Marx and Engels On Literature and Art
Source: Marx Engels On Literature and Art. Progress Publishers. Moscow 1976;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.
This volume offers the reader a selection of both excerpts and complete works and letters by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, giving their views on art and its place in society. Though it contains far from all that was written by the founders of scientific communism on this subject, it will nevertheless acquaint the reader with Marx’s and Engels’ most important ideas about artistic work.
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had an excellent knowledge of world art and truly loved literature, classical music, and painting. In their youth both Marx and Engels wrote poetry; in fact Engels at one time seriously contemplated becoming a poet.
They were well acquainted not only with classical literature, but also with the works of less prominent and even of little known writers both among their contemporaries and those who lived and worked in more distant times. They admired Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Dickens, Fielding, Goethe, Heine, Cervantes, Balzac, Dante, Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov, and mentioned many other less famous people who had also made their mark in the history of literature. They also displayed a great love for popular art, for the epics of various nations and other types of folklore: songs, tales, fables and proverbs.
Marx and Engels made extensive use of the treasures of world literature in their own works., Their repeated references to literary and mythological figures, and use of aphorisms, comparisons and direct quotations, masterfully woven into their works, are a distinctive feature of their style. The writings of Marx and Engels are notable not only for profundity of content, but also for their exceptional artistic merits. Wilhelm Liebknecht gave high praise to Marx’s style, citing his The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte as an example. “If ever hatred, scorn and passionate love of liberty were expressed in burning, devastating, lofty words,” wrote Liebknecht, “it is in The Eighteenth Brumaire, which combines the indignant severity of a Tacitus with the deadly satire of a Juvenal and the holy wrath of a Dante. Style here is the stilus that it was of old in the hand of the Romans, a sharp stiletto, used to write and to stab. Style is a dagger which strikes unerringly at the heart” (Reminiscences of Marx and Engels, Moscow, 1956, p. 57).
Marx and Engels used artistic imagery to express their thoughts more forcefully and vividly in their journalistic and polemical works, and even in their fundamental theoretical works such as Capital and Anti-Dühring. Marx’s pamphlet Herr Vogt, directed against Karl Vogt who was slandering the proletarian party, is one of the most striking examples. The biting sarcasm of this pamphlet is particularly effective due to the author’s skilful use of works by classical writers such as Virgil, Plautus, and Persius, by the medieval German poets Gottfried von Strassburg and Wolfram von Eschenbach, and also by such classics of world literature as Balzac, Dickens, Schiller and Heine.
Their superb knowledge of world art helped Marx and Engels to elaborate genuinely scientific aesthetic principles. The founders of scientific communism were thus not only able to answer the complex aesthetic questions of the previous age, but also to elaborate a fundamentally new system of aesthetic science. They did so only as a result of the great revolutionary upheaval they had brought about in philosophy by creating dialectical and historical materialism and laying down the foundations for the materialist conception of history. Though Marx and Engels have left no major writings on art, their views in this field, when collected together, form a harmonious whole which is a logical extension of their scientific and revolutionary Weltanschauung. They explained the nature of art and its paths of development, its tasks in society and social aims. Marxist aesthetics, like the whole teaching of Marx and Engels, are subordinated to the struggle for the communist reorganisation of society.
When developing their theory of aesthetics, Marx and Engels naturally based themselves on the achievements of their predecessors. But the main aesthetic problems — and above all the problem of the relationship between art and reality — were solved by them in a fundamentally new way, on the basis of materialist dialectics. Idealist aesthetics considered art as a reproduction of the ideal, standing over and* above actual reality. The origin of any art form, its development, flowering, and decay, all remained incomprehensible to the art theoreticians and historians of the pre-Marxian period, inasmuch as they studied these in isolation from man’s social existence.
Marx and Engels considered it absolutely impossible to understand art and literature proceeding only from their internal laws of development. In their opinion, the essence, origin, development, and social role of art could only be understood through analysis of the social system as a whole, within which the economic factor — the development, of productive forces in complex interaction with production relations — plays the decisive role. Thus art, as defined by Marx and Engels, is one of the forms of social consciousness and it therefore follows that the reasons for its changes should be sought in the social existence of men.
Marx and Engels revealed the social nature of art and its development in the course of history and showed that in a society with class antagonisms it was influenced by class ‘contradictions and by the politics and ideologies of particular classes.
