a review
    of European
Image of lflogo.jpg
return to homepage

return to back issues

from Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, No 65, 2000.

Kenneth McRobbie

György Lukács:  From the rubbish heap to just off centre

The stone head of a huge lion rises dripping from the waters of the Danube, in an old black-and-white post-war photograph of the rebuilding of Budapest's Chain Bridge. Centre-page in a recent edition of a Budapest newspaper, it was surrounded by the text of an interview (1) with a scholar responsible for a second salvage operation: that of the century's leading Marxist philosopher and aesthetician, György Lukács.
The statue of Hungary's greatest philosopher was a casualty of the post-1989 assault on Marxism. News spread that it had been thrown out of the Budapest university library onto a scrap heap. Again the salvage operation, this time a private one, was successful. So now György Lukács once more inclines attentively forward in his chair, legs crossed, cigar close to his chest in the long fingers of his right hand - in a modest back garden in the eastern city of Szeged.
This must count as a brighter spot during the purging of symbols of the people (of which the closing down of the museum of the working class, formerly in the Royal Palace, is the greatest loss). Doubly so, for a second Lukács still holds his own in the capital in a large gravelled and treed expanse flanked by old apartment buildings and the Danube. Because here too he is vulnerable, a retired editor (who as a girl used to take the same streetcar in which Bartók went daily to the Conservatory, and possesses the only Oscar in Budapest) goes out with bucket and sponge to clean off paint that is occasionally daubed on the erect bronze figure.
The seated statue was rescued by members of the György Lukács Circle, associated with the University in Szeged, a city long noted for its radical tradition. Initially, news reached members that the marble plaque outside Lukács's apartment (housing the world-famous Archive) on the Danube bank, had been attacked by someone wielding a hammer. Next came the report that the seated statue had disappeared from the university library's entrance hall. Then that it had been located in the courtyard, on a garbage heap surrounded by building materials.  Inside a wooden cage tilted to one side, it showed signs of damage, with splashes of white paint around one ear. The official pretext for removing it was that renovations were under way.
In the name of the members of Szeged's Lukács Circle, a letter was sent to the director of the library, offering to find a new home for the statue. Being thus spared the potential embarrassment of having to choose between re-installation and expulsion, he accepted. By this time the sculptor Frigyes Janzer had got wind of events, and expressed his relief that this, his best-known piece which had been created for the Lukács Centenary in 1985, would find a new home.
Accordingly, Tibor Szabó, founder and president of the Circle, with four others -- including a female theatre student experienced in moving equipment -- turned up with a truck. It was no easy task: the statue weighs 500 kilos, and the dark-red marble base another 600. The 200-kilometer journey was made slowly, with sagging suspension. Journey's end was a modern townhouse on the southern outskirts of Szeged, across the tracks, on Locomotive Street. Another four people were waiting to help unload the statue. It being mid-December 1994, Lukács sat out the rest of the winter in Szabó's garage.
The following May, a local mason put in a tiled patio giving onto the back garden, and helped to choose a place for the statue halfway down the garden to one side, backed by colourful bushes close to an interested neighbour's fence. Concrete was poured for a sunken base one meter thick; the mason's brother lent a hand to move the statue on rollers onto its shallow plinth.
On October 6th, 1995, there was a ceremonial unveiling, to which Szabó had invited friends, colleagues from the Circle, artists, a Member of Parliament from the Socialist Party, and a few scholars from Germany and Italy. The local TV station carried news of the event, as did at least one newspaper. The local butcher happened to be passing - "What, György Lukács - Here?" Glasses were raised, pictures taken. Lukács was a party man again, for a day. As for the future, his statue would become the Circle's emblem.
The Lukács (originally Reading) Circle of Szeged was founded two decades ago in November 1979 by the young philosophers Tibor Szabó and Peter Karacsony, partly as a response to the changing times. Szabó has written extensively on Gramsci - receiving Italy's Dante prize - but the abolition of Marxist studies in his university in 1989 compelled him to reinvent himself as a teacher (he is now head of the Languages Institute of the Teachers Training College). The Circle had come into existence mainly because younger colleagues - initially seven or eight - from several disciplines in local academic institutions felt the need to devote "free and serious consideration" to Hungary's most important philosopher. For them, Lukács's appeal was due to his having formulated many of the leading problems of the 1960s, the period of their youth, in terms different from those of official Marxism. They viewed Lukács as one who could now be criticised, as one who also provided the tools for criticising new developments which under the banner of "freedom" would otherwise escape criticism.
