Georg Lukacs Propaganda or Partisanship? 1932

Propaganda or Partisanship?

Written: 1932
First published: in Die Linkskurve, IV/6, 1932, pp. 13-21 (titled Tendenz oder Parteilichkeit?); translated in English in Partisan Review Vol. 1 No. 2, April-May 1934, pp. 36-46 (titled Propaganda or Partisanship?)
Translated: y Leonard F. Mins

The question as to whether our literature displays ‘tendency’ is in no way simply a matter of terminology. If we propose to use the word “Parteilichkeit” (instead of “Tendenz”) to denote one of the fundamental characteristics of our literature, it is evident that this implies a new theoretical understanding as to the nature of this literature. We intend in this way to eliminate a complex of theoretical errors and superficialities from our view of literature, and to formulate what is specific about our literature in a clearer and less mistakable way than previously.

What is the meaning of the term “Tendenz"? And how did it enter our literary terminology? To start with, “Tendenz” is highly ambiguous. It means, first of all, “a law whose absolute action is checked, retarded and weakened by counteracting circumstances[1], a meaning of no immediate interest to us here but one which should be mentioned because it above all should not be allowed to disappear from our view.

What is more important and significant for our present question is the sense in which “Tendenz” means aspiration or endeavour. In this sense, it already came into widespread use in government and police language in the first half of the nineteenth century. ‘Seditious tendency’, etc. , is a term found in general use in the censorship instructions, proscriptions of books, etc., of the time. What is of fundamental importance for us here is that “Tendenz” receives a subjective meaning. In his critique of the new Prussian censorship instructions, the young Marx precisely branded this aspect as characteristic of the arbitrary ‘jurisdiction of suspicion’, for such are laws which ‘make their main criterion not actions as such, but the frame of mind of the doer’. [2] Unfortunately, I cannot pursue here the precise history of how this legal and police terminology developed into an aesthetic one. (As far as I know, this is a peculiarly German development; the French ‘tendency’ plays of the mid-nineteenth century were rather known as ‘drames à thése’.) This shift of meaning, however, already began in the 1840s. In 1841, for example, at a time when he was still under the influence of the ‘Young Germany’ movement, Engels referred to Arndt’s ‘Tendenz[3]. And among Heine’s Zeitgedichten, too, we find one with the title ‘Die Tendenz’, its last verse reading as follows:

Peal, resound, thunder daily,
Till the last oppressor flees -
Only sing in this direction,
But do keep your poetry
As general as possible.

This mocking conclusion of Heine’s, who precisely in this very period was further removed from ‘pure art’ and ‘Tendenzlosigkeit’ than before or later, shows how Heine, with a true poetic instinct, had strong reservations about the true nature of the ‘tendency’ art of his time, and for this very reason objected to the expression in question. Indeed, he struggled both here and in other writings of the same time against the subjectivist, emotion-trapped and hence abstractly general character of ‘tendency’ literature. We shall go on very shortly to discuss the social reasons for this abstractness. First, we simply want to corroborate the justice of this mocking objection with a further example from another poet, though one who also viewed poetry as a means of struggle.

In the conflict between Herwegh and Freiligrath over the party or non-party stance of the poet (1843), a conflict that had great importance for literary history, Herwegh wrote:

... Let a poem be a sword in your hand.
Choose a banner, and I am content,
Even if it is different from my own ...

Herwegh thus fought for partisanship in general, against the view that Freiligrath held at that time: ‘The poet stands on a loftier watchtower than the battlements of party.’ Two points are noteworthy here. First, according to Herwegh the question of partisanship or not (i.e. in later terminology ‘tendency’ art or ‘pure’ art) was one of subjective decision, not an inescapable law of any literature, as a product and weapon in the class struggle. Second, Herwegh welcomed any partisanship – even one opposed to his own – as a developmental advance, thus conceiving the question of partisanship (’tendency’) in a formal manner.