Marx and Engels gave a materialist explanation of the origin of the aesthetic sense itself. They noted that man’s artistic abilities, his capacity for perceiving the world aesthetically, for comprehending its beauty and for creating works of art appeared as a result of the long development of human society and were the product of man’s labour. As early as in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx pointed to the role of labour in the development of man’s capacity to perceive and reproduce the beautiful and to form objects also “in accordance with the laws of beauty” (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 3, Moscow, 1975, p. 277).
This idea was later developed by Engels in his work Dialectics of Nature, in which he noted that efforts of toil “have given the human hand the high degree of perfection required to conjure into being the pictures of a Raphael, the statues of a Thorwaldsen, the music of a Paganini” (see pp. 128-29 of this book). Thus both Marx and Engels emphasise that man’s aesthetic sense is not an inborn, but a socially-acquired quality.
The founders of Marxism extended their dialectical view of the nature of human thought to analysis of artistic creativity. In examining the development of art together with that of the material world and the history of society, they noted that the content and forms of art were not established firmly once and for all, but that they inevitably developed and changed according to definite laws along with the development of the material world and of human society. Each historical period has inherent aesthetic ideals and produces works of art corresponding to its particular character and unrepeatable under other conditions. Comparing, for example, the works of Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Titian, Marx and Engels emphasised that “Raphael’s works of art depended on the flourishing of Rome at that time, which occurred under Florentine influence, while the works of Leonardo depended on the state of things in Florence, and the works of Titian, at a later period, depended on the totally different development of Venice” (p. 177).
The fact that the level of development of society and its social structure determine the content of artistic works and the prevalence of any particular literary or artistic genre was seen by Marx as the main reason that art in different periods never repeats itself and, in particular, that there was no possibility to create the mythology or epic poetry similar to those of the ancient Greeks under the conditions of the nineteenth century. “Is the conception of nature and of social relations which underlies Greek imagination and therefore Greek (art),” wrote Marx, “possible when there are self-acting mules, railways, locomotives and electric telegraphs?” (p. 83).
It goes without saying that Marxism has a far from open-and-shut understanding of the relations between the forms of social consciousness (and of art in particular) and their economic basis. For Marx and Engels, any social formation constituted a complex and dynamic system of interacting elements, each influencing the other — a system in which the economic factor is the determining one only in the final analysis. They were in no way inclined to qualify art as a passive product of the economic system. On the contrary, they emphasised that the various forms of social consciousness — including, of course, artistic creation — actively influence the social reality from which they emerge.
As if to forestall sociological vulgarisations of the problems of artistic creation, Marx and Engels drew attention to the fact that social life and the ideology of particular classes are reflected in art in a far from mechanistic manner. Artistic creativity is subordinate to the general laws of social development but, being a special form of consciousness, has its own distinctive features and specific patterns.
One of art’s distinctive features is its relative independence as it develops. The fact that works of art are connected historically with particular social structures does not mean that they lose their significance when these social structures disappear. On this point Marx cites the art and epic poetry of the ancient Greeks which “still give us aesthetic pleasure and are in certain respects regarded as a standard and unattainable ideal” (p. 84). He also provides a profound explanation for this phenomenon: Greek art reflected the naive and at the same time healthy, normal perception of reality characteristic of mankind in those early stages of its development, the period of its childhood; it reflected the striving for “natural veracity,” with its unique attractiveness and special charm for all (p. 84).
This example expresses an important Marxist aesthetic principle: in looking at works of art as basically reflections of particular social conditions and relationships, it is imperative also to see the features that make the lasting value of these works.
Marx and Engels considered as another particular feature of art the fact that its periods of upsurge do not automatically coincide with social progress in other fields, including that of material production. Thus Marx wrote in the Introduction to his Economic Manuscripts of 1857-1858: “As regards art, it is well known that some of its peaks by no means correspond to the general development of society; nor do they therefore to the material substructure” (p. 82 of this book). Marx and Engels saw the reason for this imbalance between the development of art and of society as a whole in the fact that the spiritual culture of any period is determined not only by the level of development of material production — the “material basis” of society — but also by the character of the social relations peculiar to that period. In other words, such factors as the specific character of social relations, the degree of development of class antagonisms and the existence in any period of specific conditions for the development of man’s individuality, all have an important bearing on art, determining its nature and development.
