By Véronique Mickisch

Alexander Dmitriev is a historian and visiting researcher at the Center for East European Studies at the University of Bremen. He is currently finishing a new book on Marxism in the Soviet Union. In 2004, he published Marxism without the Proletariat, a study of Georg Lukács and the early Frankfurt Institute for Social Research that draws on German, Russian, and Hungarian primary sources. While it has remained little-known outside of Russia, the book is still perhaps the most comprehensive study of the joint political history of the Frankfurt School and Georg Lukács in the 1920s and 1930s. 

Véronique Mickisch spoke with Dmitriev about Lukács and his ambiguous relation to the early Frankfurt Institute. Exploring the figure of the “left intellectual” in the 1920s from a historical perspective, Dmitriev argues that to understand Lukács we have to take into account the Soviet context. Unveiling Lukács’s close contacts to both the Frankfurt School and Soviet theorists such as Mikhail Lifshits, Dmitriev’s book closes the gap between Slavic Studies and global intellectual history.

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Véronique Mickisch: First off, could you tell us what made you interested in the early history of Lukács and the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research? 

Alexander Dmitriev: Already during perestroika, in the late 1980s, I became interested in the figure of the Communist intellectual, people like the philosopher Evald Ilyenkov, and the left project in general. At that time, important figures in the Soviet government like Anatoly Chernyaev, Gorbachev’s aide for foreign policy, were connected to what may be called a Soviet version of Eurocommunism. I recently found a note in Chernayev’s diaries from the mid-1970s on the Russian translation of Lukács’s pamphlet on Lenin. Chernyaev was then responsible for relations with the Communist parties, and he noted in his diary how interesting Lukács’s pamphlet was, how different from everything that he himself was doing within the Brezhnev system. 

There was a similar type of intellectual in the GDR: people like Christa Wolf, and maybe Jürgen Kuczynski or Werner Mittenzwei. Around 1987-1988, these were considered interesting intellectuals; but within months, they disappeared from the scene. As soon as the processes of 1989 really set into motion, any left-wing alternative appeared politically unviable. 

As a historian, it was interesting to me to return to the 1920s to understand the fate of the “left intellectual,” to go into the archives, and review the history of the “left intellectual” from an academic and not a political standpoint.  

Fortunately, up until 1989, Soviet libraries bought a lot of literature from the West. Thus, almost everything that appeared on the centenary of Lukács’s birthday was available in the Soviet Union, if sometimes only in a “poison cabinet” (spetskhrana). The most interesting books to me were The Young Lukács by Andrew Arato and Paul Breines, and Jörg Kammler’s study of Lukács’s political theory. Perhaps Kammler was even more interesting because, unlike Arato, he paid close attention to the changing political context. This was important to me because I wanted to approach Lukács as a historian, not as a philosopher. 90 percent of those who study Lukács—or, rather, the young Lukács—in both the West and the Soviet Union were, after all, philosophers or literary theorists.  

On the other hand, nothing like Kammler’s book existed on the Frankfurt School. Neither the book by Helmut Dubiel nor the very good studies by Martin Jay or Rolf Wiggershaus provided the kind of political context that I wanted. In a way, I was looking for a bridge between the books by Kammler and Wiggershaus. 

Alexander Dmitriev, courtesy of Alexander Dmitriev

VM: Recent scholarship on the early Frankfurt Institute stresses the impact of the German Revolution of 1918-1919 on figures like Friedrich Pollock, Felix Weil, and Max Horkheimer. In your book, you complement this picture by discussing the triangular relationship between the members of the early Frankfurt Institute for Social Research and Lukács, and the Communist parties. How do you view the latter?

AD: Lukács and the people in Frankfurt differed in their respective relationships to the Communist movement. But there were also stark differences within the Frankfurt circle. On the one hand, there was the group around Felix Weil, Friedrich Pollock, and Max Horkheimer. I think they all knew each other by 1919, but only Felix Weil was very involved in the Communist International—above all in Latin America, particularly Argentina. (I’m mostly relying on the work of my colleagues Lazar and Victór Jeifetz here.)

And then there is also the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research before Max Horkheimer became its director in 1930. Carl Grünberg, the predecessor of Horkheimer and founding director of the Institute for Social Research, had a close relationship with David Riazanov [the head of the Marx-Engels-Institute in Moscow], whose Institute, in my view, represented some kind of academic Marxism.

The biography of Lukács is yet another story. There was a generational gap between him and the scholars who would become known as the Frankfurt School—a crucial 10 years. To them, political affiliation was important, but it did not make them—including Weil, who was perhaps more closely affiliated with the Communist movement than anyone else—a Genosse [comrade] to the degree that Lukács or also Karl Korsch was until 1926 [when Korsch was expelled from the Communist International].  