It is not necessary here to depict in detail how this entire view of Herwegh’s was based on illusions. Yet it has had to be introduced and analysed in brief, for illusions of this same kind underlie to a greater or lesser extent any bourgeois theory for or against ‘tendency art’, and the question for us here is not so much to expose these illusions as illusions, but rather to disclose their roots in the existence of the bourgeois class. This is particularly important for us because Franz Mehring’s formulation of this complex of questions, which had a decisive influence on the proletarian revolutionary movement in literature, arose under the very strong influence of bourgeois ‘tendency art’, and despite all Mehring’s efforts, did not manage to overcome the contradictions contained in the question itself.

It is understandable, indeed obvious, that the first proletarian literature should have linked up with the ‘tendency’ literature of what little was left of the literature of the progressive bourgeoisie, and thus took over both the theory and practice of ‘tendency’. It did so all the more, in that right from the start it was forced to adopt, in intensified form, the positions held by this progressive bourgeois literature at the time. ‘Tendency’, in other words, is something very relative. In bourgeois literary theory, as recognized today even officially, a text is seen as displaying ‘tendency’ if its class basis and aim are hostile (in class terms) to the prevailing orientation; one’s own ‘tendency’, therefore, is not a tendency at all, but only that of one’s opponent. The positions of struggle that the various literary factions of the bourgeoisie took up against one another, in which connection, of course, it was generally the more politically and socially progressive trend that was particularly reproached for its ‘tendency’, rather than the reactionary trend, were assumed with doubled vigour against the first beginnings of proletarian literature. Any depiction of society, whether the society of the proletariat or that of the bourgeoisie, and no matter whether this was presented from the class standpoint of the proletariat itself, or simply from one close to it, was viewed as ‘tendentious’, and every possible argument as to its ‘inartistic’ and ‘hostile-to-art’ character was marshalled against it. At the same time, bourgeois ‘pure art’ became ever poorer in content and further removed from reality, while simultaneously growing ever more tendentious, so that the prejudice about proletarian ‘tendency’ art became increasingly hypocritical. Under such conditions, it is only too readily understandable that the young proletarian literature should have taken up the term of abuse applied to it by the class enemy and worn it as a badge of honour, just like the Dutch “Geusen” (beggars) in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, or the ‘sans-culottes’ of the French revolution. For a long time, therefore, we referred to our literature with pride as a ‘tendency literature’.

Yet however understandable it was to take up this theoretical position, this in no way means it is theoretically correct. On the contrary. It takes over unseen, together with the bourgeois formulation of the problem and the bourgeois terminology, the entire bourgeois eclecticism involved in the very terms of the problem itself, its bourgeoise-eclectic contradictions, which are not superseded, but rather in part glossed over, and in part rigidly polarized. What we particularly have in mind here is the antithesis between ‘pure art’ and ‘tendency’. On this basis, only two answers are possible. Either, on the one hand, we express contempt for ‘pure art’ and its perfection of form; literature has a social function in the class struggle, which determines its content; we fulfil this function consciously, and do not worry about the decaying bourgeoisie’s questions of form. (This is to restrict literature to everyday agitation, the standpoint of mechanical materialism in literary theory.) Or else, on the other hand, we acknowledge an ‘aesthetic’ and attempt to reconcile with it a ‘tendency’. that is taken from the realm of the ‘social’ or ‘political’, i.e. a realm that is ‘foreign to art’. In this way, the insoluble task of introducing into the work of art a component that is ‘foreign to art’ is raised in a haphazard manner. On the one hand, therefore, aesthetic immanence is (tacitly) recognized, i.e. the ‘pure’ autonomy of the work of art, or the domination of form over content: while on the other hand it is demanded that a content which in this view lies outside the artistic (’tendency’) should prevail. The result is an eclectic idealism.

