Devil’s Apprentice, of Hell and High Water

An “internet pioneer” since 1953

Posts Tagged ‘proletarian’

Religion, Art and Marxism – Alexander Bogdanov

Posted by devilsapprentice on February 6, 2008

Religion, Art and Marxism

Source: The Labour Monthly, August 1924, Bogdanov, pp.489-497;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford and Adam Buick;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2004.

This article consists of notes taken at a series of lectures delivered by Bogdanov in Moscow during 1920 and published in Russian as a series of three articles.

The first two of these articles, which deal with proletarian poetry and proletarian criticism, were published in The Labour Monthly last year, and copies can still be ordered. The conclusion of the third article illustrates the Communist attitude to the artistic inheritance of the working class by reference to “Hamlet” and other classics. We hope to publish this in a future number.

Bogdanov is, of course, the noted economist and the author of “The Short Course of Economic Science.” – Labour Monthly

There are two great problems for the proletariat to solve in the field of the arts. The first is that of independent creation: the perception of self and of the world in harmonious living images, the expression of its mental forces in artistic forms. The second is that of acquiring its inheritance: it must master the artistic treasures created in the past and assimilate all that is great and beautiful in them, without submitting to the spirit of bourgeois and feudal society reflected in them.This second problem is not less difficult than the first. We shall inquire into the general methods of its solution.A religious person who seriously and attentively studies a strange creed exposes himself to the danger of being converted to it, or acquiring from it beliefs which are heresies from the viewpoint of his own religion. Thus it has happened that learned Christians, having devoted themselves to a study of Buddhism, have become Buddhists themselves, or at least have been converted to the moral teaching of Buddhism; the reverse has also happened. The same religious systems may be studied by a freethinker, who sees in all religion only a revelation of the poetic creation of the peoples (this is not the whole truth about religion, but part of it). Is he exposed to the same danger as the religious scholar? Of course not! He may exult in the beauty and depth of the teachings which have attracted hundreds of millions of people, but he perceives them not from the religious but from another and higher viewpoint. The immense richness of thought and feeling which is revealed in Buddhism will certainly appeal to his heart and mind more than to the heart and mind of a learned Christian who cannot get rid of the hidden resistance of his own faith, struggling against the “temptation” of the strange religion; but the fact is that there is no temptation to become a Buddhist for the freethinker – his mind is so constructed as to assimilate the religious material in a manner of its own.Both the Christian and the freethinker take Buddhism “critically.” But the main difference is in the type of their critical attitude, in its bases – “criteria.” The believer is not standing above the subject of his study, but approximately on a level with it. He criticises from the standpoint of his own dogma and his own feelings, and he tries to find contradictions in the strange myths and in their moral revaluations; when he discovers such contradictions he is unable to appreciate the poetic or vital truth which is frequently hidden behind them. And even when he penetrates to this truth, he pays for it by a contradiction with himself – he “submits to temptation.” He is unable to regard Buddhism as a cultural heritage from a strange world; and if he receives this alien favourably, it conquers him and compels him to become an apostate from his former creed.The case of the violent atheist is about the same. He is a representative of the progressive, but not sufficiently developed, bourgeois consciousness, who sees in every religion only superstition and deception. He is an “inverted believer.” He has risen above religion sufficiently to renounce it, but not enough to understand it. For him religion is also not a heritage; and sometimes it is even a temptation; he comes to feel that it is not only deceit and superstition, but does not understand what it really is.

In quite a different position is our freethinker, representative of the highest stage which may be attained by bourgeois consciousness. His view of religion as a product of the poetical creation of the people allows him, within the limits of this viewpoint, to appreciate his subject quite freely and in an unprejudiced manner. For him it will not present a difficult inner contradiction to learn that the laws of Manu, among the ancient Aryan Hindus, are by the depth of their ideal much more sublime than either ancient or modern Christianity, or that their relation to death, as expressed in their burial rites, is incomparably higher than the Christian in nobleness, sublimity, and beauty. He who is free from all religious consciousness, who will struggle against it whenever it tends to obscure the thought or pervert the will of man, is still in a position to make all religions a valuable cultural heritage for himself and for others.

