Bernstein and Kautsky together in 1910a

Lukács on the rapprochement between Bernstein and Kautsky after World War I

The latest round in the ongoing saga between Mike Macnair of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and Chris Cutrone of the Platypus Affiliated Society (PAS) stems from the latter’s review of the former’s book, Revolutionary Strategy, and contains a number of points that might interest readers of this blog. Among other things, they debate the role of the party in Marxist politics, its relation to the state, and the troublesome figure of “democracy” as it exists under capitalism. In critiquing Macnair’s overemphasis on the democratic republic as the form by which proletariat must govern, Cutrone writes:

Capitalism makes the democratic revolution both necessary and impossible, in that the democratic revolution constitutes bourgeois social relations — the relations of the exchange of labor — but capitalism undermines those social relations. The democratic revolution reproduces not “capitalism” as some stable system (which, by Marx’s definition, it cannot be) but rather the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism, in a political, and hence in a potentially conscious way. The democratic revolution reconstitutes the crisis of capitalism in a manifestly political way, and this is why it can possibly point beyond it, if it is recognized as such: if the struggle for democracy is recognized properly as a manifestation of the crisis of capitalism and hence the need to go beyond bourgeois social relations, to go beyond democracy. Bourgeois forms of politics will be overcome through advancing them to their limits, in crisis.

Unfortunately, the response by Macnair in the pages of the Weekly Worker is one of his weaker ones. He accuses Cutrone of “vacuous circularity,” mistaking the materialist dialectic for some sort of mystical abracadabra. Perhaps in a future post I’ll explain why I think Cutrone’s argument is more or less right, even if Macnair’s motivations are understandable given the decontextualized abuse of Leninist organizational principles on the sectarian left.

Anyway, I’m posting this 1924 article by the Hungarian Marxist revolutionary and critic Georg Lukács because I think it addresses some of the issues at the center of this debate. Furthermore, it’s convenient insofar as it pits the respective avatars of CC and MM against each other in a fairly neat fashion: Kautsky for Macnair, and Lukács for Cutrone. Macnair tends to dismiss Lukács as a “philosopher-king,” and his writings as “theoretical overkill.” Obviously, in this I side with Lenin and Lukács against Bernstein and Kautsky. But you can be the judge.


Bernstein’s triumph: Notes on the essays written in honor of Karl Kautsky’s seventieth birthday

Georg Lukacs
Die Internationale
VII, № 22 (1924)

The main thing, however — as I’ve already told you — is to do something like this, but not to say so.

— Ignaz Auer, Letter to Bernstein

The man who did it without saying so, the man who did not preach but actually practiced the revision of Marxism, the transformation of revolutionary dialectics. into a form of peaceful evolutionism, was none other than Karl Kautsky. It was, therefore, only fitting and logical that the reformists of every country should come together to celebrate his seventieth birthday. The Vorwärts report on the celebration in London was equally true to form in its — correct — emphasis on the real climax of the proceedings.1 “It was only when the aging Eduard Bernstein finally rose from his place to the right of Kautsky, the man who, like Kautsky, has faithfully preserved and administered the enormous intellectual heritage of Marx and Engels throughout his life, that the celebration acquired its peculiar, deeper significance…The words that Bernstein uttered were words of friendship. Adler once quoted, in a different context, the saying that what divides people is insignificant beside the multitude of factors which unite them. For Kautsky and Bernstein, this saying took on a new and special meaning. When Bernstein had finished speaking and the two veterans, already legendary figures in the eyes of a young third generation — embraced and held each other for several seconds, it was impossible not to be deeply moved. Indeed, who would have wished it otherwise?”

