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.
During my recent speaking tour of Austria, I was taken to visit an exhibition of Italian futurist art in Vienna. It was a very revealing experience. The connection between Italian Futurism and fascism is well known, but here for the first time I was able to see with complete clarity 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.
This is not to say that the two things are the same, or that the relation between them is automatic and direct. On the contrary, the development of art, literature and music follows its own immanent laws. The development of art and politics form two entirely separate lines, with their own determining features, turning points, complex relations and revolutions. However, since all social phenomena share a common ground, the two lines frequently meet and bisect. The study of this complicated and dialectical interrelationship would be a fascinating but difficult exercise. It is not often that the connection can be clearly established. But in this case it is quite transparent.
Futurism arose as part of the general artistic ferment that characterised the intellectual life of Europe, and particularly France, in the period before 1914. This was a period of spectacular advance of capitalism, which was developing the productive forces at a dizzying pace. Europe and the USA were industrialising rapidly. Industry was advancing at the expense of agriculture, the proletariat at the expense of the peasantry. Old ideas were crumbling. In the field of science the basis was being laid for a twin revolution, connected with relativity theory and quantum mechanics. The human mind was gradually penetrating beyond the world of appearance and discovering a deeper reality in the sub-atomic world, where the laws of the ordinary world of sense perception do not apply. The sensation existed that this was a new age, an age of progress in which the machine was king. Out of this idea arose the cult of the modern.
Britain and Europe before 1914
When the new generation of artists raised the standard of revolt against the old conservative style of academic art they were reflecting this new spirit. This ferment and clash of ideas and schools indicated a profound current in the intelligentsia of the main countries of continental Europe. The exception was Britain, where the new trends were weakly represented, if they were represented at all. This difference was no accident. At the commencement of the 20th century, British capitalism still enjoyed a crushing superiority over its rivals. Its industry ruled supreme in world markets as its warships ruled supreme on the high seas. It presided over an empire on which the sun never set, as they boasted in London.
The super profits from this privileged position created a feeling of quiet self-satisfaction and superiority over less fortunate nations. The psychology of the British ruling class was cast in stone in Tower Bridge, surely the most remarkable bridge that has ever been built. It resembles not a bridge but a cathedral. Here is a statement of a ruling class that was firmly convinced that it would dominate the world for a thousand years! It is no accident that this celebrated monument, built at the threshold of the 20th century, is purely medieval in style.
The outlook of all classes in British society was shaped by the special position of British capitalism in the world. The super profits derived from its colonies and its domination of world trade, allowed it to give concessions to the middle class and part of the working class. Reformism was the dominant tendency, first with the Liberal Party of Lloyd George and later with the young Labour Party. The British Labour movement, unlike its cousins in continental Europe, was characterised by a lack of any theory. In general, the Anglo-Saxon mentality is averse to broad theoretical generalisations of any kind, preferring to “muddle through” on the basis of what is known from past experience.
This is the basis of Anglo-Saxon empiricism and pragmatism. It is a tradition that could only arise from a privileged economic position that does not place any serious demands on the intellect. It breeds a generally conservative outlook that regards the present situation as eminently satisfactory and encourages a kind of vulgar “evolutionism” that imagines that tomorrow will always be better than today. Such an intellectual background is unfavourable to bold and imaginative thought in general. It is profoundly anti-dialectical, holding fast to the belief that “nature does not make leaps”. Only great historical events could shake this smug and superficial view of the universe.
The relative poverty of artistic development in Britain at a time when its continental neighbours were in a state of violent intellectual ferment can only be explained by the insularity of the British at a time when everything seemed to be for the best in the best of all possible capitalist worlds. At a time when the French were overthrowing the old academic art, in Britain it was firmly entrenched. The British Pre-Raphelite school of art that pretended to be modern was really a conservative trend that looked backward, not forward. When compared to the new developments in European art, it seems merely quaint and provincial. Here we look in vain for anything new or revolutionary. While composers like Debussy and Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartok and Prokofiev were experimenting with a new musical language, Elgar was still writing symphonies in a style that looked back to the world of the 19th century.