The attitude of the proletariat to all the culture of the past – of the bourgeois world and of the feudal world – passes through the same stages. In the beginning the worker takes it to be merely culture, culture in general; he does not imagine that culture in its essence can be anything other than that; he is all on a level with it. There may be blunderings in its science and philosophy, there may be false motives in its art, injustices in its morals and laws; but all this is not connected with the essence of it; these are its faults, deviations, imperfections, which further progress would improve.

And though he later on begins to notice in this culture something “bourgeois” and “aristocratic,” still he understands these traits only as a defence of the interests of the ruling classes, a “defence” which falsifies the culture; but he still has no doubt as to the essence of this culture, its methods and viewpoint. He is wholly on its level, and while trying to assimilate “whatever is good in it” he is not protected against it even as much as the Buddhist or Brahmin is protected against the temptations of Christianity, or vice versa. He absorbs the old way of thinking and feeling, and the whole attitude towards the world based upon those ways. His own proletarian class viewpoint is preserved only at the moment or the place where he hears sufficiently clearly the imperious voice of class interest speaking. When there is no such clearness and conviction and the problem of life is difficult and complicated, especially when the problem is still new, he does not solve it independently; either a ready-made solution is taken from the surrounding social environment, or even his proletarian class interest is considered and understood from an alien point of view.

Both tendencies have been clearly manifest in the attitude which the working-class intellectuals of the European countries assumed towards the war. Some gave themselves up to the wave of patriotism, almost without stopping even to consider; others were “able to understand” that the “higher interests” of the working class demanded unity with the bourgeoisie to protect or save the fatherland and its wealth, because “their destruction would throw the working class and the whole of civilisation back.” This great and cruel experience revealed quite clearly the fact that as long as the proletariat had not worked out its own attitude towards the world, its own way of thinking, its own all-embracing viewpoint, a proletarian cannot master the culture of the past as his inheritance; that culture will master him and use him as human material for its own aims.

If the proletarian, convinced of this, arrives at a mere anarchical negation of the old culture, i.e., if he renounces his heritage, then he puts himself in the position of the naive atheist with his crude attitude towards our religious heritage. But he is in an even worse case, for it is, after all, possible for the bourgeois atheist to do without an understanding of religion – he has other cultural values to depend upon; only the breadth of his thought and the swing of his creation suffer. But the worker is not in a position to put up anything at all to counterpoise the rich and developed culture of the hostile camp; he is unable to create anew anything on a similar scale. It remains a splendid tool or weapon in the hands of his enemies – against him.

The conclusion is obvious. The working class must find and develop to the greatest possible extent a viewpoint that is higher than the culture of the past, just as the viewpoint of the freethinker is the higher in the world of religion. Then it will become possible to master this culture without submitting to it, to turn it into a tool for the construction of a new life, a weapon for the struggle against that same old society from which this culture comes.

Karl Marx made a beginning in the mastery of the mental forces of the old world. The revolution that he accomplished in the field of social science and social philosophy consists in the fact that he revised their basic methods and their results from a new, higher standpoint – which was the proletarian standpoint. Nine-tenths or even more, not only of the materials for his gigantic construction, but also of the methods of their application, were taken by Marx from bourgeois sources; he used the bourgeois classical economists, the reports of the English factory inspectors, the petty bourgeois criticisms of capitalism made by Sismondi and Proudhon, and as a matter of fact all the intellectual Socialism of the Utopians, the dialectics of the German idealists, the materialism of the French Encyclopaedists and of Feyerbach, the social class theories of the French historians and the admirable descriptions of class psychology by Balzac, etc., etc. All this received a new form and was arranged in new combinations, it was turned into a tool for the building of a proletarian organisation, a weapon for the struggle against the rule of capital.

How was this miracle accomplished?

Marx established that society is primarily an organisation for production; this is the basis for all the laws of its life and the development of its forms. This is the standpoint of a socially productive class, it is the standpoint of a toiling collectivity. With this for his starting point, Marx accomplished a criticism of the science of the past, he purified its material, remelted it in the fire of his ideal, and created out of it proletarian knowledge – scientific Socialism.

