Schapiro contra Heidegger: The controversy over a painting by Van Gogh

Below is republished the Latvian-Jewish art historian Meyer Schapiro’s epic troll of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, which originally appeared in 1968. He takes aim at the primary example used by Heidegger in his essay on “The Origin of the Work of Art”: a painting of a pair of shoes by the artist Vincent van Gogh. Schapiro contends that the artwork Heidegger examines, which is supposed to disclose an ageless truth about the relation of being to world, represents something entirely different from what he claims. Painstakingly reconstructing the exhibition Heidegger attended where he first saw the Van Gogh painting (gleaned from a letter in response to his inquiry), Schapiro pinpointed the precise work referred to in the essay.

Needless to say, Schapiro’s article cause quite the stir in aesthetic and philosophical circles. Jacques Derrida, the French theorist and longtime champion of Heidegger, responded to the controversy at length in his book The Truth in Painting, where he concludes: “Schapiro, insouciant, lays a trap for Heidegger. He already suspects the ‘error,’ ‘projection,’ ‘imagination’ in Heidegger’s text.”

Heidegger at spring Gelassenheit jpg1 Meyer Schapiro with his wife Lillian in 1991, Photograph, Black and White Silver Gelatin Print, 6.25 x 6.25 inches

The relevant works can be downloaded here:

  1. Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1936) in Off the Beaten Track (1950)
  2. Meyer Schapiro, “The Still Life as a Personal Object: A Note on Heidegger and Van Gogh” (1968)
  3. Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting (1987)
  4. Meyer Schapiro, “A Further Note on Heidegger and Van Gogh” (1994)
  5. Babette E. Babich, Words in Blood, Like Flowers: Philosophy and Poetry, Music, and Eros in Hölderlin, Nietzsche, and, Heidegger (2006)

An orthodox Trotskyist living in New York during the 1930s, Schapiro was moreover an associate of the Frankfurters-in-exile Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. In 1937, he even helped the pioneering critical theorists find an apartment near Columbia University. Much to Adorno’s surprise, Schapiro was already acquainted with Walter Benjamin’s writings on “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility.” Writing to Benjamin, who was then living in Paris, Adorno urged him to “establish contact with Schapiro, who is extremely familiar with your writings and in general is a well-informed and intellectually imaginative man…Politically speaking, Schapiro is an active Trotskyist. Here is his address: Prof. Meyer Schapiro, 279 West 4th Street, New York, N. Y. (he reads German fluently).”

Benjamin met with Schapiro in Paris in 1939, at the request of Adorno, who hoped his friend might be persuaded to move to New York. Tragically, Schapiro was unable to convince Benjamin to emigrate. He committed suicide near the Spanish border a year later.

Schapiro’s political involvement during that decade even led him to correspond with Leon Trotsky in Mexico. The former Red Army leader clearly appreciated the gesture, writing: “You belong to the camp of friends who as yet are not too numerous but who are, fortunately, increasing.” Later Schapiro acted as an intermediary between Bronstein and the surrealist leader André Breton, setting up the meeting where they would co-write the manifesto “Towards a Free Revolutionary Art.”


The still life as a personal object: A note on Heidegger and Van Gogh

Meyer Schapiro

In his essay on 
The Origin of the Work of Art, Martin Heidegger interprets a painting by van Gogh to illustrate the nature of art as a disclosure of truth.[1]

He comes to this picture in the course of distinguishing three modes of being: of useful artifacts, of natural things, and of works of fine art. He proposes to describe first, “without any philosophical theory…a familiar sort of equipment — a pair of peasant shoes”; and “to facilitate the visual realization of them” he chooses “a well-known painting by van Gogh, who painted such shoes several times.” But to grasp “the equipmental being of equipment,” we must know “how shoes actually serve.” For the peasant woman they serve without her thinking about them or even looking at them. Standing and walking in the shoes, the peasant woman knows the serviceability in which “the equipmental being of equipment consists.” But we,

as long as we only imagine a pair of shoes in general, or simply look at the empty, unused shoes as they merely stand there in the picture, we shall never discover what the equipmental being of equipment in truth is. In van Gogh’s painting we cannot even tell where these shoes stand. There is nothing surrounding this pair of peasant shoes in or to which they might belong, only an undefined space. There are not even clods from the soil of the field or the path through it sticking to them, which might at least hint at their employment. A pair of peasant shoes and nothing more. And yet.

From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stands forth. In the stiffly solid heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field, swept by a raw wind. On the leather there lies the dampness and saturation of the soil. Under the soles there slides the loneliness of the field-path as the evening declines. In the shoes there vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening corn and its enigmatic self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field. This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining anxiety about the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the advent of birth and shivering at the surrounding menace of death. This equipment belongs to the earth and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-in-self.[2]

Professor Heidegger is aware that van Gogh painted such shoes several times, but he does not identify the picture he has in mind, as if the different versions are interchangeable, all disclosing the same truth. A reader who wishes to compare his account with the original picture or its photograph will have some difficulty in deciding which one to select. Eight paintings of shoes by van Gogh are recorded by de la Faille in his catalogue of all the canvasses by the artist that had been exhibited at the time Heidegger wrote his essay.[3] Of these, only three show the “dark openings of the worn insides” which speak so distinctly to the philosopher.[4] They are more likely pictures of the artist’s own shoes, not the shoes of a peasant. They might be shoes he had worn in Holland but the pictures were painted during van Gogh’s stay in Paris in 1886-87; one of them bears the date: ’87.[5] From the time before 1886 when he painted Dutch peasants are two pictures of shoes — a pair of clean wooden clogs set on a table beside other objects.[6] Later in Arles he painted, as he wrote in a letter of August 1888 to his brother, “une paire de vieux souliers” which are evidently his own.[7] A second still life of “vieux souliers de pay san” is mentioned in a letter of September 1888 to the painter Emile Bernard, but it lacks the characteristic worn surface and dark insides of Heidegger’s description.[8]

In reply to my question, Professor Heidegger has kindly written me that the picture to which he referred is one that he saw in a show at Amsterdam in March 1930.[9] This is clearly de la Faille’s no. 255; there was also exhibited at the same time a painting with three pairs of shoes,[10] and it is possible that the exposed sole of a shoe in this picture, inspired the reference to the sole in the philosopher’s account. But from neither of these pictures, nor from any of the others, could one properly say that a painting of shoes by van Gogh expresses the being or essence of a peasant woman’s shoes and her relation to nature and work. They are the shoes of the artist, by that time a man of the town and city.

