Monday, 22 March 2010

Key figures in Marxist aesthetics: Saint-Simon

This is the first of an occasional series in which I will examine the contribution made by particular men and women, not necessarily themselves Marxists, who have exerted a significant influence on Marxist aesthetics.

Lithograph by L. Deymaru. Photo: BBC Hulton Picture Library

Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon (1760–1825), was a French utopian thinker. He was born into an aristocratic family — a background which contributed to his arrest during Robespierre’s Terror — whose contact with Parisian social life introduced him to the ideas of the French Enlightenment and personalities such as Rousseau and d’Alembert. At first, Saint-Simon seemed destined for the military, and fought in the French army alongside the Americans in the Revolutionary War. Yet the significance of his experiences was more intellectual than martial.

It was not my vocation to be a soldier; I was destined for a quite different, and I might say quite contrary kind of activity. To study the advance of the human mind in order subsequently to work for the improvement of civilisation: that was the aim I set myself.[1]

During his time in America, he saw the first signs of such a civilisation in the liberal, tolerant and democratic ideals of the American Revolution. After the French Revolution, he made a fortune from property speculation and founded a salon, but he was always committed to his studies, which included physics, mathematics and physiology.

Saint-Simon’s ideas were original and radical. He rejected both the feudal order and orthodox Christianity, because they justified oppression and were incapable of taking society forwards. He argued that humanity and society should be studied scientifically, the state should be responsible for social welfare, European nations should co-operate and even form a federation, and science, industry and art should lead the age.

Saint-Simon was a left bourgeois radical rather than a true socialist — in his proposed society the working classes would be subordinate to a technocratic elite. But in his view that “all men ought to work”, of property as historically relative, of the replacement of the state with an “administration of things” that directed the processes of production — later theorised by Marx, Engels and Lenin as the ‘withering away’ of the state — he lays a foundation for socialist ideas.

Saint-Simon’s contribution to aesthetics is not very well known. But Saint-Simon valued art as a form of labour, and we owe to him not only the notion of an avant-garde opposed to the cultural norms of its time, but the idea of artists as leaders and shapers of society, which was to be revived in various forms by individuals and governments inspired by Marxism.

Saint-Simon and aesthetics

As early as 1802, Saint-Simon made the following appeal in his Lettres d’un habitant de Genève à ses contemporains (Letters of an Inhabitant of Geneva to his Contemporaries):

Scientists, artists and all those of you who devote some of your power and resources to the process of enlightenment: you are the section of humanity with the greatest intellectual energy, the section most able to appreciate a new idea... It is up to you to defeat the force of inertia. So mathematicians; as you are the vanguard, begin![2]

In the Letters, Saint-Simon began the development of a theory that the existing order should be replaced by rule by scientists, industrialists and artists, the most able agents of progress who should replace the clergy at the head of a new, secular and international religion based upon the sciences. As Engels observed in his brief summary of Saint-Simonism:

According to Saint-Simon, science and industry, both united by a new religious bond, destined to restore that unity of religious ideas which had been lost since the time of the Reformation — a necessarily mystic and rigidly hierarchic ‘new Christianity’.[3]

Artists commanded in particular the spiritual respect necessary to replace the feudal barons and the clergy and construct a new society. In his later work The Industrials’ Catechism [4] (1823–24), Saint-Simon proposed that poets, painters, musicians and sculptors, amongst others, should be recruited to an Academy of Sentiments, to write a code of morality for industrial society.

By the 1820s he had decided that “the industrial class is the fundamental class, the nourishing class of all society, without which no other class could exist”, and should therefore be dominant over scientists and artists. But artists were still to play an essential spiritual role. Artists too were producers, because “they contribute greatly to the prosperity of our manufacturers by the designs and models with which they furnish the artisans”[5]. But they were to be judged not only by the immediate ‘usefulness’ or exchange value of their work, but by their contribution to transforming social relations. This, inevitably, means that their role was political.

It was Saint-Simon’s follower, Olinde Rodrigues, who coined the term ‘avant-garde’ (French for ‘advance guard’ or ‘vanguard’). In the essay L’artiste, le savant et l’industriel (“The artist, the scientist and the industrialist”) of 1825 [6], Rodrigues speaks through the character of an artist in an appeal for leadership:

We, the artists, will serve as the avant-garde: for amongst all the arms at our disposal, the power of the arts is the swiftest and most expeditious. When we wish to spread new ideas amongst men, we use, in turn, the lyre, ode or song, story or novel; we inscribe those ideas on marble or canvas, and we popularise them in poetry and in song. We also make use of the stage, and it is there above all that our influence is most electric and triumphant...

