Riki Scanlan

On Guterman & Lefebvre’s La conscience mystifiée (1936)

Guterman and Lefebvre mirror the concept of reification yet chart a very different path [from Lukács] with their 1936 account of mystification in La Conscience mystifée. As Daniel Lopez (2019, 478) has argued, History and Class Consciousness aimed at transmitting the lessons of the October Revolution to Western Europe. Fifteen years later, however, the optimistic conditions of the immediate postwar period had dissipated. With fascism surging, Guterman and Lefebvre sought to explain not the universalization of revolution but the proletariat’s turn to fascism. Like Lukács, they show how bourgeois philosophy (via French, not German sources) fails to resolve the contradictions of capitalist society (Guterman and Lefebvre, 1999, 48). In a critique of Kant’s conception of the person, Guterman and Lefebvre (1999, 97) show how the bourgeoisie adopts a contemplative and “spiritual” stance and, thus, this spiritual person “becomes abstraction in pants.” Unlike Lukács, however, they show how fascism seizes on this failure by resurrecting the “sentimental survivals” latent in everyday ideas but superseded by capitalist abstraction: “fidelity, hearth, race, heroism, purity, nobility, duty” (ibid., 66). Liberalism and fascism thus both mystify everyday life and are different faces of abstraction. Liberalism grounds itself on the mystifications of rationality, whereas fascism roots itself on the mystifications of nationality. However, the fascists are clearer-sighted: they “have admittedly understood the advantage they can draw from these mystifying mystifiers” (ibid., 98). Poetically capturing this paralytic outcome of fascist mystifications, Guterman and Lefebvre (ibid., 144) write: “Capitalist decadence uses its own horror to precipitate men into the idea that the human world is eternally horrible.”

When it comes to the role of the proletariat, then, Lefebvre differs from both Lukács and Lenin. Whereas Lenin thinks the knowledge of the Party leads the class and Lukács thinks that the class expresses its knowledge through the Party, Guterman and Lefebvre think that the knowledge of the class is always-already mystified. Even as identical subject-object, the proletariat cannot spontaneously overcome the mystification of consciousness. The crucial historical task, then, is neither to destroy the “sentimental survivals” of everyday life nor uncritically reaffirm them, but to deploy them within a revolutionary project:

The revolutionary critique of this social consciousness shaped by the bourgeoisie must identify and recover the content to which so many men are attached because, in it, they have a presentiment of the most precious assets of civilization. To demystify culture is to detach the form adapted to the demands of bourgeois domination from the content — and to take up this content in its movement and deep aspirations. (Guterman and Lefebvre, 1999, 129.)

We see, here, an appetizer for Lefebvre’s later critiques of everyday life. Crucially, it gives a historical materialist approach attuned to social relations’ differential and uneven development. Such an approach is inconsistent with totalizing conceptions of capitalist society, which forget that the abstract power of capitalism is never totally original or historically complete. It always-already depends upon the survivals and residues that it only tends towards incorporating, eradicating, or reducing. Such a totalizing conception of capitalist social relations “instead of challenging, instead of refusing, merely reflects” (Lefebvre, 1991, 287). This warning regarding abstract space indicates the long-running theoretical concerns of Henri Lefebvre: abstract space is the spatial expression of capitalist totality, and we can see in its formulation a critical through-line to Lukács. After all, abstract space is a historicized conception of Lukacs’ (1971, 90) definition of space as an “exactly delimited, quantifiable continuum filled with quantifiable ‘things.’”

Guterman, Norbert and Lefebvre, Henri. 1999. La conscience mystifiée. Paris: Éditions Syllepse. (Original published 1936) [Spelling corrected. Boldfaces mine. I use this edition: Paris: Le Sycomore, 1979. — RD]

Jacoby, Russell. 1981. Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

———. 2016. Metaphilosophy. Trans. David Fernbach. London and New York: Verso Books.

——— and Patrick Tort. 1986. Lukács 1955. Paris: Aubier.

López, Daniel Andrés. 2019. Lukács: Praxis and the Absolute. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

Lukács, György. 1971. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

SOURCE: Scanlan, Riki. “From Lukács’ Philosophy of Praxis to Lefebvre’s Metaphilosophy of Everyday Life,” Science & Society, Vol. 87, No. 2, April 2023 [Special issue: History and Class Consciousness at 100], pp. 222–228. Excerpted: pp. 223-225, 227.

NOTE: La conscience mystifiée is framed as a prolegomenon to Lefebvre’s well-known critique of everyday life. But the opposition of bourgeois rationalization and the irrationalism manifested in the everyday life of society in which residuals from the past (prior to modern capitalist social organization)—which in moments of crisis may break through established rationalism—present the danger of fascism as well as a potential for something better. Scanlan highlights this in a conceptually clearer way than the few excepts from this work I have seen in English. * This reminded me of Bloch’s notion of non-simultaneity, which was crucial to Bloch’s analysis of fascism. (Note that Wilhelm Reich was on this path also, but in a simplified fashion, in targeting sexual repression and the failure of procedural instrumental politics to tap into instinctual needs.) I asked ChatGPT for a comparison of Lefebvre and Bloch and received an essentially super-Wikipedia summary of their similarities and differences.

* Henri Lefebvre: Key Writings, edited by Stuart Elden, Elizabeth Lebas, and Eleonore Kofman. New York: Continuum, 2003.

Nation and Culture, pp. 220-228;
Between Yourself and You, pp. 229-230.

In these excerpts Lefebvre explains the genesis and contemporary role of nationalism in its fascist manifestation, and the psychological mechanism of degradation and self-deception.

— RD, 7 April & 11 May 2023

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translated by David Fernbach

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