[Letters to the Editor]


Georg Lukács[1]

Sir, – I have great admiration for Georg Steiner, especially for his erudition, his intellectual generosity, and the lucidity of his prose. Normally I would not dream of challenging one of his articles, especially one dealing with a subject of which I am almost totally ignorant. But the issues he raises in his discussion of Georg Lukács (January 22) are so important that I cannot keep silent when it seems to me that Dr Steiner is going wrong.

Does he quite realize the effect his review can create in the mind of a detached reader? I note that, as usual, he puts the facts and the possible interpretations of the case fairly before us, and few, I imagine, will want to convert much of what he says. But in his desire to be fair to Lukács, to rescue some shred of claim for his greatness, for his standing as a teacher, he makes some fearful concessions which we of the liberal persuasion (to use Dr Steiner’s own phrase) cannot afford and must not allow to go unchallenged.

The case of Lukács, as it emerges from Dr Steiner’s account, is commonplace in our appalling times. A towering vanity, nourished by the knowledge that he possessed great gifts, and shielded from reality by the dreadful propensity to abstraction of the German philosophical tradition, made him for most of his life, indeed to the time of his very death, the accomplice and apologist of some of the worst criminals of our age. Set against such monstrous perversion of the soul and the intellect his various literary achievements – shrewd comment on Thomas Mann, a revaluation of Walter Scott (as if Scott, in any significant sense needed his services) – are seen to be utterly unimportant, except to those corrupted like himself. Yet this is the man whose rebuke of the West, of America, of “technocratic capitalism”, Dr Steiner seems to endorse. Thos is the man whose excuses for his own misconduct Dr Steiner allows to pass unrefuted.

What strikes me, as a historian, about Lukács, as presented by George Steiner, is his intolerable presumption. “Could anyone except Stalin have withstood the terrible impact of German invasion…? The question cannot be answered. But what can be shown is that without Stalin’s murderous paranoia and his fatuous trust in Hitler the invasion could have been far more successfully resisted, and your own pages (I refer to Kyril FritzLyon’s review in the same issue of Nicoli Tolstoy’s book, Stalin’s Secret War) show what was the manner in which Stalin conducted the subsequent war and, in Lukács’s complacent view, made of backward Russia one of the worlds two super-powers. Lukács was one of those who justified the incalculable suffering which Stalin and the CPSU inflicted on the Russian people by a suppression of some of the truth and a perversion of the rest. If this is not trahison des clercs, what is? The same hateful trait is detectable in his question (I paraphrase), “Do we not accept the judicial murders of the Girondins, Danton and Robespierre aa necessary crises in the ultimately humane logic and libertarian dynamics of the French Revolution? Np, Sir, “we” do not: we do not pretend to know what is “necessary”, and our conscience I too acute to allow us glibly to acquiesce in human suffering in the present because some dialectician says that all will be well in the future.

Does all this matter? Yes it does: Lukács, in Dr Steiner’s presentation of him, embodies the fatuous arrogance of the intelligentsia which has done so much harm. It is amusing that Lukács should condemn Western liberal intellectuals to a future as a behaglicher Leerlauf.  He wanted to be a big wheel, and despised those in the West who were more humble and more honest in their aspirations. He was profoundly anti-democratic and anti-humane (his only redeeming grace seems to have been tat he was also, in his conduct, profoundly inconsistent). He is an awful warning which, in an era when on both Right an Left, but particularly on the Left, I once more hear the trumpetings of doctrinaire absolutism, should be presented a such. I deeply regret that Dr Steiner, who is of course anything but an ideologue himself, could not quite bring himself to do the job.

Hugh Brogan
University of Essex,
Wivenhoe Park, Colchester, Essex


Georg Lukács[2]

Sir, — Many years age I published an article on Kafka. The next day, Mr Hugh Brogan came bounding across King’s Parade to tell me that I had greatly over-estimated Kafka, an author of a patently “morbid and continental” inclination. I do not cite this trivial precedent in malice, but only to suggest, that a certain Edwardian fatuity is not altogether absent from Mr Brogan’s perceptions.

The dilemmas which he raises are, of course, perennial, and my review sought to reflect them fairly. Perhaps a touch of self-questioning is in order: neither Mr Brogan nor I have any confident notion as to how we would comport ourselves as teachers, scholars, private individuals under even a fraction, under even a momentary episode, of the sort of physical an psychological menace which are routine in the world of Lukács. Thos fundamental ignorance in respect of our own moral and professional resources ought to make as very careful in judging those who live and work in extremis. Lukács could have left the eastern bloc and chosen adulation and material ease “on the other side”. He chose not to do so. In my article, I tried to understand the deeper motives for his dangerous, ascetic preference.

