Georg Lukács

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Irving Howe

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[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 had much to do with his moral stature, his independence and courage. And it is precisely here that we encounter a painful problem. For between the absolute candor of Solzhenitsyn's work and the deviousness of Lukacs's career there is a startling difference, so much so that one senses in this little book a measure of discomfort and defensiveness. A man as intelligent as Lukacs could hardly have been unaware that he kept praising Solzhenitsyn for precisely the virtues he himself had rarely shown. (pp. 88-9)

One source of his admiration for Solzhenitsyn seems to be the Russian novelist's deliberate refusal of "tactics," the whole stale jumble of "dialectics" by which thinkers like Lukacs have persisted in justifying their submission to the Party dictatorship.

Precisely this uncomfortable mixture of responses may account for the fact that in discussing Solzhenitsyn's novels Lukacs turns to a theme that has long preoccupied independent critics in the West (and secretly, no doubt, in the East) but has hardly figured in Lukacs's own work. I refer to the problem of integrity as a trait not reducible to political opinion or class status. It is the problem of how men under tyranny struggle, as Lukacs well puts it, "to preserve their own human integrity even here." (p. 89)

One reason Lukacs admires Solzhenitsyn the novelist is that he sees him as a realist in the nineteenth-century tradition who does not fiddle about with experimental techniques, clearly has large moral-historical scope, and puts at ease a programmatically antimodernist critic like himself. To some extent—I can't pretend to exactitude—this seems to me a misunderstanding of Solzhenitsyn's fiction, just as some years ago there was a similar misunderstanding of Pasternak's novel. Each of these writers chose to go back to the capacious forms of the nineteenth-century realistic novel, with its interweaving of themes, narrative elements, and characters, but not, I think, because of a deliberate or ideological rejection of literary modernism. Their decisions rested, instead, on moral-political grounds that can be inferred from their novels themselves, namely, a persuasion that genuinely to return to the Tolstoyan novel, which the Stalinist dogma of "socialist realism" had celebrated in words but caricatured in performance, would constitute a revolutionary act of the spirit. It would signify a struggle for human renewal, for the reaffirmation of the image of a free man as that image can excite our minds beyond all ideological decrees. (pp. 90-1)

The first task of such a writer, as he takes upon himself the heavy and uncomfortable mantle of moral spokesman, is to remember, to record, to insist upon the sanctity of simple fact and uncontaminated memory. That is why Solzhenitsyn's apparent indifference to literary modernism which so pleases Lukacs would seem to be less a deliberate repudiation than a step beyond the circumstances that had first led to modernism. It is a step that prompted Solzhenitsyn to revive—though with significant modifications—the Tolstoyan novel, a step taken out of the conviction that...

(This entire section contains 1798 words.)

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in our time the claim for freedom is inseparable from the resurrection of history. To be free means in our century, first of all, to remember.

Simply as a literary critic, Lukacs often writes well in this book. He compares One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich with by now classical novellas of Conrad and Hemingway in order to work out a rough schema for the novella, or short novel, as a form…. (p. 91)

If not quite original, this is very keen. More original and illuminating in Lukacs's notion that in the twentieth century there has appeared a kind of novel that takes over and enlarges upon the central structure of the novella. Lukacs notices this, first of all, in The Magic Mountain…. (p. 92)

What such a literary structure then does is to sustain a prolonged interval of crisis in which the characters are put to a test. In The Magic Mountain Thomas Mann enforces the test through a confrontation with the reality of the characters' own death. In The First Circle Solzhenitsyn has the prisoners confronted "not only by the slender hope of liberation, but by a very real threat of a more infernal region of hell" (that is, shipment to the worst camps in Siberia).

Clearly this is the kind of analysis that serious readers can respect, since it makes an effort to see works of literature in their own realm of being and ventures upon comparisons in regard to structure and technique that leap across the dull hurdles of "socialist realism." Yet it seems utterly characteristic of Lukacs that just as he shows his mind at its liveliest he should also show it still unfree. Having analyzed the relation of the structural principle in Solzhenitsyn's novels to that which he locates in the work of Mann, Lukacs must then come up with a preposterous remark that "Solzhenitsyn's works appear as a rebirth of the noble beginnings of socialist realism." But this is sheer nonsense. Whatever Solzhenitsyn's novels may be, they really have nothing in common with "socialist realism," not even with the one, rather frayed instance offered by Lukacs of its "noble beginnings," the fiction of the Soviet writer Makarenko which he overrates simply in order to show that publicly he does, still, adhere to a version of "socialist realism."

