George Steiner: Georg Lukács and his Devil’s Pact[1]


In the twentieth century it is not easy for an honest man to be a literary critic. There are so many more urgent things to be done. Criticism is an adjunct. For the art of the critic consists in bringing works of literature to the attention of precisely those readers who may least require such help; does a man read critiques of poetry or drama or fiction unless he is already highly literate on his own? On either hand, moreover, stand two tempters. To the right, Literary History, with its solid air and academic credentials. To the left, Book Reviewing – not really an art, but rather a technique committed to the implausible theory that something worth reading is published each morning in the year. Even the best of criticism may succumb to either temptation. Anxious to achieve intellectual respectability, the firm stance of the scholar, the critic may, like Sainte-Beuve, almost become a literary historian. Or he may yield to the claims of the novel and the immediate; a significant part of Henry James’s critical pronouncements have not survived the trivia on which they were lavished. Good reviews are even more ephemeral than bad books.

But there is yet another major reason why it is difficult for a serious mind, born into this troubled and perilous century, to devote its main strength to literary criticism. Ours is, pre-eminently, the season of the natural sciences. Ninety per cent of all scientists are alive. The rate of conquest in the sciences, the retreat of the horizon before the inquiring spirit, is no longer in any recognizable proportion to the past. New Americas are found each day. Hence the temper of the age is penetrated with scientific values. These extend their influence and fascination far beyond the bounds of science in the classical sense. History and economics hold that they are, in some central measure, sciences; so do logic and sociology. The art historian refines instruments and techniques which he regards as scientific. The twelve-tone composer refers his austere practices to those of mathematics. Durrell has prefaced his Quartet by saying that he endeavours to translate into language and into the manner of his narrative the perspective of Relativity. He sees the city of Alexandria in four dimensions.

This ubiquity of science has brought with it new modesties and new ambitions. Distrustful of mere impulse, science demands a mythology of rigour and proof. In splendid exchange it offers the mirage of certitude, of assured knowledge, of intellectual possession guarded against doubt. The very great scientist will reject this prospect; he will persevere in doubt even at the heart of discovery. But the hope of objective, demonstrable truth is always there and it has drawn to itself the most powerful minds of our time.

In literary criticism there is no promised land of established fact, no utopia of certainty. By its very nature, criticism is personal. It is susceptible neither of demonstration nor of coherent proof. It disposes of no instrument more exact than Housman’s beard bristling as the great line of poetry flashed across his mind. Throughout history, critics have sought to show that their métier was a science after all, that it had objective canons and means of attaining absolute truths. Coleridge harnessed his intensely personal, often unsteady genius to the yoke of a metaphysical system. In a famous manifesto, Taine proclaimed that the study of literature was no less exact than that of the natural sciences. Dr. I. A. Richards has underwritten the hope that there is an objective psychological foundation to the act of aesthetic judgment. His most distinguished disciple, Professor Empson, has brought to the arts of literary criticism the modalities and gestures of mathematics.

But the fact remains: a literary critic is an individual man judging a given text according to the present bent of his own spirit, according to his mood or the fabric of his beliefs. His judgment may be of more value than yours or mine solely because it is grounded on a wider range of knowledge or because it is presented with more persuasive clarity. It cannot be demonstrated in a scientific manner, nor can it lay claim to permanence. The winds of taste and fashion are inconstant and each generation of critics judges anew. Opinions on the merits of a work of art, moreover, are irrefutable. Balzac thought Mrs. Radcliffe to be as great a writer as Stendhal. Nietzsche, one of the acutest minds ever to concern itself with music, came to argue that Bizet was a more genuine composer than Wagner. We may feel in our bones that such views are perverse and erroneous. But we cannot refute them as a scientist can refute a false theory. And who knows but that some future age will concur in judgments which today seem untenable? The history of taste is rather like a spiral. Ideas which are at first considered outrageous or avant-garde become the reactionary and sanctified beliefs of the succeeding generation.

Thus a modern critic finds himself in double jeopardy. Criticism has about it something of a more leisured age. It is difficult, on moral grounds, to resist the fierce solicitations of economic, social and political issues. If some mode of barbarism and political self-destruction is threatening, writing essays on belles-lettres seems a rather marginal pursuit. The second dilemma is intellectual. However distinguished, a critic cannot share in the principal adventure of the contemporary mind – in the acquisition of positive knowledge, in the mastery of scientific fact or the exploration of demonstrable truth. And if he is honest with himself, the literary critic knows that his judgments have no lasting validity, that they may be reversed tomorrow. Only one thing can give his work a measure of permanence: the strength or beauty of his actual style. By virtue of style, criticism may, in turn, become literature.

