Georg Lukacs as a Marxist Literary Theorist

The Hungarian thinker and aesthetician Georg Lukacs (1885-1971) has played a pivotal role in the development of Western Marxism, which refers to a wide variety of Marxist theoreticians based in Western and central Europe. The Western Marxists are in opposition to the doctrines of the Soviet Union, who downplay the primacy of economic analysis, concerning themselves instead with abstract and philosophical areas of Marxism. Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness (1923) advocated a more humanist approach to class struggle in contrast to the authoritarian Soviet model. Unlike many Soviet thinkers of his age, he repudiated the “inevitability” of revolution for he was of the view that revolution had to be a conscious and creative process rather than being dogmatic and coercive. Naturally, this was too reactionary a conception for the Comintern (Communist International, an international communist organisation founded in Moscow in 1919) to accept. Lukacs was thus accordingly disciplined and forced to offer a public recantation.

Class consciousness, as described by Lukacs is opposed to any psychological conception of consciousness, which forms the basis of individual or mass psychology. On the contrary, he expounded that each social class has a determined class consciousness which it can achieve. He represents the flexible view of the role of ideology and proposes that a great work of art builds “its own world,” which is unique and seemingly distinct from “everyday reality.” But, to him, the novels of Balzac, Tolstoy, Walter Scott and Thomas Mann had successfully created a fictional world which accords with the Marxist conception of the real world. Lukacs termed this sort of novelistic realism “critical realism.” At the same time, he vehemently rejected the view of major Modernists including Kafka, Brecht, Beckett, Joyce and Faulkner who presented human alienation as an inescapable condition, and for their preoccupation with style and technique, thereby negating everyday reality, individual personality and political action. However, Walter Benjamin,Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer complained that Lukacs’ conception of realism was far too narrow. Lukacs related the genre of the novel to the rise of bourgeois culture in Europe. Also, he applied the term “bourgeois epic” to all novels which, in his view, reflect the social reality of their capitalist age on a broad scale; he observed, “the novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God”(Theory of the Novel, 1920).

The Historical Novel
is probably Lukacs’ most influential work of literary history that attempts to trace the development of the genre of historical fiction. While prior to 1789, he argues, people’s consciousness of history was relatively underdeveloped, the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars that followed brought about a realisation of the constantly changing, evolving character of human existence. Lukacs also adds that Scott’s mode of historical realism was later taken up by Balzac and Tolstoy, and enabled other novelists to depict contemporary social life not as a static drama of fixed, universal types, but rather as a moment of history, constantly changing, open to the potential of revolutionary transformation.

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