Terry Eagleton: Where Does Culture Come From?
Thursday, 13 June 2024 08:02

Terry Eagleton: Where Does Culture Come From?

Published in Cultural Commentary

In the closing Winter Lecture for the London Review of Books, Terry Eagleton discusses the origin and uses of culture. Half-way through the piece, Fran Lock and Alan Morrison provide a complementary chorus of new poems. We are deeply grateful to the LRB and 'the dreadful Terry Eagleton', as King Charles called him, for their kind permissions to republish his lecture.

In​ Jude the Obscure, Jude Fawley finds himself living in Beersheba, the area of Oxford we know as Jericho, home at the time to a community of craftsmen and artisans who maintained the fabric of the university. It doesn’t take Jude long to realise that he and his fellow craftsmen are, so to speak, the material base without which the intellectual superstructure of the colleges couldn’t exist: without their work, as he says, ‘the hard readers could not read, nor the high thinkers live.’

He comes to recognise, in a word, that the origin of culture is labour. This is true etymologically as well. One of the original meanings of the word culture is the tending of natural growth, which is to say agriculture, and a cognate word, coulter, means the blade of a plough. The kinship between culture and agriculture was brought home to me some years ago when I was driving with the dean of arts of a state university in the US past farms blooming with luxuriant crops. ‘Might get a couple of professorships out of that,’ the dean remarked.

This is not the way culture generally likes to see itself. Like the Oedipal child, it tends to disavow its lowly parentage and fantasise that it sprang from its own loins, self-generating and self-fashioning. Thought, for idealist philosophers, is self-dependent. You can’t nip behind it to something more fundamental, since that itself would have to be captured in a thought. Geist goes all the way down.

art for arts sake

There’s n irony here, since few things bind art so closely to its material context as its claim to stand free of that context. This is because the work of art as autonomous and self-determining, an idea born sometime in the late 18th century, is the model of a version of the human subject that has been rapidly gaining ground in actual life. Men and women are now seen as authors of themselves, as a result of the deepening influence of liberalism and possessive individualism and – to perpetrate a dreadful cliché – the rise of the middle classes. (If you open a history book at random, it will say three things about the period you light on: it was essentially an age of transition; it was a period of rapid change; and the middle classes went on rising. That’s the reason God put the middle classes on earth: to rise like the sun, but, unlike the sun, without ever setting.)

You can’t have culture in the sense of galleries and museums and publishing houses unless society has evolved to the point where it can produce an economic surplus. Only then can some people be released from the business of keeping the tribe alive in order to constitute a caste of priests, bards, DJs, hermeneuticists, bassoon players, LRB interns, gaffers on film sets and the like. In fact, you might define culture as a surplus over strict need. We need to eat, but we don’t need to eat at the Ivy. We need clothes in cold climates, but they don’t have to be designed by Stella McCartney. The problem with this definition is that a capacity for surplus is built into the human animal. For both good and ill, we’re continually in excess of ourselves. Culture is reckoned into our nature. King Lear is much concerned with this ambiguity.

Wanted: Culture, to legitimate the social order......

Since the material production that gives birth to culture is racked by conflict, bits of this culture tend to be used from time to time to legitimate the social order that strives to contain or resolve the conflict, and this is known as ideology. Not all culture is ideological at any given time, but any part of it, however abstract or high-minded, can serve this function in specific circumstances. At the same time, however, culture can muster vigorous resistance to the dominant powers.

TE banksy

Banksy musters some vigorous resistance to the dominant powers

This resistance is more likely to occur, curiously enough, once art becomes just another commodity in the marketplace and the artist just another petty commodity producer. Before that, in traditional or pre-modern society, culture generally serves as an instrument of political and religious sovereignty, which means among other things that there are steady jobs for cultural workers as court poets, genealogists, licensed fools, painters and architects patronised by the landed gentry, composers in the pay of princes and so on. In those situations you also know more or less whom you are writing or painting for, whereas in the marketplace your audience becomes anonymous.

The world no longer owes the cultural worker a living. Ironically, however, it’s the integration of art into the market that gives it a degree of freedom. Once it’s primarily a commodity, culture becomes autonomous. Deprived of its traditional features, it may curve back on itself, taking itself as its own raison d’être in the manner of some modernist art; it is also free to serve as critique on a sizeable scale for the first time. The miseries of commodification are also an enthralling moment of emancipation. History, as Marx reminds us, progresses by its bad side. In the very process of being pushed to the margin, the artist begins to claim visionary, prophetic, bohemian or subversive status – partly because those on the edges can indeed sometimes see further than those in the middle, but also to compensate for a loss of centrality. A movement called Romanticism is born.

....and so capitalism gives culture a job to do

At roughly the same time, so is industrial capitalism, which with admirable convenience gives culture a job to do just as it’s in danger of being driven out by philistine mill-owners. There’s now a growing divide between the symbolic realm and the world of utility, a divide that runs all the way down the human body. Values and energies for which there isn’t much call in the workaday world of bodily labour are siphoned off into a sphere of their own, which consists of three major sectors: art, sexuality and religion. One of these endangered values is the creative imagination, which was invented in the late 18th century and is nowadays revered among artistic types, though organising genocide in Gaza requires quite a lot of it too.

The distance that opens up between the symbolic and the utilitarian, while threatening to rob culture of its social function, is also the operative distance you need for critique. Culture would expose the crippled, diminished condition of industrial-capitalist humanity through its full and free expression of human powers and capacities, a theme that runs from Schiller and Ruskin to Morris and Marcuse. Art or culture can issue a powerful rebuke to society not so much by virtue of what it says but because of the strange, pointless, intensely libidinal thing that it is. It’s one of the few remaining activities in an increasingly instrumentalised world that exists purely for its own sake, and the point of political change is to make this condition available to human beings as well. Where art was, there shall humanity be.

