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The Destruction of History

Hungary’s right-wing government is attempting to destroy the Georg Lukács’s archive — and his legacy.

György Lukács and Árpád Szakasits, a former Hungarian president, at the Central House of the People's Army on June 27, 1956. Samai Antónia / hirado.hu

The sun had just set one Friday evening when the phone rang. Miklós Mesterházi of the Lukács Archívum in Budapest learned that the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) would be confiscating the entire collection of manuscripts and correspondence held at the premises.

The following Monday morning, MTA employees arrived and began examining the collection. They checked the inventory and prepared to relocate the material to the Department of Manuscripts & Rare Books in the MTA’s Library and Information Centre.

According to the MTA, their decision is based on the spirit of “academic integrity” —relocating the manuscripts would allow them to digitize the collection, thus allowing more scholars to access the material.

But we should situate the MTA’s decision within Hungary’s historical and political conjuncture.

Since the transition from state socialism to bourgeois democracy in 1989, the MTA has steadily shed staff, making research and editing projects almost impossible. Housing Lukács’s oeuvre — much of it unpublished and yet to be studied — in such a facility serves neither “academic integrity” nor the interests of “research.” Instead, it will negate them.

Moreover, an authoritarian regime now controls Hungary, and it wants to rewrite the nation’s past. The Orbán regime has worked to rehabilitate Hungary’s nationalist and fascist traditions. It has torn down statues honoring those who fought the Horthy military dictatorship and the Arrow Cross regime, replacing them with monuments that glorify antisemites and Nazi collaborators.

The ruling party Fidesz scapegoats immigrants, Roma, Muslims, Jews, Communists, socialists, liberals, and anyone it deems “alien.” It has taken control of numerous state institutions, and threatened to liquidate numerous civil society institutions, including the Central European University.

In this climate of paranoia and fear, the MTA does not want to appear to support a “communist,” so under the cloak of rationalization and efficiency, they are working to dismantle the archives.

What We’ll Lose

The Lukács Archívum is a unique research facility.

Visitors pass through the very rooms Lukács lived and worked in from 1945 until his death in 1971. The apartment — which ironically overlooks Szabadság híd (Liberty Bridge) on the banks of the Danube — holds not only his manuscripts but his entire library, complete with his annotations. The scholars who have worked at the facility throughout the years have collected more or less everything ever published on the great Marxist theorist.

But the archive will lose its most valuable asset when the MTA removes the manuscripts. One example offers us a glimpse of their value.

One of Lukács’s most significant theoretical accomplishments was his theorization of the social impacts of commodity production. Under this system, finished products are isolated from the workers who create them. Labor under capitalism is degrading and monotonous; it turns workers into machines. The entire process is designed to maximize profit, transforming the qualitative dimension of human experience — labor — into a quantitative measure of time. “Here,” Lukács wrote in History and Class Consciousness, “the personality can do no more than look on helplessly while its own existence is reduced to an isolated particle fed into an alien system.”

Despite being a product of human labor, commodity production only expresses itself in inhuman social mechanisms — money, markets, capital, and wages. These take on lives of their own, appearing as natural, hostile, and law-abiding systems that no one can comprehend, let alone control.

Once it becomes universal, this logic subordinates all spheres of human existence to its mathematical rationality. An abstract, formal code designed to process thousands of cases governs a legal system charged with making life-and-death decisions. Politics, separated from everyday life, begins to appear unalterable. Giant chasms divide these worlds, and each sphere of existence seems independent from the other.

Lukács would later repudiate these positions under pressure from the Comintern — first, with Zinoviev at the helm, then later under Stalin. His radical views did not fit with the Thermidorian reaction taking place inside the both the Soviet Union and the international Communist movement.

To date, his clearest attempt to justify himself appears in the 1967 introduction to History and Class Consciousness. There, Lukács argues that he failed to distinguish between objectification (labor) and alienation (a mystified form of that labor).

When I visited, however, Mari Székely, the last remaining employee, informed me of a series of unpublished manuscripts from 1933, written during the early years of Lukács’s Moscow period. In one of these texts, Lukács begins to reassess some of his earlier claims in light of his encounter with Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. The publication of this essay in a forthcoming collection — along with other previously untranslated material from 1924–33 — will clarify and deepen the terms of this debate, shedding further light on Lukács’s theoretical shift and uneasy reconciliation with Stalinism.

This discovery represents just one untraveled path in a vast labyrinth that has yet to be fully explored.

Saving the Present

Preserving the archives is not simply about the past. It also concerns our present, and the possibilities that lie within it.

The Archívum regularly hosts meetings and events, where researchers from Hungary and all over the world come together to discuss the critical potential of Lukács’s ideas, many of which remain unpublished, neglected, and misunderstood.

For example, one prevalent misunderstanding has been the place of resistance within Lukács’s account of the commodity form. The dominant logic of capitalism is quantitative, but quality — in the sense of human value — can never be completely banished. Whereas the capitalist experiences the drive to maximize profit as something purely quantitative, workers experience it as something qualitative: an assault on their individuality and humanity. This attack on their quality of life provides the basis for resistance.

The guise of rationalization and efficiency, under which the MTA is confiscating Lukács’s manuscripts, expresses the capitalist’s quantitative logic; the Left’s critical rejection of this move, in the name of human values, expresses the logic of resistance.

It is in this spirit that a petition protesting the MTA’s decision — with over 1,500 signatories, including Agnes Heller, Nancy Fraser, and Fredric Jameson, to name but a few — was delivered to academy on January 25. A similar petition is currently circulating on change.org.

Maintaining the theoretical universe that these archives contain — to paraphrase Lukács in The Theory of the Novel — will help guide us through times of darkness and reveal the stars that rule us.