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Ian H. Birchall

Partisanship or abstention?

A reply to Andrew Collier

(Summer 1979)

From International Socialism, 2:5, Summer 1979.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Andrew Collier’s Partisanship and Realism in Art [1] raises some important points [2] about the Marxist theory of art and the cultural tasks of the revolutionary party. Some of the formulations in my original article were undoubtedly cryptic or unclear; moreover, I assumed – perhaps wrongly – a familiarity with some of the better-known remarks of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, and thus gave a one-sided presentation of the issues. Collier is quite right to draw attention to these inadequacies.

My article was not, of course, intended to be a rounded account of the Marxist aesthetic. It was intended simply as a rather polemical attempt to confront some problems of current concern in the movement; in particular two points: firstly, how does the theory of state capitalism illuminate our understanding of Stalinist cultural practice; secondly, what should be the intervention of present-day Marxists in the cultural struggle?

First of all, let me make it quite clear that the intervention I am concerned with is party and not state intervention. Unlike either the Stalinists or the Social-Democrats, Leninists do not see the transition to socialism as consisting in a capture of the state by the party. The party does not substitute itself for the working class, but fights for its politics in the class. A workers’ state will indeed encourage freedom of artistic expression, using censorship only as a regrettable necessity. But that does not mean that the party can abdicate its role to fight for its own viewpoint, a consistent proletarian perspective. To take an analogy; a workers’ state will guarantee freedom of worship, but a Marxist party will not abandon its responsibility to carry out a propaganda and educational campaign for materialism.

The confusion of party and state lie at the heart of Stalinism. But Collier, despite his fervent professions of anti-Stalinism, evades the issues. He writes, amazingly, that the Eurocommunist CPs are ‘coming round belatedly to just such a position as Trotsky’s.’ [3] Now the Eurocommunists (at best out of sincere reformism, at worst from electoral opportunism) have developed a critique of aspects of Stalinism; but the one thing they will not touch with a barge-pole is a class explanation of Stalinism. Instead they retreat into a mystifying haze of ‘mistakes’, ‘relative autonomy of the superstructure’, ‘role of ideological factors’, ‘specific conditions’, etc. To compare this impressionistic floundering with Trotsky’s determined attempt to provide a Marxist framework for understanding Stalinism is a grotesque piece of political misjudgement. All I sought to do was to suggest that Trotsky’s analysis, the political inadequacies of which have been brought out in the International Socialist tradition, also has weaknesses in terms of its cultural implications.

The crux of the argument, however, is the question of how Marxists should approach literary production. Collier seeks to counterpose my position to that of the ‘classical Marxists’, Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. In my article I gave a certain number of quotations from their work; Collier, believing me to be ‘ignorant’ of this work, provides some counter-quotations. Now it is possible to prove just about anything by judicious quotation, and to an outsider the debate must seem pretty Talmudic. In principle there is no reason why we should regard the views of the ‘classical Marxists’ on aesthetic questions as having any particular importance. If art is to be conceived as ‘pure enjoyment’ [4] then there is really no reason why Marx’s views of art should relate to our political practice any more than Engels’ delight in fox-hunting affects our strategy towards the Hunt Saboteurs. I am not very interested in the fact that Marx had ‘such a passionate devotion to literature, and such wide tastes in it.’ [5] Indeed, I do not even believe some of the accounts; when Wilhelm Liebknecht tells us that Marx read Goethe, Lessing, Shakespeare, Dante and Cervantes ‘every day’ (sic!) we are observing an early and relatively innocent manifestation of the personality cult. [6]

Indeed, an emphasis on the fact that the classical Marxists were ‘cultured’ men may be less than innocent. For some time now, since it has become plain that Marxism cannot be simply refuted and eradicated, there has been an ideological campaign to co-opt Marxism, to render it passive and anodyne. To stress that Marxism has a, capacity for respecting and interpreting the cultural heritage of class society is a significant component of this campaign. George Steiner, citing the same bit of Engels’ letter to Margaret Harkness as Collier, claims that there are two ‘camps’ of Marxist criticism, the ‘orthodox’, in which he sets Lenin together with Zhdanov, and the ‘para-Marxists’ who reject ‘tendentious’ literature. Steiner’s preferences are openly for the latter. [7] Peter Demetz finds a conflict within Marx himself – between ‘his theory of the dependence of art upon economics and his personal faith in the timeless value of the Greek achievement.’ [8]

