Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Isaac Nakhimovsky on Georg Lukács and Revolutionary Realpolitik

by editor Tom Furse

Isaac Nakhimovsky is an historian of political thought with interests in Europe since the 17th century, and the historiography of international law and political economy. He is the author of The Closed Commercial State: Perpetual Peace and Commercial Society from Rousseau to Fichte (Princeton, 2011). He also has contributed to an edition of Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation (Hackett, 2013), and in two volumes of essays on eighteenth-century political thought and its post-revolutionary legacies: Commerce and Peace in the Enlightenment (Cambridge, 2017), and Markets, Morals, Politics: Jealousy of Trade and the History of Political Thought (Harvard, 2018). His forthcoming book is The Most Liberal of All Ideas: The Political Thought of the Holy Alliance.

He spoke with primary editor Tom Furse about his essay “Georg Lukács and Revolutionary Realpolitik, 1918–19: An Essay on Ethical Action, Historical Judgment, and the History of Political Thought,” which appeared in the JHI (83.1).


Tom Furse: The First World War hangs over, in one way or another, Georg Lukács, Max Weber (“Politics as a Vocation”), Ernst Bloch (Spirit of Utopia), and Friedrich Meinecke, (The Idea of Reason of State in Modern History). At one point you argue that Lukács perceived the war in apocalyptic terms in his book, The Theory of the Novel (1916). Did you find that Lukács’s experience of the latter years of the war in the Central Powers led him to connect war and revolution?

Isaac Nakhimovsky: Georg Lukács ended The Theory of the Novel by drawing a parallel to Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s description, a century earlier, of the Napoleonic wars as an “age of absolute sinfulness”: the question was whether a new age of renewal would follow or whether that would remain an empty utopian hope. That historical frame of reference, and the question it raised, were particularly interesting to me, as someone who had, perhaps oddly, come to Lukács via Fichte rather than the other way around. They also seemed particularly evocative in the winter of 2016-17, which is when I suddenly found myself rereading Lukács’s essays “Bolshevism as a Moral Problem” and “Tactics and Ethics” with some urgency. These essays, which were published only a couple of months apart in the winter of 1918-19, come to opposite conclusions: the first rejects Bolshevism, the second endorses it.

The question that is usually asked of them—including, retrospectively, by Lukács himself—is, how was it that Lukács became a Marxist? How did he “convert” from his self-styled “romantic anti-capitalism” to Bolshevism? In fact, it was a different question that had originally prompted those essays, namely the question articulated by the editor who published “Bolshevism as a Moral Problem” (who happened to be Karl Polanyi): was the war a revolution, or not? Was it just another power struggle, with one form of domination and oppression succeeding another, or an opening for transformative change leading to democracy and peace? From this perspective, what made Lukács’s pair of essays so interesting was that despite their opposing conclusions, they shared a conceptual framework for how to approach such questions.

In both essays, Lukács insisted that there were unavoidable ethical consequences for any individual’s answer to the question of how to conceptualize a particular historical moment: for instance, whether it was a war or a revolution, just another transition of power or a point of no return. This approach to ethical action, which Lukács and his contemporaries associated with Fichte, was distinct both from Kantian reductivism (which risked obviating the need for any historical understanding as a guide for political action) and Hegelian historicism (which risked devolving into an exercise in rationalization or self-legitimation). In this view, Fichte was not a romantic idealist but a theorist of historical contingency, who insisted that ethical action always entailed not only a judgment of ethical principle but also a historical judgment of “how much of what is right can be carried out under the given conditions.”

TF: Like many intellectuals in Europe who joined far-left or far-right parties after the war, Lukács eventually joined the Hungarian Communist Party. Many grappled with the ethics of revolution at this world-historical moment. Gustave Hervé transitioned from revolutionary syndicalism to nationalist chauvinism but maintained revolutionary violence as the ethical choice in face of bourgeois materialism. Hervé and Lukacs were both romantics of a sort, yet Lukács in his essay, “Tactics and Ethics” argues that the individual revolutionary had responsibility for action and inaction in those years 1918-1919. Hervé finds the ideal state at the end justified the means. Did Lukács find the Hungarian Communists’ revolutionary tactics ethically equivalent to Hervé’s thought of violence to achieve revolutionary change in society, or did Hervé’s politics render his revolutionary thought entirely unethical?

