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Andy Wilson: New Gods Ascending-Ethics and Action in Lukács 1916-1928

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Titan-like… are the times that follow an implicitly total philosophy… They are unhappy and iron, for their Gods are dead, and the new Goddess still has immediately the dark form of fate, of pure light and pure darkness. She lacks the days colours.

Marx, 1841

And what if the darkness of our lack of aim were but the night darkness between the twilight of one God and the dawn of another?… And is it certain that we have discovered the final meaning, here in the tragic world deserted by our every God? Is there not in our abandonment rather a cry of suffering and longing for the God to come? In any case, is the still weak and distant light not more essential than the hero’s illusory shout?

Lukács, 1916

If there is a deep continuity between Lukács’s pre-Marxist criticism and his later writings it consists of his preoccupation with the problem of authenticity. In all his guises—the literary romantic, the commissar-dialectician, the desiccated old materialist—Lukács claimed to outline a philosophy of life, in the sense of describing the ground for living authentically. The “longing for the God to come” he expressed in 1916 was the longing for a centre that could fill the world with meaning and make sense of the idea of ‘the good life’. It would be easy to say that, in Marxism and the party, he found his God—but more accurate to say that he combined his longing, paradoxically, with a belief that it was being realised. Many of the ambiguities of his position as a Party member make sense in the light of this paradox. In any case, the subject of this paper is Lukács’s relation to the God whose arrival he had anticipated before becoming a Marxist.

lukacs02Through the different stages in which Lukács sought to describe the basis of authenticity it is possible to see how his ‘longing for the God to come’ produced not only intimations of the ‘weak and distant light’ but also, at different times, that ‘illusory shout’ he warned against. Here I consider the works framing his transition to Marxism in terms of these two aspects. The texts I focus on, Theory of the Novel and History and Class Consciousness, not only frame this transition but have also, not coincidentally, proved to be his most compelling works.

I’ve said that the essential continuity of Lukács’s life-work is defined by his search for authenticity. Mészáros ascribes this continuity instead to his commitment to the category of ‘totality’.1 Mészáros doesn’t imagine that Lukács’s concept of totality was static, and he’s right to suppose that there’s a close connection between Lukács’s use of the category of totality and his aspiration to authenticity, but this doesn’t mean he is right to put so much emphasis on Lukács’s continued use of the concept of totality. Against those who see the continuity of Lukács’s work in terms of his use of this or that category it is necessary to say that changes in, e.g., his theory of totality, reflect deeper shifts in his outlook and practical orientation. Focusing on formal continuities obscures the significance of the real changes taking place. In the case of Lukács’s changing understanding of totality between Theory of the Novel and History and Class Consciousness, this deeper change concerns his attitude to the possibility of praxis.

Lukács’s search for the basis of praxis embodies his aspiration to authenticity. To live authentically is to truly know the world that is the arena of action and be able to act freely in the light of this knowledge. To seek this unity of theory and practice depends on first locating the ontological ground of its possibility, the basis of authenticity. Authentic life is acted out through praxis, and praxis is possible only to the extent that life is lived authentically. This is the meaning of Arato and Breines’ claim that “the essential project for the young Lukács” was “to form life, to make it essential.”2 Life is essential only when it is formed, and form is a function of spirit. ‘Living the essential life’, then, is how ‘the unity of theory and practice’ is expressed in the language of idealism. This connection ties Lukács’s early search for authenticity to his later problem of outlining a theory of praxis. In both Theory of the Novel and History and Class Consciousness, Lukács’s attitude to authenticity and praxis forms the organising centre for his treatment of other concepts: totality and mediation, reification, commitment & reconciliation.

In Theory of the Novel the world is seen as a shattered totality. All contact with it is assumed to be problematic. The reification of the world is understood to be so complete that contact with it would inevitably pervert the ideals that motivate action. This meant that Lukács’s opposition to the world could find no point around which to turn criticism into action, and so remained ethical and, in Hegel’s sense, abstract. Praxis is impossible in the world of Theory of the Novel because it puts theory and practice into the separate, incommensurate spheres of ‘spirit’ and ‘life’.

By the time of History and Class Consciousness Lukács claims to have overcome the paralysis implicit in this separation of theory and practice by identifying the proletariat as the determinate negation of the reified world (capitalism). Commitment to the proletariat is to provide both the test of theory, a guarantee that it remain critical, and a means of translating it into authentic action. Unfortunately, this attempt to overcome the ‘ought’ like structure of his earlier thought only generated a new set of contradictions, and in trying to overcome these Lukács was led to reproduce his earlier separation of theory and practice in modified form. Although he claimed to have found in the proletariat the basis for uniting theory and practice, in fact he made the Communist Party the point of arrival and departure for practice, and effectively placed his Party beyond criticism.

The process which issued in Lukács’s reconciliation with reality, the process in which the critical force of his theory evaporated, was protracted.3 It was not until 1928 that the theoretical system he had begun to elaborate in 1919 collapsed under the weight of its contradictions. However, the reconciliation that emerged from this collapse only systematised a tendency already present in what I’ll call the ‘1919 system’, which structures History and Class Consciousness—the tendency for its orientation toward practice to undermine its critique of reification.4 In effect, the practice described in History and Class Consciousness was to be initiated independently of theory, and the role of theory was only to reinforce and legitimise this practice. As in Theory of the Novel, the dialogue of theory and practice had been broken. The difference is that whereas previously the dialogue had been silenced by mutual incomprehension, now it was because the theory could only shadow the practice.

It is not possible here to describe in detail how the contradictions of the 1919 system were worked through by Lukács. Rather, the aim is to outline the critical system of Theory of the Novel, to describe Lukács’s conversion to Marxism in terms of his changing attitude to ethics, praxis, and his concept of totality, and to show the sense in which the post-1928 reconciliation, the collapse of the ideal of a unity of theory and practice, was already implicit in History and Class Consciousness. The thrust of the argument is that even though History and Class Consciousness sought to overcome real problems in Theory of the Novel, it reproduced those problems as well as resulting in a slackening of the critical force of the earlier work.

This treatment of Lukács’s development between 1916 and 1923 leads to the conclusion that, for all its use of Marxist terminology and its commitment to a revolutionary practice, Lukács’s work after 1919 gradually dissipated its critical power. This conclusion leads us to ask how it could be that Lukács’s attempt to guide theory into the world of things should lead it to align itself with the kind of social power that sickened the young Lukács. Describing the movement of Lukács’s thought between 1916 and 1923 attempts to address this question and raises, if only implicitly, the further question of what it would be like to combine successfully the commitment of the later Lukács’s with the critical force of his earlier theory.

Part 1: Ethics and Totality in Theory of the Novel

First published in 1916, Theory of the Novel was written as the introduction to a larger work on Dostoyevsky.5 Ostensibly a work of aesthetics, a phenomenology of literary form, in fact its arguments bristle with implications for the sort of critique of ethics, metaphysics and politics that the Dostoyevsky work was intended to address.6

LukacsThe originality of Theory of the Novel operates on a number of levels. In the first place it represents a historicisation of the static antinomies of Soul and Form (1910). In this earlier work the opposition between the purity of form and the chaos of life is presented as a brute metaphysical fact. In Theory of the Novel, still, “the division between is and ought is not transcended,” and the stark opposition expressed by this formula lends the new work its power. But while this aspect of Soul and Form is maintained, there is also a dynamic working up, a historicisation of its categories. Lukács historicises the categories of Soul and Form, and yet he doesn’t write a work of historicism.

The structures of opposition of Soul and Form lean on a philosophy that opposes the raw ground of being, treated ideally, to the unintelligible and chaotic flux of empirical life. In this sense, Soul and Form leant heavily on Lukács’s reading of Kierkegaard. The central motif of Lukács’s appropriation of Kierkegaard—the idea of the teleological suspension of the ethical—remains crucial to Theory of the Novel, albeit in inverted form; Lukács accepts Kierkegaard’s idea while fighting shy of his conclusions. Still, the tone of Theory of the Novel, compared to Soul and Form, has shifted to a new register. Instead of the bare ontological oppositions of Soul and Form, in which “real life is always unreal, always impossible in the midst of empirical life,”7 Theory of the Novel adds a historical dimension which begins to mediate the opposition between ‘real’ and ‘empirical’ life. This element of mediation shapes the work in a definite way. Lukács’s attempt in Theory of the Novel to locate the basis of criticism historically, in the development of culture rather than in its premises, represents a shift along the spectrum leading from metaphysics to politics, from existentialism to materialism.

The second breakthrough in Theory of the Novel is that, having inducted history into his criticism, Lukács demonstrates this by describing the world that is the subject of criticism; the world of capital, alienation and the shattered totality. He presents the structure of the novel as being tied at its roots to a world where the integrated character of existence has been broken, its elements divided and turned against each other.

Finally, Theory of the Novel is saturated with a desperate mood informed by Lukács’s sense of immanent cultural collapse. He believed that the very possibility of culture was being undermined by a deepening fragmentation of man’s existence, the reification of life and fetishising of its forms.

This sense of decline—a fall threatening all previous art, underlying a contemporary crisis of culture and jeopardising even the possibility of its successful resolution—was widespread among intellectuals—particularly those who, like Lukács, came from societies where capitalist relations had taken hold, but political power remained in the hands of the old order. Hungarian society before the first world war combined the effects of the spread of commodification, the break-up of old communities, etc., with a political regime that was essentially feudal, or bourgeois-feudal. The uneven nature of development in Hungary meant that the bourgeoisie there were unwilling to fight consistently even for liberal reforms, opting instead for the most wretched compromise, and aspiring only to assimilation into the ranks of the aristocratic elite.8 In these circumstances Hungary seemed doomed only to further decay.

This sense of decline heightens the force of Lukács’s criticism. Combined with his hostility to any form of reconciliation with existing reality, it reinforced his intransigence toward the political currents which emerged in response to the crisis of western culture; liberalism, nationalism and social democracy. The crisis was considered by Lukács to structure even opposition to the existing regimes.

For the Lukács of Theory of the Novel there was no immanent logic of reification by which it gave rise to its determinate negation. To that extent, and in a movement which both complements and works against Lukács’s new-found political-historical method, Theory of the Novel is essentially a work of ethical radicalism (later he was to describe it as embodying “a fusion of ‘left’ ethics and ‘right’ epistemology”).9 Above all it is a work in which this sense of personal ethical opposition to all modes of being short of a ‘truly human life’, free movement in the ethical-cultural realm (and for Lukács “a totality of men and events is possible only on the basis of culture”), is raised to new levels.10 The genius of the work lies in the way it maintains the tension between is and ought throughout.

Epic Totality

Theory of the Novel opens with a hymn to the integrated totality of the epic world:

Happy are those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths—ages whose paths are illuminated by the light of the stars. Everything in such ages is new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own. The world is wide and yet it is like a home, for the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature as the stars.11

This is followed by Lukács’s analysis of epic narrative, in its relation to epic totality, where both of these are treated as ideal types.12

The world of Homer and the epic is described as a closed totality, an immediately experienced totality of man, nature and society. This unity is suffused with meaning and intention. Its objects are not threatening in their facticity. In the epic world as Lukács sees it there is no sharp distinction between the individual and his universe, so that the two are hardly differentiated. Each person’s place is allotted them by the natural order of things and, as such, is never brought into question. The elements of the whole—man, his institutions, nature, history and community—are directly apprehended and immediately intelligible. Each thing has a naturally defined place in the whole and the world is spiritually homogeneous. Man does not perceive the world as an alien realm, as problematic, but as the natural ground of his life activity.

Here is the central feature of Lukács’s picture of the epic totality; the integration of the individual and his world. In contrast to contemporary man, “there is not yet any interiority, for there is not yet any exterior, any ‘otherness’ for the soul.”13 The subject-object dualism at the heart of modern anxiety and the impotence of bourgeois existence does not exist for the epic hero. The ‘individual’ of the epic is hardly an individual at all, since he/she is not sharply individuated in the totality, and so his/her relation to the cosmos is easy and open.

