Georg Lukács
Georg Lukács; drawing by David Levine


In Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Naphta, the fanatical Jewish Jesuit, says of the proletariat: “Its task is to strike terror into the world for the healing of the world, that man may finally achieve salvation and deliverance and win back the freedom from law and from distinction of classes, and return to his original status as a child of God.”1 Such a pronouncement, full of deep disenchantment with the human condition and manifesting at once Marxist and mystical leanings, is made to Settembrini, the calm and plodding rationalist. Naphta the atheist, who rejects secularism and paganism, is also Naphta the Christian heretic, who longs for paradise on earth. Having repudiated bourgeois individualism, he has entered the world of a militant religious community that holds to a bewildering orthodoxy, at once—like Naphta himself—seductive and slippery.

Mann’s portrait of Naphta was almost certainly modeled on Georg Lukács, the Hungarian Jew who enjoyed distinction during the three decades before his death in 1971 as the world’s greatest modern Marxist philosopher. The two men, novelist and philosopher, had known each other for several years before World War I, primarily through their written work, and were to develop a long-lasting and mutual admiration. Lukács saw Thomas Mann as the spiritual descendant of Goethe, and as the last great representative of German bourgeois culture. “There is in his writing,” Lukács declared, “that now vanishing sense of bourgeois, patrician dignity: the dignity which derives from the slow movement of solid wealth.”2 In Mann’s novel, Settembrini warns the young Hans Castorp: “It is my duty to point out to your tender years the intellectual perils of intercourse with this man, and to beg you to keep your acquaintance within safe limits. His form is logic, but his essence is confusion.”3

Is this true? Lukács himself did not identify with Naphta, calling him “the spokesman of the reactionary, Fascist, anti-democratic Weltanschauung.”4 But that he himself was “a person of most unusual powers,” as Settembrini is made to admit about Naphta, finds testimony in a welter of critical studies bearing on Lukács’s controversial work in aesthetics, literary criticism, and Marxist dialectics. He wrote voluminously, over a period of sixty years. Books, essays, disputations, notes, and disparate musings streamed from his pen as he praised and condemned, in succession, almost every literary and cultural event he deemed significant. Everything he published has been presumed to be brilliant, and undoubtedly much of it is. Still, it is hard to get at the man. Some questions about the course of his political and philosophical development are never answered, and some issues remain obscure.

Why, for example, did he become a Bolshevik in 1918, a few weeks after publishing an article in which he denounced Bolshevism? The answer never becomes entirely clear. The chaotic political situation in Hungary at the time helps to explain the decision, but it does not get at the more subtle reasons for this sudden Marxist conversion. Because many of Lukács’s writings were published long after he had written them, it is possible—and unsettling—to encounter him, in the sequence of publication, first as a Marxist and then as an anti-Marxist, when, in reality, it was the other way around.

The first major work of Lukács’s to become known abroad was Soul and Form; it appeared in Budapest in 1910. In the critical essays that make up his book, Lukács addressed himself to the writings of Kierkegaard, the German Romantic poet Novalis, Laurence Sterne, and others, with the unifying theme of the problem of human alienation as inescapable destiny. One can see in these early essays a philosophical direction that subsequently emerges more boldly: the attempt to formulate a defensible belief in a realm of being beyond the senses. Lukács’s goal was to work toward a rebirth of metaphysics, as opposed to nineteenth-century scientism and positivism, in which understanding was not dependent on causal explanation, but could be achieved through an act of intellectual intuition.

With the publication of The Theory of the Novel in 1920 in German, a broadly conceived study of Dostoevsky, Lukács achieved a solid reputation among a Central European intellectual elite impressed with the originality and vigor of his presentation. “Indescribably well-aimed” was how Ernst Bloch put it, while Alfred Weber and Ernst Troeltsch gave it equally strong praise. The form of the contemporary novel, Lukács argues in this essay, written at Heidelberg between 1914 and 1915, is a new expression of the empty prose of modern existence as opposed to the life-renewing spirituality of the Homeric epic. For him, the epic world of classical literature represented an organic, intrinsically meaningful, and concrete totality in which human alienation was unknown. Modern literature, in its turn, provides no equivalent to this brotherly haven, but in the questing heroes of Dostoevsky he divined the heralds of a new spiritual world, the forerunners of an immanent totality or utopia. Written during the anguish of the war years, this was the book that won for the passionate young thinker the admiration of Thomas Mann.


