Eulogy for Maxim Gorky: A Great Proletarian Humanist by Georg Lukács 1936

Georg Lukács 1936

Eulogy for Maxim Gorky: A Great Proletarian Humanist

Written: 1936;
Translator: S. D. Kogan;
First Published: “Maxim Gorky 1868-1936: Eulogies from his funeral on the Red Square,” International Literature, No. 8 August 1936. Red Flag, Journal of the CP (MLM) No. 1 2007;
Source: New Orleans Indy Media;
Transcribed: Harrison Fluss for, February 2008.

The last great writer of the European galaxy of realists is dead. And with him died the first great classic writer of Socialist realism. The writer whose greatness was an adumbration of that magnificent development of the art which will be ushered in by Socialist society. Such a fusion of periods in one person could take place only in Russia where the bourgeois-democratic Revolutions turned over the torch falling from its hands to the victory-assured proletarian Revolution. Only in Russia did one generation experience the failure of 1905 and the triumph of 1917.

Maxim Gorky was contemporary, friend and companion in arms of Tolstoy and Chekhov-he was also contemporary, friend and companion in arms of Lenin and Stalin. This unique historical position occupied by Gorky laid a unique stamp on his art. Gorky was also contemporary with a period marked by a very profound decline of realism in Western Europe (as in Russia since 1905). The realism of Swift and Fielding, Balzac and Stendhal had long since vanished from the scene when Gorky began his activities as a writer. Shallow naturalist and experimental formalism-an empty “craftsmanship” of nonsense-prevailed in literature of the time. Gorky, however, was not affected in the least by this decline. He continued, unabashed, the traditions of the old realists and directly those of Tolstoy.

This statement is not to be taken in a superficial literal sense; however, Gorky’s style differs fundamentally from that of Tolstoy. Gorky inherited Tolstoy’s broad view of the world, a view so thoroughly alive that it wakes to life what seems dead-that “reasonable view of the world” of which Hegel spoke, and which results in the world also taking a “reasonable view” of such men. Like Tolstoy, Gorky was charged with a tremendous humanistic indignation against the degradation and sophistication of man by feudalism and capitalism. His was a glowing, un-vacillating and consuming humanistic passion for human integrity, for an ideally well-rounded and fully developed man. Gorky carried this fire to the real leaders of the exploited and oppressed, to the revolutionary proletariat. The glow of indignation he blew to a Promethean flame of revolution.

Gorky’s life and works are vivid evidence of the fact that the revolutionary proletariat, that a people freed by the proletarian revolution is the real heir to all intense human indignation, to all revolutions of human history, heir to humanism and to great art. His life and works show that this proletariat “masters and adapts everything of value in the more than 2,000 year-old development of human thought and human culture.” (Lenin) The word “man” acquires an altogether new pathos with Gorky. His humanism contains at once more joy and rage; it is both brighter and full of a more intense hatred of all degradation than any previous humanism. The joyful brightness of his humanism has its origin in his close ties with the revolutionary labor movement, with Bolshevism. To Gorky the labor movement, the proletarian revolution, means primarily the emancipation of man, the breaking of all chains that hamper the free and all-sided development of the human personality.

Young Gorky could see the vital human powers latent in people. He could see these forces rise in rebellion against all the misery and degradation that hampered their development. He could also see how these forces were wasted, twisted into senseless, even perverted bestiality by the “Asiatic capitalism” of old Russia. The salvation of the tremendous human forces of the people lies in the revolutionary labor movement, in an orderly gathering of forces for the emancipation of mankind. But not only the distant emancipation of mankind as a whole-a point most remarkable and original in the creative vision of Gorky who could see that the revolutionary labor movement also frees the individual who takes part in it wholeheartedly, that it emancipates his personality and makes a man of him. He could see that with Marxism, with the Bolsheviks, the humanist principle is more than an ideal, more than a distant prospect. With them humanism is rather a direct basis and principle of revolutionary practice itself. This Bolshevik humanism makes Mother a heroic song of the power of the revolutionary labor movement to free humanity and lends this book its unique power.

Other writers have shown the struggle of the proletariat for emancipation. They limited themselves, however, to a picture of the political or economic struggles. Their humanism remained more or less abstract-when it did not degenerate into honeyed sentimental phrases. Gorky also showed at the same time-and emphasized-the already present, actual effectiveness of humanism in the revolutionary labor movement. The labor movement awakens and develops, gathers and organizes the human forces of each one who takes part in it. It is in and by means of the labor movement that distorted, crippled men turn again into human beings. It gives back the power of speech to the dumb, sight to the blind. It wrests mankind from the clutches of dullness, through which can be seen only what is present and direct. Inasmuch as it shows men the future, it also illuminates their past and brightens the present, making it full of purpose-of conscious struggles. It shatters the barriers erected by capitalism to separate man from man and unites them in the most human way, in a common struggle.

True, Gorky also shows victims, also shows failures, also shows the breaking of human bonds by the cruel necessities of the struggle. But the triumphant song of humanization by participation in the labor movement, of profound union of awakened humanity in their new comradeship sounds out above suffering. Figures like Nilowna or Rybin only Gorky could create. This revolutionary, proletarian humanism permeates all of Gorky’s works. Whether he is depicting a tavern, or the lodging-house of a night, a trading office or a stuffy middle-class home, the light of proletarian humanism penetrates every human fate. Without the slightest sentimentality, he expresses a warmth of emotion over the people and their lot such as no other writer could express. To Gorky the capitalist world is a great slaughter-house where thousands of human victims are under the knife at any given moment.

