Thursday, 26 February 2009

Is Marxism determinist?

Marxism is accused with tedious regularity of thinking that everything can be reduced to the mode of production, of being highly deterministic, etc. These accusations come partly from people who do not properly understand Marxism, and partly from outright enemies who distort it so it may more easily be discredited. They also, it must be said, come from some who consider themselves Marxists (so-called ‘vulgar Marxism’) — Stalinism has in particular been responsible for crudely mechanical interpretations of theory. Marxism is a determinist philosophy, but not in the strong sense where A determines B when B depends entirely upon A.

Ambiguities in some of Marx’s writings are partly to blame for the confusion, as examined for example by Macdonald Daly in his introduction to the anthology Karl Marx and Frederick Engels on Literature and Art. In the passage from A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy cited before, Daly writes, Marx “reiterates a central idea in varied phrasing in a manner typical of someone intent on persuading a reader of a novel notion (for Hegelians a heretical notion).”[1] He points out that the passage offers three alternative verbs to describe the relationship between base and superstructure — ‘give rise to’, ‘conditions’ and ‘determines’, depending upon the translation — each of which implies a different sort of relationship. He concludes:

Depending on the chosen inflections, then, the passage can be used to imply either: (1) a strongly deterministic theory in which art is seen as being wholly preordained by the economic context within which is it produced or consumed — in fact is virtually reducible to it — and thus plays a negligible role in ‘real’ historical processes; or (2) a theory in which, although ultimately dependent on and influenced by economic forces, art has a variable freedom (or ‘relative autonomy’) from the economic system within which it arises...[2]

From what we know about Marx’s method and other writings, interpretation (1) seems highly uncharacteristic, and indeed, as Daly also concludes, Marx’s position was not that material conditions determine everything in an ‘inevitable’ way.

An example is the supposed inevitable victory of the proletariat over capitalism. Contrary to the claims of his enemies, Marx did not believe that social change was literally ‘inevitable’. The section of the Communist Manifesto that uses the word [3] does so in a rhetorical gesture which must be understood in the context of his weightier works. Although society can advance to the point where productive forces make huge social advances possible, success or failure depends upon the class struggle — that is, it is politics that is decisive. Nothing is inevitable; only praxis makes change. It could even happen that an asteroid destroys the world before the proletariat can be victorious — where is your ‘inevitability’ then? Such catastrophic changes have happened before in the Earth’s history, as in the Permian extinction or ‘Great Dying’ that wiped out 96 percent of all marine species and 70 percent of land species about 250 million years ago, or the more famous extinction 65 million years ago that obliterated the dinosaurs. We are hardly immune from such developments.

The correct position with respect to base and superstructure was made explicit by Engels, who made it his duty to try and clarify such questions after Marx’s death. Engels expressed regret, in an 1890 letter to Joseph Bloch, that

Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-á-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction.[4]

In the same letter he explained:

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.[5]

This could not be clearer. Art cannot be reduced to a superstructural ‘reflection’ of the economic system, any more than it can be reduced to the personal ‘vision’ of individual artists. If such a crudely determinist perspective were correct, then every culture existing under the same general conditions would produce identical art. In reality, we see enormous variations between cultures even when their economies are very similar, because there are many other influences at work. Each society builds up its own set of beliefs, its own history, its own precedents of style, influenced by its particular environment; it throws up too its own aesthetic ideas, which will sometimes resemble those of other societies, or borrow from them, or be imposed upon by them, and will sometimes contradict them.

Marxism may appear rigidly deterministic if we reify history into separate components — economics, law, politics, etc — and take economics as the main factor. But the breakup of history into rigid ‘subject areas’ was a bourgeois creation, and is contrary to the method of Marxism because it is non-dialectical. The Marxist approach is far more rich and flexible.

Free will

The idea that our consciousness is heavily conditioned by our environment raises the question of to what extent we enjoy free will. Are our actions determined for us?

It is only possible to rob us of free will if we adopt a mechanical version of Marxism. Marx answered the question thus:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past [6].

Marx believed that human beings created themselves by producing to meet their needs, through their active engagement with the material world — to borrow from Childe, ‘man makes himself’. Important as the mode of production is, history is ultimately made by human beings, but acting within conditions shaped by that mode of production. The issue was summed up by Paul Blackledge:

Given that the distinguishing characteristic of human production, according to Marx, was that it was a form of ‘purposeful activity’, it makes little sense to contrast productive-force determinism with free action. Rather, because we exercise free will within determinate material contexts, it is much better to follow Hegel in conceiving determination and freedom as two sides of the same coin: ‘freedom is the appreciation of necessity’, as Engels put it.[7]

What productive forces do is define the parameters of what is possible for human will within a particular historical context that is constantly being redefined by human action — within that context there is a dialectical relationship between freedom and necessity. The task of historians is to seek to understand that relationship.

The relative autonomy of art

The various parts of the superstructure — art, religion, law, politics and so on — are not only conditioned by the economic base, but by each other, and from this they draw a relative autonomy. This is especially true of art.

Failure to recognise this has led vulgar Marxists into some seriously flawed assertions. For example, the important Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov, praised by Trotsky as a “convinced, passionate and brilliant crusader” for dialectical materialism [8], went into a theoretical decline after 1905, and this decline was very visible in his 1912 pamphlet Art and Society. Plekhanov drew a ‘vulgar’ parallel between the waning capitalism of the period and a supposed waning of art, leading him into absurd attacks on modern art. Art and Society was highly influential, not least in the Soviet Union where it was held up by Stalinists as theoretical justification for their doctrine of ‘decadence’. Today it serves merely as a warning against mechanical interpretations of Marxism.

There is no work of art that does not have an ideological content, but art is less purely ideological than economics or politics. It exists in a highly complex dialectical relationship with other aspects of ideology, influencing them and being influenced in turn. Marxist critics are interested in these relationships and — because the point of Marxism is to change the world — what role art plays in helping to change the capitalist economic base to a socialist one.[9] (This, after all, is the whole point of a revolution.) Society provides art with its raw material, with its range of possibilities. But art is not dictated to by economic conditions. If it was, it could in our society only reflect capitalist ideology. In fact, because it has strong relations with many different strands of the superstructure — such as philosophy, religion and psychology, not to mention the artist’s own idiosyncratic experience — and because many of these strands will be in contradiction, art is able to assert a degree of independence. As Marx wrote in the Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

As regards art, it is well known that some of its peaks by no means correspond to the general development of society; nor do they therefore to the material substructure.[10]

If this were not so, it is unlikely that classics from times profoundly different to our own, such as The Odyssey or the prints of feudal Japan, would be able to enthrall us. Once it was removed from the society that determined it, art would retain very little meaning.

Brecht believed that art was able to reproduce what life was like in certain conditions, thereby recreating experience instead of analysing it or being enslaved by it. This confrontational quality has caused art a lot of trouble. St Petersburg audiences booed the Rite of Spring, Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover were banned, and Hitler burned books, because art is able to remind us that there are different ways to live. Art is both infused with ideology and able, through its relative autonomy, to distance itself from it and expose it.

The superstructure changes the base

There is another important dialectic working against crude determinism: as the base influences the superstructure, so too the superstructure influences the base. It is through the ideological forms thrown up within the superstructure that humans realise the possibility of changing the mode of production, and build the revolutions which transform the base into a new form. For this reason, art, although it cannot by itself cause revolutionary change, can be part of a process towards change. Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting of 1784, The Oath of the Horatii, may be taken as an example: a starkly original piece of republican and revolutionary propaganda. The French Revolution was not, and could not be, caused by a painting, but works like this contributed to some small degree — impossible to measure precisely — to creating the atmosphere of revolutionary commitment that prepared the way for the overthrow of Louis XVI.

