Communist Party of Australia

We acknowledge the Sovereignty of the First Nations’ Peoples.


Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 30September 1993

Art and Social Contradiction

by Norman W Goldberg

The following article was first published in Political Affairs, the theoretical journal of the Communist Party USA, March 1993

The war of words in the electronic and print media over Spike Lee’s recent film Malcolm X illustrates the interplay between art and politics, and for Marxist-Leninist aesthetics it presents a set of questions long deliberated and but never fully settled. A war of words has centred on the depiction of Malcolm X in the film.

His gifts as a leader and orator and his courage inspire many to his cause. When he feels betrayed by what he perceives as hypocrisy in the Nation of Islam’s leadership, he withdraws and attempts to start an independent organisation. Seen as a threat to the Muslim leadership, he is assassinated with the connivance of the CIA.

Those who praise the film stress Lee’s directorial talent, his vivid re-creation of recent Black history, and point to the superb acting, especially Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm. The film is acclaimed by its supporters as an outstanding achievement, that mirrors life for African Americans in a racist society, not a sop for middle class Blacks.

Some critics of the film have strongly defended the hero-image of Malcolm against what they see as a slick Hollywoodised presentation, replete with standard film fare: violence, crime and sex, all served up to whet the appetites of a mass audience and assure commercial success. These critics see Spike Lee as a talented artist who has been used by Hollywood to make a film acceptable to whites.

Other criticisms are voiced, such as the assertion that the film has no working class substance, and that the changes in Malcolm’s views from Black nationalism to a deeper social consciousness are not shown. There have been criticisms by feminists, Black intellectuals, establishment moderates, and also from Black trade unionists. The kettle boils and opinions are intense. It is a vexing question and it defies simplistic analysis. We are living in a racist society and we see on film a flawed fight for liberation. It is therefore fully understandable why many African Americans, living in persecution, lionise the martyred Malcolm. The complexities of the film reflect the complexities that exist in bourgeois society and in the movement against racism.

This is fundamentally a political question and calls for examination from a Marxist perspective. The film’s proximity to political reality cannot be sidestepped by a critical appraisal based solely on its artistic production, direction and performance. Malcolm X was a complex and charismatic figure who underwent an evolution in views, first as a leader of the Nation of Islam and later as the head of the Organisation of Afro-American Unity and Muslim Mosques, Inc. He initially promoted nationalism and separatism but later, while retaining a nationalist perspective, argued for greater co-operation and unity between peoples.

Political reality made it indispensable that alliances be made with the trade unions and a wide range of organisations to advance the fight for racial justice. This was more clearly understood and practised by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Malcolm criticised King and other African American leaders for not fighting hard enough but later came to realise that he was wrong. King was a unifier who spearheaded a mass movement against racism and segregation and pushed it as far as it could go at the time. The class character of this movement was crystallising, and that is why Martin Luther King Jr. was also assassinated. The working class element in the movement headed by King was lacking in Malcolm.

Nevertheless, Malcolm’s dedication to the struggle and his refusal to compromise remains a powerful element in African American consciousness, despite his ideological shortcomings. The continuing racism, including unemployment, poverty, health problems, homelessness and general misery for millions, keeps the image of Malcolm X alive.

The purpose here is not to write a full review of Malcolm X, but to deal with the larger question of art as evocative of social reality, and how the contradictions in social reality affect art. This is an old question for Marxist aesthetics, a topic of controversy for decades. Marxism has made many contributions in art criticism and theory, though not unfortunately in recent years.

Brecht-Lukacs debates

In the 1930s and 40s, Bertolt Brecht and George Lukacs took part in an ongoing debate on literature and theatre that directly bears on these issues. Both were communists, yet they had sharply opposing views on art and its function in society.(1)

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was a German poet and dramatist, and a fiercely anti-capitalist writer. Contained in Brecht’s work such as Drums in the Night, In the Jungle of the Cities, Three Penny Opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany, Galileo, and Mother Courage is an unrelenting denunciation of modern bourgeois society, which is the kernel of his poems and plays. Brecht left Germany when fascism came to power, and lived in various places in Europe and the USA. After the war he returned to Europe and lived in the GDR (East Germany) where a theatre was organised for him in which his plays were constantly performed. After his death, the theatre’s direction was assumed by his wife, the actress Helene Weigel.

