The Third International after Lenin

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The grain of truth: Lukacs after HCC

Michael Löwy

Lukács and Stalinism

We shall tell them that we do your bidding and rule in your name . . . That deception will be our suffering, for we shall be forced to lie.

Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

From the early nineteen twenties, a process of bureaucratization began in the ussr, in the course of which the Bolshevik Old Guard was gradually replaced by a conservative layer, of which the most competent representative and unchallenged leader was Joseph Stalin. 1926 was one of the decisive moments in this historic turn. It was the year in which Stalin published Questions of Leninism, the first explicit formulation of the doctrine of socialism in one country, and Bukharin exhorted the kulaks to ‘enrich themselves’. It was the year of the Fifteenth Congress of the cpsu, at which the Left Opposition (Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev) were excluded from the Politburo. Lastly, it was in 1926 that Chiang Kai-shek was elected an ‘Honorary Member’ of the Praesidium of the Communist International and that the Soviet trade unions formed a joint committee with the right-wing leaders of the English trade unions who had just sabotaged the 1926 General Strike. Using the pretext of stabilization in Europe after the great revolutionary wave of 1917–23, the Stalinist leadership was gradually to replace revolutionary internationalism with a Realpolitik based on the State interests of the ussr.

In the 1967 preface to History and Class Consciousness, Lukács sums up his response to this transformation in the following terms: ‘After 1924 the Third International correctly defined the position of the capitalist world as one of “relative stability”. These facts meant that I had to rethink my theoretical position. In the debates of the Russian Party I agreed with Stalin about the necessity for socialism in one country and this shows very clearly the start of a new epoch in my thought.’ [1] Indeed a decisive re-orientation in the life and work of Lukács began in 1926; a profound theoretical and political break with all his former revolutionary ideas, and in particular with History and Class Consciousness. In a word, after 1926 his writings are characterized by an identification with Stalinism, albeit with many reservations and qualifications.

Hegel Reinterpreted

Just as Lukács’s radicalization had initially been via aesthetics and morals, the new turn first took a cultural and philosophical form, before finding explicit political expression in 1928. In an article written in June 1926, Art for Art’s Sake and Proletarian Poetry, Lukács criticized the Tendenzkunst (politically oriented art) of people like Ernst Toller, the poet and leader of the 1919 Soviet Republic of Bavaria, calling it an ‘abstract and romantic Utopianism’. He gave a general warning about Utopian over-estimation in the cultural sphere: initially, the proletarian revolution can only contribute ‘very little’ to the development of art; cultural changes in the ussr were ‘much less rapid than a superficial view might have led one to hope’. This Utopian superficiality ‘explains the “disillusionment” with the Russian revolution felt by many of those intellectuals who had hoped it would provide an immediate solution to their own particular problems’. [2] For Lukács, this article represented a ‘self-criticism’ of his hopes of 1919 that a cultural revolution would appear in the wake of the socialist revolution. [3] His renunciation of the ‘Utopia’ of a new culture in the ussr meant for Lukács a return to the bourgeois cultural heritage.

Lukács also published in 1926 an article which is rightly acclaimed as one of his most stimulating and profound philosophical works: Moses Hess and the Problems of Idealist Dialectics. The essay is usually considered to be a direct extension of the Hegelian Marxism of History and Class Consciousness. In fact, the ‘interpretation’ of Hegel is not the same in the two works: in 1923 Lukács saw in Hegel the category of totality and the dialectic of subject/object; in 1926 he detected before all else the ‘realistic’ thinker. He now saw in Hegel’s tendency to ‘reconcile’ himself with reality (e.g. the Prussian State) the proof of his ‘grandiose realism’ and his ‘rejection of all Utopias’. He recognized that Hegel’s tendency to stop at the present was politically reactionary, but from the methodological point of view he saw in it the expression of a profound dialectical realism. [4]

The starting-point for the ideological radicalization of the young Lukács in 1908–9 was opposition to Hegel’s Versöhnung (reconciliation). Now at the end of his revolutionary period Lukács fell back into Hegel’s ‘reconciliation’ with reality. The theme of Versöhnung was to reappear in many of Lukács’s mature writings and indeed became one of the main axes of his thought. [5] Thirty years later, in a work published in 1958, he quoted a passage from Hegel on the Bildungsroman in Classical German Literature, which strikingly pin-pointed his own perspective: ‘During his years of apprenticeship the hero is permitted to sow his wild oats; he learns to subordinate his wishes and views to the interests of the society; he then enters that society’s hierarchic scheme and finds in it a comfortable niche.’ Commenting on this passage, Lukács spoke of the ‘youthful dreams’ and the ‘rebellion’ of the heroes of the bourgeois novel, who are broken by the ‘pressures of society’; reconciliation is thus ‘forced’ out of them by social pressures. [6] Described in such a way, is this evolution not similar to Lukács’s own, his rebellion crushed at the end of what he was later to consider his ‘years of apprenticeship’? Adorno, in a review of this work, stressed with some justification that Lukács’s ‘forced reconciliation’ with the ‘socialist’ reality of the ussr can be compared with that described by Hegel: it was this reconciliation which ‘blocked his road back to the Utopia of his youth’. [7]

In the ‘Moses Hess’ essay Lukács contrasted Hegel with the ‘revolutionary Utopianism’ of Fichte, von Cieszowski and Moses Hess. In his opinion, the principle elaborated by Hegel in the Preface to the Philosophy of Right (‘The task of Philosophy is to understand what is, because what is, is Reason’) was closer to the materialist conception of history than all the moralistic dreams of Fichteanism. As a consequence, Marx’s thought was not to be contrasted with Feuerbach, Hess and the ‘left’ Hegelians, who constituted what was essentially a neo-Fichtean current: ‘methodologically, Marx took over directly from Hegel’. [8]

Obviously this argument contains a grain of truth. However, it is extremely one-sided. It leaves out that for Marx ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point is to change it’; and that, therefore, the ‘philosophy of practice’ of Fichte, von Cieszowski and Hess is also a foundation stone for Marxism, a necessary step in the evolution of the young Marx after his break with Hegel in 1842–3. The essence of Marx’s revolutionary dialectic lies precisely in that it transcended and soared above both the conservative realism of Hegel and the revolutionary (moralistic) utopianism of the Fichtean type. Any attempt to trace Marx’s thought back in a one-sided fashion to either of these sources alone produces a conservative, pseudo-realist ‘Marxism’ or an ‘ethical’ socialism with no objective basis.

