Lukács in retrospect



Studying the last works of György Lukács is similar to attempts to unravel the prison notebooks by Antonio Gramsci

The last books written by György Lukács were finally translated in Brazil. In 2014, it was published Notes for ethics, with translation and a dense presentation by Sergio Lessa (São Paulo: Instituto Lukács). The publisher Boitempo published the Prolegomena for an ontology of social being (2010) Ontology of the social being (2012) and the first volume of Aesthetics (2023). The Hungarian author, therefore, returns to the scene at a time when the postmodern epidemic, after so much damage, seems to have been left behind. The Brazilian reader can now look at the mature works of György Lukács, translated and edited with rigorous criteria, and reevaluate the thoughts of this notable Marxist thinker, as well as better understand the setbacks of his long and tortuous career.

In the prologue of his monumental and unfinished Aesthetics, György Lukács remembered an old letter that Max Weber had written to him commenting on his first youthful texts. Weber had then stated that those Lukacsian essays bore similarities to Ibsen's dramas, “whose beginning can only be understood from the end”. This comment, remembered by György Lukács so many decades later, certainly pleased him, as it fits perfectly with the spirit of dialectics that affirms truth as a result. Marx, by the way, defended the thesis of “present as history”: the more developed explains the less developed – the anatomy of man explains the anatomy of the monkey, knowledge of capitalism is the key to understanding pre-capitalism, etc.

This relationship between the “beginning” and the “end” seems to me to invalidate the interpretations that radically separate György Lukács' youthful pre-Marxist texts from his mature works, as if we were dealing with two different authors. It is, in truth, a single author who pursues the same thought and has coherence as a value and guide for action; Therefore, the sudden methodological changes do not suppress the initial concerns that led him to obstinately dedicate himself to a certain topic. The interrelations between art and society, subjectivity and objectivity, are recurring concerns throughout Lukacs's journey, gaining different angles at each new moment.[I]

Just think about the decisive moments in the evolution of your thinking. The Theory of Romance, to determine the specificity of the bourgeois novel, started from the contrast between the novel and the classical epic in which the hero felt at home, living an idyllic harmony with the world and acting as a representative of the community. This harmony disappears with the division of society into classes. Now, the split is imposed, definitively separating the hero's exiled interiority and the outside world. Fictional reconciliation is pursued by the novel in its utopian quest for “visionary reality of the world that suits us".[ii]

Already in History and class consciousness, the revolutionary proletariat, the object of capitalist exploitation, becomes a subject through its action. Hegel's identical subject-object thesis thus gains a problematic Marxist version, as György Lukács sought to clarify, in 1967, in the afterword to the new edition of that work.

From 1930 onwards, when György Lukács had access to the originals of Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of Marx, a new period of our author's evolution began.

“A being that has no object outside itself is no objective being […] A non-objective being is a non-being”[iii]: Marx's phrase made in opposition to Hegel's philosophy in which the object was, so to speak, posed by the subject served for Lukács to criticize the identification he had made in History and class consciousness, between objectification and alienation. The work from now on comes to be seen as the cunning mediation interposed between the extremes – which are no longer radically separated nor mystically identified. On the other hand, the primacy of matter over consciousness opened the way, initially, for the defense of realism: art as a reflection of the external world and, later, as pamper yourself.

However, the disturbing underlying question that remains for interpreters is to determine the “end” (the realization of the Concept, Hegel would say). The original project of Aesthetics planned to produce three volumes. György Lukács, as we know, only wrote the first one, then went on to write the Ontology of the social being, conceived, in turn, as an introduction to an intended Ethics. Many topics covered in Ontology, according to György Lukács, would only be fully clarified in the Ethic. In the interview book, Thought lived, reported that Aesthetics “was the preparation for the Ontology, insofar as it treats the aesthetic as a moment of being, of social being” and that Ontology, in turn, was planned as the “philosophical foundation of Ethics".[iv]

The never-completed outcome gained an ironic accent in the title of the book that brings together György Lukács' last interviews: Essential are the unwritten books [v].

The thousands of pages produced by the last Lukács, the impressive factory of ideas in motion, the many sketched and unfinished themes, make up a huge construction site with precious clues to promote the objective sought by the author: the renewal of Marxism.

