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The red idol, or the destruction of the mind

The life of the socialist revolutionary György Lukács was full of contradictions. Revered and detested in equal measure by his supposed comrades in Moscow, the philosopher often grappled with both the rhetoric and reality of Marxism. This often involved his Jewish identity, which remained a difficult topic for Lukács throughout his life.

October 6, 2023 - Alex Gordon - History and Memory

A statue of György Lukács in the Szent István park in Budapest. Wikimedia.org

The Destruction of Reason (1954) is the title of an anti-western book by the Jewish Marxist philosopher György Lukács (1885-1971). According to Marx, the proletariat is a revolutionary class that will transform the world. The personal example of the Marxist György Lukács refutes the teachings of Marx, who Lukács considered himself a follower of throughout his life. György Lukács was not a proletarian, humiliated and insulted by the bourgeoisie, but became a revolutionary. He was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Budapest in 1885. His father was a prominent banker, director of the Hungarian National Bank. György was not oppressed or exploited by anyone. He, a rich bourgeois, became one of the leaders of the proletariat and organisers of the Hungarian Socialist Revolution of 1919. Of the class to which Lukács belonged, he thought: “All the social forces which I had hated since my youth and which I had set out to destroy, now came together to launch the First Global War.” Lukács’s paradox was that the son of one of the richest bankers in Austria-Hungary became a communist, an ideologue of the destruction of the mind and the world in which he was born and brought up, and one of the most significant thinkers of the 20th century. One possible solution to this paradox was Lukács’s Jewish origin.

Revolutionary terror

Jews in Austria-Hungary, where the philosopher was born, made up about five per cent of the population. Antisemitism was rampant in the empire, leading to occasional blood libels against Austro-Hungarian Jews. The fact that Marxist radicalism was strong among them only further encouraged this violence. Lukács – a doctor of law (1906) and doctor of philosophy (1909) – became People’s Commissar for Culture and Education after the Soviet Hungarian government came to power. This was headed by another Jew, Béla Kun. In 1918, under the influence of Béla Kun, Lukács joined the Hungarian Communist Party. Soviet rule in Hungary ultimately lasted four months. Lukács’s practical work as People’s Commissar of Culture and Education was, in fact, the first Marxist-inspired cultural revolution.

People’s Commissar Lukács pursued a policy later called “cultural terror”. He intended to shake the system of bourgeois cultural values and education in the country to its foundations. To this end, he decided to “terrorise” the enemy by directing his efforts towards remaking society through the necessary education of children. He introduced a course of radical sex education into the curriculum of Hungarian schoolchildren. Hungarian children were taught free love, the physiology of relations between the sexes and the archaic nature of traditional family relations in a bourgeois state. Children learned about the seeming backwardness of the concept of monogamy and the reactionary nature of religion, which deprives man of natural pleasures. They were persuaded to rebel against parental and ecclesiastical authority and to ignore traditional morality. Lukács wanted to remake bourgeois society by educating a new generation of children. He considered any endeavour to develop national culture, Hungarian or Jewish, as reactionary.

Lukács’s biographer Lee Walter Congdon writes: “Alienated from his family in general and his mother in particular, sensitive to the rise of antisemitism in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and hostile to Hungarian culture, he was an outsider.” In 1907, Lukács converted to Lutheranism. Of his Jewish background he said: “I always realised that I was a Jew, but it never had a significant influence on my development. […] I never felt that I was a Jew. I accepted my Jewishness as a fact of birth, and that was the end of the matter.” It is unlikely that Lukács could not have felt a sense of belonging to Jewry in the face of powerful antisemitism. He was an opponent of Hungarian culture and a complex Jew who detached himself from his people.

In spite of his “bookish” appearance, his exceptional education and his inclination to intellectual pursuits, Lukács showed the traits of a Marxist dogmatist and a violent man. The hero of Thomas Mann’s book The Magic Mountain, the Jew and Catholic reactionary Jesuit Leo Naphta, a supporter of totalitarianism and terror, is partly inspired by Lukács. The philosopher spoke with Mann in Vienna precisely during the period of the creation of The Magic Mountain, and the writer used the external features and even turns of speech of Lukács for his hero.

Ludwig Marcuse, a student of Lukács, a German literary critic and philosopher of Jewish origin, described in his autobiography his meeting with Lukács in 1937 in the USSR: “It was at a banquet, during which they were pronouncing salutations in honour of Spain. I did not recognise Lukács, the quiet and humane adherent of dogma. His appearance had become distorted. I saw the executioner. And I saw that he could sign my death warrant as well.” Marcuse was ill-informed. Lukács did not become an executioner, he was one long before he met him. The Jewish German philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) wrote about Lukács: “As political commissar of one of the divisions of the Hungarian Red Army, Lukács personally ordered the execution of every sixth soldier from a deserting battalion.” Bloch may have been paraphrasing Lukács’s confession, many years later voiced by him in an interview. Lukács was the commissar of the Fifth Division of the Hungarian Red Army, in which he ordered the killing of eight of his soldiers in May 1919. However, it is possible that these are two different cases.

