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New International, August 1935



Art and Marxism

On the Occasion of the International Writers’ Congress in Paris

(June 1935)

From New International, Vol.2 No.5, August 1935, pp.166-168.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE INTERNATIONAL Writers’ Congress which has just been concluded at the Maison de la Mutualité in Paris, has brought up a whole series of questions whose importance it is easy to understand with relation to the present epoch and to the general destinies of culture and art.

One of the sessions of the congress was devoted especially to the “individual” and to “individualism” – a problem to which, as to all others, Marxism brings us clear and penetrating views. The individual (the writer), situated “above the battle”, proves to be an apparition that belongs to the same insipid fantasies among which Marx puts “the individual and isolated hunter and fisherman”. “They are Robinsonads.”

“No more,” adds Marx, “than Rousseau’ s Contrat Social which, by means of a convention, places in relation and communication subjects independent by nature.”

“The higher we go in history, the more the individual, hence also the individual producer, appears as dependent upon and forming part of a greater whole; first, in a still quite natural manner, of a family and of a tribe which is an enlarged family; then, of a community under different forms, emerging from the antagonism and the fusion of the tribe.”

Now, if it is absurd to conceive of production by isolated individuals outside of society, it is still more absurd to conceive of the development of art and culture “in the absence of individuals living and talking together”. The “retreat into oneself” about which so many “independent” “intellectuals” like to talk, is possible only because “man is a zoon politikon in the most literal sense of the term, not merely a social animal but an animal who can isolate himself only in society” (Marx). The higher the degree of development and of differentiation attained by social conditions, the broader become the conditions for the “retreat into oneself” of the individual, the conditions for his independence of the material forces. It is precisely in the epoch when “bourgeois society”, the society of free competition, moves towards its maturity, that the point of view of the “isolated individual” appears, as Marx has pointed out.

The chains of the old feudal society having become an obstacle to the development of the productive forces, there is concealed behind the exaltation of the individual the exaltation of the bourgeois mode of producing, of exchanging, of living. Laissez faire, laissez passer, is the motto of this exaltation. But “free competition” is transformed little by little into “monopoly”. The artisan is separated from his tools; the peasant from his strip of land; both are reduced to the state of wage workers, concentrated in large factories, deprived of all individual prerogatives, subjected to the machine, to the tool that has become the “master of man”. “Private property” in the means of production, is changed, consequent upon capitalist concentration, from the means of freedom that it was for the individual following upon the dissolution of the forms of feudal society, into its negation, into a means of slavery.

Thence, millions of disinherited individuals arise against “private property” in the means of production. They do not want to abolish, as the Manifesto of Marx proclaimed, property, but they want to abolish the bourgeois form of property which has become incompatible with human development, with the development of the individual. He can not only no longer think – he cannot even feed himself any longer. Thence, those who demanded for themselves the laissez faire, the laissez passer, arise against those who veulent faire, veulent passer and endeavor to demolish the fetters which are an obstacle to the construction of a new society adopted to the newly developed productive forces. Out of this rebellion of the capitalist slaves against the social productive forces, embattled to make way for the new economic forms, emerges Fascism. Under the pretext of opposing the “right of the individual” to the collectivist spirit of socialism, Fascism really conceals its essence, which is the negation of the development of the individual, acting as it does as the regime of the absolute monopoly of big capital extended from the domain of production to the domain of the mind.

Quite different is the direction and the meaning of the march of socialism. By socializing the means of production and exchange, by having all individuals work for the whole collectivity, by putting within the reach of each the material and spiritual production of all, there is certainly no desire to lead to the socialization of the intellect, to the levelling down of the individual. On the contrary. If ever there is a possibility of speaking of the “free spirit”, it is furnished only by socialism, which renders man the master of things instead of their slave. Contrary to Fascism which, emerging from the putrefaction of the society of free competition, wants to save the regime of capitalist monopoly and to suppress every critical form of thought and mind – socialism, while also marking the end of the society of free competition, finds itself on the ascending line of historical development by replacing the bourgeois mode of production and exchange by the collectivist mode, also founded upon monopoly, but upon a monopoly which is at the service of the whole of society and which has as its purpose to harmonize production with the needs of the whole collectivity. Which implies not the stifling of the individual, but the establishment of a regime of “free competition” under new forms, under the forms of socialist emulation both in the domain of production and the domain of culture.