As far as capitalist society is concerned, this imbalance, according to Marx and Engels, must be considered as an expression of capitalism’s fundamental contradiction, the contradiction between the social nature of production and the private form of appropriation. From his analysis of the contradictions of capitalism, Marx draws a conclusion which is of extraordinary importance for aesthetics, namely that “capitalist production is hostile to certain branches of spiritual production, for example, art and poetry” (p. 141). This proposition in no way denies the development of literature and art under capitalism, but means that the very nature of the capitalist system of exploitation is in profound contradiction with the humanist ideals which inspire genuine artists. The more conscious artists are of the contradiction, between their ideals and the capitalist reality, the louder and clearer do their works (often despite the class origin of the very author) protest against the inhumanity of capitalist relations. Bourgeois society’s hostility towards art begets, even in bourgeois literature, criticism of capitalism in one form or another, with capitalist reality being depicted as one filled with tragic collisions. This, in Marx’s and Engels’ opinion, is a dialectical feature of the development of art under capitalism. It is for this very reason that bourgeois society has produced Shakespeare, Goethe, Balzac and other writers of genius who were capable of rising above their epoch and class environment and condemning with immense artistic power the vices of the capitalist system of exploitation.
In their works, Marx and, Engels set forth a number of profound ideas on the class nature of art in a society of antagonisms. They showed that even great writers, who were able, often despite their own class positions, to give a true and vivid picture of real life, were, in a class society, pressured by the ideas and interests of the ruling classes and frequently made serious concessions to these in their works. Taking Goethe, Schiller, Balzac, and other writers as examples, Marx and Engels found that the contradictions peculiar to them were not the result of purely individual features of their psychological make-up, but an ideological reflection of real contradictions in the life of society.
The founders of Marxism emphasised that art was an important weapon in the ideological struggle between classes. It could reinforce just as it could undermine the power of the exploiters, could serve to defend class oppression or, on the contrary, contribute to the education and development of the consciousness of the toiling masses, bringing them closer to victory over their oppressors. Marx and Engels therefore called for a clear distinction to be made between progressive and reactionary phenomena in feudal and bourgeois culture and put forward the principle of the Party approach to art that it be evaluated from the position of the revolutionary class.
While showing that a link existed between art and the class struggle, Marx and Engels always fought against attempts to schematise this problem. They pointed out that classes were not static and unchangeable but that class interrelationships changed in the course of history, the role of the classes in the life of society undergoing complex metamorphoses. Thus, in the period of struggle against feudalism, the bourgeoisie was able to create considerable spiritual values, but having come to power as a result of the anti-feudal revolutions, it gradually began to reject the very weapon it had itself forged in the struggle against feudalism. The bourgeoisie accomplishes this break with its revolutionary past when a new force appears on the historical arena — the proletariat. Under these conditions, attempts by individual members of the bourgeois intelligentsia, in particular cultural and artistic figures, to gain a deeper understanding of reality, to go beyond the framework of bourgeois relations and express their protest against these in some art form, inevitably lead them to conflicts with official bourgeois society and to their departure from bourgeois positions.
Marx and Engels apply their dialectical and materialist theory of knowledge to analysis of art and literature. In their opinion, artistic creation is one of the ways of reflecting reality and, at the same time, of perceiving and apprehending it; it is also one of the strongest levers of influencing the spiritual development of humanity. This approach to art forms the basis of the materialist understanding of its social importance and prominent role in the progress of society.
Naturally enough, when examining literature and art, Marx and Engels concentrated their attention on the problem of realism — the most accurate depiction of reality in an artistic work.
They considered realism, as a trend in literature and a method of artistic creation, to be the supreme achievement of world art. Engels formulated what is generally recognised as the classical definition of realism. “Realism, to my mind,” he wrote, “implies, besides truth of detail, the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances” (p. 90). Realistic representation, Marx and Engels emphasised, is by no means a mere copy of reality, but a way of penetrating into the very essence of a phenomenon, a method of artistic generalisation that makes it possible to disclose the typical traits of a particular age. This is what they valued in the work of the great realist writers such as Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe, Balzac, Pushkin and others. Marx described the English realists of the 19th century — Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontës, and Gaskell — as a brilliant pleiad of novelists “whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together” (p. 339). Engels developed a similar line of thought when analysing the works of the great French realist writer Balzac. Writing about the Comédie humaine, he noted that Balzac gave the reader “a most wonderfully realistic history of French society ... from which, even in economic details (for instance the re-arrangement of real and personal property after the Revolution) I have learned more than from all the professed historians, economists and statisticians of the period together” (p. 91).