The communist regime of the Soviet Hungarian Republic organised a “red terror” on the model of Soviet Russia. Since many of the leaders of revolutionary Hungary were Jews (30 out of 48 People’s Commissars, 161 out of 202 officials), the population perceived Soviet power in the country as the power of Jews. The revolt against the communists was violent and bloody and had an antisemitic character. Although many of the victims of the revolutionary repression were Jews, many thousands of innocents also suffered from reactionary terror and pogroms. The Jewish pogroms in Hungary, which began after the defeat of the revolution, continued until 1921. Hungarians took revenge on ordinary Jews, who had nothing to do with the revolutionary events, for the deeds of the socialist government. The perpetrators of the bloodshed during communist rule escaped responsibility for their actions. After the overthrow of Soviet power in Hungary, Béla Kun fled to Austria and then to Russia, where he was executed on Stalin’s orders in 1939. During the Russian Civil War, Kun distinguished himself by fanatically pursuing a policy of bloody “red terror” in the Crimea.

Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev characterised György Lukács as “the most intelligent and interesting, the most independent of communist writers”. Lukács outlined his credo after the failure of the Hungarian Revolution in his book History and Class Consciousness (1923). Famous lines include “I saw in the revolutionary destruction of society the only solution to the cultural contradictions of the epoch,” as well as “A worldwide revaluation of values is impossible without the destruction of old values and the creation of new ones in a revolutionary way.” Lukács disliked the West and western civilisation at all stages of his life. He liked to ask the question, “Who will save us from Western civilisation?” But it seemed that western civilisation ultimately took care of its own defence by creating the American atomic bomb. European, and particularly Hungarian, antisemitism contributed in a unique way to this operation.

Unintended consequences

Prominent Hungarian physicists from well-to-do Jewish families – Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, Leo Szilard and Edward Teller, who contributed greatly to the success of the Los Alamos project to build the American atomic bomb – fled antisemitism in Hungary after the defeat of the 1919 revolution. Wigner and von Neumann went to the same Lutheran grammar school as Lukács. Many years later, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner told me, a young physicist in the Israeli army on a leave of absence from the Technion, Israel’s Institute of Technology in Haifa, that the United States owed its success in creating nuclear weapons to Béla Kun. Without his revolutionary activities and the pogroms that followed, Hungarian Jews would not have ended up in the US and persuaded Einstein to sign the letter to US President Roosevelt of August 2nd 1939 that led to the creation of the nuclear project.

György Lukács fled to Austria in 1919 to avoid any retribution for his “cultural terror”. Persecution by the Nazis forced him to move to the USSR in 1933, where he lived until 1945, before returning to Hungary. He began cooperating with Soviet Marxists in Moscow immediately after the suppression of Soviet power in Hungary, but between 1931 and 1933 he lived in Germany, travelling to the USSR occasionally.

After the fall of Béla Kun’s regime, a meeting initiated by Lenin was held at the Marx and Engels Institute in Moscow in 1922. It was attended by Lenin’s personal representative Karl Radek, György Lukács, Felix Dzerzhinsky (the chairman of the CHEKA or Soviet secret police) and Wilhelm (Willi) Münzenberg (one of the leaders of the Comintern or Communist International). The strategy adopted at the meeting was to “use intellectuals to decompose Western civilisation”. The participants believed it was necessary to incorporate Freud’s ideas into Marxism and use sexual anarchy to destroy the civilisation. In 1923, the Institute for Marxism was established in Frankfurt. To disguise its main aim of fighting western civilisation, the institute soon changed its name to the Institute for Social Research, later known as the Frankfurt School. The sexual revolution was conceived as a time bomb designed to undermine western civilisation.

In the USSR, Lukács worked in the Institute of Philosophy at the USSR Academy of Sciences. Shortly after the Nazi invasion of the USSR, in late June 1941, he was arrested on charges of treason and espionage. Stalin held everyone and anyone responsible for his failures in the war. It is known that during interrogation, the NKVD investigator said to Lukács: “In vain you are trying to pretend to be a communist, a Marxist. In theory you were an idealist, but in practice you were an opportunist, a factionist. […] And simply you were in the service of foreign intelligence – a spy.” Only the active intervention of Georgi Dimitrov, the leader of the Bulgarian communists, saved Lukács’s life.

In the winter of 1942, Lukács defended his doctoral thesis on Hegel’s early philosophy. After the Second World War, he returned to Hungary and became professor of aesthetics and philosophy at the University of Budapest. He was elected to the Academy of Sciences and the Hungarian parliament. He was editor of the journal Forum, in which he defended the positions of “socialist humanism”. In the USSR he was an advocate of socialist realism. In 1936 Lukács wrote: “Write the truth artistically, vividly, boldly, revolutionarily, Bolshevik – this is the slogan of socialist realism. Write lies – this is the demand of the fascists, who cover themselves with the deceitful label of “heroic realism”.” He refused to notice that the Nazi “heroic realism” he despised was, in fact, the Soviet socialist realism he revered.

