Georg Lukacs

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Western Philosophers
Name: Georg Lukács
Birth: April 13, 1885 (Budapest, Hungary)
Death: June 4, 1971 (Paris, France)
School/tradition: Marxism
Main interests
Political philosophy, Politics, Literary theory, aesthetics
Notable ideas
reification, class consciousness
Influences Influenced
Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg The Frankfurt School, The Praxis School, Lucien Goldmann

Georg Lukács (April 13, 1885 – June 4, 1971) was a Hungarian Marxist philosopher and literary critic. Most scholars consider him to be the founder of the tradition of Western Marxism, which represented an attempt to "rescue" Marxism from the lethargy of Soviet orthodoxy during the Stalinist era. He contributed the ideas of reification and class consciousness to Marxist philosophy and theory aimed at explaining why revolution happened in a backward, peasant country and not the capitalist West. His literary criticism was influential in thinking about the role of realism and about the novel as a literary genre. He served briefly as Hungary's Minister of Culture following the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Lukacs represented an attempt to make Marxism relevant to 20th century realities, although it ultimately failed due to Marxism's own inherent weaknesses.

Georg Lukács

Life and politics

Lukács's full name, in German, was Georg Bernhard Lukács von Szegedin, and in Hungarian was Szegedi Lukács György Bernát; he published under the names Georg or György Lukács. (Lukács is pronounced IPA [lukɑtʃ] by most English speakers, the original pronunciation being ['luka:tʃ].)

He was born Löwinger György Bernát to a wealthy Jewish family in Budapest. His father was József Löwinger (Szegedi Lukács József, b. Szeged) (1855–1928), a banker, his mother was Adele Wertheimer (Wertheimer Adél, b. Budapest) (1860–1917). Lukács studied at the universities of Budapest and Berlin, receiving his Ph.D. in 1906.

Pre-Marxist period

While attending grammar school and university in Budapest, Lukács's membership of various socialist circles brought him into contact with the anarcho-syndicalist Ervin Szabó, who in turn introduced him to the works of Georges Sorel. Lukács's outlook during this period was modernist and anti-positivist. From 1904 to 1908, he was involved in a theatrical group that produced plays by such dramatists as Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg and Gerhart Hauptmann.

Lukács spent much time in Germany: he studied in Berlin in 1906 and again in 1909-1910, where he made the acquaintance of Georg Simmel, and in Heidelberg in 1913, where he became friends with Max Weber, Ernst Bloch and Stefan George. The idealist system Lukács subscribed to at the time was indebted to the Kantianism that dominated in German universities, but also to Plato, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Dilthey and Dostoyevsky. His works Soul and Form and The Theory of the Novel were published in 1910 and 1916 respectively.

Lukács returned to Budapest in 1915 and led a predominantly left-wing intellectual circle, the Sunday Circle, or the Lukács Circle, as it was called, that included eminent figures such as Karl Mannheim, Béla Bartók, Béla Balázs and Karl Polanyi among others.

Communist leader

In light of the First World War and the Russian Revolution of 1917, Lukács rethought his ideas. He became a committed Marxist in this period and joined the fledgling Communist Party of Hungary in 1918. As part of the government of the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic, Lukács was made People's Commissar for Education and Culture (he was deputy to the Commissar for Education Zsigmond Kunfi). During the period of the Hungarian Soviet Republic Lukács was a major party worker and a political commissar of the Fifth Division of the Hungarian Red Army.

After the Soviet Republic was defeated, Lukács fled from Hungary to Vienna. He was arrested but was saved from extradition thanks to the efforts of a group of writers which included Thomas and Heinrich Mann, the former of whom would later base the character Naptha in his novel The Magic Mountain on Lukács.

