World War I: The SPD left’s dirty secret

Benjamin Lewis
Weekly Worker 1016
June 26, 2014

The following article by Ben Lewis provides a fairly neat overview of “left” renegacy within the SPD in the run-up to, and aftermath of, Germany’s declaration of war on August 4, 1914. He challenges some of the predominant narratives of this history, especially those which trace the origins of German Social Democracy’s capitulation to the vulgar Marxism of the SPD center led by Karl Kautsky. In this respect, Lewis’ intervention may be seen as motivated by the rehabilitation of Kautsky and Kautskyism by the Canadian academic Lars Lih and the Communist Party of Great Britain. Some of the more orthodox Trotskyist sects, such as the Spartacists, have polemicized against the so-called “neo-Kautskyites” as merely recycling the Second International. For a more balanced article that is still critical of Lih and the CPGB, please see Chris Cutrone’s article on “1914 in the History of Marxism.”

Nevertheless, Lewis et al.‘s rigor in reconstructing the sequence of events and the personalities involved is to be welcomed. While Kautsky himself did not vote for war credits, as a mere consultant to the SPD delegation (he recommended abstention in this matter), he did still view the war as “German ‘self-defense’ against the Russian bear,” as Lewis put it. Only later did he and others come out in opposition to the war.

As long as there is imperialism, there will be “social”-imperialism, with sections of the “left” seeking to apologize for, downplay, or cheerlead for the actions of its own state. This article — based on continuing research and translation work with Mike Macnair 1 — will briefly outline the formation of a rather peculiar “social-imperialist” outfit within German social democracy around the publication, Die Glocke (The Bell), founded in 1915. This article draws largely on Robert Sigel’s study, Die Lensch-Cunow-Haenisch-Gruppe: eine Studie zum rechten Flügel der SPD im Ersten Weltkrieg (Berlin 1976), as well as my translation work.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_147-0978,_Reichstag,_Plenarsitzungssaal seance-reichstag-4-aout-1914

The leadership of the Social Democratic Party, of course, fell behind the kaiser’s war effort, as symbolized by the SPD parliamentary deputies voting for war credits on August 4 1914. The peculiarity of Die Glocke, however, lies in the fact that it was made up of figures who before 1914 had overwhelmingly been on the hard, anti-imperialist left of the party. Regularly working alongside several anti-imperialist icons of the workers’ movement — not least Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring, and Karl Liebknecht — lefts like Parvus (Israel Lazarevich Gelfhand, 1867-1924), Konrad Haenisch (1876-1925), Heinrich Cunow (1862-1936) and Paul Lensch (1873-1926) rapidly transformed themselves into some of the most vociferous champions of a German victory.

The fact that a grouping of this nature emerged poses various theoretical and historical questions regarding both our conceptions of anti-imperialist strategy and the history of social democracy. Additionally, many of the theoretical traps fallen into by the group concerning political democracy, the nature of war-driven nationalisations and the need to choose a side at all costs in imperialist conflicts remain a persistent problem of many sections of the left to this day.

August 4634_Die_Sozialdemokratie_und_der_Krieg copy

The dominant account is that the SPD’s ignominious capitulation to German imperialism on August 4, 1914 can largely be traced back to the Marxist center around Karl Kautsky and the non-dialectical, evolutionist and fatalist outlook for which he and his political allies were responsible. By contrast, so the story goes, the consistent struggle of Lenin and the Bolsheviks against the imperialist war either reflected the fact that they were much closer to the left of the SPD (like Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek, and others) or that with the outbreak of war the scales suddenly fell from the eyes of Lenin and co, who abruptly broke with the center’s perspectives to chart new political territory.

In light of recent research, it is clear that this account is radically false, not only when it comes to Lenin,2 but because it overlooks the fact that some of the most important figures of the pre-1914 German left came out in support of the war and German victory — and did so more aggressively than the pro-war majority of the party.

Almost all historians agree that August 4 1914 was a milestone in the history of European socialism. But was the vote, and the consequent policy of Burgfrieden (social peace), a break with or a continuation of earlier perspectives? Was it a necessary outcome of the party’s development before 1914 — in particular its approval of the government’s Military Tax Bill to enlarge the German army (1913), on the basis that this bill introduced progressive property taxation?3

