Lukács, Georg (1885–1971)

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Georg (György) Lukács, the Hungarian Marxist philosopher and literary critic, was professor of aesthetics and the philosophy of culture at the University of Budapest from 1945 to 1956. Lukács was born in Budapest into a rich and eminent family (before he became a communist he wrote under the family name "von Lukács"). He took a doctorate in philosophy in Budapest (1906) and then studied under Georg Simmel at Berlin and under Max Weber at Heidelberg. Since Lukács was recognized as one of Europe's leading literary critics when he joined the Communist Party of Hungary in December 1918, he was offered the post of people's commissar for culture and education in the communist regime of Béla Kun (MarchAugust 1919). After the fall of Kun, Lukács took refuge in Vienna, where he edited the review Kommunismus and carried on a struggle with Kun (exiled in Moscow) for control of the Hungarian underground movement. Publication in Berlin in 1923 of Lukács's collection of essays, Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein, decided the issue in favor of Kunfor the book was denounced as "deviationist." Lukács was ousted from the central committee of the Communist Party and from the editorship of Kommunismus after publishing his "self-criticism." He took refuge in Russia when Adolf Hitler came to power and, after a further and more thorough act of self-criticism, worked in the Institute of Philosophy of the Soviet Academy of Science from 1933 to 1944. Returning to Hungary, he became a member of parliament and professor of aesthetics. In 1956 Lukács was a leader of the Petofi circle, which played a role in the anti-Russian insurrection, and then minister for culture in the short-lived Imre Nagy government. After the defeat of the revolution, Lukács was deported to Romania, but he was allowed to return to Budapest in April 1957 to live in retirement and to devote himself to a monumental work on aesthetics, of which one volume was published, in Hungarian.

Aesthetics and Criticism

Lukács's fame as one of the few philosophers produced by the Marxist movement rests on a book that he repudiated soon after its publication, Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein (History and class consciousness). His later worksome thirty books and hundreds of articlesconstitutes an attempt to found a Marxist aesthetic that could be used to criticize modernist, formalist, and experimental art in the name of socialist realism. This critical work entailed some confusion of literary criticism with political polemic, of which the following judgment on Kafka is typical: "no work of art based on Angst (anxiety) can avoidobjectively speakingguilt by association with Hitlerism and the preparations for atomic war" (The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, p. 81). Lukács's influence as a critic has been intensely conservative, for he held that "realism is not one style among others; it is the basis of literature" (p. 48).

In his first aesthetic studies, Die Seele und die Formen (The soul and the forms) and Die Theorie des Romans (The theory of the novel), Lukács was still a neo-Kantian. He held that literature was the striving for expression of the irrational soul in and through an alien and hostile reality. He stressed the value of "inwardness" and the uselessness of society to the individual. These works have been claimed as among the sources of existentialism, but Lukács himself denounced them as "false and reactionary" upon his conversion to communism. Thereafter he contrasted Marxism, as a philosophy that integrated the individual in society, with all modern "philosophies of crisis and evasion," and in particular with existentialism, which isolated men outside social and economic relations.

Lukács's stress on social relationships became the basis of his aesthetics. Form, he argued, should be determined by content (therefore abstract art and formalism are degenerate), and "there is no content of which Man himself is not the focal point" (The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, p. 19). Since man exists only in a social and historical context, aesthetics inevitably is concerned with politics. If the subject of a work of art is man seen statically, then that work declines into subjectivism and allegory. Literature must be dynamic, setting characters in historical perspective in order that they might be shown as having direction, development, and motivation. For literature to be dynamic, the major historical movement of the day must be taken into account. In the twentieth century that movement was socialism. The only valid contemporary literary styles are socialist realism, which is practiced inside the socialist movement, and critical realism, which is practiced by authors sympathetic to socialism. Lukács's theories naturally entailed condemnation of most twentieth-century art, literature, and music, but they were fruitfully applied to the historical novel.

Social and Historical Analysis

Geschichte und Klassen-bewusstsein, the censored masterpiece of communist thought, became the classic text of Western Marxism as contrasted with Soviet orthodoxy. It led to a revaluation of Marxism by setting it in a Hegelian context. Lukács was the first to see that Karl Marx's theory of history and even his economics could be read as an application of the Hegelian dialectic. He did this a decade before the discovery and publication of Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, which amply confirmed his theory, at least with regard to the young Marx. Having meanwhile disowned his book, Lukács could not claim credit for that brilliant piece of philosophical reconstruction, but he later could show the profound similarity between the philosophies of G. W. F. Hegel and Marx (Der junge Hegel ). His idealist reading of Marx clashed with the accepted Leninist version, and, since Lukács worsened his case in 1923 by revealing the influence of Georges Sorel and Rosa Luxemburg on his thought, his book was condemned with a ferocity unusual even in communist polemics.

Lukács had rejected Friedrich Engels's and V. I. Lenin's conception of the Marxist dialectic as a set of laws applying to nature, and he rejected too the notion that historical materialism deduces all social and moral life from the economic base. Historical materialism and the dialectic, he said, both mean the same thing, namely that in society subject and object are one. When men know (or enter into any other relation with) social entitieswhether these are institutions or economic goods or another age's culturethe relation established is not the sort of relation they have with the natural objects studied by physical science. Social entities are reified personality or alienated spirit, while men themselves are the product of historical forces. The knower and the known, subject and object, are moments of one entity, society, and their relations are necessarily ambiguous, two-way, or dialectical.

