Trotsky on art

Art is important to people. It has always been so from the earliest human societies, when it was indissolubly linked to magic — that is, to the first primitive attempts of men and women to understand and gain control over the world in which they live. However, in class society art is so designed as to exclude the masses, and relegate them to an impoverished existence, not only in a material but in a spiritual sense.

In Roman times we had "bread and circuses"; now we have soap opera and pop music. Commercial art which sets out from the lowest common denominator is at once a useful soporific drug intended to keep the masses in a state of stupified contentment, while at the same time making a few capitalists exceedingly rich. By thus reducing the artistic level of society to a bare minimum, and increasingly alienating the "serious arts" from social reality, capitalism guarantees a continuous degeneration and pauperisation of art in general.

Confined to this rarified atmosphere, where it is obliged to feed off itself in the same way that factory-fed cows and chickens are fed the dead carcasses of other animals, and develop a deadly brain disease as a result, art becomes ever more sterile, empty and meaningless, so that even the artists themselves begin to sense the decay and become ever more restless and discontented. Their discontent, however, can lead nowhere insofar as it is not linked to the struggle for an alternative form of society in which art can find its way back to humanity. The solution to art's problems is not to be found in art, but only in society.

— From Marxism and art

This article by Alan Woods looks at how the French Revolution affected British poets. It struck Britain like a thunderbolt affecting all layers of society and this was reflected in its artists and writers.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is considered by many as the greatest musician of all time. He was revolutionary in more senses than one. One of his main achievements was in the field of opera. Before Mozart, opera was seen as an art form exclusively for the upper classes. This was true not only of those who went to see it, but also of its dramatis personae - the characters who were shown on the stage, and especially the protagonists. With The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro in its original Italian title), all this changes. This is the story of a servant who stands up to his boss and outwits his master.

We publish here the editorial of issue 46 of In Defence of Marxism magazine, which looks at the relationship of culture, and art in particular, to the struggle for socialist revolution and human emancipation. In this editorial, Alan Woods dismantles the lazy caricature of Marxism as unconcerned with the rich cultural and artistic history of humanity. Issue 46 of In Defence of Marxism magazine is available now! Get your copy here.

This week marks the 200th anniversary of the public premier of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, one of the most astoundingly brilliant musical compositions in history. Despite being functionally deaf by 1824, Beethoven personally conducted the premiere in Vienna, continuing his wild gesticulations after the final note had faded, amidst rapturous applause. The performance and the piece itself, often called the ‘Marseilles of Humanity’, were a defiant rallying cry for freedom and brotherhood in a period of counterrevolutionary reaction. To mark the occasion, we republish ‘Beethoven: man, composer and revolutionary’ by our editor-in-chief, Alan Woods.

Following the article on James Joyce’s Ulysses, published in issue 39 of In Defence of Marxism magazine, Hamid Alizadeh of the IDOM editorial board writes on Joyce’s Dubliners: a masterful critique of the paralysis, hypocrisy and alienation of Irish bourgeois society in the 20th century, which epitomised the ferment brewing in Ireland in the years prior to the Easter Rising of 1916.

Today, 8 November, marks 400 years since the publication of the first volume of Shakespeare’s collected plays, known as his “First Folio”. Published seven years after his death, the First Folio included 36 of his works – from “The Tempest” to “Macbeth” – many of which had never been published and would otherwise likely have been lost.

The year is 2018. At the prestigious Christie’s fine art auction in New York City, a blurry portrait of a besuited gentleman hangs alongside an Andy Warhol print and a bronze sculpture by Roy Lichtenstein. It is titled: ‘Edmond de Belamy, from La Famille de Belamy’. An anonymous phone bidder purchases the portrait for a whopping $432,500, against an initial estimate of $7,000-$10,000. At the bottom of the frame, rather than a signature, there is a line of code. It was not produced by human hands, but by an artificial intelligence (AI).

The Russian Revolution ushered in a flowering of creative expression in all the arts, but particularly cinema, which was advanced to new heights by the likes of Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein, who regarded film as a weapon of class struggle. Despite being cut short by the Stalinist degeneration of the regime, the legacy of October in the field of filmmaking continues to be felt to this day.

“Man does not live by politics alone – and [we must] never forget it in our propaganda, written or spoken,” wrote Trotsky in 1923. Marxism is often accused of being a lifeless ‘dogma,’ engaging purely in economic analysis. However, as Alan Woods explains in the #IMU22 session ‘Marxism and Art: Unshackling Culture from Capitalism,’ human lives would be meaningless without artistic expression. Rescuing culture and raising it to a higher level for future generations is an essential task of the class struggle.

We are delighted to be able to announce that the Iranian Exit Theatre Group based in Tehran has translated the article “Shostakovich, the musical conscience of the Russian Revolution” by Alan Woods into Farsi. This is an important and welcome development, which will make the really revolutionary content of Shostakovitch’s life and work known to a broader audience.

What does Marxism have to say about cinema? Quite a lot in fact. For over a century now cinema has existed as a primary tool of social communication within society: one aimed directly at the people rather than an elite, reaching audiences far beyond anything previously conceived. From this has flowed TV, video, DVD, streaming and more - all features of our daily lives.