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Ian Birchall

Lukacs as Literary Critic

(April 1969)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.36, April/May 1969, pp.36-38.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘But reality can be seized and penetrated only as a totality, and only a subject which itself is a totality is capable of this penetration ...’ [1]

The publication of Goethe and his Age [2] is a welcome addition to the works of Georg Lukacs available in English. [3] If Marxism is to offer an acceptable world-view to a new generation, the need for works of theory to embrace fields such as literature is very great, and Lukacs’ work can help to break down the deep parochialism of the British Left. [4] At the same time Lukacs’ literary writings contain many weaknesses associated with his political acceptance of Stalinism. There are signs that the bourgeois opponents of Marxism in the cultural field are giving up shadow-boxing with Zhdanov in favour of an attack on Lukacs. This short essay does not attempt a full account of Lukacs’ literary writings, but merely suggests some of their more apparent strengths and weaknesses.

Literature, along with philosophy, was Lukacs’ major interest in his early years in Budapest and Berlin. The First World War and the Hungarian Revolution of 1919 obtruded themselves forcibly into his academic world, and throughout the twenties, when his most notable work in philosophy and political theory was written, he seems to have abandoned literary criticism in favour of direct political involvement in the controversies of the Third International. Only after he had repudiated his earlier work and begun his long sojourn in Moscow did he turn back to literary criticism.

Lukacs’ capitulation to Stalinism cannot be interpreted in terms of cowardice or careerism. Rather it represents a response to the downward turn in the international revolutionary movement. Unwilling to take the desperate gamble of the Left Opposition, and horrified by the impact of fascism on the German culture he loved, Luckacs could see not alternative to Stalinism. One can see parallels not only with many of the old Bolsheviks, but with such writers as Ilya Ehrenburg. Marxism itself is not exempt from the historical pressures it seeks to study. In periods of working-class advance we find the emphasis on human action which characterises Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness (1923); in periods of defeat, it is replaced by a mechanistic determinism which offers the long-term consolation that ‘history is on our side’. That Lukacs’ work is sensitive to such pressures is suggested by his support in 1956 for the Nagy Government – if not for the Hugarian working class.

In a sense, then, literature offered Lukacs a retreat from action, an alternative to the political defence of Stalinism. At the same time, his choice of the essay form in most of his literary writings has a deeper significance. In his first major work, The Soul and the Form (1911), Lukacs wrote an essay on the essay form, arguing that the essayist stood midway between the poet and the philosopher. The poet deals only with things, which are unproblematic; the philosopher with ideas and the solution of problems. The essayist, while being concerned with general problems, cannot provide solutions, and approaches the general only by way of the specific, frequently taking works of literature as his starting point. For Lukacs under Stalinism, the ambiguous form of the critical essay allowed him to pursue, in an oblique form, the problems that run through his earlier work. In History and Class Consciousness Lukacs wrote:

‘The category of totality, the domination, determining and in all fields, of the whole over the parts, is the essence of the method which Marx took from Hegel.’ [5]

He shows [6] that the achievement of such totality demands the transcendence of individualism. The individual – whether isolated capitalist or fragmented worker – sees the social world as subject to a destiny beyond his control. Action is possible only if he accepts the laws of society as ‘natural laws’, or if he retreats into a purely ethical position. The working class, organised in the form corresponding to its consciousness – the Party – is able to overcome the false dichotomies of bourgeois thought: individual and society, ethics and science, theory and practice, etc. [7]

This theme of totality is a crucial problem for working-class consciousness and organisation, for developing the ability to ‘perceive oneself and the instant of one’s action as a moment of the totality, of the process, to see "defeat" as a necessary stage towards victory.’ [8] But it all raises a central question for the study of literature.