The campaign finds an echo within Marxist criticism, notably in the work of Georg Lukacs, who remarks: ‘Those who do not know Marxism at all or know it only superficially or at second hand, may be surprised by the respect for the classical heritage of mankind which one finds in the really great representatives of this doctrine by their incessant references to that classical heritage.’ [9] Once again, Lukacs’ point was not politically innocent; the assertion of a continuity between Marxism and bourgeois culture was integrally linked to the class-alliance politics of the Popular Front.

We should not be surprised that there are inconsistencies in the aesthetic pronouncements of the classical Marxists. All of them were far too busy to construct a systematic theory of art. But the richness of what they did have to say derives precisely from the fact that they did not study literature and art in a vacuum, but constantly related it to their overall revolutionary preoccupations. It is only by asserting, against the thinkers, bourgeois and ‘Marxist’ alike, who seek to dilute it, that Marxism is a theory of combat [10], that we can begin to make sense of what they had to say on artistic matters.

Collier (like Steiner, Demetz and Lukacs) puts great stress on the well-known fact that Marx and Engels admired Balzac [11], and that Lenin wrote in praise of Tolstoy. Nothing I wrote goes against accepting this as one aspect of a Marxist approach to literature. My sole objection is that all too often the ‘Balzac paradox’ is elevated into the central proposition of the Marxist aesthetic. [12]

But Marx’ and Engels’ admiration for Balzac must be seen in perspective. Two points should be made. First, the value of Balzac as a witness must be placed in historical context. At the time Balzac was writing (1830–1848) the intellectual left in France was still heavily under the domination of Utopian socialist ideas. Those writers most sympathetic to the working class – George Sand, Victor Hugo [13] – radiated belief in class harmony, in reconciliation. Balzac, just because he identified with reaction, saw no possibility of such reconciliation. Hence he grasped the reality of class society, the structural economic opposition between classes in a way that the ‘progressives’ could not. That is why Marx and Engels read and learnt from him.

Secondly, Marx’s admiration for Balzac must be set against his attempts to win other writers to active support of the socialist cause. The point becomes much clearer when we look at Lenin, Tolstoy and Gorky. Lenin indeed wrote explaining how revolutionaries could learn from Tolstoy, despite the latter’s misguided political views. The first article, quoted by Collier, was written on the occasion of Tolstoy’s eightieth birthday; four more pieces were written two years later after Tolstoy’s death. [14] In short, Lenin was dealing with a work that was already complete and finished. All he could do was to suggest how it might be profitably read. When it was a question of a near-contemporary such as Gorky, still in the middle of his active life, Lenin’s attitude is very different. In turn he encourages, cajoles, reprimands, denounces [15] – never content to leave matters to Gorky’s ‘creative freedom’, but always determined to try and influence and orient Gorky’s work so that it might best serve the interests of the revolution.

If we bring the point up to date it becomes even clearer. It is undoubtedly true that – despite his grotesquely reactionary opinions – Solzhenitsyn is one of the greatest living novelists, who tells us a great deal about Russian society that more ‘liberal’ dissidents have missed. But how do we apply this fact? If a promising young novelist comes close to the SWP, what do we tell her or him? ‘Buy an icon, support the Chilean junta and trust in the depths of your individual genius.’ Unfortunately the abstentionist logic of Collier’s position would lead to just such a position.

Likewise, when I criticised the concept of literature as ‘reflection’, I was in no way arguing that literature does not have a content of truth, that it does not act as a mirror to the reality of society. What I was challenging was the view that sees the superstructure as lagging behind the reality of the ‘base’, and therefore fit only for passive interpretation. On the contrary, the artist only achieves reality through active involvement in the world. In Sartre’s words ‘I reveal the situation by my very project of changing it’. [16] In the past some reactionaries have produced works which we can read with profit. (Though we should stress the word some; we can still learn from Balzac and Tolstoy, but should we really be urging comrades to read Wordsworth, Trollope or Jane Austen?) But as the old ruling class declines more and more, we can less and less hope that it will throw up work of value. We have to fill that gap with a culture which tells the truth because it has absorbed the experience and understanding of revolutionary struggle.