Thus we see the way in which cultural achievements of the past have been turned into an actual inheritance for the working class: it is by critical rearrangement from the standpoint of collective labour. This is how Marx himself understood his task; it was not by chance that Marx characterised his main work, Capital, as a “Critique of Political Economy.”

This is not only true in regard to social science. In all other fields the method of acquiring and assimilating the heritage of the past is by means of our criticism, by proletarian class criticism.

We shall now look more fully into the basis of our criticism. We must find the essence of the standpoint of collective labour.

Three stages may be distinguished in the social process, or, to be more accurate, there are three sides to it: the technical, economic and ideological. On the technical side society struggles against Nature and subjugates it, i.e., it organises the external world in the interests of its life and development. On the economic side – the relations of co-operation and distribution among men – society organises itself for this struggle against Nature. On the ideological side society organises its experience, creating out of this experience the tools for the organisation of its life and development. Consequently, every task in technique, in economics and in the sphere of mental culture is an organisational task, a work of social organisation.

There are and can be no exceptions to this rule. An army may have for its aim destruction, annihilation, disorganisation. But this is not its final aim; the army is itself only a means – a means by which to reorganise the world in the interests of the community to which the army belongs. An artist, an individualist, may imagine that he is creating only for and out of himself; but if he really worked only for himself, his creation would not appeal to anyone beside himself. It would have no relation to mental culture, just as passing and incoherent (but beautiful) dreams are not related to it. And if he tried to create only out of himself, without making any use of the material, the methods of work, creation and expression that he receives from his social environment – then he would not create anything at all.

The standpoint of the labour collectivity is all-organisational. It could not possibly be otherwise with the working class, which organises external matter into products in its labour, organises itself into a creative and fighting community in its co-operation and in its class struggle, and organises its experience into class consciousness by its whole mode of life and by its creative work.

It could not be otherwise, with a class which has to accomplish the historical mission of organising harmoniously the whole life of humanity.

We shall now return to our first illustration. Can and should the whole world of religious creation become a heritage for the working class, against whom every religion has up till now been used as a weapon for enslavement? What use could it find in such an inheritance, what could it do with it?

Our criticism gives a clear and comprehensive reply to this question.

Religion is the solution of an ideological problem for a certain type of community, namely for the authoritarian community. It belongs to the collectivity built upon authoritative collaboration, upon the leading role of some men and the executive role of others, on authority and subordination. Such was the patriarchical clan community, such was feudal society, such were the serf and slave organisations, and such are the bureaucratic police States of to-day; the same state of things prevails in the modern army, and upon a smaller scale in the bourgeois family; and finally capital builds its enterprises on the principle of authority and subordination.

What is the organisational use of a system of accepted ideas? To organise harmoniously the experience of society in such a manner as to suit material organisation, so that cultural achievements may, in their turn, serve society as a means of organisation, to preserve, form, strengthen and further develop the given type of collective organisation. And it is quite easy to perceive how all this is arranged in an authoritarian order of life.

This order is simply transplanted into the field of experience and thought. Every action, whether human or elemental, every phenomenon is represented as a combination of two links – of the organising active will and the passive execution. The whole world is represented as an image of the authoritarian society. At the head of it a supreme authority, a “deity,” is put, and, with the complication of the authoritative combinations, a series of subordinated authorities – lower gods, “demigods,” “saints,” etc., are added, who manage different fields or sides of life. And all these representations are accompanied by authoritarian feelings and moods: admiration, humility, respectful awe. Such are the relationships in religion. It is merely an authoritarian ideology.

It is quite plain what a perfect organisational tool this is for an authoritarian order of life. Religion simply introduces man into this order, assigns to him a definite place in its system, and disciplines him for the execution of the role assigned to him in this system. In feeling, thought and experience the personality is fused with the social environment. It forms an indestructible unit.

The form of religious creation is, for the most part, poetic. This was correctly noted by our freethinker, who did not discern, however, the main thing – the social contents of religion. During those stages of social development when religion is in process of formation, poetry is not yet differentiated from practical and theoretical knowledge, it still includes them in its scope. Religion then includes all and every knowledge, it organises the whole experience of men; knowledge is then understood as a revelation emanating from God, either directly or through some intermediary agents.

