Lukács in Moscow: RAPP, Mór Jókai, Socialist Realism

Arpad Kadarkay

Lukács’s articles in the Moskauer Rundschau, some fifteen pieces in 1930-1, leave no doubt that at least on two points he was in agreement with RAPP: the class-evaluation of art and the overpowering prejudice against modern art as altogether purposeless and senseless. His articles betray a rather superficial knowledge of Soviet literature, which he could only read in German translation. What is inherently interesting in Lukács’s analysis of Soviet literature is that his subtle mind was both awed and overwhelmed by the otherness of the “new socialist” world, which, to a large degree, was still crusted with “bits of the shell from which it hatched.” The Soviet novels that he interpreted are “documents” of a society caught between the dialectic poles of stability and flux. And Lukács named realism as the primary aesthetic mode of the new socialist literature.

Addressing the Hungarian “proletarian” writers’ caucus in Moscow in 1931, Lukács delineated what the bourgeois classics can teach proletarian writers: “Works of classic writers contain elements of the materialistic and dialectic world-view. In economics we can learn from Adam Smith and Ricardo; in philosophy from Hobbes and Hegel; in literature from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English classics and the eighteenth-century French and nineteenth-century Russian masters.” [2] Lukács’s standards were exacting. He categorically denied the designation “classic” to any Hungarian literary work written after the 1867 political compromise. Thus, with a stroke of the pen, he dismissed, for example, Mór Jókai’s novels—which had created avenues of escape from the harsh political realities of the 1860s—as “apologetic” and “romantic.” Lukács’s combative certainty and arbitrary dislikes hardly endeared him to Hungarian writers. And his critical judgment on what it takes to be a bourgeois artist—Thomas Mann—in a Marxist century had major consequences when Lukács returned to Hungary in 1945 to build Marxist bridges to the Muses.

In his essays in Linkskurve (1931-2), a mouthpiece for the Soviet party line, Lukács attacked “pure” art and endorsed the RAPP-line of “class” art. The impulse to burn heretics was strong. In 1929, the RAPP had forced a showdown with fellow-traveler writers. The first victims were Boris Pilnyak and Yevgeni Zamyatin. Gorky protested and compared the cruel fate of Pilnyak—death in a labor-camp—to the lynching of thieves in 1918. The bizarre story is well known. Zamyatin’s fate was less final. He wrote a letter to Stalin in 1931 requesting that his “condemnation to death,” by which he meant the denying to him of an opportunity to write and be read and heard, be “commuted” to exile from the Soviet Union. Stalin granted his request for an exit visa. Max Hayward justly concluded that the thirties were the “worst” years in Soviet literature. [3]

In April 1932, a Central Committee decree disbanded the RAPP. The reason for this was that Stalin mistrusted the cultural-revolutionary fanatics and Marxist idealists who ran it. In the wake of this disbandment emerged “socialist realism.” Devised by Gorky in consultation with Stalin, it distinguished between “social” and “critical” realism and argued that a literary work must be judged in the larger, philosophical and social context.

In 1933, Lukács joined the journal Literaturny Kritik, a journal that played a key role in aligning the “classics” with Marxism. The idea of the approximation of Marxist truth by the classics that underlay this, already premiered by Lukács in 1919, now had gained power and vision. It is particularly manifest in his attempt to portray Goethe’s Faust and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit as digests of all the forms of human experience that point toward Marxism. [….]

2   Lukács, “A régebbi magyar irodalomhoz való viszonyunk” [Our relationship to old Hungarian literature], Sarló és Kalapács, no. 9 (1931), pp. 55-7.

3  Max Hayward, Writers in Russia, 1917-1978 (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1983), p. 96.

SOURCE: Kadarkay, Arpad. Georg Lukács: Life, Thought, and Politics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), pp. 342-343, 505. Boldface added by RD.

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