George Lichtheim: An Intellectual Disaster[1]


Georg Lukács has long been a puzzle to the considerable number of Western ex-Communist for whom Marxism in its Sovietised form has become an embarrassment and who look for a return to the Hegelian, i.e., German idealist, sources of their faith. In principle his philosophic origins in the pre-1914 age, and his checkered political career since 1918, seem to mark him out as the natural spokesman of a “Western” form of Marxism, the more so since orthodox attacks on his real or supposed heresies have erupted at intervals over the past four decades.

Yet a truthful account of his numberless deviations and recantations during this period must add to the embarrassment which his putative followers experience when contemplating the ravages of the Stalin era. From the first passive acceptance of official discipline in 1923/4, via the abject and almost hysterical repudiation of his earlier views in 1934, to the abortive rebellion of 1956 and the immediate reversion to semi-orthodoxy in the following year (which may have helped to save his life, but did nothing to raise him in the esteem of his former Hungarian pupils) – Lukacs’ habitual style of accommodation to the changing requirements of the Party line has baffled both friends and detractors. Like Ehrenburg – a comparatively minor figure, but in some respects his counterpart in the journalistic field – he has survived all the upheavals of the Stalin era, to emerge at last into the comparatively tolerant, but distinctly philistine, atmosphere of the Khrushchev régime. It is as though Condorcet had lived to see the triumph of Louis Philippe and Guizot. The irony is heightened by the fact that Lukacs – to judge by his most recent pronouncements – is quite unaware of the radical discontinuity between his own system of values and that of the society which has arisen from the East European cauldron of the past half-century.

The somewhat spectral quality of Lukacs’ survival in an environment which has outgrown, or repudiated, his original hopes and anticipations is reflected in the unimpeachably orthodox style of the lengthy essay (now available in an English-language translation) which he composed in 1955–56.[2] Dated “Budapest, May 1962”, this preface faithfully employs the anti-Stalinist terminology officialised since 1961, while retaining the essentially Stalinist characterisation of the Soviet orbit as a realm of “socialism” opposed to a Western capitalist-imperialist bloc. At the same time Lukacs has taken advantage of the new climate to stress the perils of “dogmatic sectarianism”, whereas the preface to the original German edition (written in April 1957, i.e., six months after the abortive Hungarian revolution in which he had briefly come out on the “revisionist” side) not only dwelt effusively on “Stalin’s positive achievements”, but made the dutiful affirmation that revisionism was to be regarded as “the greatest present danger for Marxism”. Confronted with such a record of pliability, the critical spectator may be forgiven or wondering whether Lukacs’ current strictures on Stalinism and dogmatism are anything but further evidence of an unbroken determination to remain in the swim.


Yet paradoxically it is just this fanatical attachment to the Party line – whatever it may be at any moment – that rescues Lukacs from the imputation of mere opportunism. He has often changed his mind about this or that aspect of Soviet reality, but he has never – since the crisis of 1923/4 which resulted in his moral collapse and capitulation to the hierarchy – wavered in his conviction that in the long run the Party cannot err. Moreover, internal evidence suggests that his submission to Marxism-Leninism has long been total. This, incidentally, is the prime reason why for the past decade he has continued to disappoint his “evisionist” would-be followers. They were waiting to hear him say some of the things that since have publicly been said in Poland, but though in 1962 he felt able to affirm that “the disastrous legacy of Stalinism” must be got rid of, this was capped by a reminder that the task now was “to rediscover the creative core of the teaching of Marx, Engels, and Lenin” – as though Lenin were not the principal obstacle to the “Westernisation” of Marxism. So far from this being another piece of lip-service, a consideration of Lukacs’ actual present-day views on contemporary literature shows that he is indeed a good Leninist – hence incapable of making those critical distinctions which have enabled Marxist writers in Western Europe (and the genuine “revisionists” in Poland) to say something sensible about the quite real problems of intellectual sterility and pointless literary artifice which confront European and American literature at the present time.


Ideally it ought to be the critic’s task to demonstrate all this in detail, taking as one’s text both the essay on Contemporary Realism and the earlier volume entitled The Historical Novel.[3] Although (or because) twenty years lie between their writing, the two books complement one another. The Historical Novel was composed in the winter of 1936-7: at the very height of the Great Purge, and some two years after Lukacs – in an address to the philosophical section of the Communist Academy in Moscow – had performed the first of a long sequence of public acts of self-abasement by denouncing his own pre-Leninist writings (notably the famous History and Class-consciousness of 1923) as “idealist” and “objectively” Fascist.