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PCS workers issuing a powerful rebuke to society 

The harmonious realisation of one’s powers as a delightful end in itself: if this is what the aesthetic comes to be about, it’s also the ethics of Romantic humanism, which includes the ethics of Karl Marx. The aesthetic becomes important when it isn’t simply about art. Marx’s thought concerns the material conditions that would make life for its own sake possible for whole societies, one such condition being the shortening of the working day. Marxism is about leisure, not labour. The only good reason for being a socialist, apart from annoying people you don’t like, is that you don’t like to work. For Oscar Wilde, who was closer in this respect to Marx than to Morris, communism was the condition in which we would lie around all day in various interesting postures of jouissance, dressed in loose crimson garments, reciting Homer to one another and sipping absinthe. And that was just the working day.

7. Photo opkennardphillippspigment print 2005.width 1000

Half in love with the powers that repress us? Image by kennardphillips

There are problems with this vision, as there are with any ethics. Are all your powers to be realised? What about that obsessive desire to beat up Tony Blair? Or should one realise only those impulses that spring from the authentic core of the self? But by what criteria do we judge this? What if my self-realisation clashes with yours? And why should all-round expression beat devoting oneself to a single cause, like Alexei Navalny or Emma Raducanu? Do human capabilities really grow malevolent only by being alienated, lopsided or repressed? And what if we’re half in love with the powers that alienate and repress us, installed as they are inside the human subject rather than purely external to it?

Hegel and Marx have an answer of a kind to the problem of clashing self-fulfilments, which goes like this: realise only those capabilities which allow others to do the same. Marx’s name for this reciprocal self-realisation is ‘communism’. As the Communist Manifesto puts it, the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. When the fulfilment of one individual is the ground or condition of the fulfilment of another, and vice versa, we call this love. 

Jesus

And the hands that act on it...

by Fran Lock

their charnel austerity, logged in the body.
a city repellent to memory, walk. this bleak
referendum of razors, indifferent justice,
law like a nail knocked into hunger. the law
is a meat-hook with your name on it, kid.
breathe. with the rhythm of syndrome,
the dark particulate scraped from a lung.
breathe. stertor, stridor, inspiratory stress.
productive cough that closes the throat.
their mouths are feudal thresholds. have
alphabets, inscribed against empathy.
say: this is the world, and what're you
going to do about it? step out. step out
of step. break that masochists pact,
patterned into apathy: work-or-death
and worked-to-death. the moment
becomes the movement, the moment
we decide to move. flip this tyranny
of tyrian shekels; pathologies of profit,
their sick vocations of control. love.
as conspicuous sabotage, direct action,
conductor of heat and dissonance. in
a world we cannot occupy or exit, be
the hand that lights the match, the arm
that bears the torch.

Marxism is about political love. I mean love, of course, in its real sense – agape, caritas – not the sexual, erotic, romantic varieties by which late capitalist society is so mesmerised. We’re speaking of the kind of love that can be deeply disagreeable and isn’t necessarily to do with feeling, that is a social practice rather than a sentiment, and which is in danger of getting you killed.

Agape

by Alan Morrison

agape - agape - agape -
love without possessiveness
platonic love
spiritual love
political love
love without possessions
love unfettered by desire
love without covetousness
love without expectation
hearts without property
hearts freed from property
love devout in poverty
agape - agape - agape -
love as common ownership
unconditional love
universal love
communism of souls
souls in common ownership
hearts & souls in fellowship
no hedges in heaven
only untethered purple heathland
lavender heather
lavender ever
& ever
love as common good
numinous communism
eudemonia -
welfare of all
capitalism can never
make us happy
pits us against ourselves
in pursuit of profit
& empty property
only love without covetousness
love without possessiveness
love for one & all
universal
unconditional
can approach that utopian
conception to be happy
agape - agape - agape -

Wanted: Culture, to buy off anarchy

Early industrial capitalism had another mission for culture to accomplish. A new actor had just appeared on the political scene – the industrial working class – and was threatening to be obstreperous. Culture, in the sense of the refined and civilised, was needed to buy off the other half of Matthew Arnold’s title, anarchy. Unless liberal values were disseminated to the masses, the masses might end up sabotaging liberal culture. Religion had traditionally bred a sense of duty, deference, altruism and spiritual edification in the common people. But religious belief was now on the wane, as the industrial middle classes demythologised social existence through their secular activities and, ironically, ended up depleting what had been a precious ideological resource. Culture, then, had to take over from the churches, as artists transubstantiated the profane stuff of everyday life into eternal truth.

What else was happening around the time of Romanticism and the industrial revolution? The revolution in France. One might do worse than claim that this was what thrust culture to the fore in the modern age – but culture as a riposte to the revolution, as an antidote to political turbulence. Politics involves decision, calculation, practical rationality, and takes place in the present, whereas culture seems to inhabit a different dimension, where customs and pieties evolve for the most part spontaneously, unconsciously, with almost glacial slowness, and may therefore pose a challenge to the very notion of throwing up barricades.

The name for this contrast in Britain is Edmund Burke, who came from a nation, Ireland, where the sovereign power had failed to root itself in the affections of the people because it was a colonialist power. In Burke’s view, this rooting wasn’t happening in revolutionary France either, since the Jacobins and their successors didn’t understand that if the law is to be feared, it is also to be loved. What you need in Burke’s opinion is a law which, though male, will deck itself out in the alluring female garments of culture. Power must beguile and seduce if it isn’t to drive us into Oedipal revolt. The potentially terrifying sublimity of the masculine must be tempered by the beauty of the feminine; this aestheticising of power, Burke writes in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, is what the French revolutionaries calamitously failed to achieve. You mustn’t, to be sure, aestheticise away the masculinity of the law. The ugly bulge of its phallus must be visible from time to time through its diaphanous robes, so that citizens may be suitably cowed and intimidated when they need to be. But the law can’t work by terror alone, which is why it must become a cross-dresser.

