György Lukács – avant-garde and decadence



After György Lukács joined Marxism, his passionate and aggressive defense of realism was met with relentless criticism of the artistic manifestations of the avant-garde.

One of the most criticized aspects of György Lukács' work is his aversion to so-called avant-garde literature, understood by him as an expression of the irrationalist philosophy that dragged literature into the dead end of nihilism. Anchored in this worldview, the avant-garde attacked the autonomy of art and its structuring as a closed, organic, complete totality. The fragmentation, montage, disarticulation of language, the use of allegory, etc. they turned against the normativity prescribed by realism.

One of the most aggressive criticisms of Lukács' anti-avant-gardeism, made by Theodor Adorno, lamented the abandonment of the utopian perspective present in The Theory of Romance, an abandonment he interpreted as a “reconciliation with reality”, that is, as György Lukács’ capitulation to Stalinism.[I] Several experts on the work of György Lukács, unlike Theodor Adorno, sought to show, alongside the ruptures, the continuity of his aesthetic thought which, since his youth, insisted on the autonomy of art, seen as a closed microcosm carrying universal values ​​and , therefore, far from what was defended by the avant-garde.[ii]

After György Lukács's adherence to Marxism, his passionate and aggressive defense of realism was met with relentless criticism of the artistic manifestations of the avant-garde, interpreted in a new way as a necessary expression of ideological decadence. György Lukács was fully aware that he was swimming against the current, when he sought support in the classical realism that flourished in the first half of the 19th century and in some realist writers of the 20th century (Roger Martin du Gard, Sinclair Lewis, Arnold Zweig), in addition to the exceptional case by Thomas Mann to, with them, criticize the works of avant-garde artists such as Joyce and Beckett.

As Peter Bürguer observed,[iii] the contrast between realism and avant-garde goes back to the Hegelian opposition between classical and romantic art, involving the changing historical relationships between form and content. A sensitive manifestation of the Spirit, art, in Hegel's aesthetics, would have known its most important moment, “the supreme expression of the absolute”, in Greece (classical art). This was characterized by the union between form and content, exteriority and interiority, thus forming a harmonious unity, an appropriate mode of configuration – “what true art is according to its concept”. With unbridled enthusiasm, Hegel stated that it was “a gift granted to the Greek people, and we must pay honor to these people for having produced art in its supreme vitality […]. There cannot be anything more beautiful and there will never be again.”[iv] Marx shared with Hegel the high position to which classical Greek art was elevated, stating that it was an “unsurpassable model”.

The conciliation between interiority and exteriority, however, disappeared in romantic art, at which point the spirit withdrew into itself, starting to consider the exterior “an indifferent element”.[v] In this way, art separated itself from the material form, returning to pure interiority, to spiritual content. With spiritualization, the limits of art itself became evident: the need to express the Absolute began to demand superior forms of manifestation: religion and philosophy.

György Lukács clung to that opposition between classical and romantic art outlined by Hegel to affirm his own conception of realism, understood as the moment in which form and content come together in an organic unity. The classical art model, however, was transferred to the first half of the 19th century, reaching its full realization in the work of the great realist writers.

Based on this model, György Lukács criticized the internalization produced by romanticism, the breakdown of the form-content unity and, consequently, the increasingly radicalized opposition between interiority and exteriority, as well as the resulting cult of solipsism that occurred after the disintegration of the romantic form. and the advent of the avant-garde. The path from criticism to the avant-garde was thus paved. In fact, in pre-Marxist works it already existed, but in metaphysical terms (the present was considered, as in Fichte, “the era of perfect sinfulness”); then, in History and class consciousness, the limits of bourgeois consciousness to ascend to totality replaced the issue in socio-historical terms.

In 1938, György Lukács wrote the long essay “Marx and the problem of ideological decadence” in which he maps the various areas affected by the phenomenon. The text begins with Marx's considerations on the decomposition of classical economics, interested in revealing the truth of reality, which ended up giving way to vulgar economics and the apology for capitalism. The social sciences, following the example of Max Weber, embarked on a narrow specialization that made them incapable of accounting for the general process of production and reproduction of reality and, as a consequence, being able to pass judgment on capitalist society. In a similar way, the natural sciences proved to be incapable of relating their discoveries to philosophical generalization (before the decadence, on the contrary, they maintained an active dialogue, and scientific discoveries impacted the daily lives of individuals).

