On the Responsibility of Intellectuals


Georg Lukács

During the second world war many people hoped that the annihilation of the Hitler regime would simultaneously result in the end of the fascist ideology. Events in West Germany since the end of the war, however, show that even the economic and political basis for the revival of a Hitlerian fascism is being maintained and broadened by the Anglo-Saxon reaction. The effects of this extend into the ideological realm, making the ideology of Hitlerism today still a very real question, and not just an historical one.

When we look back to the rise of fascism, we see what a crucial responsibility the intelligentsia bear for the development of that ideology. Unfortunately there are only too few famous exceptions in this regard.

I hope the so-called man of practical matters will not underrate the question of a Weltanschauung. I will give only one example. It is well known how Hitler’s politics led with iron necessity to the horrors of Auschwitz and Maidanek. Yet it should not be overlooked that the systematic shattering of the conviction of the equality of all men belonged to the moments which made this abomination possible. The organized bestiality of fascism implicating millions of people would have been much more difficult to accomplish, had Hitler not succeeded in maintaining in the broad spectrum of the German masses the conviction that anyone who was not of “pure blood” (Rasserein) was “actually” not human.

This is just one of several examples. It indicates that there can be no innocent reactionary Weltanschauung. The older generation can still quite clearly remember “refined” academic criticism, in the best essay form, of the “vulgar” belief in the equality of man, as well as similar criticism of progress, reason, democracy, etc. The majority of the intelligentsia participated in this movement either actively or receptively. At the beginning, only esoteric books and scholarly essays appeared concerning these themes but from them came newspaper articles, brochures, radio lectures, etc., which were directed toward a public of tens of thousands. Finally Hitler took from them from the reactionary content of these Salon and Kaffeehaus conversations, university lectures and essays what was usable for his street demagoguery. One cannot find in Hitler one word which had not already been stated by Nietzsche or Bergson, Spengler or Ortega y Gasset (“on a high level”). The so-called opposition of individuals, seen historically, is irrelevant. What significance can a lame, half-hearted protest from Spengler or George have against such a world fire, when their own cigarettes were involved in igniting it?

It is, therefore, absolutely necessary and a great task of the progressive intelligentsia to unmask this entire ideology, even in its “most refined” representatives; to show how the fascist ideology grew by historical necessity from these premises; to show that from Nietzsche to Simmel, Spengler and Heidegger, et. al., a straight path leads to Hitler; that Bergson and Pareto, the pragmatist and semanticist, Berdayev and Ortega, have similarly created an intellectual atmosphere from which the fascization of the Weltanschauung could draw rich nourishment. It is not to their credit that up to now fascism has not arisen in France, England or the U.S.A.

Thus, we must emphasize ideologically the leading role of Germany in the previous development of the reactionary ideology; however, the life-and-death struggle against the imperialist ideology in Germany should never be allowed to continue a pardoning of the irrationalists, the enemies of progress and the aristocrats of the Weltanschauung in other lands.

It would be false and dangerous today, however, to limit ourselves to this struggle. We would have to be very closed-minded to believe that the new reaction developing now is following exactly the same ideological path as the old reaction and working with exactly the same intellectual tools.

Naturally, the general essence of each reaction in our period, the period of imperialism, is the same: the attempt at domination by monopoly capitalism, and the consequent and constant danger of fascist dictators and world wars. Naturally, both fascist dictatorship and war are carried out with at least the same brutality of suppression and destruction as was experienced under Hitler.

However, it by no means follows from this that the new fascism, especially ideologically, will necessarily attempt to operate with an exact copy of Hitler’s methods. On the contrary, more or less opposing ideological currents can already be seen in the division of the world. Today the aggression threatens from a mighty imperialism which wants to extend its domination from half the world to the whole. This imperialism carries in its wake imperialists who see their old world domain as problematic and threatened, who support the U.S.A. in the (objectively futile) hope of being able to maintain, develop and consolidate their present possessions.

