Sunday, 27 June 2010

Lukacs: what went wrong?

I've written this for Counterfire's theory section, prompted by my own bafflement at how such an outstanding Marxist as Lukacs could make his peace (to put it politely) with Stalinism...

Georg Lukacs was arguably the most important Marxist political philosopher since Marx. His theoretical work is a vital reference point in the 20th century revolutionary tradition.

Most of this politically significant work was written between 1918/19 - when Lukacs became a committed Marxist, as well as playing an active role in revolutionary upheavals in his native Hungary and helping found the Hungarian Communist Party - and the rise of Stalinism in the mid-1920s. This is the period which gives him an important place in the classical Marxist tradition.

His outstanding contribution to Marxism, History and Class Consciousness (H&CC), was published in 1923 but the essays it contained were written from 1919 onwards. His short book on Lenin, which outlined the theoretical basis for key elements of Leninist practice, was published just after the subject's death in 1924.

H&CC was a pathbreaking work which helped explain how capitalism perpetuates itself, the formation of working class ideas and consciousness, and the main processes acting as a brake on revolutionary or radical political action. But it also identified how the contradictions of capitalist society can point in a different, more hopeful, direction. It was infused with the revolutionary spirit of the times in which it was written.

The 'Stalinist turn'

But what happened to Lukacs and his ideas after the death of Lenin and the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy? He lived to old age, dying in 1971. He broadly accommodated himself to Stalinism and therefore - unlike many of his revolutinoary peers - survived Stalin's purges and show trials. During the last 45 years of his life he wrote a great deal, especially in the field of literary criticism where he had already - prior to his turn to Marxism in 1918 - established himself as a noteworthy figure.

My focus here is on how the revolutionary Lukacs of the post-1917 era turned into the Lukacs who made his peace with Stalinism. Lukacs had been an enthusiastic supporter of the Communist International, also known as the Third International or Comintern, founded in 1919 to help spread the experience of Russia's successful workers' revolution. But with the degeneration of the Russian revolution and the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy came a major shift in Lukacs' thinking.

In the 1967 Preface to H&CC, Lukacs wrote (with lucid self-awareness):

'After 1924 the Third International correctly defined the political world as one of "relative stability". These facts meant that I had to rethink my theoretical position. In the debates of the Russian Party I agreed with Stalin about the necessity for socialism in one country and this shows very clearly the start of a new epoch in my thought.'

Stalin emerged as the leading representative of a conservative, bureaucratic layer in the Soviet Communist Party. Where Lenin and Trotsky had insisted on the need for successful European revolutions, to internationalise the Communist experience and prevent the fledgling workers' state from being isolated, Stalin championed the doctrine of 'socialism in one country'.

Stalin explicitly formulated this in Questions of Leninism in 1926, the same year as Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev (of the Left Opposition) were removed from the ruling Politburo. In the following year Trotsky would be expelled from the CP, and in 1929 exiled from the Soviet Union altogether. Stalin increasingly consolidated his power.

The ruling Stalinists used the stabilisation of European politics - following the revolutionary wave of 1918-23 - to justify a retreat from internationalism. It abandoned authentic revolutionary socialism, developing a Realpolitik rooted in the economic and imperialist interests of the Soviet state.

The assaults on internal democracy, the expulsions and exiles, the violence towards oppositionists, the show trials and executions - all these flowed from the Soviet state's massive re-orientation towards rapid accumulation and imperialist competition with the West.

From around 1926 onwards, Lukacs identified himself - notwithstanding some reservations - with Stalinism. This constituted a sharp break with his earlier ideas and a betrayal of genuine Leninism. It's worth looking at Lukacs' relationship to Stalinism at this turning point in the development of his ideas. I'll later briefly comment on this relationship again at two further moments: in the aftermath of the upheavals of 1956 and in the final three years of his life (1968-71).

In 1926 Lukacs published an article called Moses Hess and the Problems of Idealist Dialectics. In this article Lukacs offers a different 'intepretation' of Hegel to that articulated in H&CC.

The revolutionary Hegelian Marxism of H&CC provided an account of how working class consciousness can be transformed. It explained, at a theoretically sophisticated level, how the working class can become a political actor collectively changing society. This account of revolutionary subjectivity is central to what makes it a radical and important work.

In 1926, however, Lukacs re-interprets Hegel's dialectic. Whereas in H&CC there's a thorough grasp of the subject/object dialectic - of how the working class can become not merely the object of history but its revolutionary subject - the later article focuses on the notion of reconciliation to reality. He noted Hegel's 'rejection of all Utopias' and - while critical of some of Hegel's conservative political positions - admired what he considered Hegel's dialectical realism.

Marx had previously radicalised the Hegelian dialectic, partly by showing how a method for understanding history based on contradiction, totality and change could help explain transformation, rather than 'reconciliation' being the inexorable end point of any historical process. Lukacs had, between 1919 and 1924, written a series of essays and books which powerfully restated and updated this analytical method.

