Isaac Deutscher 1965

György Lukács and ‘Critical Realism’

Source: Marxism in Our Time, The Ramparts Press, Berkeley, 1971. This review of Georg Lukács’s Essays on Thomas Mann (Grosset, New York, 1965) was originally broadcast on the Third Programme of the British Broadcasting Corporation in March 1968. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The following remarks on György Lukács’s literary criticism have been occasioned by the reading of a recently published collection, Essays on Thomas Mann, which he wrote between the years 1909 and 1955, but mostly in the 1930s and 1940s. The book is fragmentary, and the assembled pieces do not add up to a coherent study. All the more remarkable is the consistency of Lukács’s basic interpretation of Mann’s work. In his earliest essay he thus summed up in a single conclusive sentence his impression of Royal Highness, Mann’s novel which appeared shortly after Buddenbrooks: ‘There is in Mann’s writing that now vanishing sense of bourgeois patrician dignity: the dignity which derives from the slow movement of solid wealth.’ The critic who penned these words was, of course, not yet a Marxist. But he set here the tone for many of his later comments. Taking up the theme between the two world wars, and then again in 1945, he emphasised ‘the bourgeois ideal as the guiding principle in Mann’s life and work’. This was, of course, meant as an objective judgement, as classification and assessment, not as denunciation. ‘Mann’s stories’, Lukács says, ‘never reflect the day-to-day moods of the German middle class’, still less its reactionary moods; they mark, on the contrary, the ‘summit of bourgeois consciousness’. Even when Mann is in opposition to the bourgeoisie, ‘he never parts company with it’, and ‘his influence reposes on this firm social basis’. ‘... he symbolises all that is best in the German bourgeoisie.’ Finally, in 1955 Lukács reiterates: ‘Mann’s originality – his buoyancy, serenity and humour – springs from a true self-knowledge of the contemporary bourgeoisie.’

Unfortunately, this ‘true self-knowledge’ is a rather elusive, quasi-Hegelian concept: it denotes presumably the summit of consciousness to which the German bourgeoisie ought to have risen but did not rise; it expresses an ideal rather than an historic reality, but it presents the ideal as reality. (How often writers who think that they can, like Marx, ‘turn Hegel upside down’ and set him on his feet, end up by standing themselves on their heads!) In truth, Mann’s attitude towards the German bourgeoisie was less idealistic than Lukács suggests. From Death in Venice and Buddenbrooks through The Magic Mountain to his last novels Mann dealt with the splendours and miseries, the predicaments and the decay of his social class in a spirit of tense love – hate and even of despair rather than of ‘buoyancy and serenity’. And how indeed could he, while embodying the ‘conscience’ and the ‘true self-knowledge’ of bourgeois Germany, be so ‘serene'?

However, we are dealing here with something like Lukács’s intellectual love affair: he interprets every one of Mann’s novels as a stage in the writer’s heroic struggle for the soul of his nation or in his ‘search of bourgeois man’ in Germany. ('He seeks the spirit of democracy in the mind of the German bourgeois, tracking down the newest hints and signs in order to awaken and foster them in fictional form.’) True, Mann had his slips: during the First World War he exhibited a vulgar militaristic chauvinism and a haughty hostility towards all that the German left and German democracy had stood for. In a passage not quite free from special pleading, Lukács speaks of ‘Mann’s paradoxical and near-tragic situation’, and adds: ‘... even the greatest of men need not feel ashamed of having made mistakes... especially as in this case they were not subjective and personal, but arose out of Mann’s deep involvement with Germany...’ Then again, in the early years of the Third Reich, certain ideological ambiguities in Mann’s attitude aroused Lukács’s apprehension: he wondered whether Mann’s ‘slow, organic growth’ which had already once, in 1914, ‘landed him in a dangerous situation’ might not once again ‘threaten his development’. Did Lukács fear a temporary conciliation between Mann and the Nazis? If so, the fear was groundless; but its mere possibility points to the ideological complexities that were inherent in Mann’s outlook and his ‘deep involvement with Germany’.

The sincerity and courage of Mann’s opposition to the Third Reich were beyond any doubt; and the significance of his attitude was all the greater because of the inner resistances he had to overcome. But the impulse that moved him into opposition and exile was not just ‘progressive anti-fascism’ or the ‘search of the bourgeois man’ – it was rather the antagonism of the cultivated patrician bourgeois to the savage plebeians, the Kleinbürger and Lumpenproletarien who were running amok in the shadow of the swastika. Because of its so strongly defined character, the writer’s antagonism to Nazism was ‘organic’ and intense, but also relatively narrow, although he sought to overcome its limitations.