David, The Oath of the HoratiiJacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii. Larger image here.

A revolution takes place when the productive forces of a society outgrow the existing political structures. After a series of quantitative changes, new social forces bring about a new quality — a new mode of production. Only the conscious intervention of human beings can change the base — it is politics, a part of the superstructure, that is decisive — and this change is not inevitable. The superstructure, rather than being a passive reflection of the base, is in fact the battleground upon which different classes and ideologies compete.

Crude determinism is not, then, supported by the writings of Marx and Engels. Our task is rather to try and comprehend the totality of relationships in all their dialectical richness. This is a tremendous task, and one that even the best Marxist will struggle to be equal to, but we cannot escape the actual conditions of life.

[1] Ed. Baxandall and Morawski, Karl Marx and Frederick [sic] Engels on Literature and Art. Originally published in 1973, this essential anthology of Marx and Engels’ writings on art was reissued and re-edited with Daly’s introduction in 2006.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Marx and Engels, Chapter 1, ‘Bourgeois and Proletarians’ from Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848).
[4] Engels, Letter to Joseph Bloch (written 1890). Engels expresses the same regret in a letter to Franz Mehring of 1893, in which he makes his important remark that “all action is mediated by thought”.
[5] Ibid. An attempt is sometimes made to separate the views of Marx and Engels on this and other questions, but Engels’ point derives from a dialectical perspective fundamental to Marx’s philosophy.
[6] Marx, chapter one of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852).
[7] Paul Blackledge, Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History (2006).
[8] Trotsky, A Note on Plekhanov (1922).
[9] This does not mean that Marxists insist upon art having a tendentious or propaganda content. Where such content exists, it has to emerge as an organic part of the outlook of the artists themselves.
[10] Marx, from the closing section of the Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1857). This work was part of Marx’s Grundrisse, to which the quote is therefore sometimes attributed.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009


How does the economic system influence something as subjective and seemingly autonomous as a person’s creativity? The answer lies in the concept of ideology.

Marx and Engels did not invent this, but it plays an essential part in their theory. They taught that the ideas of a given epoch were the product of its ‘dominant material relationships, grasped as ideas’ [1]. Ideology is part of the superstructure and therefore flows from the mode of production.

Works of art are not mysterious things snatched from the ether, nor are they the unique offspring of individual psychology. Artists are, like all humans, social beings, and they draw upon the most prominent ways of seeing in the culture or cultures of which they are a part. These ways of seeing in turn are dependent upon the particular social relations of that time and place. By ‘ideology’ we do not mean a formal set of doctrines, but the whole complex of ideas, ethics, and imaginings which we live and breathe, often unawares, as we go about our lives.

Even such a seeming constant as love is expressed in different forms depending upon the social conditions of the time. The way in which we understand and express our feelings of love is determined by many aspects: the family structure, the relative equality (or inequality) of the sexes, our social expectations, and so on. Many of the forms in which love is expressed in the West today, such as the ‘candlelit dinner for two’ and the sending of Valentine’s cards, are of very recent and culturally specific provenance.

The illusion that consciousness is primary

We do not choose the ways of seeing that surround us — that is an accident of our birth. In practice, although ideology is the product of material relationships, we often have the impression that the reverse is true — that our consciousness is primary. Engels provided an explanation for this, rooted in the development of human society. As we increased our productivity, we achieved a more sophisticated division of labour, and began to build complex structures of law, religion and politics.

In the face of all these images, which appeared in the first place to be products of the mind and seemed to dominate human societies, the more modest productions of the working hand retreated into the background, the more so since the mind that planned the labour was able, at a very early stage in the development of society (for example, already in the primitive family), to have the labour that had been planned carried out by other hands than its own. All merit for the swift advance of civilisation was ascribed to the mind, to the development and activity of the brain. Men became accustomed to explain their actions as arising out of thought instead of their needs (which in any case are reflected and perceived in the mind); and so in the course of time there emerged that idealistic world outlook which, especially since the fall of the world of antiquity, has dominated men’s minds.[2]

Marx saw the origins of this in the division of labour:

The division of labour becomes a real division only when a distinction between material and mental labour arises. From this moment on, consciousness can be effectively persuaded that something else exists besides the consciousness of existing praxis.[3]

Our awareness of the power of our consciousness, and its visible effect upon the material world, creates the impression that life is determined by it. In fact the ideas through which people define themselves and make assumptions about what is true are ultimately conditioned by the mode of production.

Dominance of the ruling class

The relationship between the structures of society and the works of art created within that society is hardly controversial. “One cannot live in society,” wrote Lenin, “and be free from society.”[4] It is a small step from recognising that, to recognising that the power relationships within human society will exert their own influence. We have quoted elsewhere part of Marx and Engels’ famous declaration from the Communist Manifesto:

What else does the history of ideas prove than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.[5]

A couple of years earlier they had already formulated the theory:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.[6]

This is well known in the adage that ‘the victors write the history books.’ And it is not difficult to see how this dominance is achieved. The ruling class controls the great majority of the wealth; the publication houses and television stations; the curriculum of schools and universities; bodies of armed men who can arrest or even execute people who propose alternative views, and so on. It uses these powerful means to influence what ideas are disseminated in society, and make sure that those ideas are agreeable to its interests.

The bourgeoisie, currently the ruling class in three quarters of the world, requires a system of commodity exchange and waged labour. In order for this mode of production to function smoothly, the bourgeoisie requires not only capital, a class of wage labourers, markets to sell products to, and so on, but ideological institutions, assumptions and ideas that encourage everyone involved to co-operate with it as uncomplainingly as possible. These ideas include the belief in the moral right to private property, the importance of obeying bourgeois laws, the capitalist’s right to extract profit from his or her workforce, nationalism as a means of mobilising workers behind military adventures, cynicism about or outright hostility towards alternative forms of society, and so on.

From the ruling class point of view, ideology is most effective when it obscures oppression and the great majority of people take the social relations of their time for granted, as part of an eternal, and therefore unchangeable, condition. If the proletariat were to understand with full clarity the structure of capitalist society, it could and would overthrow it with ease. The army would refuse to fight for the ruling class, the workers would take over the means of production and control of the state, and we could build a better world. Instead, many workers align themselves behind their oppressors, and more again are politically apathetic, because of the norms set by the dominant ideology — a problem known as false consciousness. It is the tremendous obstacle posed by ideology that makes it necessary to fight intense political battles to bring about change.

We may take religion as the best proof that a proposition that cannot be proved even to exist at all may still persist and exert influence over our minds and actions.

No ruling ideology announces itself as such. Bourgeois statesmen never refer to their ‘capitalist ideology’. Instead ideology is portrayed as ‘common sense’ confirmed by historical experience. For centuries it was claimed that men were naturally superior to women, drawing support from the fact that men have dominated society since records began. Ideology’s claims become eternal facts of human society and the universe, against which it is futile to struggle. Capitalism, instead of being a historical phase of human society, is presented as the system most in tune with human nature and therefore the most practical. It is also mentioned relatively rarely: euphemisms like ‘democracy’ or ‘the free world’ are preferred [7].

