Communism’s Man of Letters

J.P. Stern

  • Georg Lukács: Life, Thought and Politics by Arpad Kadarkay
    Blackwell, 538 pp, £45.00, June 1991, ISBN 1 55786 114 5

He was born György Bernát Löwinger on 13 April 1885 into one of the richest Budapest families. His father, the son of a quilt-maker from southern Hungary, left school at 13, was made branch manager of the Anglo-Austrian Bank at 24, and changed the family name to Lukács when the boy was five; in 1901 he bought the title of minor nobility, and in 1906 was appointed director of one of the largest credit institutions in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Georg dropped the ‘gentry-bureaucratic’ designation of von only on his conversion to Communism in 1918. The mother came from an ancient family of rabbis and licensed moneylenders to the Habsburg emperors, and remained contemptuous of her self-made financier husband. She had been brought up in Vienna, for which, like many similarly placed ladies from the provinces, she yearned throughout her life. To annoy her and as a sign of protest against her attempts to cultivate a Viennese salon in Budapest, Georg, her second eldest son, insisted on addressing her in Hungarian, which she spoke with difficulty. It seems that throughout his adolescence the boy couldn’t make up his mind which of his parents he loathed more. If Professor Kadarkay is to be believed (and he is obviously accurate and detailed on facts even though he is not very good at organising them, and ill at ease with most of the other things which the biography of an intellectual requires), there was only Georg’s sister Mici to negotiate cease-fires in the family.

Lukács attended the Budapest Evangelical Gymnasium and in 1907 converted to Lutheranism; he doesn’t seem to have taken his baptism very seriously. Well-read in contemporary Hungarian and Western literature and immensely ambitious to contribute to literary and cultural history in the footsteps of Wilhelm Dilthey, the young man was active in a circle around Endre Ady, the greatest Hungarian poet of the age. Jószef von Lukács’s great wealth allowed his son to take a good many friends on journeys abroad, mainly to Italy, and to support a number of literary and theatrical ventures. Ill-favoured in his looks, he seems to have been frightened of attractive women and given to hiding his shyness behind huge metaphysical statements. He acquired several doctorates without submitting a dissertation, and his plans to submit a Habilitations-schrift – to the philosopher Georg Simmel in Berlin, then to Max Weber in Heidelberg – never came to anything. Amateur manager of a small privately-financed theatre where Ibsen and Strindberg had their Hungarian premières, frequent visitor to Florence and Paris, he acquired a somewhat esoteric reputation as the author of literary essays in a high metaphysical mode without showing much interest in politics. Repudiation and denial of his origin and background are the tenor of the first 33 years of his life; Professor Kadarkay doesn’t report a single statement of his on the fate of the Jews in his time.

Throughout this biography the reader is importuned with all sorts of ingenious but irrelevant comparisons between Lukács and the great heroes of Western intellectual history, yet the historical setting is defective: what is not said is that much of this story is set in the most nationalistic and politically aggressive province of the Habsburg Monarchy. Many characterisations of the hero are given – he is ‘fundamentally lonely’, a saviour of Western culture, an ascetic, a stoic and a voluptuary, a lofty spirit and a Dostoevskyan super-sinner. But actually it is just good old-fashioned Magyar nationalism that informs large parts of the book.

The Budapest world Kadarkay presents is not wholly unfamiliar. When one of Lukacs’s women friends commits suicide by jumping into the Danube, the man who fails to rescue her because he isn’t allowed to use a private telephone to call the police turns out to be Alexander Korda’s friend, the scriptwriter of The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Thief of Baghdad. And when Lukács feels guilty about the woman’s death, ‘he tries to translate his own inadequacies in love into a philosophy. Hence the Socratic irony and drama that pervades these essays.’ Why ‘Socratic’? Well, ‘Lukács once said that Socrates had no philosophy, he was it. Hungary lacked a philosophy or philosophic culture, Lukács was it.’ At this point, though, where ‘guilt’ turns into ‘philosophy’, we enter a more mysterious world: ‘Hunting for female flesh in Paris in 1911,’ the biographer observes, Lukács’s closest friend, Béla Bálazs, meets Ljena Grabenko, ‘ugly, emaciated, neglected’, a half-crazed survivor of the 1905 Revolution who had carried a baby borrowed for the occasion to hide a bomb in its blanket. Having induced Lukács to marry her, the Russian girl and her lover moved into Lukács’s house in Heidelberg and proceeded to turn it into ‘a brothel of shame’ and him into a nervous wreck. Whatever may have been Lukács’s need for self-punishment, expiation and redemption, it was this weird experience, typical of the Dostoevsky-dominated decade of the Great War, which brought him into contact with revolutionary politics. As to the disastrous affair itself, Lukács was rescued from it in 1917 by Gertrud Bortstieber, the daughter of a rabbi from the Slovak region of Hungary, a Catholic convert. ‘Ever since I met Gertrud,’ he wrote many years later, ‘it became the central concern of my life that she approved and seconded me.’ Ljena Grabenko disappeared in a gulag, and Lukacs’s second marriage lasted until Gertrud’s death. The family included two boys from her previous marriage as well as their daughter, and it provided him with all the equanimity and serenity he was ever to know.

