Georg Lukács

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The Times Literary Supplement

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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,...

(This entire section contains 1897 words.)

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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 intellectualélan—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, produced by it, rebel against its civilization; the gods it has created, abandon it."…

At this point begins decadence.

For the writer this decadence is essentially an inability to "mirror reality" in its most profound historical sense—a retreat from the humanism of the earlier artists. Deprived of the guide of a genuine (if sometimes instinctive) appreciation of the dynamics and contradictions of social man, he is reduced either to pure subjectivism, or to the observation of the surface of life—that Zolaesque naturalism which is the counterpart of vulgar scientific positivism. (Lukacs's critique here again is modelled on Marx's contempt for the "vulgar economists" as distinct from the great classics of the subject.) The writer's "pattern of reality" therefore is now as arbitrary, and inadequate, as the bits of newspaper stuck together into an abstract picture. Ivory tower, retreat into pure form and glorified reportage are, as he attempts to show by a study of French writing after 1848, all aspects of the same decline. The writer has lost his roots, and with them his access to the highest art. As a general rule, only deliberate revolt (not necessarily political) against capitalism can recapture the great tradition….

Whatever one's opinion of these criticisms (which are, as Marxism stands, highly orthodox), there can be no denying that Lukacs has not hitherto been much interested in the problems of the combined operations between politician, scientist, engineer, writer, &c., by which in the communist view the new society must be built. He has been concerned rather with the specialized task of elaborating an aesthetic, the general lines of which, so far as they go, seem to be generally acceptable in eastern Europe….

[It] is a theory of aesthetics, not merely the search for "the social equivalent" of a given writer, which Lukacs, who disagrees with Plekhanov, refuses to regard as the Marxist critic's only job. Indeed, his recoil from this, and from the "vulgar sociology" which seeks an immediate reflection in the intellectual superstructure of society of every change in its material base, propels him farther than most other Marxists are willing to go. True enough, Marx has shown the "superstructure" to have much autonomy. Yet, his critics hold, Lukacs's picture of the capitalist developments relevant to literature tends to reduce itself to a few sweeping abstract generalizations, dangerously remote from the real struggles of past and present, dangerously similar to the cloudy sweep of German idealist philosophers. In any case, since the thirties there has been a tendency in Marxist circles to formulate the laws of dialectics in comparatively non-Hegelian terms, and to deprecate too isolated an emphasis on the philosophical writings of Marx's youth. Like other learned students of Hegel among Communist theorists, Lukacs—who has recently published a massive study of the formative years of the great philosopher—has been somewhat slow to follow this trend. (p. 590)

Austere, logical, passionate and complex, such are Lukacs's main doctrines. They are not easily summarized, for he has applied them with a subtle and almost endless elaboration which is over-simplified as soon as compressed. Perhaps the long study of Tolstoy in the Studies in European Realism is as good an introduction to them as any, though one could wish for an English translation of some of the more general essays—"Writer and Critic," perhaps, or "The Intellectual Physiognomy of Literary Characters." Lukacs is hard going. Nevertheless, no one with a feeling for literature, or for the beauties of intellectual architecture, can neglect him, and he must inevitably command immense respect. Moreover, even by standards which he would regard as superficial, he is a thundering good critic of the classical novel.

And yet—has this impressive critical talent been adequately employed? The vital critics of the past have generally, like Lukacs, championed particular artistic standards; but they did so essentially as champions of contemporary artists. Only the academic of the eclectic have sometimes taken a different path, and Lukacs would be the last to praise either…. To confine one's wholehearted critical support to a dozen classics (even if they include one living one) is a form of intellectual evasion, especially for the Marxist whose whole raison d'être is to show the way to the future. For its sake he must be prepared (as Lukacs shows Lessing to have been in his criticism of Corneille) to attack, even unfairly to attack, perfectly good poetry of its day. He will be prepared, as William Morris, was, to sacrifice moving, but "decadent" or "sterile" art; and Lukacs is too sensitive not to admit the power to move of men whose work he finds inadequate or deplorable—Rilke or Van Gogh, for instance. He will be prepared even to lower his own critical standards; not because he thinks Gorge Barnwell superior to Berenice, but because the road to the society in which art will be an integral part of life leads through the George Barnwells of his day.

In theory Lukacs, as a consistent Marxist, admits this, and has therefore accepted the official critique. Nothing is more misleading than to see him as a champion of free literature forced into conformity by political dictation…. It would be unfair to say that he has tried to save the separateness of literature by painting the ivory tower red. It is merely that for him—and this is a symbol of a certain remoteness from hard politics—Dr. Mann's Faustus is not merely a greater work, but also a more direct and useful contribution to the Cause than, say, Plivier's Stalingrad, with its much greater popular impact. It is merely that he doubts whether Dr. Mann would do better if told to write about Pomeranian land reform, and might do worse if he tried consciously to model his novels on Marxist theory. And the writing of men of Dr. Mann's stature is what really counts for him. At bottom, one feels that for Lukacs the "reflection of objective reality"—itself objective—has sometimes looked too important to be clouded over by the extraneous need to teach or to inspire: or rather, that the understanding of the world, to which literature is for him a means, can be separated, even for a moment, from the practical changing of it.

Non-Marxists will not see his problem. But once the good Marxist has the dilemma pointed out to him his choice is clear. Is not Marx's aphorism about the philosophers who must change the world, and not merely interpret it, the rock upon which his theory rests? So Lukacs will alter course, as he has done on similar occasions in the past, a majestic and complex craft on the literary ocean, and one well worth watching. Perhaps his self-criticism will even include a review of his prose-style; for of the gifts of great critics of prose, a lucid style is the only one he really lacks. (p. 591)

"The Mirror of Reality," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1950; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2538, September 22, 1950, pp. 589-91.




Herbert Read