Lukács, Georg

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Lukács, Georg

Timothy Kaposy

Georg Lukács (1885—1971) was not only one of the founders of Western Marxism, he was one of the most important twentieth-century theorists and historians of the novel (see MARXIST, NOVEL THEORY (20th C.), HISTORY). Born into a wealthy assimilated Jewish family in Budapest, Lukács was heralded a prodigy by his earliest educators. As a teenager, he was involved in the pragmatic and theoretical debates of fin-de-siècle Hungary, and also organized dramatic productions of Henrik Ibsen (1828—1906) and August Strindberg (1849—1912) within Budapest's factories and handicraft shops. Leaving his native soil in 1906 he enrolled first at the University of Kolozsvár, then in 1909 at Berlin University and later in Heidelberg. Lukács crossed a significant threshold of his thinking in this period: in addition to reading the texts of Wilhelm Dilthey (1833—1911), G. W. F Hegel (1770—1831), and Karl Marx (1818—83) for the first time, he was taught by luminaries Ernst Bloch (1885—1977), Georg Simmel (1858—1918), and Max Weber (1864—1920). Described in retrospect as “romantic anti-capitalism,” Lukács's early writing interprets a startling range of thinkers to illustrate and critique the loss of “traditional” societies in Europe since the late eighteenth century. A lélek és a formák (1910, Soul and Form) consists of ten essays, largely metaphysical in design. Lukács's focus on artistic and critical conduct, the desire of poets, artists, and philosophers to create a semblance of reality in their work, is described in a way that shifts between a yearning for the preservation of soul amid a “lachrymose reality” and hints of social commentary. The first chapter, “On the Nature and Form of the Essay,” in particular influenced many theorists of his generation, including Theodor Adorno (1903—69), and it has been taken up by contemporary theorists as well (see Butler). Examining a panorama of artists and thinkers both major—SImageren Kierkegaard (1813—55), Novalis, Laurence Sterne—and minor—Stefan George (1868— 1933), Theodor Storm (1817—1938)— Lukács explores the rapid emergence of modern bourgeois sensibilities and their clash with the prevailing aesthetic trends of previous eras.

Lukács's literary theory finds a more coherent and demonstrative expression in his next major work, Die Theorie des Romans (1920, The Theory of the Novel). Along with Mikhail bakhtin's The Dialogic Imagination (1975) and Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel (1957), Lukács's book has been heralded as one of the century's most influential philosophical studies of the novel. Its ingenuity is attributable to two arguments. First, novelistic writing is said to consist of a singular ontological condition, rather than an aesthetic, historical, or psychological one. “The form of the novel,” he writes, “is, like no other one, an expression of...transcendental homelessness” (1971b, 41). Permanently displaced from a universalized Heimat expressed in the cosmologies of Ancient Greece, novelistic writing emerges as the preeminent form that contends with this loss. The novel also exhibits prospects for reevaluating this condition: “The conflict between what is and what should be has not been abolished and cannot be abolished in the sphere wherein these events take place—the life sphere of the novel; only a maximum conciliation—the profound and intensive irradiation of a man by his life's meaning—is attainable” (1971b, 80).

Second, in a gesture that intimates his future conversion from a metaphysical to a historical mode of critique, Lukács uses the category of time to index historical shifts in novelistic genres. The narrative sequences of modern novels is interpreted by Lukács as a break with earlier narrative temporalities such as the epic, which, comparatively, unfolds a spatial imaginary of wandering heroes and visited lands that recounts events from a previous historical period. Lukács writes:

[t]he normative attitude towards the epic, according to Goethe and Schiller, is an attitude assumed towards something completely in the past; therefore its time is static and can be taken in at a single glance. The author of an epic and his characters can move freely in any direction inside it....Only the complete disorientedness of modern literature poses the impossible task of representing development and the gradual passing of time in dramatic terms. (1971b, 122)

Lukács's deceptively complex insight that “we might almost say that the entire inner action of the novel is nothing but a struggle against the power of time” (1971b, 122) was immensely influential for critics attempting to understand the synthesizing and/or discordant effects of artistic expression, the artifacts it produces, and the time and place of its genesis. Walter Benjamin (1892—1940), for instance, wrote in a letter to Gershom Scholem (1897—1982) that The Theory of the Novel “astounded” him because of its ability to “[proceed] from political considerations to a theory of cognition” (355).

On 7 Nov. 1917, Lukács walked to the Deutsche Bank in Heidelberg and placed all his writings in a safe-deposit box, thereby bringing to an end his tacit intellectual preoccupations. Soon thereafter, with reports of the Russian Revolution fresh in his mind, he returned to Budapest and joined the Hungarian Soviet Republic, becoming People's Commissar for Education and Culture. The regime was eventually defeated, which caused him to flee to Vienna. While there he met, among others, Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891—1937), and he reformulated the fundamental political principles of his thought.