[If the arts] support the general movement of the human spirit, if they assist the common cause, and contribute to the growth of general well-being, producing useful sensations for mankind... an immense future of glory and success will immediately open up before them. Their energies will return, and they will be raised up the highest point they could possibly attain: for when harnessed in the direction of the public good, the force of the imagination is quite simply incalculable.[7]

The Saint-Simonian view of art, then, was a productivist aesthetic in which artists should be part of the political vanguard helping build the morality and cohesion of society, develop economic productivity, and convince the population of the benefits of the new golden age.

The academic Margaret Rose has pointed out that we also need to consider the legacy of others of Saint-Simon’s followers, such as Barthélemy Prosper Enfantin, who called for a ‘liberation of the senses’ from the ‘spiritualist’ tradition of Christianity.[8] Although these ideas about the ‘emancipation of the flesh’ did not come from Saint-Simon himself, they grew from his critique of Christian orthodoxy and became part of the ‘Saint-Simonian’ discourse taken up by subsequent thinkers.

Saint-Simon and Marx

With the spread of the more advanced socialism of Marx, Saint-Simonism quickly lost ground and his immediate following dispersed. Nonetheless, with his materialism, productivism and progressive anti-feudalism, Saint-Simon helped to shape the intellectual landscape in monarchist Prussia in which Marx began his own work.

Marx read Saint-Simon in the 1830s and probably again in the 1840s, and it is clear from references in The German Ideology that he was extremely familiar with Saint-Simon’s writings. In fact, French utopian socialism was later identified by Lenin — along with German philosophy and English political economy — as one of the three ‘component parts’ of Marxism. As Lenin summarised:

When feudalism was overthrown and “free” capitalist society appeared in the world, it at once became apparent that this freedom meant a new system of oppression and exploitation of the working people. Various socialist doctrines immediately emerged as a reflection of and protest against this oppression. Early socialism, however, was utopian socialism. It criticised capitalist society, it condemned and damned it, it dreamed of its destruction, it had visions of a better order and endeavoured to convince the rich of the immorality of exploitation.

But utopian socialism could not indicate the real solution. It could not explain the real nature of wage-slavery under capitalism, it could not reveal the laws of capitalist development, or show what social force is capable of becoming the creator of a new society.[9]

Saint-Simon would not have considered himself a utopian. Dedicated to science, he believed the study of humanity and social organisation would allow the creation of a harmonious society. With the correct theory, humanity would be able to intervene in creating its own future. This idea was, in Keith Taylor’s words, “sufficiently original to justify the view of Saint-Simon as one of the founders of modern historicism” [10].

Yet Saint-Simon’s ideas were utopian nonetheless, because neither his conception nor his means of realising it were achievable. His plan for introducing the industrial society was to ask a range of figures — industrialists, philanthropists, even the King — to establish it on the grounds that it was a good idea. Once established, this society would be without repression, because it would be rational and administrative. Bourgeois and worker alike had a common interest in things running smoothly. Saint-Simon misunderstood the class divisions of bourgeois society and the bourgeoisie’s dependence upon exploitation for the extraction of surplus value. It was Marx’s great achievement to take early socialism such as Saint-Simon’s and place it “on a real basis” (Engels, op. cit.).

But to what extent can we find Saint-Simon’s influence on Marx’s aesthetics?

The first point of contact is in the view of artistic labour outlined in the 1844 Manuscripts. Like Saint-Simon, Marx rejected the separation of art and labour found in the German idealists Kant, Hegel and Schiller. Art, for Marx, was a form of labour, not the antithesis of it, and was not defined by whether or not it was exchanged for money. There is an important distinction for Marx, which we do not find in Saint-Simon, between alienated and non-alienated labour, between art produced for the satisfaction of the artist and art produced as part of a capitalist production line. But in the 1844 Manuscripts Marx calls for a liberation both of the senses and of the worker (humans “burdened with care and in need could have no sense for the finest play”) through the abolition of private property. Rose concluded that for Marx

art was, as it had been for Saint-Simon, an integral part of production in general, and was therefore to be liberated together with man the maker from the distortions which he saw as characteristic of industrial capitalism.[11]

Marxism and the avant-garde

Rose also argues that Marx was sympathetic to the idea of artists as an avant-garde, through his association with Heinrich Heine, Ludwig Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer.

