Sunday, 2 November 2008


It would take a very long list indeed to do justice to Marxist theory of art. I offer below a selection of recommended sources available in English. I will add to this bibliography as I go along so that it includes the most important and relevant texts referred to in this blog.

Not every writer listed here is a Marxist, but their contributions are no less useful for that.

Ed. Baxandall and Morawski:
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels on Literature and Art (2006). An essential collection of the most significant writings of Marx and Engels on our topic. Originally published in 1973, this essential anthology of Marx and Engels’ writings relevant to art was re-edited and re-issued, with a new introduction, by Macdonald Daly in 2006.

Childe, Vere Gordon
Childe was an Australian archaeologist whose books on the development of civilisation, heavily influenced by Marxism, were among the most important and influential archaeological works of the twentieth century. Some of Childe’s data has, inevitably, become outdated, but his broad framework still stands.
Man Makes Himself (1936). A classic of materialist anthropology following human and social evolution up to the founding of the first civilisations.
What Happened in History (1942). A short, accessible book, similar to Man Makes Himself, but covering a broader sweep of history from the evolution of humans to the fall of the ancient world.

Diamond, Jared:
Guns, Germs and Steel (1998). Diamond’s magisterial study offers a powerful materialist explanation for the emergence of agriculture and why the uneven development of human societies is environmental, not racial, in origin. Invaluable for anyone interested in the material basis for the emergence of civilisation.

Eagleton, Terry:
Eagleton is Britain’s most important Marxist critic.
Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976). Eagleton’s concise and readable introduction to some of the main themes of Marxism theory, concentrating upon four areas: Literature and history, form and content, the writer and commitment, and the author as producer. A good starting point for beginners.

Engels, Friedrich:
Anti-Dühring (1877). This work has long been ranked with Capital and the Communist Manifesto as one of the most important works of Marxist theory, and is the most authoritative text on dialectical materialism from Marxism’s founders. It contains a great deal of polemic against a now-forgotten theorist, so the first three chapters were later extracted to form the pamphlet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, one of the most widely read expositions of Marxism.
Letter to Margaret Harkness (April 1888). This short letter contains an important statement on realism.
Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886). Asked to write a review of a book on Feuerbach, Engels took the opportunity to write this ‘short, coherent account’ of how he and Marx formulated their philosophy from the dialectics of Hegel and the materialism of Feuerbach. Part 4 is a concentrated exposition of dialectical materialism.
The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). Engels’ major work on the development of early society and its relation to material life, offering amongst other things an explanation of the oppression of women. Although much of its data has been surpassed by subsequent scholarship, the materialist core of the work remains valuable today. The edition with the 1972 introduction by Eleanor Leacock comes recommended.
The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876). This article was later included in Dialectics of Nature. Some of the scientific data used by Engels have been superceded, and in fairness to him we should point out that the article is a draft only. However Engels’ ground-breaking argument remains a fine example of the dialectical method applied to evolution.

Fischer, Ernst:
Ernst Fischer was an Austrian Marxist who began as a supporter of Stalinism, but later repudiated it and became prominent in the rediscovery of ‘humanist’ Marxism.
The Necessity of Art (1959). Fischer’s thesis that the goal of art is to restore the lost unity of humankind is a little far-fetched, but this book remains a fine contribution.

Fuller, Peter:
• ‘Art and Biology’, New Left Review 132 (1982). (Note: to read the linked article requires a subscription to NLR.) Fuller’s article overemphasises the importance of biology to the origins of art, but includes an interesting discussion of Darwin and aesthetic expression in animals.

Geras, Norman:
Geras today is a liberal apologist for imperialism. He joined self-styled ‘leftists’ like Nick Cohen in supporting the invasion of Iraq and was a founding signatory of the Euston Manifesto.
Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend (1983). Geras makes a powerful case that Marx acknowledged the existence of ‘human nature’. Geras does not have a sufficiently historical interpretation of human nature, but the book is valuable as far as it goes.

