Georg Lukács on Hölderlin and Thermidor

Paris, the 24/02/2014. Portrait by Michael Lowy .Photo Pierre Pytkowicz
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By MICHAEL LÖWY*

Reply to an article by Slavoj Žižek

The writings of Georg Lukács in the 1930s, despite their limitations, contradictions and commitments (with Stalinism), are still of the greatest interest. This is especially the case of his 1935 essay on Hölderlin entitled “The Hyperion by Hölderlin”, translated by Lucien Goldmann and included in the volume Goethe and his time (1949)

Lukács is literally fascinated by the poet, whom he describes as “one of the purest and most profound elegiac poets of all time”, whose work has “a profoundly revolutionary character”.[I]. But, contrary to the general opinion of literary historians, he stubbornly refuses to recognize him as a romantic author. Why?

From the beginning of the 1930s, Lukács understood, with great lucidity, that romanticism was not a simple literary school, but a cultural protest against capitalist civilization, in the name of values ​​– religious, ethical, cultural – of the past. He was at the same time convinced that, from his past references, it was an essentially reactionary phenomenon.

The term “romantic anti-capitalism” appears for the first time in an article by Lukács on Dostoyevsky, in which the Russian writer is condemned as “reactionary”. According to this text published in Moscow, Dostoyevsky's influence stems from his ability to transform the problems of romantic opposition to capitalism into “spiritual” ones; From this “romantic anti-capitalist petty-bourgeois intellectual opposition (…), a wide avenue opens up to the right, to reaction, nowadays to fascism, and, in contrast, a narrow and difficult path to the left, to the left.” for the revolution”[ii].

This “narrow path” seems to disappear when, three years later, he writes an essay on “Nietzsche, the precursor of fascist aesthetics”. Lukács presents Nietzsche as continuing the tradition of romantic critiques of capitalism: like them, “he opposes, at every moment, to the lack of culture of the present the high culture of pre-capitalist periods or the beginning of capitalism”. For him, this criticism is reactionary, and could easily lead to fascism.[iii].

Here we find a surprising blindness: Lukács does not seem to perceive the political heterogeneity of romanticism and, in particular, the existence, alongside reactionary romanticism, which dreams of an impossible return to the past, of a revolutionary romanticism, which aspires to a detour through the past , towards a utopian future. This refusal is all the more surprising because the work of the young Lukács himself, for example, his essay The Theory of Romance (1916) belongs to this romantic/utopian cultural universe[iv].

This revolutionary current has been present since the origins of the Romantic movement. Let's take as an example The origins of inequality among men by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1755), which we can consider as a kind of first manifesto of political romanticism: his fierce critique of bourgeois society, inequality and private property is made in the name of a more or less imaginary past, the State of Nature (still inspired by the free and egalitarian customs of the “Caraíbas” indigenous people). However, contrary to what his opponents maintain (Voltaire!), Rousseau does not propose that modern men return to the forest, but dreams of a new form of libertarian equality for “savages”: democracy. We find utopian romanticism, in various forms, not only in France but also in England (Blake, Shelley) and even in Germany: was young Schlegel not an ardent supporter of the French Revolution? It is also the case, certainly, of Hölderlin, a revolutionary poet, but who, like many romantics after Rousseau, is possessed by “nostalgia for the days of an original world” (ein Sehnen nach den Tagen der Urwelt)[v].

Lukács is obliged to recognize, reluctantly, that we find in Hölderlin the “romantic and anti-capitalist traits that, at that time, did not yet have a reactionary character”. For example, the author of Hyperion he also hated, like the romantics, the capitalist division of labor and narrow bourgeois political freedom. However, “at his core, Hölderlin (…) is not a romantic, although his critique of nascent capitalism is not without certain romantic traits”[vi]. We perceive in these lines that affirm one thing and its opposite, Lukács's embarrassment and his difficulty in clearly showing the poet's revolutionary romantic nature. At first, did romanticism “still not have a reactionary character”? That means that all Frühromantic, was not the early period of romanticism, at the end of the eighteenth century, reactionary? In that case, how can we proclaim that romanticism is, by nature, a retrograde current?

In his attempt, against all evidence, to dissociate Hölderlin from the romantics, Lukács mentions the fact that the past to which they refer is not the same: “The difference in the choice of themes between Hölderlin and the romantic writers – Greece versus the Middle Ages – it is not, therefore, a simple difference in themes, but a difference in worldview and political ideology” (p. 194). However, if many romantics refer to the Middle Ages, this is not the case for all: for example, Rousseau, as we have seen, is inspired by the way of life of the “Caribbeans”, these free and equal men. We find, moreover, reactionary romantics who dream of the Olympus of classical Greece. If we take into account the so-called “neo-romanticism” of the late XNUMXth century – in fact, the continuation of romanticism in a new form – we find authentic revolutionary romantics – the libertarian Marxist William Morris and the anarchist Gustav Landauer – fascinated by the Middle Ages.

