Saturday, 18 October 2008

A defence of Marxist theory

Marxism has been proclaimed dead many times since 1989. We may fairly paraphrase Mark Twain to say its death has been greatly exaggerated. But it is perhaps necessary to explain why it remains a powerful philosophy that has something relevant to say about art.

When the Soviet bloc broke up in 1989–91, the bourgeoisie trumpeted it as the end of socialism. Since the 1920s, the Soviet Union had come under the control of a bureaucratic regime that set back the international struggle by decades. Despite this degeneration, it remained a workers’ state [1], whose eventual overthrow was a deeply disorientating defeat for the international working class. Wrongly equating Stalinist doctrine with Marxism, many interpreted it as evidence that Marxism was no longer relevant.

In reality, Stalinism reduced the rich and complex theory of Marx to something crude and mechanical which was easily refuted by both true Marxists and anti-socialists. In any case, there will be defeats in any long-term struggle, some of them severe, but they are no excuse for abandoning an objective historical perspective. As Trotsky pointed out in In Defence of Marxism (writing in 1939),

Marxists do not have the slightest right (if disillusionment and fatigue are not considered “rights”) to draw the conclusion that the proletariat has forfeited its revolutionary possibilities and must renounce all aspirations to hegemony in an era immediately ahead. Twenty-five years in the scales of history, when it is a question of profoundest changes in economic and cultural systems, weigh less than an hour in the life of man. What good is the individual who, because of empirical failures in the course of an hour or a day, renounces a goal that he set for himself on the basis of the experience and analysis of his entire previous life-time?[2]

The defeat of several — not all — workers’ states notwithstanding, the Marxist insistence upon materialism and the analysis of social processes is mainstream today. The main challenge to it comes from post-modernism, whose rejection of the basic scientific tenets of the Enlightenment greatly limits its usefulness to most scientists and historians. The fatuous arguments about the death of Marxism go unchallenged in the Western mainstream, because the media in the capitalist world provide no platform for Marxist analysis. Liberal or social democratic viewpoints are permitted, but these do not fundamentally challenge the system. Instead, we are repeatedly told that there is no alternative to a neo-liberal capitalist viewpoint.

Yet reality marches on despite the spin. A particular defeat does not invalidate an entire system. If it did, then the fall of Byzantium would have meant the end of feudalism, and the defeat of Hitler the end of monopoly capitalism. One billion people continue to live under governments inspired by Marxism, and the most dynamic economy in the world — China — is a workers’ state. Millions continue to fight to create new revolutions, particularly in Latin America, and in Venezuela they have succeeded. Thus the declarations of the ‘death of Marxism’ are nonsense, on the most basic factual level.

Over the last thirty years, the working class has suffered a series of defeats. These began with the election of Thatcher and Reagan, and peaked with the overthrow of the Soviet workers’ state. But these are battles within the context of an ongoing war. The socialist states of Eastern Europe fell in 1989–91 because of the mistakes of Stalinism, not because Marxism itself was wrong. On the contrary, there was always a cogent Marxist critique of the Stalinist system, beginning with Trotsky and the Left Opposition, and the recent economic crisis has proved yet again that Marx’s analysis of capitalism was correct.

Developments such as the growth of the socialist economies, resistance to imperialism in the Middle East, the huge leftwards shift in Latin America, and the final discrediting of neo-liberalism through the so-called ‘credit crunch’ are all contributing to a shift in the global balance of forces. Very slowly, Marx’s ideas on the emancipation of humanity are reasserting themselves. Despite reverses, socialism is never going to go away, because it is the politics that represents the interests of the proletariat: a class that will be here for centuries yet, and whose numbers continue to grow rapidly. The class struggle, for the same reason, will never go away. This does not necessarily mean that world socialism is around the corner, but it does mean that the struggle for emancipation is never lost.

The need for a Marxist theory of art

One of the most compelling reasons why Marxism is needed is that bourgeois opinion, even today, customarily presents art as something mysterious that can never be satisfactorily explained. Art is reduced to ‘the expression of feeling’, or to ‘form and content’, or an attempt to emotionally ‘infect’ the viewer, or is art ‘because it is made by artists’. Bourgeois theory tends to either take a single aspect of art and elevate it into a system, or at its most feeble to simply throw up its hands in bewilderment and conclude that a definition is impossible. In fact, art can to some extent be explained, but the bourgeoisie finds it difficult to analyse society without being confronted with uncomfortable truths about itself. This does not mean that bourgeois theory cannot provide us with excellent insights into art — only that it is limited in how fully it can penetrate the question. To quote Trotsky again:

It is very true that one cannot always go by the principles of Marxism in deciding whether to accept or reject a work of art. A work of art should, in the first place, be judged by its own law, that is, by the law of art. But Marxism alone can explain why and how a given tendency in art has originated in a given period of history; in other words, who it was who made a demand for such an artistic form and not for another, and why.[3]

The seminal epic of Western art history, E. H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, manages to discuss 10,000 years of art without even mentioning the powerful social forces that shaped its story. This is like observing that the sea level rises and falls, without noting the existence of tides. Marxism always seeks the underlying forces as well as the surface features, and knows that they will inform the present as well as the past. For this reason the art of the past appears not as dead and academic but as part of a dynamic relationship. If Trotsky’s belief that ‘only Marxism’ can provide such explanation seems a little stretched today, it is because progressive materialism has had such an influence on the development of modern archaeology and other sciences since he was writing in 1924.

