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.
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.
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 vu. The 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