There are some signs of life in the works of Beardsley, but in general there was little or no innovation. Insofar as there was anything new it was imported either from France or from England’s oldest colony, Ireland. In literature, it is no accident that the most important writers were all Irish: Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, and above all that great genius, James Joyce. As for the wretched Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists, they never rose beyond the level of provincial English middle class second-raters, whose well-merited epitaph was written by the American poet Ezra Pound:
“O bury me not in Bloomsbury
Where the gravy tastes like the dust.”
Ferment in France
The striking contrast between the intellectual life of Britain and France before the First World War is explained both by the different traditions of the two countries and their recent history. British capitalism developed organically over several centuries. Its evolution was slow and gradual. All the stages of capitalist economic development can be clearly seen in England from the 14th century onwards. That is why Marx always took England as the classical country of capitalism from an economic point of view, while France was taken as the classical capitalist country from the political standpoint.
The history of modern France begins with the French Revolution of 1789-93, and continues through the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, through the Bourbon reaction after 1815, the Revolutions of 1830 and 1848, the Bonapartist reaction that followed the defeat of that Revolution, then the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the glorious episode of the Paris Commune, the first time the proletariat ever took power in any country. The defeat of the Commune led to a long period of reaction, interrupted by the Dreyfus scandal that brought France to the brink of civil war in the last decade of the 19th century.
These stormy decades of war, revolution and counterrevolution created an environment for the artists and intellectuals that was very different from that of Britain. France was perhaps the most politicised society in Europe, and this fact affected the outlook of the French artists and writers. Not for nothing was Paris considered the hub of intellectual life for the whole of Europe in the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Art and revolution repeatedly linked arms and fought together, laughed and cried together, rejoiced and suffered together.
Of course, the relationship was not a direct or simple one. But anyone with the slightest knowledge of the history of French art and literature in the 19th century will be well aware that the relationship was very real and played a vital role. In complete contrast to the intellectual and artistic conservatism in Britain, Paris was a bee-hive of intellectual inventiveness and innovation. New schools of art, literature and music arose, each with its defenders and detractors. They argued, fought, wrote rival manifestos and organised the artistic equivalent of political tendencies and parties.
After Impressionism, Fauvism and Pointillism came Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism. This was the Paris of Picasso and Satie, Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes. It was a world of chaos and turbulence, of constant movement and change that mirrored the revolutionary changes brought about by capitalism in the early years of the 20th century and that represent the starting point for Futurism.
The emphasis on the barbaric was one element in this movement. We find this in music with compositions such as Bartock’s allegro barbaro and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The violence with which the defenders and critics of the new art and music fought each other is shown by the disturbances that regularly occurred in theatres and concert halls in these years. At the first performance of Stravinsky’s revolutionary ballet The Rite of Spring in 1911 a riot broke out in the theatre, with one section of the audience booing and protesting and another applauding wildly. This was a fairly common occurrence. All this showed at least that art was alive and kicking. It still had the power to “shock and awe”, and to provoke powerful emotions, for and against. Art aroused passion, in a way that it no longer does today.
How does one explain this passion? It reflected a definite mood in a layer of society - the intellectuals. The intelligentsia, contrary to their own belief, cannot play an independent role in history. But they do provide a most sensitive barometer of certain moods that are building up in the deepest recesses of society. This means that certain trends among the intellectuals, students and so on, can sometimes anticipate processes that will occur later in the whole of society. The wind blows through the tops of the trees first. Thus, the movement of the French students in May 1968 was the first indication of the revolutionary general strike of the working class that followed it. The students did not cause the movement of the working class - they anticipated it. We have seen this many times in history.
The ferment among the intelligentsia appeared like a froth on the surface of what was otherwise a sea of stagnation. It was against this complacent stagnation that the artists and intellectuals rebelled. This rebellion did not in itself represent a reflection of existing social revolt, but it did express the accumulation of deep tensions and unresolved contradictions in society. It was a kind of heat lightening that precedes a storm. That storm finally burst in the summer of 1914 when history finally presented its bill to the western world.
Futurism and Cubism
The rapid rise of industry and the widespread application of new technology captured the imagination of the new generation of artists who rejected the stale conventionalism of the Academy. The cult of the machine was central to Futurism. Cubism had already started to represent reality as a series of geometrical forms. Futurism took this one step further, elevating the straight lines and streamlined forms of industry to a new form of art.