George Lukacs (1885-1971) was a Hungarian philosopher and literary historian. He has been called by some "The Marx of Aesthetics". Lukacs’ critical works include Theory of the Novel, History and Class Consciousness, Goethe and his Age, Essays on Realism, The Historical Novel, Essays on Thomas Mann and other studies. Lukacs was a Marxist traditionalist, that is he was an adherent of realism in its classic form, and was suspicious of modernism in the arts. Modernism he felt to be a petty bourgeois tool and device of obfuscation. Art and aesthetics in his view should be evolutionary and derived from long cultural experience.

Lukacs was a member of the Hungarian Communist Party and was forced to flee Hungary after the Horthy fascist regime came to power in the early 1920s. He was active in the Communist Party of Germany in the pre-Hitler period. For a while he lived and worked in the Soviet Union and after the war returned to Hungary. In 1956, a politically disoriented Lukacs accepted the post of Minister of Culture in the short-lived Imre Nagy social democratic regime during the counter-revolution. After its defeat, Lukacs lived out the rest of his life in semi-retirement in Budapest.

Both Brecht and Lukacs were influenced by the new revolutionary art that arose in the Soviet Union after the 1917 revolution and spread to other countries. This art gained a firm foothold in Germany which had been shaken to its foundations by its World War I defeat and worker insurrections. All art in Germany was affected by the revolutionary waves.

The most prominent figure of this new art was Vsevolod Emilievich Meyerhold, the Soviet director who staged many political propaganda plays, and who introduced such innovations as dispensing with the theatrical curtain and the use of a bare stage and only symbolic scenery. In Germany, Meyerhold’s most talented disciples were Bertolt Brecht, Erwin Piscator, Willi Bredel and Ernst Ottwald, all communist writers and dramatists.

Piscator and Bredel were advocates of a purely political and agitational theatre, a theatre of revolutionary working class action. In Piscator’s view, the individual no longer exists except as an extension of his class and motivated by its will. Piscator writes: “Man as shown on the stage is of importance to us because of his social function only. When he appears on the stage, his class and rank appear with him.” Piscator goes on to say that with every moral, spiritual or personal conflict, man enters into conflict with society. All relations, personal or otherwise, are social relations and are political at the core. Only political theatre, literature and art are capable of meeting the challenge. All other art is mystifying and mesmerising, escapist, and a barrier to heightened consciousness and action.

This outlook troubled a number of Communist Party theoreticians, even in a highly charged class conscious Germany. In the late 1920s, the Communist Party newspaper, Red Flag, criticised Piscator’s approach to theatre, writing:

“This is not art but propaganda. The aim here is to express on the stage the proletarian and Communist idea for propagandistic and educational purposes only. There is not supposed to be any aesthetic pleasure. Art is too sacred a thing for its name to be applied to vulgar propaganda. What the worker needs in our day is a vigorous art. It matters little if this art is of bourgeois origin, so long as it is art.”

More was said on this in other Party publications which pointed out that Lenin and Lunacharsky, the Soviet Union’s first Commissar of Education, had both recoiled from the extremes of Bogdanov’s “Proletkult”, a theatrical group whose aim was the accentuation of class struggle. Bogdanov had said: “Art, properly speaking, is of no concern. The aim is to engage in politics.”(2)

Again, questions arise: Do aesthetics transcend political art? What are the class characteristics of aesthetics? Can the artistic properties of political or propagandistic art elevate it to greatness? These questions teem with problems that echo the uneven nature of political reality and the class struggle. This unevenness leads to contradictions in artistic expression and mass aesthetic response. Something of this problem can be seen in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.