In the context of Prussia in the 1840s, the poet Heine chose a Saint-Simonist aesthetic as a way of supporting artistic freedom against the state patronage granted to the ultra-conservative Nazarenes. The Nazarenes were a German school of reactionary painters, inspired by the religious art of the late Middle Ages and turning to the Catholic church to restore the spiritual unity broken by the Reformation.

The Wise and Foolish VirginsPeter von Cornelius, The Wise and Foolish Virgins, 1813. Cornelius’ work is typical of the anachronistic religiosity of the Nazarenes.

Whereas the Nazarenes enjoyed the patronage of Friedrich Wilhelm III and IV of Prussia, the work of writers critical of the establishment was being banned under the Karlsbad Decrees, a set of censorship instructions issued in 1819. Heine, himself influenced by Saint-Simon and equally opposed to orthodox Christianity, saw in these paintings an expression of the feudalism and oppressive spiritualism that stood against the creation of a progressive society. As an alternative he posed the Saint-Simonian concept of the artist as a producer, administrator and moral guide, linking this with the ‘liberation of the flesh’ — “of materialism over spiritualism, and of sensualism from Puritanism” (Rose). Heine extended this approach through a critique of Hegel, from whom he drew the idea of the ‘Hellenes’: free, natural and sensuous in spirit, as a counter-position to the ‘Nazarenes’ and the moralising prudery of the forces that patronised them. The philosopher Feuerbach, whose materialism was very influential on the young Marx, also saw Christianity and its art as a spiritual illusion that alienated human beings from their material existence.

This radical bourgeois opposition to the feudal elements dominant in Prussia was the intellectual background against which the Left Hegelian Bruno Bauer asked Marx to write a tract on Christian art in 1842. Part of a project aimed at reinventing Hegel as a progressive ‘Jacobin Hellene’, Marx’s contribution was meant to explore an alternative reading of Hegel as hostile to state-approved religious art. Marx never completed this work, but it seems likely from his reading, excerpting and other evidence — discussed in Mikhail Lifshitz’s 1933 classic The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx — that he intended to follow Heine and Feuerbach in criticising the feudal Romanticism of Christian art and its patronage by a reactionary monarchy, and to assert instead a materialist ‘Hellene’ aesthetic granting freedom to the artist. For example, in his 1842 series of articles in the Rheinische Zeitung criticising the Karlsbad Decrees, Marx rails against the suppression of writers’ freedoms as a betrayal of the Enlightenment and criticises the medievalism of Friedrich Wilhelm IV.

From this period of Marx’s early career, therefore, Rose detects the influence of Heine’s opposition of Hellenes and Nazarenes on Marx and describes it as “a latent Saint-Simonian aesthetic in his work”. Although in 1842 Marx was already moving beyond Bauer’s Left Hegelianism, and would attack it, with Engels, in The Holy Family (1845), he always remained a materialist who asserted in the 1844 Manuscripts that the human senses could (through the overthrow of private property) be liberated to a fully sensuous life. There is no reason to think he ever parted from his commitment to freedom of expression for writers.

Lifshitz goes further, seeing the early Marx as a supporter of the ‘one-sided’, partisan artist, although in an undeveloped form. He refers back to the views of Hegel and Goethe on genius — “Genius, they thought, is marked not by a spineless neutrality to all things, but rather by its definite attitude, its one-sidedness”. It is in this context that Marx wrote the following in the margin of one of his books:

It has been observed that great men appear in surprising numbers at certain periods which are invariably characterised by the efflorescence of art. Whatever the outstanding traits of this efflorescence, its influence upon men is undeniable; it fills them with its vivifying force. When this one-sidedness of culture is spent, mediocrity follows.[12]

Following up on this connection and Marx’s articles on press freedom, Lifshitz argues that Marx saw the way out of a society dominated by self-interest “in the identification of the artist’s individuality with a definite political principle, in the open and vigorously stressed ‘accent and dialect’ of a political party”.

Support of a partisan avant-garde in Marx’s writings seems to be implicit and never explicit. Rose and Lifshitz show that a case can be made from a close and contextualised reading, but we should be cautious about this. After all, Marx admired Balzac’s art even though the novelist had reactionary politics, and Engels made comments against ‘tendency’ fiction. The crucial point is that there is a difference between seeing artists as “able to lead, rather than simply reflect, social development” (Rose), and demanding that they do so.