Active Marxists are very familiar with the constant battle against false assertions that constitutes so much political work inside the bourgeois state. Most of us, even when apolitical, are aware on some level that the world does not match the official account of it: we are told our society is democratic, but observe the inaccessibility and secretiveness of our rulers; we are told it is broadly benign but see body-bags returning from ‘our’ aggression abroad. For a comment on political rhetoric we may turn to George Orwell, whose scathing observations from 1946 sound very contemporary:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.[8]

Thus there is widespread cynicism, at least in the West, because people are aware of being dealt with dishonestly but have no confidence in an alternative.

Although ‘false consciousness’ is a key aspect of ideology, it is important to remember that ideology can not be reduced to it. Marxism is itself an ideology, and can be studied as such self-consciously. Ideology is not entirely illusion: it arises out of actual conditions and the reality of those conditions survives within it. For this reason contradictions arise that create the space for the actual social relationships to become clear. If it were not possible to overcome false consciousness, then the Russian and other revolutions could never have happened.


If the economy ruled every aspect of social life, then only the economy would be worthy of study. Art, so heavily determined that it had no capacity to influence society, would lose its value as art and became merely an over-imaginative and subjective copy of external facts. In these circumstances, a novel such as Heart of Darkness could offer no insight into imperialism that couldn’t be divined by reading the figures on Congolese rubber exports. Therefore it is important not to take a rigid or deterministic approach to Marxist theory — a question we will address in the next post.

This article cannot explore all the complexities of the concept of ideology, not least because Marx and Engels’ original theory has been subject to important further development by, for example, Gramsci, Althusser and Lucien Goldmann. This can only serve as a general introduction. We shall return to the question many times over the course of the blog to discuss controversies, flesh out the idea further, and explore its particular application to the arts.

[1] Marx and Engels, from Part 1 section B, ‘Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas’ in The German Ideology (1845).
[2] Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876).
[3] Marx and Engels, from Chapter 1, section A, ‘History: Fundamental Conditions’ from The German Ideology (1845).
[4] Lenin, Party Organisation and Party Literature (1905).
[5] Marx and Engels, ‘Proletarians and Communists’, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848).
[6] Marx and Engels, from Part 1 section B, ‘Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas’ in The German Ideology (1845).
[7] History has shown that capitalism and democracy are not synonymous. Most of the western capitalist countries have practised universal adult suffrage for only a short time, and many — such as Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany and Greece — have spent long periods as dictatorships.
[8] From his article Politics and the English Language (1946). Orwell criticises Marxist writing too in this essay, and writers of every kind may benefit from it. I should perhaps make sure it is clear that Orwell in this quote is not actually defending dropping atom bombs, etc — he is explaining that the motivations of various governments in committing such acts are unacceptable both to many members of the political parties responsible and to the public in general.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Base and superstructure

The Marxist theory of history explains the fundamental relationship between material conditions and ideas through the concept of ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’. The most important passage on this can be found in Marx’s preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.[1]

We could cite a number of passages from other works that reinforce the point. For example, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx writes:

[People] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an nightmare on the brains of the living.[2]

For Marx, the most important conditioning elements in a society are the relationships through which it produces and distributes its wealth. The emphasis upon relationships is important. You cannot tell from a person’s DNA whether he or she is a serf, a vagrant, a capitalist, a proletarian — such status is not innate to them, but depends upon their position within the social relations of their time. These fundamental relationships include the prevailing mode of production and the class basis of a society.

During the Middle Ages, the dominant social relationship was that of a peasant to a lord. After several centuries, a new mode of production arose within feudal society based upon the relationship between a wage labourer and a capitalist. This relationship was based upon a different mode of production and therefore had a different character. Where the feudal serf was the vassal of his or her lord, and owed them service and a share of the products of their labour, the wage labourer has no means of sustaining themselves other than the sale of their labour to a capitalist.

Upon this economic ‘base’ arises a complex ‘superstructure’. This is composed of state structures of law, institutions and political organisation which reflect the dominant social relationships; it also comprises an immense range of conventions and ideas, such as politics, philosophy, morality, and (most importantly for this blog) art. In class society, these are largely, though not exclusively, defined by the ruling class, to justify and maintain the unequal social relationships upon which their privileges depend. The ‘definite forms of social consciousness’ of the superstructure are known to Marxism as ideology.

The forms this takes in actual societies is always concrete, always precise:

The fact is, therefore, that definite individuals who are productively active in a definite way enter into these definite social and political relations. Empirical observation must in each separate instance bring out empirically, and without any mystification and speculation, the connection of the social and political structure with production.[3]

Through history, modes of production and their corresponding social structures change, and therefore art too, as part of the superstructure, changes its forms and meaning.

As an example we may take the Puritan Christianity that arose in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This new religious form was an expression of the interests of the rising bourgeoisie, which required a church institution that was under its own control. Puritanism conformed more closely to bourgeois individualism, with its emphasis upon a personal relationship with God, and its severity and simplicity represented in part the bourgeoisie’s need to accumulate starting capital. Puritan policy towards the arts was to ban theatrical performances, the use of music in church, and ‘idolatrous’ imagery. All of these characteristics of Puritanism, indeed its very existence as an ideology, are ultimately based upon its relationship to the bourgeois mode of production in the particular conditions of pre-Revolutionary England.


Art then is part of the superstructure of society, influenced by the mode of production. But no work of art exists in glorious isolation — it is also influenced by other things, such as other parts of the superstructure. Trying to trace every causal thread that links a work of art through the law, philosophy, religion, aesthetics and so on would be impossible, but criticism must try to see art as a totality — causality in art, as in everything, is not a straightforward linear process but a sum of processes, some of which are in contradiction. As Marx put it, “the concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse.”[4]

Our own history as a species illustrates this very well. Humans evolved because of the rise of the mammals made possible by the great extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Mesozoic era 65 million years ago; this extinction followed the crashing of a huge asteroid into the earth at what is now the Yucatán peninsula; this asteroid was probably influenced by the tremendous gravitational pull of Jupiter, half a billion miles from Earth, which nudges cosmic objects towards us. Thus the very existence of human beings is part of an immense, complex system of interlinked cosmic processes — like the Earth itself, the ‘Goldilocks’ planet where everything is ‘just right’ for life to prosper, we are one tiny, fortunate accident.

So art too is complex. It is partly a product of the psychology of its creators, but it is also a product of a dominant ‘way of seeing’, in John Berger’s phrase, which is conditioned by the most profound structures of society.

Students of art may wonder why they are being asked to understand politics and economics, and what all this has to do with art. Terry Eagleton provides a succinct answer:

To understand King Lear, The Dunciad or Ulysses is therefore to do more than interpret their symbolism, study their literary history and add footnotes about sociological facts which enter into them. It is first of all to understand the complex indirect relations between those works and the ideological worlds they inhabit — relations which emerge not just in ‘themes’ and ‘preoccupations’, but in style, rhythm, image, quality and... form. But we do not understand ideology either unless we grasp the part it plays in the society as a whole — how it consists of a definite, historically relative structure of perception which underpins the power of a particular social class. This is not an easy task, since an ideology is never a simple reflection of a ruling class’s ideas; on the contrary, it is always a complex phenomenon, which may incorporate conflicting, even contradictory, views of the world. To understand an ideology, we must analyse the precise relations between different classes in a society; and to do that means grasping where those classes stand in relation to the mode of production.[5]

Many basic questions of art history simply cannot be answered any other way. For example, the reason there has been such a rapid succession of art movements from the nineteenth century onwards, when art in societies like ancient Egypt could persist unchanged for 3000 years, is the dynamic rate of change introduced by capitalist forces of production. This quantity and quality of change has produced a historically unprecedented degree of alienation amongst artists, who need to constantly reinvent what art ‘is’ in order to escape recuperation of their work (a topic we shall examine in detail at a later stage).

