Salvage from a wreck

Georg Lukacs

March 24, 1995

In his book The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Terry Eagleton comments that the Lukacsian theory of realism "represents an invaluable contribution to the canon of Marxist criticism . . . which a modernist Marxism has unjustly demeaned". Stuart Sim's introduction to the thought of Georg Lukacs makes a similar point in its own, avowedly "post-Marxist", way. Its central thesis is that Lukacs's critique of modernism can be significantly related to that of post-modernism, and that therin lies his continued importance for us today. In other words, the consonance of Lukacs's critique of modernism with post-modernism is that which can be rescued from his oeuvre in the context of the much-touted "wreckage of Marxism".

Sim's book covers the full range of Lukacs's work, from Soul and Form to Solzhenitsyn, and does so with clarity and judiciousness. Sim's exposition and critique of Lukacs's theory of realism, as developed in such works as Studies in European Realism, The Historical Novel, and The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, is particularly fine.

However, it also needs to be said that Sim is better on Lukacs as a literary critic than he is on Lukacs as a philosopher. For example, he misidentifies Lukacs's understanding of "reification" with Antonio Gramsci's concept of "hegemony". Thus, he writes that, in his essay Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, Lukacs "sets out to explore how bourgeois hegemony seeks to keep proletarian consciousness divided and amorphous". This is wrong. Reification, according to Lukacs, is the combination of what Marx called "commodity fetishism" (relations between human beings take on the fantastic appearance of relations between things), and what Max Weber dubbed "rationalisation" (the fragmentation of the work process, the bureacratisation of social life, the imposition of a form of abstract rationality that is locally effective, but globally blind, and so on). Hegemony, according to Gramsci, consists in the moral and intellectual leadership that one class, or class fraction, exercises over another - direction based primarily on consent rather than coercion. The first process, reification, is automatically produced by the development of capitalism as a system, and the second is a much more contestable affair, dependent on human agency for its success or failure. A mature Marxism, or "post-Marxism", would require both concepts (at least) in theorising the ideological realm.

Sim is also less than rigorous when he comes to assimilate Lukacs, mutatis mutandis, to the discourse of post-modernism in general, and post-Marxism in particular. There is a good deal of scholastic logic-chopping involved here, as when Lukacs's privileging of a classical Marxist understanding of dialectical method over Stalinist doxology is trumpeted as "having a post-modernist ring to it". It is simply not the case to say that "Lukacs is no more enamoured of teleology than any anti-grand narrative theorist". On the contrary, like Marx before him, Lukacs was a profoundly teleological thinker, believing as he did that it is the purpose of humankind to break out of the prehistory of monotonous class oppression and into the truly human history to be made possible by a freely associated mode of social life.

There is something to be said for Sim's view that the "strong sense of historical process and commitment to a dialogue with the past" evident in Lukacs are of enduring value (though whether one should insist on designating these things as essentially "postmodern" is a moot point). Moreover, his book is a valuable introduction for students to whom Lukacs must seem an increasingly alien figure.

It gives the impression, despite its merits, of having been written too quickly, and in a knockabout style to boot (for example, the phrase "heady stuff" is repeated twice in the space of one page in reference to History and Class Consciousness). More seriously, it accepts too readily the glib journalistic assumption that Marxism is "finished" because of the collapse of Soviet and East European Communism: a serious non sequitur, if ever there was one.

Brian McKenna is a junior research fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford.

Georg Lukacs

Author - Stuart Sim
ISBN - 0 7450 1463 1
Publisher - Harvester Wheatsheaf
Price - £10.95
Pages - 176pp

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