The final chapter of Mikhail Lifshits’ The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx (1933)

Here is the final chapter to the Russian philosopher and aesthetician Mikhail Lifshits’ groundbreaking 1933 book The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx.  Lifshits was the closest friend of Georg Lukács in the Soviet Union.  The two met in 1929, and though Lifshits, like Lukács, eventually proved to be an incorrigible conservative and anti-modernist when it came to aesthetics, I’d say that The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx is a valuable text. Consider, for example, its final chapter:

The historical role of the capitalist mode of production is to bring into the sharpest possible focus the contradictions of social progress; at the same time it prepares the ground for the annihilation of all these inequalities and antagonisms. The very division of labour gives rise to contradictions between the three ‘elements’: ‘productive forces’, ‘social relations’, and ‘consciousness’. The social division of labour is not, however, an eternal category. As a class stratification of society it disappears, and as a professional hierarchy it withers away in the transition to communist society.

But what does this transition mean with regard to aesthetic creation? Does it not mean the destruction of all distinctions between the aesthetic and the non-aesthetic in art, just as in life the contradiction between the artist and the ordinary mortal is removed? Does not collectivism, generally speaking, suppress all individual originality and talent? Such are some of the bourgeois objections to communism. These objections Marx and Engels dealt with in criticizing Max Stirner’s The Ego and His Own. Stirner, one of the founders of anarchism, distinguished between ‘human’ work, which can be organized collectively, and ‘individual’ work, which cannot be socialized in any manner. For who can take the place of a Mozart or a Raphael?

‘Here again, as always,’ wrote Marx and Engels, ‘Sancho [i.e. Stirner] is out of luck in his choice of practical examples. He thinks that “no one can compose your music in your stead, or execute your designs for a painting. Raphaers works can be done by no other.” But Sancho should have known that not Mozart himself, but someone else, largely composed and completely finished Mozart’s Requiem; and that Raphael “executed” only a small portion of his frescoes.

‘He imagines that the so-called organizers of labour wish to organize the whole activity of every individual, whereas it is precisely they who make a distinction between directly productive labour, which must be organized, and labour which is not directly productive. As far as the latter kind of labour is concerned, they do not think, as Sancho imagines, that everybody can work in Raphael’s place, but rather that everybody who has a Raphael in him should be able to develop unhindered. Sancho imagines that Raphael created his paintings independently of the division of labour then existing in Rome. If he will compare Raphael with Leonardo da Vinci and Titian, he will see to what extent the works of art of the first were conditioned by the flourishing of Rome, then under the influence of Florence; how the works of Leonardo were conditioned by the social milieu of Florence, and later those of Titian by the altogether different development of Venice. Raphael, like any other artist, was conditioned by the technical advances made in art before him. by the organization of society and the division of labour in his locality, and finally, by the division of labour in all the countries with which his locality maintained relations. Whether an individual like Raphael is able to develop his talent depends entirely upon demand, which in turn depends upon the division of labour and the consequent educational conditions of men.

‘In proclaiming the individual character of scientific and artistic work. Stirner places himself far below the bourgeoisie. Already in our time it has been found necessary to organize this “individual” activity. Horace Vernet would not have had the time to produce one-tenth of his paintings if he had considered them works which “only this individual can accomplish”. In Paris the tremendous demand for vaudeville and novels has given rise to an organization of labour for the production of these wares, which are at least better, at any rate, than their “individual” competitors in Germany.’ Thus bourgeois society itself makes attempts to organize the higher forms of spiritual labour. ‘Needless to say, however, all these organizations based upon the modem division of labour achieve results which are still very inadequate, and represent an advance only by comparison with the short-sighted self-sufficiency existing until now.’ But we should not confuse this so-called ‘organization of labour’ with communism. In communist society those confounded questions concerning the disparity between highly gifted persons and the masses, disappear. ‘The exclusive concentration of artistic talent in certain individuals, and its consequent suppression in the broad masses of the people, is an effect of the division of labour. Even if in certain social relations everyone could become an excellent painter, that would not prevent everyone from being also an original painter, so that here too the difference between “human” work and “individual” work becomes a mere absurdity. With a communist organization of society, the artist is not confined by the local and national seclusion which ensues solely from the division of labour, nor is the individual confined to one specific art, so that he becomes exclusively a painter, a sculptor, etc.; these very names express sufficiently the narrowness of his professional development and his dependence on the division of labour. In a communist society, there are no painters, but at most men who, among other things, so paint.’

Collectivism, far from suppressing personal originality, in reality provides- the only solid ground for an all-sided development of personality. Marx and Engels stated this emphatically in The German Ideology. They knew full well that a new cycle of artistic progress can begin only with the victory of the proletariat, the abolition of private property, the spread of communist relations. Only then can all the forces now exhausted by capitalist oppression be liberated. ‘The destruction of private property is the complete assimilation of all human feelings and characteristics.’ The new society, wrote Marx, in criticism of ‘crude’, leveling communism. does not stand for the ‘abstract negation of all education and civilization’. It does not propose ‘to suppress talent by force’. Quite the contrary, ‘in communist society — the only society in which the original and free development of individuals is no mere phrase — this development is contingent precisely upon the very association of individuals, an association based partly on economic premises, partly upon the necessary solidarity of the free development of all, and finally upon the universal activity of individuals in accordance with the available productive forces. Thus the question here concerns individuals on a definite historical level of development, and not any random individuals…Naturally the consciousness of these individuals with respect to their mutual relations is likewise altogether different, and as remote from the “principle of love” or “dévouement” as from egoism.’

Communist society removes not only the abstract contradiction between ‘work and pleasure’ but also the very real contradiction between feeling and reason, between ‘the play of bodily and mental powers’ and ‘the conscious will’. Together with the abolition of classes and the gradual disappearance of the contradiction between physical and spiritual labour, comes that all-sided development of the whole individual which the ‘greatest social thinkers hitherto could only dream about.’ Only communist society, in which ‘the associated producers regulate their interchange with nature rationally, bring it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by some blind power’, can establish the material basis for ‘the development of human power which is its own end, the true realm of freedom’. ‘…The shortening of the working day is its fundamental premise.’

According to Marx’s doctrine, therefore, communism creates conditions for the growth of culture and art compared to which the limited opportunities that the slaves’ democracy offers to a privileged few must necessarily seem meagre. Art is dead! LONG LIVE ART! — this is the slogan of Marx’s aesthetics.

You can download the entire book here:

Mikhail Lifshits — The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx

One thought on “The final chapter of Mikhail Lifshits’ The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx (1933)

  1. This was written in 1933. The only way to know if there was any truth to this is to talk to older people who have lived under both communism and capitalism and see what their opinion is on the state of art in society during both those eras. It would be interesting to see.

    I know a guy who immigrated to America from Russia sometime after the fall of the communist system and he says that everything in America is so complicated. He says that there are so many bills to pay and everything. He mentioned that under communism everything was taken care of by a central authority so you weren’t paying bills to tons of different corporations. He said it was much simpler and far less stressful.

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