Saturday, 18 October 2008

Marxists’ interest in the arts

Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and other prominent Marxists are renowned for their revolutionary theory. Only a handful, such as György Lukács and Max Raphael, are primarily known for their contribution to aesthetics. But in fact, many of Marxism’s major figures had a serious appreciation of the arts. For now, let us take a brief look at four leading theorists.

Karl MarxMarx himself originally hoped to be a poet, and studied aesthetics and literature in his university days, reading Schiller, Vischer, Lessing and other prominent writers on the subject. His literary reading encompassed Aeschylus, Cervantes, Heine, Dickens, Balzac, Diderot and many others, and his own writing style, at its best, is powerful and finely composed. We get a taste of his cultural interests from Paul Lafargue, a fellow socialist who knew Marx personally:

He knew Heine and Goethe by heart and often quoted them in his conversations; he was an assiduous reader of poets in all European languages. Every year he read Aeschylus in the Greek original. He considered him and Shakespeare as the greatest dramatic geniuses humanity ever gave birth to. His respect for Shakespeare was boundless: he made a detailed study of his works and knew even the least important of his characters... He ranked Cervantes and Balzac above all other novelists. In Don Quixote he saw the epic of dying-out chivalry whose virtues were ridiculed and scoffed at in the emerging bourgeois world. He admired Balzac so much that he wished to write a review of his great work La Comédie Humaine as soon as he had finished his book on economics.[1]

If Marx’s planned treatises and articles on aesthetic questions — on religious art, on romanticism, on Balzac’s Human Comedy — never saw fruition, this was down to the pressure of time, not lack of interest. He was a highly cultured intellectual for whom art was meat and drink, and this is why cultural questions and references arise even in his writings on economics.[2]

Friedrich EngelsEngels too had hoped to be a poet and critic. Maynard Solomon tells us:

[Engels] dreamed, according to his biographer, Gustav Mayer, of “preaching through poetry the new ideas which were revolutionising his inner world.” He wrote poetic cycles to humanity in the style of Shelley, and he began a translation of Queen Mab; he composed choral pieces for the musical society in his native Bremen, in which he had served as a chorister. His writings on literary (and occasionally musical) subjects from 1838 to 1842 fill 150 pages of his collected works. [3]

Engels’ comments on Hübner’s painting of the Silesian weavers demonstrate clearly — however limited his judgement of a mediocre work — his belief in the social importance of art. Only reluctantly did Engels, like Marx, prioritise political economy and the work of building a revolutionary movement. Even with so many projects on artistic questions left frustratingly incomplete, their collected comments upon art — letters, reviews, notes scribbled in books, unfinished manuscripts, etc — form a large body of work, which includes a debate on tragedy with Lassalle, critical comments on Eugène Sue’s novel Les Mystères de Paris, and many other contributions.

Vladimir LeninOne of the least-known characteristics of Lenin, the great revolutionary leader, was his particular sensitivity to music. This seems to have caused him both pleasure and distress. As a child he had a great affinity for the piano, and later regretted giving it up. According to Gorky he said, after a domestic performance of one of Beethoven’s piano sonatas:

I know nothing greater than the Appassionata, I’d like to listen to it every day. It’s beautiful, super-human music. I always think proudly — it may be naive — what marvellous things people can do... But I can’t listen to music too often, it affects the nerves, makes you want to say kind, silly things, to stroke the heads of the people who, living in a terrible hell, can create such a beauty.[4]

Lunacharsky too reported that music had such an effect upon Lenin that he would deliberately avoid hearing it. Lenin refused to be distracted from the revolutionary struggle. He told Clara Zetkin, “the revolution demands of the masses and the individual concentration, the straining of every nerve. It does not tolerate orgiastic states.”[5] As the principal leader of the Russian working class, he turned his back on musicality for the sake of a struggle that was bigger than himself. Nonetheless, his articles on Tolstoy are excellent pieces of art criticism that showed he could be sensitive to an artist’s achievements even when despising their politics. Despite feeling ambivalent about works of modern art (“I do not understand them. I experience no joy from them”) he never tried to stand in artists’ way.

Leon TrotskyAs for Leon Trotsky, one of the main architects of the Russian Revolution and commander of the Red Army, he had an enduring love of literature. As Paul N. Siegel observed:

Almost as remarkable in its way as Trotsky’s military accomplishments is the fact that, as he was speeding from one front to another in his famous armoured train, he was reading recently published French novels... And just as his military feats won, as Lenin noted, the respect of experts in that field, so did the literary criticism of this professional revolutionist win the respect of professional men of letters.[6]

Beside his political theory Trotsky wrote reviews of works from Futurist poetry to the historical writing of Churchill, intervened into the early Soviet debate about ‘proletarian culture’, and with his book Literature and Revolution made one of the most significant contributions to Marxist theory on art. His critical approach was always honest and fair: he never allowed political sympathy to detract from his discrimination as a critic, finding praise not only for left-wing writers such as Ignazio Silone but also for the right-wing Céline. He was also one of the staunchest defenders of freedom for the arts, as in the manifesto Towards a Free Revolutionary Art, signed by Diego Rivera and André Breton but mostly written by Trotsky.

Trotsky has been criticised for spending so much energy on Literature and Revolution at a time when, with Lenin dead, the bureaucracy was beginning to crush the democratic life out of the Revolution. Surely, the criticism went, Trotsky should have been organising the opposition and defending true Marxism, instead of writing about fiction and poetry? But Trotsky did not see these as separate tasks. By intervening against the reductive movement for ‘proletarian culture’ touted by the ultra-left, he was making a serious political intervention — refuting its ideas about art also meant exposing its politics.

This is just a brief look at four of Marxism’s most prominent theorists. But the number of writers both Marxist-influenced and Marxist who have contributed to the theory of art and culture is immense. To list just a few: Gordon Childe, Franz Mehring, William Morris, Georgi Plekhanov, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci, Mikhail Bakhtin, Christopher Caudwell, Bertolt Brecht, Theodor Adorno, Georg Lukács, Herbert Marcuse, Guy Debord, Pierre Macherey, John Berger and Terry Eagleton [7]. We shall be exploring these and many other figures in this blog.

It is not necessary to take an intense interest in art before one’s theoretical work may be applicable to it. My point is simply that the philistine ‘communist’ apparatchik, a type drawn from the worst specimens from the bureaucracies, bears no relation to the best Marxist tradition. The most prominent Marxist thinkers have never limited themselves to politics alone but instead embraced a vision of society in which human beings were completely liberated — it was unthinkable to them that art and culture in such a society would not be of the greatest importance.

   



[1] Paul Lafargue, Reminiscences of Karl Marx (1890).
[2] For an excellent detailed study of Marx’s many literary influences and allusions, see S. S. Prawer, Karl Marx and World Literature (1978).
[3] Ed. Maynard Solomon, Marxism and Art (1973). Solomon’s is in my view the best single anthology of Marxist writings on art and culture.
[4] Recounted in Maxim Gorky, V. I. Lenin (1924).
[5] Clara Zetkin, My Memorandum Book.
[6] Paul N. Siegel, Introduction to Art and Revolution, an anthology of Trotsky’s writings on art (1970).
[7] Almost all of the writers listed are white men. This is the regrettable fact of a world that has been dominated by the West since the 16th century, and of a society that prioritised male education far above women’s. There are plenty of female and non-white writers however who have contributed to materialist art theory, as we see as this blog progresses.

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