Art

Trotsky on art

Art is important to people. It has always been so from the earliest human societies, when it was indissolubly linked to magic — that is, to the first primitive attempts of men and women to understand and gain control over the world in which they live. However, in class society art is so designed as to exclude the masses, and relegate them to an impoverished existence, not only in a material but in a spiritual sense.

In Roman times we had "bread and circuses"; now we have soap opera and pop music. Commercial art which sets out from the lowest common denominator is at once a useful soporific drug intended to keep the masses in a state of stupified contentment, while at the same time making a few capitalists exceedingly rich. By thus reducing the artistic level of society to a bare minimum, and increasingly alienating the "serious arts" from social reality, capitalism guarantees a continuous degeneration and pauperisation of art in general.

Confined to this rarified atmosphere, where it is obliged to feed off itself in the same way that factory-fed cows and chickens are fed the dead carcasses of other animals, and develop a deadly brain disease as a result, art becomes ever more sterile, empty and meaningless, so that even the artists themselves begin to sense the decay and become ever more restless and discontented. Their discontent, however, can lead nowhere insofar as it is not linked to the struggle for an alternative form of society in which art can find its way back to humanity. The solution to art's problems is not to be found in art, but only in society.

— From Marxism and art

Leonardo da Vinci died 500 years ago today in 1519. Da Vinci was an absolute giant in the history of human thought and culture. Alan Woods pays tribute to the great artist, scientist and philosopher, whose life and ideas were revolutionary in so many fields.

The fire that partly destroyed Notre Dame is a tragedy for anyone who cherishes the cultural, artistic and architectural achievements of humanity. Capitalism is undermining its own past achievements and those of previous societies, and this emerges very clearly when one takes a closer look at what happened in Paris on Monday 15 April.

Trotsky, a recent Netflix series produced by Russian state television, is a scandalous misrepresentation of both Trotsky’s life and the October Revolution. Alan Woods and Josh Holroyd respond to this insulting portrayal of Trotsky and the Bolsheviks’ legacy.

On 25 January, 2018 a lecture was held in the Al Hamra Hall, a well-known cultural center in Lahore, Pakistan on the topic of “Marxism and Literature”, by the editor of In Defence of Marxism, Alan Woods. The event was organized by the Progressive Youth Alliance. We share this video of Alan's lecture, in which he speaks about the development of language and literature across the history of class society, and how it was shaped by revolutionary events. 

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia, and unsurprisingly, has produced some mainstream media content dealing with these events. One of them was the Cal Seville’s Russian Revolution documentary, currently available on Netflix.

The centenary of the Russian Revolution has opened in an appropriately explosive fashion, with Donald Trump’s first raft of vile executive orders provoking international protest on a gargantuan scale. It is fair to say that tensions are high, and widespread anger is the order of the day.

There are at least a quarter of a million words in the English language – although some estimates suggest a far higher number – perhaps a million or more (according to the Global Language Monitor, January 2014 and the more recent Google/Harvard Study). Whatever the true figure might be, it is clear that English has more words than any other European language. This is the result of its peculiar historical evolution.

The age of Shakespeare was also the age of Machiavelli. That brilliant Italian philosopher was the man who first explained that the conquest and maintenance of political power has nothing to do with morality. The state itself is organised violence, and the seizure of state power can only be brought about by violent means. Moralists have given the Italian philosopher a very hard time, but history has shown that his analysis was basically sound.

The England of Shakespeare, like the Spain of Cervantes, was in the throes of a great social and economic revolution. This was a very turbulent and painful change, which thrust a large number of people into poverty and created in the towns a large class of dispossessed lumpenproletarian elements: beggars, thieves, whores, deserters and the like, who rubbed shoulders with the sons of impoverished aristocrats and defrocked priests to create an endless reserve of characters for

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Shakespeare transformed English literature, reaching heights that before were unheard-of and which have not been reached subsequently. Like a blazing meteorite he shot across the firmament and cast a glorious light on an entire period in our history. His impact on world literature was arguably greater than any other writer. His works have been translated into every language. For centuries after his death his star has not dimmed but shines as brightly as on the first day.

In an article on World War I, Lenin once remarked that, “Capitalist society is and has always been horror without end.” In discussing the early development of capitalism in his classic, Capital, Marx said that upon its arrival in history “capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” In the same book, Marx stated that, “Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.”

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Marxism often defines itself as scientific socialism. That would make it an applied science with a specifically political purpose. For example, when Engels delivered Marx's funeral oration, he said that Marx was above all a revolutionary. But a basic premise of Marx's outlook was that revolution could only succeed if based on an understanding of the processes at work in society as a whole.

