The Case of Georg Lukács. On George Lichtheim’s Controversial Article[1]


Mr. George Lichtheim’s condemnation of Lukács (Encounter, May) and Mr. George Steiner’s praise (June) both fail in the same way. Neither of them sees Lukács as a tragic figure, the tragedy springing from the forms of his thought and not of cowardice and failure within (as Lichtheim appears to suppose) or from repressions by his political masters (as Steiner seems to think). The result is that each distorts the record in his own way. Steiner is right as against Lichtheim the underlining the immensity of the achievement; for Lichtheim to discuss Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein without mentioning Der Junge Hegel, in which the older Lukács produced a genuinely serious and not merely Stalinist of his own youthful Hegelianism, is bad enough. But Lichtheim is right against Steiner in underlining the immensity of the failure; Die Zerstörung der Vernunft is not merely a “bitter, often silly book”, but a Zhadovite piece of falsification which ranks among the intellectual crimes of the age. (If Steiner will explain to me why Bertrand Russel’s proposals for preventive war on the Soviet Union constitute a “reason” for misrepresenting Russel as philosopher I shall be extremely obliged to him.)

Lukács’ later work springs from an attempt to unite his own early non-Marxist critique of naturalism in the arts with Marx’s critique of bourgeois society. Naturalism is the myth that there is an external world of objects, existing independently of our forms of description and discoverable apart from them, which we can describe, if we are careful enough, just “as it is”, from an absolute standpoint. Bourgeois society (as Lukács learnt from Max Weber as much as from Marx) is the society of rationalising, objectifying economic and social life, of double-entry book-keeping, commodity-exchange, and hard facts. What Lukács has pointed out incisively in much of detail of his work are the links between naturalistic forms of description and bourgeois forms of life.

Bu his vision of bourgeois society itself betrayed him. For in dismissing Engels’ mechanistic misinterpretations of Marx he replaced them by Leninist misinterpretations of Marx in which the real working-class of bourgeois society is replaced by Weberian ideal type of proletarian, incarnated in the Communist Party. Lukács’ wish not to abandon Marxist concepts from which he had learnt so much led him at this point to substitute concepts for realities, to become in fact guilty of the very idealism of which he was later to accuse himself, but only to mislocate it in his deviations from Leninist orthodoxy.

The final irony lies in the insistence of his Leninist party that Lukács should accept Engels. Lukács consequent political imprisonment is thus fundamentally at the hands of his own ideas. The premises from which uncritical obedience followed were themselves freely accepted. Where, as in Der junge Hegel, there have been areas available for free enquiry Lukács has produced work of great brilliance; elsewhere he has been consistent only, as Lichtjeim pointed out, in always recanting.


The contradiction between his best work and his political servility is extremely reminiscent of Hegel. But had he not made this fundamental error Lukács would never have been able to live out his vocation of keeping Marx alive in Eastern Europe. Hegel’s survival as an official Prussian philosopher was a precondition of the Left Hegelians and so of Marx, Lukács’ survival as an official Leninist philosopher may turn out to be the precondition of a genuine revival of Marx in Eastern Europe in which the critique of socialist realism will lead on to a Marxist political critique of the class power of the rulers of the Soviet bloc. How far Lukács himself has been and is from such a critique is shown by his letter to an Italian Communist on Stalinism (Survey, April, 1963) where he ascribes the main features of Stalinism to personal characteristics and actions of Stalin and nowhere asks what sort of social system the Soviet Union must have for one man’s errors to produce such far-reaching effects. Equally notable is Lukács’ estimation of what Trotskyist victory would have meant by referring to his own estimate of Trotsky as person.

Thus in the end the whole-hearted embrace of Leninist orthodoxy has resulted in Lukács losing sight completely of the genuine insights of Marxism, and returning to the romantic individualism of his early youth.

Alasdair MacIntyre
University College, Oxford


George Lichtheim makes a number of acute criticisms of Lukács, as a politician and critic. But the pathos of moral indignation, suspect anyhow, is not adequate to the task of making a reckoning with so subtle an intelligence, nor with the complexity of his position as a would-be loyal Communist Paty member in the circumstances of the last 30-40 years.