Certainly Marx, Engels and others saw art not only as a part of production but as one that can be socially influential. Engels for example assumed this when he wrote approvingly on Carl Hübner’s painting The Silesian Weavers of 1844:

Let me on this occasion mention a painting by one of the best German painters, Hübner, which has made a more effectual Socialist agitation than a hundred pamphlets might have done. It represents some Silesian weavers bringing linen cloth to the manufacturer, and contrasts very strikingly cold-hearted wealth on one side, and despairing poverty on the other... The painting has been exhibited in several towns of Germany, and, of course, prepared a good many minds for Social ideas.[13]

The Silesian WeaversThe painting depicts an episode during the revolt of weavers in the then Prussian province of Silesia in June 1844, whose living standards were falling because of competition in the textile industry. Engels’ approval of the painting’s preparing minds for socialist ideas strikes an obvious echo with Saint-Simon’s avant-garde, “spreading new ideas amongst men”.

Whereas the artistic merit of Hübner’s painting is slight, social realism of this sort was to find much more significant expression in Russia. The realist painters known as the Peredvizhniki (in English, the Itinerants or Wanderers), such as Repin, Kramskoi and Surikov, created powerful works of social comment, encouraged by the radical Realism of critics like Chernyshevsky and Belinsky.

There is a difference between artists criticising an existing order to encourage support for progressive ideas, and artists becoming part of the leadership of a new society and extolling its benefits. Nonetheless there is an obvious resonance here with Saint-Simon’s concept of an avant-garde of artist-producers helping to construct a new order. The idea was kept alive by Plekhanov, who for example derided Cubist art on the grounds that it failed to identify with the revolutionary class and play a social role, and becomes more explicit at the turn of the twentieth century after the Russian Revolution.


Saint-Simon’s most concrete legacy for Marxist aesthetics was his influence upon the Constructivist movement in Russia, especially after the Revolution. In nineteenth century Russia, where the most progressive elements were constrained by backward peasant masses on one hand and an autocracy on the other, the concept of an avant-garde intelligentsia leading a transformation of society kept its appeal. However, in such a backward country, the reconstruction of society by engineers and industrialists was an impractical prospect: it was only in the Soviet Union, with its self-conscious drive towards industrialisation and progress, that artists could put into practice a programme resembling that of Saint-Simon.

The Constructivists — whose leading figures included Rodchenko, Tatlin, Lissitzky and Stepanova — sought to create a functional, productive and socialist art that would combine art with engineering and industry. Instead of separating themselves from everyday life, artists had to engage with it directly, applying their creativity to objects useful for domestic and factory use. As Rodchenko sloganised, “art that is useless for life should be kept in museums of antiquities”. The movement acquired its own academies with the founding of Vkhumetas (Higher Art and Technical Studios, 1917) and Inkhuk (Institute of Artistic Culture, 1920), workshops mandated to explore a productivist art. Needless to say, there was no place amongst the Constructivists for the more bizarre and quasi-religious aspects of Saint-Simonism. Their art was practical, socialist and proletarian in character, and they were explicitly interested in how art could participate in the building of the Soviet workers’ state.

We shall study Constructivism in much more detail another time. But with its emphasis upon linking socialist ideology with engineering and industrial design, Constructivism is perhaps the most direct implementation of Saint-Simonian ideas about the artistic avant-garde ever attempted.

It is one of the many tragedies of the decline into bureaucratism under Stalin that Constructivism, a genuine movement formed by supporters of the Bolshevik Revolution, eventually found itself under dogmatic attack. Suspicious of a genuinely autonomous art, Stalin and his fellow philistines formulated an ‘official’ Soviet style that, ironically, owed more to the Russian critics and Peredvizhniki of the nineteenth century than to the movements that flourished after 1917. In what Rose describes as “a cynical parody of the Constructivists’ description of the artist as engineer”, Stalin called for writers to be ‘engineers of human souls’. The oppressive consequences of this programme for the arts is well known (Socialist Realism is also a topic that we will at some point examine in its own right). The concept of an artistic avant-garde extolling the benefits of the new society had come a long way since Saint-Simon, and here took its darkest turn.


Not only did Saint-Simon have a significant influence upon Marxism as a political doctrine, but his conception of an avant-garde of artist-producers survives in the aesthetics of many Marxists past and present. In my view the most important artistic question raised by the legacy of Saint-Simonism is this: Is it objectively correct to expect artists to play a leading role in the creation of a socialist society?

