Tag Archives: Marxism

Sándor Kerekes: The Dress Rehearsal–The fate of George Lukács and his archives

When the present campaign against the Central European University started I did have some pangs of deja vue, the feeling that this did happen to me, I have experienced this feeling before. And indeed, not long afterwards, as the weekend of April the 22 has arrived I realized that the basis for the recognition was none other than the bizarre goings on surrounding the Lukács Archives.

George Lukács has been a thorn in the side of the right and the ultra-right for a long time. He was the scion of a wealthy bourgeois family, the son of a wealthy assimilated Jewish banker, who, nevertheless, signed up for Marxism, Communism and not only did he support those ”unspeakable” tenets, but was actively involved in fighting for them in the Hungarian Commune in 1919.

He was always engaged in cultural issues, but was not averse, at least not in his youth, to take action if necessary. This is how he became shortly after being the commissar for culture, a political commissar in the military. And in this capacity was he embroiled in an event of decimation of his military unit after an unfortunate defeat at Tiszafüred. The actual facts of this episode are unclear, some say he carried out the executions of seven soldiers, other say he prevented the executions and in any case, he was not the one ordering it. Nevertheless, the stigma of this event has remained with him forever.

The apartment house where George Lukács lived

After the commune he emigrated to Austria and eventually to Germany, where he met and impressed Thomas Mann, wrote and published and became involved with the Communist International, but to his detriment, because he was eventually declared a right wing heretic, ”revisionist.” His life from here on was alternating between Moscow and Berlin until finally he was forced to settle in Moscow during the darkest years of Stalinist terror. He kept on working, mostly in the field of literary criticism and aesthetics, probably to avoid notice and managed to stay out of the political infighting until he was finally deported to Tashkent by the NKVD in 1941.

At the war’s end he began his political carrier in Hungary. He was co-opted as the member of the Academy of Sciences, became the member of parliament, was appointed as a professor of the Budapest university and was also made to be the editor of a journal or two. It looked at last, after decades of misery, that he has hit his stride and was the mainstay of the communist establishment. But, of course it didn’t last. As a free spirit he soon became a stumbling stone to the party establishment, he was ”criticized” and applied the then customary ”self-criticism” to himself and soon became a political pariah again.

In 1956 he was appointed minister of culture again in the Imre Nagy government for twelve days. That lead to endless misery and also to internment in Romania. After the revolution he remained in internal exile and banishment, but managed to publish abroad, thanks to his international fame and the fact that he was writing all his works in German, that made him the darling of the western European intelligentsia.

In the nineteen sixties he informally established a kind of philosophy school, or ”circle,” including roughly twelve, or fourteen young students of philosophy, whom eventually became the cutting edge and were collectively called the ”Budapest School” of the discipline. (They were also called the ”Lukács kindergarten.”) Eventually, however, they were one by one discredited for not towing the party line and were forced either to share Lukács’s internal exile, or were forced to emigrate and become respected academics abroad. Also, they were the intellectual vanguard of the opposition that prepared later for the change of the system.

Sometime in 1965, Lukács was finally forgiven, the communist party has readmitted him as a member and for the remaining few years of his life was spent in unbridled public respect if not adulation. He died in 1971 and that was the event that started him out as the unintended hero of a new and even more surreal saga. As long as he only acted as the free spirit that he was, at all times and at all places, eventually he became the opposition of the prevailing order. He insisted on being a Marxist and a communist, but the communist establishment refused to tolerate his independence and intellectual superiority. Therefore, he always ended up censured, in being the minority of one, and the subject of permanent suspicion and exclusion. But that was fine with him, he was content taking the honest, uncompromising intellectual’s position for better and for worse. However, it is also true that in the short periods of power he used his position and doctrinaire nature to make the life of other, non-Marxist writers and philosophers miserable, often forcing them to abandon their calling and resort to a livelihood of physical labor.