This marks epic narrative in a number of ways. First, the epic hero is not a character in the modern sense. The epic hero is not subject to any dialectic of development in which his interiority is negotiated with the world. The point of the epic is not to tell the story of the formation and fulfilment (or frustration) of character, of form-giving behaviour in which interiority is transmuted into action and either completed practically or crushed. Lukács observes that “The epic hero is, strictly speaking, never an individual,” and that the theme of the epic “is not a personal destiny but the destiny of a community.”14 The epic hero is not the ‘problematic individual’ but an instance of a social or natural type. His history is not the history of his personal development but the unfolding of one strand of a collective destiny. This means that the activity of the epic hero is both free and yet strictly limited. Feher is right to say that the other side of the vitality of the epic hero—a favourite topic of romanticism—is the essential indifference of society to his activity; “Hector dies, the silent phalanx closes again and the structure of existence remains unchanged.”15

The absence of any dialectic of interiority in epic narrative has a further consequence for its form. Just as the individual of epic action is not truly an individual, the epic author is not truly an author. The epic is not written in the space between the demands of representation (the realistic portrayal of events) and form-giving (the unfolding of their subjective meaning). The epic author is not the subject who takes the elements of a given reality and shapes them, lends them form, in the light of his own values. For the epic author there is no question of having to establish his authority as narrator; of articulating, excusing or ironising the space between action and meaning; of justifying his presence as interpreter of the action. Unlike the novel, the epic is produced without the effort of form-giving. It is a reflection, reflex, or effect of the action; but it is not at all naturalistic in the modern sense since it reflects a world in which all meanings are already evident, immanent in the material: the epic embodies these meanings directly.

The description of the epic in Theory of the Novel is vital to the method of the work. The question is whether Lukács’s purpose was to depict an ideal for culture, a standard against which to it could not only be judged but to which it should aspire. Feher argues that after counterpoising epic and novel, epic society and bourgeois society, “Lukács unambiguously decides in favour of the former.”16 In the same vein, Jameson argues that the achievement of History and Class Consciousness over Theory of the Novel is that in the later work “the ultimate realisation of a reconciled universe will now be projected into the future,” and that this strategy wins out over the “literary nostalgia” of the earlier work.17

While there is certainly an elegiac tone to Theory of the Novel, this should not blind us to the real direction of Lukács’s argument. The tendency of the work is to translate its elegy into an orientation to the future rather than a pining after the past. Feher could not be more wrong in describing Lukács’s attitude to the epic as ‘unambiguous’. The function of Lukács’s description of the epic is not to erect a normative ideal to which we could return, neither does it serve merely as an “organisational fiction” or “mythological framework,” as Jameson has it.18 It works in a precisely controlled way as an ideal type, in the sense of being neither an ahistorical abstraction nor a simply literal description but a truly historical abstraction. True, its seamlessness is used by Lukács to establish a measure for gauging the depths of the fissures in our own world; but its point of departure cannot be our point of return. Lukács’s description of epic totality forms the organising centre for his criticism of the modern, shattered totality, but to describe it as a ‘fiction’ is to confuse his purpose. Lukács never intended to write merely a history of narrative form (the status of Theory of the Novel as an introduction to the Dostoyevsky book, and the significance of Dostoyevsky to Lukács primarily as a moral thinker, might remind us of this).19 His depiction of the epic is historical, but is not intended as simple recall; it is what allows him to construct his hermeneutics of the novel form and, through this, his critique of modernity.

Lukács was well aware of “the seductive power of Greece.” He warned against it leading us to “dream of new unities—unities which contradicted the world’s new essence” and which were “always doomed to come to naught.”20 In one of the most important passages of Theory of the Novel Lukács explains why there can be no return to the Greek idyll:

The circle whose closed nature was the transcendental essence of their life has, for us, been broken; we cannot breathe in a closed world. We have invented the productivity of the spirit: that is why the primeval images have irrevocably lost their objective self-evidence for us, and our thinking follows the endless path of an approximation that is never fully accomplished.21

Lukács refused to speculate openly about the meaning of this situation, arguing that “this is not the place to inquire whether the reason for the change is to be found in our progress (whether upward or downward, no matter) or whether the Gods of Greece were driven away by other forces.”22 Nevertheless, it is impossible to make sense of Lukács’s wider argument without recognising that he viewed the ‘productivity of spirit’ positively. We cannot return to the epic world, and neither should we want to; the productivity of the spirit is an essential conquest of human history (though won at tremendous cost), defining the situation of modern man, and Lukács was not ready to abandon it. The modern world contains the seeds of a freedom ranging beyond anything that could be imagined by epic man, a freedom in which the productivity of the spirit would be allowed free play. The assumption of this condition marks off modern and epic worlds and, as Bernstein notes, there is no evidence that Lukács anywhere rejected this ‘productivity’.23

Crucially, Lukács did not locate emergent conditions for future reconciliation within the present. Consequently he could not describe any future totality that would resolve the antinomies of the present, the antinomies which underpin the novel. Against Jameson and Feher, however, this does not mean that Lukács’s orientation was toward anything other than the future. From what has been said it should be clear why this orientation often appears strained—it could not find a determinate grounding for itself. But it is just as clear that it is decisive for Lukács’s position at this point.

Second Nature and the Productivity of Spirit

Lukács’s analysis of the novel begins with his thesis of the productivity of spirit. In terms which borrow heavily from Simmel, Lukács sees society as the world of ‘objective culture’. The products of spiritual life become objectified as cultural works (cultural forms, the sciences, methodologies, artworks, practices and institutions) and these assume a life of their own. As with Simmel, interiority is expressed and objectified in cultural artefacts and cultural systems. Also as with Simmel, a chasm opens up between subjective and objective culture, though Lukács does not follow Simmel in ascribing this to objective culture’s tendency to pursue its own “indigenous logic.”24 Subjective culture can only be pursued by means of objective culture, and the life of the spirit can only be lived in relation to the world of cultural products. Since objective culture has become autonomous it stands in opposition to its authors and so frustrates the development of subjective culture.

Unlike (the later) Simmel, Lukács did not resolve these oppositional terms into moments in the procession of a transcendent ‘life’ which swallows up their antagonism, reconciling the individual to reality by depicting the two sides as elements of a more inclusive movement. Lukács drew together the elements of Simmel’s theory into a different picture of the relation between subjective and objective culture. Objective culture stands in complete, unreconciled opposition to interiority. It has become a ‘second nature’ which is as external to man as is, in Lukács’s estimation, original nature.

This vision of nature as wholly external to man rests on a characteristically idealist notion that human beings are essentially spiritual, so that work on nature always involves an alienation of our power. It is carried over by Lukács into the theory of History and Class Consciousness, with its running together of alienation and objectification. To focus on this formal aspect of the question, however, would be to miss the point. In History and Class Consciousness this attitude feeds the conceptual system that eventually permitted Lukács’s forced reconciliation.25 The effect in Theory of the Novel is quite the opposite. Here it leads to Lukács’s characterisation of a second nature in which social structures “are simply existent,” so that they can never be the “natural containers for the overflowing interiority of the soul.”26 There are no points in bourgeois society—institutions, parties, communities or classes—which might act as a fulcrum about which interiority could be translated into authentic, virtuous action. Second nature is a “complex of senses—meanings—which has become rigid and strange, and which no longer awakens interiority.” In one of the most startling images in the book Lukács goes on to describe this second nature as “a charnel house of long-dead interiorities.”27 Where History and Class Consciousness posits a system which reacts to this heightening of reification by offering the Communist Party as its negation (as the bearer of the authentic, imputed class consciousness of the proletariat), the earlier work maintains a strict critical distance from any kind of realpolitik.

The contrast between epic and modern worlds is used by Lukács to unpack the problematic that structures the novel form. The novel is the form of narration appropriate to “the epoch of absolute sinfulness.”28 It does not differ from the epic in terms of the author’s intentions—the meaningful portrayal of action—but in “the given historico-philosophical realities with which the authors were confronted.”29 The novel is the epic of the modern world, “the epic of an age in which the extensive totality of life has become a problem, yet which still thinks in terms of totality,”30 “the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God.”31 The form of the novel flows from the fact that it attempts to achieve the same “acceptance and objectivity which the great epic demands,” but in a situation in which the totality of life is fragmented and alienated rather than directly given.32 These new circumstances throw the relations and structures of the epic into new configurations.

Lukács maps out these configurations in the course of his work. Here it is enough to outline the most salient elements of his analysis; the novel’s dialectic of representation and form-giving; its problematising of the role of the hero; and the special role of time in the novel.

Because the novel remains committed to the realistic objectives of the epic it sets out to represent the world and the relations between individuals. The problem is that the totality is no longer directly given to men, and there is no privileged standpoint from which it can still be grasped. All attempts at representation simultaneously involve a process of interpretation and evaluation anchored in the author’s interiority. Since the forms of life have been problematised by the development of reification they must be constructed in an active work of creation by the author. The novel is the product of this dialectic of form-giving and representation, construction and reflection. The successful novel walks a tightrope between reflecting the world naturalistically, thus robbing it of meaning, or imposing subjective norms arbitrarily on the material, thus breaking the demand for realism; “The danger by which the novel is determined is twofold: either the fragility of the world may manifest itself so crudely that it will cancel out the immanence of meaning which the form demands, or else the longing for the dissonance to be resolved… may be so great that it will lead to a premature closing of the circle of the novel’s world, causing the form to disintegrate into disparate, heterogeneous parts.”33

This dialectic determines another constitutive feature of the novel; its use of tact and irony. The permanent oscillation in the negotiation between form-giving and representation is mediated by ‘tact’ and ‘taste’. Although these are “in themselves subordinate categories which belong wholly to the sphere of mere life,” in the novel they play a special role since it is only through them that subjectivity is “capable of maintaining itself in equilibrium, of positing itself as epically normative objectivity and thus of surmounting abstraction, the inherent danger of the novel form.”34 The equilibrium essential to a significant novel is achieved through ‘tact’.

Similarly, since the relation between interiority and second nature is problematic, giving rise to the dialectic of expression and reflection in the novel, realism demands that this disjunction and the problems inherent in it must be raised to awareness in the novel. It is here that irony comes to bear. It works simultaneously in two directions. It reveals “the profound hopelessness of the struggle,” but also “the still more profound hopelessness of its abandonment”; it “depicts reality as victorious,” but also “that reality is nothing in the face of its defeated opponent” since “the victory of reality can never be a final one.”35 Irony provides a necessary penumbra of humility to every attempt at form-giving. It is “a negative mysticism to be found in times without a God,” a docta ignorantia towards meaning.”36 Extending Lukács’s analysis, Bernstein argues that irony is “the novel’s self-consciousness of itself as a self-conscious genre” which serves both to admit and dissemble reflexivity. It “corrects the wilfulness of form” and serves to construct “a community between author and reader, a community of the undeceived.”37 Thus, while Eagleton correctly describes irony as a “ceaseless process of self-detonation,” the effect of these explosions is ultimately constructive; to legitimate the necessary distance between form and reality by bringing it to light, fusing the novel’s readership into a community, albeit fleeting and chimerical.38

Another defining feature of the novel is the situation of its hero. Above all else, “the novel tells of the adventure of interiority; the content of the novel is the story of the soul that goes to find itself.”39 Because real life is no longer merely given to its subjects as a gift of nature, it must be constructed in the course of a reflexive, mutually determining dialogue between soul and world, form and life. The locus of this process of construction is the individual. The aim of the novel is to capture this process and, since the individual forms its focal point, the novel is necessarily biographical in form. It is always an individual that enacts the dialectic of form-giving and representation, and “the fluctuation between a conceptual system which can never completely capture life and a life complex which can never attain completeness… can be objectivised only in that organic quality which is the aim of biography.”40

In the world of the epic, men and women are not truly individuated, they exist in an immediate unity with their genus and type. They cannot determine their own nature, even in principle. This is why it is naïve to idealise the pre-reflective unity of the epic world; while the epic hero is not alienated, neither is he able to transcend his given relations in order to change himself in a human sense. The epic hero can mature through a series of predetermined stages, but he cannot make himself in a series of adventures.