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Edmund Burke pontificating against the French Revolution

Burke believed that the cultural domain – the sphere of customs, habits, sentiments, prejudices and the like – was fundamental in a way that the politics to which he devoted a lifetime were not, and he was right to think so. There have been some suspect ways of elevating the cultural over the political, but Burke, who began his literary career as an aesthetician, neither despises politics from the Olympian standpoint of high culture, nor dissolves politics into cultural affairs. Instead, he recognises that culture in the anthropological sense is the place where power has to bed itself down if it is to be effective. If the political doesn’t find a home in the cultural, its sovereignty won’t take hold. You don’t have to detest the Jacobins or idealise Marie Antoinette to take the point.

Despite his aversion to Jacobinism, Burke ended up feeling some sympathy for the revolutionary United Irish movement, an extraordinary sentiment for a British Member of Parliament. The Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, also an MP, was even more dedicated to the United Irish cause. He was, in fact, a secret fellow-traveller – a fact that, had it been widely known, might have wiped the smiles off the faces of his London audiences. The United Irishmen were Enlightenment anti-colonialists, not Romantic nationalists, but the rise of Romantic nationalism in the early 19th century once more brought culture to the centre of political life.

Nationalism was the most successful revolutionary movement of the modern age, toppling despots and dismantling empires; and culture in both its aesthetic and anthropological senses proved vital in this project. With revolutionary nationalism, culture in the sense of language, custom, folklore, history, tradition, religion, ethnicity and so on becomes something people will kill for. Or die for. Not many people are prepared to kill for Balzac or Bowie, but culture in this more specialised sense also plays a key role in nationalist politics. There are jobs for artists once more, as from Yeats and MacDiarmid to Sibelius and Senghor they become public figures and political activists. In fact, nationalism has been described as the most poetic form of politics. When the British shot some Irish nationalist rebels in 1916, a British army officer is said to have remarked: ‘We have done Ireland a service: we have rid it of some second-rate poets.’

Wanted: Culture, to rival religious faith

The nation itself resembles a work of art, being autonomous, unified, self-founding and self-originating. As this language might suggest, both art and the nation rank among the many surrogates for the Almighty that the modern age has come up with. Aesthetic culture mimics religion in its communal rites, priesthood of artists, search for transcendence and sense of the numinous. If it fails to replace religion, this is, among other things, because culture in the artistic sense involves too few people, while culture in the sense of a distinctive way of life involves too much conflict. No symbolic system in history has been able to rival religious faith, which forges a bond between the routine behaviour of billions of individuals and ultimate, imperishable truths. It’s the most enduring, deep-rooted, universal form of popular culture that history has ever witnessed, yet you won’t find it on a single cultural studies course from Sydney to San Diego.

For​ the liberal humanist heritage, culture mattered because it represented certain fundamental, universal values that might constitute a common ground between those who were otherwise divided. It was a ground on which we could converge simply by virtue of our shared humanity, and in this sense it was an enlightened notion; you didn’t have to be the son of a viscount to take part. Since our shared humanity was rather an abstract concept, however, something that brought it back to lived experience was needed, something you could see and touch and weigh in your hand: this was known as art or literature. If someone asked you what you lived by, you gave them not a religious sermon or a political pamphlet but a volume of Shakespeare.

The self-interest of this project, as with almost all appeals to unity, is obvious enough: culture, like the bourgeois state for Marx, represents an abstract community and equality which compensate for actual antagonisms and inequities. In the presence of the essential and universal, we are invited to suspend superficial distinctions of class, gender, ethnicity and the like. Even so, liberal humanism captured a truth, albeit in a self-serving form: what human beings have in common is in the end more important than their differences. It’s just that, politically speaking, the end is a long time coming.

Wanted: Culture, to make profits and fight wars for political demands

The vision of culture as common ground was challenged from the late 1960s by a series of developments. Students were entering higher education from backgrounds that made them disinclined to sign up to this consensus. The concept of culture began to lose its innocence. It had already been compromised by its association with racist ideology and imperialist anthropology in the 19th century, and contaminated by political strife in the context of revolutionary nationalism. From the end of the 19th century, culture became a highly lucrative industry, as cultural production was increasingly integrated into production in general, and the manufacture of mass fantasy became deeply profitable. This, we might note, isn’t yet postmodernism. Postmodernism happens not just with the arrival of mass culture but with the aestheticising of social existence, from design and advertising to branding, politics as spectacle, tattoos, purple hair and ridiculously large glasses. Culture, once the antithesis of material production, has now been folded into production.

Modernism, now a century behind us, was the last time culture offered itself as a full-blooded critique of society, a critique launched mainly from the radical right. If it does so no longer, neither does culture in the sense of a specific form of life. Most such life-forms today are out not to question the framework of modern civilisation but to be included within it. Inclusion, however, isn’t a good in itself, any more than diversity is. One thinks fondly of Samuel Goldwyn’s cry: ‘Include me out!’

All of this is sometimes known as cultural politics, and has given rise in our time to the so-called culture wars. For Schiller and Arnold, the phrase ‘culture wars’ would have been an oxymoron like, say, ‘business ethics’ (Beckett is said to have remarked that he had a strong weakness for an oxymoron). Culture in their eyes was the solution to strife, not an example of it. Now, culture is no longer a way of transcending the political but the language in which certain key political demands are framed and fought out. From being a spiritual solution, it has become part of the problem. And we have shifted in the process from culture to cultures.

