Franz Mehring

Aesthetical Raids


Originally Published: Aesthetische Streifzüge, in Die Neue Zeit, Vol. XVII, No. I, (1899), pp. 281, 314, 348, 379, 410, 443, 506, 538, 569, 637.
Republished: In two editions of Mehring’s writings: Zur Literaturgeschichte: Von Hebbel bis Gorki, Berlin: Soziologische Velagsanstalt, 1929, pp. 229-300, and Aufsätze zur deutschen Literatur von Hebbel bis Schweichel, Berlin: Dietz, 1961, pp. 141-226. With the exception of the first paragraph, this translation first appeared under the title A Note On Taste in the journal Dialectics, published in New York by the Critics’ Group in 1937-39.
Transcribed: Daniel Gaido for, January 2001.


From the Translator’s Preface to Mehring’s biography of Marx (Karl Marx: The Story of His Life):

Mehring’s greatest service to the working-class movement was his practical application of the Marxist historical materialist method to cultural and literary problems. In this respect he was a pioneer, for both Marx and Engels very rarely ventured into this field, their time being almost wholly taken up with the more direct economic, philosophical and political phases of the revolutionary movement. How long and how often will socialists continue to regret that Marx finally never did carry out his intention of writing a monograph on Balzac and his Comédie Humaine? The significance of Franz Mehring on this field is nowhere better described than in a letter of congratulation written to him on his 70th birthday by Rosa Luxemburg:

“For decades now you have occupied a special post in our movement, and no one else could have filled it. You are the representative of real culture in all its brilliance. If the German proletariat is the historic heir of classic German philosophy, as Marx and Engels declared, then you are the executor of that testament. You have saved everything of value which still remained of the once splendid culture of the bourgeoisie and brought it to us, into the camp of the socially disinherited. Thanks to your books and articles the German proletariat has been brought into close touch not only with classic German philosophy, but also with classic German literature, not only with Kant and Hegel, but with Lessing, Schiller and Goethe. Every line from your brilliant pen has taught our workers that socialism is not a bread and butter problem, but a cultural movement, a great and proud world-ideology. When the spirit of socialism once again enters the ranks of the German proletariat the latter’s first act will be to reach for your books, to enjoy the fruits of your life’s work ... To-day when intellectuals of bourgeois origin are betraying us in droves to return to the fleshpots of the ruling classes we can laugh contemptuously and let them go: we have won the best and last the bourgeoisie still possessed of spirit, talent and character – Franz Mehring.”

Kant researched the beautiful and differentiated it precisely from the pleasant, the good and the true. The feeling of aesthetic pleasure is neither sensorial, nor moral, nor logic; it is the pleasure in the free and calm contemplation of the thing, whose object can only be the form ... [1] Kant’s statement that the object of aesthetic contemplation is not the content but the form, appears in Schiller in the following suggestive way: “The true secret of the art of the masters consists in the in the effacement of the subject-matter through the form.” Above all, even if Schiller’s aesthetic essays not always reach the philosophical depths of Kant’s, his purely aesthetic judgments, precisely because he was a poet, are usually richer and sharper ... [2]

As Marx once said of Hegel’s philosophy, one cannot dispose of the aesthetics of Kant and Schiller by turning away and with averted head muttering a few vexed and trite remarks. In so far as Steiger [3] attempts to prove that aesthetics is a science concerned not only with rational concepts but also with intuitions, feelings and moods, he only repeats what Kant said much more clearly and impressively a hundred years ago. The difficulty begins in the first place with the question: How are aesthetic judgments nevertheless possible? How can aesthetic taste be objectively determined, if this taste is merely subjective and personal, if every man has his own taste? This question is the fundamental problem of all aesthetics, and until it is answered a scientific treatise on aesthetics is impossible. If Kant’s answer is false, then to give the correct answer would be to progress beyond him; but to assume that this decisive question had never before been posed would be to retrogress from him ...