What kind of inheritance, then, is religious culture for the proletariat? A very important and valuable one. After it has passed through the worker’s criticism it becomes for him a tool not for the support of, but for the understanding of all the authoritarian elements in life. The authoritarian world has decayed, but it is not dead; its vestiges surround us on every side, sometimes openly, but for the most part under the most various and sometimes unexpected disguises. In order to conquer such an enemy, it is necessary to know it, know it thoroughly and seriously.

The question is not only one of renouncing religion; though even in this respect the worker who has acquired the new critical attitude will prove considerably better armed than the furious but naive atheist, who renounces all creeds because of logical calculations, or opposes them with the childish assertion that religion was invented by the priests for the exploitation of the people. More important still is the fact that the possession of this inheritance enables us to form a correct estimate of the significance of the authoritative elements in present-day society, their mutual connection, and their relation to social development. If religion is a tool for the preservation of authoritarian organisation, then it is clear that in the relations of the classes religion for the workers serves only as a means to ensure their subordination, a means to preserve in them the discipline that the ruling classes desire them to possess, in order to keep exploitation secure – in spite of what various religious Socialists say. It is clear that the formula adopted by most Labour parties to the effect that “religion is a private affair” is but a temporary political compromise with which we cannot rest content. It becomes evident why there is such a perpetual alliance between sabre and cassock, between the military and the church; both have a strictly authoritarian organisation. It also becomes clear why the patriarchical petty-bourgeois and peasant family is so attached to religion, to the “law of God”; and at the same time we can see the great danger in the way of social progress that this fecund seed of authoritarianism may represent if it is preserved. A new light is shed upon the role of party leaders, on authorities and the significance of collective control over them.

Further, the whole artistic treasury of the experience of the people, preserved and crystallised as it is in the various holy traditions and letters, pictures of a strange original life with a harmony of its own, is continually broadening the vision of man, giving him a deep insight into the universal motion of humanity, urging him towards new independent creative work which will not be tied down by the usual environment and habits of thought.

Does it, then, not pay the working class to take its religious heritage?


Posted in Literature and theory of the Arts,, Religion, The Poetics of Poetry, Writing Literature and Criticism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Workers’ Artistic Inheritance, Alexander. Bogdanov

Posted by devilsapprentice on February 6, 2008

Alexander. Bogdanov 1924

The Workers’ Artistic Inheritance

Source: The Labour Monthly, September 1924, Bogdanov, pp. 549-597;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford and Adam Buick;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike)

In dealing with religion[1] as an example of the artistic inheritance of the working class I intentionally started out with the most contested and difficult question. In this manner it will be easier for us to master the main problem. It is clear that the weapon with which the working class can and should master that inheritance is that criticism of ours which I have already described, with its new “all-organisational” standpoint of collective labour.

How should our criticism approach its subject?

The soul of a work of art is what we call its “artistic idea.” This is its plot and the essence of its treatment, the problem and the principle of its solution. Of what kind, then, is this problem? We know now. No matter how it has been considered by the artist himself, in reality it is always a problem of organisation. It is this in two senses: in the first it is a question of how to organise harmoniously a certain sum total of the elements of life and experience; in the second sense, it is a question of how to ensure that the unity created in this way may serve as a means of organisation for a certain community. If the first is not accomplished we have no art, but only confusion; if the second is not accomplished, then the work has no interest for anybody except the author himself, and is of no use whatever.

We shall take for an illustration one of the greatest works of world-literature, the finest diamond of the old cultural heritage – Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

What is the “artistic idea” of this work? It is the organisational problem of a human soul torn by the difficult contradictions of life, divided between the striving towards happiness, love and harmony, and the necessity of waging a painful, stern, merciless struggle. Where is the way out of this contradiction, how can all this be reconciled? How can the thirst for harmony be prevented from weakening a man in the inevitable struggle of life, be prevented from robbing him of the strength, firmness and coolness which are necessary for this struggle? At the same time, how can a man avoid the involuntary cruelty of the blows, the blood and dirt of the wounds, destroying the whole joy, the whole beauty of existence? What should be done to restore harmony to the soul rent asunder by the sharp conflict between its deepest and sublimest need, and the imperious demand dictated by the hostility of his environment?