Thus Lukács’s essay on Moses Hess lacks balance. It tilts towards ‘reconciliation’ with reality and lacks even the dialectical revolutionary balance of History and Class Consciousness. After an ultra-left, idealist and utopian-revolutionary stage lasting from 1919 to 1921, and a short but monumental climax of revolutionary realism from 1922 to 1924, from 1926 Lukács drew nearer to realism pure and simple and, politically, closer to the non-revolutionary Realpolitik of Stalin. His ‘Moses Hess’ of 1926 had far-reaching political implications: it provided the methodological basis for his support for the Soviet ‘Thermidor’.

‘Hölderlin’s Hyperion’

This hidden, implicit meaning, ‘overlooked’ by most of the critics, was further confirmed by an essay written in 1935, ‘Hölderlin’s Hyperion’, in which Lukács dealt explicitly with Hegel’s attitude to Thermidor itself: ‘Hegel comes to terms with the post-Thermidorian epoch and the close of the revolutionary period of bourgeois development, and he builds up his philosophy precisely on an understanding of this new turning-point in world history. Hölderlin makes no compromise with the post-Thermidorian reality; he remains faithful to the old revolutionary ideal of renovating “polis” democracy and is broken by a reality which had no place for his ideals, not even on the level of poetry and thought. While Hegel’s intellectual accommodation to the postThermidorian reality . . . led him into the main current of the ideological development of his class . . . Hölderlin’s intransigence ended in a tragic impasse. Unknown and unmourned, he fell like a solitary poetic Leonidas for the ideals of the Jacobin period at the Thermopylae of invading Thermidorianism . . . The world-historical significance of Hegel’s accommodation consists precisely in the fact that he grasped . . . the revolutionary development of the bourgeoisie as a unitary process, one in which the revolutionary Terror as well as Thermidor and Napoleon were necessary phases. The heroic period of the revolutionary bourgeoisie becomes in Hegel . . . something irretrievably past, but a past which was absolutely necessary for the emergence of the unheroic phase of the present considered to be progressive.’ [9]

The significance of these remarks in relation to the ussr in 1935 is obvious. One has only to add that in February 1935 Trotsky had just published an essay in which, for the first time, he used the term ‘Thermidor’ to characterize the evolution of the ussr since 1924. [10] Clearly, the passages quoted above are Lukács’s reply to Trotsky, that intransigent Leonidas, tragic and solitary, who rejected Thermidor and was forced into an impasse. . . . Lukács, on the other hand, like Hegel, accepts the end of the revolutionary period and builds his philosophy on an understanding of the new turn in world history. [11] It can be noted in passing, however, that Lukács appears to accept implicitly Trotsky’s characterization of Stalin’s regime as Thermidorian.

‘Hölderlin’s Hyperion’ is undoubtedly one of the most subtle and intelligent attempts to justify Stalinism as a ‘necessary phase’, ‘prosaic’ yet with a ‘progressive character’, in the revolutionary development of the proletariat seen as a unified whole. There is a certain ‘rational kernel’ in this argument—which was probably secretly held by many intellectuals and militants who had more or less rallied to Stalinism—but the events of the following years (the Moscow Trials, the GermanSoviet Pact, etc.) were to demonstrate, even to Lukács, that this process was not exactly ‘unified’. What Lukács failed to understand was that the Stalinist Thermidor was much more harmful for the proletarian revolution than the French Thermidor had been for the bourgeois revolution. The fundamental reason for this, as Lukács had earlier emphasized in History and Class Consciousness, was that, unlike the bourgeois revolution, the socialist revolution is not a blind, automatic process, but the conscious transformation of society by the workers themselves. [12]

Lukács’s turn assumed a direct political form in 1928 with the ‘Blum Theses’. Using the pseudonym ‘Blum’, Lukács drew up these draft theses for the Second Congress of the Hungarian Communist Party. Some writers attribute the political positions of this text to the influence of Bukharin or Otto Bauer. [13] In our opinion, all that lies behind them is an application to Hungary of the right turn of the Comintern; Lukács was only following the ‘general line’ of 1924–7. Hungary’s tardiness stemmed from the unique precedent of the Béla Kun Republic, which made it difficult for the Communist Party to draw up a programme which retreated from the gains of 1919, i.e. from the socialist revolution. It was Lukács’s misfortune that these Theses were to be the last echo of the right turn, coming as they did at the very beginning of the International’s new ‘left’ turn.

The central argument of the ‘Blum Theses’ is that the aim of the Hungarian CP should no longer be the re-establishment of a Soviet Republic, but rather, simply, a ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’, whose ‘immediate concrete content . . . does not go beyond bourgeois society’. The point was to replace the semi-fascist régime in Hungary by a bourgeois democracy, in which ‘the bourgeois class . . . although it maintains its economic exploitation . . . has ceded at least part of its power to the broad masses of the workers’. He therefore gives the Hungarian cp the task of leading ‘the true struggle for democratic reforms’ and fighting the ‘nihilism’ prevalent among workers in relation to bourgeois democracy. [14]

We have purposely chosen the most ‘right-wing’ formulations from Lukács’s text, by-passing some more ‘leftish’ passages which were no more than verbal concessions. The ‘Blum Theses’ as a whole were both a continuation of the line of the years 1924–7 and an augury of the Popular Front strategy of 1934–8. But they came both too late and too early: they ran totally counter to the ultra-sectarian turn of the Third Period (1926–33) which had just begun. As a result, Lukács was immediately given a formidable thrashing in the form of an ‘Open Letter from the Executive Committee of the Communist International to the Members of the Hungarian Communist Party’, which accused the ‘liquidationist theses of comrade Blum’ of having been written from the point of view of social-democracy, and of wanting to ‘fight fascism on the battleground of bourgeois democracy’. [15]

Self-Criticism and Self-Justification

The Hungarian Communist Party continued to discuss the ‘Blum Theses’ throughout 1929, but after the intervention of the Executive Committee of the International, it was obvious that Lukács had lost the day. The Béla Kun faction rejected the Theses as totally opportunist, and even Lukács’s faction (the old Landler tendency) was somewhat lukewarm. [16] Fearing he would be expelled from the Party, in 1929 Lukács published a self-criticism, which emphasized the ‘opportunist, right-wing’ character of his Theses. As Lukács later acknowledged on various occasions, this self-criticism was totally hypocritical; in other words, he continued to be deeply and intrinsically convinced of the correctness of the ‘Blum Theses’, although publicly rejecting them with all the usual ritual attached to this sort of operation.