This is why we need to understand base and superstructure — politics and economics are, inescapably, an essential part of understanding any work of art.

[1] Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1856).
[2] Marx, Chapter 1 of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852). This pamphlet was Marx’s brilliant analysis of the rise to power of Napoleon III in France.
[3] Marx and Engels, from Vol 1, Part I of The German Ideology (1845–6).
[4] Marx, ‘The Method of Political Economy’ from Grundrisse.
[5] Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976). Eagleton is Britain’s most important Marxist critic.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Being and consciousness

We can already see that art is connected with the changing social and economic conditions of the society in which it is created. I felt the need, after all, to preface a discussion of Neolithic art with an introduction to the Neolithic Revolution. What then is the relationship between social-historical developments and art, and how does Marxism explain it? This was touched upon in the articles upon dialectical materialism, but before we continue we need to look at it more closely.

Marx’s basic position was famously summarised in The German Ideology:

The production of ideas, concepts and consciousness is first of all directly interwoven with the material intercourse of man, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the spiritual intercourse of men, appear here as the direct efflux of men’s material behaviour... we do not proceed from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as described, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at corporeal man; rather we proceed from the really active man... Consciousness does not determine life: life determines consciousness.[1]

It was the German philosopher Hegel who gave the conception of consciousness a social-historical perspective — Marx, who learned a great deal from him, took it further by putting it on a materialist instead of an idealist footing.

Art, like any other subject, cannot be understood by isolating one aspect then elevating it into a system. It must be seen as a totality — a sum of processes. Art is the product of history, of local culture, of artists’ personal experiences, of the available materials, of what earlier artworks are available as models, of the artist’s mood on the day, of the expectations of people in authority, and many other influences. But all of these aspects have to be considered in their concrete, historical context.

This is actually very obvious. It was not possible to create bronze statues until the development of metallurgy enabled us to extract tin and copper ores and combine them into an alloy. In the same way, no artist could explore themes from Christian mythology until the Christian religion emerged, thousands of years after humanity had, in blissful ignorance of Jesus, already built sophisticated societies and produced masterpieces of art.

Marx and Engels therefore insist upon seeing things historically:

Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness, change with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and his social life?

What else does the history of ideas prove, than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed?[2]

Therefore we must explore, as a necessary complement to aesthetic questions, Marxist theory on society and history. The French philosopher Descartes famously said that “I think, therefore I am.” [3] In fact his maxim was the wrong way round. Mind and body develop as a unity, but it is impossible for anybody to think without the neurological equipment provided by matter, whereas matter may certainly exist without thought, as the nearest chair or pebble will prove in a moment. “Thinking and being are thus certainly distinct, but at the same time they are in unity with each other” (Marx) [4].

Being determines consciousness

In Marxist philosophy, human beings exist in a subject-object relationship with a material world of which they are themselves also a part. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels set out the materialist approach to the relationship between ideas and reality:

The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature... The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men...

By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.

The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.[5]

This approach was radical at a time when philosophers were pre-occupied with variations of idealism: that is, they assumed that history was a history of ideas through which humans transformed their social conditions. In fact we must draw our conclusions from actual concrete conditions. All our ideas develop from the material facts of our lives — the mode of production, the class structure, the conflicting ideologies between and within classes, and so on [6] — and these heavily influence both our day-to-day experience and the climate of our intellectual assumptions.

The material context conditions our way of thinking whether we realise it or not; even when we know it is happening, we can never completely overcome it because we are limited by history. Just as no artist could depict a television in their work until the possibility of televisions had been conceived, we cannot think ideas until society has reached a point that makes it possible for us to create those ideas.

Capitalism — contrary to bourgeois theorists who want to suggest it is an eternal aspect of human nature — did not exist in the world until a layer of people began to employ wage labour in 14th-century Europe. Likewise, nobody was writing Marxist treatises in the Classic Maya civilisation of 250–900 CE, not because of some random chance but because the material conditions that made the ideology of Marxism possible — industrialisation and the development of the proletariat — simply had not yet appeared.

The art of the Renaissance grew from the revolutionary rise of capitalism within feudal society; its emphasis upon perspective, identification with classical art and return to naturalism developed from the humanism and individualism of the early bourgeoisie. Broadly, the bourgeois worldview shifted art from representing the world in spiritual terms to representing it in human and material terms. A painting like Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors could never have been created during the Medieval period. In order to understand why it could not, we need to understand the development of productive forces. Otherwise we are simply left with a series of ‘styles’ that seem to pop up at the whim of artists.

Holbein's The Ambassadors‘The Ambassadors’ by Holbein. The sensuous realism of this work represents a radical shift away from Medieval art. Larger image here.

Recognising the influence of particular conditions in this way does not demote or belittle art [7]. No art can be reduced to its social conditioning; at the same time, no art is demeaned by pointing out that social conditioning exists. No theory of art will be of value that does not ground itself in the relationships with which art, inescapably, engages with the world.

Marxists are probably more aware than anybody that their own theoretical framework is itself a part of history and will change and grow over time. All classes are transitory. But the proletariat is uniquely at ease with its historical nature. Marxism aims for a society in which there will no longer be a proletariat because there will be no classes — the proletariat is the only class in history whose ultimate goal is its own dissolution.


Our susceptibility to material conditions does not make us automatons without any freedom of action.

Materialist epistemology argues that consciousness proceeds from matter, and that cognition is the ‘reflection’ of external reality in consciousness. Marx wrote:

To Hegel, the process of thinking, which, under the name of ‘the Idea’, he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos (the creator, the maker) of the real world... With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.[8]

This point of view was confirmed by Engels in Anti-Dühring:

If the... question is raised: what thought and consciousness really are, and where they come from; it becomes apparent that they are products of the human brain and that man himself is a product of Nature, which has developed in and along with its environment; hence it is self-evident that the products of the human brain, being in the last analysis also products of Nature, do not contradict the rest of Nature’s interconnections but are in correspondence with them...

Hegel was an idealist, that is to say, the thoughts within his mind were to him not the more or less abstract images of real things and processes, but on the contrary, things and their development were to him only the images, made real, of the ‘Idea’ existing somewhere or other before the world existed.[9]

This theory of ‘reflection’ was later also expanded upon by Lenin.

However, Marxists see the world as dialectical. Consciousness does not passively ‘reflect’ being. If it did, there would be little need to consider consciousness at all except as an aspect of matter. For Marx, there was no separation of the two, as he made clear in his criticism of Feuerbach’s passive conception of the sensuous world:

He does not see how the sensuous world around him is, not a thing given direct from all eternity, remaining ever the same, but the product of industry and of the state of society; and, indeed, in the sense that it is an historical product, the result of the activity of a whole succession of generations, each standing on the shoulders of the preceding one, developing its industry and its intercourse, modifying its social system according to the changed needs.[10]

The conception of human consciousness in the abstract, as a passive product of being, derives from pre-Marxist philosophy and is explicitly rejected by Marx. Dialectics insist upon change — they also insist that things and processes react upon each other. Just as being determines consciousness, consciousness can determine being: good examples are the French, Russian and other Revolutions, in which human action changed the fundamental basis of the economy. They became possible because of the advances in material forces, but could only happen through human action, which in turn depended upon ideological conviction.

So the insistence upon the primacy of being does not preclude or demote consciousness. It means that consciousness can only be understood as a relationship with the material world: consciousness retains some autonomy, but within a broader framework upon which it ultimately depends. In practice, we cannot separate being from consciousness in humans — they may only be separated in the abstract.