Lukács turned his attentions to developing Leninist ideas in the field of philosophy. His major works in this period were the essays collected in his magnum opus "History and Class Consciousness," first published in 1923. Although these essays display signs of what V. I. Lenin referred to as "ultra-leftism," they arguably provide Leninism with a better philosophical basis than did Lenin's own works. Along with the work of Karl Korsch, the book was attacked at the Fifth Comintern Congress in July 1924 by the Soviet head of the Comintern, Grigory Zinoviev. In 1924, shortly after Lenin's death, Lukács also published the short study Lenin: A Study in the Unity of His Thought. In 1925, he published a critical review of Nikolai Bukharin's manual of historical materialism.

As a Hungarian exile, he remained active on the left wing of Hungarian Communist Party, and was opposed to the Moscow-backed programme of Béla Kun. His 'Blum theses' of 1928 called for the overthrow of Horthy's regime by means of a strategy similar to the Popular Fronts of the 1930s, using a broad-based coalition guided by Communists. He advocated a 'democratic dictatorship' of the proletariat and peasantry as a transitional stage leading to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Lukács's strategy was condemned by the Comintern and thereafter he retreated from active politics into theoretical work.

Questions of moral culpability under Stalinist Rákosism

Lukács lived in Berlin from 1929-1933, but moved to Moscow following the rise of Nazism, remaining there until the end of the Second World War. As Lukács lived in the Soviet Union during the 1940s, he can be considered to have been an agent of the Soviet Security apparatus during this period, much as Imre Nagy was. (See Granville, 1995).

After the war Lukács was involved in the establishment of the new Hungarian government as a member of the Hungarian Communist Party. From 1945 Lukács was a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Between 1945 and 1946 he explosively criticized non-communist philosophers and writers. This critical work would have been part of Lukács' obligation to the party, though he certainly also believed in the need to thoroughly criticize non-communist thought as intellectually deficient. Lukács has been accused of playing an "administrative" (legal-bureaucratic) role in the removal of independent and non-communist intellectuals like Béla Hamvas, István Bibó Lajos Prohászka, and Károly Kerényi from Hungarian academic life. Non-communist intellectuals like Bibó were often imprisoned, forced into menial and low waged mental labor (like translation work) or forced into manual labor during the 1946–1953 period. Claudio Mutti says that Lukács was the member of the party commission responsible for making lists of "anti-democratic" and socially "aberrant" books and works. In the jargon of the day "anti-democratic" was used for anti-party or anti-communist and socially "aberrant" was used to refer to moral or ethical statements outside of the very narrow (even socially reactionary) official ethics of the communist party. The lists of banned works (in three parts totalling 160 pages) were distributed by the Information and Press Department of the Prime Ministers office. The authors of these works were silenced by law, or unemployment. Whether solely by intellectual criticism, or also by "administrative" means, Lukács played a significant role in the censorship of Hungarian civil society during the "Salami Tactics" era of 1945–1950 which established the Mátyás Rákosi government.

Lukács' personal aesthetic and political position on culture was always that Socialist culture would eventually triumph over the status quo culture based on quality through a conflict fought between competing cultures, not by "administrative" measures. In 1948–49 Lukács' position for cultural tolerance within the party and intellectual life was overridden in a "Lukács purge" when Mátyás Rákosi turned his famous "salami tactics" on the Hungarian Communist Party itself. Lukács was reintegrated into party life in the mid 1950s, and was used by the party during the purges of the writers association in 1955-1956 (See Aczel, Meray Revolt of the Mind). However, Aczel and Meray both believe that Lukács was only present at the purge begrudgingly, and cite Lukács leaving the presidium and the meeting at the first break as evidence of this reluctance.


In 1956 Lukács became a minister of the brief communist revolutionary government led by Imre Nagy which opposed the Soviet Union. At this time Lukács' daughter led a brief-lived party of communist revolutionary youth. Lukács' position on the 1956 revolution was that the Hungarian Communist Party would need to retreat into a coalition government of socialists, and slowly rebuild its credibility with the Hungarian people. As such, while a minister in Imre Nagy's revolutionary government, Lukács also participated in the reforming of the Hungarian Communist Party on a new basis. This party was rapidly co-opted by János Kádár after November 4, 1956.

