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Mr Lukacs changes trainsEdward Timms
Vol. 9 No. 4 · 19 February 1987

Mr Lukacs changes trains

Edward Timms

3616 words
Georg Lukacs: Selected Correspondence 1902-1920 
translated by Judith Marcus and Zoltan Tar.
Columbia, 318 pp., $25, September 1986, 9780231059688
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When Georg Lukacs joined the Hungarian Communist Party in December 1918, his admirers were taken by surprise. This gifted young man from an affluent Jewish background, then aged 33, had previously devoted himself exclusively to cultural pursuits. After coming into prominence around 1905 as one of the instigators of the Hungarian intellectual revival, he had gone on to make his mark in Germany as a cultural theorist in the tradition of Dilthey, Simmel and Weber. When he settled in Heidelberg in 1912, he seemed set for a distinguished university career. His early inquiries had focused on the relationship between spiritual experience and aesthetic form, summed up in the title of his influential collection of essays, Die Seele und die Formen (1911). His writings displayed a lively awareness of the dependence of literary forms on sociological variables. But there was no sign of a Marxist (let alone revolutionary) perspective.

How is his sudden conversion to Communism to be explained? A number of studies have attempted to resolve this enigma, notably Michael Löwy’s From Romanticism to Bolshevism, first published in French in 1976.1 Lukacs himself, towards the end of his life, lifted the curtain on his early years in a number of interviews and in a memoir entitled Gelebtes Denken.2 More recently, Lee Congdon’s The Young Lukacs has emphasised the decisive influence of three early love relationships on the writer’s intellectual development.3 These accounts seek to identify strands of continuity leading up to the political conversion. ‘Despite the apparent break,’ writes Löwy, ‘the whole of Lukacs’s previous development had paved the way for this turn.’ Congdon even suggests that Lukacs ‘had made his choice as early as 1911’, when an emotional bereavement had opened his eyes to the need for more complete self-commitment. Lukacs’s conversion, on this view, is analogous to that of the young Karl Marx: the theorist of alienation converted to Communism under the pressure of political events. And this conversion has been assigned exemplary significance. ‘After Marx,’ Löwy suggests, ‘Lukacs is probably the most important traditional intellectual to have passed into the ranks of the proletariat.’

The publication of an English edition of Lukacs’s Selected Correspondence 1902-1920 provides an opportunity for re-assessing these arguments. In a celebrated song Marlene Dietrich used to proclaim that she still had ‘a suitcase in Berlin’ (‘Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin’). The suitcase Lukacs left behind, on his long march towards Communism, turned up unexpectedly in Heidelberg in 1972 (one year after his death). He had deposited it there in 1917 at the Deutsche Bank, when he left Germany for Budapest. And in his subsequent concern to distance himself from the idealist pursuits of his youth, he had never troubled to retrieve it. The contents place his early intellectual development in a radically new light.

In addition to a diary and a number of manuscripts, the suitcase turned out to contain no less than 1600 letters to and from the young Georg (Gyuri or György) Lukacs, thus preserving his early intellectual and emotional preoccupations in a time warp. Although only 161 of these letters are included in the present volume, their publication has exceptional significance. Lukacs’s circle of correspondents included some of the most gifted figures in Hungarian and German intellectual life: Karl Polanyi, Oscar Jasci, Emil Lask and Karl Mannheim; Ernst Bloch, Martin Buber, Georg Simmel, Ernst Troeltsch, Karl Jaspers, Max Weber, Paul Ernst and Thomas Mann. By interweaving, in chronological sequence, letters written by Lukacs with letters he received, this collection draws the strands of his early life together into a variegated pattern. Lukacs was brought up bilingually, and approximately half of these letters were originally written in Hungarian, half in German. They are lucidly translated, with a supporting introduction and footnotes which greatly add to our understanding of the cultural context.

It is against the vibrant testimony of these letters that we must measure the subsequent claim that Lukacs’s early position was already ‘anti-capitalist’ and ‘anti-bourgeois’ (Löwy); and that his preoccupation with the problem of ‘alienation’ prefigured his later Communist commitment (Congdon). The ‘anti-capitalist’ argument receives little support. Lukacs was a product of that segment of the central European bourgeoisie which masterminded the development of industrial capitalism in Austria-Hungary. It was the lavish resources and enlightened patronage of this segment of society – above all, of cultivated Jewish families – which made possible the artistic efflorescence of Vienna and Budapest at the turn of the century. The letters from Lukacs’s father, a self-made man who rose to a position of influence as Director of the Anglo-Austrian Bank, show how dependent the young writer was on this system of patronage.