Kautsky himself does not dispute such harmony with Bernstein. On his attitude to the World War he writes : “I was very close to Bernstein at that time. It was in the war that we rediscovered each other. Both of us maintained our theoretical individuality, but in our practice we were now almost invariably at one with each other. And so we have remained ever since” (Self-Portraits, pg. 26). These words indicate the spirit in which the Kautsky jubilee took place. While the struggles concerning Marxist “orthodoxy” which occupied Kautsky’s early period and culminated in the Bernstein debate are fading increasingly into the past as an insignificant episode, those disputes which he waged after the first Russian revolution — initially with Rosa Luxemburg, Pannekoek, and others, later with Lenin and Trotsky — are developing into the central concerns of his life’s work.

rosa-luxemburg-and-other-international-socialist-leaders-including-karl-kautsky-german-victor-adler-austria-georgii-plekhanov-russia-edouard-vaillant-france-and-sen-katayama amsterdam-1904-hall-paint

Hence it is no coincidence that appreciation of Kautsky should be based chiefly on his latest sizable work, The Proletarian Revolution and Its Program, a book in which all his reformist tendencies manifest themselves clearly in the guise of a new “theory of revolution.” Karl Kautsky is acclaimed by all reformists as the great theoretician of revolution. And rightly so. For their sabotaging of revolution, their fear of revolution, their frantic efforts to prevent revolution — all this has found its clearest theoretical expression in the life’s work of Karl Kautsky.

Precisely therein lies Bernstein’s triumph. The isolated “differences of opinion” have in any case long since been forgotten. The really crucial question even then was whether, in the period leading up to the decisive power struggles between bourgeoisie and proletariat, social democracy would become the leader of the revolutionary class, or whether it would hurry to help the bourgeoisie to survive this, the severest crisis in its history. Bernstein expressed his preference for the latter course in a premature, overly frank and tactically clumsy fashion. Had his arguments been really discussed and their consequences properly and thoroughly analyzed, the Social Democrats would inevitably have been split. This would have left the bourgeoisie facing a party which, though numerically weakened, took a clear and determined revolutionary line. It was Karl Kautsky’s historic mission in that situation to thwart the clarification of such problems, to prevent the development of any such tension, and to preserve at any price the unity of the SPD (and with it that of the Second International). He has fulfilled this mission faithfully. Instead of calling openly for the liquidation of the revolutionary theory of Marxism, as Bernstein did, Kautsky argued for a “development,” a “concretization” of the Marxist theory of revolution. This new approach, while apparently rejecting Bernsteinian reformism, in fact provided the theoretical underpinning for precisely what is central to Bernstein’s conception of history, namely the notion of peaceful evolutionary progression towards socialism.

L. Boudin has summarized this vocation of Kautsky’s quite clearly: “Not until the smoke of battle [the allusion is to the Bernstein debate. G.L.] had cleared somewhat and this battle had been practically won could Marx’s great successor — Karl Kautsky — write the series of masterpieces which for the first time explained Marxist theory as an evolutionary conception of the coming social revolution” (Die Gesellschaft, pg. 44). ZRonais puts it in similar terms: “In Kautsky’s struggle with reformism, where the theoretician proved to be better at Realpolitik than the shortsighted, merely practical, day-to-day politicians, history has decided in Kautsky’s favor” (Der Kampf, pg. 423). In The Proletarian Revolution and Its Program, which his admirers have consequently and quite rightly hailed as his greatest achievement, Kautsky expresses this equivocal and ambiguous theory with the utmost possible clarity. He claims that he is not intent on liquidating the revolution. Quite the reverse, in fact: he attempts to grasp its essence, the essence of the proletarian revolution, quite clearly, and to protect the proletarian revolution from any possibility of being confused with the bourgeois revolution. But it is precisely this “pure” proletarian revolution which, in Kautsky’s exposition, acquires a form which objectively is such as to make it essentially equivalent to Bernstein’s notion of peaceful progression towards socialism.

For this revolution takes place within democracy. And the significance of democracy is precisely “that it brings the greatness of this power [of the proletariat, G.L.] clearly to light while obviating the need for a confrontation of armed forces” (The Proletarian Revolution and its Program, p. 82). The advantage of this kind of revolution over the bourgeois variety is precisely that a counter-blow, a counter-revolution does not usually follow it (ibid., p. 96) — provided, of course, that the principle of “pushing the revolution forward” (ibid., pgs. 85-94) which Rosa Luxemburg erroneously took over from the bourgeois revolution is not applied. Under such circumstances, clearly, to talk of democracy as being a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” is to employ “one of the most ludicrous slogans produced in modern times” (ibid., pg. 112). And so on. Continue reading


Creepy Christmas Lenin [Ленин на ёлке]

Just in time for the holidays.