The adventure of interiority is possible only on the basis of the productivity of the spirit, and this only on the basis of an estrangement from the outside world, because “When the world is internally homogeneous, men do not differ qualitatively from one another… The autonomous life of interiority is possible and necessary only when the distinctions between men have made an unbridgeable chasm.”41 The novel is the epic form of an age which has witnessed the diremption of the individual and his environment, the opening of a chasm between a purely mechanical world and the individual who opposes it and has become the last refuge of the values extruded from it. The character of the individual is formed in the movement between these terms, itself mediated by the “polemical self-contemplation by the lost and lonely personality.”42

Dialectical Time

Since the character of the epic hero is static and that of the novel dynamic, because “the novel… appears as something in the process of becoming,” it follows that the novel must have a special relationship to time.43 The epic is essentially geographical, epic movement is essentially movement in space. The novel, above all other genres, has a truly temporal structure. Time is the medium that characterises and constitutes the novel.

It is characteristic of a commodity economy that it ‘spatialises’ time. However, as part of the same process, capitalism first has to quantify space in order to purge it of meaning. The space of the epic universe, Aristotelian space, is discontinuous and finite; it is an ethically informed, discrete space of hierarchically ordered spheres. The Renaissance saw the rise of a totally new concept of space.44 In place of the humanised space of the ancients there arises the abstract, continuous and quantifiable space of the modern world. This abstract space is infinite, extending indefinitely in all directions.

As space is quantified and decathected there is a concomitant emphasis placed on the subject as the new site of meaning. Leonard Goldstein argues that the rise of capitalist property relations underpins the rise of both the new conceptions of space in the science of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler and the rise of linear perspective in art.45 Michael Holly notes how the new notion of subjectivity which this produces begins to emerge in art:

Renaissance art theorists may be distinguished from those of the middle ages by their concentration on the notion of distance. Fifteenth century theorists set a distance between ‘subject’ and ‘object’ much as in artistic practice perspective placed a distance between the eye and the world of things—a distance which at the same time objectifies the ‘object’ and personalises the ‘subject’.46

This process is re-enacted with respect to time. The inter-personal time of action and intention is similarly quantified. The process of commodity production abstracts from labour as such, concrete labour, labour as a definite quality. It buys up and sets in motion the abstract labour power of the worker, and in order to increase the productivity of labour it implements a regime of labour discipline and division of labour. The strict regulation of ‘time and motion’ required for this discipline is at the root of the quantification of space and time which characterises the reified world of second nature. Just as capital abstracts from concrete to abstract labour, it abstracts also from use value to exchange value. Exchange on the market is necessary for the realisation of surplus value, and a precondition for exchange is the equivalence of the things exchanged. This equivalence can only be asserted if the concrete use values are reduced to an abstract, quantifiable dimension. The fact that anything can be exchanged assumes the underlying homogeneity of things (since all are mutually equivalent in suitable proportions)—despite the fact that we ‘subjectively’ ascribe them different, incommensurable values. The quantification and measurement that must take place if exchange is to occur once again reduces the definite qualities of things to abstract and quantifiable properties, and these properties are said to be the true, objective measure of things (indeed, they really do acquire objectivity within the context of commodity production).

Time is intimately connected with form and meaning. Intersubjective time is constructed from the network of commitments and obligations, the bonds, duties and relations of a genuine community. Real time, dialectical time, consists of this union of time and form. Quantified time destroys this unity. Bernstein expresses this by saying that “time without form is either empty, or… the time that kills,” and argues that “the important thing is to realise that time and meaning must function together.”47 For modern science time is the purely quantitative time of point-structure tensor logic, an infinite succession of durationless moments; time is objectified. Metaphysics counterpoises to this the wholly interior time of durée; time is personalised. Dialectical time, historical time, emerges from the inter-subjective dealings of the members of a community.

Lukács centres his criticism of Tolstoy around his failure to adequately portray the dialectical structure of time. He says that there are “three concepts of time in Tolstoy’s world”. Central to all Tolstoy’s work is his sentimental regard for the rhythms of nature, “the stream of Tolstoyan time.” Overlying the time of first nature is the time of second nature. The hollowness of objective culture means that “the world of convention is essentially meaningless; an eternally recurring, self-repeating monotony.”48 Meaning inserts itself between these two great natural rhythms only in Tolstoy’s third time, the time of revelation, in “the great moments,” usually when death is imminent, “which offer a glimpse of an essential life, a meaningful process.” But these interruptions prove to be abstract and illusory since they “remain mere moments, isolated from the other two worlds and without constitutive reference to them.”49

The Ethical: Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky

One great question hangs over Lukács’s work from at least 1915 through to 1918—when he reversed his position on it—and beyond: the question of ethics. It is summed up in two figures; the fictional character of Judith in Hebbel’s play of the same name, and the flesh and blood character of the populist, Boris Savinkov (Ropsin). Savinkov headed the terrorist wing of the Narodniks from 1904 to 1906 and masterminded the assassinations of the Russian interior minister, von Plehve, and the Tsar’s uncle, Sergei Alexandrovich. Judith had to wrestle with the problem of justifying murder, the murder of the tyrant Holophernes. She eventually commits the forbidden act, arguing that “Even if God had placed sin between me and the deed enjoined on me—who am I to be able to escape it?” Similarly, Savinkov had to commit the ultimate ‘sin’—murder—in the course of fighting for an ultimate good.

Lukács summed up the dilemma in a letter to Paul Ernst in 1915, arguing that it expresses “an old conflict in which the individual is forced to choose between two different ethical systems: the first being responsibility toward institutions, the second responsibility toward his soul.”50 This dilemma flows from Lukács’s treatment of the relation between theory and practice (spirit and life). It is the same dilemma that Kierkegaard resolved through his notion of a “teleological suspension of the ethical,” the idea that faith in a wider meaning can justify particular sins, making them into virtues, as Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac out of his faith in God. In Kierkegaard’s case the idea is that a leap of faith is necessary to grasp that higher meaning and justification.

Lukács’s position in Theory of the Novel, and right up to his conversion to Bolshevism, involved the rejection of any dialectic of evil which might transmute sin this way. Just as the Judith question hangs over every formulation in Theory of the Novel, one, composite, character hangs over that question in turn as its solution; the figure of Prince Myshkin/Alyosha Karamazov. Lukács’s fascination with Dostoyevsky stems from the fact that Dostoyevsky, above all other writers, explored the meaning of the dialectics of evil with unprecedented rigour. He created the figures of Raskolnikov and Smerdyakov to embody the Savinkov pole of the dilemma. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov murders the old woman because he convinces himself that “all is permitted,” and that her murder will be for the greater good since it will release her impoverished debtors from their obligations. In The Brothers Karamazov Alyosha admits that “everything is permitted” is “the Karamazov way,” and Smerdyakov murders his father because he accepts Ivan Karamazov’s argument that “all is permitted”.

When Löwy describes The Brothers Karamazov as Lukács’s “ethico-literary gospel” at the time,51 and when Lukács says in Theory of the Novel that “it is in the works of Dostoyevsky that the new world… is drawn for the first time simply as a seen reality,” both have in mind the Myshkin/Alyosha character.52 Prince Myshkin and Alyosha Karamazov refuse the dialectic of evil in favour of a consistent personal ethic. There are other parallels. Lukács’s ethical intransigence rests on the same dualism as Alyosha’s when, in his rage at the death of Father Zossima, he declares that “I am not rebelling against my God: I simply don’t accept his world.” Like Alyosha, Lukács rejects the world of absolute sin while holding on to the possibility of virtue in the here and now, even if that virtue must turn on itself and become paradoxical the moment it is expressed.

This acceptance of a Dostoyevskyan, quasi-religious concept of virtue lies behind Lukács’s rejection of all the forms of compromise on offer in pre-war Hungary.53 According to Paul Honigsheim, another visitor to the Weber circle, Lukács at this time was implacably opposed to “the bourgeoisie, liberalism, the constitutional state, parliamentarianism, revisionistic socialism, the Enlightenment, relativism and individualism.”54 This opposition was fuelled by a left ethic borrowed from the characters in Dostoyevsky’s greatest novels.55

The same ethical position fuelled Lukács’s initial rejection of Bolshevism. Only days before joining the Hungarian Communist Party he argued that Bolshevism was based on “the metaphysical premise that out of evil, good can come, that it is possible to lie our way to the truth,” and that the Bolsheviks wanted “to drive out Satan, so to speak, with the help of Beelzebub;” and he rejected this solution.56 As a Marxist, Lukács turned this argument right around. He came to believe precisely that it was possible to “drive out Satan with the help of Beelzebub.” Even as a Communist (at least until 1928) Lukács stayed within the problematic posed by Hebbel and Kierkegaard, but reversed his decision about which pole of the dilemma to cling to.

Lukács and Totality

The absence of an effective revolutionary movement, and the general backwardness of pre-war Hungary, meant that Lukács at this time was, as he later described Fichte, a “revolutionary thinker in a country that lacked a revolutionary movement.”57 It is to Lukács’s credit that this did not lead him into a compromise with the liberals, reformers or anyone else who thought existing society essentially sound.58 In these circumstances it is not surprising that Lukács’s nascent revolutionism should assume an ethical coloration; Marx once described ethics as “impuissance mise en action”. These facts provide something of a historical justification for Lukács’s position, or at least a partial justification; but more can be said in his defence.

Lukács’s analysis in Theory of the Novel is thoroughly critical because it resists all pre-emptive claims to have grasped the new, reintegrated totality. It is because of this that all theories and organisations are equally open to criticism. If Lukács had maintained this stance when he threw himself behind the revolutionary wave that swept Europe at the end of the war, if he had found a way to combine it with his revolutionary commitment, he might not have gone down with it to end up as an ideologue of Stalinism. The shift in Lukács’s attitude to ethics, the slackening of his ethical intransigence, is connected with a shift in his concept of the totality.

It was in Theory of the Novel that Lukács first made use of the idea of ‘totality’. To some extent he drew on Tonnies’ hugely influential Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft in formulating his idea. Tonnies’ argument that Gemeinschaft “should be understood as a living organism, Gesellschaft as a mechanical aggregate” is reflected in Lukács’s distinction between the organicism of epic society and the situation of the modern world in which the totality is no longer given.59

In Theory of the Novel Lukács followed Tonnies and Dilthey in adopting a ‘latitudinal’ concept of totality, in that the totality described by him applies to a specific conjuncture operative in particular circumstances. Martin Jay has distinguished between five different concepts of totality, and he describes a latitudinal totality as a “specific constellation of social structures and tendencies in effect during any one period of history or in any one culture over time.”60 In Theory of the Novel Lukács operates with just such a concept.

This idea of totality underpins the critical power of Theory of the Novel. By describing a totality that has been shattered, an essentially static, non-organic totality set over and against the individual, Lukács allows criticism to remove itself from commitment to this or that social power (and in Theory of the Novel criticism is totally divorced from all such commitment). This is because there is nothing in the ‘longitudinal’ motion of the totality (its development through time) working to undermine reification. More precisely, there simply is no longitudinal dimension to the totality in which this subversion could take place, and so the burden of this labour is left to criticism itself. Armed only with its analysis of estrangement and reification, critical theory is free to attack their every manifestation. Admittedly the power of this criticism is won by divorcing it from social power, but this paradox—that critical power depends on detachment from social power—does not mean that such criticism is made completely impotent. It is at least as plausible to argue that the paradox tells a truth about effective criticism, even if it is an exaggerated truth; criticism can only grow in the space that separates it from power.

Lukács’s ethical stance and his specific concept of totality are closely connected. The point of Lukács’s concept of totality in Theory of the Novel was that, because the totality had become divided against itself, any attempt to set ideals in motion would necessarily involve a corruption of the idea into ideology. Since the world is a world of ‘absolute sin,’ the only tools to hand for reforming it must also be tainted. Lukács’s rejection of the existing world was total; like Goethe’s Mephistopheles, he believed that “everything that exists deserves to perish.” And if the world has fallen so low compared to spirit, then spirit must detach itself and become autonomous, which is what happens in Lukács’s concept of ethics.

