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Ian H. Birchall

The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx

(February 1974)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.66, February 1974, p.32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx
Mikhail Lifshitz
Pluto Press, £2.70 hardback, £1.35 paperback.

MOSCOW in 1933 was not a good place for developing marxist theory. The sectarian ‘Third Period’ was about to give way to the opportunist Popular Front. In the cultural field a crude insistence on class values was to be replaced by an unprincipled loving up to the representatives of the ‘progressive bourgeoisie’.

That Lifshitz was able to produce this valuable little essay under such conditions is a tribute to his scholarship—and to his ability to keep his head down. The book, short though it is, goes beyond the limits of its title. By tracing one particular theme, he gives us an intellectual biography of Marx, showing how his ideas on art developed as part of his overall view. For it is only in such a context that the question is of any interest; otherwise Marx’s tastes in literature would be no more significant than his taste in wine.

Lifshitz begins with the early Marx’s relation to HegeL Hegel saw knowledge as a means of reconciling the contradictions in reality; an attitude which Marx scorned as a refusal to struggle. Marx preferred the Romantic tradition which saw art as an activity which could help to transform reality.

Since art is an aspect of man’s attempt to actively transform reality, it necessarily comes into conflict with capitalist society. For capitalism reduces everything to its value expressed in terms of money; even the greatest work of art can be measured as of the same value as a certain quantity of manure. Hence Marx, for all his hatred of censorship, shows that bourgeois ‘freedom’ merely replaces the tyranny of the censor by the tyranny of commercialisation.

Where Marx differed from the Romantics was that he did not believe that the problems of art could be solved in artistic terms. As Lifshitz points out, Marx lived at a time when the interest in literature and art was giving way to an interest in sociology and economics. There was a future for art – but only in the context of the revolutionary transformation of society. Lifshitz sums up Marx’s view with the slogan: ‘Art is dead! LONG LIVE ART!’

This leads straight into the question of proletarian literature. Here Lifshitz provides a valuable counterbalance to the work of Lukacs, who always stresses the value to marxists of works which remain within a bourgeois framework. As Lifshitz shows, Marx believed that as capitalist society became more and more incompatible with aesthetic values, the proletariat offered the best source of inspiration for literature.

Writing of Marx’s treatment, in the German Ideology, of Eugene Sue’s novel The Mysteries of Paris, Lifshitz says:

The Mysteries of Paris deals with various types of the lumpenproletariat; but even in these sunken representatives of a great class, Marx found many traits far more deserving of the artist’s attention than the prosaic monotony of bourgeois relations. Marx considered virile determination, fighting ability and strength of character to be among the best subjects for artistic treatment. And he not merely pointed out that plebeian-proletarian types are fit subjects for literary treatment; he actually spoke of literature as originating in the “lower classes of the people”.’

Here, however, Lifshitz’s analysis comes to a stop. There is no attempt to look for the proletarian writers of the thirties. Lifshitz was clearly unwilling to praise hacks, yet unprepared to champion the unorthodox.

And the limitations mar even the treatment of the nineteenth century. The most surprising gap in the book is that it makes no mention of a man who was both a major intellectual influence on Marx and a great revolutionary poet in his own right – Heinrich Heine, author of one of the first great poems of proletarian revolution, The Weavers.

But despite such omissions, we should be grateful to Pluto for making available an interesting volume which, in its 108 pages, raises more questions than many ponderous works of five times the length.

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Last updated: 8.3.2008