Faced with Lukacs's legacy, interpreters made the most disparate assessments. István Mészáros, for example, states that the Aesthetics it is more “a draft than a finished synthesis”.[vi] José Chasin sees that work as still a prisoner of Hegelian epistemologism and far from the Marxian ontological imposition [vii]. Nicolas Tertulian, on the contrary, considers it “the most complete work”, “the most expressive monument of the texts published during his life”, stating “without hesitation, that since Kant and Hegel philosophical aesthetics – with the exception perhaps of Benedetto Croce – have not known a work of such magnitude. An illustrious philosophical tradition that begins with Aristotle and Epicurus, passes through Bacon and Spinoza, Goethe and classical German idealism, culminates with Hegel and Marx, develops in its entirety, organically amplified by the results of Lukacsian investigations”.[viii]

As regards Ontology of the social being, his most enthusiastic admirers, such as Antonino Infranca, did not fail to point out the “redundant and repetitive language”.[ix] Guido Oldrini, author of fundamental works on György Lukács, noted “a certain expository disorder” and “construction defects”, finding in the text “disproportions, imbalances, exaggerations, prolixity”, as well as “uncontrolled delays and repetitions, with excessive excursus off topic.”[X]

Studying the last works of György Lukács is similar to attempts to unravel the prison notebooks by Antonio Gramsci – in both cases the interpreter is placed in front of thousands of scattered pages that did not receive a final draft. In the case of György Lukács, there is a safe reference that serves as a starting point: the author's statements clarifying that his commitment to renewing Marxism and literary studies began after reading the Economic-philosophical manuscripts by the young Marx, carried out in 1930, which opened his ontological perspective.

Leaving behind the literary studies of the pre-Marxist phase and the Weberian-Marxism of History and class consciousness, György Lukács developed from 1930 onwards an enormous number of essays and books based on the newly acquired ontological orientation. However, this new beginning, marked by comings and goings, becomes progressively clearer in the latest works. Despite the difficulties, it seems to us that it is the inconclusive “end” represented by Aesthetics and Ontology of the social being that one must set out to follow, retrospectively, the setbacks in the evolution of Lukacsian thought and evaluate, with serenity, its contribution to Marxist theory. It is, therefore, about submitting the Lukacsian legacy to the onto-genetic method proposed by the author, but now focused on understanding his own work.[xi]

“Ways of being, determinations of existence”

The entire Marxist trajectory of Lukács, of History and class consciousness à Ontology of the social being, is marked by a tense relationship of appropriation and criticism of the categories of Hegelian dialectics. The first work, however, was written in a logicist register: the “adjudicated” class consciousness, conceived without regard to the empirical consciousness of the workers, strictly followed the logical path of phenomenology of the spirit – the odyssey of the substance that becomes subject. At Ontology, on the contrary, the categories do not express the upward march of consciousness, as they reflect the determinations of reality. They are “reflective categories” or “determinations of reflection” (Reflectionbestimmungen).[xii]

Karl Marx also referred to “reflective determinations” in a famous passage from floorplans: “As in general in all historical and social science, in the course of economic categories it is necessary to bear in mind that the subject, here modern bourgeois society, is given both in reality and in the head and that, consequently, the categories express forms of being, determinations of existence” [xiii]. The interactive nature of the categories was also affirmed in The capital: “Such reflexive determinations are everywhere. For example, this man is king because other men relate to him as subjects. Conversely, they believe they are subjects because he is king.”[xiv]

Here we are faced with a relationship that refers to the ambiguity of Hegel's “idealist-objective” dialectic, which oscillates between idealism and materialism or, as György Lukács prefers, between “false” and “true” ontology. It is no longer a question of separating the revolutionary method (dialectics) from the mystifying system, as Friedrich Engels wanted, but rather developing the historical, ontological and reflective character of Hegelian categories as a guiding principle. A Ontology of the social being It was, therefore, conceived as a theory of categories, which places the work in the classical tradition of philosophy that dates back to Aristotle.[xv]

Na Introduction to a Marxist aesthetic, György Lukács already sought to show how Hegel intuited that the basic logical categories were established in reality before they reached the minds of philosophers. Thus, in Hegel, the universal became effective with the advent of Christianity, as it broke with polytheistic religions: there is only one God for all men. The human race, the universal, finally became a reality, bringing together individuals who were previously dispersed members grouped only in tribes and ethnicities. The individual, in turn, made its entry into material life with the formation of civil society, unifying the dispersed individual interests in corporations, associations, etc. The singular, finally, emerges with the autonomy of the individual in the nascent capitalist society.[xvi]

György Lukács did not escape the fact that Marx worked explicitly with Hegelian terminology, something very far from a mere “flirtation” as Althusser stated. Let’s look briefly at some of these moments below.

