Key Theories of Georg Lukacs


The Hungarian philosopher and literary critic Gyorgy (or Georg) Lukacs (1885-1971) had a major influence on the development of Western Marxism (that is to say, the largely Hegelian Marxism developed in Western Europe), while also being the most sophisticated literary critic within the Soviet Union. His career can be divided into three phases. There is an initial non-Marxist phase; a transition to Marxism; and the application and development of a socialist realist literary criticism.

Lukacs‘s The Theory of the Novel (1916), written during the final years before the First World War, is an approach to literature that is deeply indebted to Hegel, and especially Hegel’s aesthetics. It is a pessimistic work, focusing on the way in which the novel deals with the meaninglessness of the contemporary social world. Lukacs describes the social world as confronting its members as a ‘second nature’ of senseless conventions, so that they are, paradoxically, homeless in the world that should be their home. The Theory of the Novel is therefore, in all but name, a theorisation of alienation. The great novel copes with this, not by attempting to impose meaning upon a meaningless world, but by being an art form that is grounded in process (rather than the presentation of a finished product), so that the search for meaning comes to express the absence of meaning and the failure of that search.

If The Theory of the Novel laments the loss of a meaningful human community (represented by ancient Greece), or human society as a ‘totality’, Lukacs’s great work in Marxist philosophy, History and Class Consciousness (1922), finds this totality in the communist revolution. The communist revolution gives the world back to humanity. The world is once again meaningful, and the Communist Party is then credited with the task of leading the proletariat to its destiny as — in Hegelian terminology – the subject-object of history. That is to say that the proletariat, once fully conscious of their place in history, will be able to make history as they please, rather than being controlled by the external force of’second nature’.

In addition to this theorisation of revolution, which gives it its optimism, the book also provides an analysis of the failures and contradictions of capitalism, most particularly the elaboration of Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism alongside Max Weber’s account of bureaucracy, into a theory of reification (Verdinglichung) that provides an explanation of the economic and political mechanisms that underpin and generate second nature. Marx had provided an analysis of the process by which relationships between human beings (i.e. the meetings of human beings in commercial exchange in the market) take on  the appearance of relationships between things (such that the relationships between humans come to be governed by the properties — and particularly the economic values — that appear to be inherent to the commodities exchanged). For Lukacs this inversion is manifest in all social relations (and not merely in the economy), as in an increasingly rationalised and bureaucratic society, that which is qualitative, unique and subjective in human relationships is lost, as they are governed according to the purely quantitative concerns of the bureaucrat and the manager.

Finally, the book is also a rereading of the German idealist tradition in philosophy. The limitations and contradictions found in the work of Kant and Hegel, and not interpreted as the weaknesses of Kant and Hegel as individual thinkers, rather as Kant and Hegel taking the thought of their age to its limits (and thus to the point at which it breaks down). The thinker is thus seen as being conditioned by his or her age, and contradictions in thought reflect conditions in the economic base. Such an approach to intellectual and cultural products is of enormous influence on the analyses of art and culture carried out by other Western Marxists, such as Horkheimer and Adorno.

For the greater part of his life, Lukacs lived and worked within the Soviet Union. His literary criticism worked largely within the restrictions imposed by the Soviet Communist Party (Lukacs 1963,1983). In various studies he articulated and defended a theory of realism, often in opposition to the modernism of capitalist culture. A realist novel (with Balzac being exemplary) expresses society as a totality that underpins the fragmentary surface that is encountered in everyday life. Lukacs is thus critical of the naturalism of Zola or Flaubert, precisely because it remains a description of the surface. In contrast, the characters in Balzac’s novels represent social forces. What is perhaps disappointing about Lukacs’s approach to literature, especially in contrast to the insightful materialist reading of philosophy in History and Class Consciousness (and even the literary criticism of his pre-Marxist work), is that he judges literature against a pre-existing model of society. He does not allow the novel to teach him what society is like. His debate with Ernst Bloch over expressionism is instructive (Bloch et al. 1977). For Lukacs, expressionism is indicative of bourgeois decadence and irrationality – and thus the very inability of the bourgeoisie to grasp or acknowledge the totality of social forces — while for Bloch it is indicative of the fragmentary (or in his terminology, non-synchronous) nature of capitalism.

Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge


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