Music and Marxism
Sunday, 30 April 2017 03:11

Music and Marxism

Published in Music

In the second part of his series, Mark Abel asks how Marxists should judge music.

In the first part of this series of articles, I argued that critique was at the heart of any application of Marxist theory, and that therefore a Marxist musicology must be a critical, rather than a disinterested (or complacent) activity. But this immediately raises the question of what kind of judgments can be made about music, and on what basis. Where is the meaning in music and how might it be revealed?

Perhaps the most obvious and most common way that Marxists (in general) make judgments about any kind of cultural text, whether literary, dramatic, or visual, is on the basis of its discernible, or overt, political meaning. But since, arguably, music as such does not have a discernible political meaning, the focus of this method of attributing value in the case of songs tends to fall on their lyrical content. The immediate effect of this approach is to regard the music as no more than the accompaniment to the sung words, an enhancement of what is held to be really important in the song – the words.

On this basis, a strong trend in the history of Marxist approaches to music involved the valorisation of forms of music which prioritise the clear delivery of lyrics and downplay the importance of instruments. The ease with which judgments could be made on the basis of the political values expressed in the lyrics was one of the reasons why much of the Left in the mid-20th century became particularly associated with folk music. The other was that this kind of music proved to be well-suited to mass, amateur participation at political events. The protest songs of singers like Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger drew on a variety of sources, like this American union song, ‘Which Side Are You On?’



The value being attached to the music itself, in this relationship between the Left and folk music, relates to the tunes’ simplicity, even unobtrusiveness, in relation to the message carried by the words.

To the extent that the actual musical content was a factor in making political judgments about folk music, it was an instance of the use of another kind of criterion – the supposed class basis of the music. Here we have a judgment based on a concept of popular authenticity: the idea that some forms of music are part of a folk culture which is the authentic expression of a people, that is, of ordinary, poor, oppressed or exploited people. This quality is held to set such music apart from ‘bourgeois’ art or highbrow music.

The authenticity criterion was applied at around the same time to another music – jazz – whose progressive nature was held to derive from its connection with an oppressed section of society, as well as its resulting difference from both the classical concert tradition and commercial popular music. The logic of this latter criterion meant that when jazz began to develop in both directions – an artistic one with bebop and a commercial one with the big bands – there was a need for a new focus. That need found fulfillment in the Dixieland Revival, which was essentially the celebration of early, ‘traditional’ (‘trad’) jazz as the authentic, popular and democratic original form of the music. Much of the soundtrack of leftwing political events in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain and elsewhere comprises both folk-like singing and marching jazzbands. This is footage of the 1959 Aldermaston march: 


Although politically interesting things can be said about the musical procedures of jazz compared to other forms of music-making, part of its attraction for progressives was the perceived ‘outsider’ status of its original New Orleans protagonists. The British trad-jazz revival of the 1950s was an echo of a similar American revival led by New Deal progressives in the 1930s and celebrated the apparent purity of a music produced by an oppressed community in another part of the world.

If Billy Bragg might be regarded as a descendant of the folk-protest tradition, the late twentieth century fashion for ‘world music’ was a descendant of the trad jazz revival. Far flung parts of the globe were scoured for sounds to satisfy a demand amongst Western progressives for authentic popular expression which had not (yet) been poisoned by the values of capitalism. This was, however, a pale, somewhat compromised, echo of the earlier movements in that whereas both the folk and the trad jazz scenes were built around performances by idealistic musicians dedicated to keeping a form of music alive, those doing the scouring for world music represented the very forces that threatened this music’s integrity – multinational record companies. Listen to these tracks from Ken Colyer’s Crane River Jazzband, which performed at many political events, to hear the quality of the recreation of the New Orleans sound by 1950s British musicians:



What is common to all these cases is that the political judgment is being made largely on non-musical, or extra-musical, grounds: this music is politically sound because of who makes it, or where it comes from. This is also true of the parallel tendency of valorising art-music composers for their supposed commitment to Marxism, socialism or progressive politics. On this basis, composers such as Alan Bush and Michael Tippett were celebrated by sections of the British Left, their political stance evidenced partly by their anti-elitist involvement with non-professional music-making, such as choral societies, but mainly by the themes of their works, particularly operas (thereby relying on overt verbal meanings). This is part of Bush’s opera about nineteenth century Northumbrian miners, Men of Blackmoor:



And this is Tippet’s oratorio Child of Our Time, which incorporates arrangements of African American spirituals, thereby combining in one work all the criteria for progressive approval discussed so far.