The connection between Italian Futurism and fascism is well known. Alan Woods looks at the psychology of the Italian bourgeois and petit bourgeois intellectuals in the period before and during the First World War that gave rise to this singular phenomenon. It is an object lesson on how art and politics can become inextricably linked, and how this mixture arises from a definite social and class basis.

Hieronymus Bosch was one of the most remarkable and original painters of all time. His works were painted five hundred years ago, yet they seem astonishingly modern, anticipating surrealism. This is the art of a world in a state of turbulence, torn by contradictory tendencies – a world in which the light of reason has been extinguished and where animal passions have gained the upper hand, a world of terror and violence, a living nightmare. In short – a world very like our own. Alan Woods

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The publication in English of The Man Who Loved Dogs by the Cuban author, Leonardo Padura is a major literary and political event. I read this remarkable novel when it came out in Spanish and it made a profound impression on me. I had intended to write a review then, but was prevented from doing it by a combination of circumstances. With the greatest pleasure I will now rectify this omission.

On 31 July Gore Vidal died at his home in Los Angeles from complications arising from pneumonia. He was 86 and had been ill for some time. As I was away on holiday at the time, I did not find out about this till later. The comrades in charge of Marxist.com decided to republish an article I had written in July 2002 with the title The decline and fall of the American empire, based on a television interview with the American

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The effects of the capitalist crisis are being felt at every level of society. As reported in a Time magazine article in April, this also includes the preservation of historical sites. As the cash-strapped European states race to cut public spending and slash budgets, the historical achievements of mankind crumble under paltry allotments for cultural preservation.

In the 1950s, amid prosperity and a booming economy, Allen Ginsberg defied conventions and the mainstream by openly standing forward as a homosexual, a socialist and a sharp critic of the capitalist American society he lived in. For this he was persecuted in a famous obscenity trial, which he ended up winning. This is portrayed in the feature film Howl from 2010.

Alan Woods, of the International Marxist Tendency, speaks to University of Arts' London students at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, where a replica of Picasso's great painting of the massacre at Guernica is on display. Using this powerful masterpiece as a starting point, Alan explores what makes great art; to what extent is great art a reflection of the period from which it comes; and can propaganda be great art?

Alan Woods gives a lecture at the Chelsea College of Art in London in April 2009. He deals with the important role art plays in revolutionary political movements and speaks about how art changes to reflect the social and political events of the time.

Alan Woods spoke at the IMT Winter School in Berlin on the subject of the relationship between Art and the Class Struggle.

“If sharks were people,” Mr K. was asked by his landlady’s little girl, “would they be nicer to the little fishes?”

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?

In his The Mona Lisa Curse, the Australian art critic Robert Hughes subjected present-day commercialisation of art to a withering criticism. His programme was a damning indictment of the general tendency of art to degenerate into flashy triviality to the degree that it subordinates itself to money-making and capitalist market economics. It condemned the British artist Hirst for "functioning like a commercial brand" and destroying any true understanding of art in the public's mind

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Yesterday we received the sad news of the death of comrade Javed Shaheen, who passed away peacefully in his sleep. Javed was a very famous poet and one of the pioneers of Progressive writers' association of Pakistan. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of the International Marxist Tendency. We publish here an obituary by Alan Woods.

The prophetic description of anonymous warfare, the blankets of darkness and death dropped over civilian populations still resonate. To the degree we realise the truth expressed in this work, Guernica stands as possibly the greatest painting of the 20th Century.

A recent event in Portland Oregon highlighted the interest that average people have in the ongoing events in Oaxaca, showcasing the dormant political energy that many are desperately trying to direct into action.

"Art can neither escape the crisis nor partition itself off. Art cannot save itself. It will rot away inevitably as Grecian art rotted beneath the ruins of a culture founded on slavery unless present-day society is able to rebuild itself. This task is essentially revolutionary in character. For these reasons the function of art in our epoch is determined by its relation to the revolution." Leon Trotsky, 1938.

"The Shostakovich centenary year has shown that, despite the sneering of ill-intentioned critics, his music is getting an increasingly wide audience. Shostakovich's music will live for as long as men and women love music, because, like his idol Beethoven, he was a man with something important to say." Here we publish the second and last part of Alan Woods' article on Shostakovich.