In his German Social Democracy 1905-1917, Carl E Schorske argues that “the vote for the war credits on August 4, 1914 is but the logical end of a clear line of development.”4 Susann Miller,5 by contrast, accepts that reformism had come to dominate the party, but states: “the question is merely whether a reformist policy necessarily had to the lead to the decision of August 3” (when the majority of the party’s Reichstag fraction agreed on the action to be taken the following day). Could another decision have been possible? For Georges Haupt, writing in 1970, “the fiasco of 1914…still always dominates judgements and views [in relation to the Second International]. One had emphasized the significance of this “capital offense,” yet neglected a clarification of the process that led to it, thereby arriving at the false conventional posing of the question: is [August 4] based on the lack of theoretical reflection or on the thoughtless repetition of the lessons of a Marxism that had been raised to…a dogma and isolated from practice?”6

The group around Die Glocke sheds some new light on the question of how, in the words of the Austro-Marxist Friedrich Adler, “it could come to pass that this revolutionary-socialist approach, something that was stressed over and again, burst like a bubble at the moment the war broke out.”7

Parvus63297027_parvus1 (2)

Parvus is a somewhat enigmatic figure, chiefly famous on the left for his influence on Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Yet there is nothing mysterious about his theoretical commitment to the struggle against imperialism and war before 1914. He wrote a range of different publications on the world market and the main states’ colonial division of the world. His classic was Colonial Policy and the Breakdown, published in 1907 in the wake of the SPD’s unexpected defeat at the hands of a pro-colonialist political bloc in the so-called “Hottentot elections.”8 Luxemburg, Kautsky, and others drew on his theoretical output for their polemics on questions of war and peace. But on August 4 1914 Parvus advocated a German victory, albeit from abroad, and, given his importance, it is quite likely that he provided the inspiration for others to rethink their anti-war politics.

Parvus gave an interview to the Istanbul daily, Tasvir-i Efkar, which was published on August 4 1914 — not only the day of the SPD Reichstag fraction’s vote, but of the British declaration of war. It came three days after the German declaration of war on Russia, and a week after the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia. Parvus was thus very quick to make up his mind in stating his opinion on what the war means for Turkey: “The hostilities in Europe laid bare all matters of conflict. Those nations who fail to get their demands will be the prey of others. The time for talk and reasoning has passed. Now action is needed! You should heed this well.” Parvus could not be more clear: now the war had started, it was impossible to stand aside from it. Before leaving Istanbul, he also wrote for Türk Yurdu two pamphlets with the same theme: Umumî Harb Neticelerinden: Almanya Galip Gelirse (The Outcome of the General War if Germany Wins), and Umumî Harb Neticelerinden: İngiltere Galip Gelirse (The outcome of the general war if England wins). Continue reading

Дейнека - Графика - 2009

Football in the first decades of the Soviet Union

Young people, particularly, need the joy and force of life. Healthy sport, swimming, racing, walking, bodily exercises of every kind, and many-sided intellectual interests. Learning, studying, inquiry, as far as possible in common. That will give young people more than eternal theories and discussions about sexual problems and the so-called ‘living to the full’. Healthy bodies, healthy minds! Neither monk nor Don Juan, nor the intermediate attitude of the German philistines. You know, young comrade…?

— Vladimir Lenin, 1919 Continue reading

Victory over the sun Lissitzky

Victory over the sun (1913)

  • Two Futurist Strongmen
  • Nero and Caligula
  • A Time Traveller
  • A Malevolent
  • A Willbeite Machine Gun
  • A Fightpicker
  • Belligerent Soldiers
  • Sportsmen
  • Chorus
  • Pallbearers
  • A Telephone Talker
  • Eight Sun Carriers
  • The Motley Eye
  • The New
  • The Cowardly
  • A Reader
  • A Fat Man
  • An Old-timer
  • An Attentive Worker
  • A Young Man
  • An Aviator

Aleksei Kruchenykh (1886-1968) was a noted poet of the Russian Silver Age of literature. A radical even within the Russian Futurist movement, his best known works are the poem “Dyr bul shstyl” and the opera Victory over the Sun, with sets by Kazimir Malevich and music by Mikhail Matiushin. He was co-signatory, with Vladimir Mayakovsky, David Burliuk, and Velimir Khlebnikov, of “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste.” He is considered the father of zaum, or transrational writing.




Scene one

White with black: walls white, floor black.

(TWO FUTURIST STRONGMEN rip the curtain.)


All’s well that begins well!
And ends?


There will be no end!
We astound the universe


We arm the world [1] against ourselves
Organize the slaughter of scarecrows
How much blood
How many sabers
And bodies for cannons!
We inundate the mountains!

(They sing.)

Fat beauties
We’ve locked up in a house
Let the drunkards there
A variety walk start naked
We have no songs
Recompense of sighs
That beguile the slime
Of rotten naiads!

(FIRST STRONGMAN slowly exits.)