Steiger admits that aesthetic feeling develops historically and undergoes constant change. Still he raises the objection that the thousand and one historical questions needed to explain a work of art would be considered by any aesthetician as merely preliminary studies in the history of culture which could not begin to explain the purely aesthetic reaction to a work of art. For this reaction is in each particular case entirely an event of subjective experience.

In itself this is indeed quite correct, and since Kant it has been accepted, even as a matter of course. However, when Steiger tears the aesthetic reaction as a fact of subjective experience from its historical context, he falls into the same error which he criticizes so severely in Buchner and Moleschott, namely that of confusing the natural and the social sciences. The question of how man is able to perceive falls within the scope of the natural sciences, specifically the physiology of the sense organs; the question of what men perceive and have perceived falls within the scope of the social sciences, specifically, aesthetics. If an Australian Bushman and a civilized European were at the same time to hear a Beethoven symphony, or to see a Raphael Madonna, the psychophysical process of perceiving would be the same in both cases, however this might be set forth in natural science, since as natural beings they are alike. What they would perceive, however, would be quite different, since as members of society, as creatures of historical circumstances, they are quite unlike. But it is by no means necessary to choose such crude contrasts, for not even on the same level of culture are there as many as two individuals whose aesthetic feelings coincide with the regularity of two clocks. As a social being, each individual is a product of factors of environment which cross one another and blend interminably, and which determine his perceptions in incalculable diverse ways. Precisely for this reason each individual has his own personal taste.

Of course, even this subjective taste can have significance, but never more than historical significance, nor relating to other than the perceiving subject. From the differences in the aesthetic tastes of Marx and of Lassalle we can draw certain conclusions regarding the differences in their historical and intellectual processes-as not long ago in another place I attempted to do; but we cannot therefrom draw any conclusions concerning the relative aesthetic value of the poets who appealed to these men. Baron von Stein, certainly one of the most important of Goethe’s contemporaries, upon reading Faust experienced only a feeling of intense displeasure at the “improprieties” of the Walpurgisnacht scene, thereby revealing a great deal about his own aesthetic education, but nothing about the literary importance of Faust. Schopenhauer on one occasion declares that he is not particularly fond of the Divine Comedy, but he wisely introduces this subjective judgment on a subjective basis: “I frankly admit that the high reputation of the Divine Comedy appears to me to be an exaggeration;” and if we read further to see what Schopenhauer’s criticism is, his reflections reveal a great deal about Schopenhauer, but nothing about Dante. Of course the historical significance of subjective tastes depends entirely upon the historical importance of those who possess them; the extent of our interest in the historical personages Marx, Lassalle, Stein and Schopenhauer determines the extent of our interest in their aesthetic taste. On the other hand the historical significance of subjective taste is nil in the case of personages of correspondingly insignificant historical importance.

When Professor Erich Schmidt, some years ago, in the course of a public dispute concerning the aesthetic value of Hamerling’s Poems, pompously announced: “Well, I just don’t like them!” this judgment was worthless both objectively and subjectively-at least from the standpoint of aesthetics, though from an ethical standpoint I suppose it might serve as an index of professorial vanity.

Thus the attempt to convert the aesthetic impression as a fact of subjective experience into an objective basis for the determination of taste still fails to transcend the limits of subjective taste. However, the collapse of this attempt also invalidates Kant’s assumption that the objective determination of taste is rooted in our “supersensible substrate,” in the “indeterminate concept of the supersensible in us.” [4] A supersensible concept can have no historical development, and yet every historical judgment is conditioned historically. Schopenhauer, who relied on Kant’s aesthetics, and who was an acute logician when his whims did not block his was, doubtless encountered this contradiction. He says on one occasion: “A genuine work of art, in order to be enjoyed, really does not require a preamble in the form of a history of art.” That is to say, it really does not if Kant is correct in his assumption regarding the objective determination of taste. But this is not the case, for, according to Schopenhauer, “the spirit of the times in each case is like a sharp east wind, which blows through everything. Consequently its mark is found on all action, thought, writing, music and painting, in the flowering of this or that art: it puts its stamp on every activity.” To be sure, Schopenhauer does not advance beyond this point, for here his train of thought is interrupted by his familiar crotchet-namely that there is no historical development, that all history is constant repetition, like a kaleidoscope where with each turn the same things reappear in different configurations, etc. In admitting the historical development of aesthetic feeling and yet attempting to make the appreciation of a work of art independent of this development, Steiger falls into a kind of inverted contradiction.

