Friday, 30 September 2011

Steven Rose: Can genetics explain human nature?

A 45-minute talk [1] by Steven Rose which sets out a persuasive and progressive approach to the dialectics of genetics and culture. He argues:

“To argue that we are determined by our genes, without actually understanding that our genes are meaningless except in the context of the cells in which they are embedded, the bodies in which those cells exist, the societies in which those bodies actually grow up, and the ways in which we transform continuously those societies as we grow and change the world around us, is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of what it is to be the bio-social organism that we are.”

[1] The person who posted this on YouTube has not written when or where it was recorded.

Alva Noë – we are not our brains

A video of an excellent talk by by the philosopher Alva Noë, in which he argues that consciousness cannot be reduced to our brains but arises out of a wider engagement with our environment.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Songs of struggle

In case readers think I have been idle, I have opened a YouTube account and created two playlists named ‘Songs of Struggle’, parts 1 and 2. These are songs with which the workers’ movement can identify.

Visit my channel and take a look.

Or go direct:

Playlist one is here.
Playlist two is here.

Obviously there are countless other singers and songs which could have been included – Victor Jara, Billy Bragg, etc – so perhaps I’ll create further playlists in the future. I’m open to suggestions.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

On the riots in England

Carlos Latuff’s comment on the riots:

Carlos Latuff
Originally posted on his Twitpic account.

And one from Martin Rowson:

Martin Rowson
From his page at the Guardian website.

As for how to interpret the rioting, I side with Russell Brand’s piece in the Guardian:

However “unacceptable” and “unjustifiable” it might be, it has happened so we better accept it and, whilst we can’t justify it, we should kick around a few neurons and work out why so many people feel utterly disconnected from the cities they live in.

Unless on the news tomorrow it’s revealed that there’s been a freaky “criminal creating” chemical leak in London and Manchester and Liverpool and Birmingham that’s causing young people to spontaneously and simultaneously violate their environments – in which case we can park the ol’ brainboxes, stop worrying and get on with the football season, but I suspect there hasn’t – we have, as human beings, got a few things to consider together.

...[A] state of deprivation though is, of course, the condition that many of those rioting endure as their unbending reality. No education, a weakened family unit, no money and no way of getting any. JD Sports is probably easier to desecrate if you can’t afford what’s in there and the few poorly paid jobs there are taken. Amidst the bleakness of this social landscape, squinting all the while in the glare of a culture that radiates ultraviolet consumerism and infrared celebrity. That daily, hourly, incessantly enforces the egregious, deceitful message that you are what you wear, what you drive, what you watch and what you watch it on, in livid, neon pixels. The only light in their lives comes from these luminous corporate messages. No wonder they have their fucking hoods up.

I remember Cameron saying “hug a hoodie” but I haven’t seen him doing it. Why would he? Hoodies don’t vote, they’ve realised it’s pointless, that whoever gets elected will just be a different shade of the “we don’t give a toss about you” party.

Politicians don’t represent the interests of people who don’t vote. They barely care about the people who do vote. They look after the corporations who get them elected...

Why am I surprised that these young people behave destructively, “mindlessly”, motivated only by self-interest? How should we describe the actions of the city bankers who brought our economy to its knees in 2010? Altruistic? Mindful? Kind? But then again, they do wear suits, so they deserve to be bailed out, perhaps that’s why not one of them has been imprisoned. And they got away with a lot more than a few fucking pairs of trainers.

These young people have no sense of community because they haven’t been given one. They have no stake in society because Cameron’s mentor Margaret Thatcher told us there’s no such thing.

If we don’t want our young people to tear apart our communities then don’t let people in power tear apart the values that hold our communities together.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Good Nazis, bad news, part 3


From Dr Kassell in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) to Major Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), fascists have been a staple of cinema for many decades. Some of these portrayals, like the character Max Aldorfer in The Night Porter (1974) or even Rolf the messenger in The Sound of Music (1965), have been less straightforward than the stereotypical ‘evil Nazi’. The trends outlined above, however, represent a qualitative change in the representation of fascists onscreen. Hitler has never before been so humanised, and sympathetic fascists, coyness towards the true history of fascist personalities and atrocities, and outright heroes who are also unrepentant Nazis have never been presented in such quantity or quality before.

The rehabilitation of fascism

To fully understand these sympathetic depictions of fascists and blatant abuses of history, we must place the films in context. Western capitalism is struggling to reverse a relative economic decline. This is part of the foundation upon which the complex superstructure of history, politics and culture is built.

My argument is that these films represent one part of a broad rehabilitation of fascism. These films represent only one section of film-makers, and one section of the ruling class.[18] The Western bourgeoisie is not trying to introduce fascist governments. But it has a powerful interest in encouraging the influence of far right parties to assist its attacks on the working class. If fascism is to channel enough mass support to put pressure on mainstream politics, it must to an extent be legitimised. It must be made less monstrous through the application of ‘shades of grey’.

The films falsify or distort history through a highly selective use of characters and themes. Selected facts, when torn from their interconnectedness with other facts, can become the building blocks of all kinds of unpleasantness. One does not even have to lie – but the resulting narrative is dishonest because it uses partial empirical evidence to misrepresent the totality of a situation.

By emphasising certain things and downplaying or ignoring others, it is easy to create a credible case for what these films are trying to do. The world really is more morally complex than an uncompromising condemnation of fascism seems to allow. Not every person in a fascist uniform was a genocidal villain: no doubt many thousands made pleasant conversation, loved their pets, and sent money to their mothers. Thousands more were deluded or ignorant about the movement they were participating in, and still more thousands were repelled by it but did not dare confront it. Fascism does pose moral complexities and contradictions, and in the past directors have tended to leave these unexplored. John Rabe really did help protect thousands of Chinese refugees, and Hitler and other fascist leaders really were human beings – so why not say so?

Such objections seem reasonable. But for a proper perspective, we must not misleadingly emphasise individual facts, but consider the sum total of facts.

If the only piece of information we had about Hitler was that he was a vegetarian, most people would have either a neutral or in some cases a very positive response. But if we were then also told that Hitler was a genocidal tyrant, then his vegetarianism would become an irrelevance. Likewise, cinema today is providing us with an abundance of humanitarian fascists who sing songs, protect refugees, donate their life savings to Jewish survivors and bravely try to kill Hitler, but the main fact about the Nazis is not whether selected figures performed admirable acts. Nazism was cruelly prejudiced against homosexuals, women, Black people and other minorities. It sterilised 400,000 disabled people and practised euthanasia against thousands more. It instituted a police state, imprisoned and tortured thousands of political opponents, initiated the most brutal war the world has ever seen, and set up death camps for the systematic extermination of millions of Jews and other victims. It was one of the most horrific episodes in history in which tens of millions of people were killed.

In Downfall, the Holocaust is relegated to one sentence in the credits. Indeed, in the Italian comedy Life is Beautiful (1997), a concentration camp becomes the setting for slapstick comedy – in its single explicit image of mass murder, a heap of bodies is only dimly seen, in case its intrusion upsets the film.

One might object that the horrors of the period have been exhaustively explored and that there is no need to repeat them. But context is essential. If the full horror of fascist regimes is relegated to the background, it can become a regrettable excess offset by the good works done by its kindest members, or by the cheerful antics of its victims. No doubt there were people, like the character Guido Orefice in Life is Beautiful or Jakob in Jakob the Liar, who managed to raise people’s spirits with a joke in the ghettos or the camps, but they are so untypical of the experience that to highlight them without the full context of what those places represented is at best in poor taste. (Fortunately the ‘death camp comedy’ is one trend that even the bourgeoisie has not seen fit to pursue.) Without turning a blind eye to the total reality of history, some of these films would be morally unthinkable.

Trends like the ‘good Nazi’ normalise fascism, suggesting that it is possible to be both a sympathetic person and a fascist – people like Hitler become relatively isolated and extreme cases. This approach makes fascism more acceptable as a political choice. Those who take a firm stand and dismiss fascism on principle may then be accused of being simplistic or even, absurdly, as intolerant as the fascists themselves.

In addition, the traditional bourgeois parties refuse to take any action against fascist organisations, the media legitimise the BNP, and far right violence – such as the threat of white fascist terrorism or the street riots of the EDL – goes barely acknowledged by the authorities.

Justifications can be made for any of these films’ individual choices. It is when they are taken together, in their full political context, that they constitute a disquieting trend in contemporary cinema.


One might think our argument guilty of ‘economic determinism’ for trying to explain aspects of cinema by reference to the means of production.

In fact, the correspondence between base and superstructure is never mechanical. The decline of Western capitalism has led to highly contradictory developments. These range from the entry of fascists into European governments to the socialist revolution in Venezuela. Between these poles stretches a complex and variegated landscape. Within social democracy alone, we see such diverging trends as the Thatcherism of New Labour and the ‘pink tide’ of the administrations in Ecuador, Brazil and other countries in Latin America. Every such development is a response to a general world situation through the prism of particular conditions, not least the balance of power between the classes.