We shall clarify this ‘autonomy’ of consciousness further by looking at the Marxist theory of ideology. First, however, we need to consider the concept of base and superstructure.

[1] Marx and Engels, from Part I of The German Ideology (1845–6).
[2] Marx and Engels, ‘Proletarians and Communists’, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848).
[3] In French, ‘Je pense donc je suis.’ René Descartes, Discourse on Method (1637).
[4] Marx, Third Manuscript, the 1844 Manuscripts (1844).
[5] Marx and Engels, from Part I of The German Ideology (1845–6).
[6] We shall discuss the idea of class society in more detail when we look at its first appearance in the early civilisations.
[7] For example, the art theorist Ellen Dissanayake, in her book Homo Aestheticus (1992), writes “To earlier generations, art was a divine and mysterious visitation. More recently it was demoted to... part of the ‘superstructure’, as materialist philosophy would have it” [my italics]. Dissanayake is concerned that if art is superstructural, it cannot be a necessary part of our biological make-up; I shall post an article on this topic.
[8] Afterward to the Second Edition of Capital, vol. 1 (1867).
[9] Engels, Part I, section III of Anti-Dühring (1877). The word Engels uses in the original German is Abbilder.
[10] Marx and Engels, Part I, section B of The German Ideology (1845–6).

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Neolithic art, part 4: Religion and art

It is tempting to imagine Paleolithic artists contemplating the images they created and beginning an intellectual journey towards conceiving creator gods who made humans, like humans made figurines.

The Neolithic sees the beginnings of religion in the form we recognise today. As we are dealing with prehistory, there are no writings to preserve the beliefs of that time, so we are limited to what we may infer from archaeological evidence, but there is no question that religion had profound implications for art.

Organised religion, as opposed to whatever Paleolithic societies practiced, is built on the resources of a more advanced economy, with prescribed scriptures and rituals, and a hierarchy of specialist priests. Come the rise of civilisation, religion took on the role of helping to justify the disproportionate wealth and power of the nobility by ascribing their status to divine edict. In return, the priest caste could enjoy being part of the elite, with considerable material rewards.

But religion is of course also one of the means by which human beings, when they know no better, try to explain the world around them — such as the belief that there are supramundane, intelligent powers that determined the destiny of human beings. Religion was a way of trying to meet some of our prehistoric needs: it provided an explanation for the animals and natural forces around which human life revolved, but for which no scientific account was yet possible. These explanations were, inevitably, anthropomorphised; that is, humans found meaning by relating external forces to what they were most intimately familar with. Therefore, as Marx wrote, “Man makes religion, religion does not make man.”[1]

Rituals, whatever their specific purpose, occur in all human societies and serve to unite a group of humans within a common sense of identity. There is a relationship between ritual and art that is as true of modern ceremonials as it was of Neolithic rites. They are not identical, but they are inseparable. Ritual enlists the arts in the forms of elaborate costumes and head-dresses, body-painting, the use of decorations like feathers, beads and gems, evocative language, music, displays of groups of people in formations, dances, revered objects made of rare and precious materials, and so on. In the construction of the temples and tombs that provided settings for these rituals, religion calls upon the most monumental of the arts: architecture. These methods drew attention to the ritual as an event that was out of ordinary, or super-natural. A huge proportion of the creative labour expended by society was, and to a lesser extent still is, for a religious, semi-religious or superficially religious purpose.

A brief note on Marxism and religion

As a materialist philosophy, Marxism points out that no evidence for the existence of supernatural beings has ever been produced. There are compelling materialist explanations for the processes of the universe.[2] None of these theories are, or can ever be, complete, but they provide a framework for understanding the physical laws of nature and the evolution of living creatures. Given that human consciousness cannot be separated from the human body, an afterlife cannot exist. Humans need ways of addressing their fears, giving life meaning, and explaining the nature of our relationship to the world — and religion provides that for millions of people — but they deserve better than illusions and falsehoods.

Marx is famous for describing religion as the ‘opium of the people’, but it is worth reading the whole passage:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.[3]

Marx knew that religion was nonsense, but he also knew that it was not the main enemy, and that it was the means, albeit illusory, by which oppressed people found meaning and solace. To free the poor from these illusions required a fundamental change in the structure of society; the enemy is not religion but the alienated society that fosters it.

The correct attitude towards religious people and institutions was summed up by Lenin, who was often scathing about religion, when he wrote:

Religion must be declared a private affair... Religion must be of no concern to the state, and religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or no religion whatever, i.e., to be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule. Discrimination among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable.[4]

Thus the Stalinist approach of banning and oppressing religious practice is quite wrong. Lenin also argued however that the party, as opposed to the state, should agitate against religion. It is in no one’s interest to live according to a lie — and the vanguard of the working class above all should not be seduced by it.

From Paleolithic magic to Neolithic religion

We know that at least some Paleolithic societies buried their dead (this is even true of Neanderthals, though in their case there is no evidence of associated ritual.) Skeletons found at Qafzeh in modern-day Israel, dated to around 100,000 years ago, had been stained with red ochre; it is hard to see why skeletons would be modified in this way if not for some ritual purpose. Max Raphael amongst others proposed that Paleolithic society practised totemism, in which an animal is worshipped as a representative of the social group. Alternatively, David Lewis-Williams proposed that Paleolithic rock art originated in shamanism, and the trances of shamans as they saw both revered animals and abstract forms in their hallucinations.

Shaman from Papua New GuineaShaman from contemporary Papua New Guinea. Photo: Kira Salak.

The truth is that we know next to nothing about Paleolithic ideas about the supernatural. They are impossible to extract from flint tools, animal bones, and indeed from the art, and would not have been uniform across the entire world for thousands of years. The ideas associated with the activities for which we have evidence are unknowable. The most persuasive theory, encouraged by ethnographic precedent (itself a very unreliable guide), is that Paleolithic spirituality centred upon the spirits of animals and human ancestors. It was probably sensuous and immediate — practitioners knew intimately the animals that dominated their art: saw them, observed their behaviours and seasonal movements, tracked them, and tore open their bodies after the kill. It may therefore have been monistic, i.e. it saw a unity in all aspects of nature.

The Neolithic farmer was confronted by bigger, invisible forces — such as the rhythm over seasons across a year — which were more in need of abstraction. With the cultivation of fields of crops and investment in animals, Neolithic humans had something to lose, and were more aware than ever of flood and famine, of disease and war. Unsurprisingly they sought ways to extend their control over their fate. Hauser characterised the roots of Neolithic religion this way:

Not until [the Neolithic person] begins to breed plants and cattle does he also begin to feel that his fate is directed by powers endowed by reason and with the ability to determine human destiny. With the awareness of man’s dependence on good and bad weather, on rain and sunshine, lightning and hail, plague and famine, on the fertility and infertility of the earth and abundance or meagreness of litters, arises the conception of all kinds of demons and spirits — beneficent and malignant — distributing blessings and curses, and the idea of the unknown and mysterious, of the higher powers, of huge, supramundane and numinous forces beyond human control.[5]

Hauser draws a very firm line between ‘Paleolithic magic’ and ‘Neolithic animism’. The first is single and concrete in texture, the latter dualistic and abstract. “That is the main reason why Paleolithic art reproduces things true to life and reality, whilst Neolithic art opposes a stylised and idealised superworld to ordinary empirical reality.” This is too rigid a division. We can see a continuity between the spiritual art objects of both the Old and the New Stone Ages, just as there may be a continuity of animistic beliefs, i.e. that animals, plants or even rocks and rivers may possess souls and need to be placated with offerings to win favours. The spiral form of the dialectic reminds us that old forms live on inside the new.