Sun you bore the passions
And scorched them with flaming beam
We’ll yank a dusty coverlet over you
Lock you up in a concrete house!

(NERO and CALIGULA appear in one person: he has only one left arm, raised and bent at right angles.)

N. AND C. (menacingly)

K’youllen sewern der*
Travelled light
Past Thursday
Fry rip what I left half-baked.

Continue reading

Varvara Stepanova, workers' sports clothes1

Response to Peter Frase on identity politics

has published a short reflection by Peter Frase on identity politics, with the humorous title
“Stay Classy.” Unfortunately, the title is probably the best thing about it. The rest of it is a bit slapdash, haphazardly whipped together. Especially the bit on “racecraft,” which seems both tacked on and untrue to  Barbara and Karen Fields’ argument in their book of the same name. Generally I think Frase is the brains of the bunch over at Jacobin, and still recommend his “Four Futures” essay to anyone interested in the journal. But this piece — as well as his earlier article on the 2011 protests in Wisconsin, “An Imagined Community,” in which he claimed “all politics are identity politics” — I find far weaker.

Anyway, I read this article when it appeared on  Frase’s blog. Here’s what I wrote there, with a few slight alterations:

The emphasis on “identity” is misleading.

Marx stressed the significance of the proletariat as the “universal class” of bourgeois society because of its decisive position within the capitalist mode of production. Not because workers are the most downtrodden or marginalized members of society, but because they are uniquely placed to overturn the present social order. Immiseration notwithstanding, lumpenproletarians (the so-called “lazy lazzaroni” of  the “classes dangereuses“), the unemployable reserve army of labor, and those still involved in peasant labor have it far worse than those who manage to find waged or salaried jobs under capitalism. So if oppression doesn’t index political potential, what does? What makes the working class so special?


Once again, it’s not that the working class is inherently radical or progressive. History has shown again and again that workers are susceptible to the influence of reactionary ideologies, and quite often act in ways that seem to go against their best interest. Proletarian parties and political movements have repeatedly erred in assuming that the laboring masses would eventually come around to socialism, only to see their expectations dashed at the final moment. All the same, the proletariat remains the sole hope that capitalism might someday be overcome. If workers aren’t natural-born revolutionaries, though — if they don’t automatically organize around socialist principles — what could possibly justify this continued belief?

Though it risks sounding redundant, we would do well to remind ourselves that the fundamental structuring principle of the capitalist social formation is capital. Capital is a social relationship in which a given magnitude of value, itself comprised of finished products embodying dead labor, must augment itself through the process of production, by coming into contact with living labor that valorizes it further. It is thus necessarily mediated at every level by wage-labor, on which its fructification relies. For this reason, it is dependent on a class of laborers — a social group determined by its relation to the means of production. Continue reading


Pour Hegel: Marx’s lifelong debt to Hegelian dialectics


By now it should be obvious to anyone who has looked at Karl Marx’s entire corpus, both published and unpublished works, that the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was an abiding influence on his thought. Marx certainly had no patience for those “the ill-humored, arrogant, and mediocre epigones” who treated Hegel a “dead dog,” much in the same way that the Leibnizian philosopher Moses Mendelssohn treated Spinoza like a “dead dog.” This is amply evident both in the 1873 postface to his masterpiece, Capital, as well as in private letters written to friends and colleagues between 1866 and 1870.

In this post, I will adduce clearly that Marx still held Hegel in high regard up to and beyond the publication of his “mature” works (if one still insists, following Althusser and Colletti, upon drawing a rigid distinction between the Young Marx and Old Marx). Even further, I will show that Marx understood his own dialectical method as a critical application or “inversion” of Hegel’s. As Marx saw it, the principal difference between his own theoretical framework and that of Hegel consisted in their respective points of departure. Hegel was an idealist, after all, and started with the Idea. Marx, on the other hand, started with the real world. “With [Hegel],” Marx wrote, “[the dialectic] is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.”