Marx and Engels set out some very important ideas about realism in their letters to Lassalle in the spring of 1859, in which they sharply criticise his historical drama Franz von Sickingen dealing with the knights’ rebellion of 1522-23, on the eve of the Peasant War in Germany. These two letters are of great. significance because they contain a statement of the fundamental principles of Marxist aesthetics (pp. 98-107).
Marx’s and Engels’ demands on the artist include truthfulness of depiction, a concrete historical approach to the events described and personages with live and individual traits reflecting typical aspects of the character and psychology of the class milieu to which they belong. The author of genuinely realistic works communicates his ideas to the reader not by didactic philosophising, but by vivid images which affect the reader’s consciousness and feelings by their artistic expressiveness. Marx and Engels considered that Lassalle had carried even further some of the weaknesses in the artistic method of the great German poet and playwright Schiller — in particular his penchant for abstract rhetoric, which resulted in his heroes becoming abstract and one-dimensional declaimers of certain ideas. In this regard they preferred Shakespeare’s realism to Schiller’s method. Both pointed out to Lassalle that, in imitating Schiller, he was forgetting the importance for the realist writer to* combine depth of content and lofty ideals with efforts to achieve a Shakespearian ability to depict genuine passions and the multiple facets of the human character.
In their letters to Lassalle, Marx and Engels also touched upon the question of the links between literature and life, between literature and the’ present day. Marx by no means condemned Lassalle for his intention to draw an analogy between the events of the 16th century described in the play and the situation in the mid-19th century, and to bring out the truly tragic collision which “spelled the doom ... of the revolutionary party of 1848-1849” (p. 98). He saw the author’s mistake in his incorrect, idealistic interpretation of this collision, in the reduction of the reasons for it to the allegedly age-old abstract “tragedy of revolution,” which lacks any concrete historical or class content. Marx criticised Lassalle not for the political tendency of his drama, but for the fact that it was essentially mistaken from the point of view of the materialist conception of history and of the world outlook of the proletarian revolutionaries. Marx and Engels were highly critical of attempts to place literature above politics and of the theory of “art for art’s sake.” They insisted that the works of realist writers should reflect a progressive world outlook, be permeated with progressive ideas and deal with truly topical problems. It was in this sense that they welcomed tendentiousness in literature, interpreted as ideological and political partisanship. “I am by no means opposed to tendentious poetry as such,” wrote Engels to the German writer Minna Kautsky on November 26, 1885. ‘Aeschylus, the father of tragedy, and Aristophanes, the father of comedy, were highly partisan poets, Dante and Cervantes were so no less, and the best thing that can be said about Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe is that it represents the first German political problem drama. The modern Russians and Norwegians, who produce excellent novels, all write with a purpose” (p. 88). Marx and Engels were at the same time resolute opponents of stupid tendentiousness — bare-faced moralising, didacticism instead of artistic method, and abstract impersonations instead of live characters. They criticised the poets in the “Young Germany” literary movement for the artistic inferiority of their characters and attempts to make up for their lack of literary mastery with political arguments. Engels provides an apt definition of genuine tendentiousness in his letter to Minna Kautsky: “I think however that the purpose must become manifest from the situation and the action themselves without being expressly pointed out and that the author does not have to serve the reader on a platter the future historical resolution of the social conflicts which he describes” (p. 88).
Both Marx and Engels were deeply convinced that progressive literature had to reflect truthfully the deep-lying, vital processes of the day, to promulgate progressive ideas, and to defend the interests of the progressive forces in society. The modern term the Party spirit in literature expresses what they understood by this. They felt that the very quality that was lacking in Lassalle’s play — the organic unity of idea and artistry — was the sine qua non of genuinely realistic art.
In setting out the principles of materialist aesthetics and the fundamental and most general laws governing the development of art, the founders of scientific communism laid the basis of Marxist literary and art criticism and proposed the primary tenets of the materialist interpretation of the history of art and literature. In their works and correspondence, they threw new light on the most important questions of the historical and literary process and revealed such aspects in the works of both classical and contemporary writers which were beyond the comprehension of bourgeois literary historians. In the present collection, the reader will find Marx’s and Engels’ views of the artistic works of the most important ages in mankind’s history — their evaluation of art in ancient and medieval times, of Renaissance culture and literature, of literature in the period of the Enlightenment, and, finally, of the work of the romantic and realist writers of the 19th century. In addition, the reader will discover the attitude of the founders of Marxist aesthetics towards the main literary and artistic trends in general and their opinions on individual writers and other artists.
