A. Bogdanov 1924

The Workers’ Artistic Inheritance

Source: The Labour Monthly, September 1924, Bogdanov, pp. 549–597.
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford and Adam Buick.
Proofread: by Jay Blackwood (April 2021).
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2004.

In dealing with religion[1] as an example of the artistic inheritance of the working class I intentionally started out with the most contested and difficult question. In this manner it will be easier for us to master the main problem. It is clear that the weapon with which the working class can and should master that inheritance is that criticism of ours which I have already described, with its new “all-organisational” standpoint of collective labour.

How should our criticism approach its subject?

The soul of a work of art is what we call its “artistic idea.” This is its plot and the essence of its treatment, the problem and the principle of its solution. Of what kind, then, is this problem? We know now. No matter how it has been considered by the artist himself, in reality it is always a problem of organisation. It is this in two senses: in the first it is a question of how to organise harmoniously a certain sum total of the elements of life and experience; in the second sense, it is a question of how to ensure that the unity created in this way may serve as a means of organisation for a certain community. If the first is not accomplished we have no art, but only confusion; if the second is not accomplished, then the work has no interest for anybody except the author himself, and is of no use whatever.

We shall take for an illustration one of the greatest works of world-literature, the finest diamond of the old cultural heritage – Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

What is the “artistic idea” of this work? It is the organisational problem of a human soul torn by the difficult contradictions of life, divided between the striving towards happiness, love and harmony, and the necessity of waging a painful, stern, merciless struggle. Where is the way out of this contradiction, how can all this be reconciled? How can the thirst for harmony be prevented from weakening a man in the inevitable struggle of life, be prevented from robbing him of the strength, firmness and coolness which are necessary for this struggle? At the same time, how can a man avoid the involuntary cruelty of the blows, the blood and dirt of the wounds, destroying the whole joy, the whole beauty of existence? What should be done to restore harmony to the soul rent asunder by the sharp conflict between its deepest and sublimest need, and the imperious demand dictated by the hostility of his environment?

We perceive at once how vast is the scale of this organisational problem, how great is its significance for every man. It is not a problem which faces the Danish Prince alone, nor the numerous “Hamlets” and “little Hamlets” of our middle class and its literature. This problem is an inevitable moment in the life of every man; he who is strong enough to solve it is raised by it to a higher stage of self-consciousness; for the man who cannot solve the problem becomes a source of spiritual ruin, and sometimes even leads to his destruction.

This tragedy penetrates perhaps most acutely the soul of the proletarian idealist, and even more so the collective psychology of the working class. Fraternity is its ideal, the harmonious life of humanity is its highest aim; but how removed from all this is its surrounding environment, how difficult and at times gloomy and cruel is the struggle forced upon it! Yet it must fight if it does not want to be deprived of all that has been attained by previous innumerable exertions, if it does not want to lose its social dignity and the very sense of life. Little joys have been given it, and great is the thirst for them; but even that little is constantly threatened with destruction or deformation by the inevitable elements of social hatred and anarchy. Why, the very ability to love and rejoice may be killed in the exasperation of the fight, in the despair of defeats and in the rage of the countering blows!

The tragedy of Hamlet enfolds itself on just such a basis. He is a very gifted man, with a fine artistic nature; and at the same time life has favoured him. His education as a prince and heir to the throne, several years of wandering in Germany in the capacity of a student, the fullest enjoyment afforded by occupation in the sciences and arts, life in an environment of friendship and good cheer: finally his serene poetical love for Ophelia – it is seldom that a man has an existence so happy and harmonious. Hamlet takes it as a matter of course. He has never experienced, nor can he imagine, any other existence. But then the time comes, the horror and hideousness of life breaks in upon him – at first in dark foreboding and then with painful clearness.

His family has been destroyed, the lawful order of his country has been shattered to the ground. A traitor and fratricide has seized the throne of his father and seduced his mother; at the court, hypocrisy, intrigue and licentiousness are reigning; decline of the old good customs is spreading over the country, breeding confusion. It is necessary to restore law, to cut short crime, to avenge the death of his father and the disgrace of his family. Such is the sacred duty of Hamlet, as defined by the whole order of his feudal conceptions.

Is he sufficiently strong to accomplish all this? Yes, in his rich nature there are the requisite powers. For he is not only an artist and a favourite of fortune, he is not only a “passive aesthetic” for whose life harmony is as indispensable as air. He is, besides, the son of a warrior king, a descendant of the great Vikings; he has received a perfect military education. There is a fighter in him – but one that has not had the opportunity to unfold, to put himself to the test; and, what is worse, the fighter is combined with the passive aesthete.

