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Ian Birchall

Art, Class and Cleavage


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 2, 1999, pp. 263–65.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Ben Watson
Art, Class and Cleavage
Quartet, London 1998, pp. 431, £14.00

BEN Watson stands at the point of intersection of two traditions – a Marxist tradition running from Trotsky to the ‘state capitalist’ theories of C.L.R. James and Tony Cliff, and a tradition of revolt in (or against) art that goes from surrealism via situationism to the music of Frank Zappa and the poetry of J.H. Prynne. The only problem is to know whether these traditions do in fact intersect; for if they don’t, Watson has nowhere to stand, and is in free fall into the void – a conclusion supported by some of the more bewildering sections of this insightful but confusing book.

Watson’s declared aim is to overcome the ‘cleavage’ between art and politics/class. In particular, he champions modernism in music and poetry, arguing that the ‘refusal of exchange values gives Modern Art its relationship to revolutionary politics’ (p. 222). The argument takes us through knowledgeable and perceptive expositions of Coleridge, Fourier, Josef Dietzgen, Walter Benjamin, James Joyce and Philip K. Dick. Watson treats Stalinists and liberal academics with contempt, arguing that ‘both contend that knowledge exists objectively, independent of the person who thinks and the society that funds the thinker’ (p. 75). Post-modernism, Political Correctness and feminism all get their fair (and sometimes unfair) share of abuse.

I suspect that many readers of Revolutionary History will be profoundly irritated by Watson’s writing. The assault on the art/politics cleavage takes his writing beyond the boundaries of most works on either politics or culture. The footnotes repeatedly alternate between Lenin’s philosophical writings and Frank Zappa’s lyrics. A taste for puns and the sheer range and obscurity of the references ensure that this is not an easy read.

But in his insistence that music, poetry, sex, schizophrenia and death deserve discussion by Marxists, Watson is firmly in the tradition of Trotsky’s writings on culture and everyday life. He claims, convincingly, that the art/politics cleavage has produced ‘a marginalised and unimaginative revolutionary left and an effete, ornamental avant-garde’ (p. 341). Watson has done his best to provoke a dialogue, though he will get few thanks from either side.

The back cover promises a ‘rediscovery of Trotsky’. Watson skilfully deploys Trotsky against current academic trends, makes some useful comments on Trotsky and Freud, and claims that ‘Trotsky is the most appropriate political complement to the revolt of Modern Art’ (p. 185).

But he does not avoid a certain romanticisation of his hero. He dismisses as Stalinist misrepresentation (p. 10) the claim that Trotsky’s alliance with the surrealist Breton was primarily tactical rather than political or aesthetic, although there is impeccably Trotskyist confirmation from Naville and van Heijenoort that Trotsky knew little of surrealism, and didn’t much like what he knew. Likewise he claims that Trotsky ‘carried a book of Mallarmé’s poetry in his pocket when leading the Red Army’ (p. 10). We know from Alfred Rosmer that Trotsky had Mallarmé on his bookshelves in his military train, but to infer that he was declaiming ‘Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui’ as the bullets whistled through his hair is unsubstantiated wish-fulfilment. It is also unfortunate that Watson, an enthusiast for poodles, does not note Jacqueline Lamba’s recollection that Trotsky, in argument with Breton, ‘attributed an almost human soul to dogs ...’ (Arturo Schwarz, André Breton, Trotsky et l’anarchie, Paris 1977, p. 210).

The last third of the book is devoted to Voloshinov’s work on Marxism and linguistics. Again, there is much that is valuable here, but some of the claims are dubious. Watson counterposes ‘concrete utterance’ to ‘abstract systems’ (p. 373), and thus dismisses Saussure’s work, identifying it with the traditional grammar of the schoolroom. But his stress on utterance forgets that language cannot function unless it has a grammatical structure that makes it possible for one speaker to understand another; the English language exists independently of particular speakers, just as the solar system exists independently of human beings. In rejecting the ‘abstract’, he forgets that science requires abstraction; Marx’s Capital moves between the concrete and the abstract. Far from reinforcing traditional grammar after the manner of a Labour education minister, Saussure’s affirmation of the arbitrariness of language undermines any claim that one grammar is ‘better’ than another. And in his stress on ambiguity, Watson focuses excessively on literature. Ambiguity is a virtue in poetry, but a distinct disadvantage in Health and Safety regulations.

James Thurber once drew a cartoon of a bewildered man in an art gallery, captioned ‘he knows all about art but he doesn’t know what he likes’. Watson knows only too well what he likes, and the book sometimes turns into a catalogue of his personal tastes. Watson calls his method Materialist Esthetix; the eccentric spelling abbreviates as ME! (The conventional spelling would have given the acronym Ma, to the hilarity of amateur Freudians; or perhaps MA, symbolising the academics for whom he feels such searing hatred.) At one point, he lists 10 names (all unknown to the present reviewer) and describes their work as ‘the only poetry worth reading in England’ (p. 325). Anyone who disagrees with Watson’s tastes is damned, not only aesthetically, but politically and morally. This style of intellectual terrorism is much closer to Matthew Arnold and F.R. Leavis than Watson would like to think. Before attempting to establish a single revolutionary canon in music and literature, he should ponder the passage in Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution which promises that under Socialism political parties will be replaced by ‘parties’ advocating different tendencies in theatre, music and sport.

As Watson acknowledges, to overcome the art/politics cleavage requires, not the best efforts of the best intellectuals, but social revolution (p. 341). Without that revolution, Materialist Esthetix, like surrealism and situationism, must be a judged a failure. Yet an interesting failure is sometimes preferable to a boring success.

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Last updated: 12 February 2020