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Lukács and the Tragedy of Revolution: Reflections on “Tactics and Ethics”

A young Gyorgy Lukács in his library

A young Gyorgy Lukács in his library. Credit: "Young Lukács: An interview & photo gallery," The Charnel-House.

This article was first published in the journal Eszmélet in Hungary in November 2021.

In his 20s and early 30s, Georg Lukács emerged as one of Europe’s towering intellectuals, the author of the two-volume A History of the Development of Modern Drama (1908, 1911), Soul and Form (1910), Aesthetic Culture (1913), The Theory of the Novel (1916), and Heidelberg Aesthetics (1916–18). While Lukács’s primary field was aesthetics, the philosophical basis of his thought was neo-Kantian, dividing subject and object, facts and values, empirical reality and utopian free will, and society and nature. Writing in the years leading up to and including the First World War, Lukács was torn by what he perceived as a contradiction between a dominant world of vulgarity, decadence, and inauthenticity, versus a merely potential alternative lifeworld of authenticity. Although this contradiction was mediated in the cultural objectifications of art, it could not be transcended on the plane of historical practice. Politically and ethically, Lukács in these years adhered to a kind of revolutionary Dostoevskian-Tolstoyan existentialism.1 Though critical of German social democracy from the left, the dominant motif in his thought was one of tragedy borne of neo-Kantian dualism, and the perceived impossibility of revolution, constituting a tragedy of inaction. The only authentic individual actions appeared to be the recourse to religion or suicide.2

This tragedy of inaction, as perceived by Lukács, was shattered by the Russian Revolution in 1917. Suddenly, revolutionary action, which seemed so far removed before, was conceivable. This created a period of intense internal conflict within Lukács, evident particularly in his essays “Bolshevism as an Ethical Problem” (1918) and “Tactics and Ethics” (1919). In the first of these two essays, he rejected Bolshevism on ethical grounds, as still representing a tragedy of inaction. In the second, which announced his conversion to communism, he embraced Bolshevism on ethical grounds that were, if anything, more poignantly tragic, but taking the form of a tragedy of action.3 This reflected Lukács’s recognition of the acute problems of the individual faced with the challenge posed by both action and inaction in a revolutionary situation. His solution to this problem in 1919 was to foreshadow his great work of Hegelian-Marxian dialectical synthesis, History and Class Consciousness (1923), in which he sought to transcend his previous neo-Kantian frame based on a theory of the revolutionary consciousness of the proletariat.4

“Bolshevism as an Ethical Problem” embodies the tragic dilemma that Lukács, still embracing both neo-Kantian epistemology and a radical Tolstoyan commitment to nonviolence, found himself in when faced with the reality of the October Revolution. Although sympathizing with the Bolshevik cause, he found himself confronted by what he called the “metaphysical assumption that good can issue from evil.” Here, he referred to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment regarding the question of murder, even if, as Raskolnikov in the novel misguidedly tells himself, it is for a good cause. Hence, for Lukács writing in 1918, “at the root of Bolshevism [is] an insoluble ethical dilemma.” “Democracy,” or the pursuit of change through legal forms, requires “only superhuman self-abnegation and self-sacrifice,” since one must in the end lay aside one’s convictions and surrender to the result, running “the risk that most of humanity is disinterested in the new world.” In contrast, “Bolshevism’s moral problem” lies deeper since it is based on action. Inaction in the face of revolution seems to avoid the full severity of the ethical dilemma that confronts anyone who chooses to act. Lukács concludes that one should not bloody one’s hands through revolutionary action, particularly given an uncertain future. Tyranny and class rule, he argues, cannot be justified—even if introduced by the proletariat or the party with the aim of combating an oppressive tyranny and regressive class rule, based on the mere faith that this will negate “the endless, senseless chain of struggle.”5

A dramatic instance of the dialectic of continuity and discontinuity can be seen in a comparison of the argument of “Bolshevism as an Ethical Problem,” which Lukács describes as “my last hesitations before making my final, irrevocable choice,” with that of “Tactics and Ethics,” written only a few months later between January and March 1919.6 In the latter essay, he publicly declared his commitment to the revolutionary cause after joining the Hungarian Communist Party in December 1918 (at a time when there were less than one hundred members), inverting his earlier position on the ethics of Bolshevism.7 Rather than simply rejecting his previous argument on ethics and revolution, he sought to transcend it dialectically, “in the direction of praxis.”8