The Circle's members undertook selected reading, reported on their reactions and findings, and discussed each other's work. The meetings, as Szabó put it, constituted a sort of post-graduate course. The Circle's members became aware that they were seeking a more thorough theoretical foundation for their own views: on  philosophy, history, political science, and aesthetics. Looked back on the first decade of meetings, they were equally aware of having benefited intellectually. Szabó related this progression to Lukács's own views of existing society as continually developing: in which, in particular, he looked to the possibility of socialism evolving in a democratic direction.
During the coming years, the Circle expanded its activities, attracting visiting scholars from Canada, Germany, Italy, and the United States. A volume of papers entitled Studies on the Young Lukács (1983) appeared in the series "Current Philosophical  Problems". For the Lukács Centenary in 1985, the Circle sponsored its first national conference (on "Reading Lukács"), noted in the leading national newspaper and philosophical journal. Members attended conferences in Budapest and Rome; they also published papers in Sweden, Italy, Germany, Yugoslavia, and Hungary. During the next four years, meetings focused on Lukács's Ontology of Social Being, resulting in the 1989 conference, at which the eminent academician Ferenc Tökei presented the Circle with a medal on behalf of the Board of Trustees of the György Lukács Foundation, Budapest. Conference papers appeared in the Circle's first publication Why Lukács? (1990) on (1) "Lukács and Politics" (with papers referring to Weber, the Frankfurt School, Heidegger, and Stalinism); (2) the "Ontology"; (3) "Lukács and the World" (with perspectives on Brazil, Romania, Yugoslavia, Italy, and the USSR). Vigorous debate followed contributions by two distinguished former pupils of Lukács: Agnes Heller supporting Mihály Vajda who argued for postmodernism, and for Heidegger as Lukács's superior.
The Circle's activities and publications received financial assistance from two quarters: the "Tertium Datur Foundation" (funds provided by a former student of Szabó's who had gone into business), and the Lukács Foundation. Tibor Szabó's Gramsci's Political Philosophy (1991) was followed by a conference on "Gramsci and Lukács" resulting in Into the Wind. Gramsci and Lukács Today (1993) where the two thinkers are viewed in terms of their emphasis upon the transformation of society by democratic means, the role of the subject, and for their criticism respectively of Croce's idealism and Bukharin's materialism.  The volume was widely reviewed and attracted the attention of politicians in Hungary.
Lukács and Modernity (1996) was the Circle's next volume, following a conference focussing on Lukács's approaches to modernism, classic values, and the avantgarde (together with criticism of post-modernism's relativisation of values). The following year saw the co-publication with a major Budapest publisher of the Circle's The Mind of Derrida Marx. In the most recent publication, together with the Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences, At the Crossroads of Philosophy: Studies on György Lukács (1998), it is confidently noted that "Lukács has always been of interest, but in Hungary never so much as today", his concern with "spirituality, culture and ideals" being viewed as a counter to economism. Foreign scholars have continued to be represented, among them authorities of the stature of Zoltan Tarr, author of standard works on the Frankfurt School and on Lukács. Finally, a remarkably ambitious prospectus outlines the Circle's proposed forthcoming activities and publications up to the year 2004.(2)
Some reasons for the Szeged Circle's commitment to Lukács's legacy were given in Tibor Szabó's newspaper interview. He begins by referring to a growing world-wide interest in Lukács, exemplified by the participation at a Szeged conference of three Hungarian-speaking scholars from Japan, who also undertook research in the Lukács Archive, visited places linked with his life and work, and published their findings in the Tokyo periodical World Literature. Reference was also made to the Lukács Institute for Social Research in Paderborn (Germany), and to Lukács scholars in Brasilia (who also publish in the Szeged volumes) with a similar focus. Perhaps in the future the Circle will list recent publications on Lukács, among which should find mention two by Hungarian-Americans: the first large-scale biography of Lukács by Arpad Kadarkay (also his more recent Lukács Reader)(3), and Eva L. Corredor's Lukács After Communism, a very significant  survey (4) of the opinions of ten leading intellectuals from five countries.
The all important issue of how Lukács's legacy may be represented in post-communist Hungary was the next point touched on in Szabó's interview, also involving the future of Marxism (though he does not use the term). Szabó limits himself to expressing satisfaction that Lukács's concepts and writings are being taken note of "in society at large", as he put it, irrespective of "every domestic turning-point and change of regime"; with similar caution, he goes on to emphasise that the Circle's studies are not conducted "from a political, party or topical point of view". In order to expand on this and other points made in Szabó's interview, and to set the Lukács Circle's activities in a wider context, in what follows reference will be made to some other views on the changes of 1989 and Lukács's significance, in particular to those of the ten authorities interviewed in Lukács After Communism.
