciences. Just how strong it is is proved by the fact that the political dilution of Marxism at the end of the nineteenth century was accompanied by the infiltration of that very bourgeois ‘scientism’ into historical materialism. Bernstein began the struggle against the ‘unscientific’ dialectical method; sociology as ‘pure’ natural science, Kantianism and Machism followed his lead. And they achieved their objective: among the leadership and large sections of the proletariat there developed the belief in the indestructibility and ‘natural’ necessity of capitalism. A world‑outlook of economic fatalism became widespread which made the idea of a radically new social order, the idea of a revolutionary transformation of society, seem adventuristic, ‘unscientific’, even un‑Marxist. (How deeply this methodological position is rooted in the theory of opportunism cannot be discussed even briefly here. I would just point out that the opportunists, because they operated with unhistorical, ‘timeless’ criteria of ‘the laws of nature’, were bent on examining a capitalism as such, a crisis as such, and so on. Consequently they were totally unable to grasp historically new phenomena such as imperialism in all its essential novelty.

In view of this it must be emphasized that the method of the proletariat is a historical one. Marx grasped the essence of capitalism as a historical phenomenon historically—in order to demonstrate its necessary destruction historically. If the proletariat is going to have the support of a revolutionary science for its class struggle, therefore, it must follow the traditions of historical‑materialism, the Marxist method. In placing the historical‑social method in the forefront, however, we shall have to overcome strong—and understandable—prejudices. For within capitalism the method of the natural sciences was in fact the progressive one and the historical method the reactionary one. Whereas the former was the ideological expression of the rising bourgeois class, feudalism in its desperate efforts to defend itself looked to history for an ideological weapon to safeguard tradition and legitimacy. [3] And again, in the period of bourgeois decadence we find a form of historicism gaining ground as the ideological expression of spiritual exhaustion, indifference, fatalism and craving for sensation. Just as the decadent Romans arrived at a kind of religious eclecticism, so at the end of the nineteenth century there emerged a brand of indiscriminate historical relativism or historicism. To an ever‑increasing degree the bourgeoisie abandoned the ideological defence of capitalist society, the proof of its necessity and reasonableness, to their lackeys, the social democrats, who henceforth became the heirs of the bourgeois ‘scientific’ tradition.

Our conception of history has nothing at all in common with any of that. Above all, it does away completely with all forms of fatalism (the historical as well as that of the natural sciences). ‘Men make their own history’, says Engels in Feuerbach, [4] and Marx in the theses formulates the thought even more pointedly when he stresses that the problem is not to interpret the world, but to change it. [5] However, if that formulation defines the goal and the method of proletarian science, then it follows that the essential object of knowledge is the totality of human society and that the aim of that science is to make conscious what the development of this totality means for the proletariat in terms of tasks, in terms of action. Such knowledge, the knowledge of the whole and of the whole as a process—a knowledge which is only the preliminary stage of action—is provided only by Marxism, revolutionary dialectics, historical materialism.

We must of course be clear that such a penetration of all fields of knowledge by the spirit of revolutionary Marxism is today still only a demand posed to science: a demand which can be fulfilled only in and through the revolution. However great the achievements of Marx and Engels and some of their successors are, however much historical development has already wrought certain changes of this kind or at least begun the process in that direction even within bourgeois society (e.g. geography as a social science, as anthropo‑geography in conjunction with the theory of location)—we still stand at the very beginning of the road. And the union of all sciences under the aspect of the self‑knowledge of the free man living in a free community is a goal in the distant future. We can assume that the individual sciences will retain for a long time to come the abstract isolation, specialization and incoherence which they have inherited from the capitalist division of labour and reification, and from bourgeois individualism. Their transformation into integral elements of an all‑embracing totality, which will then include the natural sciences as well, is in itself a process which we have only just begun. The material of the individual fields of knowledge as they exist makes it impossible to offer the fighting proletariat precisely what it is thirsting to learn and what it needs; but this cannot prevent us from attempting even now to make this demand conscious within the proletariat. Precisely because we are at present unable to work through the entire spectrum of the knowable with our method, we must at least put the method itself at the centre of our educational work. For only in this way can our work embrace both the demands of the day and the creation of the future. Only in this way can the ideological sway of bourgeois ideas and prejudices over the proletariat be broken and make way for a fruitful critique that leads to action. This critique of bourgeois society, which only dialectical materialism is able to effect, is at the same time, however, the lever which will be able to set the movement in motion in the direction of the realm of the future.

1. First appeared in Jugend‑Internationale, II/7, 1921 (Editor's note).

2. Materialistic is not the antithesis of idealistic, as is falsely maintained in the usual accounts of Marxism, but the correlative of formalistic—a fact of profound significance for a proletarian view of history. Unfortunately it is not possible to unravel the consequences of this very important thesis here (G. L.’s note).

3. For example the historical school of law. On this see Marx, Nachlass I, p. 268 (G. L.'s note) (Marx, ‘The Philosophical Manifesto of the Historical School of Law’, Rheinische Zeitung, no. 221, 9 August 1842, in Werke, vol. 1, pp. 78ff. — ed.).

4. Selected Works, vol. II, p. 354 (Editor's note).

5. Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, ibid., p. 367 (Editor's note).

SOURCE: Lukács, Georg. “The Question of Educational Work,” in Tactics and Ethics: Political Essays, 1919-1929, translated from the German by Michael McColgan; edited with an introduction by Rodney Livingstone (New York: Harper & Row, 1975; orig. 1972), pp. 91-94. (Footnote arrangement has been converted to endnote format.)

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