VM: In 1922 and 1923, Lukács wrote History and Class Consciousness, a seminal work in the development of so called “Western Marxism.” The book was widely discussed in the Soviet Union but the response was overwhelmingly negative. The preeminent Soviet philosopher Abram Deborin wrote a scathing review of History and Class Consciousness, and Lukács was almost universally seen as non-Marxist. In 1931, he was among those who were removed from the Marx-Engels-Institute, after the arrests of Riazanov and the political economist Isaak Rubin. How did Lukács respond to these developments? 

AD: An important factor for him was that Deborin was drawn into the Riazanov case. Even though he retained his position at the Communist Academy, he was denounced everywhere, and Lukács noted this development with satisfaction. He considered this a revenge of history. Both to him and to Mikhail Lifshits [a Soviet literary theoretician to whom Lukács was very close], this campaign against Deborin was proof that their understanding of Hegel was correct. 

David Riazanov in 1923. A revolutionary since 1887, he was the head of the Marx-Engels-Institute from 1921 until his arrest in March 1931. Throughout the 1920s, he maintained close ties with Carl Grünberg and the early Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. Lukács began working under him in Moscow in 1930.

Lukács, and especially the circle around Lifshits, felt that they were the true Communists. Riazanov, to them, was an old man who was too closely allied with Menshevism and social democracy. Though they may have had some reservations, they were generally pleased with the Stalin overhaul of 1931.

For them, Stalin was a Robespierre-like figure with Cromwellian and Napoleonic features, who would “clean up” from time to time, maybe not only those who were guilty; but, they figured, you cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs. Lukács had never had any particular sympathies for Trotsky and saw in Stalin the personification of a kind of “managed Thermidor.”

VM: Don’t you think that careerism also played a role here, especially in the 1930s? 

AD: Not necessarily. It seems to me that Lukács and Lifshits had this understanding of themselves as romantic revolutionaries. It is certainly true that Lifshits was more widely read after the campaign against Deborin. I would say it was careerism in the sense that they felt that “history is on our side,” and they retained this sense for quite some time, probably until the Thaw [under Nikita Khrushchev in 1956-1962]. Katerina Clarke has produced interesting scholarship on this. In order to understand Lukács after 1931, including Lukács in Germany in 1932, you have to take into account this Soviet context. Unfortunately, there is a certain isolation of Slavic Studies and Slavic intellectual history in this regard.

VM: For Lukács, in stark contrast to Rubin, this purge in 1931 did not signify the end of his career. To the contrary: Your book provides a detailed account of Lukács’s activities in the 1930s, which are often little known. For example, you write about his work for the Comintern in Germany in 1931-32, where he lectured, on behalf of the KPD, before National Bolshevik circles around Ernst Niekisch and Hans Zehrer.  We now also know that Lukács participated in the infamous “party session” of German intellectuals that took place just a few days after the First Moscow Trial, where he denounced Karl Schmückle, the German communist and former employee of the Marx-Engel-Institute in Moscow, as a “counter-revolutionary” who had to be “eliminated.” Schmückle, who had played a central role in the publication of Marx’s early writings, was later arrested and executed in January 1938 as part of the NKVD’s “German operation.” Don’t you think that, in light of all of this, it would be appropriate to speak of Lukács as a Stalinist intellectual, rather than just designating him as “left-wing”? 

AD: I think the real crossroads in his life must have occurred in the second half of the 1920s in Vienna, when he could still become a different Lukács than the one we know today. This is still the perhaps most mysterious chapter in his life to me but it is then that he became, as you correctly note, a Stalinist intellectual, not just a left-wing one.

VM: Considering Lukács’s political activities especially from the early 1930s onward, it seems that he must have been somehow in contact with the NKVD. 

AD: Yes, I agree, such connections must have existed. But they must have also existed in the case of other Communist intellectual at that time; you could not be such a central figure in the ideological structures of Comintern or KPD, and have so many connections without speaking to and meeting with people from this agency. Lukács definitely knew, for instance, Osip Pyatnitsky, a very important figure in the Comintern who was responsible for cadre questions [a position which required maintaining relations with the GPU/NKVD, VM]; Pyatnitsky was arrested in 1937. He was also in touch, I believe, with Mikhail Trilisser [who worked for the NKVD in the Comintern leadership from 1935 on]. But this was not a big deal for either Lukács or, to be honest, for Lifshits.

If you say today that Lukács had ties with the KGB, you will get the response: ‘Outrageous! Impossible!’ But then there is the question of what it means to “have connections.” In Lukács’s world, there was nothing terrifying or compromising about this. Although it is true that he would later refuse to discuss anything related either to the Great Terror among the German émigré community or to Karl Schmückle, whom he must have known since the 1920s. These were two big wounds in his life. 