Needless to say, these creepy Christmas portraits were not Lenin’s idea. One can only guess how horrified he would have been if he had lived to see them. Christmas was abolished as an official holiday by the Bolsheviks starting 1918, roughly a year after the October Revolution. By 1935, however, Stalin’s government decided to reintroduce Santa to the children of the USSR. Poskrebyshev, a member of the Central Committee, enacted the reform.


Well, to expand a bit, it wasn’t Santa quite as we’d think of him. It was based on the old Russian version — Ded Moroz [дед Мороз], that is — different from Western Santas in several ways: 1. he isn’t jolly/fat; 2. rather, he’s tall and somewhat menacing. Some important modifications were made for (anti)ideological reasons: 1. ded Moroz no longer wore blue, as he had been turned red by communism; 2. now he wore a more festive hat instead of a boyar’s cap, as this would have harkened back to the feudal past.

Anyway, sometimes Santa was entirely superfluous. Lenin was all you needed. “I don’t know how to break it to you, little Vadim. God’s not real, and was never born, but I brought you some gifts anyway.”

Thanks to Anatolii Krasnopivtsev for the original post in Russian, which I just happened across today. Enjoy!

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Radek 2aa

Karl Radek, Bolshevik revolutionary

Karl Bernardovich Radek (thirty-five years old) could, as we used to say, only speak his own language — the accent he used to express himself in all the others was so incredibly bad. A Galician Jew, he had grown up in the Socialist movements of Galicia, Poland, Germany, and Russia, all at the same time. He was a sparkling writer, with an equal flair for synthesis and for sarcasm. Thin, rather small, nervous, full of anecdotes that often had a savage side to them, realistic to the point of cruelty, he had a beard growing in a fringe around his clean-shaven face, just like an old-time pirate. His features were irregular, and thick tortoiseshell spectacles ringed his myopic eyes. His walk, staccato gestures, prominent lips, and screwed-up face, every part of which was continually expressive, all had something monkey-like and comical about them.

— Victor Serge, Memoirs of a
Revolutionary (1947). Pg. 159.

Radek was of a different mould. He was a pupil not of Lenin but of Rosa Luxemburg, which meant that he was not used to submission and — that he was used to close contact with the Western labour movement. It was his profound knowledge of the latter, especially of German socialism, which gave him prestige. Altogether Radek was a man of political qualities. Together with his wit, which has won him international fame, he had immense powers of application and a real thirst for detail. He was not the sort of man to be satisfied either with theoretical generalizations such as Bukharin loved, or with rhetoric in the vein of Zinoviev. He was clever and thoroughly undogmatic. Already in 1919 he had attempted to establish contacts between the Soviet Union and big German industrialists, a task which, at that time, almost every other member of the party would have regarded as a defilement. He was a cynic. The one thing this brilliant man lacked was character, that deep-rooted moral balance which draws an undefinable line between what is right and what is wrong. Radek was too clever to be either heroic or even consistent.

— Franz Borkenau, World
(1939). Pg. 164.

Karl Radek: The confusion of styles?

Pierre Broué [John Archer] 
The German Revolution,
1917-1923 (1971/2005)

Karl Radek was a unique character in the history of the Communist movement, and is a key figure for anyone wishing to study the first years of the Communist International. Despite being a prolific writer, today he is almost forgotten, but during the years following the Russian Revolution he was one of the most important leaders in the International, and was effectively its Secretary for some months between his release from prison in Germany and the Second Comintern Congress. Moreover, he was the mentor of the KPD until 1923, and was appointed by the ECCI to deal with “German questions” in the same way that Trotsky was assigned “French questions.” Recent studies by H. Schurer and Warren Lerner have perhaps opened the way for works devoted to him, and we must now hope that the numerous ‘Radek’ files in East Germany and the Soviet Union, access to which was refused to us, will be opened.

