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.

It is easy, at least from a distance, to see in the character of these responses a very specific and important kind of mind, raised to an extraordinary degree of interest by its quite exceptional ability. It is, or is presented as, the mind of a man wholly dedicated to pure thought, who can indeed abandon and move on from positions and affiliations without significant disturbance, and who moreover from that practice moves without difficulty into the kind of hard confidence, which can be interpreted as arrogance, of such judgments as that ‘at party level such people are thought to be intelligent.’ Thus far it is the mind of one kind of high intellectual, who knows and accepts and keeps his distance from what others see as substantial everyday life, and who can in fact rely on being judged, eventually, solely by the quality of his work.

Yet in fact this is, or is presented as, the mind of a man who reached distinction early as a bourgeois intellectual from a rich family; who then joined, quite suddenly, a Communist revolution in his own country and became an active commissar; who following its defeat became an underground organiser and exile, travelling through many years on a false passport; who in exile in Moscow was repeatedly involved in controversy and during the worst years of Stalin had strong reasons to fear for his life; and who, when he later returned to Hungary, went through a whole series of controversies and dangers, including his membership of the government of the eventually executed Imre Nagy. It is perhaps the major case, in the 20th century, of a classical intellectual, of an older, late-19th-century kind, who can be seen as moving by the phases of his own thought towards the extremities of revolutionary politics.

‘Can be seen as moving’: the qualification is necessary because many others have seen his intellectual development, especially in his middle years, as a series of compromises and prudent adjustments to the forms of revolutionary power to which he had committed his life, even when he had seen clearly, as in the case of Stalin, what these forms had become. The full record is still relatively obscure, and many who begin from this judgment of him will not be persuaded by his retrospective account. The man without frustrations or complexes, able to change by taking thought, will be seen as a figure constructed to cover a more complex history.

I can see the possible force of this, but quite apart from problems of method there is simply not enough evidence to move in one now familiar Western way, towards a form of psychological reconstruction and explanation. A good deal must be allowed for the habit of that generation of intellectuals, which can be found again in so different a figure as Beatrice Webb, of delineating a sphere of public intellectual life from which merely personal matters are excluded. Lukacs himself at times talks in that way in the interviews, but there is a different and very positive tone in his autobiographical notes for ‘the decisive year 1917-18’: ‘growth of a new attachment: unfathomable, but I had the feeling that for the first time in my life I was in love: complementarity, solid basis for life (a touchstone for my ideas) not opposition.’ He had been deeply moved by an earlier relationship, with Irma Seidler, who had committed suicide in 1911: ‘After that I published my essay “On Poverty in Spirit”. This contains the account of her death and the expression of my sense of guilt.’ But the later relationship with Gertrud Bortstieber, whom he eventually married (in secret) when they were both exiles, is presented in a different dimension:

Gertrud’s importance in this transition: for the first time in my life. Different from previous occasions (Irma, Lena): my policy always clear; relationship – even love – within the given line of development. Now with every decision, Gertrud strongly involved: particularly in human, personal decisions. Her reaction often decisive. Not that I would not have turned to communism without her. That was something that was contained in my previous development, but nevertheless the complex questions surrounding the actual decision and the highly important personal implications of that choice would quite certainly have had a different outcome but for her.

He goes on to instance her ‘instinctive rigour in intellectual matters’, but then broadens the whole analysis:

What was at stake was my need to fuse my intellectual and practical aspirations with the contemporary world situation in such a way as to make my efforts bear fruit (not just objectively and practically right, but also favourable to my personal development). At this point the situation pointed to something qualitatively new: the choice between two world systems. No one – with the exception of Lenin (in quite a definite sense) – has understood that the two processes are ultimately identical: that is, the social development of the new man is in effect a synthesis of all the individual aspirations to come to terms with the novel reality in an honest revolutionary way.

The conclusion to this analysis seems to me quite central to Lukacs’s thought. It is from this project of a ‘synthesis of individual aspirations’ – not any aspirations, but those learned from and centred in a changing reality – that his important work in ethics and aesthetics and literary history, but also his most general philosophical and political theories can be best seen to proceed. Yet it is easy to see how from a different and more familiar position the project can be reduced to a projection. This is in effect the position chosen by Lee Congdon in The Young Lukacs: ‘In his earliest years, he despaired; regarding alienation as the condition humaine, he espoused a tragic conception of life. Only when, out of the crucible of a great personal tragedy, he came to believe that alienation might be overcome, did he begin his own existential and ideological “quest for community” that would end only with his marriage to Gertrud Bortstieber and his studies in Marxist dialectics.’ I am not greatly surprised that an analysis begun on this reductive principle, in which the world to which Lukacs was responding is theoretically subordinated to forms of psychological and intellectual history, should end with a description of Lukacs’s most important work, History and Class Consciousness, as ‘a blueprint for tyranny’. But the issues are much too grave and complex for that kind of general short-cut, which actually contrasts with the detailed care of much of the rest of Congdon’s informative account.

It is not surprising, again, when Congdon ends with a reference to the supposed ‘portrait’ of Lukacs as Naphta in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. That characterisation has been generally influential in Western perceptions of Lukacs, and it is interesting now to be able to read his own reflections on it: ‘If Thomas Mann had asked me in Vienna whether he might use me as a model, I would have agreed, just as I would have done had he said he had left his cigar case at home and asked me for a cigar.’ This is fair comment. Lukacs was lending something for Mann to use. In fact, there were complex interactions between their writings as far back as Death in Venice, of which a manuscript is said to contain literal extracts from Lukacs’s Soul and Form, without quotation-marks. But it is in any case clear that the fictional transformation of an impoverished Marxist émigré – as Lukacs was when they met – into an elegantly dressed ‘half-Jewish pupil of the Jesuits with crass views’ is a matter to be primarily related to Mann’s novel rather than to the substantial character of his supposed model.