We perceive at once how vast is the scale of this organisational problem, how great is its significance for every man. It is not a problem which faces the Danish Prince alone, nor the numerous “Hamlets” and “little Hamlets” of our middle class and its literature. This problem is an inevitable moment in the life of every man; he who is strong enough to solve it is raised by it to a higher stage of self-consciousness; for the man who cannot solve the problem becomes a source of spiritual ruin, and sometimes even leads to his destruction.

This tragedy penetrates perhaps most acutely the soul of the proletarian idealist, and even more so the collective psychology of the working class. Fraternity is its ideal, the harmonious life of humanity is its highest aim; but how removed from all this is its surrounding environment, how difficult and at times gloomy and cruel is the struggle forced upon it! Yet it must fight if it does not want to be deprived of all that has been attained by previous innumerable exertions, if it does not want to lose its social dignity and the very sense of life. Little joys have been given it, and great is the thirst for them; but even that little is constantly threatened with destruction or deformation by the inevitable elements of social hatred and anarchy. Why, the very ability to love and rejoice may be killed in the exasperation of the fight, in the despair of defeats and in the rage of the countering blows!

The tragedy of Hamlet enfolds itself on just such a basis. He is a very gifted man, with a fine artistic nature; and at the same time life has favoured him. His education as a prince and heir to the throne, several years of wandering in Germany in the capacity of a student, the fullest enjoyment afforded by occupation in the sciences and arts, life in an environment of friendship and good cheer: finally his serene poetical love for Ophelia – it is seldom that a man has an existence so happy and harmonious. Hamlet takes it as a matter of course. He has never experienced, nor can he imagine, any other existence. But then the time comes, the horror and hideousness of life breaks in upon him – at first in dark foreboding and then with painful clearness.

His family has been destroyed, the lawful order of his country has been shattered to the ground. A traitor and fratricide has seized the throne of his father and seduced his mother; at the court, hypocrisy, intrigue and licentiousness are reigning; decline of the old good customs is spreading over the country, breeding confusion. It is necessary to restore law, to cut short crime, to avenge the death of his father and the disgrace of his family. Such is the sacred duty of Hamlet, as defined by the whole order of his feudal conceptions.

Is he sufficiently strong to accomplish all this? Yes, in his rich nature there are the requisite powers. For he is not only an artist and a favourite of fortune, he is not only a “passive aesthetic” for whose life harmony is as indispensable as air. He is, besides, the son of a warrior king, a descendant of the great Vikings; he has received a perfect military education. There is a fighter in him – but one that has not had the opportunity to unfold, to put himself to the test; and, what is worse, the fighter is combined with the, passive aesthete.

Here is the essence of the tragedy. The struggle demands from Hamlet resort to cunning, deception, violence and cruelty; but these are repulsive to his mild and refined soul. And more, he has to direct them against his nearest and dearest: in the camp of his enemies he finds his beloved mother, and he sees that Ophelia herself is used as a tool in the intrigues against him. His enemies put them forward, and thus play skilfully upon the weakest sides of his soul. His hand, which is raised for the blow, is stopped; the inner struggle paralyses his will, the momentary resolution gives way to hesitation and inaction, time passes in fruitless meditation – the result is a deep duality and for a time even the wreck of his personality: everything is confused in the chaos of unavoidable contradictions, Hamlet “becomes insane.”

An ordinary person would have been crushed by the circumstances and would have perished before he could do anything. But Hamlet is a figure not of the ordinary. He is an heroic character. Through the tortures of despair, through the sickness of his soul, he still goes step by step to the real solution. The elements of the two separated personalities in one – of the aesthete and the warrior – penetrate each other and are welded in a new personality: the active aesthete, the champion of the harmony of life. The main contradiction disappears: the thirst for harmony finds an outlet in the exertion of fighting, the blood and mire of the struggle are directly redeemed by the consciousness that it serves to purify life and raise it to a higher level. The organisational problem is solved, the artistic idea has been clothed in form.

