Georg Lukács

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J. Hoberman

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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 [his] remarkable career, it vanished with him. His writings are relentlessly objective, willfully depersonalized. He had a lifelong aversion to psychology. "I can say that I have never felt frustration or any kind of complex in my life," he told an interviewer the year of his death. "I know what these mean, of course, from the literature of the twentieth century, and from having read Freud. But I have not experienced them myself." Lukacs placed all of his faith in reason; he was utterly dismissive of instinct, and we may assume that he correspondingly valued expediency over sentiment. (It is well to remember that Lukacs was not just a philosophical Marxist but a Party member of 40 years and twice a revolutionary Commissar.) But this is not to say he lacked intellectual passion. Before he embraced Marx, or Lenin, or even Hegel, Lukacs was smitten by the patrician heir to German culture, Thomas Mann—and he remained faithful to Mann's work all his life. (p. 42)

Lukacs may not have been the eternal internal dissident he's sometimes packaged as in the West …, but his "road to Marxism" was a rocky one. In 1923 he published History and Class Consciousness, a collection of theoretical essays which, among other things, introduced the notion of reification (the process by which the values of the marketplace permeate all social relations under capitalism). Although History and Class Consciousness was a powerful influence on the Benjamin-Adorno-Marcuse generation of German Marxists, and an "anticipation" of various unpublished manuscripts by the young Marx, the book won Lukacs few kudos in Moscow. Not only did he question Engels's grasp of Kant and Hegel, and overpraise Rosa Luxemburg, Lukacs denied that Marxism had any bearing on the natural sciences, implicitly challenging Lenin's materialism as "mechanical" and "the ideological form of the bourgeois revolution." For these anti-Bolshevik heresies, he was roundly denounced at the fifth Comintern conference in 1924.

Lukacs invoked the specter of a specifically Western form of Marxism, then eroded his own tenuous position within the exiled Hungarian CP by advocating tactical support for a hypothetical democratic republic as an alternative to the rightist dictatorship that then ruled Hungary. Threatened with expulsion from the party, he recanted…. For Lukacs, the Russian Revolution was a metaphysical event, an article of faith, a glimpse of the Promised Land. Rather than walk the plank of the Communist juggernaut, he renounced his ultra-left and right-wing deviations, making a strategic withdrawal from political theory into literary criticism. For the next quarter century, Lukacs reconciled himself to the exigencies of the Stalinist line. "Realism," in every sense, became his concern.

Although Lukacs forever repudiated the doctrines of History and Class Consciousness, many of its ideas underscore his aesthetic. "In Lukacs's program for realism, art fills the gap left vacant by the collapse of his confidence in the proletariat," writes Rodney Livingstone in the introduction to Essays on Realism . "It is now art...

(This entire section contains 1776 words.)

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and specifically realist art whose function it is to de-reify reality: it is the realist who is the 'defetishized' man who sees through the veils of reification." What Lukacs wanted was a proletarian literature that maintained the richness of social characterization, the narrative totality, and—although he doesn't come right out and say this—the literary standards of Thomas Mann, or at least Walter Scott…. Steeped in the classical tradition, philosophically committed to a seamless integrated reality, more idealist than he'd have cared to imagine, Lukacs was oblivious to the perceptual impact of vulgar new forms like movies, radio, photojournalism, et al. Moreover, he was hostile to any non-European artistic influence that served to short-circuit 19th century aesthetic conventions. In short, Lukacs had no sense that if reality and perception had changed since Goethe's day, so—necessarily—would art. With his neo-classical bias he tended to see all artistic experiment as a sort of poisonous mushroom nourishing itself on capitalism's decay.

The six essays and one public exchange of letters [published in Essays on Realism] … were all written between 1931 and 1940, a period during which Lukacs served the Comintern as one of its most formidable (and certainly its most erudite) critical hitmen. Reading them, I could not help thinking of Lukacs as "Lucky," in the sense of Luciano…. Lukacs's positions anticipated, then consolidated, the literary policies of the Popular Front (if not precisely Stalin's crudest cultural operative, A. A. Zhdanov). Grossly put, Lukacs rehabilitated the 19th century "bourgeois cultural heritage" ("Be like Tolstoy—without his weaknesses! Be like Balzac—only up to date!" mocked Brecht in a prudently unpublished rejoinder) while identifying modernism with irrationalism and irrationalism with the Nazis.