In fact, what distinguishes revolutionary from reactionary romanticism is not the type of past to which it refers, but the utopian dimension of the future. Lukács seems to realize this, in another passage of his essay, when he evokes the concomitant presence, in Hölderlin, of a “dream of returning to the golden age” and of a “utopia beyond bourgeois society, of a real liberation of humanity”[vii]. He also perceives, with perspicacity, the kinship between Hölderlin and Rousseau: in both we find “the dream of a transformation of society”, by which this “would become natural again”[viii]. Lukács is thus very close to considering the ethos Hölderlin's revolutionary romanticism, but his adamant prejudice against romanticism, cataloged as "reactionary" by definition, prevents him from reaching this conclusion. In our opinion, it is one of the main limits of this otherwise brilliant essay…

The other limit concerns more Lukács' historical-political judgment on Hölderlin's irreducible – post-termidorian – Jacobinism, compared with Hegel's “realism”: “Hegel accepts the post-termidorian epoch, the end of the evolutionary period of the French Revolution , and builds his philosophy precisely on the understanding of this new turn in the evolution of universal history. Hölderlin makes no compromise with post-Thermidorian reality; he remains faithful to the old revolutionary ideal of a revival of ancient democracy and is crushed by a reality that no longer had a place for his ideals, not even on the poetic and ideological plane”.

While Hegel understood “the revolutionary evolution of the bourgeoisie as a unitary process, whose revolutionary terror, like Thermidor and the Empire, were but necessary phases”, Hölderlin's intransigence “led to a tragic impasse. Unknown, weeps for no one, he fell like a poetic and solitary Leonidas, from the ideals of the Jacobin period to Thermopylae of the Thermidorian invasion.”[ix].

Let us admit that this historical, literary and philosophical fresco does not lack greatness! It is no less problematic… And, above all, it implicitly contains a reference to the reality of the Soviet revolutionary process, as it was at the time Lukács was writing his essay.

This is, in any case, the somewhat risky hypothesis that I tried to defend in an article published in English under the title Lukacs and Stalinism, and included in a collective book, Western Marxism, a critical reader (London, New Left Books, 1977). I also included it in my book on Lukács, published in French in 1976 and in England in 1980 under the title Georg Lukacs. From romanticism to bolshevism. Here is a passage that summarizes my hypothesis about the historical fresco sketched by Lukács in the article on Hölderlin: “The meaning of these observations in relation to the USSR in 1935 is transparent; suffice it to add that Trotsky published precisely in February 1935 an essay in which he used for the first time the term 'Thermidor' to characterize the evolution of the USSR after 1924 (The workers' state and the question of Thermidor and Bonapartism). Clearly, the quoted passages are Lukács's response to Trotsky, this intransigent, tragic and solitary Leonidas, who refuses Thermidor and is condemned to an impasse. Lukács, on the other hand, like Hegel, accepts the end of the revolutionary period and builds his philosophy on understanding the new turn of universal history. Let us note in passing, however, that Lukács seems to implicitly accept the Trotskyist characterization of Stalin's regime as Thermidorian…”[X].

However, it was with some surprise that I read, in a recent book by Slavoj Žižek, a passage on Lukács's essay on Hölderlin, which takes up, almost word for word, my hypothesis, but without mentioning the source:

“It is evident that Lukács's analysis is profoundly allegorical: it was written a few months after Trotsky launched his thesis according to which Stalinism was the Thermidor of the October Revolution. Lukács' text should be read as a response to Trotsky: he accepts the definition of the Stalinist regime as 'Thermidorian', but gives it a positive meaning. Rather than deploring the loss of utopian energy, we should, in heroically resigned fashion, accept its consequences as the only real space for social progress.”[xi].

I don't believe that Mr. Žižek may have read my book on Lukács, but he probably became aware of my analysis in the article published in the widely circulated collection Western Marxism. As Mr. Žižek writes a lot, and quickly, so it's understandable that he doesn't always have time to quote his sources...

slave Žižek made many criticisms of Lukács, among which this, quite paradoxical: Lukács “became, after the 1930s, the ideal Stalinist philosopher who, for this precise reason and unlike Brecht, left aside the true greatness of Stalinism”[xii]. This commentary is found in a chapter of his book curiously entitled The Inner Greatness of Stalinism – a title inspired by Heidegger's argument about the “inner greatness of Nazism”, from which Žižek distances himself by rightly denying all “inner greatness” to the Nazism.

Why did Lukács not understand this "grandeur” of Stalinism? Žižek does not explain, but he does imply that the identification of Stalinism with Thermidor – proposed by Trotsky and implicitly accepted by Lukács – was a mistake. For example, for him, “the year 1928 was a disturbing turning point, a veritable second revolution – not a kind of Thermidor, but rather the consequent radicalization of the October Revolution”… Therefore, Lukács and, likewise, all those who did not understand “the unbearable tension of the Stalinist project itself” did not realize its “greatness” and did not understand “the emancipatory-utopian potential of Stalinism”![xiii] Moral of the story: it is necessary to “stop the ridiculous game that consists of opposing Stalinist terror to the 'authentic' Leninist heritage” – an old Trotsky argument taken up by “the last Trotskyists, these true Hölderlins of current Marxism”[xiv].

