The Never-Ending Lukács Debate

Gyorgy Lukács in 1919. Source: WikimediaCommons.

13.03.2017

Before 1914, Lukács’s early works were received with great antipathy by the literary establishment in Hungary; they were found to be too “German” — that is to say, too philosophical, not impressionistic and positivistic enough. That was only the beginning, of course; from then on, Lukács would be attacked from the right incessantly, all his life. Lukács didn’t fare much better in leftist circles, either. When his most important book, History and Class Consciousness(1923), came out, it was savaged by both the Second and the Third International. It wasn’t to be republished until the 1960s. Lukács was given an ultimatum: if he wanted to stay in the Party, he had to repudiate the book and subject himself to self-criticism, which is what he eventually did.

He was harshly criticized in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Soon after he relocated from Vienna to Moscow, Lukács was exiled to Tashkent, and silenced. But in 1945, the Party needed him — or rather, his fame — in Hungary. He agreed to return there rather reluctantly; East Germany was also an option. After the dictatorship was established and consolidated in Hungary in 1947–’48, the “Lukács Debate” was launched in earnest: he was attacked as a “deviationist,” a “bourgeois,” as a man who did not esteem Soviet “socialist realism.” (Truth be told, he was indeed all these things.) He was again silenced, forbidden to teach or publish in Hungarian, but some of his work was smuggled out and printed in West Germany.

In 1956, Lukács was a member of the revolutionary Nagy government. That’s why he was arrested by the Soviet soldiers and temporarily deported to Romania. When he was brought back, he was expelled from the Party, blacklisted, and pensioned off. Once again, he had to smuggle his texts abroad, this time to West Germany, where Luchterhand Verlag began to publish his complete works (a project taken over by Aisthesis Verlag in 2009). A slander campaign was launched against him both in Hungary and in the DDR; he was now condemned as a “revisionist” and, possibly, “counter-revolutionary.” Entire volumes were dedicated to making this case; they were even translated into quite a few languages.

In 1968, Lukács expressed his sympathy for the reforms and protests in Czechoslovakia, as well as for the youth movements in the West. He protested against the Soviet occupation of Prague, which resulted in yet another excommunication. Later, however, his Party membership was silently restored and, with the advent of reforms in Hungary, he was, to some extent, rehabilitated. But this came too late: he died in 1971. Absurdly, Lukács’s political troubles didn’t end after his death. In 1973, his disciples were condemned by the Central Committee’s ideological outfit and blacklisted; they lost their jobs and could no longer publish.

And now, in today’s Hungary, Lukács is declared, à titre posthume, an “enemy of the people” for having been a communist leader, a Party favorite, a propagandist in the service of the Kádár régime — the same regime that strove to shut him up and almost succeeded. That he served in the 1956 revolutionary government — officially celebrated today by the anticommunist conservatives — is conveniently forgotten.

Yet Lukács was indeed a communist, and in 1956 an authentic socialist revolution took place, in which he participated. But the most important revolution of his life occurred long before, in 1917. Before the Bolshevik Revolution, Lukács was a pessimistic conservative. Like so many German and Austrian writers of the time, he hated the bourgeoisie from the right. In 1917, however, he lost all his reserve and reticence, and all his respect for convention. For him, as for many of his generation, the revolution brought salvation: it saved their souls by proclaiming the end of exploitation, of class divisions, of the distinction between intellectual and manual labor, of punitive law, property, family, churches, prisons. In other words, it promised the end of the state.

The revolution also meant the end of utopia. “The class struggle of the proletariat,” Lukács writes in 1919 (the year of the communist revolution in Hungary), “is the objective itself and concomitantly its realization.” The driving force in human society, therefore, is history, not utopia, because the aims of the proletarian revolution are not outside the world, but within it. It would be silly to deny the religious undertones of such a view of history, which some of Lukács’s subsequent pronouncements would echo. For example, in spite of all his disappointments, he insisted on remaining a member of the Party — since extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, there is no salvation outside the church. It was his — and other communists’ — conscience (to use another religious term) that was the Party proper, not the politics or ideology of those who happened to be Party leaders at one moment or another.

In one of his major works, The Young Hegel (first published in 1948), Lukács tells the story of a giant thinker who called for a revolt against positivity — that is, against an ecclesiastical Christianity that regarded religion as mere tradition and as a valuable web of institutions, that preferred cathedrals to gospels — a thinker who then, ironically, became the foremost defender of the traditional order, of positivity, in order to rescue some achievements of the French Revolution against reactionary romanticism and fanaticism. This story, I think, is Lukács’s own intellectual autobiography in disguise. Between its lines, he concedes defeat.

Western audiences know only liberal anticommunism, the kind created by antifascist émigrés such as Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, and Michael Polanyi, as well as by former far-left figures such as George Orwell, Ignazio Silone, and Arthur Koestler. After 1968, this type of anticommunism was picked up by East and Central European and Russian dissidents and clandestine human rights groups. But relatively little is known in the West about the “White Guard” type of anticommunism, which was prevalent on the European continent in the interwar period, and which is now triumphantly reborn in contemporary Eastern and Central Europe, including Hungary. The latter has tended to see socialism and communism as the uprising of the Untermensch, the biologically and spiritually inferior members of society. For these anticommunists, communism does not mean too little, but too much freedom, and the idea of equality is a sin against nature.