During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 Lukács was present at debates of the anti-party and revolutionary communist Petofi society, while remaining part of the party apparatus. During the revolution itself, as mentioned in "Budapest Diary," Lukács argued for a new Soviet-aligned communist party. In Lukács' view the new party could only win social leadership by persuasion instead of force. Lukács envisioned an alliance between the dissident communist Party of Youth, the revolutionary Hungarian Social Democratic Party and Lukács' own Soviet-aligned party as a very junior partner. After 1956 Lukács narrowly avoided execution, and was not trusted by the party apparatus due to his role in the revolutionary Nagy government. Lukács' followers were indicted for political crimes throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and a number fled to the West. Lukács' books The Young Hegel and The Destruction of Reason have been used to argue that Lukács was covertly critical of Stalinism as an irrational distortion of Hegelian-Marxism.

Following the defeat of the Revolution, Lukács was deported to Romania with the rest of Nagy's government but unlike Nagy, he survived the purges of 1956. He returned to Budapest in 1957. Lukács publicly abandoned his positions of 1956 and engaged in self-criticism. Having abandoned his earlier positions, Lukács was to remain loyal to the Communist Party until his death in 1971. Lukács became more publicly critical of the Soviet Union and Hungarian Communist Party in his last years following the uprisings in France and Czechoslovakia in 1968.


History and class consciousness

Written between 1919 and 1922 and first published in 1923, History and Class Consciousness initiated the current of thought that came to be known as Western Marxism. The book is notable for contributing to debates concerning Marxism and its relation to sociology, politics and philosophy, and for reconstructing Marx's theory of alienation before many of the works of the Young Marx had been published. Lukács's work elaborates and expands upon Marxist theories such as ideology, false consciousness, reification and class consciousness.

In the first chapter, [1] Lukács defined orthodoxy as the fidelity to the "Marxist method," and not to the "dogmas":

"Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method. It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders." (§1)

He criticized revisionist attempts by calling for the return to this Marxist method, which is fundamentally dialectical materialism. In much the same way that Althusser would latter define Marxism and psychoanalysis as "conflictual sciences," Lukács conceives "revisionism" as inherent to the Marxist theory, insofar as dialectical materialism is, according to him, the product of class struggle:

"For this reason the task of orthodox Marxism, its victory over Revisionism and utopianism can never mean the defeat, once and for all, of false tendencies. It is an ever-renewed struggle against the insidious effects of bourgeois ideology on the thought of the proletariat. Marxist orthodoxy is no guardian of traditions, it is the eternally vigilant prophet proclaiming the relation between the tasks of the immediate present and the totality of the historical process." (end of §5)

According to Lukacs, "The premise of dialectical materialism is, we recall: 'It is not men’s consciousness that determines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness.'…Only when the core of existence stands revealed as a social process can existence be seen as the product, albeit the hitherto unconscious product, of human activity." (§5). In line with Marx's thought, he criticized the individualist bourgeois philosophy of the subject, which founds itself on the voluntary and conscious subject. Against this ideology, he asserts the Marxist doctrine of the primacy of social relations, which asserts that existence — and thus the world — is the product of human activity. It is only ideological mystification that prevents recognizing the primacy of social process on individual consciousness. For Lukács it doesn't mean the need to restrain human liberty on behalf of some kind of sociological determinism: to the contrary, this production of existence should be the possibility of praxis.

Henceforth, the problem exists in the relationship between theory and practice. Lukács, quoting Marx, ("It is not enough that thought should seek to realize itself; reality must also strive towards thought.") wonders how intellectuals can be related to class struggle, if theory is not simply to lag behind history, as it is in Hegel's philosophy of history ("The Owl of Minerva always comes at the dusk of night…"). Lukács critizes Engels' Anti-Duhring on the grounds that he "does not even mention the most vital interaction, namely the dialectical relation between subject and object in the historical process, let alone give it the prominence it deserves." This dialectical relation between subject and object gives the basis for Lukács' critique of Kant's epistemology, according to which the subject is the exterior, universal and contemplating subject, separated from the object.