This needs to be explored in detail, so for now we shall be brief. Marx himself railed in the 1840s against restrictions on the press:

The law permits me to write; it asks only that I write in a style other than my own! I am allowed to show the face of my mind, but, first, I must give it a prescribed expression! Where is the man of honour who would not crimson at this imposition...?[14]

As we have seen, the role of artists as an avant-garde leadership is only implicitly supported in Marx’s writings, and it does not appear as a demand at all. The best standpoint, as this blog will consistently argue, is that artists should enjoy creative independence. Where they wish their art to serve the class struggle as a natural part of their creative make-up, then their contribution should be embraced, but there can be no compulsion, no ‘historical duty’ to obediently enlist their art for battle like conscripts seizing their rifles. In this sense, the imposition of Socialist Realism was a disastrous mistake. Stalinism could no more conjure up great ‘proletarian’ art on demand than it could build socialism in one country.

It is an essential goal for the socialist future that artistic activity will be both universal and free. Saint-Simon did not demand state direction of art in the Stalinist fashion, but his vision of artists’ role was flawed too, in its own way. It is not objectively correct to expect artists to sing the praises of any new order, however flattering it may seem to elevate artists to the elite. The role of political leadership belongs to the revolutionary working class. What is correct is to respect artistic freedom — and there is nothing of any substance in the work of Marx, Engels, Lenin or Trotsky that says differently [15].


Further reading

• Saint-Simon’s works are not easy to find in English. The best source is Keith Taylor, Henri Saint-Simon (1760–1825): Selected Writings on Science, Industry, and Social Organization (1975).
• The single item by Saint-Simon on the MIA: his Letters from an Inhabitant of Geneva to His Contemporaries (1803).
• You can find extracts from The New Christianity (1825) here.
• Saint-Simon is one of the thinkers discussed in Keith Taylor, The Political Ideas of the Utopian Socialists (1982).
• Margaret Rose, Marx’s Lost Aesthetic: Karl Marx and the Visual Arts (1984). An invaluable discussion of Saint-Simon’s influence upon Marxism.
• Engels’ summary of Saint-Simon’s politics in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880).

[1] From Lettres à un Américain (1817).
[2] Saint-Simon, Letters from an Inhabitant of Geneva to His Contemporaries (1803).
[3] Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880).
[4] In Saint-Simon’s terminology, an ‘industrial’ (French ‘industriel’) was a productive worker.
[5] Saint-Simon, ‘Comparison between the National (Industrial) Party and the Anti-National Party’, Le Politique (April 1819).
[6] The term ‘avant-garde’ is sometimes ascribed to Saint-Simon, but the volume in which the essay appears is in fact a collaboration with four followers — amongst them Rodrigues, who seems to have written this particular piece. See the section on the avant-garde in Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity (1987).
[7] ‘The artist, the scientist and the industrialist’ from Opinions Literary, Philosophical and Industrial (1825). Cited in Harrison, Wood and Gaiger, Art in theory, 1815–1900: an anthology of changing ideas (1998).
[8] Margaret A. Rose, Marx’s Lost Aesthetic: Karl Marx and the Visual Arts (1984). Rose’s study has been a primary source for this article.
[9] Lenin, The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism (1913).
[10] Keith Taylor, The Political Ideas of the Utopian Socialists (1982).
[11] Rose, op. cit.
[12] Marginal note by Marx in Johann Jakob Grund, Der Malerei der Griechen, cited in Lifshitz, The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx (1933).
[13] Engels, Rapid Progress of Communism in Germany (1844–45). Engels’ remarks were later taken by some on the left as evidence of his advocation of realism, even of Socialist Realism. This is unsupported by the text, which praises the painting for spreading socialism, not its style as such. The revolt also inspired a poem by Heine and a play by Hauptmann.
[14] Marx, Comments on The Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction (1842).
[15] The only caveat is that the Bolsheviks reserved the right to censor anti-revolutionary work while the Revolution was not yet concluded. Lenin’s pamphlet Party Organisation and Party Literature (1905) is sometimes held up as evidence that he thought writers should be subordinate to the will of the party, but the work comments on the need to respect party discipline in political literature, not creative fiction.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

G. V. Plekhanov: ‘Art and Social Life’

Art and Social LifeThe second of my transcriptions for the Marxist Internet Archive is now online: Georgi Plekhanov’s 1912 pamphlet Art and Social Life.

You can find it here:

I won’t write a full analysis of the work here, but would like to make one point. After Marx and Engels, Plekhanov was one of the major contributors to Marxist theory, particularly on historical materialism, as noted by Trotsky in his short assessment ‘A Note on Plekhanov’. But Trotsky also notes the decline of Plekhanov’s later work, a period to which this pamphlet belongs.

