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Eavesdropping on the faculty party

(Spring 1998)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 4, Spring 1998.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Lukács After Communism: Interviews with Contemporary Intellectuals
Eva L. Corredor, editor
Duke University Press, 1997, 210 pages; $15.95

IN WRITING History and Class Consciousness in 1923, George Lukács produced one of the most important works of classical Marxist philosophy in the 20th century. He wrote this work in the wake of the revolutionary wave that shook Europe during and after the First World War. As people’s commissar for education in the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, Lukács was certainly no armchair philosopher. “The actuality of the revolution” – and the very practical questions that it presented – animated the best of Lukács’s writing. “Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution,” he wrote in his 1924 study, Lenin.

Lukács left a large body of work on Marxist philosophy, literary criticism and cultural studies. Even Lukács’ philosophical enemies had to acknowledge the brilliance of his best writing. Unfortunately, Lukács After Communism – composed of interviews with such well-known left-wing intellectuals as Frederic Jameson, Cornel West, Etienne Balibar, Terry Eagleton and Michael Löwy discussing Lukács’ ideas – doesn’t do much justice to Lukács.

Clearly, editor Eva L. Corredor, a professor of French and German at the U.S. Naval Academy (of all places!), thinks that Lukács and classical Marxism don’t have much to say in the wake of the 1989–91 Eastern European revolution. “In the 1990s traditional hierarchies and class structures seem to have given way to more complex and less clearly differentiated social divisions,” she writes in the introduction. She continues,

The historical, revolutionary role attributed by Lukács to proletarian class consciousness appears to have shifted to groups whose antagonistic strategies have been nourished by racial, gender, ethnic, political, and religious inequities.

... At the same time we have to recognize that the fixation on or forceful implementation of any one theory, including Lukács’s own, could mislead and in changed historical or social circumstances pose threats to the freedom and happiness of the individual and of entire nations.

For the most part, the intellectuals Corredor interviews share these views.

Michael Löwy, a leading orthodox Trotskyist, agrees that feminism and ecology have much to teach Marxism. He even concedes that “anarchists have understood the dangers of the State better than Marx.” He concludes that Marxism needs to be open to “external contributions” from intellectual movements like Romanticism.

French Stalinist philosopher Etienne Balibar says that Lukács’ vision of world revolution in the post-First World War era flows from “a very romantic view of history.” Marxism, he says, has shown “a complete inability” to explain major events like the rise of Nazism and fascism. Of course, you wouldn’t expect a Stalinist to have paid much attention to Trotsky’s brilliant revolutionary Marxist analysis of fascism in the 1930s.

In addition to reflecting all of the pessimism and confusion of most left intellectual circles, the interviews also demonstrate widespread ignorance of classical Marxism. Moreover, they tell the reader very little about Lukács and his theories.

This is Lukács After Communism’s biggest fault. Most of the interviews refer to academic papers, writers, graduate seminars and conferences that have meaning only to a narrow circle of academic specialists. At times, you get the sense that you’re eavesdropping on conversations at a university faculty party where everyone is trying to impress everyone else with the number of books they’ve read and the names they can drop.

Every now and again, Corredor runs up against someone who doesn’t share her fascination for the latest intellectual trends. These parts of the book come as breaths of fresh air in a stuffy room.

Consider the following excerpt from Corredor’s interview with British literary critic Terry Eagleton:

Corredor: “The concept of the proletariat today is really passé.”

Eagleton: “Not for me. Globally speaking the proletariat has increased.”

Corredor then changes the subject.

Later in the Eagleton interview, Corredor just can’t seem to get her mind around Eagleton’s contention that the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe had nothing to do with socialism – and that Marxism could explain their collapse.

The interviews turn up some interesting nuggets. But the nuggets emerge after so much blather about “reflexivity,” “historicism” and multi-syllable words with the prefix “post-” attached to them that it hardly seems worth the effort.

Readers who really want to learn something about Lukács and genuine Marxist philosophy should pick up a copy of History and Class Consciousness. It’s challenging reading. But you can get more out of reading just 10 pages from History and Class Consciousness than from slogging through all of Lukács After Communism.

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