The view widely publicised in the West, that the changes in Eastern Europe after 1989 represent the failure of Marxism, is not borne out in the interviews conducted by Corredor. There the consensus is that Marxism  remains essential as a means of understanding past and present reality, considered as neither dogma nor doctrine but "first of all a method" (Michael Löwy), "integrated with the various sociological conceptualisations"(Jacques Leenhardt). As far as the future is concerned, whether or not Marxism will enrich itself and come to terms with "psychological realities" (Cornel West), the literary critic George Steiner even suggests that "we may have a meta-Marxism out of Africa or Latin America of enormous dimensions", which would impact upon Hungary and the region sooner than is thought, where "a certain kind of Latin Americanisation [is already] sweeping across" (Cornel West). The overnight transformation of "communist" leaders and cadres into apologists for the free market and seekers after membership in NATO persuaded even Ralph Dahrendorf that 1989 was not the result of a popular revolution.(5) Marxist thought may well come to be regarded as "more relevant after the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe than it was before" (Cornel West). On behalf of the Circle, one of the visiting Japanese scholars stated that 1989 had effectively "closed the road" to Lukács's conception of social democratisation and the democratisation of everyday life "from below and continuously". (6)
As for Lukács, in Corredor's view he has emerged "essentially intact". Under "pseudo-communism" there was no place for the true Marx or the whole Lukács. Between the Marxist spirit of his still relevant History and Class Consciousness and the "mummified system" of official Soviet Marxism there is a "total contradiction" (Michael Löwy). For a small country, individual achievement on the world stage is an equaliser. The Lukács Circle's decade-long project more than compensates for limitations of a recent 2-volume Hungarian "official" work on Lukács.(7) It will surely be of the greatest importance to Hungarians, Frederic Jameson observes, that they produced "a massive figure of this kind." It was this aspect of Lukács which most engaged George Steiner - the magnitude of his life, which "bore witness" to the times, amid enormous danger such as very few thinkers have had to face - "What I admire supremely is that he lived our century like few men on the planet". It was a theme taken up by Arpad Kadarkay in his later work.(8)
In his newspaper interview Szabó pointedly avoids mentioning political and economic issues, although the latter are most on the minds of Hungarians. The phenomenon of growing poverty associated with increasingly endemic unemployment - formerly a Third World "problem" - is now becoming an established feature not only of Eastern Europe but of the developed countries too. Marxists has always argued that these are characteristics of capitalism, while apologists for (and even some who criticise) the free market reply that it is in the nature of things.
Still, it is extraordinary that in his richly allusive After 1989, consisting of addresses before distinguished gatherings (often acknowledging prestigious prizes), the former head of the London School of Economics could exhibit such poverty of language as to describe the economic hardships of Eastern Europe as a "valley of tears" - not once but three times in the course of a single lecture (appropriately, the "Orwell"). It is through this dark construct of the Old Testament that Hungarians "of necessity" must "trek"! The phrase is repeated in another lecture on the peoples of the region; for good measure, English readers too are informed that this valley of tears is "all around us". This term with its implications of passive acceptance comes oddly from one opposed to dogma, whose volume's subtitle begins with the word "Morals". It may come then as a relief for Hungarians concerned about their future to turn to one of Lukács's earlier works, "The Rule of Morality in Communist Production" (1919) where he argues against development by blind economic forces, asserting that "the real history of mankind" will begin through "the power of morality over institutions and economy".
The classic Marxist theory of class struggle and the increasing immiseration of the working class appears to have been too optimistic. Even Marx did not foresee the appearance of a growing sub-class beneath the working class, an "ex-virtual-proletariat" (Robert Schwarz). For them, he observes, exploitation would signify progress; as it is, they are simply left aside. It is in this context that Lukács's commitment to "protracted struggle" assumes new relevance (Cornel West).
It was Lukács's outstanding achievement - one increasingly accepted as valid - to have gone beyond Marx, as Etienne Balibar points out, in "inventing" the notion of reification. The value of this chapter in History and Class Consciousness (1922) is particularly evident to Cornell West, from his perspective of activism on behalf of the disadvantaged, among whom "commodification and reification completely shattered the institutional buffers for an already devalued, despised, and oppressed people". But the anomie which Dahrendorf sees afflicting the population at large, is related by Corredor to her subject: "Lukács locates the most alarming aspect of reification in the inability of individuals to recognise or even comprehend the arbitrariness and inhumanity of their own exploitation".