In a letter to Friedrich Engels, dated March 25, 1868, Karl Marx referred to the genesis of categories: “What would old Hegel say if he knew, in the other world, that the universal [General] in German and Norse means neither more nor less than the common land [Gemeinland] and the private [Sundre, Besondre] neither more nor less than the private parcel separated from the common land? Thus, logical categories inevitably derive from “our human relationships”” [xvii]. With this conviction, the materialist Marx studied the relationships between production, distribution, exchange and consumption, explicitly relying on the third part of the science of logic, at which point Hegel focuses on the doctrine of the concept. He then stated: “Production, distribution, exchange and consumption thus constitute an authentic syllogism; production is universality; distribution and exchange, particularity; and consumption is the singularity in which the whole is unified.”[xviii]

Just before writing The capital, Marx received Hegel's books that had belonged to Bakunin. On March 14, 1858, he wrote to Engels saying that the reading had been of “great use” in analyzing the “doctrine of profit.” He then announced his desire to one day, when he had time, write some articles to show what “is rational in the method that Hegel discovered, but which at the same time is shrouded in mysticism.” [xx].

Hegel's presence appears at various moments in the pages of The capital. Marx, when discussing use value (quality), exchange value (quantity), money (measure), strictly follows the progress of Hegelian logic, as can be seen in the pages dedicated to the “Doctrine of Being” [xx]; subsequently, it continually uses the relationship between the universal and the particular when dealing with themes such as concrete (particular) work, abstract (universal) work, “production in general”, “capital in general”, “work in general”; and, also, by explaining the functions of money – money as a particular commodity, different from others, or as a universal commodity alien to any natural particularity, or as a measure, etc.

In all these moments, universality and particularity emerge as abstractions placed in materiality itself, derived from “our human relationships”. It is worth insisting: they are not products originating in consciousness, in speculation, but nexuses present in everyday life, reflections of objective reality. They therefore have an ontological genesis.[xxx]

Based on the emphasis on the historicization of categories, Lukács created the conceptual structure of Ontology and Aesthetics.

Ontology: work and teleology

Marx, in the first paragraph of The capital, confronted the relationship between appearance and essence and took, as a starting point, visible reality, the immediate: wealth, in capitalist society, appears as an “immense accumulation of goods”. Investigating the value embodied in merchandise was chosen as the starting point of the exhibition. From there, Marx revealed the properties of the commodity (use value and value) to, finally, discover the essence of wealth in abstract work.

This discovery, however, was based on the development of social life. Initially, wealth took the concrete form of money. Then, in the physiocrats, work emerges as the creator of value – but not work in general, but a particular form of work (agricultural). It is only in a more developed phase of the object (capitalist society) that work in general is seen by Adam Smith as the creator of wealth. We are facing a clear example of the social determination of knowledge, of its conditions of possibility. Likewise, it can be seen that an abstract category (work in general) was first installed in social life, thanks to the material practice of men, and only then could it be recognized by Smith and Marx.

Studying the social being and not capitalism, György Lukács started not from merchandise, but directly from work. This, establishing the metabolism between man and nature, was the material basis that led György Lukács to interpret Marxism in an ontological key, contrary to what he had done in History and class consciousness, which conceived nature directly as a “social category”. In his late work, the social being emerges in a historical perspective, preceded by the organic and inorganic being. The moment of rupture, of leap, from organic to social being, was made possible by work.

György Lukács was then able to study the foundations of the categories inherent to social life. He analyzed in detail, in long chapters, four fundamental categories: work, reproduction, the ideal and ideology, estrangement. As the reality created by the social being is unitary, the same categories will be present in each of these moments.

Conceived as a basis from which other activities are developed, the work reveals the social character of all categories that accompany the development of the social being. Thanks to work, man was able to create a new reality, a “world of his own”, the world of men, social life, which is no longer restricted to mere repetition, to the causality that governs the phenomena of nature. György Lukács refers to the famous comparison made by Marx between the activity carried out by the bee and the work of the architect. Man (in this case, the architect) is not condemned to repeat the same procedure, the same modus operandi like the bee does.

Human consciousness anticipates, it ideally designs the house before starting manufacturing – the house, therefore, was already “ready”, ideally, in consciousness, in the project designed by the architect. Consciousness, therefore, ceases to be an epiphenomenon by affirming its active, anticipatory character. In this process, the subject-object relationship is fully realized, since man, says György Lukács, citing Ernst Fischer, only became a subject when he moved away from nature, making it an object.