TE culture wars Picture1

Both types of culture are currently under threat from different kinds of levelling. Thinking about aesthetic culture is increasingly shaped by the commodity form, which elides all distinctions and equalises all values. In some postmodern circles, this is celebrated as anti-elitist. But distinctions of value are a routine part of life, if not between Dryden and Pope then between Morrissey and Liam Gallagher. In this respect, anti-elitists who like to see themselves as close to common life are deluded. At the same time, cultures in the sense of distinctive forms of life are levelled by advanced capitalism, as every hairdressing salon and Korean restaurant on the planet comes to look like every other, despite the prattle about difference and diversity. In an era when the culture industry’s power is at its most formidable, culture in both of its main senses is being pitched into crisis.

Culture in our time has become nothing less than a full-blooded ideology, generally known as culturalism. Along with biologism, economism, moralism, historicism and the like, it is one of the major intellectual reductionisms of the day. On this theory, culture goes all the way down. The nature of humanity is culture. Behind this doctrine lurks an aversion to nature (one of culture’s traditional antitheses) as obdurate, inflexible, brutely given and resistant to change. At precisely the point where nature is capricious, unpredictable and alarmingly fast-moving, culturalism insists on regarding it as inert and immobile.

It’s not that culture is our nature, but that it is of our nature. It’s both possible and necessary because of the kinds of body we have. Necessary, because there’s a gap in our nature that culture in the sense of physical care must move into quickly if we are to survive as infants. Possible, because our bodies, unlike those of snails and spiders, are able to extend themselves outward by the power of language or conceptual thought, as well as by the way we are constructed to labour on the world. This prosthesis to our bodies is known as civilisation. The only problem, as Greek tragedy was aware, is that we can extend ourselves too far, lose contact with our sensuous, instinctual being, overreach ourselves and bring ourselves to nothing. But that’s another story. 

This video of the lecture is worth watching not only for the Q and A session, but for Terry's closing rendition in song of Raglan Road 

Terry Eagleton is a British literary theorist, critic, and public intellectual. He is currently Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University. He has published over forty books, anmd hundreds of articles and reviews, and is the most influential contemporary cultural theorist. 

Fran Lock is an editor, essayist, the author of numerous chapbooks and thirteen poetry collections, most recently Hyena! (Poetry Bus Press), which was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize 2023. She is a Commissioning Editor at Culture Matters, and she edits the Soul Food column for Communist Review

Alan Morrison is a Sussex-based poet. His collections include A Tapestry of Absent Sitters (2009), Keir Hardie Street (2010; shortlisted for the 2011 Tillie Olsen Award, Working-Class Studies Association, USA), Captive Dragons (2011), Blaze a Vanishing (2013), Shadows Waltz Haltingly (2015), Tan Raptures (2017), Shabbigentile (2019), Gum Arabic (2020), Anxious Corporals (2021), Green Hauntings (2022), Wolves Come Grovelling (2023) and Rag Argonauts (2024). He was joint winner of the 2018 Bread & Roses Poetry Award, and was highly commended in the inaugural Shelley Memorial Poetry Competition 2022. He edits The Recusant and Militant Thistles, and is book designer for Culture Matters

 

The Combination
Thursday, 13 June 2024 08:02

The Combination

Published in Books

The Combination - A Poetic Coupling of the Communist Manifesto by Peter Raynard

£6 (plus £1.50 p&p). ISBN 978-1-912710-04-1

Culture Matters is proud to publish a remarkable new long poem by Peter Raynard written to mark the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth, and the 170th anniversary of the publication of The Communist Manifesto. 

Like the Manifesto, it protests the injustice and exploitation which is integral to capitalism, and the growing gap between capitalism’s productive potential and the unequal distribution of its benefits. And like that Manifesto, it is a dynamic and powerful piece of writing – pungent, oppositional and unsettling.

'A highly innovative long poem, loaded with history, radicalism and urgency.'
- Anthony Anaxagorou

‘This poetic coupling is something else. It's a re-appropriation, a reclamation, a making sing. It's bolshie (yes, in every sense), provocative and poignant too. It takes the Manifesto back from all that is dead, dry and terminally obfuscated. It's a reminder of reality, the flesh on the theory. It gives Marx to those of us who need him most. Not just relevant, but urgent. Not just angry, but hopeful."
- Fran Lock

Buy your copy here:

200 years young
Thursday, 13 June 2024 08:02

200 years young

Published in Films

Scott McLemee reviews The Young Karl Marx, which, on the eve of 200th anniversary of Marx's birth, contains themes of economic crises and inequalities that remain relevant today.

Released last year but receiving as yet very little English-language press coverage, Der Junge Karl Marx is a nuanced and surprisingly accurate portrait of the revolutionary as a young man. That said, I cannot vouch for the chase scene. Regarding which, more anon.

First a couple of circumstances that bode well for the film's chances of reaching a wider audience once The Young Karl Marx (the title I saw it under at a film festival recently) becomes available on DVD and via streaming. Its director is Raoul Peck, the Haitian filmmaker whose I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary about James Baldwin, was nominated for the Oscars last year. And the timing is good: This coming May 5 will mark the 200th anniversary of Marx's birth. Add, say, the findings in World Bank report released this week, The Changing Wealth of Nations 2018, and the potential for interest in the film looks promising. Over the past two decades, global wealth grew "grew an estimated 66 percent," the report says, "from $690 trillion to $1,143 trillion in constant 2014 U.S. dollars at market prices," while "per capita wealth declined or stagnated in more than two dozen countries in various income brackets."

If anything, those figures understate the gap. It was defined more starkly two years ago by Oxfam: "[T]he richest 1 percent have now accumulated more wealth than the rest of the world put together…. Meanwhile, the wealth owned by the bottom half of humanity has fallen by a trillion dollars in the past five years."