Vulgar Marxism and the bourgeois tradition in the sociology of literature have converged in taking a one-sided point of view. They have attempted to situate works of literature within a social-historical totality, but they have neglected to study the way in which a writer creates a totality within the work. Just as a political organisation is not merely the product of historical conditions, but seeks actively to. change those conditions, so a writer is not merely the product of his age, but seeks, actively to comprehend it. A dialectical study of Shakespeare would not content itself by remarking that his plays centre around a class struggle of nobility versus bourgeoisie, but demonstrate how the dramatic form concentrates and concretises this struggle in a way quite different from a work of history or economics.

Hence the concern with literary form that marks all of Lukacs’ writings. The earliest treatments of this theme go back to his Hegelian phase before the First World War – The Soul and the Form (1911), and The Theory of the Novel [9] The latter work is made unnecessarily obscure by its abstract and at times curiously lyrical style, but it makes a significant advance in the exploration of the theme of totality. Under Hegelian influence, Lukacs relates literary forms to historical epochs. He contrasts the modern age with what he calls the ‘closed civilisations’ of Greece and mediaeval Christianity, a world less rich than our own, but less problematic because of the overriding sense of totality. To this age belongs the epic. With the collapse of this closed civilisation the novel appears – a form for which Lukacs attempts the following explanation:

‘The novel is the epic of a time when the extensive totality of life is no longer immediately given, of a time for which the immanence of meaning to life has become a problem, but which, nonetheless, has not ceased to aim at totality.’ [10]

There is no attempt to connect this disintegration of totality in consciousness with the specific social and economic forms of capitalism, but an important step towards a dialectical concept of totality in class consciousness has been taken. When Lukacs returned to the problem of totality in the novel with The Historical Novel (1937), he had gone through a complex destiny of revolution in Budapest and counter-revolution in Moscow, and it is necessary to separate the strands in his work with care. The final section, a crude eulogy of third-rate novelists prepared to appear on anti-fascist platforms, and complete with a reference to Trotskyist nuisances’ [11], is a Popular Front period piece. But the earlier section on the nineteenth century historical novel is a masterly analysis of literary totality. Lukacs shows how the historical novel is born from an awareness of his historical change produced by the French Revolution; and how, as a form, it represents an attempt at a methodological coming-to-terms with historical change. The most important distinction is that between the drama and the novel; the drama represents a ‘totality of movement’ – a closed system with complete economy of detail, while the novel represents ‘totality of objects’, a rendering of circumstances in all their richness. Thus he compares the treatment of the family in Shakespeare’s King Lear and Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks: in Shakespeare the ‘extreme and ... typical movements form a completely closed system’, while in Mann we see the ‘breadth and abundance of the real circumstances of family life ...’ [12] Scott, the great historical novelist, inspired Balzac, whom Marx and Lukacs agree in seeing as one of the greatest realist novelists of all time. The concept of totality is central to Lukacs’ theory of literary realism and the distinction he makes between realism and naturalism. In History and Class Consciousness he had argued that the whole is not the sum of the parts, but rather determines the parts. Therefore realism will not be achieved by the accumulation of factual details, but by the creation of coherent significant structures which give a place and a meaning to every detail. Naturalism, on the other hand, leads to the very opposite – the tendency in modem art to collage the sticking together of isolated observed details in haphazard juxtaposition. This is not totality, but on the contrary, the admission of failure in any attempt to create a meaningful totality. [13]

The concept of totality is also central to another theme in Lukacs’ work, the much more ambiguous one of humanism. The major essay in History and Class Consciousness, called Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat shows how capitalist production destroys man as a totality.