The same ethical dilemma as before was in many ways still evident, but what had formerly been, for Lukács, the tragedy of inaction now took the form of the tragedy of action. However, the shift in his underlying theoretical position could not have been more different. He first clearly indicated this by arguing that “the Marxist theory of class struggle, which in this respect is wholly derived from [G. W. F.] Hegel’s conceptual system, changes the transcendent objective into an immanent one; the class struggle of the proletariat is at once the objective itself and its realization.”9 This gave rise, in Lukács’s conception, to an objective historico-philosophical tendency (or logic of history) that could be directly ascertained by a revolutionary class consciousness—an argument that he developed fully in History and Class Consciousness.

Indeed, for Lukács—who retained much of the neo-Kantian problematic after December 1918 and throughout his life, coexisting inharmoniously with his Hegelian-Marxian synthesis—the ethical problem of individual action/inaction remained, if now seen from the opposite standpoint from what he presented only months before in “Bolshevism as an Ethical Problem.” Hence, an individual was now called on to accept the need for the moral sacrifice inherent in revolutionary action in line with class-based historico-philosophical necessity. Replacing his previous Tolstoyan pacificism, then, was an ethic that openly acknowledged the necessity for sin, in the form of acts of violence and “murder,” even if on the field of battle.10

Inaction was now seen as carrying an ultimate moral responsibility just as great as action, since standing by and acquiescing could only mean the support of the dominant reality. “The individual’s conscience and sense of responsibility,” Lukács wrote, “are confronted with the postulate that he must act as if on his action or inaction depended the changing of the world’s destiny.”11 Indeed, it was proletarian revolutionary action aimed at the realization of the objective potential of the class, including its promotion in the end of classlessness, that carried the entire moral force dedicated to “the changing of the world’s destiny.”

Nevertheless, tragedy at the individual ethical level was inherent in the dedication to struggle, rather than the mystic’s mere surrender.12 Lukács reintroduced the classic issue seen, for example, in Sophocles’s Antigone—that of “a primary ethic (obligation toward institutions) and a secondary ethic (obligation toward the soul).” The primacy of the secondary (second) ethic over the primary (first) ethic, he argued, “always takes on a peculiar dialectical complexity when the soul is not sufficient unto itself but is involved in mankind—as in the case of political man, of the revolutionary. Here, if the soul is to be saved, the soul must be sacrificed: starting from a mystical ethic one is forced to become a brutal Realpolitiker and to violate the absolute commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ which entails no obligations to institutions.”13

Referring to the novels of Boris Savinkov, a terrorist leader in the Russian Revolution of 1905—viewing these novels as “documents” rather than works of art—Lukács indicated that, according to Savinkov, “the ultimate moral basis of the terrorist’s act” was “the sacrifice for his brethren, not only of his life, but also of his purity, his morals, his very soul.”14 The point was that an immoral deed in terms of the primary ethic could turn out in terms of the secondary ethic, when combined with sacrifice for the collective cause, to be “truly—and tragically—moral.” Not content to leave matters there, in the “Luciferic” form of the second ethic represented by clearly terrorist action, Lukács ends his essay by juxtaposing this to the quite different heroine’s act represented in the biblical tradition by Judith.15 Thus, it was possible, he stated, “to express this sense of the most profound human tragedy in the incomparably beautiful words of [Friedrich] Hebbel’s Judith: ‘Even if God had placed sin between me and the deed enjoined upon me—who am I to be able to escape it?’”16

It is in Hebbel’s Judith that we find the aesthetic key to the sense of “profound human tragedy” that accompanied Lukács’s sudden conversion to revolutionary praxis. Only months after he wrote “Tactics and Ethics,” during the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919, when Lukács was deputy minister (People’s Commissar of Education and Culture), what was called the “ethical group” within the party leadership gathered around him and discussed Hebbel’s Judith and Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor (from the Brothers Karamazov) in the residential hall of the House of the Soviet, presumably talking late into the night. As communist writer József Lengyel indicated in his memoirs, it was determined in these discussions that “we communists should take the sins of the world upon ourselves, so that we may be capable of saving the world. And why should we take the sins of the world upon us? Once again there was a very ‘clear’ answer, one taken from Hebbel’s Judith.… Just as God could order Judith to kill Holophernes—that is, to commit a sin—so may he order the communists to destroy the bourgeoisie, both metaphorically and physically.”17