With decadence, states György Lukács, “great realism perishes”.[vi] Literature, then, faced with the increasing difficulty of portraying the new reality, took refuge in the autonomy of subjectivity. “The first artistic theory of decadence”, says György Lukács, “is the “irony” of German romanticism, in which this creative subjectivity is already absolutized and the subjectivity of the work of art degenerates into an arbitrary game with characters created from nothing”.[vii]

The general tendency became to fixate on the surface of things and evade social problems. In this way, the literature of decadence increasingly excluded action and plot, precisely the resources that made subjectivity subject to the test of the outside world. Without this interrelationship, omnipotent subjectivity was condemned to remain on the surface of the problems portrayed. Great realism, on the contrary, when deepening the knowledge of reality, ties individual destinies to the movement of society and its conflicts.

In the words of György Lukács: “the richness of a literary character derives from the richness of his internal and external relationships, from the dialectic between the surface of life and the objective and psychic forces that act in depth”. Decadent literature, moving away from this model, “created no typical and lasting character”.[viii] To dead objectivity corresponds an empty subjectivity, to the appearance of reality is added a debased figuration of the human being who takes pleasure in presenting the “final results of the capitalist deformation of man”.[ix]

Criticism of the literature of decadence reappeared some time later, in a virulent form, in Critical realism today, a book that attacks the avant-garde and its various ramifications, all of which are interpreted as a continuation of the old naturalism: “It is secondary, however, that the principle common to all naturalism, that is, the absence of selection, the refusal of hierarchy, presents itself as submission to the environment (early naturalism), atmosphere (late naturalism, impressionism and also symbolism), assembly of fragments of reality (neo-realism), associative current (surrealism), etc.”.[X]

We are, therefore, faced with several literary currents that, like ancient naturalism, chose “statism”, that is, immobility, as a privileged form of representation of reality. The future, as a possibility, is excluded and, without it, without the “concrete possibilities” that are presented to men, reality becomes immutable. Kafka would represent the high point of this tendency towards the dissolution of the real, which gives way to a hostile and incomprehensible ghostly unreal. Joyce, attached to the interior monologue and free association as techniques of characterization, narration, and as ultimate reality, would have constructed a static epic. Proust, in turn, separated time, abstractly conceived as lived experience, from objective reality and movement.

This dissolution of the world would correspond to the dissolution of the literary character, a portrait of the “capitalist deformation of man”. Without the links between men and between them and reality, the characters do not develop, given over to the immutable “human condition”. Reduced to beings who monologue, to individuals endowed with an exacerbated and limitless subjectivity, they transform into sick, pathological, semi-idiotized types, like Beckett's characters. A similar privilege can be found in Freud, who also believed that he found in the “psychology of the abnormal” the “key” to “understanding the normal”. To counter the privilege granted to abnormality, György Lukács turned to Pavlov who, “returning to the Hippocratic tradition, sees in mental illness a disturbance of normal psychic life and, to explain the latter, begins by studying the laws that are specific to it” [xi] .

The exaltation of the abnormal was interpreted by György Lukács as a victory of anti-humanism, as a nihilistic disbelief in the possibilities of self-development of the genre, as the central issue of literature is the representation of human beings: “Whatever the starting point of a work, literature, its concrete theme, the objective it directly aims at, etc., its deepest essence is always expressed by this question: what is man?”.[xii]

The great realistic literature, contrary to the exaltation of pathology, pointed to the “virtuous dispositions” of art and its humanizing effects. In his book on Balzac, György Lukács stated that the aim of art is “to present a mirror of the world and to advance the evolution of humanity thanks to the image thus reflected; help the humanist principle to impose itself in a society full of contradictions”.[xiii]

However, after 1848 literature began to experience “a time of low waters”, a time that promises to continue indefinitely as long as the capitalist mode of production remains in force. Meanwhile, the “self-destruction of aesthetics” takes place, that is, what Lukács understands by aesthetics. In literature, great realism produced a structuring reflection of reality that would be replaced by the anti-structuring aspect, inaugurated by naturalism and, later, by avant-garde experiments.