In Art and Social Life, Plekhanov draws a mechanical connection between the ‘decay’ of Western capitalist society at the time, which was heading towards the crisis of the First World War, and a supposed decline in the quality of the art produced in that society. This theory led him to dismiss Cubism as ‘nonsense raised to the third degree’. Cubism may not be, and still isn’t, to everyone’s taste, but it is quite wrong to reject an entire artistic school on such terms. Plekhanov would not have been aware of Marx’s comments in the Grundrisse upon the uneven relationship between art and society, as those manuscripts were not published until 1939–1941, otherwise he would perhaps have better understood the relative autonomy of art. The real usefulness of his pamphlet was to the Stalinists in putting together their bogus theory of ‘decadent art’.

Despite its shortcomings, I am pleased to help make the text available online. The best approach is not to censor such texts but to explain their misconceptions.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Marxism and human nature, part 4: Universal vs historical

As we mentioned in the first post, objections to the historicist view of human nature have come from Marxists as well as other critics. They argue that if ‘human nature’ is historical, it cannot also be universal. We have responded by pointing out that it is both universal and historical, general and particular. For us, this raises a particular question: if human nature is historically conditioned and therefore changing, how can we appeal to a universal human nature to explain the ubiquity of art and its continued appeal across time and space? Surely the people of the Paleolithic had a different nature on some level to people who have had their nature altered by thousands of years of history?

We suggested an answer when we asked ‘does art progress?’, and so will approach the question from a slightly different angle here. We have argued that there are certain characteristics of human beings based on biology, which are relatively unchanging and universal, and others which are rooted in particular historical conditions. In practice, even the universal biological needs take a historical form.

The foundations for universal human characteristics were laid by evolutionary processes. As the archaeologist Colin Renfrew observed in Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind:

Our species dispersed from Africa with our modern and genetically determined structure of body and brain at birth essentially established, with a capacity for language and for childhood learning, accompanied by a shared cultural heritage that was already significant. This included toolmaking competencies, the use of fire and cooking, the skill and know-how to make clothing and adornments, and perhaps also the knowledge and skill to make boats. They possessed and shared a considerable range of social skills, successfully mediating interactions within social groups and exchanges between them[1].

Every human society on earth can be traced back to the Homo sapiens that emerged in Africa 200–150,000 years ago, and the small population that emigrated to the rest of the globe from about 70,000 years ago. Contrary to the multi-regional theory of evolution, it now seems conclusive from DNA evidence that humans did not evolve in a number of centres more or less simultaneously, but are all genetically related to that same ancestral population. It should not then be surprising that humans everywhere have shared characteristics.

But after that [Renfrew continues], the different groups of humans, as they dispersed and went their ways over the generations, were no longer in contact. Human dispersal took place quite rapidly along the southern shores of Asia to Australia, and then north to eastern Asia. At the same time human populations reached western Asia and then Europe. Only the Americas, as well as Oceania, had to wait tens of thousands of years before receiving a human population...

It is clear that there was little or no contact between the continents. The different branches of these great dispersals were no longer communicating with each other... There were many different trajectories of cultural development.

If human nature is constantly being renewed by the processes of culture and history, surely this will have implications for our common humanity, and people from later societies will, after thousands of years, have been reshaped to the point that Paleolithic art, for example, no longer makes any sense to them, regardless of the fact that evolutionary change has been negligible? (We have repeatedly turned to the example of the Paleolithic, but only because its art is the most distant from our own. The argument applies to all art that is separated from a given society by huge tracts of time and space.)

To address this we must first look a bit harder at what history does to human nature.

The changes wrought in human nature by history

Let us look at Renfrew’s concept of material engagement, which is compatible with Marx and Engels’ view that humans shape their own physical and social nature through interaction with the objective material world.

Renfrew uses a couple of useful examples which cast light upon our present question. The first, which we have touched upon before, is the measuring of weight — this is not a genetic inheritance but a social discovery. Before we can measure weight, we must begin with an awareness of mass and differentiations of mass, which we perceive by raising different objects with our hands and arms, etc. From that we can abstract a concept ‘weight’. Only then can we proceed to producing actual measures and the invention of fixed weights such as ancient Egyptian deben or English pounds. But even the production of measures requires a society that has developed its economy to the point that such measures would be useful, even necessary. It is highly unlikely that Homo sapiens 150,000 years ago had systems of weights and measures — not because they were intellectually incapable of inventing them, but because they had not yet stumbled upon either the concept or the need.