Gorky, Maxim:
V. I. Lenin (1924). Gorky’s warm reminiscences of Lenin, written upon the latter’s death.

Hauser, Arnold:
Hauser was a Hungarian-born British art historian strongly influenced by Marxism.
The Philosophy of Art History (1958). Outlines the philosophical basis for his epic Social History of Art.
The Social History of Art (1951). Hauser’s four-volume magnum opus took thirty years to write, and is an ambitious materialist survey of art from cave paintings to the age of film. It uses a Marxist method, considering art in the context of social and historical forces; the approach can be rather crude, but as the single most substantial work of Marxist art history this book cannot be ignored.

Holborow, Marnie:
• ‘Putting the Social Back Into Language’, adapted 2006 from a chapter of her book The Politics of English (1996). Holborow’s essay is a very good introduction to the Marxist theory of language.

Lafargue, Paul:
Lafargue (1842–1911) was a French Marxist and writer.
Reminiscences of Karl Marx (1890). This short biographical piece recalls Marx both as a friend and as a thinker.

Leacock, Eleanor:
Born in New York, Leacock was one of the leading Marxist writers on anthropology and feminism.
Introduction (1972) to Engels’ Origin of the Family. A valuable commentary that updates and enlarges upon Engels’ ideas by drawing upon subsequent anthropology.

Lenain, Thierry:
Monkey Painting (1997). Lenain’s book is an excellent study of ape paintings which uses a dialectical and materialist approach to explain why they shouldn’t be considered to be art.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich:
Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1909). This essay was Lenin’s answer to the positivism advocated by the likes of Mach and Bogdanov, and is an advanced study of materialism. In his Philosophical Notebooks, Lenin later took his dialectical materialism further with his 1914 notes on Hegel’s The Science of Logic. There have been attempts to argue that he broke from his position of 1909, but these do not stand up to investigation — in the Notebooks Lenin enriches the earlier work rather than refutes it.
The Three Sources and Component Parts of Marxism (1913). Lenin’s extremely concise introduction to Marxism via its three ‘component parts’: German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism. Excellent for beginners.

Levins, Richard and Lewontin, Richard:
The Dialectical Biologist (1985). Levins and Lewontin provide a Marxist commentary on biological theory. The section most relevant to this blog is their chapter ‘What is human nature?’, which puts even humans’ most basic biological needs in a historical perspective.

Marx, Karl:
Capital, vol. 1 (1867). Marx’s masterpiece of political economy, whose critique of capital has been vindicated by practical experience up to the present day. The second and third volumes were edited and published after Marx’s death by his lifelong collaborator Engels.
Comments on The Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction (1842). Written while the young Marx was editor of the radical journal Die Rheinische Zeitung, this argument against Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s instructions to the Prussian censor makes clear Marx’s commitment to freedom of the press.
Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (1844, pub. 1932). First published in 1932, these manuscripts of a work Marx planned on bourgeois political economy are only in draft, fragmentary form and are therefore less polished in content and style than his best finished works. Despite this they offer an invaluable insight into his ideas on aesthetics and alienation.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich:
The German Ideology (1846, first pub. in full 1932). Written in 1845–6, this work was not published until the 1930s. A critique of the philosophy of Feuerbach, Bauer, Stirner and others, which includes an account of the materialist conception of history and Marx’s famous formulation: ‘Being is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by being.’
The Holy Family (1844). This work was Marx and Engels’ critique of the Young Hegelians — the title is a sarcastic reference to Bruno Bauer and his supporters. Includes Marx’s brief summary of English materialism, later cited in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.

Morris, William:
Morris is a significant figure in Britain who helped Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling and others to set up the Socialist League in 1885. Despite the utopian and backward-looking character of some of his work (e.g. News from Nowhere or his medievalising poems and novels), Morris is the most important British socialist theorist of art until Caudwell — although neither is of the first rank.
• ‘The Socialist Ideal — Art’ in New Review (January 1891).

Novack, George:
Novack (1905–1992) was an American Marxist.
Understanding History (1956–68).