Why make such an unconditional capitulation? Because of a ‘legitimate desire to stay alive’, as certain critics suggest? [17] This does not seem a good explanation: in the ussr of 1929, Lukács ran no risks and nobody would have prevented him from going to Germany (as, incidentally, he did in 1931). The justification given by Lukács later on, in 1967, is more plausible: ‘I was indeed firmly convinced that I was in the right, but I knew also—e.g. from the fate that had befallen Karl Korsch—that to be expelled from the Party meant that it would no longer be possible to participate actively in the struggle against Fascism. I wrote my selfcriticism as an “entry ticket” to such activity.’ [18] The trouble with this argument is that in 1929 the Communist Parties were far from leading any effective struggle against fascism. This was the time of the appearance of the infamous Stalinist doctrine which defined social democracy as ‘social fascism’ and which, obstinately rejecting the anti-fascist United Front of the workers’ parties, proclaimed, barely a year before Hitler’s triumph, that ‘the main blow should be aimed at the German Social-Democratic Party’.

Lukács obviously totally disagreed with this catastrophic strategy. In 1967 he recalled that Stalin’s theory of social democracy in 1928 as ‘fascism’s twin brother’ had ‘deeply repelled’ him. [19] So why capitulation, self-criticism and passive acceptance of the Comintern’s line? In our opinion, the evidence in Victor Serge’s Memoirs provides some of the elements of an answer to this question, by illustrating Lukács’s state of mind at that time: ‘“Above all”, Georgy Lukács told me, as we roamed in the evening beneath the grey spires of the Votive Church, “don’t be silly and get yourself deported for nothing, just for the pleasure of voting defiantly. Believe me, insults are not very important to us. Marxist revolutionaries need patience and courage; they do not need pride. The times are bad, and we are at a dark cross-roads. Let us reserve our strength: history will summon us in its time.”’ [20] Serge ascribes this conversation to ‘Vienna, in or about 1926’. It may seem presumptuous of us to wish to correct Victor Serge’s memoirs, but it seems much more likely that these words were spoken by Lukács in Moscow in 1929. First, no one was being deported in 1926 and, as Serge was in Vienna, it is hard to see how the Soviet government could have deported him to Russia. On the other hand, in 1929 Serge was one of the last oppositionists remaining in Moscow, under constant threat of deportation. Lukács’s reference to the revolutionary’s lack of pride is incomprehensible in 1926; in 1929, at the time of his self-criticism, it is an accurate reflection of his attitude. Similarly, the expression ‘the times are bad, and we are at a dark crossroads’ conveys precisely Lukács’s dilemma when faced with the sectarian turn of the Third Period. The (relative) complicity with Victor Serge which emerges from the conversation can also be understood in the light of the situation in 1929; to a certain extent, Lukács shared the criticisms which the Left Opposition (to which Serge belonged) made of the line of ‘social-fascism’. But, unlike Serge, he did not dare lead the frontal attack within the Comintern. He was ‘reserving his strength’, hoping that ‘history would summon him in its time’.

In other words, Lukács saw the ‘left’ turn of the Third Period as an isolated phenomenon, a temporary aberration, and he was deeply convinced that, sooner or later, the Comintern would return to a more realistic position, close to the one he was defending in the ‘Blum Theses’. While he was waiting for this new turn, which would give first priority to the fight against fascism and so allow him to play an active role, he sacrificed his pride, through a self-imposed ‘slight humiliation’, the self-criticism of 1929. Lukács’s forecast was not entirely incorrect: what he did not foresee was that the turn would only come when it was too late, after Hitler’s victory and the establishment of fascism in the heart of Europe.

Lukács’s Own Line

The ‘Blum Theses’ represent the fruition of a tortuous intellectual pilgrimage. They are the culmination of Lukács’s political development and the ideological foundation for his intellectual output after 1928. Shocked by his failure, in 1929 Lukács was to abandon the sphere of political theory for the more ‘neutral’ and less controversial world of aesthetics and culture. However, as he emphasized in 1967, the basic positions of the ‘Blum Theses’ ‘determined from then on all my theoretical and practical activities’. As further proof of this assertion, Lukács, with a certain irony, quotes the ex-pupil who became his main Stalinist critic, Joseph Revai. The latter wrote in 1950: ‘Everyone familiar with the history of the Hungarian Communist Party knows that the literary views held by Comrade Lukács between 1945 and 1949 belong together with political views that he had formulated much earlier, in the context of political trends in Hungary and of the strategy of the Communist Party at the end of the twenties.’ [21]

In fact, this applies not just to the period 1945–9, but, as Lukács himself suggests, to the whole of his literary and aesthetic output. Even in the Third Period he defended, with the necessary terminological precautions, the (bourgeois) cultural heritage against the ‘proletarian literature’ of writers in the German CP (such as Ernst Ottwalt and Willi Bredel). [22] But it was above all after the ‘right’ turn of the Comintern in 1934 that Lukács could freely express his literary theories. As Isaac Deutscher emphasizes: ‘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.’

Nothing illustrates this tendency more than Lukács’s attitude respectively to Thomas Mann and Bertholt Brecht. For him, Mann represented rationalism, ‘patrician dignity’ and the respectability of the bourgeois tradition, as opposed to Nazism. Lukács’s attempts to forge an ideological united front with Mann were the cultural equivalent of the Comintern’s tactic of political coalitions with the non-fascist bourgeoisie (which entailed the renunciation of any class position). Brecht, on the other hand, was rejected outright because: ‘Brecht’s utter irreverence for the “bourgeois man”, his provocatively plebeian sympathies, 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.’ [23]

We can now see why Lukács enjoys with some justification the reputation of an ‘internal opponent’ of Stalinism. Pure Stalinism implied uncritical and unconditional compliance with every twist and turn of the leadership and its international agencies. But Lukács did not automatically follow the ‘general line’ dictated by Moscow. He had his own line, which sometimes coincided with and sometimes clashed with the ‘Centre’. While he accepted the fundamental premises of Stalinist politics (socialism in one country, the abandonment of revolutionary internationalism), Lukács was not a blind follower: whatever the circumstances, he refused to give up his own special popular-frontist ideology.