Lichtheim fails to perceive the peculiar drama of Lukács’ literary existence, that is more than a personal drama of alternating challenge an collapse. In accordance with the Party line, Lukács has persistently tried to establish the right of the Communist movement to the “inheritance” of the great culture of the past – hence the Marxist interpretation of Shakespeare, Goethe, Balzac, Tolstoy, and the elements of a Marxist aesthetic. But he has not been content with the “vulgar-sociological” analysis, and has always tackled fundamental problems of form; and he has refused to ignore or dismiss authors who do not fit with the Party’s desiderata. Hence the drama of his work as a whole. For over and over again, and with great and even bold persistence, he has cracked the membrane of orthodox an authoritative Marxism. He has undermined the thesis that a work’s quality depends on the “progressive” outlook of the writer; he revised the Leninist concept of “partisanship”; by emphasising the writer’s responsibility to his work he put a limit to the scope of Party “guidance”; he was a nagging critic of Zhdanovism and a surprisingly outspoken one of the products of Socialist Realism. Many of his critical essays on 19th-century writers in particular, such as Goethe, Scott, Balzac, Raabe, Fontane, like his work on Thomas Mann, were in effect powerful pleas for a loosening up and liberalisation of Party doctrine and feeling.

We should not be misled by Lukács’ orthodox practice of referring to canonical authority, for he uses Engels against Lenin, Lenin against Stalin, Stalin against Stalin. The orthodox are certainly not misled; he has been, and still is, continually attacked by party spokesmen for his anti-Party, anti-revolutionary, bourgeois, formalist, idealist, etc., tendencies. The drama of all this is mere than personal, for what we have is an extended exposition of the clash between the ruling Marxist ideology and reality, i.e., the reality of great literature, In no other sphere of thought have the limitations of Marxism been so exposed within the framework of the Party.

Apart from this dramatic spectacle, there are positive critical insights to e gained from Lukács’ work, partly due to his Marxism, and particularly impressive because they are embodied in a Marxist system. His Marxism has made Lukács always see the big problems, the big aesthetic issues, that most literary critics prudently avoid. We need not be satisfied with his theory of realism – and indeed it is often confused and sometimes patently untenable; but he forces as to consider what the relation of art to reality is, and rightly insists that the reality from which art springs is a complex, dynamic social-historical nexus, neither separate from man not merely subjective. He attacks repeatedly the problem of how it is that art has bot a particular sociological source and a “universal” validity. It is characteristic that he is pe-eminently concerned with the nature of the literary genres, for in them he can analyse artistic forms that correspond both to different modes of perception and to particular aspects of reality. His chapter om the characteristics of tragedy and the novel in The Historical Novel is brilliant, and his category of “type” is illuminating. Though the Marxist tradition holds him back from developing a theory of artistic imagination – perhaps the outstanding failing of his aesthetic – he repeatedly does justify the workings of imagination, even to his own embarrassment. He repeatedly provokes dissent, even irritation (what systematic aesthetic does not?). But again and again juxtapositions an comparisons are stimulating, enriching.


This is typically so with his latest book, The meaning of Contemporary Realism. Here he has tried to find the common factor of “modernism” in all its contradictory phases and styles. We may well reject his sweeping theory of “decadence”, and refuse, as Lichtheim says, to consider the themes of alienation, chaos and angst solely as product of an inhuman bourgeoisie – just as we can refuse to accept the standpoint and perspective of Socialist Realism. It is indeed extremely disconcerting to find that this intelligent and bold thinker always asserts that there are no serious moral-personal problems in Communist society, and that where such matters crop up in Soviet literature they are only hang-overs from bourgeois society. All the same, the book as a whole is a most illuminating essay, that gives a better chance to find view-point an see connections.

Lichtheim has every reason to criticise the rigidity of Lukács’ categories, the orthodox schema of “critical realism” and “socialist realism”. He is right in saying that Lukács has been extraordinarily unresponsive to the search for new forms of literary expression in the West as in the Communist sphere – only in his latest work is there a somewhat grudging relaxation towards Kafka, even toward Brecht. But these and other failings have to be put in their right perspective, and should not be allowed so to obsess us that we fail to appreciate the force of his achievement, or at least of his aggressive challenge.