It is worth keeping in mind that Lukács’s works were written in a dense German prose, heavily laden with Marxist-Leninist jargon and in any case, they are about the esoteric subjects of ethics, aesthetics, literary criticism and some kind of social science not to be mistaken with sociology. (He never managed to get ready with his all-encompassing, general work of philosophy. Although he has worked for years on the outline and the materiel. And actually, the manuscripts of this “super opus” are, besides of many others, the sought after documents the scholars come to his archives to study.) It is obvious, therefore, that the political right that ceaselessly attack him as long as they can remember, has no quarrels with his works, because they are devoid of the intellect to read and to value any of it. If there is anything that can be regarded as his ”fault,” it is his Marxism, his communism most often mentioned, but frequently with reference to his Hungarianized name that was still Löwinger in his father’s time and that it is a clear and unmistakable reference that in his case we have on our hands an “un-reconstituted, pushy, overachieving, and in any case, intolerable Jew.” This is what the ultra-right cannot forgive.

In 2011 prime minister Orbán’s hand-picked president of the Academy of Sciences has put into motion the fervent wish of all right-wing ignorami that the Lukács Archívum, located in his former apartment at the shore of the Danube, at a magnificent location, and has served the international community of social sciences and philosophy as a research institute, and a place of pilgrimage, should be shut down. Also, the George Lukács Foundation that was taking care of the collection of his books and manuscripts housed there, must be shut down because it is “bearing the dishonorable name of the Marxist-communist: George Lukács.” The Academy obsequiously agreed that the closing becomes effective January 1st 2012. This was the moment when the international outrage begun to gather and it is increasing ever since.

Although I was aware of Lukács over the years, I had no particular interest in becoming acquainted closer until the controversy erupted. Since, however, I was planning to visit his archive, as it is open to all interested researchers, only appointment is required. But, why should I deny it, I never got around to do this until this spring.

It is a recurring spring time ritual in the tourist trade in Budapest, to open certain houses, buildings to the public, usually those celebrating their one hundredth anniversary. This year, however, the buildings standing on the shore of the Danube were chosen, a fascinating array of Budapest trivia, regardless of age, and one of these, one of the most prominent ones, was the art-deco building in which Lukács spent his life from 1945 until his death in 1971. Admission only at Sunday from 5 p.m. At 4:30 there was a sizable line up. I was first. This apartment is indeed at a magnificent location, but is still in municipal possession, dusty and neglected, yet it is hard not to suspect that behind all the machinations to shut down the Archive is somebody’s grubby desire to get possession of the roughly 900 square feet flat. It was touching to see the actual unmistakable signs of obvious penury the great man has lived in. On his cheap, well-worn desk besides the elegant small bronze bust of Goethe, there lies a carton box of cheap cigars and there is the case for his iconic glasses made of papier-mâché. Of course, there are books everywhere. It is tacitly admitted after questioning that the once open book shelves that cover almost every wall, were furnished with glass doors and locks, because in the early years the admiring visitors didn’t hesitate to pinch a book or two as a souvenir of their visit. The visitors now are so numerous that I can only slowly make any progress from room to room, everybody is whispering in respectfully subdued tones, we are at the scene of history and of the battle waged for intellectual freedom. That is what happened here fifty, sixty years ago and just the same, that is happening now as I am ambling from room to room making some photographs. Of the three rooms the middle one where I luckily can speak to one of the archivists. Is it still to be closed down and if so, when will it happen? I ask him. Well, he answers in measured tone, it is no longer imminent, the new president of the Academy is less sanguine and more reasonable. Chances are that the archive will survive. They are optimistic and the visitors, scholars and gawkers alike, just keep on coming.

I was truly touched not only by the spirit of the location, but also by the reverence the other visitors have shown towards it. And then I just went home to find an ad in a weekly paper about an international conference dedicated to the life, work and importance of George Lukács, to start in four days’ time at ELTE university.

I attended this conference’ first and last days. I was amazed to learn that the obscure and impenetrable writing and theories of Lukács are a living and active legacy, practically all over the world. The participants of the conference came from a hundred countries, the presenters came from the US, Brazil, Portugal, Japan, Germany and a lot of other places, not to forget Greece. The language of presentations was mostly English, but there was a whole section’s worth of Portugal speakers too. In many respect I was vastly underqualified to understand the ideas discussed. However, reverence towards them and the intense immediacy and importance of those ideas was truly astounding.