From within a political-personal condition, whose ambiguity, whose ugliness are obvious to both Hugh Brogan and myself, Lukács produced major, enduring “monuments of unchanging intellect” (Yeats knew of the turbulent, compromising pressures of political violence on sensibility). History and Class-Consciousness is among the very few political-philosophic classics of the century. Pace Mr. Brogan’s airy aside, almost no serious work had been done on Walter Scott as major social observer and analyst before Lukács’s revaluation. A number of other books and a score of essays stand massively.

In trying to clarify the roots of Lukács’s creativity – a creativity out of personal darkness and ideological equivocation – I cited his conviction that the life of the mind under Marxist rule has a pertinence of history, an anchorage in social reality, often denied toit in the pluralistic liberalities and condescensions of the west. I did not say that Lukács’s conviction on this cardinal issue was right. I did not say that the sacrifices he brought to this conviction were justifiable. I merely said that those of us who feel otherwise may have to work somewhat harder to prove our case.

I can see nothing scandalous in such a sentiment – most especially at a time when the powers that be in many western societies are displaying an almost unprecedented contempt for the claims of the arts and of the universities. It is a hideous thing to be persecuted for one’s views, say, on Hegel or Dostoevski. It is, undoubtedly, a less painful, a less perilous thing to be made merely “redundant”, because such views are only of marginal interest – if at all – to one’s community. Wich of the two is, finally, more threatening to certain intensities of thought and of argument? Mr Brogan is loftily certain of his answer to these questions. So was Lukács. I confess to uncertainty.

George Steiner
University of Genova


Georg Lukács[3]

Sir, – In reviewing the two Lukács books (January 22), Goerge Steiner admits having trouble with translation. He writes: „If the German translation is accurate, Lukács qualifies the tortures whereby false confessions were exacted… as bedenklich”, and he offers his own rendering of this expression as “giving grounds for thoughtful concern”. However, bedenklich means “dubious, doubtful, questionable, suspicious”. Steiner’s attempted translation is incorrect and unidiomatic, to say the least.

Then again he has trouble with Leerlauf, an expression borrowed from the automotive world. Ein behaglicher Leerlauf is simply “a comfortable idling” or coasting” which, incidentally, would lend an English translation of Lukács’s phrase an added ambiguousness; “the free world” is “free-wheeling”, like a bike. “Emptiness” won’t do. A stylistic dimension is lacking, I feel, and in the case of Georg Lukács this is very important indeed.

Eva Bornemann
A-4612 Scharten, Austria


Sir, – Surely George Steiner’s intellectual charity towards the late Lukács exceeds all reasonable bounds? It is, for instance, not really necessary to explain Lukács’s Stalinism by the spell which brute power and terror often exert on the minds of scholars. In a series of brilliant and evil essays, written as early as 1919–1922 (published in book-form in 1923 as History and Class-Consciousness), Lukács, in fact, established the theoretical foundations for a communist party of Stalinist type, which was later to claim millions of victims. I hasten to add that Stalin, about whose own “Marxism” the less said the better, would probably not have understood a word of what Lukács was saying. He did not require elaborate theoretical foundations; he had machine-guns.

As for the criticism of literature, to which Lukács devoted a considerable part of his life, it is an unfortunate fact that, apart from the nineteenth-century realistic novel an its derivatives, Lukács lacked an essential qualification: he was incapable of telling a good piece of writing from a bad one. He knew the important names, however, and discussed the work of writers like Joyce, Proust and Kafka in terms of whether their techniques were “acceptable” or not – i.e., typical secret-police lit crit. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that his function, as regards contemporary literature, was to act as a kind of truffle pig – to sniff out undesirable trend and individuals, for the benefit of the party, to which he remained slavishly devoted all his life, however monstrous and criminal its leadership.

His best epitaph was penned by Leszek Kolakowski, who had himself once been a leading Marxist philosopher of the Eastern bloc. “Lukács is perhaps the most striking example in the twentieth century of what may be called the betrayal of reason be those whose profession it is to use and defend it.”

Tibor Ilvessy
48 Chalcot Road, London NW1


Georg Lukács[4]

Sir, – Since one never knows when these things will be dragged up and used in evidence, may I correct Mr Steiner on the small incident of our personal history which he recalls (Letters, February 19)?  The accurate version is as follows: I have heard a broadcast of his, in which he claimed, as I heard it, that all art had to be morbid in its origins, subject matter and approach if it was to be great. I thought this a great overstatement, and when we met on King’s Parade said so, adding “What about Jane Austin?” I well remember how Dr Steiner, trembling with kindly rage, patted me on the shoulder and went his way, saying “Cherish your innocence, cherish your innocence” – much the same answer he has given on the present occasion.

I will only add that Tibor Ilvessy (Letters, February 12) put the case against Lukács with more authority than I can, and I look forward to seeing how Dr Steiner will deal with his letter.

Hugh Brogan
Department of History, University of Essex,
Wivenhoe Park, Colchester, Essex


[1] Times Literary Supplement, February 5 1982.

[2] Times Literary Supplement, February 19 1982

[3] Times Literary Supplement (London), February 22 1982

[4] Times Literary Supplement, March 5 1982.