The final point made in Szabó's interview is of far-ranging importance. In Lukács's early writings he sees awareness not only of the coming breakdown of his socio-cultural world, but of the possible loss of spiritual and intellectual values essential to all mankind. It was at this time, Szabó observes, that Lukács formulated his concept of man as one capable of creating values to live by, of thinking, exercising choice, and overcoming.
Lukács's concern with ethics is paralleled by the concern of non-Marxists today at the hegemony of economism which leaves the field open to competing fundamentalisms. In his After 1989, where a major theme is the spectre of an existence composed of "meaning-starved life chances", Dahrendorf usefully cites Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson and Immanuel Kant as desiring "to replace 'desolate randomness' by the 'moral whole of society'". But such a whole, for Dahrendorf, remains at the level of ideas. When he argues, in his lecture "Citizens in Search of Meaning", for the realisation of such a society of wholeness, he takes a stand against privatisation - not, to be sure, of the planet's economic resources and means of production, but of "deeper structures of meaning".
The Szeged Circle's interest in the early works of Lukács - where "ethics is methodologically superior to the philosophy of history" - is echoed in Eva L. Corredor's observation that there is a "serious need for globally acceptable human ethics" drawing upon the later Lukács. The role of ethical decision-making as the precondition for socio-economic change is affirmed by two contributors. Michael Löwy follows Lukács in insisting that Marxism has "a fundamentally ethical dimension", one now particularly appropriate for Eastern Europe where political crisis has "logically" relaunched the debate on ethics. From the perspective of social activism in the USA, Cornell West views social issues and amelioration as "regulated more by moral ideas than a social dream".
Despite what he experienced, saw, did, and was compelled to do, Lukács never wavered in his youthful conviction that the world was not absurd. Like many of his generation - Karl Polanyi, Karl Mannheim, Max Weber - he was inspired early on by the great Russian novelists, those who had sought to go beyond European individualism, "to overcome it in the depths of one's being", to install a new man and a new world.(9) During his long, initially even mystical engagement with the writings of Dostoevsky, Lukács encountered repeated references to Claude Lorrain's painting "Acis and Galatea", interpreted as a vision of the golden age, of "genuine and harmonious relations between genuine and harmonious men".
The still perceptible twilight glow from this utopia inspired Lukács to seek the dawn of an equally fulfilling future. At least it introduced the element of competition with that liberal utopia of the self-regulating market, attacked with such passion by the friend of his youth Karl Polanyi.(10) Some years ago, the eminent Hungarian novelist György Konrád wrote that "Without utopias we would grow stupid". A utopia represents an attempt to replace what does, with what ought to, exist. Lukács's ethical idealism is a permanent revolution against what exists. The contributors to Lukács After Communism show how Lukács's seminal importance was to open eyes and minds to a new world, to creative beginnings in regard to the quality of the daily life of the majority sharing fairly in society.
It is a concern for daily life, a free-swinging canvassing of a wide range of topics, which characterise a recent initiative on the Left filling a more practical and political role beside the more theoretical approach of the Szeged Circle. In September 1999 the journal Eszmélet (Mind), now a quarterly, one of the few left-wing journals in Hungary, will celebrate its tenth anniversary. It is edited now by László Andor.(11) Named as "perhaps the best left-wing magazine in East Central Europe", it was founded by a group of social scientists who for the most part belong to the generation of 1968. Throughout the 1980s, they developed a progressive, and democratic, critique of state socialism. Each issue focuses on one or two themes drawn from history, philosophy, economics, contemporary politics, and society (including sexuality and sport); usually half of the articles come from abroad. Applying class analysis and the world systems approach to the East European transition, emphasis is on international forces that are shaping developments in the region. The editors state: "It has also been an objective of ours to develop visions of a society that guarantees political and social rights, one that is more democratic than the free market models of the 1990s". The journal received the 1999 "Free Press Prize".
There is some overlapping of journal personnel with the political "Left Alternative Association" which also grew out of the opposition of the 1980s. And Mind also overlaps with the Lukács Foundation, one of the sources of its funding. The editorial committee is chaired by the philosopher and sinologist Ferenc Tökei who had presented the medal of the Lukács Foundation to the Szeged Circle.  Lukács thus remains a living and facilitating presence among the younger left oppositionists.  