The rise of neo-fascism is not the only development from the crisis of capital. But it is by far the most dangerous. Similiarly, a relative indulgence of fascism is not the only trend in cinema, as explicitly anti-fascist films are also being made. Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is a striking example of a film that pulls no punches in its depiction of Francoist brutality, and openly identifies with the progressive forces opposing it; the 2005 adaptation of V for Vendetta sided with a vigilante trying to subvert a racist, homophobic regime. The existence of such films does not mean that the ‘sympathetic’ trend does not exist and does not represent real political and cultural forces, nor does it mean that it is not a matter of concern.

The historical precedent is obvious – the last time the world suffered a financial crisis of this magnitude, Hitler was occupying the Chancellery within four years. No crude analogy should be made with 1929, in which mass fascist parties were bidding for state power and in Italy had already succeeded. Fascism’s victory in Spain, Italy and Germany followed years of radicalisation, during which the proletariat had the opportunity to take power but, held back by Stalin and social democracy, failed to seize it. In 2010*, the situation is far less radicalised and fascist forces have made relatively less progress: their fortunes are still variable, their support unstable.

Fascist violence and electoral support is nonetheless firmly on the rise, and the present crisis, which has exposed the mainstream parties as unwilling to protect the interests of the working class, has the potential to create conditions even more favourable to fascism.

Just as the rise of fascism is not mechanically determined, nor is its victory. Fascism could have been stopped in the 1920s and 1930s, and it can be stopped today. But it requires a determined campaign capable of exerting hegemonic leadership over the anti-fascist majority. Nothing is inevitable – human praxis helps to direct history.

Artists and fascism

Are these artists – film-makers, scriptwriters, television producers, etc – consciously trying to rehabilitate fascism?

The rehabilitation of fascism is a deliberate bourgeois project. Quite how far artists are conscious of the role they are playing is debatable and will vary from artist to artist. It is difficult to believe, faced with the oversights and distortions in these films, that some are not at least partly conscious of what they are doing. However, most of these films have above all an anti-fascist message: the ‘shades of grey’ exist alongside that message.

There are millions of people living and dead about whom films may be made, and an infinite number of real or imaginary situations. Films, like all works of art, flow from a series of choices. What the critic must unravel is why film-makers choose particular situations and characters and tell their stories from particular points of view.

The important question however is not, are these artists consciously trying to rehabilitate fascism? I doubt very much if they are. To suggest that Schindler’s List, which I have discussed in this context, is an attempt to ‘encourage sympathy for fascism’ would be preposterous. However, it is not the intentions behind people’s actions that are most important, but their effect upon the real world. The cinema helps to form people’s opinions and condition their attitudes to political movements. The significance of Schindler’s List is that it introduced the ‘good Nazi’ to cinema screens across the world in the mid-1990s and, no doubt unwittingly, set a precedent that allowed later films like John Rabe to go much further.

Cultural trends exist in a complex and mediated relationship with the economic foundations of society. It is possible that cabals of bosses are conspiring in smoky rooms about how to encourage support for the BNP through tendentious film-making, but it is hardly likely, nor is it necessary. Historical processes and their accompanying shifts of ideology can influence people’s behaviour whether or not they are conscious of it, and artists are attuned to such changes on the cultural level. When a space is opened up for the extreme right by the bourgeoisie, some artists respond to the questions this raises and express them in works like the films we have discussed.

The main question we must ask is: how does cinema, whatever the intentions behind it, influence popular perceptions? I would argue that some film-makers’ highly selective readings are providing ammunition for fascism. They are making it possible for Party members like Oskar Schindler, John Halder, John Rabe et al to be held up as evidence that fascists too may be respectable.

We also need to consider how films get made. Some artists, influenced by trends in politics or expected by financial backers to approach a subject in a ‘contemporary’ manner – a manner perhaps influenced by the postmodern view that all discourses are relative – are more likely than in the past to think sympathetic portrayals of Nazis are acceptable, original or ‘thought-provoking’. Given that it takes several years to get a film from concept to release, often directors will attempt to anticipate future trends. What this means in effect is that some of the most ‘avant garde’ directors in Hollywood – Von Trier for example – swerve between the centre and ultra-reactionary end of the political spectrum in search of celebrity and reward.

An example of a film which deals with fascism without making concessions to it is Shane Meadows’ This is England (2007). Told through the eyes of the 12 year-old Shaun, Meadows’ film explores how far-right politics drove the skinhead movement of the 1970s away from its roots in black culture towards racism. This includes Combo, a member of the National Front, who is not demonised but portrayed with some sympathy as he tries to recruit Shaun’s gang to his politics. Meadows looks honestly at some of the motivations that made young white people get involved in fascism:

These were teens who came from areas of high unemployment looking for solidarity beyond Thatcher’s ‘me’ culture. They were abandoned by society and that, of course, made them vulnerable to the advances of the National Front...

When you’re twelve and no one in your town can get a job, and someone comes up to you and says ‘these people are to blame’ it’s easy to believe. I did for about three weeks, some people still believe that as adults and that’s frightening.[19]

But the film does not slip into the trends we have been discussing. Combo is not a ‘good Nazi’ but a confused and dangerous man. The progressive and anti-racist character of the original gang is asserted as an alternative to the National Front’s vile ideology, and the climactic act of violence not only drives Shaun away from fascism but exposes the contradictions within Combo’s own character and leaves him empty. Using images of the Falklands War, Meadows even makes an explicit connection between racism and imperialism. This Is England shows that it is possible to allow complex characterisation of, and even a measure of sympathy for, members of the National Front or other organisations without whitewashing history, introducing inappropriate moral ambiguities or turning fascists into heroes.


It should be unthinkable, after the horrific experience of the 1920s-1940s, that anybody would consider turning to fascism ever again, but the potential for fascism within imperialism never goes away. Europe’s neo-fascists do not wear black shirts and jackboots and publicly demand the liquidation of the Jews – they wear suits, participate in elections, and deny they are fascists at all. The sentiments that contemporary fascism feeds on – Islamophobia, prejudice against immigrants, attacks on multi-culturalism, concern about a ‘white working class’ with separate needs to the black working class, and so on – are firmly established in mainstream politics.

We should have no illusions in the media, which are almost entirely owned by the bourgeoisie and ultimately serve its class interests. But the general silence on how some films are representing fascists is nonetheless reprehensible. Few film critics point out that some contemporary films are inviting us to sympathise with racists and fascists, and that this is inappropriate and dangerous. Downfall in particular created controversy upon its release, but the subsequent debate has been completely inadequate. Even with John Rabe, the debate centred not on its having an unabashed Nazi hero who protects refugees under a giant swastika but on the effect upon Sino-Japanese relations of depicting the Nanjing Massacre. Is the depiction of fascists as heroes really not worthy of comment?

None of the trends outlined here is entirely new – even concentration camp comedy has been attempted before, in Jerry Lewis’s unreleased 1972 movie The Day the Clown Cried. But their prominence in contemporary films warns us that a sea change may be underway. If film-makers are broadly keeping to an anti-fascist position today, what of tomorrow? How will the sympathy be extended further over the next couple of decades?

We are experiencing a radicalisation to both the right and the left. It is inevitable that if the rise of fascism is allowed to continue, cultural expressions will appear which are more and more sympathetic to it; at the same time, others will explicitly oppose it. No development is inevitable. The victory of fascism in Europe could have been avoided: it was the outcome of a political struggle in which the rotten politics of Stalin and of social democracy betrayed the working class. As Trotsky wrote: “fascism comes only when the working class shows complete incapacity to take into its own hands the fate of society.”[20] No concession should be made to fascism or the racism it feeds on, and it should be permitted no platform upon which to build.

Art is one of the arenas in which this ideological struggle will find expression. Despite the problems we’ve discussed, these films are not pro-fascist, and the appropriate anti-fascist response is not to call for their censorship, or the witch-hunting of directors. Instead we need to create a genuine debate which clarifies anti-fascist arguments both for film-makers and for cinema-goers. Film-makers would be less likely to indulge the trends we’ve discussed if they knew they would be held to account and were more conscious of their broader political significance.

With Jodie Foster’s biopic about Leni Riefenstahl and other works currently in development, anti-fascists should be aware of this trend in cinema, and draw behind them the broadest possible forces of anti-fascist opinion to expose and question it. There is no shame in depicting fascism as a tremendous evil, but plenty in helping to rehabilitate it.

*I wrote this article last year. Happily, Jodie Foster appears to have abandoned her Riefenstahl project and the tide of films of this sort seems to have abated. But the general political context is much the same and further concessions to the far-right in culture are likely. On the positive side we may add the protests in the Middle East to the slowly increasing level of class struggle outside of the imperialist countries. Tragically we may also add the atrocities of Anders Breivik to the growing problem of fascist violence. The difference between how the attacks in Norway were treated when Muslims were suspected, and the relative media silence once a white racist was found to be responsible, illustrates the ruling class’s double standards regarding terrorism and its failure to confront fascism. – Eugene Hirschfeld

[18] The readiness of the Canary Wharf consortium to sponsor multicultural events in London exemplifies a contradiction within the bourgeoisie. Depending as it does on easy movement of international personnel, the City tends to be hostile towards racist controls on immigration.
[19] Shane Meadows quoted on
[20] Trotsky, op. cit..

Good Nazis, bad news, part 2


The films mentioned at the beginning of this article are not completely unprecedented, as fascists and fascism have been portrayed onscreen for decades. What is striking today is a number of key trends that are appearing in so many new films.