But the basis of my disagreement with Collier lies even deeper. It is in the question of what the nature of literature itself is. Collier accuses me of ‘crude politicisation of art’. [17] But the notion of politicisation itself depends upon a concept of politics. If one accepts the bourgeois norms of ‘politics’ (corrupt intrigues for the minority, a vote every five years for the majority) then the best thing art can do is to turn its back contemptuously on the whole mystification. But there is another sense in which, in Gottfried Keller’s phrase, ‘everything is politics’. [18] Collier, in stressing the biological constants of human experience, underestimates the extent to which social revolution means a total revolutionising of human sensibilities. As Trotsky put it:

‘If nature, love or friendship had no connection with the social spirit of an epoch, lyric poetry would long ago have ceased to exist. A profound break in history, that is, a rearrangement of classes in society, shakes up individuality, establishes the perception of the fundamental problems of lyric poetry from a hew angle, and so saves art from eternal repetition.’ [19]

Collier reaches the peak of indignation at my argument that Lenin (in Party Organisation and Party Literature) was making no distinction ‘between Literature (with a capital L) and other forms of writing’. This, according to Collier ‘makes Lenin out to be some sort of cretin, failing to see distinctions which are clear enough to most ordinary mortals.’ [20]

Now it will doubtless confirm Collier’s view of my sub-human status, but I have to admit that when I read, say, Shaw, Brecht, Serge, Orwell, Sartre, Valles, Voltaire, ... I find it more or less impossible to draw a neat line between ‘creative’ Literature [21] and reportage/propaganda etc. My claim is that literature can be measured against the same standards of evaluation as other human activities. The ‘classical Marxists’ have often appeared to agree with me. Thus Trotsky calls Malraux’s novels ‘lying reports from the fields of battle’. [22] Indeed, I should not have dared to face the wrath of Collier by making such a philistine judgement as to say: ‘A machine which automatically manufactures bottles is at the present time a first-rate factor in the cultural revolution, while a heroic poem is only a tenth-rate factor.’ Fortunately it was Trotsky, and not I, who made this comparison. [23]

Against this position Collier counterposes his call for ‘free artistic production and consumption’. It is hard to know what this abstraction means. From what is the artist (or the reader) to be free? From repressive censorship or the profit-motive which dominates publication? Well and good, but these are only negative constraints. The artist cannot be free from the society he or she lives in or the struggles that beset it. She or he cannot create in a vacuum, but must produce in the context of a particular society. In a very real sense all art is a collective product.

Finally Collier berates me for attributing importance to the ‘political correctness’ of the artist. [24] This raises two important points, one theoretical and one practical.

Collier’s position seems to be, at least as far as artistic production is concerned, that conscious intention is of little importance. The work will be produced (as in the Balzac paradox) despite rather than because of the author’s intention. If we extend this to other areas of human activity (and there seems to be no clear reason why we should not, unless art is somehow different because it results from divine inspiration or something of the sort) then we end up with a thoroughly fatalistic position. Men and women are simply the ‘bearers’ of historical forces; what they wish and intend is of little relevance. The conclusion is undoubtedly fatalistic (and probably elitist as well, since it tends to imply that there are a few of us who do stand outside, as it were, and know what’s going on).

The opposite error, of course, is to assume that human beings know exactly what they are doing, and that actions can be reduced directly to their intentions. [25] This position simply evades the whole question of ideology and ‘false consciousness’. The political implications are clear; no need for propaganda, no need for political persuasion, hence no need for the revolutionary party.

Marx’s position seeks to avoid both traps. ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.’ [26] Intentions are neither irrelevant nor omnipotent; hence the need for constant political and ideological struggle.

For where Collier’s article really breaks down is that it fails to point to action. The main problem at the present moment is not whether we should admire Tolstoy; it is the fact that the anti-fascist struggle has led to the emergence of a variety of forms of politicised art. Rock Against Racism, the resurgence of political theatre, the range of cultural activities developed by the Anti-Nazi League: all these pose a direct challenge to revolutionary socialists.

