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Lukács, György

(1885–1971), Marxist philosopher and literary critic. György (Georg) Lukács was one of the foremost cultural theorists of the twentieth century; his Hegelian Marxism laid the groundwork for contemporary critical theory. Born György Bernát Lőwinger, in Budapest, Georg Lukács came from a wealthy Hungarian Jewish family that had been granted noble status and was equally fluent in German and Hungarian. József Lukács, his father, was a self-made man who had risen from an impoverished rural background to become director of the Hungarian General Credit Bank in 1906. Although Lukács had a troubled relationship with his father, the elder Lukács remained a warm and generous supporter of his son’s academic ambitions, which he saw as an extension of his own social mobility.

In the years before World War I, Lukács entered the intellectual orbit of the neo-Kantian philosophers Georg Simmel, Wilhelm Dilthey, and Max Weber and planned to pursue a university career in Germany. The outbreak of the war radicalized him, however, and he eventually abandoned his academic plans and joined the Communist Party of Hungary in December 1918. After the failure of Béla Kun’s short-lived Bolshevik experiment, Lukács (who was then 35) went into exile, first in Vienna and Germany; and then in 1930 in the Soviet Union. There he worked in the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. In 1945, Lukács returned to Hungary to become professor of philosophy at the University of Budapest and mentor to a generation of Hungarian radical philosophers.

In reminiscences written shortly before his death, Lukács claimed that the “ideology of Judaism” had absolutely no influence on his intellectual development. The recovery, however, of his early letters and literary fragments in a Heidelberg bank vault in 1973 provided new insights into the exceptionally complex relationship between his mature work and his Jewish background in fin-de-siècle Budapest. As this new material makes apparent, Lukács’s repudiation of his Jewish heritage was inseparable from his loathing for the world of the upper bourgeoisie of the Leopoldstadt (a wealthy district of Budapest) to which he belonged. As he tellingly expressed himself in his Heidelberg notebooks, “The Jews are the caricature of the bourgeois.”

Lukács’s dissatisfaction with the secular culture of assimilated Jewry eventually led him to discover Jewish mysticism and Hasidism. In 1911, he published an article on Zsidó miszticiszmus (Jewish mysticism) in the philosophic journal Szellem and began a correspondence with Martin Buber that lasted until 1921. Lukács’s growing interest in Hasidism was part of a more general search for a “new metaphysics” that he shared with a group of like-minded Jewish intellectuals in Budapest known as the Sunday Circle. Their messianic state of mind found collective expression during the war years in wide-ranging aesthetic and ethical discussions as well as in a passionate admiration for Dostoevsky.

Lukács’s final pre-Marxist project, an unfinished book on Dostoevsky, summarized these longings and drew heavily on works of Jewish mysticism, which he continued to read in 1914 and 1915. Although these works were never cited or directly acknowledged, the categories of Jewish mysticism can be found both in the published fragment of the Dostoevsky book Die Theorie des Romans (The Theory of the Novel) as well as in the justifications for Lukács’s entry into the Communist Party in 1918.

Suggested Reading

Andrew Arato and Paul Breines, The Young Lukács and the Origins of Western Marxism (New York, 1979); Lee Congdon, The Young Lukács (Chapel Hill, 1983); Mary Gluck, Georg Lukács and His Generation, 1900–1918 (Cambridge, Mass., 1985); Agnes Heller, ed., Lukács Reappraised (New York, 1983); Arpad Kadarkay, Georg Lukács: Life, Thought and Politics (Cambridge, Mass., 1991); Michael Löwy, Georg Lukács: From Romanticism to Bolshevism, trans. Patrick Camiller (London, 1979); Judith Marcus, Georg Lukács and Thomas Mann: A Study in the Sociology of Literature (Amherst, 1987).