The Sword of Judith and Lukács’s Second Ethic

As Walter Benjamin wrote in his Illuminations: “The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender itself completely and explain itself to it without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time.”18

The Book of Judith is one of several deuterocanonical books included in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) and the Old Testament of both the Catholic Bible and the Eastern Orthodox Bible, but excluded from the Hebrew Old Testament canon, while Protestants assign it to the Apocrypha. Nevertheless, it is one of the most famous biblical stories. Over the last two millennia, since the Book of Judith first appeared in c. 135–78 BCE, the Judith story has been the subject of sculptors, painters, playwrights, and poets. The famous sword or scimitar with which Judith beheaded the general Holofernes is forever associated with her.

The Book of Judith—generally believed to be ahistorical—focuses on Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians, sending his general Holofernes on a mission to punish those who did not support his war on Arphaxad, king of the Medes. All nations submit to Holofernes except the Hebrews, with the Jews of Bethulia forced to block the path of the Assyrian army to the temple in Jerusalem. The brutal Holofernes places a siege on the city, cutting off their water supplies. The population of the city is weakened and demoralized. At this point, the beautiful widow Judith prays to God and decides to take matters into her own hands. She adorns herself so that she is “dressed to kill,” promising to the population of Bethulia that all will be decided in five days. She leaves for the Assyrian camp accompanied only by her own maid, determined to kill Holofernes. God meanwhile enhances her beauty. Judith, who is sharp-witted, cleverly deceives Holofernes about her true interests and intentions, with double-edged statements. The story is filled with sexual tensions. On the fourth night, Holofernes invites Judith to his tent to seduce her but ends up drinking so much wine that he collapses on the bed. Judith then cuts off his head with his own sword and puts the head in a bag, also seizing the canopy on his bed. Upon her return to Bethulia, Achior the Ammonite is converted to Judaism on recognizing Holofernes’s head. The Jews, following Judith’s advice, hang Holofernes’s head on the city walls and take the offensive against the Assyrians who are dismayed at finding the headless body of their general, resulting in a Jewish victory. Judith is praised and lives as a widow until the age of 105. Her death is mourned by all of Israel.19

In contrast, Hebbel’s Judith, written in 1840, gives to the tale of Judith a psychological as well as moral character, focusing on the questions of sin, human freedom, fate, redemption, and the absolute. Although a widow, Judith remains a virgin, as her extraordinary beauty had overwhelmed her husband and driven him mad. He died six months into the marriage after returning from working in the field, without their having consummated their marriage, leaving her entirely chaste. Hebbel then adds Holofernes’s brutal rape of Judith (along with her repressed sexuality) to the story, complicating her motivations, which in the moment of carrying out the deed are animated more by revenge than by the liberation of her people and the carrying out of God’s will. Confronting her maid with the reality of the rape and Holofernes’s sleeping body, she exclaims, “I will be repaid for the annihilation which I suffered in his arms; now that I will avenge myself for his brutal attack on my humanity.… If I have forfeited in my degradation the right to exist, I will win it back with this sword.… See, Mirza, there lies his head. Ha, Holofernes, dost thou respect me now?”20

On arriving back in Bethulia, Judith confronts a population that through thirst and hunger has fallen to the brink of degradation, with one mother suspected of having already eaten her own child. Forbidding the people from putting Holofernes’s head on a pike—a warlike practice of the time, and one that Holofernes in his brutal psychology would have undoubtedly wanted—Judith has it ignominiously buried in the ground. She insists that it no longer takes courage to defeat an enemy that has already lost. Upon being praised by the people of the city, she elicits, in the closing scene, a promise that they will kill her if she so requests, fearing a pregnancy that would result in her giving birth to the evil Holofernes’s child. Hebbel’s Judith emerges, if possible, as an even greater heroine than in the actual biblical story, having so clearly taken the sins of the world upon herself in carrying out her deed.21

It is in the passage from Hebbel’s Judith that Lukács described as “incomparably beautiful,” quoted here at greater length, that Judith first resolves to carry out the murder of Holofernes, prior to setting out for the Assyrian camp:

I thank Thee, I thank Thee, Lord! Thou makest clear mine eyes. In Thy sight the impure becomes pure. If Thou didst place a sin between me and my deed, who am I that I should contend with Thee, that I should draw back from Thee? Is not my deed worth as much as it costs me? May I love my honor, my immaculate body more than Thee? Oh the knot within me is untied! Thou madest me beautiful; now I know wherefore. Thou didst deny me a child; now I feel why and rejoice that I have not to love my own self in another. What I formerly held a curse, now appears to me a blessing! (She steps before a mirror.) I greet thee, my likeness! For shame, cheeks, that you do not yet glow! Is the way from you to my heart so long? Eyes, I praise you; you have drunk fire and are intoxicated. Poor mouth, I do not take it ill of thee that thou art pale; thou shalt kiss Horror. Holofernes, all is thine; I have no longer share in it. I have withdrawn to the inmost depths of my soul. Take it, but tremble when thou hast it. I shall emerge at an hour when thou dost not expect it, like a sword from the scabbard, and pay myself with thy life. If I must kiss thee, I will imagine that it is with poisoned lips; if I embrace thee, I will think I am strangling thee. God, let him commit atrocities before my eyes, bloody atrocities, but save me from seeing aught good in him!22

Lukács referred to the moral issue that he drew from Hebbel’s Judith as “the ethical conflict, of how it is possible to act unethically and yet rightly.”23 He devoted a chapter of his A History of the Development of Modern Drama to Hebbel’s tragedies, examining, in the words of Margit Koves, how “Hebbel’s protagonists, driven by inner forces clash with the moral order and institutions of their time.”24 In his plays, Hebbel’s greatest heroines, Mariamne of Herod and Mariamne and Judith, were women who found themselves in conflict with male protagonists and exhibited, according to Lukács, the conflicts associated with the “freedom of the will” and the “ethical world order” when confronted with what Johann Gottlieb Fichte in his Characteristics of the Present Age (1806) called “the Age of absolute indifference towards all truth…the State of complete sinfulness.”25

Hebbel’s brilliance in his tragedies (particularly Herod and Mariamne and Gyges and His Ring) was that he was already pointing to the “Nora” problem of Henrik Ibsen’s famous play, and potentially toward the liberation of women. But rather than seeing this as a historical problem subject to change, Hebbel presented it as a universal tragic problem, and thus remained conservative in outlook.26 Here, it is noteworthy that Bertolt Brecht—who, like Lukács, was influenced by Hebbel—incorporated the Judith story (and the conflict between individual ethics and social forms) in a number of his plays: The Bible (written in 1914, when he was 15), Baal (1918), The Jewish Wife (a vignette, part of the play Fear and Misery of the Third Reich [1938]), and The Judith of Shimoda (1940).27 For Lukács himself, It was precisely his historical and dialectical approach to such ethical problems that drew him toward communism. As he explained, “My interest in ethics led me to the revolution.”28

The Social Ontology of Ethics

“It is always dangerous, if not arbitrary,” István Mészáros wrote in Lukács’s Concept of Dialectic, “to parcel up philosophers as ‘the young X’ and ‘the mature X’ for sake of opposing one parcel to another.… Even a genuine conversion from ‘idealism’ to ‘materialism’ does not necessarily imply a radical rejection or repression of the original synthesizing idea.… A striking case in point in the twentieth century is Georg Lukács. His post-idealist works reveal in his approach to all major problems the same structure of thought, even though he had genuinely left behind his original idealistic positions.”29

In this sense, it is often more difficult to perceive the essential continuity in the structure of Lukács’s thought than the discontinuities, recognizing that there must always remain a dialectical relation between the two, no matter how great the theoretical transformation. Although Lukács is best known for his Hegelian-Marxist synthesis regarding proletarian class consciousness in History and Class Consciousness, which transcended his early neo-Kantian phase and its individualistic ethic, many of the issues of his earlier years remained and took on a transformed relationship in the development of his Marxian views. This can be seen in his struggles over the dialectics of nature, which governed his later excursions into social ontology.30 But it can also be seen in his continuing attempts (not unrelated to his ontology) to define an ethics of the relation of “self to selfhood,” that is, the individual’s active connection to suprahistorical forces (totality)—a concern that permeated all of his thought.31 If the revolutionary proletariat represented a de-reified class consciousness, the role of the intellectual (and the party) was to ease the proletarian’s way into this by focusing on the “consciousness of consciousness,” connecting individual, class, and totality.32