VM: The Great Terror changed a lot. “Having connections” to the NKVD meant something different after the terror than it did before, including to those who considered themselves communists.  

AD: Yes, probably, and Lukács still had such connections after the Great Terror. Tamás Scheibner in Budapest has written a book about Lukács in Hungary in 1945-47 where he also played, I would say, a rather unpleasant role. Before Mátyás Rákosi came to power, Lukács was the left-hand man of Joszéf Révai [co-founder of the Hungarian Communist Party and member of its political committee after the war]; they were a united front. And I think then he was also in contact with the secret service in Budapest. I still would think that he had contempt for these people and their dirty work. If he had been called on to testify against, say, Wittfogel, he would probably have responded by saying what he thought about Wittfogel. And this would be buried in secret files located now in Budapest or Moscow. 

This is a point on which I disagree with scholars of Lukács like Celso Frederico in Brazil or Konstantinos Kavoulakos. To them, Lukács is nothing but a great philosopher, a brilliant mind (I think so too!), and teacher, someone who did everything right, and they don’t really want to know what he did in 1936 or 1937. Speaking about this is to them merely an attempt to discredit Lukács. 

György Lukács, 1952, (c) Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-15304-0097 / CC-BY-SA

VM: Despite the differences with Lukács that you raised, there were quite a few Communists at the Frankfurt Institute before World War II: Henryk Grossman, who was a member of the Polish CP, or Hans Jäger, who headed the Marx-Engels-Verlag and was considered one of the main ideologists of the KPD. There were also Karl-August Wittfogel, the China expert of the KPD, and Schmückle—to name but a few. Pollock, who was never a party member but was quite sympathetic to the communist cause, visited the Soviet Union for the 10-year anniversary of the October Revolution in the fall of 1927 and met many of the leading economists at the time. How did the Frankfurt circle view the rise of Stalinism in the Soviet Union?

AD: One really needs to emphasize the differences between Lukács and the Frankfurt School here. There is only one published letter from Horkheimer to Lukács, from 1931, on the Hegel Congress, and it’s clear that, by then, they belonged to different camps: Lukács is an active Communist, and Horkheimer writes to him like a bourgeois professor, a fellow traveller. In 1927, it was probably not yet like that; I’m not entirely sure about Horkheimer, but for Pollock, it was definitely not like that. For Pollock, the move from taking an interest in communism to keeping his distance from it probably came in 1930 or 1931. 

VM: I would say even later, maybe in 1932. During his trip to Moscow in the fall of 1927, Pollock had become acquainted with many leading Soviet economists, and he still maintained these ties into the early 1930s. In 1932, he published his essay “Socialism and the Agrarian Question,” which indicates that he retained at least some sympathies for the Soviet Union.  

AD: You might be right. By 1932, in order to survive, some of these Soviet economists like Lev Leontiev or Elizaveta Khmelnitskaya had to abandon their previous positions. It was not yet like the campaign again Schmückle, it wasn’t 1936 and people weren’t shot yet, but there was a purge at the Marx-Engels Institute. I think for someone like Pollock, the rise of figures like Hugo Huppert, who now began to dictate the “correct”  Stalinist course and the simultaneous shift in the orientation of Leontiev and Khmelnitskaya, who turned against Rubin and began to engage in “self-criticism,” was very instructive. This was not what they had expected, and it was a prelude to the Moscow Trials of 1936 and 1937, when hundreds of thousands of Communists, including the leaders of the October revolution, were arrested as “counter-revolutionary Trotskyists” and subsequently executed. 

By the time Hitler came to power in January 1933, the circle around the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research already felt that something was wrong in the Soviet Union. Theoretically, they had the choice between emigrating to Switzerland and then further on to the US, on the one hand, and emigrating to the USSR, on the other. But not even Grossman or Wittfogel emigrated to the USSR. (Grossman only later returned to the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany and then stayed in the GDR.) And only a handful who had emigrated earlier stayed in the USSR—Schmückle, for instance.

The Great Terror and the murder of figures like Vsevolod Meyerhold—there is a text by Adorno from the late 1940s on Meyerhold—also had a big impact on them. The victory of Stalin in general was not a great joy to them.

VM: Despite your emphasis on the interconnections between Lukács, the Frankfurt School, and the Communist movement, you called your book “Marxism without the proletariat.” Why? 

AD: From 1923 or 1924 onwards, there was a strong strand of anti-intellectualism in the German Communist Party. The term “professor” became a swearword. Stalin’s anti-professorial 1931 letter to the editorial board of Proletarskaya revoliutsiia was immediately printed in Germany. In the polemic against Lukács in the Soviet press in the 1920s, his relations with Max Weber were also seen as problematic, as a sign that he was not “one of them.” For the Frankfurt circle, this anti-intellectualism within the Communist party was obvious. The Social Democrats had it too. 