The process that led him to revolutionary Marxism took some time. When war broke out (he was in Heidelberg at the time) Lukács, unlike practically all the literati and savants around him, did not greet it as a liberation – this (it seems to me) marks the only unambiguously positive moment in his political life; and on his return to Budapest he used his father’s influence to secure exemption from military service, though he worked briefly in the government censorship. By 1917 Lukács’s friends had formed an ideological nucleus in the form of a ‘Free School of the Humanities’, but his actual conversion to Communism only took place in December 1918, in circumstances every bit as macabre as his later political moves. It was effected by Ernö Seidler, a brother of the woman who had committed suicide. Seidler had been trained as a political commissar while a prisoner of war in Russia and seems to have appealed to Lukács’s feeling of guilt about Irma Seidler’s death as well as to his ‘urge to kneel before the Absolute’. By the time the Hungarian revolution took place, in March 1919, Lukács was a member (no 52) of the Party under Béla Kun’s leadership, serving throughout the 133 days of the revolution first as deputy and then as commissar responsible for education and culture.

His view of Marxism resembles the Grand Inquisitor’s view of Christian morality – a doctrine to be upheld for the sake of the simple believers, a eudaimonism which hides the true, tragic nature of human experience. He shared the fashionable misreading of the age: Dostoevsky’s novels were important because they focused on ‘the interesting sinner’, on personal salvation turning into political action by way of criminality, excess, confession and punishment. This sensational reading was a simple matter of identifying the meaning of the novels with the most extreme views held by their characters. Thus Lukács can write: ‘Bolshevism rests on the metaphysical notion that good can come from evil. That it is possible, as Razumikhin says in Crime and Punishment, to lie our way to truth.’ Character is never dissociated from narrator, a text from its author’s opinion, literature from ideology; and ‘the fictional totality’ of the work is ignored, even though it was Lukács, more than any other critic, who prosed on about the importance of ‘totality’ in the world of the novel. Viewed less and less disinterestedly, Dostoevsky’s oeuvre becomes for the literary savant-turned-revolutionary the catalyst that produces from sexual failure, and a deep hatred of the bourgeoisie, a chilling readiness, once he gets the chance, to discard the constraints of bourgeois or indeed any other form of morality. It can be said of his fellow revolutionaries Brecht, Bloch and Marcuse that, with bourgeois institutions of one kind or another to fall back on, their nerve in turning more or less fantastic theory into revolutionary practice was never really tested. Of Lukács this is only partly true.

Were it not for the loss of lives, the looting and the lawlessness, Béla Kun’s revolution and the prominent role Lukács played in it might figure as one of those farcical moments in the history of Central Europe so exquisitely staged in the comedies of Johannes Nestroy. The confiscation of paintings and ‘reactionary’ books, the closure of all bookshops and the establishing of mobile libraries to supply remote villages and farms with Party propaganda, the destruction of all legal documents relating to banking and private property, the proscription of ‘all dilettantism in art’, the setting-up of seminars to instruct workers in the anti-modernist aesthetics of ‘healthy art’, censorship and the licensing of press, theatre and concert hall – these are some of the measures which ‘the earnest little professor with the red Nietzsche moustache’ was introducing in the first weeks of this febrile commotion. Of all these measures it might be said that they carry one man’s patricidal urge inordinately far. And before the farce was over it turned bloody.

There are no indications that Lukács had the slightest notion of military matters. In an outfit of plus-fours, green stockings and heavy walking shoes he visited the trenches of the Red Army’s fifth division (which, as Kadarkay explains, was defending the Hungarian frontier against Czech troops), and addressed the lice-ridden ‘Budapest Red Army’ troops:

  The youth desires terror. Terror an sich. This is what you long for and that’s what you will bring to pass ... If blood can be shed, and who would deny that it can be, then we are permitted to shed it. But we can’t allow others to do it for us. We must take full responsibility for the blood that is shed. We must also provide an opportunity for our blood to be shed ... In short, terror and bloodshed are a moral duty, or, more plainly, our virtue.