Hamlet, it is true, perished; and in this the great poet is objectively right, as always. The enemies of Hamlet had this advantage: while he was gathering the forces of his soul, they acted, and prepared everything for his destruction. But he dies a victor: crime is punished, the lawful order is restored, the fate of Denmark is entrusted to firm hands: to the young hero Fortinbras. He is not so great a man as Hamlet, but has an harmonious character imbued with the principles of the feudal world, whose ideals inspired Hamlet also.

Here another aspect of our criticism comes in. The organisational problem has been solved; but which collectivity was it that gave the author the vital material for the embodiment of this problem? Of course, it was not the proletarian, which did not exist then. The author of Hamlet, no matter who he was – as is well known this is a disputed question – was either an aristocrat himself or a fervent adherent of the aristocracy. It is from this world that he draws the greater part of the material for his dramas, and his works bear the seal of the feudal monarchical ideal. The bases of that social order are authority and subordination, faith in a deity managing the world, faith in the holiness and infallibility of the order which has been established since ancient times, and the recognition that some people are higher beings, by their very birth destined to manage and rule, while others are lower and must be ruled, being incapable of, any other function but that of subordination. Now, does not all this destroy the value of the work for the working class?

I shall answer by another question. Is it necessary for the working class to know other organisational types besides its own? Moreover, is the working class in general able to work out and form its own type otherwise than by way of comparison with others, by the criticism of others, by working them over and using their elements? And who else, if not the great and skilful artist, can lead one into the very depths of an alien organisation of life and thought? It is the task of our criticism to expose the historical significance of that organisation, its connection with lower stages of development, its contradiction with the vital conditions and problems of the proletariat. As soon as this is accomplished there is no more danger of submitting to the influence of the strange type of organisation; the knowledge of it becomes one of our most precious tools for the creation of our own organisation.

And here also the objectivity of the great artist affords the best support for our criticism. Without making it his aim he happens to delineate all the conservatism of the authoritarian world, its inherent narrowness, and the weakness of the human mind in this world. It is worth while to recollect the appearance of the hero Fortinbras, which serves as an impulse towards a change in the soul of Hamlet himself, urging him to enter the course of action leading to the solution of his problem. With a proud conviction of his own right, without any doubts or hesitation, Fortinbras leads his army to conquer a stretch of land which is not worth, perhaps, the blood of one of the soldiers who will perish in this war. . . .

Finally, great significance attaches to the fact that while the organisational problem is set before us and solved on the basis of the life of a society strange to us, while the solution in its general aspect preserves its validity for the present time, and for the proletariat as a class also, whenever the thirst for harmony clashes with the severe demands of its struggle. Here art teaches the working class the universal setting and the universal solution of organisational problems – which is necessary for it in the accomplishment of its universal organisational ideal.

The Belgian artist, Constantine Meunier, in his sculptures depicted the life of the workers. His statue, “The Philosopher,” represents a worker thinking, deeply absorbed in the solution of some important philosophical problem. The naked figure makes an integral and strong impression of exerted thought, concentrated on one thing, and overcoming some great invisible resistance.

What is the artistic idea of the statue? The organisational problem is the following: How to combine hard, physical labour with the strain of thought, with mental creative work? The solution of the problem . . .?

It is only necessary to look at the figure of “The Philosopher,” which is penetrated throughout by reserved effort, in which every visible muscle is fully exerted – an exertion not manifesting itself in any external action, but seeming to pass into the inner depths – and immediately the solution comes forward with the greatest vividness and impressiveness. It is this: “Thought is a physical exertion in itself; its nature is the same as that of labour, there is no contradiction between them, their division is artificial and passing.” The results of exact science, of physiological psychology, confirm this idea; but it is more intimate and comprehensible in its artistic expression. And its enormous significance for the proletariat does not need proof.