First, however, a couple of caveats:

  1. None of this should be taken to mean that Marx was still wasting his time with philosophy as he sat down to write Capital. He and Engels had settled that score back in the 1840s, with a number of searing polemics against the Young Hegelians. Philosophy was, for all intents and purposes, finished by then. Hegel had completed it, and all that was left to do was to realize what philosophy had merely declared, ideologically, at the level of the Idea. Any attempt to travel back down that road was bound to lead to a dead end. Engels himself reaffirmed in 1886 that “with Hegel philosophy comes to an end.”
    Joseph Dietzgen probably came closest to providing a philosophical account of Marx’s theory; Marx and Engels affectionately called him “the philosopher of socialism.” Generally speaking, however, the notion of founding a Marxist “philosophy” is absurd — something Althusser failed to recognize. Which isn’t to say that it’s not useful to retrace the steps by which Marx and Engels took their leave of philosophy. Karl Korsch’s outstanding essay “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923), makes the strongest case for this exercise.
  2. My aim here is hardly to “re-mystify” Marx’s thought, or to turn him into some harmless figure whose books can be found in the philosophy section of Barnes and Noble. There’s doubtless cruel irony in the fact that Marx was overwhelmingly voted the “greatest philosopher” of all time in a 2005 BBC poll. He would doubtless have been appalled by the verdict, since he understood his vocation to be non-philosophical. Instead, my intention is to elucidate Marx’s rationalization and demystification of Hegel’s dialectic, placing it on terra firma rather than high up in the clouds.

Plenty of clues exist which verify Marx’s favorable opinion of Hegel, not just in the 1873 postface itself (though here also) but in letters Marx sent to colleagues around the same time, corroborating his annoyance with “ill-humored” anti-Hegelian boors. A proper timeline will help clear things up a great deal.

So before we take a look at his letters, let’s glance at the relevant passage from the postface again:

My dialectical method is, in its foundations, not only different from the Hegelian, but exactly opposite to it. For Hegel, the process of thinking, which he even transforms into an independent subject, under the name of “the Idea,” is the creator of the real world, and the real world is only the external appearance of the idea. With me the reverse is true: the ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought.

I criticized the mystificatory side of the Hegelian dialectic nearly thirty years ago, at a time when it was still the fashion. But just when I was working at the first volume of Capital, the ill-humored, arrogant, and mediocre epigones who now talk large in educated German circles began to take pleasure in treating Hegel in the same way as the good Moses Mendelssohn treated Spinoza in Lessing’s time, namely as a “dead dog.” I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker, and even, here and there in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the mode of expression peculiar to him. The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell. (Capital, pgs. 102-103)

Clearly Marx credits Hegel as being “the first to present [the dialectic’s] general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner,” despite the mystifications it suffers at his hands. This does not render Marx’s own theoretical efforts superfluous: his task is precisely to demystify it and place it back on its feet. Its “general forms of motion” are the same, as readers from Lenin to Postone have pointed out, but its trajectory is precisely the reverse (“exactly opposite”). He places Hegel’s dialectic on solid foundations. After all, Marx says outright that “[his] dialectical method” is exactly opposite to Hegel’s “in its foundations.”

But wait, you might ask: Who were these “ill-humored, arrogant, and mediocre epigones who now talk large in educated German circles,” anyway? And when was it that Marx was provoked by their unlettered anti-Hegelianism to openly avow himself the pupil of that “great thinker” (Hegel)? Marx doesn’t provide any examples of who he’s talking about in the 1873 postface, nor does he indicate when he took such umbrage at their treatment of Hegel like a dead dog. Continue reading

Soviet public cafeterias and kitchen-factories1

Assorted Soviet propaganda posters, 1918-1939

Here’s an assortment of early Soviet propaganda posters from the revolutionary period up to the eve of the Second World War. I found a cache of exceptionally high quality, high resolution scans. Obviously my posting of them does not constitute an endorsement of the political views they express, especially in its more monumental Stalinist overtones (being more sympathetic to Trotsky and the Left Opposition myself).

Red Wedge beats the White Circle, 1919 El Lissitzky Aleksandr Rodchenko, poster for books with Lilia Brik, 1924 Aleksandr Rodchenko, Dobrolet poster 1923 Battleship Potemkin movie poster 1925 Soviet tramcar service advertisement, 1920s.

ksssrpost_0031 ksssrpost_0009 ksssrpost_0032 ksssrpost_0056 ksssrpost_0055.



On the first socialist tragedy

Andrei Platonov

It is essential not to thrust oneself forward and not to get drunk on life; our time is both better and more serious than blissful delight. Everyone who gets drunk is sure to be caught, sure to perish like a little mouse that messes with a mousetrap in order to “get drunk” on the fat on the bait. All around us lies fat, but every piece of this fat is bait. It is necessary to stand in the ranks of the ordinary people doing patient socialist work — that is all we can do.