For Lukács, "ideology" is really a projection of the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie, which functions to prevent the proletariat from attaining a real consciousness of its revolutionary position. Ideology determines the "form of objectivity," thus the structure of knowledge itself. Real science must attain, according to Lukács, the "concrete totality" through which it is possible to think the current form of objectivity as a historical period. Thus, the so-called eternal "laws" of economics are dismissed as the ideological illusion projected by the current form of objectivity ("What is Orthodoxical Marxism?," §3). He also writes: "It is only when the core of being has showed itself as social becoming, that the being itself can appear as a product, so far unconscious, of human activity, and this activity, in turn, as the decisive element of the transformation of being." ("What is Orthodoxical Marxism?",§5) Finally, "Orthodox Marxism" is not defined as the interpretation of Das Kapital as if it were the Bible; it is not a question of embracing a "marxist thesis," but as fidelity to the "marxist method," dialectics.

Lukács emphasizes the problem of reification. Due to the commodity nature of capitalist society, Lukács asserts that social relations become objectified, precluding the ability for a spontaneous emergence of class consciousness. It is in this context that the need for a party in the Leninist sense emerges, the subjective aspect of the re-invigorated Marxian dialectic.

In his later career, Lukács would repudiate the ideas of History and Class Consciousness, in particular the belief in the proletariat as a subject-object of history" (1960 Postface to French translation), but he wrote a defense of them as late as 1925 or 1926. This unfinished manuscript, which he called Tailism and the Dialectic, was only published in Hungarian in 1996 and English in 2000 under the title A Defence of History and Class Consciousness. It is perhaps the most important "unknown" Marxist text of the twentieth century.

Literary and aesthetic work

In addition to his standing as a Marxist political thinker, Lukács was an influential literary critic of the twentieth century. His important work in literary criticism began early in his career, with The Theory of the Novel, a seminal work in literary theory and the theory of genre. The book is a history of the novel as a form, and an investigation into its distinct characteristics.

Lukács later repudiated The Theory of the Novel, writing a lengthy introduction that described it as erroneous, but nonetheless containing a "romantic anti-capitalism" which would later develop into Marxism. (This introduction also contains his famous dismissal of Theodor Adorno and other Western Marxists as having taken up residence in the "Grand Hotel Abyss".)

Lukács's later literary criticism includes the well-known essay "Kafka or Thomas Mann?," in which he argues for the work of Thomas Mann as a superior attempt to deal with the condition of modernity, while he criticizes Franz Kafka's brand of modernism. Lukács was steadfastly opposed to the formal innovations of modernist writers like Kafka, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett, preferring the traditional aesthetic of realism. He famously argued for the revolutionary character of the novels of Sir Walter Scott and Honoré de Balzac. Lukács felt that both authors' nostalgic, pro-aristocratic politics allowed them accurate and critical stances because of their opposition (albeit reactionary opposition) to the rising bourgeoisie. This view was expressed in his later book The Historical Novel, as well as in his 1938 essay "Realism in the Balance."

“Realism in the Balance” (1938)—Lukács’ defense of literary realism

The initial intent of Lukacs’ essay “Realism in the Balance,” stipulated at its outset, is to debunk the claims of those who defend Expressionism as a valuable literary movement. Lukacs plays on the dissonance that existed within the community of modernist critics, who seemed incapable, in his judgment, of deciding which writers fit into the Expressionist and which didn't. He pokes fun at them, suggesting that “perhaps there is no such thing as an Expressionist writer.”

Although his aim is ostensibly to criticize what he perceived as the over-valuation of modernist schools of writing, Lukacs uses the essay as an opportunity to advance his formulation of his preferred alternative to these schools. He rejects the notion that modern art must necessarily manifest itself as a litany of sequential movements, beginning with Naturalism, and proceeding through Impressionism and Expressionism to culminate in Surrealism. For Lukacs, the important issue at stake was not the conflict that results from the modernists’ evolving oppositions to classical forms, but rather the ability of art to confront an objective reality that exists in the world, an ability he found almost entirely lacking in modernism.

