György Lukács: the backlash

By closing the intellectual’s archive, the Orbàn regime has shown its intent: to suppress complex history, erode academia and censor criticism

Matthew Sweet

Two philosophers, two scenes. The first takes place in late May 2018, in an apartment overlooking the Danube. Until recently, it was stacked with riches: unpublished manuscripts by the former occupant, the Jewish Marxist intellectual György Lukács, author of The Theory of the Novel (1916); letters from his contemporaries Jean-Paul Sartre, Max Weber and Thomas Mann; 8,000 volumes of philosophy, margins dense with notes. These, however, have all vanished. Instead, there is a workman using a drill to extract and replace the locks. Once the job is done, the door bangs shut, and the Lukács archive is closed—to its own librarian, to scholars, to everyone except those who wish to abolish it.

Scene Two occurs in December 2019 at the Hungarian Embassy on Eaton Place. The English Conservative thinker Sir Roger Scruton, weeks from death, his suit too big for his frail body, beams from his wheelchair as he accepts the Order of Merit from Hungary’s Prime Minister. Viktor Orbán tells the audience that Scruton “is a friend of Hungarians because he has sided with us, for good or ill”. He describes their shared belief that freedom is based on “nation states and Christian civilisation”. He celebrates his old friend for having “foreseen the threats of illegal migration and defended Hungary from unjust criticism”.

From just criticism, too. Orbán now leads a self-declared “illiberal democracy”, which, according to the think tank Freedom House, is no kind of democracy at all. Though his erosion of press freedom has been widely reported, academia has received the same treatment. Since 2014, Budapest’s best-funded historical research institute has been Veritas, which works to recuperate the reputation of Admiral Horthy, the anti-Semitic autocrat who led the country through the inter-war years. In the same period, Orbán turned the screws on the country’s most prestigious graduate school, the Central European University, attacking its founder, George Soros, as “an enemy who . . . does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland, but feels it owns the whole world.”

The CEU retreated to Vienna last September, but not before convening a conference on the legacy of György Lukács. There was plenty to discuss. The vanishing archive; the dawn removal of a modest little statue of the philosopher, depicted leaning, lost in thought, against the railings of Szent István Park; the feeling that the fates of the philosopher and the host institution were linked—a belief expressed by one delegate in the blunt phrase, “first the radicals, then the liberals”.

Perhaps it would take Lukács himself to unpick the layers of historical irony. He began his career as a right-wing, pessimistic follower of Kant. In 1918 he converted to Marxism, joined the Communist Party and became a commissar in Béla Kun’s short-lived Soviet Republic, in which role he was involved in a culture war more brisk and brutal than Orbán’s—and an actual war in which he court-martialled eight deserters from his battalion and had them shot in the market place in Poroszló. (“By these means,” he said, chillingly, “I more or less managed to restore order.”) He spent the 1930s in the Soviet Union, trying to avoid a bullet in his own neck. When Communism came to Hungary, he was despatched back to Budapest, where his actions were a mixture of compromise and courage. He enforced Moscow’s cultural line and helped to block the careers of uncooperative intellectuals. He also joined Imre Nagy’s 1956 revolt against the Soviet Union, a transgression for which he narrowly avoided the gallows. Finally, back in Budapest, he mentored a new generation of liberal thinkers and activists, many of whom were players in the dissident culture that brought Hungarian Communism to an end.

One of them, the philosopher Ágnes Erdélyi, now chairs the effort to restore the Lukács archive. (A banner on the campaign website counts its days of darkness, now ticking towards the 900 mark.) Erdélyi is an emeritus professor at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, but in 1970 she was a philosophy graduate in search of a job. She found one with Lukács. Three mornings a week she answered his correspondence, typed up his notes and filed his clippings. She remembers “the small figure sitting in the cigar-smoke at the immense writing-desk full of books and manuscripts. He spent the nights in the bedroom, but otherwise practically lived in his study.” Like all Lukács scholars, she is caught somewhere between struggle and mourning: “The archive was a research venue,” she says, “a relatively independent, international workshop, and a memorial place.”

Why such animus towards Lukács? Time for Roger Scruton to enter the frame again. In 2015 the philosopher gave Lukács a punishment beating in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, an entertaining but mean-spirited account of the Frankfurt school and anyone who ever shared strudel with them. “It is partly thanks to Lukács’s enduring influence,” wrote Scruton, “that Hungary has, at the present time, a right-wing government, elected twice in succession with a two-thirds majority. The cause of this is not the special virtue of Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party, but the awfulness of the alternative, in which the seething resentment of Lukács lives on.”

Two Hungarian academics to whom I showed this passage thought it a bizarre overestimation of Lukács’s posthumous cultural capital. They were equally puzzled by Scruton’s candidate for the greatest Hungarian thinker of the 20th century—Béla Hamvas, a practitioner of “sacral metaphysics” who disliked science and modernity and produced esoteric theories of Magyar national character. He was a follower of Julius Evola, the Italian traditionalist thinker who wrote of an “occult war” in which the bourgeois state would be smashed and replaced with a “solar civilisation” built on martial, masculine values.

Hamvas shunned academia and preferred to earn his living behind a desk at the National Library of Budapest—a job from which Lukács was instrumental in having him sacked. (He was banned from publishing and ended up labouring on construction sites.) In recent years, however, Hamvas’s reputation has been revived—not least by Hungary’s second-largest political party, Jobbik, ethno-nationalists who made erecting a statue of the philosopher a 2010 manifesto pledge. Their enthusiasm for Hamvas is part of an identifiable cultural turn. Jobbik’s more intellectual members also cheerlead for Evola—who is a pole star for alt-right figures from Steve Bannon to the US neo-Nazi Richard Spencer to the leaders of the Greek Golden Dawn party (recently ruled a criminal organisation by the Greek supreme court). “The Trump era,” wrote the journalist and critic Jeet Heer in New Republic, “is turning out to be a golden age for esoteric fascist intellectuals.”

“You have to put aside people’s errors in order to profit from their truths,” said Roger Scruton, when discussing the unattractive side of some of his own intellectual heroes. I can think of a good place where these complexities could be discussed. It’s an apartment on the banks of the Danube, where, if you look through the window, you will see the river moving below the iron span of Liberty Bridge. 

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