The first Futurist exhibition was held in Paris in 1911, but it originated in Turin in March 1910 and was associated with the work of F.T. Marinetti. It advocated the renovation of Italian art and declared that art could live only by emancipating itself from the dead hand of the past. It repudiated tradition, academic training, museums, picture galleries and the art of previous ages. All these things were regarded as so many fetters on the development of art.
Marinetti experimented with new literary forms that attempted to express emotions directly to the eye of the reader through the use of different types, suggestive arrangements of spacing and lines and other devices that were later developed by Mayakovsky and the Russian Constructivist artists after 1917.
According to the futurist manifesto, a picture “must be a synthesis of what one remembers and what one sees.” Thus, a futurist painter would paint not only what he saw before him but would combine this information with the recollections of previous scenes that lingered in his mind. Objects and persons were studied from all sides so that every aspect would be represented - visible or invisible, front and back. The original futurists were Marinetti, Boccioni, Carra, Russolo, Balla and Severini.
In its initial stages Futurism was really an offshoot of Cubism. Many of its earliest productions could almost be mistaken for Cubist paintings. Futurism began as a specifically Italian variant and development of Cubism. The Futurists, in common with the Cubists, rebelled against the artistic Establishment and the 19th century. They looked for new themes, and found them, not in the mists of the past, but in the present - and in the future. Their art was based on the cult of the modern. Whereas the 19th century Romantics recoiled in horror from the age of the machine, the futurists embraced it with enthusiasm. The machine forms an important element in this art.
As with the Cubists, the objects of the everyday world are reduced to geometrical forms - lines, squares, triangles, cubes - but there is a new ingredient that links this tendency to the forms of industry - machines, locomotives, cars - that express the idea of speed and motion. There is something vibrant in this art, a sense of restless movement and urgency. Giacomo Balla produced a series of striking black and white paintings depicting motor-cars and trains in motion, all conveying the idea of speed. He uses such titles as Lines of Speed to convey his intentions. This art is quite effective in conveying the idea of life in the fast track. It is exciting and exhilarating. It grabs you by the collar and shouts at you: “No to stagnation! We must not stand still! Speed! More speed!”
Futurism and imperialism
This infatuation with speed, change and modernity tells us a lot about the mentality of a layer of the radical petty bourgeoisie in Italy during the first decade of the 20th century. The unification of Italy in the 19th century created the conditions for the emergence of Italy as a European power. It opened the prospect of the rapid overcoming of its age-old backwardness and its transformation into a modern capitalist economy. For a generation raised on the idea of Italy’s once and future greatness this was an intoxicating prospect.
But there was a problem. The belatedness of Italian capitalism meant that it had come too late onto the stage of history. The world had already been divided up between the older capitalist powers, first Britain and France, and then Germany. The ambitions of weak Italian imperialism were thwarted on all sides by powerful neighbours. Its colonial ambitions were limited to miserable pickings such as Albania, Libya and Ethiopia. This bred a sense of frustration and resentment among the nationalist youth that was fertile ground for the rise of imperialist, militarist and fascist tendencies.
Here we see the reason for the striking contrast between the cultural atmosphere in Britain and the rest of Europe. The British middle class had been provided with careers, good wages and a privileged position through the empire and its vast colonial civil service. They saw no reason to be dissatisfied with the existing state of affairs, and this sense of smug self-satisfaction found its expression in the cultural world on this side of the Channel. The British intellectual, like the British democratic politician, was naturally conservative and backward-looking. In both cases, it fed upon the fabulous wealth plundered from the colonies. British culture, like British parliamentary democracy, were the products of a wealthy country that lived off the backs of millions of colonial slaves.
But the world seen through the eyes of the Italian bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie presented a very different aspect. The imperialist wing of the Italian bourgeoisie did not wish to conserve the existing world order, but destroy it. The demand for change that was so urgently expressed in Futurist art was simply a semi-conscious reflection of this fact. It was an artistic expression of the feelings of impotent rage, fury and a desire to overturn the existing order, not only in the world of art but in the real world. That explains the ease with which Italian Futurism became merged with imperialism and its most extreme expression - fascism.