Until the end of World War I, politics were not a part of Lukács’s thinking. His concerns were literary and metaphysical, if not often mystical, having taken shape during his years in Germany where, as George Lichtheim put it, “a complex intellectual development carried Lukács from the aestheticism fashionable among Central European intellectuals before 1914 to a qualified acceptance of what was then known as Lebensphilosophie, a form of vitalism or intuitionism that stood at the opposite pole from scientific rationalism.”5

The young thinker found himself intellectually more at home in a country with strong philosophical traditions than in his native Hungary, where poetry and literature enjoyed greater acceptance as the sources of critical thought. From Lebensphilosophie, Lukács gradually shifted, over the years, to the objective idealism of Hegel; when he eventually embraced Marxist doctrinal theories, it was through Hegel. The conversion to Marx came at the end of the war, when the younger generation of Eastern Europeans experienced a sense of dislocation far more catastrophic than did their counterparts in the West. They sought a solution to the modern hopelessness of their lives not in metaphysics, but in a “total” system of truth about the world. They used the words “soul and spirit” constantly, expressing a yearning for a higher, spiritual world outlook, for a world of total harmony of body and soul. In December 1918, Lukács joined the Communist party of Hungary, becoming an important figure in the nascent orthodoxy. He was, he said, taking a giant leap forward, toward a new life elevated to metaphysical dignity, one whose aestheticism would give rise to a unifying, powerful, and monumental art, “bearing the hallmarks of eternity,” as Lajos Fülep (a member of Lukács’s now famed Sunday Circle) put it, “in the same way that the art of Egypt, Greece, and the Renaissance did.”6


Georg Lukács was born in Budapest on April 13, 1885. In his later years, he described himself as a pure product of Lipótváros (Leopoldstadt), a prosperous district inhabited by upper-middle-class Jews. In reality, he could have claimed more: he was born and lived for many years in various luxury apartments on Andrássy út, a street favored by the aristocracy. (After World War II, Andrássy Avenue, renamed for Joseph Stalin, was the address of the political police headquarters.)

Lukács’s grandfather Löwinger, a scarcely literate quilt maker in the Hungarian city of Szeged, was a devout man who enjoyed sharing Seder nights with his children and grandchildren.7 His son József (Joseph) struggled up from poverty to a position of great wealth: in 1877, when only twenty-four, József Löwinger became an executive of the Hungarian branch of the Anglo-Austrian bank, and in 1906 he was made the director of Hungary’s greatest financial establishment, the General Credit Bank. By then, he had changed his name to the Hungarian-sounding Lukács, and in 1901 he was ennobled, with the predicate “von Szeged,” by Emperor-King Francis Joseph.

A contemporary photograph shows József Lukács in the ornate costume of a Hungarian aristocrat: a rather short man, he poses with a dignified expression, his garment resplendent with a heavy gold collar clasp and myriad gold buttons. His right hand holds a fur hat adorned with egret feathers; his left firmly grasps the curved Oriental saber traditional with Hungary’s fighting nobility. Several photographs and paintings of his wife, Adél Wertheimer, a Jew from Austria, also exhibit a sense of composure and upper-class elegance. The couple had four children: János (John), the oldest, who was killed by the Nazis in 1944; Mária or Mici, who died in London in 1980; and György or Georg; and another boy who died at the age of three.

Outwardly, the Lukács children led an enchanted life, supervised by French and English governesses, doted on by a generous and loving father, and educated at the best schools. From their mother, they inherited a bilingual facility in German and Hungarian, a heritage that became particularly valuable to the future philosopher. But all was not tranquil in the household, as Lukács later revealed.

We learn most about Lukács’s personal life through a series of extended conversations he had in Budapest with István Eörsi and Erzsébet Vezér, all subsequently published in Georg Lukács: Record of a Life. Eörsi, a poet, dramatist, and journalist who was born in 1931, participated in the 1956 revolution in Hungary, suffered imprisonment between 1957 and 1960, and became one of Lukács’s favorite disciples. Vezér is a well-known Hungarian literary historian. The conversations, concluded in March 1971 shortly before Lukács’s death, reveal as much about Eörsi’s admiration (mixed with sharp criticism) of his master as they do about Lukács’s reflections on his career. As Lukács disclosed in his conversation with the two Hungarians, hostility and rebelliousness lay behind the façade of orderly home life. He and his sister disliked their elder brother, mainly because he was the favorite of their mother, for whom they harbored a passionate antipathy. Adél Wertheimer seems to have been both domineering and stiflingly conventional; Georg was so estranged from her that, at the end of her life, when she was dying of cancer, he was induced to write to her only “under pressure from other members of the family.”