IN: Lukács’s conclusion in “Tactics and Ethics” was that one may not murder, but sometimes must (and he did go on to engage in revolutionary violence during the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic). The key context for Lukács’s thinking about means and ends in “Bolshevism as a Moral Problem” and “Tactics and Ethics” is supplied by Max Weber, whose 1919 lecture “Politics as a Vocation” has become a canonical discussion of “political realism.”

Although the relationship between Lukács and Weber is well known, what surprisingly seems to have been overlooked are the close parallels between Lukács’s two essays and Weber’s contemporaneous lecture (delivered in January 1919, between the publication of Lukács’s essays, though not published until later). As I show in the article, both Weber and Lukács connected the problem of means and ends to the nineteenth-century idea of Realpolitik: though there’s no reason to assume that Lukács had encountered “Politics as a Vocation” before writing “Tactics and Ethics,” he was most likely familiar with an earlier essay that Weber had published in 1917, which defined “Realpolitik in the narrower sense” as “the adaptation of the means for attaining a given ultimate goal in a particular situation” (note the echo of Fichte). In that essay, Weber invoked both the revolutionary syndicalist and the patriotic soldier fighting to the death as illustrations of why the relationship between means and ends would always remain a matter of individual judgment and ethical responsibility.

From this perspective, Weber’s lecture and Lukács’s essays were parallel applications of this shared ethical framework in a moment of intense crisis. Weber had explicitly referred to Fichte in defining his “ethic of responsibility” as opposed to the “ethic of absolute ends” (responsibility for the consequences of using political power, as opposed to the application of pure moral conviction). Where the dramatic conclusion of Weber’s lecture restricted ethically responsible action to the institutional structure of the state, Lukács’s essays extended it to revolutionary politics outside (and against) the state. In other words, Lukács retained Weber’s earlier view that the revolutionary syndicalist was not necessarily acting irresponsibly out of moral conviction: instead, they could be making the judgment that, in Weber’s words, achieving “the art of the possible” required “striving to attain the possible that lies beyond it.”

The dramatic difference between Lukács’s two essays, then, is not explained by his conversion from romanticism to Bolshevism, or from a neo-Kantian to a Hegelian approach to political ethics. In the first essay, Lukács identified Bolshevism as an ethic of absolute ends; in the second essay, it was an ethic of responsibility. The difference is explained by a revised judgment about historical circumstances: a different answer to Fichte’s question “how much of what is right can be carried out under the given conditions.” In the first essay, the question was how to judge between democratic and undemocratic means for achieving democracy. In the second, the historical circumstances presented a much starker choice between socialism or barbarism.

TF: Notions of transition and transformation are important themes in the article. The first is the so-called transition of Georg Lukács’s political thought between his two essays “Bolshevism as a Moral Problem” and “Tactics and Ethics” and the second is the transformative action of revolutionary opportunity to change the world. At one point, in reference to Kafka’s Gregor Samsa’s transformation into an insect, you argue that transformations are not necessarily short moments, but that ‘new’ traits might have seethed for a long time without any visual clue. Do you think that Lukács would have argued that Bolshevism had deeper roots in Hungarian society to it give a chance a transform Hungary into a social democratic society, or was Bolshevism entirely ‘new’ in the post-1918 world?

IN: The reference to Kafka came from an arresting piece by the novelist Aleksandar Hemon, called “Stop Making Sense, or How to Write in the Age of Trump,” which I happened to come across in January 2017 while I was also starting to reread Lukács. It found its way into my thinking about Lukács, and ended up staying there, because reading Lukács had also became an occasion for reflecting more broadly on the history of political thought:  a mode of inquiry whose nature and purpose it seemed necessary to reevaluate when confronted with a historical moment of uncertainty and potential systemic change. Ultimately, the article comes to the conclusion that “conversion narratives,” or any historiographical framework that makes it difficult to appreciate the contingency of historical categories, are more likely to inhibit than enhance the historical understanding that informs political judgment: they tend to obscure the existence of other historical possibilities, which in turn makes it harder to invent new political possibilities.