Italy had established its position among the nation states of Europe too late to participate in the division of the spoils of successive wars. Its development was hampered by the lack of colonies and foreign markets. Out of this fact came the urgent demand for a “fair share” of the world for the expansion of Italian capitalism. Imperialism and an aggressive colonial policy was a natural consequence of this.
Conscious of a glorious but distant past, a layer of Italian intellectuals dreamed of rediscovering the splendours of imperial Rome. But Italian capitalism had come to late onto the stage of history for these dreams to become a reality. Italy was hemmed in on all sides by powerful enemies: Austro-Hungary which blocked her on the Balkans, France, which blocked her in North Africa, Germany which made her exports uncompetitive. The only way to break out of this suffocating condition was through war. War was not something to be afraid of or deplore, in the manner of feeble pacifists, but a glorious adventure, a necessary condition for the material and spiritual rebirth of the Italian people. War was something to be glorified in art.
In 1915 Marinetti, the founder of Italian Futurism, published a book with the title La Guerra - Sola Igiene del Mondo (“War - the Sole Hygene of the World”). Here we have the distilled essence of imperialism - the notion that wars are a necessary means whereby humanity overcomes stagnation and purifies itself through fire. This adequately conveys the delirium of the Italian imperialist petty bourgeoisie who greeted the horrors of the First World War as one would welcome the invitation to a party.
Later on this dream of the Italian imperialist petty bourgeoisie turned into a nightmare. But in the years that preceded the great imperialist slaughter of 1914-18, it acted as the mainspring of the main trend of Italian art. From the beginning, futurist art was impregnated with a spirit of suppressed violence and aggression. Here in paint we see the concentrated expression of the pent-up rage and frustration of the Italian imperialist petty bourgeoisie. The slashing lines that criss-cross these abstract paintings are like the tracer bullets that light the sky over a battle at night-time. The jagged edges speak of lacerations. The whole thing is filled with an explosive element that anticipates war, upheaval and conflict.
In the world of Futurism the machine is god. The human disappears completely. This is really a preparation for the totalitarian state where the individual is completely at the service of the imperialist state and the military machine. Machinery, of course, has many applications, most of them of a socially useful character. But in the epoch of monopoly capitalism and imperialism machinery has as its highest purpose the production of armaments for the purpose of dividing the world between different groups of robbers. And the highest function of people is to act as meat for this huge mincing machine. This crude reality of imperialism is where the Futurist dream ends up.
The class basis of Italian Futurism
Not everything was grim in the Futurist movement, however. It also had its lighter side, as befits an Italian movement. Fortunato Depero was one of the clowns of the Futurist movement. His paintings have e lighter, more frivolous side that is missing from most of the others. Most of them took themselves very seriously - as did the biggest clown of all, Benito Mussolini.
Common subjects of early futurist art were café life and sex. Later the subject changed to war, which they glorified. The early subject matter reflects the life style of the futurists themselves: here is the mode of existence of the spoilt bourgeois brat, the playboy and the wealthy drone. Their other interests reflect the same thing. They designed smart clothes, including gaudy waistcoats, ties and caps for the young peacocks.
A few generations earlier, the young Gautier wore dazzling red waistcoats when he participated in riots at the theatre - but that at least had revolutionary implications. Gautier belonged to another epoch - the epoch of Romanticism, when the rebellious bourgeois youth were fighting against the manners and values of the bourgeoisie and striving to return to the revolutionary ideals of 1789-93.
In the first half of the 19th century the youth of Italy found a revolutionary cause in the struggle for national liberation against Austria. But having achieved power, Italian bourgeoisie immediately gave all the signs of senility. As frequently happens, the bourgeoisie of a formerly oppressed colony became an aggressive imperialist bourgeoisie after coming to power. The pampered sons of the Italian rich, the gilded youth as they were known in post revolutionary France, later provided the shock troops of Mussolini’s Blackshirts in their brutal assaults against peasants and trade unionists. The psychology of this social stratum is clearly revealed in this art.
In Literature and Revolution, Trotsky writes: “Futurism originated in an eddy of bourgeois art, and could not have originated otherwise. Its violent oppositional character does not contradict this in the least.
