The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

Georg Lukacs: A Hungarian Philosopher’s Journey from Vienna to Moscow

For the last century or so, Vienna has been the preferred place of political asylum, especially for those coming from Eastern and Central Europe. Admittedly, the profile of the asylum-seekers has somewhat changed. After the fall of Communism in 1989, Vienna turned into the headquarters of Russian, Ukranian and Bulgarian oligarchs, bringing hundreds of millions that they had stolen from their countries. A hundred years earlier, the typical émigré presented no such asset to the Austrian economy. He/she was usually penniless and when a known revolutionary, the Viennese police was occupied in his/her surveillance at no small cost.

Georg Lukacs

In 1919, there was a Communist coup in Hungary and a Red government under Bela Kun, which lasted for exactly 133 days. After the defeat of the Communists, almost the entire Cabinet was put on a train with diplomatic immunity, heading to Vienna. Shortly afterwards, Georg Lukacs (1885-1971), the former Commisar of Public Education, also fled to Vienna. Lukacs, coming from an extremely wealthy, ennobled Jewish family in Budapest, is probably the most influential Marxist philosopher of the twentieth century. His writings and especially his History and Class Consciousness (1923) provided the starting ground for what became known as “Western Marxism.”

There are two features that I find quite remarkable about Lukacs’s life. The first is sheer luck. For a man, who lived dangerously in turbulent times it was exceptionally fortunate to die in his eighties from old age in his native Budapest. While in Vienna, he was regularly travelling on Party business on a forged passport. His comings and goings to Moscow proved a constant nuisance to the Viennese police. Unlike present-day oligarchs, he was eventually expelled in 1930, at which time he moved to the Soviet Union. The moment was not particularly auspicious, as Stalin would soon start his purges, in which he practically destroyed the leadership of the Hungarian Communist Party. The right word here is not “decimated,” as it suggests one in ten, while about 80 per cent of the Hungarian Communists in Russia were killed. For Lukacs, a top-ranking Communist from a wealthy background and an intellectual famous throughout Europe, to have survived is nothing short of a miracle.

The second aspect about Lukacs that I find even more remarkable is that he was a true believer all the way and up to the end. There is nothing surprising for an intelligent man to be drawn to Marxism or to become a practicing revolutionary. God knows that the reality of capitalism could make even the most peace-loving person think of building barricades. What, however, gives one pause is Lukacs’s reaction to his first-hand experience of the Stalinist Terror. His friends and acquaintances were being tortured and executed, his first wife “disappeared” in a camp, his stepson from his second wife, whom he was very close to, was in a Gulag. Meanwhile, he himself would regularly sign “confessions” and recant about opinions expressed in his books. None of this seemed to have shaken the tenacity of his belief. Stalinist camps were a “historical necessity” – this was the position of one of the greatest European minds.

Statue of Lukacs in Budapest by Imre Varga, 1985. Removed in 2017.

After the Second World War, Lukacs and his wife were attending a UNESCO meeting in Geneva. Lukacs asked one of his friends, a German poet, why he had left the Party. The poet said that the reason was very simple – he objected to concentration camps. Lukacs’s wife, her son freshly back from a Gulag with frostbitten hands, responded: “Oh, we were always so happy when our friends were sent to these re-educational centres.”

When Lukacs died in 1971, one of his contemporaries called him “the last commissar.” The description was true both in the sense that most of the other old Communists, people who had worked with Lenin, had been exterminated, but also that he remained one of the last true believers.

 

 

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