These untranscended (and on this basis untranscendable) contradictions are what account for Franz Mehring’s lack of sureness on this question. It is well known that Mehring also viewed the Kantian aesthetic that was decisive for the artistic theory of the declining bourgeoisie as a necessary theoretical foundation. The basic conception expressed in this, of ‘purposefulness without purpose’, and the exclusion of all ‘interestedness’ from the consideration of art, is evidently a theory of ‘pure art’. The further development of this theory by Schiller, which Mehring takes over, that of the ‘destruction of the material by the form’, only strengthens this tendency of subjective idealism. It is quite consistent, therefore, that the artistic theory of the declining bourgeoisie should make use of these views as a weapon for their struggle against ‘tendency’. They could do so all the more successfully, in that the opponents of this practice, the supporters of ‘tendency’ (in as much as they did not simply represent a vulgarized mechanical materialism), themselves stood on the ground of this theory and were therefore only able to defend themselves against the necessary and unpreventable consequences that were drawn from it in a very inconsistent and eclectic fashion.

This is most blatant with Mehring himself, the most significant German literary theorist of the nineteenth century, who stood far above his bourgeois contemporaries. Mehring’s eclecticism finds very clear expression in the way that he could find only an ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ solution to the central question of content and form. Mehring is aware that the unconditional recognition of the (subjective idealist) solution of Kant and Schiller leads to acknowledging the ‘timelessness’ or ‘time-transcending’ character of art, hence to the primacy of form and a rejection of ‘tendency’ of any kind. And because he seeks to reject this conclusion, without criticizing its underlying assumptions, he writes that ‘taste therefore also depends on the content and not just on the form’. This eclecticism, leading to an absolutely vacuous response on precisely the decisive question, clearly shows how little Mehring was able to go beyond the fundamental problematic of Kant and Schiller, and hence the bourgeois aesthetic in general. The limitation of this conception is shown by the way that the question of ‘tendency’ is made into a question of the relationship between art and morality, so that the subjective idealist character of ‘tendency’ clearly emerges: ‘tendency’ is a demand, an ‘ought’, an ideal, which the writer counterposes to reality; it is not a tendency of social development itself, which is simply made conscious by the poet (in Marx’s sense), but rather a (subjectively devised) commandment, which reality is requested to fulfil. Behind this line of thought lies first of all the rigid and formalized separation of the various spheres of human activity from one another. That is to say, we are confronted by the ideological reflection of the capitalist division of labour. However, instead of thinking of this reflection as the consequence of the division of labour, and subjecting it to Marxist analysis and criticism, it is conceived in purely ideological terms as an ‘eternal’ law that separates ‘essences’ and is then made into the starting-point of all further analyses in a quite unhistorical manner. Second, human activity, practice, is conceived not in its real, objective or material production, and as applied to changing society, but rather in its distorted and upside-down ideological reflection (as ‘morality’), so that in a similarly ahistorical way, the distorted ideological result has to be made the theoretical starting-point. Third, this counterposing of art and morality contains an uncritical and ideological illusion of the human individual as an ‘atom’ of society (cf. on this illusion The Holy Family), as well as the fetishized conception of society as something ‘thing-like’, surrounding human beings as an ‘alien’ reality (the environment theory), rather than being simply the sum and the system, the result of human activity (even if under capitalism this result is not conscious or intended). Fourth, corresponding to this rigid and mechanical counterposing of (individual) man and society, which underlies the entire bourgeois conception of ‘morality’, we find that the work of art is isolated from social practice, from material production and the class struggle, and the task of art is thought to be that of realizing an ‘aesthetic ideal’. And fifth, on this view art and morality are not results of the same social practice, but rather realizations of different, divergent and rigidly counterposed ideals (in Kant’s case, ‘interest’ and ‘disinterest’). We can therefore apply to their relationship, and to the solution of the problem of literature and ‘tendency’ ('morality’), what Hegel wrote about the undialectical conception of body and soul: “If we take them to be absolutely antithetical and absolutely independent, they are as impenetrable to each other as one piece of matter to another.

