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: http://www.marxists.org/archive/plekhanov/1912/art/index.htm

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.

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