In Lukács’s case, the putatively ‘new’ trait is the ‘absolute sinfulness’ or ‘barbarism’ of 1919, not the Bolshevism that might or might not present an alternative to it. In that fraught moment, both Lukács and Weber reduced the scope of ethical action to a heroic choice for or against the state: in this way, the ethic of responsibility risks becoming the very kind of blinding ethical imperative that “political realism” is supposedly equipped to resist. In this regard, I came to think that the more skeptical spirit of Fichte’s approach to political ethics was less in evidence in Lukács and Weber’s highly charged interventions of 1919 than it was, decades later, in the political thought of Judith Shklar (whose engagement with Weber, partly via her Harvard teacher and colleague Carl Friedrich, is I think underappreciated).

Shklar’s essay on the “liberalism of fear” has also become a canonical text for “political realism,” but unlike many of her admirers she did not define her realism in direct opposition to Kantian ethics. Instead, like Fichte (who illustrated this particular point with the venerable case of two shipwrecked sailors clinging to a plank that could only support one of them), Shklar denied that an ethic of responsibility could guide action under conditions of necessity and war: conditions which both Fichte and Shklar defined as devoid of any value, save the value of exiting that condition as quickly and effectively as possible.

TF: Did Lenin and Trotsky’s War Communism economic model, even in its early years of 1918-19, change how Lukács saw Bolshevism and think of it as a potentially tragic failure?  

IN: Another important influence on my reading of Lukács and Weber was “The Allure of Dark Times: Max Weber, Politics, and the Crisis of Historicism,” which my former colleagues Stefan Eich and Adam Tooze published in 2017. Weber’s revealing mischaracterization of Trotsky’s position at Brest Litovsk, they maintain, is one indication that his fixed commitment to the state in “Politics as a Vocation” is not a product of sober political realism but an overwrought expression of a tragic fatalism. They develop this claim through a fascinating set of comparisons between Weber, the historian Friedrich Meinecke, and the theologian Ernst Troeltsch—but I was particularly drawn to their discussion of Meinecke, who has long interested me (partly because I think his interpretations of Fichte are wrong in an interesting way). According to Eich and Tooze, Meinecke was able to envisage new political possibilities (such as a supranational Europe) where Weber did not, because Meinecke’s historical perspective on political judgment made him receptive to the social capacity to create new values, which Weber’s rigid neo-Kantianism ruled out.

A different picture emerged by adding Lukács to this comparison between Meinecke (whom Lukács criticized for perverting Hegel into a theorist of Realpolitik) and Weber (whom Meinecke criticized as the Fichte of his time). It suggested that tragic fatalism was in fact an essential characteristic of Meinecke’s approach to historicizing political judgments. More fundamentally, it suggested that a greater receptivity to new political possibilities comes from a greater sensitivity to historical contingency, not an appreciation for the social construction of new values. This last point was, I think, made quite powerfully by Hannah Arendt in her analysis of ethical action in the face of the criminalization of German public life in the 1930s, when one socially generated system of values gave way to another. Under such conditions, Arendt warned, appeals to ethical responsibility too often served to mask accommodations to power (Realpolitik in the pejorative sense); and it was not responsibility but the independent exercise of judgment—an honest answer to the question “how much of what is right can be carried out under the given conditions”—that mattered, even in conditions where the answer was brutally reduced to the recognition of political impotence.

Tom Furse is a PhD student at City, University in London. His dissertation is on how ideas in the social sciences and political economy influenced US military strategy. His interests lie in revolutionary politics, international relations and war.

Featured Image: Portrait of a young Georg Lukács in 1917. Public domain.

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