Heidegger has written: “The art-work told us what shoes are in truth. It would be the worst self-deception if we were to think that our description, as a subjective action, first imagined everything thus and then projected it into the painting. If anything is questionable here, it is rather that we experienced too little in contact with the work and that we expressed the experience too crudely and too literally. But above all, the work does not, as might first appear, serve merely for a better visualization of what a piece of equipment is. Rather, the equipmental being of equipment first arrives at its explicit appearance through and only in the artist’s work. What happens here? What is at work in the work? Van Gogh’s painting is the disclosure of what the equipment, the pair of peasant’s shoes, is in truth.”[11]

Alas for him, the philosopher has indeed deceived himself. He has retained from his encounter with van Gogh’s canvas a moving set of associations with peasants and the soil, which are not sustained by the picture itself. They are grounded rather in his own social outlook with its heavy pathos of the primordial and earthy. He has indeed “imagined everything and projected it into the painting.” He has experienced both too little and too much in his contact with the work.

The error lies not only in his projection, which replaces a close attention to the work of art. For even if he had seen a picture of a peasant woman’s shoes, as he describes them, it would be a mistake to suppose that the truth he uncovered in the painting — the being of the shoes — is something given here once and for all and is unavailable to our perception of shoes outside the painting. I find nothing in Heidegger’s fanciful description of the shoes pictured by van Gogh that could not have been imagined in looking at a real pair of peasants’ shoes. Though he credits to art the power of giving to a represented pair of shoes that explicit appearance in which their being is disclosed — indeed “the universal essence of things,”[12] “world and earth in their counterplay”[13] — this concept of the metaphysical power of art remains here a theoretical idea. The example on which he elaborates with strong conviction does not support that idea.

Is Heidegger’s mistake simply that he chose a wrong example? Let us imagine a painting of a peasant woman’s shoes by van Gogh. Would it not have made manifest just those qualities and that sphere of being described by Heidegger with such pathos?

Heidegger would still have missed an important aspect of the painting: the artist’s presence in the work. In his account of the picture he has overlooked the personal and physiognomic in the shoes that made them so persistent and absorbing a subject for the artist (not to speak of the intimate connection with the specific tones, forms, and brush-made surface of the picture as a painted work). When van Gogh depicted the peasant’s wooden sabots, he gave them a clear, unworn shape and surface like the smooth still-life objects he had set beside them on the same table: the bowl, the bottles, a cabbage, etc. In the later picture of a peasant’s leather slippers, he has turned them with their backs to the viewer.[14] His own shoes he has isolated on the ground; he has rendered them as if facing us, and so worn and wrinkled in appearance that we can speak of them as veridical portraits of aging shoes.

We come closer, I think, to van Gogh’s feeling for these shoes in a paragraph written by Knut Hamsun in the 1880s in his novel Hunger, describing his own shoes:

As I had never seen my shoes before, I set myself to study their looks, their characteristics, and when I stir my foot, their shapes and their worn uppers. I discover that their creases and white seams give them expression — impart a physiognomy to them. Something of my own nature had gone over into these shoes; they affected me, like a ghost of my other I — a breathing portion of my very self.[15]

In comparing van Gogh’s painting with Hamsun’s text, we are interpreting the painting in a different way than Heidegger. The philosopher finds in the picture of the shoes a truth about the world as it is lived by the peasant owner without reflection; Hamsun sees the real shoes as experienced by the self-conscious, contemplating wearer who is also the writer. Hamsun’s personage, a brooding, self-observant drifter, is closer to van Gogh’s situation than to the peasant’s. Yet van Gogh is in some ways like the peasant; as an artist he works, he is stubbornly occupied in a task that is for him his inescapable calling, his life.

Of course, van Gogh, like Hamsun, has also an exceptional gift of representation; he is able to transpose to the canvas with a singular power the forms and qualities of things; but they are things that have touched him deeply, in this case his own shoes — things inseparable from his body and memorable to his reacting self-awareness. They are not less objectively rendered for being seen as if endowed with his feelings and revery about himself. In isolating his own old, worn shoes on a canvas, he turns them to the spectator; he makes of them a piece from a self-portrait, that part of the costume with which we tread the earth and in which we locate strains of movement, fatigue, pressure, heaviness — the burden of the erect body in its contact with the ground. They mark our inescapable position on the earth. To “be in someone’s shoes” is to be in his predicament or his station in life. For an artist to isolate his worn shoes as the subject of a picture is for him to convey a concern with the fatalities of his social being. Not only the shoes as an instrument of use, though the landscape painter as a worker in the fields shares something of the peasant’s life outdoors, but the shoes as “a portion of the self ” (in Hamsun’s words) are van Gogh’s revealing theme.

Gauguin, who shared van Gogh’s quarters in Arles in 1888, sensed a personal history behind his friend’s painting of a pair of shoes. He has told in his reminiscences of van Gogh a deeply affecting story linked with van Gogh’s shoes.

In the studio was a pair of big hob-nailed shoes, all worn and spotted with mud; he made of it a remarkable still life painting. I do not know why I sensed that there was a story behind this old relic, and I ventured one day to ask him if he had some reason for preserving with respect what one ordinarily throws out for the rag-picker’s basket.

