Georg Lukács Essay - Critical Essays

Lukács, Georg


Georg Lukács 1885–1971

(Also transliterated as György) Hungarian critic and philosopher.

Lukács is now recognized by many critics as the leading Marxist thinker of the twentieth century. However, he was engaged in a lifelong struggle; despite his antagonism toward capitalism, the nature of his approach and his subject matter were often in opposition to socialist thought. As Susan Sontag has written: "By concentrating on 19th century literature and stubbornly retaining German as the language in which he writes, Lukács has continued to propose, as a Communist, European and humanist—as opposed to nationalist and doctrinaire—values; living as he does in a Communist and provincial country, he has remained a genuinely European intellectual figure."

As an undergraduate student in Germany, Lukács was inspired by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose philosophy informs Lukács's earliest works, especially Die Theorie des Romans (The Theory of the Novel). In this book Lukács described the novel as a "bourgeois epic" in which the writer attempts to depict the alienation and homelessness of the individual in modern society. These theories were much less metaphysical than those of his earlier work, Die Seele und die Formen (Soul and Form). In Soul and Form Lukács concentrated on what Lucien Goldmann called "the relation between the human soul and the absolute" and "the tragic significance of Kantianism."

In 1918, two years after the publication of The Theory of the Novel, Lukács joined the Hungarian Communist Party. Within five years he was to publish Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein (History and Class Consciousness), which Ferenc Fehér would later call "the single major event in the history of Marxism as philosophy since the death of Karl Marx." According to George Lichtheim, History and Class Consciousness "owes its enduring relevance to the manner in which Lukács recaptured the Hegelian dimension of Marx's thought."

In 1933, Lukács denounced History and Class Consciousness and all his previous works and, for over a decade, wrote sporadically. Lukács's work after this time, most notably Essays uber Realismus (Studies in European Realism) and Der historische Roman (The Historical Novel), were discussions of such writers as Balzac, Sir Walter Scott, and Thomas Mann. For this reason, Lukács was again subjected to disapproval from the Communist Party. Although several theories have been proposed concerning his conflicts and compromises with the Party, Lukács himself commented on his recantations by asserting that "a critic must always re-examine his work, and reject what is false and outmoded; otherwise he is dishonest."

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 101 and Vols. 29-32, rev. ed. [obituary].)

The Times Literary Supplement

Lukacs is, in Dr. Thomas Mann's view "perhaps the most important critic of literature to-day"; a judgment which, com-ing from such a source, must carry weight. Fortunately, the republication of many of his papers and the appearance of the first English translation of any of his books [Studies in European Realism] make it possible conveniently to survey the work of this remarkable man….

It is not easy for English readers to judge his work…. Lukacs is essentially the "philosopher-critic" (the only type of "fruitful" criticism he admits beside that of the "poet-critic"). Complex, coherent and tightly knit intellectual structures which, to the Continental intellectual, are what philosophy means, have rarely been to the taste of the modern English literary world. But the chief hurdle which the English reader must clear before he can judge Lukacs is the unfamiliarity of his critical idiom. Oddly enough, its strangeness is only partly due to the fact that it is Marxist.

For Lukacs literature is "a special form of mirroring objective reality." But the supreme objective reality of the artist is man, necessarily man in society, inevitably man in a changing, developing society. This, therefore, must be the great writer's subject. At the same time this fact removes, or ought to remove, literary creation and criticism from the realm of the arbitrary and subjective:

The great assurance with which the classics shape their men, present their relations and unfold their conflicts is based on the fact that a profound understanding of reality has given them really objective, socially objective, standards of measurement.

As a Marxist, Lukacs does not of course believe these standards to be absolute and unchanging (though there are moments when the reader cannot be sure). He has, however, no doubt that in any period of history the scientific (i.e., Marxist) analysis of society (or, by another road, the creative understanding of the great writer) can discover the essential structure of the situation which art, in its special way, mirrors.

Seen in this light literature takes its place among the tools with which man explores, knows and changes the world….