‘The process of labour is fragmented, in an ever increasing proportion, into abstractly rational partial operations, and this disrupts the relations of the worker to the product as a totality, and reduces his labour to a special function repeating itself mechanically.’ [14]

Such fragmentation in production necessarily leads to false dichotomies, such as reason versus feeling. In the work on Goethe and his Age Lukacs vigorously attacks the traditional views of literary history and the distortions of fascist intellectuals who seek to impose such false dichotomies on the history of German culture. The great age of humanism, which had realised in theory if not in practice the ‘unified and comprehensive development of the human personality’, was the Enlightenment. Lukacs demolishes the myth that Germany never had an Enlightenment (which would make it especially prone to fascism), and shows that despite certain reactionary sentiments on a purely political level, Goethe himself represents the culmination of the Enlightenment. But this very humanism, at times so powerful and healthy, and at times so abstract and pernicious, is a key to the great weakness of Lukacs’ work. In discussing the relation of the literary representatives of the petty-bourgeoisie to the class itself, Marx says:

‘According to their education and their individual position they may be as far apart as heaven from earth. What makes them representatives of the petty-bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life’. [15]

Similarly Lukacs, in character totally alien to the narrow-minded thugs who held power in the Kremlin, is nonetheless a literary representative of the Soviet bureaucracy. Because of this, Lukacs is unable to see that the analysis he himself applied to the French bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, that of a ruling class validating itself in the name of revolution, is equally applicable to the Stalinist ruling class. If he criticises this class, it can be only in the name of individual humanism, not from the standpoint of a class. Similarly, he cannot go beyond the point of view of the Communist Parties in the West, who derive their legitimacy from the Russian Revolution, and cannot therefore adapt to changed circumstances, such as the greater weight and sophistication of the working class. In short, for Lukacs history stops dead in 1917; a lucid analysis of political and literary events before then, but only a distorting parody of what came after.

For the modern world, Lukacs recognises two forms of realism, critical realism and socialist realism. The theory of critical realism depends on the belief that the bourgeois intellectual still has a positive role to play. The cult of peaceful coexistence actually led Lukacs to write in 1955:

The real dilemma of our age is not the opposition between capitalism and socialism, but the opposition between peace and war. The first duty of the bourgeois intellectual has become the rejection of an all-pervading fatalistic angst, implying a rescue operation for humanity rather than any breakthrough to Socialism’. [16]

Against this perspective, he sees as politically the most important task the building of a Peace Movement in which all ideological tendencies merge, and artistically the continuation of the great tradition of the nineteenth century liberal novel. The hero of this phase is Thomas Mann, compared to Goethe for his concern with the ‘totality of human relationships’. [17] Mann, with his development from a purely unpolitical stance to his courageous opposition to Hitler, fits the Popular Front paradigm perfectly. All that critical realism need do is to show ‘readiness to respect the perspective of socialism’. [18] The active presentation of the working class is unnecessary.

The concept of ‘socialist realism’ is a more sensitive one for Lukacs than it was for Zhdanov. Nonetheless, it implies the same basic conservatism. At worst, it is the realism of the accepted fact, the glorification of what is at the expense of what might be. At best it involves a critique of abuses in terms of individualist, and thus ethical, humanism. In the essay Solzhenitsyn and the New Realism [19], Lukacs attacks the art of the Stalin era as naturalism, not realism. But his praise is reserved for the portrayal of ‘a being whose humanity nothing could destroy or disfigure’, and he sees Solzhenitsyn’s work as being ‘a symbolic whole, with a meaning for all humanity’, in which ‘the origins of this bureaucracy and the groupings within it ... remain outside the bounds of the narrative’. [20]

Thus neither critical nor socialist realism goes beyond the limits of liberal humanism. What Lukacs leaves out of his picture is the writer who is revolutionary both in his conscious acceptance of Marxism, and in his treatment of literary form, who tries to write from the standpoint of the working class and its new modes of struggle, and develop new forms to fit the content. Yet such writers do exist – Sartre, Brecht and Breton, to name of three highly diverse cases – though most of them are an embarrassment of official Communism. In a controversy of the early twenties Trotsky argued against any idea of a specifically proletarian culture. [21] But Trotsky, the eternal optimist, did not foresee that fifty years after 1917 workers would be excluded from power in every country on earth. Lukacs in his very salutary concern for totality tends to concentrate on those writers who achieve complete totality within their work, in a harmonious construction rather than those who strive towards totality while engaged in struggle.