Therefore it is not surprising that Lukács should have been a figure of some standing in the political/cultural establishment of the official Communist movement in the years 1934–8 and 1944–8, while being in ‘disgrace’ in 1929–30, 1941 and 1949–50. It is no accident that, in the explicit criticisms he made of Stalinism after 1956, Lukács denounced in particular the aberrations of the Third Period, the theory of SocialFascism and the ‘grotesque’ policy of the Comintern between 1939 and 1941—when the struggle against Nazism and Fascism was simply swept under the carpet and replaced by a struggle against the Western democracies, accused of being instigators of the war. [24] What Lukács could not accept was Stalinist policy in the so-called ‘left’ periods, which considered bourgeois democracy (or social-democracy) to be the prime enemy rather than fascism; any implicit or open compromise with fascism was profoundly repugnant to him. More generally speaking, it might be said that Lukács was in opposition whenever Stalinism was in sharp conflict with Western (bourgeois) democracy and culture; which is why he was criticized as a right-opportunist by the Comintern and the Hungarian cp in 1928–30 and why he was arrested in Moscow in 1941.

Lukács’s Arrest

This arrest merits some comment. Lukács was held for a month or so and it appears that he was accused of having been a ‘Trotskyist agent’ since the beginning of the twenties. [25] According to Lukács’s later reminiscences to his students in Budapest, he was ordered by the nkvd to write his political autobiography. Such a document usually served as a basis for police interrogation of prisoners, which is what happened in his case. In the Lukács Archive in Budapest, there is a three-page political autobiography in German, covering a period up to April 1941. More than likely this is a copy of a document given to the nkvd by Lukács. The text contains some detailed information about his life as a Communist militant, but includes a bizarre anomaly: there is absolutely no mention of what Lukács always presented as the central axis of his political activity and the reason why he remained loyal to the ussr and the official Communist movement—the struggle against fascism. The very words ‘fascism’ and ‘Nazism’ are nowhere to be found in the document, and there is only one fleeting, neutral reference to ‘Hitler’s rise to power’ in 1933. The only possible explanation is that this text was written between April and 22 June 1941 (when the Nazis invaded Russia); i.e. during the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and German-Soviet ‘friendship.’ If this is the case, Lukács may well have been arrested because he was considered a potential opponent of Stalin on the question of Nazi Germany—as, in fact, he was, although he took care to hide the fact in his autobiography for the nkvd—and he was released shortly after the German invasion (apparently after Dimitrov had made strong representations on his behalf), when his intellectual services to anti-fascism became useful once more. [26]

Lukács again found himself ‘in opposition’ in 1949–51, at the peak of the Cold War, and was denounced in Hungary (by Rudas, Revai, Horvath, etc.) as a ‘revisionist’, ‘objectively aiding imperialism’, etc. Pravda joined in the offensive with a violent attack by Fadyeev and, for a time, Lukács believed he was in danger of being re-arrested. [27] This gives us a further insight into the spurious and profoundly insincere nature of his two most notorious self-criticisms of 1929 and 1949—both, incidentally, rejected by his Stalinist censors as incomplete and unsatisfactory. For Lukács’s political and intellectual career from 1928 onwards was coherent: it was a consistent attempt to ‘reconcile’ Stalinism with bourgeois-democratic culture.

Explaining the Turn

How can Lukács’s great turn in 1926–8 and the break from his revolutionary past be explained? Running through his autobiographical writings and interviews of the last few years there is a recurrent theme: ‘it was already clear by the nineteen twenties . . . that those very intense hopes with which we followed the Russian Revolution from 1917 on were not to be fulfilled: the wave of world revolution, in which we placed our confidence, did not come to pass.’ [28] In 1919 Lukács had fostered a grand messianic vision of an international proletarian revolution which would be the dawn of a new world, the renaissance of humanist culture and the beginning of the age of freedom. This fervent hope runs through all his writings until 1924, albeit in a more subdued and realistic form. Lukács saw the revolutionary proletariat as the inheritor of all the best traditions of classical philosophy, rationalist humanism and revolutionary democracy, which had been betrayed, flouted and abandoned by the modern bourgeoisie. The new society and culture founded by the world-wide socialist revolution would be the dialectical Aufhebung, the conservation/negation/transcendence, of this political and cultural heritage.

The ebbing of the revolutionary tide, and the internal changes in the ussr after 1924, caused a profound and distressing disillusionment in Lukács, as in many intellectuals of that era. He refused to return to the fold of the bourgeoisie (as some of those ‘disillusioned’ intellectuals were to do); his support for the workers’ movement was irrevocable. On the other hand, he thought the Left Opposition utopian and unrealistic; a return to the revolutionary principles of 1917–23 seemed impossible. What was he to do? Confronted with the frustration of his great hopes in a new socialist world, the dialectical transcendence of bourgeois humanism, Lukács fell back on a less ambitious and more ‘realistic’ project: the reconciliation of bourgeois-democratic culture and the Communist movement. Because his ideas were too closely linked to the prospect of the imminent world revolution, he was left ideologically disarmed when faced with the relative stabilization of capitalism. Disoriented by the disappearance of the revolutionary upsurge, Lukács clung on to the only two pieces of ‘solid’ evidence which seemed to him to remain: the ussr and traditional culture. Seeing that the new, transcendent synthesis had failed, he would at least attempt a mediation, a compromise and an alliance between these two different worlds. Lukács’s post-1926 writings, despite their intelligence, their undeniable interest and their theoretical depth, are rather like the glowing embers of a dying furnace.

