Attila Pató

The concept false consciousness was coined by Georg Lukács in one of his major works, History and Class-Consciousness (Geschichte und Klassenbewußtsein, Berlin, 1923), which played a seminal role for decades in the Marxist tradition. Georg (György) Lukács (1885-1971) was born into a wealthy Hungarian-Jewish family in Budapest, after his studies in Hungary built his scholarly erudition in Florence and Heidelberg before WW1. In his early works, Lukács focused on theoretical interpretations in aesthetics, published particularly inventive essays and books in the theory of the novel. However critical he was toward the bourgeois society, his approach was opposed to radical Leftists until 1918, when he eventually joined the Hungarian Communist Party. Lukács assumed high profile office in the short-lived communist regime in 1919, then was forced to live in exile (Wien, Paris, Moscow) until 1945. After WW2, he actively participated in the anti-intellectual purges on the behalf of the Communist Party in Hungary, and withdrew to passive opposition after 1949. He assumed a ministerial position during the few weeks’ time of revolutionary governments in Hungary. Besides writing philosophical works, in the 1960s, he regularly held lectures and discussions in his private apartment on the bank of Danube (later utilized as the premises by the Lukács Archives) with a circle of disciples soon to be known as the Lukács School, or later as Budapest School (Ágnes Heller, Ferenc Fehér, György Márkus, Mihály Vajda).

To understand the concept of false consciousness, it is necessary to see that Lukács had always been critical on the bourgeois society. In his early works he already analysed modern society for its generic incapacity to grasp life in its totality, due to the fundamentally fragmentary and alienated structures in modern societies. In modernity, culture is marked by Lukács as the only sphere enabling life and life forms to be viewed in their integrity. In this criticism, totality plays a relevant role as a horizon of interpretation: modernity fails since the fundamental problems of existence cannot even be conceptualized by the actors in the sense of a totality that would provide meaning, thus all are detached from the option of any resolution. The existence, as well as the consciousness of actors, individual or collective subjects will always stay entrenched in the particularities of their positions, roles, and to be sure, confined within their consciously or unconsciously acknowledged interests. Literary works and particularly novels offer the only redeem to the structural failures, thus their unique role was marked as embedded in that capacity: to reflect on the fundamental shortages of any modern society, that is their inability to grasp the dimensions and consequences of the impossibility of totality in any particular social framework. Therefore, novels should also confer interpretations of existential problems with reference to the universal horizons of human worldliness. This task, in his evaluation, was accomplished through the best works of the 19th century literature. However, since such a redemption is only available in the sphere of subjectivity (consciousness, i.e., culture), it remains one-sided (lacking the objective site, i.e., practice). However, as another fundamental shortage of culture was soon noticed by Lukács, namely, that it is often mistaken for reality itself. Similar considerations had led Lukács to suddenly join the Communist Party in December 1918, whereupon turned an adherent Communist for the rest of his life.

In his turn towards Marxism, Lukács was not particularly motivated by the classical tenets of economics, not even by the ethical or social injustices suffered by the proletariat. He was primarily interested in the interpretation of modernity and the modalities of its overcoming. Redemption from the failures of modernity first required to find a possibility of unity between the subjective and the objective sides, i.e., between the sphere of consciousness and the sphere of practice. The task also required a different understanding of social and political realities since in his analysis modernity seemed to offer no such point of departure for a radical change. If all the subjects are trapped within the frames of their positions and interests, there seems no way out. No wonder, Lukács found a way in dialectics of history to work out his theorem, which might serve to justify revolution. It was, naturally, Hegel’s philosophy of history which offered a profound justification for modernity and Lukács took Marx as a sort of midwife to criticize Hegel. Based on the concept of alienation, Lukács worked out his own concept of reification, which helped him explain why the capital-based society, or known as bourgeoisie in the traditional Marxist fashion, can only be characterized by a consciousness evaluated as false. The reification refers to the materially produced and perceived world, where all the real existents, products or even perceptions are reified (literally: ‘objectified’) in alienated structures of commodities, all gaining independence from human control, and often running counter to human existence itself. A good example in Marx is that labourers, not only physical blue collar factory workers, perceive their own selves primarily as a labour force that they must sell on the market as a commodity and would be soon used up in the fundamentally alien processes of production, or ‘reification’, realized by the subjects themselves.