What is left out of such judgments is the musical success or otherwise of the outcomes of these efforts, as though good intentions are enough. In addition, this approach suffers from the ‘intentional fallacy’ of believing that art is simply the product of the execution of an intention on the part of its creator. This holds that an artist is solely responsible for the art she produces, and this will be socialist art if the artist holds socialist beliefs and principles.

In fact, this is a form of idealism which has nothing to do with Marxism. Marx initiated an approach which understood art, by virtue of its social roots, as expressing something beyond the intention of its individual creator, perhaps even at odds with its creator’s personal views. For example, he thought that the novelist Balzac had succeeded in cutting through bourgeois ideology to show the truth of social life despite his own conservative politics.

It is a cornerstone of Marxist approaches to culture that works of art are social products. Indeed, more than that, the very language available for the creation of artistic expression, whether literary, visual or musical, is socially and historically determined. This means that musical judgments based on the intentions of the composer can never be the whole story. But it also means that simply pointing to the social roots of a particular music is not enough either.

Both are ways of avoiding tackling the difficult issue of the meaning involved in the music itself, a meaning which is not stable but will mutate as circumstances change. For example, as time went on, the post-war British trad jazz bands arguably became a staid parody of the raw, innovative music they sought faithfully to emulate.

Exposing how those meanings inhere in the very language of music is the central task of a Marxist musicology.
The Three Wise Communists
Sunday, 30 April 2017 03:11

´╗┐Between Illusion and Reality: Reconsidering Marxism and Religion

Published in Religion

Roland Boer sets the scene for a series of articles on the complex and contradictory relations between Marxism and religion, with an introduction to some of the issues. An embedded poem by Patrick Lodge is mutually illustrative.

Two preliminary topics are important for any effort to reconsider the difficult relations between Marxism and religion: 1) the tensions between illusion versus reality, or idealism versus materialism; 2) the political ambivalence of religion.

Illusion and Reality

Religion is an illusion, an excrescence of the human brain, a response to alienated social conditions, a diversion for the working class movement, a manifestation of idealism – these and more continue to be common positions among Marxists and those on the Left more broadly. In other words, religion and its claims do not correspond to reality. The gods do not exist, nor does a supernatural world with its spirits of the dead, and we will not go to heaven or hell when we die.

I could respond by challenging a certain caricature of religion that is assumed with such positions. Or I could take the line that ‘religion’ itself is an abstraction from specific circumstances – European imperialism and the need to categorise the rest of the world in the light of Christian assumptions. But I prefer a different approach that draws on Marx’s own thought.

In some of his early works, Marx was quite clear that religion is other-worldly, heavenly and not concerned with the grim realities of this world. For example, in a piece from 1842 concerning the Rhine Province Assembly, he describes religion as mystical, arbitrary, base, fantastical, imaginary, other-worldly, and a sham that functions as a ‘holy cloak’ for political aims. Indeed, a religion like Christianity with its heavenly focus should not bother itself with this-worldly matters such as politics, economics and society.

Fortunately, this is not the only approach to religion in Marx’s works. The best example of an alternative appears with his complex use of the fetish. He had first encountered the term in the early 1840s, and was clearly conscious of its religious sense – a fetish is an object attributed with distinct powers in human transactions, powers that are simultaneously transferred and yet have a real force.

No surprise, then, that Marx found the idea immensely useful in his work for the next forty years. Each time he drew upon the fetish – in analysing labour, money, commodities and indeed capitalism itself – he deliberately mentions the religious dimensions of the fetish. Most well-known is the fetishism of commodities from the first volume of Capital, so let me make a few observations on this use. Marx was seeking a way to speak of a double process: the fetishism that attaches itself to commodities is simultaneously a transferral of powers from workers to the product of their hands and a reality of such commodities. In other words, commodities seem to gain human attributes as they interact among one another, while workers become more and more like things (reification). At the same time, the power or fetishism of commodities is very real, for it affects workers directly.

How to speak of such a process? Marx works at the edge of language, arguing that the fetishism of commodities is both illusory and real, imperceptible and perceptible, mysterious and concrete, mist-enveloped and actual. In the process, he coins a crucial phrase: ‘socially valid as well as objective thought forms [gesellschaftlich gültige, also objektive Gedankenformen]’. Thought forms can become objective and socially valid.