The entire inflexible wholesale condemnation of modern art is based on the Marxian prediction of the ideological decadence of the bourgeoisie. It is therefore necessary to settle accounts with this incessantly reaffirmed thesis.

Ideological decadence and revolutionary impatience

O Communist Party Manifesto it was written with a view to the “imminence” of the proletarian revolution, since the authors considered the revolutionary character of the bourgeoisie to be over, although they highlighted the creation of the world market and the “continuous revolutionizing of production” as counter-trends. The proletarian revolution of 1848 was defeated, opening a cycle of stability and consolidation of bourgeoisie power. Some time later, the Paris Commune seemed to start another revolutionary cycle, which also did not happen. The 1917 revolution, in turn, led to several revolutionary attempts in Europe, but all of them failed.

The decadence thesis was also present, in 1916, in Vladimir Lenin's famous book on imperialism. The First World War and the revolutionary process in Russia seemed to signal the dying nature of monopoly capitalism. The “parasitism” and “putrefaction” of a mode of production that lived on financial speculation foreshadowed its imminent final downfall. The resilience of capitalism, however, was a reality check that imposed itself on Marxists. Both Marx and Engels, in their time, and, later, Vladimir Lenin, found themselves forced by the force of facts to make successive corrections and reservations without, however, totally abandoning the catastrophist thesis that served and continued to serve as fuel for impatience. revolution and its disastrous political consequences as well as the basis for supporting its corollary: ideological decadence.

As Domenico Losurdo recalled, Antonio Gramsci was an honorable exception in openly contesting the thesis of ideological decadence in prison notebooks. Writing in a phase of stabilization of capitalism and the rise of fascism, Gramsci, says Domenico Losurdo, contrasted ideological decadence with the thesis of “passive revolution” which drew attention to “the persistent capacity for initiative of the bourgeoisie, which, also in the historical phase in which it ceased to be a properly revolutionary class, manages to produce quite relevant political-social transformations, keeping power, initiative and hegemony firmly in its hands, and leaving the working classes in their condition of subalternity”.[xiv]

Thus, the “revolution from above” promoted by the bourgeoisie was a clear sign of the capacity for political and cultural initiative. Catastrophism gave way in Gramsci to the realization of the economic-social advances that had occurred and their reflections on the ideological struggle. Colonial expansion creating a global market, the formation of modern political parties, the expansion of education drastically reducing illiteracy, the universalization of voting, etc. these are profound changes that have impacted developed countries (the “West”). Us prison notebooks there is a famous text, Americanism and Fordism (1934), who foresaw the real tendencies of capitalism that would shape modern society, “in which the “structure” more immediately dominates the superstructures and these are “rationalized””.[xv]

In its new configuration, capitalism began to demand a new type of worker and intellectual suited to the rationalization of the production process. The question of hegemony, as well as the ideological struggle, is reposed on another level, far from the European model in which intellectuals appeared as public men, spokespeople for popular demands. A new moment in history began, a moment marked by relative stability and strong mechanisms of ideological control at the service of a modern bourgeoisie that was not “decadent”.

The thesis of decadence, although systematically refuted by the facts, remained alive. Trapped by this reference, György Lukács denounced the validity of decadence and its ideological reflexes in literary activity, showing himself insensitive to the formal innovations created by the avant-garde and trying to revive a nineteenth-century model of realism, valid for that time, but difficult to be revived in modern times, times of “low waters”. The substantive changes to capitalism, in addition to leaving catastrophist theories behind, brought with them new forms of alienation. Authors like Kafka detected the new situation in their works. Perceiving reality in its brutal inhumanity is not the same as accepting it and conniving. A definitive step, however, had been taken by literature.

This new moment escaped the narrow ideological criticism limited to the mere denunciation of decadence novels instead of interrogating their social content. Aware of the issue, Fredric Jameson stated that “the concept of decadence is the equivalent, in the context of aesthetics, to that of “false consciousness” in the domain of traditional analysis of ideology”. Both, he observed, “suffer from the same defect – the presupposition that in the world of culture and society it is possible for something like pure error to exist. They imply, in other words, that works of art or philosophical systems without content are conceivable, which must be denounced for failing to deal with the “serious” issues of the day, diverting our attention.”[xvi]. It would be up to the critic, who proposes to be a Marxist, to go beyond the Enlightenment conception of ideology as an error and reveal the social content repressed in works labeled “decadent”.