However, in the Neolithic a change does occur which is based upon the increased resources of society. Making parallels, perhaps, between their own small acts of creation and those of beings more powerful than themselves, they conceived of spirits who intervened in their affairs, and in a supernatural world which included a place for themselves after death. The planting of crops invited the parallel concept of fertility gods. Where the Paleolithic hunter depended upon his senses, upon his immediate world, in order to survive, the Neolithic farmer depended upon organisation and long-term forces. As a peasant he required stability and this led to conservatism: his art, as his life, was regulated and disliked change.

To placate the spirit world Neolithic farmers developed forms of worship with a new level of sophistication, and with worship came the cultural need for religious idols, temples, symbols and rituals. The behaviour of these spirits or deities could supposedly be influenced by human action — performing the correct ritual would encourage deities to behave in a way that favoured our own needs, such as bringing rain during a dry season, healing a sick relative, and so on. Humans in other words were looking for ways to materially influence natural forces over which, in reality, they had no control at all. The arts were enlisted in these entreaties.

Neolithic religion and art

As we touched upon in the previous article, this was realised in a variety of ways. In megalithic structures we have evidence that Neolithic societies were prepared to invest enormous amounts of labour, using only basic tools, to dig out, drag and carve huge blocks of stone to erect tombs and temples.

StonehengeStonehenge in the United Kingdom, probably the most famous of Neolithic religious sites. The Neolithic Revolution came late to the Britons — Stonehenge is dated to around 3000–2500 BCE, a good two millennia after Mesopotamian peoples were creating the first civilisations.

Built along the Atlantic coast of Western Europe from Portugal to Sweden, these tombs usually form a single burial chamber, covered with a mound of earth with one entrance passage, and hold the remains of several people. They were often laid out according to geometric designs based upon circles, rectangles and triangles, implying that humans saw a relationship between the human and the divine sense of order. The items buried with the entombed are strong evidence of a belief in an afterlife — why bury valuable jewellery, weapons and other objects with the dead if they were not useful to them in another world?

The supernatural world that governed the afterlife was also populated by deities. The proliferation of images of ‘fertile’ women, which originates in the Paleolithic and continues into the Neolithic, has prompted suggestions that there was a female deity generically termed the ‘Earth Mother’ or ‘Mother Goddess’.[6] Without written documents this is extremely difficult to confirm, but the sheer number of female images compared to male is beyond doubt. Early writings include references to such beings as the Sumerian fertility goddess Ninhursag, or the Gaia goddess mentioned by Hesiod in his Theogeny, which have roots in earlier belief systems. During the Neolithic, deities such as these become responsible for crops and harvests.

That deities so often took the form of a human — and when in the form of an animal, the sun, the moon etc, the behaviours of a human — is instructive. A deity will only respond to offerings and entreaties if he or she has the human trait of being susceptible to flattery. This was our habit of anthropomorphising: natural processes become identified with non-human forces, but those forces could only be understood by us through beings whose motivations and behaviours resembled our own. Hence Engels’ description of religion as “that fantastic reflection of human things in the human mind”.[7]

Figurine from Lepenski VirFishlike figurine from Lepenski Vir, which may represent a half-fish, half-human god. Photo: Mazbln

Prehistoric beliefs still do not quite constitute religion in its modern sense, with its written scriptures, hieratic priesthood, anointed leaders, and so on. Writing by definition did not exist in prehistory and there were not enough resources to sustain parasitic priestly institutions. But in the Neolithic Revolution the foundations are laid. Some archaeologists believe that the Biblical myth of Eden, for example, is a folk memory of our hunting and gathering past, and equate the tearful expulsion of Adam and Eve to sweat in the fields as the social cost of the discovery of agriculture.

Religion was humans’ attempt to make sense of, and thereby take further control of, their environment, at a time when science was too under-developed to provide answers. Prehistoric animists would not have seen magic as a system of belief so much as a system of what (they thought) they knew about how things worked: art, religion and science would have been one and the same. It is obvious that offerings to non-existent beings cannot have made the least difference to whether a harvest succeeded or not, whether a woman had a successful childbirth, etc. Gordon Childe’s view was that this represented a great waste of social resources. For example, the stones used in the second phase of building Stonehenge, some weighing up to 4 tonnes, were dragged or rolled 240 miles from the Preseli mountains in south-west Wales, and the raising of each stone on the site would have required 5–600 people. But the labour expended for the sake of religion created a great repository of art — indeed, religion was to become one of the main ideological conduits through which creative labour would be channelled.

The most important lesson is that the developments in Neolithic religion and art grew from the fundamental changes in material conditions brought about by the agricultural revolution. Sedentary populations with greater reserves of labour erected not just villages but tombs and temples. The social surplus product allowed for specialists skilled in making a huge range of utilitarian/aesthetic objects, and for ‘full-time’ religious practitioners. The scale of Neolithic societies’ supernatural concerns grew larger. Religion became more systematised, organised, and materially well-resourced.

Neolithic religious art was not of course ‘art’ in the modern sense of an ‘art object’ created by ‘an artist’ for aesthetic contemplation and sale on the market. These products of creative labour served a collective purpose — even, in their creators’ view, a utilitarian one.

Human creative labour, like all human action, cannot be divorced from its social and historical context. Rather than take this for granted, we shall examine the relationship between society and art in the next few articles.

Further reading

Classical Marxist texts on religion in general:

Marx and Engels on Religion section at the Marxist Internet Archive
Lenin, Socialism and Religion (1905)
Lenin, The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion (1909)

[1] Marx, Introduction to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843–4).
[2] The glaring omission to this is the question of why this matter and these processes came to exist in the first place. However the existence of an unsolved problem does not justify leaping to supernatural explanations.
[3] Marx, Critique of Hegel‘s Philosophy of Law (1844).
[4] Lenin, Socialism and Religion (1905).
[5] Hauser, Chapter 2 of The Social History of Art, vol. 1 (1951).
[6] Some archaeologists, in particular Marija Gimbutas, have taken the ‘goddess’ theory further to propose that in prehistory women were worshipped and dominated society. A belief in prehistoric matriarchy has even been ascribed to Engels, whereas The Origin of the Family states that women were relative equals, supreme only in the household; lines of descent went through the female line, yet matrilineality is not the same thing as matriarchy. The theory has more to do with wishful thinking by some feminists than reality, as the evidence is unconvincing. Under a subsistence economy it is unlikely that any group could consistently exert authority at the expense of others.
[7] Friedrich Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876).

Friday, 13 February 2009

Neolithic art, part 3: New directions for art

The Neolithic Revolution meant that people had to organise their lives in completely new ways. We began spending our entire lives in one place. We had to organise our lives around an agricultural rhythm and calendar, taking long-term care of our crops and animals. We needed more sophisticated social organisation to divide labour, both of food production and of other emerging specialisms, to resolve internal disputes among large populations, and to defend our settlements against hostile tribes that coveted our new-found resources. The appearance of specialists such as priests meant that our lives were governed by more elaborate forms of mythology and ritual. The natural processes around us and upon which our new way of life depended — the seasons, floods, the stars — had to be understood in a new way.

These new social forms combined with new materials and ideas to change the direction of art.