Apart from a brief flirtation with the idea of a community of like-minded free spirits, a Dostoyevskyan ‘utopia of souls’, Lukács could see no solution to his problems in the mundane world. To say that this placed him in a painful dilemma is an understatement. The tension between the force of his rejection of existing institutions and his dismissal of even the possibility of meaningful resistance is absolute. It did not cool down into an existential pose or a romantic hankering after the past. The nearest it came to being solved was not through a mediated resolution, but by obliterating it once and for all by suicide, thoughts of which tormented Lukács in this period.61 There was even something of a cult of suicide among young intellectuals which reveals how generalised was the mood expressed in both Soul and Form and Theory of the Novel.

This distance between Lukács’s ethical position and the world it criticises defines his attitude to praxis. In the world of Theory of the Novel praxis is not even a possibility. The space between Lukács’s moral-ethical position and the objective world of politics cannot be negotiated on the basis of Theory of the Novel. If the individual were able to live authentically, to unite theory and practice into coherent activity, then he/she would not be ‘problematic’. That is why the Marxist Lukács later rejected his analysis of character in Theory of the Novel, arguing that “individuals may have problems, but they are not problematic” in the sense he had argued there; problematic individuals could hardly live out the unity of theory and practice.62

Lukács’s latitudinal totality, his ethical intransigence and his rejection of the possibility of praxis reinforce one another in a manner essential to the system of Theory of the Novel. In passing over to Marxism Lukács had to recast his understanding of these elements of his philosophy and their relation to each other, modifying some and rejecting others completely.

Lukács’s Transition to Marxism

Lukács’s transition to Marxism has troubled his critics and biographers. On the one hand, Löwy has argued that Lukács’s decision to become a Marxist “grew logically out of… his previous development.”63 Despite the importance of Löwy’s analysis of romantic anti-capitalism in explaining why so many intellectuals of Lukács’s generation joined him in opting for Bolshevism, it is too much to claim that this decision ‘grows logically’ out of previous positions. At the other extreme are those who simply register the enormity of the leap involved in the transition; so that, in the words of Anna Lesznai, “Between one Sunday and the next, Saul became Paul.”64

To merely characterise the transition as either a leap or an organic development would perhaps tell us very little. Clearly there are elements of continuity between Lukács’s work in 1916 and 1923, and yet the leap-like quality of the transition, the way Lukács suddenly reversed so many of his positions, and even his fundamental attitude, is just as striking. Formally, Mészáros is right to see the transition as a dialectical sublation.65 The interesting problem, however, is not whether the basic relation is one of continuity, change, or sublation, but concerns the specific form, or nature, of Lukács’s move into the Bolshevik camp.

I’ve argued that Theory of the Novel embodies an extraordinary tension between Lukács’s moral-ethical position and the world of things, a tension precluding the possibility of praxis. One way to think of Lukács’s transition to Marxism is in terms of the implosion of this tension (sparked off by the outbreak of the Hungarian revolution) into a new, practical orientation on the world. What is certain is that this collapse involved Lukács in making a Kierkegaardian leap of faith in which he identified the proletariat (more accurately, proletarian class consciousness) as the determinate negation of the reified world, so that by identifying with the it it would be possible for theory at last to find a point of purchase on the world. The first consequence of this leap took Lukács back to Kierkegaard in the obvious sense that, while he had already accepted Kierkegaard’s way of posing the problem of evil, he now came to accept his solution too, the ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’. In his new theory of totality, history is thought to possess a telos that turns evil into a virtue.

A more paradoxical aspect of the leap is that, once performed, it had immediately to disavow itself. Having identified with the proletariat, Lukács’s first task was to articulate his new-found orientation in terms of a historicist version of Hegelian Marxism that justified the new position.66 This new philosophy precluded any talk of a leap of faith. Such changes of position were to be explained instead in terms of different class positions and degrees of class consciousness.

Here is the central paradox of Lukács’s transition to Marxism: it involved a Kierkegaardian leap into (a curious version of) Hegelian Marxism which, once completed, had to disavow its status as a leap altogether. But this Kierkegaardian moment of Lukács’s transition to Marxism could not, unlike like Wittgenstein’s ‘ladder of propositions’ in the Tractatus, simply be kicked away from above.67 The leap inflected Lukács’s reading of Marxism; it did not disappear but was repressed, and as repressed matter it lives on in the unconscious of the later work.

In theory, Lukács’s life as a communist was not lived in ‘fear and trembling’ in the midst of faith, but strictly in accordance with the certainties of dialectical materialism. But it is reasonable to suppose that Lukács was aware of the strange status of his Marxism, that its Kierkegaardian moment lived with him like a bad conscience. This might explain his repeated, bad tempered and unsympathetic attacks on his early writings in later life, and his unwillingness to publish any of the early manuscripts he still possessed—including the “hundreds of pages” of the rest of the Dostoyevsky book to which Theory of the Novel was the introduction.68

Part 2 : Totality and Reconciliation in History and Class Consciousness

If the attempt is made to attribute an immediate form of existence to class consciousness, it is not possible to avoid lapsing into mythology.


The form taken by the class consciousness of the proletariat is the party.


One of the most striking features of Lukács’s transition to Marxism is the way it turns around questions of ethics. In Lukács’s last essay before joining the Communist Party, ‘Bolshevism as a Moral Problem’, he outlined his basic objection to the Bolsheviks; their acceptance of a dialectics of evil. ‘Tactics and Ethics’, one of his first essays after becoming a communist, goes over the same ground as the ‘Bolshevism’ essay, uses the same examples—and arrives at the opposite conclusion.

‘Tactics and Ethics’ is fascinating because, written immediately after Lukács’s had made his decision for Marxism, it places the dialectic of continuity and change involved in Lukács’s passage to Marxism in sharp relief. In terms of its ethics it represents a neat reversal of Lukács’s formal position. He closes the essay by quoting Ropsin/Savinkov to the effect that “murder is not allowed, it is an absolute and unpardonable sin; it ‘may’ not, but yet it ‘must’ be committed.”71 And Lukács concludes from his arguments that “only he who acknowledges unflinchingly and without any reservations that murder is under no circumstances to be sanctioned can commit the murderous deed that is truly—and tragically—moral.”72

He formulates the problem of ethics here just as he had in Theory of the Novel; in terms of a contradiction between the way of the world and the way of spirit. But it is clear that he had come to accept the same Kierkegaardian teleological suspension of the ethical he had rejected in Theory of the Novel. As we shall see, this new attitude to ethics directly informed Lukács’s political practice as a Communist.

As well as expressing this combined reversal and continuation of Lukács’s old positions, the essay embodies another continuity with Theory of the Novel in terms of its intransigence toward existing institutions. Tactically, Lukács’s is opposed to any and all forms of compromise with the institutions of capitalism, arguing that:

The class struggle of the proletariat is not merely a class struggle (if it were, it would indeed by governed simply by Realpolitik), but a means whereby humanity liberates itself, a means to the true beginning of human history. Every compromise made obscures precisely this aspect of the struggle and is therefore—despite all its possible, short-term (but extremely problematical) advantages—fatal to the achievement of the true ultimate objective.73

Any contact with capitalism—its parties and organisations short of the Communist Party itself, its legal and political systems and even, as we will see, the economic interests imposed on workers by the rhythms of capital accumulation—threatens the revolutionary project, and is thus rejected in principle. The ethical intransigence of Theory of the Novel walks into its afterlife here in the form of political ultra-leftism.

This is not the place to judge Lukács’s political positions as such.74 The point is that he began his career as a Marxist still wary of all forms of political organisation, extending his suspicions to include even the party he thought would lead the revolution. Over the next few years this aspect of his politics was withdrawn until he arrived at a position where he saw the Communist Party as the real negation of capital and reification, the “form taken by the class consciousness of the proletariat”.75 The party comes to replace the proletariat at the centre of Lukács’s theory. This movement, in which the Communist Party is slowly removed from the scope of his critique of reification, constitutes the sense in which Lukács’s attenuated the critical force of his theory. The road leading to this conclusion was long and protracted, and Lukács negotiated it only in the course of trying to overcome the contradictions at the heart of his new theoretical system.

The question is, how did the bare antinomy of spirit and life in Theory of the Novel become transformed into the evolving contradictions that structure the attitude to party and class, ethics and praxis, in History and Class Consciousness? These contradictions were not resolved easily. Between 1918 and 1928, the critical element of Lukács’s new system was displaced as he wrestled with its contradictions to lend it greater ‘objectivity’. It is not possible here to chart the stages of this process. What can be done is to outline the methodological issues that structure these contradictions. This requires describing Lukács’s new concept of totality. Before discussing this, it is necessary to say something about Lukács’s relation to classical idealism, the tradition which first gave the concept of totality coherent expression.

Lukács and Idealism

Methodologically, the key to History and Class Consciousness and the 1919 system is Lukács’s assumption of absolute idealism’s concept of the totality as an identical subject-object. What is most striking about Lukács’s appropriation of this concept is that he places it right at the centre of his understanding of idealism and the dialectic. It is interesting that when he introduces the concept in the central essay of History and Class Consciousness (‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’), he does so through a discussion of Fichte, rather than Hegel.76 The young Lukács claimed that Marxism had its roots in Fichte rather than Hegel,77 and History and Class Consciousness embodies this idea in a number of ways; Lukács uses Fichtean formulations to explain idealism’s concept of the subject, and even when he appeals directly to Hegel, his understanding is inflected by Fichtean concerns.

The difference between Hegel and Fichte is that, while both see totality as the totality of spirit, for Hegel the emphasis is on grasping the totality as absolute, and, in the totality-as-absolute (even when this absolute is construed as the work of spirit), as Adorno put it, idealism “cancels itself out.”78 This is because:

If, as in Hegel, in the totality everything ultimately collapses into the subject as absolute spirit… no difference remains through which the subject would be identified as something distinct, as subject. Once the object has become subject in the absolute, the object is no longer inferior vis-à-vis the subject.79

Fichte, on the other hand, places the emphasis on the totality definitively and emphatically as subject, so that its moments are all positings of the supremely active ego which underpins the process. This is how Lukács introduces Fichte and the concept of the identical subject-object in History and Class Consciousness. He notes the “empirically existing duality of subject and object,” asserts that the underlying unity of subject and object can be grasped only as “pure activity,” and applauds Fichte for realising that the task is “to exhibit the subject of the ‘action’ and, assuming its identity with the object, to comprehend every subject-object form as derived from it, as its product.”80 The concept of the identical subject-object, with the emphasis on the creative power of the subject’s ‘pure activity’ to generate the subject-object dualism, and thus begin to overcome it, is Lukács’s way of translating Fichte’s transcendental subject into the language of Hegelianism. Fichte had defined the subject, “in relation to existence”, as “that which acts.”81 Lukács inherits Fichte’s activist concept of the subject-totality. While Fichte never spoke of the ‘identical subject-object’ as such, his concept of the self as positing the non-self, and his claim that the self constitutes “an absolute totality of the real”, is carried over into the content of Lukács’s concept.82 This understanding of the subject sits at the centre of the 1919 system, so that, as Merquior puts it, “the core of History and Class Consciousness tells of an embattled subject much closer to Fichte’s ego with all its moralist activism than to the objectifications of Hegel’s more realistic reason.”83

Compared to Hegel, Fichte gives idealism a deeply subjectivist twist. But this subjectivism is latent in all classical idealism, including Hegel’s. This is true despite the fact that Hegel, reacting against Fichte, was wary of subjectivism, and fought hard to curtail it in his system. One effect of his logicism was that precisely such subjectivism permeates his writings like a gravitational field, a field against which Hegel constantly struggled—not always successfully.

These considerations allow us to understand why Lukács’s own judgement on his work, that it was an attempt to “out-Hegel Hegel,” while correct, is only part of the truth.84 Lukács exaggerates aspects of Hegelianism because he reads Hegel in the spirit of Fichte. Although what Lukács aimed for was, precisely, a specifically Hegelian Marxism, what he produced was a Fichtean Marxism. Bearing this in mind, it should now be possible to start to analyse Lukács’s understanding of the identical subject-object and its role in his system.