“My father,” he said, “was a pastor, and at his urging I pursued theological studies in order to prepare for my future vocation. As a young pastor I left for Belgium one fine morning, without telling my family, to preach the gospel in the factories, not as I had been taught but as I understood it myself. These shoes, as you see, have bravely endured the fatigue of that trip.”

Preaching to the miners in the Borinage, Vincent undertook to nurse a victim of a fire in the mine. The man was so badly burned and mutilated that the doctor had no hope for his recovery. Only a miracle, he thought, could save him. Van Gogh tended him forty days with loving care and saved the miner’s life.

Before leaving Belgium I had, in the presence of this man who bore on his brow a series of scars, a vision of the crown of thorns, a vision of the resurrected Christ.

Gauguin continues:

And Vincent took up his palette again; silently he worked. Beside him was a white canvas. I began his portrait. I too had the vision of a Jesus preaching kindness and humility.[16]

It is not certain which of the paintings with a single pair of shoes Gauguin had seen at Arles. He described it as violet in tone in contrast to the yellow walls of the studio. It does not matter. Though written some years later, and with some literary affectations, Gauguin’s story confirms the essential fact that for van Gogh the shoes were a memorable piece of his own life, a sacred relic.


[1] Martin Heidegger, «Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes», in Holzwege (Frankfurt a.M.: Klostermann, 1950), 7-68. Reprinted separately, in paperback, with an introduction by H.-G. Gadamer (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1962). Trans. by A. Hofstadter, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in A. Hofstadter and R. Kuhns, Philosophies of Art and Beauty (New York: Random House, 1964), 649-701. All quotations are from the excellent Hofstadter translation and are reprinted by permission of Harper Row, Publishers, Inc., New York. It was Kurt Goldstein who first called my attention to Heidegger’s essay, presented originally as a lecture in 1935 and 1936.
[2] Origins of the Work of Art, 662-63. Heidegger refers again to van Gogh’s picture in a revised letter of 1935, printed in M. Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. by R. Manheim (New York: Anchor Books, 1961). Speaking of Dasein (being-there, or “essent”) he points to a painting by van Gogh: “A pair of rough peasant shoes, nothing else. Actually the painting represents nothing. But as to what is in that picture, you are immediately alone with it as though you yourself were making your way wearily homeward with your hoe on an evening in late fall after the last potato fires have died down. What is here? The canvas? The brushstrokes? The spots of color?” (Introduction to Metaphysics, 29).
[3] J.B. de la Faille, Vincent van Gogh (Paris: 1939): no. 54, fig. 60; no. 63, fig. 64; no. 225, fig. 248; no. 331, fig. 249; no. 332, fig. 250; no. 333, fig. 251; no. 461, fig. 488; no. 607, fig. 597.
[4] La Faille, op. cit., nos. 255, 332, 333.
[5] La Faille, op cit., no. 333; it is signed “Vincent ’87.”
[6] La Faille, op cit., nos. 54 and 63.
[7] La Faille, op. cit., no. 461. Vincent van Gogh, Verzamelde brieven van Vincent van Gogh (Amsterdam: 1952-64), III, 291, letter no. 529.
[8] La Faille, op. cit., no. 607. Van Gogh, Verzamelde brieven, IV, 227.
[9] Personal communication, letter of May 6, 1965.
[10] La Faille, op. cit., no. 332, fig. 250.
[11] Origins of the Work of Art, 664.
[12] Origins of the Work of Art, 665.
[13] “Truth happens in van Gogh’s painting. This does not mean that something is rightly portrayed, but rather that in the revelation of the equipmental being of the shoes that which is as a whole world and earth in their counterplay — attains to unconcealment…The more simply and essentially the shoes appear in their essence…the more directly and fascinatingly does all that is attain to a greater degree of being. (Origins oft he Work of Art, 680).
[14] La Faille, op. cit., no. 607, fig. 597.
[15] Knut Hamsun, Hunger, trans. by G. Egerton (New York: Alfred Knopf, Inc., 1941), 27.
[16] de Rotonchamp, Paul Gauguin 1848-1913, 2nd ed. (Paris: G. eres, 1925),33. There is an earlier version of the story in: Paul Gauguin, “Natures mortes,” Essais d’art libre, 1894, 4, 273-75. These two texts were kindly brought to my attention by Professor Mark Roskill.

Amadeo Bordiga fat old great

Against activism

In this short article first published in 1952, Amadeo Bordiga addresses “activism” as “an illness of the workers movement” that exaggerates the “possibilities of the subjective factors of the class struggle” and neglects theoretical preparation, which he claims is of paramount importance. Recently a number of texts have emerged to challenge the unquestioned paradigm of “activism” among Marxists and radicals. Here’s a brief list that I’ve compiled:

  1. “Activism,” by Amadeo Bordiga (1952).
  2. “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis,” by Theodor Adorno (1968). Some notes on the decoupling of theory and practice.
  3. “Resignation,” by Theodor Adorno (1969). Responding to accusations made against the Frankfurt School.
  4. “Militancy: The Highest Stage of Alienation,” by L’Organisation des jeunes travailleurs révolutionnaires (1972). Following the wave of radicalism in 1968.
  5. “Action Will Be Taken: Left Anti-intellectualism and Its Discontents,” by Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti (2003). From the antiwar years.
  6. “Introduction to The Decline of the Left in the Twentieth Century: Toward a Theory of Historical Regression,” by Benjamin Blumberg for Platypus (2009).
  7. “Additional Remarks on the End of Activism,” by Theorie Communiste (2011).