Enter the good Nazi

The first of these trends is the ‘good Nazi’. This term was originally coined for Albert Speer, the architect and prominent Party member who served as Minister of Armaments and War Production in Hitler’s regime. Claiming ignorance of the Holocaust to escape execution at the Nuremburg trials, Speer argued that he drew close to the Führer not out of political conviction but in order to realise his dreams as an architect. He would not be the last Nazi to protest innocence of his regime’s horrors.

The ‘good Nazi’ – the more general ‘good fascist’ would be better, but the label is already current as a cinematic type – has become a favourite theme in contemporary film. In Schindler’s List he is Oskar Schindler, the industrialist and Party member who uses his factories to spare Jews from the concentration camps. In Captain Corelli’s Mandolin he is the eponymous Captain Corelli, a soldier in the Italian fascist army who sings songs and falls in love with one of the women whose island his army occupies. In The Pianist he is Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, the music-loving officer who brings food to the haggard Szpilman in the ruins of Warsaw. In The Counterfeiters he is Bernhard Kruger, the chief of a Sachsenhausen counterfeiting operation, who provides his Jewish workers with privileges, never hits his children, and whose Party membership is mere opportunism. In Black Book he is the SS officer Ludwig Müntze, who baulks at the atrocities of his superiors and ends up as the lover and protector of the heroine. In Valkyrie he is Von Stauffenberg, the principled officer who tries to bring the war to an end by assassinating Hitler. In John Rabe he is the loyal Party member who is shocked by Japanese atrocities in China.

In Good, directed by Vicente Amorim, the protagonist John Halder is a professor and decent family man whose novel on euthanasia brings him to the attention of the Nazi Party. Initially hesitant, Halder agrees to be recruited to the Party in the interests of keeping it in touch with ‘humanity’. Despite warnings from his Jewish friend Maurice, Halder somehow manages to remain ignorant of the regime’s racism and finds himself being mobilised for Kristallnacht. It is only when Halder goes in search of the now missing Maurice and is confronted with a concentration camp that the penny finally drops.

The film explores how a series of choices (in combination with moral cowardice) takes a civilised man to the point where he finds himself serving the SS and helping to perpetrate the Holocaust. On one level, Good is a serious attempt to understand how the population of an advanced state might be seduced into collaborating with a vicious regime. On another, it offers us yet another character who is a good person despite their fascist uniform.

The message delivered by the ‘good Nazi’ is that it is possible to be both a decent person and a fascist. He or she often has a connection to traditional (i.e. pre-fascist) culture, and demonstrates sympathetic traits such as loving music, reviling Hitler, rescuing Jews, and so on. Indeed, the sympathy the character encourages is such that he or she must usually share the film with another fascist who is an unmitigated psychopath – for every Oskar Schindler, an Amon Göth – lest its moral compass be lost completely.

John Rabe is often compared to Oskar Schindler [5]. Whereas Schindler clearly acted against the racist policies of the Party, Rabe’s relationship to it is played down onscreen, for example when he is shown, after initial reluctance, joining the American doctor Robert Wilson in the singing of an anti-Nazi song. But not only did this humanitarian join the NSDAP in 1933, he was head of the local branch in Nanjing. During the Japanese invasion he sent a telegram to Hitler in sincere expectation of assistance, and reportedly said in a lecture in 1938: “Although I feel tremendous sympathy for the suffering of China, I am still, above all, pro-German and I believe not only in the correctness of our political system but, as an organiser of the party, I am behind the system 100 percent” [6] – additional evidence suggests that he meant it. When in the film Rabe is confronted by the Jewish diplomat Rosen about the persecution of Jews, he has nothing to say in response. It is true that Rabe, like Schindler, is partly non-racist in practice, by saving the lives of thousands of Chinese, an ethnic group that most fascists would consider racially inferior. He nonetheless patronises them as being “like children”, a view that is never challenged. Just 16 years after Schindler’s List rewrote the rules on whom we may sympathise with in films, John Rabe is perhaps the most egregious of them all, because neither its eponymous hero nor the film itself expresses any significant discomfort with his membership of the Nazi Party. This character is perhaps the first of his kind, and certainly he will not be the last.

“Ten years ago,” commented Ulrich Tukur, the actor who plays the title role in John Rabe, “it was not possible to conceive that there was such thing as a good Nazi.” [7] Today, it is hard to find a film about fascism that does not include this character type.

Humanising Hitler

The second trend requires breaking an even stronger taboo. This is the humanisation of Hitler himself. The most powerful example of this was the performance by Bruno Ganz in Downfall. Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film – undoubtedly anti-fascist in its overall impact – depicts the final days of Nazi Germany, mostly through the experiences of the coterie around Hitler in the Führerbunker. Ganz reimagines with great power Hitler’s frustrated tirades, his marshalling of non-existent armies, and his monstrous indifference to suffering, but he also, inevitably, shows more. The Führer comes across as a wretched and hate-filled human being, but a human being nonetheless.

Downfall was not of course the first film to depict Hitler as a character. In Britain, various respected actors have played the role, such as Alec Guinness in 1973’s Hitler: The Last Ten Days and Anthony Hopkins in the 1981 TV drama The Bunker. In Germany, however, Downfall had to overcome a powerful taboo on the appearance of Hitler as a leading character played by a German-speaking actor [8]. Ganz’s powerful performance helped to justify that step and quickly became a benchmark.

Other recent cinematic portrayals of Hitler include Menno Meyjes’s Max (2002) in which we see Hitler deciding whether to devote his life to art or politics, and the 2005 TV drama Uncle Adolf, starring Ken Stott, which explores Hitler’s relationship with his niece Geli Raubal (‘Hitler’s darkest passion’, as the blurb has it). This film takes the humanisation of Hitler much further than Downfall. Early on, Hitler cuts an often jovial figure, larking around with his friends and charming Raubal with his jokes – he is twice referred to as a “wonderful man” and is even shown with Raubal in sexual scenes. Whatever we know about history, many viewers will find it hard not to be provoked to some measure of sympathy when presented with a story of failed love, however twisted the relationship. Even during the last days in the bunker, the film allows Hitler to make an appeal for sympathy: “Have you any idea,” he complains to Eva Braun, as Soviet bombs fall outside, “what this is like for me?”

Although actors often invest months of research in crafting these performances, the quality of their acting is a secondary issue compared to the political significance of breaking the taboo on humanising Hitler. Downfall opened a door, allowing others to go even further.

The humanisation of Hitler may seem excusable on a facile level because Hitler was, undeniably, a human being. One might argue that the alternative is to restrict ourselves to a black and white caricature of a historical figure. With a distance of over sixty years since the end of the war, surely we can now step beyond this simplistic level? After all, Hitler on screen usually comes across as little more than a repulsive lunatic, which is unlikely to win anyone to his politics.

The problem is that to humanise Hitler onscreen is to normalise him and invite a sympathy from the viewer that is completely inappropriate. The dominant fact about Hitler is not that he allegedly fancied his niece, or was a vegetarian, or loved his dog Blondi, but that he was a vicious racist and the lead instigator of the worst atrocity in European history. Bruno Ganz commented, “He had no pity, no compassion, no understanding of what the victims of war suffered. Ultimately, I could not get to the heart of Hitler because there was none.”[9]

To what end would you invite sympathy with such a figure? One answer would be that it may be profitable to try to ‘understand’ the mentality of Hitler. But little can be learnt about the great forces of history from his personal psychology. Fascism was not the invention of an individual ‘evil genius’ who bewitched millions of innocents into following him, but a national movement that can only be understood by reference to the social forces of the time. Hitler was, so to speak, ‘chosen’ by history to front that movement in Germany. If it had not been him, then some other figure would have been filmed by Hirschbiegel ranting in the bunker. If the individual psychology of Hitler does not offer any real insight, turning him into a cinematic character makes an unacceptable moral compromise for zero gain.

The whitewashing of history

The third trend is the whitewashing of history through the distortion or highly selective use of documented facts. This is unavoidable if film-makers want to make fascist characters palatable to most cinema-goers.

Much of Downfall is presented through the eyes of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary. Junge is played as an innocent, and appears in interview at the beginning and end of the film to claim that she knew nothing about the extermination camps. This ‘massaging of history’ was severely criticised by historians David Cesarani and Peter Longerich [10]. Nothing in the film is more unconvincing, they point out, than Junge’s eyes widening in shock when she hears Hitler ranting against the Jews. In reality, Junge was a committed National Socialist with a role at the centre of power in the Third Reich.

Downfall portrays most of the bunker’s inhabitants as part of a practical officer caste, honour-bound by oath to an extremist Nazi clique and struggling to manage a desperate situation. This division of the ruling elite into honourable soldiers and callous Nazis is also unconvincing, as we are fed the ghastly spectacle of Waffen-SS officers such as General Mohnke raising humanitarian objections to Hitler’s orders. Or there is the doctor Ernst Günther Schenck, who braves the Soviet advance to help the wounded. Cesarani and Longerich point out that not only had Schenk served in the SS, but after the war he “was implicated in the conduct of ‘frivolous’ medical experiments on inmates in Mauthausen concentration camp.” To represent such a character as a sympathetic hero without mention of this past is an extraordinary ‘oversight’ [11].

