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. 

We publish Alan Woods’ guest introduction to a special edition of Farsi-language art magazine, Contemporary Scene, called Capitalism and Art. The edition contains a series of articles about Marxism and culture, many of which were previously published on Marxist.com.

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.

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.” In the very same chapter, Marx compares the capitalists’ drive for surplus labor to a “werewolf’s hunger.”

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.

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 examines it from the standpoint of historical materialism.

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 writer.

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.

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 by placing importance on the price tag alone.

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.

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 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 possibility of a better world under socialism.

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.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of André 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.

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.

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 surface of modern society, horrors are lurking: dead vermin, murder, death and decay.

Wole Soyinka is a prominent Nigerian playwright, and in 1986, he became the first African writer ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In October 1965, Soyinka was arrested for allegedly seizing the Western Region radio studios and using them to publicly dispute the published results of the recent elections, but in December of the same year, he was acquitted. Didi Cheeka of the Workers' Alternative Editorial Board looks at the ideas and works of this well known writer.

Goran M, after interviewing the famous Black American hip hop band Public Enemy, wrote this analysis of their background, how they emerged as a band, how their lyrics evolved, and what they generally stand for. He puts everything within the context of the struggles of the Afro-American community for their rights. Public Enemy clearly expressed, and continue to express, a growing radical mood among blacks, but also among all the youth.

This article by Alan Woods looks at how the French Revolution affected British poets. It struck Britain like a thunderbolt affecting all layers of society and this was reflected in its artists and writers.

Goya was one of the greatest artists of all time. His paintings are a priceless document of the history of the Spanish people. He painted the world in which he lived, and he painted it in terms of uncompromising realism. His entire outlook was shaped by great historical events - the French revolution, the Napoleonic wars, the ferocious struggle for national independence and the movement for liberal reform that followed it, a movement that was brutally crushed by the forces of darkness, obscurantism and reaction. This article is part of an important new series by Alan Woods called Art and revolution.

In the present epoch, the bourgeoisie is no longer capable of advancing human civilization, but the decay of the capitalist system threatens to poison every aspect of social life. The most heartbreaking example of the way in which capitalism is destroying the cultural heritage of mankind is what has just happened in Iraq.

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.

We publish here the transcript of a speech by Alan Woods on the subject of the relationship between Art and the Class Struggle. The speech was given at a Marxist Summer School in Barcelona (Spain), in July 2001.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is considered by many as the greatest musician of all time. He was revolutionary in more senses than one. One of his main achievements was in the field of opera. Before Mozart, opera was seen as an art form exclusively for the upper classes. This was true not only of those who went to see it, but also of its dramatis personae - the characters who were shown on the stage, and especially the protagonists. With The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro in its original Italian title), all this changes. This is the story of a servant who stands up to his boss and outwits his master.

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.

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

"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.

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?

This is an essay by Trotsky, taken from Chapter 4 of Literature and Revolution published in 1924, in which he looks at the development of the Futurist trend in art, looking in particular at its Russian variant, but also touching on the Italian.

Originally published by Trotsky in 1924 these essays constitute a significant contribution to the then ongoing debate in the USSR over culture and art in a Workers State. It foreshadowed a later debate over the Stalinist conception of “Socialist Realism” in the later part of the decade. This book was suppressed by the bureaucracy after Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1928.

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