For human pre-ideation to be successful, however, correct knowledge of the causal links present in the nature to be modified is necessary. This knowledge, this most faithful possible reflection of reality, is not something static, photographic, as it is guided by the teleological position, by the interests and values ​​that move the worker, which leads him to make a selection and emphasize certain aspects of reality. . Lukács, by the way, observes: “in the mirroring of reality, reproduction stands out from the reproduced reality, coagulating into a “reality” specific to consciousness” [xxiii].

One can foresee, already at the beginning, the future developments that will occur in other human activities such as, for example, in artistic production: the need for a “passionate surrender” to the being-in-itself of reality and its immanent possibilities – action always subordinated to the interests and values ​​of the operating subject, and not as a mere prisoner reflection of immediacy.

The central role attributed to the teleology of work, creating and progressively renewing men's “own world”, places György Lukács in the lineage of classical philosophy from Aristotle to Hegel. In these precursors, however, teleology “was elevated to the universal cosmological category” [xxiii] moved by a transcendent subject – the “universal spirit”. In Hegelian theodicy, the spirit acts as a kind of “engine of history”: the “cunning of reason”, behind the scenes, sets reality in motion, using the passion of particular individuals to, through them, realize their own goals. universal purposes.

For Marx and Lukács, on the contrary, teleology basically concerns work. It is Hegel, however, that both rely on to study the teleological character of work, separating it, however, from other existing manifestations of teleology (in science of logic, for example, teleology presents itself in nature as the overcoming and truth of “mechanism” and “chemism”).

Since his youthful texts, work and its instruments were recurring themes in Hegel's work. [xxv], always understood as parts of a logical syllogism in which middle and end are interchangeable terms. In this way, the work instrument, in addition to materially mediating subject and object, subjective and objective world, survives the temporary satisfaction of the need and of the worker himself, who, one day, will die. As a social inheritance, the instrument, the means, can propose new ends, new uses – the terms of the syllogism, thus, continually change places.

György Lukács highlighted the following statement from the Science of Logic: “the plow is nobler than the satisfactions it allows and which constitute the ends. The instrument is preserved, while the immediate satisfactions pass and are forgotten.” Following the reasoning, György Lukács then stated: “the most appropriate knowledge that underlies the means (tools, etc.) is, for the social being, often more important than the satisfaction of that need” [xxiv]. We are, therefore, facing a process in which the teleology of work produces the “uninterrupted production of the new”.

The superiority of the media also appears on the pages of The capital, when Marx refers to the study of primitive societies, saying that the most important thing was to know the means of work, because “what differentiates economic epochs is not “what” is produced, but “how”, “with what means of work.” These not only provide a measure of the degree of development of the workforce, but also indicate the social conditions in which they work.” [xxv]. History, therefore, is interpreted as the development of the means of production, the central thesis of historical materialism.

 As the historical process unfolds, the primacy of the economic base, of the struggle for immediate subsistence, is accompanied by more complex spheres that present themselves to the life of society, such as, for example, law, politics, philosophy, art. In the initial phase, man's confrontation with nature was guided by the creation of (use) values. Then, when new values ​​are revealed, men are faced with the option of choosing those that seem most appropriate to them. To do so, they need to convince their peers to pursue a specific goal, and not any other.

Work, therefore, acts both on the transformation of nature and also on the consciousness of other men. György Lukács, in this regard, speaks of primary and secondary positions. The humanization of gender, initiated by work, gains a new dimension with secondary forms of teleology – we leave the economic sphere and enter the ideological universe, in which art is treated alongside law, philosophy and politics.

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


[I] Lukács' coherence was highlighted by his main interpreter, TERTULIAN, Nicolas. Georg Lukács. Stages of your aesthetic thinking (São Paulo: Unesp, 2003). Following this interpretative line, Rainer Patriota observed: “The thinker who lived the influence of so many philosophical currents in his youth (Kierkegaard, Simmel, Husserl's phenomenology, the philosophy of life, neo-Kantianism, Hegel, etc.), later becoming an acerbic critic of his past and sustaining, at the end of his life, the The need for a revival of Marxism is, however, a paradigm of continuity.” The subject-object relationship in Aesthetics by Georg Lukács: reformulation and outcome of an interrupted project (UFMG, 2010), p. 13.