Of course, the general tendencies of imperialism remain the same; its aspirations are just as much today as before in opposition to the interests of its own masses and to those of the peoples defending their freedom. This opposition is the necessity which the aggressive imperialists see confronting them for oppressing their own and foreign peoples. At the same time, they acknowledge the necessity for demagogically mobilizing their own masses for the new division of the world, revealing the inner compulsion of the fascist domestic and foreign policy, the broader lines of which are already clearly visible.

This new stage in the development of imperialism will quite probably not be called fascism. And concealed behind the new nomenclature lies a new ideological problem: the “hungry” imperialism of the Germans brought forth a nihilistic cynicism which openly broke with all traditions of humanity. The fascist tendencies arising today in the U.S.A. work with the method of a nihilistic hypocrisy. They carry out the suppression and exploitation of the masses in the name of humanity and culture.

Let us look at an example. It was necessary for Hitler, supported by Gobineau and Chamberlain, to formulate a special theory of races in order to mobilize demagogically his masses for the extermination of democracy and progress, humanism and culture. The imperialists of the U.S.A. have it easier. They need only universalize and systematize their old practices concerning the Negroes. And since these practices have up to now been “reconcilable” with the ideology portraying the U.S.A. as a champion of democracy and humanism, there can be no reason why such a Weltanschauung of nihilistic hypocrisy could not arise there, which, by demagogic means, could become dominant. That this universalization and systematization is rapidly advancing can be seen by anyone who follows the fates of the best progressive members of the intelligentsia in the U.S.A. or who reads Gerhart Eisler or Howard Fast. How these methods have been on the way for a long time toward universalization has been strikingly shown long ago by such a moderate author as Sinclair Lewis in Elmer Gantry.

Of course, we do not have the pure, abstract form of the new fascism before us here. Its actual development occasionally follows more complicated paths, especially in France and England where the inner situation of the imperialist reaction is in a much worse condition. But one need only consider existentialism—to come back to ideological problems—and it will easily be seen that the attempt to bring the frank nihilism of the prefascist Heidegger into accord with problems of today, turns cynicism into sham.

Or take Toynbee, for example. His book is the greatest success in the philosophy of history since Spengler. He investigates the growth and decline of all known cultures and comes to the conclusion that neither the control of natural forces nor the control of social conditions is capable of influencing this process; he also attempts to prove that all efforts to influence the course of development through the use of force (i.e., all revolutions) are a priori condemned to failure. Twenty-one cultures have already perished. One solitary culture, the West European, has continually grown up to now because, at its inception, Jesus discovered this new, nonviolent path of renewal. And today? Toynbee summarizes his first six volumes to the effect that God—whose nature is just as constant as man’s—will not deny us a new deliverance if only we ask for, it with sufficient humility.

It seems to me that the most fanatic exponent of atomic war in the U.S.A. could desire nothing better than for the progressive intellectuals to do nothing more than pray for such a favor, while he himself can organize the atomic war undisturbed.

Granted: this fatalistic-pacifist tendency of Toynbee shows that at present we are only in the beginning stages of the ideological development of the new fascism (consider Spengler’s fatalism in contrast with the nihilistic-cynical activism of Hitler). Realizing this, however, does not make the task and responsibility of the intelligentsia smaller, but rather makes it greater. There is still time to give the ideological development of the leading cultural nations a new turn, or at least to attempt to halt the current, growing reactionary development.

For this, however, clarity in the ideological sphere is above all necessary. And what is meant by clarity here? By no means the formally clear, stylistically perfect expression of thoughts (this is richly present among the intelligentsia), but the clear knowledge of where we stand, in what direction the path of development is going and what we can do to influence its direction.

In this regard the intellectuals of the imperialist period are in sorry straits. Since it is never objectively possible for the intelligentsia to be equally competent in all spheres of knowledge, every epoch puts certain sciences, certain branches of knowledge, certain authors who are considered classical, in the forefront of interest. Thus, Newtonian physics played a progressive role of much consequence in the liberation of the French intelligentsia from the old theological constraints, that transmitted the monarchistic-absolutist ideology. In the France of that period, it was a motor of ideological preparation for the great revolution.

