History makers: Georg Lukács

Here we look back on one of the most compelling intellectual and political journeys of the twentieth century.

Georg Lukács (1885–1971) was many things - a Hungarian Jew, a philosopher, a man of letters - but above all, he was a revolutionary. He embodied both sides of Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, interpreting the world, yes, but always seeking to change it, too. 

From the outside, Lukács’ early years appear anything other than revolutionary. His father, Jóseph Löwinger, was a self-made, Magyarised Jew, who had risen to become one of Hungary’s most important financiers, and his mother, Adele Wertheimer, was bourgeois convention incarnate.  But he was growing up in an environment stirring with discontent. Already by the 1890s certain social forces were undermining the Austro-Hungarian regime’s stability, from an aggressive, anti-Semitic nationalism, to unrest amid a growing industrial proletariat and the massed ranks of an impoverished rural workforce. For a young, nominally Jewish intellectual like Lukács, it is not difficult to see why neither the failing liberal faith of his parents, nor the Slavic nationalism of some of his Hungarian contemporaries, proved appealing.


Georg Lukács

The particular conditions of Hungary during the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire certainly contributed to the fin de siècle air in which the young Lukács breathed, but his sense of disillusionment was deeper still. For the young Lukács it was as if European society, indeed Western civilisation, had grown soulless, hollow. Life was being still being lived, but it was without meaning. 

The young Lukács was far from alone in sensing a spiritual crisis.  Intellectual precursors with whom he was increasingly familiar abounded, from Baudelaire to Nietzsche, and each had their own take on the same problem: namely, the meaninglessness of the conventions and rituals of society. During the 1900s and early 1910s, Lukács drank deep from this melancholy broth, especially during his studies in Berlin and Heidelberg, where he became friends with prominent sociologists Georg Simmel and Max Weber. They, too, believed Europe was caught up in a spiritual crisis, one captured by Simmel in his concept of the ‘tragedy of culture’ and in Weber in the idea of ‘the iron cage of rationality’. Little wonder that Lukács’ writing during this period seemed to rest on the estrangement of the individual yearning for meaning from a world which refuses to yield. This can be seen in the criticism of an ‘ordinary life’ of ‘cheap security… of dull repose in the dry lap of common sense’ in Soul and Form (1911), and his assumption of the ‘ineradicable loneliness of men of the world of experience’ in the Heidelberg Aesthetics (1914).

Yet, with the outbreak of the First World War, Lukács showed himself to be distinct from many of his equally disillusioned intellectual contemporaries. While Weber, for instance, seemed to greet the war as a moment of potential redemption, the point at which individuals could discover some semblance of purpose, Lukács’ disillusionment and estrangement only deepened. The Theory of the Novel (1916), with its quasi-historical riffs on the ‘age of absolute sinfulness’, captured well Lukács’ despair.

Yet despite Lukács’ passionate denunciation of the world as it was, despite his growing hatred of capitalism, and his dislike of the false promises of liberalism, a futility marks Lukács’ early work. Even in The Theory of the Novel, in which the philosophical-historical narrative points towards a possible regeneration in the work of Dostoyevsky, Lukács admits that hope is still so weak that it could be crushed by the ‘sterile power of the existent’. The problem for the young Lukács was his sense of how things ‘ought’ to be was hopelessly distant from how things were. His position, reflected in his youthful work, was that of an isolated individual at odds with the world grown rank. This soon changed.

The big turning point in the life of Georg Lukács was ostensibly the Russian Revolution. I say ostensibly because initially he still saw revolution in terms of the dualism between is and ought that marks his early work. This is clear in the essay ‘Bolshevism as a Moral Problem’, published in 1918: ‘In the moment of decision that has now arrived, one cannot overlook the dualistic separation of the soulless empirical reality and the human - that is, the utopian, the ethical - objective.’ At this point, Lukács decided against joining the Communist Party, asking rhetorically:  ‘Can freedom be attained by means of oppression?... (Should one) drive out Satan with Beelzebub?’. He soon changed his mind, even if his dualistic way of thinking persisted. As he put it in ‘Tactics and Ethics’ (1919), quoting German playwright Friedrich Hebbel: ‘Even if God had placed sin between me and the deed enjoined upon me - who am I to be able to escape it?’

Such was Lukács’ enthusiastic involvement in the Communist Party that he played a not insignificant role during the Hungarian revolution of 1919, which gave rise to the short-lived Hungarian Soviet (21 March - 1 August 1919). For those few months, he was made people’s commissar for education and culture and headed up the fifth division of the Hungarian Red Army.