Here is the essence of the tragedy. The struggle demands from Hamlet resort to cunning, deception, violence and cruelty; but these are repulsive to his mild and refined soul. And more, he has to direct them against his nearest and dearest: in the camp of his enemies he finds his beloved mother, and he sees that Ophelia herself is used as a tool in the intrigues against him. His enemies put them forward, and thus play skilfully upon the weakest sides of his soul. His hand, which is raised for the blow, is stopped; the inner struggle paralyses his will, the momentary resolution gives way to hesitation and inaction, time passes in fruitless meditation – the result is a deep duality and for a time even the wreck of his personality: everything is confused in the chaos of unavoidable contradictions, Hamlet “becomes insane.”

An ordinary person would have been crushed by the circumstances and would have perished before he could do anything. But Hamlet is a figure not of the ordinary. He is an heroic character. Through the tortures of despair, through the sickness of his soul, he still goes step by step to the real solution. The elements of the two separated personalities in one – of the aesthete and the warrior – penetrate each other and are welded in a new personality: the active aesthete, the champion of the harmony of life. The main contradiction disappears: the thirst for harmony finds an outlet in the exertion of fighting, the blood and mire of the struggle are directly redeemed by the consciousness that it serves to purify life and raise it to a higher level. The organisational problem is solved, the artistic idea has been clothed in form.

Hamlet, it is true, perished; and in this the great poet is objectively right, as always. The enemies of Hamlet had this advantage: while he was gathering the forces of his soul, they acted, and prepared everything for his destruction. But he dies a victor: crime is punished, the lawful order is restored, the fate of Denmark is entrusted to firm hands: to the young hero Fortinbras. He is not so great a man as Hamlet, but has an harmonious character imbued with the principles of the feudal world, whose ideals inspired Hamlet also.

Here another aspect of our criticism comes in. The organisational problem has been solved; but which collectivity was it that gave the author the vital material for the embodiment of this problem? Of course, it was not the proletarian, which did not exist then. The author of Hamlet, no matter who he was – as is well known this is a disputed question – was either an aristocrat himself or a fervent adherent of the aristocracy. It is from this world that he draws the greater part of the material for his dramas, and his works bear the seal of the feudal monarchical ideal. The bases of that social order are authority and subordination, faith in a deity managing the world, faith in the holiness and infallibility of the order which has been established since ancient times, and the recognition that some people are higher beings, by their very birth destined to manage and rule, while others are lower and must be ruled, being incapable of any other function but that of subordination. Now, does not all this destroy the value of the work for the working class?

I shall answer by another question. Is it necessary for the working class to know other organisational types besides its own? Moreover, is the working class in general able to work out and form its own type otherwise than by way of comparison with others, by the criticism of others, by working them over and using their elements? And who else, if not the great and skilful artist, can lead one into the very depths of an alien organisation of life and thought? It is the task of our criticism to expose the historical significance of that organisation, its connection with lower stages of development, its contradiction with the vital conditions and problems of the proletariat. As soon as this is accomplished there is no more danger of submitting to the influence of the strange type of organisation; the knowledge of it becomes one of our most precious tools for the creation of our own organisation.

And here also the objectivity of the great artist affords the best support for our criticism. Without making it his aim he happens to delineate all the conservatism of the authoritarian world, its inherent narrowness, and the weakness of the human mind in this world. It is worth while to recollect the appearance of the hero Fortinbras, which serves as an impulse towards a change in the soul of Hamlet himself, urging him to enter the course of action leading to the solution of his problem. With a proud conviction of his own right, without any doubts or hesitation, Fortinbras leads his army to conquer a stretch of land which is not worth, perhaps, the blood of one of the soldiers who will perish in this war ...

Finally, great significance attaches to the fact that while the organisational problem is set before us and solved on the basis of the life of a society strange to us, while the solution in its general aspect preserves its validity for the present time, and for the proletariat as a class also, whenever the thirst for harmony clashes with the severe demands of its struggle. Here art teaches the working class the universal setting and the universal solution of organisational problems – which is necessary for it in the accomplishment of its universal organisational ideal.

The Belgian artist, Constantine Meunier, in his sculptures depicted the life of the workers. His statue, “The Philosopher,” represents a worker thinking, deeply absorbed in the solution of some important philosophical problem. The naked figure makes an integral and strong impression of exerted thought, concentrated on one thing, and overcoming some great invisible resistance.

What is the artistic idea of the statue? The organisational problem is the following: How to combine hard, physical labour with the strain of thought, with mental creative work? The solution of the problem ...?