These peak years in Lukacs' intellectual output were years of social and political upheaval. The Marxist philosopher's work from the time is infused with that sense of acute crisis. As the 1920s wore on, and revolutionary hopes faded, Lukacs (like many others) went through a process of reconciliation to the emerging Stalinism, however distant it was from the aspirations of 1917 and the debates of the Third International in the early 1920s.

The theme of reconciliation recurs in Lukacs' writings for the rest of his life. His own reconciliation with the Soviet Union's Stalinist evolution was expressed intellectually in his writing, and linked to a re-formulating of Hegel. Michael Lowy argued Lukacs lost the 'dialectical revolutionary balance' of H&CC. He wrote:

'After an ultra-left, idealist and utopian-revolutionary stage lasting from 1919 to 1921, and a short but monumental climax of revolutionary realism from 1922 to 1924, from 1926 Lukacs drew nearer to revolutionary pure and simple and, politically, closer to the non-revolutionary Realpolitik of Stalin. His 'Moses Hess' of 1926 had far-reaching political implications: it provided the methodological basis for his support for the Soviet 'Thermidor'.'

Lowy is referring to the period in France which followed the Revolutionary years. During this time the French bourgeois revolution was consolidated, but it was also a time when the more advanced aspirations raised by the Revolution were forgotten or betrayed. From a radical, left-wing perspective it is therefore often viewed as a time of reaction against the progressive impulses of the French Revolution.

Lukacs, Hegel and reconciliation

In 1935 Lukacs wrote an essay, Holderlin's Hyperion, in which he explicitly addresses Hegel's attitude to Thermidor. This provides support for the idea that Lukacs viewed his own reconciliation with Stalinism as analogous Hegel's reconciliation with Thermidor. He wrote:

'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 precisely on an understanding of this new turning-point in world history.'

Was Lukacs rationalising his own accommodation to the Soviet Union as ruled by a Stalinist bureaucracy? The Marxist philosopher Adorno thought so - he once made a comparison between Lukacs reconciling himself to Stalinism and Hegel's attitude to Thermidor.

It is noteworthy, too, that Trotsky had just published (in February 1935) an essay in which he used the term 'Thermidor' to describe the Soviet Union's evolution since Lenin's death in 1924.

Lukacs, in his 1935 essay, appears to justify Hegel's politics by claiming 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 necessary phases.' The implication is that Stalinism, too, must be viewed as a necessary phase in a unified revolutionary totality.

Another example of Lukacs' turn is 1928's 'Blum Theses', prepared for the Hungarian Communist Party. This document echoed the official Moscow pronouncements of the mid-1920s. Lukacs' timing was unfortunate: it was published just as Moscow veered sharply to the ultra-Leftism of the 'Third Period' (roughly 1927-33). This meant Lukacs was denounced, merely for expressing what had been the orthodox view until recently, and he felt obliged to issue a self-abasing 'correction' to avoid being further vilified.

Lowy argues: 'he continued to be deeply and intrinsically convinced of the correctness of the Blum Theses, although publicly rejecting them with all the usual ritual attached to this sort of operation.' What Lukacs wrote in 1928 authentically expressed his position, which had changed since a few years earlier, and he continued to adhere to this position for decades to come.

The ultra-Left Third Period involved Western Communist parties - under the direction of Moscow - dismissing reformist parties, such as Germany's Social Democrats, as 'social fascists'. This meant a refusal to unite with workers affliated to these parties in common anti-fascist struggle, a disastrous strategy which in Germany allowed the rise of Hitler's Nazis to power in 1933.

Lukacs was never convinced by this sectarian approach, instead sticking to the positions associated with the 'right turn' of 1924-27 (though of course he was guarded in what he said publicly). Decades later, in his 1967 Preface to the re-published History and Class Consciousness, Lukacs said he was 'deeply repelled' by the notion that social democracy was 'fascism's twin brother'.

In the 1967 Preface he also acknowledged that the views outlined in the Blum Theses 'determined from then on all my theoretical and practical activities'. As Lowy writes: 'Lukacs did not automatically follow the 'general line' dictated by Moscow. He had his own line, which sometimes coincided with and sometimes clashed with 'the Centre'.'

But what was the nature of Lukacs' turn in 1926-28, and why did it happen? Lukacs sought, from that time onwards, to reconcile Stalinism with bourgeois-democratic culture. This is evident in his very extensive writings on literature. He celebrated the great literary achievements of 19th century bourgeois culture, but also (more contentiously) tried to use that cultural approach as the basis for promoting a new 'Soviet realism', which was in fact an extremely debased version of the best 19th century European literature.

He was consistently critical of Modernist experimentation - the differing views on Modernism held by Lukacs and Brecht form an important part of Eugene Lunn's fascinating book Marxism and Modernism. Lukacs dismissed Modernism from the standpoint of defending the 'literary realism' of 19th century Europe.

Lukacs considered the combining of the international Communist movement with bourgeois cultural (especially literary) progress a more realistic, achievable, aim than the transformation of society. His political 'realism' was a way of adjusting to the fading of hopes - starting from the mid-1920s - in the possibility of international revolution and moving towards creating a free, equal and liberated world.