In Lukács’s focus on dialectical objectivity, there is also always a struggle with what he considered “bad objectivity,” subsuming the subject. Related to this, however, was a kind of non-dialectical duality in his thought, such that he never fully transcended the subject-object problem of epistemology that animated his deepest inquiries. It was this, in fact, that eventually propelled him to seek the answer in a deeper, ontological perspective.33 As he wrote late in life: “Society is an extraordinary complex of complexes, in which there are two opposite poles. On the one hand there is the totality of society, which ultimately determines the interactions of the individual complexes, and on the other there is the complex individual man, who constitutes an irreducible minimal unity within the process. In this process, man finally becomes man;…the aspect of freedom acquires a significance which is ever greater, ever more comprehensive, embracing the whole of humanity.”34 It was this emphasis on what he was to call “the genuinely independent personality, whose possibility had been created by previous economic development,” that was central to Lukács’s philosophy, and determined his whole conception of an ethics based on the individual as a “irreducible minimal unity” existing in a mediated relation to the historical totality.35

For Lukács in “Tactics and Ethics,” “ethics relate to the individual” but is mediated by class, giving rise to a historically generated totality.36 This focus on the “complex of the individual” remained crucial to his thought and governed his overall conception of ethics. The stakes in the consideration of the ethical as the primary mediation of the individual and society could not be higher. “Ethics,” he wrote in his Aesthetics, “is the crucial field of the fundamental, all-deciding struggle between this-worldliness and other-worldliness, of the real superseding/preserving transformation of human particularity.”37 Insofar as the genuine individual was a historical product, it was necessary, in developing an ethics in historical-materialist terms, to ground this in the historical process in its deepest sense—that is, in a social ontology. Thus, we find Lukács devoting himself to writing an Ethics (originally entitled The Place of Ethics in the System of Human Activities) at the end of his life, following the completion of his Aesthetics in 1962. He decided that this needed to be preceded by (grounded in) an ontological introduction, which quickly developed into a lengthy work, The Ontology of Social Being (and the Prolegomena to a Social Ontology attached to it), without the planned work on Ethics ever being written.38 The explanation for this, as Cornel West observes, is that Lukács sought all along to provide a new objectivist (or neo-foundationalist) basis for ethics. In this he failed to take his cue from Karl Marx himself, who, untroubled with accusations of relativism, saw ethics as thoroughly historical, arising from the class struggle itself.39

However, Lukács’s need to ground his ethics in ontology also had to do with his long struggle to overcome what he saw as the defects of History and Class Consciousness, partly due to its still neo-Kantian epistemological hesitations before a dialectic of nature. This was not conceived primarily in Frederick Engels’s sense, which Lukács had criticized, but in what he came to see as Marx’s sense of the metabolism of labor with nature, as the objective basis of human possibility as well as of alienation under capitalism’s second-order mediations. Reconstructing historical materialism thus meant reconstructing it on the basis of the social ontology of labor as the ground of social being.

Here, we are presented with another anomaly in Lukács, arising from the nature of his situation, compelling him to write an Ethics without having first written a Politics (a philosophy of right), despite their inextricable connection in the historical-materialist view—somehow conceiving it as possible to transcend this objective necessity. His proposed Ethics was to arise from his social ontology of labor, mediating the complexes of the individual and the totality, apparently without any systematic critique of the state, which in Lukács’s case would have necessarily meant engaging with the state of “actually existing socialism.”

In many ways, the tragedy of Lukács’s intellectual life was that explicit politics and a far-reaching critique of the state became impossible for him, evident in the fate of his famous work, the Blum Theses, dealing with the problem of a democratic transition in a proletarian revolution, which was suppressed by the party.40 Although Lukács continued to work on political issues, he was unable in his circumstances to address in a coherent way the theory of the state. In the last decade and a half of his life—following the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, in which he had played a significant role as minister of culture in Imre Nagy’s extremely short-lived government (crushed by an invasion from the Soviet Union)—he refrained from politics and even political critique, placing an enormous obstacle in the way of his planned Ethics.41