Renfrew’s other example is the use of gold as a universal measure of value. Before the advent of paper money, and later electronic money, gold and other precious metals were used as the physical, objective expression of an abstract concept of value, usually in the form of coins. This had obvious consequences for art, as artworks drew upon the newfound association of these materials with social status, rarity and wealth. Gold especially (in some societies, a comparable role was played by colourful feathers, etc) came to be seen as inherently valuable. Yet the status of gold depended upon its role as a ‘universal equivalent’: a commodity against which the relative values of other commodities were measured. One pound of gold was equivalent in value to so much grain, so much silver, etc. (In a sense, every commodity is a symbol — a symbol of value, of the human labour expended upon it.) The universal equivalent could only arise once commodity production itself had developed. Thus an entire concept entered into the field of human assumptions and became a social reality as the result of the development of productive forces across history.

As a third example we might add the human capacity for work, which has also seen considerable change over the course of history — there is an excellent discussion of this in Chapter 3 of Sean Sayers’ Marxism and Human Nature. European colonialists complained regularly about how ‘lazy’ and unreliable indigenous peoples were as workers, and capitalists at home had considerable trouble training dispossessed peasants in the arduous work schedule of the industrial age. Anthropologists such as Marshall Sahlins have argued that far from struggling every minute of their lives in a grim fight for survival, people in hunter gatherer societies normally spent about three to five hours a day acquiring and preparing food — the rest of the day was spent talking and sleeping in what we would now call ‘leisure’. Schooling the members of the new working class in what was expected of them by profit-hungry capitalist employers brought about a new phase in human nature. People in industrial society have a dramatically greater capacity for work than hunter gatherers. They often complain about how busy they are, and other factors such as alienation come into play. But they also complain when the accustomed levels of activity are lost, such as after being made redundant.

What we see from these examples is that dramatic changes in human behaviour can be brought about by historical change (itself nothing more than the story of human action upon nature and ourselves). The people of more recent ages generally have concepts and productive powers that were unknown to their ancestors and which have profound consequences for social relations, ideas, etc.

But it would be absurd to claim that we become completely different beings simply because we have invented a system of weights and measures, or have started using gold coins. The important point is that such advances do not make us a new species, inherently more intelligent or differently abled to people from earlier societies. The differences are cultural. To cite Renfrew again: “the changes in human behaviour and life that have taken place since that time... sedentism (settled villages), cities, writing, warfare — are not in any way determined by the very limited genetic changes.”[2]

The people of ancient times could easily learn the concepts and capacities of contemporary societies should they somehow be transplanted into them. Our diverse cultures grew from the same capacities for language, for symbolisation, for culture. When we see Magdalenian art, we recognise and understand symbolisation in practice and can apply the same general rules to trying to interpret it, even though the symbols take a different form to our own. The capacity for symbolisation is a process that is a common human inheritance.

Universal human nature

In the posts so far we have concentrated upon only very basic needs such as hunger and sexuality in building the case for universal elements in human nature. If these are the only universal aspects of human nature then this seems a very meagre basis for explaining the ubiquitous appeal of art across the ages — not least because all other animals share the very same needs. As Marx noted, “Certainly eating, drinking, procreating, etc, are also genuinely human functions. But taken abstractly, separated from the sphere of all other human activity and turned into sole and ultimate ends, they are animal functions.”[3]

Renfrew’s summary of humanity quoted above is a starting point for our explanation of why there is more to us than this.

To our basic biological needs and primate physical constitution we may add human powers and capacities that, once Homo sapiens had experienced the Human Revolution via the enculturation process described by Merlin Donald and others, are common to all peoples at all times. Sánchez Vázquez explained how Marx, drawing upon Hegel, set out in the 1844 Manuscripts a conception of humans as social, productive beings who realise themselves through praxis, i.e. acts of labour by which we transform the given world and ourselves. He wrote:

While animals relate one-dimensionally to the world in a decisive, immediate, and individualistic way, man’s relationship to it is multiple, mediated, and free. As a human being, his wealth is measured by the extent of his relations with the world, that is, by the extent to which he feels the need to appropriate reality in an infinite number of ways...

