György Lukács, 50 years later

Hamilton Grimaldi's photo


The uniqueness of the Hungarian philosopher in the intellectual field

In an interview given to István Eörsi in 1971, the Hungarian philosopher György Lukács recalled how he was received during a Philosophy Congress in Geneva, after the Second World War: “I was received a little bit in the way... maybe you remember Montesquieu, the Persian Cards: 'Monsieur est Persan? Comment peut-on être Persan?', that is, how can someone who speaks several languages, is educated and cultured be a Marxist?” (Lukács, 2017, p. 164)

Lukács' account highlights the singularity of his position in the intellectual field: viewed with reservations by the Western intelligentsia, with its traditional hostility to Marxism, but, on the other hand, not well liked among the leaders of the so-called real socialism. This is what the same interview clarifies for us, when Lukács states bluntly that “everything that the official history of the party [Hungarian Communist Party] writes about me is, to say the least, extremely problematic as to the truth” (Idem, p. 147). Faced with two sets of very heterogeneous interlocutors, the fact is that Lukács' positions brought him recurrent friction.

In this year 2021, the 50th anniversary of his death, the moment is opportune to revisit this author whose long biography is intertwined with the very troubled history of Marxism for most of the XNUMXth century. But the intention here is not to present the characteristics of this extensive path. Our objective is much more limited: to point out some of the peculiarities of the great Ontology, written by Lukács at the end of his life. The project for this work began in the 60s, but its last version was completed only in 1970 – when Lukács was already over 80 years old -, being published with the title For an ontology of social being.

It may come as a surprise that it was only at such an advanced moment in his life that the philosopher took an ontology, a theory of being, as an object of investigation. According to the testimony of Nicolas Tertulian, who personally knew the author, Lukács said that a few geniuses of philosophy had the privilege of clarifying the essentials of his thought in their youth. For ordinary mortals, as was his case, it could happen that “only at the age of 80 would they be able to clarify the core of their philosophy” (Tertulian, 1986, p. 52).

In addition to Lukács's self-mockery in relation to his late encounter with ontology as a field of knowledge, it should be added that he made significant changes to his theme. Modifications that undoubtedly must be emphasized: this is not a refund in full of the old ontology, but before the elaboration of a singular project, with a strong authorial mark.

Perhaps it is precisely the lack of knowledge of this uniqueness that leads several sectors of the contemporary Marxist field, in Brazil and abroad, to have an attitude that is at least reticent towards an ontological perspective. In debate forums where the topic is discussed, there is often an assessment that the contemporary world, with its speed, with the volatility of social relations (already foreshadowed in the Marxian saying “everything that is solid melts into air”) , with the advancement of informatics dissolving even some parameters that seemed more recurrent, all this would have made an ontological approach hopelessly obsolete. Moreover, it is also often remembered that in the classic formulation of Parmenides, the being was defined by its immobility, as that which remains, in the midst of transformations, taken as apparent.

But the ontology defended by Lukács is qualitatively different from these old conceptions, which emphasized the stability of a certain configuration as a requisite for its knowledge. In fact, was not Lukács the first to radically question the staticity of the old substance (a central ontological category, reconstructed in the great Ontology). In his own words: “Hegel is, after Heraclitus, the first great thinker in whom becoming gains an objective ontological preponderance over being” (2012, p. 235). Against the fixity of the old metaphysical tradition, the Hegelian analysis of the determinations of reflection, for example, shows us that “essence, phenomenon and appearance are uninterruptedly converted into each other” (p. 253).

If in Hegel – a reader of Heraclitus – there is already a clear affirmation of the transience even of those configurations that seem more stable, it was up to Marx to highlight the formation of a new type of being that, arising from nature, progressively differentiates itself from it, acquiring a peculiar logic. Examining classic Marxian texts, Lukács highlights those passages that show us that, within the scope of the social being, new categorical relations and moments are formed, which can no longer be derived directly from nature.[I]. Quoting Marx, he reminds us that “Hunger is hunger, but the hunger that is satisfied with cooked meat, eaten with a knife and fork, is a different hunger from that which devours raw meat with hands, nails and teeth” (p. 332).

