Georg Lukács

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A. G. Lehmann

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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 rest of Europe via the network of party organs. He wrote of Tolstoy or Gorky, but not much of the successors of Sholokhov. He gave as a reason for this his defective knowledge of the Russian language. He gave keen attention to the novels of Heinrich Mann, as examples of a new democratic humanism in the making; but he steered clear of the entirely orthodox, copy-book 'socialist realist'—even programmatic—early socialist novels of Aragon in France (1935 onwards), though these were written in French. If he had pronounced their sentiments, treatment of themes, and value systems to be 'correct', he would no doubt have had difficulty in explaining why the novels, as novels, are unremarkable and tedious; but if he had attempted such an explanation, the results would have been complicated in other ways. Better then to concentrate on important literature, on major monuments of the past. This has always the advantage that it is easier to deal with issues that are not topical: safer too; moreover, the philosopher, in his search for general principles requires elbow-room, and a certain calm. Not that for any philosopher eager to contribute to Marxist thought in the age of Stalin the search for general principles can be an entirely unrestricted quest: Marx, Engels, Lenin cannot be overlooked (even their particular fancies and tastes), and a certain number of tenets cannot be allowed to admit of exceptions ('Realism good, Naturalism bad'). But there remains scope for fresh discoveries within the framework of general guide-lines. (pp. 174-75)

[According to the guide-lines within which Lukács operated as a literary critic], it is the business of the artist to apprehend the deepest truth about the social world he inhabits, past or present, and render that. (p. 176)

Two special cases arise from this argument. The first was seen by Marx and Engels, the second is a later development. On the one hand, the artist who assents to a 'reactionary' ideology, but who is in some sense so powerfully endowed that he is unable to avoid coming face to face with features of uncongenial reality and, like Balaam, rehearses truth—unknowingly or against his conscious inclination. On the other hand, the artist living after the Marxian revelation, who has accepted the challenge to understand society and his place in history, and who, because of the tenet that he who is not for the process of change must be against it, and because also of the Marxist principle of the unity of theory and practice, recognizes his obligation to engage in the class struggle and must therefore make of his art, in some sense, a weapon…. [The] perception of the deepest (and therefore most moving) truths about man—in love, heroism, work or wonder—can for the Marxist only arise from a correct standpoint grounded in historical materialism; and he who does not see the love of man shine in...

(This entire section contains 2326 words.)

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the wisdom of the party praesidium or in the symbol of the tractor, is not only a lost soul but a bad or unimportant artist or word-wright.

Some such propositions as these, it appears, would be acceptable to all communists of the strict obedience, and to almost all people to whom the word Marxist would normally be applicable. For the period covered by the rule of Stalin, they are certainly representative. And they serve as a valid backcloth to the criticism of Lukács. They carry with them certain corollaries. (i) The Marxist theses do not add up to a comprehensive programme for explaining all that can be observed in a work of literature: the position is not a crude determinist one. There is a no-man's-land between the significant and the insignificant, though the Marxist would tend—reasonably—to make raids into the no-man's-land to try to extend the range of his coherent evidences. (ii) In so doing he is more interested in studying the relation between text and the author's experience of the world (a trend of scholarship and philology highly characteristic of the nineteenth century) than in studying the author's exploration of some autonomous or quasi-autonomous realm of formal resources…. No Marxist will be satisfied with an approach to literature which rests heavily upon concern with individual psychology, and no Marxist can consent to an approach which rests upon a neo-Kantian interest in symbolic forms as such. In other words, a Marxist aesthetic, and a fortiori a Marxist criticism, must be compatible with historical materialism and also with the premise that social relations (attitudes towards the family, towards class ethic, towards human potential in an enslaved or liberated community) are decisive in their shaping of articulate sensibility. (iii) What is left to the critic? A free hand to analyse and describe, concretely, without procedural rule of thumb save the need (from time to time) for reassuring references to Marx and Lenin; a free hand to consider the suitability of different kinds of literature for different purposes—that is to say, latitude in that branch of criticism which we may call the classification of the arts; provided that this is conducted in a concrete, historical context, not one of eternal forms or ahistorical possibilities.

All these requirements are fully satisifed by the critical writings on literature of Lukács, or at least by those writings which fall within the period between the two world wars. Indeed, in one or two particulars to be examined he seems to be even more of a Marxist than would appear to be necessary on prudential grounds. This can be seen, to begin with, in his important study, The Historical Novel…. (pp. 176-78)

The most interesting, and by far the most original, part of Lukács' study is that devoted to the rehabilitation of Sir Walter Scott, at first sight a much more unlikely candidate than Balzac for the role of a classical Balaam…. Lukács argues that the historical romances of olden times form a series of insignificant and trivial entertainments until the French Revolution generated a lively awareness of historical process (this of course is not true; the awareness was present long before 1789, and indeed Scott himself derived a considerable amount of his insights into Romance and the social significance of chivalry, etc., from such perspicuous and philosophical scholars as Lacurne de Sainte Palaye, whose contributions to the study of vanished or decaying institutions were the opposite of trivial). Change and social transformation was a challenge taken up variously in Europe; in the case of Walter Scott the challenge was taken up, albeit indirectly, in historical novels from Ivanhoe onwards. (p. 179)

