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What Remains? Georg Lukács’ Dialectical Wager

What Remains? Georg Lukács’ Dialectical Wager

A true believer until the end.

Vladimir Tismaneanu

The celebrated Marxist philosopher, literary theorist, and cultural critic Georg Lukács, born in April of 1885, died fifty years ago on June 4, 1971. His first political job, in 1919, was People’s Commissar for Culture in the Hungarian Soviet Republic. His last—in November of 1956, during the Hungarian Revolution—was Minister of Culture in the second Imre Nagy government.

In January of 1972, a professor of mine arranged a one-month permit for me to read in the special room of the Central University Library in Bucharest. Normally, a student could not even enter that room, which housed forbidden books and journals, including Praxis. I had learned that a French translation of the 1923 Lukács book, History and Class Consciousness, was there; and I wanted to read it.

I found it—and was soon lost in its dialectical mirage, enthralled by ideas like reification and alienation. I understood why Grigory Zinoviev—flaming Bolshevik, Lenin’s close friend, and the first chairman of the Third International, the Comintern—had denounced it as seditious, and why the French-Greek Heideggerian Marxist philosopher Kostas Axelos, in his preface to the volume, called it “le livre maudit du marxisme,” the “accursed book of Marxism.” (Lukács was in good company in being indicted by Zinoviev, who dismissed Karl Korsch, the German revolutionary intellectual and author of the path-breaking 1970 Marxismus und Philosophie, as a “Marxist professor.”)

Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Lucien Goldmann were fascinated by Lukács’ daring philosophical challenge to an increasingly stultified Soviet Marxism. Years later, in Autobiography of Federico Sánchez (1977), Jorge Semprún told of the haunting moments in Buchenwald when he recalled passages from Lukács’ early essay; he knew it by heart. He compared Lukács’ explorations of dialectics to the Russian émigré philosopher Alexandre Kojève’s illuminating and immensely influential lectures on Hegel at the Collège de France in 1939. (Kojève died on June 4, 1968, three years to the day before Lukács passed.)

The mature Lukács, in contrast, was upset, even outraged, by the efforts to resurrect his early masterpiece. He thought that concepts like bureaucratic alienation, subjectivity, strategy, and tactics needed to be historically grounded. In an interview years later with an Italian journal, he insisted that in the politically decisive struggle between Stalin and Trotsky, history vindicated Stalin, despite the barbaric methods he used against real and imagined opposition.

There were two generations of Lukács disciples in Hungary: First were those in the Budapest School of Critical Marxism, led by Ágnes Heller and Ferenc Fehér. Then came the “Lukács Kindergarten,” including the political philosophers György Bence and János Kis. The former disciples moved away from Marxism and were a strong intellectual influence on the then-young dissident lawyer Viktor Orbán, who became a highly regarded liberal thinker, a leader of the Democratic Opposition, and, eventually, chairman of the Free Democrats. Bence died in 2006, Heller in 2019. Kis still teaches political philosophy at the Central European University in Vienna. Orbán is the xenophobic, authoritarian prime minister of Hungary who forced the effective closure of the Lukács Archives in Budapest. The Central European University has largely moved to Austria.

Reading History and Class Consciousness was a shared formative experience for a wide range of thinkers. Why were we so interested in Lukács? Maybe it was because of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain (1924), in which the Jesuit Leo Naphta was inspired by Lukács, the Jewish-Hungarian intellectual who became one of the world’s top Mann experts. Yet the later Lukács jettisoned most of his early pathos and remained an unrepentant Bolshevik until his death.

He described his peers in the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, the thinkers whose Institute for Social Research was shut down in Germany by the Nazis, as inhabitants of the Grand Hotel Abyss, something like the Grand Budapest Hotel in the Wes Anderson film. The Hotel Abyss, wrote Lukács, was “equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity.” But the Frankfurt critical theorists did not renounce independent thinking in favor of an unswerving, morally blind partisanship. Unlike the Marxist thinker Ernst Bloch and the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, they never wrote paeans to Stalin’s USSR.

My interpretation of Lukács is close to that of Leszek Kołakowski, who was unsparing in his criticism of Lukács’ lifelong dialectical fervor. When old Lukács wrote that the worst form of socialism was preferable to the best kind of capitalism, Kołakowski responded, “The advantages of Albanian socialism over Swedish capitalism are self-evident.” The sarcasm was justified.

At a conference in Romania in 1991, I asked Heller how she explained Lukács’ enduring, unwavering Bolshevism. She answered that when the neo-Kantian Lukács, once described by Max Weber as the “hope of German social philosophy,” chose “Marxism, in its Leninist incarnation, as his Weltanschauung,” he “chose himself as a Leninist.” That is, he chose an identity; the choice was existential. Lukács saw Sovietism, all of its “mistakes” notwithstanding, as the only alternative to capitalist dehumanization. Elaborating, Lukács quoted Émile Zola’s statement in defense of Captain Dreyfus: La vérité est en marche et rien ne l’arrêtera” (Truth is on the march, and nothing will stop it).

That is what remains of Lukács’ Hegelian-Marxist eschatology: a frantic sense of historical inevitability, a revolutionary chiliasm unencumbered by tragic warnings of reality, a romantic cult of will, and a belief that every defeat contains the promise of future triumphs. Lukács was convinced that the Old Mole, the revolutionary spirit, would keep digging; and, one day, all the suffering and sorrow would come to a happy end. He epitomized the incandescent passion to build the City of God on earth, the Kingdom of Freedom announced by Karl Marx—and by the mystical political theologian Naphta in a Swiss tuberculosis sanatorium on the eve of the horrors of World War I.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. His numerous books include The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century, which will appear in Ukrainian translation in 2022.

Painting: Diego Rivera;

EuropePolitical Philosophy