All of these and similar contradictions are dissolved in the simple consequence that either there can be no objective basis whatsoever for determining taste, or there can be such a basis only from a historical point of view. The problem of scientific aesthetics is whether a scientific history of aesthetic feeling, as it has developed and changed in human society, can be written, whether, in the incalculable and endless confusion of subjective taste, there does not prevail an objective basis for determining such a feeling. Adherents of historical materialism will answer in the affirmative, and will regard precisely the historical materialist method as the only key to the solution of the riddle ... [5]

We have seen that Kant’s aesthetics, although it sought its roots in the clouds, had a foundation in reality. Kant abstracted his aesthetic propositions from our classical literature-that is, from as much of it as already existed when his Critique of Judgment [6] was written. Although it has been shown that the objective conditions of taste are not rooted in the sky, but on earth, Kant’s aesthetics is not therefore necessarily untenable in and for itself: its critical method is not to be set aside because its absolute system breaks down. There still remains what a mind of Kant’s penetrating acuteness perceived in the great literary works of an epoch in its way aesthetically unique.

In the preface to his chief work, Marx says that just as the physicist observes natural phenomena at the point where they occur in their most meaningful form and least obscured by disturbing influences, so he examined the capitalist mode of production in England as the classic ground of this mode of production. Similarly we can say that the laws of aesthetic judgment could nowhere be better studied than in the realm of aesthetic appearances created by our classic authors “in their most meaningful form and least obscured by disturbing influences.” Kant was the founder of scientific aesthetics, even though he failed to recognize the historical conditioning of his aesthetic laws, even though he considered as absolute that which can only be taken as relative. Similarly his contemporaries Adam Smith and Ricardo were the founders of scientific economics, even though they regarded the economic laws of bourgeois society as absolute, whereas they are only historically valid, and in application are constantly violated.

The first prerequisite of a scientific aesthetics is to establish that art is a peculiar and original capacity of mankind, as indeed Kant did show. However, since reason must be a unity, the power of aesthetic judgment can be separated from it only in the abstract, for the purpose of setting out its laws with full clarity, but not in actual practice, when the feeling of pleasure or displeasure cannot be separated from the capacity for desire and knowledge. For the manner in which we experience phenomena aesthetically is invariably and indissolubly linked with the manner in which we comprehend logically and desire morally. Therefore when Kant says that aesthetic satisfaction is neither logical nor moral, that any judgment of beauty into which the slightest interest enters is quite biased and by no means a pure aesthetic judgment, he sets forth an abstract absolute proposition in its clearest form. However, if this proposition were to be used as a fixed criterion applied to historical epochs in the evolution of artistic taste, we should discover that there has never yet been a pure aesthetic judgment; in other words, that Kant’s law in application under historical conditions has been constantly violated.




[1] See Kant’s Critique of Judgment. (ed.)

[2] See Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetical Education of Man. (ed.)

[3] Mehring’s article is structured as a series of reviews of works dealing with aesthetic questions. This and the following paragraphs are a review of Edgar Steiger’s book Das Werden des neuen Dramas, 2 vols., Berlin: F. Fontane & Comp., 1898.

[4] See Kant’s Critique of Judgment. (ed.).

[5] Mehring’s analysis coincides with Plekhanov’s, who in a polemics with Lunacharsky argued that “while there is no absolute criterion of beauty, while all its criteria are relative, this does not mean that there is no objective possibility of judging whether a given artistic design has been well executed or not.” See Plekhanov’s essay Art and Social Life in his Selected Philosophical Works, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1981, Vol.V, p. 685. (ed.)

[6] Kritik der Urteilskraft, literally, Critique of the Faculty of Judgment. The original English translation in the journal Dialectics wrongfully reads: Critique of Pure Reason. (ed.)


Last updated on 27.2.2004