This was one of the reasons why I ended up calling the book “Marxism without the proletariat”: the title refers to the conviction of members of the Frankfurt Institute that the workers themselves do not know what they want and that real socialism is different from what your average worker from the dock in Hamburg thinks it is. It is something more powerful, and important, something connected to ideals and the future. They were in favor of socialism, of course, but this did not mean to them that they had to listen to the simple worker from a communist cell, or that the decision of the majority of votes of the Frankfurt cell of the KPD was important. And for Lukács, it was different. Lukács thought that the party—the Party!—knows what needs to be done.

In the early 1930s, Erich Fromm and others members of the Institute for Social Research studied the mood of the German working class and came to the conclusion that the Communists were even more authoritarian than the social democrats. This was a scientific finding, and it was terrifying to them. This idea that the emancipatory project of the left and working-class communism were not the same thing, that they were two different vectors, this is something that they probably started to feel in the early 1930s. Such a study would not have been conducted under Grünberg in 1925, but in the 1930s, under Horkheimer’s directorship, it became possible. To some extent, the study helped lay the foundation for the general shift away from sympathizing with communism—not just the communist party but simply communism, including the legacy of figures like Rosa Luxemburg.  

VM: While there was definitely this pessimism in the working class and a growing disengagement with the socialist and communist movement by the early 1930s, the rejection of the Enlightenment and scientific inquiry in Dialectics of Enlightenment was new, it had not played a role before the war. If you read writings by Schmückle or Pollock from the 1920s or even early 1930s, it is clear that they respected Marx’s and Engels’s positive attitude toward the sciences and regarded Marxism itself as a science. The war and the Holocaust seem to have brought about yet another fairly sharp change in the intellectual climate.

AD: Yes, and there was the conception that Roosevelt’s New Deal had saved capitalism. If you take all the nine volumes of the Institute’s books that were published in 1929-1938, including the ones by Borkenau, Wittfogel, and Pollock, these were all written under the banner of orthodoxy, perhaps understood in the broadest sense of the term, but they clearly wanted to be Marxists. This wish to be Marxists disappeared in the US, and there’s of course none of it in the Dialectics of Enlightenment.

In Horkheimer’s Gesammelte Schriften, there are minutes of meetings at the Institute, in 1935 or 1937, in which they were discussing the problem of the crisis of capitalism. These discussions involved Pollock, Julian Gumperz, and several other figures who are completely forgotten today. It seems to me that these were the last attempts at the Institute to have discussions in a Marxist or semi-Marxist language. Even in the mid to late 1930s, they—including people like Otto Kirchheimer and Franz Neumann—had the conception that Hitler and capitalism were closely related, and there was Horkheimer’s famous thesis that “if you don’t want to speak of capitalism, you must remain silent about national socialism.” 

There was clearly a moment in their development in the second half of the 1930s or early 1940s which can be understood as “social-democratic.” This does not mean that they had actual ties with social democracy, but that they were interested in these kinds of left-wing ideas and reformism.

Theories of totalitarianism or the equation of Hitler and Stalin were not common reference points yet, but the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 may have opened the doors for the Dialectics of Enlightenment: it may have suggested to them that even Marxism, and the idea of emancipation, can degenerate into oppression.

Moreover, at universities and in intellectual circles in the United States, they were confronted with an entirely new intellectual climate. Pragmatism was dominant, and even when polemicizing against it, as Horkheimer did, the Frankfurt School would do so by appropriating its language. For the radio research project, and even more so for the studies on anti-Semitism, they had to become semi-positivists. The culmination of their shift to the right then probably occurred in the 1950s.

Véronique Mickisch (@Veroniquehist) is a PhD candidate in modern European history at New York University. Her research focuses on the history of the October Revolution, Soviet economics, and the socialist intelligentsia in Russia and Eastern Europe. Her work has recently appeared in Jewish Social Studies.

Featured Image: Group photograph of the participants of the First Marxist Work Week in 1923, virtually all of them were members of or close to the Communist movement. Sitting from left to right: Karl August Wittfogel, Rose Wittfogel, unknown, Christiane Sorge, Karl Korsch, Hedda Korsch, Käthe Weil, Margarete Lissauer, Béla Fogarasi, Gertrud Alexander. Standing from left to right: Hede Massing, Friedrich Pollock, Eduard Ludwig Alexander, Konstantin Zetkin, Georg Lukács, Julian Gumperz, Richard Sorge, Karl Alexander (Kind), Felix Weil, unknown.