The masters of contemporary criticism have tried to resolve these dilemmas in different ways. T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Thomas Mann, for example, have made of criticism an adjunct to creation. Their critical writings are commentaries on their own poetic works; mirrors which the intellect holds up to the creative imagination. In D. H. Lawrence, criticism is self-defence; though ostensibly discussing other writers, Lawrence was in fact arguing for his own conception of the art of the novel. Dr. Leavis has met the challenge head-on. He has placed his critical powers at the service of an impassioned moral vision. He is intent upon establishing standards of maturity and order in literature so that society as a whole may proceed in a more mature and orderly manner.

But no one has brought to the moral and intellectual dilemmas besetting literary criticism a more radical solution than Georg Lukács. In his works two beliefs are incarnate. First, that literary criticism is not a luxury, that it is not what the subtlest of American critics has called “a discourse for amateurs”. But that it is, on the contrary, a central and militant force towards shaping men’s lives. Secondly, Lukács affirms that the work of the critic is neither subjective nor uncertain. Criticism is a science with its own rigour and precision. The truth of judgment can be verified. Georg Lukács is, of course, a Marxist. Indeed, he is the one major philosophic talent to have emerged from the grey servitude of the Marxist world.



In an essay, dated 1948, Lukács put forward a significant analogy. He said that Newtonian physics gave to the consciousness of the eighteenth century its foremost liberating impulse, teaching the mind to live the great adventure of reason. According to Lukács, this role should be performed in our own time by political economy. It is around political economy, in the Marxist sense, that we should order our understanding of human affairs. Lukács himself came to literature via economics, as we may say that Aristotle approached drama via a systematic inquiry into morals.

Dialectical materialism holds that literature, as all other forms of art, is an “ideological superstructure”, an edifice of the spirit built upon foundations of economic, social and political fact. In style and content the work of art precisely reflects its material, historical basis. The Iliad was no less conditioned by social circumstance (a feudal aristocracy splintered into small rival kingdoms) than were the novels of Dickens which so strongly reflect the economics of serialization and the growth of a new mass audience. Therefore, argues the Marxist, the progress of art is subject to laws of historical necessity. We cannot conceive of Robinson Crusoe prior to the rise of the mercantile ideal. In the decline of the French novel after Stendhal we observe the image of the larger decline of the French bourgeoisie.

But where there is law there is science. And thus the Marxist critic cherishes the conviction that he is engaged not in matters of opinion but in determinations of objective reality. Without this conviction, Lukács could not have turned to literature. He came of intellectual age amid the chaotic ferocity of war and revolution in central Europe. He reached Marxism over the winding road of Hegelian metaphysics. In his early writings two strains are dominant: the search for a key to the apparent turmoil of history and the endeavour of an intellectual to justify to himself the contemplative life. Like Simone Weil, of whom he often reminds me, Lukács has the soul of a Calvinist. One can imagine how he must have striven to discipline within himself his native bent towards literature and the aesthetic side of things. Marxism afforded him the crucial possibility of remaining a literary critic without feeling that he had committed his energies to a somewhat frivolous and imprecise pursuit. In 1918 Lukács joined the Hungarian Communist Party. During the first brief spell of communist rule in Budapest, he served as political and cultural commissar with the Fifth Red Army. After the fall of Belá-Kun, Lukács went into exile. He remained in Berlin until 1933 and then took refuge in Moscow. There he stayed and worked for twelve years, returning to Hungary only in 1945. This is a fact of obvious importance. German is Lukács’s principal language, but his use of it has grown brittle and forbidding. His style is that of exile; it has lost the habits of living speech. More essentially: Lukács’s entire tone, the fervent, at times narrow tenor of his vision, mirror the fact of banishment. From Moscow, surrounded by a small coterie of fellow-exiles, Lukács observed the advance of crisis over western Europe. His writings on French and German literature became an impassioned plea against the lies and barbarism of the Nazi period. This accounts for a major paradox in Lukács’s performance. A communist by conviction, a dialectical materialist by virtue of his critical method, he has nevertheless kept his eyes resolutely on the past. Thomas Mann saw in Lukács’s works an eminent sense of tradition. Despite pressure from his Russian hosts, Lukács gave only perfunctory notice to the much-heralded achievements of “Soviet realism”. Instead, he dwelt on the great lineage of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European poetry and fiction, on Goethe and Balzac, on Sir Walter Scott and Flaubert, on Stendhal and Heine. Where he writes of Russian literature, Lukács deals with Pushkin or Tolstoy, not with the poetasters of Stalinism. The critical perspective is rigorously Marxist, but the choice of themes is “central European” and conservative.

