An interview & photo gallery
Image: Georg Lukács seated in
the darkness of his library
From an interview conducted by the New Left Review, translated 1971:
New Left Review: How do you judge today your writings of the twenties? What is their relationship to your present work?
Georg Lukács: In the twenties, Korsch, Gramsci, and I tried in our different ways to come to grips with the problem of social necessity and the mechanistic interpretation of it that was the heritage of the Second International. We inherited this problem, but none of us — not even Gramsci, who was perhaps the best of us — solved it. We all went wrong, and today it would be quite mistaken to try and revive the works of those times as if they were valid now. In the West, there is a tendency to erect them into “classics of heresy,” but we have no need for that today. The twenties are a past epoch; it is the philosophical problems of the sixties that should concern us. I am now working on an Ontology of Social Being which I hope will solve the problems that were posed quite falsely in my earlier work, particularly History and Class Consciousness. My new work centres on the question of the relationship between necessity and freedom, or as I express it, teleology and causality.
Traditionally, philosophers have always built systems founded on one or the other of these two poles; they have either denied necessity or denied human freedom. My aim is to show the ontological interrelation of the two, and to reject the “either-or” standpoints with which philosophy has traditionally presented man. The concept of labor is the hinge of my analysis. For labor is not biologically determined. If a lion attacks an antelope, its behavior is determined by biological need and by that alone. But if primitive man is confronted with a heap of stones, he must choose between them, by judging which will be most adaptable to his use as a tool; he selects between alternatives. The notion of alternatives is basic to the meaning of human labor, which is thus always teleological — it sets an aim, which is the result of a choice. It thus expresses human freedom. But this freedom only exists by setting in motion objective physical forces, which obey the causal laws of the material universe.
The teleology of labor is thus always co-ordinated with physical causality, and indeed the result of any individual’s labor is a moment of physical causality for the teleological orientation (Setzung) of any other individual. The belief in a teleology of nature was theology, and the belief in an immanent teleology of history was unfounded. But there is teleology in all human labor, inextricably inserted into the causality of the physical world. This position, which is the nucleus from which I am developing my present work, overcomes the classical antinomy of necessity and freedom. But I should emphasize that I am not trying to build an all-inclusive system. The title of my work — which is completed, but I am now revising the first chapters — is Zur Ontologie des Gesellschaftlichen Seins, not Ontologie des Gesellschaftlichen Seins. You will appreciate the difference. The task I am engaged on will need the collective work of many thinkers for its proper development. But I hope it will show the ontological bases for that socialism of everyday life of which I spoke.
NLR: How do you view now your early literary-critical work, particularly The Theory of the Novel? What was its historical meaning?
GL: The Theory of the Novel was an expression of my despair during the First World War. When the War started, I said Germany and Austro-Hungary will probably defeat Russia and destroy Czarism: that is good. France and England will probably defeat Germany and Austro-Hungary and destroy the Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs: that is good. But who will then defend us from English and French culture? My despair at this question found no answer, and that is the background to Theory of the Novel. Of course, October gave the answer. The Russian Revolution was the world-historical solution to my dilemma: it prevented the triumph of the English and French bourgeoisie which I had dreaded. But I should say that the Theory of the Novel, with all its mistakes, did call for the overthrow of the world that produced the culture it analyzed. It understood the need for a revolutionary change.
NLR: At that time, you were a friend of Max Weber. How do you judge him now? His colleague Sombart eventually became a Nazi — do you think that Weber, had he lived, might have become reconciled to National-Socialism?
GL: No, never. You must understand that Weber was an absolutely honest person. He had a great contempt for the Emperor, for example. He used to say to us in private that the great German misfortune was that, unlike the Stuarts or the Bourbons, no Hohenzollern had ever been decapitated. You can imagine that it was no ordinary German professor who could say such a thing in 1912. Weber was quite unlike Sombart — he never made any concessions to anti-semitism, for instance. Let me tell you a story that is characteristic of him. He was asked by a German University to send his recommendations for a chair at that university — they were going to make a new appointment. Weber wrote back to them, giving them three names, in order of merit. He then added, any three of these would be an absolutely suitable choice — they are all excellent: but you will not choose any one of them, because they are all Jews. So I am adding a list of three other names, not one of whom is as worthy as the three whom I have recommended, and you will undoubtedly accept one of them, because they are not Jews. Yet with all this, you must remember that Weber was a deeply convinced imperialist, whose liberalism was merely a matter of his belief that an efficient imperialism was necessary, and only liberalism could guarantee that efficiency. He was a sworn enemy of the October and November Revolutions. He was both an extraordinary scholar and deeply reactionary. The irrationalism which began with the late Schelling and Schopenhauer finds one of its most important expressions in him.
NLR: How did he react to your conversion to the October Revolution?
GL: He is reported to have said that with Lukács the change must have been a profound transformation of convictions and ideas, whereas with Toller it was merely a confusion of sentiments. But I had no relations with him from that time on.
NLR: After the war, you were a participant in the Hungarian Commune, as Commissar for Education. What assessment of the experience of the Commune is possible now, 50 years later?
GL: The essential cause of the Commune was the Vyx Note and the policy of the Entente towards Hungary. In this respect, the Hungarian Commune is comparable to the Russian Revolution, where the question of ending the War played a fundamental part in bringing the October Revolution into existence. Once the Vyx Note was delivered, its consequence was the Commune. Social-democrats later attacked us for creating the Commune, but at that time after the war, there was no possibility of staying within the limits of the bourgeois political framework; it was necessary to explode it.
NLR: After the defeat of the Commune, you were a delegate at the Third Congress of the Comintern in Moscow. Did you encounter the Bolshevik leaders there? What were your impressions of them?
GL: Look, you must remember that I was a small member of a small delegation — I was not an important figure in any way at the time, and so I naturally did not have long conversations with the leaders of the Russian Party. I was introduced to Lenin, however, by Lunacharsky. He charmed me completely. I was able to watch him at work in the Commissions of the Congress as well, of course.
The other Bolshevik leaders I found antipathetic. Trotsky I disliked immediately: I thought him a poseur. There is a passage in Gorki’s memories of Lenin, you know, where Lenin after the Revolution, while acknowledging Trotsky’s many organizational achievements during the Civil War, says that he had something of Lassalle about him. Zinoviev, whose role in the Comintern I later got to know well, was a mere political manipulator. My assessment of Bukharin is to be found in my article on him in 1925, criticizing his Marxism — that was at a time when he was the Russian authority on theoretical questions, after Stalin. Stalin himself I cannot remember at the Congress at all — like so many other foreign Communists, I had no awareness whatever of his importance in the Russian Party. I did speak to Radek at some length. He told me that he thought my articles on the March action in Germany were the best things that had been written on it, and that he approved them completely. Later, of course, he changed his opinion when the Party condemned the March affair, and he then publicly attacked it. By contrast with all these, Lenin made an enormous impression on me.
NLR: What was your reaction when Lenin attacked your article on the question of Parliamentarism?
GL: My article was completely misguided, and I abandoned its theses without hesitation. But I should add that I had read Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder before his critique of my own article, and I had already been wholly convinced by his arguments on the question of parliamentary participation there: so his criticism of my article did not change anything very much for me. I already knew it was wrong. You remember what Lenin said in Left-Wing Communism — that bourgeois parliaments were completely superseded in a world-historical sense, with the birth of the revolutionary organs of proletarian power, the Soviets, but that this absolutely did not mean that they were superseded in an immediate political sense — in particular that the masses in the West did not believe in them. Therefore Communists had to work in them, as well as outside them.