Revolutionary Lives: György Lukács

The work of the Hungarian socialist thinker was examined by Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh in Issue 10 (July 2001).

Few socialist revolutionaries have had to traverse such a social distance to the working class as György Lukács. He was born in Budapest on 13 April 1885, the son of one of Hungary’s most influential bankers who became a nobleman and advisor to the prime minister. But this was a class “whose life and values I have disliked since childhood”, Lukács later reflected. “From early on, I harboured radical feelings about the whole of official Hungary.” His early work in philosophy and literary criticism shows a determined opposition to capitalist civilisation, but no prospect of any alternative. The Russian revolution opened up such an alternative in 1917, but Lukács’s conversion wasn’t immediate, as he wrestled with the moral problems that socialist revolution entailed.

He took the leap in December 1918, joining the newly-formed Hungarian Communist Party. He soon became an editor of the party paper, and two months later found himself on the central committee following the arrest of the previous leadership. In March 1919 the government collapsed, however: the Communists formed a coalition government with the Social Democratic Party, and Hungary was proclaimed a Soviet Republic. Lukács was appointed deputy commissar for education and culture, and served with the revolutionary army that defended the new republic against imperialist attack.

But the Hungarian revolution was an artificial one. It was less a case of the working class consciously taking over than of a short-term power vacuum being filled by a hasty political compromise. The republic offered no solution to the country’s land problem and so failed to win over the farmers, while its support among urban workers was to some extent passive. After five months it was crushed, and an authoritarian right wing regime took power. Lukács stayed on, trying to organise the now clandestine Communist Party, but in September 1919 had to flee to Austria. During his exile he continued his political activity and tried to deepen and develop the Marxist understanding of the world.

Class consciousness

“Ethical idealism is a permanent revolution against what exists”, Lukács had written before committing himself to socialism, and this was a per­spective he held to. Socialist revolution posed undoubted moral dilemmas which everyone had to confront for themselves:

Everyone who at the present time opts for communism is therefore obliged to bear the same individual responsibility for each and every human being who dies for him in the struggle, as if he himself had killed them all. But all those who ally themselves to the other side, the defence of capitalism, must bear the same individual responsibility for the destruction entailed in the new imperialist wars of revenge which are surely imminent, and for the future oppression of the nationalities and classes.

Socialism meant “not merely an economic and institutional, but also and at the same time a moral transformation”. This applied not least to socialists themselves, whose faults sprang from their “inadequate inner transform­ation”, their failure to “have cleansed themselves of all the dross of capitalist, social-democratic party life, such as bureaucracy, intrigues, social climbing etc.”

The working class as a whole, wrote Lukács, would have to bring themselves to an understanding of their interests as a class before they could make socialism a reality: “the revolution itself can only be accomplished by people; by people who have become intellectually and emotionally emanc­ipated from the existing system”. So the fight for socialism

is not just a battle waged against an external enemy, the bourgeoisie. It is equally the struggle of the proletariat against itself: against the devastating and degrading effects of the capitalist system upon its class consciousness. The proletariat will only have won the real victory when it has overcome these effects within itself.

Because socialism means abolishing every kind of oppression as well as that suffered by workers themselves, the working class have to abandon all and any prejudices—national, sexual, racial or whatever: “Overcoming its own limitations, the proletariat must rise to the leadership of all the oppressed.” Fighting for their own interests, they would end all exploitation, and deal with the democratic unfinished business abandoned by the capitalists:

From now on the proletariat is the only class capable of taking the bourgeois revolution to its logical conclusion. In other words, the remaining relevant demands of the bourgeois revolution can only be realised within the framework of the proletarian revolution, and the consistent realisation of these demands necessarily leads to a prole­tarian revolution. Thus, the proletarian revolution now means at one and the same time the realisation and the supersession of the bourgeois revolution.

Lukács understood that socialism would never come about as an automatic result of capitalist crisis. The capitalist class would always come up with methods of maintaining its grip, but “Whether they can be put into practice depends, however, on the proletariat.” Only the thought and activ­ity of the working class would determine whether socialism or barbarism would prevail: “the fate of the revolution (and with it the fate of mankind) will depend on the ideological maturity of the proletariat, i.e., on its class consciousness”.

History is at its least automatic when it is the consciousness of the proletariat that is at issue.… it can be transformed and liberated only by its own actions… the objective evolution could only give the proletariat the opportunity and the necessity to change society. Any transformation can only come about as the product of the—free—action of the proletariat itself.