In the midst of the apparent triumph of Fascism, Lukács maintained a passionate serenity. He strove to discover the tragic flaw, the seed of chaos, whence had sprung the madness of Hitler. One of his works (in itself a strident, often mendacious book) is entitled The Destruction of Reason (1955). It is a philosopher’s attempt to resolve the mystery which Thomas Mann dramatized in Doktor Faustus. How was the tide of darkness loosed upon the German soul? Lukács traces the origins of disaster back to the irrationalism of Schelling. But at the same time he insisted on the integrity and life-force of humane values. Being a communist, Lukács had no doubt that socialism would ultimately prevail. He regarded it as his particular task to marshal towards the moment of liberation the spiritual resources inherent in European literature and philosophy. When Heine’s poems were once again read in Germany, there was available an essay by Lukács building a bridge between the future and the scarce-remembered world of liberalism to which Heine had belonged.

Thus Lukács has put forward a solution to the two-fold dilemma of the modern critic. As a Marxist, he discerns in literature the action of economic, social and political forces. This action follows on certain laws of historical necessity. To Lukács criticism is a science even before it is an art. His preference of Balzac over Flaubert is not a matter of personal taste or fiat. It is an objective determination arrived at through an analysis of material fact. Secondly, he has given his writing an intense immediacy. It is rooted in the political struggles and social circumstances of the time. His writings on literature, like those of Trotsky, are instruments of combat. By understanding the dialectic of Goethe’s Faust, says Lukács, a man is better equipped to read the sanguinary riddles of the present. The fall of France in 1940 is writ large in the Comédie Humaine. Lukács’s arguments are relevant to issues that are central in our lives. His critiques are not a mere echo to literature. Even where it is sectarian and polemic, a book by Lukács has a curious nobility. It possesses what Matthew Arnold called “high seriousness”.



But in practice, what are Lukács’s major achievements as a critic and historian of ideas?

Ironically, one of his most influential works dates from a period in which his communism was tainted with heresy. History and Class Consciousness (1923) is a rather legendary affair. It is a livre maudit, a burnt book, of which relatively few copies have survived.[2] We find in it a fundamental analysis of the “reification” of man (Verdinglichung), the degradation of the human person to a statistical object through industrial and political processes. The work was condemned by the Party and withdrawn by the author. But it has led a tenacious underground life and certain writers, such as Sartre and Thomas Mann, have always regarded it as Lukács’s masterpiece.

To my mind, however, his pre-eminence lies elsewhere: in the essays and monographs which he wrote during the 1930’s and 1940’s and which began appearing in a row of imposing volumes after the end of the war. The essential Lukács is contained in the study of Goethe and his Time (1947), in the essays on Russian Realism in World Literature (1949), in the volume entitled German Realists of the XIXth Century (1951), in the book on Balzac, Stendhal and Zola (1952), and in the great work on The Historical Novel (1955). To this should be added a number of massive works of a more strictly philosophic character, such as the Contributions to a History of Aesthetics (1954), and what is perhaps Lukács’s magnum opus, the study of Hegel (the first volume of which appeared in 1948).

It is impossible to give a brief yet adequate account of so great a range of material. But a number of motifs do stand out as classic enrichments of our understanding of literature.