In order to gain this insight, Marx made use of a religious category: fetishism. In the subsequent volumes of Capital, he developed this initial insight much further. Indeed, he came to argue that fetishism operates at the core of capitalism. The belief that money simply produces money, without the crucial intermediate stage of commodity production is the ultimate fetish. The idea that we can generate money in and of itself, or what is now called the ‘financialisation’ of the market, is fetishism through and through. So much so that Marx coins another term: capital-fetish.

The implications are immense and not often realised. Marx’s focus was on the internal dynamics of capital, but what does this mean for religion? Can it too be seen as an objective thought form, as one that is both illusory and real at one and the same time?

Political Ambivalence

One example among many will suffice for now. It concerns the political ambivalence of religion, which can just as easily slip into the seat beside despotic power as it can foster revolutionary movements that seek to overthrow such power.

For this insight we need to turn to Engels, who developed this argument over the long decades after he gave up – with much pain and soul-searching – the religious commitments of his youth. During these years, Engels had much to say about the reactionary nature of religion, but he also became increasingly aware of the radical movements inspired by religion. These were evident in his own time, such as Etienne Cabet’s Icarian communities with their slogan ‘Christianity is communism’, as well as Wilhelm Weitling, whom Engels called the ‘first German communist’.
The first extended assessment of radical religious movements was Engels’s study (1850) of Thomas Müntzer and the German Peasant Revolution of the sixteenth century. This widespread revolution was clearly fostered as much by theological concerns as by economics and political ones. Although this was the first work of its kind in the Marxist tradition, it is not Engels’s best work. He tends to see the theological language as a cloak for economic and political grievances, a language that could be cast aside with the advent of modern socialism.

Engels’s study of early Christianity is much better. Published close to his death in 1895, it argued that early Christianity was a revolutionary movement. The reasons: Christianity drew its adherents from the exploited classes of the Roman Empire; it had much in common with the socialist movement of his own day; and it succeeded in conquering the Roman Empire. While we may quibble with some of Engels’s points (especially the last), we should not miss the importance of the proposal as a whole. It was a clear recognition and analysis of the revolutionary potential of a religion like Christianity, as Christopher Caudwell recognised in 'The Breath of Discontent: A Study in Bourgeois Religion' (discussed elsewhere on this website).

The Respectable Working Class
by Patrick Lodge

Week in, week out, I give my labour for
next to nowt. I’ve doffed my cap threadbare;
tugged my forelock so fierce
my hairline recedes from the back.

I’ve seemed grateful for mistress’s
sawdust buns, for master’s leaking roof
above my head, under which I wake
each sun-up, practicing my yokel grin.

Come Sunday they want much more;
want me to deny my own self. I draw
the line at that. Aye, I’ll go, sit in the pew
bide quiet, think “more pigs, less parsons”.

I pull the curtains across the window
of my soul. I become opaque.
They prate on about heaven’s rewards
while I think of Jenny warm under the down;

afterwards, buttered toast, scalding
sugared tea, the smell of her on my skin.
I hear the choir sing – “The rich man
in his castle, the poor man at his gate”.

Amen, I’ll say, and look pious too,
but mark this, and mark it well,
when the end times come, the first will
surely be last and going straight to Hell.

Author’s note: This poem, first published in the Morning Star, was written after a trip to the Lincolnshire Wolds. There was, in particular, a spectacular church from the 1840s which stood on a hill and dominated the landscape around. The church was full of memorials to the local great and good and the pattern of land ownership around effectively left the bulk of workers as tenants owing home, hearth and livelihood to the dominant landowners. There was a story told of a requirement made for all tenants to attend Anglican services despite their tendency to Non-Conformity.


Others would carry on Engels’s approach, especially Karl Kautsky and Ernst Bloch, so much that they established the existence of a revolutionary religious tradition. This has enabled the awareness that movements in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, such as Liberation Theology and Political Theology, are the latest examples of this tradition.

So it seems that a religion like Christianity can be both reactionary and revolutionary. I am not taken with the common core-distortion position in dealing with this tension. Thus, one or the other side constitutes the core while its opposite is a distortion. Not so, for Christianity is constituted by this profound tension. Both are perfectly valid and in many respects connected to one another. However, it does require that we take sides.

Much, much more may be said concerning religion and Marxism. I have not dealt with Marx’s most famous phrase, ‘opium of the people’; with other religious revolutionary movements such as the Taiping Revolution in China (precursor to the communist revolution of 1949); with the approaches to religion by different communist parties and so on. But the topics I have discussed here at least set the scene.