Finally, Agnes Heller, supposedly Lukács’s favorite and certainly most famous disciple gave the closing key note address. It was, as are all her speeches, very simple and very reasonable, devoid of any scholarly frills or embellishments. And after she finished it she announced to go around the room, hearing everybody’s question personally and answering it one by one. At that moment she launched herself at the crowd, the tiny 86, or so years old, and commenced a lively conversation with the more than hundred attendees. I asked her quite early, because I was sitting close to the front, how Lukács had lived, how did he make a living. She told the story that the great man was completely without covetousness, he owned one suit of cloth, one pair of shoes and when the Academy of Sciences provided him with a car and chauffeur, one of the perks of membership at the time, he had no idea what to do with them. She also told of Lukács’ circumstances in Moscow, where he lived in condition so poor that nobody found it worth to denounce him for the sake of acquiring his apartment. This helped him to survive the hard years in Moscow.

Ágnes Heller at the Lukács Conference

The international outrage and protest seemingly managed to stave off the closing of the Lukács Archive for the time being. The attempt to get rid of it may just have been the dress rehearsal for the much greater task, the attack against the CEU. His statue, however, was not nearly as lucky. The ultra-rightists, when they saw that the Archive is probably too tenacious an issue, went full tilt against the statue, standing in a lovely park near the Danube in the last thirty-two years. The park is located in a heavily Jewish populated area, with indelible holocaust memories and here the Jewish Lukács had respect and appreciation. Not to mention that the quality of the statue was also worthy of the man and the locale. The City of Budapest council, however, was not ashamed to decide, at the behest of a young, neo-Nazi alderman, to remove the statue and remove it they did on the 28th of March this year, post haste.

And yet, as the respect and admiration for Lukács doesn’t cease to pour in, and although his statue is taken back, for some rest, to its sculptor for the time being, his Archive is on the verge of revival and a possible renovation was also mentioned. All these toing and froing around him was very similar to what is happening now around the Central European University. This is why I had the feeling of déjà vuThe statue was a small matter city hall could deal with it. But the CEU is bigger, much more important and too much depends on its existence: this is a matter for the government. The government has botched it up, awakened the protest of domestic and international community, the European Union, the United States and the scholarly community near and far. And if the story of the Lukács Archives is any indication, then we have reason to trust that the politicians’ stupidity and ineptitude will prove to be insufficient to slay such edifice of spirit and ideas such as the CEU is.

June 17, 2017




János Kornai and Marxism

A few days ago I promised to write something about a short essay by János Kornai, the famous Hungarian economist, on his encounter with Marxism. The essay, entitled “Marx egy kelet-európai értelmiségi szemével” (Marx through the eyes of an Eastern European intellectual), appeared in a volume of Kornai’s collected essays, Gondolatok a kapitalizmusról: Négy tanulmány (Thoughts on capitalism: Four essays) (Budapest, Akadémia, 2012).

Kornai in this essay describes his road to Marxism and his discovery of some of the fundamental flaws of the Marxist system. He had just turned eighteen in 1945 and was open to the ideas of the Hungarian Communist Party (MKP) after going through  a war, losing his father in Auschwitz and his older brother somewhere in the Soviet Union where he served in a labor battalion. He was attracted to the party that was most resolutely opposed to the Horthy regime and all that it entailed.  So he began his study of the works of Karl Marx in the original German because at that time no Hungarian translation was available.

János Kornai / www.kornai-janos.hu

János Kornai / www.kornai-janos.hu

He began with Das Kapital and was struck by the sharp logic and the precise formulations of his ideas. These attributes appealed to Kornai because he himself is “a maniac for order and precise thinking.” Moreover, eventually he began to surmise that Marxism had universal application. It was just as applicable to the evaluation of a theatrical production as it was to economic problems. Here Kornai steps back a little and observes that “young people desire some kind of universal explanation for all worldly phenomena.” In addition, Marxism appealed to him emotionally because of the German philosopher’s passionate commitment to the oppressed and the dispossessed.