As the middle-aged Marx put it when writing for The New York Tribune in 1859: "There must be something rotten in the very core of a social system which increases its wealth without diminishing its misery." His understanding of that system identified tendencies towards economic crisis and breakdown as inherent in the normal functioning of capitalism itself. The tweaks and patches improvised to keep things moving become, in due course, sources of turbulence. (How to square stagnating wages with the need for constantly renewed household purchasing power? With more and more consumer credit - plus the chance for investors to wager on securities tied to mortgage failure! That'll fix it.) These are insights it is unfortunately necessary to recover from time to time.

Peck and his screenwriters have availed themselves of very few of the imaginative liberties usually permitted in the making of a biopic. The Young Karl Marx sticks closely to the record, with some of the dialogue adapted from correspondence or memoirs and the casting director clearly working from portraits of the original figures. It can be difficult to imagine that there was ever a young man beneath the iconic Marx, with his prophetic and imposing beard. But August Diehl bears a striking resemblance to a drawing of Marx in his early twenties, and depicts him with just the confrontational edge that comes through in his letters to Friedrich Engels. The latter is played by Stefan Konarske - and again the likeness to pictures of the young Engels, especially in demeanor, shows more attention to the biographical sources than the genre necessarily requires.

KM4

The film opens in 1842 with Marx and his fellow philosopher-journalists at the Rheinische Zeitung being arrested for Marx's scathing coverage of debates in the local parliament - in particular, his articles on new laws taking away the traditional right of peasants to gather deadwood on a landowner's property. Marx himself later wrote that reporting on such grubby matters had been his first push towards studying economic issues. On screen, it appears as Marx's breaking point with the Young Hegelians (not a circle I ever expected to see on film) and the beginning of a series of clashes with government officials and hurried moves from country to country with his wife and children - living the life of an impecunious political exile that continues long after the end of the movie, which coincides with publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848. For the record, the final scene contains the only significant factual mistake I noticed: Marx tells Engels he will be writing for The New York Tribune, though in fact he was only offered the job in 1851.

Now, a film that begins with its hero writing for one newspaper and ends with him taking a position at another newspaper is going to need a lot more than verisimilitude going for it. And that is also true even - or perhaps especially - when intervening developments largely concern the shaping of a political doctrine. What The Young Karl Marx has working to its advantage is that the 1840s were an exceptionally lively decade. Cold War-era accounts sometimes made it sound like Marx was a misanthropic recluse, scribbling diatribes read mostly by other fanatics. Peck stands that myth on its head in the first scene of Karl and Jenny in Paris, attending a political banquet addressed by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

Such banquets were a big part of the oppositional political scene in France at the time. In reading about them, I've always imagined a big hall with waiters bringing food to large tables -- nothing like the event depicted in the film. What we see is more like an open-air rally during the daytime, with booths for food and books for sale. Proudhon takes the stage to speak about the need for an economy that won't grind the people into the dirt. He's surrounded by what looks like an entourage of co-thinkers who don't look especially happy about it when Marx throws "the master" a hard question, though both he and the audience seem to enjoy the exchange. And it so happens that some of that audience is black - a nice touch and Raoul Peck's reminder that his ancestors were part of French history even if historians have sometimes written them out of it.

In short, we get a glimpse at a culture of political debate - the first of several. In later events, the audience consists more and more of working men and women, some of them devoted to Proudhon, others drawn to the religiously-tinged radical vision of Wilhelm Weitling, a German tailor of great eloquence. In time, Marx and Engels find themselves both working and arguing with these comrades, with Marx in particular proving constitutionally incapable of politesse. Of course, he's even less diplomatic upon meeting a British industrialist who insists that if child labor is abolished, he won't be able to turn a profit.

Textbook boilerplate has it that the Manifesto launched an international revolutionary movement. But The Young Karl Marx shows what that truism leaves out: Marx and Engels were part of, and were shaped by, a movement from below of people who fought not for ideals but for survival. The point of the manifesto was to give that movement an analysis of some breadth and depth. Whatever the failings of Marx and Engels's shorter-term projections, the lines read in voice-over concern something closer at hand than 19th-century social conditions.

I failed to note down exactly which passage was used, but in looking over the text, I am struck once again by the lucidity and precision of what the authors saw:

All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property.

This vision of hybridity applies to The Young Karl Marx itself - a film in German, French and English, directed by a Haitian in a medium well suited to communicating across wide cultural differences. Which brings me back to how in the film, shortly after Marx and Engels meet and begin exchanging ideas, they soon run into police who are hassling immigrants. They try to escape, and the chase is on! I've checked the biographies and find no indication that this actually happened. But maybe the director is tipping his hat to American cinema by imagining Marx and Engels in a buddy movie.

This review first appeared here, at the U.S. website Inside Higher Ed.

 

200 years young
Thursday, 13 June 2024 08:02

200 years young

Published in Films

Scott McLemee reviews The Young Karl Marx, which, on the eve of 200th anniversary of Marx's birth, contains themes of economic crises and inequalities that remain relevant today.

Released last year but receiving as yet very little English-language press coverage, Der Junge Karl Marx is a nuanced and surprisingly accurate portrait of the revolutionary as a young man. That said, I cannot vouch for the chase scene. Regarding which, more anon.

First a couple of circumstances that bode well for the film's chances of reaching a wider audience once The Young Karl Marx (the title I saw it under at a film festival recently) becomes available on DVD and via streaming. Its director is Raoul Peck, the Haitian filmmaker whose I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary about James Baldwin, was nominated for the Oscars last year. And the timing is good: This coming May 5 will mark the 200th anniversary of Marx's birth. Add, say, the findings in World Bank report released this week, The Changing Wealth of Nations 2018, and the potential for interest in the film looks promising. Over the past two decades, global wealth grew "grew an estimated 66 percent," the report says, "from $690 trillion to $1,143 trillion in constant 2014 U.S. dollars at market prices," while "per capita wealth declined or stagnated in more than two dozen countries in various income brackets."