Much later, in 1956, in common with many cadres, intellectuals and ordinary militants in the Communist movement, Lukács entered a period of open crisis, a period of questioning and criticism of Stalinism. Explicit criticism, let it be stressed, since veiled objections to Stalinist bureaucracy, expressed in ‘Aesopian language’, were to be found in some of Lukács’s works written well before the Twentieth Congress. For example, in a 1952 essay Leo Kofler, using the pseudonym ‘Jules Devérité’, pointed out Lukács’s criticism of Stalinist bureaucratic optimism in the essay ‘People’s Tribunal or Bureaucrat?’, itself written in 1940. [29] However, in this particular text, not only is Lukács’s criticism of bureaucracy in the ussr made in the name of Stalin himself (he claims that ‘the elimination of bureaucracy in the ussr is part of the Stalinist programme of the liquidation of the ideological and economic remains of capitalist society’), [30] but, above all, his criticism remains very sketchy and superficial, confining itself to a denunciation of the rhetorical exhortations and feigned optimism of the bureaucrats and their literary spokesmen.

Settling Old Scores with Stalin

In 1956, Lukács began to ‘settle old scores’ with Stalinism—and, to a certain extent, with his own Stalinism. Of course, he welcomed the Twentieth Congress of the cpsu with enthusiasm, and was to consider it a sort of re-run of the Seventh Comintern Congress (1935), which had heralded the turn to the Popular Front. [31] His participation in the ephemeral government of Imre Nagy in 1956, as Minister for Culture, is well known. However, Lukács’s post–1956 anti-Stalinism was of a particular type—both incomplete and (to use a convenient label) ‘rightist’.

It was incomplete, in that Lukács refused to question some of the basic elements of Stalinist policy, such as socialism in one country; because he only condemned the Moscow Trials as ‘politically superfluous, since the Opposition had already lost all power’, thus implicitly accepting the ‘correctness’ of Stalin’s policies, at the time. [32] A particularly striking example is the 1957 Preface to The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, in which Lukács ventures to compare Stalin’s mistakes with those of Rosa Luxemburg. [33]

It was ‘rightist’, in that Lukács inclined towards defining Stalinism as essentially a ‘leftist’ deviation, a ‘sectarian subjectivism’. [34] From the time of his first anti-Stalinist text, the 28 June 1956 speech at the Political Academy of the Hungarian (Communist) Workers’ Party, he put forward the argument that the main mistake of the past had been excessive loyalty to the ‘truths of 1917’! According to Lukács, ‘innumerable errors in strategy made by our Party can be traced to the fact that we simply carried over the truths of 1917 and of the revolutionary period immediately following 1917 . . . with no criticism at all, and without examining the new situation, into a period in which the main strategic problem was not the struggle for socialism, but a trial of strength between fascism and anti-fascism’. [35] It is not necessary to spell out the close link between this vision of the past and the problematic of the ‘Blum Theses’. Unsurprisingly, the Stalinist period which he criticizes most vigorously is 1928–33. The orientation of the ussr between 1948 and 1953 seemed to him, in the last analysis, to be a relapse into the same basic errors.


Lukács aims the same type of criticism at Stalin’s domestic policy: he accuses him of having used ‘methods of government from the Civil War period, in a situation of peaceful internal consolidation’; ‘everything which is objectively inevitable in an intense revolutionary situation . . . was transformed by Stalin into the foundation of everyday Soviet life’. [36] In other words, not only does Lukács made no distinction between the ussr under Lenin (1917–20 was relatively the most democratic and ‘pluralist’ period in the history of Russia) and the ussr of Stalin, but his criticism of Stalinism is precisely that it ‘artificially’ maintained the politics, attitude and orientation of Lenin’s time. This position is nothing more than a logical extension of Lukács’s ‘popular frontist’ perspective, which dates back to the twenties.

Thus it is not surprising that Lukács totally supported ‘Khruschevism’, both in its internal aspects (partial criticism of Stalinism) and its external ones (peaceful co-existence as the international strategy of the Communist movement). He even went so far as to maintain for a time—even though he had always fought economism—that ‘in the last analysis’ economic competition between different systems ‘determines . . . who will emerge victorious from co-existence in the international class struggle’. For ‘it is clear that economic competition between systems . . . is, in the last resort . . . the decisive ground on which to determine whether the people of one system will choose their own, or a rival system . . . Economic development itself is the most effective propaganda in this competition.’ [37] It is clear that because of these Kruschevist premises, Lukács was unable to foresee what, from 1963 onwards, was to become a major political phenomenon: the immense powers of attraction of the ‘poor’ revolutionary States (China, Vietnam, Cuba) for young people; these states are opposed to advanced capitalism, not by ‘economic competition’, but by a different model of society (economic, political, cultural and moral).

Lukács did, however, step outside the narrow confines of the Twentieth Congress and ‘Khruschevism’ in his criticism of the ‘personality cult’. It seemed absurd to him that the problematic of a period of worldhistoric importance should be reduced to the individual qualities of one man: one must, he stressed, go beyond the ‘person’ to the organization, to the ‘machine which produced the “personality cult” and then established it by an incessant, extended propagation . . . without the well-oiled operation of such a machine the personality cult would have been only a subjective dream, a product of abnormality’. [38] Around 1966 his views started to become more radical, and he criticized official ‘deStalinization’ as insufficient. [39] However, he never grasped the roots of the Stalinist phenomenon or sought to develop a Marxist analysis of the Soviet bureaucracy, but confined himself to denouncing its ‘superstructural’ aspects: brutal manipulation, predominance of tactics over theory, etc. At the beginning of 1968 he was still defining Stalinism as a type of ‘sectarianism’ which wished to ‘perpetuate the belle époque of the Civil War’. [40]