[Scott] becomes a great poet of history because he has a deeper, more genuine and differentiated sense of historical necessity than any novelist before him. (p. 181)

[Why] should Lukács appear to be perverse in his presentation of Scott as the poet of social change? On the one hand because, writing Geistesgeschichte, he is looking for some things—those congenial to Marxist schemata—and not for others. It would be hard to reproach him with having neglected to provide himself with an adequate intellectual and scholarly preparation; but that is what it comes to. The texts of Scott are devoured by a mind ready with the schemata; and this means that the real historical canvas (the historiographical background of Scott) is not considered at any point. On the other hand, though, the texts of Scott, being approached for the purposes just mentioned, cannot be allowed to speak for themselves, fully, at leisure, and with their own equilibrium so to speak—for if a novel is an extended story, it is one in which the balance of emphasis, the balance of tone, of attitude, are themselves part of the story, the representation. (p. 185)

Historical materialism requires a tremendous emphasis to be laid upon the primacy of a 'correct' socio-economic analysis of historical process. At all costs, the great artist must be shown to draw his force from that direction: otherwise he is a clown or a sinister ideologist. Witness Flaubert or Dostoyevsky. Naturally one would like to rescue great writers: those just named are beyond reprieve, but Tolstoy can be saved, for his sympathy with the people and unflattering representation of the boss classes. Scott would be nice to save, too; for his European reputation has been much more easily sustained in the continental panorama of foreign language classics, over a century and more, than in the British Isles where he is easier to read. Scott and Byron, indeed, remain two towering figures of genius in the continental schoolbook…. Now nothing in this intelligent Tory gentleman's value-system shows him to be a forerunner of any sort of modern social stirrings: unlike Balzac, who took a great deal from him as a historical novelist (at least between 1826 and 1830). To rehabilitate him, therefore, and to provide a suitably serious ancestry for a form (the historical novel) whose revival Lukács thought he was witnessing in the early decades of the present century, it was necessary to find exactly why one can pronounce him a great writer. In such an inquiry, historical materialism imposes very tightly circumscribed limits. The man may be the class enemy incarnate (fortunately, Scott's reputation as that faded and vanished from the view of all but disinterested scholars); but his works can be searched for evidence that deep down, his hold on reality was great. And this is the task which Lukács the Marxist undertakes. (pp. 186-87)

[The] Marxist in Lukács is more interested in the relationship between a work of art and the content of historical materialist judgments than in the relationships within a work of art itself. But further, it seems that this preferred relationship is the condition of, if not the actual cause of, the presence in (say) a novel of a quality called living, or organic. The constant recourse by critics since the eighteenth century to synonyms for 'living' or 'organic' has led Suzanne Langer and others to investigate what it is that is being identified by this language; and a fairly normal and not very perverse outcome of this curiosity is the view that a work of literature, novel or other, represents, in a manner which we may conveniently call symbolic, a communicable kind of experience elaborated by a writer. The category of totality could well be accommodated here; so could that of reflection; but historical materialism would be of no direct relevance. A point of view of this kind stems no doubt from a neo-Kantian tradition, not a Marxist one; certainly it does not in any way involve us in judgments about the reflection of objective reality—such things are the business of the public censor rather than of the literary critic. Indeed, it places emphasis rather on the notion that if a novel, in any way, has a 'life of its own', that is because its coherent structure points to or reveals life in a more obvious location—namely its creator, rehearser, or reader.

Such a line of speculation cannot be squared with Lukács' beliefs on the source of excellence (i.e., 'life') in historical novels or any other kind of literature. To be sure, he affirms that 'artistic form is never a simple mechanical image of social life'; nevertheless, plays, and novels, are to be regarded as 'artistic images of the laws of movement of life'. In other words, they cannot be credited with integrity—or not only with integrity—but require further to conform with some species of configuration as a condition of reflecting its 'life' and acquiring any artistic value. One incidental result of this must be to make judgments of value dependent upon judgments of conformity—conformity with a reality as described by historical materialism. A further incidental result would of course be, that literary monuments cannot be used at all to arrive at hither to unestablished judgments of historical reality—only to corroborate those already known in outline. But a graver result seems to be that the Marxist critic, be he Lukács or another, can only see 'life', artistic quality, where he knows or believes it ought to reside. He must look for it in the age when captialism is optimistic and blossoming—and find it in Balzac. He may look, but must not find it, in the age of capitalist 'decline'; and furthermore, when a writer like Zola, a Menshevik and a naturalist, comes under his stern view, he will eagerly accept Zola's (to him) damaging account of how he wrote his novels (mechanically, without objectives of totality), and argue from it that the novels must be bad; overlooking the evidence which a more dispassionate reader would detect of a very real degree of inner 'life'. (pp. 188-90)

Such are some of the difficulties which Marxism puts in the way of literary criticism. It is not possible to argue that in the characteristic specimen of Lukács' criticism here discussed, he has in any way stirred outside the bounds of customary Marxist procedures. (p. 190)

A. G. Lehmann, "The Marxist as a Literary Critic," in Georg Lukács: The Man, His Work and His Ideas, edited by G.H.R. Parkinson (© 1970, The Graduate School of Contemporary European Studies, University of Reading), Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1970, pp. 172-90.


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