Lukacs makes his points with a jargon-clogged mixture of heavyhanded intimidation and brilliant sophistry. However grudgingly, one has to admire his fantastic ability to defend his conservative taste in currently correct Marxist terms. The abandonment of the 19th century B.C.H. is more than once linked to the worldview of the renegade Trotsky. In one piece he criticizes the novels of proletarian writer Willie Bredel for their "undialectical" use of journalistic techniques. In a subsequent article, Lukacs was taken to task by one of Bredel's proletkult colleagues, Otto Gotsche, who reported that having shown both Bredel's novel and Lukacs's essay to a group of factory workers he received the opinion that while "the book is good, the other stuff is shit." Lukacs's reply is a superb demonstration of his skill as an ideological counterpuncher. Asserting that Gotsche had confused the task of the critic with criticism-by-the-masses, Lukacs links this to lingering "residues of Luxemburgism" (syndicalism) and wonders whether Comrade Gotsche correspondingly believes that "the work of central ideological and strategic leadership should be 'replaced' by spontaneous factory discussions." (pp. 42-3)

The most sustained, outrageous, and ferociously argued of Lukacs's anti-modernist polemics is his 1934 attack on Expressionism. Written in Moscow and published in the emigre journal Das Wort (whose editors included both Brecht and Bredel), it was his first missive to follow the Nazi assumption of power: the article not only attempts to locate the ideological roots of Nazism in German culture, it means to assign the blame for Hitler's success as well. Expressionism, according to Lukacs, is "one of the many tendencies in bourgeois ideology that grow later into fascism." He not only sees it as the literary analogue to those obfuscating idealist philosophies that clouded the mental landscape of imperial Germany, but specifically as "the expression of the ideology of the USPD," the independent German socialist party that bolted the Social Democrats in opposition to the World War.

Both the Expressionists and the USPD struggled against the war but Lukacs wants no truck with their apparent good intentions. Neither group was capable of formulating a concrete class analysis. Indeed, Expressionism's abstract antipathy to the bourgeoisie, Lukacs suggests easily dovetailed into the right-wing antibourgeois ideology of the Nazis. He goes on to apply the polarizing logic that helped Hitler seize power in the first place: "Anyone who gives the devil of imperial parasitism even his little finger—and this is done by all those who adhere to the pseudocritical, abstractly distorting and mythologizing variety of imperialist sham oppositions—ends up giving his whole hand."

My own sense of Lukacs's Expressionism essay is that it has far more to do with politics than with art, being a sort of autopep talk delivered in the aftermath of the German CP's disastrous miscalculation (and the Socialists' utter stupidity) in countering the Nazi strategy. Nevertheless, its argument was crudely reduced by his epigones—i.e., the logical end of Expressionism is fascism—and because Expressionism was the first indigenously German modern art movement, the critique took on wide repercussions. (p. 43)

It must be noted that the neo-classical Lukacs was no friend of socialist realism, which he referred to in his writing under the code name "naturalism." There was a habitual dualism to his thought. He characteristically casts up two alternatives, then takes a "dialectical" middle road for himself. In History and Class Consciousness, he opposes both the "mechanical materialism" of the social democrats and the "subject idealism" of the utopian socialists. So too with art. "The seeming opposites simply complement one another," he wrote in a published letter to the novelist Anna Seghers. "The pseudo-Marxist narrowness that would strike out of German history everything that is not immediately proletarian and revolutionary stands on the same footing as the narrowness of that 'avant-gardism' which puts Negro sculpture and the drawings of the insane on the same level as Phidia and Rembrandt, even preferring them where possible."

Of course, it was far easier for Lukacs to criticize avant-gardism than social realism. Nevertheless, he managed. His 1940 "Tribune or Bureaucrat?" opens as a critique—in Stalin's name—of the Soviet bureaucracy as a remnant of capitalism. Abruptly it shifts to attack those literary inheritances which, when they arise in Soviet literature, are "necessarily even more abysmal than their bourgeois prototypes." Among these anti-realisms is the "empty, bureaucratic 'optimism' expressed in certain works that appear at first sight to be socialist, but are in actual fact dead, devoid of ideas, and useless and ineffectual both from the standpoint of aesthetics and from that of propaganda." Lukacs later maintained that he had always opposed Zhdanov's prescriptions; the courage required for even oblique attacks should not be underestimated. Despite Brecht's sharp and not inapt characterization of Lukacs as "an enemy of production" whose "every criticism contains a threat," Luckacs's actual position as a Hungarian refugee in the Soviet Union was hardly secure. In 1941 he was temporarily arrested as a Trotskyist agent.

Frederick Jameson, perhaps Lukacs's most eloquent American defender, cites the philosopher's "lifelong insistence on the crucial significance of literature and culture in any revolutionary politics." Yes, but—may it serve to humanize rather than trivialize the man's accomplishment to interject the adjectives "19th century" before "literature," and "German" before "culture." (p. 44)

J. Hoberman, "Cool Hand Lukacs, Comintern Hitman" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1981), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVI, No. 22, May 27, 1981, pp. 42-4.


Irving Howe