The Young Lukács

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Seldom does the author of a biography give such a clear statement of intent as Lee Congdon does in his preface to The Young Lukács. Following Lukács’ own approach to literary criticism, Congdon suggests that Lukács’ intellectual history cannot be understood without attention to “the inter-relationship between the ideas he entertained, the world in which he lived, and the conditions of his personal existence.” In addition, he tells the reader that he will inject his own critical judgment on Lukács’ life and ideas, exactly as Lukács himself would have done. More impressively, Congdon accomplishes almost all of his goals, producing a work which will long be of use not only to scholars of Marxist literary theory but also to anyone interested in the intellectual world of Europe and Russia from the turn of the century through the 1920’s. Much of the new Lukács material used here has been published by Slavic and Germanic scholarly presses, but prior to Congdon’s study, no American had undertaken to translate, unify, and select from Lukács’ letters, diaries, and manuscripts to form a readable biography. Congdon’s book is a flawed but extremely valuable volume.

On the development of Lukács’ ideas, Congdon is clear and concise. He traces crucial influences from literature, teachers, and the eclectic world of Central Europe on the young Lukács’ development, making good use of the materials that have become available since Lukács’ death in 1971. For the reader, Congdon provides brief, clear, and logical summaries of the major early works, which does not mean that the author oversimplifies. The reader will have to work harder than usual, for almost every sentence in these summaries is necessary to follow the complexity of Lukács’ thought.

From the first period of Lukács’ life, Congdon identifies an attraction to the fatalism of existential alienation—a rejection of rationalistic positivism, progress, and traditional conventions. Congdon traces the influences of Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Georg Simmel, Sören Kierkegaard, and Henrik Ibsen from Lukács’ first drama reviews at the age of seventeen through his two doctoral theses. Lukács’ first two major books, History of the Evolution of Modern Drama (published in Hungary, 1911) and The Soul and the Forms (published in Hungary, 1910; in Germany, 1911), are carefully summarized. In the second period of Lukács’ development, from 1912 to 1918, Congdon identifies a search for a utopian world of free choice, complete communication, and perfect justice. Turning from tragedy, Lukács emphasized fairy tales, romances, and the epic novel. Influences during this period included Hebraic and Russian antirational mysticism, Kant, Kierkegaard, Martin Buber, Max Weber, and Fyodor Dostoevski. Most of Lukács’ works from these years were abandoned unfinished: The Philosophy of Art (1912-1914); a book on Dostoevski (1914); one on Kierkegaard (1915); and The Heidelberg Aesthetics (1916-1918). In discussing this period of Lukács’ life, Congdon makes best use of the new materials found after the author’s death. Previously, only one work from this period was known—The Theory of the Novel (published in Germany in 1916)—which, it is now known, was the opening section of the Dostoevski book. The third period Congdon describes as Lukács’ final development phase are the years from 1918 to 1923. In this period, rejecting his search for an immediate utopia, Lukács accepted the reality of the imperfect world and the necessity of each man’s conscious choices involving guilt. Finally, Lukács emphasized that man must become aware of the historical process that is leading toward a more perfect society. Inspired by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Lukács accepted Communism through a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith”; his many essays from this period are best known in his collections Tactics and Ethics (1919) and History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (1923). Although Congdon’s bias against Soviet Communism is clear, he still gives clear summaries of the essays and events that led Lukács to this position.

In summarizing the historical events that influenced Lukács, Congdon performs a difficult task well, for the period from 1900 to 1923 was a complex one, especially for Hungary, Austria, and Germany. The prevailing mood of the European intellectual community was one of alienation, and the increasing threat of anti-Semitism was in the air when Lukács decided, in 1911, to seek a career in the more liberal and philosophical atmosphere of Heidelberg. Congdon shows why many European intellectuals welcomed World War I and the Russian Revolution; during his “utopian” period, Lukács dreamed of leading Russian terrorists...

(The entire section is 1985 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

American Historical Review. LXXXIX, April, 1984, p. 482.

History: Reviews of New Books. XII, October, 1983, p. 27.

Library Journal. CVIII, June 1, 1983, p. 1141.

World Literature Today. LVIII, Spring, 1984, p. 330.