Different types of relations between man and the world have been forged and reinforced in the course of his socio-historical development: practical-utilitarian relations with things; theoretical relations; aesthetic relations; etc. In each one of these relations the attitude of the subject to the world changes because the need that determines it changes, and the object that satisfies the need changes at the same time...[4]

We forge our own humanity only by objectifying and affirming our human “essence”; we are at once subject and object, for we become a human subject only through externalising ourselves. We are also social beings, “not merely a gregarious animal, but an animal which can individuate itself only in the midst of society” [5] — we are dependent upon co-operative interaction with others. We use language, create symbols, live within complex social relationships, and practice a sophisticated culture. We overcome our “purely animal, biological existence”, because, as Allen Wood pointed out:

Marx says that the human being is a species being ‘in that he makes his own species his object’ and ‘ behaves toward, is conscious of or relates to (verhält sich zu) himself as to the present, living species... Marx is referring to the fact that any man or woman not only belongs to the human species, but is also aware of doing so, and that this awareness itself is a distinctly human characteristic. No doubt other animals recognise members of their own kind as potential mates, helpers or rivals, but it is doubtful that any of them have a concept of their own species as such, or of themselves as members of a species or kind.[6]

Unlike animals, we continue to produce even when feeling no immediate physical need — our labour is truly free only when we are free of necessity. For us, labour is a natural and essential activity. We take the objective world and work its materials into the image of our own essential powers through works of art.

Wood also notes:

Animals may feel pleasure or pain, they may lead lives which are contented or happy, or full of suffering, fear and disquiet. But only a man or woman is capable of experiencing life as something full or empty, worthwhile or worthless, meaningful or meaningless.

This is why humans, alone among species, may become alienated from their labour and from their society — and why Marxism seeks to create the conditions for a worthwhile life for everyone. This is always possible, however grim the world may become, because we have never reached the final point of human development. Our nature is conscious, plastic, self-forging and creative.

This is the vision of universal human nature, conceived in all its richness and expansiveness, as well as its potential for suffering, by Marxism. And this underlying nature — in an infinite number of socially mediated forms, and itself very slowly transformed by evolutionary change — has been common to Homo sapiens since at least the Human Revolution. A consequence of our acquisition of self-awareness, it is the thread of common powers, the ‘essence’, that binds us all from the Paleolithic to the present however diverse our societies become.

Man is a species-being, not only because in practice and in theory he adopts the species (his own as well as those of other things) as his object, but — and this is only another way of expressing it — also because he treats himself as the actual, living species; because he treats himself as a universal and therefore a free being.[7]


By his term ‘species-being’, Marx refers not only to individual people but to the common essence that creates an “intimate connection” (Wood) between all people. In his later writings Marx stopped referring to the human ‘essence’, but there is no reason to think he ever disowned the concept. Like so many other ideas, he did not fully develop it because he needed to prioritise economics.

Marxism does support a concept of a universal human nature, but one very different to reactionary conceptions often held up as ‘evidence’ that socialism is not possible. It is not idealist, or reactionary, or a-historical, although the other available conceptions fall at one or more of these hurdles. It is a scientific conception, because it observes biological and social facts and seeks to locate them in history. Its open-ended view allows for the infinite capacities of human beings which have barely begun to be realised.

Culture and history have wrought immense diversity and change upon the social relations of what is essentially the same family of humans across the world. But historicity and relativity do not mean that there is no universal human nature — only that it varies in its particular forms.

[1] Colin Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007).
[2] Ibid.
[3] Marx, ‘Estranged Labour’, 1844 Manuscripts (1844).
[4] Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez: Art and Society: Essays in Marxist Aesthetics (1965, English transl. 1973).
[5] Marx, Introduction, Grundrisse (1857–61).
[6] Allen W. Wood, Karl Marx (1981).
[7] Marx, ‘Estranged Labour’, 1844 Manuscripts (1844).

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Francis Klingender: ‘Marxism and Modern Art’

Marxism and Modern ArtMy transcription of Francis D. Klingender’s pamphlet, Marxism and Modern Art: An approach to social realism is now available at the Marxist Internet Archive.

You can find it here:

Klingender was a British Marxist whose life spanned the first half of the twentieth century. His major works included Art and the Industrial Revolution (1947) [1], Goya in the Democratic Tradition (1948) and his posthumously published Animals in Art and Thought (1971).

In this pamphlet, Klingender builds an argument for a Marxist theory of aesthetic value, beginning with the formalism of Roger Fry and taking us through the escapism of Tennyson, the realism of Chernyshevsky, and finally drawing upon the epistemology set out by Lenin.

[1] Readers should be aware that the later edition of 1968 was revised by Arthur Elton to tone down Klingender’s Marxism.