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Happy Ending: The German Edition of Georg Lukács’s Works Completed After Sixty Years

Rüdiger Dannemann on Lukacs.

13 August 2021

Happy Ending: The German Edition of Georg Lukács’s Works Completed After Sixty Years

The philosopher Theodor W. Adorno was not very amused when he heard of the plan for an edition of Georg Lukács’s works in the late 1950s. At that time, there were no editions of his own works, those of Walter Benjamin or any other representatives of critical theory. Anyone wanting a detailed account of the history of the Lukács edition will find this in the correspondence between Lukács and his long-time editor Frank Benseler from 1959 onwards. Before that, the small edition of Lukács’s works by Aufbau-Verlag, supervised by Wolfgang Harich, had come to an abrupt end in 1956, and the attempt to win Suhrkamp for a Lukács edition had also failed. It was then Benseler, co-editor of the renowned ‘Soziologischen Texte’, who convinced the Luchterhand publisher and self-confessed capitalist Eduard Reifferscheidt of this project, suitable for a lifelong Marxist.

The plans were initially rather modest. In a letter of November 1960, Lukács outlined a twelve-volume edition: the first four volumes were to be devoted to the Late Aesthetics, the fifth volume to his Ethics. The Young Hegel and The Destruction of Reason were also to be included, as well as three volumes of literary criticism and history, and minor writings on political philosophy. By the 1960s Lukács was very critical of his own youthful writings; he was neither inclined nor in a hurry to publish them. Perhaps they would be added as a final volume. As we know in the meantime, there was a large gap between the original plan and the edition that was subsequently realised. The publication of the Late Aesthetics, politically unpopular in official Hungary, was delayed, so the edition began with The Destruction of Reason. Since the work struck a chord with the times – the Auschwitz trial began in 1963, the start of a belated reckoning with Nazi crimes – eight more volumes followed in rapid succession from 1963 to 1970. With considerable success.

It was not until 1968 that Lukács gave up his opposition to a new publication of History and Class Consciousness; in an extensive preface he emphasised his reservations about his most influential work. After his death in 1971, this edition of his works was considerably expanded. The aesthetic manuscripts found in a suitcase in a Heidelberg branch of the Deutsche Bank, with which Lukács had tried in vain to gain professorial status under the neo-Kantian philosopher Heinrich Rickert (the venture failed not least because Lukács was both a foreigner and a Jew), caused a sensation in the mid-1970s. The Developmental History of Modern Drama and, with considerable delay, the magnum opus Ontology of Social Being, followed in the 1980s.

But then the Luchterhand edition came to an end, despite being incomplete and despite international protest. It was not until almost two decades later that the small publishing house Aisthesis earned recognition with its continuation: in 2005, a volume of autobiographical texts and conversations was published, edited by Benseler and Werner Jung. Publication of the last two volumes would still be long delayed. After the retirement of the elderly original editor, who had become an inspiring companion of the aged philosopher, Jung published the two part-volumes of Volume One in 2017-18, assisted by Zsuzsa Bognár and the commendable translator Antonia Opitz, financially supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and the German Research Foundation.

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Now – at last! – the first part-volume of Volume 3 has appeared, shortly before the 50th anniversary of Georg Lukács’s death in June this year. It contains contributions on German ideology collected under the title ‘Schicksalswende’ (Turn of Fate) (1948-56), two accounts of literary history widely read in the post-war period – ‘Fortschritt und Reaktion in der deutschen Literatur’ (Progress and Reaction in German Literature) from 1946 and ‘Deutsche Literatur während des Imperialismus’ (German Literature In the Age of Imperialism) from 1945 -- the philosophical pamphlet ‘Existentialismus oder Marxismus’ published in 1951, and Lukács’s political-philosophical testament ‘Sozialismus und Demokratisierung’, which celebrates council democracy and could only appear posthumously.

With this, the publishing history of an edition that in its own way reflects sixty years of the history of ideas in our country is coming to an end. It is a happy ending with an aftertaste. The Adorno and Benjamin editions, which were started much later, have long since been completed and are continually being complemented by well-subsidised supplements with elaborate apparatuses. There can be no question of this in the case of a philosopher who is ostracised in his homeland. We can be glad that we now possess a reading edition of a work that is indispensable in the history of ideas of the 20th century. But the Luchterhand volumes are now largely out of print, although a second Lukács renaissance is in the offing internationally. Its centres in the foreseeable future are more likely to be in Asia or South America. But that is another story.

Originally published by nd. Translated by David Fernbach

The Destruction of Reason

The Destruction of Reason

A classic of Western Marxism, The Destruction of Reason is Georg Lukács's trenchant criticism of German philosophy after Marx and the role it played in the rise of National Socialism. Originally pu...