Lukacs was later to use the phrase ‘total alienation’ to describe his attitude to his family. His relationship with his mother was indeed fraught with tension. But the letters from his father are among the most warm-hearted in this whole collection. In a generation preoccupied with Oedipal rivalries (from Freud and Kafka to the Expressionists), Lukacs was privileged to receive unstinting paternal support. In a letter of August 1909 his father wrote that he was willing to ‘make every sacrifice necessary so that you can become a great man, recognised and famous. My greatest happiness will come when I am known as the father of György Lukacs.’ And even when in 1914 Lukacs made an unorthodox marriage, in defiance of his family’s wishes, his father still maintained a lavish level of support (‘though I think that your yearly expenses should not exceed 10,000 marks’).

Of course it was possible for beneficiaries of the capitalist system to be anti-capitalist in outlook (Lenin is the outstanding example). But there is little sign, either in Lukacs’s conduct or in his writings prior to 1919, of any principled anti-capitalism. It was the feudal remnants in Habsburg Hungary that Lukacs despised, not the cultivated bourgeoisie. To this class he himself belonged, even though he thought of himself as a member of the ‘free-floating intelligentsia’.

The claim that he was ‘anti-bourgeois’ finds little support in this correspondence. His high-minded intellectual pursuits were all devoted to the enhancement of bourgeois culture. And we are reminded that the most brilliant essay in Die Seele und die Formen is a nostalgic celebration of the bürgerlich values manifest in the life and work of the mid-19th-century author, Theodor Storm. Storm is particularly envied for the security he gained through the exercise of a ‘bourgeois profession’, as a provincial judge. What Lukacs’s letters reveal is that his own early years were dominated by the desire to gain bourgeois professional status in that most stable of institutions, the state-funded university.

The letters repeatedly refer to Lukacs’s efforts to gain the formal academic recognition (‘Habilitation’) that would have opened the door to a university career. After the failure of a premature application in Budapest in 1911, he redoubled his efforts to gain professional status by lobbying influential friends at the University of Heidelberg. After a series of behind-the-scenes manoeuvres, he finally submitted his application for the ‘Habilitation’ at Heidelberg on 25 May 1918 (at the time of the final, apparently successful German breakthrough on the Western Front). It was not until December 1918, the very month of his conversion to Communism, that Lukacs received from Heidelberg the official letter rejecting his application.

One might have supposed that the horrors of the war of 1914-18 would have sufficed to turn a free-floating intellectual into a radical opponent of the old regime. But here again the letters tell an ambivalent story. Lukacs certainly could not share the conviction of patriots like Max Weber that the war had ushered in an era of national grandeur. And his exchange of letters with the dramatist Paul Ernst is exemplary in its critique of the glorification of Prussia. But although he opposed military conquest, the political outcome Lukacs desired – as late as July 1917 – was ‘a peace based on the status quo’. A critical essay which he drafted on ‘The German Intellectuals and the War’ remained unpublished. In his eagerness to attain academic respectability, he avoided any utterance which might have been politically compromising. Instead he concentrated on aesthetic writings designed to enhance his university career.

He gives good reasons (in a private letter of May 1915) for regarding compulsory military conscription as a form of ‘slavery’. But his concern to evade ‘the Moloch of militarism’ never hardened into anything like a political principle. Again he did not hesitate to exploit his privileged connections. It was his father’s wealth and influence which purchased his exemption from military service, after a short spell of clerical work in Budapest. For all his insistence on the claims of ‘true ethics’ against the power of the state, he lacked the moral passion which impelled Karl Kraus (a writer he grudgingly admired) to denounce the inhumanity of the war.

We are thus left with a generalised conception of ‘alienation’ as the missing link which connects the academic aesthetician with the revolutionary Communist. It is ‘the problem of alienation’, with which, as Congdon puts it, ‘he had struggled for so long,’ which allegedly found its resolution in Lukacs’s Marxism. This argument depends on whether it is valid to use the concept of ‘alienation’ elastically, as a metaphor for spiritual malaise, rather than with the rigour of Marx’s definition in his early manuscripts. ‘Alienation’ in the Marxist sense describes a mode of economic production in which both the process and the product of human labour confront the worker as an alien force, denying him fulfilment either as individual or as social being. The key concept in Lukacs’s early letters, however, is not ‘alienation’ but ‘loneliness’.

This is the leitmotif which haunts his tragic early relationship with Irma Seidler, the woman to whose memory he dedicated Die Seele und die Formen. They had met in 1908 in Florence, where Irma was studying painting. But their relationship was so compounded of attraction and inhibition that it was at best, as Irma put it, an ‘embattled togetherness’. She found it hard to accept his dictum that a writer or artist dedicated to creative work ‘always has to go alone’. But when she broke off the relationship, Lukacs wrote in a draft for a suicide letter: ‘Now my “ice-age” has returned, that is, a time of complete loneliness, of total exclusion from all human community.’ Fortunately, as he was able to record at the end of that same letter, ‘merely writing to you has had such a calming effect on me that it has helped, for today, to postpone my death.’ But his inhibited desire for emotional attachment expresses itself equally vividly in other letters. His relationship with Irma taught him, as he put it in a letter to her in April 1911, that ‘the really important things in one’s life happen in solitude.’ One month later Irma committed suicide. Overwhelmed by a sense of guilt, Lukacs wrote to a friend: ‘Loneliness, which I so desired, is upon me like a life sentence.’

