On Lukács’ alleged dualism

Tuesday, 31st May, 2016

It is on my books to write a piece on why I think McNally 2015 does not demonstrate (as it claims to) that “the social relations of race, gender and sexuality, among others, [are] internally constitutive of class”. However, that is a story for another day.

One of his footnotes recalled a snippet of Gramsci I came across once, so for now I’d just like to discuss that.


Among these shortcomings [of Lukács] are a dualistic confinement of dialectics to society rather than to nature, and a related failure to theorise the mediating role of labour in the dialectic of humans and nature.

McNally, 2015, n.5.

It would appear that Lukács maintains that one can speak of the dialectic only for the history of men and not for nature. He might be right and he might be wrong. If his assertion presupposes a dualism between nature and man he is wrong because he is falling into a conception of nature proper to religion and to Graeco-Christian philosophy and also to idealism which does not in reality succeed in unifying and relating man and nature to each other except verbally. But if human history should be conceived also as the history of nature (also by means of the history of science) how can the dialectic be separated from nature? Perhaps Lukács, in reaction to the baroque theories of the Popular Manual, has fallen into the opposite error, into a form of idealism.

Gramsci, 1971.

[The Popular Manual Gramsci is referring to is Nikolai Bukharin’s Historical Materialism.]


These two texts point to the same shortcoming of Lukács. Lukács conceives of dialectics as applying to social/historical phenomena only, and not to nature. Ilyenkov shares this shortcoming. Ilyenkov is very clear in Dialectical Logic that dialectics/logic is the science of thinking, with thinking understood as a social practical activity. Ilyenkov includes as thinking not just speech, but “the whole objective body of civilisation, … tools and statues, workshops and temples, factories and chancelleries, political organisations and systems of legislation.”

I don’t share Gramsci & McNally’s perspective so I can only guess where the accusation of dualism might come from. It sounds like there is this thing called “dialectics”, and Lukács has decided to apply it to one set of things (society, history), but not another set of things (nature). Splitting reality into two like this — instead of using this given “dialectics” to understand all of reality — is dualist. Lukács has decided that reality is made up of two types of thing.

In his essays on the history of dialectics, Ilyenkov presents things the other way around. Logic and dialectics developed, over the centuries, through a long study (an empirical study if you like) of thought. Ilyenkov’s (and I should think Lukács’) position on what dialectics rightly applies to is based on understanding of how dialectics came to be.

The Gramsci & McNally conception of dialectics seems to be of something handed down to us, something pre-existing.

I am not very familiar with this “Dialectics of Nature” position (I haven’t read much Engels at all apart from his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific pamphlet). Dialectics would certainly have something to say about chemistry or biology as sciences (i.e. as thinking), but I can’t see how dialectics would be applied to chemical or biological matter.

If anyone can recommend recent applications of dialectics to nature, I would like to read and try to understand.


Gramsci, Antonio. (19??, tr. 1971). “The Concept of ‘Science'” section of “Problems of Marxism,” in Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), page 448.
Gramsci on Lukács and the dialectic in human vs natural history

McNally, David. (2015). “The dialectics of unity and difference in the constitution of wage-labour: On internal relations and working-class formation”. Capital & Class, February 2015; vol. 39, 1: pp. 131-146.


5 Responses to “On Lukács’ alleged dualism”

  1. I rather like this short account of nature and human history by Ellen Meiksins Wood [ http://vajramrita.tumblr.com/post/145268737797/the-argument-begins-with-one-of-the-first ].

    I wonder why Lukács wrote which was interpreted by both Gramsci and McNally along such similar lines? Do you have any idea of the texts they are referring to?

    • llaisdy Says:

      Hello and welcome! Thanks for your comment.

      I like that Meiksins Wood text too. I don’t know her at all. Thank you for introducing me to her. I’ll read more.

      I don’t know if Gramsci and McNally have specific Lukács texts in mind, or what they might be. The position they accuse him of would be “in character” for Lukács, I think. His essays in History & Class Consciousness were attacked in the 20s (?) so I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s something in there. If I come across anything “incriminating” I’ll be sure to tweet it.


  2. Thank you Ivan.

    I would be interesting in perusing the Marxist critiques made in the 20s of Lukác’s essays in History & Class Consciousness – could I please ask one more question of you which is to point me to one or two of them?


    • llaisdy Says:

      Dear Chris,

      I’ll have a dig around and report back. L’s preface to the 1967 edition of H&CC contains some “self-criticism” of the essays. I don’t know the development of L’s thought but presumably he’d been “brought to heel” by the late 60s.


  3. Thank you again Ivan, it is very kind of you to dedicate your time to such matters.


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