“The front of idealism is the front of Fascist counter-revolution and its accomplices, the Social-Fascists. Every concession to idealism, however insignificant, spells danger to the proletarian revolution.”[4]

Though less frenzied in tone, Lukacs’ critical writings during this period; including The Historical Novel, faithfully reflect the temper of this remarkable pronouncement, notably in their determination to re-write the history of contemporary literature in terms of Fascism and anti-Fascism. To this end “the historical novel of anti-Fascist humanism”(as represented by

some worthy, but distinctly second-rate, German emigré authors of unimpeachably bourgeois-democratic outlook: it was after all the Popular Front period) had to be provided with a genealogical tree reaching back to Walter Scott (not a democrat, but a realist, hence to Lukacs a forerunner of his real heroes: Balzac and Tolstoy).

This approach presumably accounts for the fact that when The Historical Novel was published in translation last year, it was well received by a number of British reviewers who did not greatly care for the author’s Marxism, but liked his fondness for Scott (and who possibly shared his disdain for modern literature). One wonders, though, what they made of a passage such as the following:

“Scott had only one worthy follower in the English language who took over and even extended certain of the principles underlying his choice of theme and manner of portrayal, namely the American Cooper. In his immortal novel cycle, The Leather Stocking Saga, Cooper sets an important theme of Scott, the downfall of gentile [i.e., tribal] society, at the centre of his portrayal. Correspondintog the historical development of North America, this theme acquires an entirely new complexion. In Scott it is a case of a centuries-long, conflict-ridden development, of the various ways in which the survivals of gentile society are accommodated to the feudal system and later to rising capitalism …. In America the contrast was posed far more brutally and directly by history itself; the colonising capitalism of France and England destroys physically and morally the gentile society of the Indians which had flourished almost unchanged for thousands of years.”

This might be described as orthodox Leninism, both as to sentiment and style. (Lukacs’ insensitivity to the German language, in which he has composed nearly all his writings, and his indifference to style in general, would require separate treatment: it seems to have been part of his self-imposed Bolshevisation, for prior to the 1924 catastrophe he affected an elegant, even somewhat precious, manner.) Its relevance to literary criticism, or even to literary sociology, is debatable. In any case 350 pages of this sort of thing, unrelieved by a single gleam of humour, might seem rather a burden upon the reader. Yet this turgid monograph is not without its merits, once account is taken of the fact that the author is concerned with long-run changes in the cultural pattern. Since for Lukacs (as for every Hegelian) form and content make a whole, he is able to relate formal changes – e.g., the Romantic “poetisation” of the historical novel – to conflicting tendencies in society. Thus, (to take one of the many examples he offers) in discussing the Romantic upsurge in French literature after 1815 he is able – with the direct help of Marx admittedly – to discern the survival in Chateaubriand of that part of the Enlightenment tradition which had its original locus in the courtly aristocracy, and to contrast both his and Vigny’s “ahistoricism” with the continuation of the 18th-century tradition in Stendhal and Mérimée. This sort of historical-sociological cross-reference, when backed by wide reading, can be illuminating, and in the more strictly literary parts of The Historical Novel the method does come to life: notably in the section contrasting the novel and the drama. Indeed when he is analysing the formal (and historical) differences between the epic and the drama, Lukacs here and there almost recovers the intellectual level of his youthful work, culminating in his fragmentary but magnificent Theorie des Romans (1916). This may be more than a way of saying that he has always lived on his early insights, but that is a common enough fate. The tragedy is that these insights have been progressively buried under a monstrous load of sociological jargon, self-conscious popularisation, and polemical journalism.


It is true that, so far as conscious subjection to the Zhdanovist line on “Socialist Realism” is concerned, the worst now seems to be over. In the 196o preface to the English edition of The Historical Novel, dutiful praise of Halldor Laxness (an Icelandic novelist and Party member) was balanced by an appreciative reference to Lampedusa’s Leopard: a fairly safe choice in view of Lampedusa’s unmistakable descent from the realist Stendhal, but still a gesture in the Western direction which Lukacs would not have permitted himself a few years earlier. Similarly, the essay on Contemporary Realism (composed in 1955-6, i.e., during the first uncertain “thaw”) marks a considerable departure from the rigid posture of the immediate post-war period, when Lukacs “conformed” to the extent of denouncing practically all important Western writers as reactionary war-mongers.[5] By comparison with the frenetic nonsense Lukacs produced in the closing years of the Stalin era – he was of course under considerable pressure to demonstrate his orthodoxy, but writers have traditionally been required to show some concern for intellectual standards, as well as for their skins – his current manner is fairly detached and at times almost mellow. Thus in The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, not only there is a somewhat grudging attempt to make sense of Kafka, but the criticism of modern music in general, and Schoenberg in particular, is backed by a quotation from the Western “modernist” Theodor Adorno (though objectivity is not carried to the point of informing the reader that Adorno is a Hegelian and a Marxist).

