The life and work of Georg Lukács

Submitted by martin on 16 June, 2019 - 8:45 Author: John Cunningham
Lukacs

Georg Lukács (pictured above in 1919) was one of the best-known Marxist writers of the 20th century.

He joined the Hungarian Communist Party in December 1918 and was a People's Commissar in the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic of March-July 1919. After fleeing to Vienna, he published History and Class Consciousness (in 1923, but collecting texts written since 1919).

He lived in the USSR between 1929 and 1945.

He was a minister in the reforming Nagy government in Hungary in 1956, survived the Russian invasion and the repression, and died in 1971.

John Cunningham talked with Martin Thomas from Solidarity to preview the session on Lukács at Ideas for Freedom, 20-23 June. John's reading list on Lukács here.

There is a tendency in the literature to regard Lukács's first 30-odd years as a waste of time: to say that it was only really when Lukács heard about the Russian revolution did he start to wake up and engage with the world.

His earlier life should not be so easily dismissed. His two main works of that period, The Theory of the Novel and Soul and Form have little value today. They're extremely difficult to understand.

But Michel Löwy brings out another side of it in his excellent book on Lukács. In that period, through his reading of Dostoevsky and the influence of the Hungarian poet Endre Ady, Lukács developed an intense hatred of bourgeois society.

He also developed a strong grounding in the writings of Hegel and Fichte.

His letters of that early period talk of him walking his lonely paths of darkness. Gloom is all around him. He considers suicide.

When he was confronted with the reality of 1917, his hopeless search for individual solutions gave way to a realisation that there is a collective solution.

He saw the reality of working-class power, which he'd never contemplated before. He had had a very low opinion of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party.

He was confronted for the first time with the idea that power lay with a certain stratum of society which could be wielded to change the world.

From about 1914 Lukács had become acquainted with the works of Georges Sorel, Antonio Labriola, and of Ervin Szabó, considered to have been the founder of Hungarian Marxism.

Between 1914 and 1919 a number of things came together. Lukács was very much opposed to World War 1. He was at Heidelberg at the time, and was appalled by the support for the war of Max Weber, to whom he had previously been close.

As soldiers returned to Hungary from the war, there were mutinies, soldiers' councils, workers' councils.

That propelled Lukács to read Lenin. He read State and Revolution in 1917.

After talks with prisoners-of-war returning from Russia, where they had converted to Bolshevism, he made the absolutely right decision to join the Communist Party on 12 December 1918.

It is easy to dismiss Lukács's early life. But if you look at it in a sympathetic way, there's more to it. His father was one of the richest men in Hungary, so Lukács had baggage to shake off.

Lukács is best known for History and Class Consciousness. It's a complex text. I want to approach it from a slightly different angle from usual, to place it in its context in working-class and communist history.

Lukács was trying, in History and Class Consciousness, to look at why the Hungarian revolution of 1919 failed, and the Russian revolution of 1917 succeeded.

He turned to Hegel as a way of overcoming what Lukács saw as a tendency to bureaucratisation in the international communist movement, and a tendency after 1917 to see the world revolution as inevitable. He stressed class consciousness, as a way of defeating reification. He looks at the role of the party, and develops ideas about totality and praxis.

That stress on the subjective factors of history led him at times to neglect economics. Some of the criticism of *History and Class Consciousness* as being idealistic is probably correct.

But we should take into account Lukács's unpublished defence of History and Class Consciousness, called Tailism and the Dialectic, written around 1925 but not published until after it was discovered in the archives in the 1990s.

He defended his work against Abram Deborin, then the leading philosopher in the USSR, and László Rudas, who, like Bela Kun and others, had become a disciple of Zinoviev. His critique was sharp and to the point.

One of Lukács's most important later works was The Historical Novel. He wrote that when he was in Moscow in 1929-45 (except for 1931-32 in Berlin).

Lukács worked on the journal Literaturnyi Kritik. The Historical Novel was not actually published as a book in 1937, as is often said; it appeared then as a series of articles in the journal, and was not published as a book until after World War 2.

The Historical Novel does not give a voice to "socialist realism". It tries to put the development of the novel in a historical framework, and avoid at least some of the excesses of "socialist realism".

Throughout that period, when the purges were at their height, Lukács and the team he was working with on the journal were in a covert war of manoeuvre against "socialist realism". For example, the journal, and Lukács, supported the writer Andrei Platonov, whom Stalin loathed.

Lukács conceded to a whole range of things while he was in the USSR - if he hadn't, he would have died - but he did make a stand for some writers who were on the margins. He counterposed bourgeois 19th century realism to "socialist realism". His advice to writers in the USSR was essentially: be more like Balzac.

The downside is that he loathed modernism. He had no time for Samuel Beckett or James Joyce.

After Lukács came out of internment in Romania (where he had been sent after 1956) someone sent him some Kafka to read. He apparently remarked: perhaps Kafka had a point. Maybe Lukács's reference to Kafka was partly prompted by his being detained in a Romanian holiday camp for the Party elite.

If I have time at IFF, I will also say a few words about the Blum Theses of 1929, Lukács's proposed programme for the underground Hungarian Communist Party. The Theses decisively rejected by the Comintern, and that marked a major turning point in Lukács's life.

The ISL and Lukács

The first translation from German of any of Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness appeared in the heterodox Trotskyist (ISL) journal The New International, in the summer 1957 issue. Michael Harrington translated What is Orthodox Marxism?, the first essay in the book, with an introduction reprinted on our website here.

There is currently a campaign to save the Lukács archives in Budapest.

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