The arrangement of nature corresponds to this mood and consciousness. Nature is not great and is not abundant. Or her design is so rigid that she has never yet yielded her greatness and her abundance to anyone. This is a good thing; otherwise — in historical time — we would long ago have looted and squandered all nature; we would have eaten our way right through her and got drunk on her right to her very bones. There would always have been appetite enough. Had the physical world been without what is, admittedly, its most fundamental law — the law of the dialectic — it would have taken people only a few centuries to destroy the world completely. More than that, in the absence of this law, nature would have annihilated itself to smithereens even without any people. The dialectic is probably an expression of miserliness, of the almost insuperable rigidity of nature’s construction — and it is only thanks to all this that humanity’s historical development has been possible. Otherwise everything would long ago have come to an end on this earth — like a game played by a child with sweets that melt in his hands before he has even had time to eat them.

What is the truth to be seen in the historical picture of our own time?

It goes without saying that this picture is tragic — if only because true historical work is being carried out not on the whole of the earth but only on a small, and greatly overburdened, part of the earth.

Truth — in my opinion — lies in the fact that “technology decides everything.” It is indeed technology that constitutes the theme of our contemporary historical tragedy — if technology is understood to mean not only the entire complex of man-made production tools but also the social organization that is based on the technology of production, and if ideology too is included in this understanding. Ideology, incidentally, is located not in the superstructure, not on some “height,” but somewhere within, in the heart of society’s sense of itself. To be more precise, unless in our concept of technology we also include the technician himself — the human being — our understanding of the question will remain obtuse and leaden.

The relationship between technology and nature is tragic. Technology’s aim is “Give me a fulcrum and I shall overturn the world.” But nature’s construction is such that she does not like being outmaneuvered. With the right moment of force it is possible to overturn the world, but so much will be lost in the journey and in the travel time of the lever that in practical terms the victory will be useless. This is an elementary example of the dialectic. Let us look now at a fact from our own time: the splitting of the atomic nucleus. It is the same thing. The hour will come when we expend n quantity of energy on the destruction of an atom and in return receive n + 1 — and we will be ever so pleased with this meager increase, because this absolute gain will have been obtained by virtue of something like an artificially induced change to nature’s most fundamental principle: the dialectic itself. Nature stays aloof, she keeps us at bay; a quid pro quo — or even a trade with a mark-up in her own favor — is the only way she can work. Technology, however, strains to achieve the opposite. It is through the dialectic that the external world is defended against us. And so, however paradoxical this may seem: nature’s dialectic is both humanity’s enemy and its instructor. The dialectic of nature constitutes the very greatest resistance to technology; the aim and function of technology is to deny, or at least mitigate, the dialectic. Up until now its success in this has been modest, which is why the world cannot yet be kind and good for us.

And at the same time, the dialectic is our only instructor and our only means of defense against the premature and senseless destruction involved in childish delight. Just as the dialectic is itself the power that has created all our technology.

In sociology, in love, in the depth of a human being, the law of the dialectic functions no less immutably. A man with a ten-year-old son left the boy with the boy’s mother — and married a young beauty. The boy began to long for his father and patiently, clumsily hanged himself. A gram of delight on one end of the lever is balanced by a ton of graveyard earth on the other. The father took the rope from the boy’s neck and soon followed him into the grave. What he wanted was to get drunk on the innocent beauty; he wanted to bear love not as a duty, not as an obligation with a single wife, but as pleasure. Don’t get drunk — or it will be the end of you.

Some naïve people may retort that the contemporary crisis of production overturns this point of view. It does not overturn anything. Imagine the extremely complex technical equipment of the society of contemporary imperialism and fascism, the grinding exhaustion and destruction of the people of these societies — and it will become only too clear at what price this increase in the forces of production has been achieved. Self-destruction in fascism, war between states — these are the losses entailed by increased production, these are nature’s revenge for it. The tragic knot is cut — but without being resolved. What results cannot — in the classical sense of the word — even be called tragedy. Without the USSR, the world would be certain to destroy itself in the course of no more than a century.

The tragedy of man, armed with machine and heart, and with the dialectic of nature, must in our country be resolved by way of socialism. But it must be understood that this task is an extremely serious one. Ancient life on the “surface” of nature was able to obtain what was essential to it from the waste products and excretions of elemental forces and substances. But we mess about deep inside the world, and in return the world crushes us with an equivalent strength.

Translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth
Chandler, Jonathan Platt, and Olga Meerson

Continue reading


The politics of preservation: Shukhov radio tower in Moscow, 1920-1922

Originally published by Metropolis
magazine back in March 2014.

Moscow’s Shukhov radio tower, an iconic work of early Soviet constructivism, has lately become a subject of intense debate within Russia, involving several government ministries and independent civil society organizations. Erected between 1920 and 1922, the structure today faces either disassembly or potential collapse, resulting from lack of proper upkeep and decades of neglect. Once a symbol of revolutionary optimism and progress, Vladimir Shukhov’s masterpiece of light engineering now takes on an aspect of fragility. Its steel frame stands as a material reminder of the extraordinary experiment once underway in that part of the world, another delicate relic of a bygone age.