Georg attended the liberal Evangelical (Lutheran) Gymnasium which, despite its denominational character, was the preferred school of the Hungarian Jewish elite. Its alumni included several world-famous Hungarian Jewish mathematicians and physicists whose names are associated, among other things, with the atomic bomb. In the words of William McCagg, an expert on Hungarian Jewry: “Not only Georg Lukács, but…virtually all of the Wigner-Neumann generation of physicists attended the Lutheran Gymnasium…as did a great many of the young scientists who went to school in Budapest between the wars.”8

In view of the Lutheran school’s success in training some of the world’s greatest scientsts, it comes as a surprise to hear Lukács tell Eörsi and Vezér that “the Protestant Gymnasium had abysmal intellectual standards.” It is probably true that education at the school was conventional and conservative: Georg, moreover, was extremely precocious. He had apparently learned to read by sitting across from his older brother and deciphering his books upside down. As a child he devoured The Last of the Mohicans, which taught him, as he told Eörsi, that right action was more important than success. In his reading of the Iliad, he sided with Hector, the loser, rather than with Achilles. Later came Tolstoy, Ibsen, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Swinburne, Shelley, and Keats. Lukács also liked Hungarian literature, but he distinctly did not share in the ethnocentrism of the general Hungarian reading public. It was invariably the outsider, the isolated and lonely thinker, that appealed to him.

Wholly estranged from his mother, Georg was also cool to his adoring father as well as to the family’s wide circle of rich and influential friends. Even so, he never carried his rebellion too far. As he told Eörsi and his other friends:

I was involved in guerrilla warfare with mother. She was very strict with us. The house had a woodshed, a place where it was always dark. One of my mother’s favorite forms of punishment was to lock us up in it until we asked to be forgiven. My brother and sister always asked promptly for forgiveness, whereas I made a sharp distinction. If she locked me in at 10 AM, I would say I was sorry at 10:05, after which all was in order. My father used to return home at half-past one. Whenever possible, my mother took care to see to it that there was no tension in the house when he arrived. Hence, I would never apologize if I was locked in after 1 o’clock, because I knew that I would always be let out at 1:25 whether I had done so or not.

Lukács’s peculiar “guerrilla tactics,” his desire to outfox those in power, remained with him all his life. His clever maneuverings were to get him into serious trouble with the Communist party, but they also helped to save him from Stalin’s executioners in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, and later in Hungary after the revolution of 1956.

Several of the books under review here are greatly concerned with Lukács’s Jewish background and Hungarian Jewish life in general, unlike previous books, which either pretend that he was not a Jew or claim that his Jewishness was irrelevant. Lukács himself insisted that his Jewishness meant nothing to him. At the Lutheran Gymnasium, he was regarded “as a Leopoldstadt aristocrat, not as a Jew,” he asserted, a very strange claim considering that, in Hungarian eyes, Leopoldstadt was identical with well-to-do Jewry and certainly not with the traditional aristocracy. As for his Jewishness, Lukács told Eörsi and Vezér, “I always realized that I was a Jew, but it never had a significant influence on my development.” And again, in the same conversation: “I never felt myself to be a Jew. I accepted my Jewishness as a fact of birth, and that was the end of the matter.” This was no doubt both true and untrue: Lukács grew up in a tolerant society where his Jewish origin caused him no inconvenience.

Furthermore, because he left Hungary after the collapse of the 1919 Bolshevik revolution, Lukács did not personally experience the anti-Semitic backlash of the White counterrevolution. He had converted to Protestantism in 1907, and his first wife was not a Jew. On the other hand, it is probably not accidental that most of the women he loved were Jewish, and that nearly all of his pre–World War I friends as well as his fellow Bolsheviks in 1919 were Jews (so, incidentally, were many of his post-1956 Hungarian pupils and followers). Then, too, his Jewishness was more than a question of lovers and friends: around 1910 he seems to have discovered Hasidism through his reading of Martin Buber, with whom he corresponded.

Mary Gluck and Lee Congdon, in recent books on the intellectual development of Lukács as a young man, are convinced that his rejection of Hungarian values came from his response to the anti-Semitism that prevailed. But he was ready to embrace Hungarian values through the imaginative vision of Endre Ady, a quintessential Hungarian poet, whose verses had a huge effect on Lukács. According to both Gluck and Congdon, Lukács and his circle of friends recognized that the assimilation so arduously pursued by an earlier generation of Jews was ultimately hopeless. As Gluck puts it: “In an age of growing anti-Semitism and intransigent conservative nationalism, the children of the assimilated Jewish middle classes became the social group most vulnerable to marginalization and social dislocation.” Or, as Congdon writes: “Alienated from his family in general and his mother in particular, sensitive to the growth of anti-Semitism in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and hostile to official Hungarian culture, Lukács was an outsider.”

These factors, the two authors argue, led Lukács and his fellow homeless intellectuals to construct “a new cultural identity based on their very marginality.” Lukács found this identity first in cosmopolitan philosophical modernism and, after 1918, in revolutionary Marxist socialism. Unlike other writers on Lukács who are unable to account for his sudden shift in the fall of 1918 from idealistic aestheticism to out-and-out Bolshevism, Gluck interprets it as another manifestation of the same search for a new religiosity. Disappointed in the Jewish religious tradition, in his bourgeois family, and in Hungarian society, Gluck argues, Lukács found a permanent home in communist ideology.