If anything, those figures understate the gap. It was defined more starkly two years ago by Oxfam: "[T]he richest 1 percent have now accumulated more wealth than the rest of the world put together…. Meanwhile, the wealth owned by the bottom half of humanity has fallen by a trillion dollars in the past five years."

As the middle-aged Marx put it when writing for The New York Tribune in 1859: "There must be something rotten in the very core of a social system which increases its wealth without diminishing its misery." His understanding of that system identified tendencies towards economic crisis and breakdown as inherent in the normal functioning of capitalism itself. The tweaks and patches improvised to keep things moving become, in due course, sources of turbulence. (How to square stagnating wages with the need for constantly renewed household purchasing power? With more and more consumer credit - plus the chance for investors to wager on securities tied to mortgage failure! That'll fix it.) These are insights it is unfortunately necessary to recover from time to time.

Peck and his screenwriters have availed themselves of very few of the imaginative liberties usually permitted in the making of a biopic. The Young Karl Marx sticks closely to the record, with some of the dialogue adapted from correspondence or memoirs and the casting director clearly working from portraits of the original figures. It can be difficult to imagine that there was ever a young man beneath the iconic Marx, with his prophetic and imposing beard. But August Diehl bears a striking resemblance to a drawing of Marx in his early twenties, and depicts him with just the confrontational edge that comes through in his letters to Friedrich Engels. The latter is played by Stefan Konarske - and again the likeness to pictures of the young Engels, especially in demeanor, shows more attention to the biographical sources than the genre necessarily requires.

KM4

The film opens in 1842 with Marx and his fellow philosopher-journalists at the Rheinische Zeitung being arrested for Marx's scathing coverage of debates in the local parliament - in particular, his articles on new laws taking away the traditional right of peasants to gather deadwood on a landowner's property. Marx himself later wrote that reporting on such grubby matters had been his first push towards studying economic issues. On screen, it appears as Marx's breaking point with the Young Hegelians (not a circle I ever expected to see on film) and the beginning of a series of clashes with government officials and hurried moves from country to country with his wife and children - living the life of an impecunious political exile that continues long after the end of the movie, which coincides with publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848. For the record, the final scene contains the only significant factual mistake I noticed: Marx tells Engels he will be writing for The New York Tribune, though in fact he was only offered the job in 1851.

Now, a film that begins with its hero writing for one newspaper and ends with him taking a position at another newspaper is going to need a lot more than verisimilitude going for it. And that is also true even - or perhaps especially - when intervening developments largely concern the shaping of a political doctrine. What The Young Karl Marx has working to its advantage is that the 1840s were an exceptionally lively decade. Cold War-era accounts sometimes made it sound like Marx was a misanthropic recluse, scribbling diatribes read mostly by other fanatics. Peck stands that myth on its head in the first scene of Karl and Jenny in Paris, attending a political banquet addressed by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

Such banquets were a big part of the oppositional political scene in France at the time. In reading about them, I've always imagined a big hall with waiters bringing food to large tables -- nothing like the event depicted in the film. What we see is more like an open-air rally during the daytime, with booths for food and books for sale. Proudhon takes the stage to speak about the need for an economy that won't grind the people into the dirt. He's surrounded by what looks like an entourage of co-thinkers who don't look especially happy about it when Marx throws "the master" a hard question, though both he and the audience seem to enjoy the exchange. And it so happens that some of that audience is black - a nice touch and Raoul Peck's reminder that his ancestors were part of French history even if historians have sometimes written them out of it.

In short, we get a glimpse at a culture of political debate - the first of several. In later events, the audience consists more and more of working men and women, some of them devoted to Proudhon, others drawn to the religiously-tinged radical vision of Wilhelm Weitling, a German tailor of great eloquence. In time, Marx and Engels find themselves both working and arguing with these comrades, with Marx in particular proving constitutionally incapable of politesse. Of course, he's even less diplomatic upon meeting a British industrialist who insists that if child labor is abolished, he won't be able to turn a profit.

Textbook boilerplate has it that the Manifesto launched an international revolutionary movement. But The Young Karl Marx shows what that truism leaves out: Marx and Engels were part of, and were shaped by, a movement from below of people who fought not for ideals but for survival. The point of the manifesto was to give that movement an analysis of some breadth and depth. Whatever the failings of Marx and Engels's shorter-term projections, the lines read in voice-over concern something closer at hand than 19th-century social conditions.

I failed to note down exactly which passage was used, but in looking over the text, I am struck once again by the lucidity and precision of what the authors saw:

All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property.

This vision of hybridity applies to The Young Karl Marx itself - a film in German, French and English, directed by a Haitian in a medium well suited to communicating across wide cultural differences. Which brings me back to how in the film, shortly after Marx and Engels meet and begin exchanging ideas, they soon run into police who are hassling immigrants. They try to escape, and the chase is on! I've checked the biographies and find no indication that this actually happened. But maybe the director is tipping his hat to American cinema by imagining Marx and Engels in a buddy movie.

This review first appeared here, at the U.S. website Inside Higher Ed.

 

......and its name is Communism
Thursday, 13 June 2024 08:02

......and its name is Communism

Published in Poetry

On the 170th anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto, Jenny Farrell introduces Brecht’s poetic re-writing of the Communist Manifesto, with its ‘spectre of communism, which continues to be a threat to the rulers and a friend to the damned of the earth.’

In February 1848, Marx and Engels published “The Communist Manifesto” (TCM). It remains to this day a remarkable piece of literature, a lucid and powerful explanation of politics, economics and culture. It outlines the central importance of class in understanding human history, and a programme to guide our struggle for a more humane, communist society with no class-based divisions.