The best portrait of him is without doubt that from the brush of the German journalist Wilhelm Herzog in 1920:

Karl Radek…has been elected secretary of the Third Communist International. His lively and ever-active mind is feverishly at work. His brain, filled with German romanticism (and a touch of Polish Judaism), is rich in irony and energy. Every day he writes two editorials, one for Pravda and one for Izvestia, and often another text as well, which is transmitted by radio from Christiania. Every day, he is visited by a dozen delegates from other parts of the world. He advises and instructs. He presides at the meetings of the Third International, and takes part in the conferences of the Executive Committee, of the Central Committee of the Party and of numerous other bodies. He lectures at the Workers’ University and to the officers of the Red Army. He speaks at meetings and at congresses of the central and local Soviets. All this without ever being superficial or unreflective, but after solid preparation, as a very competent man, very serious but never lacking wit. He masters his problem, lays hold of it, explains it and analyses it. It is a feast to listen to him. He overflows with ideas and with a rare knowledge of men and things. He knows every date, every leader, and even every individual of any importance in the workers’ movement throughout the world. Hence an immense historical culture and a very clear knowledge of world political relations.

He has a sparkling style. Although, to be sure, he does not command Russian as if it were his native language, we admire his articles for their clarity and their striking imagery. His quicksilver mind reacts to all the concerns of human life, political and intellectual. In short, he is an exceptionally talented man, a born propagandist and an agitator whom nothing can restrain or stop. He knows no compromise when the problem is to influence the hostile or the still-indifferent world, to infect it and to impregnate it with the idea of the world revolution. With Bukharin, Osinsky, and others, he belongs to the younger generation of the Bolsheviks (that is, of the revolutionary Marxists). This extraordinary strategist of the class war, this dreaded terrorist, loves German literature; he knows Goethe, Heine, Kleist, Friedrich von Gentz and the romantics, Büchner and Grabbe, he loves Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, and quotes verses from Stefan Georg and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.[1]

This is a flattering portrait, but no doubt a truthful one, though perhaps it should be slightly filled out with a reference to his physical ugliness and his neglect of his dress. Count Kessler describes him as “something between Puck and Wolf, a bit of a street Arab…Mephisto.” “A cross between a professor and a bandit,” wrote the British spy-cum-diplomat, Bruce Lockhart. The man was attractive for his wit, the liveliness of his repartee, the sharp sense of  humor which he never forgot to use at his own expense, the breadth of his culture and intellectual curiosity, and in short, despite the aggressiveness of his manner of speaking, his graciousness, sensitivity and an undeniable vulnerability.

Radek on tour through Germany, caricature in Pravda 1920

First and foremost, Radek was a freelancer. He had his own distinct personality when he appeared in the German Social-Democratic movement. In fact, he had had some revolutionary experience, in a period when the leaders of the German Party had nothing in this field but what they had read about the Paris Commune or the revolutions of 1848. But Radek had hardly emigrated before he returned to Poland at the beginning of the upheavals in 1905, and had replaced Leo Jogiches before he was twenty years old as chief editor of the newspaper of the Polish Social Democrats. He then had experience of prison. He later settled in Germany, and won a reputation as a polemicist and theoretician by his attacks on Kautsky at the Copenhagen Congress of the Second International and in Die Neue Zeit. He specialized in studies of imperialism, and devoted himself to demonstrating that inter-imperialist rivalries would lead to a world war. He based upon this perspective his theory of world revolution — a theme dear to the Bolsheviks, but not familiar to the members of the SPD. His talent won him fame as a journalist, but he remained isolated in Germany, and increased his isolation still more by supporting the opposition in the Warsaw committee of the SDKPiL against Luxemburg and Jogiches. Continue reading

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Tamás Krausz on the life and thought of Vladimir Lenin

From the Monthly Review press release: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin is among the most enigmatic and influential figures of the twentieth century. While his life and work are crucial to any understanding of modern history and the socialist movement, generations of writers on the left and the right have seen fit to embalm him endlessly with superficial analysis or dreary dogma. Now, after the fall of the Soviet Union and “actually-existing” socialism, it is possible to consider Lenin afresh, with sober senses trained on his historical context and how it shaped his theoretical and political contributions. Reconstructing Lenin, four decades in the making and now available in English for the first time, is an attempt to do just that.