Marx’s and Engels’ view of ancient art has already been discussed briefly above. Let us now turn to their evaluation of the art of other ages.
Their genuinely scientific explanation of the specific features of the social system and culture of medieval times is of exceptional interest. Marx and Engels stripped away the romantic idealisation of the Middle Ages and, at the same time, demonstrated the inconsistency of the abstract view held by the Enlighteners that this was merely an age of social and cultural regression. They pointed out that the transition from slave-owning to feudal society was historically inevitable and showed that the establishment of the feudal mode of production was a step forward in the development of human society, compared to the reign of slavery which had preceded it. This enabled Marx and Engels to form a new approach to medieval culture and art and point out those features in them which reflected the progressive course of historical development. Engels wrote that “. . as a result of the intermingling of nations in the early Middle Ages new nationalities gradually developed” (Marx/Engels, Werke, Bd. 21, S. 395), the appearance of which was a prerequisite for further social and cultural development of mankind. Analysing various epic poems of the early Middle Ages such as the Elder Edda and other Icelandic and Irish sagas, Beowulf, the Lay of Hildebrand and the Chanson de Roland, Marx and Engels showed that they reflected the gradual transition from the earliest stages of the tribal system to new levels of social consciousness connected with the early period of the formation of European nationalities. The epic and national-heroic poetry of the Middle Ages is notable, as Engels pointed out, for characteristics which show their new cultural-historical and aesthetic quality, as compared with the classical epic poetry of the ancient world. The same also applies to the later lyric poetry of the feudal Middle Ages — the medieval romance lyrics, best exemplified by the works of the Provencal troubadours. In his The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State Engels wrote that “no such thing as individual sex love existed before the Middle Ages” (p. 215). For this reason, he said, the appearance and poetic glorification of individual love in the Middle Ages was a step forward compared to antiquity. Moreover, the medieval love poems influenced the following generations and prepared the ground for the flowering of poetry in the modern age.
Marx and Engels formulated and substantiated a new view of the Renaissance, one which differed radically from the views of earlier bourgeois cultural historians and also in many ways from those of contemporary and later bourgeois historiography. This new understanding of the basic historical meaning of the Renaissance in Western Europe was presented by Engels in its most developed form in 1875-76 in one of his versions for the Introduction to the Dialectics of Nature (pp. 251-53). Engels emphasised that, contrary to the traditional view of bourgeois science, the Renaissance must not be seen as merely an upheaval in the ideological and spiritual life of the times. The origins of this new age, he states, should be sought above all in the economic and political. changes that brought about the transition from the Middle Ages to modern times. Engels penetrated to the very essence of the phenomena which made possible the immense leap forward in the culture, literature and art of that period, some achievements of which remained unequal led even in the more mature bourgeois society. The art of the Renaissance, as Engels noted, developed not in a period of already settled bourgeois society but “in the midst of the general revolution” (Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Moscow, 1974, p. 21). Social relations were at that time in a state of constant flux and change and had not yet become, as they did in mature bourgeois society, a force which to a certain extent limited the development of personal initiative, talent and capabilities but, on the contrary, actively contributed to their development. Because of its revolutionary character this age, the one of “the greatest progressive revolution that mankind had so far experienced,” stated Engels, “called for giants and produced giants ... in power of thought, passion and character, in universality and learning.” This is why “the men who founded the modern rule of the bourgeoisie had anything but bourgeois limitations” (pp. 252-53).
Engels also noted that “the heroes of that time were not yet in thrall to the division of labour, the restricting effects of which, with its production one-sidedness, we so often notice in their successors” (p. 253). To clarify his idea, Engels described Leonardo da Vinci who “was not only a great painter but also a great mathematician, mechanic and engineer, to whom the most diverse branches of physics are indebted for important discoveries” and reviewed the work of Albrecht Dürer, a “painter, engraver, sculptor, and architect” and inventor of a fortification system. Engels also pointed to the great diversity of interests and erudition of other Renaissance figures (p. 253).