In their genesis, such modifications of the social being are related to the development of work and language, but they reach their most extreme degree in a capitalist economy. When the socially necessary labor time for the production of a commodity becomes the measure that establishes equivalences between different concrete works, a social abstraction of their differences takes place. The conditions for the subordination of human activity to a coercive standard are given:

“In the 2012th century, millions of self-employed artisans experienced the effects of this abstraction from socially necessary work as their own ruin, that is, when they experienced its concrete consequences in practice, …. This abstraction has the same ontological hardness as the facticity of, say, a car that runs over a person” (315, p. XNUMX)

We are here facing estrangement, a fundamental category of Lukácsian ontology, and which can also be attested today by the countless Gadgets, devices such as cell phones, computers, in their use that erases the marks of their origin in alienated and exploited work. Such summary references to the ontology asserted by Lukács already show that it is nothing like a search for ahistorical invariants. Its intent is to surprise, in the midst of the vertiginous speed of the contemporary world, those underlying trends responsible for life as it unfolds in our daily lives. Without this ontological view, we remain trapped in an image of the world as a random chaos, as a mere discontinuous collection of events that do not even have an internal articulation.

A contemporary example of the productivity of Lukacsian theses is the coronavirus pandemic itself, which hit us hard. Indeed, for the reader of his mature work, the current health crisis evokes references to the fact that an ontology of the social being “can only be built on the foundation of an ontology of nature”, its irrepressible, even if permanently, base. modified (2012, p. 186). That is, no matter how great the mediations created by work, by language, by the gigantic modification of original nature, we continue in organic exchange with the natural world. In the case at hand, several scientists have already come out to the public to warn of the fact that the probable cause of the emergence of the new coronavirus was the link between the expansion of predatory agroindustry and the emergence of new endemics.

Having noted the fruitfulness of Lukács' proposal, we would say that it is not necessary to agree with all his statements – whether they are in the great Ontology, or in other writings of his extensive work – to recognize the value of his contribution. Once, when I was working with students on a text by the author, at the end of the class a talented student came up to me, saying with the frankness characteristic of youth: “wow, professor, but Lukács 'gets too heavy' with authors!”. I was forced to recognize that there are several of the philosopher's judgments that are too harsh, especially with those who did not share his convictions. Let us think, for example, of the negative evaluations of Kafka, or of the sometimes reactive aspect to avant-garde aesthetic manifestations. In the texts produced throughout the cold war – as in The destruction of reason – this trend is also visible: several western intellectuals, in their complacency in the face of capitalist domination, provoked the wrath of Lukács, who not infrequently responded to them unilaterally. It is true that towards the end of his life, Lukács rectified some of his criticisms of Kafka and other literati. Even so, with regard to his aesthetic judgments, José Paulo Netto, one of the greatest researchers of the philosopher in our country, soberly wrote that “Lukács’s aesthetic conservatism was enhanced by the somber cultural atmosphere of the Stalinist autocracy” (Netto, 1983 , p. 62). That said, an examination of Lukács's work shows that it contains seminal questions that go beyond the author to reach us today.

Finally, a brief note about the relationship that Lukács postulates between an ontology and human action. In the history of thought, there were those who claimed that an ontological perspective ended up nullifying the role of subjective action: everything would happen as if human action were swallowed up by the “maddening and depersonalizing immersion in Being” (Loparic, 1990, p. 213) . Unlike this posture, Lukács states that sustaining the primacy of the social being – that set of conditions already formed, which in fact precede our entry into worldly coexistence – is in no way related to an emptying of the active human presence. For those who wonder whether Lukacsian ontology is a kind of philosophical objectivism, the answer is an emphatic no. This becomes clear in his comment about the impossibility of economic development by itself producing human emancipation. In addition to such development, it is necessary to “mobilize social activity in other ways as well”. Soon after, Lukács quotes The misery of philosophy from Marx: “But the struggle of class against class constitutes a political struggle” (2013, p. 757).