We can take any number of literary works and theories of the nineteenth century, and see that none of them was able to escape the necessary consequences of this approach, which arose from the social being of the bourgeois class, and particularly of its writers (fetishism, etc.). There were only two choices. Either consciously to renounce ‘tendency’ and create ‘pure art’ (a renunciation however, that was for this very reason merely apparent), in which case the result was a tendentiously adjusted depiction of reality, i.e. a ‘tendency literature’ in the worst sense of the term. Or alternatively ‘tendency’ could be subjectively counterposed to the portrayed reality in a moralizing and preaching fas hi on, which meant bringing an alien element into the literary portrayal.

Even Mehring was unable to find any escape from this tangle of contradictions, and we can now understand the reason for this. If he accuses Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell, for example, of an ‘inartistic tendency’, or Heinrich von Kleist of ‘inartistic methods’, these are only eclectic solutions, for Mehring was simply in no position, given his premisses, to explain in concrete terms what an ‘artistic tendency’ would be, in theory and in practice. He could not give this explanation, for it follows from the bourgeois conception of art, the basis of which Mehring could not consistently leave behind, that the ‘ideal’ of art is precisely ‘lack of tendency’, so that only circumstances that are unfavourable for artistic development (such as the intensification of class conflicts) force on art a ‘tendency’ character. Mehring’s political and class standpoint, however, stands in an insoluble contradiction to his artistic insights. Mehring actually expresses this connection himself, naturally without realizing its full scope:

‘In all revolutionary periods, and in all classes struggling for their liberation, taste is always significantly muddied by logic and morality, which is simply a philosophical way of saying that where knowledge and the powers of desire are intense, the power of aesthetic judgement is always jeopardized.’

Here we already have in embryo the literary theory of Trotskyism. For it is clear that when Trotsky writes that ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat is not the culturally productive organization of a new society, but rather a revolutionary means of struggle to achieve this’, later going on to counterpose rigidly to one another socialism and class struggle, culture accordingly assumes for him, corresponding to the intensification of class struggle and the concretization of all problems in it, the same position that (Kantian) ‘pure art’ did for Mehring. “Revolutionary literature must be permeated with the spirit of social hatred ... (thus it is simply a ‘tendency art’: G.L.). Under socialism the foundation of society is solidarity (so that a ‘pure art’, a ‘genuine culture’ is possible: G.L.)” [4]. It is no accident, then, that the uncritical acceptance of Mehring’s writings in our literary and cultural theory has given a boost to Trotskyism. In the same way, any mechanistic reduction of our literary goals, whether conscious and intentional or not, must necessarily end up taking a Trotskyist turn.

It cannot be our task here to analyse in detail all the errors of this conception; this has already been done to a large extent, moreover, in the struggle against Trotskyism. Here we need only indicate the mistake that is decisive for our present question: the false and undialectical view of the subjective factor. Marx and Engels repeatedly gave the dialectic of subjective and objective factors in social development a correct dialectical formulation, in a quite unmistakable fashion. Here I need only quote one such example, which is of particular importance in settling our present question:

“The working class ... have no ready-made utopias to introduce par décret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.” [5]

Thus it is precisely a knowledge of social necessity that determines the correct (and important) place of the subjective factor in the development, contrary to both the mechanistic and the idealist conceptions. Yet it does so for the proletariat in a different fashion than for other classes. The thesis that the working class ‘have no ideals to realize’ applies only to the proletariat. For other classes, including the revolutionary period of the bourgeoisie, what Engels wrote still holds: ‘Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, it is true, but with a false consciousness[6]. This ‘false consciousness’ has the subsequent result that conscious human activity in the historical process either has no active significance at all, or else is allotted an inflated independence or leading role, as is also shown in the way that the subjective factor appears in the form of ‘morality’, its goals taking the form of the ‘ideal’. Even those bourgeois writers and thinkers who have penetrated relatively deeply into the dialectic of history, still either get lost in foggy mysticism or remain trapped in contradictions they are unable to resolve. (Hegel, for example, whom Marx saw as affected both by an ‘uncritical idealism’ and by an ‘uncritical positivism’.) Even if they do manage to reach a knowledge of the objective and real driving forces of social development, they still do so only with ‘false consciousness’, without clear intention, and often actually against their will, consciousness and intent. Thus Engels emphasized in his discussion of Balzac (cf. Linkskurve, March 1932) how his conscious intention was to glorify the declining class of the French ancien regime, but in actual fact he was ‘compelled to go against his own class sympathies and political prejudices’, and present a correct and exhaustive picture of the society of his time [7]. His ‘tendency’ thus stood in contradiction with his portrayal, and his portrayal was significant despite its ‘tendency’ rather than because of this. (The situation is similar with Tolstoy and a series of other major bourgeois writers.)