He was disoriented by end of the revolutionary upsurge and the severe changes wrought in those years when Stalin consolidated his power. He experienced a period of acute disillusionment, as did many other Communists. Dismissing Trotsy's Left Opposition as utopian, he instead found ways of revising his earlier positions to adjust - on the philosophical, political and cultural levels - to the new reality.

Lukacs later wrote: 'it was already clear by the nineteen twenties... that those very intense hopes with which we followed the Russian Revolution from 1917 on were not to be fulfilled: the wave of world revolution, in which we placed our confidence, did not come to pass.'

1956 and after

The events of 1956 - at the centre of which were the revolutionary upheavals in Hungary and their violent repression by Soviet Union forces - prompted some rethinking by Lukacs. Many thousands of rank and file members of European Communist Parties abandoned official Communism in this year. While some ex-Communists drifted to the right, others pioneered what became known as the New Left. Lukacs' earlier, revolutionary, writings were rediscovered and appropriated by some of those in the post-1956 New Left, searching for ways to theorise an authentic socialism free from Stalinist distortions.

Lukacs himself was a politically complex figure in the years after 1956. He participated in the short-lived revolutionary government in Hungary in 1956. On one level this marked a break from Stalinism. But in some ways he failed to break, intellectually and politically, from Stalinism - and he never developed a serious understanding of the Stalinist phenomenon (the nature of Stalinist Russia, why Russian society developed as it did from the mid-1920s, etc).

Lukacs made all sorts of criticisms retrospectively, but there's a confused and incoherent character to these. Incredibly, he argued (in 1956) that the mistakes of Stalinism had been excessive loyalty to the 'truths of 1917'. He saw Stalinism as basically a 'leftist' or 'ultra-left' deviation.

There was no plausible analysis of the economic or social basis for the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy. And a great deal of criticism was levelled specifically at the Third Period, without a grasp of why official Communist strategy at other times in the 1920s and 1930s was also disastrous (if for different reasons).

1968 marked another new chapter in the life of Lukacs, already into his eighties by then. In his final essays and interviews there are elements of a more left-wing critique of Stalinism. This turn (though there was also significant continuity) was triggered by the student and worker upheavals, across a range of countries, in 1968 and after. Lukacs thought the Vietnamese struggle was hugely significant historically and he was highly sypathethic to the French students occupying and demonstrating in May 1968.

Lukacs began to think, for the first time since the 1920s, that world revolution might be a genuine historical possibility. He voiced criticisms of the weaknesses and compromises of reformist and Communist parties. He repeatedly made a contrast between workers' councils and both Communist bureaucracy and the limited democracy of Western capitalist societies.

In 1969 he even claimed (with selective memory): 'I have never considered the Hegelian concept of reconciliation with reality to be a valid one'. Perhaps his death in 1971 even cut short a fuller rediscovery of the extraordinary theoretical richness of Lukacs' own work between 1919 and 1924.

It is to that era, certainly, that we can return for often incomparable insight into how to set about understanding the complexities of our world - and how to change it.

See the excellent online collection of Lukacs' writings at Marxist Internet Archive. This includes most of the sources cited above. My other main source was Michael Lowy's 1975 article for New Left Review, 'Lukacs and Stalinism'. This features in the collection 'Western Marxism: A Critical Reader' (New Left Review, 1977).



  1. Referring to 1956, Luna17 wrote "Many thousands of rank and file members of European Communist Parties abandoned official Communism in this year. While some ex-Communists drifted to the right, others pioneered what became known as the New Left."

    Is it true? My impression was that most of those "thousands" simply became apolitical, like myself. My drift away from Stalinism is illustrated in

    “Diary of a Former Communist: Thoughts, Feelings, Reality.”

    Anyone can now read it ONLINE. And it is FREE.

    The URL is

    Please share this URL with all who might be interested. Thank you in advance.

    This on-line book is based on a diary I kept between 1946 and 2004 (in the USSR, Poland, France and the USA).

    Ludwik Kowalski
    Professor Emeritus
    Montclair State University (USA)

  2. I can believe that many former members of the Western Communist Parties drifted out of politics altogether after 1956, due to disillusionment. However, a politically significant point about 1956 is the way it prompted some on the left to reassess Stalinism and look afresh at alternatives to it. In Britain, for example, ex-CP members were an important part of the emergence of what was known as the New Left (a distinct phenomenon from the US New Left) in the late 1950s.

    At a theoretical level the discovery of Lukacs, Gramsci and other Marxist thinkers in the 1960s was vital to intellectually renewing the authentic Marxist tradition. In a number of cases this was helped by new translations, as exemplified by History and Class Consciousness. This intellectual renewal helped, however sketchily, pave the way for the radical left engaging with (and building out of) the events of 1968 and after.

  3. You have failed to engage with anything significant about Lukac's thought in this article. Try reading David Black's assessment at the Marxist Humanist Hobgoblin website, which you should, incidentally, add to your blogroll.
    You might learn something.

  4. What you actually mean, Sean, is "I disagree with what you have written". It's OK to say that. You don't have to make yourself seem more sophisticated by claiming "You have failed to engage..." etc