Most astounding of all, the author of Soul and Form ordered the summary court-martial of eight soldiers of the 12th Red Army battalion who had deserted their post and had six of them executed, even though by then the revolution was all but over. And a month after it was over, Lukács was safe and sound in Vienna, which he reached after his father had bribed a British officer to smuggle him out of the country as his chauffeur. (Of course, he didn’t know how to drive, so his arm was bandaged and the officer did the driving.) The exiled revolutionaries were charged by the Horthy Government with 236 murders and 19 robberies, in addition, Lukács personally was charged with the murder of a medical student, Béla Madarász, who had failed to observe the black-out. Kadarkay’s meticulous recording of these events does not prevent him from comparing his subject to Socrates and Christ, Montaigne, Goethe and Eliot, while Terry Eagleton claims that this ‘magisterial study’ will restore Lukács to his ‘true political status’.

The years of Lukács’s exile in Vienna – 1920-29 – were penurious but not intolerable. Although he and his fellow exiles had undertaken to abstain from politics, and the Austrian Government was besieged by the Horthy Government with requests for their extradition, they continued a more or less clandestine existence of intrigue and factional strife, spying and counter-spying. Now pressure was brought to bear on the Austrian Chancellor Renner from some committee abroad, now the Viennese police were bribed, some of the money and string-pulling that saved them from Horthy’s gallows being provided by Lukács père. The minuscule party was still led by Béla Kun while Lukács, on ever-worsening terms with him, was put in charge of the party finances and sent the rounds of the Viennese cafés to collect subscriptions and missing funds. In 1928 he published an attack on Kun’s policy, in which he advocated collaboration with the Social Democrats (the Comintern was in one of its optimistic phases, certain of capitalism’s imminent collapse), whereupon he was ordered to Moscow, there to be ‘cominterned’ for the next fifteen years.

Lukács’s best-known political tract, the eight essays assembled in History and Class-Consciousness, was published during his Viennese exile early in 1923. ‘In so far as I am able to recall those years,’ he writes in the apologetic preface of 1967 (most of his prefaces were exercises in ‘self-criticism’), ‘I 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.’ In other words, Lukács’s motive in producing the book at that time was to legitimate his yen for political power, of which he had just had a first taste, while at the same time increasing the Hegelian – that is, the abstract – component of Marxism; even in such a devious structure as the Comintern, this doesn’t look like the most direct road to power. When Brecht said that ‘bei uns even materialism is hardly more than an idea,’ he might have had the commissar-turned-theoretician in mind.

This ‘idealisation’ is exemplified by the book’s central concept of ‘consciousness’, to which its most accessible essay is devoted: ‘The unique function of consciousness in the class struggle of the proletariat has been consistently overlooked by the vulgar Marxists who have substituted a petty “Realpolitik” for the great battle of principle,’ he writes. Hence his aims are: 1. to identify ‘consciousness’ with ‘class-consciousness’ and correspondingly to disregard all other forms of consciousness – what is at issue is not ‘actual’ or ‘psychological’ but ‘imputed’ (zugerechnet) consciousness, imputed to a class because it is said to be necessarily or ‘logically’ attributable to its situation. 2. The object of such objective consciousness is ‘social totality’ outside which there is nothing (or if there is anything, it is ‘false consciousness’). 3. There is only one class, the modern industrial proletariat, that will achieve this ‘objective consciousness’. 4. Such total class-consciousness, in which ‘object’ becomes identical with ‘subject’, disposes of the proletariat’s feeling of powerlessness in the face of what had once been feared as fate, and thus of the fear of ‘reification’. 5. Finally, history turns out to be the path toward that consciousness – a path at the end of which, there being no further need for it, it withers away as class-consciousness. Meanwhile, however, the Communist Party ‘must exist as an independent organisation so that the proletariat may be able to see its own class-consciousness given historical shape’. The one place where Lukács’s scheme manifestly deviates from its Hegelian origin is in substituting ‘class’ for Hegel’s ‘country’ or ‘nation’, thus leading to that underestimate of national consciousness which proved a major factor in Marxism’s undoing.

Luckily for Lukács, the book appeared when Lenin was on his deathbed; even so, unsurprisingly, it did nothing for his (Lukacs’s) political prospects. Its influence seems to have been proportionate to its aficionados’ distance from Moscow, and thus inversely proportionate to their political importance.