The proletariat, however, does not face this ideological barrier. Its social being allows it (and thus also proletarian revolutionary writers) to transcend this barrier and clearly see the class relationships, the development of the class struggle, that lies behind the fetishized forms of capitalist society. Clarity about these connections and their laws of development also means clarity as to the role of the subjective factor in this development: both the determination of this subjective factor by the objective economic and historical development, and the active function of this subjective factor in the transformation of objective conditions. This knowledge is in no way a mechanical and immediate product of social being. It has rather to be produced. The process of its production, however, is both a product of the internal (material and ideological) disposition of the proletariat, as well as a factor promoting the development of the proletariat from a ‘class in itself’ to a ‘class for itself’, i.e. promoting its internal organization for the fulfilment of its world-historical task (the rise of trade unions and the party, their further development, etc.).

If the subjective factor in history is viewed in this way – and this is how it must be viewed by a proletarian revolutionary writer with a command of dialectical materialism – then all the problems we have discussed above in connection with “tendency” simply cease to be problems at all. Such a writer can reject the dilemma between ‘pure’ art and ‘tendency’ art. For in his depiction, a depiction of objective reality with its real driving forces and real developmental tendencies, there is no space for an ‘ideal’, whether moral or aesthetic. He does not introduce any demands on the portrayal of reality ‘from without’, for since they are the integral moments of objective reality, from which they emerge and which they help to mould in their turn, any demands that grow concretely out of the class struggle are necessarily an inherent part of the writer’s portrayal of reality. This is the necessary result, if the writer seeks to depict reality correctly, i.e. dialectically. He can also reject, therefore, the other dilemma of the ‘tendentious’ introduction of ‘tendency’ into the portrayal, the nakedly immediate counterposing of ‘tendency’ and depiction of reality. He does not need to distort the reality, to adjust it or ‘tendentiously’ touch it up, for his depiction, if it is correct and dialectical, is precisely built up on a knowledge of those tendencies (in the proper, Marxian sense of the term) that prevail in the objective development. And no ‘tendency’ can or need be counterposed to this objective reality as a ‘demand’, for the demands that the writer represents are integral parts of the self-movement of this reality itself, at the same time the results and premisses of this self-movement.

It clearly emerges from all this that the rejection of ‘tendency’ in no way means any ‘higher watchtower’ of the writer’s, in Freiligrath’s sense, that would be above ‘the battlements of party’ (a view which Mehring, for all his eclectic defence of ‘tendency’, inclines towards despite his dislike of it). On the contrary, a correct dialectical depiction and literary portrayal of reality presupposes the partisanship of the writer. Naturally, again not some kind of ‘partisanship in general’ as defended by Herwegh, something abstract, subjectivist and arbitrary, but rather partisanship for the class that is the bearer of historical progress in our period: for the proletariat, and specifically for that ‘section of the working-class party’, the Communists, who are distinguished from other proletarians because ‘in the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of nationality’, while ‘in the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole[8]