Was Slavoj Žižek the last of the Stalinists? It is difficult to answer, so much so that his thought manages, with considerable talent, paradoxes and ambiguities. What to make of his grandiose proclamations about the “inner greatness” of Stalinism and its “utopian-emancipatory potential”? It seems to me that it would have been fairer to speak of the “inner mediocrity” and the “dystopian potential” of the Stalinist system… Lukács's reflection on Thermidor seems more pertinent to me, even if it is also questionable.

My comment, in the article “Lukács and stalinism” (and in my book), regarding the ambitious historical fresco by Lukács, regarding Hölderlin, tries to question the thesis of continuity between the Revolution and Thermidor: “This text by Lukács constitutes without undoubtedly one of the most intelligent and subtle attempts to justify Stalinism as a 'necessary phase', 'prosaic' but 'of a progressive character', of the revolutionary evolution of the proletariat, conceived as a unitary process. There is in this thesis – which was probably the secret reasoning of many intellectuals and militants more or less linked to Stalinism – a certain 'rational core', but the events of the following years (the Moscow trials, the German-Soviet pact, etc.) would show, even for Lukács, that this process was not so 'unitary'”. I add, in a footnote, that old Lukács, in an interview with the New Left Review in 1969, has a more lucid vision than in 1935 about the Soviet Union: its extraordinary power of attraction lasted “from 1917 until the time of the Great purges”[xv].

But let us return to Žižek: the questions posed by his book are not solely historical: they concern the very possibility of an emancipatory communist project based on the ideas of Marx (and/or Lenin). Indeed, according to the argument he makes in one of the strangest passages of his book, Stalinism, with all its horrors (which he does not deny), was ultimately a lesser evil than the original Marxian project! In a footnote, Žižek explains that the issue of Stalinism is often misplaced: “The problem is not that the original Marxist vision was subverted by unintended consequences. The problem is this view itself. If Lenin's – or even Marx's – communist project had been fully realized, according to its true core, things would have been far worse than Stalinism – we would have a vision of what Adorno and Horkheimer called die verwaltete Welt (the administered society). ), a society totally transparent to itself, regulated by the reified general intellect, from which all pretense of autonomy and freedom would have been banished”[xvi].

It seems to me that Slavoj Žižek is very modest. Why hide in a footnote such a historical-philosophical discovery, whose political importance is evident? In fact, the liberal, anti-communist and reactionary opponents of Marxism limit themselves to making it guilty of the crimes of Stalinism. Žižek is, as far as I know, the first to maintain that if the original Marxist project had been fully realized, the result would have been worse than Stalinism…

Is it necessary to take this thesis seriously, or would it not be better to attribute it to Slavoj Žižek's immoderate taste for provocation? I could not answer this question, but I lean towards the second hypothesis. In any case, I have some difficulty taking this rather absurd statement seriously – a skepticism no doubt shared by those – especially young people – who continue to be interested, even today, in the original Marxist project.

*Michael Lowy he is director of research at the Center National de la Recherche Scientifique (France). Author, among other books by The political evolution of Lukács 1909-1929 (Cortez).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves

Notes

[I] G. Lukács, “L'Hyperion' by Hölderlin”, Goethe et son époque, Paris, Nagel, 1949, p. 197.

[ii] G. Lukács, “Über den Dotsojevski Nachlass”,  Moskauer Rundschau,  22 / 3 / 1931.

[iii] G. Lukács, “Nietzsche als Vorläufer des faschistischen Aesthetik” (1934), in F. Mehring, G. Lukács, Friedrich Nietzsche, Berlin, Aufbau Verlag, 1957, pp. 41-53.

[iv] See M.Löwy, R.Sayre, “Le romanticisme (anticapitaliste) dans La Théorie du roman by G. Lukács”, in Romanesques, Revue du Center d'études du roman, Paris, Classiques Garnier, n° 8, 2016, “Lukács 2016: cent ans de Théorie du roman”.

[v] Holderlin, Hyperion, 1797, Frankfurt am Mein, Fischer Bücherei, 1962, p. 90. For a discussion of the concept of anti-capitalist romanticism and its various political manifestations, see M. Löwy, R. Sayre, Revolte et melancholie. Le romanticisme à contre-courant de la modernité,  Paris, Payot, 1990.

[vi]  G. Lukács,  Hyperion, thep.cit., p. 194.

[vii]  G. Lukács,  op.cit., p. 183.

[viii] Ibid., p.182.

[ix]  G. Lukács,  op.cit., pp. 179-181.

[X]  M. Löwy, Pour une sociologie des intellectuels révolutionnaires. L'évolution politique de Lukács 1909-1929, Paris, PUF, 1976, p. 232.

[xi]  S. Žižek, La revolution aux portes, Paris, Le Temps des Cerises, 2020, p. 404.

[xii]  S. Žižek, op.cit,  p. 257.

[xiii]  S. Žižekon. cit., note 49, p. 419.

[xiv]  S. Žižek , op.cit., pp. 250-52.

[xv] M. Löwy, G.Lukács, op.cit., P. 233. It is true that the forced collectivization massacres of the early 1930s were little known outside the USSR.

[xvi] S. Zizek, op. cit., note 47, p. 419.

 

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