Marx’s and Engels’ evaluation of the Renaissance as an age of “the general revolution,” “the greatest progressive revolution,” explains the warm sympathy they felt for the “giants” of that age. They saw the great men of the Renaissance not just as outstanding scholars, artists, or poets, but, at the same time, as great revolutionaries in world science and culture.
Engels considered the most important trait of the heroes of the Renaissance to be that “they almost all live And pursue their activities in the midst of the contemporary movements, in the practical struggle; they take sides and join in the fight, one by speaking and writing, another with the sword, many with both” (p. 253). It is not difficult to see that this was also what Engels expected of the artists of the future. Referring to the ability of the people of the Renaissance to live by the interests of their time, to “take sides,” Engels emphasised those traits which lifted them above the level of the professionally narrow, armchair science of the bourgeoisie, and above the level of the 19th-century bourgeois writers and artists who preached “non-partisanship” and “pure art.” These traits brought the great men of the Renaissance closer to the ideals of socialist culture and of the revolutionary movement of the working class.
Marx and Engels considered Dante one of the great writers whose works announced the transition from the
Middle Ages to the Renaissance. They saw him as a poet and thinker of genius and, at the same time, as an inflexible warrior whose poetic works were infused with Party spirit (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 6, Moscow! 1976, p. 271) and were inseparable from his political ideals and aspirations. According to Wilhelm Liebknecht, Marx knew the Divina Commedia almost by heart and would often declaim whole sections of it aloud. Marx’s “Introduction” to Capital in fact ends with the great Florentine’s proud words: “Go your own way, and let people say what they will!” The author of Capital placed Dante among his most beloved poets — Goethe, Aeschylus, and Shakespeare. Engels called Dante a person of “unequalled classic perfection” (p. 247) and “a colossal figure” (p. 248). Marx and Engels held the great Spanish writer Cervantes in high esteem too. Paul Lafargue noted that Marx set the author of Don Quixote, together with Balzac, “above all other novelists” (p. 439). Finally, Marx’s and Engels’ admiration for Shakespeare, one of their most beloved writers, is known to all. Both considered his plays with their far-ranging depiction of the life of his time and their immortal characters to be classical examples of realist drama. Lafargue wrote that Marx “made a detailed study” of Shakespeare’s works. “His whole family had a real cult for the great English dramatist” (p. 438). Engels shared his friend’s views on Shakespeare. On December 10, 1873, he wrote to Marx. “There is more life and reality in the first act of the Merry Wives than in all German literature” (p. 260).
The most important comment by the founders of scientific communism about classicism, the literary movement of the 17th-18th centuries, was made by Marx in a letter to Lassalle on July 22, 1861 (p. 269). On the basis of a materialist understanding of the development of culture, Marx in his letter rejected the unhistorical idea that classicism was the result of a misunderstanding of the laws of classical drama and of classical aesthetics, with their famous principle of the three unities. He pointed out that, though the theoreticians of classicism had misunderstood classical Greek drama and Aristotle’s Poetics, this was no accident or a misunderstanding of history, but a historical inevitability. Classicist playwrights “misunderstood” Aristotle because the “misunderstood” Aristotle corresponded exactly to their taste in art and their aesthetic requirements, formed by the specific social and cultural conditions of the time.
Unlike previous historians of culture who were unable to understand the class content of ideas, Marx and Engels uncovered the social, class-historical basis of the ideas of the 18th-century Enlightenment. They showed that the Enlightenment was not just a movement in social thought, but an ideological expression of the interests of the progressive bourgeoisie, which was rising up to struggle against feudal absolutism on the eve of the Great French Revolution.
Marx and Engels held in high esteem the heritage of the English and French 18th-century Enlighteners including their fiction and works on aesthetics. Their comprehensive analysis of the activity of the Enlighteners explains its close links with the life of society and the class struggle during the preparation for the French bourgeois revolution and draws a line between the moderately bourgeois and the democratic elements in their heritage.
Marx’s and Engels’ works and letters show that they had a superb knowledge of both English and French philosophical and economic literature and fiction of the age of the Enlightenment. They do not merely mention Defoe, Swift, Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, the Abbé Prévost, Beaumarchais, but give laconic and at the same time brilliantly profound and accurate evaluations of them, while also using their works to draw generalisations concerning the most important aspects of literary life in the age of the Enlightenment.