A partisanship of this kind, unlike propaganda or ‘tendentious’ presentation, does not stand in contradiction to objectivity in the reproduction and portrayal of reality. It is on the contrary the pre-condition for a true – dialectical – objectivity. In contrast to propaganda or ‘tendency’, where a position taken for some cause amounts to an idealistic glorification, and a position against something means simply tearing it to pieces, in contrast also to an ‘above party’ attitude, whose motto (never kept to in practice) is ‘to understand all is to forgive all’ – an attitude that contains an unconscious and hence almost always mendacious standpoint – this partisanship champions precisely the position that makes possible knowledge and portrayal of the overall process as a synthetically grasped totality of its true driving forces, as the constant and heightened reproduction of the dialectical contradictions that underlie it. This objectivity, however, depends on a correct – dialectical – definition of the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity, the subjective factor and objective development, and the dialectical unity of theory and practice. The analyses of Marx, Engels and Lenin give us the models of how this dialectical unity should be conceived. To quote again just one example:

“The bourgeoisie makes it its business to promote trusts, drive women and children into the factories, subject them to corruption and suffering, condemn them to extreme poverty. We do not ‘demand’ such development, we do not ‘support’ it. We fight it. But how do we fight? We explain that trusts and the employment of women in industry are progressive. We do not want a return to the handicraft system, pre-monopoly capitalism, domestic drudgery for women. Forward through the trusts, etc., and beyond them to socialism!” [9]

Partisanship in this sense, therefore, is not a new label for an old thing. It is not a question of replacing the terms ‘propaganda’ and ‘tendency’ by the term ‘partisanship’, and leaving everything else as it was. Terminology, in fact, is never accidental. The fact that we took the term ‘tendency’ from the literary theory and practice of the oppositional bourgeoisie (and not even from the brilliant period of its revolutionary development) was, as we have shown, an indication that we took over along with this term a not inconsiderable ideological baggage. Today, when the ideological legacy of the Second International is being subjected to basic revision at all points of our theory and practice, we must also pay sharp attention in our literary theory and practice that we no longer carry with us the bourgeois baggage handed down by the Second International, which can only hinder our onward march.

We have briefly indicated what the theory of ‘tendency’ means. By way of conclusion, we want now to ask whether this theory has actually had an influence on our practice. Of course it has. We need not only consider the literary practice of Trotskyism in all its variants, both conscious and unconscious, but also what has up to now been our best literature. Has this really managed the breakthrough to partisanship that makes possible a dialectically objective portrayal of the overall process of our epoch? As soon as this question is clearly raised, it is immediately answered in the negative. Our literature, even in its best products, is still full of ‘tendency’. For it does not always succeed, by a long chalk, in portraying what the class-conscious section of the proletariat wants and does, from an understanding of the driving forces of the overall process, and as representative of the great world historical interests of the working class, portraying this as a will and a deed that themselves arise dialectically from the same overall process and are indispensable moments of this objective process of reality. In place of the portrayal of the subjective factor of revolutionary development, we find all too frequently a merely subjective (because unportrayed) ‘desire’ on the part of the author: i.e. a ‘tendency’. And if the author presents this desire as objective and fulfilled, instead of dialectically portraying the subjective factor as it really is, with its willing and doing, then his depiction becomes ‘tendentious’. There is no reason to deny these errors and weaknesses. Still less, to shunt them aside into the field of ‘technical mistakes’ or ‘technical clumsiness’. The method for exposing our errors and disclosing their roots – in the unliquidated legacy of the Second International – is also the method that will help us to overcome these errors: the materialist dialectic, Marxism-Leninism. Partisanship in place of propagandistic ‘tendency’ is an important point at which we can and must achieve this breakthrough to the full use of Marxism-Leninism for our creative method.


1. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 3, Chapter 14, 1

2. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 1, p. 119

3. Friedrich Engels, “Ernst Moritz Arndt,” in Collected Works, Vol. 2, p. 137

4. Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960)

5. Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, On the Paris Commune, Moscow, 1971, p. 76

6. Friedrich Engels, Letter to Franz Mehring, 14 July 1893

7. Friedrich Engels, Letter to M. Harkness, April 1888

8. V. I. Lenin, The “Disarmament” Slogan, 1916