Tamás Krausz, an esteemed Hungarian scholar writing in the tradition of György Lukács, Ferenc Tőkei, and István Mészáros, makes a major contribution to a growing field of contemporary Lenin studies. This rich and penetrating account reveals Lenin busy at the work of revolution, his thought shaped by immediate political events but never straying far from a coherent theoretical perspective. Krausz balances detailed descriptions of Lenin’s time and place with lucid explications of his intellectual development, covering a range of topics like war and revolution, dictatorship and democracy, socialism and utopianism. Reconstructing Lenin will change the way you look at a man and a movement; it will also introduce the English-speaking world to a profound radical scholar.

Krausz, wrote this shorter piece that was translated for the Platypus Review back in 2011. Though I’m not a Wallersteinian, hopefully a PDF will appear of his new biography shortly so that I can read and review it.


Lenin’s legacy today

Tamás Krausz
Platypus Review 39
September 2011

An historically adequate interpretation of Lenin’s Marxism must begin with the recognition that Lenin’s legacy is essentially a political application of Marx’s theory of capital as a historically-specific social formation. It required further development in light of experiences under determinate historical circumstances, such as the development of capitalism in Russia, the Russian Revolution of 1905, the crisis of Marxism in 1914, the evolution of imperialism, the October Revolution of 1917, War Communism, and the New Economic Policy. Lenin’s basic awareness of the concrete possibility of social revolution and the transition to communism grew more determinate in the course of his political practice after 1905. Because of this, Lenin’s political and theoretical legacy, as a historical variant of Marxism, is unique and unrepeatable. On the other hand, the original experience of revolutionary theory and action, its “methodology” in practice, has played an undeniably colossal role in the history of the twentieth century. In our own time, under less than promising circumstances, there are attempts to “refurbish” Lenin’s Marxism for the anti-globalization movement.[1] The main reason for this is that the Leninist tradition of Marxism is the only one that has offered, at least for a time, an alternative to capitalism. It alone has breached the walls of capitalism, even if today that breach seems mended. The world situation over the last two decades demonstrates that the global dominance of capital has engendered new forms of discontent. These did not obviate the need for Marxism as a theory and a movement. Indeed, they could not. Instead, in their search for alternatives, the discontented run into “Lenin’s Marxism” at every turn. Thus, if we talk of Marxism, the stakes are higher than we may think, for this legacy — that is, the primacy of Lenin’s Marxism — is not a thing of the past.

Concept and systemization

Though he knew everything there was to know at that time about Marx and Engels, Lenin did not simply excavate Marxist theory from beneath layers of Western European social democracy and anarchism. He applied it in his own way to Russian circumstances by tying theory and revolutionary practice together. In the process he contributed many original ideas to the theoretical reconstruction of the revolutionary actions and the movement as a whole in confronting reformist social democratic tendencies.

The systematization of Lenin’s legacy began in his lifetime as part of the struggle over the inheritance of his mantle. What was characteristic of these “deconstructions” was not that Marxism was identified with Lenin’s legacy, nor its embodiment in him, nor that Marxism was “Russified” and, later, “Stalinized” as a result of that struggle. Rather, it was interpreted simply as the theory and practice of revolution and class struggle, omitting the stages and method of development that made the phenomenon what it was. This reductionist approach simplified Lenin’s Marxism to the ideology of political class struggle and eventually to an ideology that justified the Bolsheviks’ preservation of power above all. The subsequent Stalinist period came to see Leninism as party ideology, the main and almost exclusive “vehicle” of Marxism, with the Communist Party, then its general staff, and eventually its leader alone functioning as its sole guardian. The soviets, the labor unions, and other forms of social self-organization, all of which Lenin thought to be central elements in the transition to socialism, were increasingly omitted in the “reproduction” of theory and ideology: Everything became nationalized. Marxism-Leninism became the legitimation of this new state socialism. Only with the collapse of the Soviet Union did it become an “emperor with no clothes” as Leninism as the Soviet Union’s legitimizing ideology sank into the dustbin of history. The result is a condition in which it is impossible to “excavate” the legacy of Lenin without steady determination and strict analysis.