Roy Pascal
Birmingham University


I feel some protest must be made against the disturbing attack on Georg Lukács made by George Lichtheim. The opportunity has been lost for a balanced judgement of what is valuable in Lukács’ criticism, and in its place a magazine of influence has published an incoherent diatribe.

How can Mr. Lichtheim say that Lukács has “failed altogether as a responsible writer, and ultimately as a man” and imagine that his article could support such a statement? To make uch an ex chatedra statement about any human being is to claim a divine knowledge of the totality of a man’s conscience and actions that is not displayed in the article you published.

Less presumptuous, perhaps, is the body of Mr. Lichtheim’s polemic; in it, nevertheless, he has given little evidence for the value-judgments he has made. Lukács suffers from the inherent disease of his persuasion: he is too ready to substitute a skein of generalisations for a detailed analysis of a novelist’s actual words. In this he resembles Christopher Caudwell, Alick West, Roy Pascal, and Arnold Kettle – to name only a few. But when Lukács – like these critics – has attempted to support his statements and to place works in the context of their age and the tradition of a particular genre, the result has been illuminating and thought-provoking: he has added to one’s understanding of a work. One has only to think of the analysis of conflict and the figure of the hero in the historical novel and drama in The Historical Novel, the essays on “Faust” in Goethe and his Age, the exposition of Gorky’s humanism in Russian Realism in World Literature, or his explanation of Hegel’s reading of Kant in The Young Hegel to excuse the heavy movements of thought in his Essays on Realism or the blundering apportionment of praise and blame in the Meaning of Contemporary Realism. The way in which he expresses his insensitivity to Joyce, Proust, Gide, Beckett, etc., certainly leads one to suspect that he has never read these authors, or has read only poorly translated extracts from their novels; and what could be more misleading than, say, a piece of Joycean pastiche out of context? But does exaltation of Balzac and Tolstoy at the expense of Flaubert and Zola, or the statement of Fenimore Cooper’s debt to Scott really invalidate Lukács’s judgements? Of course not. As Taine said of John Stuart Mill in a different context: “You will tell me that our philosopher cut off his wings to strengthen his legs. True: and he acted wisely. Experience marks out the career which he opens to us; she gives us an object to aim at; but also lays down limits within which we are confined”: We must remember, too, that Fenimore Cooper’s leather-stocking tales are definitely indebted to Scott – see McCormick’s Catastrophe and Imagination and many earlier works by other scholars for an explanation of this fact of literary history

Perhaps it is when he accuses Lukács of Leninism that Mr. Lichtheim feels on safer ground The power of such an accusation is as great as that of comparison with Condorcet, and its implication that this 78-year-old believer in progress should have cut his intellectual throat to escape the Zhdanovist scaffold. Lukács was not the critic to imagine in 1934 that Lenin’s examination of empiricism was a useful text-book: the universities of Europe and the Americas contain not a few who thought likewise. A list of those who used Leninist jargon at the time of the Purges would embarrass many accepted writers to-day, who have found new faiths and new vocabularies. Surely such a castigation of the writer of The Destruction of Reason could be extended to the author of The Idea of a Christian Society: Anglo-Catholicism and monarchism ar sins as mortal to the critical muse as Leninism.

Other points raised by Mr. Lichtheim demand enquiry. Is Thomas Mann, for example, a “worthy but distinctly second-rate German émigré author of unimpeachably bourgeois-democratic outlook”? Can one call Lukács’ reading of Scott “fondness”? How does Mr. Lichtheim support his judgment of Lukács’ “insensitivity to the German language” with a quotation from an indifferent translation? Is a critic compelled to relieve his work with a “gleam of humour”? What does Mr. Lichtheim mean by “conscious subjection to the Zhdanovist line of Socialist Realism”? – Lukács himself attacked the vulgar Marxist who imagined a nuts-and-bolts thesis to be criticism, and his analysis of the hero in fiction does not accord with such Zhdanovist lay-figures a, say, the protagonist of Boris Polevoi’s tear-jerking The Story of a Real Man.


