‘We are living in a very singular moment of history. It is a moment of crisis, in the literal sense of that word. In every branch of our spiritual and material civilisation we seem to have arrived at a critical turning-point. This spirit shows itself not only in the actual state of public affairs but also in the general attitude towards fundamental values in personal and social
‘... Formerly it was only religion, especially in its doctrinal and moral systems, that was the object of sceptical attack. Then the iconoclast began to shatter the ideals and principles that had hitherto been accepted in the province of art. Now he has invaded the temple of science. There is scarcely a scientific axiom that is not nowadays denied by somebody. And at the same time almost any nonsensical theory that may be put forward in the name of science would be almost sure to find believers and disciples somewhere or other.’
Max Planck: Where Is Science Going? 1933.
As the above quotation shows, one does not have to be a Marxist to declare that bourgeois culture is seriously ill. In art, science, religion, economics and ethics, there is dissension, and a thousand confessions of bewilderment and pessimism could be drawn from the writings of the acknowledged leaders of contemporary culture from Einstein to Freud. All the old easy confidence of a century ago has evaporated. The only consolation religion has is that science disavows causality; and scientists draw comfort from the fact that ‘practical’ men are unable to run the ship of state anywhere but on the rocks.
Yet bourgeois culture during the last fifty years has achieved much. Its empirical developments include relativity and quantum physics, genetics, a new insight into the deeper layers of man’s mind, the different patterns of social relationships uncovered by anthropology, and hundreds of technological inventions such as the aeroplane, wireless, motor transport, and electric power. Why, with this proved record, does it despair?
It despairs because each discovery is like a Midas touch, which prepares a new disappointment. Quantum physics appears to have withdrawn reality from the domain of science by denying causality. The psychological discoveries have produced a hopeless confusion in which hundreds of radically different psychological schools struggle for leadership. Bourgeois anthropology claims to have shown that the stability of societies rests on illusion. But modern man has no illusions – or believes he has none. And the unparalleled increase in productive powers has given birth, not to peace, plenty, and happiness, but to war, famine, and misery. Anarchy is the keynote of the crisis in all spheres. The crisis has this characteristic of anarchy, that though all men will one thing to be the result of their efforts, what is brought about by them is precisely the opposite. And it has this further characteristic of anarchy, that the more men wish to gain a common truth, a common faith, a common world-view, the more their efforts at ideological construction increase the sum of contradictory and partial views of reality.
What is the explanation? Either the Devil has come amongst us having great power, or there is a causal explanation for a disease common to economics, science, and art. Why then have not all the psychoanalysts, Eddingtons, Keynes, Spenglers, and bishops who have surveyed the scene, been able to locate a source of infection common to all modern culture, and, therefore, surely obvious enough? For answer, these people must take to themselves the words of Herzen: ‘We are not the doctors, we are the disease.’
The Marxist’s first task is to separate, from this confusion, the elements that represent real empirical discoveries, and fit them into his synthetic world-view. This is comparatively easy. More laborious is the analysis of the cause which, in each discovery, makes it go bad, so to speak, upon the inventor’s hands. Why does this strange doom hang over bourgeois culture, that its progress seems only to hasten its decay? And how can one cause operate in so many different fields, and bring about so many different forms of decay and confusion?
These Studies are concerned with both tasks, synthetic and analytic, but the second is regarded as at this stage more important and valuable. Some of them may seem unduly critical in tone for a work with the quoted words of Lenin at its forefront. But the critical approach to bourgeois culture has this value, that it is always the application of the same method. In art, philosophy, physics, psychology, history, sociology, and biology the crisis of bourgeois culture is always due to the same cause. And this is no accident, because that destructive illness was originally the dynamic force of bourgeois civilisation; but now, its utmost potentialities accomplished, it is a power for ill. Worn-out engines become brakes. Outworn truths become illusions. Bourgeois culture is dying of a myth.
But it will be said, bourgeois culture is suffering not from illusion but from disillusionment. Everyone has said it – Freud, Jung, D.H. Lawrence, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Precisely, for this is the very danger of its illusion, that it believes itself disillusioned. It has shed all the secondary illusions – of religion, God, morality, democracy, teleology, and metaphysics. But it cannot rid itself of the basic bourgeois illusion, and because it is unaware of this illusion, and because this illusion is now stripped to its naked essence, it violently distorts the whole fabric of contemporary ideology.
This illusion is that man is naturally free – ‘naturally’ in this sense, that all the organisations of society are held to limit and cripple his free instincts, and furnish restraints which he must endure and minimise as best he may. From which it follows that man is at his best and noblest when freely working out his own desires.
This illusion is of course the Renaissance charter of the bourgeoisie. It claimed for the natural man freedom from all feudal restrictions, privileges, and monopolies. The basic relation of society was to be freedom from any relation – the free merchant, the free labourer, and free capital. With each man thus freely following his desires, the best interests of society as a whole would, it was asserted, be served. This principle, superior to the feudal principle, made the bourgeois class supreme and dynamic and, for a time, gave this principle the sanction of eternal truth. And it is still the assumption on which bourgeois culture is based.
If it were true, all would be well. It would be fine if freedom were as easy as this, that man was naturally free. But it is not true. Freedom is the product, not of the instincts, but of social relations themselves. Freedom is secreted in the relation of man to man. This demand of bourgeois culture was in fact unrealisable. Man cannot strip himself of his social relations and remain man. But he can shut his eyes to these social relations. He can disguise them as relations to commodities, to the impersonal market, to cash, to capital, and his relations then seem to have become possessive. He owns the commodities, the cash and the capital. All his social relations appear to have become relations to a thing, and because man is superior to a thing, he is now free, he is dominating. But this is an illusion. By shutting his eyes to all the relations between men that constitute society, and are its real stuiff and substance, man has enslaved himself to forces whose control is now beyond him, because he does not acknowledge their existence. He is at the mercy of the market, the movement of capital, and the slump and boom. He is deluded by himself. This is shown by the remorseless test of events.
This bourgeois freedom of each man struggling for his free desires and his own profit, so far from making us free, has long delivered us over, bound to chance. Blind Fate, in the shapes of war, unemployment, slumps, despair and neurosis, attacks the free bourgeois and his free followers. His struggles put him into the power of finance capital, trustify him, or, if he is a free labourer, he is herded into the mass-production factory. So far from being free, he is whirled like a leaf on the gales of social change. And all this anarchy, and impotence, and muddled dissension is reflected in his culture. Productive forces have outgrown the free bourgeois, and mercilessly crush him and his illusions.
Can such a simple error, if it be an error, infect the cool realms of physics, the remote spheres of art, and the inner world of psychology? Can it distort philosophy and hold back the hero from success? How can it appear everywhere in ideology, always as the distorting factor, without being observed as such? But it is just because it appears everywhere in his ideology, like the Fitzgerald contraction, in measurements of ether velocity, that it cannot be observed by the bourgeois, any more than. the physicist can observe the earth’s speed through the ether.
These ‘Studies in a Dying Culture’ are varied though their subjects may be united by the one theme. This theme is the lie at the heart of contemporary culture, the lie which is killing it and deeper still is found the truth which is the complement to this lie, the truth which will transform and revitalise culture.