Nevertheless, it was characteristic of Lukács’s approach to see ethics as partly autonomous from politics, having deeper ontological roots in the “complex of the individual.” This was signaled early on by his contention in “Tactics and Ethics” that “Hegel’s system is devoid of ethics,” a position that only made sense (even if one were to ignore Hegel’s System of Ethical Life) if one were to see ethics, as Lukács did at that time, as rooted ultimately in the individual. Such a view excluded Hegel’s attempt in The Philosophy of Right to portray the dialectics of ethical life as an objective phenomenon based in the family, civil society, and the state.42 Lukács was later to rectify this judgment on Hegel in the chapter on ethics in The Young Hegel, where he presented a sophisticated mapping of Hegel’s ethics.43 Here, he focused, characteristically, on the notion of “tragedy in the realm of the ethical,” presented by Hegel in his early essay on Natural Law. “Tragedy,” Hegel wrote in relation to Aeschylus’s Eumenides (the last part of the Oresteia or Orestes cycle), “consists in this, that ethical nature segregates its inorganic nature (in order not to become embroiled in it), as a fate, and places it outside itself; and by acknowledging this fate in the struggle against it, ethical nature is reconciled with the Divine being as the unity of both.”44 It was this conception of ethics as the reconciliation of the individual and the absolute in the context of the individual’s struggle against “externalizing/alienating” reality (a concept that he also took from Hegel) that forced Lukács to move back to social ontology, rooted in labor. In this way, “the tragedy in the realm of the ethical” becomes revealed as “nothing but the contradictory path of human progress in the history of class societies—a great and real tragedy.”45

In his various aesthetic analyses, Lukács was highly critical of the growing tendency of cultural figures, with the failure of the 1848 revolution in Germany, to “replace the objective portrayal of world-historical conflict by the subjective insight of the tragic hero into the tragic necessity of his fate”—a regressive tendency he found, for example, in the later work of Hebbel. Such an approach encouraged a reversion to the static notion of the “condition humaine” (human condition) and reconciliation with a decadent reality, leading to the impoverishment of tragedy.46 Indeed, Hebbel himself had moved toward a philosophy of “pan-tragism,” meaning that “each ‘tragedy’ in history had to be acknowledged as an ‘eternal’ decree of fate,” the liquidation of the Hegelian concept of historical progress and the growth of irrationalism.47 It was thus the failure of the 1848 revolution in Germany that for Lukács was the basis for the growing irrationalism within much of German culture leading to the tragedy of the 1930s, which he was to dissect in The Destruction of Reason.

Revolution represented for Lukács the realm of the objectively possible. He saw the tragedy of action associated with his second ethic as a necessary element in a movement toward greater human freedom synonymous with historical necessity. One can easily read his brilliant, short book on Lenin: A Study of the Unity of His Thought (1924) and the description there of “revolutionary Realpolitik,” and see in Lenin, through Lukács’s eyes, a world-historical figure who took on the burden of Judith: “Even if God has placed sin between me and the deed enjoined upon me—whom am I to be able to escape it?”48 This is the tragedy of revolution, which is only ethically acceptable insofar as it is directly tied to a second ethic grounded objectively and subjectively in the possibility (and the historical necessity) of human liberation.