For all these welcome changes in tone and manner, Lukacs’ critical assessment of modernism effects no real departure from his previous position. Perhaps that was not to be expected. What is remarkable is that he has not got beyond the simple-minded antithesis realism-decadence which was his theme in the Destruction of Reason. Indeed at one point (Contemporary Realism, p. 62) he reverts to that monstrous pamphlet for the purpose of acquainting the reader once again with his obsessive notion that the departure from “bourgeois realism” paved the way for a progressive collapse whose stations are marked by the names Dostoyevsky-Nietzsche-Hitler; with Joyce and Kafka relegated to the margin among those writers who – whatever their political views – “connive at that modern nihilism from which both Fascism and Cold War ideology draw their strength”. At this level, not only is there no meeting-place for different viewpoints, but the temptation to repay the writer in his own coin becomes overwhelming. After all, we now have it on the best of authorities that Stalin’s univers concentrationnaire differed from Hitler’s chiefly in that the number of his victims was even larger. This may seem irrelevant, but a critic who politicises every issue – to the point of solemnly treating Kafka s nightmares as evidence of “the diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism” – is asking for trouble. The more so when he affects to regard Freud – the greatest representative of the Enlightenment tradition in modern times – as an obscurantist and contrasts him unfavourably with the simpleton Pavlov. If Lukacs really believes this sort of nonsense – it is never quite certain how much of what he says represents actual convictions – one can only conclude that twenty years of Zhdanovism, plus an endless series of accommodations, have permanently impaired his critical faculties.


Two separate aspects of this intellectual disaster must be distinguished here. In the first place, Lukacs manifestly has failed to do for East European Marxism what writers like Sartre, Lefebvre, Ernst Bloch, T. W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Italian Marxists of Gramsci’s school – not to mention the ex-Marxist group around the New York Partisan Review – have done for the sociology in Western Europe and America. He nowhere reaches their level, and this failure is not due to his Marxism, but to his involvement with Soviet orthodoxy: an orthodoxy rooted in Chernyschevsky and the other founders of the 19th-century Russian Populist school. Secondly, his obstinate refusal to see that “modernism” is a truly international phenomenon compels him to side with Eastern officialdom in opposing the genuinely creative, liberating, and truly realist tendencies at work in Soviet and East European life and literature since the “thaw.” If he were really what his New Left admirers mistakenly imagine him to be, he would by now have become the patron saint of “revisionism.” Actually there is good reason to believe that he is now an isolated figure even in his native Hungary: not because the régime wills it (he is in fact quite free to write and publish, even in the West) but because the younger generation – which until 1956 looked to him for leadership – has turned its back upon him. And no wonder: his attitude to modernism is really no different from that of officialdom, though nowadays expressed in more temperate language. What are young people in Budapest, Prague, or East Berlin to make of a critic who treats “socialist realism” as the only legitimate successor to “bourgeois critical realism”?

There is, of course, a case to be made for the proposition that the socialist movement has inherited the realist strain in bourgeois literature (though even on these grounds Lukacs’ persistent denigration of Zola – not a true realist, merely a “naturalist” – makes one wonder whether he is not secretly wedded to Victorian notions of propriety); but a critic who dismisses the whole of modernism as “decadent” shows that he is simply unaware of what is going on around him. If anything is certain, it is that the younger generation in the Soviet orbit is fed up with “socialist realism” and as instinctively “modernist” as its “alienated” counterparts in the West. And what are Western readers to make of Lukacs’ curiously old-fashioned insistence that “the contemporary bourgeois writer will have to choose” between Kafka and Thomas Mann? The fact is that neither the writers themselves nor their readers are any longer “bourgeois.” They are intellectuals living in an industrial society whose tensions necessarily give rise to problems which modernism undertakes to solve: problems no different from those experienced by people in the Soviet orbit, except that in the West political freedom makes life rather less intolerable. If Lukacs were really trying to bring Marxist sociology to bear upon this situation, he would realise soon enough that where art is concerned the problem is pretty much the same in East and West. He could then still give vent to his dislike of modernism, but at least he would be relieved of the pseudo-problem he has created for himself by treating it as “bourgeois,” when in fact it is one of numerous signs that I9thcentury bourgeois culture (the only culture he really understands) is coming to an end.


It may seem odd that the principal intellectual exponent of “socialist realism” should be so obstinately wedded to the tradition of what he himself calls “bourgeois critical realism”, but Lukacs has in fact always entertained an anti-naturalist bias and looked to art – specifically literature – for a manifestation of “objective reality”. As a youthful neo-Kantian before 1914 he backed this choice with different arguments, some of them bordering on Platonism. In those days[6] his objection to naturalism was that it was

“bound to destroy the form-creating, and therefore life-sustaining, values of the tragic drama…The drama is bound to be trivial when that which is close to life conceals what is dramatically real… The inner style of the drama is realistic in the medieval, scholastic sense, and this excludes every modern realism.”