There is a gap between Lukács’s political philosophy in History and Class-Consciousness and his writings on literature. Given his view of consciousness as an active force – his insistence on its being not a passive ‘reflection’ of the historical and political world but a dynamic part of it – one might expect him to see literature in the same way: to present it not merely as a ‘mirror’ or ‘passive reflection’ of that world, not merely as a repository but as a source of experience as well. And so, again and again, he does, all the way to the claim that literature is good and great to the extent that it contributes to the attainment of the hallowed goals of revolutionary Marxism. (In this way the faux-naif jollities of Socialist Realism come to qualify as great literature.) One might also have expected him to interest himself in the active or ‘performative’ function of language. (Such an understanding of language as ‘a form of life’ would have helped him to fulfil his last and most ambitious project – his investigation into what makes literature the distinct thing it is.) In fact, his literary studies – even the best-known of them, on The Historical Novel, written in Moscow in the grim winter of 1936-7 – invariably relate the Marxist scheme to the crude story-content of fiction: ‘Novels are approved because their content is approved and the content is the more approved the more it portrays the larger conflicts of society,’ Richard Humphrey wrote in The Historical Novel as Philosophy of History (1986); and since the size of the conflicts in history or society is assessed by the critic who assesses them in literature, and according to the same criteria, the argument is circular. An interest in the language authors use would make the heedless idealogising and politicising of literature difficult. However, Lukács’s panegyrics of Stalin’s ‘theory of language’, like his primitive diatribes against Wittgenstein, suggest that these were matters on which he was less than well-informed; while the great Russian Formalists are never mentioned – at least not in Mr Kadarkay’s book. No wonder: most were imprisoned, exiled and murdered.

And yet: Lukács’s entire critical edifice is based on a ‘formal’ misprision as grave and absurd as his insistence on telling living and dead authors where they have gone wrong and how to do better. Only rarely, as in his observations on the fragmentariness of Goethe’s Faust or again when Lukács speaks of ‘the light and floating lyrical laconicism’ of much of Goethe’s poetry, does he convey the kind of insights which literary criticism alone can provide. His campaign against ‘photographic realism’, ‘straightforward mimesis’, and in favour of its ‘energetic abandoning’, amounts to no more than a series of meaningless obiter dicta – for the obvious reason that in literature (good, bad or indifferent) there is no such thing as ‘simple copying of reality’. Literature – to the extent that it is in the business of translating experience (or whatever) from one place or one time to another, and from one medium to another, whether by way of ‘description’ or ‘narration’ – involves creative choices. And this is so, whether the translation is ‘simple’ or ‘mechanical’, or commendably sophisticated, because it is instinct with a consciousness of ‘historical forces’.

‘The shabbiest and most humiliating years of his life’, Daniel Bell has called Lukács’s years – 1930-45 – in the Soviet Union. Lukács himself called them ‘the most harmonious’ – they were certainly the years of his most sustained propaganda on behalf of Leninism and Stalinism. He achieved the singular distinction of becoming an authority on Russian literature from Lomonosov to Ehrenburg, excluding Osip Mandelstam, without ever actually learning the language properly. He laboured at the antithesis between ‘degenerate modernism’ (Rilke and Kafka, Joyce and Beckett, etc) and progressive realism, on the analogy of the National Socialist antithesis between entartete Kunst and true German folk art, claiming that ‘Modernism leads to the death of literature as such.’ The vast majority of his Hungarian fellow Communists met their death in Stalin’s labour camps, he himself was imprisoned for a few months (Mr Kadarkay doesn’t bother to explain why), and he broke with most of his old friends. However, he not only survived, but was able to write (and sometimes even to publish) a large number of essays; his major study Der junge Hegel appeared in 1948, after his return to Budapest. It was in those years that his criticism became prescriptive, his assessments normative, his norms ideological, and his ideology a weather vane.

Lukács did not leave Russia until August 1945, when a chance remark made to a bridge partner of Beria’s led to the freeing of one of his stepsons after he had attempted suicide in Siberia. Lukács’s life over the next 20 years is shaped by a series of ever more desperate accommodations to the politics of Stalin’s Hungarian satellite. And again, from one perilous episode to the next, he not only survived but, frequently travelling to the West, took his bow as the spokesman of a regime which kept him guessing as to the importance it would attach to what he said or didn’t say. In this as in so many other ways, he resembled the fellow-travelling writers of the Third Reich.