1. Magyar Hirlap, 22 May 1997, p.10.

2. A collection of articles entitled The Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of Lukács's Death; a volume (the first to appear in English) Lukács and Current Philosophical Trends; a conference on "Hungarian Social Philosophers: I. József Somogyi", with a volume of conference papers; A History of the Lukács Circle of Szeged; in the year 2000, a conference "Summing Up: Lukács in the History of Twentieth-Century Thought"; in 2001 a second conference on "Hungarian Social Philosophers: II. József Halasy-Nagy"; for 2003 a second volume in English, The Ontology and Twentieth-Century Ontologies; for 2004 a conference "Twenty-Five Years of the Lukács Circle of Szeged", and a volume of Studies on Lukács by members of the Circle.

3. Arpad Kadarkay, Georg Lukács: Life, Thought, and Politics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991). It has been criticized  by members of the Circle for its inadequate treatment of Lukács's thought and politics.  

4. Eva L.Corredor, Lukács After Communism. Interviews with Contemporary Intellectuals (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1997). Following the editor's lengthy Introduction, are interviews (some in translation) with  Etienne Balibar (Paris), Peter Bürger (Bremen), Terry Eagleton (Oxford), Frederic Jameson (Duke), Jacques Leenhardt (Paris), Michael Löwy (Paris), Robero Schwartz (Sao Paulo), George Steiner (Cambridge),  Susan L. Suleiman (Harvard), Cornel West (Harvard).  

5. Ralph Dahrendorf, After 1989. Morals, Revolution and Civil Society (London: Macmillan, 1997), pp.10, 11, 12, 56 for "the valley of tears"; p.4 he subscribes to Timothy Garton Ash's view that what took place was not revolution but "refolution", change from "above" "rather than successful pressure for change from below".

6. Hayakawa Hiromichi, "Memorandum on Lukács and Today's Democracy", in Tibor Szabó, ed., Lukács and Modernity (Szeged: Lukács Circle, 1996), pp.197-204.

7. Hungarian Studies on György Lukács, 2 vols. (Budapest: Academy Publishers, 1993) of which Corredor observes (op. cit.) Introduction, p. 2, despite the view there expressed that only Hungarian research could "provide a more reliable image of Lukács's thought than that currently reflected in the international scholarly literature" (ix)  Corredor wryly observes that "little in the volume's [sic] nearly seven hundred pages would significantly affect the current understanding of Lukács's work in the West".
8. Arpad Kadarkay, ed., The Lukács Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), p. viii "We see a mind grappling with the fundamental issues of human existence, centred on love and work, striving to extend the boundaries of thought"; he gives "a deeper understanding of the human condition", of "life at the limits".

9. Michael Löwy, Georg Lukács -- From Romanticism to Bolshevism,  (London: New Left Books, 1979).

10. Karl Plane, The Great Transformation. The political and economic origins of our time (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), p.3 "Our thesis is that the idea of a self-adjusting market implies a stark utopia"; also pp.103ff., 211, 254.

11. László Andor, editor, Eszmélet, Múzeum utca 7, Budapest. Hungary 1088. For information on the Lukács Circle: Dr Tibor Szabó, Juhász Gyula Tanárképzö Föiskola, Boldogasszony sgt. 6, Szeged, Hungary 6701.