“The intellectuals are extremely heterogeneous. At the same time, each recognized school of art is a well paid school. It is headed by mandarins with their many little balls. As a general rule, these mandarins of art develop the methods of their schools to the greatest subtlety, while at the same time they use up their whole supply of powder. Then some objective change, such as a political upheaval or a social storm, arouses the literary Bohemia, the youth, the geniuses who are of military age, who, cursing the satiated and vulgar bourgeois culture, secretly dream of a few little balls for themselves, and gilded ones, too, if possible.
“When investigators define the social nature of early Futurism and ascribe a decisive significance to the violent protests against bourgeois life and art, they simply do not know the history of literary tendencies well enough.”
What we have here is the expression in art of the striving for power of the weak Italian bourgeoisie and particularly the impotent petty bourgeois intelligentsia. As the sick Nietzsche glorified health and strength and projected his longing into the idea of the Superman, so the feeble Italian petty bourgeoisie expressed its burning and impossible desire to be strong. They longed for power, but in the end were only the lackeys of the big capitalists they pretended to despise. This is the eternal contradiction of the petty bourgeoisie, which imagines that it is a power but in reality is obliged to choose between the rule of the proletariat or that of the banks and monopolies. And the big capitalists made use of the fascist demagogues to get control of the plebeian masses.
The petty bourgeoisie - the discontented peasant, the ruined shopkeeper and the frustrated government clerk, fall under the influence of the right wing intellectuals, the pampered sons of the rich, the golden youth whose restless and adventurist spirit finds an outlet in extreme and belligerent patriotism. Disappointed chauvinism in turn fuses imperceptibly with fascism. Italian Futurism is transformed into art in the service of fascist reaction and Mussolini’s corporate state.
Futurism and Fascism
In the beginning, the highly combustible mood that underlies this art could be mistaken for a revolutionary feeling, and in fact it reflects a revolutionary trend insofar (and only insofar) as it rejects the status quo. This art is a slap in the face for existing society, its aesthetic norms and values. It announces the immanent end all that is: it proclaims that all that present society regards as sacred and valuable is based on a rotten foundation. This foundation must be dynamited, blown sky high, in order that the creative spirit of the people should be liberated. What began as an artistic message - the rejection of stagnation and inertia in art - now becomes a clearly political message. Not just the old art, but all the other manifestations of the old society must be overthrown.
In some ways the futurist point of view comes close to the ideas of Bakunin - the idea that before we can build a new society it is first necessary to destroy. In the exhibition there is even a painting done by a Futurist artist before 1914, of the funeral of an anarchist, which implies a certain sympathy with the latter. This is not as surprising as it may seem. The class basis of both movements is, in fact, quite similar, although their programme and aims are diametrically opposed. Anarchism reflects the psychology of the revolutionary left wing of the petty bourgeoisie and also, in part, the lumpenproletariat. Its real model is that of plebeian revolt against the existing order. This idea would also have appealed to the Italian Futurists. In both cases it represents a petty bourgeois, not a proletarian, view of revolution. In Italy the standpoint of the petty bourgeois revolutionary has, after all, a long tradition, going as far back as Mazzini and Garibaldi.
Whereas Marxism, the ideology of the proletariat, has a scientific conception of the class struggle and revolution, anarchism represents an inconsistent and incoherent standpoint that confuses revolution with the kind of unorganised revolt of the masses, in which the working class is only one element, and not necessarily the decisive one. No difference is made between the different strands of the oppressed - workers, peasants, unemployed, ruined petty bourgeois, students and lumpenproletarians - are all subsumed under the category of “the masses”.
Of course, fascism and anarchism are opposite extremes. Fascism is a mass movement of the petty bourgeoisie and lumpenproletariat that serves the interests of imperialism and the big banks and monopolies. But in order to enlist the support of the masses, it must disguise itself with radical and “socialist” demagogy. Within the fascist movement there is always a radical wing, associated with the lumpenproletariat, that takes this demagogy seriously. These elements dream that the fascist “revolution” will indeed overthrow the old society and hand power to “the masses” (i.e., them), giving them freedom to rob and plunder society at will. Needless to say, this wing is always crushed when the fascists take power. In Germany this wing was represented by the SA, in Italy, the Blackshirt banditi.
