Marx had a formidable knowledge of European writers, ancient and modern, and his works are peppered with allusions to them. Yet the common view is that Marx, obsessed as he supposedly was with class and economics, had little to say about the status of the literature he raided to give brilliance to his writing.
This splendid book by S S Prawer, which first appeared in 1976, shows conclusively that this is wrong. Marx’s writing shows a close engagement with both the nature of artistic production and its crucial importance.
True, it is possible to conclude from certain of Marx’s formulations that culture is little more than a reflection of ruling class interests. Thus in one of his works he talks in terms of “superstructural” elements like literature, law, politics, religion and philosophy being conditioned by the economic basis of society, as if they were merely reflections of it or expressions of class conflict.
There is evidence that Marx, and later Engels, were not happy with the deterministic conclusions that could be drawn from this emphasis on material conditions.
Certainly, in other writings Marx heavily criticised literature that tended to reduce characters to mere mouthpieces for their authors’ viewpoints. This attention to the way in which the artist actively works on the aesthetic quality of a work, as central to its effectiveness, cannot be squared with the idea that art is only interesting for its passive reflection of social issues.
Even more importantly, there is plenty of evidence scattered throughout Marx’s work that he thought artistic production lay at the heart of the project for human emancipation.
Every species, including the human species, produces its means of subsistence. A bee may be able to construct a cell that would put an architect to shame (to take Marx’s own example). But the crucial difference is that the architect, unlike the bee, first constructs in her imagination what she intends to produce. This ability to plan purposefully to satisfy a need is shared by no other species. Of course, human labour is conditioned by material circumstances but, unlike other species, it enables human beings to change the environment in response to their needs and so to create new ones.
Of course, for the vast majority in class society work is pure drudgery performed at the will of another (over and beyond what nature imposes). But artistic production – carried out for its own ends in an attempt to grasp the nature of the world and our own nature – offers a glimpse of what free human labour can do to create an alternative world. In that sense, it differs from other elements of the superstructure, which tend simply to reflect ruling class ideology.
If that explains the importance of the role of great artists, Marx also tried to explain why great art from the past produced under very different conditions from our own – conditions which had long vanished – continues to affect us deeply.
Marx had in mind ancient Greek art, which had sprung from religious beliefs in gods with powers to influence nature. Such powers have been dwarfed by the wonders of modern science and industry, making any attempt to revive ancient artistic forms impossible. Marx tries, somewhat unsatisfactorily, to argue that because this art belongs to the childhood of the human race we delight in it as we would in the world of the child. Elsewhere, he provides a more convincing, dialectical explanation.
The ancient world, with its “childish” level of development, is narrow in comparison with the potential for total human wealth (physical and spiritual) opened up by the modern world. On the other hand, it appears higher because its very narrowness allowed for human satisfaction in a way that the purely externalised, though far greater, accumulation of wealth of modern society, with its human “estrangement”, does not.
Greek art, then, appeals because of its wholeness and harmony. But Marx was not nostalgic for the art of the past. Though he believed capitalism was inimical to art, he loved the novels of his older contemporary, the French novelist Balzac, and scorned the posturing of Romantic writers who mourned the good old days. Capitalism might be destructive of form and proportion but it had created, beyond anything hitherto imaginable in terms of wealth, the potential for a new society where human needs could be satisfied in all-round, harmonious ways – and therefore the potential for a new age of great artistic production. The new proletarian revolutions of the 19th century would take their poetry from the future.
Marx’s close engagement with literature was not an aberration from the business of struggle, or in Prawer’s words, a “dance along the superstructure”. Any society worth fighting for is one in which work will be as creative and fulfilling as the experience offered by a great work of literature.
Karl Marx and World Literature is being republished by Verson £16.99
A quietly evocative film
Remaining true to Egypt’s revolution
A photo book that captures a fashion revolution
Shadow of #MeToo hangs over new BBC thriller