The Final Return

In 1968, Lukács began to take a new turn towards the ‘old Lukács’. At the risk of over-simplification of a contradictory development, this can be characterized as the beginnings of an orientation to the revolutionary left. In his last essays and interviews, elements can be found of a left criticism of Stalinism, which is qualitatively different from that of 1956–67, although there are points of continuity. [41] As in the past, the progress of his ideas is made up both of continuity and of change. The starting-point for this ‘left turn’ was of course that favoured worldhistoric year of the twentieth century 1968—which, in the space of a few months, experienced the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, student revolt on an international scale, the May Events in France, the Cultural Revolution in China, the Prague ‘spring’ and Soviet invasion. Lukács correctly grasped the crucial importance of these events: in an interview in 1969 he stated: ‘Today this whole system is facing the initial stages of an extraordinarily profound crisis . . . I mean by this the Vietnamese War, the radical crisis in the United States . . . the crises in France, in Germany, in Italy . . . Looked at in a world-historical perspective, we are at the threshold of a world crisis.’ [42] As for Czechoslovakia, in an informal conversation with one of his former Hungarian students, only weeks after the occupation of Prague by Warsaw Pact troops, Lukács clearly showed his anger and stressed the terrible historical implications of the event: ‘This is the greatest disaster for the communist movement since the German social-democrats approved the Kaiser’s war credits in 1914. That put an end to the first dream of the socialist fraternity of man. Need I say more?’ [43] Some young revolutionary students from Western Europe, who visited Lukács in September 1968, were struck by the harshness of his criticism of the ussr and also by his great interest in the May events in France. [44] Lukács understood the dialectical relationship between the two crises, that of Stalinism and that of the bourgeois world, and constantly stressed their interdependence,

At the age of eighty-three, therefore, Lukács entered a new stage in his political/ideological development, which was, to a certain extent, a return to the revolutionary orientation of his youth. Obviously, history cannot be repeated, and the Lukács of 1969–71 can in no way be identified with what he was in 1919–24: the word ‘return’ is used metaphorically to point out a certain analogy between two distinct phenomena.

In this sense it is extremely significant that one of the first expressions of this return was a ‘re-appropriation’ of Ady. At the beginning of 1969, Lukács wrote an article on Ady (following a long silence on his favourite poet of the past), which directly links the work of the great writer, who died in 1919, to the prospect of a deep-rooted change in contemporary Hungary: ‘I believe that when Hungary has really passed beyond the Stalinist era and begun to construct a living socialism, founded on a new proletarian democracy, there will be many more people who find that Ady is their favourite poet.’ [45] Lukács’s strong praise for Ady as a consistently revolutionary poet was closely linked to a new opposition to Hegelian ‘realism’: ‘1 have never considered the Hegelian concept of reconciliation with reality (Versöhnung mit der Wirklichkeit) to be a valid one. Even during my Hegelian period, my intellectual attitude was dominated by Ady’s “veto by vocation” . . . ’ [46] By contrasting Ady’s Ugosca non coronat with Hegel’s Versöhnung, Lukács returned to the revolutionary problematic of his youth and challenged what, from 1926 to 1968, had formed—implicitly or explicitly—the ‘philosophical’ basis of his unstable and difficult compromise with Stalinism: the idea of reconciliation.

The Embers Flare

At the end of 1968, this challenge assumed a directly political form in an essay on Lenin and the transitional period, completed after the occupation of Czechoslovakia (only one chapter has been published, in Hungary in 1970). In this essay, Lukács contrasts the socialist democracy of Lenin with Stalinist bureaucratic manipulation. One example he mentions in this connection are the ‘Communist Saturdays’ of 1919, which were self-activity, freely chosen in the service of the community. It is no accident that, in this context, Lukács quotes his remarkable article of 1919, The Moral Mission of the Communist Party. Of course, he mentions its idealistic limitations; but the problematic of the ‘reign of freedom’ and the transition to Communism have once more begun to interest him. [47]

At the beginning of 1969, Lukács clarified his new position as a revolutionary left critic of Stalinism in an interview: ‘So as not to conceal my personal ideas, by socialist democracy I understand democracy in ordinary life, as it appeared in the Workers’ Soviets of 1871, 1905 and 1917, as it once existed in the socialist countries, and in which form it must be re-animated.’ [48] Nearly all Lukács’s interviews in the years 1969–71 contrast Workers’ Soviets with both arbitrary bureaucracy and bourgeois democracy, as a true, authentic democratic system which arises each time the revolutionary proletariat appears on the stage of history. [49] For the first time, Lukács presented the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, in spite of its weaknesses, as an example of socialist democracy—opposed, in every respect (particularly culturally), to the methods of the Stalinist era. [50] One of the most important political consequences of this new revolutionary perspective was Lukács’s scepticism towards ‘self-reform’ by the bureaucracy. He had believed in this for a long while, and expressed himself prudently on so delicate a subject; but in his last interview, just before his death, he was clear and trenchant: ‘I have never yet seen a reform carried out by bureaucrats . . . I do not think there can be a bureaucratic change and, what is more, I do not really think there is any such intention . . . they want to maintain the bureaucratic balance which we have today.’ [51] Significantly, Lukács goes on to mention the events in Poland, the ‘explosive strikes’ of 1970, adding: ‘what happened in Poland can happen today or tomorrow in every socialist country’.

His new orientation was also expressed in relation to the class struggle in the capitalist world, particularly in his attitude towards Vietnam. He emphasized the world-historical implications of the Vietnamese struggle in a striking analogy: ‘The defeat of the usa in the Vietnam war is to the “American way of life” rather like what the Lisbon earthquake was to French feudalism . . . Even if decades were to pass between the Lisbon earthquake and the fall of the Bastille, history can repeat itself, in the sense that out of movements which are at first ideologically completely immature and based solely on a legitimate feeling of revolt, real movements are formed.’ [52] The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 triggered off an extraordinary ideological crisis in Europe, particularly in France. The deadly and absurd event (total destruction of the city and 20,000 deaths) challenged Leibniz’s optimistic (and conformist) ideology ‘We live in the best of all possible worlds’, Alexander Pope’s ‘What is, is right’, as well as the whole concept of divine Providence. Voltaire made his Doctor Pangloss, the philosopher of smug optimism, die in the Lisbon earthquake. [53] Thus, for Lukács, the consequence of the Vietnam war was, by analogy, as follows. Firstly, the end of optimistic illusions in an ‘era of peace’ on a world scale—illusions which he himself had harboured since 1956. [54] Secondly, the decline of what he called ‘cybernetic religion’: blind faith in machines, computers and electronic instruments, omnipotent and provident fetishes, substitutes for the God of the eighteenth century, which were all defeated by the nlf. [55] Last, and above all, the appearance of an enormous crisis of values, a radical challenge to imperialist ideology, which could, in future, erupt in a massive revolutionary upsurge of international dimensions. This is no longer the messianic hope for immediate revolution that Lukács had in 1919; but, for the first time since the twenties, he was beginning to conceive of world revolution as a real historical prospect, in the present century.