Almost one hundred years after its first publication, on 11 February 1945, German communist poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht noted in his diary the plan to re-write this text in verse. He was still living in exile in Santa Monica. The end of WWII was approaching and with it the question concerning the future of Germany. Brecht recorded in his journal on 10 March1945: “terrible newspaper reports from Germany. Ruins and no sign of life from the workers”.

Brecht hoped to infuse the original text with “new, armed authority”. The past century had witnessed ever-deeper crises and two horrendous wars. It had also seen for the first time in history a successful revolution, in which the proletariat had taken power. Armed with this historical perspective, the awareness of later Marxist theory, and the need to revive the idea of communism as the only alternative to barbarism, Brecht resolved on this spectacularly ambitious challenge.

With Lucretius’s didactic poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) in mind, and the added challenge of hexameters, he began writing a didactic poem “On the Abnormality (Un-nature) of Bourgeois Relations”. At the heart of four intended cantos, two were to be a versification of the Manifesto, plus an initial one on the difficulties of understanding the nature of society, and a final one to demonstrate the monstrous increase in barbarism. Brecht wrote the second canto first, versifying the first chapter of TCM. This is the only part that Brecht worked on and fully developed. However, Brecht did not publish it during his lifetime, and the poem remained a fragment. Yet “The Manifesto” is awe-inspiring and truly memorable.

In his versification, Brecht follows the original text, often using its terms and famous formulations, but changing some of these around in the interest of dramatic effect and also modernising it. Take the opening stanza: TCM famously begins: “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism”. Brecht uses the phrase “A spectre is haunting” in the opening line, and marvellously personifies it as present in various places and situations around the world. He withholds the name of the personified spectre until the end of the stanza, creating an arc of tension and adding dramatic emphasis to the word “Communism”.

Here is an extract, translated by Jack Mitchell:

Wars ruin the world and a spectre is haunting the ruins.
Not born in war, seen around in peace too, for some time now.
Nightmare to rulers but friend to the children that live in the townships.
Shaking its head as it peers into half-filled plates in poor kitchens.
Standing in wait then for those that are weary at pit-head and yard-gate.
Visiting friends in the prisons, passing in without pass-card.
Seen even in offices, heard in the lecture-halls, personally
Sometimes mounting giant tanks and flying in death-dealing bombers.
Speaking in various tongues, in all tongues. Keeping silent in many.
Guest of honour in ghettos and slums, the terror of palaces
Some here to stay, and for ever: its name is Communism.

Apart from its friendly and ever-present character, Brecht stresses the fear “palaces” have of the spectre, and its willingness to defend itself. The new world situations enter into the image as the spectre mounts tanks and death-dealing bombers, referring to the Soviet army in WWII defending the Soviet Union from Nazi invasion.

JF EasternFrontWWIIcolage

The difference between the original text and its poetic ‘translation’ is evident in the gentleness with which Brecht describes the spectre’s actions: vivid actions take the place of theoretical explanation. This is not a judgement of better or worse, it is a comment on the specific nature of art and poetry. Art and poetry capture the nature of the world and of society in specific, individualised images, whereas a text like TCM aims to outline some general principles of history and society. Although it occasionally illustrates its points with references to art, it operates on a different, more abstract level.

 Another way in which Brecht departs from the original is that he addresses his readers directly. He also establishes the speaker as intermediary between the reader and the founders of scientific communism:

Much you’ve heard tell of it. This, however, is what its founders say.
If you read history you read of the deeds of immense individuals;
Their star, in its rising and falling; the march of their armies;
Or of the pomp and destruction of empires. For them, for the founders
However, history is foremost the history of conflicts of classes.
They see the peoples internally split into classes and
Warring within. Patricians and knights, plebeians and slaves
Nobles, peasants and craftsmen, proletarians and bourgeois today
Keep in their turn the whole mighty household in motion, creating
And distributing the goods that are needed for living, but also
Fighting their fight to the death, the old fight, the one for dominion.

A central theme in TCM are the modes of production, and production itself. While Marx describes the objective laws of capitalist production, Brecht invests his imagery with the sense of natural laws. While Marx presents facts and outcomes, Brecht focuses on activities:

Never before was unleashed such a wild surge of creation
As that which the bourgeoisie in its epoch of sway has unfolded
One which bowed nature to man and made steam and electrical power
Cleared rivers for shipping and continents ready for tillage.
Never before had humanity guessed that asleep in its womb
Such liberations were lurking and powers of production like these.

Overproduction in capitalism, leads to its reversal, the destruction of commodities. The following quote is from the translation by Darko Suvin (see endnote):

Immemorial hunger had plagued the world when granaries emptied:
Now, nobody knows why, we’re hungry when they’re too full.
Mothers find nothing in the bare pantry to fill the small mouths
While sky-high mountains of grain rot behind walls.
& while bales upon bales of cloth are warehoused, the ragged family,
Overnight kicked out of its rented home, wanders freezing
Through emptied city quarters.

He illustrates the commodity nature of all labour:

Just as the capitalist sells his commodities, likewise the worker
Sells his commodity, namely his labour-power, being subjected
Therefore to competition and all the ups and downs of the market.
Appendage merely to the machine he sells his simple knack
Costing no more than the cost of his keep and whatever little he needs to
Reproduce and bring up his kind, that most useful of species
Since labour-power’s price, like the price of all other commodities
Depends on its cost of production. Out of the tiny workshop of old
Handicraft grew the great factory ordering army-wise
Work and the workers, slaves of the bourgeois state but also
Slaves of a certain bourgeois, his overseers and the machine.