This interpretation is fascinating, but I wonder whether Lukács’s estrangement from family, class, and country was truly a result of external circumstances. It would appear, in fact, that his sense of estrangement was self-imposed, akin to that of so many other Hungarian, Austrian, and German intellectuals of the pre–World War I era, for example the Expressionists, who rebelled against a society that in reality treated them quite well. The father shot to death by his son in Der Sohn, the 1914 Expressionist drama by Walter Hasenclever, wields a whip and employs a governess to imprison his twenty-year-old son. Hasenclever wildly exaggerates the father’s brutality but makes it clear that, by killing him, the son does not administer justice. Rather, he enters a state of near-mythical self-exaltation. Lukács’s own father seems to have been the very image of goodness, intensely proud of his son the scholar, and ever ready to offer him financial support. Nor could Lukács have been disappointed with his Jewish religious heritage, since he had inherited almost none: religion in his father’s house was no more than a formality. Finally, although there was much anti-Semitism in Hungary even before World War I, this anti-Semitism was not growing steadily, as Gluck and Congdon believe, and it is unlikely that it had any great effect on Lukács.

In 1910 there were about 910,000 Jews in what was then still Greater Hungary; they made up roughly 5 percent of the population. In Budapest alone there were 200,000 Jews, comprising nearly one fourth of the city’s inhabitants. The success of the Hungarian Jews in business, industry, and even public employment was phenomenal. By 1910 they owned and managed most of the heavy industrial enterprises, mines, and the great banks. They formed an absolute majority, or nearly so, of the self-employed traders, private employees, medical doctors, lawyers, journalists, booksellers, publishers, and printers. Furthermore, they were a significant and growing minority among teachers, other civil servants, and even landowners. Because education was the key to a reserve officer’s commission, Jews accounted for almost one fifth of the reserve officer corps of the Habsburg army, and an even higher proportion in the separately organized Hungarian National Guard.

The transformation of Jews from peddlers and marginal artisans to businessmen and clerks and then to civil servants, professionals, judges, professors, politicians, generals, and landowners was very rapid, often accomplished within the space of two generations. It was made possible by the emancipation of 1867 and by liberal Hungarian politics. The dynamic and expansionist Hungarian political elite, made up mostly of landed nobility, needed the assimilationist Jews to build up the national economy and simultaneously to bolster the share of Magyar speakers in the multinational state that was Greater Hungary.

The heyday of the assimilated Jews came in the 1860s and 1870s, after Hungary had become an equal partner with Austria in the so-called Dual Monarchy. Unbridled capitalist expansion caused many of the gentry class to lose their land to the banks and thus, ultimately, to Jews. The social upheaval of the period inevitably gave rise to discontent. Upwardly mobile elements of the lower classes began clamoring for the exclusion of Jews as “unfair competitors.” Fears of modernization, immorality, and modern ideas as well as the fact of rapid secularization led in the 1880s to the creation of an anti-Semitic party and even to a few minor pogroms. Then, too, the spread of general education and rapid urbanization led to the founding of mass political parties in the 1890s, with anticapitalist programs and, in at least one case, an anti-Semitic one as well. But the original anti-Semitic party had collapsed by the 1900s, and the more moderately anti-Semitic Catholic People’s Party had made no real headway.

Meanwhile, the governing liberal party or parties never flinched in their support of capitalist development and thus, too, of Jewish assimilation. In the words of the historian Gábor Vermes: “During the early 1900s, there was still—despite continuing social anti-Semitism—nearly universal appreciation for the Jewish eagerness to assimilate and augment the Magyar ranks…. Every neophyte Magyar was received with open arms.”9 The father of Georg Lukács was one of several hundred Hungarian Jews who had been ennobled by Emperor-King Francis Joseph on the recommendation of the Hungarian government. Most of these titles were awarded after 1900.

József von Lukács was staunchly pro-Habsburg, but he was also a Hungarian patriot, as were fellow members of the Jewish elite. The senior Lukács was a model “Hungarian of the Mosaic persuasion,” and when he died in 1927 his position in business and society still seemed unshaken, despite the fact that Hungary had undergone an anti-Semitic counter-revolution in 1919. The partial annihilation of Hungarian Jews was to occur only in 1944. Rather than moving steadily from emancipatory liberalism to repressive and reactionary anti-Semitism, Hungarian society did not become particularly anti-Semitic until 1919. Nor is there any sign before World War I of any “marginalization and social dislocation” of the Jewish middle classes.