Almost forty years later, in prefacing the essay collection published in English under the title Studies in European Realism(1950), he was still pursuing the search for the same form-creating and life-sustaining values, only by now they had been located in history, and Marxism was accepted as the philosophy that enables the writer to understand the meaning of history.

So far so good – at least as regards intellectual consistency. After all, Marxism did emerge from German Idealism, and “respect for the classical heritage of humanity in aesthetics” is something Lukacs has in common with Marx. So is the conviction that “this classical heritage consists in the great arts which depict man as a whole in the whole of society”. Again it is legitimate – if perhaps a trifle utopian – for a critic to look to socialism as the means of restoring those aesthetic values to which bourgeois society appears to be hostile. This choice too was rooted in the specific experiences of Lukacs’ pre-1914 phase when – like other romantic writers – he deplored the prevailing naturalist style which appeared to represent a pseudo-critical accommodation to an ugly environment. From this romantic and aristocratic aestheticism – Lukacs’ writings of the period have distinctly Nietzschean overtones – the salto mortale into revolutionary Marxism after 1917 was at once difficult and easy: difficult because it required a leap to the other extreme of the anti-bourgeois spectrum; relatively simple because the underlying attitudes did not have to be altered. Bourgeois society was still the enemy, with the difference that Marxism now provided the means of pin-pointing both its decomposition and the persistence of certain progressive features (“bourgeois critical realism” from Goethe and Balzac to Thomas Mann) which could be treated as allies in the increasingly violent struggle against philosophical idealism, subjectivism, nihilism, and their artistic correlative: decadent modernism.


Here then, for all the temporary accommodations to the vagaries of the Party line, there is something like consistency. But there is also tragedy, for in the one respect in which Lukacs has remained true to himself – rejection of naturalism and adherence to the classical heritage – he has failed to establish a position which transcends the usual sectarian quarrels. To do that he would have had to see the modern situation as it really is, and for that his critical apparatus was inadequate. By now, thirty years of apologetics have taken their toll, and the disciples who claim for him the status of “the Marx of aesthetics” merely disclose their own inability to measure the extent of his failure.

Failure on an enormous (though rather antiheroic) scale, for Lukacs had it in him to apply Marxism to aesthetics at a level adequate to the subject-matter. Though lacking true originality – the notion that in his own sphere he rivals Marx can be entertained only by people who have not read either – he possessed a theoretical equipment superior to that of most Central European scholars of his generation. His range was (and in some respects still is) extraordinary, and his youthful exposure to German intellectualism in its pre-1914 peak period provided an immensely hopeful starting-point: the more so since he was an instinctive cosmopolitan and quite free from the specifically German narrowness. With these antecedents, and equipped with an intellect not indeed very powerful (abstract reasoning was never his forte), but subtle, flexible, far-ranging and genuinely critical, he might have achieved something comparable to the attainment of Dilthey and the other great neo-Kantians in the pursuit of what the Germans call Geistesgeschichte: a major body of work in the Hegelian-Marxist tradition which could by now have enabled the intelligentsia of East-Central Europe to emancipate itself both from its own provincialism and from the pseudo-universalism of Soviet ideology.


The real outcome – however impressive the sheer quantitative output, and very occasionally the quality of insight into certain predicaments of 19th-century European society – must be counted among the major débâcles of the Hitler-Stalin era: an intellectual catastrophe no less real because its effects are impalpable, and because it relates to a dimension which society has increasingly relegated to the margin of existence. Instead of a genuine critique of modernity in its all forms (including its “ideological reflex” in literary modernism), he has produced a vast corpus of dogmatic writing attuned to a simplified dualism which is already out of date, and which systematically eludes the pressing problems of industrial mass culture in East and West alike; instead of authentic dialectical Marxism, there is blind commitment to the simplified Leninist version; instead of genuine controversy, the stereotyped language of the Cold War. At the age of 78, and after almost sixty years of intensive and far-ranging activity, Georg Lukacs has not merely failed to write the Marxist aesthetics his admirers expected from him: he has failed altogether as a responsible writer, and ultimately as a man. It is one of the worst intellectual disasters of this disastrous age.


[1] Encounter (London), May 1963, 74–80.

[2] The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, translated from the German by John and Necke Mander, Merlin Press, London 1963.

[3] Merlin Press, 1962.

[4] G. Lukacs: “The Significance of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism for the Bolshevisation of Communist Parties” (Pod Znamenem Marksisma, July-August 1934, pp. 143-8). See also Mr. Morris Watnick’s study “Georg Lukacs: An Intellectual Biography”, in: Survey (No- 24. April-June 1958), where this grotesque episode is analysed at some length.

[5] Cf. his 700-page diatribe against modern philosophy, Die Zerstoerung der Vernunft (1953) where inter alia Bertrand Russel is introduced an and accomplice of both the Pope and the Pentagon.

[6] Cf. Die Seele und die Formen (Berlin 1911)