But our criticism must put the question: On the standpoint of which class or social group does the artist stand in his creative work? And then it will become plain that although he represents workers, he does it not as an ideologist of the working class: his is the standpoint of labour, but not of collective labour. The worker-thinker is taken as an individual; those connections which fuse the exertion of his thought with the physical and mental exertions of millions, making it a link in the universal chain of labour, are not felt at all, or at best are delineated very vaguely, almost indiscernibly. The artist is an intellectual by his social position; he is accustomed to work individually himself, without noticing to what extent his labour is connected with the collective labour of humanity both by its origin and by its methods and problems. In this the standpoint of the toiling intellectuals is very little different from that of the bourgeoisie – it is just as individualistic – and here also our criticism must supplement that which the artist could not give.

Thus the tasks of proletarian criticism in relation to the art of the past define themselves. By carrying out these tasks it will give the working class an opportunity to master firmly and use independently the organisational experience of thousands of years crystallised in artistic forms.

The usual conception of the role and sense of proletarian criticism is different. It most frequently defends the position of “social arts,” and deals with the problems of its agitational significance in defence of the interest of the working class. Some years ago the worker Ivan Kubikov invited the proletarians to study the best works of the literature of the old world, regarding art’s educational influence in the following manner. No doubt there is in this literature “not only pure gold, but also elements of alloy which are harmful for the proletariat.” These elements are the “conservative moderating forces.” But they are not to be feared, because the worker has his class sense which allows him to distinguish between the gold and the alloy. “If we observe attentively the impressions received from art we shall find that only the gold affects, the alloy passes by the consciousness of the worker. . . . I have personally had the opportunity during my observations to see the very surprising way in which a rebel worker manages to draw revolutionary conclusions from the most innocent works of art.” (“Nasha Zaria,” Our Dawn, 1914, No. 3, pp. 48-49). This is a naive standpoint, and faulty at its base.

There is very little good in such a sense which “manages” to draw revolutionary conclusions from a really innocent work. Misrepresentation is misrepresentation. What does it prove? That there is a great force of direct feeling and a lack of objectivity. It proves that the thought is lower than this feeling and submits to it. Should that be the consciousness of a class destined to solve the universal organisational problem?

As an illustration of the interrelation between “gold and alloy” Kubikov takes Schiller’s Don Karlos; he thinks that the detection of tyranny and the fiery orations of Marquis Posa are the gold, while his dreams about monarchy absolute, but enlightened and humane, is the alloy. This is not true. On “fiery words,” accompanied by vagueness and weakness of thought, the reader might well be brought up in the direction of revolutionary phraseology alone. On the contrary, the live and deeply artistic expression of the ideal of enlightened monarchy is not at all “alloy” for the historically conscious reader who has the standpoint of proletarian criticism. The ideal is the mental model of organisation; the knowledge and understanding of such models which have been worked out by the past is indispensable for a class which is called upon to organise the future. In the struggle of the heroic personalities presented by the artist it is necessary to discern the struggle of social forces which have defined and determined the thought and will of the men of that epoch, and the necessity of the different ideals called forth by the nature of those forces. To get an artistic insight into the soul of perished classes or of those which are passing from history, as well as into the soul of the classes which occupy the scene of history at present, is one of the best means to master the accumulated cultural and organisational experience of man, the most precious inheritance for a class that comes to construct.

And as far as the art of the past can educate the feelings and moods of the proletariat, it should serve as a means to deepen and enlighten them, to extend their field over all the life of humanity, along all its path of toil, but it should not serve as a means of agitation, a tool for propaganda.

The critic who manages to present to the proletariat a great work of the old culture, in the theatre for instance, after the performance of a piece of genius, who can explain to the spectators its sense and value from the organisational standpoint of collective labour, or give them such an explanation in a short and comprehensible programme, or perhaps can explain in an article in a Labour newspaper or magazine the poem or novel of a great master – such a critic will accomplish a serious and important work for the proletariat.

Here is our broadest field for work, for work which will be important and lasting.

1. See “Art, Religion and Marxism,” in the last issue of The Labour Monthly (August, 1924; Vol. VI, No. 8); also “Proletarian Poetry” in the May and June issues of last year (Vol. IV, Nos. 5 & 6), and “The Criticism of Proletarian Art” in the December, 1923, issue (Volume V, No, 6), all by the same author.


Posted in Literature and theory of the Arts,, The Poetics of Poetry, Writing Literature and Criticism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »