First I want to thank Martin Thomas for his “more sceptical assessment” of the work of György Lukács (Solidarity 518).
This is precisely what is needed. In the same vein my thanks also to all those who attended the session on Lukács at Ideas for Freedom 2019 recently and gave me the benefit of their thoughts and criticisms.
These comments will no doubt find their way into the book I am currently writing on Lukács (excuse the plug!). I don’t feel able at the moment to render a fully detailed response to Martin’s comments, so what follows will no doubt appear rather haphazard in response. The numbers do not indicate any order of priority:
1. Various comments that Lukács was “the most important Marxist political philosopher since Marx” and that he was “the great theorist of revolution in the 20th century” etc. seem “over the top” to put it mildly. Also, I have always been uneasy about saying that “X is the greatest Marxist” alive/ of all time/ of this decade; how on earth are such things measured?
2. Martin says, honestly, that he is not qualified to comment on Lukács’ writing in literary criticism and aesthetics. I have much sympathy – I have just ploughed my way through The Historical Novel and his literary/aesthetic writings can be hard work in places and as I think I have mentioned elsewhere his (pre-revolutionary) Theory of the Novel and Soul and Form occasionally verge on the incomprehensible.
The problem however is that without a consideration of his aesthetic and literary works we cannot have a full understanding of his life and work. To use Lukács’ own words we need to understand the “totality” of his output.
For example, I would suggest that if we want to understand how Lukács ever progressed from upper middle class “man-of-letters” to Marxist activist, then his reading and understanding of the Hungarian poet Endre Ady and the Russian writer Dostoyevsky are essential. He wasn’t alone: both Luxemburg and Trotsky were great admirers of Dostoyevsky.
I hope, at some point to address such questions. I haven’t yet got round to looking at Lukács on Goethe but I understand that these writings contain a number of veiled – and not so veiled – criticisms of Stalinism as does his work The Young Hegel.
3. Martin says History and Class Consciousness was published in a “small edition (a few hundred copies)” which seems very likely although I’ve never come across a reference for this. As far as I know it only appeared in German, a situation that was only corrected in 1960.
There was however, a thriving “trade” in pirated editions and it is impossible to know how many people did read it. Walter Benjamin and Karl Korsch read it as did a number of those associated with the Frankfurt School. It was an influential text, although Theodor Adorno later became an opponent of Lukács. It was discussed at the “First Marxist Work Week” in Ilenmau in 1923, and the future General Secretary of the Japanese CP (he was a student in Germany at the time and fluent in the language) took a copy back to Tokyo with him.
It influenced the current known as “Marxist Humanism” and the “Western Marxism” of the New Left Review. So, the book, despite its initial small print run, did have its resonances, but for many years there was no English, French or Russian translation.
4. Was HCC “obediently disavowed” by Lukács after Zinoviev’s denunciation? Lukács did write a defence of HCC – Tailism and the Dialectic, which he probably wrote in 1925 and sent to Moscow.
It was never published and sat on a shelf in the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute gathering dust till the 1990s. Lukács never mentioned it (to the best of my knowledge) and it is a mystery why this was the case and, equally, why it was never published. But it is a very robust defence of HCC against his two most prominent critics Abram Deborin and László Rudas.
No easy answers to this particular puzzle but it does demonstrate that Lukács did not initially take things lying down. In fact, his first public denunciation of HCC only came in 1932 at a writers” conference, some nine years after HCC was published.
In terms of Lukács’ self-imposed “retreat” from “front-line” politics (which I think needs some qualification) I would suggest that 1929 and the rejection of his Blum Theses – his programme for the Hungarian Communist Party – was a more important event than the denunciations by Zinoviev, Rudas, Deborin, Kun etc. in the mid-twenties.
5. Moving on to more specific issues. I think Martin is right about “What is Orthodox Marxism?” (the first essay in HCC). In the draft of my book I say more or less the same. I also look at a number of comments by writers who have defended Lukács’ ideas on methodology and find them all wanting (except Gareth Stedman-Jones in New Left Review No. 71). The conclusion that Lukács is simply wrong seems inescapable.
6. Unfortunately, the stuff on dialectics will have to wait for a response. Just a quick remark: his former student, István Mészáros has written a book Lukács’ Concept of the Dialectic (Merlin Press, 1972) which might shed light on this topic but I haven’t had time yet to look at this in any depth. Staying with Mészáros for a moment, in his magnum opus Beyond Capital (1995) there is a long section (pages 282-422) devoted to Lukács which contains both a warm appreciation of his work and, probably, the most detailed critique available anywhere.
7. The critique of the Hungarian CP in 1919 is right and there is much more that can be said on this topic. Just a couple of other points: not sure about HCP policy on national minorities. The hastily cobbled together Hungarian Red Army did occupy areas of what was soon to be Czechoslovakia (roughly the southern area of what is now Slovakia) but these were areas where there was a substantial Hungarian minority and some support for the HCP (a Republic of Councils was declared but didn’t last very long). Most of the fighting was concerned with defensive action – defending Hungary and the revolution – and was not offensive. In this respect there were nationalist elements fighting with the Red Army, particularly in the officer corps whose military expertise was desperately needed.
When the Hungarian Red Army faced the Romanians they didn’t turn and flee, nor did the leadership. For all its problems the Red Army gave a good account of itself.
At the Tisza river the Red Army stood its ground for eight days before succumbing to the superiority of the Romanian army (which was supported by the French) after this the collapse of the Republic was very rapid.
The main element in the collapse of the Republic of Councils was Kun’s decision to agree to a French proposal that if the Hungarians withdrew from the Czechoslovakian front they would get the Romanians to also withdraw; the Hungarian army withdrew but the Romanians ignored the French and pressed on with their advance, eventually occupying Budapest. This gave rise to widespread disillusionment with the CP leadership and some of the professional ex-Hapsburg army officers who were supporting the Hungarian army just threw in the towel.
9. Last comment (at least for the moment). Did Lukács capitulate to Stalinism? Opinions on this seem to vary between the “Trojan Horse” position – fighting Stalinism from inside – or outright surrender.
This crude dichotomy doesn’t do justice to Lukács’ position, which might best be described as a complex war of manoeuvre.