The still-powerful elements of pre-Stalinist Marxism were analyzed in the 1960s by [Georg] Lukács and his anti-Stalinist followers, just as they had been earlier by Gramsci. The resulting “Lenin renaissance” permitted under Khruschev rose to a high philosophical level. By the 1970s many European and anti-Soviet Marxist Communist authors (from Rudolf Bahro to Valentino Gerratana, or even Ferenc Tőkei or [György] Bence and [János] Kis) attempted to mobilize these views as a criticism of state socialism, and in the service of constituting an authentic socialist alternative. Such writers made it clear that the historical, political, and theoretical-scientific power of Lenin’s Marxism could not be reduced exclusively to power management or to the “welfare state” as the Soviet ideologues and their bourgeois adversaries had tried to do for the past several decades. These efforts formed part of an attempt worldwide to sketch a new, critical framework for Marxism. Marxists from a wide range of perspectives sought during these decades to forge a kind of “third way” between the preservation of state socialism and the restoration of capitalism — a way back to a Marxist politics that could lead to authentic socialism. In contrast to these attempts, which may be considered various expressions of individual and collective freedom, or participatory democracy, the arguments of the anti-Leninists, almost regardless of ideology, all derive from folding Lenin’s heritage back into Stalinism. To this day they form vital elements of the discourse of anti-Leninist anti-capitalism.

The reservations voiced with regard to Lenin’s Marxism are understandable, as it only became widely apparent after the collapse of the Soviet Union that this historically specific intellectual and practical achievement, which no longer served state legitimation, can resist liberal and nationalist justification of the system. At the same time, the internal logic of Lenin’s Marxism can only be resuscitated through a new combination of Marx’s theory of social formations with revolutionary anti-capitalist practice. Yet another subjective ground for the rejection of Lenin’s Marxism on scientific grounds by leftist experts in academia is that Lenin’s ideas philosophically resist fragmentation by discipline as the experience of many decades has shown. All its constituent elements point toward the totality, the indivisible process. Following Marx, Lenin knocked down the walls separating science from philosophy, and theory from practice. Lenin’s theoretical work cannot possibly be separated from the movement overcoming the capitalist system. In this sense his Marxism is linked indissolubly to the workers movement in the 20th century as a surprisingly adept methodological tool for the apprehension of processes as a whole within different frameworks. Marx’s philosophical and economic achievements may continue apart from any revolutionary workers movement, but not Lenin’s. Until 1917 all his theoretical and political arguments were aimed at the workers movement and revolution. After 1917, as the founder of a Soviet state in the grips of the acute contradictions between holding on to power and the announced aims of the revolution, between tactics and strategy, Lenin tended to vacillate, becoming increasingly aware that the objectives of the revolution had to be postponed for the unforeseeable future.

The origins of Lenin’s Marxism

Lenin’s Marxism derives from different directions, each representing in its time an opportunity for changing society in a revolutionary way. These included the French Enlightenment and revolutionary Jacobinism as the inheritance of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, without which it would not be possible to transcend traditional society. Then there was the Paris Commune as the apex of French socialism. Among his Russian roots we find [Nikolai] Chernyshevsky and the Westerners ([Aleksandr] Herzen, [Vissarion] Belinsky, and others), reinforcing and complementing one another, as well as the revolutionary Narodniks, the mainstay of the Russian Jacobin tradition. All these Lenin synthesized in the name of Marx and Engels, absorbing a lot, particularly the interpretation of philosophical materialism, from the earlier generation of Russian Marxists, chiefly [Georgii] Plekhanov. He finally he absorbed the ideology and practice of modern workers movement organization from German social democracy, chiefly [Karl] Kautsky. Continue reading