The Bolshevik commissars who took over Hungary in 1919 came, almost without exception, from fairly well-situated, assimilated, patriotic Hungarian Jewish families. The rebellion of these young intellectuals against the liberal-bourgeois society which had emancipated their parents and grandparents cannot be explained by the growing anti-Semitism of Hungarian society. Not one of these commissars, not Béla Kun, not Georg Lukács, not József Pogány, not Mátyás Rákosi (who subsequently became Hungary’s Stalinist dictator in the late 1940s), ever made the slightest reference to anti-Semitic insults suffered in his youth or to any other such injustice. In fact, not one among them ever admitted publicly to being a Jew. The transition over three generations from rags to riches and from there to intellectual activity and, in the case of some, radical politics, was not exceptional. For lack of a better explanation, the radicalism of Lukács’s generation might be viewed as the result of yearning for a fresh sense of commitment, and for a secular faith offering spiritual salvation.

Georg Lukács grew up in this assimilationist milieu. He might have become a university professor, a deputy to parliament, a member of the cabinet (the minister of defense between 1910 and 1917, General Samu Hazai, was a converted Jew; another cabinet member had not even converted), or a bank director. Instead, he chose rebellion against conventional society. Perhaps he did so partly because he wished to transcend the narrow intellectual limits of his increasingly nationalistic fatherland, or even because he had a premonition of the catastrophe that was to engulf Europe in the Great War. Restlessness in any case was part of his temperament.

For Lukács, the trek from the Lutheran Gymnasium to the Hungarian Soviet government was long but hardly unpleasant. Following his graduation in 1902, Lukács went to Scandinavia, there to meet with Henrik Ibsen, his literary idol. In the same year, at the age of seventeen, he made his first appearance in print, publishing vignettes in a weekly press on modern artists and dramatists whose works he championed as forces against the degeneration of literature. Two years later, he founded, with his father’s help, the theater group called Thália, which presented modern bourgeois tragedies and lasted until 1908.

In the meantime, he had earned the first of two doctorates in philosophy and had again gone abroad, among other places to Berlin, where he was seduced by Georg Simmel’s theories on social and cultural forms. Simmel belonged to the first generation of modern German philosophers working toward a revival of metaphysics; he extended Kant’s transcendental questioning to the field of society and culture. Lukács followed Simmel’s methodology in his first, unfinished system of aesthetics, called “Heidelberg Aesthetics,” when he asked the question: “Works of art exist: what makes them possible?” His purpose here was to assign autonomy to a work of art independent of its creator or its beholder. Art is not tied to the world of experience, he argued, it transcends reality; if it did not, it would partake of the same alienation that plagues the world of experience and would, indeed, be governed by it. The central value of a work of art, he asserted, is the utopian reality it posits; it sets up a deep chasm between that reality and the world we know.

Max Weber found considerable strength in these arguments, writing to Lukács that “my impression is a very strong one, and I am quite sure that the posing of the problem is the definitely correct one. It is a boon that the ‘work’ as such is now finally given voice after attempts to write esthetics from the standpoint of the receiver and more recently from that of the creator.”

In this period, Lukács also won a prestigious Hungarian literary prize, wrote and published a History of the Development of Modern Drama, and collaborated with the radical democratic circle around the Huszadik Század (“Twentieth Century”). Huszadik Század was the voice of practically the only intellectual group in Hungary at that time concerned with the plight of the poor and the need for political democracy. Most of its members, like Lukács, were Jewish. Lukács wrote for the journal, even though he despised what he felt was the group’s superficial enlightenment and its antimetaphysical positivism and rationalism. The radicals, in turn, admired Lukács’s intellect but disliked his literary pessimism, subjectivism, and aestheticism. Their leader, Oszkár (Oscar) Jászi, was particularly vehement in his criticism of Lukács as emotionally immature and unconsciously conservative.

In fact, Lukács’s longing for unity, affirmation, inner truthfulness, and simplicity, as well as his violent rejection of liberal individualism betrayed a genuine conservative streak. As Mary Gluck argues in her book, Lukács and the other modernists can be seen as traditionalists and reactionaries in their “passionate hatred” for “the materialistic, utilitarian civilization of the late century…. They shared with conservatives an intense and nostalgic awareness of ‘life as it was, and is not, and should be.’ ” In his Theory of the Novel, Lukács would hark back to the time of “Giotto and Dante, Wolfram von Eschenbach and Pisano, St. Thomas and St. Francis [when] the world became round once more, a totality capable of being taken in at a glance.”

After a study tour of Florence in 1912, Lukács moved to Heidelberg, where he was to stay for several years. All this was paid for by his father: Lukács never had to work for a living. At Heidelberg he soon gained access to the inner circle of Emil Lask, Max and Alfred Weber, and Ernst Troeltsch, and continued his close friendship with the social philosopher Ernst Bloch.