This radical demagogy is reflected in some Futurist paintings, which purport to describe the working class. However, it is immediately evident that this is a purely abstract conception of the workers, as seen from a distance, or, more correctly, from on high. The artist has not the slightest knowledge of real workers, how they live or what they think. They are merely idealised generalisations. The muscular figure of an Italian port worker shown in the exhibition is completely anonymous. Here the worker is glorified as an ideal machine for the production of surplus value. He has no individuality. He is merely a unit in the impersonal collective that serves the greater glory of Italy - that is, the greater glory of the Italian bankers and capitalists.
Where the masses are shown in a revolutionary context, they are equally anonymous. The painting called The Revolt by Luigi Russolo (1911) depicts a red wedge, driving irresistibly to the left, and smashing through a solid barrier. The colours are stark and violent - red, yellow, blue, green and purple. The central idea is that of conflict and violent antagonism: one force clashes against another. But the masses are depicted as a blind and unconscious crowd, carried forward irresistibly by an unseen impetus. Here the revolution appears not as the conscious activity of the working class, but as the movement a dumb herd. This fits in perfectly with the subjectivist ideology of fascism, which treats the masses as an inert material to be moulded and organised by the Leader. In this conception, the old idea of “crowd” and “hero” is resurrected in a fantastic and reactionary form.
The elements of a fascist and imperialist ideology were present in embryonic form in Futurism long before it erupted fully formed onto the stage of politics. After 1918 the disappointment of the Italian petty bourgeoisie with the results of the First World War gave rise to the fascist movement, led by the former socialist Mussolini. The mass basis of fascism is the same in all countries - the petty bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat. In the stormy period 1919-1921, the future of Italian society was posed in the starkest terms - either … or. The workers struck, set up soviets and seized the factories. The socialist revolution was on the order of the day. But the reformist leadership of the Socialist Party hesitated and drew back. The initiative passed to Mussolini and the fascist blackshirts. Mussolini organised the notorious march on Rome. The mass of ruined petty bourgeois and lumpenproletarians, funded by the Italian bankers and capitalists, were organised and mobilised as a battering ram to smash the workers’ organisations, to burn, terrorise and murder.
A reactionary dead end
There is a portrait of the father of Italian Futurism, Tommaso Marinetti by Enrico Prampolini, painted in 1924, where Marinetti appears as a kind of snarling monster - a demagogue with red eyes, rather in the manner of Mussolini. If this is meant to be a vision of the future, then it is a nightmarish vision. Whether consciously or not, it is quite an accurate portrait of its subject. Ultimately, this art terminates in a dead end, like the political philosophy it so eagerly espoused.
Whereas before 1914 Italian Futurism had a certain raw energy and even semi-revolutionary overtones, after the coming to power of Mussolini it loses all its rebelliousness and places itself totally at the service of the state. From this time on it loses all interest as an artistic trend. The Futurists, eager to please their fascist masters, produced extravagant models of grandiose public buildings in the Futurist style, but very few were actually built. What Mussolini needed was to devote all the energies of the Italian people to the preparations for a new war. Art was not high up on his list of priorities.
The essential goal of fascism is to destroy the embryo of the new, socialist, society that has been developing in the womb of the old society. It aims to crush the labour movement, the trade unions, the workers’ parties, the co-ops, because without these organisations the working class is only raw material for exploitation. An unorganised and atomised working class would be completely at the mercy of Capital. Shorn of all its demagogy and mysticism, that is the essence of a fascist regime. Fascism represents a monstrous regression of culture and civilization and a new form of slavery. The individual is a slave of the corporate state, which is really an instrument for the defence of the rule of the banks and giant monopolies, although the fascist gangsters sometimes take measures against the class they represent.
This merging of Futurism with fascism after 1918 is so rapid that it seems to flow from the very essence of Futurism itself. But this conclusion would be too simple. In Russia, Futurism took precisely the opposite direction and placed itself at the service of the October Revolution. The great Russian Futurist poet Mayakovsky joined the Bolshevik Party before the Revolution and remained a Bolshevik until his tragic suicide in 1931.