Can anyone deny that, on one level, Kafka’s nightmares are evidence of “the diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism”? Of course, the forms of such a world are but part of K’s experience of what the cover-blurb of my paperback selection of Kafka’s short stories entitles “A poetic Interpretation of the Secret of our Existence”, but Lukács’ remark has a certain truth. Perhaps he underestimated K., but what does Mr. Lichtheim mean by saying that Freud is “the greatest representative of Enlightenment tradition in modern times”? I must have missed the reports of Freud’s canonisation. Perhaps Mr. Lichtheim refers to the Weimar Aufklärung, and places Freud in the pantheon of German Literature. Or is one expected to believe that Freud is the greatest scientist of our age – the logical deduction from Mr. Lichtheim’s remark. I prescribe a little Eysenck to dispel this notion, and the outrageous application of the word “simpleton” to Pavlov. Freud had the intuition – and the blind spots – of a great physician, but why exalt him at the expense of someone who attempted a modest science of psychology? The plodding work of Pavlov may seem naïve when compared with the presumptuous assurance of Freud’s disciples in child guidance clinics an on executive selection boards, but the plodding of Lukács is preferable to such Freudian literary interpretations as – inter alia – Herbert Read’s nonsensical reading of Wordsworth.

What have Sartre and Co. done for “the sociology of culture in Western Europe and America”? If Sartre is Mr. Lichtheim’s positive for an attack on Lukács, I see that it would take more sparce than I can use here to refute the implications inherent in such a statement. If political retrenchments invalidate criticism, Sartre is poor stuff indeed. But how inadequate such a pottage of non-sequiturs a What is Literature? seems when set against the insights of Lukács!

Mr. Lichtheim’s vision of “modernism” undertaking to solve problems of “intellectuals living in an industrial society” gives one some idea of how he manages o reconcile a Lukács whose “intellect was not indeed very powerful… but subtle, flexible, far-reaching, and genuinely critical” with one who is indifferent “to style in general”. The sad thing is that such illogical argument may be taken by many of those who have not read Lukács as Encounter’s authoritative ukase against him.

One last point: I do not see that one can talk of the “tragedy” of Lukács: after all, he is not yet dead.

John Cumming


Mr. George Lichtheim’s assessment of Georg Lukács would have been fairer if he had given your readers some idea of what has been said about Lukács’ work by orthodox party men. Thus, he says that Lukács retains “the essentially Stalinist characterisation of the Soviet orbit as a realm of ‘socialism’ opposed to a Western capitalist-imperialist bloc”, but does not indicate that Lukács has been accused of making a dangerous distinction between the forces of peace and the forces of socialism – of underestimating the importance of strengthening the socialist camp. If Lukács uses “the stereotyped language of the Cold War”, he does so with overtones which Mr. Lichtheim has not adequately interpreted.

Orthodox criticisms of Lukács may be studied at length in a collection of essays published in East Berlin in I96o: Georg Lukács und der Revisionismus, edited by Hans Koch. The eight authors find Lukács quite as exasperating as Mr. Lichtheim does, and if the book is ever translated into English, the publishers might well find An Intellectual Disaster a convenient title.

Geoffrey Carnall


Lichtheim Replies

The purpose of my – necessarily brief and inadequate – assessment of Lukács’ recent intellectual performance was to contrast the reality with the myth of the great, lonely, persecuted thinker: cut off from the West by an Iron Curtain not of his own making, long silenced by a ruthless censorship, and even to-day unable to communicate with his true audience save by hints and allusions. The importance of this myth to those who created it may be gauged from the pained tone of some of the communications to which I must make a very brief reply. Mr. MacIntyre at least agrees that the deliberate perversion of truth in Die Zerstörung der Vernunft represents an intellectual crime (he puts it more strongly than I did). Perhaps his former Trotskyist affiliation has helped him to perceive the peculiar immorality of this typically Stalinist literary performance. I am afraid I cannot share his high estimate of Der junge Hegel; and if I had found room for an analysis of Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein I should have had to point out that in some respects it anticipates the subsequent Stalinist institution of two truths: one for the masses and one for the elect. In other respects we seem to be in agreement; and I did describe Lukács as a “tragic” figure.

