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György Lukács: aesthetics, politics, philosophy

Lecturer: Daniel Fairfax

Originally Taught: Winter School 2016

Hungarian philosopher György Lukács (1885-1971) is one of the most prominent figures in 20th century Marxist philosophy, but his relationship with the Bolshevik political tradition and his polemics with figures such as Theodor W. Adorno and Bertolt Brecht means that he is also one of the most controversial thinkers in the history of critical theory. Moreover, the evolution of Lukács’ ideas can not be divorced from the convulsive political events of the 20th century, stretching from the revolutionary wave of the 1910s to the 1956 Hungarian uprising, in which he was not only an observer but also a notable participant. 

This course will provide an overview of his life and philosophy, with particular attention given to his development of a historical materialist theory of aesthetics centring around his contentious definition of “realism”, as well as his endeavour to re-inject Marxist theory with elements drawn from its Kantian and Hegelian lineage. After a biographical overview in the first session, we will discuss Lukács early writings on aesthetics (when, yet to adopt a Marxist outlook, his thinking was dominated by early 20th century neo-Kantianism), before shifting to his conversion to Marxism in the late 1910s: a theoretical turn that resulted in his most well-known work History and Class Consciousness which combined aspects of Max Weber’s theories with a commitment to Leninist praxis. In 1929, the failure for Lukács’ “Blum Theses” to be adopted by the Comintern and the rise of Stalinism within the international communist movement led the philosopher to focus squarely on aesthetic concerns in the 1930s and 1940s, a period which yielded some of his most controversial texts, including “Realism in the Balance”, which excoriated modernist art as a reflection of the “decadent” phase of capitalism. Finally, we will look at his post-war writings, in which, in addition to a continued exploration of aesthetic questions, he also strove to construct an ontological basis to Marx’s historical materialist outlook.

While much of Lukács’ output may appear, today, to be dated, if not fundamentally compromised by the political situation in which he was working, recent years have also seen a revival of interest in his ideas, a phenomenon which has also been manifested in the campaign to save the Lukács archive, threatened with closure by Vikto Orban’s authoritarian government in Hungary. In this course I will argue for the continued contemporary relevance of his ideas, both for the Marxist tradition, and for aesthetic theory more generally.

Course Schedule

Lecture 1: Biographical Overview

  • Kadarkay – “Introduction” (in Kadarkay, ed. – The Lukács Reader)

Lecture 2: Early Aesthetic Writings

  • Lukács – Soul and Form (extracts)
  • Lukács – The Theory of the Novel (extracts)

Lecture 3: The Turn to Marxism

  • Lukács – “Reification and Class Consciousness” (in History and Class Consciousness)
  • Lukács – Tailism and the Dialectic (extracts)
  • Lukács – “The Blum Theses”

Lecture 4: Realism and Aesthetic Theory in the Stalin Era

  • Lukács – “Realism in the Balance”
  • Adorno – “Reconciliation under Duress”
  • Lukács – The Historical Novel (extracts)

Lecture 5: Marxism and the Cold War: Lukács' Later Philosophy

  • Lukács – Ontology of Social Being (extracts)