These are also the people for whom “Christian” means “Gentile” and for whom universal franchise means mob rule, just as “constitution” and “the rule of law” mean a loss of nerve. These people believe in the whip, in the cane, in putting women in their place, and in kicking the queer down the club steps. They believe in making deals with the swarthy Levantine and robbing him blind.

And however one feels about putting up graven images of controversial thinkers for the pigeons in the park, one must understand: it is these anticommunists who will destroy Lukács’s statue. They will scatter the contents of the Lukács Archives (owned and administered by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, too timorous to do anything about it) to various dusty corners of Budapest.

Moreover, Lukács was Jewish. The régime does not openly declare its anti-Semitism, but this campaign is part of a general anti-Jewish drive.

Lukács’s presence as a major witness to — and philosopher of — some of the greatest revolutions of modern humanity cannot be tolerated in a regime like Viktor Orbán’s. It simply cannot. His “System of National Cooperation” worships soccer and Schnapps instead.

G.M. Tamás is a Hungarian philosoper and public intellectual. Currently he is a Visiting Fellow at the IWM.

From Los Angeles Review of Books.

Copyright ©  2017 G.M. Tamás

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    George Soros is a pioneer of the hedge-fund industry, investor and philanthropist, he is the author of many books, including Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States: Essays (2012), The Soros Lectures: At the Central European University (2010), The Crash of 2008 and What it Means: The New Paradigm for Finance Markets (2009).   …
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  • Robert Spaemann

    Robert Spaemann ist Professor em. für Philosophie an der Universität München.   Print

  • Pawel Spiewak

    Associate Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Philosophy, Warsaw University
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  • Wilfried Stadler

    Wilfried Stadler ist Unternehmensberater, Wirtschaftspublizist und Honorarprofessor an der Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien. Bis 2009 war er Vorstandsvorsitzender einer österreichischen Spezialbank für Unternehmensfinanzierung.   Print

  • Rudolf Stamm

    Rudolf Stamm war von 1975 bis 1988 Korrespondent der Neuen Zürcher Zeitung für Osteuropa und Österreich, anschließend bis 1999 für Italien, dann bis zu seiner Pensionierung 2002 für die USA mit Sitz in Washington D.C. Er starb 2010 in der Schweiz. 1985 erscheinen seine NZZ-Reportagen aus Osteuropa in dem Band Alltag und Tradition in Osteuropa. …
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  • Paul Starr

    Paul Starr ist Professor für Soziologie an der Princeton University und Mitherausgeber von The American Prospect. Er ist Pulitzer-Preisträger.   Print

  • Martina Steer

    ÖAW APART Fellow (History)
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  • Kristina Stoeckl

    Research Director
    APART Fellow, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Department of Political Sciences, University of Vienna
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  • Roman Szporluk

    Roman Szporluk is Professor em. of Ukrainian History at Harvard and Professor em. of History at the University of Michigan. He is a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, Ukraine. His research focuses on modern Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish history, and on Marxism and nationalism in Eastern Europe.   Print

  • Charles Taylor

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Professor em. of Philosophy, McGill University, Montréal
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  • Maria Teteriuk

    PhD candidate in Mass Communications and senior lecturer in Media Studies, National University of 'Kyiv-Mohyla Academy', Ukraine
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  • Philipp Ther

    Junior Professor of Polish and Ukrainian Studies, Europa-Universität Frankfurt / Oder
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  • Maria Todorova

    Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
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  • Balázs Trencsényi

    Balázs Trencsényi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the Department of History, CEU. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is co-director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Associate Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill). He was …
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  • Stefan Troebst

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  • Marius Turda

    Lecturer in the Education Abroad Program, Eötvös Lorand University, Faculty of Humanities, Budapest
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  • Andreas Umland

    Andreas Umland ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Euro-Atlantische Kooperation Kiew sowie Herausgeber der Buchreihe Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart. Print

  • Victoria Vasilenko

    Assistant Professor of Contemporary History and International Relations, Belgorod National Research University
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  • David G. Victor

    David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.   Print

  • Harald Welzer

    Harald Welzer ist Forschungsprofessor für Sozialpsychologie an der Universität Witten/Herdecke und Direktor des Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research am Kulturwissenschaftlichen Instituts Essen.   Print

  • Karolina Wigura

    Adjunct of the History of Ideas, University of Warsaw; Co-Editor of Kultura Liberalna
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  • Volodymyr Yermolenko

    Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher and essayist. He has a degree in Political Science from the EHESS, Paris, and teaches at Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. He is the author of the book Narrator and Philosopher: Walter Benjamin and his time (2011, in Ukrainian). Print

  • Oksana Zabuzhko

    Free-lance writer, Kiev
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  • Tatiana Zhurzhenko

    Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue / Ukraine in European Dialogue
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