Somehow Lukács does not come to grips with this problem, perhaps because he does not properly appraise the social background of the Third Reich against which so much of Mann’s work has to be set. Generally speaking, Lukács’s writing here falls well below his own standards in The Historical Novel. There is far less insight here, less clarity and precision. Considering that most of these essays were written in Russia and Hungary at a time when literary criticism was reduced to the crudest Stalinist clichés, it is remarkable to what extent Lukács remained true to his discriminating tastes and his academic Hegelianism, with all its good and bad qualities. Even so, he belongs essentially to the Stalin era; and, despite the legend that presents him as the hero of an intellectual resistance to Stalinism, and despite his brushes with the Rákosi regime in his native country, he may be described as the only Stalinist literary critic of high stature. To be sure, his philosophical background and aesthetic fastidiousness did not allow him to become totally submerged in the orthodoxy. His case was nevertheless one of genuine surrender to Stalinism, a surrender which was difficult and painful, yet voluntary and therefore in a sense irrevocable.

This is not only a matter of Lukács’s ritualistic participation in the ‘personality cult’, of which he reproduces a few shocking examples even in this volume to which he wrote a preface in 1963. He says, for instance, of the traditions of German democracy and socialism that ‘since Marx and Engels they had been buried under reactionary falsification. One mark of the poverty of German history common to both bourgeoisie and working class is the fact that Marx and Engels have so far not entered into the national cultural heritage as Lenin and Stalin have in Russia.’ Historically this is not quite true: during the half century that lay between Marx’s death and Hitler’s rise to power, Marxism penetrated deeply into the consciousness of the German working class – at least as deeply as Methodism and Fabianism impressed themselves on British labour. With a stroke of his pen Lukács deletes from history that half century, and with it the work of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Franz Mehring, not to speak of Kautsky (whose better writings exercised a decisive influence on Lenin), Bebel and others. True enough, after 1933, and then again after 1945, the Marxist tradition was discredited and destroyed in Germany by the efforts of Nazism, social reformism, and, last but not least, Stalinism. Instead of acknowledging these facts, Lukács simply opposes to Germany’s ‘historic poverty’ the edifying Stalinist contribution to Russia’s ‘national cultural heritage’. In his foreword he does not even hesitate to state without qualification that ‘for over thirty years socialism has existed and grown strong in the Soviet Union’.

Lukács’s ideological dependence on Stalinism is deeper than even such declarations suggest. He has been one of the very few theoretically educated adherents of ‘socialist realism’, perhaps the only important expounder of the ‘aesthetic ideal’ of Zhdanovism. Analysing Mann’s Doctor Faustus (in a 1948 essay) he states: ‘By a remarkable coincidence (if coincidence that be) I had just finished reading Doctor Faustus when the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union published its decree on modern music. In Thomas Mann’s novel this decree finds its fullest intellectual and artistic confirmation...’ The decree to which Lukács refers contained the Zhdanovist denunciation of the works of Shostakovich and Khachaturian, the ill-famed signal for a furious witch-hunt against the ‘decadents’, ‘formalists’, and ‘cosmopolitans’ in music and the other arts. Lukács, of course, was not one of the vulgar witch-hunters; but he had zealously embraced the principle underlying the witch-hunt and elevated it to the level of philosophic-historical theory. He carried the campaign against ‘modernistic decadence’ into the field of the ‘cultural heritage’. Socialist realism having been proclaimed the aesthetic ideal of the post-revolutionary epoch, Lukács found its antecedents in the ‘critical realism’ of the great bourgeois literature and arts of the pre-revolutionary epoch. He undertook his elaborate classification and assessment of the cultural heritage in accordance with this principle: he identified critical realism with progress and rejected any discordant idea and style as reactionary. The exalted place he accords to Mann is that of ‘the last great representative of critical realism’ who ‘has never been modern in the decadent sense’.