According to Russia’s Federal Ministry of Communications and Mass Media, the aging tower has fallen into such irrevocable disrepair that the only hope for salvaging it is to dismantle it immediately so that the original pieces can be put back together at a future date. “The only possible solution to the problem is a two-stage reconstruction and renovation of the station, which stipulates…its dismemberment for the conservation and preservation of elements for later restoration,” an unnamed spokesperson told The Moscow Times last month. Failing this, ministry officials warn, the radio tower will sooner or later succumb to decay, the latticework no longer able to resist the force of gravity pulling it down to earth. In their view, it must be removed at least for the time being. Some have even raised the possibility of permanent relocation to another, yet-to-be-determined site, a still more controversial prospect.

rodchenko-shukhov-transmission-tower-1919Башня радио-станции %22Большой Коминтерн%22 1927

Not everyone agrees with this dire forecast, however. Opponents of this proposal — which include the Russian Ministry of Culture as well as the architect’s great-grandson, also named Vladimir Shukhov — acknowledge the seriousness of the situation, but suggest a method of restoration that would leave the building intact for the duration. With careful precision, they contend, it would be possible to reinforce points of structural weakness without tearing the tower down. Moreover, there is some question as to the legality of such a motion, were it to take place, especially given the Shukhov tower’s protected status as a cultural monument. The Calvert Journal reports the sense of dismay felt by many enthusiasts of the Soviet avant-garde upon learning of the government’s flagrant disregard for its own prior legislation. Shukhov’s living descendent remarked disparagingly that “[t]he government’s actions just show the law isn’t important in Russia.” Continue reading


Art, a modern phenomenon: An interview with Larry Shiner

Chris Mansour
Platypus Review 67
June 1, 2014

On March 18, 2014, Chris Mansour, a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society in New York, interviewed Larry Shiner, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, History, and Visual Arts at The University of Illinois, Springfield and author of The Invention of Art: A Cultural History (2001), in which he argues that the category of art is a modern invention. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

To be clear, I’m not in Platypus anymore. Nevertheless, this is a good interview. It covers a number of topics relevant to this blog. Also, for anyone who’s interested, the above painting is Henri Fantin-Latour’s Studio at Les Batignolles.

Chris Mansour:
 You first wrote The Invention of Art in 2001, nearly 15 years ago. Why did you feel the need to write a book about the historical development of the category of “art” at this time?

Larry Shiner: In the field of philosophical aesthetics, or the philosophy of art, the focus of attention in the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s was on the issue of how to define art. A famous essay by Morris Weitz argued that art cannot be defined, and that the most we can do to understand art is to resort to what Wittgenstein called “family resemblances.” This position was challenged in another influential essay by Maurice Mandelbaum, who said that we might not be able to define art in terms of any visual or perceptual properties, but we might be able to define it in terms of its relational properties, in terms of art’s social context. This set up a new pursuit for the definition of art, and it was considered a very important question during this time.

Among these attempts to generate a definition of the essence of art, one of the most influential writers was Arthur Danto, who said that the historical development of the concept of art needs to be taken into consideration if we are to define it at all. He believed that art’s essence has been revealed progressively, culminating in the twentieth century. I was skeptical of finding the essence of (fine) art as such. From my perspective, art does not have an ahistorical essence but is a multivalent term referring to a set of ideas and practices that function differently in society throughout time. Thus, The Invention of Art was an attempt to construct a sort of genealogy of art and to flesh out what it means when we consider art as an historically developing concept.

The historical transformations during the long eighteenth century, from roughly 1680 to 1830, culminated in the emergence of the cultural complex that we now call “art” today, that is, a semi-autonomous sphere of practices within society. This was a shared but unevenly developed trajectory of several art forms. Yet, despite the differences in the pace of the transformations of the various disciplines and mediums, these transformations were part of a total social process. Philosophy students as well as art history students need to know this history of the concept of art and recognize that (fine) art, as we now understand it, is the product of modern society and is barely 200 years old. Many art history books never bother to define what they mean by art, although there is a definition implied in what they exclude and what they cover. I consider my book to be somewhat of a companion volume for students and artists, helping them to situate art historically and to understand this historical process philosophically.

CM: You say art is barely 200 years old and is specifically a modern phenomenon. The early 1800s was a rapidly maturing period for global bourgeois society and culminated in the Industrial Revolution. What makes the practice of art in bourgeois society different from prior, art-like practices? Also, why is this historical distinction so significant in understanding art qua art?