The Identical Subject-Object

Lukács’s concept of the identical subject-object is rooted in Fichte’s concept of the transcendental subject, the absolute self, which he developed as a solution to both the problem of the ding-an-sich and the problem of human freedom. In Fichte’s hands, the idea of the transcendental subject is that the subject creates (posits) its object in a process in which it unfolds itself, externalising itself as nature and society in order to contemplate itself and approach freedom. The subject-totality embodies the procession of the self and its world in the process of their production.

Fichte accepted Vico’s argument that the subject can know only what it has created (an idea which is practically definitive of post-Kantian idealism), and by a tour de force turned this into the idea that the world is knowable only because it is the creation of spirit.85 Through the concept of the identical subject-object he claimed to have overcome the problem of the ding-an-sich because, by definition, no thing exists in itself, but always in a mediated relationship to the totality, and the totality is a totality of spirit.86 The whole of reality is constituted by the subject. Reality can be penetrated and known only by mediating all its manifestations, relating them to this totality; in Hegel’s words, “The true is the whole.”87 This whole is now seen as being completely accessible to reason, since the ding-an-sich, as the limit of this knowledge, has been abolished.88 This was how idealism broke down the limitations placed on knowledge by the division of labour, and the division of knowledge into special disciplines; at least in principle.

For Hegel, this Truth-which-is-the-whole, the absolute, emerged only as the outcome of a process; “the whole is nothing other than the essence consummating itself through its development.”89 Reality had to be grasped not only in terms of the opacity of matter, its dumb intractability, but in terms of its own self-movement. The real is not only object, it is subject; “everything turns on grasping the True, not only as Substance, but equally as Subject.”90 This movement, from truth-as-substance to truth-as-subject, represents the sense in which idealism’s solution to the problem of the thing-in-itself is an idealist solution. Lukács’s adoption of this concept of the totality-as-subject, his fusing together, or amalgamation, of Fichte’s transcendental subject and Hegel’s theory of totality, determines the concepts of truth, mediation, temporality and the other categories of Lukács’s dialectic.91

There is one important aspect of Lukács argument where he follows Hegel, rather than Fichte. Fichte’s solution to the problem of freedom also leaned on his idea of the transcendental subject. He collapsed the objectivity of the external world back into the subject, making the whole of reality the product of a single teleology. Because objective reality is posited by the self, it is not essentially other to the subject, it is itself essentially spirit; and so the objective world, correctly understood, is not a barrier to freedom but the site of its objective unfolding.

While Fichte’s programme is based in principle on the premise of the absolute freedom of the self-positing self (which is, at least implicitly, the empirical individual), Hegel was forced to very different conclusions once he had translated the dialectic onto the ground of objective idealism; freedom was now projected over the shoulders of individuals onto a more fundamental teleological project, the development of Geist and the Idea. Rather than finding a basis for human freedom in the human relationship to nature through productive labour, Hegel constructs an overarching teleology encompassing the whole of reality (on the basis of the absolute), the totality of spirit, and sees human freedom only in terms of this wider process.92 Freedom for the individual, to the extent that the phrase has any meaning at all in this new context, is to be found only through an adaptation of this individual to this autonomous, and external, teleology. Since Lukács’s subject is not an individual but a class, the implications of his method are similar to Hegel’s; the subject is free only by virtue of his adjustment to a wider process.

What Lukács inherited from Fichte was, in the first place, his confusion of the problem of epistemology (how can the world be understood) and the problem of ontogenesis (how is the world created). He disagrees with him only in providing a different answer to the question; he offers the proletariat rather than self as the subject (-object) of history—or, at least, contemporary history.93 He believes, however, that the right question has been asked: which is the subject that creates its own object?

The path to the self-consciousness of Spirit is read by Lukács as the path to proletarian class consciousness. Lukács’s speculative argument is essentially the same as Fichte’s, though even here there are differences.94 Lukács argues that Fichte has posed the question of history correctly; who makes history? Only his answer is wrong. Like Fichte he assumes that the world is the creation of one subject—‘the Proletariat’ creates capitalism.95 Unlike Fichte, for whom, despite his premises, the road to the Idea and freedom was never really completed (“Man must approximate, ad infinitum, to a freedom he can never, in principle, attain”), Lukács equates the reintegration of the subject-object (revolution) with the moment at which Spirit/Ego (the proletariat) recognises the world (capitalism) as its own creation; and this moment of illumination is placed on the immediate historical agenda.96 Where Fichte explained that subject-object dualism was a creation of the subject, Lukács imagines that the recognition of this fact by the subject is enough to abolish the difference. In this respect, his subjectivism even outbids Fichte’s, in that he believed that “the act of consciousness overthrows the objective form of its object,” and so social revolution has as its essence a change of mind.97

In accepting this Fichtean-Hegelian understanding of totality and the subject, Lukács rejected the key features of totality as he understood them in Theory of the Novel. He now added a new dimension to his concept of totality; the dimension of time. No longer a tool for describing particular social formations, no longer a synchronic concept of structure, from now on the totality is understood as encompassing a historical process. Jay describes this ‘longitudinal’ concept of totality as “a synonym for universal history.”98 It is clear that this is part of the concept of totality operating in History and Class Consciousness, where Lukács says that “it is precisely the whole of the historical process that constitutes the authentic historical reality,” and that “the totality of history is… a real historical power.”99

This longitudinal concept of totality allows Lukács to make the shift from Dostoyevsky to Hebbel, a shift he makes at the same time as adopting the new concept of totality. If history embodies a project more encompassing than that of any individual, then the road is clear for us to ‘sin’ if the consequences serve this wider project. The connection between the sinful act and the good outcome is then motored by history, by that ruse of reason which turns evil into good.

Similarly, and as a complement to Lukács’s changed attitude to ethics, it is this concept of totality that allows him eventually to perform his reconciliation. The danger in Lukács’s way of posing the problem of action is that it allows him to focus on one element of the totality as embodying its essential negation, to identify this element with a particular institution as its social representative, and then place this institution beyond criticism since it is itself made the ground of criticism. Specifically, the Communist Party is presented as the instantiation of the ‘imputed class consciousness’ of the proletariat, and this identification is the point of departure for an argument that leads Lukács to place the party beyond criticism.

Central to the argument is Lukács’s acceptance of the idea that there is a single subject of history—in this case, ‘the Proletariat’. The logic of Lukács’s new theory of totality is, in the first place, to position ‘the Proletariat’, as the identical subject-object of history, beyond the scope of criticism (it simply is the subject of history and, as it constitutes the total social process, there is no external vantage point from which to criticise it). The point is that ‘the Proletariat’ here is an abstraction, not to be confused with proletarians as they are identified by sociology. Lukács had only to take one more step to translate his argument into a systematic fetishising of the Communist Party. He does this by counterpoising the party, as the representative of ‘the Proletariat’, to actual proletarians. According to Lukács, the party represents the essence of the proletariat as a revolutionary class, whereas actual proletarians are still bound to the reified world and so cannot act as its essential negation. The central contradiction of the 1919 system is the contradiction that Lukács begins to develop between ‘the Proletariat’ and actual proletarians.

Lukács begins to develop this opposition soon after adopting his new theory of totality. For example, in ‘The Role of Morality in Communist Production’ (June 1919), written to address the problem of falling labour productivity in revolutionary Hungary, Lukács calls on “the individuals who constitute the proletariat” to “voluntarily set about the strengthening of labour discipline.”100 However, in the spirit of Rousseau he goes on to say that if this does not happen it may be necessary for “the proletariat to compel the proletarians to act in their own interests.”101 It is not difficult to see how, having posed the question in this way, Lukács should see his problem as one of identifying the organised social representative of ‘the Proletariat’ that could intervene in such a situation. Once the problem is seen in this light, it is not long before the urgency of the situation combines with the speculative bent of Lukács’s thought to push forward the party as the representative of ‘the Proletariat’ in its struggles with the proletarians.102

Significantly, and unlike the question of the dialectics of evil, it took some time for Lukács to draw this conclusion. Initially the 1919 system’s critique of reification was applied even to the Communist Party. It is this potential of the 1919 system, to turn its critique of reification against its every manifestation, that Lukács’s ultimately suppresses. Nevertheless, in the first stages of the system Lukács was able to turn his critique against the party: in ‘The Moral Mission of the Communist Party’ (1920) he argues that the soviets may be subject to “all the evils of capitalist society (bureaucracy, corruption and so on),” and although the target here is ostensibly the soviets, from the context it is clear that the real target is the Hungarian party leadership.103 Similar arguments are at work even in History and Class Consciousness; in ‘Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation’, Lukács combines a demand that members of the party “renounce their individual freedom” with an implicit argument that reification also affects the Communist Party, and needs to be opposed there too.104

It is in arguments like this that Lukács stays closest to the critical bent of Hegel’s thought. The essence of Hegel’s concept of the absolute was its implication that, while the absolute finds expression only in existing reality, rather than in some realm which is other to the world, all existing realities nevertheless fall short of the ideal implied in its concept. The concept of the absolute implies a critique of all existing things as being inadequate to its ideal. Lukács’s sporadic criticisms of the party are carried out in the spirit of this aspect of Hegelianism.

I have said that Lukács was ultimately unable to resolve the contradictions at the heart of the 1919 system (e.g. the contradiction between ‘the Proletariat’ and the proletariat), and that his attempts to resolve them led him to attenuate his criticism by suspending it with respect to the party. To demonstrate this it is necessary to focus the argument by examining another distinction in Lukács’s system which mirrors that between his (ideal) Proletariat and the (actual) proletariat, and reinforces the antinomical nature of their opposition; his distinction between ‘imputed’ (or ‘ascribed’) and empirical class consciousness.

Imputed Class Consciousness

The distinction which structures Lukács’s treatment of the development of class consciousness is the distinction between the actual consciousness of workers and their imputed, or ascribed class consciousness (zugerechnetes klassenbewusstein). The essential point about the way this distinction is treated by Lukács is that the terms are eventually defined and used in opposition to one another, and this opposition is not seen dialectically and relatively, but abstractly, as expressing an antinomy.

On the one hand, there is the actual consciousness of the proletariat, subject to reification and the distortions that are the result of alienation. In Lukács’s earliest formulations imputed class consciousness is treated simply as a theoretical ideal, a regulative concept which serves as a yardstick against which the actual consciousness could be measured and assessed, and perhaps as an ideal onto which actual consciousness might converge. In this form it has something in common with the Weberian notion of ‘objective possibility’.

This concept of an ideal consciousness has been attacked as inherently idealist. Marcuse argued that it “shoots beyond the borders of historicity,” and involves “a fixation outside the course of events and can be linked to history only in an artificial and abstract manner.”105 Actually, as Hegel knew, one does not have to ‘shoot beyond historicity’ to strike the universal. The problem is not that Lukács tried to formulate a theory of imputed consciousness at all, but lies in his specific concept of imputed consciousness and the way he comes to use it.

When Lukács first begins to formulate his understanding of class consciousness systematically (in the first version of the essay ‘Class Consciousness’, 1920) the idea of an imputed consciousness is intended in the sense of ‘objective possibility’, which does not necessarily appear in an immediate form. He describes his new concept as follows:

By relating consciousness to the whole of society it becomes possible to infer the thoughts and feelings which men would have in a particular situation of they were able to assess both it and the interests arising from it in their impact on the immediate action and on the whole structure of society. That is to say, it would be possible to infer the thoughts and feelings appropriate to their objective situation.106

By itself this is no more than a formula for beginning to determine and describe objective class interests, based on an appraisal of the reality of a class’s situation. According to Lukács, this imputed consciousness would embody the sort of ‘totalising’ outlook in which every aspect of society was understood in its relationship to the whole (the whole of society in its historical development). On the other hand, because his ultimate purpose was to describe how the proletariat could arrive at full class consciousness, Lukács’s was immediately faced with the problem of describing how his ideal consciousness could gain a bearing on reality so as to influence the consciousness of actual proletarians. This meant that the thrust of his problematic was already towards finding the point in reality where this imputed consciousness was instantiated.

