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Georg (György) Lukács (1885-1971)


Hungarian literary historian, essayist, critic, an influential and controversial figure in the Western Marxist tradition. Although Georg Lukács supported the aesthetic doctrine of socialism realism, most of his life he was viewed with suspicion by Communist Party ideologists. Lukács's Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein (1923, History and Class Consciousness) was attacked by the Russian Communist Party leaders and he later regretted the "messianic utopianism" of this work. Lukács's aesthetics that opposed political control of artists was hailed by the New Left intellectuals in the 1960s.

"In the writing of the Stalinist period, however, the real problems were overlooked and—as with economic subjectivism—the correctness of particular solutions became a matter for dogmatism. Literature ceased to reflect the dynamic contradictions of social life; it became the illustration of an abstract 'truth.' The aesthetic consequences of such an approach are all too evident. Even where this 'truth'  was in fact true and not, as so often, a lie or a half-truth, the notion of literature-as-illustration was extremely detrimental to good writing." (from The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, translated from the German by John and Necke Mander, Merlin Press, 1963, p. 119)

György Szegedy von Lukács (also known as Georg Lukács) was born in Budapest into a wealthy Jewish family. His father, József Löwinger, was a prominent Hungarian banker, his German-speaking mother Adele Wertheimer came from Vienna. The family Magyarized in 1890 its name of Löwinger into Lukács. József was ennobled in 1899.

Jewishness played little role in Lukács's upbringing who was baptized a Lutheran. He studied at the universities of Budapest and Berlin, receiving his Ph.D. in 1906 for his book on modern drama. After travels in Italy, he lived in Heidelberg from 1912 to 1916 and studied privately with Heinrich Rickert. During this period he became associated with the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), later developed Weber's ideal type methodology. In his early point of career Lukács described himself as a "subjective idealist" and his writings showed interest in neo-Kantian thought, fashionable in pre-First World War Central European intellectual circles. From The Theory of the Novel (1920) Hegel remained for Lukács a lifelong source of inspiration.

In 1917 Lukács returned to Budapest, where he became the leading figure of The Budapest Sunday Circle, which included Karl Mannheim, the art historian Arnold Hauser, the writers Béla Balázs and Anna Leznai, and the musicians Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály. Usually the group met at Balázs's elegant apartment or the Lukács's country estate and discussed about the end of the liberal society. Most of the members left Hungary after the revolution of 1919. After conversion to Marxism and historical materialism, Lukács dropped the honorific "von" from his publications. His undercover name in the Communist Party of Hungary (KMP) was 'Blum'.

World War I had radicalized Lukács's thinking and he joined in 1918 the newly formed KMP, founded by Béla Kun. However, before this decision he had doubted that Bolshevism can bring any good out of evil. After changing his view Lukács accepted that terror was legitimate in the socialist context. During Béla Kun's short-lived government, Lukács became Commissar of Public Education. When the Hungarian Communist Republic was overthrown by Romanian troops, Lukács fled to Austria and Kun to the Soviet Union where he died in one of the Stalinist purges before World War II.

In his diary Balász described Lukács's haunted appearance in Vienna – he was "deathly pale, hollow cheeked, impatient and sad", and who went "around with a gun in his pocket," tracking down people who have disappeared with party funds. (Georg Lukács and His Generation, 1900-1918 by Mary Gluck, 1991, p. 211) Lukács was also portrayed by Thomas Mann in The Magic Mountain, in which the Jewish-Jesuit character, Naphta, was partly modelled on him.

Lukács's marriage to Ljena Grabenko, a Russian emigrant who turned him into a nervous wreck, ended after some years. In 1919 he married Gertrud Bortstieber, the daughter of a rabbi. He once said that her influence on his life could be compared only with the October Revoliution. (Lukács Revalued, edited by Agnes Heller,  Blackwell Publishers, 1985, p. 126) From 1919 to 1929 they lived in Vienna, where Lukács published History and Class Consciousness, a collection of essays about literature and politics. It brough together theories from Kierkegaard to Hegel and from Marx to Georges Sorel and Rosa Luxemburg.

