A Man without Frustration

Raymond Williams

  • Record of a Life: An Autobiography by Georg Lukacs, edited by Istvan Eörsi
    Verso, 204 pp, £15.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 86091 071 7
  • Lukacs Revalued edited by Agnes Heller
    Blackwell, 204 pp, £17.50, September 1983, ISBN 0 631 13159 0
  • The Young Lukacs by Lee Congdon
    North Carolina, 235 pp, £15.75, May 1983, ISBN 0 8078 1538 1

It is still very difficult, in the English-speaking world, to focus the work of Lukacs. Any full understanding of it depends on a familiarity with classical German philosophy and with the intellectual development of Marxism which is still relatively uncommon in our language. The intricacy of the current international discussion of various phases of his thought contrasts very sharply with the few relatively general impressions which most of us have been able to register, even through careful study of those more readily accessible works which are said to be his most significant. Three of these impressions can be recorded as a measure of our distance. First, that he is one of the more interesting and tolerable Marxist critics of literature, in the breadth of his learning and in his relative freedom from dogmatism. Second, that as an opponent of Brecht and of Modernism, and a defender of classical realism, he belongs to an old and fruitless kind of Marxism and can even be fairly taken as a cultural representative of its Stalinist phase. Third, that he is a major example of the ‘humanist fallacy’ in Western Marxism, in his reliance on notions of ‘man as subject’ and more directly in his kind of socialism, which is more properly a ‘romantic anti-capitalism’.

I doubt if any of these impressions could be fully sustained, in any extended study of the extraordinary range of his writings between 1906 and 1971. Yet the situation is familiar from many other cases. Why should anyone, for substantial reasons, begin so long and difficult a study unless there are some strong preliminary indications that it is likely to be of real value? It is relatively easy to understand the preoccupations of that brilliant group of his pupils, many now in exile, who are impressively represented in the essays edited by Agnes Heller. Yet it is only if we judge, as I do, that at least some of their questions about Lukacs connect significantly with more general and contemporary questions of theory and practice that the rest of us can tread in that shadow. Again, there are crucial questions, for anyone still living in Hungary or in the rest of Eastern Europe, about his intricate and controversial relationships with various phases of political and intellectual life: his service as Minister of Culture in two unsuccessful Hungarian revolutions, in 1919 and 1956; his years of ‘adjustment’ in exile in Stalin’s Moscow; his controversial final years, in which those closest to him contrast his elevation to cultural authority with the effective dilution or dismissal of his most important and still oppositional thoughts. It is difficult to judge any of these relationships from a distance, yet some of them, if they can be properly understood, have a much more general importance than a settling of particular accounts.

‘If they can be properly understood’: that is the central question that follows from the most fascinating of these books: the tape-recorded and edited interviews conducted by Istvan Eörsi while Lukacs was in effect dying. This kind of composition, especially when it is not merely based on ‘prompt’ questions but approaches, however gently, the really difficult and critical issues, is often a revealing and especially accessible form. On the other hand, much depends on the kind of mind that is being questioned or interrogated. The problem can be indicated by what he said in another interview, with New Left Review, reprinted here as an appendix:

I can say that I have never felt frustration or any kind of complex in my life. I know what these mean, of course, from the literature of the 20th century, and from having read Freud. But I have not experienced them myself. When I have seen mistakes or false directions in my life, I have always been willing to admit them – it has cost me nothing to do so – and then turn to something else.

This reminds me, perhaps wrongly, of a general perception of Lukacs which comes through in the following exchange, dealing with the period of his imprisonment in Rumania after the defeat of the 1956 revolution:

Int: I heard another anecdote according to which a Rumanian prison warder was assigned to convert you ideologically.

G.L.: That is possible. I did in fact know a guard like that, but it was a completely harmless business.

Int: The story went that after a few weeks’ discussion he had to undergo treatment in a psychiatric clinic.

G.L.: I can no longer recall anything about that. When I left Rumania, he had not yet gone into a psychiatric clinic.

Int: Was he an intelligent man?

G.L.: At party level such people are thought to be intelligent. That is all, but it isn’t very much.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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