Of course we do not seek to bully or to manipulate; we do not issue ultimatums; we seek to learn at least as much as we teach. Yet the fact remains that we have a political analysis – of the present crisis, of the nature of fascism and so on. As we come into contact with poets, playwrights etc trying to confront these same problems, we cannot – if we take our politics seriously – simply abstain, simply say ‘You’re an artist, trust in your inner self. We have to argue for our politics in this context as in any other, believing that the best, most realistic art in the present epoch must absorb the understanding of Marxism, though it will embody its own specific form. Trotsky hints at the process when he writes of Silone’s Fontamara: ‘He knows how to see life as it is, to generalise what he sees by means of the Marxist method and then to embody its generalisations in artistic images.’ [27]

Indeed, Trotsky may be our best guide for the present period. [28] Literature and Revolution gives a number of concrete indications of how socialists should relate to artistic ‘fellow-travelers’ (used in the proper sense of those who will travel some of the way with the Party, not in the Stalinist sense of those who follow the line but who don’t – publicly – hold a card). In criticising the ‘Lef’ group, Trotsky stresses that what is needed is ‘to influence and to assimilate’ over a long period. This requires sensitive but clear political criticism, there is a model example of this in Trotsky’s critique of Mayakovsky’s The 150 Million, where political and literary criticism are subtly intertwined. Collier may note that Trotsky also praises the conscious revolutionary writers: ‘Biedny ... is a Bolshevik whose weapon is poetry.’ [29]

Collier quotes Trotsky as saying that ‘those writings of Pilnyak’s which are closer to communism are feebler than those which are politically further away from us.’ But Trotsky, unlike Collier, is not imply contemplating a contradiction in bemused fashion; he is seeking to resolve it, to discover how Pilnyak could put his talents fully at the service of the revolution. [30] Moreover, the passage which Collier cites from Class and Art should be set alongside the much more interventionist passage in Literature and Revolution:

Pilnyak is not an artist of the revolution, but only an artistic "fellow-traveller". Will he become its artist? We do not know. But at present he is not. ...Somehow Pilnyak must answer the question, what is this all for? He must have a philosophy of revolution of his own.’ [31]

To conclude, it must be said that, whatever contradictions there may be in the classical Marxists, their overriding priority is always for political intervention in the perspective of working-class power. It is precisely this organising priority that is missing from Collier’s work, and in its absence he cannot help but drift into an abstract and idealist concept of art.


Note by ETOL: In the printed version there are two notes numbered “5” – this has been corrected and the following notes renumbered in this online version.

1. International Socialism 2:2, written in reply to my article The Spectre of Zhdanov, International Socialism 2:1.

2. As well as some very silly ones, which are not worth more than a footnote.

Collier (op.cit., p. 7) seeks to make an amalgam by referring to the ‘Zhdanov-Birchall view’. Perhaps Collier believes I wish to have his article suppressed from publication, and himself expelled from the SWP or even deported to the Hebrides. I can only assure him that such is not the case.

Moreover, Collier sees the fatal flaw of my theoretical position as deriving from machismo (op.cit., p. 9). This is based on the somewhat flimsy evidence of my use of the terms ‘red-blooded’ and ‘decadent ponces’. At one point in Literature and Revolution (Ann Arbor, 1960, p. 59) Trotsky finds it necessary, for the benefit of some Soviet Collier, to add a footnote reading ‘Attention! This is irony!’ Next time I use the word ‘red-blooded’ I will be careful to do the same. As for Proust, let me set the record straight. I used the word ‘ponce’ in its extended sense of parasite, or one who lives on the efforts of others. To describe Proust’s characters as ‘decadent ponces’ is to state the simple but often obscured fact that the central subject of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is a parasitic social group at the end of its historical life. All Proust’s other themes (time, memory, etc.) must be related to this central core. This is in no way to deny the value of Proust as a witness to this world.

3. op.cit., p. 2.

4. op.cit., p. 9.

5. op.cit., p. 3.

6. Karl Marx, His Life and Work. Reminiscences by Paul Lafargue and Wilhelm Liebknecht, cited in Marx & Engels, Literature and Art, p. 125.

