Lukacs Reads Goethe: From Aestheticism to Stalinism

By Meyer, Kelley S | German Quarterly, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Lukacs Reads Goethe: From Aestheticism to Stalinism


Meyer, Kelley S, German Quarterly


Vazsonyi, Nicholas. Lukacs Reads Goethe: From Aestheticism to Stalinism. Columbia: Camden House, 1997. 158 pp. $49.95 hardcover.

How do we make sense of Georg Lukacs? An aesthete and a committed Marxist, a lifelong admirer of humanism and an advocate of political terror-indeed, of indiscriminate murder-in the service of revolution: is his career simply a study in contradiction? Or is it best understood, as historians have traditionally argued, in terms of a salto vitale-a leap of faith from early, neo-romantic longings to the all-encompassing vision of Marxism?

In an excellent new study, Nicholas Vazsonyi argues for a third reading of this troubling twentieth-century thinker. For Vazsonyi, Lukacs's literary and political views reflect neither arbitrary shifts nor Kierkegaardian leaps, but rather remain surprisingly consistent throughout his life. In fact, as he provocatively claims, they were never far from Stalinism in the first place: "Simply put, the suggestion is that Lukacs had the makings of a Stalinist long before there was such a thing [...]. Stalin put into practice theories and ideas, which Lukacs had already formulated in 1910 [...]" (5). These theories and ideas become especially clear, Vazsonyi suggests, in Lukacs's readings of Goethe:

In a sense, the main purpose of this book is to trace the journey suggested in its subtitle [Lukacs's] intellectual path from the desire to achieve cultural purification by aesthetic means to what was at least a partial acceptance of Stalinism. The manner in which Lukacs used his interpretation of Goethe to support his developing thoughts serves as a reference point, the golden thread that leads from beginning to end (2 3).

Taking up this thread, Vazsonyi begins his first chapter with detailed discussions of Lukacs's youthful, pre-Marxist essays (19071918). Even here, he contends, the seeds of his later Stalinism are evident. In Entwicklungsgeschichte des modernen Dramas (1908-1911), for example, approving assessments of Goethe derive from the conviction that his plays affirm historical necessity over individual intentions. "Such an acceptance of historical determinism," Vazsonyi notes, "suggests that even then, Lukacs was conceiving of history in Hegelian and even Marxist terms" (13). The same proves true, he continues, of Lukacs's other early works; Asthetische Kultur (1910), Die Seele und die Formen (1911), and Theorie des Romans (1916) all seek "salvation" in a "stern and disciplined classicist who demands structure and order" (20). For Lukacs, this salvation equaled a "Goodness" beyond conventional ethics-a historical end, in other words, whose realization justified any means ("Von der Armut am Geiste" [1912]). "Even if Lukacs was not a communist yet," Vazsonyi asserts, "the groundwork-intellectual, aesthetic, ethical, and sociological-had been prepared for what was not a leap, but rather a defining step" (45). …

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