This kind of deflection merely delays the necessary encounter with the central problems of Lukacs’s thought. These begin, as I see them, if we relate what Lukacs said about ‘the choice between two world systems’, in his decisive affiliation to Communism in 1918, to what Istvan Eörsi offers as his last word: ‘Both great systems in crisis. Authentic Marxism the only solution. Hence in the socialist states Marxist ideology must provide a critique of the existing state of affairs and help to promote reforms which are becoming increasingly urgent.’ This can be seen as some kind of deathbed appeal, though decidedly not deathbed repentance. What matters to the rest of us is the intellectual route by which Lukacs reached this conclusion, and in what sense ‘authentic’ Marxism can be distinguished from its orthodox or surrogate versions.

In relation to Lukacs there is no better guide than Agnes Heller, whose remarkable essay on the later philosophy concludes Lukacs Revalued. She offers an exceptionally interesting analysis of what has been seen as the most important intellectual event of his life: his repudiation of the still influential History and Class Consciousness. This has usually been taken as an act of accommodation to the (inferior) orthodoxies of the party to which he had wholly committed himself. But there is also an intellectual explanation, of more general significance. In History and Class Consciousness Lukacs had seen a specific historical agency for the ‘synthesis of individual aspirations’: the proletariat, which it is generally said he idealised along a known Marxist path. The position can be carried forward to contrasts with the actual development of the proletariat, and especially of its party and nominal regime. The idealisation is then broken down, as in successive phases of rejection of Marxism by former Marxists.

But Heller shows that the distinctive development of Lukacs was a form of return to Marx and therefore to an ‘authentic’ Marxism. When he read the Paris Manuscripts in 1930 he was struck by Marx’s concept of ‘the human species’ and of ‘species-essence’. What followed, he concluded, was that ‘ “class” cannot take the place of “species” ’: the precise substitution, or identification, which he had made in History and Class Consciousness. Heller is unsparing in her analysis of the twists and turns and masquerades which, during his exposed years in Moscow and beyond, followed this shattering realisation. It was only in 1953, at the end of the period of the worst official orthodoxy, that the central inquiry could be directly resumed. What comes from this new phase is the major work, The Specificity of the Aesthetic.

This is an important clearing of ground. Indeed I believe that for all but specialist historians this is the Lukacs who has now to be focused and considered. Yet the difficulties begin with the very title, intended to be the first of three volumes, which seems to indicate specialism. On the contrary, the ambition is general. As Heller interprets it, ‘Lukacs outlines in his Aesthetics a philosophy of history within which the unity of individual and species appears as the truth of history ... In and through art the question of the truth of history emerges and is solved.’ The general reasoning behind this assertion is as follows:

The category of reflection is replaced by that of mimesis ... Mimesis is used in the ancient sense of the word: the imitation of ‘ethos’. ‘Ethos’, in Lukacs’s understanding, is ‘species character’ that becomes manifest through individual deeds and destinies. A work of art is mimetic if it grasps the species in the individual and represents thereby the sphere of the so-called ‘particular’ (das Besondere) ... Through his intensified subjectivity, the artist attains to objectivity; through his extremely profound and sensitive experience of time he reaches the level of species. This experience of time ... constitutes the eternity of the temporal, the universal validity of what has emerged in the historical here and now ... It is in the ‘particular’ that individual experience, risen to the level of species, becomes form.

Insofar as this position is new, for it carries some remarkable resemblances to a familiar 19th-century idealism of art, it is in the linking to historical process and to the culmination of this process in the general human liberation which works of art already prefigure. This can in some senses be tracked back to Marx, and especially to the Hegelian element in Marx. It is now a strong tendency in radical cultural philosophy.

It is a tendency from which I, at least, wish to take my distance. Edward Said wrote an interesting essay, ‘Travelling Theory’, in which he traced the passage (and change) of some ideas from Lukacs through Goldmann to my own work in Cambridge. I think what actually happened was an intersection of certain ideas, within an assumed common frame of reference, which on closer examination turns out to have been no meeting of minds at all. I think Lukacs was right, in his later work, to insist that a theory of art is not something to be added to historical materialism: rather it is something already latent within it. But I find it significant that he did not go on to write the proposed second part of the Aesthetics, which would have applied historical materialism to the problem. I think Heller is right in saying that he had already written it, in his own terms, in the first volume, since with that version of history there is no space for any other kind. What is actually latent in historical materialism is not, in Lukacs’s categorical sense, a theory of art, but a way of understanding the diverse social and material production (necessarily often by individuals within actual relationships) of works to which the connected but also changing categories of art have been historically applied. I call this position cultural materialism, and I see it as a diametrically opposite answer to the questions which Lukacs and other Marxists have posed.

The argument will continue, and in some areas – most notably, I think, his sustained critique of ‘objectified’ capitalism – Lukacs will remain an important point of reference. But in another sense that whole phase is ended, or ought to be ended: that movement of high intellectuals, with their own curriculum and preoccupations, towards the labour and democratic movements. Their memory can be honoured as a way of understanding and beginning to reverse the relationship, until ‘the return to everyday life’ is not a categorical conclusion but a hard and contested starting-point.