Lukács began to criticize the reformist workers’ parties: social-democracy, whose politics in Germany for fifty years had been just a ‘series of capitulations’, and the communist parties—‘In Germany, the parties, and unfortunately this includes the Communist Party itself, because of their exclusive orientation to tactical decisions and their loss of a grand historical perspective, no longer act as a pole of attraction for young people.’ [56] He began to regard the student movement sympathetically, and with (critical) interest. He refused to label these radicalized youths current ‘leftists’—a convenient formula used far too frequently by the leadership of the traditional Communist parties. On the contrary he stated that: ‘Anyone who thinks that he can apply a book written by Lenin in 1920 to American youth of 1969 or that Lenin’s criticism of Roland Holst can be made to fit Dutschke would be terribly mistaken.’ [57] In radical contrast to the bureaucratic line on the ‘adventurist’, ‘manipulated’, or even ‘provocative’ character of the young ‘leftists’, Lukács explicitly states: ‘I think that this student movement which is springing up, not just in Germany, but all over the world, is an exceptionally positive phenomenon’ which must be understood as the product of a simultaneous crisis in the two systems which triumphed in the Second World War: Stalinism and the ‘American way of life’. [58]

On 4 June 1971 death cut short, at its outset, this astonishing ‘return to first principles’; after half a century of ‘reconciliation’ and ‘lost illusions’, Lukács had, in the last three years of his life, begun to rediscover the intense hopes, the red flame of the People’s Commissar of 1919.

Translated by Ann Clafferty

[1] Georg Lukács, ‘Preface’ (1967) to History and Class Consciousness, London 1971, pp. xxvii–xxviii.

[2] ‘L’Art pour l’Art and proletarische Dichtung’ in Die Tat 18/3, June 1926, pp. 220–23.

[3] Cf. the remarkable essay by Paul Breines, ‘Notes on G. Lukács’s “The Old Culture and the New Culture”’, Telos no. 15, Spring 1970, pp. 16–18.

[4] Georg Lukács, ‘Moses Hess and the Problems of Idealist Dialectics’, in Political Writings 1919–29, nlb 1972, pp. 181–223.

[5] See, for example, in the recently published Moscow Manuscripts, this remark written in about 1939–40: ‘With Hegel, the all-embracing appropriation of reality, and the discovery and revelation of contradiction as its motive force, are inseparable from his particular type of idealism and his particular concept of “reconciliation”.’ Georg Lukács, Ecrits de Moscou, Paris 1974, p. 229. Also Georg Lukács, Der junge Hegel und die Probleme der kapitalistischen Gesellschaft, Berlin 1954, ch. 3, sect. 8.

[6] Georg Lukács, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, London 1963, p. 112.

[7] Theodor Adorno, ‘Erpresste Versöhnung’, 1958, in Noten zur Literatur, II, Frankfurt 1965, pp. 186–7.

[8] ‘Moses Hess’ in Political Writings, op. cit. p. 203.

[9] Georg Lukács, ‘Hölderlin’s Hyperion’, in Goethe and His Age, London 1968, pp. 137–9.

[10] Leon Trotsky, The Workers’ State and the Question of Thermidor and Bonapartism, London 1968.

[11] Cf. L. Stern, ‘Lukács: An Intellectual Portrait’, in Dissent, Spring 1958, p. 172; also the remarkable article on Lukács by Lucien Goldmann in the Encyclopaedia Universalis, Paris 1971.

[12] Cf. also Trotsky, op. cit. p. 57: ‘In contrast to capitalism, socialism is not built automatically, but consciously. The march towards socialism cannot be separated from a state power wishing for socialism . . . ’ The anti-Stalinist Lukács of later years seems to have a more lucid and less vindicatory view than in 1935 as we shall see.

[13] G. Lichtheim, Lukács, London 1971, pp. 74–5; Y. Bourdet, Figures de Lukács, Paris 1972, pp. 92–3.

[14] Georg Lukács, ‘Blum Theses’ (1928) in Political Writings, op. cit. pp. 243, 248, 250.

[15] ‘Offenen Brief des Exekutivkommittees der Kommunistischen Internationale an die Mitglieder der Kommunistischen Partei Ungarns’ (1928) in Peter Ludz, Georg Lukács, Schriften zur Ideologie und Politik, Neuwied 1967, pp. 733–4.

[16] Lukács, ‘Preface’ (1967), op. cit. p. xxx.

[17] Bourdet, op. cit. p. 170.

[18] Lukács, ‘Preface’ (1967), op. cit. p. xxx.

[19] Lukács, ‘Preface’ (1967), op. cit. p. xxviii.

[20] V. Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Oxford 1963, pp. 191–2.

[21] Lukács, ‘Preface’ (1967), op. cit. p. xxx, and J. Revai, Literarische Studien, Berlin 1956, p. 235.

[22] Georg Lukács, ‘Reportage oder Gestaltung’, ‘Kritische Bemerkungen anlässlich des Romans von Ottwalt’ and ‘Aus der Not eine Tugend’ in Die Linkskurve, 1932. Nevertheless, this defence of the cultural heritage of the past, of Balzac and Goethe, against the sectarian divagations of Third Period neo-proletkult, did of course have a justifiable side to it; it was, moreover, related to the wing of the KPD that had most reservations about the Stalinist doctrine of ‘social-fascism’: Heinz Neumann and Willi Münzenberg. In this connection, see Helga Gallas, Marxistische Literaturtheorie, Neuwied 1971, p. 60. To a certain extent, this position of Lukács with respect to traditional culture had affinities with the theses defended by Trotsky in Literature and Revolution, when the latter was polemicizing against the Russian partisans of Proletkult.

[23] Isaac Deutscher, ‘Lukács as a Critic of Thomas Mann’ in Marxism in our Time, London 1972, pp. 291 and 292.

[24] Cf. Lukács, ‘Preface’ (1967), op. cit. p. xxviii, and ‘The Twin Crises’, in nlr 60, 1970, pp. 39–40.

[25] Cf. Istvan Meszaros, Lukács’ Concept of Dialectics, London 1971, p. 142.

[26] Evidence on this point is, however, contradictory: cf. Julius Hay, Geboren 1900, 1971, pp. 277–8.

