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Lukacs After Communism
Review essay of Eva L. Corredor's Lukacs After Communism: Interviews With Contemporary Intellectuals,
Duke University Press, Durham & London, 1997

Liam O Ruairc • May 4, 2003

Georg Lukacs (1885-1971) is an important 20th century philosopher and literary critic and one of the major Marxist theoreticians. Many see him as the most important and influential Marxist philosopher of the 20th century. But interest in his writings has almost entirely disappeared. Four years ago, I sought to purchase in Berlin the German edition of Lukacs’s most important works, like History and Class Consciousness, but was unable to find them in any bookstores, new or second hand. Translations of his books in English or French are nowadays often hard to find or out of print.

Interest in Lukacs’s work seems to have disappeared after the collapse of really existing socialism. In spite of its importance, few scholars today devote articles or books and conferences to the study of Lukacs’s thought. The fact that today you can not even find Lukacs’s books in the bookstores of his hometown of Budapest prompted the editor of this collection of interviews to ask a number of theorists that were influenced by Lukacs what relevance his thought had “after communism”. Ten people are interviewed in this collection. The majority of them are literary critics or theorists, only two are political theorists. The interviews are of uneven interest. The best parts of the book are the interviews with Frederic Jameson, Etienne Balibar, Michael Lowy and Terry Eagleton, because all of them have a sophisticated understanding of Marxism and have engaged with Lukacs’s thought over the years. In the case of Jameson and Eagleton, one also has to add their brilliant insights into aesthetics and postmodernity. George Steiner is particularly interesting on Lukacs’s literary criticism, and Roberto Schwarz is to be welcomed for his analysis of Lukacs from a “third world” and “postcolonial” point of view.

If Georg Lukacs is going to be remembered for one book, it will be History and Class Consciousness (1923). It was an attempt to recast Marxism conceptually in Hegelian terms, with the proletariat playing the role of the Absolute Spirit, as the subject-object of history. As Jameson puts it, History and Class Consciousness was “a very great and creative conceptual leap” on Lukacs’ part. Written in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, what remains of the book “after communism”? Michael Lowy points that the book has “certain methodological, theoretical and philosophical gains that remain useful today”. Lukacs’s definition of Marxism as being not just an assortment of dogmas, but as being first of all a method is an idea “which seems altogether profound” for Lowy. This is exactly what permits the assurance of the continuity of Marxism beyond the breakdown of a series of political and ideological structures without touching the profound significance of the method. Lowy adds that the way in which Lukacs defines his method with the help of the category of totality “remains entirely valid as a procedure to follow toward the understanding of how to act.” And certain of his analysis in the book such as the one of reification “retain all of their value.” (19-20) Lukacs’s analysis of reification is probably his most significant contribution.

For Balibar, what is “extraordinary” about Lukacs, is that he was one of the few Marxist philosophers, who starting from Marx’s chapter on “The Fetishism of the Commodity” in Capital, “really added something to Marx’s views”. First of all, he invented the notion of reification (Verdinglichung) which cannot be found directly in Marx. Reification refers to the process through which the exchange of the products on the labour market leads to the transformation of social relations among human beings into apparently natural relations among things. Secondly, he generalised the notion of fetishism, which remained in Marx a partial moment in the description of capitalism into a global instrument of explanation of bourgeois society. The concept of fetishism is really crucial and can be developed in different directions. Balibar believes that “Lukacs chose, in a very powerful manner, one of the possible directions, but there is another direction which you can take, which is the direction of symbolic structures. That is an alternative to Lukacs, so to speak.” (119-120)

There seems to be a consensus among those interviewed that Lukacs’s analysis of reification has not been exhausted at all, given the fact that the whole of contemporary society turns around commodity fetishism, but it is surprising that none of them discuss Lukacs’s own 1967 self-criticism for failing to distinguish between the process of reification and objectification. The latter is the inevitable process by which people objectify themselves in material objects and related patterns of social organisation, the former a form of alienation. It is necessary to make such distinction, because only in certain forms of society is there reification of external objects. And without this distinction, it means that de-reification will imply that there are no objects, material or social. Also, none of those interviewed pointed out the problems raised by presenting reification as the master principle which characterises capitalist society, in the absence of Lukacs developing a theory of the structure of the capitalist mode of production, providing no systematic analysis of labour, of the links between social relations of production and reified exchange relations, and of the connection between those and the proletariat as a revolutionary class.