Another beneficiary of the historical whitewash is Claus Schenk Von Stauffenberg, portrayed not only in Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie but in a number of recent German films. Von Stauffenberg was a leading figure in the conspiracy that planned to assassinate Hitler in the bomb plot of 20 July 1944 and then mobilise reserve troops (Operation Valkyrie) to complete a coup. Valkyrie’s tagline promises heroic deeds: “Many saw evil. They dared to stop it.” Yet far from being a ‘good’ Nazi, the real Von Stauffenberg was an aristocratic reactionary who welcomed the creation of a German empire. According to historian Roger Moorehouse,

He had been an early and enthusiastic supporter of Nazism, for example, and had welcomed Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933. He embraced all of those subsequent measures – the reintroduction of conscription, the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, the Anschluss with Austria and the annexation of the Sudetenland – which were seen as ‘restoring German honour’.[12]

Although Von Stauffenberg never joined the Nazi party, this was due to elitism rather than principle. He was a racist who, after the 1939 Polish campaign, “described the Poles as ‘an unbelievable rabble’ of ‘Jews and mongrels’ who were ‘only comfortable under the knout’.” Von Stauffenberg’s participation in the conspiracy was motivated more by Hitler’s strategic failures in running the war than the extremely vague humanist ideals attributed to him by the film. This inconvenient context probably helps account for the under-development of Von Stauffenberg’s character. “I have admired him as a hero,” said Tom Cruise, who played him, “and I will play him as a hero.”[13]

The motivations of his fellow conspirators remain equally vague. Several of these characters are played by well-liked actors such as Bill Nighy and the comedian Eddie Izzard, which further encourages us to see them as benign figures.

As for the original ‘good Nazi’, Albert Speer, who insisted that he knew nothing about the Holocaust despite his proximity to Hitler, his myth has been debunked by documents unearthed by Berlin historian Susanne Willems. One report referring to how Auschwitz had been fitted to handle the ‘Final Solution’ was copiously annotated in Speer’s handwriting.[14] Speer’s protests of ignorance, like those of Traudl Junge, are simply not credible in the face of such evidence.

The altering of historical fact is not unusual in art, and is not in itself reprehensible – what matters are the messages that result. What is the effect upon the perceptions of an audience of portraying members of Hitler’s personal staff as innocent of the Holocaust? Of ignoring the atrocities committed by SS officers? Of depicting racist imperialists as heroes?

Moral ambiguity

The last cinematic trend we shall consider is the introduction of a moral ambiguity that questions whether or not fascists are especially repugnant.

For most of the post-war period the verdict on fascism was, rightly, uncompromising: it was an evil that cost millions of people their lives. Today, this verdict is apparently no longer satisfactory, as it is too simplistic and ignores the most interesting moral questions. Thus moral ambiguity is being used to pose ‘uncomfortable’ questions about complicity, and how easily any of us might fall into the same role as the characters onscreen.

An excellent example is the character Hanna Schmitz in The Reader [15], directed by Stephen Daldry. In this film a teenage boy, Michael, befriends a lonely older woman, Hanna, and begins a love affair with her. One day she disappears without warning, and he does not see her again until he is a law student attending a court trial as part of his training. With a shock, he realises that one of the six women in the dock charged with war crimes is his former lover. The key point in the trial comes during a discussion of a death march, when the women on trial locked 300 Jews in a church and let it burn to the ground. When the court produces a contemporary report of the event as evidence, the other defendants try to accuse Hanna of writing it. She admits to doing so, and is consequently sentenced more sternly than the others. But Michael alone knows that she could not have written the report, because she is illiterate.

Hanna admits to participating in the Holocaust, selecting women to be gassed and joining in a death march. The film’s preposterous thesis seems to be that she would rather be imprisoned for mass murder than exposed as illiterate. Perhaps we are meant to think she embraces punishment out of remorse, but if that is so, why are we not shown it? We are offered only the barest whiff of such a motivation. Either way, the film’s main theme is very clear. In the first section of the film we are encouraged to feel a certain sympathy for Hanna. Only then are we told what she has done, and expected to ask ourselves, what led her to behave this way?

It is a question to which the film offers no answer. As Manohla Dargis wrote in the New York Times, “you have to wonder who, exactly, wants or perhaps needs to see another movie about the Holocaust that embalms its horrors with artfully spilled tears and asks us to pity a death-camp guard”.[16] At the end of the film Hanna donates her money to one of the survivors of the camps. The survivor refuses it, but, in an unconvincing touch, keeps the old tin Hanna kept the money in because it reminds her of a tin she herself once owned. Although it belonged to an SS guard who helped kill her mother, she puts it on her mantelpiece in a trite and inappropriate image of ‘reconciliation’.

In another scene, a student from Michael’s law class becomes a heavy-handed representative of punitive inflexibility. Raging against Hanna Schmitz and her fellow ex-SS guards, he shouts: “You know what I’d do? Put the gun in my hand and shoot her myself. Shoot them all!” The film then cuts to Michael walking towards Auschwitz. The juxtaposition implies that those who take a hard line against fascists are little better than fascists themselves. In his call for violence, does the law student mean only the six women in the dock, or all the thousands of people who worked in the camps or merely knew about them – a comparable call to mass murder? In the same vein, Hanna demands of the judge at her trial, “What would you have done differently?” Flustered, he offers no reply.

Another film steeped in such moral ambiguity is Black Book. Directed by Paul Verhoeven, the film follows a Dutch Jewish singer called Rachel Stein and her almost picaresque passage from one tribulation to the next during the war. After her family is killed trying to flee the Nazi occupation, Stein becomes a spy for the Resistance, seducing an SS officer, Ludwig Müntze, with whom she falls in love. Then the situation reverses. The Resistance are tricked into thinking she has betrayed them, and they become her pursuers. Müntze, already alienated from his Nazi peers after refusing to carry out an atrocity, becomes her protector, and the lovers flee together from vengeful (and anti-Semitic) Resistance fighters. Towards the end we are presumably meant to grieve as Müntze is shot by an Allied firing squad.

The obvious message is that there is no moral distinction between the Nazis and the Resistance fighters who tried to stop them. The worst of Stein’s many tribulations comes not at the hands of fascists but after the victory, when a Dutch mob publicly humiliate her for supposedly being a collaborator. As Verhoeven put it: “In this movie, everything has a shade of grey. There are no people who are completely good and no people who are completely bad. It’s like life.”[17]

In reality, wanting to stop racism, dictatorship and mass murder is not in the least comparable to perpetrating them. Yet the implication that anti-fascists are no better than the fascists themselves appears again and again, both in these films and in the general media response to anti-fascist activism.

Certainly many people joined fascist parties out of fear or ignorance rather than because they were committed to those politics. But there is a thin line between forgiving the terrorised and forgiving the perpetrators of terror. The emphasis in certain films upon ambivalent characters and situations invites us not only to understand more, but to condemn less.

(Concluded in Part 3.)

[5] It might have been more interesting to film the achievements of the real ‘Chinese Schindler’, Ho Fengshan, a Chinese diplomat to Austria who helped possibly thousands of Jews escape the Third Reich by issuing them with visas to enter Shanghai.
[6] Quoted in David W. Chen, ‘At the Rape of Nanking: A Nazi Who Saved Lives’, New York Times, 15 December 1996.
[7] From an interview with Ulrich Tukur by the DPA news agency, cited on Deutsche Welle (, 9 February 2009.
[8] Hitler had been portrayed in German cinema one or two times before, for example by Albin Skoda in G. W. Pabst’s Der Letzte Akt in 1955. But Downfall broke new ground in seeking the ‘human’ side of the Führer.
[9] From Krysia Diver and Stephen Moss, ‘Desperately Seeking Adolf’, Guardian, 25 March 2005.
[10] David Cesarani and Peter Longerich, ‘The Massaging of History’, Guardian, 7 April 2005.
[11] These shortcomings are less surprising when we consider that Downfall was based largely on a book by Joachim Fest, the right-wing historian who helped Speer write his memoirs.
[12] Roger Moorhouse, ‘A Good German? Von Stauffenberg and the July plot’, History Today, Jan 2009.
[13] Quoted in Allan Hall, ‘Tom Cruise’s transformation into a heroic Nazi’, Daily Mail, 20 July 2007.
[14] See for example Kate Connolly, ‘Wartime reports debunk Speer as the Good Nazi’, Daily Telegraph, 11 May 2005.
[15] The Reader, like Schindler’s List, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and others, is based upon a novel, in this case 1995’s Der Vorleser by Bernhard Schlink – the new approach to fascism is not limited to the cinema.
[16] Manohla Dargis, ‘Innocence is Lost in Postwar Germany’, New York Times, 10 December 2008.
[17] Quoted in Geoffrey Macnab, ‘Homeward Bound’, The Guardian, 25 November 2005.

Good Nazis, bad news: fascism in contemporary film


December 1937: The soldiers of fascist Japan are attacking Nanjing, the capital city of China, and massacring thousands of its inhabitants. As the warplanes roar overhead, John Rabe, a German businessman working for Siemens, hurries back to his factory, surrounded by fleeing Chinese workers. He allows the gates to be opened and orders the unfurling of an immense swastika flag, urging the refugees beneath it. When the Japanese pilots see the symbol of their Nazi allies, they move on – in a grotesque image, the swastika has become the means to a humanitarian act.