"If Faust could have two souls within his breast, why should not a normal person unite conflicting intellectual trends within himself when he finds himself changing from one class to another in the middle of a world crisis? In so far as I am able to recall those years, I, at least, find that my ideas hovered between the acquisition of Marxism and political activism on the one hand, and the constant intensification of my purely idealistic ethical preoccupations on the other." (from History & Class Consciousness, Preface to the new edition (1967), translated by Rodney Livingston, MIT Press, 1971, p. x)

Lukács argued that consciousness depends upon class position: different classes have different forms of consciousness, but only the standpoint of the proletariat coincides with objectivity and truth. In freeing itself, the proletariat frees mankind: its class interest converges with Hegelian teleology of history itself. Socialism would abolish alienation which Lukács identified with objectification, particularly as a societal category. Later in his preface to the new edition of the book (1967), Lukács wrote: "For objectification is indeed a phenomenon that cannot be eliminated from human life in society. If we bear in mind that every externalisation of an object in practice (and hence, too, in work) is an objectification that every human expression including speech objectifies human thoughts and feelings, then it is clear that we are dealing with a universal mode of commerce between men." (Ibid., p. xxiv)

History and Class Consciousness was attacked by Grigory Zinoviev (who perhaps never read the book) and other leaders of the Russian Communist party. Zinoviev declared in a June 1924 session of the 5th Congress of the Communist International: "If we get a few more of these professors spinning out their Marxist theories we shall be lost." (Lukács: Praxis and the Absolute by Daniel Andrés López, 2019, p. 14) Especially the central essay, 'Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat', stirred much debate. Lukács was also accused of abandoning the doctrine of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" and replacing it with the concept of a "democratic dictatorship". With this seminal work Lukács wrecked his political career, although he repudiated it in a public confession in the 1930s, in the middle of Stalin's show trials. However, he was saved  from the fate of Zinoviev who was executed in 1936. A controversial piece of Marxist literature, the book circulated in pirated editions among the German students in the 1960s.

When the Austrian government decided to expel Lukács in 1929, Thomas Mann pleaded for him to be allowed to remain in Vienna. Nevertheless, he was forced to leave the country. In 1929-30 Lukács was associated with the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute in Moscow, run by David Riazonov who was killed in Stalin's purges. Between 1931 and 1933 Lukács lived in Berlin. He was a leading figure in the League of Proletarian and Revolutionary Writers (BPRS), which included such names as Johannes R. Becher, Anna Seghers, Friedrich Wolf, and Ludwig Renn.

After Hitler was elected chancellor of German, Lukács emigrated to the Soviet Union. He worked as a researcher at the Institute of Philosophy of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and wrote such studies as A történelmi regény (1937 The Historical Novel) and Der junge Hegel (1938, The Young Hegel).

Though Lukács supported Stalin's basic policies, even the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939, he was arrested and put in the notorius Lubyanka gaol (a few minutes' walk from the Kremlin). At that time he was working on a monograph on Goethe, which was burnt among his confiscated papers. Apparently Lukács was not tortured, but he underwent long interrogtions. Before he was released, thanks to the plea of the Bulgarian communist leader Georgi Dimitrov, Lukács was ordered to write his autobiography. Miraculously, two months after his arrest, Lukács walked out of the prison doors

After World War II Lukács returned to Hungary. From 1945 to 1956 he was professor of aesthetics and cultural philosophy at the University of Budapest.  He served as editor of the journal Forum and advocated "socialist humanism" in the arts. In 1949 opposition political parties were outlawed and the Hungarian Communist Party proclaimed Hungary a People's Republic.

During the Rákosi era Lukács focused mostly on scientific research. One of his major works was Die Zerstörung der Vernuft (1954), a book against irrationalism. In 1956 he demanded the renaissance of Marxism against Stalinist dogmatism in a speech he made in the Petöfi-circle, which later has been called as "unintended initiator of the Hungarian Revolution." Lukács's writing did not gain the approval of the new authorities and József Révai, the chief ideologist of the Party, denounced Lucács's "bourgeois realism."