Of course, literature can and must do more (besides moving the reader, the beginning but not the end of its work). The writer must believe in men and life, and love both; even Swift's Yahoos are drawn with such bitterness because they are contrasted with what men might be. He must, and the highest writers do, aim at the harmonious development of the free individual in the free society…. He must be, above all, "a champion of social progress and a participant in the social life of his time." The special problem of the writer under capitalism is precisely that the system raises ever greater barriers between man and this ideal, forcing the writer either into lower (and hence artistically less valuable) forms of creative activity, or into active opposition to it. The special virtue of socialism is that it will bring about the rebirth of humanism on a higher level than any hitherto attainable. (p. 589)

Most Western literary critics have …, for Lukacs, declined from a serious, if necessarily imperfect grappling with the main tasks of criticism to superficial trifling. How have they … got themselves into this position? Lukacs's analysis … closely follows Marx's. The great ideals of the progressive middle class, in its revolutionary phase, cannot be realized under capitalism, and must indeed be frustrated. The gigantic release of material and intellectual forces by socialism alone makes possible the truly humanist man, his individual faculties brought to full flower, his social relationships under conscious, planned, social control. At the same time the mechanics of capitalist production disintegrate and de-humanize man's personality…. In what Lukacs calls the "heroic" period of the middle class, this is mitigated by the intellectual élan—and the intellectual honesty—of a class, confident that the stars in their courses are on its side; by the fact that the fight against feudalism is at that stage of history the fight for truth. But there comes a moment when the bourgeoisie ceases to be revolutionary and becomes conservative, fearing the new forces of labour which it has brought into existence. At this point—in western Europe 1848 marks it—"les capacités de la bourgeoisie s'en vont." In Marx's words, "the weapons forged by the bourgeoisie against feudalism, turn their points against it; the means of education,...

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Herbert Read

[George Lukács's] importance as a critic was first made clear to me by the late Karl Mannheim, who had known him well in Hungary, and who … did not agree with the Marxist basis of Lukács's criticism. What one was made to realize after the reading of a single essay by this critic (and to envy), was the formidable superiority of any polemicist who combines dogma with sensibility. It is the same kind of formidability that one finds in certain Catholic writers (such as Jacques Maritain), and it makes one realize, rather ruefully, that sensibility is not enough: our humanist or libertarian criticism must have an equally strong foundation in faith. (p. 156)

[Lukács is different from most Marxist critics.] He is saved, not only by his innate sensibility, which leads him to respect those elements of form and style so often contemptuously dismissed by Marxist critics, but also by his passionate humanism, which leads him to concentrate on Balzac and Tolstoy and to present their essentially humanitarian ideals with sympathy. All this leads …, to a certain amount of "doublethink"; but how refreshing, for example, to find a Marxian critic expatiating on "the extraordinary concreteness of poetic vision" in Tolstoy, or, more generally, seeing in romanticism, not one more form of bourgeois escapism, but "the expression of a deep and spontaneous revolt against rapidly developing capitalism." (p. 158)

There can be no question of the acuteness of Lukács's intelligence—he is by far the most formidable exponent of the Marxist point of view in literary criticism that has yet appeared anywhere in the world. Like most Marxist critics in whatever sphere, Lukács begins with claims that are merely pretentious. "Marxism," he said in Studies in European Realism, "searches for the material roots of each phenomenon, regards them in their historical connections and movement, ascertains the laws of such movement and...

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George Steiner

[In Georg Lukács'] works two beliefs are incarnate. First, that literary criticism is not a luxury, that it is not what the subtlest of American critics has called "a discourse for amateurs." But that it is, on the contrary, a central and militant force toward shaping men's lives. Secondly, Lukács affirms that the work of the critic is neither subjective nor uncertain. Criticism is a science with its own rigor and precision. The truth of judgment can be verified. Georg Lukács is, of course, a Marxist. Indeed, he is the one major critical talent to have emerged from the gray servitude of the Marxist world. (pp. 327-28)

[The] Marxist critic cherishes the conviction that he is engaged not in matters...

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George Lichtheim

[A] consideration of Lukacs' actual present-day views on contemporary literature shows that he is indeed a good Leninist—hence incapable of making those critical distinctions which have enabled Marxist writers in Western Europe (and the genuine "revisionists" in Poland) to say something sensible about the quite real problems of intellectual sterility and pointless literary artifice which confront European and American literature at the present time.

Ideally it ought to be the critic's task to demonstrate all this in detail, taking as one's text both the essay on Contemporary Realism and the earlier volume entitled The Historical Novel. Although (or because) twenty years lie between...

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Alfred Kazin

The distinction of Lukács's Studies in European Realism—despite certain passages of obeisance to the Lenin-Stalin cult and some mechanical flattery of the Russian literary tradition itself (the book was written in Russia during the terrible purges of the 1930's)—is that it brings an essentially philosophic and moral vision of man's necessary destiny to bear on the great age of the novel; the book puts into a new and dramatic focus the sources of realism in the nineteenth century. Lukács's studies in realism bring home to us certain sources of the imaginative power of such towering figures as Balzac and Tolstoy. Lukács is exceptional among students of nineteenth-century realism because he is both a...