It is only necessary to look at the figure of “The Philosopher,” which is penetrated throughout by reserved effort, in which every visible muscle is fully exerted – an exertion not manifesting itself in any external action, but seeming to pass into the inner depths – and immediately the solution comes forward with the greatest vividness and impressiveness. It is this: “Thought is a physical exertion in itself; its nature is the same as that of labour, there is no contradiction between them, their division is artificial and passing.” The results of exact science, of physiological psychology, confirm this idea; but it is more intimate and comprehensible in its artistic expression. And its enormous significance for the proletariat does not need proof.

But our criticism must put the question: On the standpoint of which class or social group does the artist stand in his creative work? And then it will become plain that although he represents workers, he does it not as an ideologist of the working class: his is the standpoint of labour, but not of collective labour. The worker-thinker is taken as an individual; those connections which fuse the exertion of his thought with the physical and mental exertions of millions, making it a link in the universal chain of labour, are not felt at all, or at best are delineated very vaguely, almost indiscernibly. The artist is an intellectual by his social position; he is accustomed to work individually himself, without noticing to what extent his labour is connected with the collective labour of humanity both by its origin and by its methods and problems. In this the standpoint of the toiling intellectuals is very little different from that of the bourgeoisie – it is just as individualistic – and here also our criticism must supplement that which the artist could not give.

Thus the tasks of proletarian criticism in relation to the art of the past define themselves. By carrying out these tasks it will give the working class an opportunity to master firmly and use independently the organisational experience of thousands of years crystallised in artistic forms.

The usual conception of the role and sense of proletarian criticism is different. It most frequently defends the position of “social arts,” and deals with the problems of its agitational significance in defence of the interest of the working class. Some years ago the worker Ivan Kubikov invited the proletarians to study the best works of the literature of the old world, regarding art’s educational influence in the following manner. No doubt there is in this literature “not only pure gold, but also elements of alloy which are harmful for the proletariat.” These elements are the “conservative moderating forces.” But they are not to be feared, because the worker has his class sense which allows him to distinguish between the gold and the alloy. “If we observe attentively the impressions received from art we shall find that only the gold affects, the alloy passes by the consciousness of the worker ... I have personally had the opportunity during my observations to see the very surprising way in which a rebel worker manages to draw revolutionary conclusions from the most innocent works of art.” (“Nasha Zaria,” Our Dawn, 1914, No. 3, pp. 48–49). This is a naive standpoint, and faulty at its base.

There is very little good in such a sense which “manages” to draw revolutionary conclusions from a really innocent work. Misrepresentation is misrepresentation. What does it prove? That there is a great force of direct feeling and a lack of objectivity. It proves that the thought is lower than this feeling and submits to it. Should that be the consciousness of a class destined to solve the universal organisational problem?

As an illustration of the interrelation between “gold and alloy” Kubikov takes Schiller’s Don Karlos; he thinks that the detection of tyranny and the fiery orations of Marquis Posa are the gold, while his dreams about monarchy absolute, but enlightened and humane, is the alloy. This is not true. On “fiery words,” accompanied by vagueness and weakness of thought, the reader might well be brought up in the direction of revolutionary phraseology alone. On the contrary, the live and deeply artistic expression of the ideal of enlightened monarchy is not at all “alloy” for the historically conscious reader who has the standpoint of proletarian criticism. The ideal is the mental model of organisation; the knowledge and understanding of such models which have been worked out by the past is indispensable for a class which is called upon to organise the future. In the struggle of the heroic personalities presented by the artist it is necessary to discern the struggle of social forces which have defined and determined the thought and will of the men of that epoch, and the necessity of the different ideals called forth by the nature of those forces. To get an artistic insight into the soul of perished classes or of those which are passing from history, as well as into the soul of the classes which occupy the scene of history at present, is one of the best means to master the accumulated cultural and organisational experience of man, the most precious inheritance for a class that comes to construct.

And as far as the art of the past can educate the feelings and moods of the proletariat, it should serve as a means to deepen and enlighten them, to extend their field over all the life of humanity, along all its path of toil, but it should not serve as a means of agitation, a tool for propaganda.

The critic who manages to present to the proletariat a great work of the old culture, in the theatre for instance, after the performance of a piece of genius, who can explain to the spectators its sense and value from the organisational standpoint of collective labour, or give them such an explanation in a short and comprehensible programme, or perhaps can explain in an article in a Labour newspaper or magazine the poem or novel of a great master – such a critic will accomplish a serious and important work for the proletariat.

Here is our broadest field for work, for work which will be important and lasting.

1. See “Art, Religion and Marxism,” in the last issue of The Labour Monthly (August 1924, Vol. VI, No. 8); also “Proletarian Poetry” in the May and June issues of last year (Vol. IV, Nos. 5 & 6), and “The Criticism of Proletarian Art” in the December 1923, issue (Vol. V, No. 6), all by the same author.


Last updated on 19 April 2021