In 1956, when the reformist prime minister Imre Nagy declared Hungary neutral, Lukács was appointed Minister of Culture. However, Soviet troops destroyed the unplanned uprising in November. Some 200,000 Hungarians fled the country, Nagy was executed, and Lukács was deported for a while to Romania. He was allowed to return to Budapest in 1957, and after attacks on him in 1958 he regained political favor in mid-1960s.

Lukács died on June 4, 1971 in Budapest, where he was buried with all due Party honors. His last major work was Zur Ontologie des gesellschaftslichen Seins (1971-1973). Lukács aesthetic theories have influenced Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), Frankfurt School, and the French-Romanian theorist Lucien Goldman (1913-1970). He devised the method of literary analysis known as "genetic structruralism".

Lukács's first important study of aesthetics was published in 1909 in the Budapest review Nyugat. His early writings reveal the immense amount of reading, which he had undertaken from his youth. Lukács was early interested in theatre, he had read hundreds of plays and at the age of seventeen he asked his father to treat him a trip to Norway, as a birthday present, to see Henrik  Ibsen. He also translated Ibsen's play The Wild Duck.

Poetry did not interest Lukács much, his main concerns were the drama and the epic. A lélek és a formák (1910, Soul and Form), a collection of essays, established his literary reputation. Partly the work was a result of his tragic love affair with Irma Seidler, who committed suicide, but also is was a product of Lukács's early friendship with Max Weber and Georg Simmel. In the Kierkegaard-Regine Olsen relationship, described in the essay 'The Foundering of Form against Life: Sřren Kierkegaard and Regina Olsen' (1910), he saw connections to his own experiences with Seidler. Lukács declared: "There is no system in life. In life there is only the separate and individual, the concrete. To exist is to be different." ('The Foundering of Form against Life: Sřren Kierkegaard and Regina Olsen, in Soul & Form by Georg Lukŕcs, 2010, p. 48)

Philosophie der Kunst (1912-1914) and Heidelberger Aesthetik (1916-1918), Lukács's two lecture series for Heidelberg, were born under the influence of neo-Kantianism. Theorie des Romans, written in 1914-15 and published in book form in 1920, showed Lukács's interest in Hegel, but also to Schiller's Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung, which contrasts the ideal world, found in the ancient past, and the modern world.

In The Historical Novel, written in 1936-37, Lukács started from Sir Walter Scott's novels to show the historical consciousness in literature. Lukács did not consider Scott a romantic but a great realist, who depicted the conflict of classes. Thus the role of literature had political significance, too. After 1948 the historical novel declined but showed again revival in the works of Anatole France, Romain Rolland, and Heinrich Mann.

Following the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), Lukács became interested in Solzhenitsyn and praised his fiction as a "rebirth of noble beginnings of Socialist Realism." Although Lukács was a supporter of the official Soviet aesthetic doctrine of social realism, he did not accept it wholeheartedly, but deloped his own version known as "critical realism." Realism was not for Lukács a "style" but the foundation of  literature. He opposed modernism, and attacked such writers as Joyce and Kafka for making technique an end itself – and nearly all major avant-garde writers in Western literature who deviated from nineteenth-century Realism. He also criticized Bertolt Brecht's dramatic theories in 1934 and German Expressionism, which brought him in confrontation with other Marxists in Berlin. Brecht was greatly upset and answered by juggling with the terms "realism," "formalism," and "popular": "If someone makes a statement which is untrue—or irrelevant merely because it rhymes, then he is a formalist. But we have innumerable works of an unrealistic kind which did not become so because they were based on an excessive sense of form." (Art and Truth after Plato by Tom Rockmore, 2013, p. 221)

"Today the primacy of the object and aesthetic realism are almost absolutely opposed to each other, and indeed when measured by the standard of realism: Beckett is more realistic that the socialist realists who counterfeit reality by their very principle. If they took reality seriously enough they would eventually realize what Lukács condemned when during the days of his imprisonment in Romania he is reported to have said that he had finally realized that Kafka was a realist writer." (Aesthetic Theory by Theodor W. Adorno, 2013, p. 423)

In his discussion of "reification" Lukács was among the first to re-introduce the idea of alienation as central to Marx's thought. According to Lukács, the formal fragmentation of modernist texts participate in the process of reification. Realism is the only literary mode capable of representing the totality of society. Bourgeois thought is repeated in naturalism and subjectivism. Naturalism is degraded form of realism and limits itself to description instead of narration. Subjectivist art elevates art as the product of the superior subjective consciousness of the creative artist.