New ideas

In Neolithic art we see a movement away from paleolithic naturalism towards abstraction, and an increased emphasis upon geometry and symbols. Here is Arnold Hauser:

Instead of representations true to nature, with loving and patient care devoted to the details of the object, from now on we find everywhere schematic and conventional signs, indicating rather than reproducing the object, like hieroglyphs. Instead of the concreteness of actual living experience, art now tries to hold fast the idea, the concept, the inner substance of things — to create symbols rather than likenesses of the object.[1]

Newgrange entrance stone5200-year old entrance stone featuring spiral patterns at the Neolithic site of Newgrange, Ireland.

Hauser’s generalisations can be too crude, and that is true of this dichotomy. There are plenty of geometric symbols in Paleolithic art, just as there are ‘representations true to nature’ in the Neolithic. Examples of the former are the abstract symbols engraved or painted onto rock surfaces; examples of the latter are the extraordinarily lifelike animal-head sculptures discovered at Çatalhöyük. There is no merit whatsoever in making one’s Marxism rigid and uncompromising, like a fan rooting for their football team. A theory is judged upon its ability to accommodate reality. Marxism allows for all the immense richness, contradictions and complexity of real life — we must never abandon dialectics by trying to force reality to ‘fit’ our theory.

What we can do, however, is look for broad patterns, and the change of style in the Neolithic shows a shift of emphasis. Where Paleolithic hunters depended upon their immediate sensuous world in order to survive, Neolithic cultivators depended upon organisation, natural rhythms and religion; as farmers they required stability from politics and predictability from nature, and tended to conservatism. In the Neolithic therefore, stylisation tended to be more systematic. Human experience now had to be interpreted through a sense of natural and social order. As Hauser put it:

The uniform conception of art of the period dominated by the geometric style corresponds to an equally uniform sociological characteristic, which exerts a determining influence on this whole age, despite individual variations, namely the tendency towards a homogeneous organisation of economy, towards an autocratic form of government and a hieratic outlook in the whole of society, an outlook dominated by cultus and religion.

Such ideological changes were accompanied by the advance of abstract thinking in daily life. In Paleolithic times one might not measure things at all, or do so according to some personally convenient scale such as the width of one’s hand. With the increasing socialisation of labour and tasks like the weighing out of grain, such variable measures were no longer enough. We needed standards of measurement, and these then supplied conventions for our awareness and handling of mass and space, much as writing would supply conventions for communicating ideas.

There are countless examples of this rationalised, conventionalised tendency, although it is only a tendency. It can be seen in petroglyphs (from the Greek petros meaning ‘stone’ and glyphein meaning ‘to carve’), symbols carved into rock that begin to appear on the border of the Upper Paleolithic and to proliferate in the Neolithic; in the geometric spiral patterns on European megaliths such as those of Newgrange or Gavrinis in Brittany; or on the world’s first known mural, the 11,000 year-old wall painting from the Neolithic settlement of Djade al-Mughara in modern-day Syria. Architecture, which massively rose in importance and sophistication with the advent of sedentary life, necessitated a more precise understanding of mathematics and geometry. Pictographs appeared that were the precursors of writing systems.

The conventionalised style was to persist throughout the early civilisations, most famously perhaps in the art of Egypt, and only subsided with the cultural maturity of ancient Greece.

New materials, new forms

“A new artistic form,” wrote Trotsky, “taken in a large historic way, is born in reply to new needs.”[2] As well as new ideas, the economic advances of the Neolithic Revolution also meant the appearance both of new art forms and of new varieties of old ones. This was a great time of inventions: the axe (not to be confused with the Paleolithic ‘handaxe’), the mill-stone, the loom, the plough, bricks, spinning and much more. New materials such as pottery, metals, plaster and gems were introduced into the language of artists.

Pottery. One of the most ubiquitous new materials was pottery. The earliest known ceramic objects are figurines fired during the Paleolithic, but the first known pottery was created around the time of the transition to farming. Whereas mobile hunter-gatherers have no need for pottery, farmers who collect surpluses need to be able to store them; they also required jugs, kitchen dishes and a whole range of domestic objects that mobile hunter-gatherers simply did not need. The social surplus could support professional potters who, exempt from food production, could concentrate upon perfecting their skills. Once we were making pottery vessels, we immediately began to form and decorate them according to aesthetic as well as practical criteria.

The plasticity of clay enabled artists to create all manner of forms, both to suit particular uses and to satisfy their own imaginations, even moulding them into the shapes of animals. Neolithic pottery tends to be decorated with geometric forms such as spirals, zigzags and polygons.

Example of Jōmon pottery, JapanExample of Jōmon pottery, Japan, c. 10–8000 BCE. The markings left by cords around the top create a kind of abstract design, and give the culture its name.

The earliest known examples of pottery belong to the Jōmon culture in Japan, which arose around 10,000 BCE; it dates from the same time in China; but it was a major industry in most Neolithic cultures. Neolithic potters went beyond pinchpots by building up pots with clay coils, and advanced the art of pottery through the invention, at uncertain time and place, of the potter’s wheel.

Pottery is a fine example of human beings taking a naturally occurring material — in this case, clay dug from the earth — and transforming it through creative labour. In Neolithic hands, clay is changed through skilled handling, mixing with other materials, knowledge of temperatures, natural laws and properties, and the technology of oven-firing into a product both utilitarian and aesthetic.

So significant was this form to Neolithic culture that archaeologists have defined many societies by their pottery, attaching to them dry names like the ‘Funnelbeaker Culture’ and the ‘Linearbandkeramik’. Childe waxes downright lyrical about the art:

Building up a pot was a supreme instance of creation by man. The lump of clay was perfectly plastic; man could mould it as he would. In making a tool of stone or bone he was always limited by the shape and size of the original material; he could only take bits away from it. No such limitations restrict the activity of the potter. She can form her lump as she wishes; she can go on adding to it without any doubts as to the solidity of the joins. In thinking of ‘creation’, the free activity of the potter in ‘making form where there was no form’ constantly recurs to man’s mind; the similes of the Bible taken from the potter’s craft illustrate the point.[3]

Architecture. Another form taken in a new direction was architecture. Structures were built in the Paleolithic, but they were mostly limited to the shelters that tribes carried with them as they travelled — the mammoth-bone houses like those at Mezhirich in the Ukraine were exceptional. Permanently settled communities however have different needs and capabilities, and developed the architectural skills to build complex structures in wood, wattle and daub, stone and brick. Every dwelling tended to follow the same conventions of design.

The remains of the Neolithic town of MehrgarhThe remains of the Neolithic town of Mehrgarh in present-day Pakistan, dated to around 7000 BCE. Mehrgarh is the earliest Neolithic site in southern Asia, and is seen as a precursor to the later Indus Valley or Harappan civilisation. It has a striking geometric layout.

Houses in these early towns were packed tightly together, and usually had flat roofs because heavy rainfall in the Near East was uncommon. When these houses fell into disuse or disrepair, they were levelled and new houses were built on top, creating high mounds known as tells (from the Arabic for ‘mound’ or ‘hill’). Archaeologists can dig down into these tells and discover layer after layer of village history.

Other important sites yielding evidence of Neolithic building include the lakeside village at Obermeilen in Switzerland, Vinča in the Balkans, and Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands.

As has been discussed, Paleolithic parietal art is highly unlikely to have been decorative in purpose. By contrast, Neolithic houses like those at Çatalhöyük were often decorated with murals. These would have had symbolic content, but they would not have been as intimately concerned with the social life of the group as we suspect Paleolithic parietal art to have been. In societies with surplus resources, art was being used to a greater extent for ornamentation and decoration.