There is Lukács’s analysis of the decline of the French novel. He is the foremost living student of Balzac and sees in the Comédie Humaine the master edifice of realism. His reading of Les Illusions Perdues is exemplary of the manner in which the vision of the historian is brought to bear on the fabric of a work of art. It is this vision which leads directly to Lukács’s condemnation of Flaubert. Between Balzac and Flaubert falls the defeat of 1848. The brightness of liberal hopes has faded and France is moving towards the tragedy of the Commune. Balzac looks on the world with the primitive ardour of conquest. The Comédie Humaine built an empire in language as Napoleon did in fact. Flaubert looks on the world as through a glass contemptuously. In Madame Bovary the glitter and artifice of words has become an end in itself. When Balzac describes a hat, he does so because a man is wearing it. The account of Charles Bovary’s cap, on the other hand, is a piece of technical bravado; it exhibits Flaubert’s command of the French sartorial vocabulary. But the thing is dead. And behind this contrast in the art of the novel, Lukács discerns the transformation of society through mature capitalism. In a pre-industrial society, or where industrialism remains on a small scale, man’s relationship to the physical objects that surround him has a natural immediacy. The latter is destroyed by mass production. The furnishings of our lives are consequent on processes too complex and impersonal for anyone to master. Isolated from sensuous reality, repelled by the inhumane drabness of the factory world, the writer seeks refuge in satire or in romantic visions of the past. Both retreats are exemplified in Flaubert: Bouvard et Pécuchet is an encyclopaedia of contempt, whereas Salammbô can be characterized as the reverie of a somewhat sadistic antiquarian.

Out of this dilemma arose what Lukács defines as the illusion of naturalism, the belief that an artist can recapture a sense of reality by mere force of accumulation. Where the realist selects, the naturalist enumerates. Like the schoolmaster in Dickens’s Hard Times, he demands facts and more facts. Zola had an inexhaustible appetite for circumstantial detail, a passion for time-tables and inventories (one recalls the catalogue of cheeses in Le Ventre de Paris). He had the gusto to breathe life into a stock-market quotation. But his theory of the novel, argues Lukács, was radically false. It leads to the death of the imagination and to reportage.

Lukács does not compromise with his critical vision. He exalts Balzac, a man of royalist and clerical principles. He condemns Zola, a progressive in the political sense, and a forerunner of “socialist realism”. Insight has its scruples.

Even more original and authoritative is Lukács’s treatment of the historical novel. This is a literary genre to which western criticism has given only cursory attention. It is difficult to get the range of historical fiction into proper focus. At times, its head is in the mythological stars, but more often the bulk of the thing is to be found in the good earth of commercial trash. The very notion brings to mind improbable gallants pursuing terrified yet rather lightly clad young ladies across flamboyant dust-wrappers. Only very rarely, when a writer such as Robert Graves intervenes, do we realize that the historical novel has distinct virtues and a noble tradition. It is to these that Lukács addresses himself in a major study, The Historical Novel.

The form arose out of a crisis in European sensibility. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic era penetrated the consciousness of ordinary men with a sense of the historical. Where as Frederick the Great had asked that wars be conducted so as not to disturb the normal flow of events, Napoleon’s armies marched across Europe and back reshaping the world in their path. History was no longer a matter for archives and princes; it had become the fabric of daily life. To this change the Waverley novels gave a direct and prophetic response. Here again, Lukács is on fresh ground. We do not take Sir Walter Scott altogether seriously. That is most probably an injustice. If we care to learn how deliberate an artist Scott was, and how penetrating a sense of history is at work in Quentin Durward or The Heart of Midlothian, we do best to read a book written in Moscow by a Hungarian critic.

Lukács goes on to explore the development of historical fiction in the art of Manzoni, Pushkin and Victor Hugo. His reading of Thackeray is particularly suggestive. He argues that the antiquarian elements in Henry Esmond and The Virginians convey Thackeray’s critique of contemporary social and political conditions. By taking the periwig off the eighteenth century, the novelist is satirizing the falsehood of Victorian conventions (what a Marxist calls zeitgenössische Apologetik). I happen to believe that Lukács is misreading Thackeray. But his error is fruitful, as the errors of good criticism usually are, and it leads to a most original idea. Lukács observes that archaic speech, however deftly handled, does not in fact bring the past closer to our imaginings. The classic masters of historical fiction write narrative and dialogue in the language of their own day. They create the illusion of the historical present through force of realized imagination and because they themselves experience the relationship between past history and their own time as one of live continuity. The historical novel falters when this sense of continuity no longer prevails, when the writer feels that the forces of history are beyond his rational comprehension. He will turn to an increasingly remote or exotic past in protest against contemporaneous life. Instead of historical fiction, we find laborious archaeology. Compare the poetics of history implicit in The Charterhouse of Parma with the erudite artifice of Salammbó. Amid lesser craftsmen than Flaubert this sense of artifice is re-enforced by the use of archaic language. The novelist endeavours to make his vision of the past authentic by writing dialogue in what he supposes to have been the syntax and style of the relevant period. This is a feeble device. Would Shakespeare have done better to let Richard II speak in Chaucerian English?