[ii] . LUKÁCS, G. romance theory (São Paulo: Duas Cidades e 34, 2000), p. 34. []

[iii] . MARX, K. Economic-philosophical manuscripts (São Paulo: Boitempo, 2004), p. 127. []

[iv] . LUKÁCS, G. Thought lived. Autobiography in dialogue (Viçosa: Ad Hominem/Federal University of Viçosa, 1999), p. 139. []

[v] . LUKÁCS, G. Essential are the unwritten books. Last interviews (1966-1971). (São Paulo: Boitempo, 2020). []

[vi] . MÉSZÁROS, István. The thought and work of G. Lukács (Barcelona: Fontamara SA, 1981), p. 54.

[vii] . CHASIN, José. “Marx, ontological status and methodological resolution”, in TEIXEIRA, José Francisco Soares, Thinking with Marx (São Paulo: Essay, 1995).

[viii] . TERTULIAN, Nicolas. Georg Lukács. Stages of his aesthetic thought, cit., P. 189 and 64.

[ix] . INFRANCA, Antonino. Work, individual, history. The concept of work in Lukács (São Paulo: Boitempo, 2014, p. 23.

[X] . OLDRINI, Guido. György Lukács and the problems of Marxism in the XNUMXth century (Maceió: Coletivo Veredas, 2017), p. 375.

[xi] . Truth as a result, a teaching of Hegelian logic, points to the need for the archaeological procedure, for tracing back to origins. Following this guidance, Antonino Infranca studied the mutations of the work category in Lukács in an exquisite book: Work, individual, history. The concept of work in Lukács, cit.

[xii] . In the edition of science of logic of Hegel, translated by Rodolfo Mondolfo and in the Italian edition of Ontology of the social being, translated by Alberto Scarponi, uses the expression “reflexive categories”. The Brazilian translation of the last work, made by Carlos Nelson Coutinho, Mario Duayer and Nélio Schneider, uses “determinations of reflection”.

[xiii] . MARX, K, floorplans (São Paulo: Boitempo, 2011), p. 59.

[xiv] . MARX, K. Capital, cit., Vol 1, cit. p. 134, note 21.

[xv] . See TERTULIAN, Nicolas, “György Lukács and the reconstruction of ontology in contemporary philosophy”, in VAISMAN, Ester and VEDDA, ​​Miguel (orgs.), Lukacs. Aesthetics and Ontology (São Paulo: Alameda, 2014).

[xvi] . LUKÁCS, Georg. Introduction to a Marxist aesthetic, especially chapter II, “Hegel’s attempted solution” (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1970).

[xvii] . MARX, K. & ENGELS, F. Letters about The capital (São Paulo: Expressão Popular, 2020), p. 244.

[xviii] . Idem, P. 44.

[xx] . MARX, Carlos/ENGELS, Frederico. Correspondence (Buenos Aires: Cartago, 1973), p. 91.

[xx] . See HEGEL, GWF Encyclopedia of philosophical sciences in compendium (1830). Volume I, The Science of Logic (São Paulo: Loyola, 2012), pp. 171-219.

[xxx] . The historical character of the categories is explained by Lukács as follows: “In the system of categories of Marxism, each thing is, primarily, something endowed with a quality, a thingness and a categorical being. A non-objective being and a non-being. And within that something, history is the history of the transformation of categories. Categories are therefore parts of effectiveness. There can be nothing that is not, in some way, a category. […] the categorical being of the thing constitutes the being of the thing, while in the old philosophies the categorical being was the fundamental category, within which the categories of effectiveness were developed. It is not that history takes place within the system of categories, but rather that history is the transformation of the system of categories. Categories are, therefore, ways of being.” (Lived thought, cit.), pp. 145-6.

[xxiii] . LUKÁCS, G. For an ontology of social being II (São Paulo: Boitempo, 2013), p. 67.

[xxiii] . Same, pp. 47-8.

[xxv] . See HEGEL, W.F. The system of ethical life (Lisbon: Edições 70, 2018), pp. 16-23 and La première philosophie del´esprit. (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1969), pp. 95-100. The mutations that occurred in Hegel's work and their reflections on the conception of work were analyzed by Lukács in The Young Hegel (São Paulo: Boitempo, 2018).

[xxiv] . LUKÁCS, G. For ontology of social being II, cit., P. 57.

[xxv] . MARX, K. The capital. volume I (São Paulo: Boitempo, 2023), p. 257.

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