From what has been said it follows that whereas Fascism, the dying breath of bourgeois society, is the death of the individual and of the human personality, socialism represents, in the expression of Marx himself, the restitution of man to man, the renascence of the individual, still better, his veritable entrance into history.

It also follows how inexact and onesided it would be to confine oneself to a simple contrasting of “proletarian solidarity” to “bourgeois individualism” for the purpose of distinguishing the two forms of society: the one in birth, the other disappearing. “Proletarian solidarity” is an historic necessity (and not merely a movement of the soul), corresponding to a stage newly attained by the social forces of production; a means, in sum, of developing the production of individuals and with it their personality, their mind, their culture; whereas “bourgeois individualism” can exist only by grace of the dissociation of social individuals, of the mortification and the oppression of the human masses upon which stands the throne of the “solidarity” of knaves, parasites and exploiters. In bourgeois individualism we find the “solidarity” of conservative, anti-historical interests, enemy of the development of the individual because enemy of social development; in “proletarian solidarity” we have the voluntary, active, free collaboration of the individuals, associated with one another in order the better to separate from each other in society, that is, in order to conquer better conditions of living, of acting, of thinking independently.

It is therefore in the relations and the modes of production and distribution that we must seek the key to the relations between men, their manner of living and thinking, their kind of “solidarity” and their forms of “individualism”. How can and should this view be applied to the domain of art and literature? In what do proletarian art and literature differ from bourgeois art and literature? The difficulty is not in understanding, according to the Marxian conception, how the mode of production of material life conditions the process of social and political life, but also how it conditions the intellectual process in general. (It is not the mind of man that determines the reality, it is the social reality, on the contrary, that determines his mind, says Marx.) The really difficult point to discuss is that of knowing how the productive relations affect in general those of the mind; what, for example, is the relation between the development of material production and of artistic production. Marx notes that this relationship evolves in an uneven manner. “Thus, for example,” he says, “the relationship between Roman private right and modern production.

“For art [Marx pursues] it is known that definite periods of bloom stand in no relation to the general development of society, nor, consequently, to the material base, the bone structure, as it were, of its organization. For example, the Greeks compared to the moderns, or even with Shakespeare.” Whence these contradictions? And how much greater do they appear to be when the artistic and cultural wealth of the ancients is compared to the poverty, the dessication, the uniformity of the contemporary world, however, the world of the airplane, the radio, electricity. But the difficulty, according to Marx, lies only in the general formulation of these contradictions. It is quite evident that one cannot conceive of Greek art without assuming Greek mythology, “that is, nature and society, themselves already fashioned in an unconsciously artistic manner for the popular imagination”. Achilles is no longer possible after the appearanca of powder and lead. Jupiter is effaced by the lightning-conductor. The singers of popular legends are abolished by typography. In any case, continues Marx, “the difficult thing is not to understand that Greek art and the epic poem are tied up with certain forms of social development, but to understand that they can still bring us aesthetic enjoyment and be considered, in certain respects, as norms and as inaccessible models”. On this “difficult” point, the fragmentary and incompleted indications that Marx himself gives us are so perspicacious as to enable us to get to the heart of the question and to understand it.

“A man,” writes Marx, “cannot become a child again without falling into childishness. But is he not delighted with the naivete of the child, and should he not aspire to reproduce, on a higher level, the sincerity of the child; dees not the very character of every epoch live again in its natural truth in the child’ s nature? Why should not the social childhood of humanity, at the finest point in its flowering, exercize, like a forever vanished phase, an eternal attraction?”

The attraction of the Greeks, the “charm we find in their art”, must therefore be sought not in the materials at their disposal in their sincerity, in their naiveté in representing the world where their art was born. The grandeur of Achilles, of Jupiter, of the whole Iliad, lies not in the gestures of the personages, but in their representation. There is the key with which we can penetrate into the secret of art. The charm we find in the works of the ancient Greeks, in the masterpieces of later epochs, in the monuments of ancient literature – mediaeval of modern – rests neither in their content nor their purpose, but in the spontaneity, in the sincerity, in the manner of expressing and representing the life from which the materials are drawn. The attraction and charm we find in the art of every epoch depends upon the degree to which is displayed the capacity to reproduce “the sincerity of the child”. And, as Marx points out, “there are badly-reared children and precocious children. Many ancient nations belong to these categories. The Greeks were normal children”.

