Skip to main content

Lukács, György (1885–1971)

LUKÁCS, GYÖRGY (1885–1971)


Hungarian Marxist philosopher and literary critic.

György Lukács, who also published under the name Georg Lukácz, was born in Budapest, the son of a wealthy and recently ennobled Jewish banker. As a young man he had distinctly literary and aesthetic interests, but he discovered anarchism as a schoolboy and in 1909 went to Berlin and then Heidelberg to study philosophy. Here he came under the influence of neo-Kantians such as Heinrich Rickert, Wilhelm Windelband, and Emil Lask, who stressed the uniqueness of culture and its inaccessibility through the methods of natural science. Their influence can be seen in his first book, Die Seele und die Formen (1911; Soul and Form), which harks back to the late-nineteenth-century tradition of Friedrich Nietzsche, Wilhelm Dilthey, and the philosophy of life (Lebensphilosophie). His first book emphasized the necessity of giving one's life form and meaning in a world of alienation and absurdity. He was also influenced by Max Weber and Georg Simmel and their notion of the "tragedy of culture," in which man, in the modern "disenchanted" world, is necessarily alienated and transcendentally "homeless."

Lukács began to turn against this form of cultural pessimism after serious readings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. His next book, Die Theorie des Romans (1916; The Theory of the Novel), pointed the way to a possibility of redemption through history. In 1917 he returned to Budapest as one of the leaders of the Budapest Circle, an elite group of artists, writers, and thinkers including Karl Mannheim and Béla Bartók who met in Béla Balázs's elegant apartment or the Lukács country estate, discussing the fate of bourgeois civilization. In 1918 Lukács surprised his aesthete friends by throwing in his lot with the Soviet Communist Party. He served for a short time as People's Commissar for Public Education in the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic of Béla Kun. Although he presented himself as an orthodox communist, in fact he rejected the crude dialectical materialism that quickly became the established doctrine in the Soviet Union. In 1923 he published a series of essays under the title Geschichte und Klassenbewusstein (History and Class Consciousness). This book was attacked by Grigory Zinoviev and the leaders of the Communist Party. Lukács inflicted on himself the humiliation of self-critique and officially repudiated the work in a public confession in 1930. Although the book was banned in the Soviet Union and later in occupied Eastern Europe, it had an enormous influence on Marxist intellectuals in the West.

In this founding text of Western reform Marxism, Lukács argues that bourgeois life is false and superficial because it is based on formal rights that leave people as the passive object of economic, political, and legal forces. Authentic freedom, he argues, is a collective practice, or praxis. The most famous passages of this book deal with his discussion of Verdinglichung (reification, or "thingification" in English), which he took from his reading of Hegel and which mirrored the young Marx's own confrontation with Hegel. Verdinglichung means the rendering of something alive and dynamic into a lifeless object. Marx's most famous example was the way that capitalism took away the congealed labor of the proletariat, in the form of products, and created a "fetishized" world of commodities. Lukács argues that in bourgeois society human consciousness has become reified, and the alienated condition of subjects separated from objects has been taken as natural, as a "second nature." Once one recognizes that alienation can be overcome, by what would later be called consciousness-raising, capitalism could be abolished, the proletariat would cease to exist, and a classless society would ensue in which humans are both subject and object of history. This process would necessarily be led by revolutionary intellectuals who had to choose to be on the right side of history, no matter the consequences. This fatalist attitude explained Lukács's willingness to criticize his own work and submit to the dictates of the party.

The logic behind History and Class Consciousness explains why Lukács remained a devoted member of the party until the end. Unlike Marx, who believed that the dialectic of history would inevitably result in communism, Lukács understood that collective, voluntaristic action was necessary. The party was the indispensable motor of the revolution and had to ascribe class consciousness to the workers as an ideal type, even if the workers did not yet manifest the "correct" party solidarity. Lukács's book was seen as heretical to the party because he returned to a pre-Marxian notion of revolution as a hope, not as a certainty of the future, and because he openly avowed an elite dictatorship.

While many other communist and Jewish intellectuals fled westward from the Nazis, Lukács found refuge in the Soviet Union. From 1929 to 1944 he lived in Moscow and wrote about socialist realism. He remained committed to Stalin even through the show trials and purges of the late 1930s. Though his life was in danger and he was once arrested, he was saved by the intervention of Georgi Dimitrov, the general secretary of the Comintern. In 1944 Lukács returned to Budapest to teach philosophy at the university. He published a book called Zerstörung der Vernunft (1954; The Destruction of Reason), about the intellectual origins of fascism. It is generally considered his weakest work because of its sweeping condemnation of German culture, literature, and philosophy. Theodor Adorno called it the "destruction of Lukács's reason." He was appointed minister of culture under the reform prime minister Imre Nagy in 1956, but when the Hungarian uprising was crushed he was deported to Romania. He returned in 1957 but was banned from teaching because of his support for a more humane form of socialism. He was readmitted into the party in 1965 and seems to have then supported Nikita Khrushchev's reforms. His utopian spirits were rekindled in the heady days of 1968, when revolutions broke out in Prague, Paris, Berlin, Berkeley, and elsewhere. But when the German student leader Rudi Dutschke visited him in March 1968, Lukács continued to distance himself from the works he had written in his early years and that were having such a strong influence on the European student movements of the late 1960s. Lukács died in Budapest on 4 June 1971 and was buried with full party honors. Although his writings continue to have an influence on some leftist intellectuals in the West who wish to keep alive a post-Marxist critique of bourgeois society, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dwindling of attractive alternatives to liberal capitalism have rendered Lukács's work more of historical than vibrant theoretical interest.

See alsoBartók, Béla; Communism; Mannheim, Karl; 1968; 1989; Purges; Stalin, Joseph .


Arato, Andrew, and Paul Breines. The Young Lukács and the Origins of Western Marxism. New York, 1979.

Glück, Mary. Georg Lukács and His Generation, 1900–1918. Cambridge, Mass., 1985.

Heller, Agnes, ed. Lukács Reappraised. Oxford, U.K., 1983.

Jay, Martin. Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas. Berkeley, Calif., 1984.

Kadarkay, Arpad, ed. The Lukács Reader. Cambridge, Mass., 1995.

Elliot Neaman

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Lukács, György (1885–1971)." Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction. . 19 Apr. 2019 <>.

"Lukács, György (1885–1971)." Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction. . (April 19, 2019).

"Lukács, György (1885–1971)." Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction. . Retrieved April 19, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.