As I’ve written elsewhere, Marx, Engels, Lenin, and others — one might add Luxemburg, Pannekoek, or Trotsky — would have found the word “activism” [Aktivismus, активизм] unintelligible, especially with respect to their own politics. Nowhere does it appear in any of their writings. Lenin only mentions “activists” [активисты] after 1918, and mostly then in connection with certain Menshevik factions that were “actively” opposed to Soviet power. Even when he’d use roughly equivalent terms like деятели [often translated as “activists,” though more literally “doers”], Lenin’s usual attitude was derisive. He referred, to give just one example, to “some local ‘activists’ (so called because they are inactive).” 

Bordiga’s article thus provides a vindication of sorts, coming from one of the old-timers who was involved in revolutionary agitation and organizing after 1917. Victor Serge described Bordiga as “exuberant and energetic, features blunt, hair thick, black, and bristly, a man quivering under his encumbrance of ideas, experiences, and dark forecasts.” Davidovich, for his part, praised “the living, muscular and full-blooded revolutionary thought of Amadeo Bordiga.” Anyway, most of the others from this period didn’t live long enough to see “activism” become the modus operandi of the Left. Starting in the 1950s and 1960s, the classical Marxist pairing of theory and practice gave way to the hazier binary of “thought” and “action.”

Here I think Bordiga is nicely complemented by some lines by Theodor Adorno, writing in a more scholarly vein:

Thought, enlightenment conscious of itself, threatens to disenchant the pseudo-reality within which actionism moves…[A]ctionism is tolerated only because it is considered pseudo-reality. Pseudo-reality is conjoined with, as its subjective attitude, pseudo-activity: action that overdoes and aggravates itself for the sake of its own publicity, without admitting to itself to what extent it serves as a substitute satisfaction, elevated into an end in itself. (“Resignation” in Critical Models, pg. 291)

The only thing I disagree with in the following article is Bordiga’s characterization of the USSR as “state capitalist,” by which he means something quite different than Tony Cliff (but which seems inadequate nonetheless). I like that he repeatedly invokes Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism: A Infantile Disorder (1922), which is especially remarkable given that Ilyich aimed many of his sternest criticisms in that book at Bordiga. Translation modified here and there for readability’s sake.



Amadeo Bordiga
Battaglia Comunista
November 7, 1952

It is necessary to insist on the word. Just like certain infections of the blood, which cause a wide range of illnesses, not excepting those which can be cured in the madhouse, activism is an illness of the workers movement that requires continuous treatment.

Activism always claims to possess the correct understanding of the circumstances of political struggle, that it is “equal to the situation.” Yet it is unable to engage in a realistic assessment of the relations of force, enormously exaggerating the possibilities based on subjective factors of the class struggle.

It is therefore natural that those affected by activism react to this criticism by accusing their adversaries of underestimating the subjective factors of the class struggle and of reducing historical determinism to that automatic mechanism which is also the target of the usual bourgeois critique of Marxism. That is why we said, in Point 2 of Part IV of our “Fundamental Theses of the Party”:

…[t]he capitalist mode of production expands and prevails in all countries, under its technical and social aspects, in a more or less continuous way. The alternatives of the clashing class forces are instead connected to the events of the general historical struggle, to the contrast that already existed when bourgeoisie [began to] rule [over] the feudal and precapitalist classes, and to the evolutionary political process of the two historical rival classes, bourgeoisie and proletariat; being such a process marked by victories and defeats, by errors of tactical and strategical method.

This amounts to saying that we maintain that the stage of the resumption of the revolutionary workers movement does not coincide only with the impulses from the contradictions of the material, economic and social development of bourgeois society, which can experience periods of extremely serious crises, of violent conflicts, of political collapse, without the workers movement as a result being radicalized and adopting extreme revolutionary positions. That is, there is no automatic mechanism in the field of the relations between the capitalist economy and the revolutionary proletarian party.

It could be the case, as in our current situation, that the economic and social world of the bourgeoisie is riddled with serious tremors that produce violent conflicts, but without the revolutionary party obtaining as a result any possibilities of expanding its activity, without the masses subjected to the most atrocious exploitation and fratricidal massacres being capable of unmasking the opportunist agents, who implicate their fate with the disputes of imperialism, without the counterrevolution loosening its iron grip on the ruled class, on the masses of the dispossessed.

To say that an objectively revolutionary situation exists, but that the subjective element of class struggle (i.e., the class party) is deficient, is wrong at every moment of the historical process. A blatantly meaningless assertion, a patent absurdity. Continue reading

Merrion House Leeds, 1964

Small is Beautiful, but Big is Sublime

Kant, Le Corbusier, Koolhaas


Analytic of the Sublime

The beautiful in nature concerns the form of the object, which consists in limitation; the sublime, by contrast, is to be found in a formless object insofar as limitlessness is represented in it, or at its instance, and yet it is also thought as a totality.

— Immanuel Kant, 1793
Critique of Judgment

Bolshevism means big


It is a word (a magnificent one) and not a mere matter of party membership.

In 1928, I was called to Moscow to discuss the construction of the Tsentrosoiuz there. I was taken to the office of Mr. Lubinov (now the People’s Commissar, once mayor of Moscow, before that a peasant, and at this particular time President of the Tsentrosoiuz). There was an interpreter there. The President delivered himself of a long speech in which the word ‘bolshoi,’ always delivered with great force, recurred again and again. The interpreter passed on the substance of this speech to me as follows:

The construction of this palace [The Palace of the Soviets] must prove itself an outstanding event in Russian architectural history, a history that only began with the Revolution itself. It is essential that there should be a visible quality of bigness in all the aspects of its design, a bigness achieved not simply by means of physical dimensions, nor by emphasis, but by a judicious regard to proportions. It is essential that this non-military building, the biggest that has so far been envisaged by our regime, should constitute a model: strict expression of function and dignity. All our projects must come into the world under this sign: BIG, bolshoi…

I questioned the interpreter: “That word, ‘bolshoi,’ which Mr. Lubinov kept hammering out, what does it mean?”