It should also be noted that Marx included Denis Diderot among his favourite writers. He delighted in Diderot’s novels, especially Le Neveu de Rameau, which he called a “unique masterpiece” (p. 279). Engels shared his friend’s
opinion on Diderot and wrote in 1886: “If ever anybody dedicated his whole life to the ‘enthusiasm for truth and justice’ — using this phrase in the good sense — it was Diderot, for instance” (p. 279).
Marx and Engels also wrote about the leading men of the Enlightenment in Germany — Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, Herder, Wieland. Revealing the economic and socio-political conditions in Germany, whose feudal division and reactionary small-power absolutist system had been hardened as a result of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), they showed that these conditions had made a definite mark on the ideas and feelings of the majority of the most prominent figures of the “great age of German literature” (p. 346). Together with the rebellious spirit and indignation at the social system of the time that were characteristic of German classical literature, it also reflected the feelings of the petty bourgeoisie (the predominating social stratum in Germany) whose inherent characteristic was admiration for and servility towards the powers that be. “Each of them was an Olympian Zeus in his own sphere,” Engels wrote about Goethe and Hegel, “yet neither of them ever quite freed himself from German Philistinism” (p. 349). In spotlighting not only the strong, but also the weaker points in Goethe, Schiller, and other German writers and thinkers of that period, Marx and Engels in no way sought to belittle their immense, world-wide importance. This is confirmed by Marx’s attitude towards Goethe, who, as already mentioned, was one of his most beloved poets. Contemporaries who knew Marx well stated that he was a constant reader of the great German poet’s works. In their writings and conversations, both Marx and Engels frequently quoted from Faust and other works by Goethe. In 1837 the young Marx, while still a student at Berlin University, wrote an epigram defending Goethe against the Lutheran pastor Pustkuchen, who was one of the leaders in the struggle of German reactionaries of the 1830s against the poet. Engels devoted one of his essays in literary criticism to an analysis of Goethe’s
work. This was “German Socialism in Verse and Prose” (pp. 361-74) in which he attacked the aesthetics of German philistine “true socialism.”
Marx’s and Engels’ analysis of West European romanticism is of great importance to the elaboration of a genuinely scientific history of literature. Considering romanticism a reflection of the age beginning after the Great French Revolution, of all its inherent social contradictions, they distinguished between revolutionary romanticism, which rejected capitalism and was striving towards the future, and romantic criticism of capitalism from the point of view of the past. They also differentiated between the romantic writers who idealised the pre-bourgeois social system: they valued those whose works concealed democratic and critical elements under a veneer of reactionary utopias and naive petty-bourgeois ideals, and criticised the reactionary romantics, whose sympathies for the past amounted to a defence of the interests of the nobility. Marx and Engels were especially fond of the ‘Works of such revolutionary romantics as Byron and Shelley.
Marx’s and Engels’ evaluation of the works of 19th-century realist writers has already been mentioned. Marx and Engels considered realist traditions to be the culmination of the whole of the previous literary process. Engels traced their development and enrichment in the works of Guy de Maupassant, of the creators of the Russian realist novel of the second half of the 19th century, and of Norway’s contemporary dramatists. Marx and Engels had a lively interest in Russia and attached great importance to the Russian revolutionary movement. To be better able to follow the development of the economic and social life of Russia, they both learnt Russian. They were well acquainted not only with socio-economic and journalistic writings in Russia, but also with the country’s fiction. They both read the works of Pushkin, Turgenev, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Chernyshevsky, and Dobrolyubov in Russian, while Marx also read Gogol, Nekrasov, and Lermontov in the original. Engels was also acquainted with English translations of the works of Lomonosov, Derzhavin, Khemnitser, Zhukovsky, Batyushkov, and Krylov. Marx and Engels thought Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin to be an amazingly accurate depiction of Russian life in the first half of the 19th century. Both were especially fond of Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov. Engels considered these revolutionary writers “two socialist Lessings” (p. 414) and Marx called Chernyshevsky a “great Russian scholar and critic” (p. 415), while comparing Dobrolyubov “as a writer to Lessing and Diderot” (p. 415).
Characteristic of Marx and Engels was their profoundly internationalist approach to literature and art. They paid equal attention to the art of all nations, European and non, European, large and small, believing that every people makes its own unique contribution to the treasure-house of world art and literature. Their interests included the development of art and literature in England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Russia as well as the artistic and cultural treasures of the East or of such small countries as Ireland, Iceland, and Norway. judging by their notes, the ancient cultures of the indigenous inhabitants of the New World also came within their field of vision.
