Issue 159, August 2020 Eastern European Marxist Critical Theory

Image: Stevan Maksimović, “Tapestry”, 1966, Museum Collection of Atelje 61

Eastern European Marxist Critical Theory

This special issue features papers delivered at the 2018 International Conference on Marxist Critical Theory in Eastern Europe (Sichuan University, Chengdu). The conference included Agnes Heller as guest of honour alongside renowned international and Chinese scholars. The event was sponsored by the College of Literature and Journalism, Sichuan University and Key Project of China National Social Science Fund “The Research of Eastern Europe Marxist Aesthetics” and co-sponsored by Thesis Eleven.

Guest editor: Professor Fu Qilin (Sichuan University)


Modernity, praxis and the work of art: Contemporary themes in Eastern European critical theory

J.F. Dorahy

Throughout the world, Eastern European critical theory is enjoying a moderate, yet exciting, resurgence. From its oppositional roots in praxis philosophy and critical sociology, this diffuse and dynamic tradition has expanded its field of concern to encompass, among other problems, the aporias of democracy, the Holocaust and legacies of totalitarianism, the vicissitudes of modern culture and the ethical imperatives of living after the grand narrative. In the process, Eastern European thought has come to figure as a vital alternative to the dominant tendencies emanating from Frankfurt and Paris. This essay surveys and introduces a collection of papers delivered at The International Conference of Marxist Critical Theory in Eastern Europe held in Chengdu, P.R.C., in November 2018. It both highlights the thematic range of contemporary scholarship on Eastern European critical theory and signals potential directions in future research.


Georg Lukács and Leo Tolstoy

Agnes Heller, Deng Fengming

Tolstoy was a frame of reference in the work of Lukács twice, during 1914–16 and 1935–6 respectively. His first-time encounter with Tolstoy was presented in the chapter of The Theory of the Novel involving both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, but the former was given more credit and reckoned as the prophet of a new world. It was not until the 1930s that Lukács’ taste changed, and his top priority went to Tolstoy instead. Yet, with due respect to the vicissitudes of his life throughout the 1910s until the 1930s, Lukács remained faithful to his philosophy of history in terms of aesthetic judgment. His preference for the grand artworks was not new as his admiration for Homer showed, but his belief in the resurrection of grand art as realism was rooted in a new and false illusion. Still, his essays on Tolstoy of the 1930s are rich in aesthetic analysis, such as the different aspects of temporality.

On thinking: Open letter to Hannah Arendt

Agnes Heller, David Roberts, Peter Beilharz

Thesis Eleven is honoured to be able to publish this text by our late friend and mentor Agnes Heller. It was secured in the period before her recent death, and is published now posthumously in her memory. Echoing her earlier text written as an Imaginary Preface to Arendt’s Totalitarianism, it responds to themes in the later text, The Life of the Mind. These were among the most eminent of the minds referred to later as Women in Dark Times. Their connection was not only institutional, via the New School, but represented a deep and ongoing affinity and critical engagement in political and philosophical terms. The imaginary letter arcs around issues and questions indicated by Cicero, Kant, Heidegger and Wittgenstein, including matters of republicanism, rhetoric and the question of thinking. Best of all, it shows Agnes Heller at work, at her best: it shows her thinking. Like Arendt, she offers inspiration, provocation, through thinking.

Six theoretical paradigms of Eastern European Marxist aesthetics

Fu Qilin

The conceptual and methodological contributions of Marxist aesthetics from Eastern European countries like Hungary, Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and East Germany were productive and significant despite various hurdles faced concerning institutionalization, legitimization and differing theoretical abuses. In its mode of inquiry and discursive practices, Eastern European Marxist aesthetics is both similar and dissimilar to its Western, Soviet, Russian and Chinese counterparts. The specificity here is the function of a unique geographical and socio-historical context, as well as interaction with other contemporary paradigms of thought. The innovative impulses of Eastern European Marxist aesthetics affected six scholarly domains: aesthetics of praxis, theory of realism, critique of modernity, semiotics, theory of genre and cultural theory. This paper provides a general survey of the intellectual achievements of Eastern European Marxist aesthetics across these six domains and will show how this theoretical tradition has influenced the modern history of ideas.

Revisiting Lukács’ theory of realism

Galin Tihanov

This paper focuses on Georg Lukács, for it is in his work, and the attendant debates and disagreements, that an entire constellation of questions around Realism is first compellingly formulated. The purpose of the paper is to revisit Lukács’ theory of realism as a response to a host of mainstream currents shaping the landscape of Continental philosophy in the first three decades of the 20th century. Particular attention is paid to the problem of form and truth at the core of Lukács’ theory of realism.

At the crossroads of Marxism and structuralism in modern Polish literary theory (1918–1939): The case of Warsaw and Vilnius student circles

Danuta Ulicka

In this paper, I aim to determine the place of Marxism in Polish literary studies of the 20th century. The starting point is (1) Czesław Miłosz’s comment on the identity of Marxism and structuralism; (2) the absence of the term ‘Marxism’ in the names of Polish workers’ parties and pro-Marxist academic discourse (except an insignificant short period directly after the Second World War when Marxist rhetoric prevailed). Referring to political history, I suggest an explanation of this state of affairs, revealing the function of Marxism under different names in philosophical texts from the beginning of the 20th century. To support my argument, I draw on documents from the newly discovered archive of Dawid Hopensztand. I use this archive to reconstruct his social biography and justify the main thesis about the permanent presence of Marxism in the works of such thinkers as Leszek Kołakowski, Zygmunt Bauman, and even Czesław Miłosz.

Marxist criticism of Soviet-type society in Czechoslovakia: The political thought of Egon Bondy after 1968

Petr Kužel

This paper focuses on the development of the political thought of Czech Marxist philosopher Egon Bondy. It examines his criticism of state socialism in the Eastern Block from a Marxist perspective, and it outlines the development of his analysis. The study covers the period from the late 1960s until the Velvet Revolution in 1989, a period during which Bondy explored the historical constitution and nature of a ‘new ruling class’ in the USSR, as well as deeper trends of convergence between Eastern and Western politico-economical systems. In the 1980s Bondy analysed the reasons for the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. Even though Bondy was, during most of the period of state socialism between 1948–89, a forbidden author, he was also one of the main critics of the political approach of Charta 77 and Václav Havel. This criticism is also outlined in the paper.

Art as praxis: Danko Grlić’s conception of art beyond technological determinism

Marko Hočevar

The article explores the specific conception of art developed by Danko Grlić, a prominent member of the Yugoslav Praxis School. Grlić conceptualised art beyond both aesthetic norms and technological determinism. Within the context of praxis philosophy, a distinct theory of the subject and a Marxist humanist approach, he reconceptualised art as a distinct type of praxis, a revolutionary and creative practice of changing existing living conditions. The article explains how his unique understanding of art leads Grlić to analyse, criticise and refute various Marxist approaches to art: art as an ideology, art as a reflection of the objective world, art as sociological analysis. Moreover, while sharing many ideas and conceptions with Walter Benjamin’s materialist conception of art, Grlić reached the point where he became critical due to Benjamin’s belief in technology concerning processes of emancipation, which Grlić viewed with scepticism.

Bauman in China

Qin Jiayang, Peter Beilharz

Zygmunt Bauman was one of the most influential sociologists in the English-speaking world. His work is translated into many languages. Chinese studies of Bauman started later than in the English-speaking world but have their own characteristics. In China, the interest is in sociology, culture, Marxism and aesthetics. This article surveys the current situation of Chinese Bauman studies and establishes the state of Chinese translations and studies of Bauman, and examines Chinese reception and interpretation of Bauman’s thought, especially theories of modernity and postmodernity. Its purpose is to display the state of Chinese Bauman studies on the one hand, and to take Bauman’s thought as a lesson in the construction of Chinese sociology on the other, leaving open the question of what studies of modernity might have to learn from Chinese experience and theory.

Last Bauman/lost Bauman: Fifty years on – Sketches in the Theory of Culture (1968) – The suppressed and now final book of Zygmunt Bauman (2018)

Peter Beilharz

Zygmunt Bauman said of 1968 that he could not empathize with the enthusiasm of the Western Left, that this was some kind of party. In Eastern Europe 1968 stood for an end, not a hope. Soon Bauman would be forced into exile, opening a new and brilliant phase of his intellectual trajectory. Sketches in the Theory of Culture was his last Polish book. It was suppressed in 1968, the contract cancelled in retaliation against his support for reforming politics. Now it has been rediscovered, originally in galley proofs, and translated by Dariusz Brzezinski for Polity Press. Like much of Bauman’s work, it is sprawling and inclusive, taking in anthropology, sociology of culture, ethnology and semiotics. It anticipates his life-long enthusiasm for Lévi-Strauss; and it also foreshadows some of the themes much later to be identified as liquid modern, though it may be the case that the theme of continuity is rather social turbulence from postwar reconstruction to the travails of socialist Poland. In this paper I review some of its themes and its status in the body of his work, and offer some introductory remarks on its importance to the study of culture.

Book reviews:

Social Theory Now

Rachel Busbridge (A prepublication version of this review is freely available here)

Multicultural Politics of Recognition and Postcolonial Citizenship

Nicolas Pirsoul (A prepublication version of this review is freely available here)

Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far Right

Erwin Rafael

Foucault: The Birth of Power

Peter Beilharz

Foucault’s Last Decade

Mitchell Dean

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