Now as Lukács points out, this decline from the classical conception of the historical novel coincides precisely with the change from realism to naturalism. In both instances, the vision of the artist loses its spontaneity; he is, in some manner, alien to his material. As a result, matters of technique become pre-eminent at the expense of substance. The image of Glasgow in Rob Roy is historically perceptive, but more significantly it arises out of the social and personal conflicts of the narrative. It is not a piece of antiquarian restoration. But that is exactly what the image of Carthage in Salammbô is. Flaubert has built a sumptuous hollow shell around an autonomous action; as Sainte- Beuve noted, it is difficult to reconcile the psychological motivations of the characters with the alleged historical setting. Sir Walter Scott believed in the rational, progressive unfolding of English history. He saw in the events of his own time a natural consequence of energies released during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Flaubert, on the contrary, turned to antique Carthage or Alexandria because he found his own epoch intolerable. Being out of touch with the present – he saw in the Commune a delayed spasm of the Middle Ages! – he failed to achieve an imaginative realization of the past.

Whether or not one agrees with this analysis, its originality and breadth of implication are obvious. It illustrates Lukács’s essential practice: the close study of a literary text in the light of far-reaching philosophic and political questions. The writer or particular work are the point of departure. From it Lukács’s argument moves outward traversing complex ground. But the central idea or theme is kept constantly in view. Finally, the dialectic closes in, marshalling its examples and persuasions.

Thus the essay on the Goethe-Schiller correspondence deals primarily with the vexed topic of the nature of literary forms. The discussion of Hölderlin’s Hyperion gives rise to a study of the crucial yet ambiguous role of the Hellenic ideal in the history of the German spirit. In his several considerations of Thomas Mann, Lukács is concerned with what he takes to be the paradox of the bourgeois artist in a Marxist century. Lukács argues that Mann chose to stay outside the stream of history while being aware of the tragic nature of his choice. The essay on Gottfried Keller is an attempt to clarify the very difficult problem of the arrested development in German literature after the death of Goethe. In all these instances, we cannot dissociate the particular critical judgment from the larger philosophic and social context.

Because the argument is so close and tightly woven, it is difficult to give representative quotations from Lukács’s works. Perhaps a short passage from a paper on Kleist can convey the dominant tone: “Kleist’s conception of passion brings drama close to the art of the short story. A heightened singularity is presented in a manner underlining its accidental uniqueness. In the short story this is entirely legitimate. For that is a literary genre specifically designed to make real the immense role of coincidence and contingency in human life. But if the action represented remains on the level of coincidence… and is given the dignity of tragic drama without any proof of its objective necessity, the effect will inevitably be one of contradiction and dissonance. Therefore, Kleist’s plays do not point to the high road of modern drama. That road leads from Shakespeare, via the experiments of Goethe and Schiller to Pushkin’s Boris Godunov. Due to the ideological decline of the bourgeoisie, it had no adequate continuation. Kleist’s plays represent an irrational byway. Isolated individual passion destroys the organic relationship between the fate of the individual person and social-historical necessity. With the dissolution of that relationship, the poetic and philosophic foundations of genuine dramatic conflict are also destroyed. The basis of drama becomes thin and narrow, purely personal and private… To be sure Kleistian passions are representative of a bourgeois society. Their inner dialectic mirrors typical conflicts of individuals who have become »windowless monads« in a bourgeois milieu.”

