The Hungarian Marxist literary critic Georg Lukacs (pronounced GAY-org LOU-cotch) was one of the premier theorists of socialist realism, the only acceptable style of literature in the Soviet Union. In order to champion realism, and specifically an ideologically charged realism, as the only good way to write, Lukacs had to set himself in opposition to the literary movement that had superseded realism in the West, modernism (writers like James Joyce, William Faulkner, Robert Musil, and so on). This essay is his attempt to distinguish the two absolutely, in favor of course of realism.
Basically, for Lukacs (and for the Soviet Union), modernism is the last desperate cry of a dying economic system, capitalism. As "late" capitalism crumbles, it generates more and more alienation and meaninglessness in its citizens, and modernism is the attempt to reflect that collapse of value and meaning and human belonging in literary form. Because capitalist society is too corrupt and too chaotic to find meaning any longer, modernists insist that there is no meaning anywhere, and people who believe in meaning are just old-fashioned.
Realism, by contrast, grounds literature in human social and political and economic realities. Realistic fiction shows us the way things really are.
There is an interesting irony in this project: realism was the literary movement of nineteenth- century capitalism, and modernism was the literary movement of twentieth-century capitalism. In order to champion realism, Lukacs (and all the other theorists of socialist realism) had to defend an older form of capitalism against a newer -- an awkward position for a Marxist (who must believe in progress, in the future as better than the past) to take. (Next time, in fact, we'll see the German Marxist modernist playwright Bertolt Brecht arguing against realism as a form of nineteenth-century conversatism, and for modernism as the most progressive literary style a Marxist could possibly hope for.) Their argument was that nineteenth-century realism, the premier expression of an earlier form of capitalism (from the era in which Marx himself lived and wrote), was alert to the failings of capitalism without yet having succumbed to them. Nineteenth-century realists like Balzac and Flaubert and Zola were able to pinpoint and analyze the crippling problems of capitalism in their novels. The modernists, living in a later and more chaotic (and transitional -- moving toward socialism!) era, couldn't see things this clearly. They just painted nightmares -- the nightmares they were living as capitalism collapsed.
Lukacs starts off by promising to pay attention to the ideological underpinnings of these two trends (modernism vs. realism), and to avoid the "mistake" made by bourgeois Western critics in looking too closely at "formal criteria" (1127). (Remember that the Russian Formalists, Viktor Shklovsky at their head, had called for close attention to "formal criteria," and by the early twenties in...