John Rabe (2009), directed by Florian Gallenberger, is a German film about the so-called ‘good Nazi of Nanjing’ [1], who used his membership of Hitler’s NSDAP to help protect a safety zone that saved the lives of over 200,000 Chinese from Japanese aggression. It is just one of a slew of recent films, on both big and small screens, which encourage us to revise our attitudes towards fascism.

In The Pianist (2003), the protagonist Szpilman is rescued from starvation by a music-loving Nazi officer. In Valkyrie (2009), a conspiracy of high-ranking National Socialists led by Von Stauffenberg is appalled by the excesses of Hitler. Further examples include Black Book (2006), The Counterfeiters (2007), Good (2008) and The Reader (2008) – and in Downfall (2004) we see the humanising of Hitler himself. None of these films advocates fascism as a form of government, or disputes that Hitler was a nasty piece of work. But apparently there were nice fascists too – and in contemporary Western cinema we’re cheering them on.

This trend represents a qualitative change in how fascism is treated on film, and demands an obvious question: Why are some film-makers trying to show followers of modernity’s most vile political doctrine in a sympathetic light?

We shall discuss this trend and some of its most important films in more detail [2]. But first we need to look at the broader social, economic and political context in which they are being created. Artistic trends, like political ones, are products of particular historical circumstances. They cannot be ‘explained’ through that context in a simplistic fashion, as their relationship to it is uneven, but nor can they be separated from it without their full significance being missed. As I shall argue, the shift of the political discourse to the right over the last thirty years has permeated all levels of society, including its cultural products.


We are presently living through an economic crisis, the worst since 1929 and still far from over, which is the product of a long, slow capitalist decline.

In the immediate post-war period the United States was by far the most dominant nation on the planet – it was the only nuclear-armed power and was responsible for half the world’s manufacturing output. Wartime industrial expansion helped to provide the resources to pour billions into rebuilding Germany and Japan, and allowed imperialism to reorganise itself around US hegemony.

From the 1970s however the US has been suffering a relative decline, whose principal cause is the immense competitive pressure placed upon the US economy by the higher levels of investment in Germany from the 1950s, in Japan from the 1960s, and in China today. With China in particular investing at historically unprecedented levels (more than 40% of GDP), it is extremely difficult for the Western powers to keep up.

As Karl Marx noted, capitalists must increase their level of investment in the means of production to remain competitive, but this investment grows more rapidly than the surplus value created by the workers – thus in the ratio of profit to investment, the rate of profit tends to fall.

Western capitalism’s response was the agenda pursued by Reagan, Thatcher and their neo-liberal successors since 1979: to transfer resources to capital from the working class by extending working hours, driving down wages, restricting trade unions and rolling back the welfare state. Their offensive has been made easier by the overthrow of the Russian Revolution in 1991, which dealt a huge blow to the prestige and influence of socialism in general. The Western capitalist alliance has also used the unrivalled military power of the United States to achieve goals it can no longer win by economic means. The most significant examples of this were the attacks on Iraq in 1990, Yugoslavia in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq again in 2003.

Over the last thirty years, therefore, the bourgeoisie has driven politics in the Western states to the right, with militarism and racism in tow. Yet despite its attacks on the working class and the opening of new markets in the former workers’ states in Eastern Europe, Western imperialism has still not succeeded in reversing its relative decline. It is only in this context that the rise of fascism, and its treatment in the cultural sphere, can be fully understood.

What is fascism?

The precise nature of fascism was dissected by Leon Trotsky, who exposed as nonsense the Stalinist theory that all forms of capitalism were as bad as each other. Trotsky argued that whereas a ‘normal’ dictatorship (an example from recent times would be Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq) uses the standard police and institutional resources of the bourgeois state, fascism has a different character.

Presented with a crisis that threatens its very existence, capital needs greater forces on the ground to defeat the workers’ movement and mobilises a section of the masses, the petty bourgeoisie, which it uses “as a battering ram.”[3] A fascist regime sweeps aside independent organisations of the working class and subordinates the apparatus of the state to monopoly capital, increasing the exploitation of the working class (even as far as the use of slave labour) to produce the superlative profits that can extricate it from crisis.

The bourgeoisie has a contradictory relationship with fascism. It does not trust the petty bourgeois forces it mobilises, and in return the petty bourgeoisie engages in occasional rhetoric against big capital. Hence the distaste with which Hitler’s NSDAP was regarded by the traditional conservative parties in Germany. Nonetheless, fascism creates ideal conditions for big capital and cannot triumph without its full support. In his famous montage ‘Millions Stand Behind Me’, in which a businessman places wads of banknotes into Hitler’s saluting hand, the German artist John Heartfield neatly illustrated whose interests fascism truly serves.

Fascism therefore is not some perplexing psychological enigma: it is a capitalist response, logical in its way, to the kind of crisis that precipitated Europe into the First World War and intensified after the 1929 crash.

If fascism is a form of militant capitalism hostile to working class interests, why does a section of the working class support it? Hitler could not come to power with the votes of the petty bourgeoisie alone. These votes were won over through a combination of pseudo-socialist rhetoric and an appeal to nationalism and racism. This combination is manifested today in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment and the myth of the ‘white working class’ as a distinct community whose needs are being overlooked. Fascism cannot thrive without racism, its repulsive ideological fuel.


Racism plays an essential part in the bourgeoisie’s response to the crisis, dividing the working class by turning its members against one another and scapegoating vulnerable minorities for the social problems arising from the failings of capitalism. The principle was summarised by Karl Marx in a letter of 1870 where he discussed anti-Irish prejudice:

Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker.[4]

Marx’s argument is just as true of the contemporary prejudices against Muslims, immigrants and other minorities.

Racism desensitises the West to the humanity of the many millions of people, overwhelmingly black, who suffer most from increasing global inequality. It ‘justifies’ brutal attacks on the Middle East and elsewhere by demonising people who come from the target region. At home, it diverts from government the blame for housing shortages and the other social problems exacerbated by neo-liberalism. Racism is thus imperialism’s ideological accomplice, expressed through anti-immigrant legislation, attacks on multi-culturalism, media scare stories about asylum seekers and Muslims (who are overwhelmingly from ethnic minorities), and other means. Sadly a section of the left also supports Islamophobia from a supposedly progressive direction, claiming that Islam is especially sexist, homophobic and reactionary. In practice, this scramble to abet the hounding of a minority provides a ‘left’ justification for imperialism’s wars and benefits racism.

The rise in racism inevitably boosts support for the fascist parties that feed on it. The public is frustrated by the identikit neo-liberalism of the main political parties. The bourgeoisie’s concern is that this discontent, and pressure upon mainstream politics, should be led by right-wing developments such as, in Britain, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the fascist British National Party (BNP). It is therefore allowing space for fascist arguments and even actively assists their profile. BNP leader Nick Griffin has been invited to speak on the BBC’s Newsnight and Question Time programmes, and the BNP’s bigotry is rarely challenged by mainstream politicians disarmed by their own concessions to racism.

The encouragement of racism has had concrete results. Globally there has been a slight shift in favour of the working class over the last decade, with the rise of China, the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela and a general left shift in Latin America, and the stymieing of the US military in Iraq. In Europe, however, developments on the far right have equalled or outpaced those on the far left. In Italy and Austria, far right parties have taken part in governing coalitions. In France, National Front leader Le Pen reached the second round of the 2002 presidential elections. In Britain, where the far right has historically been less successful than on the continent, the BNP won two MEPs and nearly a million votes in the 2009 Euro-elections – the biggest vote for a fascist party in British history. In the English Defence League (EDL) we see a street-fighting movement that aims to intimidate Muslim communities.

It is in this context that sympathetic fascists are being introduced onto our screens.

(Continued in Part 2.)

[1] Rabe’s diaries were published under the less offensive title The Good Man of Nanking in 1998.
[2] This article is concerned with the political significance of the films discussed rather than their quality as cinema, which is variable.
[3] Leon Trotsky, Fascism: What it is and how to fight it (1944/1969).
[4] Karl Marx, letter to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt, 9 April 1870.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Marx and the Greek classics

Ancient Greek culture had a profound influence on late 18th and early 19th century Germany, especially Prussia, from the architecture of public buildings [1] to the educational curriculum, and was seen by a section of the intellectual elite as setting the standard for aesthetics, politics and society. Enlightenment humanists such as Hegel, Winckelmann, Lessing, Schiller and Goethe would have agreed with the Prussian educator Wilhelm von Humboldt’s view that “the Greek people were in a way the most exemplary expression of the idea of man”. The Greeks represented universality, self-realisation, the free, independent human being, and the love of beauty.

This version of Greek antiquity owed more to the conditions of Germany than to the reality of life in the ancient world. What the neo-classicists wanted from classical antiquity was a model for criticising the alienation, fragmentation and decadence of modernity. As Lukács put it, the ‘ideal’ age of Greece became part of a “humanist struggle against the degradation of man by the capitalist division of labour” [2]. This struggle tended to be fought on aesthetic and cultural rather than political ground.