Lukacs believed that desirable alternative to such modernism must therefore take the form of Realism, and he enlists the realist authors Maxim Gorky, Heinrich and Thomas Mann, and Romain Rolland to champion his cause. To frame the debate, Lukacs introduces the arguments of literary critic Ernst Bloch, a defender of Expressionism, and the critic to whom Lukacs was chiefly responding. He maintains that modernists such as Bloch are too willing to ignore the realist tradition, an ignorance that he believes derives from a modernist rejection of a crucial tenet of Marxist theory, a rejection which he believes characterizes Bloch's work. This tenet is the belief that the system of capitalism is “an objective totality of social relations,” and it is fundamental to Lukacs’ arguments in favor of realism.

According to Marx's historical materialist worldview, “The relations of production in every society form a whole.” Lukacs elaborates on this principle, arguing that the pervasiveness of capitalism, the unity in its economic and ideological theory, and its profound influence on social relations comprise a “closed integration” or “totality,” an objective whole that functions independent of human consciousness. The bourgeoisie’s unabated development of the world’s markets are so far-reaching as to create a unified totality.

Returning to modernist forms, Lukacs stipulates that such theories disregard the relationship of literature to objective reality, in favor of the portrayal of subjective experience and immediacy that do little to evince the underlying capitalist totality of existence. It is clear that Lukacs regards the representation of reality as art’s chief purpose, maintaining that “If a writer strives to represent reality as it truly is, i.e. if he is an authentic realist, then the question of totality plays a decisive role.” “True realists” demonstrate the importance of the social context, and since the unmasking of this objective totality is a crucial element in Lukacs’ Marxist ideology, he privileges their authorial approach.

Lukacs then sets up a dialectical opposition between two elements he believes inherent to human experience. He maintains that this dialectical relation exists between the “appearance” of events as subjective, unfettered experiences and their “essence” as provoked by the objective totality of capitalism. Lukacs explains that good realists, such as Thomas Mann, create a contrast between the consciousnesses of their characters (appearance) and a reality independent of them (essence). According to Lukacs, Mann succeeds because he creates this contrast, conversely, modernist writers fail because they portray reality only as it appears to themselves and their characters—subjectively—and “fail to pierce the surface” of these immediate, subjective experiences “to discover the underlying essence, i.e. the real factors that relate their experiences to the hidden social forces that produce them.” The pitfalls of relying on immediacy are manifold, according to Lukacs. Because the prejudices inculcated by the capitalist system are so insidious, they cannot be escaped without the abandonment of subjective experience and immediacy in the literary sphere. They can only be superseded by realist authors who “abandon and transcend the limits of immediacy, by scrutinizing all subjective experiences and measuring them against social reality.” This is no easy task. Lukacs relies on Hegelian dialectics to explain how the relationship between this immediacy and abstraction effects a subtle indoctrination on the part of capitalist totality. The circulation of money, he explains, as well as other elements of capitalism, is entirely abstracted away from its place in the broader capitalist system, and therefore appears as a subjective immediacy, which elides its position as a crucial element of objective totality.

Although abstraction can lead to the concealment of objective reality, it is necessary for art. Lukacs believes that realist authors can successfully employ it “to penetrate the laws governing objective reality, and to uncover the deeper, hidden, mediated, not immediately perceptible of relationships that go to make up society.” After a great deal of intellectual effort, Lukacs claims, a successful realist can discover these objective relationships and give them artistic shape in the form of a character's subjective experience. Then, by employing the technique of abstraction, the author can portray the character’s experience of objective reality as the same kind of subjective, immediate experience that characterizes totality’s influence on non-fictional individuals. The best realists, he claims, “depict the vital, but not immediately obvious forces at work in objective reality. They do so with such profundity and truth that the products of their imagination can potentially receive confirmation from subsequent historical events. The true masterpieces of realism can be appreciated as “wholes” that depict a wide-ranging and exhaustive objective reality like the one that exists in the non-fictional world.