By then, he was living with Yelena (Ljena) Grabenko, a refugee Russian socialist revolutionary, whom he later married. The relationship turned into a “terrible and unimaginable hell” because of Ljena’s love affair with Bruno Steinbach, a neurotic pianist who came to live in the Lukács household at Heidelberg and who terrorized Lukács with his crying and screaming. Yet it was only in 1917 that Lukács decided to leave the two lovers and divorce followed soon thereafter. To have entered into such a marriage sounds suicidal, and Lukács had explored suicidal feelings in a short story, “Of the Poverty in Spirit,” written in 1912 after the suicide of his first love, Irma Seidler. Here he recounts the thoughts of a young man who plans to kill himself following the suicide of his beloved. “I must write now, now when you will only receive these lines along with the news of my death,” Lukács himself had written to Seidler after they broke up. The tortured pattern of Lukács’s relations with women in these years helps to explain his view, summarized by Agnes Heller, that “great love must be ascetic—the creative individual must touch life but only in order to transcend it.”10

The outbreak of the war left Lukács unmoved. He saw it as the culmination of the “age of complete sinfulness,” and he refused to share in the prowar enthusiasm of the German mandarins. As he explained to Eörsi, he hoped that the Central Powers would defeat Russia, and that they, in turn, would be defeated by France and Great Britain. The dilemma, then, was who would “defend us against the Western democracies?”

Lukács returned to Budapest in the fall of 1915 to appear before a military commission. Thanks to his father’s intervention, he was declared unfit for front-line duty and served for a while in the military censorship office. In the following year, József Lukács used his good connections with a cabinet minister to have his son discharged indefinitely. Clearly, Lukács’s experience fails to support Gluck’s and Congdon’s contention that in wartime Hungary, Jews had become “outsiders.” By then, Lukács was the leader of a loose-knit group of intellectuals who met regularly to discuss ethics, aesthetics, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky. This was the “Sunday Circle,” composed again almost exclusively of assimilated Jews. It included the film critic Béla Balázs, who, among other things, wrote the librettos for Béla Bartók’s operas, the sociologist Karl Mannheim, and the art historians Arnold Hauser and Lajos Fülep.

The Sunday Circle must have resembled a gathering of highly educated and heavily intellectualized religious fanatics. As Gluck recounts, they engaged in abstract discussions, heralded a “new metaphysics,” a “new age of devotion,” and a “new spiritualism.” They saw their ideal in the nonalienated culture of the Middle Ages, engaging in confessions and self-criticism. They were obsessed with “the solitude of self in modern capitalism,” and they yearned for a new collectivism.

The age of new collectivism actually dawned with the collapse of Austria-Hungary in the fall of 1918 and the democratic, nationalist revolution in Budapest. As late as December 1918, Lukács was still railing against Communist practices in an essay entitled “Bolshevism as a Moral Problem.” “Bolshevism,” he wrote, “is based on the metaphysical premise that out of evil, good can come, that it is possible to lie our way to truth. The writer of these lines is incapable of sharing this faith, and for this reason sees an insoluble ethical dilemma in the roots of the Bolshevik position.”11 Two weeks later, Lukács joined the Communist party of Hungary. “It was only in 1917 that I obtained an answer to questions which until then appeared insoluble,”12 Lukács explained (in his late seventies, when he was given to making somewhat different interpretations of his Marxist career). Following the Bolshevik takeover on March 21, 1919, Lukács became People’s Commissar for Public Education. As such, he appointed some of Hungary’s prominent intellectuals to leading positions, but he also dismissed scores of teachers and civil servants whom he considered politically unreliable. When the Soviet Republic engaged in a war against Czechoslovakia and Romania, Lukács became the political commissar of the 5th Red Division. In the latter capacity, the antiwar philosopher meted out the kind of “justice” he had earlier so abhorred: “I set up a court-martial,” he told Eörsi and Vezér, “and had eight men belonging to the battalion that had run away in panic shot in the market-place.”

The Hungarian Soviet republic collapsed on August 1, 1919, and somewhat later, Lukács fled to Vienna. Arrested in October by the Austrian authorities, he was soon released following the intervention of Thomas Mann and other eminent German literary men. Lukács was to remain in Vienna for ten years as a leading Hungarian communist émigré; while there, he wrote History and Class Consciousness (first published in German in 1923), his inaugural work in Marxist theory. It “owes its enduring relevance,” writes George Lichtheim, “to the manner in which Lukács recaptured the Hegelian dimension of Marx’s thought. The explosive effect it produced within the European Communist movement was due to simpler considerations.”13 In truth, the book was not welcomed by Russian Communists, who resented the emergence of a specifically Western interpretation of Marxism, represented not only by the writings of Lukács but by theorists such as the German philosopher Karl Korsch. Although Lukács presented the proletarian revolution as the key to the riddle of history and claimed universal significance for communism, he questioned Engels’s understanding of both Kant and Hegel through arguments that stuck impressively to the facts. “What Lukács put forward in the central sections of History and Class Consciousness,” Lichtheim writes,

was a genuinely dialectical theory which undercut the stale dispute between materialists and spiritualists. [Engels esteemed matter above spirit; Lukács, a Hegelian, did not.] His standpoint could be summarized by saying that materialism and spiritualism are the thesis and antithesis of a debate which has its origin in a failure to overcome the cleavage between subject and object. The solution lies not in opting for one or the other, but in transcending the area of dispute, and this can be done by following Marx in treating practice as the concrete union of thought and reality.14

Advancing this and many other views, Lukács’s book subsequently came to be regarded as the most brilliant and influential of his writings.