Young MarxKarl Marx inherited the ‘grecomania’ of the liberal bourgeoisie but would find his own uses for the classical legacy. At school in Trier and at university in Bonn and Berlin, he received the classical education that was de rigueur for a young German from a bourgeois family. A very early text, Cleanthes, or the Starting Point and Necessary Continuation of Philosophy [3], which has not survived, took the form of a Platonic dialogue. More significantly, for his doctoral thesis in 1841 Marx tackled the world of post-Aristotelian physics with a comparison of Democritus (Demokritos) and Epicurus (Epikouros) [4], which is worth looking at briefly.

Both these Greek philosophers believed that the basic division of matter was the atom: all things that happen result from atoms in constant motion as they collide and interact in the void. But the young Marx argues a distinction between the deterministic materiality of Democritus, in which atoms move in straight lines according to physical laws and do not allow for new combinations, and the Epicurean view that atoms sometimes deviate from the norm or ‘swerve’ and thus allow for free will. For Epicurus the atom is self-sufficient, containing its individuality and potential within itself – nature and material objects derive not from the laws of objective reality but from the possibilities of subjective imagination. We cannot know causes, only possibilities, because being is determined by consciousness.

At that time Marx was a radical critic of Hegel, and we can see him using this study of Greek philosophy to orient himself towards topics and debates within German idealism: what is the relationship between thought and being, between subject and object, and what is the nature of scientific inquiry? The position of Democritus and Epicurus following the death of Aristotle parallels Marx’s own position following the death of Hegel.

Hegel was critical of Epicurus’s atomism for encouraging individual action against the unity of society and saw his system as sensuous and unphilosophical. Marx, armed with Hegel’s dialectics but suspicious of his idealism, goes further. For him, Epicurus differs from Democritus in allowing for individual freedom within a materialist framework, but his freedom and individuality exist in the abstract and seek, like the swerving atoms, to avoid real life. The Epicureans actually set a real-life example, preferring to avoid involvement in politics and live in modest obscurity: the goal of philosophy was a particular state of mind: ataraxia, or tranquility, freedom from care. In Marx’s view, by contrast, “abstract individuality is freedom from existence, not freedom in existence.”

Of course, Marx is ultimately interested, not in a point of Greek philosophy, but in forming his own worldview and working out how it relates to the Hegel-dominated ideas of his time. And the issues raised in the dissertation drew him onto a collision course with idealism.

Marx claims to have solved “a heretofore unsolved problem in the history of Greek philosophy”, namely the existence of profound differences between Democritus and Epicurus, and exposes long-standing misconceptions about Epicurus, characteristically sweeping away cobwebs and rubbish to get to what he considers the true heart of the matter. He praises Epicurus as “the greatest representative of Greek Enlightenment” because of his objections to superstition. It is clear from his foreword to the dissertation that Marx was already forming a view of the role of philosophy and literature in facing down shopworn ideas, which he declaims in florid language:

As long as a single drop of blood pulses in her world-conquering, absolutely free heart, philosophy will continually cry out to her opponents, with Epicurus: ‘The truly impious man is not he who destroys the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them.’

Philosophy makes no secret of this. The confession of Prometheus: ‘In a word, I detest all the gods’ is her own confession, her own watchword against all the gods of heaven and earth who do not recognise man’s self-consciousness as the highest divinity. It will have none other besides.

But to the pitiful March hares who rejoice at the apparently worsened civil position of philosophy, she repeats what Prometheus said to Hermes, the servant of the gods:

Be sure of this, I would not change my evil plight for your servility. It is better to be slave to the rock than to serve Father Zeus as his faithful messenger.

Prometheus is the foremost saint and martyr in the philosopher’s calendar.[5]

For Marx, the mythical Greek figure of Prometheus – the Titan who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humankind – becomes a symbol of radical inquiry, with Zeus standing in for Hegel in particular and received opinion in general. The quotations of Prometheus are from Aeschylus’ tragedy Prometheus Bound, but as S.S. Prawer points out, the idea that human self-consciousness was higher than the gods could hardly be what Aeschylus intended in his tragedy. Through the filter of 19th century German philosophy, Marx is recasting, like so many before and after him, a Greek myth to suit a contemporary purpose.

Early though the dissertation is – Marx was only 23 when he wrote it, and had yet to formulate his revolutionary theory – it prefigures some of the later themes of his materialism, such as his dialectics, criticism of religion and materialist epistemology. In Mikhail Lifschitz’s words, it reveals “the abyss between the last representative of classical bourgeois philosophy and the founder-to-be of scientific socialism” [6] – an abyss given form through ancient Greek philosophy.

Marx would continue to read and admire classical authors throughout his life, though he never descended into the boring, sanitised neo-classicism of academia. Evidence for the breadth of Marx’s reading of ancient authors is scattered through his letters. The historian and Marxist G.E.M. de Ste. Croix gives us a flavour:

On 8 March 1855 we find him saying in a latter to Engels, ‘A little time ago I went through Roman history again up to the Augustan era’; on 27 February 1861 he writes again to Engels, ‘As a relaxation in the evenings I have been reading Appian on the Roman civil wars, in the original Greek’; and some weeks later, on 29 May 1861, he tells Lassalle that in order to dispel the serious ill-humour arising from what he describes, in a mixture of German and English, as ‘mein in every respect unsettled situation’, he is reading Thucydides, and he adds (in German) ‘These ancient writers at least remain ever new.’[7]

Marx had a prodigious memory: Marx’s daughter Eleanor Marx commented to Wilhelm Liebknecht that he ‘could recite whole cantos of Homer from beginning to end.’ [8] Evidence of this proliferates in his writings. De Ste. Croix observes:

Scattered through the writings of Marx are a remarkable number of allusions to Greek and Roman history, literature and philosophy... he frequently quotes Greek authors (more often in the original than in translation), as well as Latin authors, in all sorts of contexts: Aeschylus, Appian, Aristotle, Athenaeus, Democritus, Diodorus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Epicurus, Herodotus, Hesiod, Homer, Isocrates, Lucian, Pindar, Plutarch, Sextus Empiricus, Sophocles, Strabo, Thucydides, Xenophon and others… After his doctoral dissertation Marx never had occasion to write at length about the ancient world, but again and again he will make some penetrating remark that brings out something of value.

In 1842, through his contact with the Left Hegelians, Marx planned a treatise that would compare ancient Greek and Christian art, and trace a path to the modern Romantics. No copy of this has come down to us, but its probable line of argument has been reconstructed by Lifschitz based upon the views of the Left Hegelians and Marx’s notes on his reading. According to Lifschitz, Marx would have argued that whereas ancient art was realistic and plastic, with an intense interest in artistic form growing organically out of the human imagination, the Christian religious outlook was based upon a paralysing fear of God and on submission. Christian art either lost its sense of artistic form through excessive zeal, or sought simple symbolism and abstraction.

In studying the nature of religion Marx introduces fetishism, a concept that in reworked form would later take on great importance in his economic studies. A fetish object becomes identified with its god – it is not a mere symbol but the god actually lives in the image. “The fundamental thesis of the treatise on Christian art,” Lifschitz concludes, “was thus the antithesis between the ancient principle of form and the fetishistic worship of materiality.”

Marx is thinking in this treatise, not only of Christian art of the post-classical period, but of contemporary capitalism. He has still to develop his mature theory of commodity fetishism, i.e. the mistaking of human social relationships for relationships between things. But he is almost certainly thinking back to his reading from 1841-2 when he writes in Capital that “we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world” [9] in order to understand fetishism.

In the treatise on religion and art, it seems that Marx sought to criticise Christian culture as a step backwards from the artistic standards set by ancient Greek culture.

There are many subsequent examples of Marx’s engagement with classical antiquity, and we can’t look at them all here. The most significant influence by far was Aristotle, whom Marx considered ‘the greatest thinker of antiquity’ [10]. Aristotle is referenced in the doctoral thesis, in the Grundrisse, multiple times in Capital, etc, and helped Marx create his own framework for understanding class, politics, ethics, materialism and citizenship.[11]

Marx was confronted by the 19th-century realities of an alienated urban landscape – utilitarianism, individualism and exploitation – and like many of his contemporaries he looked to ancient Greece for an alternative society of self-realisation, sensuous art and active citizenship. The ‘grecomania’ of the bourgeoisie bore only a passing resemblance to the historical reality of the squabbling city-states built on slave labour. But unlike many of his intellectual peers, Marx did not relate to Greece as a utopian, idealist or reactionary. Rather, he used it to throw light both upon the experiences and relationships of his own times and upon how human society might advance to something better in the future.