He highlights the way capitalist production dehumanises:

Instead of feeding off
Its proletarians, now it must feed them. It needs to employ them
But has no employment for them and yet lets their numbers swell.
And dehumanization wins, marking the victims
and victimizers….

 He also draws on other, later works of Marx, including for example the theory of cyclical crises and the hidden fetishism of commodity economy, adding this to the Manifesto.

The house does not exist for dwelling, the cloth for dressing
Nor the bread for stilling hunger: they must bring Profit.
If the product however is only used, but not also bought
Since the producer’s pay is too small – were the salary raised
It wouldn’t pay to produce the commodity – why then
Hire the hands? For they must produce at the workbench more
Than a reproduction of worker & family if there’s to be
Profit! Yet what then with the commodities? In good logic therefore:
Woolens and grain, coffee and fruits and fish and pork
All are consumed by fire, to warm the God of Profit!
Heaps of machines, tools for entire armies of workers,
Blast furnace, shipyard and mine and iron and textile mill
All sacrificed, cut up to appease the God of Profit!
Yet their God of Profit is smitten with blindness. He never sees
The victims. He’s ignorant. While he counsels believers he mumbles
Formulas nobody grasps.

 Note how specifics evoke all the senses and make the images more memorable: “Woolens & grain, coffee and fruits and fish and pork” appeal to our senses of touch, smell, taste and vision. “Blast furnace, shipyard and mine and iron and textile mill” add red heat, the contrasting coolness and paler colour of the sea, the darkness and depth of the mines, the women and children of the textile mills, the sounds of industry.

JF At the Coal Face. A Miner Pushing a Tub 1942 Art.IWM ART LD 2240

At the Coal Face. A Miner Pushing a Tub, Henry Moore, 1942

Brecht’s “The Manifesto” is not simply a reiteration of TCM in verse form. It is more than that, it is an expansion of the original based on Marxist theory. Readers in later times will bring their experience to the poem.

Now however those weapons wielded with deadly effect
To shatter the feudal world are turned on the bourgeoisie.
Yes it too has brought forth a class that will bear those death-dealing
Weapons against it, for all through the centuries, bound in its service
Grew with the bourgeoisie also the proletariat of the modern
Workers, living by labour and finding work only so long as they
Work in the bourgeois interest, increasing his capital interests.
Just as the capitalist sells his commodities, likewise the worker
Sells his commodity, namely his labour-power, being subjected
Therefore to competition and all the ups and downs of the market.
Appendage merely to the machine he sells his simple knack
Costing no more than the cost of his keep and whatever little he needs to
Reproduce and bring up his kind, that most useful of species
Since labour-power’s price, like the price of all other commodities
Depends on its cost of production. Out of the tiny workshop of old
Handicraft grew the great factory ordering army-wise
Work and the workers, slaves of the bourgeois state but also
Slaves of a certain bourgeois, his overseers and the machine.

“The Manifesto” saw a number of re-workings. Upon his return to Berlin, Brecht went back to the draft several times. Communist composer and fellow exile in the US, Hanns Eisler, later regretted the fact that he and Feuchtwanger had discouraged Brecht in this project. He said:

If we had an epic by Brecht, “The Communist Manifesto”, then this would have gone down in human history as a very rare work of art indeed. (…) we did not consider then that Marxism must be disseminated in many ways, in many areas and in manifold subtleties. (…) much becomes attractive by being poeticised, that is deemed boring in the flatness of everyday life, the difficulties of class struggle, or academic classrooms. Brecht casts a golden sheen.

The world-famous spectre that Marx described so clearly still haunts the world, wherever wars devastate innocent populations, man-made famine stalks poor countries, workers are paid poverty wages, and the powerful oppress the dispossessed. The spectre explains the reasons for such devastation and oppression. It speaks in countless languages, and is expressed in many cultural activities – sport and religion as well as all the arts. Those cultural activities are also the site of continuous struggle, throughout history, as ruling classes seek to control and manipulate them, and veil or corrupt their fundamentally social, co-operative nature in order to obtain consent and maintain social order, so that economic exploitation can proceed unchallenged.

Yet still people fight back, economically, politically and culturally. In short, the spectre of communism continues to be threat to the rulers and a friend to the damned of the earth:

Therefore the one class capable of defeating the bourgeoisie
And shattering the fetter its state has meanwhile become
Is, in our time, the working class. It is this by its size and condition.
All that once guaranteed life in the older society now is
Rubbed out, done away with, in the life of the proletariat.
Propertyless, head and provider no longer to wife and children
Hard to distinguish by nation or native place now, for the selfsame
Subjection at the selfsame machine marks him from Essen to Canton
Morals and religion confront the proletarian as fata morganas
Mirroring to him, far off unattainable, Edens in deserts.
/…/
His is the movement of the immense majority, and his dominion is
Domination no more but the subjection of all domination.
There oppression alone is oppressed for the proletariat must
As society’s undermost stratum, in rising, completely demolish
The social set-up entire with all its uppermost strata.
It can shake off its subjection only in shaking off all
Subjection from all people.

Works consulted:

Rita Schober, "Brechts Umschrift des Kommunistischen Manifests" in Vom Sinn oder Unsinn der Literaturwissenschaft, Mitteldeutscher Verlag Halle Leipzig, 1988.
Hans Runge, "Das Manifest" von Bertolt Brecht, Sinn und Form, Heft 2-3, 1963.
Robert Spaethling, "Bertolt Brecht and the Communist Manifesto", The Germanic Review, Columbia University Press, vol. XXXVII, 1962.
Socialism and Democray online, On Brecht’s “The Manifesto”: Comments for Readers in English, April 11, 2011.
Most quotations used here are from a translation by Jack Mitchell, unpublished.

For the full text of Brecht’s poem in English, please see the translation by Darko R. Suvin 1999, 2001, accessible here.

JF commmanifest