Just a year before his death, Lucács stated: "The goal of art is to provide a picture of reality in which the contradiction between appearance and reality, the particular and the general, the immediate and the conceptual, etc., is so resolved that the two converge into a spontaneous integrity." (Manifestos for History, edited and introduced by Sue Morgan, Keith Jenkins and Alun Munslow, 2007, p. 112) Throughout his life, from outside Lukács seemed to have a political affiliation with the Stalinists, but at the same time his humanism was quintessentially anti-Stalinist. (C.L.R. James's Notes on Dialectics: Left Hegelianism Or Marxism-Leninism? by John H. McClendon, III, 2005, p. 193)

For further reading: Georg Lukács' Marxism by Victor Zitta (1964); Georg Lukács by G. Lichtheim (1970); Georg Lukács: The Man, His Work and His Ideas, edited by G.H.R. Parkinson (1970); Against the Self-Images of the Age by Alasdair MacIntyre (1971); Lukács Concept of Dialectic, with Biography, Bibliography and Documents by I. Mészáros (1972); Georg Lukács by E. Bahr and E, Kunzer (1972); A filozófus Lukács by T. Hanák (1974); The Aesthetics of Georg Lukács by B. Királyfalvi (1975); The Young Lukács and the Origins of Western Marxism by A. Arato and P. Breines (1979); Lukács, Marx and the Sources of Critical Theory by Andrew Feenberg (1981); Four Critics by René Wellek (1981); Georg Lukács, edited by É Fekete and E. Karádi (1981); The Young Lukács by Lee Congdon (1983); The Philosophy of the Novel by J.M. Bernstein (1984);George Lukács and his Generation, 1900-1918, by Mary Gluck (1985); Lukács Revalued, edited by Agnes Heller (1985); George Lukács and his World, edited by Ernest Joos (1987); George Lukács, edited by Judith Marcus and Zoltan Tarr (1989); Georg Lukács: Life, Thought and Politics by Arpad Kadarkay (1991); Georg Lukács and Thomas Mann: A Study in the Sociology of Literature by Judith Marcus (1994); The Young Lukács by Lee Congdon (2009); Georg Lukács: The Fundamental Dissonance of Existence by Timothy Bewes and Timothy Hall (2011); Georg Lukacs Reconsidered: Critical Essays in Politics, Philosophy and Aesthetics by Michael J. Thompson (2011); Lukács: Praxis and the Absolute by Daniel Andrés López (2019); Georg Lukács and the Possibility of Critical Social Ontology, edited by Michael J. Thompson (2020); Georg Lukács and Critical Theory: Aesthetics, History, Utopia by Tyrus Miller (2022); Georg Lukács: From Romanticism to Bolshevism by Michael Löwy; translated by Patrick Camiller (2023); Recovering the Later Georg Lukács: A Study on the Unity of His Thought by Matthew J. Smetona (2023)  

Selected works:

  • A dráma formája, 1909 (dissertation)
  • Entwicklungsgeschichte des Modernen Dramas, 1909 - The Sociology of Modern Drama (excerpts, in The Theory of the Modern Stage, edited by Eric Bentley, 1968)
  • A lélek és a formák. Kísérletek, 1910
  • Die Seele und die Formen: Essays, 1911 (A lélek és a formák) - Soul and Form (translated by Anna Bostock, 1974; introduction by Judith Butler, 2010)
  • Esztétikai kultúra, 1913 (Aesthetic Culture)  
  • Balázs Béla és akiknek nem kell, 1918
  • Taktika és ethika, 1919 - Revolution and Revelation (ed., transl., intr. by Victor Zitta, 1968) / Tactics and Ethics: Political Essays, 1919-1929 (edited by Rodney Livingstone, translated by Michael McColgan, 1972)
  • Die Theorie des Romans. Ein geschichtsphilosophischer Versuch über die Formen der großen Epik, 1920 - The Theory of the Novel (translated by Anna Bostock, 1971)
  • Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein. Studien über marxistische Dialektik, 1923 - History and Class Consciousness (translated by Rodney Livingstone, 1971)
  • Lenin: Studie über den Zusammenhang seiner Gedanken, 1924 - Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought (translated by Nicholas Jacobs, 1971)
  • Moses Hess und die Probleme der idealistischen Dialektik, 1926
  • A Marxista filozofia feladatai az új demokráciában, 1940
  • Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, 1945
  • Fortschritt und Reaktion in der deutschen Literatur, 1946
  • Gottfried Keller, 1946
  • Lenin és a kultúra kérdései, 1946
  • Irodalom és demokrácia, 1946
  • Deutsche Literatur im Zeitalter des Imperialismus: eine Übersicht ihrer Hauptströmungen, 1946 (3rd ed.)
  • Az újabb német irodalom rövid története, 1946
  • Nagy orosz realisták, 1946
  • Goethe és kora, 1946
  • Nietzsche és a fasizmus, 1946
  • Goethe und seine Zeit, 1947 (Goethe és kora) - Goethe and His Age (translated by Robert Anchor, 1968)
  • A polgári filozófia válsága, 1947
  • A történelmi regény, 1947 - The Historical Novel (translated by Hannah and Stanley Mitchell, 1962)
  • A polgár nyomában: a hetvenéves Thomas Mann, 1947 - Essays on Thomas Mann (translated by Stanley Mitchell, 1965)  
  • Schcksalswende: Beiträge zu einer deutschen Ideologie, 1948
  • Der junge Hegel: über die Beziehungen von Dialektik und Ökonomie, 1948 - The Young Hegel (translated by Rodney Livingstone, 1975)
  • Existentialisme ou marxisme?, 1948
  • A realizmus problémái, 1948
  • Új maguyar kultúráért, 1948
  • Karl Marx und Friedrich Engels als Literaturhistoriker, 1948
  • Essays über Realismus, 1948 - Essays on Realism (edited by Rodney Livinsgtone, translated by David Fernbach, 1981)
  • Schicksalswende. Beiträge zu einer neuen deutschen Ideologie, 1948
  • A marxista filozófia feladatai az új demokráciában, 1948
  • Der russische Realismus in der Weltliteratur, 1949 - The International Significance of Russian Democratic Literary Criticism [Der internationale Bedeutung der russischen demokratischen Literaturkritik]; Tolstoy and the Development of Realism [Leo Tolstoi und die Entwicklunf des Realismus]; The Human Comedy of Pre-Revolutionary Russia [Maxim Gorki 2: Die menschliche Komödie des vorrevolitionären Rußlands]; Leo Tolstoy and Western European Literature [Leo Tolstoi und die westliche Literatur] (partial tr. by Edith Bobe, in Studies in European Realism, 1964)  
  • Thomas Mann, 1949  
  • Marx és Engels irodalomélete, 1949
  • Studies in European Realism: A Sociological Survey of the Writings of Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, Tolstoy, Gorki, and Others, 1950 (translated by Edith Bone)
  • Deutsche Realisten des 19. Jahrhunderts, 1951 - German Realists in the Nineteenth Century (edited by Rodney Livingstone, translated by Jeremy Gaines and Paul Keast, 1993)
