Fifty years ago, on 4 June 1971, the philosopher Georg Lukács died in Budapest.
The banker’s son, born on 13 April 1885, studied law and national economy, as befitted his social status; but he felt much more strongly drawn to literature. He dedicate himself to modern theatre and published essays that brought him fame as a writer. In the end he decided on an academic career and settled in Heidelberg to work on a neo-Kantian aesthetic there. The First World War interrupted his plans. The young Lukács, who passionately condemned the war from the start, went into politics, joined the Hungarian Communist Party in 1918, and during the Hungarian Soviet Republic briefly assumed governmental responsibility as a People’s Commissar. After the collapse of this revolutionary experiment he fled and was not to see his homeland again for nearly 25 years.
He spent the first decade as an emigrant mainly in Vienna. These were years of party work and political analysis, which Lukács later called his ‘Marxist apprenticeship years’. They resulted in the essays that he published in 1923 under the title History and Class Consciousness, a book that is considered a classic of critical Marxism to the present day. The second half of his exile years was predominantly taken up with theoretical questions. In this period, in Berlin, Lukács began to develop his theory of realism, and later, already in the Soviet Union, his monograph The Young Hegel appeared. He was also confronted with Stalinism in the Soviet Union, and although he began to contemplate the problem then, it took several years before he came to his theoretically grounded rejection of it. In 1945 the émigré decided to return to his home.
After the first years characterised by hope for the birth of a new society, he came into sharp contradiction with the Stalinist party leadership, which prohibited any thoughts of reforming the Soviet model. After 1956, when Lukács was arrested and condemned for his participation in oppositional attempts, he withdrew completely into his scholarly activity. This is when he published his key Marxist works, one after the other: the two volumes of his Aesthetics and the Ontology of Social Being. Illness and death, however, prevented him from completing a planned ethics of Marxism, which was to be the crowning of his philosophical system.
Lukács’s opulent life work is pervaded by the following problematics: First the rejection of capitalism as a social formation fundamentally inimical to human beings and the continuing search for alternatives to it; second, the commitment to Marxism as a world view that, provided one develops it critically, can offer solutions to the vital issues of humanity; and, third, an insatiable interest in the connection between art and reality and his life-long attempts to ever more precisely ascertain the mediations between them. Today, this important intellectual of the twentieth century is proscribed in his own homeland. The Lukács Archive, the institution that maintains the philosopher’s literary remains and a research facility of central importance, has been closed for years now. This rigid attempt at obliteration contrasts with a notably lively reception of his work in the last decade, and now no longer only in European or English-speaking areas but also in Latin America (Brazil) and Asia (China). It is a changed, globalised world that is now exploring anew Lukács’s life work. And it appears that his work has the immanent capacity to open itself to this perspective as well.
by Antonia Opitz
member of the Internationalen Georg-Lukács-Society and the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Saxony.