Marx had said, "As personal interests become autonomous in the shape of class interests, the personal conduct of the individual becomes reified and alienated and thereby becomes a thing apart from him, an independent force." It is just such alienated forms of conduct that make up society. In the nineteenth century in particular, because of the development of industry, "material forces were saturated with spiritual life, while human existence was made animal, became a material force." Marx meant, said Lukács, that spirit had become thing and things were steeped in spirit, so that history was a fabric of meanings-become-forces. This dialectical relation of subject and object was most marked in the case of the proletariat because the proletariat had been reduced by capitalism to labor, a mere economic commodity, and yet it could still take cognizance of itself as a commodity by acquiring class consciousness. Thereupon, it saw through the supposed natural laws of economics and revolutionized capitalism. "For this class, self-knowledge means at the same time correct knowledge of the whole of society so this class is at once subject and object of knowledge" (Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein ). Its self-knowledge is history knowing itself, and in that total clarity lies the promise of a return from alienation.

The difficulties raised by historical relativismdifficulties that had been seen by all who asked how Marxism alone among social opinions could escape being vitiated by its relation to a given class and agecan be resolved only by going right to the extreme of relativism. That is to say, historical materialism must be applied to itself until it is seen as relative and provisional. This means abandoning the notion of absolute truth and denying the complete opposition of true and false. History is a dialectical totality of knowers and things known, and every piece of culture, no matter how deformed by class position and historical situation, reflects that totality. Truth exists, but it exists only in the future tense; it is the presumptive totality to be attained by permanent self-criticism. "The criterion of truth is grasp of reality. But reality is not at all to be confounded with empirical being, what actually exists. Reality is not; it becomesand not without the collaboration of thought" (Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein ). Rejecting the representative theory of knowledge made orthodox for Marxists by the examples of Engels and Lenin (the "concepts in our heads" are "true images of reality"), Lukács held that truth is not something to be reflected but something to be made by us by collaborating with what is new and progressive in historical forces. The vague notion of a moving totality of things, of the whole of history, is essential to this "relativization of relativism." Lukács did not clearly delineate this notion, but it evidently bears a resemblance to the Hegelian Absolute.

Lukács's three main doctrinesthe dialectical unity of subject and object in society; the promise of a return from alienation when society, through the proletariat, attains self-knowledge; and the notion of truth as a totality yet to be achievedwere attractive to some Western existentialists. Lukács complained that their "treacherous" use of his work was a "falsification of a book forgotten for good reason." Another line of influence was through his former associate Karl Mannheim, who developed the relativization of all ideologies into the sociology of knowledge. Within the communist world, the only doctrine of Lukács's censored book to enjoy some surreptitious authority was his "proof" of the communist intellectual's duty to accept the Communist Party as the supreme expression of proletarian class consciousness and thus as endowed with the correct view of history. This doctrine Lukács himself practiced rigorously, even to the extent of repudiating his own major contribution to modern thought.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Communism; Critical Realism; Critical Theory; Engels, Friedrich; Existentialism; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Historical Materialism; Kafka, Franz; Lenin, Vladimir Il'ich; Mannheim, Karl; Marxist Philosophy; Marx, Karl; Neo-Kantianism; Simmel, Georg; Socialism; Sorel, Georges; Weber, Max.


works by lukÁcs


Die Seele und die Formen. Berlin: Fleischel, 1911.

Die Theorie des Romans. Berlin: Cassirer, 1920.

Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein. Berlin: Malik, 1923.

Der junge Hegel. Zürich: Europa, 1948; rev. ed., Berlin, 1954.

Existentialismus oder Marxismus? Berlin: Aufbau, 1951.

Beiträge zur Geschichte der Aesthetik. Berlin: Aufbau, 1954.

Die Zerstörung der Vernunft. Berlin: Aufbau, 1955.

Literary Criticism

Essays über Realismus. Berlin: Aufbau, 1948. Translated by E. Bone as Studies in European Realism. London: Hillway, 1950.

Thomas Mann. Berlin, 1949. Translated by S. Mitchell as Essays on Thomas Mann. London: Merlin Press, 1964.

The Historical Novel. Translated by H. Mitchell and S. Mitchell. London: Merlin Press, 1962.

The Meaning of Contemporary Realism. Translated by J. Mander and N. Mander. London: Merlin Press, 1963.

works on lukÁcs

Arato, A., and P. Breines. The Young Lukács and the Origin of Western Marxism. New York: Seabury Press, 1979.

Carbonara, C. L'estetica del particolare di G. Lukacs. Naples, 1960.

Goldmann, Lucien. Le dieu caché. Paris: Gallimard, 1955. Translated by P. Thody as The Hidden God. New York: Humanities Press, 1964.

Goldmann, Lucien. "Introduction aux premiers écrits de Georges Lukacs." In Lukács's La théorie du roman. Geneva, 1963.

Heller, A., ed. Lukács Revisited. Oxford: Blackwell, 1983.

Jung, W. Georg Lukács. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1989.

Kadarkay, A. Georg Lukács Life, Thought, and Politics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

Lukács, Georg et al. Georg Lukács: Zum Siebzigsten Geburtstag. Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1955.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Les aventures de la dialectique. Paris: Gallimard, 1955. Translated as Adventures of the Dialectic. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1972.

Mészáros, L. Lukács' Concept of the Dialectic. London: Merlin, 1972.

Watnick, Morris. "Relativism and Class Consciousness: Georg Lukács." In Revisionism, edited by Leopold Labedz. New York: Praeger, 1962.

Zitta, Victor. Georg Lukács's Marxism. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1964.

Neil McInnes (1967)

Bibliography updated by Thomas Nenon (2005)