The reference to Leibniz is characteristic. The quality of Lukács’s mind is philosophic, in the technical sense. Literature concentrates and gives concretion to those mysteries of meaning with which the philosopher is eminently concerned. In this respect, Lukács belongs to a notable tradition. The Poetics are philosophic criticism (drama seen as the theoretic model of spiritual action); so are the critical writings of Coleridge, Schiller and Croce. If the going is heavy, it is because the matter of the argument is persistently complex. Like other philosopher-critics, Lukács engages questions that have bedevilled inquiry since Plato. What are the primary distinctions between epic and drama? What is “reality” in a work of art, the ancient riddle of shadow outweighing substance? What is the relationship between poetic imagination and ordinary perception? Lukács raises the problem of the “typical” personage. Why do certain characters in literature – Falstaff, Faust, Emma Bovary – possess a force of life greater than that of a multitude of other imagined beings and, indeed, of most living creatures? Is it because they are arch-types in whom universal traits are gathered and given memorable shape?

Lukács’s inquiries draw on an extraordinary range of evidence. He appears to have mastered nearly the whole of modern European and Russian literature. This yields a rare association of tough, philosophic exactitude with largeness of vision. By contrast, Dr. Leavis, who is no less of a moralist and complex thinker than Lukács, is deliberately provincial. In point of universality, Lukács’s peer would be Edmund Wilson.

But there is an obverse to the medal. Lukács’s criticism has its part of blindness and injustice. At times, he writes with acrimonious obscurity as if to declare that the study of literature should be no pleasure, but a discipline and science, thorny of approach as are other sciences. This has made him insensible to the great musicians of language. Lukács lacks ear; he does not possess that inner tuning-fork which enables Ezra Pound to choose unerringly the instant of glory in a long poem or forgotten romance. In Lukács’s omissions of Rilke there is an obscure protest against the marvel of the poet’s language. Somehow, he writes too wondrously well. Though he would deny it, moreover, Lukács does incline towards the arch-error of Victorian criticism: the narrative content, the quality of the fable, influence his judgment. Its failure to include Proust, for example, casts doubt on Lukács’s entire view of the French novel. But the actual plot of the Recherche du temps perdu, the luxuriance and perversities which Proust recounts, obviously outrage Lukács’s austere morality. Marxism is a puritanical creed.

Like all critics, he has his particular displeasures. Lukács detests Nietzsche and is insensitive to the genius of Dostoevsky. But being a consequent Marxist, he makes a virtue of blindness and gives to his condemnations an objective, systematic value. Dr. Leavis is evidently ill at ease with the works of Melville. T. S. Eliot has conducted a lengthy and subtle quarrel with the poetics of Milton. But in it, the essential courtesies are observed. Lukács’s arguments go ad hominem. Infuriated by the world-view of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, he consigns their persons and their labours to the spiritual inferno of pre-Fascism. This is, of course, a grotesque misreading of the facts.

Of late, these defects of vision have become more drastic. They mar The Destruction of Reason and the essays on aesthetics which have appeared since that time. Doubtless, there is a question of age. Lukács was seventy in 1955 and his hatreds have stiffened. In part, there is the fact that Lukács is haunted by the ruin of German and western European civilization. He is searching for culprits to hand over to the Last Judgment of history. But above all, there is, I think, an intense personal drama. At the outset of his brilliant career, Lukács made a Devil’s pact with historical necessity. The daemon promised him the secret of objective truth. He gave him the power to confer blessing or pronounce anathema in the name of revolution and “the laws of history”. But since Lukács’s return from exile, the Devil has been lurking about, asking for his fee. In October 1956, he knocked loudly at the door.



We touch here on matters of a personal nature. Lukács’s role in the Hungarian uprising and the subsequent monasticism of his personal life are of obvious historical interest. But they contain an element of private agony to which an outsider has little access. A man who loses his religion, loses his beliefs. A communist for whom history turns somersault is in danger of losing his reason. Presumably, that is worse. Those who have not experienced it, however, can hardly realize what such a collapse of values is like. Moreover, the motives of action in the Lukács case are obscure.

He accepted the post of Minister of Culture in the Nagy government. Not, I think, to be among the leaders of an anti-Soviet movement, but rather to preserve the Marxist character of Hungarian intellectual life and to guard its radical inheritance against the reviving forces of the Catholic-agrarian right. More essentially, perhaps, because a Lukács cannot stand to one side of history even when the latter assumes absurd forms. He cannot be a spectator. But on 3 November, one day before the Red army reconquered Budapest, Lukács resigned from the cabinet. Why? Had he decided that a Marxist should not oppose the will of the Soviet Union in which, for better or worse, the future of dialectical materialism is incarnate? Was he persuaded to withdraw from a doomed cause by friends anxious for his life? We do not know.

