The aesthetic debates within German Marxism are now acknowledged to constitute one of the most remarkable sequences in European cultural history this century. Few episodes either in the general history of Marxist theory or in the course of aesthetic discussion as a whole can match the depth and range of the many-sided controversies that engaged Benjamin and Brecht, Adorno, Lukács and Bloch, across some three decades, from the thirties to the sixties. The major texts of the debate—Bloch’s public clash with Lukács, the Adorno-Benjamin correspondence, Brecht’s critique of Lukács and the record of his discussions with Benjamin in Denmark, Adorno’s post-war reflections on Lukács’s criticism and on the Brechtian theatre—have recently been assembled into a single volume, Aesthetics and Politics (nlb 1977). These are supplemented here with a series of four excerpts from Lukács’s culminating contribution to the theory of art, the Ästhetik.footnote1

The first and longest passage is concerned with the concept of allegory as developed by Benjamin in The Origin of German Tragic Drama (nlb 1977); the second, with Brecht’s reflections on the relation between art and science; the latter two, with the ‘alienation effect’ and its place in the theory and practice of Brecht’s theatre. Their common purpose is to reaffirm the realist canons defended by Lukács throughout his career as a Marxist aesthetician. Thus Benjamin, presented here as the most formidable and lucid theoretician of modernist art, is associated with an artistic strategy which, reifying the objective world and seeking ultimately to abolish it in an impulse of religious nihilism, thwarted the humanistic bases and purposes of ‘mimetic representation’. The central themes of Brecht’s dramaturgy are likewise criticized—in this case, in an operation designed to claim his motives and ‘mature’ productions for humanism and realism, the concept and practice of the alienation effect being depreciated as ‘immature’, ‘misleading’ or simply superfluous.

Neither was alive to respond, but Lukács did not have the last word. For around the same time as the publication of the Ästhetik, there also appeared Adorno’s withering assessment of The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, soon followed by his antithetical critique of Brecht.footnote2 Thus the mid-century aesthetic debate in German Marxism came to a close with its central issues unresolved. They are still before us today.