LS: There is great importance, for me, in the dialectic of continuity and discontinuity in history. Confusion arises from the fact that, since the late nineteenth century, the historically specific phrase “fine art” — as distinct from art practices before this time — has dropped the “fine” out of the phrase and we now simply term it “art.” However, the meaning of the term “art” is incredibly ambiguous.

One meaning descends from what I call the “older, broader” meaning of art, from ars in Latin and techne (τέχνη) in Greek. This use suggests any human craft or performance that is done with some skill or grace; in one sense, everything humans do is an art. Here, there is a complete continuity from the caves of Lascaux to the present. It is not only the bison depicted on the cave walls that are art, but also the stone tools used to create them. Art as techne or ars lacks the precision of what we define as art today, which is roughly a semi-autonomous set of social practices, often geared toward aesthetic contemplation.


The big change in art’s definition came when all those human arts got split up into various kinds: the first split was the opposition between the liberal arts and what the ancients called the “servile arts” (which was later replaced by the “mechanical arts”). That polarity was very different from the modern one contrasting the “fine arts” to the “applied arts,” “commercial arts,” or “craft arts.” The old schema of the liberal arts included what we call sciences and mathematics as well as the humanities. Part of what distinguishes the “fine arts” as a category of classification is that things like painting, poetry, architecture, music, and theater were pulled out of the old liberal arts and made into a separate category. In fact, things like painting and sculpture, because they involved physical labor, were not even considered part of the liberal arts until Renaissance painters, sculptors, and critics argued that these disciplines should be included among them. Up until the eighteenth century, for example, the producers of paintings and sculptures and the composers of symphonies were what I call “artisan-artists,” since these two terms, “artisan” and “artist,” were used interchangeably in English and many other languages. The old notion of the artisan combined genius and rule, inspiration and skill, creation and imitation, freedom and service. What began to happen in the eighteenth century is that these two notions were pulled apart and, by the end of the century, each term was defined as the opposite of the other term. It took decades for the new ideas of “Fine Art” and for the new ideals of the “Artist,” in contrast to the mere “artisan,” to become generally accepted.

By the time they did become generally accepted, the famous seventeenth-century “rise of science” had already split apart the liberal arts. At this time, the humanities, sciences, and fine arts began to emerge as distinct fields. A key point of my book is to show how the emergence of the category of fine arts, and its accompanying ideals of the artist and the aesthetic, occurred in conjunction with a new set of practices, institutions, and behaviors.

Paul Oskar Kristeller’s essays on the development of the classification systems of art were very influential for my book; I share his vision that the category of (fine) arts fully emerged only in the eighteenth century. Kristeller ended his essays with Kant and Schiller’s writings on the nature of the aesthetic. It seemed to me that the way we use the term art in the singular, as a kind of semi-autonomous subdivision of culture in the modern world, is still deeply influenced by the Romantics and the German Idealist philosophers. When I reread the literature, it struck me that the real culmination of the long process of constructing the social system of the fine arts occurred around 1830. This is why I speak of the long eighteenth century: You can see the beginnings of the fine art category and its institutions as early as the 1680s. My long eighteenth century encompasses the epoch spanning from the 1680s to the 1830s. By the 1830s, the fine arts system as we know it today was almost fully developed.

CM: How did the broader socio-political, institutional, and practical changes that happened in bourgeois society in the eighteenth century transform the liberal arts and fine arts system? What is the specialized fine arts system’s relationship to large societal transformations, and how was this relationship expressed?

LS: In very broad strokes, the historical transformation entailed the shift from an aristocratically organized society toward a society dominated by the bourgeoisie. The development of the market economy played an important role in the emergence of the categories of fine art and the artist. On the production side, the old order was dominated by the patronage-commission system. As an artist, you were typically either employed full-time by a lord or bishop, as were many of the great figures of the Renaissance and the seventeenth century, or you received commissions as an owner or member of an independent workshop with apprentices. Continue reading


László Moholy-Nagy, painting and photography

The following two texts focus on the Hungarian avant-garde painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy. “Moholy-Nagy,” written by his countryman Ernő Kállai, principally concerns Moholy-Nagy’s early work in painting. As such, it describes their geometricism and abstraction, as well as their amenability to architecture. He’d been converted to constructivism, of course, by El Lissitzky during his travels to the West. Lissitzky managed to convince a number of members of the De Stijl group in Holland to adopt these principles as well, and stopped by later at the Bauhaus to reconnect with some of his former students and collaborators.