How does Lukács define ‘critical realism'? Sometimes he interprets it so broadly that the concept becomes useless as a tool of criticism; at other times he interprets it so narrowly that he turns it into lifeless dogma. ‘Thomas Mann’, he remarks, ‘is a realist whose respect, indeed reverence, for reality is of rare distinction. His detail, still more his plots, his intellectual designs may not stay on the surface of everyday life; his form is quite unnaturalistic. Yet the content of his work never finally leaves the real world.’ This is sheer tautology. Of nearly all the despicable ‘decadents’, from Proust and Joyce to Sartre and even Beckett, it may be said that the ‘content of their work never finally leaves the real world’. Mann himself gives Lukács some trouble, for his attitude towards the ‘decadent avant-garde’ was ambivalent and he claimed affinity with Joyce and the ‘un-novelistic novel’. At this point Lukács rushes to rescue Mann from Mann himself and explains in a few profoundly cloudy passages that Mann’s rationality and objectivism set him apart from the literature of bourgeois decay. Lukács equates critical realism with rationalism, objectivism and social optimism; he subtly projects the ‘positive hero’ of the Zhdanovist canon into the Western novel and drama. He fails to see that the pessimism and despair of the contemporary Western artist may be forms of protest against our social order and the disarray of our civilisation, and that much of the irrationalism of modern writers and painters expresses a distrust of the banal and complacent ‘reason’ of the bourgeois Establishment. Even the ‘decadents’ sense of doom’ reflects in some measure the destructive global stalemate between revolution and counter-revolution (or between degenerate possessing classes and politically paralysed working classes), a stalemate affecting the whole spiritual climate of our time. How can Marxists expect art and literature to be able to break morally the historic deadlock that politics has so far failed to break practically?

The antithesis of self-confident rationalism and irrationalist pessimism is, of course, deeply rooted in bourgeois ideology. In Victorian England Macaulay and Carlyle embodied the contradiction. Marxism, at its best, has not identified itself with one of these elements and rejected the other, but has absorbed what was vital in each of them and transcended them both. Marx and Engels themselves had just a little more tenderness for Carlyle’s ‘rebellion against reason’, despite its dark implications, than they had for Macaulay’s brilliantly superficial optimism. Lukács’s predilections go the other way. He argues primarily from his German background and sees the ideological sources of Nazism in Schopenhauer’s, Wagner’s and Nietzsche’s Zerstörung der Vernunft, even though he senses at times that he may be doing Nazism a quite undeserved honour by attributing to it such ancestry. Actually, Nazism, insofar as it appropriated any philosophical tradition of the ‘rebellion against reason’, only parodied it in the most repulsive manner, just as, on a different level, it caught the anti-capitalist emotions of the ruined middle classes of the 1930s only to exploit them and deceive them. It appropriated even the name and the symbols of socialism; it called itself Arbeiterpartei – worker’s party; and in this way it harnessed to its counter-revolutionary cause many immaturely revolutionary moods floating about in German society. Indeed, it derived an immense dynamic momentum from its identification with every kind of rebellion against the bankrupt ‘reason’ of the capitalist establishment. It managed to do so because the parties of the working class failed politically and spiritually to make a common stand against it. In any case, the task of Marxists was not to invoke against Nazism the ‘reason’, the ‘patrician dignity’ and the respectable traditions of the bourgeoisie; still less was it to denounce all the immature and irrational forms of rebellion. Marxism could prevail, if at all, only by restating convincingly its own programme and principles and by demonstrating their relevance to the terrible crisis of those years. Yet Lukács’s literary critical work consisted precisely in invoking against Nazism the rationalism and the respectability of the bourgeois tradition. His approach reflects the failure of his party to see its task and even to grasp its error after the event.

The corollary to this is Lukács’s essentially conservative aesthetics. ‘It is characteristic’, says he, ‘of both Goethe and Mann that though they never ignore new literary trends, they greet them with reserve.’ This is certainly more characteristic of Lukács than of either Goethe or Mann. Goethe was himself a great innovator, and even in his old age he greeted, without reserve, Byron’s poetry, the boldest innovation of European romanticism. As to Mann, we have seen how Lukács has been trying to explain away Mann’s foible for Joyce. Lukács’s own reserve towards ‘innovation’ touches the absurd when he approaches modern psychology and voices his violent and ill-informed prejudice against Freud. Psychoanalysis is to him still one of the repugnant excesses of reactionary irrationalism. ‘Just as Nietzsche and Spengler [he states], so Freud and Heidegger... are... the veriest signposts of the intellectual disasters of the imperialist period...’ He even manages to put Freud and the Nazis into one and the same ideological bag. Here again he is in trouble with Mann, who was Freud’s devoted admirer; but he tries to get out of the difficulty by dismissing Mann’s famous Festrede on Freud as the aberration of an ‘idea-spinning essayist’. Inevitably he treats all artistic repercussions of psychoanalysis as worthless and culturally harmful. Here the conservatism of the pre-Freudian academic philosopher blends with plain Zhdanovist incomprehension.