The problem is that Lukács rejected the most obvious solution to this question; namely, to argue that particular proletarians spontaneously converged on this ideal consciousness. Instead he mapped imputed class consciousness squarely onto the Communist Party, and left the actual working class condemned to a reified consciousness. He tells us, on the one hand, that “we must never overlook the distance that separates even the most revolutionary worker from the authentic class consciousness of the proletariat.”107 This formulation condemns everyone outside the party as having a reified consciousness, and this is so as a matter of principle. On the other hand, the party is seen as having direct access to the totality, so that it is always and necessarily the “organised form of the correct class consciousness.”108 He makes the last point over and over again: “The form taken by the class consciousness of the proletariat is the party;”109 “The party is assigned the sublime role of the bearer of the class consciousness of the proletariat;”110 “The Communist Party must exist as an independent organisation so that the proletariat may be able to see its own class consciousness given historical shape;111 “The Communist Party is an autonomous form of proletarian class consciousness.”112

Having defined the relation between imputed and empirical consciousness in this way, Lukács was unable to negotiate the relationship between party and class realistically. He could find no basis from which one might be able to criticise the party (since he had decided that it already, and essentially, embodied the correct class consciousness), and so his dialectic of party and class became petrified, transformed from a dialectic of interpenetrating moments of class consciousness into a conceptual mythology. This is because, despite the characterisation of imputed class consciousness quoted earlier, where he argued that it was possible to calculate the imputed consciousness by considering the situation of a class objectively, he went on to say that “Class consciousness is concerned neither with the thoughts of individuals, nor with the state of scientific knowledge.”113 The implication is that the party possesses its hold on the totality simply by virtue of being the party, its decisions cannot be challenged on the basis of either individual experience or ‘scientific knowledge’. Whereas “Hegel made the contradiction between the scientific spirit and the critique of science… the motor of philosophical activity,”114 so that the dialectic takes place via the concept’s criticism of itself, Lukács counterpoises the ‘totalised’ knowledge possessed by the party to scientific, conceptual knowledge. In this way, the totalising perspective of the party, like Schelling’s intellectual intuition, is made immune to criticism, removed from the chain of reflection that leads ‘mere’ understanding toward reason.

At the root of Lukács’s attitude on this question is his understanding of class struggle. He believed that the spontaneous class struggles for, e.g. economic demands, rather than developing class consciousness tended to confuse and obscure it. Lukács makes a distinction between short- and long-term interests. The party defends the long term interests of the proletariat, and embodies the consciousness of its world historic mission. Workers, on the other hand, are trapped by their immediate interests, which form the objective basis for their alienation by binding them to the world of things. Any consciousness developed outside the party, in the pursuit of workers’ immediate interests, would inevitably be partial and sectional. The short and long term interests of the proletariat are opposed; “there is a conflict between the immediate and momentary interests as opposed to the general long-term interests.”115

Central to Lukács’s argument is the idea that this conflict of interests is overcome only in consciousness, by a free act of the individual, since there is no objective dialectic of development that would motor the transition from the awareness of one set of interests to awareness of the other:

In the centre of proletarian class consciousness we discover an antagonism between momentary interest and ultimate goal. The outward victory of the proletariat can only be achieved if this antagonism is inwardly overcome… Every momentary interest may have either of two functions—either it will be a step toward the ultimate goal or else it will conceal it. Which of the two depends entirely upon the class consciousness of the proletariat…116

Here is the crucial point: the proletariat only become truly revolutionary through an act of consciousness in which they abandon their ‘immediate’ interests in order to submit to the discipline of the party; making the leap from (partial, one-sided) understanding to a totalising reason. This leap of consciousness reproduces the structure of Lukács’s own ‘leap into Bolshevism’, and represents the most obvious example of the way that the Kierkegaardian moment of Lukács’s transition to Marxism shaped his later work.117 Lukács’s description of the kind of leap that leads to Bolshevism and the totality combines, in this peculiar way, the imperious activism of the Fichtean Ego (it is a self-propelled leap, a pure act) and the radical impotence implicit in Kierkegaard’s concept of faith (because it is a leap out of the chain of reason, in other words, precisely a leap of faith).

According to Lukács, only the Communist Party could unite the interests of all workers, on the basis of its totalising perspective. In this case the party replaces the proletariat as the real subject of the historical process, since it is the party rather than the proletariat that embodies the type of consciousness necessary to overthrow reification. The vital thing is not the proletariat (as ‘proletarians’) but ‘the Proletariat’ (embodied in the party):

The mass actions of the revolutionary period… erupt spontaneously… and cease spontaneously when their immediate objectives appear to be realised or unattainable. They have thus kept to the pattern in terms of ‘natural laws’.

There is no longer any doubt among communists that, in view of this state of affairs, the party assumes a role that is not only decisive, but will in fact determine the outcome of the struggle.118

Historically speaking, the initiative is now in the hands of the party. This conclusion, which involves the substitution of party for class, rests on Lukács’s treatment of spontaneity and class interests.

His philosophical program after 1919 rested on the idea that, in the proletariat, he had found a basis in the world for criticism of that world and a praxis directed against it. In fact he failed to locate this basis other than rhetorically. As in Theory of the Novel, he continued to believe that contact with the mundane world was essentially corrupting—so that the economic situation of the proletariat kept it bound to sectional interests and spontaneous struggles. For all his talk of the centrality of the proletariat to his system, it is the party he looks to as the real negation of capital, as the embodiment of a consciousness (notionally ‘ascribed’ to the proletariat) which has disengaged itself from the world of things (economic interests) to survey the whole. The chasm he placed between imputed and empirical consciousness meant that his imputed, ideal consciousness remained an abstraction, drawn from outside the real world. This abstraction was then mapped immediately onto one existent, the party, as if the party itself was not rooted in the reified world. Lukács later explained the political subtext of the argument:

By ‘imputed’ class consciousness… I meant the same thing as Lenin in What is to be Done? when he maintained that socialist class consciousness would differ from the spontaneously emerging trade-union consciousness in that it would be implanted in the workers ‘from outside’.119

In Theory of the Novel his critique of the world of things was translated into ethical intransigence, in the 1919 system a similar understanding is translated into an uncritical faith that the party can act as the ‘compass’ of the working class in the world without itself being subject to reification; and a compass is something one simply has to adjust to.120 The logic of Lukács’s new understanding of totality allowed him to elevate the party in this way, so that, in Merquior’s words, “in History and Class Consciousness, the apotheosis of totality turns out to be a blatant hypostasis of the Leninist party.”121

Lukács and Reconciliation

I’ve claimed repeatedly that Lukács’s reconciliation with reality, the slackening of his critical distance from it, was not performed overnight but was the result of a long process. The roots of this process lie in the contradictions of the 1919 system, which on the one hand embodied a merciless critique of reification, but then tended to suspend this critique in relation to the Communist Party. The question was whether the contradiction was going to be resolved by extending the critique of reification to the party, while finding some basis for objectivity outside the party, or by removing the party from criticism once and for all.

This problem could never be resolved within the scope of the 1919 system itself, and Lukács only arrived at a solution by abandoning the system. Although he did not definitively abandon it until 1928, in the years from 1924 to 1928 Lukács moved increasingly in the direction of an explicit reconciliation which prefigured his position after 1928. In 1926 he wrote two essays of special importance in this connection. In ‘Art for Art’s Sake and Proletarian Poetry’ he argues that one should not expect the changes in Russia to achieve any immediate expression in culture. This allowed him to keep faith with the emerging Soviet bureaucracy and attack those intellectuals who had hoped that the revolution might solve their own, specifically cultural problems—a hope which had been part of the fabric of History and Class Consciousness.122

The other key essay of that year was his study of ‘Moses Hess and the Problems of Idealist Dialectics’. Here Lukács for the first time focuses on the concept of reconciliation as the keynote of Hegel’s system, whereas in History and Class Consciousness the identical subject-object is at the centre of his appropriation of Hegel. In his new argument, the overriding aim of theory is to overcome utopianism and orientate ideas solely towards existing realities. While this was already one of the tendencies of the 1919 system, at least in principle, Lukács’s new emphasis on this aspect of the problem reflects his unease at the residual idealism of the system. To that extent it represents an important methodological insight on Lukács’s part. The problem is that he ultimately distorted this principle to provide a rationale for his accommodation with the bureaucracy.

One can see this in the way, in a later essay, he contrasts Hölderlin and Hegel:

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 on an understanding of this 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 has no place for his ideals, not even on the level of poetry and thought…

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 only necessary phases.123

One needs only to consider that the year Lukács wrote this essay (1936) was the same year that Trotsky first characterised the Soviet regime as Thermidorian to see that the comparison at work here is between Trotsky and Hölderlin. To this he contrasts Hegel’s (and, by implication, his own) ‘realism’ in reconciling themselves to the new regime.

It is not necessary to follow Lukács in seeing the debate as one between realists (Lukács) and utopians (Trotsky) in order to reject his conclusion. The problem with his argument is not its demand for realism but the assumption (which he shared with Trotsky) that Stalin’s regime was Thermidorian. One could easily argue that Stalin’s regime did not consolidate proletarian rule as Thermidor had consolidated bourgeois rule after the French revolution; and so Stalinism was not merely Thermidorian but a fully counter-revolutionary. ‘Realism’ in this case would mean opposition to Stalin rather than support. Lukács’s argument picks up on Trotsky’s characterisation of Stalin’s regime as embodying an essential continuity with the regime of 1917 (which is what the concept of Thermidorianism implies) and turns it against him. His equation of anti-Stalinism with utopianism is merely polemical, a methodological reductio ad absurdum of Trotsky’s argument. He uses Hegel’s concept of reconciliation as a stick to beat the critics of the Stalin regime, but there is no reason in principle why this argument for realism could not be turned against Lukács.

The problem in all this was not that Lukács tried to overcome the ‘ought-like’ character of the 1919 system, to lend his philosophy greater objectivity and realism. To do this would have required abandoning his idea that the party embodied an abstract ‘imputed consciousness’, which it defended against actual workers, and attempting instead to find the basis for objectivity in the actual proletariat rather than in this ideal. Instead, by characterising the Soviet regime as Thermidorian, as somehow defending the legacy of the Russian Revolution, his new emphasis on ‘realism’ allowed him to keep faith with the party despite the misgivings he had.

It is at least possible that Lukács’s struggle for objectivity could have led in a different direction if it had not been for the waning of the revolution in Europe and the subsequent rise of Stalinism. In the event, he achieved ‘objectivity’ only by abandoning the 1919 system, its strengths as well as its contradictions, in favour of a materialism which, while formally more rigorous, was distorted by his commitment to Stalin and Stalinism.

Conclusion : History, Narrative and Reconciliation in Lukács

The essence of the change Lukács’s work undergoes between Theory of the Novel and History and Class Consciousness is tied to the connected questions of ethics, praxis and totality. The same transition could be explained in terms of the possibility of narrative. In the early work the construction of a collective narrative is seen both as the central problem of history and as profoundly problematic, perhaps impossible. His critical theory allows him to explode every attempt to claim that the basis for such a narrative is already in place.

In History and Class Consciousness the assumption is that the class struggle creates, and constantly reproduces, this basis. However, the class struggle is posed by Lukács in the context of his new theory of totality, in terms of the sort of teleological project implied by his theory of the identical subject-object, and this allows Lukács eventually to reconcile himself to the organisational expression of workers’ struggle (to the extent that it is a revolutionary struggle), the Communist Party. The problem lies not so much with the first part of the argument—the idea that class struggle creates the possibility of a new narrative—but with the speculative logic of History and Class Consciousness which allows Lukács to conclude that the party already speaks the new language. In this way, the real dialectic of history is broken, and the party is assumed, in a vital sense, to have completed the path leading from empirical to real (totalised) class consciousness, from reification to freedom.