“Art is dead! Long live art!” — Mikhail Lifshitz on Karl Marx’s Philosophy of Art

Excerpted from Evgeni Pavlov’s excellent review of Lifshitz’s letters to Lukács, published in Russian. Back when he was less busy translating Bogdanov and Lifshitz, Evgeni used to comment on this blog extensively:

The fate of Mikhail Lifshitz is unusual: relatively obscure in the West and mentioned mostly in the context of his collaboration with György Lukács in the 1930s, his body of published literature is both large and well-known in the former Soviet Union, even if one factors in the decline of interest in all things Marxist after the 1990s. Partially as an attempt to salvage some modicum of genuine philosophical thought from the imposing amount of mindless official Marxism, partially due to its genuinely enduring originality and profundity, the works of Mikhail Lifshitz have continued to be published and, in the case of the already mentioned unpublished archives, have continued to be brought to the educated public’s attention. Lifshitz wrote in a variety of genres; his essays appeared in the Soviet Union’s most read and popular periodicals while his scholarly books were deemed valuable contributions to philosophy, history, literary theory, and aesthetics.

Mikhail Lifschitz was born in 1905 in Crimea, then part of Russia. As an enthusiastic editor of Lifschitz’s first translated monograph, Angel Flores, put it: ‘At the time of the October Revolution Mikhail Lifshitz was a homeless waif roaming the streets of Czarist Russian. Today this young man is one of the finest Marxist critics.” In the 1920s he moved to Moscow to pursue his studies as an artist but later, having become disaffected with the theoretical positions of his teachers at Vkhutemas [Higher Art-Technical Studios], he joined David Riazanov’s Marx-Engels Institute.

In 1975, describing Lifshitz’s ideas as “intelligent materialism,” Evald Ilyenkov wrote:

If one scans the entirety of everything written, or more precisely, created by Mikhail Alexandrovich Lifshitz throughout his life, it becomes obvious that what one sees are the consequently presented chapters of one large book, one large study that can be properly identified using the title of one of his books — Art and the Modern World. This large book does not fall into fragments, each work here —even if it comes out decades later — turns out to be the development, the supplement, the concretization of the earlier chapters: they are all united by one logic, connected by the unity of position, by unity of the general principles, that are shown in more concrete ways with each step. And it could not have been otherwise, it should not have been otherwise, if it was a scientific study conducted with the use of Marx’s method of the development of concepts from the abstract to the concrete, from the clear understanding of the general conditions of emergence and development of phenomena to the clear understanding of those results to which this development lead and still leads.

This characterization is especially invaluable coming from Ilyenkov whose own project in philosophy resembled that of Lifshitz in one important (and now almost forgotten) realm: the relationship between philosophy, culture (art, literature, music and so on) and the ‘communist ideal’ of a new human being, formed as a result of the political-economic changes to come, i.e. as a result of the abolition of the capitalist mode of production and the accompanying abolition of the division of labour. In short, both Lifshitz and then Ilyenkov argued that genuine Marxism concerns itself not only (or even not so much) with political and economic changes, but also (or perhaps primarily) with the cultural and societal changes that are inevitably connected to the development of the truly communist society of the future. While Ilyenkov spoke of the communist ideal in terms of the ‘problem of the ideal’ in philosophy, Lifshitz set the tone for this conversation in his many essays and books on specific works of art and culture, articulating a genuinely Marxist critique of their form and content: how do they promote or inhibit the development of the new type of human being, a human being of the future?