Mr. Cumming addresses so many rhetorical questions to me – some of them remarkably obfuscating, such as the quaint suggestion that Thomas Mann may have been intended in my characterisation of the literary mediocrities embalmed in Lukács’ Agitprop essays – that it would take me another article to deal with all his points. To judge from his aggrieved tone he is one of the worshippers who still regard Lukács as a great, though perhaps not wholly infallible, guide through the maze of Leninist literary criticism. I happen to believe that any Westerner who accepts Leninism (as distinct from Marxism) commits intellectual suicide, though the effect may be less disastrous in the case of East Europeans. Mr. Cumming and I are unlikely to agree on this subject. Two minor points: (1) My remark about Lukács’ “insensitivity to the German language” clearly referred to his original writings, not to any translation. (2) Can one deny that Kafka’s nightmares are evidence of “the diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism”? Indeed one can, especially if (like Lukács, and unlike Mr. Cumming) one knows something about their social and literary background, which was about as remote from “modern capitalism” as anything can well be.

Mr. Carnall reminds me that Lukács has been assaulted in print by a group of East European hatchetmen, including some of his Hungarian enemies (the book has been in my possession for years), and infers that this somehow balances my own critical remarks about his intellectual record. May I in turn suggest to him that it is not paying Lukács a compliment to measure him against a collection of Stalinist boors and character assassins? Whatever his failings – and they are very great indeed, both morally and intellectually – Lukács has to be judged by general European standards. My essay was an attempt – possibly too brief and summary – to assess his work by these criteria.

Professor Pascal thinks I am too harsh and have done insufficient justice to Lukács’ great achievements as a literary critic. This might well become the theme for a lengthy discussion, for which unfortunately there is no space. In the context of such a debate I should perhaps venture to enlarge on a suggestion which will doubtless give further offence in some quarters: it is my impression – speaking as an outsider – that a reputation for intellectual stringency can be secured in literary criticism with the help of mental gifts which would not secure for their owner the very highest rank in some other branches of learning. I may be mistaken, but it has never seemed to me that the critical distinctions established by Lukács in his later writings (I deliberately except his earlier works) were based on the kind of rigorous mental training that is required, e.g., in philosophy. The value of his interpretations of Goethe, Balzac, Tolstoy, etc., within the general Marxist canon, is another possible subject of disagreement. Here I merely observe that I am unable to regard a book such as Goethe und seine Zeit as a useful contribution to my own understanding of classical German literature – a literature with which I grew up. It seems to me both learned and banal: not an unusual combination. It is also remarkably un-Marxist in that it signally fails to analyse the fusion of aristocratic and bourgeois values which was the essence of the Weimar culture. Professor Pascal is an authority on German literature: is he really prepared to vouch for the bona fides of a critic who on this important subject systematically obscures the very historical process he is supposed to be concerned with? The explanation, of course, is that the essays collected in this particular volume date from the ’thirties, and – like practically everything Lukács wrote – served a political purpose: in this case the construction of a “bourgeois-revolutionary” background to sustain the myth of a great popular tradition of progressivism.


I take note that Mr. George Steiner is the author of an essay on Lukács in the Kenyon Review. I also note that he regards Lukács as “the only major German literary critic of our epoch” – an opinion unlikely to be held outside the restricted coterie of worshippers. If time and space were available I should embark on a brief dissertation upon the subject of Stalinist middle-brow literature, and upon the naivety of critics who are so impressed by Lukács’ earlier achievements that they quite ignore the extent to which later on he tacitly accepted the intellectual (not merely political) standards of middle-brow Stalinist theorising about culture as well as politics. There was a time when non-European performances were judged by European criteria. Nowadays the backward countries are beginning to cast their shadow over the more advanced ones, and pliable figures like Lukács offer their assistance in the resulting sell-out of critical and intellectual values. Mr. Steiner’s views on Lukács’ political record are not worth controverting. He comes to the consideration of these matters with a mind unburdened by any but the most fragmentary understanding of Marxism, Communism, or the history of the past four decades. Despite the confident tone of his pronouncements I am not persuaded that he is competent to discuss the subject.

George Lichtheim


[1] Encounter (London), August 1963, 91–96.