For Lukács, the term false consciousness was elaborated in the sense of a misconception, inappropriate or inadequate way to conceive of reality, history, and eventually modernity itself. Still, it is the fundamental interest of the bourgeoisie to adhere to the concept of the Hegelian interpretation of history, which favours them in offering no alternative to modernity, no way to overcome the socio-economical system of modernity that was analysed by Marx as capitalism. Exactly because it falsely pretends to offer reconciliation (in Hegelian terms: Versöhnung), there is no redemption of the distorted subject-object relationship in the modern world (roughly: the consciousness has no access to the totality of the world). Hence the conclusion that this consciousness is false, and Hegel was wrong: history must not end with capitalism. Logically, then, there must be yet another step so that history may enter its final stage. But where to find a subject that would carry out the transition?  The answer should now be dialectically crystal clear: there must exist a form of consciousness which offers the possibility of overcoming modernity. Naturally, in a clearly Hegelian fashion, if there is a false consciousness, which is the reality of modernity, there ought to be a logically given form of consciousness on the antithetic position. Now such a subject, still only a logical position, needs to be granted ontological reality. This is the way, the ‘proletariat’ was discovered for Lukács. As a logically derived subject the proletariat perfectly fits into the framework, but it also suits the revolutionary socio-ontological dialectics. It is not only socially juxtaposed to the bourgeoisie, but opposes it in its fundamental character too, as it is disinterested in maintaining the system. Therefore, it is justified to assume the historically unique destiny to overcome modernity, free the world from the yoke of the false consciousness and open the last stage in history. Now we find both at the level of consciousness and the level of practice the clearly antithetic positions that enable the categorical denial of any modern philosophy resisting the communist ideology. On the other hand, the bourgeoisie represents the subject that is interested in pursuing the system, therefore also interested in being justified by the Hegelian concept of modernity. In this analysis, all modern ideologies, theorems in aesthetics or philosophies that do not subscribe to the revolutionary tenets of communism would be condemned by Lukács as apologetic to capitalism.

Lukács had a major influence in the intellectual life of the interwar period, not merely restricted to the Eastern and Western trends in Marxism. However, he found himself and his seminal work alternatively abused and condemned by the official Stalinist policies.


Primary sources

1. Kadarkay, A. (ed.), The Lukács Reader, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995.

2. Lukács, G. (1910), Soul and Form, A. Bostock (trans.), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971.

3. Lukács, G. (1916), Theory of the Novel. London: Merlin, 1971.

4. Lukács, G. (1923), History and Class Consiousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Cambridge: MIT. Press, 1971.

5. Lukács, G. (1948), The Young Hegel. London: Merlin, 1975.

Secondary sources

1. Adorno, Th., “Ad Lukács,” in Gesammelte Schriften. Vol. 20.1, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1997.  pp. 251–256.

2. Arato, A., and P. Breines, The Young Lukács and the Origins of Western Marxism. New York: Seabury, 1979.  

3. Bernstein, J., 1984, The Philosophy of the Novel: Lukács, Marxism, and the Dialectic of Form. Brighton: Harvester Press.

4. Bewes, T., Reification, or the Anxiety of Late Capitalism. New York: Verso, 2002. 

5. Bewes, T., Georg Lukács: The Fundamental Dissonance of Existence. London: Continuum, 2011. 

6. Goldmann, L., Lukács and Heidegger. Towards a New Philosophy. London: Routledge, 1977.

7. Heller, Á. (ed.), Lukács Revalued, Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 1983.

8. Jay, M., Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

9. Márkus, G., “Life and the Soul: the Young Lukács and the Problem of Culture,” in Lukács Revalued. Heller, Á. (ed.), Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983. pp. 177–190.

10. Márkus, G., “Lukács” in A Companion to Continental Philosophy. Critchley, S. and Schoeder, W. R.  (eds.). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999. pp. 455-460.

11. Merleau-Ponty, M., Adventures of the Dialectic, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

12. Mészáros, I., Lukács’ Concept of Dialectic, London: Merlin, 1972. 

13. Thompson, M. J. (ed.), Georg Lukács Reconsidered. Critical Essays in Politics, Philosophy and Aesthetics. London: Continuum, 2011.

How to Cite:

Pató, Attila (2022) Total Mobilization, in Thesaurus. Sofia University Dictionary of Philosophy. Online edition. Sofia: St. Kliment Ohridski University Press, 2022, ISSN 2815-2832.