The totality formed by the identical subject-object, unlike that of Theory of the Novel, is integrated in the sense that Lukács assumes that the whole of the totality, in its inner connections, has been grasped by the method (by ‘historical materialism’). That is, it is integrated in the dimension of history. Lukács did not deny that the ‘totality’ of society as it exists now is fragmented (reified), it is just that its place in the wider project of history—the totality as such—meant that the individual was no longer problematic but could act in the light of an understanding of this wider meaning. There is, in principle, nothing new that could emerge from history, which remains to be completed only in the trivial sense that, although the last act of history has still to be played (the revolution), the form of this development is already known to that totalising consciousness instantiated in the party. The party speaks the language of the future in advance of its being made; on the other hand, the future is with us already in consciousness and in fact (as ‘the party’), and needs only to be completed practically by people acting under its direction. The individual of the 1919 system is made at home in the stuff of history by the grace of the party; he/she is no longer a ‘problematic’ individual vis-à-vis the ‘history’ of History and Class Consciousness in the way that the individual was problematic vis-à-vis the ‘society’ of Theory of the Novel. The young Lukács had taken as his own Novalis’s idea that “Philosophy is really homesickness, it is the urge to be at home everywhere.”124 History and Class Consciousness turns this yearning into the idea that, in his version of Marxism, and in the Party itself, philosophy had come home.

In moving from Theory of the Novel to History and Class Consciousness, Lukács passed from a synchronic, latitudinal totality to a totality that was to be open to history. In fact, in History and Class Consciousness the synchronicity of the latitudinal totality, its timelessness, is only reproduced at a higher level. Lukács’s attempt to open his system to the wind of history was stalled by a method which assumed the historical process to have been closed by the party’s prescience. History and Class Consciousness embodies only the illusion of historicity; it is closed to the future to the extent that the future is known to the party. As the actually existing embodiment of the future, the party became the God whose emergence Lukács had anticipated before turning to Marxism, the God who heals the fissures of the ‘broken totality’; but the arrival of God means the end of history. Thus, the ‘time’ of History and Class Consciousness is not intersubjective, dialectical time, but dead time of second nature.

According to Béla Balázs, the young Lukács had criticised art for its ‘Luciferian’ power to present the world as homogeneous, thus making the condition of the world bearable, and it was this understanding that motivated Lukács’s initial turn from aestheticism to ethics as the basis for authenticity.125 One does not have to accept this characterisation of art to see that Lukács’s later retreat from ethics also involved him in presenting the world as homogeneous; homogeneous, that is, in the dimension of history. In this sense, Lukács’s Marxism involves an aestheticising of reality which is as diabolic in its implications, in forcing a premature reconciliation with the world, as the young Lukács had imagined art to be.

By turning the party into the source of objectivity (as the ‘compass’ of the proletariat), Lukács compromised his attempt to find the basis for a unity of theory and practice. While he overcame the abstract opposition of spirit and (lived) life in Theory of the Novel, he only turned this into an equally abstract opposition of party and class. This means that his new-found ‘praxis’ did not express a real unity of theory and practice but only an accommodation of theory to fit the practice of the party—the unity of theory and practice collapses into an identity between the party’s practice and the theory subsumed by that practice. Praxis as the identity of theory and practice would make sense only in the (utopian) situation where world and spirit are already reconciled. Until then, talk of ‘the unity of theory and practice’, if it does not recognise that their unity must include an essential opposition, is shorthand for a practice that suppresses criticism. To the extent that world and spirit remain unreconciled, theory and practice will be opposed even in their unity.

These judgements of Lukács’s development after 1919 operate only at a level of abstraction. It took Lukács himself the best part of a decade before he resolved the contradictions of History and Class Consciousness by moving beyond the 1919 system altogether. In History and Class Consciousness the critical power of Theory of the Novel is still at work, in its critique of reification. But by moving from the critique of alienated society to the defence of a speculative universal history, by moving from Dostoyevsky to Savinkov, and by effacing the Kantian moment of his early work, Lukács paved the way for his reconciliation with the social power of the Soviet bureaucracy.

I have tried to explain the movement of Lukács’s thought toward this conclusion in terms of his attitude to ontology and epistemology, but the discussion is only intended to explain the background to the most dramatic change in Lukács’s outlook between Theory of the Novel and History and Class Consciousness; his attitude to ethics. When Lukács joined the Communist Party it was not because he had come to reject the problematic posed by Kierkegaard, Hebbel and Dostoyevsky; he just changed sides in the argument. It is impossible to imagine the ethical revolutionary of 1916 telling soldiers, as Lukács did in the Hungarian civil war, that “terror and bloodshed are a moral duty, or, more plainly, our virtue,” but that is where the logic of his position took him.126 Similarly, a 1922 report on the state of the Hungarian Communist Party reports Lukács as believing that it was acceptable to “lie and cheat to party members,” and that “Communist ethics makes it the highest duty to accept the necessity of doing evil.”127

Lukács’s acceptance of this dialectics of evil parallels his forced reconciliation with reality, and this is the side of the problem we have concentrated on; but there is another side which puts it in a different light. The paradox of Lukács’s acceptance of the dialectics of evil is that, just as the ethical intransigence of Theory of the Novel embodied his rage against the reified world, in History and Class Consciousness this same rage, and even the same intransigence, is translated into a reconciliation with the world which permits him to ‘sin’ in the name of the party, in the hope that this might force the hand of history. Thus, Lukács’s willingness as a Communist to commit ‘sin’ is only a sublimated form of the utopian aspiration to virtue in Theory of the Novel; in that sense, Lukács’s dialectic of evil is the stillborn, premature child of his utopianism, and the worldliness of Lukács’s dialectic is only the disguise worn by his utopianism.

Despite being difficult to reconcile with the orthodox Marxism of the third international, the ‘utopian pragmatism’ embodied in Lukács’s dialectic of evil was not unique to him but was shared in one form or another by many of the communist intellectuals of the time. It is best summarised by Bloch’s demand that the revolutionary should be “guided tactically by Jesus with the whip, and only teleologically by the Jesus who loves mankind.”128 But the ‘realism’ of this command contains the seeds of an accommodation to the state of things. By declaring themselves ready to take up the whip, these intellectuals prepared themselves to have the whip used against them; they would accept a discipline that required them to silence their criticism where it did not suit the party.

Although I have concentrated on the peculiarities of Lukács’s development, the tragedy is that his fate mirrors that of a generation. Raised in the traditions of idealism, neo-Kantianism, Hegel, Simmel and Weber, in the wake of the Russian revolution they moved from ethical intransigence, tinged with millenarianism, to place their hopes in the Communist Party. When these hopes were dashed, many learned to reconcile themselves to the situation. The role of Lukács in all this is vital, for he not only shared the fate of these intellectuals but, before all others, through his theory of class consciousness and the party, he helped shape it.