Lukacs is also famous for his contribution to Marxist aesthetics in general, and literature in particular. Although he clearly distanced himself from so-called “socialist realism”, Lukacs’s advocacy of realism in aesthetics has not been very popular and has been much criticised. Lukacs is accused of making a fetish of one historically relative form, that of 19th century realist fiction (the novels of Balzac in particular), and of then dogmatically demanding that all other art should conform to this paradigm. Ernst Bloch and Bertolt Brecht already criticised Lukacs in the 1930s for this unhistorical approach: such dogmatic/normative aesthetics ignore the historical basis of form. By demanding to recreate past forms rather than create new ones, Lukacs is blind to the best of modern literature. Terry Eagleton is “very suspicious of general doctrines of realism”, that there should be something either inherently progressive or reactionary about realism, and argues for “a much more conjunctural estimation of literary forms.” (131-132) For example, to Adorno the idea of realism today was ridiculous, but one has to remember the revolutionary effect that realism must have had when it first appeared. The Brazilian intellectual Roberto Schwarz argues that if there are uses for the Lukacsean concepts, one must always be careful to remember to use them “differentially”. (189) Lukacs put together a model for the European history of ideas and for the European history of the novel, but this construction might be inadequate for Latin American realities. One “cannot take his outline and apply it to Brazilian reality in the same way you can in Europe.” (181)

Though he is far from being uncritical, Frederic Jameson offers a very interesting defence of Lukacs’s advocacy of realism -something quite unusual as very few today defend Lukacsean realism. For him, Lukacs “is using that nineteenth century moment to construct a model of a more general historical situation in which an opening to the social totality is possible and a kind of narration is possible which solves some of the problems of the modernist crisis of representation.” (81) If this reading of Lukacs is adopted, “then we are talking about the way in which a certain kind of narrative might have as its vocation what I would call a “cognitive mapping” of the social totality; and in that case, if one want to go on using that word, one has a notion of realism which is much broader and that might include a lot of Third World writing today or “magic realism” and would not limit us to the older, very estimable realist models of the classic nineteenth century novel, which pretty clearly are not suitable for postcontemporary conditions.”(82)

As a literary critic, Lukacs wrote principally on 19th century literature, mainly French, German and Russian. Balzac, Zola, Walter Scott, Tolstoy, Gorky and Thomas Mann were some of the authors he wrote most extensively about. Roberto Schwarz points that whatever the rigidity of Lukacs’s aesthetic conceptions, “his good pieces of criticism do not suffer from this abstract normativity.” (193) Balzac was one of the authors Lukacs was most fond of. In particular George Steiner brands as “an insight of genius” (62) Lukacs’s distinction between realism and naturalism. His essay “Erzahlen oder Beschreiben?” (Narrate or Describe?) is concerned with both the form of Balzac and Zola’s writing as well as its content. Lukacs is impressed by the ability of Balzac’s narrative to give the reader a total picture of the world, whereas Zola’s “naturalism” is a distortion of realism because the author’s descriptions sort of dissolve reality and don’t get the reader to see the complications of society the way Balzac’s realism make you see everything. “The Historical Novel” is another work of Lukacs that is highly regarded. George Steiner calls it “a masterpiece”, due to Lukacs “comparative approach to literary criticism, the enormous literacy, the range of reading, the range of awareness and of reference.” (61) Frederic Jameson is also convinced that in this postmodern age in which there is again a great plethora of historical representations (for example in what the author called “nostalgia films”) “Lukacs’s analysis, which obviously bears on very different objects from ours, that we could not think of reviving, still has much to say and maybe much new to say.” (77)

If Lukacs wrote very competently on 19th century literature, beyond that period his views are quite problematic. Lukacs’s advocacy of realism lead him to attack modernism, and his positions on Joyce or Kafka are seen as discredited today. For Lukacs, the choice was clear: “Kafka or Thomas Mann”. For Steiner Lukacs’ lack of appreciation of modernist writers has little to do with aesthetics: “He felt that they were dwelling on defeat and on dirt. And this has nothing to do with literary theory whatsoever. This is an ethical prejudice.” (72) However, Jameson asks for more prudence. In our postmodern age, we are distant enough that we can be less passionate about the modernism debate, and “entertain a suspension of disbelief in weighing some of Lukacs’s thoughts on the matter.” (87) Although Eagleton rates Lukacs’ literary criticism “very highly”, he thinks that “one of the limitations of his literary criticism is a certain repetitiveness”. (149) Also for Schwarz, if Lukacs “is very good on composition but not on prose.” (195) One must look at prose, in particular in modern literature where everything goes on in the writing itself, to a certain degree at the expense of action.

The main weakness of the collection is that a good number of Lukacs’s major works are not discussed. For example his last - but very important- work The Ontology of Social Being is not even mentioned. Nor is his monumental The Specificity of the Aesthetic. And his project for an ethic is ignored. The problem is that works written by Lukacs during his last period have received little international coverage. His Ontology for instance has only been partially translated into English, and no translation of The Specificity of the Aesthetic is available. This means that outside those able to read German and Hungarian, we will only have a partial reception of Lukacs’s thought. One can only hope that sometime there will be a revival of interest in it. The collection of interviews is also weakened by the fact that no thinkers associated with the so-called “Budapest School”, students of Lukacs like Istvan Meszaros, Agnes Heller or Gyorgy Markus, were interviewed. They would have brought a significant contribution to the debate. The fact that there were only one or two philosophers or political theorists interviewed in this collection also limits the discussion of the properly philosophical - as opposed to literary - contributions made by Lukacs. Finally, the lack of sympathy for, and the lack of understanding of Marxism both as theory and practice by the interviewer limits the pertinence of questions asked. But the book has nevertheless the immense merit of discussing the relevance and stressing the importance of Lukacs’s thought in this postcommunist age where his thinking has been buried.



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