“So, Bolshevism…?”

“Bolshevism means: everything as big as possible, the biggest theory, the biggest projects. Maximum. Going to the heart of any question. Examining it in depth. Envisaging the whole. Breadth and size.”

Up to then, I had understood from our newspapers that Bolshevik meant a man with a red beard and a knife between his teeth.

— Le Corbusier, 1930
The Radiant City


The skyscrapers here are much too small.

— Le Corbusier arriving
in Manhattan, 1935 Continue reading


Comradeship, criticism, and collegiality

When did “comradely” come to mean “collegial”?

Part of the academicization of Marxism, I’d contend, has involved the gradual replacement of frank, unsparing polemic with chummy, backscratching collegiality. This can be seen in all the gentle nudges and polite asides, with authors practically tripping over themselves in order to point out how “thought-provoking” and “insightful” their critics are. Flattery of one’s peers is now almost as institutionalized as the periodic paradigm shift — the cynical, cyclical revolt against the old guard.

Academics’ egos bruise easily, you see, and they’re all chasing tenure and book deals in an increasingly dried-up market. So they need to be mollified from time to time, reassured of how much they’re enriching the “discourse,” lest they become demoralized and drop out. “Keep at it, son. You’re doing good work. Just a few more asses to kiss and gushing reviews to write; then you’ll have it made.” Ball-washing cajolery has been elevated into a principle, becoming for all intents and purposes de rigueur.

I miss the days when Marx would inveigh against the Young Hegelians (Saint Max, Saint Bruno, the Rabbi Moses Hess) for their “theoretical bubble-blowing,” accusing Malthus of plagiarizing James Steuart and calling Herr Vogt a fat bastard. Or Engels declaring that Herr Dühring’s contributions to theory “haven’t even the weight of a fart.” Radicals had thicker skin and more bile in their bellies back then.

Nor it end with the founders, Marx and Engels. Luxemburg wasn’t mollycoddled at all in the Second International; she was simply more bloodthirsty than the boys, calling for Bernstein’s head and ruling the Polish section with an iron fist. Even Feliks Dzherzhinskii — founder of the Cheka, certainly no shrinking violet — was terrified of her. And he worshipped the ground she walked on.

Don’t you think it’d be great to go to an academic conference where a panelist says she supports her critics “in the same way a rope supports a hanged man,” as Lenin did?

Hintere Reihe- Zweiter von links- Friedrich Pollock, Mitte- Georg Lukács, Zweiter von rechts- Felix Weil. Vordere Reihe- Erster von links- Karl August Wittfogel, Mitte- Karl Korsch, rechts vor ihm Käthe Weil

The science that wasn’t: The orthodox Marxism of the early Frankfurt School and the turn to critical theory

Marco A. Torres
Platypus Review 5
May-July 2008

NOTE: I’m republishing this piece by Marco Torres from 2008 because it underscores the shift away from revolutionary optimism toward critical pessimism that took place among more perceptive Marxists during the 1920s and 1930s. The Frankfurt School, as it’s come to be known, is exemplary of this turn. Nevertheless, this does not mean they ceased to be Marxists. Rather, they represented an attempt to grasp the failure of revolutionary Marxism using the tools of historical materialism itself.

As the economist Alfred Sohn-Rethel explained, this critical reappraisal “began towards the end of the First World War and in its aftermath, at a time when the German proletarian revolution should have occurred and tragically failed. This period led me into personal contact with Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Siegfried Kracauer, and Theodor Adorno and the writings of Georg Lukács and Herbert Marcuse. Strange though it may sound I do not hesitate to say that the new development of Marxist thought which these people represent evolved as the theoretical and ideological superstructure of the revolution that never happened. In it re-echo the thunder of the gun battle for the Marstall in Berlin at Christmas 1918, and the shooting of the Spartacus rising in the following winter. The paradoxical condition of this ideological movement may help to explain its almost exclusive preoccupation with superstructural questions, and the conspicuous lack of concern for the material and economic base that should have been underlying it.”


AdornoHorkheimerHabermasbyJeremyJShapiro2 (1) Marcuse copy

From their canonization in the 1960s through to their appropriation by postmodernism in the 1980s, the writings of the Frankfurt School have had their Marxian dimension minimized, vulgarized, and ultimately ignored. Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Max Horkheimer — the only names of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Theory’s roster that seem to be remembered today — have instead been characterized as anything from old-timey liberals to mystical eclectics, Left Hegelian hippies to ivory tower elitists. According to the standard narrative, these thinkers abandoned Marxism in the 1940s, when the continued atrocities and political unviability of the Soviet Union turned them into Cold War liberals of varied stripes.

Such narratives, which tend to claim that the deepest insights of these thinkers were accomplished in spite of their Marxism or even in the process of overcoming it, are just plain wrong. From the beginning of Horkheimer’s directorship of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Theory in 1930 through to Adorno’s death in 1969, the goal of the Frankfurt school was to maintain the critical purchase of a Marxian social critique as it was threatened by the accelerated process of decay that the Left began in the 1920s. A look at the Institute’s early history allows us to see how the necessity of this approach came to be. In the early 1920s, the original members of the Frankfurt Institute — half forgotten names such as Carl Grünberg, Henryk Grossman, and Karl August Wittfogel — were social scientists of an orthodox Marxist conviction. They understood their task as an advancement of the sciences that would prove useful in solving the problems of a Europe-wide transition into socialism, which they saw, if not as inevitable, at least as highly likely. But as fascism reared its head in Germany and throughout Europe, the younger members of the Institute saw the necessity for a different kind of Marxist Scholarship. Beyond accumulating knowledge relevant to an orthodox Marxist line, they felt the need to take the more critical and negative approach that is required for the maintenance of an integral and penetrating understanding of society during a moment of reaction. This could be described as the politically necessary transition from Marxist positive science to critical theory.