Plekhanov, Georgi:
Plekhanov (1857–1918) has been described as the founder of Russian Marxism.
Art and Social Life (1912). In this pamphlet Plekhanov attacks ‘art for art’s sake’ and proposes that art should “impart to its productions the significance of judgements on the phenomena of life”. Drawing a mechanical relationship between capitalist decline and a decline in the quality of art, Plekhanov creates a Marxist theory of ‘decadent’ art which would have bitter consequences under Stalin.

Raphael, Max:
Max Raphael (1889–1952) was a German art theorist who moved to France and then the US to escape Nazism. Adopting Marxism in the 1930s, he produced some of the most intelligent and sensitive Marxist writing on art.
Prehistoric Cave Paintings (1945). This essay was an important part of a new generation of work in the 1940s and 1950s that sought to go beyond early interpretations of Paleolithic art. Taking an art historical perspective, he proposed that cave paintings were highly organised and related closely to the structure of the cave.
The Demands of Art (1968). Published after Raphael’s death, this volume contains his extraordinary, stroke-by-stroke analyses of images by Cézanne, Degas, Giotto, Rembrandt and Picasso, including his highly critical response to Guernica. It also contains his fascinating but incomplete essay ‘Towards an Empirical Theory of Art’ which attempts a scientific theory of the artistic process.

Sánchez Vázquez, Adolfo:
Art and Society: Essays in Marxist Aesthetics (1965, English transl. 1973). This can be a little dry, and would benefit from more use of concrete examples, but it is an outstanding theoretical contribution. Highly recommended.

Sayers, Sean:
Marxism and Human Nature (1998). An excellent study that clarifies Marxist positions on morality, progress, history, and of course human nature. Sayers insists that Marxist theory is immanent, historical and relative.

Solomon, Maynard (editor):
Marxism and Art: Essays Classic and Contemporary (1973). This anthology of Marxist writings, from Marx and Engels to Marcuse and Benjamin, is probably the best general anthology available, complemented by Solomon’s erudite introductory articles. Its balance is imperfect — Solomon devotes a whole section to ‘utopianism’ whose place in Marxism is questionable.

Trotsky, Leon:
Leading Bolshevik, commander of the Red Army, and writer of some of the most important Marxist art theory.
Art and Revolution (1970). An anthology of Trotsky’s writings on art, including excerpts from Culture and Socialism and Literature and Revolution, and other essays and reviews.
Culture and Socialism (1927). Trotsky’s essay on culture as a social phenomenon.
In Defence of Marxism (1942). Written as part of a debate with sections of the revolutionary movement that were questioning whether to defend the USSR.
Literature and Revolution (1924). One of the few major theoretical works on art from the ‘classical’ Marxist writers of first rank, this work was part of Trotsky’s opposition to Stalinist orthodoxy. The reviews of Soviet writers in the first section may have lost some of their pertinence, but this book is outstanding. If you only read one Marxist book on art, this should be it.
Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art (1938). This short manifesto was written in collaboration with the Mexican painter Diego Rivera and French surrealist writer André Breton, but probably mostly written by Trotsky. Closes with the slogans, “The independence of art — for the revolution. The revolution — for the complete liberation of art!”
The ABC of Materialist Dialectics (1939). Part of a longer essay, A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers’ Party, this is a neat and simple introduction to dialectics.

Voloshinov, Valentin:
Part of the intellectual flowering that followed the Russian Revolution, Voloshinov was associated with the circle around Mikhail Bakhtin.
Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929). (The link is to a couple of extracts rather than the full text, which is apparently still in copyright.) This work is a fascinating attempt to extend Marxist theory to linguistics.

Lawrence Wilde:
“The creatures, too, must become free”: Marx and the Animal/Human Distinction, Capital and Class issue no. 72, Autumn 2000. Despite its hippy-sounding title, Wilde’s essay makes a useful argument that pointing out how humans and animals differ, as Marx did, does not mean disrespecting or demeaning animals.

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