Lukács, in Critical realism today, he didn’t worry, as he would later do in Aesthetics, in differentiating Kafka from Beckett, placing them alongside several other writers as representatives of the “decadent avant-garde”. The dogmatic stance is reminiscent of the controversial texts of the 1930s in which, paradoxically, he defended the “united front” in the face of politics and literature, but excluded from it the expressionists, the proletarian novel, Brecht's epic theater, etc., all of which were confronted them with bourgeois critical realism. Critical realism today it was conceived after the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the criticism of the Stalinist heritage. At that time, the Peace Movement was developing, condemning the arms race and the threats to the Soviet Union.

György Lukács was committed to campaigns for peace and his book sought to reflect the new moment that was opening up in literature with the accession of heterogeneous political forces that came together in opposition to the war. “Today”, wrote Lukács, “it is necessary to choose, not between capitalism and socialism, but between war and peace” [xvii] . The broad front of those who defended peace, however, excluded from the artistic field a sector that began to be fought as an enemy: the literary avant-garde which, although it did not advocate war, professed an anguished vision in the face of a world that seemed chaotic and incomprehensible to it. .

Writers, Lukács correctly observed, remained prisoners of immediacy and attentive to its deleterious effects on human coexistence, always seen from the subjective experience, without ever going beyond this impression to capture the effective reality, which would only have been achieved in the works of Thomas Mann, an author who managed to express “from a bourgeois point of view, the specific aspects of our time” [xviii]. Hence the unfortunate Manichaean alternative expressed in the title of the second chapter: “Franz Kafka or Thomas Mann?”

Thomas Mann, however, did not share this exclusionary opposition, as he knew how to appropriate avant-garde techniques, such as the interior monologue, putting them at the service of realism. György Lukács, begrudgingly, recognized that the formal experiences of the avant-garde are “of the utmost importance for every writer who wishes to reflect the characteristics of the current world in what is truly specific about them. The sympathy of certain realist writers for expressive processes created by new literature is explained, first of all, by the interest they have in ways of writing that, escaping the limits of realism, seem better adapted to the particular realities of the present time. This is how, for example, Thomas Mann’s judgments about Kafka, Joyce, Gide, and others are justified.”[xx]

This was not the first time that the critic's opinions conflicted with the opinion of the authors he chose as models of what realism should be. In the years 1938-1939, György Lukács and the communist writer Anna Seghers, who with him shared the defense of realism, maintained a correspondence on literary issues.[xx] Admiration and friendship with the critic led her, diplomatically, to contest the intolerant position against the formal experiments of the avant-garde. In the difficult situation he was experiencing, he said, it became necessary to join forces against fascism, but György Lukács identified this fight with the fight against decadence, going so far as to state that “in our current situation we are far from having dealt the necessary and effective blows against the decadence” [xxx].

In addition to advising prudence (and not “sticks”) to maintain the unity of the anti-fascist front, which should not be divided over literary differences, Anna Seghers reminded György Lukács that periods of crisis require special attention from the critic, as they are characterized, in the history of art, “by abrupt stylistic ruptures, by experimental attempts, by strange hybridism of forms: only history will later recognize which path became practicable. From the point of view of ancient art or the heyday of medieval art, everything that comes after is just decomposition. Or, at best, it's absurd and experimental. But the truth is that this is the beginning of something new.” [xxiii]. What is decisive for both in literature is the orientation towards reality, but what Lukács considers decomposition for Seghers “seems like an inventory; What you consider formal experience seems to me to be an impetuous – and inevitable – attempt to confront new content”.[xxiii]

György Lukács argued against it, relying on his nineteenth-century concept of realism as a criterion. “If the critic is not concerned with investigating the conditions and laws of realism in general”, he stated, “he will not be able to assume, in confrontations with today’s realism, anything other than an eclectic position” […]. Criticism must always indicate, through aesthetic, historical and social analysis, what is objectively possible today as realism, and can only do so under the condition of having a measuring criterion (realism in general”).[xxv]