As a result, the formal potentialities of modern literature are underemphasised. And this is not merely the case when he is a hack supporter of censorship, as in his statement that Thomas Mann’s Dr Faustus in the ‘fullest artistic and intellectual confirmation’ of the decree of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on modern music. [22]

More serious is his treatment of Brecht. Here he argues that ‘Brecht’s political didacticism, his attempt to impose intellectual schemata on the spectator turned his character into mere spokesmen.’ However Brecht developed in a later stage to the portrayal of ‘a complex dialectic of good and evil. Problems of society have become problems of humanity, subsuming the inner conflict and contradictions of the warring parties.’ [23] To assert that the only way to avoid didacticism is by retreating from politics to ethics is to avoid the very central problem of all Brecht’s work – and incidentally to stand History and Class Consciousness on its head. Similarly he argues that Surrealism has a positive aspect, as a stage in the evolution of Eluard and Aragon into socialist writers. But a greater poet than either of these, André Breton, remained a Surrealist while being a life-long revolutionary (albeit a Trotskyist). He is not mentioned. [24] Thus the problem of revolutionary art is again evaded.

In reading Lukacs it is important to criticise radically the heritage of Stalinism. Nonetheless, his concern with totality in form and content, and his humanism, when it is historical, and not abstract and ethical, will help lay the bases for a more wholly revolutionary literary criticism. Bob Dylan has lamented ‘I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now’. If only it were possible that the younger Lukacs might write a critique of the reified consciousness of his older self.



1. Histoire et Conscience de Classe, Paris 1960, p.60.

2. Merlin, 36s.

3. Also available are Studies in European Realism, Essays on Thomas Mann, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, The Historical Novel. Our gratitude to Merlin Press for publishing all but the first named may be tempered bv regret at the continuing absence in English translation of any major work written before Lukacs’ act of ‘self-critism’ in 1925.

4. As an example one may quote one of the best recent examples of literary criticism written by a committed socialist. Raymond Williams’ Modem Tragedy (Chatto & Windus, 1966), written in 1964. This contains one passing reference to the work of Lukacs, in which Williams comments that he appears to be more a post-Hegelian than a Marxist, without giving any indication as to which period of Lukacs’ work he is referring to. The work of the Lukacsian Lucien Goldmann on the ‘tragic vision’ is never mentioned. To regret this parochialism is in no way to endorse the thesis argued by Perry Anderson that in order to be a Marxist it is necessary to be foreign – or at least Irish.

5. Histoire et Conscience de Classe, p.47.

6. In the essay Rosa Luxemburg, Marxist, Ibid., pp.47-66.

7. For a full treatment of this theme cf. Lucien Goldmann, Is There a Marxist Sociology (IS 34).

8. Histoire et Conscience de Classe, p.65.

9. Written 1914, published in 1920. Available in French translation, La Theorie du Roman, Gonthier, 1963

10. Ibid., p.48.

11. The Historical Novel, p.256. In the French translation (Payot, 1965, p.301). Trotskyists are not merely ‘nuisances’, but ‘vermin’

12. The Historical Novel, pp.92-95.

13. It is arguable that Lukacs, like Engels, seriously underestimates Zola in this connection, for Zola unlike his mediocre imitators, does produce a meaningful intertwining of individual and social destiny in his best novels

14. Histoire et Conscience de Classe, p.115.

15. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Moscow 1958, 1, p.275.

16. The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, p.92.

17. Essays on Thomas Mann, p.50.

18. The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, p.93.

19. The Socialist Register, 1965

20. Ibid., pp.208, 206, 210

21. Literature and Revolution, chapter VI.

22. Essays on Thomas Mann, p.71.

23. The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, pp.87-88.

24. Ibid., p.104.

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