But then came the disillusionment. This process occurred not on an intellectual plane but on moral grounds. It happened when he met an old communist who has been arrested and tortured. His faith in the system was shaken. He had encountered critical voices against Marxism earlier but refused to take them seriously. Once his faith in the moral superiority of the system started to waver, however, he began noticing things that he didn’t want to see before. Problems with the practical application of  socialism. In vain did he look for answers in Marx’s works. It was not that Marx gave wrong answers to these questions, like wastefulness, low quality products, the constant scarcity of goods. The real problem was that it never occurred to him to pose any of these questions in the first place.

Once Kornai’s faith was shaken he began studying Marx more critically and found that there are some really fundamental precepts of Marxism that have proven to be dead wrong in the years since Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto. One of these was Marx’s insistence that as a result of the capitalist mode of production the lives of workers will become more and more wretched. It was enough to look around in well-developed capitalist countries to see that this Marxist prediction was wrong. Exactly the opposite was true: the living standards of the proletariat were steadily improving. Without going step by step through his mental processes, the final result was that even before the 1956 Revolution Kornai had become a critic of the socialist system.

So, eventually he had to pose the question to what extent Marx was responsible for what was going on in the Soviet Union of Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev, in the China of Mao Zedong, and in other socialist countries. What is the relation between the theoretical ideas of Marx and the historical reality of the socialist system? Here I will quote Kornai verbatim: “I will try to answer concisely: the socialist system realized Marx’s plan.”

Kornai is aware that some people might counter that this judgment goes too far. But in Marx’s opinion a market economy doesn’t work. The market is anarchy and chaos. In its place a planned economy must be introduced. Moreover, private property must be abolished and it must be replaced by commonly held ownership. Both of these very basic Marxist doctrines became a reality in the socialist countries. When Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and others invoked Marx’s name and work to defend their policies, they were correct. They had every reason to appeal to him. They were the ones who realized Marx’s dreams.

Kornai also finds Marx “guilty” of rejecting “empty, formal bourgeois constitutionalism, the parliamentary system, and democracy.” He didn’t seem to realize that once a market economy and individual initiatives are gone the system must be directed from above and that very fact results in the repressive apparatus of the state or the ruling party. So, Marx is responsible for what happened in the Soviet Union and in other socialist countries, but it is “intellectual responsibility.”

Finally, Kornai briefly analyzes what we still can learn from Marx. After the collapse of the socialist system the belief spread in intellectual circles that Marxism was dead. But in the last few years, especially since the 2008 financial crisis, the opposite has been true. Marx is in vogue again. “Prophets” have arrived who predict that capitalism is dead, a view Kornai doesn’t share. Yes, capitalism right now is going through a deep crisis but it is alive and will most likely live for a very long time.

Nonetheless, Kornai believes there are some valuable Marxist teachings that are still applicable. One of these is the overextended expansion of credit and production that far surpasses demand. Marx talked about these problems in the first and third volumes of Das Kapital and called attention to the grave consequences of these phenomena. Today we see the results of the irresponsible granting of credit all too clearly. As for the balance between supply and demand, Marx was especially interested in imbalances in the labor market. Today the imbalance in the labor market poses serious problems in the developed world. Marx was one of the pioneers in discovering this danger.

In addition, Kornai also looks upon Marx as the first person who tried the develop something Kornai calls a “system paradigm” (rendszerparadigma). He was an economist, a sociologist, a political scientist, and a historian who tried to combine all these disciplines. Today we call this an interdisciplinary way of looking at the world which attempts a comprehensive understanding of society as a whole.

Kornai ends his brief essay by saying that he is not a Marxist but neither is he a Keynesian. He doesn’t belong to any school or -isms. He considers himself to be an eclectic economist who was influenced by Joseph A. Schumpeter, John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, and Marx “who in this list is always mentioned in the first place.”

The sources of Viktor Orbán’s ideas on the world economy

Practically everything that has aroused my interest in the last couple of days is connected in one way or the other to Tusnádfürdő/Baile Tusnad or, as the organizers call it, the “free university” Tusványos. It is a made-up word. Originally, these gatherings were held in Bálványos/Cetăţile Păgânilor, but the festivities over the years have grown so much that they had to move to Tusnádfürdő. Hence the name.