This year is the centenary of Dimitri Shostakovich, one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, a giant who gave voice to the sufferings and triumphs of the Soviet people in one of the most turbulent and revolutionary periods in history. In this two part article, Alan Woods attempts to show Shostakovich as he really was: a great Soviet artist who used music to express the terrible and inspiring events of the period in which he lived, a man of the people who believed in the

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This latest of Ken Loach’s films is well crafted and well thought. It has been thoroughly researched and really gets under the surface of the processes and the events that helped shape the current situation on the island of Ireland.

Like the great French revolutionaries, Beethoven was convinced that he was writing for posterity. When (as frequently happened) musicians complained that they could not play his music because it was too difficult, he used to answer: "Don't worry, this is music for the future."

If any composer deserves the name of revolutionary it is Beethoven. He carried through what was probably the greatest single revolution in modern music and changed the way music was composed and listened to. This is music that does not calm, but shocks and disturbs. Alan Woods describes how the world into which Beethoven was born was a world in turmoil, a world in transition, a world of wars, revolution and counter-revolution: a world like our own world.

On this Easter Monday we are republishing an article by Rob Sewell in which he analyses the real origins of the early Christians. Quoting at length from Kautsky's The Foundations of Christianity he reveals the real nature of early Christianity and how it emerged as a movement of the oppressed in ancient Roman society, an early form of Communism.

Phil Mitchinson reviews a new book Remembering Arthur Miller and interviews one of the contributors, the well known director David Thacker who worked with the American playwright on numerous occasions and was the artistic director of the famous Young Vic theatre in London. Miller's courageous stand against McCarthyism is well known but perhaps less generally recognised is how important an influence politics in general played in his life and writings.

Twenty-five years ago today John Lennon was killed in New York. There was a mass outpouring of grief all over the world. This was because he symbolised something different from the mainstream music industry. He gave expression in the words of some of his songs the genuine feeling of disgust of many workers and youth at what capitalist society stands for.

The Cuban revolution continues to resist all attempts to undermine it. This recent film shows different aspects of Cuban life today, its positive and negative sides, and although there are problems the overall impression is that a large part of the population understands the need for the revolution to survive.

Moleres and Hine are two photographers, the first contemporary the second from the first half of the 20th century, who have accumulated a large number of photographs dedicated to exposing child labour around the world. There work is presently being exhibited at the Side Gallery, 9 The Side, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and will continue until November 19. Here we provide a review of the exhibition.

“I Ask the Night” is a translation of selected poems by Javed Shaheen, the famous Pakistani poet, published by Struggle Publications in Lahore. Javed Shaheen witnessed the terrible bloodshed at the time of the partition of India and that marked him for the rest of his life. Ever since then he has sided with the downtrodden and oppressed.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Andre Breton, one of the most outstanding literary representatives of surrealism, who tried to link art with revolutionary politics and collaborated for a time with Leon Trotsky. Alan Woods wrote this piece commemorating the great artist.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first publication of Don Quixote, the greatest masterpiece of Spanish literature. The working class, the class that has the greatest interest in fighting to defend culture, should celebrate this anniversary enthusiastically. This was the first great modern novel, written in a language that ordinary men and women could understand.

Every ruling class entertains the same illusions about itself. In their imaginations they are conquering heroes, when in reality they are involved in the most sordid and dirty business. Cervantes reflects the breaking down of the old feudal society and a transition towards a capitalist society and morality, based on money not rank.

Last week, Arthur Miller, the dramatist who wrote plays that dealt with big moral and political questions in America, died. The legendary playwright, who continued his commitment to art and politics until the end of his life, was 89.

The Motorcycle Diaries, the recently released film on Ernesto Che Guevara, is an exciting adaptation of Guevara’s writings of the same name. Also based on Alberto Granado’s memoirs Travelling With Che Guevara, Che’s travelling companion, the director Walter Salles was able to paint a graphic picture of a revolutionary in the making.

On Sunday evening, September 12, thousands gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square for the screening of Sergei Eisenstein’s revolutionary film “Battleship Potemkin“ and to hear the Pet Shop Boys and the Dresdner Sinfoniker string orchestra. The presentation was accompanied by reminders of the many demos that have been through the square, with quotes from Marx and Engels.

It comes as no surprise to the art world that the recent Hopper Exhibition at the Tate Modern was an outstanding success. Harry Whittaker wrote this review while the exhibition was on.

Someone has said that one of the criteria for winning the Turner Prize is not to be understood. The philosophy behind this is: the less I am understood, the better the art.Yet the kind of art that wins the Turner competition also has merit. They have the merit of holding up a mirror to the society that produced them, and saying: “This is what you are, and this is all you are capable of producing.” These works point out to us that beneath the sleek, comfortable bourgeois

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