The best Marxist criticism seeks a total view of a work of art — not limiting itself to any one aspect, but trying to pull together every influence and recognise which factors are the most powerful, for the most complete and evidence-based understanding. This understanding is not set in stone, because a work of art is itself part of a dialectical reality, in which its meaning will never be static (a Christian artist of the Renaissance for example saw the sculpture of ancient Greece very differently to an early Christian zealot). Marxism sweeps away fixed ideas, outdated hierarchies, and stasis. Many of the assumptions of pre-Marxist aesthetics are pulled off their pedestals and forced to justify themselves. At the same time, art is restored from the magical and mysterious, or the eternal idea, to where it belongs, namely the social life of human beings.

The real Marxism

Many in the West, raised on a bourgeois diet of distortions and anti-socialist insults, would be surprised to learn what Marxism really is. The goal of Marxism is free human beings — unalienated, unexploited, free to develop themselves creatively. The economy, currently controlled by a minority, should be used for the equal benefit of everyone and governed by direct democracy. This is not a utopia or a dream, as the bourgeoisie would like us to think, but something that is realisable.

Understanding Marxism as just another ‘-ism’ limits its breadth: it is the investigation of the objective world through the method of dialectical materialism, and its aim is to discover the most precise attainable truth. Its method is scientific because it derives theory from experience — where experience teaches us that the theory no longer holds true, theory must change to more accurately explain the world, not vice versa. Marx did not get everything right. For example, his belief that socialist revolutions would first take place in the most advanced capitalist countries overlooked the strength of the apparatus of consent and coercion that could be created in those countries. Political experience demonstrated that breakthroughs actually came where the bourgeoisie was weak, as in Russia and China. The working class observed this, revised the theory [4], and continued the struggle on an improved basis. Nobody gains from defending Marx or his successors blindly; what matters is to be as close as possible to demonstrable reality.

Objectivity, of course, is not the same as neutrality. Objective conditions — global poverty, war, etc — confirm the need for the radical change of society. Marxism does not apologise for siding with the working class: for all its media’s pretence of impartiality, the capitalist class too sides with its own interests.

Marxism therefore is routinely misrepresented by the bourgeoisie: it is hardly going to be represented fairly by those who would be overthrown by it. As we shall see, parts of the left have also been guilty of misreadings. To cite Allen Wood, author of the respected study Karl Marx:

There are probably no texts ever written, with the sole exception of scriptures purporting to convey divine revelation, that have been read with more consistent intellectual dishonesty than the works of Marx... Misreading is almost guaranteed when it proceeds from agendas that preclude either reading a text sympathetically or reading it critically.[5]

Most of the arguments against Marxist aesthetics are flung against straw men, without reference to major texts in which they have already been refuted. Marxist theory is accused of economic determinism — which it does not advocate in a hard form. It is crudely equated with Stalinism — a degenerated discourse which principled Marxists opposed. At best it is conceded to have ‘good intentions’, but to contradict ‘human nature’ — a nature which is apparently synonymous with bourgeois values, though capitalism has existed for just 500 of our species’ 150,000 or more years! Nothing delights the bourgeois more than to liken Marxism to a religion — yet it is a strange religion that corrects its texts according to empirical evidence. It is accused of seeking to proscribe what work artists are allowed to create, and yes, there has been bureaucratic repression — but by contrast Trotsky, who was foremost in carrying the torch of true Marxism during the worst years of Stalinism, wrote:

Our Marxist conception of the objective social dependence and social utility of art, when translated into the language of politics, does not at all mean a desire to dominate art by means of decrees and orders. It is not true that we regard only that art as new and revolutionary which speaks of the worker, and it is nonsense to say we demand that the poets should describe inevitably a factory chimney, or the uprising against capital![6]

Far from being dogmatic, true Marxism is open-minded, flexible and highly tolerant of change. Indeed, if it refuses to accept change, Marxism is in contradiction with itself. This refutes Foucault’s claim that “Marx out of the nineteenth century is like a fish out of water”. An essential part of this flexibility is that no Marxist worthy of the name should ever reduce art to a social document, from which a ‘political line’ must be extracted. Whether or not particular artists or works receive a ‘stamp of approval’ from Marxist criticism, art will continue regardless, just as it did for thousands of years before Marxism was even conceived. Art is first and foremost an affirmation of human powers and experience, that is there to be appreciated on its own terms and for which Marxism is simply a tool to a fuller understanding.

Why the Marxist perspective is important today

Lenin and Trotsky both understood that we must assimilate bourgeois culture before we can attempt to build a new, socialist one. If we want to understand how art fits into that process we need the best possible theoretical and historical perspective. Marxists are generally very interested in art and culture, but busy cadre engaged in activism against ills such as war or fascism often see the study of art as a low priority. Strictly they are correct. But human society without art, as the expression of our humanity in concrete, sensuous images, is unthinkable. If we are to understand Marxism in its totality we need to study its art theory too — through it we will encounter some of Marx’s most profound ideas.

The point is not to peddle endless quotations by Marx as if they were sufficient in themselves — what matters is that your theory should fit the facts. Identifying facts, of course, is less straightforward than it sounds. No scientific test exists outside of social and historical conditions, outside of ideology. The present-day debate between genetic determinism and the more plastic, socially mediated view of human nature is a case in point. And it is easy to forget that many of the scientific norms we take for granted were unknown to the vast majority of humans who have lived. Until the 17th century, the existence of bacteria was unknown; until the 19th century, Europeans mostly assumed that human beings were created ready-made by a creator God. The Newtonian model of physics seemed incontrovertible until new ideas by Einstein forced a revision, and even the Industrial Revolution is only 200 years old. We too will have assumptions overturned, and be sent in new directions by new discoveries — like anyone else, Marxists can only go on the best of current data, which makes claiming a definitive ‘final’ theory inadviseable. There is no Marxist magic wand that can conjure up answers to complex topics that the world’s best scientists are still puzzling over. But I would argue that it does put our researches into a powerful framework — materialist, penetrating, dialectical, embracing of change, viewing events as the products of complex totalities of causes rather than reductive ones, unafraid to seek underlying causes — that helps steer us through the debates of the day.

In achieving a better perspective, we must expose not only the distortions that capitalism has imposed upon art, but also the theoretical abuses that have been propagated by parts of the left, above all Stalinism. One reason why I quote so copiously from Marxist writers — apart from there being no need to reinvent the wheel — is to prove that an open-minded and humane approach to art is supported by primary texts. The attempts by the likes of Zhdanov to dictate content to artists was not only wrong in itself but contrary to the philosophy of Marx.

It was when confronted with an attempt to present bad politics in his name that Marx made his comment that if that was Marxism, then “what is certain is that I myself am not a Marxist”.[7] When the leader of the world’s most recent socialist revolution, Hugo Chávez, talks about “twenty-first century socialism”, he does so for good reason — to draw a line between the worst models of the twentieth century and the new ones of today and tomorrow.

Marxism’s contribution to analysing a painting or a novel may seem of minor importance next to the goal of freeing the oppressed people of the world, but the application of Marxism is universal. It is not only interested in economics, class or revolutions but in anthropology, archaeology, history, psychology, culture, and indeed everything else. We should not see Marxism as one among several interesting tools in a toolbox, for its implications are felt across the whole of society. You cannot, as some academics want to, cherry-pick the bits you like and ignore its revolutionary politics. Marx and Engels never lost sight of their philosophy as a programme of proletarian revolutionary action. It is not enough to theorise in isolation from political practice. As Marx famously said in the last of his Theses on Feuerbach, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” For a Marxist, political intervention, with no interests other than those of the international working class, is a must.

The goal of Marxism is to reduce human suffering by building a world of democracy and hope in which everybody has food, shelter, education, healthcare and the other benefits of civilisation, not according to their social status, sex or the colour of their skin, but on an equal basis. It is this powerful and optimistic human message, this belief in a far better way of organising society, that drives all Marxists and which makes Marxism essential today.

[1] As theorised by Trotsky in, for example, The Revolution Betrayed. There is an alternative theory popular with the ultra-left that the USSR was in fact ‘state capitalist’. This theory has various forms, the most prominent contending that the bureaucracy was a new class — a position that excused the ultra-left from defending the Soviet Union and led them to see the regression from workers’ state to capitalism as at worst a ‘step sideways’. This gave us the grotesque spectacle of some socialist forces applauding the biggest defeat the working class has suffered since the Second World War: capitalist restoration halved the former USSR’s GDP and devastated the living standards of its working class.
[2] Leon Trotsky, ‘The USSR in War’ from In Defence of Marxism (1942).
[3] Trotsky, ‘The Formalist School of Poetry and Marxism’ from Literature and Revolution (1924). This work was part of Trotsky’s opposition to the Stalinist orthodoxy that dominated communist parties across the world. Eclipsed for decades, it deserves to take its proper place as one of the finest works of Marxist aesthetic theory.
[4] For example, in Lenin’s State and Revolution and Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution, and Gramsci’s theory of hegemony.
[5] Allen Wood, Preface to the second edition of Karl Marx (2004).
[6] Trotsky, op. cit.
[7] Reported by Engels in his letter to Eduard Bernstein (November 1882). Marx was talking about the French leaders Guesde and Lafargue, whom he accused of “phrase-mongering” in their rejection of reformist struggle.


Anonymous said...

When I was at school about ten years ago, our main history textbook said that Marxists contend that it is possible to 'see into the future'. Other such fabricated and deliberately applied distortions are prevalent throughout Western educational curricula and wider literature, just as you explain.

Anonymous said...

Have just come across a great little essay by Perry Anderson from years ago where he lays into Gombrich for the reasons you outline above.

Eugene Hirschfeld said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for your comment.

What was the essay called, and where can I find it?