[1] This was particularly visible in Berlin, where the work of the neo-classical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel – including the Brandenburg Gate, which is a copy of the Propylaea of the Acropolis – helped earn the city the name ‘Athens on the Spree’.
[2] Lukács, Goethe and his Age (1968).
[3] Referred to in a letter to his father in November 1837.
[4] Marx, ‘The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature’ (1841). We have this thesis, which earned Marx his PhD, only in an incomplete form. Marx also planned a longer work on Epicurean, Stoic and Sceptic philosophy which was never written.
[5] Marx, op. cit. Translation from S.S. Prawer, Karl Marx and World Literature (1978).
[6] Mikhail Lifschitz, The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx (1933).
[7] G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (1981).
[8] Cited in S.S. Prawer, op. cit.
[9] Marx, Chapter 1 of Capital, vol. 1, (1867).
[10] Marx, op. cit., Chapter 15.
[11] I refer readers interested in Marx’s debt to Aristotle to George E. McCarthy, Marx and Aristotle: Nineteenth-Century German Social Theory and Classical Antiquity (1992). G.E.M. de Ste. Croix discusses the resemblance between Aristotle and Marx’s methods in The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, pp.74-80.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The rise of ancient Greece

When Edgar Allan Poe referred to “the glory that was Greece”[1], he was using language typical of both popular and academic studies which has only recently gone out of fashion. In The Story of Art, E. H. Gombrich considers Classical Greece ‘the great awakening’; others routinely use such phrases as the ‘the Greek miracle’. The implication of this language is that Greece is a beacon of special enlightenment and genius. Marx asserted in an early essay that “among the peoples of the ancient world, Greece and Rome are certainly countries of the highest ‘historical culture’”[2]. The praise for contemporary cultures like Neo-Babylon or Persia is rarely so extravagant.

The ‘Charioteer of Delphi’The ‘Charioteer of Delphi’, a bronze sculpture from 474 BCE.

The cultural legacy of the rocky tip of the Balkan peninsula to Europe and to the rest of the world is indeed impressive. Whenever we watch the Olympic Games, or watch a tragedy, or vote in an election, we owe a debt to the ancient Greeks, and European art from the Renaissance to modernism and beyond is steeped in Greek stories, characters and styles. The West presents the Greeks – their philosophical outlook, their art and architecture, and their politics – as the ancestors of its own civilisation. For centuries, Western educators assumed that familiarity with the Greco-Roman legacy was essential to a proper education. For centuries, art academies would use plaster casts of antique sculpture – i.e. Greek sculpture, and Roman imitations of it – as the basis for formal training in drawing. The practice began to disappear in the mid-twentieth century, but copying of classical masterpieces is still practised today (and is even, via the conservative ‘atelier’ movement, enjoying a comeback).

The phase of Greek [3] culture generally recognised as the most important, known as ‘Classical’ Greece, flowered in the fifth century BCE, primarily in Athens. This ‘awakening’ was relatively short-lived and geographically limited. In the subsequent centuries up to the present, Greek art never again achieved a comparable importance or influence. Why did it flower at that particular time? Were the Greeks more gifted than other ancient cultures? Why did their ‘glory’ fade?

We shall explore various aspects of ancient Greek art and culture, and of subsequent eras’ relationship with it, in the next series of articles. To begin, let us take a broad look at its historical background.

The birth of ancient Greek culture

Classical Greece did not spring fully-formed from the hills of Attica. It followed centuries of civilisation in the Aegean, most prominently the Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean cultures of the Bronze Age, and cross-pollinations from north Africa and the east.

As we have seen, the Minoan culture peaked at around 2000 BCE and was overrun by the Mycenaeans in 1450 BCE.

‘Mycenaean’ is the name generally given to the warlike Greek culture of the Bronze Age, named after Mycenae, a city in the Peloponnese in southern Greece, but actually extant across Greece including Athens and Thebes [4]. Unlike the Minoans, who influenced them heavily, the Mycenaeans were Greeks – the translation of their Linear B script in the 1950s revealed that it records an early form of Greek. The frescoes, pottery, palaces, grave goods and other treasures created across the span of Mycenaean influence in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean indicate a flourishing and significant civilisation, a warrior society whose strong fortifications place it at an opposite pole to the apparently peaceful Minoans. It was the Mycenaeans or ‘Akhaians’ who, according to Homer’s Iliad, launched a mighty war against the rival power of Troy.

The megaron at PylosArtist’s impression of the megaron or great hall of the Mycenaean palace at Pylos, destroyed in around 1200 BCE.

This rich culture disintegrated during the Bronze Age collapse in the 12th century BCE. All of the palaces were destroyed and most sites were abandoned, indicating a massive depopulation. We have already traced the collapse to a systemic crisis in the ancient mode of production. But precisely how the effects unfolded in this region is still debated by historians and archaeologists. The Greeks’ own tradition, still respected by many historians, blames Dorians invading from the north, but the archaeological record is unclear. Rebellious mercenaries, the Sea Peoples or Mycenaean kings fighting each other, or a combination of these, might be responsible.

The level of material culture in the Aegean nose-dived. The wealth and ambit of the cities shrank, foreign trade and the arts withered, and writing disappeared entirely. Greek culture existed at only a basic level and would not recover for 400 years, leading some to refer to this period as a ‘Dark Age’. (That label is sometimes frowned on, but seems appropriate compared to what came before and after.) No wonder, perhaps, that the Greeks would celebrate the prosperous pre-crisis times in folklore and mythology – the literary works of Homer and Hesiod looked back to the Bronze Age as a golden or ‘heroic’ age, compared to which the present measured poorly.

Archaic Greece

The devastation of Bronze Age Greece created the space for a new civilisation to emerge. Archaeological evidence shows that the economy was reviving by the 8th century. Greek regions developed their production of pottery, oil, textiles and wine for trade. Pottery decoration becomes more sophisticated, and iron goods are of better quality. In 776 BCE the Olympic games were founded, a signal that a new period was beginning.

70% of the land in Greece, a country of mountains, valleys and upland plains, cannot be farmed, and the best of what remained was claimed by the aristocracy. With limited land on one hand yet abundant natural harbours and islands on the other, and possibly spurred by drought and famine, the Greeks became sailors and traders, spreading out from their homeland to colonise the Mediterranean and beyond, from Gibraltar in the west to the Black Sea in the east, and most importantly the western rim of Asia Minor (the Ionian Greeks). This process surely explains why some of the Greeks’ earliest stories, such as Jason and the Argonauts or Homer’s The Odyssey, were accounts of great sea voyages.

This period of expansion and recovery, from about 800-490 BCE, is known as the Archaic period.

Nestor's cupA tantalising symbol of this new era was unearthed by archaeologists at Pithekoussai on the island of Ischia. It is a clay drinking cup from about 750-700 BCE, decorated in the simple, abstract Geometric style that dominated Greek pottery from the Dark Ages until around 700 BCE. What makes it interesting is a three-line inscription in Greek scratched on the side, slightly fragmented through wear, which translates as something like this:

I am Nestor’s cup, good to drink from.
Whoever drinks this cup empty, straight away
the desire for beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize him.

This is possibly, though not necessarily, the first literary allusion – in The Iliad, Nestor is the aged king of Pylos who accompanies the Greek army. Along with the ‘Dipylon inscription’ on another pottery vessel, the so-called Nestor’s Cup is one of the oldest surviving examples of the Greek alphabet. This alphabet, still used today for contemporary Greek, was not related to Linear B – instead it is an adaptation of the alphabet of the Phoenicians. Ischia was an early Greek colony, but it had a Phoenician population too, profiting from its harbour and trade, and the two cultures were in regular contact. Somewhere in the Aegean, from probably around 800 BCE, this meeting of cultures ended 400 years of Greek illiteracy.

Towns like Sybaris in Italy and Syracuse in Sicily became very wealthy, but it was the Ionian Greeks in Asia Minor who were the leaders of the economic and cultural recovery. After the Lydians minted the first coinage, trade became easier, and the eastern Greek colonies – Samos, Ephesus, Miletus – prospered even more than the mainland, including in cultural production.

A new politics

The basic form of urban civilisation in ancient Greece, the polis or small city-state, appeared during the Archaic era in this context of trade, coinage, literacy and overseas expansion. By the end of the 6th century the Greek towns numbered perhaps 1500, strung along the coastline “like frogs around a pond” [5], and there was great diversity amongst them. Unlike modern towns they were centres not for industry but for landowners and farmers, still organised on a traditional tribal structure. Wealth, including the best land, was still dominated by the aristocracy, and the masses were compelled to make their living on the least fertile soil.

The grim life of the Greek peasant was lamented in Hesiod’s poem Works and Days, written in about 700 BCE, in which the writer instructs his brother Perses in how to live a just life and exhorts the common people to be satisfied with moderation. For Hesiod, humanity has passed through five ages, and the present age of iron is the worst of them all. It is reasonable to interpret his text – the product of a ‘long and hard career scratching a living from the soil in miserable Askra’ [6] – in the context of the agricultural crisis that is probably responsible for the mass migrations from the mainland.

The Greek migrations are sometimes cast in a heroic light of exploration and discovery, but Plato suggested a rather different interpretation:

When men who have nothing, and are in want of food, show a disposition to follow their leaders in an attack on the property of the rich – these, who are the natural plague of the state, are sent away by the legislator in a friendly spirit as far as he is able; and this dismissal of them is euphemistically termed a colony.[7]

During the pre-literate period the tribal nobles responsible for the military overthrew the kings to become the dominant force during the recovery. From 650 BCE, populist leaders representing the new wealth of the economic recovery began to rise up and challenge the aristocracy. These leaders are known as ‘tyrants’, but the term did not become perjorative until the democratic context of the later Classical era. A tyrant was simply someone who seized power unconstitutionally, and he generally presented himself as a champion of the people to mobilise the peasantry as a power base. These tyrants in different cities did not of course follow a single blueprint, but they were broadly progressive. Pheidon of Argos established a system of weights and measures; Cypselus of Corinth divided the nobles’ land among the people; Peisistratos in Athens encouraged public works, industry and the arts. It is because of Peisistratos that the first standard editions of The Iliad and The Odyssey were written down, and to create employment he launched a building programme to beautify Athens. He redistributed land, reformed the coinage, built alliances with other states, and encouraged economic growth by offering agricultural loans.