The reason for the difference between Italian and Russian Futurism is not to be found in art (broadly speaking they shared a common artistic view) but in the different objective conditions of Russian and Italian society. Whereas the Italian bourgeoisie had already fulfilled its progressive mission in the unification of Italy, in Russia the bourgeoisie was incapable of playing any kind of progressive role. Only the coming to power of the working class by revolutionary means could clear away the accumulated rubbish of feudalism and open the way to further development through a nationalised planned economy. Therefore the most progressive elements of the Russian artists and intellectuals gravitated to the camp of revolution. The left wing predominated.
The prevailing mood among the Italian artists and intellectuals before 1914 was entirely different. They had illusions in the recovery of Italian greatness through war and imperialist expansion. The dominant trend (though not the only one) was therefore not revolutionary but chauvinist and pro-imperialist. This was considerably helped by the fact that none of these people had the remotest idea of what war was really like.
From its earliest beginnings there was always a tendency in this art to glorify violence. Marxists do not glorify war and violence. That is as senseless as to deplore the existence of war without explaining its real meaning, origins and content. We recognise the simple fact that violence can be used for revolutionary and progressive ends or reactionary ones. Few people would question the progressive nature of the war waged by the armies of the Abraham Lincoln against the slave-holding Confederacy in the Southern states of the USA, or the wars to unify Italy, and we consider the October Revolution to be the greatest act of social emancipation in history. But art that glorifies imperialism advocates a destructive and reactionary violence and has no progressive content whatsoever.
Likewise, the rejection of the existing order is an idea that can be filled with a reactionary as well as a progressive content. Marxists criticise the existing formal bourgeois democracy because of its merely formal character, behind which lurks the dictatorship of the banks and big monopolies. We advocate the replacement of formal bourgeois democracy by a genuine democracy of the working people, which is only possible through the expropriation of the banks and monopolies by the conscious action of the working class. By contrast, the fascists stand for the abolition of bourgeois democracy and its replacement by the open dictatorship of big capital. That is to say, our rejection of the existing order proceeds from mutually exclusive premises and leads to diametrically opposed conclusions.
Fascist art - like totalitarian art in general - can never be great art. In order to flourish art, literature, music and science need the fullest freedom to develop, to experiment and to make mistakes. These branches of human knowledge can never flourish when regimented, censored and subjected to petty surveillance by ignorant bureaucrats. The art of the futurists, which in its initial phase showed great promise and vitality, under the fascist regime degenerated into mere propaganda and another arm of the corporate state. It vanished with the collapse of the latter at the end of the Second World War.
Fascist art is inhuman art because it reduces man and women to the level of cogs in a machine. This is an expression of the alienated relations of people under capitalism, where men and women are always subordinated to things - whether machines, bureaucracies or money. People are systematically stripped of their human identity and become transformed into abstract entities: either “producers” or “consumers” or “taxpayers” - that is: a repository of surplus value, a factory “hand”, a stomach, a machine for bearing children, an electoral statistic, or anything else except a living human being.
The worship of the machine in Futurist art conveys this same idea: that the human being is subordinated to machines. That is a fact in big modern factories, as Charlie Chaplin showed us in his great film Modern Times, and as any Ford’s production worker will tell you today. This is a part of the phenomenon of alienation under capitalism. This alienation changes its forms constantly, but it always remains the same. The development of modern techniques does not abolish the alienation but only reproduces it on an immeasurably vaster scale than ever before. The invention of things like the laptop computer, bleepers and mobile phones places the worker at the disposal of the boss twenty four hours a day.
Fascist art is based on a glorification of this alienation. It is presented as the “future”, and as a goal we must all strive for. Thus, under the guise of rebelling against the status quo, this art shows itself to be reactionary and conservative in its essence.
The aim of socialism is to eliminate this alienation by eliminating its material basis. Socialism represents the highest stage of human development - a genuinely free society in which men and women will be free to develop their inherent potential to the fullest extent Under socialism art and all kinds of culture, freed from the fetters of the market economy, will flourish as never before, drawing nourishment from all the riches of the past while pointing the way forward to even greater conquests in the future.