It is crucially necessary that political economy occupy this position among the intellectuals, economy in the Marxian sense, as a science of the primary “forms of existence” (Daseinsformen) of the “existential determinations” (Existenzbestimmungen) of man, as the science of the real relations of men to one another, of the laws and tendencies of the development of these relations. In reality, however, precisely the opposite tendencies can be seen. Philosophy, psychology, history, etc., in the imperialist period, are all equally concerned with playing down economic insights, with discrediting them as “superficial,” “unessential,” and unworthy of a “deeper” Weltanschauung.

What is the result? The intelligentsia, since they do not see through to the objective foundations of their own social existence, in growing measure become victims of the fetishization of social problems, and consequently helpless victims of a free-wheeling social demagoguery.

Examples of this can easily be given. I will discuss only some of the most essential ones. Above all there is the fetishization of democracy. That is, democracy for whom and excluding whom is never investigated. It is never asked what the real social content of a concrete democracy is, and this failure to question is one of the main supports of the neofascism now readying itself. Then there is the fetishization of the longing for peace by the people, generally in the form of an abstract pacifism, whereby the desire for peace degenerates not only into passivity, but even becomes a slogan for the amnesty of the fascist war criminals, thus facilitating the preconditions for a new war. Next is the fetishization of the nation. Behind this facade disappears the distinction between the just, national life-interests of a people, and the aggressive tendencies of imperialist chauvinism. It can easily be brought to mind how this fetishization was directly effective in Hitler’s national demagoguery. It is effective today, too, in its direct form, but along with it there is a no less dangerous indirect use of this fetishization: the ideology of a so-called supranationalism, of a world government above nations, especially in the U.S.A. just as Hitler’s direct form sought a pax germanica for the world, the indirect form is moving in the direction of a pax americana. Both, if they realized themselves, would mean the annihilation of all national self-determination, of all social progress.

Finally, there is the fetishization of culture. Since Gobineau, Nietzsche and Spengler, it has become fashionable to deny the unity of the culture of humanity. As I took part (after the liberation from Hitler) in an international conference at the Rencontres Internationales in Geneva in 1946, Denis de Rougemont and others came forth with ideas for the defense of the European culture which had at their base a sharp separation of West European culture, thus signifying a warding off the Russian culture (as in Toynbee). That this theory, viewed objectively, is completely worthless, that the present West European culture is deeply impregnated with Russian ideological influences (and precisely in its most outstanding achievements) can be seen by the most superficial glance at today’s cultural situation. How can one imagine, to give but a few names, the literature from Shaw to Roger Martin du Gard, from Romain Rolland to Thomas Mann, without Leo Tolstoy? These theories demagogically use the fact that Russian culture (for the most part, Soviet culture) appears alien at first glance to the West European intellect. But every knowledgeable littérateur would confirm that the reception of Shakespeare in France faced more difficulties than that of Tolstoy, and M. de Rougemont and his friends still do not erect a Chinese Wall of cultural separation between France and England.

SOURCE: Lukács, Georg [György]. “On the Responsibility of Intellectuals” (1948), translated by Severin Schurger, in Marxism and Human Liberation: Essays on History, Culture and Revolution, edited with introduction by E. San Juan, Jr. (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1973), pp. 267-276. This excerpt, pp. 267-274 (minus editor’s introduction).

Originally published as “Von der Verantwortung der Intellektuellen,” in Georg Lukács: zum siebsigsten Geburtstag, Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1955; English translation originally published in Telos, no. 3, Spring 1969, pp. 123-131.

Note: Boldface added by me: these paragraphs are the most relevant for today. As can be seen from the last two paragraphs of this excerpt, the essay morphs into an apologia for the Stalinist position. The references to Soviet culture, abstract pacifism, and one world government, reflect this. The balance of the essay not reproduced here begins with the assertion that Soviet culture represents the future. Lukács wrote this towards the end of the initial period of the post-war Soviet occupation in Hungary, termed a “People’s Democracy.” (He had narrowly escaped execution in Moscow in 1941.) In 1949 Lukács would find himself in a precarious position as hard-line Stalinist repression set in in Hungary. In 1956 Lukács would participate in the Hungarian Revolution against the Stalinist government and once again find his life in danger. — RD

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