The effect of tyranny was to limit the power of the nobility, encourage trade and new colonies, reform agriculture and improve the conditions of the peasantry, not to mention the benefits of patronage for art, architecture, music and literature. The aristocracy had proved vulnerable, in Perry Anderson’s words, to the ‘combined pressure of rural discontent from below and recent fortunes from above’ [8]. Tyranny contained its own contradiction: by breaking the power of the aristocracy and appealing to the commercial class and the hoplites – self-financed citizen infantry – the tyrants were creating a space for forces that would turn against them. It was thus the rule of the tyrants that marked the decisive transition towards the democratic polis of the Classical period.

The Archaic period saw an art emerge which, though influenced by the near east and Egypt, we may consider typically Greek. To the names of Homer and Hesiod we may add those of Archilochus of Paros, Alcaeus of Mytilene and Sappho, the famous woman poet, who raised lyric poetry to a new standard. Pottery moved away from the abstract motifs of the Geometric style, using a variety of techniques and portraying human subjects again in everyday and mythological scenes. Architects laid the principles of the distinctive Greek temple, and sculptors moved away from their Egyptian models towards an early naturalism, producing the kouros and kore figures that filled cemeteries and sanctuaries. The creativity of this period makes the term ‘Archaic’ an unhappy one, with its implication of primitiveness. But the label, artificial though such terms tend to be, refers to a relationship to the so-called Classical period: for the creative peak was still to come.

Classical Greece

The fragmentation of Greece into small city-states and the unsteady balance of class forces led to a fractious and unusually vibrant political life. In Athens, this culminated in a remarkable experiment.

The process began with Solon, whose reforms in around 600 BCE attempted to steer a course between debt-ridden peasants and disenfranchised traders on one hand, and the oligarchy on the other. After Peisistratos and the overthrow of his successors, the aristocracy tried to prevent reform, but was defeated by popular opposition led by the aristocrat Kleisthenes. In 508-7 BCE Kleisthenes made a decisive revolutionary step, taking Solon’s reforms as its foundation.

This next stage of the process did away with old clan loyalties by introducing new tribes based upon deme or place of residence. A council (boule) selected by lot proposed agendas for a voting assembly (ekklesia) composed of all citizens. This assembly became the keystone of a democracy based not upon elected representatives as in the modern West but on direct rule by the demos, or people, themselves. Officials were chosen by lot or election, and terms were kept short to keep offices under control. Leaders thought to be possible tyrants in the making could be ostracised, i.e. exiled for ten years, by popular vote.

By the 5th century BCE, Athens was the economic focus of the Aegean, a maritime power [9] funded by the silver mines at Laureion, and the trading activity of thousands of metics, or foreigners. And it was the most politically advanced city in the world.

Orator's stage on the PnyxThe stage on the Pnyx, a hill in central Athens, where orators would address the Assembly. Photo: Panegyrics of Granovetter.

Democracy had a limited franchise – women, slaves and foreigners were excluded, along with other restrictions, so that out of an estimated population of 250,000 for Athens and the region of Attica, only 30,000 male citizens could take part. The aristocracy was still privileged and held a lot of behind-the-scenes control. Nonetheless, working people, by which we mostly mean the small farmers who made up the majority of the population, held real power in a system that in some respects was more advanced than modern bourgeois democracy.

Despite the quarrelsomeness of the city-states, the Greeks recognised a certain common identity, as expressed at the Olympic games or in common respect for the oracular site of Delphi. This potential for unity was briefly realised by war. When Athens and Eretria intervened to help the Ionian Greek city of Miletus in an uprising against Persia, Greece was drawn into a confrontation with the Persian empire. After two Persian invasions, a league of Greek city-states under Athenian and Spartan leadership won victory at Plataea in 479 BCE. The end of the wars with Persia left Athens at the height of its prestige, but Greece quickly lost its new-found unity with the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, in which Athens and Sparta competed for dominance.

There was no single pattern of development across the Greek world, because the fragmentation of the Bronze Age collapse, combined with the mountainous geography, had resulted in a divided Greece composed of independent city states that often saw each other as rivals. Whereas Athens increasingly limited the power of its aristocracy, thrived on international trade and eventually invented the first democracy, Sparta, the other city that had most influence on Greek history, took a different road. Sparta was never a major trading centre. Its major source of wealth was an enslaved population of fellow-Greeks in Laconia and neighbouring Messenia, and it sought to keep control of this large and sometimes rebellious population through a ruthless military system. With a pioneering constitution that was both radical and conservative, the aristocracy never faced the challenge of a tyrant – let alone democracy, which Sparta viewed with suspicion.

It was conservative Sparta that eventually won an hollow victory in the Peloponnesian War. But as full-time soldiers, the Spartans had little time or use for art. Their relative cultural poverty means that Athens has had by far the greater artistic legacy.

Acropolis in AthensThe Acropolis of Athens, topped by the Parthenon.

For out of the cauldron of economic growth and new political structures in Greece, Athens became the centre of an unprecedented cultural flowering. (We shall examine the causes of this in more detail elsewhere.) Greek philosophy and science questioned the natural world, politics, and the nature of humanity; thinkers like Democritus introduced startling scientific theories, such as the existence of atoms. Poets and historians, partly inspired by a rich and poetic mythology, wrote a variety of literature, from the poems of Pindar to the Histories of Herodotus. Theatre reached a new intensity and profundity in the dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and many others. Sculptors created a new way of seeing the human body, producing such masterpieces as the Riace bronzes and Parthenon marbles. In pottery, a shift to the red-figure technique allowed vase painters a new detail, liveliness and realism. Architects laid down traditions for the design of monumental buildings which reached their high point in the Parthenon. This remarkable body of achievements make fifth century Greece one of the most creative periods in history. Even if the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War signals the end of its ‘golden age’, there was more to come: Plato and Aristotle, Apelles and Protogenes, Praxiteles and Lysippos, were all active in the 4th century.

Athens’ achievements were recognised in its own day. After the city’s surrender in 404 BCE to the Spartan general Lysander, the Spartans and their allies discussed its fate and, according to Plutarch, some proposed dire punishments. However the outcome is revealing:

And some state, in fact, the proposal was made in the congress of the allies, that the Athenians should all be sold as slaves; on which occasion, Erianthus, the Theban, gave his vote to pull down the city, and turn the country into sheep-pasture; yet afterwards, when there was a meeting of the captains together, a man of Phocis, singing the first chorus in Euripides’ Electra, which begins:

Electra, Agamemnon’s child, I come
Unto thy desert home,

they were all melted with compassion, and it seemed to be a cruel deed to destroy and pull down a city which had been so famous, and produced such men.[10]

If Plutarch is to be believed, it was this appeal for love of Athens’ art that saved it from destruction.


The Bronze Age collapse did not usher in a new mode of production, but the devastation created the conditions for a new phase of growth in the Iron Age. The trader Phoenicians exported civilisation around the Mediterranean and founded Carthage; the old Mesopotamian empires were succeeded by the Persians; the Greeks migrated to new trading colonies and refounded their culture, and under Alexander would export it by force of arms to the limits of the known world.

Yet Athens’ star would not shine so bright again. In the fourth century BCE, the focus of power in Greece shifted to Macedon. Under Alexander the Great, Greek culture was exported across a vast though short-lived empire that stretched from Egypt to the borders of India. This ‘Hellenistic’ period lasted until the rise of Rome as a world power. Thus aristocratic counter-revolution put an end to democracy. Yet even after Greece was absorbed into the Roman empire in 146 BCE, its culture persevered. As great admirers of Greece, the Romans plundered and copied its art, enticed its craftspeople and intellectuals to Rome, and acted as a mediator through which Greek culture survived even into the Christian age – and long after the creative spark had shrunk to more modest proportions in its homeland.

[1] The quotation is from the revised 1845 version of his poem ‘To Helen’.
[2] Marx, ‘The Leading Article in No. 179 of the Kölnische Zeitung’ (1842).
[3] The word ‘Greek’ derives from the Latin ‘Graeci’, i.e. our terminology has been mediated by the Romans. The people English-speakers call Greeks called themselves ‘Hellenes’ and their nation, ‘Hellas’.
[4] There are two ancient cities known to the English-speaking world as ‘Thebes’, one in Greece and one in Egypt. The latter was named ‘Thebai’ by the ancient Greeks – the Egyptians knew it by several names, the modern one being Luxor.
[5] Plato, Phaedo (360 BCE).
[6] From the introduction by Dorothea Wender to the Penguin edition of Hesiod and Theognis (1986).
[7] Plato, Book 5 of Laws (360 BCE).
[8] Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (1974).
[9] The building of a fleet on the urging of Themistocles gave further strength to democracy, as it placed part of Athens’ military power in the hands of the poor – the oarsmen of the triremes. The aristocracy opposed the fleet for this reason.
[10] Plutarch, Lysander (75 CE).