The central criticism Lukacs makes of Solzhenitsyn is that the Russian novelist writes from the strong but limiting perspective of the plebeian mind, rather than from a socialist consciousness. Lukacs grants that Solzhenitsyn's criticism of Soviet society is "rooted in a genuine plebeian hatred of social privilege"; it is tied by numerous filaments of attitude to the "plebeian social view" of such Tolstoyan characters as Platon Karatayev in War and Peace; but it lacks, as it must, the historical perspective, the theoretical coherence that can alone be provided by the "socialist" outlook.

This point is of considerable literary and political interest, since it marks quite clearly the limits within which Lukacs, for all his on-again, off-again hatred of Stalinist society and the "new era" which "preserves the essential methods of Stalinism," nevertheless continued to function.

Lukacs refers to a striking phrase of Marx, the "ignorant perfection" of ordinary people, a perfection of healthy social impulse, a moral rightness that can spontaneously arise among the masses. It is "perfection" because it immediately sniffs out frauds and tyrants, but "ignorant" because it has not been raised to a level of generality or fortified with "dialectics." It remains a healthy reaction to what exists, but by itself cannot lead to action in behalf of what might be. The vocabulary of Leninism made a parallel distinction between ordinary trade-union consciousness, which the masses can reach by themselves, and revolutionary consciousness, which the vanguard party must bring to (or impose upon) the masses.

Now, historically Lukacs is being more than a little ingenuous in confining the dominant vision of Solzhenitsyn's work, as well as that represented in Tolstoy by the character Platon Karatayev, to the level of the "plebeian." Plebeian these certainly are, as in the wonderful remark of Solzhenitsyn's character Spiridon who, when asked to describe the difference between the guilty and the innocent, answers, "Sheepdogs are right and cannibals are wrong." But in reality, as any student of Russian literature must know, the plebeian stress in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, which one hears again in Solzhenitsyn, draws upon a strand of Christian belief very powerful in Russian culture, a strand that favors egalitarianism and ascetic humility, as if to take the word of Jesus at face value. Platon Karatayev may himself be an example of "ignorant perfection," but Tolstoy's act in creating him is anything but that. It follows from a major world view, in its own way at least as comprehensive as that of Marxism. And the same might hold in regard to Solzhenitsyn's "plebeian" sentiments.

It should also be stressed that at a time when the "socialist" vocabulary is used for oppressive ends, the "plebeian" response, even if undecorated with ideology and "world views," takes on a liberating, indeed a revolutionary character. And the same, I would say, holds for certain religious responses. That Lukacs could write a book about Solzhenitsyn without so much as mentioning the problem of his religious inclinations, let alone those of the Tolstoy to whom he links Solzhenitsyn, is indeed a "dialectical" feat.

Let us nevertheless stay with Lukacs's argument for a moment, even granting, for the sake of that argument, the evident justice in his remark that "the inner 'ignorant perfection' of the common people is not sufficient to develop in man a positively effective and critical attitude toward the reform of his alienated society." Yet precisely these cogent words are likely to raise a tremor of distrust among readers experienced in the politics of Marxism. For Lukacs is speaking not merely in the abstract about the need for theoretical vision and generality; he writes from his own version of Marxism-Leninism. And when he contrasts Solzhenitsyn's "plebeian" limitation with the largeness of "socialist" perspective, we can't avoid translating this into a contrast between, let's say, Solzhenitsyn's "moral-social criticism of Communist society from the standpoint of freedom" and Lukacs's "criticism directed toward the resurrection of the Party within the framework of orthodox belief." What then becomes evident is that Solzhenitsyn's criticism of Russian society—even if limited by the "ignorant perfection" of the "plebeian" outlook—is far more revolutionary and far closer to the needs of a genuine socialism than that of Lukacs. Neither the dissident nor oppositionist label really fits Solzhenitsyn.

Plebeian, yes. Plebeian, in that he has become the voice of all those who silently suffered through the decades of the terror and beyond. Brushing past the cant of Lukacs's world ("the leading role of the Party," "the Leninist heritage," etc.), Solzhenitsyn embodies in his fiction that empathy with the lowly and the mute which links him both to the great masters of the nineteenth century and the still-uncreated future of free man. (pp. 92-5)

Irving Howe, "The Straight and the Crooked: Solzhenitsyn and Lukacs," in his The Critical Point on Literature and Culture (copyright 1973; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon Press, 1973, pp. 87-95.

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