Anna Seghers considered that taking the method as a “measurement criterion” makes possible “the illusion of thinking that the method, alone, would be enough to obtain whatever it was” thus becoming a “magic wand”.[xxiv]

At this point, we arrive at the heart of the matter: taking as a measure the method of nineteenth-century realism which, according to Lukacsian texts from the 1930s, relied on narration (as opposed to description) and on the use of typicality (and not on average types). Moved to the 20th century as an evaluation criterion, the rigid method hovers timelessly over the new contents posed by the changing reality. Dialectics, on the contrary, taught Hegel, is “the logic of content”. For her, the determining factor is the content. Therefore, we should invert the etymological meaning of method as “the path to truth”: method, in dialectics, is the path da true, as it is the object that proposes the method, which must be plastic to be able to reproduce the self-movement of reality, which must be dependent on it.

The fetishism of the method, in György Lukács, was already present since History and class consciousness in which, in the first pages, he stated that orthodoxy, in Marxism, refers “exclusively to the method”. Therefore, if the inaccuracy of each isolated statement of Marx's is proven, “a serious orthodox Marxist could recognize all these new results, reject all of Marx's isolated theses, without therefore, at any moment, being forced to renounce the its Marxist orthodoxy.”[xxv] In the afterword to the work, from 1967, György Lukács made a rigorous self-criticism of the theses of his famous book from the ontological view of maturity. But, among the points that he still considered positive, he highlighted, strangely, the thesis according to which the orthodoxy for Marxism was the attachment to the method, a method that survives the denials of reality.[xxviii] Worse for the facts, Fichte would say…

György Lukács, in his interviews, liked to remember the need for an essential book that had not yet been written: Capital in the 20th Century. Since then, the recent transformations of capitalism have continued to surprise, deepening in the 21st century: globalization, the internet, the collapse of “real socialism”, etc. The drastic changes in the material base had repercussions in the ideological sphere, increasingly vital for the reproduction of order and, therefore, subject to new and relentless forms of control. The imperative need for realistic art committed to defending Humanitas presents itself today as an unavoidable challenge.

For this good fight, György Lukács is the main reference: he was the first Marxist to highlight the theme of reification coupled with the Weberian thesis of rationalization in History and class consciousness. Afterwards, in Ontology, He returned in style to studying reification with refined refinement, but now more distant from the influence of Max Weber (this, as we know, extended to Frankfurt theorists, leading them to pessimism and resignation).

Confronting the alienating forms of late capitalism, however, can no longer be done with the application of historically dated models: for dialectics, the method comes from the object, an orientation that György Lukács followed rigorously in Ontology of the social being. This exceptional work provides a privileged point of view from which to evaluate all of György Lukács' previous production, both his controversial texts in which he generally got the affirmations right (the defense of realism and humanism) and often got the denials wrong.

The criticism of the avant-garde, made in the face of the polemic, as we have seen, went in the opposite direction of the core of its mature thought. But, before that, in his vigorous essayistic production, works such as the historical novel, Goethe and his time, 19th century German realists, Balzac and French realism, and many others, attest to a fine sensitivity to embrace historical transformations within literary texts.

Capitalism, in these works, is not an abstract universal, but is objectified in a particular way in each country. The national question thus comes to the fore. Always attentive to particularities, György Lukács was an attentive student of European social formations: his studies on French, German and Russian literature are based on knowledge of national specificities and their reflections in the literary text.

Today, however, the national question is weakened in the new historical moment marked by the process of globalization and hegemony of financial capital. At the same time, social thought turned against the heritage of the Enlightenment and a new destruction of reason was imposed. Themes dear to György Lukács, such as realism and humanism, were summarily archived. The process initiated by the old avant-gardes finally found consecration and György Lukács' defense of realism came to be labeled anachronistic.

But, “the real turns and puts forward”, taught Riobaldo. The brutal presence of capitalism, barbarizing on an international scale, has made its inhumane character more visible than ever and the need for a renewed realism to enter the scene and rehabilitate the cognitive character of literature replaced by the random game of signifiers. And then it is worth asking: what happened to the avant-garde that back then set out to criticize representation and denounce the archaic character of realism?

