Georg Lukács's Autobiography

Record of a Life

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

In his 2006 Introduction to Criticism and Ideology : A Study in Marxist Literary Theory Terry Eagleton remembers that in 1958 he had taken part in a seminar at Cambridge conducted by Raymond Williams "in which the only Marxist critic most of us had heard of was Georg Lukács" (p. x). Lukács still remains the central figure in the canon of Marxist literary theory when former iconic figures like Louis Althusser, Pierre Macherey, Étinne Balibar and others are only dimly remembered.

Lukács did not write a proper autobiography. He merely drafted a sketch, Gelebtes Denken (Lived Thought), a 57-page typescript in German. There is also a jotting of nine points in Hungarian. But a 132-page record of his life divided into four parts is available, prepared on the basis of a series of interviews taken by two of his pupils and recorded on tape in the last years of his life. This record is not only a mine of information but also a quarry of new and provocative ideas. Those who have read István Mészáros's Lukács' Concept of Dialectic (with biographical data and bibliography) and other works on Lukács will find here much that was not known before.

This is not the only reason why this autobiography is different from others. Lukács sets a new model of writing autobiography by treating the subjective objectively. His private life cannot be set apart from his public life. At the outset of his Lived Thought                 he writes:
Every autobiography: subjective; not a general human development out of a social context showing how a man becomes himself or fails to do so.

Objectivity: the correct historicity. Memory: tendency to relocate in time. Check against the facts...

Within this framework, inner development and development as expressed in practice, just as it subjectively was. Intention: to portray my development directly. The objective aspect: how reacted and to what. Aim: become what you are—depict this accurately. In characterizing myself from this angle, my hope: to depict objective reality at the same time—without pretending to a comprehensive historical account. It will come right, if certain essential features are captured.

Not my life in any immediate sense. Only want to show how (in human terms) this particular intellectual tendency, this mode of thought (this behaviour pattern) emerge into life from life. Today, with hindsight: individuality neither the starting-point nor end-product. But: how personal characteristics, inclination, tendencies given the maximum opportunity to develop—according to circumstances—have become socially typical, or to my present [way of thinking], have developed in accordance with the species or have striven to achieve species being. (1983 pp.143-44)

Lukács looks at his life with absolute objectivity, admitting his errors and defending those views and actions that he considers worth defending even after so many years. George Steiner in a survey of Lukács's life and works (written in 1960) spoke rather satirically of his "Devil's pact" with historical reality: how the daemon gave him power at the cost of his soul (1998, p. 337). After reading his autobiography one feels that, like Goethe's Faust, Lukács too outsmarted his daemon. He lived and died an unrepentant Marxist-Leninist, never compromising with the bourgeois social system and retaining his integrity of character and his conviction to the end.

One of the most noteworthy items in the conversation with his pupils is that, however much his interviewers would try to make him denounce Stalin lock, stock, and barrel, Lukács would have none of it. He steadfastly stuck to the following point:
[I]t is sheer prejudice to imagine that everything Stalin did was wrong or anti-Marxist.... Stalin defended an extremely important point of view which played a very positive role in my own development….He protested against the need to view Plekhanov as a great theoretician who provided the main mediating link with Marx. Stalin maintained that it was instead the Marx-Lenin tradition—and by implication the Stalin line as well—which had to be considered valid….Stalin's criticism of Plekhanov gave me the idea of making a similar critic of Mehring. Both Plekhanov and Mehring had thought it necessary to supplement Marx's thought by extending it to areas of knowledge that go beyond social and economic questions. You will perhaps recollect that Mehring introduced Kantian aesthetics into Marx, and Plekhanov introduced what was essentially a positivist aesthetics. The way I interpreted Stalin's critique of the Plekhanov orthodoxy was to see it as a view which rejected the idea that Marxism was just one socio-economic theory among others. Instead Stalin saw it (sc. Marxism) as a totalizing world-view. This implied that it must also contain a Marxist aesthetics which did not have to be borrowed from Kant or anyone else. These were ideas that were developed further by [Mikhail] Lifschitz and myself. At the time I was working with Lifschitz in the Marx-Engels Institute [in Moscow]. Our entire subsequent development was set in train by our work on this idea….[W]e were the first to speak of a specific Marxist aesthetics, as opposed to this or that aesthetics which would complete the Marxist system. The notion that aesthetics forms an organic part of Marxism is to be found in the essay I wrote [in 1933] on the Sickingen debate between Marx and Lassalle…' (1983 p. 86)

Thus the role played by Stalin in moulding Lukács's thought in the early 1930s is frankly admitted by Lukács himself with no qualification attached.

Another point worthy of consideration is Lukács's assertion that modern philosophy is no longer concerned exclusively with the opposition between idealism and materialism, as Engels had said. He goes beyond Engels and poses a new opposition between rationalism and irrationalism "in either their materialist or idealist forms" (1983 p. 87). He further points out, "It is indeed true that the irrationalists were all idealists, but their rationalist opponents were idealists too" (1983 p.101). This indeed is a new polarity, as much true then as now, after the late twentieth-century rise of anti-rationalism in the hands of postmodernists. In his Destruction of Reason (published in 1954 but most of it had been written earlier) he had already taken a stand equally critical of both rationalism and irrationalism. Nevertheless, Stalinism, he says, was not irrationalism (as one of his interviewers proposed) but in fact a type of "hyper-rationalism":
With Stalin rationalism acquired a form which bordered on the absurd, but it was still something other than irrationalism.

Int[erviwer]: But does it not in some sense form part of the Destruction of Reason?

G.L.: I have never doubted for a moment that Stalinism involved the destruction of reason. But I would not think it right to criticize Stalin, let us say, because we have discovered some parallel or other to Nietzsche. We would never arrive at a true understanding of Stalinism by those means. (1983 p.104)

Yet another point of interest is Lukács's acknowledgement of his debt to Ernst Bloch (1885-1977), a fellow German philosopher. Lukács says : "[I]n Bloch I encountered the phenomenon of a man who could do philosophy as if the whole of modern philosophy did not exist, and who showed that it was possible to do philosophy like Aristotle or Hegel." (1983 p. 38)

There are some among us here who constantly complain that they are not being able to do philosophy—or literary theory for that matter—just because all the books and journals newly published in the west are not available in the backwaters of West Bengal. The personal example of Bloch cured Lukács of the utterly wrong notion that one must always keep pace with the current trend. Lukács was then convinced that "it was possible to do philosophy in the traditional manner." He stopped wasting his time with the Neo-Kantianism of the 1910s and devoted himself to thinking independently, without bothering about anyone else.

This is a lesson we must learn in India today. We too can do philosophy and literary criticism without bothering about "theorrhea", the malady of the present times. That alone would prove whether we have truly succeeded in decolonizing our mind.

[Acknowledgements : Amitava Bhattacharyya, Sunish Kumar Deb, Siddhartha Dutta]

Works Cited
Eagleton, Terry. Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory. London: Verso, 2006.
Lukács, Georg. Record of a Life. London: Verso, 1983.
Lukács, Georg. Destruction of Reason. London: The Merlin Press, 1974.
Mészáros, István. Lukács' Concept of Dialectic. London: The Merlin Press, 1972.
Steiner, George. Language and Silence. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998 (first published 1960).

Autumn Number
Vol. 50, No.12-15, Sep 24 - Oct 21, 2017