It is this sense of inescapable solitude which informs both his letters and his early writings. He pictures himself, in a confessional fairytale sent to that same friend, the art critic Leo Popper, as a Midas terrified that his touch will turn the women he meets into golden statues. Popper’s letters, which show remarkable sensitivity, advise him ‘not to write a word about “loneliness” for six months’. And in a critique of Die Seele und die Formen, Popper warns him against allowing ‘melancholy loneliness’ to preponderate. ‘Estrangement’ in this sense is remote from the categories of political economy. It expresses, as Lukacs put it in a further confessional letter, ‘the trauma of the transformation of absolute nearness and communion into a state of absolute strangeness’.

This is the realm not of Marx but of Kierkegaard. One might indeed also invoke the theories of Freud, as Lukacs himself does (as early as February 1911) in a letter analysing his difficulties in communicating with Irma. A sense of having been rejected by his formidable mother, in early childhood, cast a long shadow over his emotional development. And his longing for love – for ‘something somewhere to which I could attach myself’, as he put it in an anguished letter to another young woman – seems to have been a significant factor underlying his later decision to commit himself to Communism.

There is no class struggle in Lukacs’s early writings, nor even a sense of an awakening social conscience. The dialectic which unfolds is that dividing ‘self’ from ‘other’, ‘understanding’ from ‘life’. For Lukacs/Midas there are ‘no direct paths leading from understanding to life’. This leitmotif of the letters is also to be found at the heart of Die Seele und die Formen: ‘From the world of understanding you cannot do more than look across into the world of real life; the gate that separates the two is closed for ever.’ This Schopenhauerian dualism (also coloured by Lukacs’s reading of Thomas Mann) leads to a social fatalism which is most explicitly formulated in a letter of 1911 to Paul Ernst: ‘You cannot change the external world; build a new world out of yourself!’ Salvation is to be found in that panacea of bourgeois intellectualism – self-immersion in work. But Lukacs’s grandiose projects (the first volume of his ‘Aesthetics’ was designed to run to nine hundred pages) proved an inadequate defence; ‘real life’ kept breaking in.

The first eruption took the shape of the Russian anarchist Yelena (Lena) Grabenko, who became Lukacs’s wife in 1914. The vibrant informality of her letters, totally different from anything else in the correspondence, suggests an unlimited capacity for subverting bourgeois norms. In his personal life Lukacs soon found himself caught up in a bohemian ménage à trois, since Lena was equally attached to a pianist named Bruno Steinbach. Paul Ernst’s wife has left an account of the domestic scene: ‘Lukacs made the beds and washed the dishes. Bruno swept up and saw to the marketing. Lena carried out colour experiments in her artist’s workshop, solved difficult mathematical problems, and practised on the piano. She was not a housewife in the German sense.’

She was on the contrary like ‘a character out of Dostoevsky’. And at this point ‘life’ turned the tables on ‘understanding’ by confronting Lukacs with an intellectual problem which was to preoccupy him for more than a decade: the problem of the ethics of terrorism. Lena had spent years in prison for her revolutionary activities. Her living example focused Lukacs’s attention on developments in Russia and on the rationale of political violence. He plunged into the study of Dostoevsky, focal point in his Théorie des Romans (1916). And after reading in 1915 Ropshin’s The Pale Horse, a fictional reconstruction of the revolution of 1905, he wrote a memorable sequence of letters to Paul Ernst on ‘the ethical problem of terrorism’. ‘True ethics’, he implied, might legitimise acts of violence against the increasingly oppressive power of the state. But at this stage it was not Lenin but Tolstoy who inspired his desire to go beyond existing social forms.

These first hints of a political reorientation might lead us to suppose that he welcomed the Russian Revolution of 1917. But at this point the letters fall strangely silent. There is a remarkable paucity of contemporary evidence as to his reaction to the events of 1917 – and nothing to suggest a political conversion. The Lukacs who returned to Budapest at the end of 1917 was certainly disillusioned with what (in Fichte’s phrase) he called an ‘age of absolute sinfulness’. But the group he joined was not a political party, but the ‘Sunday Circle’, a gathering of intellectuals preoccupied with philosophical, aesthetic and even mystical themes. There were undertones of messianic expectation which help to explain why a number of members of the Circle (in addition to Lukacs) later became communists. But these gatherings, we are told, ‘had more in common with a religious meeting than with a political club’.