Appointed to the chair of aesthetics at Budapest University in the autumn of 1945, he was acquiring a following among his students and fame on the international conference circuit when the purges began. In May 1949 László Rajk, the Minister of the Interior, was arrested on Stalin’s orders for ‘conspiring with Tito against the Soviet Union’, and after a brief trial executed; in Paris Julien Benda wrote in approval of the death sentence. Lukács, as always lower down in the vultures’ pecking order, was charged with ‘idealism, cosmopolitanism and blasphemy against Lenin’. He wrote the customary litany of self-denigration, following it up with a piece in praise of a novel by Alexander Fadeyev, his old enemy of Moscow days. Lukács’s ‘confession’ was concocted with the help of Mátyás Rákosi, the party chief himself: ‘not even Stalin had the audacity to “help” Bukharin draft his self-indictment,’ Kadarkay notes.

And although what Lukács called ‘my relentless struggle against decadent Western philosophy and art’ continued, it didn’t save him from the next round of humiliations. When the next Hungarian revolution broke out in October 1956, Lukács, though highly critical of its leaders, nevertheless accepted the post of Minister of Culture in Imre Nagy’s government, resigning on the day Nagy announced the end of the one-party system. The reason Lukács gave for his resignation – ‘this party’s composition is not consistent with my conscience’ – reminds one more of Groucho than of Karl Marx; anyway, Kadarkay doesn’t think it was the real reason. Nor, however, is there certain evidence that Lukács was tipped off about Khrushchev’s decision to crush the revolution with tanks. But since Lukács was regarded in Budapest as ‘our great Marxist thinker’ who ‘knows everything and sees the future’, Kadarkay thinks it quite likely that he recognised Moscow’s offer to withdraw its troops for the ruse it was and got out of the firing line before the firing started. Together with other members of the Government he took refuge in the Yugoslav Embassy, but once there he not only distanced himself from Nagy but advocated reconciliation with János Kádár, the new head of government. Unlike his Minister of Culture, Nagy did not survive for long. Forced by the Soviets to witness the execution of two of his friends, as Rákosi had forced him to witness the execution of László Rajk in 1949, he was hanged in June 1958.

As for Lukács (who refused to testify against Nagy), his habit of public ‘confessions’ having by this time become second nature, he was interned in some comfort in what later became one of the Ceausescus’ favourite residences. Never one to miss an occasion for a bit of sententious kitsch, he claimed that his stay at Snagov Castle convinced him that Kafka was a realist writer after all. He was released in April 1957, partly on the intervention of the philosopher of whom he had written: ‘For people like Bertrand Russell, the demise of humanity is more bearable than the prospect of a socialist victory.’

The controversies of the last years of Lukács’s life, when he played host to more than one Western busybody, were less violent and less momentous. For ever on the literary qui vive, he found a niche for Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, greeting it as ‘a good example of Marxist writing’. Gertrud’s death in April 1963 robbed him of the one companion whom he utterly trusted. In an essay on Lessing’s comedy Minna von Barnhelm, he praised her for possessing, like Minna, ‘not wisdom at all, just a real human being’s unbroken longing for a sensible existence that is possible only in companionship and love’. The magnum opus of his last years, Die Eigenart des Ästhetischen (‘The Specificity of the Aesthetic’), is seen by Kadarkay as ‘his strategic response to Communism, which had been distorted and uglified by Stalinist practices. Works of art – those which Lukács admired all his life – were to redeem and rescue Communism from its fallen grace.’

He protested against the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968 (planning of course ‘to publish a special paper to express my views on the central question ... of democratisation today’), and shortly before his death circulated an appeal on behalf of Angela Davis, without much success. He died of cancer of the lung on 4 June 1971, intellectually active to the end of his long life.

Lukács’s long life was rent by a dilemma unusual in its intensity but not (it seems to me) in its kind. It arose from his refusal to make up his mind: did he want to be a politician whose revolutionary end justified any or almost any means (as he repeatedly claimed), or would he content himself with being a literary scholar (whose métier he came to see in much the same light)? It may be that, taking seriously one of the more extravagant Marxist tenets fashionable in his time, the critique of ‘alienation through the division of labour’, he felt justified in not making up his mind, intent on wielding political power through his scholarship. If so, his ambition was disappointed. His political influence seems to have been minimal, most of it had to be expended on protecting himself and his family from the lawlessness he at other times supported; while his scholarship became so ism-infected that most of his insights are distorted by considerations which undermine the specificity of literature. The author of this biography does his best to elevate his mentor to the ranks of such as Montaigne and Machiavelli, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, not to mention Achilles, Faust and several Shakespearean heroes. More relevant by far would be a comparison with Lukács’s contemporaries, Ernst Robert Curtius, Erich Auerbach and Arnoldo Momigliano, who did more for the survival of the values to which he paid lip-service than it was in his intention or in his power to do. There is no mention of these names in the present biography, which is just as well.