Totality

For Lukács, Marxism never meant subscribing to every word that fell from the mouths of Marx and Engels. Indeed, he hypothesised, if every one of Marx’s conclusions were to be refuted tomorrow, Marxism would still stand:

Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method.

The hallmark that distinguished the Marxist method was not its insistence on the role of economic relations in history but “the point of view of totality… the all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts”.

Understanding the totality of the working-class struggle meant grasping “the intimate, visible and momentous connexion between individual actions and general destiny—the revolutionary destiny of the whole working class”. It meant “understanding above and beyond direct class consciousness, above and beyond the immediate conflicts of class interests—that world-historical process which leads through these class interests and class struggles to the final goal: the classless society”. Such an understanding put a whole new complexion on things:

Every moment of the normal working-class movement, every wage increase, every reduction in working hours, etc., is therefore a revo­lutionary act: together they make up that process which at a certain point suddenly changes into something qualitatively new.… When every single moment of the movement is considered consciously from the standpoint of the totality, when every single moment is brought to effect consciously as a revolutionary deed—then and only then will the movement overcome its helplessness in the face of the reality of revo­lution.… instead, it will come as the fulfilment of its hopes, for which it was both inwardly and outwardly prepared…

In this light, everyday socialist activity can be seen as part of a greater whole: “Only when the immediate interests are integrated into a total view and related to the final goal of the process do they become revolutionary, pointing concretely and consciously beyond the confines of capitalist society.” So it was never a question of either reforms or revolution—socialists must fuse the two:

On the one hand, they must never lose sight of the oneness and the totality of the revolutionary process. On the other hand, however, they must always view this same totality from the standpoint of the ‘demands of the day’. They must at all times constitute revolutionary realist politics, which means that each of the two concepts on which they are based must remain equally important.… every activity, how­ever (seemingly) petty, however directly geared to everyday demands, must be imbued with revolutionary spirit.

Spontaneity and organisation

Socialists would never get anywhere, Lukács argued, unless they set out from the present attitudes and activities of the working class, convinced that socialism makes sense in the context of working-class reality:

Every action, however straightforward and practical its slogans might otherwise be, is doomed to operate in a void unless it takes as its starting-point the spontaneity of the masses, unless its objective is to make conscious those unconscious demands which have given rise to that spontaneity, unless it attempts to lead that spontaneity in the right direction, in the direction of the totality of the revolutionary process. Every worker is an orthodox Marxist—however unconscious of the fact he himself is initially: this is the unspoken premiss of communist activity. He is so by virtue of his class situation, which necessarily places him at the centre of the revolutionary process.

Revolutionary parties could not presume to dictate how the struggle would go, and would have to learn as much as they taught: “organisation is not the prerequisite of action, but rather a constant interplay of prerequisite and consequence evolving during action. Indeed, if either of these aspects has to preponderate, then it must be the conception of organisation as con­sequence rather than as prerequisite.” Lukács pointed out that “the exig­encies of revolution involve great flexibility in organisational matters.… every organisational form is nothing but a tool of struggle”. Revolution was not a question of workers becoming party members, but of the party fitting itself to embody the workers’ revolutionary consciousness:

The true strength of the party is moral: it is fed by the trust of the spontaneously revolutionary masses… by the feeling that the party is the objectification of their own will (obscure though this may be to themselves), that it is the visible and organised incarnation of their class consciousness. Only when the party has fought for this trust and earned it can it become the leader of the revolution. For only then will the masses spontaneously and instinctively press forward with all their energies towards the party and towards their own class consciousness.

Lukács was more than once guilty of not acting accordingly, however, of substituting the consciousness of the revolutionaries for that of the working class. He argued against standing in elections that such activity was an “admission that revolution is unthinkable in the foreseeable future”, and almost inevitably would lead socialists to compromise themselves. This attitude missed the possibility of using election platforms and parliamentary chambers to convince non-socialist workers that revolution was thinkable, and sidestepped the challenges that would involve. When the Communist Party of Germany launched a disastrous insurrection in 1921 without mass support, Lukács praised the action as “rousing the proletarian masses from their lethargy through independent party action… severing the knot of the ideological crisis of the proletariat with the sword of action”. It was only later he came to realise that “This crisis can be resolved only by the free action of the proletariat.

From reification to freedom

Not least of Lukács’s theoretical achievements was his rediscovery of a forgotten element of Marx’s critique of capitalism, one that only became widely known in later decades with the publication of Marx’s early writings: alienation. In capitalist society the products of human activity assume power over human beings; human relations are “reified”, to use Lukács’s term, turned into things: “a man’s own activity, his own labour, becomes something objective and independent of him, something that controls him by virtue of an autonomy alien to man”.