  • Balzac und die französische Realismus, 1952 (partial tr. in Studies in Europen Realism, 1964) - Balzac ja ranskalainen realismi (suom. Seppo Rantonen, 1978)
  • Puschkin-Gorki (Zwei Essays), 1952
  • Nagy orosz realisták, 1952
  • Skizze einer Geschichte der neueren deutschen Literatur, 1953
  • Adalékok az esztétika történetéhez, 1953
  • Beiträge zur Geschichte der Äesthetik, 1954
  • Die Zerstörung der Vernuft, 1954 (Az ész trónfosztása) - The Destruction of Reason (translated by Peter Palmer, 1981)
  • Probleme des Realismus, 1955
  • Wider den missverstandenen Realismus, 1957 - The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (translated by John and Necke Mander, 1963) / Realism in Our Time: Literature and the Class Struggle (tr. 1964)
  • Schriften zur Literatursoziologie, 1961 (edited by Peter Ludz)
  • Werke, 1962-1981 (17 vols.)
  • Die Eigenart des Äeshetischen, 1963 (2 vols.) - The Specificity of the Aesthetic. Volume 1 (translated and edited by Erik M. Bachman, Erik M. Bachman with assistance from Tyrus Miller, 20923)
  • Deutche Literatur in zwei Jahrhunderten, 1964
  • Von Nietzsche zu Hitler; oder, Der Irrationalismus und die deutsche Politik 1966
  • Über die Besonderheit als Kategorie der Äesthetik, 1967
  • Ausgewählte Schriften, 1967-70 (4 vols.)
  • Die Grablegung des alten Deutschland, 1967
  • Schriften zur Ideologie und Politk, 1967
  • Gespräche mit Georg Lukács, 1967 - Conversations with Lukács (ed. by Theo Pinkus, translated by David Fernbach, 1975)
  • Solschenizyn, 1969 - Solzhenitsyn (translated by William David Graf, 1971)
  • Writer and Critic, and Other Essays, 1971 (edited and translated by Arthur D. Kahn)
  • Zur Ontologie des gesellschaftslichen Seins, 1971-1973 (3 vols.) - The Onthology of Social Being: 1. Hegel; 2. Marx; 3. Labour (translated by David Fernbach, 1978)
  • Political Writings, 1919-1929, 1972 (edited by Rodney Livingstone, translated by Michael McColgan)
  • Marxism and Human Liberation, 1973 (edited by E. San Juan, Jr.)
  • Heidelberger Philosophie der Kunst: 1912-1914, 1974 (Frühe Schriften zur Ästhetik I)
  • Heidelberger Äeshetik: 1916-1918, 1975 (Frühe Schriften zur Ästhetik II)
  • Politische Aufsätze, 1975-1977 (3 vols.)
  • Kunst und objective Wahrheit, 1977
  • Essays on Realism, 1980 (edited by Rodney Livingstone, translated by David Fernbach)
  • Entwicklungsgeschichte des modernen Dramas, 1981
  • Gelebtes Leben, 1981 - Record of a Life: An Autobiographical Sketch (translated by Rodney Livingstone, 1983)
  • Selected Correspondence 1902-1920, 1986 (translated by Judith Marcus and Zoltán Tar)
  • Theory, Culture, and Politics, 1989 (edited by Judith Marcus and Zoltan Tarr)
  • The Lukács Reader, 1995 (edited by Arpad Kadarkay)
  • Chvostismus und Dialektik, 1996 (written 1925-26) - A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic (translated by Esther Leslie, afterword by Slavoj Žižek, 2002)
  • Heidelberger Notizen, 1910-1913: eine Textauswahl, 1997 (edited by Béla Bacsó)  
  • Autobiographische Texte und Gespräche, 2005 (edited by Frank Benseler, Werner Jung, Dieter Redlich)
  • Soul & Form, 2010 (translated by Anna Bostock, edited by John T. Sanders & Katie Terezakis, with an introduction by Judith Butler)
  • Georg Lukács: Totalität, Utopie und Ontologie, 2012 (herausgegeben von Christoph J. Bauer, Britta Caspers, Werner Jung)
  • Tactics and Ethics, 1919-1929: The Questions of Parliamentarianism and Other Essays, 2014
  • The Specificity of the Aesthetic. Volume 1, 2023 (Eigenart des Ästhetischen; translated and edited by Erik M. Bachman, Erik M. Bachman with assistance from Tyrus Miller)

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