What is called the decay of the writer in the West is only the fact that many are “badly-reared” or else “precocious” children. Bourgeois civilization has given us not only machines, the locomotive, the airplane, the telegraph, the radio but has also brought forth giants of thought and of art: from the immortal Dante to the luminous Encyclopaedists. But since then, the prodigious child has aged, and in aging it has lost its attractiveness. The avidity for profit, the law of the market, the price variations have also become the laws of culture, art and literature. Maecenasism was undoubtedly a source of toadyism in art and literature in the days of antiquity and the Middle Ages; nevertheless, without forms of Maecenasism many masterpieces of antiquity and the Middle Ages could not have seen the light of day. A Leonardo da Vinci could never have displayed his artistic virtues without his “independence”, without the “disinterestedness” which his position at the court of the Sforzas obtained for him. The reign of capital has since established the worst form of Maecenasism: it has suppressed the independence of the writer and the artist, subjecting them to the sway of the market, to the allure of gold. Result: there has been a degradation of art and literature, having become by this fact sources of gain for the musician, the painter, the sculptor, the author. To top it all, we now have the institution of Fascist Maecenasism, that is, culture openly prostituted to capital; the institution of the auto da fé for every critical, independent work, the library under the surveillance of the police, the book controlled by sbirri, the portrait of the Leader deified. It is because the bourgeois capitalist conception of the world and of social relations has become incompatible not only with the development of material production, but also with the rise of artistic and cultural production. Hence, a new road must be sought.

To the artist and the writer must be restored their freedom and their sincerity, their spontaneity, their independence. And that is possible only in a newly organized society, in a society where exists not only the most developed, the most differentiated organization of production, but where all differences between manual and intellectual labor is abolished, where the power that dominates society is not capital, but labor; in brief: in a socialist society. But here lie the greatest number of ambiguities and misunderstandings.

|We have seen that the attraction, the charm in which lies the value of all artistic and literary production in every epoch, are not given by the materials out of which it is composed, but by its sincerity, by its natural sincerity of expression. Proletarian art, proletarian literature are not opposed to Greek art, but on the contrary must aspire to reproduce on a higher level the charm, the sincerity which we find among the Greeks, children born of a world that can never return. Now, one can (and often enough does) do a work of political propaganda, of “socialist” and “communist” agitation, without thereby attaining the domain of art. Let us take, for example, the Manifesto of Marx and Engels. Here we also have, without doubt, a monument, an inaccessible model of proletarian art and literature, both by the power and vigor of the style and by the invincible and expansive force of the arguments. Yet the essential character of the Manifesto is not in its artistic and literary value: it is historical, scientific – that of being a. program, an exposition of the doctrine and the method of the party of the working class. Proletarian art is a new effort of the imagination, a new product of the creative activity of thought, allied with the renovation of social conditions, with the effort to liberate the working class. But as this effort implies different stages, and has as its final goal the creation of a classless society, hence, the abolition of the working class itself – then proletarian art itself proves to be transitional art, and art of transition towards an art, finally, without abjectives, towards an art which will simply be the eternal attraction of an eternal childhood of humanity won back to itself; in brief: towards Art. But this transition can take place only with the preventive accomplishment of that collective work of art known as the socialist revolution, the expropriation of the expropriators, the conquest of power by the proletariat.

The role of the writer in the accomplishment of this prodigious task is not to face the workers as a “schoolmaster”, but to educate himself in their school, bringing them his own collaboration, his aid, his services in the new construction. The interests of truth, of art, of all of human culture coincide today with the interests of the working class, the most advanced class of our epoch. Whoever says culture must say today: socialism. And conversely, whoever says socialism, says at the same time: culture. Without culture, no socialism. Socialism is culture in action.


June 1935

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