Socialist revolution was all about putting an end to this state of affairs:

It means above all the end of the domination of the economy over the totality of life. It thereby means an end to the impossible and discordant relation between man and his labour, in which man is subjugated to the means of production and not the other way around. In the last analysis the communist social order means the overcoming of the economy as an end in itself.

Socialism would “make the economy, production, serve the needs of man­kind, humanitarian ideas and culture”.

Although officially deputy commissar, Lukács effectively controlled the cultural policy of Hungary’s ephemeral Soviet Republic. He opened up the theatres and galleries to the workers, introduced comprehensive sex education, and encouraged the rebellion of women against sexism. His mission statement sets out an admirable socialist policy towards the arts:

The People’s Commissariat for Education will not accord official support to the literature of any particular current or party. The cultural programme of the communists distinguishes only between good and bad literature, and refuses to spurn Shakespeare or Goethe on the grounds that they were not socialist writers.… The cultural programme of the communists is to offer the proletariat the purest and most elev­ated art; we shall not allow its taste to be corrupted by slogan-poetry debased to the level of a political instrument. Politics is only a means; culture is the goal.
Whatever its origin, anything with real literary value will find the support of the People’s Commissar; naturally enough, he will above all support art which grows on proletarian soil, to the extent that it really is art.
The programme of the People’s Commissariat for Education is to put the fate of literature back into the hands of writers.
The Commissariat does not want an official art, and nor does it seek party dictatorship in the arts.

A society based on the free activity of free human beings was the ultimate object:

When all economic misery and pain has vanished, labouring humanity has not yet reached its goal: it has only created the possibility of beginning to move toward its real goals with renewed vigour.… Every transformation of society is therefore only the framework, only the possibility of free human self-management and spontaneous creativity.

Stalinism

The best of Lukács’s theoretical insights were contained in his ground-breaking book History and Class Consciousness. But not long after its pub­lication in 1923, it came under sustained attack from the leaders of the Communist movement. This same movement was rapidly congealing into an international prop for the dictatorship that was coming to power in Russia after the revolution had failed to spread internationally. Apart from the odd lapse—his outrageous statement, for instance, that “Freedom must serve the rule of the proletariat, not the other way round”—Lukács’s work pulled against the mummified version of Marxism that the Communist International now espoused.

Lukács accepted the basic premise of Stalinism, that ‘socialism in one country’ was possible, that defending the Russian state took priority over everything. However, he did oppose the more extreme manifestations of Stalinism, such as the idea that the Labour parties were only ‘social fascists’, little better than the fascists themselves. As a result, he was removed from the leadership of the exiled Hungarian Communist Party. But he was convinced that outside the Party there was no salvation, that he had to remain in the Communist movement. The price for this was renouncing his views, and it was a price he was prepared to pay. He recanted his views and, like Peter in the Bible, denied History and Class Consciousness three times, apologising for “not only the theoretical falsity but also the practical danger of the book”. While some of his self-criticism was a sincere rethink of his position, his motivation was primarily tactical.

He withdrew from political activity and concentrated on philosophical and literary studies. Living in Russia from 1933 to 1945, he attempted to oppose the worst excesses of the official line on literature, while outwardly toeing the line. His own views, however, were not that far from the prevailing literary Stalinism: he favoured the classical technique of nineteenth-century realism, and fought a conservative battle against “decadent” and “formalist” modern literature. As in politics, so in literature he stood for a more liberal version of Stalinist policy. Although a manuscript of his was confiscated by the secret police and he was imprisoned for two months, Lukács came through Stalin’s terror.

Returning to Hungary after the second world war, he soon found himself in a similar position in regard to the new Stalinist government there. Workers’ revolt forced the system to concede reforms in 1956, however, and Lukács served for a short time as culture minister in a reforming Communist government. When Russian tanks invaded to restore the status quo, he was arrested and detained for six months. Up until his death on 4 June 1971 he continued to advocate liberalisation of the Communist system. In view of all this, there is room to doubt whether the life of György Lukács was a revolutionary one at all. But in his first years as a Marxist he did produce a significant and powerful contribution to Marxist theory. The tragedy of Lukács is that this contribution was smothered by Stalinist counter-revolution, and that he went along with the process. Today’s socialists should know better, and be able to put that contribution to good use in future struggles.