  1. See the brilliant essay by Cornel West, “Lukács: A Reassessment,” Minnesota Review 19 (1982): 86–102; and Michael Löwy, Georg Lukács: From Romanticism to Bolshevism (London: New Left Books, 1976), 91–144.
  2. The question of suicide was central to Lukács’s short literary work of 1912, “On Poverty of Spirit,” which Max Weber compared to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Georg Lukács, “On Poverty of Spirit,” in The Lukács Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 42–56.
  3. Konstantinos Kavoulakos, Georg Lukács’s Philosophy of Praxis (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), 157.
  4. The dialectic of the proletariat as the subject and object of history in History and Class Consciousness temporarily displaced the ethical problem for Lukács. As Mészáros wrote, “In the period when the essays of History and Class Consciousness were written, ethics itself could be conceived by Lukács as unproblematically and directly political because politics was seen as directly ethical.” István Mészáros, Beyond Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1995), 408. This could not stand up, however, to Lukács’s own ruthless criticism of his ideas, and the ethical problem was to reappear in his thought.
  5. Georg Lukács,” “Bolshevism as an Ethical Problem,” in The Lukács Reader, 216–21.
  6. Georg Lukács, preface to History and Class Consciousness (London: Merlin, 1968), xi.; Georg Lukács “Tactics and Ethics,” in Tactics and Ethics (London: New Left Books, 1972), 3–11; Andrew Arato and Peter Breines, The Young Lukács and the Origins of Western Marxism (New York: Seabury, 1979), 82.
  7. István Mészáros, Lukács’s Concept of Dialectic (London: Merlin, 1972), 127.
  8. Lukács, preface to History and Class Consciousness, xi.
  9. Lukács, “Tactics and Ethics,” 5.
  10. Lukács, “Tactics and Ethics,” 10.
  11. Lukács, “Tactics and Ethics,” 8.
  12. See Lukács’s early statements in “The Metaphysics of Tragedy” (1910), as quoted in Mészáros, Beyond Capital, 286–87.
  13. Lukács, “Tactics and Ethics,” 10; Kavoulakos, Georg Lukács’s Philosophy of Praxis, 153–57, 160. In Sophocles’s Antigone, Creon represents the state and hence the institutional bases of ethics, while Antigone stands for the soul, spirit, and kinship, and thus a more traditional and religious ethic. In this essentially religious, classical-Greek conception, it is the ethic of the state—which, as Antigone says, demands that she transgress “the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws”—that was to be regarded as secondary; while the ethic derived from the gods “and no one knows their origin in time” is to be seen as primary. Nevertheless, the state demands absolute adherence in war, creating a conflict between the two ethics, in which the state as absolute ruler enforces the tragic consequences. Lukács’s second ethic, in contrast, which opposes the ethic of the existing state, is essentially a revolutionary ethic, meant to transcend social rather than religious alienation, and aimed at construction of a new historical totality. Sophocles, Oedipus the King/Oedipus at Colonus/Antigone (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954), 174. Lukács himself addressed the nature of this ethical dilemma in Antigone in relation to Hegel’s analysis of it in The Phenomenology of Spirit. Georg Lukács, The Young Hegel (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1966), 411–12; G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 261–63.
  14. Lukács was doubtless unaware, in referring to Boris Savinkov in “Tactics and Ethics,” that the latter was responsible for an anti-Bolshevik uprising in Russia, which would soon lead him to support the White Army.
  15. Kavoulakos, Georg Lukács’s Philosophy of Praxis, 157, 160; Rodney Livingstone, introduction to Lukács, Tactics and Ethics, xiii.
  16. Lukács, “Tactics and Ethics,” 11. In the edition of Hebbel’s Judith translated by Carl Van Doren, this passage reads: “If Thou didst place a sin between me and my deed, who am I that I should contend with Thee, that I should draw back from Thee?” Friedrich Hebbel, Judith: A Tragedy in Five Acts, trans. Carl Van Doren (Boston: R. G. Badger, 1914), 275.
  17. Löwy, Georg Lukács, 134–37; Daniel Andrés López, Lukács: Praxis and the Absolute (Chicago: Haymarket, 2019), 5.
  18. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1969), 90.
  19. Deborah Levine Gera, “The Jewish Textual Traditions,” in The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies Across the Disciplines, ed. Kevin R. Brine, Elena Ciletti, and Henrike Lähnemann (Cambridge: Open Books, 2010), 23–24; The Book of Judith, Old Deuterocanonical Books, Old Testament, Holy Bible, available at
  20. Hebbel, Judith, 310, 312.