1919_Liebknecht+Sparticists bundesarchiv_bild_102-00539_berlin_revolution_standrechtlich_erschossene

After the German worker’s revolution of 1918-1919 had been betrayed and crushed by the Social Democrats (SPD), the early 1920s saw a period of relative stability slowly settle upon Germany. Despite the fact that further attempts by the German Communist Party (KPD) to challenge the SPD’s rule were weak and ineffective, the possibility of Europe-wide socialist revolution continued to be a topic of conversation among Leftist intelligentsia in postwar Germany. This sense of possibility seemed justified: the Soviet Union had succeeded in surviving its civil war and from a distance seemed to be on a path to successful stabilization; the KPD’s membership continued to grow in the permissive atmosphere of the Weimar Republic; and, with the exception of Italy, Fascism did not yet appear to be an immediate threat. In spite of their deep conservatism, the Social Democrats continued to hold up Marxism as their ideology, legitimizing it and thus making it into an open, officially sanctioned field of discussion.

It was in this environment that Felix Weil, a young graduate of the Frankfurt University who, at age 20, had fought with the workers during the revolution of 1919, began to use his great inherited wealth to finance initiatives for Marxist theoretical discussion. Having written his dissertation on “the essence and methods of socialization,” financially supported left-wing artists such as George Grosz and taken part in the social circle around KPD members Klara Zetkin and Paul Frölich, his joking self-description as a “Salon Bolshevik” was not far from the truth. One of the initiatives he financially supported was the First Marxist Workweek [Erste Marxistische Arbeitswoche] a retreat at a hotel on the edge of the Thuringian Forest in which more than two dozen Marxist intellectuals, most of them affiliated with the KPD, gathered to discuss the latest works by Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács, respectively “Marxism and Philosophy” and the seminal History and Class Consciousness. Among the attendants were Korsch and Lukács themselves, Horkheimer, Zetkin, and economist Friedrich Pollock. As it turned out, thanks to Weil’s efforts, this gathering could retrospectively be seen as the first “seminar” of what would become the Frankfurt Institute of Social Theory, since throughout the next decade most of its participants would become affiliated with the Institute in some function or another.

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Wir sehen von links, Max Horkheimer, Maidon Horkheimer, Felix Weil, eine schöne Unbekannte (Lucille?), Friedrich Pollock1d

On the work of Friedrich Pollock

Jake Bellone, a comrade currently living in Canadian exile, has scanned the early Frankfurt School economist Friedrich Pollock’s 1956 work
 Automation: A Study of Its Social and Economic Consequences. I’ve digitized and uploaded it here for anyone who’s interested. You can download it by clicking on the link in the title above.

As far as I know, this book has been virtually forgotten in terms of the history of economic literature. It’s not the most thrilling read, but it’s a workmanlike survey of a number of studies and publications on the subject of automation. Counter to the prevailing optimism of the period, riding the long postwar boom, Pollock foresaw increasing technological unemployment ahead in the field of industry as automation became further generalized. Here he distinguished full-scale automation from the earlier phenomenon of mechanization, a process well known to political economists since Ricardo.

Pollock’s book has perhaps had a subterranean influence that has generally gone unnoticed. Ernest Mandel, the Belgian Trotskyist economist, cites it repeatedly in his celebrated book on Late Capitalism. An online acquaintance of mine, Elliot Eisenberg, who is close friends with Moishe Postone and studied with the brilliant Soviet Marxist economist Karl H. Niebyl back in 1961, went so far as to claim that “one cannot understand Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization without Pollock’s Automation.” This would seem to accord with Postone’s own estimation of Pollock’s significance:

Pollock’s work in the 1930s provided the implicit political-economic presuppositions of the pessimistic turn in Horkheimer’s theory and the changes in his conception of social critique. More generally, on the basis of an examination of Pollock’s investigations, I shall discuss the intrinsic relation of the political-economic dimension of Critical Theory to its social, political, and epistemological dimensions.

Here Postone mostly has in mind Pollock’s seminal 1941 essay on “State Capitalism: Its Possibilities and Limitations,” as well as his consideration of the question “Is National Socialism a New Order?” later that same year. But I see no reason not to extend this observation to the Institute’s work during the 1950s.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno dedicated their jointly-written Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) to Pollock. Now that I think of it, this work was translated and made available just a year after it was first published in German, in 1956, when Horkheimer and Adorno were still virtually unknown in the Anglophone world. (Outside of the few works they wrote in English, that is). Like Horkheimer and Adorno, Pollock is rather coy when it comes to openly expressing his Marxism. He never mentions Marx by name, but talks about “relative surplus population,” fixed vs. circulating capital, and other concepts clearly derived from the critique of classical political economy. Similarly, early members of the Frankfurt School used “critical theory” as a kind of codeword for Marxist theory, both in order to disguise their communist sympathies and to emphasize a critical dimension that had been lost in the dogmatization of DiaMat in Moscow during the 1930s.

What follows is Rolf Wiggerhaus’ brief biographical sketch of Pollock, taken from his monumental study of The Frankfurt School. My only comment is that Wiggerhaus misleadingly suggests that Pollock and Horkheimer came to agree with SDP’s position on organized “state capitalism,” as if Hilferding had anything original to say on the matter. The Bolsheviks would have readily agreed with Hilferding’s remarks — at least prior to 1928, when Stalin combined Preobrazhenskii’s position on collectivization from the Left with Bukharin’s theory of “socialism in one country” from the Right.