Gorky, the proletarian humanist, says what the greatest Marxian thinkers have repeatedly said: not only does capitalism enslave and exploit the toiler but it also cripples and robs of human semblance the members of the ruling class itself. In Anti-Duhring, Engels says: “Not only the laborers but also the classes directly or indirectly exploiting the laborers are made subject, through the division of labor, to the tool of their function: – the empty-minded bourgeois to his own capital and his own thirst for profits; the lawyer to his fossilized legal conceptions, which dominate him as a power independent of him; the ‘educated classes’ in general to their manifold local limitations and one-sided specialized education and the fact that they are chained for life to a specialized activity itself – even when this specialized activity is merely to do nothing.”

Take Gorky’s capitalists – the Foma Gordeyev family, the Artamanovs, Yegor Bulychev and others. They are incomparable; there is nothing like them in world literature. Balzac shows with great power what capitalism does to man. But in Balzac’s works human energy deflected, misled and directed into spurious channels by capitalism can discharge itself in tremendous explosions. The setting sun of the heroic period of the bourgeois revolution is still throwing its last rays on his work. Untrammeled human forces still break out or subside in tragic struggle. Vautrin, Gobseck, Nucingen still stand out like figures larger than life.

After 1848, the figures in European literature shrink. The newer realism shows only fightless victims, only “products of the capitalist degradation of man.” They are not deformed by capitalism before our eyes; they come upon the stage already deformed. One reading the literature of this period might think that people who were not deformed, not depraved, had been invented in the imagination of the older writers or in the visions of Utopians. In Gorky’s works although the final result of the struggle is inevitable for those who cannot rise above the confines of their class, this result does not occur until the end of the struggle. Under the surface of bourgeois life a fierce, sometimes grotesque, sometimes heroic, conflict goes on. Human energies seek a way of development. Not only to capture a place in society; there is also a struggle for the development of human ability itself. Men are invariably crippled, deformed, but they fight – according to the temperament and circumstances – for self-preservation and are subdued only after a long battle.

This is the inner drama of Gorky’s works. With this Gorky shows a more profound hatred of capitalism than any other writer. To him the world of capitalism is no cemetery for those born dead-murdered humanity falls a victim only after a severe struggle. This is the humdrum reality of capitalism. A battlefield where thousands of human souls are murdered every day. This inner drama is an important feature of Gorky’s style. The latter-day realism of both Europe and America vacillates between two wrong extremes: it either sinks to trivialities of everyday existence or winds itself up to a sort of beastly, soulless and contentless crudity. Both are but different phases of one and the same thing and often appear together in the same work. Gorky needs no crude effects. He does not need any explosions of beastliness to lend inner movement to the life shown, to rob humdrum reality of its dead banality. He sees the inner tragedies, tragi-comedies and farces that are played in the silent home without any visible explosions.

Because this is how he sees and depicts life, his style acquires a stirring simplicity, an inner tenseness. With simple, unaffected words that come naturally with the situation itself, he throws a piercing light on the deepest corners of the human soul, revealing storms of passion and heartbreaking tragedy. The inner tenseness of Gorky’s style gives adequate expression to the world he depicts. The complexity of the personalities he depicts lends richness to his works. Gorky has no use for the schematic simplification, in which the newer European literature indulges. Every one of his characters shows a profound, organic unity of mind and instinct-even though this is a unity of contradictions. But that which more then anything else gives Gorky a unique position in the present day literature is the fact that the spiritual life of his characters is always an organic necessary consequence of their environment, and just as individual a matter as their voices or figures. Gorky is never indifferent to their mental life. He is always aware of what conditioned the attitude of each towards the world, and how this attitude, in turn, reacts upon life itself. Gorky’s works are a highpoint of literary culture.

Writing is, however, the reflection of life. Throughout his life, Gorky was a fanatic defender of culture. Not only was he a staunch defender of Socialist culture against fascist barbarity in our times, but he also fought constantly for the cultural needs and the intellectual development of the oppressed proletariat, and he recognized the tremendous significance of culture for the class struggle. He was the foremost defender of human culture in general. He seemed to feel himself the rightful heir to all human culture, which he was duty bound to defend against the worst forms of barbarity. He was a great writer because he was a great man. He was our common teacher. At his grave we must confess, however, that we have not learned enough nor the right way from him.

Young Gorky was close to Tolstoy – and what a tremendous heritage he brought away with him from this association! We were fortunate enough to live and work close to the mature Gorky – but did we not foster in his very shadow the most miserable traditions of the decadent literature of he bourgeoisie? Gorky could show the bourgeois man deformed by capitalism as one inwardly alive To learn from Gorky is not a purely literary task. One has to learn his attitude to life, how and what he came to love and hate, how he came to his thoughtful mastery of life, to the unity of the proletarian Revolution, humanism and realistic style. One must understand his cult of life in order to be able to fruitfully learn his literary cult. Only thus can one hope to master his immortal works. It is because of this unity of life and literature that he became the classic writer of Socialist realism, one to follow if one wishes to find the road to Socialist realism. Gorky is dead. But he will always remain not only a classic and an example -he will also continue to be our teacher of great literary culture, of Socialist realism.