In short, there seems to be no logical chain of causality connecting Lukacs’s early intellectual interests with his conversion to Communism in December 1918. The unprecedented political situation created by the totally unexpected collapse of German power in autumn 1918 provoked him into an equally unpremeditated response. He had been intending to return to Heidelberg in the spring of 1919. And as late as December 1918 he published an article entitled ‘Bolshevism as a Moral Problem’, criticising the revolutionary claim that ‘good can issue from evil’ – a just society from a violent insurrection. Under these circumstances (as Congdon’s account persuasively shows) his decision to join the Communist Party later that same month was received by his friends with ‘stunned disbelief’. His conversion, as one member of the Circle recalls it, ‘took place between two Sundays: Saul became Paul.’

The language of religious experience seems apposite. The dream of a true human community, which had haunted him since his reading of Tolstoy, suddenly appeared capable of realisation. In the final letter by Lukacs included in this edition, he proudly announces to Paul Ernst that he no longer cares about obtaining an academic appointment in Germany: ‘Since the proclamation of the dictatorship of the proletariat a week ago, I have been Commisar for Education.’ During the hundred days of the revolutionary Republic in Hungary, he seems to have thrown himself into the struggle with exceptional energy (his purge of the university included the removal from office of those who had denied him the ‘Habilitation’ in 1911).

When the Romanians invaded Hungarian territory, he served with the Fifth Division on the eastern front as political commissar – ‘an earnest little professor in a leather uniform’, as a newspaper reporter described him. True to his earlier ‘ethic’, he did not shrink from violence when it seemed justified. To restore revolutionary morale, he later recalled, he ‘set up a court-martial and had eight men belonging to a batallion that had run away in panic shot in the marketplace’. But even now he did not abjure the privilege of being his father’s son. After the collapse of the Republic, it was a handsome bribe from his father which induced an army officer to smuggle Lukacs to safety in Austria. His fellow revolutionary Otto Korvin was caught and hanged.

Lukacs’s activities during the Hungarian revolution of 1919 have an air of improvisation. He had no knowledge of Lenin’s tactics to guide him, and even his ‘apprenticeship’ to Marxism did not begin in earnest until his period of Viennese exile in the 1920s. His decision to join the communists in December 1918 seems to have been a personal and emotional response to an unforeseen political crisis. He was undoubtedly influenced by the fact that some of his closest friends had become Communists, including Erno Seidler (the brother of Irma, his first love). It was Erno who introduced him to the revolutionary leader Bela Kun, and thus enabled him – virtually overnight – to become a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

Another personal attachment proved even more decisive. Gertrud Borststieber, the woman who was to share his life and political convictions for forty years, is only represented by one letter in this correspondence. But in Gelebtes Denken Lukacs gives a revealing account of the emotional reassurance he received at the decisive moment from this young woman (already married with two children): ‘In Budapest, where fateful decisions had to be made (whether to join the Communists or to remain in a “left-socialist” position), Gertrud’s reaction was decisive in the final analysis. Whenever her tacit approval became apparent, I always felt encouraged to make further advances in the same direction.’ In his life with Gertrud, who later joined him in Vienna, he found the longed-for experience of human togetherness. It was this that sustained him through the decades of political strife that were to follow.

On balance, it seems that his political conversion was as much a matter of the heart as of the head. The ingenious attempt by Michael Löwy to explain that conversion in terms of a ‘sociology of the anti-capitalist intelligentsia’ ultimately seems contrived, particularly as Löwy discounts ‘real-life’ incidents like Lukacs’s early love affairs. The letters confirm the value of Lee Congdon’s more pluralistic approach. In neither case, however, are we left with a sense that Lukacs’s political development has a more universal significance. The picture tends to highlight the disconcerting unpredictability of political behaviour under the pressure of events, including emotional impulses which must remain, in Lukacs’s own word, ‘unfathomable’.

The variable interactions between avantgarde culture and revolutionary politics still await comprehensive analysis. The Lukacs correspondence makes a valuable contribution in this field by showing that shared intellectual assumptions can lead to widely divergent political conclusions. Lukacs and Max Weber clearly had a great deal in common. But at that moment of destiny in December 1918 their paths radically diverged. ‘Most esteemed friend,’ Weber wrote to Lukacs in a final letter in 1920, ‘of course we are separated by our political views! I am absolutely convinced that these experiments can only have and will have the consequence of discrediting socialism for the coming 100 years.’ Logically, this position seems more consistent with the evolutionary attitude which both Weber and Lukacs had previously shared than the latter’s messianic faith in the mission of the proletariat. Lukacs was to convert that faith into a lifelong political commitment (admirably documented in the account, now available in English, of his Life in Pictures and Documents).4 But as we survey his later development, shaped even during the darkest decades of Stalinism by the principle ‘My party, right or wrong’, it is relevant to recall the question which Weber addressed to Lukacs in that final letter: ‘Was that your “calling”?’

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