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The Theory of the Novel is by no means easy reading. One is particularly put off by the strange point of view that prevails throughout the essay: the book is written from the point of view of a mind that claims to have reached such an advanced degree of generality that it can speak, as it were, for the novelistic consciousness itself; it is the Novel itself that tells us the history of its own development, very much as, in Hegel's Phenomenology, it is the Spirit who narrates its own voyage. With this crucial difference, however, that since Hegel's Spirit has reached a full understanding of its own being, it can claim unchallengeable authority, a point which Lukács's novelistic consciousness, by its own...

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Lucien Goldmann

Georg Lukacs already appears as one of the most influential figures in the intellectual life of the 20th Century. (p. 165)

In 1910, 13 years after having clarified in History and Class Consciousness the concept of significant dynamic structure, Lukacs, after having published in Hungarian a work which to our knowledge has never been translated in any western-European language, became known to the German public through a book, The Soul and Forms [also translated as Soul and Form], which seems to us for several reasons to mark an essential date in the history of contemporary thought. First of all because, after long years of academic philosophy, Lukacs rediscovered in this work the...

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Peter Demetz

At a time when Shklovsky in Russia and Lubbock in Great Britain were successfully banning metaphysics from literary criticism, Lukács' Theory of the Novel appeared as a late and stubborn attempt to reconstruct the most characteristic genre of modern literature from pure thought. To young Lukács, the theory of any genre coincides with its history, which, in true German fashion, he believes begins with the inimitable art of Greece…. Lukács does not tolerate any history of the mind before that of Greece; the Greeks are the nation whose inevitable destiny in the intellectual development of mankind it was to give birth to the great "forms" of the creative mind: the epic, tragedy, and philosophy. In the dawn of...

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Roy Pascal

[To] understand Lukács' concept of totality, we should start from the Ästhetik [Aesthetics], where its general principles are elaborated incomparably more fully and clearly than in his earlier writings, and largely in agreement with his earlier usage of the term.

Art is for Lukács one of the great instruments by which man grapples with reality. Reality is man's dialectical being in nature, his self-preservation and self-evolution through work. Science and art are continuing efforts of the mind to contribute to this total anthropological process, through which man changes himself as well as the world in which he lives. Both are rooted in the mental operations involved in all human 'Praxis',...

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A. G. Lehmann

Lukács' main writing as a Marxist critic of literature falls largely within [the] period in which it was most difficult, or even dangerous, to air venturesome thoughts that might not quite fit in with the canon of rigid and fixed rulings about what one should or should not think. (p. 173)

To recall these facts of history and to append to them these conjectures is not to exculpate the philosopher, let alone to applaud him. But Lukács' critical activities did not happen in a void, and they reflect certain facts about the world he lived in. During his stay in Moscow, Lukács did not announce his views through participation in the polemics on Socialist Realism, the new Russian orthodoxy exported to the...

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John Neubauer

The motto of the late Georg Lukács' Ästhetik, 'Sie wissen es nicht, aber sic tun es', a quotation from Marx, bears strange resemblance to the thesis of T. S. Eliot's Tradition and the Individual Talent. Both suggest that artists may not be aware of what they artistically do, that they represent a medium through which transindividual forces become manifest. Of course here the analogy ends: Eliot's 'tradition' is in no way comparable to the social, economic, and historical forces which, according to Lukács, are shaping art. Still, Lukács' motto ambiguously incorporates idealistic, as well as materialistic, strains, and one notes with curiosity that the very man who wrote a virulent indictment of...

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Irving Howe

[Solzhenitsyn] is a remarkable book, far more so than the theoretical writings of Lukacs's earlier years, which in their recent translations have given rise to a wavelet of Marxist scholasticism. Perhaps because he found it easier or more prudent to express his deepest convictions through the mediated discourse of literary criticism than through direct political speech, Lukacs releases, with a fervor he had never before shown in print, the disgust he felt for Stalinism, at least Stalinism as the terrorist phase of the party-state dictatorship, if not as an integral sociopolitical system…. (p. 88)

Lukacs's admiration for Solzhenitsyn clearly went beyond the latter's literary achievement; it...

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J. Hoberman

As a philosopher, Georg Lukacs demanded totality; as a personality, he seems to defy it. If his reputation—on both sides of the Danube—has fluctuated over the years, it may be because no one quite knows which Lukacs to assimilate. Is he the revolutionary of 1919? The "romantic anti-capitalist" of 1923 (a current Western favorite)? The Stalinist "hack" of the 1930s? The vitriolic Cold Warrior? The Freedom Fighter of 1956? Or the "mellow" Marxist-Humanist of the late '60s? Considering this capacity for historical intervention and personal survival, the least one can say is that Lukacs was the most successful Marxist intellectual of the 20th century….

Whatever was Lukacs's subjective experience of...

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