7. G. Steiner, Language and Silence, London 1969, pp. 271–4.

8. P. Demetz, Marx, Engels and the Poets, Chicago 1967, p. 70.

9. G. Lukacs, Studies in European Realism, London 1972, p. 4.

10. Collier says that my position is ‘bound to attract the cowboys amongst us’ (op.cit., p. 9). This passage is italicised for their benefit.

11. Though in the Confessions Marx lists as his favourite prose-writer, not the conservative Balzac, but the radical Diderot. (Marx & Engels, Literature and Art, p. 128)

12. A particularly crude case is A. Swingewood, The Novel and Revolution, London 1975, which states baldly: ‘Marx saw writers who directly expressed class interests in their work as mediocre artists.’ (p. 11)

13. The reference to Zola in Engels’ letter to Margaret Harkness should be taken with a pinch of salt. In the whole of Engels’ correspondence there are just two other references to Zola (Marx-Engels, Werke, Berlin, XXXVI, 682, XXXVIII, 88). It seems highly likely that Engels knew little or nothing of Zola, but had picked up the name from Paul Lafargue.

14. V.I. Lenin, On Literature and Art, 1970, pp. 28–33, 48–62.

15. The volume Lenin & Gorky, Letters, Reminiscences, Articles (Moscow 1973) makes fascinating reading in this respect.

16. J.-P. Sartre, Qu’est-ce que la Litterature?, Paris 1964, p. 29.

17. op.cit., p. 9.

18. Collier rightly challenges my description of the Popular Front writer who makes ‘a few anti-fascist declarations’ and carries on writing about ‘sex and religion’, (op.cit., p. 8) Collier is right to say that it is ludicrous to suggest that the topics are of no interest to a socialist. What I meant was that such writers could go on expressing reactionary views on sex and religion, and providing they lined up with the Popular Front, the CP would not criticise them. Henri Barbusse, who wrote a biography of Christ and one of Stalin, may serve as an example.

19. Literature and Revolution, p. 12.

20. op.cit., p. 5.

21. The French Marxist Pierre Macherey (Pour Une Theorie de la Production Litteraire, Paris 1970) has made out an interesting case for the proposition that we should drop the term ‘creation’ (with its supernatural overtones) entirely and speak instead of literary ‘production’. It is not necessary to go all the way with Macherey’s Althusserian position to recognise a certain validity in this argument.

22. L. Trotsky, On Literature and Art, New York 1970, p. 123.

23. ibid., p. 90. Collier also objects to my use of Trotsky’s formulation: ‘Art is one of the ways in which man finds his bearings in the world’ (op.cit., p. 2). He alleges I quote this out of context. For the record, Trotsky continues: ‘in this sense the heritage of art is not distinguished from the heritage of science and technique – and it is no less contradictory than they. Unlike science, however, art is a form of cognition of the world not as a system of laws but as a group of images, and at the same time it is a way of inspiring certain feelings and moods.’ (On Literature and Art, p. 86) There is nothing here that contradicts my position.

24. op.cit., pp. 7–8.

25. For a rather crude example of this approach, see the letter from D. Widgery, R. Gregory, S. Shelton and R. Huddle in Socialist Review, July–August 1978. Discussing the ANL Carnival of April 1978 they assert: ‘“Youth” ... have ten times more idea what’s going down than your pretty average Marxist Editor’.

26. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, section I.

27. On Literature and Art, p. 206.

28. Since so much has changed since Marx and Engels wrote. Thus Engels’ celebrated letter to Minna Kautsky (November 26, 1885, in Marx & Engels. Literature and Art, pp. 38–40), where he criticises openly tendentious art and suggests that the purpose of a novel is to shatter ‘the optimism of the bourgeois world’, makes the point that ‘in our conditions the novel appeals mostly to readers of bourgeois circles.’ Obviously where there is the possibility of a substantial working-class audience the whole problem has to be rethought.

29. Literature and Revolution, pp. 140, 152-7, 212.

30. op.cit., p. 7; On Literature and Art, p. 77.

31. Literature and Revolution, pp. 83–4.

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