A further remark about the political background to this attitude will not be out of place here. In surrendering to Stalinism, Lukács did not adapt himself to all its aspects with equal ease. The crudities and cruelties of the ‘personality cult’ must have made him shudder more than once. He was certainly disturbed by the ultra-left zigzags of Stalinism even while he was following them obediently. But he identified himself wholeheartedly with the ‘moderate’ and rightist aspects of Stalinism, in particular with the Popular Fronts of the 1930s and their prolongations in the 1940s. It is no matter of chance that most of his literary critical oeuvre dates from these two periods. He elevated the Popular Front from the level of tactics to that of ideology: he projected its principle into philosophy, literary history and aesthetic criticism. It will be remembered that the Popular Front was Stalinism’s reaction against its own ultra-left follies through which it had smoothed Hitler’s road to power. Stalinism then sought to insure itself against the consequences of that disaster by means of an appeal to the ‘anti-fascist conscience’ of the Western bourgeoisie, for the sake of which it abandoned, and indeed banned, all forms of revolutionary-proletarian and socialist-oriented action. Stalin resumed this line after Hitler’s attack on the USSR and persisted in it in the early aftermath of the war, when he still hoped to keep up the Grand Alliance. In all these situations the Communist parties outside the USSR worked to overcome the bourgeoisie’s distrust of Russia and fear of communism; and so they played down or even denied their revolutionary Marxist commitments and upheld (and where necessary helped to restore) the regimes (and ideologies) of bourgeois democracy. Since Nazism had aroused the lower middle classes against the traditional ruling groups, Stalinism aligned itself, wherever possible, with the latter and helped them to maintain their sway over the popular masses. For the intelligentsia which followed the Communist parties this entailed certain historical-philosophical reorientations and a break with many habits of thought. Leftish academicians, writers and artists were persuaded that they ought not to ‘reject’ patriotic fetishes any longer, that they must not indulge in militant anti-clericalism, and that they should not show too marked a preference for the revolutionary-plebeian, as opposed to the ‘aristocratic’ strands in their cultural heritage. Communists learned to behave as good patriots, to ‘stretch out a hand’ to their erstwhile clericalist enemies, and to treat with discreet or open flattery the conventional cultural values of the bourgeoisie.

Lukács’s work is the great, refined masterpiece of that flattery. His writings on Mann are a pendant to the Stalinist ‘struggle for allies’. It was Lukács’s assignment, as it were, to establish a common ideological front with those ‘intellectual forces’ of whom Mann could be regarded as spokesman – Mann, the only great, truly patrician and truly German anti-Nazi writer in exile, the only one whom the Wilhelmine and Weimar Establishments had accepted and honoured for decades. The premise for such a common front was a ‘liberal’ appraisal of Mann’s work, an appraisal in which the edges of Marxist criticism were blunted.

This is not to suggest that Marxists should not have been or should not be concerned with the struggle for allies or that they should not be intensely preoccupied with the problem of the cultural heritage. The point is that Stalinism abused these concerns and preoccupations for its shallow and opportunistic tactical games. The Stalinised parties conducted their search for allies so unscrupulously and perversely that they lost themselves in the process; that is, they lost sight of the interests and aspirations of the working classes. Their much advertised anxiety over the cultural heritage provided them with excuses for startling displays of philosophic and artistic philistinism. This was the context in which Lukács vented so freely his prejudice against ‘artistic innovation’. This accounts, inter alia, for the fact that while he was eulogising Mann’s alleged ‘search of the bourgeois man’ and artistic traditionalism, Lukács had nothing to say about Bertolt Brecht, the other great anti-Nazi writer who was, however, in a sense, Mann’s antipode. Brecht’s utter irreverence for the ‘bourgeois man’, his provocatively plebeian sympathies and his extreme artistic unconventionality – so many dialectical counterpoints to Mann’s outlook – implicitly conflicted with the mood of the Popular Front and were alien to Lukács. His silence about Brecht is thus an unwitting commentary on his own shortcoming as a critic.

This is not to deny Lukács’s better qualities, for even when he speaks from a notoriously Stalinist standpoint, he still does it with the erudite sophistication which is able to present the most ludicrous superstition and the most rigid dogma as a rational, or at least a debatable, idea. He moves with apparent freedom and ease and ‘dignity’ within the confines of the most constricting orthodoxy; and so he even manages to loosen its constraints. Hence the fascination but also the deceptiveness of his argument and style, especially for some people of the New Left. Lukács’s role in Budapest during the events of 1956 has done something to surround him with a halo; and people recall vaguely that even several decades earlier the Comintern had frowned on his Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein (History and Class Consciousness). In an upsurge of sympathy for him one is apt to forget his Stalinist record and the ambiguities of his behaviour in the critical events of 1956. This is unfortunately one of those cases when a cultus is established without sufficient prior examination of the virtues, the martyrdom and the miracles attributed to the venerable or blessed person. The record of this particular claimant deserves serious attention, perhaps even respect; but an advocatus diaboli has still to throw full light on its seamy side.