Political action therefore occupies a precise place in Lukacsian ontology: it is neither a matter of voluntarism that elects it as a universal panacea (a tendency to be found in sectors of the left), nor of a naive belief in emancipation through pure and simple economic development. . At this point, there is an unusual connection between politics and ethics. For one of the most relevant moments of the vivid thought occurs when István Eörsi presents the following statement to Lukács: “His theoretical activity began with aesthetics. Then came the interest in ethics and then in politics. From 1919 it dominates the political interest.” In his response, Lukács refuses the tacit disjunction between politics and ethics present in Eörsi and states: “In my opinion, one cannot forget that this political interest was, at the same time, ethical. 'What to do?', this has always been the main problem for me and this question has linked ethical issues to politics”. (Lukács, 2017, p. 74). Let us remember that the Ontology was intended as an introduction to a book on Ethics, never completed, and of which only very fragmentary worksheets remain.

The articulation between ethics and politics demands that the importance of a perspective be affirmed (Perspektive), which seeks the possibilities of transformation that exist even within the brutal capitalist alienation. Committed to the cause of socialism, Lukács distinguishes utopia – an abstract construction, idealistically projected onto a given reality – from the perspective that discerns real existing trends: “only such a perspective will allow you to rise effectively inwardly above your own particularity impregnated with strangeness, entangled in strangeness” (2013, p. 767).

A long-lived Persian, Lukács died in 1971, aged 86. He himself was very conscious of the need for a part of the being to perish, either metaphorically or concretely, so that a new trend can emerge and manifest itself. Maybe that's why I'd like to quote the poem Selige Senhsucht, this prodigy of synthesis by Goethe, where we can read: “Und solang du das nicht hast,/ Dieses: Stirb und werde!”. “And while you don’t have it,/ That: it dies and becomes!”

* Mauricio Vieira Martins is a professor at ICHF-UFF. He received a doctorate in philosophy with the thesis For an immanent ontology: the contribution of G. Lukács


LOPARIC, Zeljko. Defendant Heidegger – An essay on the dangerousness of philosophy🇧🇷 Campinas: Papirus, 1990.

LUKÁCS, György. For an ontology of social being, vol. I. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2012.

____________ . For an ontology of social being, vol. II. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2013.

_____________. vivid thought: autobiography in dialogue. São Paulo: Lukács Institute, 2017.

MARTINS, Maurício Vieira. Marx, Spinoza and Darwin: thinkers of immanence. Rio de Janeiro: Consequence, 2017.

NETTO, Jose Paulo. Lukács: the restless warrior. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1983.


[I] I developed this theme more slowly, in the context of an interlocution with Spinoza, in my book Marx, Spinoza and Darwin: thinkers of immanence (2017, pp. 65-86).


See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario
  • Hélio Pellegrino, 100 years oldHelio Pellegrino 14/06/2024 By FERNANDA CANAVÊZ & FERNANDA PACHECO-FERREIRA: In the vast elaboration of the psychoanalyst and writer, there is still an aspect little explored: the class struggle in psychoanalysis
  • Volodymyr Zelensky's trapstar wars 15/06/2024 By HUGO DIONÍSIO: Whether Zelensky gets his glass full – the US entry into the war – or his glass half full – Europe’s entry into the war – either solution is devastating for our lives
  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • PEC-65: independence or patrimonialism in the Central Bank?Campos Neto Trojan Horse 17/06/2024 By PEDRO PAULO ZAHLUTH BASTOS: What Roberto Campos Neto proposes is the constitutional amendment of free lunch for the future elite of the Central Bank
  • Letter to the presidentSquid 59mk,g 18/06/2024 By FRANCISCO ALVES, JOÃO DOS REIS SILVA JÚNIOR & VALDEMAR SGUISSARDI: “We completely agree with Your Excellency. when he states and reaffirms that 'Education is an investment, not an expense'”
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table