In 1930, Lukács went to Soviet Russia and then to Berlin. In 1933, he made his way back again to Russia, where he was to remain until 1945. It was during the 1930s that his longstanding philosophical interest in the problem of aesthetics led him into often volatile debates with Bertolt Brecht centering on the issue of modernism in art.

Like other restless thinkers of the prewar generation, Lukács had at that time seized on modernism as a radical new kind of sensibility—disenchanted, introspective, solitary, and irreverent—in effect, echoing his own sense of malaise. Gradually, however, Lukács and his intellectual sympathizers came to regard modernism as a movement leading to a cul-de-sac; when such advanced modernists as the Futurists and Dadaists asserted their independence from any sort of tradition, convention, limit, or even good sense, where were they going? And where could they go? This was Lukács’s point, for if the basic premise of this radical individualism was its rejection of authority, then it sprang from a negative impulse.

Quick to point out the striking similarities between romanticism and the new aestheticism, Lukács had declared (in an essay on Novalis in 1910) that the Romantics, too, had rejected life, if unconsciously. “The deep nature of this withdrawal and its complex relations were never understood by the Romantics themselves,” he wrote, “and therefore remained unresolved and devoid of any life-redeeming force. The actual reality of life vanished before their eyes and was replaced by another reality, the reality of poetry, of pure psyche.”15 The ultimate result of withdrawal, Lukács declared in his reductive criticism of modernism, was the psychological and artistic paralysis of the aesthete; it resulted not in freedom but in servitude of the most excruciating kind.

Such aesthetic questions were now given a passionate airing in Lukács’s debates with Brecht. “Their contrasting Marxist aesthetics were directed in part,” writes Eugene Lunn in Marxism and Modernism, “toward the question of which literary traditions could best be utilized and reworked in the antifascist struggle: nineteenth-century realism or twentieth-century modernist forms.”16 Brecht advocated an essentially constructivist modernism, intellectually designed, explains Lunn, “to reveal a knowable, but shifting, multifaceted and contradictory outer reality, estranging his audiences from habituated mental assumptions so that they may be able to truly master the social world.”17 Lukács held in the 1930s and 1940s that the precursors of Marxist aesthetic orthodoxy were not the modernists; they were the German classicists and French realists of the nineteenth century who reflected traditional humanist attitudes. By then a doctrinaire Stalinist, Lukács’s hostility to all forms of modernism included atonal music and the prose of Joyce, Proust, Beckett, and Kafka. He accused modern literature of indulging in historical pessimism and of indirectly apologizing for presentday conditions. These writers—Lukács argued—rejected capitalism but were unable to see the future in socialism.

The disputations of Lukács and Brecht—both arguing in the language of Stalinist dialectics—were among the most intense controversies in the history of Marxist aesthetics. Here we see Lukács struggling against the crudities of Stalinism, yet adopting the required Stalinist jargon. His vigorous defense of “classical realism”—Balzac, Scott, Tolstoy, and, in modern times, Thomas Mann and Gorky—led him to attack the extreme left of “Proletcult,” while at the same time he sought to undermine, if only subtly, the petit-bourgeois tastes of the genuine Stalinists. This was the typical Lukács: a man with an inspired mission whose repeated compromises on behalf of ideological solidarity (often they were in the form of outright retractions or self-abnegation) serve to cloud the aspirations of his near-religious mission.

Retractions became a matter of survival for Lukács during the twelve years of his exile in Russia. The criticism to which he was subjected by the Party, and which could have cost him his life, was followed by abject and repeated self-criticism—a pattern that was to become increasingly familiar. After World War II, the now highly acclaimed Lukács returned to Hungary, but once again, because he unwittingly deviated from the Party line, he was officially rebuked, and he engaged in another round of self-criticism. “His problems with the party, where they genuinely existed,” writes David Pike, “stemmed from the difficulty of keeping the relationship between theory and practice in an alignment proper from the perspective of the political leadership. By the late Twenties, he had lost the opportunity to articulate and refine the theory without outside interference and was obliged to pursue his vocation just like other party intellectuals charged with rationalizing tactics.”18

In October 1956 the anti-Soviet upheaval in Hungary quickly developed into an anti-Communist revolution. On October 25, Lukács joined the government of the revisionist Communist Imre Nagy, and following the Soviet military invasion on November 4, he, too, was deported to Romania along with Nagy and his leading supporters. Nagy and others were subsequently executed, but Lukács, who had opposed Nagy’s attempt to withdraw Hungary from the Warsaw Pact, was permitted to return to his house and library. As he grew older, he became critical of Stalinism, but his belief in the superiority of communism was unwavering. He wrote in 1969 and again in 1971: “I have always thought that the worst form of socialism was better to live in than the best form of capitalism.”19 He neither had nor sought the chance to compare life under Stalin’s or Mao’s socialism with that under Swiss or Swedish capitalism. In 1968 when Lukács protested the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact armies, he did so only in a private letter to János Kádár, Hungary’s Communist leader.