Architecture also provided fixed centres of attraction for religion and a rich combination of artifacts, ritual, music, etc. At Çatalhöyük were found beads, carpets, pottery, jewellery, textiles, carvings, plastered and painted heads, and more — towns and their complex social life concentrated cultural objects like never before. At its peak, Çatalhöyük had 7000 inhabitants. Today we think of a town of 7000 inhabitants as tiny, but in its time a settlement of hundreds of mud-brick dwellings and temples with plastered interiors and painted walls, teeming with herders and farmers, and trading in new goods like obsidian, would have been extraordinary [4]. The social and material wealth of Çatalhöyük fed into an artistic wealth.

A striking feature of Neolithic construction was the appearance of megaliths (from the Ancient Greek megas meaning great, and lithos meaning stone).

Carnac standing stonesStanding stones from the megalithic site at Carnac in France, probably erected around 3300 BCE. Photo: Snjeschok.

These were structures or monuments made from interlocking large stones without any use of mortar, ranging from standing stones or menhir to burial chambers. This tradition continued until the Bronze Age, giving us such sites as Carnac in Brittany and Stonehenge in England. The creation of such structures required collective effort, organisation and ideological conviction on a scale probably unattainable by hunter-gatherers: the tombs in particular imply a ritual and respectful approach to the dead characteristic of organised religion. The stones are often carved with stylised or geometric designs like zigzags and spirals, whose meaning is now lost.

In North America, we see the building of mounds by pre-Columbian Native Americans, in an area ranging from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys and Mexico. These were made of earth and took a variety of sizes and shapes, often with buildings on top, and their range of purposes included burials, temples and fortifications — the purpose of many remains unclear. They were created by agricultural, complex societies that flourished centuries before the arrival of Europeans. One of the most significant sites is Cahokia in Illinois.

Sculpture. The characteristic sculptures of the Neolithic are, as in the Paleolithic, stylised female figures — male figures are rare — although other objects and animals also occur. They were made from clay or carved from stone, and were often incised or painted. Archaeologists generally explain them in a context of fertility and childbirth because the great majority of human figurines are female, with a strong emphasis on the breasts, hips and genitals. A figure of a woman flanked by two lionesses from Çatalhöyük was found in a grain bin, inviting speculation that she was intended to encourage or protect the harvest; the presence of such figurines in temples such as Ħaġar Qim also suggests they had a magical or ritual purpose. Although we can infer this from their form and location, it is actually very difficult to prove conclusively: after the reductive interpretations of the past, modern archaeology tries to remain open to a multiplicity of meanings.

A variation on the religious theme can be seen in the remarkable skulls found at ancient Jericho dated to around 7–6000 BCE — the oldest known images of the dead. These are actual human skulls that have been remodelled after death with another Neolithic invention, plaster, and their eyes restored with cowrie shells. This invites speculation they were a response to a conception of the afterlife: an attempt to restore or preserve some aspect of the dead.

However, in the Neolithic a new kind of sculpture also appears.

Neolithic figurines created by the Hamangian cultureNeolithic figurines found at Cernavoda in Romania, created by the Hamangian culture in very roughly 4000 BCE. The left-hand figure, known as ‘The Thinker’, is male, the right-hand is a ‘Sitting Woman’.

Figures such as the Hamangian ‘Thinker’, one of the finest sculptures known to us from the period, can less obviously be connected to ritual. And the same culture even produced model houses with miniature occupants, which we suspect were, quite simply, toys.

Other forms. Further examples of new forms included weaving, furniture and household utensils (carving), urns for preserving the remains of the dead, mirrors of polished obsidian, and tools of ivory, stone and flint with highly wrought carved handles. More developed religions led to the building of temples, images of household gods, ritual song and dance, and more — we will discuss religious forms in the next article.


Agricultural societies, with their food surpluses, specialist labour and more sophisticated products now had a modest capacity to produce goods for trade. Exchange of items took place in the Paleolithic too, but the new productive forces increased its scale. The Belgian Marxist Ernest Mandel noted:

With the neolithic revolution, the development of agriculture and the formation of permanent surpluses create the possibility of permanent exchange with peoples who have not yet acquired such surpluses, and exchange enters a new phase. Exchanges are no longer restricted to a few rare products which are the specialities of certain regions. They henceforth embrace all the products of a whole region; local markets make their appearance. Each tribe or each village continues to provide for its own needs to a large extent, but none is any longer entirely independent of a supply of foreign products.[5]

To handle exchange, a particular group of specialists gradually arose — merchants. One popular commodity was obsidian, a glassy volcanic rock which can be used to make blades as sharp as scalpels. Obsidian could be quarried at the Hasan Dag volcano and was found in Jericho a thousand miles away. Such finds provide evidence for the existence of long-distance trade.

As well as providing new materials for art, trade performed another significant cultural function — it exposed societies to alternative cultural forms. Childe observed:

Complete economic self-sufficiency was nowhere attained. Everywhere intercourse between adjacent social groups is attested to the archaeologist by an interchange of objects. Such might result from accidental contacts between herdsmen and hunters… from formal visits, from the practice of seeking a wife outside one’s own village (exogamy), and so on. It might lead up to a sort of irregular trade through which objects might travel great distances…

The point is that such trade was not an integral part of the community’s economic life; the articles it brought were in some sense luxuries, non-essentials. Yet the intercourse thus attested was of vital importance to human progress; it provided channels whereby ideas from one society might reach another, whereby foreign materials might be compared; whereby, in fact, culture itself might be diffused.[6]

Human societies are very rarely isolated or monolithic. They exist in relationships, in a constant state of movement. One of the reasons why cultures can be difficult to define is that they overlap one another, influence one another, borrow where it pleases them. Even societies that may appear to be in stasis, like the Aborigines who continue a hunter-gatherer lifestyle 60,000 years after humans first reached Australia, are in a constant development of some kind. This is why modern Aborigines, as has been noted before, are unable to explain the meanings of the art of their prehistoric forebears, despite a virtually unchanging mode of production.

Fluid interchanges between societies are feared by some, especially by the political right, but they are an inevitable fact of human existence, and we would be wiser to celebrate them.


Readers may notice that I have not referred here to the artist’s ‘personal vision’. A Marxist analysis must accept the totality of a work of art, and this includes highly personal, subjective factors as well as social-historical ones. The difficulty in the Neolithic period is that the subjective factors are simply unknown to us. There is no record of how particular Neolithic artists felt about their work or how their personal experiences influenced it. There are not even records of their names, or whether they were male or female.

At the same time, art was surely not conceived by Neolithic people as an individualist pursuit. The remains of Neolithic towns show us, with their almost identical dwellings, that there was not yet a drastic shift from egalitarianism. In Neolithic communities, the arts of pottery-making, mural painting and so on are collective activities — the work created is stylistically extremely similar, because the artists would have worked together to long-established cultural conventions, not in the inspired isolation beloved of the Romantics. This is why archaeologists can talk in terms of ‘cultures’: defined by assemblages of material with common style in a particular time and place.

[1] Hauser, The Social History of Art, vol. 1 (1951).
[2] Leon Trotsky, Chapter 5 of Literature and Revolution (1924).
[3] Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself (1936).
[4] And yet the residents of Çatalhöyük felt no need for streets. Over the centuries the dwellings became so tightly-packed that one had to enter through the roofs.
[5] Ernest Mandel, Marxist Economic Theory (1962). Mandel was a leader of the Fourth International. His book Late Capitalism (1976) was a major contribution to the updating of Marxist economics to modern conditions.
[6] Childe, op. cit.