  21. In his questionable intellectual biography of Lukács, Arpad Kadarkay was so eager to utilize the former’s allusions to Hebbel’s Judith as a basis for diagnosing what he calls “Lukács’s dementia” that he seriously distorted aspects of Hebbel’s play to criticize Lukács more fully. Thus, he claimed that Judith actively “forfeits her innocence” to Holofernes, rather than being raped, which is in fact a central feature of Hebbel’s play. Holofernes is said to have “reached into her humanity,” rather than, as in Hebbel’s play, brutalizing and “annihilating” her humanity, for which she takes revenge and thus absolves herself in her own eyes and those of God. Likewise, we are told that “Judith decides to kill the child in her womb,” rather than, as in the play, eliciting a promise from the population that she be killed at her request (thus sacrificing both herself and the fetus) if the evil should appear in her womb. Kadarkay’s distortions were meant to impose on the character of Judith a sense of intense “guilt,” allowing him to claim that Lukács’s own sense of “guilt” converges with that of Judith. Arpad Kadarkay, Georg Lukács: Life, Thought and Politics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991). In Hebbel’s play, Judith is absolved from her sin by the higher ethic embodied in her deed itself, the sin nevertheless remains and falls upon her, as Lukács understood. Nothing therefore could be more absurd—insofar as Judith itself is concerned—than Lee Congden’s contention that, in Hebbel’s “tragic dramas the concept of sin was unknown; so fated were his characters that their actions could not be subjected to moral judgment.” Lee Congdon, “For Neoclassical Tragedy: György Lukács’s Drama Book,” Studies in Eastern European Thought (2008): 48. In fact, Hebbel’s Judith is concerned with conflicting ethical principles in the manner of Greek tragedy.
  22. Hebbel, Judith, 275.
  23. Georg Lukács, Record of a Life: An Autobiography (London: Verso, 1983), 53.
  24. Margit Koves, “Anthropology in the Aesthetics of the Young Lukács,” Social Scientist 29, no. 7/8 (2001): 71.
  25. Koves, “Anthropology in the Aesthetics of the Young Lukács,” 71; Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Characteristics of the Present Age (Washington DC: University Publications of America, 1977), 9; Friedrich Hebbel, “Herod and Mariamne: A Tragedy in Five Acts,” in Three Plays (London: J. M. Dent, 1914), 67–184.
  26. Georg Lukács, Conversations with Lukács (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1975), 93.
  27. Gary Neil Garner, “Bertolt Brecht’s Use of the Bible and Christianity in Representative Dramatic Works” (PhD dissertation, Louisiana State University, 1970), 45–52, 72.
  28. Lukács, Record of a Life, 53.
  29. Mészáros, Lukács’s Concept of Dialectic, 17–18.
  30. John Bellamy Foster, The Return of Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 16–21; Georg Lukács, Labour (London: Merlin, 1978); Kavoulakos, Georg Lukács’s Philosophy of Praxis, 213–18.
  31. Mészáros, Beyond Capital, 286. See also Lukács, Conversations with Lukács, 135.
  32. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 47.
  33. Mészáros, Lukács’s Concept of Dialectic, 43; Lukács, Conversations with Lukács, 76.
  34. Lukács, quoted in Mészáros, Lukács’s Concept of Dialectic, 43–44.
  35. Mészáros, Lukács’s Concept of Dialectic, 44–45.
  36. Lukács, “Tactics and Ethics,” 8.
  37. Lukács, quoted in Mészáros, Beyond Capital, 400.
  38. Mészáros, Beyond Capital, 407; Mészáros, Lukács’s Concept of Dialectic, 150–51.
  39. Cornel West, The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1991), 138–66.
  40. Georg Lukács, “The Blum Theses 1928–1929,” in Tactics and Ethics, 227–53.
  41. Mészáros, Beyond Capital, 406.
  42. Lukács, “Tactics and Ethics,” 7; G. W. F. Hegel, System of Ethical Life and First Philosophy of Spirit (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1970); G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Right (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952), 105–10; Mészáros, Beyond Capital, 408–9.
  43. Lukács, The Young Hegel, 299.
  44. W. F. Hegel, Natural Law (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), 104–5; Aeschylus, Eumenides, in The Oresteia (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 93–127.
  45. Lukács, The Young Hegel, 413, 417. Hegel in Natural Law followed Aristotle in contending that “the state comes by nature before the individual” and the child is thus “suckled at the breast of universal ethical life,” from which derived his “tragedy in the realm of the ethical” that had to contend with the contradiction between the elemental principles of the soul (and inorganic life) and civilization/the state, seen in almost classical Greek terms. Lukács, in contrast, followed Marx in seeking to develop an ontology of social labor (also implicit in Hegel’s corpus) that served to ground the “tragedy in the realm of the ethical” in the contradictions of the individual in class society. Hegel, Natural Law, 104, 113–15.
  46. Georg Lukács, “Marx and the Problem of Ideological Decay,” in Essays on Realism (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1980), 157; Lukács, Conversations with Lukács, 94.
  47. Georg Lukács, The Destruction of Reason (London: Merlin, 1980), 570. This contrasts with Lukács’s conception of Hebbel at his best, where “the fate of Hebbel’s heroes is the tragically impotent struggle of real men for the perfect humanity of men who live in the formal works of art.” Georg Lukács, Soul and Form (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 198.
  48. Georg Lukács, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought (London: Verso, 2009), 70–85.
2022, Volume 73, Number 09 (February 2022)
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