Friedrich Pollock

Friedrich Pollock

Rolf Wiggerhaus
The Frankfurt School
Munich, 1986 (1995)

The frank, limitless enthusiasm which the thirty-two-year-old Friedrich Pollock had for Karl Marx was somewhat artless, although it did have its own appeal. Marx, when he was thirty, had `worked out his philosophical, sociological and political views so clearly that, right to the end of his life, there was never anything he had to retract’, according to Pollock. Marx had “struggled untiringly right up to his death for the proletariat, regardless of obstacles.” This homage to Marx was published in 1926 in a discussion of a pamphlet on Proletarian Socialism [Der proletarische Sozialismus] by Werner Sombart, a former supporter of Marxism and correspondent of Engels. During the 1920s, Sombart had begun to support a “German” form of socialism, and had become an anti-Semite with intellectual links to Oswald Spengler, Johann Plenge, and Othmar Spann. Pollock objected to Sombart’s reference to the phenomenological “intuiting of general essences [Wesensschau],” demanding empirical research instead. He rejected Sombart’s claim that Marx and Engels subscribed to “plebeianism” as a “basic value,” asserting that scientific socialism had the character of a natural science. And he rejected the accusation that materialist dialectics was part of an exclusively proletarian metaphysics of history, mainly by appealing to references in Engels’s Anti-Dühring showing that Marx and Engels had been convinced that dialectics had universal validity.

All of this was characteristic of Pollock. He was born in Freiburg in 1894, and it had originally been intended that he should take over his father’s business, as in Horkheimer’s case. With his indifference towards Judaism and certain conventions — qualities instilled by his upbringing and reinforced by his simple, phlegmatic manner — Pollock made a lasting impression on the sixteen-year-old Horkheimer, and they began a peculiar, but lifelong, friendship. Pollock was less horrified by social injustices than Horkheimer was, but he was also less apprehensive than Horkheimer about committing himself openly to Marxism and communism: when the Munich Soviet Republic was crushed in May 1919, he gave his passport to a Russian who was hoping to escape abroad; the refugee was caught, and Pollock got into trouble with the police. Although Pollock, like the others, studied philosophy, it was only a minor subject alongside his principal interest, economics, in which he took his doctorate in 1923 with a thesis on Marx’s monetary theory. In an article “On Marx’s Monetary Theory” published in 1928 in [Carl] Grünberg’s Archiv, he complained about the “unhappy division between the economic and philosophical elements in Marx’s system.”  But he had a lifelong, philistine contempt for philosophical theory, and held to a pre-Leninist form of Marxist orthodoxy.

At the invitation of David Riazanov, Pollock travelled to the Soviet Union in 1927 to take part in the celebrations on the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. One of the results of the visit was his book on Experiments in the Planned Economy in the Soviet Union, 1917-1927, with which he took his Habilitation in 1928. The book was published as the second volume in the Institute’s publications series, the Schriften des Instituts für Sozialforschung, and was written in a style similar to that of Carl Grünberg, the “master of historical realism in the investigation of social existence,” as Max Adler described him in 1932 in the Festschrift published on Grünberg’s seventieth birthday. In the preface to his book, Pollock acknowledged his debt to his “friend, teacher, and father-figure, Professor Carl Grünberg.” The reader was informed in the first sentence of the preface that “a theoretical analysis of the material will follow in a later work,” but this was never published. Pollock described the particularly unfavorable conditions which the Russian revolutionaries had faced at the outset, their tremendous, continuing difficulties, the often glaring mistakes they had made, and their constant changes of direction and frequent reorganizations. In the penultimate and longest chapter of the book, `The State Planning Commission [Gosplan] and its Work,” he used all of this to show how plans had been formulated in an absurdly inadequate way from the start, and had only gradually become more realistic. The book’s style was soberly informative, but it nevertheless clearly indicated the sympathy, patience, fascination, and even admiration which Pollock had for the “heroes and martyrs of the planned economy” and their tireless efforts to construct “a complete whole” out of various different plans, one which would, “at its fullest stage of development, consciously and totally incorporate the entire economic process” and gradually guarantee “the conscious structuring of the entire economic process and all of its parts.”

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LEF № 3 (1923)

LEF — the Soviet “left front” of art (1923-1930)


Introduction excerpted from Sybil Gordon Kantor’s recent book on Alfred H. Barr and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art (2002).

Alfred Barr, future founder of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, took a trip to Russia as part of his modernist tour of Europe in 1928. According to the architect Philip Johnson, “the Constructivists were on his mind all the time. Malevich was to him, and later to me, the greatest artist of the period. And you see, the Constructivists were cross disciplinary, and I’m sure that influenced Alfred Barr, both that and the Bauhaus.”

Three kinds of documents survive to record the bold perspective Barr was framing for modernism: his journal, the letters he wrote during his stay, and the articles he wrote (substantiated by the journal and letters). The significant differences between the articles and the more subjective journal and letters were the latter’s tone of wonder and breathless, unabashed enthusiasm for the revolutionary spirit of the Russians. “Apparently there is no place where talent of an artistic or literary sort is so carefully nurtured as in Moscow…We’d rather be here than any place on earth.” As he made whirlwind visits around the USSR, he wrote:

We feel as if this were the most important place in the world for us to be. Such abundance, so much to see: people, theaters, films, churches, pictures, music and only a month to do it in for we must attempt Leningrad and perhaps Kiev. It is impossible to describe the feeling of exhilaration; perhaps it is the air (after Berlin); perhaps the cordiality of our new friends, perhaps the extraordinary spirit of forward-looking, the gay hopefulness, of the Russians, their awareness that Russia has at least a century of greatness before her, that she will wax while France and England wane.

Many people were helpful as Barr and Abbott made their way through the cornucopia of culture in Moscow: from Cambridge, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, who was doing research on the Russian theater, stayed at their hotel and at times accompanied the two young students; Diego Rivera, “the famous Mexican painter,” showed Barr a complete set of his Mexico City frescoes and Barr bought a watercolor from him. Barr wrote to Sachs that he thought “a friend of yours” (Dana) and May O’Callahan would be most helpful in introducing him and Abbott to the Russian cultural set.