Fredric Jameson, in 1977, made a devastating diagnosis: “Because what was an antisocial and oppositional phenomenon in the first years of the [XNUMXth] century has today become the dominant style in commodity production and an indispensable component in the reproduction machinery, increasingly faster and more demanding. That Schoenberg's students used his advanced techniques in Hollywood to write music for films, that works of art from the latest schools of American painting are now sought after to adorn the splendid new structures of great insurance companies and multinational banks (which, in turn, are the works of the most talented and “advanced” modern architects), is nothing more than the external symptom of a situation in which a “perceptual art” [perceptual art] once scandalous found a social and economic function in providing the stylistic changes necessary to consumer society of the present".[xxviii]

Faced with such a diagnosis, Fredric Jameson advocates the need for a new realism for today's world. And he concludes: “In an unexpected outcome, it is possible that it is György Lukács – wrong as he perhaps was in the 1930s – who has a provisional last word for us today.”[xxix]

*Celso Frederico He is a retired full professor at ECA-USP. Author, among other books, of Essays on Marxism and Culture (Morula). []


[I] See ADORNO, Theodor. “Extorted reconciliation. Regarding the Current significance of critical realism by Georg Lukács”, in MACHADO, Carlos Eduardo Jordan. Debate on expressionism (São Paulo: Unesp, 2011, second edition).

[ii] See TERTULIAN, Nicolas. Georg Lukács. Stages of your aesthetic thinking (São Paulo: Unesp, 2003); OLDRINI, Guido. György Lukács and the problems of Marxism in the 20th century (Maceió: Coletivo Veredas, 2017); among Brazilian authors, PATRIOTA, Rainer. The subject-object relationship in Aesthetics by Georg Lukács: reformulation and outcome of an interrupted project (Belo Horizonte: UFMG, 2010).

[iii] BURGÜER, Peter. vanguard theory (São Paulo: Cosacnaify, 2008), p. 168.

[iv] HEGEL, GWF aesthetics courses, vol. 2 (São Paulo: Edusp, 2014), pp. 157, 166 and 251.

[v] Idem, P. 260.

[vi] LUKÁCS, Gÿorgy. “Marx and the problem of ideological decadence”, in Marxism and literary theory (São Paulo: Expressão Popular, 2010), p. 103.

[vii] Idem, P. 83.

[viii] Idem, P. 102.

[ix] Idem, P. 85.

[X] LUKÁCS, Georg. Critical realism today, cit., p. 58.

[xi] Idem, pp. 52-3. Hegel, anticipating the criticisms of what would become anti-psychiatry, did not accept the thesis that saw madness as the impenetrable other, refractory to the onslaught of reason: “madness is not the absolute loss of reason […] but a simple derangement, a simple contradiction within reason, which does not cease to exist in those who are affected by it”. HEGEL, G.F. Philosophy of the spirit (Buenos Aires: Claridad, 1969), p. 258.

[xii] Same, p. 36.

[xiii] LUKACS, G. Balzac et le réalisme français (Paris: Maspero, 1967), p. 17.

[xiv] LOSURDO, Domenico. Antonio Gramsci, from liberalism to “critical communism” (Rio de Janeiro: Revan, 2006), p. 176.

[xv] GRAMSCI, Antonio. prison notebooks, vol. 4 (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2001), p. 248.

[xvi] JAMESON, Fredric. “Reflections to conclude”, in Literature and society (USP: Department of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature, number 13, 2010.1), p. 253. The article was reproduced on the website the earth is round, with the title “Aesthetics and politics”.

[xvii]. Idem, P. 133.

[xviii] . Idem, P. 123.

[xx] . Idem, P. 32.

[xx] . See LUKÁCS, György and SEGHERS, Anna. The writer and the critic (Lisbon: Publicações Dom Quixote, 1968).

[xxx] . Same, p. 48.

[xxiii] . Idem, pp. 18-9.

[xxiii] . Same, p. 26.

[xxv] . Same, p. 45.

[xxiv] . Idem, P. 53 and p. 54.

[xxv] . LUKÁCS, Georg. History and class consciousness (Lisbon: Publicações Escorpião, 1974), p. 15.

[xxviii] . Same, p. 366.

[xxviii] . JAMESON, Fredric. “Reflections to conclude”, in Literature and society, cit., P. 259.

[xxix] . Idem, P. 261.

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