During the course of a reading group about Lukács’ Lenin: the Unity of his Thought (hereafter Lenin) a debate arose about what Lukács’ term “actuality of revolution” refers to. Some people thought it refers to figuring out what needs to be done next, using the goal of revolution as the reference point. Using this definition, the concept would be useful for us here in Australia today. I disagree.
I would argue that Lukács uses the term “actuality of revolution” to mean a specific period where real revolutionary possibilities have opened up. Questions like the party and the state then must be approached in a completely (qualitatively) different way – because the possibility of workers taking power is now on the immediate agenda. According to my definition, the concept of the actuality of revolution is not relevant for revolutionaries in Australia in our day to day activities, but perhaps is relevant in Greece at the moment.
Interestingly, in a recent article about revolutionary organization, Paul LeBlanc refers to the actuality of revolution in the way the others in the reading group understood it. This was shared with me as evidence to back up their position. He says:
“Lukács emphasised that Lenin’s thought was infused by a sense of “the actuality of revolution”, which would be essential in establishing (as Lukács put it) “firm guide-lines for all questions on the daily agenda, whether they were political or economic, involved theory or tactics, agitation or organization”. That is to say, Lenin was concerned in all of his political thinking and activity with the question of what must be done – actually, in the real world – for the workers to take power. Not rhetorically or theoretically, but in fact, figure out what it would take and then do exactly that.” (http://links.org.au/node/3375)
The context of the article was not about the actuality of revolution as a concept, but rather a general critique of different groups he’s been in over the years – and seems to be a general argument that socialists can only do so much until the political climate opens up, but should be doing their best to prepare the ground for it.
I would argue that Le Blanc’s above usage of the actuality of revolution is not how Lukács uses it in Lenin. Lukács, who developed the theory of the actuality of revolution, is not referring to the general principle of trying to figure out the next concrete step to take the class struggle forward. that general principle can can be applied always (Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917, as well as socialist activists in 2013). Instead, Lukács is referring to a specific period – a revolutionary period – where questions of action are not just more immediate and important, but are qualitatively different than in a non-revolutionary situation.
Identifying the specific meaning of Lukács’ “actuality of revolution” is not just about semantics. Lenin’s political genius was not just that he was a clever strategist and knew what needed to be done at a given moment. An important part of his contribution was being able to approach key political questions in new ways, given the real potential – the actuality – of the revolutionary climate using the dialectical method. To reduce this aspect of Lukacs’ book to just a universal abstract concept of always orienting to the ultimate goal of revolution is to miss a key concept in Lenin. Furthermore, revolutionaries in all political climates cannot truly understand Lenin – or Luxemburg, Trotsky, Lukács, etc – without understanding the political atmosphere from which their ideas arose.
Below, I have collected some quotes from Lenin that support my above position.
The the emphasised phrases are from the original Lukács.
From Chapter 1 – “The Actuality of Revolution”
“Lenin always saw the problems of the age as a whole: the onset of the last phase of capitalism and the possibilities of turning the now inevitable final struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat in favor of the proletariat – of human salvation.”
“Like Marx, Lenin never generalized from parochially Russian experiences limited in time and space. He did however, with the perception of genius, immediately recognize the fundamental problem of our time – the approaching revolution – at the time and place of its first appearance. From then on he understood and explained all events, Russian as well as international, from this perspective -from the perspective of the actuality of the revolution.”
From Chapter 3 – “The Vanguard Party”
“… as Lenin said, the group of professional revolutionaries does not for one moment have the task of either ‘making’ the revolution, or – by their own independent, bold actions – of sweeping the inactive masses along to confront them with a revolutionary fait accompli. Lenin’s concept of party organization presupposes the fact – the actuality – of the revolution. … The party, as the strictly centralized organization of the proletariat’s most conscious elements – and only as such – is conceived as an instrument of class struggle in a revolutionary period. ‘Political questions cannot be mechanically separated from organization questions,’ said Lenin, ‘and anybody who accepts or rejects the Bolshevik party organization independently of whether or not we live at a time of proletarian revolution has completely misunderstood it.”
And later in the chapter:
“Naturally, even the biggest and best party imaginable cannot ‘make’ a revolution. But the way the proletariat reacts to a given situation largely depends on the clarity and energy which the party is able to impart to its class aims. When the revolution is an actuality, the old problem of whether or not it can be ‘made’ thus acquires a completely new meaning.”
Chapter 4 – “The State”
“The actuality of the revolution expresses itself in the actuality of the problem of the state for the proletariat. With this phase the question of socialism itself at once ceases to be merely an ultimate far-off goal and confronts the proletariat as an immediate task.”