Here are Lifshitz’s two major works that’ve been published so far:

  1. Mikhail Lifshitz, Literature and Marxism: A Controversy
  2. Mikhail Lifshitz, The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx (1931)


Creativity and individual freedom under communism

Mikhail Lifshitz
The Philosophy of Art
of Karl Marx

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

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

Marx and Engels wrote:

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

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

In proclaiming the individual character of scientific and artistic work, Stirner places himself far below the bourgeoisie. Already in our time it has been found necessary to organize this “individual” activity. Horace Vernet would not have had the time to produce one-tenth of his paintings if he had considered them works which “only this individual can accomplish.” In Paris the tremendous demand for vaudeville and novels has given rise to an organization of labor for the production of these wares. which are at least better, at any rate, than their “individual” competitors in Germany.”[1]

Thus bourgeois society itself makes attempts to organize the higher forms of spiritual labor. “Needless to say, however, all these organizations based upon the modern division of labor achieve results which are still very inadequate, and represent an advance only by comparison with the short-sighted self-sufficiency existing until now.”[2] But we should not confuse this so-called “organization of labor” with communism. In communist society those confounded questions concerning the disparity between highly gifted persons and the masses, disappear. “The exclusive concentration of artistic talent in certain individuals. and its consequent suppression in the broad masses of the people. is an effect of the division of labor. Even if in certain social relations everyone could become an excellent painter. that would not prevent everyone from being also an original painter. so that here too the difference between “human” work and “individual” work becomes a mere absurdity. With a communist organization of society, the artist is not confined by the local and national seclusion which ensues solely from the division of labor, nor is the individual confined to one specific art, so that he becomes exclusively a painter, a sculptor, etc.; these very names express sufficiently the narrowness of his professional development and his dependence on the division of labor. In a communist society there are no painters, but at most men who, among other things, also paint.”[3] Continue reading

Lenin pravda workers tribune

Marx, Lenin, Hegel, and Goethe on genius and freedom of the press

Mikhail Lifshitz
The Philosophy of Art
of Karl Marx

It is interesting to compare Marx’s “Debates on the Freedom of the Press” (1843)[1] with Lenin’s “Party Organization and Party Literature” (1905),[2] in which he speaks of creating a free press, “free not only in the police sense of the word, but free from capital as well — free from careerism; free, above all, from anarchic bourgeois individualism.” As opposed to the “mercenary commercial bourgeois press,” and the “deluded (or hypocritically delusive) dependence” of the bourgeois writer “upon the money bags, upon bribery, upon patronage,” Lenin set up the principle of party literature. While Marx’s articles in the Rheinische Zeitung were on an incomparably lower level of political understanding, there can be no doubt that even in 1842 Marx directed his criticism against not only police censorship but also against freedom of the press in the bourgeois sense.[3] And he also showed, even at this early stage, some signs of the doctrine of party literature.

From the point of view of Marx’s political beliefs in 1842, the struggle for party literature coincided with criticism of feudal-bureaucratic censorship. And herein lies the great difference between Lenin’s conception of “party” and that of the young Marx. Lenin held that the destruction of feudal censorship was a problem of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, whereas party literature is a weapon of the proletariat in its struggle against anarchic bourgeois literary relations. No doubt the two problems are not separated by a Chinese wall; one grows out of the other. Nevertheless, they are different and within certain limits even opposed. To confuse the democratic ideal of a free press with the problem of saving it from the freedom of a “literary trade” was characteristic of young Marx as a revolutionary democrat.

48055a Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels en la imprenta de la Rheinische Zeitung, Colonia - Museo Marx & Engels, Moscú ✆ E. Chapiro © Ñángara Marx1

The censor was his principal opponent. Obeying the dictates of the government, the censor attempted to eradicate every trace of party struggle in literature, prohibiting even the use of party slogans. Already in his first article on freedom of the press, “Comments on the latest Prussian Censorship Instruction” (1842), Marx unmasked the duplicity of the Prussian government which, while suppressing all party struggle, actually came out as “one party against another.” The censor’s instructions contained some “aesthetic criticism.” The writer was expected to use a “serious and modest” style. As a matter of fact, however, any crudeness of style could be forgiven provided the content was acceptable to the government. “Thus the censor must sometimes judge the content by the form, sometimes the form by the content. First content ceased to serve as a criterion for censorship; and then in turn form vanished.”[4] Continue reading