Andy Wilson, September 1994


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  1. Mészáros considers the “closely interrelated” concepts of totality and mediation “the central categories of Lukács’ dialectic.” Mészáros, 1972, p 61. ↩︎
  2. Arato and Breines, 1979, p 49. ↩︎
  3. Reconciliation’ here is meant in the purely negative sense, as the “reconciliation under duress” Adorno accused the later Lukács of performing (see his essay ‘Extorted Reconciliation’, a review of Lukács’s Essays on Contemporary Realism, in Adorno, 1991, p 216f). This sense of the term is intended throughout. ↩︎
  4. This is not to say that it was inevitable that this tendency won out over others simply as a consequence of the logic of the system. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this tendency came to dominate only under the impact of events. Certainly it is at least conceivable that, in different circumstances, other tendencies could have come to dominate, and the contradictions of the work might have been resolved differently. ↩︎
  5. The manuscript of the rest of the book was only discovered by his friends a year after Lukács’ death. For an account of the structure of the Dostoyevsky work, and an analysis of its contents, see Congdon, 1983, p 100f. ↩︎
  6. The title and the essayistic form of the work are misleading. Lukács was later to say that in Theory of the Novel he was interested “only in the axiology and philosophy of history of works, not in the works themselves.” Lukács, quoted in Arato and Breines, 1979, p 62. ↩︎
  7. Lukács, Soul and Form, p 153. ↩︎
  8. Lukács’ father was ennobled in recognition of his work as the director of the national bank, though Lukács himself opted not to use the ‘von Lukács’ title. ↩︎
  9. Lukács, ‘1962 Preface’ to Theory of the Novel (TN), p 21. It should be added that by ‘ethics’ Lukács did not mean anything like Kantian ethics, civic responsibility, or anything of the sort. What I have called Lukács’ ‘ethical stance’ is to do with his idea of ‘goodness’ and ‘virtue’. On Lukács’ treatment of this distinction, see Arato and Breines, 1979, p 47. ↩︎
  10. TN, p 147. ↩︎
  11. TN, p 29. ↩︎
  12. Lukács simply ignores those aspects of the epic which do not fit so neatly into his schema. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer argue that many aspects of modern thought can be traced back as far as Homer (see Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979, ‘Excursus 1: Odysseus, or Myth and Enlightenment’, p 43f). ↩︎
  13. TN, p 30. ↩︎
  14. TN, p 66. ↩︎
  15. Feher, 1973, p 54. ↩︎
  16. Feher, 1973, p 47. ↩︎
  17. Jameson, 1974, p 179. ↩︎
  18. Jameson, ibid. ↩︎
  19. See TN, p 37, for example. ↩︎
  20. TN, p 37. ↩︎
  21. TN, p 33-34. ↩︎
  22. TN, p 37. ↩︎
  23. See Bernstein, 1984, p 62. ↩︎
  24. Simmel, 1968, p 45. ↩︎
  25. There is not the space here to explore this question in detail. Briefly, by depicting the relationship to nature as inherently alienated, Lukács cannot see labour, as the form of the human relationship to nature, as the basis of objectivity. In the absence of this basis, Lukács constructs a speculative dialectic in which the revolutionary party (as the bearer of authentic, imputed class consciousness) becomes the standard of objectivity. Because of this he cannot maintain a critical attitude towards his own party, and his position collapses into a premature reconciliation with the world. ↩︎
  26. TN, p 62. ↩︎
  27. TN, p 63. ↩︎
  28. TN, p 152. It would be more accurate to say that Theory of the Novel analyses only the first stage in the development of the novel, rather than the novel sui generis, but this has no bearing on the ethical-political questions I want to deal with.Notice also that Lukács’ characterisation of the world as a world of ‘absolute sinfulness’ is drawn from Fichte. Fichte divided history into five stages, of which the present, the “age of absolute sinfulness” is the third. The influence of Fichte on Lukács was to become even more marked in History and Class Consciousness.
  29. TN, p 56. ↩︎
  30. TN, p 56. ↩︎
  31. TN, p 88. ↩︎
  32. TN, p 74. ↩︎
  33. TN, p 71-72. ↩︎
  34. TN, p 74. ↩︎
  35. TN, p 86. ↩︎
  36. TN, p 90. ↩︎
  37. Bernstein, 1984, p 93, 191, 161. ↩︎
  38. Eagleton, 1986, p 28. ↩︎
  39. TN, p 89. ↩︎
  40. TN, p 77. ↩︎
  41. TN, p 66. ↩︎
  42. TN, p 67. ↩︎
  43. TN, p 73. ↩︎
  44. Although the origins of this new concept can be traced at least as far back as the ninth century. See Goldstein, 1988, p 21. ↩︎
  45. Ibid., p 10. ↩︎
  46. Michael Holly, 1984, pp 150-151. ↩︎
  47. Bernstein, 1984, p 126. ↩︎
  48. TN, p 150. ↩︎
  49. TN, p 151. ↩︎
  50. Lukács, letter to Paul Ernst, 15th May 1915, quoted in Gluck, 1981, p 193. ↩︎
  51. Löwy, 1979, p 114. ↩︎
  52. TN, p 152. ↩︎
  53. The religious dimension of Lukács’ thought at the time of Theory of the Novel is very marked. In the Dostoyevsky manuscript he analyses Dostoyevsky’s story of the Grand Inquisitor (a chapter of the Karamazov book), in which the Inquisitor imprisons Christ, saying that the freedom he had offered men was unendurable to all but a few: the church ministered for the rest of humanity by providing them with a type of spiritual slavery—from this Lukács derives as an ideal the idea of the “non-objectivised Christ”. He also draws on St Augustine’s characterisation of the state as “organised sin”. See Congdon, 1983, p 101. ↩︎
  54. quoted in Löwy, 1979, p 95. ↩︎
  55. Löwy provides a plausible, account of the social origins of the tension in Lukács’ position: “he embraced the problematic of both the German intelligentsia (irreversible development of capitalism) and the Hungarian intellectuals (stability of an ultra-conservative, feudal-bourgeois society), combining the two in an extremely radical ‘ideological amalgam’ that tended towards a consistently tragic world view.” 1979, p 97. ↩︎
  56. Lukács, ‘Bolshevism as a Moral Problem’, Dec. 1918, quoted in Gluck, 1981, p 204, and Berman, ‘Georg Lukács’ Cosmic Chutzpah’, in Marcus and Tarr, 1989, p 148. ↩︎
  57. Lukács, 1975b, p 289. ↩︎
  58. In the sense that they wanted, as Marx once said of Proudhon, “the system without its abuses,” rather than the destruction of the alienated world and the building of a new system. ↩︎
  59. Tonnies, Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, quoted in Löwy, 1979, p 33. ↩︎
  60. Jay, 1977, p 130. ↩︎
  61. See, for example, Congdon, 1983, pp 44, 45, 47, and Arato and Breines, 1979, p 44. ↩︎
  62. This is also the thrust of Feher’s argument in his essay on the novel (op cit.): he turns the later Lukács against the early Lukács. It should also be said that in rejecting his notion of the ‘problematic individual’ Lukács abandoned one of the most suggestive concepts of his early criticism. See, e.g., ‘The Ideal of Harmonious Man in Bourgeois Aesthetics’, in Writer and Critic, Lukács, 1978. ↩︎
  63. Löwy, 1979, p 128. ↩︎
  64. Anna Lesznai, quoted in Löwy, ibid. ↩︎
  65. Mészáros, 1972, p 18. ↩︎
  66. Here I mean only that Lukács’ ‘Hegelian Marxism’ is historicist, not that any philosophical systematisation of Marxism, whether or not it draws on Hegel, must also be historicist. ↩︎
  67. Wittgenstein, 1981, # 6.54. This is assuming that kicking away the ladder is as easy for Wittgenstein as he implies. ↩︎
  68. See Mészáros, 1972, p 50. Lukács went so far as to deny that he had ever intended to write a book based on Dostoyevsky. As I have already noted, it was only after his death that the manuscript of the work was found. See Congdon, 1983, p 100. ↩︎
  69. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, (HCC), 1971b, pp 173. ↩︎
  70. HCC, p 41. ↩︎
  71. Ropsin (Boris Savinkov), quoted in Lukács, 1972, p 11. The use of Ropsin-Savinkov as an ideal turned out to be something of an embarrassment to Lukács, as Savinkov went on to lead one of the White Armies in the Russian wars of intervention. ↩︎
  72. Lukács, 1972, p 11. ↩︎
  73. ibid., p 6. ↩︎
  74. One of the main factors in Lukács’ development after 1919 was the political debates he was involved in. In slowly giving up his characteristically ultra-left positions (opposition to trade union and parliamentary work, support for the ‘March action’ of the KPD and the ‘theory of the offensive’) he was deeply influenced by Lenin’s criticism of the Comintern left wing. ↩︎
  75. HCC, p 41. It is important that this statement is understood correctly. Lukács clearly means ‘the form taken by the authentic, imputed class consciousness of the proletariat’. While this formulation appears to go beyond Lukács’ words, it was a truism of Communist Party theory that the Social Democratic parties represented the ‘class consciousness’ of the proletariat—in all its unevenness and ‘backwardness’. In light of this it is impossible to interpret Lukács’ claim in any other way than as claiming that the Communist Party really embodied the ideal, imputed proletarian class consciousness. ↩︎
  76. See HCC, p 121f. ↩︎
  77. See Congdon, 1983, p 75. ↩︎
  78. Adorno, 1993, p 69. Perhaps Adorno should have said that, in the concept of the absolute, Hegel’s idealism attempts to ‘cancel itself out’. ↩︎
  79. ibid., p 68-69. ↩︎
  80. HCC, p 123. ↩︎
  81. Fichte, ‘Second Introduction to the Science of Knowledge’, in Fichte, 1991, p 33. ↩︎
  82. Fichte, 1991, p 125. Fichte argues that the intelligible world is “that which is to come about through my action”, ‘Second Introduction to the Science of Knowledge’, in ibid, p 41. This mirrors Lukács’ argument that the proletariat is the subject of capitalism, which it creates as its own object. ↩︎
  83. Merquior, 1986, p 89. ↩︎
  84. Lukács, ‘1969 Preface’, HCC, p xxiii. ↩︎
  85. Although Fichte does not refer directly to Vico in The Science of Knowledge. ↩︎
  86. Lukács described this manoeuvre in similar terms, and linked it explicitly to his concept of the identical subject-object: “the grandiose conception that thought can only grasp what it had created strove to master the world as a whole by seeing it as self-created. However, it then came up against the insuperable obstacle of the given, of the thing-in-itself. If it was not to renounce its understanding of the whole it had to take the road that leads inwards, it had to strive to find the subject of thought which could be thought of as producing existence without any hiatus irrationalis or transcendental thing-in-itself.” HCC, p 121-122. ↩︎
  87. Hegel, 1977, p 11, # 20. ↩︎
  88. In Hegel’s case it might be more accurate to say that the ding-an-sich is relativised rather than abolished—so that the non-identity of subject and object is not simply annulled but made internal to the movement of thought. See Adorno, 1993, p 76. ↩︎
  89. Ibid. ↩︎
  90. Ibid., p 10, # 17. ↩︎
  91. Lukács tries to fuse Fichte’s subject and Hegel’s totality, but creates what is essentially only an amalgam. The important thing is that Lukács’ concept of totality, which is ostensibly Hegelian, is everywhere shaped by his Fichtean understanding of the subject. ↩︎
  92. This remains so despite the fact that Hegel’s distinctiveness among the idealists was that he at least sought to find the basis for freedom precisely in labour. There is no space here to examine why Hegel’s attempt to build on this observation eventually failed. ↩︎
  93. In ‘The Changing Function of Historical Materialism’ Lukács claims that historical materialism, and therefore, implicitly, his own philosophy, is relevant only to the history of capitalism, rather than history tout court. This makes obvious sense if the proletariat are to be the ‘subject-object of history’, since they exist only under capitalism—and therefore, within (Lukács’) historical materialism, ‘history’ must mean the history of capitalism, and ‘totality’ the totality of capitalism. See, for example, HCC, p 228.However, this understanding of historical materialism does not sit happily with Marx’s understanding of his own method. On this point Lukács remained silent. One solution would be to say that by ‘the proletariat’ Lukács really meant ‘labour’, but this substitution would destroy everything that is specific to Lukács’ system.It was in order to ‘solve’ this problem that Joseph Revai, a supporter of Lukács in the Hungarian CP, proposed that the proletariat “project itself into the past” as the representative of all humanity, so constituting itself as the subject not only of capitalism but of all previous societies. Playing fast and loose with ontology in this way (allowing the prolatariat-as-subject to “posit” the pre-capitalist societies that are a precondition of its own emergence) is typical of the speculative method Lukács inherited from Fichte and idealism, and which Revai inherits from Lukács. It leads to an ontology in which, as Marx said in relation to Hegel, “the son begets the father.” On Revai’s review of History and Class Consciousness, in which he proposed his modification of Lukács argument, see Arato and Breines, 1979, p 183.
  94. By a ‘speculative argument’ I mean the sort of argument that interprets reality in terms of a universal teleological system. Hegel and Fichte differ in the extent to which they are guilty of ‘mere speculation’. As Adorno notes, Hegel’s methodological ideal, in opposition to ‘speculation’ as it is defined here, was “to think from the thing itself out” (See Adorno, 1993, p 6). Within the bounds of the difference between Hegel and Fichte, Lukács is a Fichtean. ↩︎
  95. As we will see, ‘the Proletariat’ turns out to be quite different from actual proletarians. My terminology here is borrowed from Engels’ essay on ‘The Mystery of Speculative Construction’, in The Holy Family, where he contrasts the speculative concept of ‘the Fruit’ with actual apples, pears, etc. See Marx and Engels, 1975, p 68f. ↩︎
  96. Fichte, 1991, p 115. ↩︎
  97. HCC, p 178. ↩︎
  98. Jay, 1977, p 130. ↩︎
  99. HCC, p 152. ↩︎
  100. Lukács, 1972, p 31. ↩︎
  101. Ibid ↩︎
  102. Apart from anything else, this runs counter to Marx’s understanding of history. One of his main criticisms of Hegel was precisely that he too had ultimately sought a ‘subject of history’ rather than looking at how actual subjects exist historically. ↩︎
  103. Lukács, 1972, p 69. At the time Lukács was locked into a bitter factional fight with Bela Kun and his supporters in the leadership of the Hungarian CP. On top of the political differences Lukács also accused Kun precisely of “bureaucratism and corruption”—specifically, the misappropriation of funds sent to the party from Russia. ↩︎
  104. See HCC, pp 315, 335. ↩︎
  105. Marcuse, quoted in Arato and Breines, 1979, p 206. Even though he is reviewing History and Class Consciousness, Marcuse is objecting to the idea of an ideal consciousness as such, rather than Lukács’ version of it. With respect to Lukács, however, as we shall see, Marcuse was right; his theory of class consciousness “shoots beyond the borders of historicity.” ↩︎
  106. HCC, p 51. ↩︎
  107. HCC, p 80. ↩︎
  108. HCC, p 75. ↩︎
  109. HCC, p 41. ↩︎
  110. HCC, p 41. ↩︎
  111. HCC, p 326. ↩︎
  112. HCC, p 330. ↩︎
  113. HCC, p 53. ↩︎
  114. Adorno, 1993, p 73. ↩︎
  115. HCC, p 173. ↩︎
  116. HCC, p 73. ↩︎
  117. Another feature of the later work that mirrors the ‘leap’ from empirical to imputed consciousness, and is similarly Kierkegaardian, is his emphasis on the disjuncture between the ‘realm of necessity’ and the ‘realm of freedom’. See HCC, pp 70, 209, 250. ↩︎
  118. Lukács, 1972, p 6. ↩︎
  119. Lukács, ‘1967 Preface’, HCC, p xviii. ↩︎
  120. Lukács describes the party precisely as the “compass” of the working class, and uses this to justify the “undemocratic dictatorship of the party”. Lukács, 1977, p 87. ↩︎
  121. Merquior, 1986, p 78. ↩︎
  122. George Lichtheim describes the impact of History and Class Consciousness on the Western intelligentsia precisely in terms of its implicit argument that the revolution would address not only exploitation and oppression, but would solve wider cultural problems: “Until the appearance of this book, these intellectuals had regarded Communism as a mere extension of the Russian revolution: doubtless an important event, but one that did not seem to promise a solution for their own problems: a purely political movement centred on a relatively backward country. What Lukács did was to claim universal significance for it. In his interpretation of Marxism, the proletarian revolution appeared as the key to the riddle of history.” Lichtheim, 1970, p 67. ↩︎
  123. Lukács, ‘Hölderlin’s Hyperion’, in 1968, pp 137-139. ↩︎
  124. Novalis, quoted in TN, p 29. ↩︎
  125. See Arato and Breines, 1979, p 59. ↩︎
  126. Lukács, ‘Speech to the Red Army’, quoted in Kadarkay, 1991, p 222. ↩︎
  127. Ilona Duczynska, ‘Notes on the Dissolution of the Hungarian Communist Party’, quoted in Kadarkay, ibid., p 261. ↩︎
  128. Bloch, Geist der Utopie, quoted in Radnoti, 1975, p 155. ↩︎

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