[27] Cf. Meszaros, op. cit. pp. 146–7. This was the time of Rajk’s trial and execution.

[28] Lukács, ‘The Twin Crises’, nlr 60, op. cit. p. 37.

[29] Cf. L. Kofler, ‘Das Wesen and die Rolle der Stalinistischen Bürokratie (1952) in Stalinismus und Bürokratie, 1970, p. 63. In a 1969 text Lukács himself welcomed Kofler’s essay as objective proof of his opposition to Stalinism before 1953. Cf. Georg Lukács, ‘Lénine—Avant-propos’, in Nouvelles Etudes Hongroises, Budapest 1973, p. 94.

[30] Georg Lukács, ‘Volkstribun oder Bürokrat?’ in Probleme des Realismus I, Werke Band 4, 1964. It might be argued that this is a precaution in ‘Aesopian’ style.

[31] ‘If we appear weak, if those forces wishing to show Leninism as Stalinism back to front are to succeed, then the Twentieth Congress will get bogged down, just as in the thirties the grand initiative of the Seventh Comintern Congress did not bear the fruits one might justifiably have expected in 1935’—Lukács, ‘Discorso al dibattito filosofico del Circolo Petöfi’ (15 June 1956), Marxismo e Politica Culturale, Milan 1972, p. 105.

[32] Georg Lukács, ‘Brief an Alberto Carocci’ (8 February 1962), in Marxismus and Stalinismus, Hamburg 1970. Cf. also the 1960 Preface to Existencialisme ou Marxisme?, Paris 1961, p. 7: ‘Since Khruschev’s speech in 1956, I know that the great trials of 1938 were unnecessary.’ In the main part of the work, written in 1947, in a polemic with Simone de Beauvoir, Lukács was still defending the absurd argument that the Moscow Trials had ‘increased the chances of a Russian victory at Stalingrad’, ibid. p. 168.

[33] Lukács, ‘Preface’ (1957) in The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, op. cit. p. 10.

[34] In The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, written in September 1956, he sees Stalinism as a combination of ‘economic subjectivism’ and ‘revolutionary romanticism’.

[35] Georg Lukács, ‘Der Kampf des Fortshritts und der Reaktion in der heutigen Kultur’ (1956) in Marxismus und Stalinismus, op. cit. p. 139.

[36] Lukács, ‘Brief an Alberto Carocci’, in Marxismus und Stalinismus, op. cit. p. 185 and ‘Zur Debatte zwischen China und der Sowjetunion, theoretische-philosophische Bemerkungen’ (1963), ibid. p. 211.

[37] Lukács, ‘Zur Debatte zwischen China und der Sowjetunion’ op. cit. pp. 208–9, and ‘Probleme der Kulturellen Koexistenz’ (1964), ibid. pp. 215–16 (Lukács’s own emphasis). In fact this argument was too far removed from Lukács’s basic position, too vulgarly economist for him to defend it for long. In 1966–7 he challenged it specifically: ‘A rise in the standard of living alone will never be capable of acting as a real pole of attraction for Western countries (this was one of Khruschev’s illusions)’—‘Le Grand Octobre 1917 et la littérature’, in L’homme et la Société No. 5, July-September 1967, p. 14.

[38] Lukács, ‘Brief an Alberto Carocci’, op. cit. p. 172.

[39] Abendroth, Holz, Kofler, ‘Conversations with Lukács’ (1966), Bari 1968, p. 189.

[40] Georg Lukács, ‘Alle Dogmatiker sind Defaitisten’, in Forum, May 1968.

[41] On a series of issues—Stalin’s ‘realism’ after the decline of the world revolution, self-criticism of the ‘messianism’ of History and Class Consciousness, etc.—Lukács did not totally abandon his former positions.

[42] Lukács, The Twin Crises,nlr 60, op. cit. p. 44.

[43] George Urban, ‘A conversation with Lukács’, in Encounter, October 1971, p. 35. We should add, in passing, that the vote on war credits in August 1914 was viewed by Lenin as the ultimate bankruptcy of the Second International, and thus the beginning of a realization of the need to set up a new international proletarian organization . . . However, we would be forcing the comparison a bit too far if we attributed such conclusions to Lukács!

[44] Report by C. Urjewicz to the author, September 1974.

[45] Lukács, ‘The Importance and Significance of Ady’, in New Hungarian Quarterly, No. 35, Vol. X, Autumn 1969, p. 60.

[46] Georg Lukács, ‘My Road to Marx’ (1969) in Nouvelles Etudes Hongroises, 1973, p. 78.

[47] Lukács, ‘Lenin und die Fragen der Ubergangsperiode’ (1968) in Goethepreis, 1970, pp. 84–5. Cf. on this point Meszaros, op. cit. p. 151.

[48] Lukács, ‘Die Deutschen, eine Nation der Spätentwickler’, in Goethepreis, 1970, p. 112. One significant detail: Trotsky is mentioned, together with Lenin, as a leader of the October revolution, both ‘having led the movement of the Workers’ Soviets’.

[49] Cf. for example, nlr 60, p. 41; nlr 68, p. 50; Y. Bourdet, Figures de Lukács, p. 187, etc.

[50] Lukács, ‘La Politique Culturelle de la République des Conseils’, interview of 1969 in Action Poétique, no. 49, 1972, p. 31.

[51] Lukács, Interview with Y. Bourdet in Figures de Lukács, op. cit. p. 186.

[52] Goethepreis, 1970, op. cit. p. 108.

[53] Voltaire also wrote a philosophical poem on the event. Cf. L. G. Crocker, ‘The Problem of Evil’, in J. F. Lively, The Enlightenment, London 1966, p. 159: ‘The Lisbon earthquake, which occurred in that most Catholic of cities on All Saints’ Day, 1 November 1755, was a crise de conscience for the eighteenth century.’

[54] ‘We are now entering an era in which peace and co-existence have become possible.’ Lukács, Der Kampf des Fortschritts und der Reaktion (1956), op. cit. p. 141.

[55] Interview with Lukács on ortf, 1971.

[56] Goethepreis, 1970, op. cit. p. 110.

[57] Lukács, ‘The Twin Crises’, nlr 60, p. 43.

[58] Lukács, Goethepreis, 1970, op. cit. pp. 107–8.

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