“Production-Reproduction,” the second article reproduced here, was written by Moholy-Nagy himself. It proved to be of immense importance for subsequent theories of photography as a form of art, and by extension art in general. Walter Benjamin read it and was influenced by it, as was his colleague (and sometimes plagiarist) Siegfried Kracauer. Also, if anyone’s interested, you can download the 1968 translation of Moholy-Nagy’s book Painting, Photography, Film (1925), part of the Bauhausbücher series.



Péter Mátyás [Ernő
Kállai] Ma vol. 9
September 15, 1921

In the extremes of its adventures, [László] Moholy-Nagy’s art reaches out on the borders of Cubism and Dadaism, and by organically uniting these opposite poles, he heralds the world of contemporary man who has managed to subjugate the machines.

Speaking purely in terms of form, he constructs either concentric or eccentric systems of forms or tries to interlink these opposing entities.

In the case of those works, in the monumentality of the few masses which are distanced so as to suggest inevitability, a strong will and elementary laws manifest themselves. In his use of the landscape motifs of the railway tracks, for example by the projection of the tremendous diagonal of a factory chimney leaning left, the leaning, resting forces, forces pressing tensed into vertical, are gathered into a compact architecture of form. Details of bridges and architectural structures, having lost all their utilitarian references and practical functions, freely elevate themselves into a self-willed order, an existence meaningful in itself. In another picture, based on a white horizontal stripe, with an almost organic vitality, the form swings and leaps into a slender vertical. This is all discipline of form, self-awareness, and pride, a totally new and individual manifestation of the modern constructive style, which is devoid of the sometimes dangerously short-changing form and color-splitting and space-complicating of the more differentiated Western Cubism. Colors develop themselves into form through their strong contrasts, through their brutal clashing with each other; the articulations of the form are of the most simple kind possible, and that space, which was left empty for a tabula rasa, constitutes a single, wide abstract wall behind the form, on which the artist’s credo concerning the future-shaping power of man’s civilizing activity is written up with lapidary laconicism.

However, Moholy-Nagy is not only a monumental lord and master-builder of contemporary life and of form, but with a naive admiration of the eternal-primitive child-barbarian, and with his raving joy too, he is also an ecstatic admirer of this life. In other people’s hands Dadaism serves as a murderous weapon of moral and social criticism. The exultation over a million possibilities of forms and motion which only the metropolis and modern technology can create, the sudden discovery of a new world and the dancing laughing youth of a vision totally open to the universe: all these are there in Moholy-Nagy’s art.

Semaphores of joys, forms and colors are standing on all points of space.

Freshly felt surprises and perspectives of gravitational pulls of manifold directions, of the many and of the many kinds, spring up from everywhere. Total geometrical abstractions as well as pieces, numbers, letters and realistically represented objects or fragments of objects picked from the primary reality proliferate in Moholy-Nagy’s eccentrical pictures.

This is a cosmic harmony, nonetheless it has not been kindled by a Futurist Romanticism and, still yet, these works, despite of all their divergences, form, after all, a perfectly intelligible system of absolutely interdependent units.

Anarchy is getting perceptibly arranged into a system of unified law. Although still not with the centralism of the self-containing architectonic structures, the pieces are coalescing into cohesive units, replacing the exploded conglomerate forms. Structures, still open, but set into motion from sharper defined and closer interrelated centers, emerge. Here, the mechanism of the modern machine and its kinetic system has been converted into art through the process of a fruitful coalescence of centrical and eccentrical pictorial factors with the creative principles connecting with Dadaism and Cubism.

Q 1 Suprematistic László Moholy-Nagy. (American, born Hungary. 1895-1946). Q 1 Suprematistic. 1923. Oil on canvas, 37 1:2 x 37 1:2%22 Space Modulator L3 László Moholy-Nagy. (American, born Hungary. 1895-1946). Space Modulator L3. 1936. Oil on perforated zinc and composition board, with glass-headed pins, 17 1:4 x 19 1:8%22

This fusion without inner contradictions of the style forming and negating trends of modern art gives Moholy-Nagy a chance to elevate his paintings on the terms of their own forms the level of vision. His art, after all, maintains a close link with its own well-defined objective territory. But in his relatedness to reality he is not satisfied with pointing out that meaning which is already present, although more or less hidden, in our senseless, chaotic age.

Just as the anarchistic manifestations of Moholy-Nagy’s art mean neither the rejection nor the approval of the all-destroying selfish instinct of the bourgeois free enterprise. Over problematical features of the present, Moholy-Nagy proclaims law and liberty which throw light on the perspectives of the infinite future.

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