“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and profundity, the works of Mikhail Lifshitz have continued to be published and, in the case of the already mentioned unpublished archives, have continued to be brought to the educated public’s attention.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