In 1956, Lukács again became culture minister in Hungary, this time in the government of Imre Nagy. Together they ultimately fell into disgrace. In a memo from the Soviet ambassador to Hungary, Yuri Andropov, in August 1956 (even before the Soviet invasion of Hungary), one of Lukács’s speeches received the following assessment: “At a recent philosophical discussion, the Hungarian philosopher Lukács spoke, who tried to cover the state of Marxist-Leninist science in the USSR in a tendentious manner, focused almost exclusively on the fact that Soviet philosophers are dogmatists and pundits.” Lukács was criticised for “bourgeois realism”. He was briefly exiled to Romania, where he was imprisoned. The English philosopher, mathematician and Nobel Prize winner, Bertrand Russell, spoke in Lukács’s defence. As a result of this and several other actions, Lukács was released from imprisonment and allowed to return to Budapest in April 1957. When Lukács was released from imprisonment in Romania, where he found himself as a consequence of the defeat of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, he said: “And yet Kafka was a realist.” What did Lukács mean when he said this?

A life of contradictions

György Lukács did much more for Marxism, for socialism, than his accusers. Yet he, a bourgeois by birth, who always fought against everything bourgeois, who hated bourgeois reality and did everything to destroy it, was ultimately accused of “bourgeois realism”. He, a fighter for socialism, was stigmatised for his activities against socialism. This was done by those who were not familiar with Marxist teaching and did not really understand the ideology’s true meaning. Lukács was persecuted by semi-literate officials who received orders from Moscow – the same Moscow where he had fled from the Nazis, where he almost died and lived for many years, where he was distrusted, where he was disliked and where his philosophical and literary talent was worshipped. He was persecuted by Soviet functionaries who were intimidated by an independent Hungary, a truly socialist country in its own right in his view, not a vassal province ruled by the stranglers of Hungarian socialism. He was expelled from the party to which he had belonged for decades and which he had served wholeheartedly. Lukács saw in his repression the victory of irrationalism over rationalism. When, after Soviet troops invaded Hungary in 1956, he was arrested and asked if he had a weapon on him, Lukács reached into his pocket and pulled out a fountain pen. In the mid-1960s, Lukács was fully rehabilitated. He died in Budapest in 1971 and was buried with the highest state honours. In 1985, a monument to the philosopher was erected in Budapest.

Lukács had no interest in the Jewish question. In his view, Jewishness plays a secondary role in history. He might well have agreed with the English historian Arnold Toynbee that “the Jews are a continuing historical fossil.” Lukács relied on the solution to the Jewish question supported by his idol Marx, who wrote in To the Jewish Question (1843): “The emancipation of the Jews in its ultimate meaning is the emancipation of humanity from Jewry.” Jozsef Lendel, a student of Lukács, recalled his teacher’s words referring to Jews: “We Communists are like Jews. Our bloody work is to crucify Christ. But this sinful work is at the same time our vocation: it is only through death on the cross that Christ becomes God, and this is necessary to save the world.”

Lukács speaks of the “bloody work” of the Jews, referring to the murder of Christ attributed to them by antisemites. He is willing to do the same “bloody” and “sinful” work and crucify Christ and many others “to save the world”. Lukács presents his task as a universal, worldwide one, but he fails to separate himself from the Jews and elevate himself above them. His deeds for the sake of “saving the world” were characterised as Jewish. The Jewish question, which he ignored because it was “irrelevant”, caught up with him after his death. In 2017, Budapest City Council decided by a majority vote to demolish the monument to the “Marxist and Jew”.

The most important Marxist philosopher of the twentieth century, György Lukács, died in 1971. The removal of a statue of one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century may seem rather extreme for Europe. The reasons for the monument’s removal were disguised behind an anti-communist agenda often raised in contemporary Hungarian politics. But this story is not only related to anti-communism but more to Lukács’s Jewish roots. The right-wing Fidesz party currently ruling Hungary is not openly antisemitic, yet it has shown anti-Jewish tendencies over the years. Its leader Viktor Orbán has made anti-communism an essential part of his rhetoric, based on xenophobia and antisemitism. However, this type of anti-communism is not based on neo-liberal values but on contempt for socialists, who are considered inferior and a dangerous threat to all national values. From this point of view, the figure of Lukács, a Jewish Marxist philosopher, is incompatible with the worldview of a government characterised by nationalist autocracy.

Alex Gordon is a native of Kyiv and graduate of Kyiv State University and Haifa Technion (Doctor of Philosophy and Doctor of Science). He emigrated to Israel in 1979 and served in IDF reserve infantry units for 13 years. He is a full Professor (Emeritus) of Physics in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of Haifa and at Oranim, the Academic College of Education. He is also the chair of the committee for the appointment of professors on behalf of the Council for Higher Education of the State of Israel. He has written ten books and about 800 articles in print and online, and has been published in 85 journals in 16 countries in Ukrainian, Russian, Hebrew, English, French and German.

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