Essays on Realism by Georg Lukács (Edited by Rodney Livingstone) - review by Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton


Essays on Realism


Lawrence and Wishart 250pp. £9.95 order from our bookshop

Georg Lukac’s fan-club has been dwindling steadily over the past decade. Spurned by liberals as a Stalinist hack, he has also drawn increasing flak from an oedipal Left which, weaned on his writings, has now sought to oust him. Theoretically, Lukács has been denounced as an Hegelian humanist in Marxist clothing, a latter-day Quixote who mistook the working class for the World Spirit. Politically, his ambiguous complicity with Stalinism has counted heavily against him. Artistically, his authoritarian aesthetics and stiff-necked hostility to the avant garde ring oddly in an era of agit-prop, street theatre and Brecht revivals. In the structuralist, modernist, Trotskyist milieu of the contemporary British Left, Lukács is bound to appear a prehistoric, patriarchal figure, a romantic anti-capitalist who speaks of human wholeness rather than floating signifiers and tends to reject revolving stages as ontologically invalid.

The problem with defending Lukács against these charges is that they are all entirely true. Rarely can such a rich, fertile body of theoretical work have been launched from such a dismally narrowed base. The essays collected in this book spring from Lukács’s great aesthetic meditations of the 1930s, the period in which, after a tragi-comic series of self-confessions (some sincere, some not), he retreated entirely from politics and began to hone his central concept of literary realism. As Rodney Livingstone shrewdly suggests in his useful Introduction, ‘realism’ was a continuation of Marxist politics by other means: the Marxist vision of dialectical totality, now in shreds at the hands of Comrade Stalin, is essentially forced back into the works of Sir Walter Scott.

Equipped with his doctrine of realism, Lukács then proceeds to wield it simultaneously on two opposed fronts. As a coruscating critique of ‘naturalism’, it becomes a heavily coded way of attacking the anaemic products of Soviet socialist realism. As a defence of the enduring verities of character, narration and ‘typicality’,

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