Marx and Engels had a special attitude towards the democratic and revolutionary poets and writers who were close to the proletariat. Throughout their lives, they strove to draw the best progressive writers of their time to the side of the socialist movement and to educate and temper them, while helping them to overcome the weaker aspects of their work. Marx and Engels actively contributed to the formation of a proletarian revolutionary trend in literature.
Marx’s influence on the work of the great German revolutionary poet Heinrich Heine was immense. They met in Paris in 1843. The prime of Heine’s political lyrics and satire comes in 1843-44, when he was in close and friendly contact with Marx. Marx’s influence on Heine is clear in such remarkable works as his poems The Silesian Loom Workers and Germany. A Winter Tale. All his life Marx admired Heine, who was one of the favourite poets in Marx’s family. Engels was in complete agreement with his friend’s sympathies and considered Heine to be “the most eminent of all living German poets” (p. 375). In their struggle against German reaction, Marx and Engels often quoted from Heine’s bitingly satirical poems. Marx’s and Engels’ ideological influence played an exceptional role in Heine’s development as an artist and helped him to realise that the communist revolution would inevitably be victorious.
Marx and Engels were close friends of the German poets Georg Weerth and Ferdinand Freiligrath, with whom they worked side by side on the Neue Rheinische Zeitung during the revolution of 1848-1849, Engels called Weerth “the German proletariat’s first and most important poet” (p. 402). After Weerth’s death, Marx and Engels carefully collected his literary works. In the 1880s Engels vigorously promoted these in the German Social-Democratic press.
It was only thanks to ‘Marx’s and Engels’ influence that Freiligrath became, in 1848-49, one of the classics of German revolutionary poetry. His poems written at that time are closely linked to Marx’s and Engels’ ideas and are his best. The care and attention Marx and Engels showed for Freiligrath is a good example of their attitude towards revolutionary poets and of how they tried to help them in their noble cause. When Marx recommended Freiligrath to his comrade Joseph Weydemeyer, in 1852, for work on the journal Revolution, he specially asked Weydemeyer to write a friendly, praising letter to the poet to encourage him. It is no coincidence that Freiligrath’s importance as a poet began to decline as soon as he moved away from Marx and Engels in the 1850s.
Marx and Engels had close links with many French and English revolutionary writers, in particular with the Chartist leader Ernest Jones. His best poems, written in the latter 1840s, show the influence of Marx’s and Engels’ ideas.
After Marx’s death, Engels continued in the 1880s and 1890s to keep careful track of the revolutionary writings of those English authors who were ideologically close to the English socialist movement. This can be seen from Engels’ letter to the writer Margaret Harkness (pp. 89-92) who had sent him her short story “A Poor Girl,” his numerous comments about the plays of the English socialist Edward Aveling, and his notes on the ideological development of a number of other writers.
Important statements by Engels on the subject of proletarian art can also be found in his letters written toward the end of his life to German Social-Democratic leaders.
In this way, Marx and Engels strove to foster a new type of writer and artist who, assimilating the finest traditions of classical literature, would take an active, creative part in the proletariat’s struggle for emancipation, proceeding from a broad understanding of the experiences and the tasks of the revolutionary struggle.
This collection also contains valuable statements by Marx and Engels on the flowering of art in the future communist society. The founders of Marxism saw the contradictions in the development of art under capitalism as a manifestation of the antagonistic nature of bourgeois society as a whole and considered the solution of these problems to be possible only after the proletarian revolution and the social reorganisation of society.
Marx and Engels showed brilliant foresight in anticipating the basic traits of the new, communist society. Communism is above all true freedom for the all-round and harmonious development of the individual. “The realm of freedom,” said Marx, ‘actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases...” (p. 183).
Labour freed from exploitation becomes, under socialism, the source of all spiritual (and aesthetic) creativity. Marx and Engels point out that only given true economic, political, and spiritual freedom can man’s creative powers develop to the full and that only proletarian revolution offers unbounded opportunities of endless progress in the development of literature. The great historical mission of the proletariat consists in the communist rebuilding of the world. It was in the proletariat that Marx and Engels saw the social force which could change the world and provide for further progress not only in economics and politics, but also in culture, the force which would bring about the conditions required for the full realisation of mankind’s higher moral and aesthetic values.