Mr Lukacs changes trains

Edward Timms

  • Georg Lukacs: Selected Correspondence 1902-1920 translated by Judith Marcus and Zoltan Tar
    Columbia, 318 pp, $25.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 231 05968 X

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.

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[1] Georg Lukacs: From Romanticism to Bolshevism by Michael Löwy. New Left Books, 1979.

[2] Record of a Life: An Autobiographical Sketch edited by Istvan Eorsi, translated by Rodney Livingstone. Verso, 1983.

[3] The Young Lukacs by Lee Congdon. University of North Carolina Press, 1983.

[4] Gyorgy Lukacs: His Life in Pictures and Documents, edited by Eva Fekete and Eva Karadi. Corvina Kiado, Budapest, 1981.