After a period of exile in Rumania, Lukács was allowed to return to his home. But he was no longer permitted to teach and his past work became the object of derisive and increasingly fierce attack. This attack actually predates the October rising. Hungary had its miniature version of Zhdanov, a ferocious little man called Joseph Revai. Originally a pupil of Lukács’s, but later jealous of the master’s eminence, he published a pamphlet on Literature and Popular Democracy in 1954. In it, he drew up a Stalinist indictment of Lukács’s life-work. He accused Lukács of having consistently neglected contemporary Soviet literature. He charged that Lukács’s concentration on Goethe and Balzac was dangerously obsolete. Even a mediocre novel by a communist, declares Revai, is infinitely preferable to a great novel by a reactionary or pre-Marxist. Lukács places “formalistic” literary ideals above class and Party interests. His style is inaccessible to a proletarian reader.

After October, these accusations became more strident. Hungarian and East German publicists revived the old charges of heresy made against Lukács’s early writings. They recalled his youthful admiration for Stefan George and hunted down traces of “bourgeois idealism” in his mature works. Yet the old man was not touched and through one of those odd, Solomonic judgments sometimes passed by communist régimes, he was even allowed to publish a small volume of essays with a West German press (Wider den missverstandenen Realismus, Hamburg, 1958).

Lukács’s relative immunity may have been due to the interest which socialist intellectuals outside the iron curtain have taken in the case. But surely, the more important question is this: how did Lukács himself regard his beliefs and achievements in the light of the October tragedy? Was he drawn towards the great limbo of disillusion? Did his gods fail him at the last?

Such questions cannot be urged very far without impertinence; they involve that inward place of vital illusion which preserves the religious or revolutionary conscience. Lukács’s judgment of the Hungarian revolution is contained in a preface which he wrote in April 1957: “Important events have occurred in Hungary and elsewhere, compelling us to re-think many problems connected with Stalin’s life-work. The reaction to the latter, both in the bourgeois world and in socialist countries, is taking the guise of a revision of the teachings of Marx and Lenin. This certainly constitutes the principal threat to Marxism-Leninism.” The words seem desperately beside the point. But let us keep one thing firmly in mind: to men such as Koestler or Malraux, communism was a temporary expedient of passion. Lukács’s communism is the root-fibre of his intelligence. Whatever interpretation he puts on the crisis of October 1956 will have been arrived at within the framework of a dialectical vision of history. A man who has lost his sight continues to view his surroundings in terms of remembered images. In order to survive intellectually, Lukács must have hammered out some kind of inner compromise; such punitive forays into one’s own consciousness are characteristic of the Marxist condition. His comment about the threat of revisionism gives us a lead. If I interpret him at all accurately, he is saying that the Hungarian episode is a final extension, a reductio ad absurdum of Stalinist policy. But that policy was a false departure from Marxist-Leninist doctrine and the violence of its enactment merely proves its bankruptcy. Therefore, the proper response to the Hungarian disaster does not imply an abandonment of Marxist first principles. On the contrary, we must return to those principles in their authentic formulation. Or as one of the insurrectionist leaders put it: “Let us oppose the Red army in the name of the Leningrad workers’ Soviet of 1917.” Perhaps there is in this idea that old and most deceptive dream: communism divorced from the particular ambitions and obscurantism of Russian domination.

Lukács has always held himself responsible to history. This has enabled him to produce a body of critical and philosophic work intensely expressive of the cruel and serious spirit of the age. Whether or not we share his beliefs, there can be no doubt that he has given to the minor Muse of criticism a notable. dignity. His late years of solitude and recurrent danger only emphasizes what I observed at the outset: in the twentieth century it is not easy for an honest man to be a literary critic. But then, it never was.


[1] The Kenyon Review (Gambier, Ohio), Winter 1960 (Vol. XXII. No. 1.), 1–18. (s. also in: George Steiner: Language and Silence, Faber and Faber, London 1967, 355–370.)

[2] History and Class Consciousness is now available in French. It is also being republished in the West German edition of Lukács’s collected writings, together with other early works. These are among his finest philosophic achievements and show him to be the true predecessor to Walter Benjamin. The cultural authorities in the east allow such western publication of heretic- al but prestigious Marxist books; a characteristic touch of ‘Byzantine’ policy.