After advancing his formulation of a desirable literary school, a realism that depicts objective reality, Lukacs turns once again to the proponents of modernism. Citing Nietzsche, who argues that “the mark of every form of literary decadence…is that life no longer dwells in the totality,” Lukacs strives to debunk modernist portrayals, claiming they reflect not on objective reality, but instead proceed from subjectivity to create a “home-made model of the contemporary world.” The abstraction (and immediacy) inherent in modernism portrays “essences” of capitalist domination divorced from their context, in a way that takes each essence in “isolation,” rather than taking into account the objective totality that is the foundation for all of them. Lukacs believes that the “social mission of literature” is to clarify the experience of the masses, and in turn show these masses that their experiences are influenced by the objective totality of capitalism, and his chief criticism of modernist schools of literature is that they fail to live up to this goal, instead proceeding inexorably towards more immediate, more subjective, more abstracted versions of fictional reality that ignore the objective reality of the capitalist system. Realism, because it creates apparently subjective experiences that demonstrate the essential social realities that provoke them, is for Lukacs the only defensible or valuable literary school of the early twentieth century.

Major works

See also


  1. What is Orthodox Marxism?, Retrieved September 10, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Aczel, Tamas, and Meray, Tibor. Revolt of the Mind: a case history of intellectual resistance behind the iron curtain. Greenwood Press Reprint, 1975. ISBN 978-0837178516
  • Arato, Andrew, and Breines, Pauk, The Young Lukacs and the Origins of Western Marxism. New York: Seabury Press, 1979. ISBN 978-0826401762
  • Baldacchino, John. Post-Marxist Marxism: Questioning the Answer: Difference and Realism after Lukacs and Adorno, Brookfield, VT: Avebury, 1996. ISBN 978-1859724385
  • Corredor, Eva L. György Lukács and the Literary Pretext, New York: P. Lang, 1987. ISBN 978-0820404288
  • Granville, Joanna. "Imre Nagy, aka "Volodya" - a dent in the martyr's halo?" Cold War International History Project Bulletin 5 (1995): 28, 34-36.
  • Heller, Agnes. Lukacs Revalued. Blackwell, 1983. ISBN 0631131595
  • Kadvany, John. Imre Lakatos and the Guises of Reason, Duke University Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0822326496
  • KGB Chief Kryuchkov to CC CPSU, June 16, 1989 (trans. Joanna Granville). Cold War International History Project Bulletin 5 (1995): 36. TsKhSD, F. 89, Per. 45, Dok. 82.
  • Lichtheim, George. George Lukacs. Viking Adult, 1970. ISBN 0670336718
  • Lowy, Michael. Georg Lukacs—From Romanticism to Bolshevism. Translated by Patrick Chandler. Verso, 1979. ISBN 0860910032
  • Meszaros, Istvan. Lukacs' Concept of Dialectic. London: The Merlin Press, 1972. ISBN 978-0850361582
  • Muller, Jerry Z. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought, Anchor Books, 2002. 978-1932236026
  • Shafai, Fariborz.The Ontology of Georg Lukács : Studies in Materialist Dialectics, Brookfield, USA: Avebury, 1996. ISBN 978-1859724224
  • Sharma, Sunil.The Structuralist Philosophy of the Novel : a Marxist Perspective : a Critique of Georg Luckács [sic], Lucien Goldmann, Alan Swingewood & Michel Zéraffa, Delhi: S.S. Publishers, 1999. ISBN 978-8185396279
  • Snedeker, George.The Politics of Critical Theory: Language, Discourse, Society, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2004. ISBN 978-0761828150
  • Woroszylski, Wiktor. Diary of a revolt: Budapest through Polish eyes, Trans. Michael Segal. Sydney: Outlook. Pamphlet, 1957.

External links

All links retrieved April 18, 2024.


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