When the young Georg Lukacs wrote “Bolshevism As A Moral Problem,” he rejected communism on “moral” grounds: its violent revolution coerces the people, and coercion does not engender freedom. We cannot rid ourselves of Satan with the help of Beelzebub. Nonetheless, in late 1918, only a few weeks later, he joined the Hungarian Communist Party.
This strange incident introduces the life of the eventual philosopher and literary critic who found, early on, that there is something corrupt in his world. As demonstrated by a collection of his essays published in 1911 under the title “Soul and Form,” he despised the bourgeoisie. It seems that it was his heightened sense of the gap between what the world is actually like and how it should be that sharpened his romantic hostility to this bourgeoisie. As for the means for resolving this predicament, German idealism pointed him to it: only through art can we overcome the contradiction between the soul’s quest for meaning and the objective form through which meaning can be realized - put in Kantian terms, art brings what “is” closer to what “ought to be.”
The young Lukacs immersed himself in literature, philosophy, and aesthetics, taking a particular interest in the notion of “the form,” which some have attributed to his hidden Platonism. However, during his time in Heidelberg, which had been the cultural center of the German-speaking world at the time, he became familiar with and was influenced by the work of Max Weber, especially Weber’s concept of rationalization, the role that Calvinism played in bringing it about, and Weber’s argument that rationalization, which had been a means to achieve salvation, began to become an objective that condemned the people to live inside an “iron cage.”
Moreover, Lukacs took an interest in Russian mysticism, the Orthodox Church, and Dostoevsky’s literature, which he saw as alternatives to an extremely rational and disenchanted West. And his endeavors to confront a rationalized world through spirituality persisted, with his 1914 book “The Theory of the Novel” seen as speaking for “a subject seeking meaning in a world without god or meaning.”
After having joined the Communist Party, which seized power after a short period, Lukacs was named Deputy Commissioner for Education and Culture. However, the fall of Bela Kun’s communist dictatorship pushed him, after a brief period spent in Hungary resisting the new state of affairs, to seek refuge in Austria, where he wrote the essays that would make up his most consequential book: “History and Class Consciousness” (1923). In it, he redresses some of the positions he had taken early on in his life. However, the most significant contribution he makes in this book is attributing the conflict between the subject and the object to reification, whereby the relationship between people is a relationship between things, and individuals experience themselves as objects of natural laws that control them, not as subjects in a social process that stems from the production that they control. This notion of Lukacs' was not distinct from his reading of Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, but he was impelled to look into its implications for people’s consciousness and how we understand the world.
With Kant’s affirmation of our inability to perceive “the thing-in-itself,” the bourgeoisie showed extreme fear and anxiety, and the failure of the reified consciousness framework to resolve the subject/object dichotomy was exposed. As for Hegel, his significant contribution was dialectics, but the problem with his dialectics was its lack of an actual subject and historical actor. Instead, he built his dialectics on conceptual mythology founded on the notion that a cosmic spirit will objectify itself. Lukacs concluded that the proletariat would be the actor to resolve the conflict between the subject and the object because of its position in the production and reproduction of the social world, restoring the “totality of existence” by snatching it from the clutches of capitalism. The proletariat, like Hegel’s spirit, is both an object and a subject, and it becomes a class for itself when it begins to see its subjectivity in relation to capital, that is, when it becomes a political actor and ceases to be an object of capitalism. However, the proletariat does not inevitably play this role; it is an objective potentiality and aspiration achieved once proletarian consciousness takes organizational form, the party.
What had been written until Lenin’s death in 1924 could no longer be said once Leninist beliefs were presented as an orthodox creed. Lukacs’ book emphasized the importance of the Hegelian aspect of Marx’s thought, which was no longer acceptable. He also considered Engels’ understanding of dialectics to be limited and Engels’ theory of the “dialectics of nature” non-Marxist, while Moscow was anchoring Marx and Engels’ status as a sacrosanct duo. While he addressed Lenin as a theoretician, not just as a leader, he believed (despite criticizing her devaluation of the organizational work) that Rosa Luxemburg was the only one of Marx’s students to have made a novel contribution to how capital is understood. This also went too far.
And so, Lukacs abstained from philosophical and political writing while residing in Russia in the 1930s, restricting himself to literary criticism. However, in his 1938 book “The Young Hegel,” he concerned himself with the Marxist interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy instead of the Hegelianism of Marx that had previously interested him. And in his 1954 “The Destruction of Reason,” he argued that Hegel was a rational thinker opposed to the irrational sentimentalism of the Romantics, whom Lukacs accused of having paved the way to fascism. This argument was not made in isolation of the Cold War climate and the need to galvanize “Hegel’s support” for the socialist camp!
Nonetheless, the Hungarian regime distanced and isolated him, reproaching his “cultural laxity” and “Hegelianism,” but Lukacs swiftly regained its favor through his role in purging the writers union of members whose loyalty to the regime had been in question. However, the 1956 insurgency brought another side of the man back to view, as he was appointed minister in Imre Nagy’s reformist government. When the uprising was crushed, Lukacs was exiled to Romania, and upon his return to his country the following year, he renounced his previous stances and remained loyal to the party and Moscow until his death in 1971, though he did express cautiously calibrated sympathy for the Czechoslovakian uprising in 1968.
Intellectually, he walked back on his view of Engels, and in the introduction to a new German edition of “History and Class Consciousness” he published in the sixties, Lukacs stressed that he considers many of the arguments he had made in the book erroneous and worthy of condemnation.
Seen as a station on the path from classical Lenists Marxism to the revolutionary theories that have been circulating since then, Lukacs was rediscovered in the sixties and seventies, becoming the most prominent reference of “Marxist humanism.” This happened despite the constant swings he made throughout his life and the difficulty of ascertaining who Lukacs “really” was. But, can we know anyone living in a totalitarian society for who they “really are?”