The volume of literature on Lukács that has appeared since his death in 1971 is staggering. Now that he can no longer present difficulties, he has been elevated to an official cult figure in Hungary. At the same time, some of his genuine disciples have been driven abroad or harassed. Even so, there are other scholars in Hungary who have been able to engage in serious philological and historical studies of Lukács’s life and works, such as István Eörsi, Éva Fekete, Éva Karádi, Erzsébet Vezér, and many others in and around the Lukács Archives of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. István Eörsi’s Georg Lukács: Record of a Life contains invaluable material from the conversations I have mentioned with the aged Lukács taped in 1971. The book also includes an introduction by Eörsi and an autobiographical sketch by Lukács, entitled “Gelebtes Denken” (“Lived Thoughts”). Éva Karádi’s and Erzsébet Vezér’s Georg Lukács, Karl Mannheim und der Sonntagskreis contains an illuminating history of the Sunday Circle as well as scores of letters, diary entries, reminiscences, and essays by Lukács, Béla Balázs, Karl Mannheim, Arnold Hauser, and other Hungarian intellectuals. Éva Fekete’s and Éva Karádi’s Georg Lukács: His Life in Pictures and Documents contains fascinating pictures with valuable comments and excerpts.

Some recent scholars in the West have drawn, at least in part, on the work of the Hungarian researchers. The Hungarian emigrants Judith Marcus and Zoltán Tar present a selection of some of Lukács’s enormous correspondence with Europe’s leading intellectuals, most of it from the recently opened Heidelberg depository of Lukács’s papers, which contain fragments of manuscripts, a diary, and a total of 1,600 items from Lukács’s correspondence between 1902 and 1917. (Actually, these came from a trunk deposited by Lukács in a Heidelberg bank in 1917.) The contents were first published by Éva Karádi and Éva Fekete in 1981. Judith Marcus’s and Zoltán Tar’s Georg Lukács: Selected Correspondence makes use of the same material, and it is well introduced with an essay by Tar.

Lee Congdon’s The Young Lukács, a narrower study, is an interesting attempt to describe the different periods in Lukács’s life through his relations with women. Congdon argues in the preface that “[Lukács’s] ideas were in the most literal sense expressions of his relationship with three women—Irma Seidler, Ljena Grabenko [his first wife], and Gertrúd Bortstieber [his second wife].” This is tempting, for Lukács was indeed passionately devoted to these women in different periods of his life, but the importance Congdon attaches to their influence seems to be unwarranted. (His book is valuable, however, in recreating the intensity that characterized Hungarian intellectual life in the decades before World War I.) Irma Seidler, the painter who was Lukács’s first great love, to whom he dedicated some of his early works, shared his anguish, around 1910, when he went into a depression. It was in the following year that she jumped to her death. Lukács’s relationship with Ljena Grabenko flourished during the period of his enthusiasm for Dostoevsky. The two were married in 1914, and Lukács’s decision to join the Communist party came after they separated. He married Gertrúd Bortstieber, a Hungarian Jewish intellectual, in 1920; she gave him the calm and emotional security he needed for creative work until her death in 1963.

The writers under review are more critical of Lukács than has been customary among Western intellectuals. Mary Gluck’s excellent Georg Lukács and His Generation is particularly persuasive in its judgment of the qualities and the shortcomings of the man. Perhaps unconsciously, she displays more sympathy for József Lukács, the father, than for the son. József Lukács represented the best of a now nearly vanished liberal tradition: ambitious, hard-working, tolerant, and loyal, he remained true to his political and moral values. He was also deeply respectful of scholarship. Georg Lukács, on the other hand, veered back and forth between being an individualist and a fanatical collectivist. Intolerant and indecisive, he was simultaneously a radical and a conformist; when it came to the suffering of others, Lukács was indifferent to the point of callousness. He remarked in his old age that he had been quite happy in Moscow; this was apparently true even in the late 1930s, when all around him fellow Communist exiles—including most of the refugee Hungarian Bolsheviks—were taken away to be shot. What Lukács equated with happiness was the fact that he had been allowed to study in peace and that he could remain in the movement to which he had committed his life.

This Issue

March 12, 1987