But his thinking during this period was still shot through with dualism. It’s just that where his pre-Communist work was characterised by a hopeless melancholy, for which art offered only illusory solace, his immediate post-Communist work was infused with a hopeful utopianism. Everything was about to be corrected; individuals were about to find themselves part of an ‘organic whole’, as he put it in his 1919 lecture, ‘The Old and the New Culture’. Is and ought, once so implacably opposed, had simply been collapsed into each other.

Little wonder perhaps that Lukács, following an article attacking parliamentary participation, earned a rebuke from Communist leader Lenin himself: ‘GL’s article is very left-wing and very poor’, Lenin noted in 1920. ‘Its Marxism is purely verbal… it gives no concrete analysis of precise and definite historical situations; it takes no account of what is most essential (the need to take over and to learn to take over, all fields of work and all institutions in which the bourgeoisie exerts its influence over the masses, etc).’

In many ways, however, Lenin’s criticism combined with the failure of the Hungarian Revolution, was the making of Lukács. As powerful, and at points inspired, as his early work was, its theoretical inspiration was dualistic rather than dialectical; it was Kant or Fichte rather than Hegel or Marx. Social reality was grasped too often as a thing apart from a revolutionary individual, rather than as something constantly in the process of being made by men - ‘the inner poetry of life’ as Lukács was to put it later. He needed to grasp the mediations between what is and what ought to be, between the grand perspectives of communism and the circumscribed practical problems confronting a revolutionary in a specific situation.

In History and Class Consciousness, he did precisely this. Published in 1923, it was a work born of a reckoning with that revolutionary interlude between 1917 and 1923. Gone was the ‘dilemma of impotence: the dilemma created by the pure laws with their fatalism and by the ethics of pure intention’. In its place was an astonishing conception of revolutionary subjectivity - captured in the recurrent phrase ‘reality is not, it becomes’.

It’s not difficult to see why History and Class Consciousness was so, well, revolutionary. To those on both left and right willing to see Marxism as a species of economic determinism, History and Class Consciousness reinserted, ‘from the standpoint of the proletariat’, the role of human subjectivity. As Lukács was at pains to reassert in A Defence of History and Class Consciousness (1924): ‘there can be no moment where this character of the process, the germ, the possibility of an active influencing of the subjective moments is completely lacking.’

By this point however, Lukács was already out of step. And by the time Stalin came to power, he was out of line. Unsurprisingly, Lukács’ explicitly political work recedes during the late 1920s. And by the 1930s and 40s, Lukács is almost solely concerned with philosophical and literary matters. Or at least that’s how it appears. If you peer a little deeper, however, it becomes clear that Lukács was actually deepening his understanding of the dialectical mediations between subject and object, between is and ought. The Young Hegel (1938) alone is a testament to Lukács’ focus on the development of a dialectical approach to reality, in which objective reality is grasped as a process of becoming, in all its alienating contradictions, rather than simply rejected in favour of subjective idealism.

Lukács did move back into the political spotlight during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, where he took part in debates of the anti-Communist Party and revolutionary communist Petőfi society, defending intellectual freedom, and even played a role in Imre Nagy’s brief government. But, following the Soviet repression, Lukács narrowly avoided execution and retreated once more into his intellectual work, developing his Ontology of Social Being.  Many of Lukács students and followers were indicted for political crimes, and were forced to flee the republic at this point.

In an interview given just over a couple years before his death, Lukács’ verdict on the post-revolutionary era was damning: ‘The essence of Stalinism lies in placing tactics before strategy, practice above theory…The bureaucracy generated by Stalinism is a tremendous evil. Society is suffocated by it. Everything becomes unreal, nominalistic. People see no design, no strategic aim, and do not move…’. For a thinker so committed to movement, to the aspiration towards something better, this was devastating. Still, in the work of this incredible man, which reaches back to the modernist peaks of Soul and Form, and stretches forward through History and Class Consciousness, Goethe and his Age, and The Young Hegel to the Ontology of Social Being, the hopes and intellectual high-points of an era persist. As Victor Serge put it in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, 1901-1941:  ‘In Lukács, I saw a first-class brain which could have endowed Communism with a true intellectual greatness if it had developed as a social movement instead of degenerating into a movement in solidarity with an authoritarian power.’

Tim Black is deputy editor at spiked.

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