Lukács's next major intervention, Geschichte und Klassenbewußtsein (1923, History and Class Consciousness), is considered by many his masterpiece. This study is most influential today as a work of capitalist epistemology. His landmark concept of “reification” is described as a process in which capital shapes all aspects of social life (see CLASS, IDEOLOGY). Building upon Marx's problematic of commodification, Lukács reinterprets capital as having a broad set of consequences throughout daily life. Social formations and their products appear natural, their contingencies and antagonisms are effaced or rendered inexistent in the commodity's genesis. Therefore the consciousness accompanying class divisions—i.e., its de facto legitimacy—is countervailed in Lukács's account by the consciousness of the proletariat, or those who produce the “qualitatively determined unity of the product” (1971a, 88). Class consciousness is thus conceived by Lukács not as an empirical experience of a single group of people but as a zurgerechnetes (imputable) type of awareness of social inequality that is deeply antagonistic with the attempt to make capitalist economies and cultures appear natural. This work would come to prominence once again after its republication in the late 1960s, with a critical preface by Lukács, and deeply influence a generation of cultural critics and theorists of the novel, most significantly among them, Fredric Jameson.

After a hostile reception to this work—for which Lukács would offer a brilliant polemical defense that was published for the first time in 1996—his political and theoretical orientation would undergo another major shift. Der historische Roman (The Historical Novel), which he wrote in Moscow during the winter of 1937—38, exemplifies his more complex dialectical interpretation of literature as contextualized by and narrating the forces of its social totality. A dynamic interpretation of the role of literature in the political movements of post-Napoleonic history—“the contradictions of human progress” (1962, 344)—he marks the differences in the genre between both earlier historical dramas and the proto-modernist fictions of Flaubert that emerge after the failed revolutions of 1848. “What the historical novel,” he writes, “is not the re-telling of great historical events, but the poetic awakening of the people who figured in those events....It is the portrayal of the broad living basis of historical events in their intricacy and complexity, in their manifold interaction with acting individuals” (1962, 42—43). In the opening of his preface to this work, Jameson describes it as “perhaps the single most monumental realization of the varied program and promises of a Marxist and a dialectical literary criticism” (1962, 1).

In his later work on the novel, Lukács turns primarily to a theorization of realism. Consonant with the formulations of class consciousness in his earlier work, he describes realism as a narrative practice that enables its practitioners to express the interrelation of economic and political forces within a particular social totality. This sets the ground for a clash with advocates of modernist writing, chief among them Bertolt Brecht (1898—1956), Adorno, and his teacher, Bloch.

Lukács's influence in cultural theory and literary criticism is impossible to avoid. Any thorough study of capitalist reification and totality or novelistic forms must engage his work. Edward Said, perhaps the most insightful literary interpreter of Lukács's trajectory, has argued for a fidelity to Lukács's “inducement to insurrectionary action” and argued against tempering his ideas into mere interpretative devices. For Said, Lukács's “Marxism...regulated an interchange between the individual or group intellect and brute actuality; it did not overcome barriers; it dissolved them by formalizing them almost infinitely, just as (paradoxically) proletarian consciousness truly existed when a dehumanized atomism had both dismembered and postponed all human solidarity” (65—66). In the contemporary field of modern and world literature, Franco Moretti, Roberto Schwarz, and Jameson, among others, employ the lessons of Lukács's theories. For Moretti, The Theory of the Novel and Lukács's writings on realism from the 1930s stand alongside Eric Auerbach's Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946) and Pascale Casanova's Republique mondiale des lettres (1999) as theories of the novel invaluably shaped by political constraints of their day. A disavowal of this political complication and gravity, prevents us from understanding Lukács's critique of the narrative modes mediating our perception of capitalism, and reverses the most valuable direction in which Lukács's work leads: aesthetic qualities of novels need to be interpreted not as hermetic codes to be deciphered unto themselves, but as complex articulations of the socioeconomic situation. Jameson argues for a deep consistency throughout what is too often perceived as Lukács's disjointed oeuvre: “Lukacs's work might be seen as a continuous and lifelong meditation on narrative, on its basic structures, its relationship to the reality it expresses, and its epistemological value when compared with other, more abstract and philosophical modes of understanding” (1971, 163).


1. Adorno, T. (1991), “Essay as Form,” in Notes to Literature, vol. 1, trans. S.W. Nicholsen.

2. Benjamin, W. (1966), Briefe, ed. T. Adorno and G. Scholem.

3. Butler, J. (2009), “Introduction,” in G. Lukács, Soul and Form, trans. A Bostock.

4. Corredor, E.L. (1997), Lukács After Communism.

5. Jameson, F.R. (1971), Marxism and Form.

6. Kadarkay, A. (1991), Georg Lukács.

7. Lukács, G. (1962), Historical Novel, trans. H and S. Mitchell.

8. Lukács, G. (1963), Meaning of Contemporary Realism, trans. J. and N. Maunder.

9. Lukács, G. (1970), “Narrate or Describe?,” in Writer and Critic, and Other Essays, trans. A.D. Kahn.

10. Lukács, G. (1971a), History and Class Consciousness, trans. R. Livingstone.

11. Lukács, G. (1971b), Theory of the Novel, trans. A. Bostock.

12. Lukács, G. (2000), A Defence of History and Class Consciousness, trans E. Leslie.

13. Moretti, F. (2003), “More Conjectures,” New Left Review 20 (Mar./Apr).

14. Said, E. (2002), Reflections on Exile and Other Essays.