Two days after Barr arrived, O’Callahan took him to visit Sergei Tretiakov, a member of the futurist movement and the founder of the magazine Lef 1923–1925 and Novyi Lef 1927–1928, who lived in an apartment in the Dom Gosstrakh building, an example by Moisei Ginzburg of the new constructivist architecture — ”an apartment house built in the severely functional style of Gropius and Le Corbusier.” Ginzburg, part of the group OSA (Society of Contemporary Architects), which he helped found, developed constructivist architecture, “which functionally arises from the purpose of a given building, its material construction and production conditions, answering the specific task and promoting the socialist construction of the country.” Barr wrote that Ginzburg was a “brilliant young architect” who had written “an interesting book on the theory of architecture (illustrations are good)…Though his work lacks the boldness of Lissitzky or Tatlin, it is certainly more concerned with actual problems.” Clarifying his estimation of Ginzburg’s apartment building, Barr remarked that “only the superficials are modern, for the plumbing, heating, etc. are technically very crude and cheap, a comedy of the strong modern inclination without any technical tradition to satisfy it.” Writing in his diary, Abbott concurred:

Their apartment is in one of the new apartment houses which, in its architecture comes quite directly from the prevalent International Style in Europe, that is, it is a combination of Bauhaus and certain elements of the French manner as represented by Le Corbusier and Lurçat, or in this country by Neutra…The apartment house of the Tretiakovs is excellent as architecture but poor as a piece of construction. The Russian is not used to the materials of modern building. Cement and steel confuse him…in the medium of modern construction he shows an absolute lack of feeling. Poor joints, badly matched sections, and in general a sloppiness marks much of the newer work, the design for which is nevertheless, frequently concise and in the main, excellent.

Barr exchanged information with Ginzburg, who gave him back numbers of Soviet magazines of contemporary architecture. Barr, in turn, gave him the addresses of Peter Smith and Henry-Russell Hitchcock as sources for articles on American architecture. He told Ginzburg that American architects were “reactionary,” to which Ginzburg’s wife’s responded: “Russian architects and American engineers should combine.”

At Tretiakov’s place Barr met members of the LEF, a loosely banded group of constructivist artists. Heavily involved with this group on his visit to Moscow, Barr wrote an article about them that mentioned Tretiakov, Aleskandr Rodchenko and his wife Varvara Stepanova, and Vladimir Maiakovskii, as well as two articles about their most celebrated member, Sergei Eisenstein. Both Tretyakov and Rodchenko wanted to be régisseurs and Barr noted that “to distort Pater, all the arts in Russia, including music, tend constantly toward the condition of the cinema.” Barr recognized that both he and this group were attracted to the same modes of art — architecture and film — but for very different reasons. “Their spirit,” he said, “is rational, materialistic, their program aggressively utilitarian. They despise the word aesthetic, they shun the bohemian implications of the word ‘artistic.’ For them, theoretically, romantic individualism is abhorrent. They are communists.” Barr’s political responses were characteristically liberal, their source an innate humaneness rather than an ideological stance. His notion of “purity” as a criterion of a modern aesthetic led him to proclaim Eisenstein, the Russian Communist régisseur — the artist who embodied the metaphor of the machine for Barr — as the artistic genius of the twentieth century.

What follows below is Barr’s dispatch on the LEF, first published in the international modernist mag transition in 1928. Following that are several high-quality PDF journal scans and images from the publication LEF, all of which can be downloaded.


The LEF and Soviet art

Alfred Barr
transition № 14
Autumn 1928


The word LEF is formed from two Russian words meaning left front.

In Russia the left front is no longer revolutionary. The Third International is now inconspicuous, its program for the time being abandoned. Most of the strenuous effort is concentrated upon political stabilization and the economic organization of that vast and disparate sixth part of the world, the Soviet Union.

The LEF is a group of individuals who would be described by any but themselves as artists, literary, dramatic, pictorial, critical, cinematographic. Their spirit is rational, materialistic; their program aggressively utilitarian. They despise the word aesthetic, and shun the bohemian implications of the word artistic.” For them, theoretically, romantic individualism is abhorrent. They are communists. Among the group are the poets [Vladimir] Maiakovskii and [Nikolai] Aseev, the scientific journalist [Sergei] Tretiakov, the kino regisseur [Sergei] Eisenstein, the critics [Osip] Brik and [Viktor] Shklovskii, and the artists [Varvara] Stepanova and [Aleksandr] Rodchenko (who work in many mediums). [Vsevolod] Meierkhol’d is also affiliated with, if not actually a member of, the LEF.


Tretiakov incarnates more completely than any other the ideal of the group. His personal appearance is significant. He is very tall, clad in khaki shirt and whipcord riding breeches with leather puttees. Through his horn-rimmed spectacles his eyes are owl-like. His face and scalp are clean shaven. He lives in an apartment house built in the severely functional style of Gropius and Le Corbusier. His study is filled with books and periodicals on China, modern  architecture, and the cinema. In this laboratory atmosphere, behind this mask of what seems ostentatious efficiency, there is profound seriousness and very real sensibility.

Tretiakov was once a futurist poet. For a period after the revolution he was professor of Russian literature in Beijing. In addition to his poetry he has written a very remarkable play — Roar, China! — which has been running in Meierkhol’d’s theatre for two years with the greatest success. Roar, China! is being translated for the Piskator theater in Berlin and will doubtless be produced if [Oskar] Piskator survives his recent bankruptcy. The play, which is, of course, propaganda, shows the peaceful sobriety of the Chinese coolie outraged by truculent Anglo-American “big business”-cum-gunboat. Unfortunately, the Meierkhol’d production of the play considerably weakens its dramatic force by introducing a childish caricature of the English antagonists who are represented as idiots in whom it is impossible to believe. Tretiakov’s intention was otherwise. Continue reading