I wrote a couple of times about a commentator who calls himself Elek Tokfalvi, a mirror translation of Alexis de Toqueville. He is an erudite fellow and a sharp-eyed observer of political developments. This time Tokfalvi found a sentence in Viktor Orbán’s speech at Tusványos that prompted him to do a little research. The sentence followed Orbán’s running commentary about the great powers and their exploitation of the smaller ones on the periphery. The sentence reads: “Jenő Szűcs, an author who was very much in vogue about twenty or twenty-five years ago, wrote about this very clearly when he put together a popular treatise on the centers of the world economy and their peripheries.”

I myself didn’t catch this particular sentence when I listened to Orbán’s speech but I sure got a shock when I saw it in print. First, Jenő Szűcs was a historian of Hungarian medieval history who didn’t “put together” popular works. In fact, I clearly remember when I bought one of his works in Hungary and showed it to my father. His first reaction was that Szűcs’s style was so “scientific” that it took mental effort even for a well read and intelligent man like my father to comprehend what the slim volume was all about. I think the title itself is telling: A nemzet historikuma és a történetszemlélet nemzeti látószöge (hozzászólás egy vitához) (History of the nation and the national vision of the view of history, remarks to a debate). His works were appreciated by his colleagues but “in vogue” he was not.

Then there is the problem of dates. Jenő Szűcs died in November 1988, so he couldn’t have written anything twenty or twenty-five years ago. Orbán might conceivably have referenced an article Szűcs wrote in 1980 in the samizdat volume published in honor of István Bibó. The title of the article was “Vázlat Európa három történeti régiójáról.” A year later it also appeared in Történelmi Szemle. But the “Sketch of the three historical regions of Europe” had nothing to do with great centers of the world economy or their peripheries. It was an attempt to portray the region lying between Eastern and Western Europe as a distinct entity that has been different for at least the last thousand years. I for one don’t think that this was a revolutionary discovery, but Hungarian historical circles were impressed.

So, if Jenő Szűcs wasn’t Orbán’s source, who was? Tokfalvi suggests Immanuel Wallerstein, an American Marxist “sociologist, historical social scientist and world-systems analyst.” Apparently in the 1970s Wallerstein was not only translated into Hungarian but very much appreciated by the party leadership. He called the satellite countries “half peripheral” because he saw their centralized planned economic policies as vehicles of true convergence. Thus Wallerstein gave his stamp of approval to the totally mistaken economic policies of the socialist countries. Tokfalvi thinks that Wallerstein is the most likely candidate for Viktor Orbán’s Jenő Szűcs “in vogue.”

Over his career Wallerstein adopted some basic Marxist doctrines: the dichotomy between capital and labor and the view that world economic development is a dialectical process that goes through such stages as feudalism and capitalism. He believes in something called “dependency theory,” which leads straight to the notion that resources flow from a periphery of poor and underdeveloped countries to a “core” of wealthy states, enriching them at the expense of the poor countries. He is one of the leading figures of the anti-globalist movement.

Source: wikipedia.org

Source: wikipedia.org

It is becoming increasingly obvious that Viktor Orbán and his college friends are truly the children of the late Kádár period, together with all its ideological baggage. Orbán, when he espoused Wallerstein’s theories at Tusványos, must have noticed that he was flirting with Marxist clichés and felt compelled to preface this particular passage about “the core and the periphery” with the claim that he is not a “vulgar Marxist.” Even his stress on the value of labor that produces only tangible products is suspect. It might be a less than a perfect understanding of Marx’s labor theory. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that were the case because I know from personal experience as well as from the stories of others that Hungarian college students didn’t take their compulsory course on “political economy” very seriously.

This discussion will be a good introduction to a book review I have been planning to write on a new book by János Kornai called “Gondolatok a kapitalizmusról” (Thoughts on Capitalism). Included in this volume is an essay entitled “Marx egy kelet-európai értelmiségi szemével” (Marx through the eyes of an Eastern European intellectual.” The very last sub-chapter’s title is “Ami tovább él Marx tanaiból” (What still lives from the teachings of Marx).  Certainly not what Viktor Orbán is talking about.