Bertolt Brecht in this regard preserved the revolutionary fervour of his theatre as did the others, but he had an advantage over those dramatists who created “hard edged” political art. Brecht was not only a theoretician, a polemicist and a political activist, but was also acutely probing and experimental in a partisan, class way. In Brecht there is a dialectical interaction between social reality and imaginary interpretation – it is theatre which prevents polemics from becoming too severe on the one hand, and too pensive and abstract on the other. Brecht gives us a didactic form of theatre, a theatre of instruction held in rein by artistic ingenuity. It is high political entertainment, a successful marriage of art and politics, an art that is jarring, challenging, even troublesome. Yet it is entertaining. Who would dare classify Mother Courage, Galileo, Baal or Captain MacHeath as mere mouthpieces of class drama?

Theatre of Illusion

Brecht developed a revolutionary new form of drama. His purpose was to smash the theatre of tradition, which he called the theatre of illusion, and to force the spectator to think. The basic character of traditional theatre is to reproduce the life we know on the stage. We look into a room (on stage) with three walls. The fourth wall has been opened for us to look into. No device which may shatter the illusion, such as directly addressing or involving the audience, is permitted. Sets, lighting, narrative and acting are all designed to maintain the illusion. This is the underlying character of late 19th Century drama, the theatre of Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov.

Generally, this theatre is held in three acts, a triad which is the ideal form of dramatic construction. Act I presents the particulars and suggests the forthcoming conflict; Act II brings the conflict to a critical head; and Act III brings the resolution, the catharsis.

Brecht opposed this form of theatre, calling it artificial, hypnotic and restrictive. He likened it to church, where one goes every week to atone for one’s sins and then is relieved (catharsis), so as to go on sinning until next week – sin and catharsis, repeated again and again, with nothing learned and no advance. This to Brecht was the sin of illusionist theatre.(3)

Since part of the illusion is derived from a darkened theatre, Brecht kept the auditorium lit. In this way he felt the audience would remain fully conscious, intellectually alert and better able to judge what goes on the stage, rather than remaining passive. The audience is not there to be entertained but to think and judge. He introduced a number of anti-illusionist theatrical novelties that would make the audience always aware that they were in a theatre. A night scene for example might be accomplished by simply hanging up an artificial moon to indicate night.

Paradoxically, what comes across in Brecht is precisely entertainment, although not of the traditional sort. Audiences reflect their history and the particulars of their class culture. German audiences, including workers, have responded to the nuances in Brechtian theatre more than their counterparts in other countries. The German experience – its failed bourgeois revolution, military defeats and severe worker uprisings – created an audience acutely sensitive to Brechtian irony, satire and social fantasy, a quality less in evidence elsewhere.

Brecht was not alone in puncturing the theatre of illusion. Non-illusionist theatre is seen in Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the moving plays of Lorraine Hansberry and the dramas of Melvin Van Peebles.

In cinema, the film of illusion was shattered by Sergei Eisenstein, V.I. Pudovkin, G.W. Pabst, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles and Spike Lee. This anti-illusionist trend represents a revolutionary breakthrough in artistic form (not always in content), and creates for the audience the challenge of understanding the new techniques.

George Lukacs criticised Brecht’s aesthetic views as well as Brechtian theatre. Lukacs considered the puncturing of theatrical illusion and its “magic” as an arbitrary intrusion into the process of how art entrances and involves. Lukacs went to great lengths to show how Henrik Ibsen’s plays were more socially effective for their time than all of Brecht’s plays. Ibsen’s plays like An Enemy of the People, A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler became lightning rods, he argued, not only for theatre-goers but for thousands of people in political movements against government hypocrisy, corruption and inequality for women. According to Lukacs, Brecht was playing with petty bourgeois journalistic techniques and circus novelties that separate the social meaning of stage drama from how people observe, feel and really learn.(4)

The real confrontation between Brecht and Lukacs took place in 1938 during a debate on expressionism, an art movement which had taken root in various quarters. Expressionism in art claimed to convey inner emotion and subjective experience rather than objective reality, even though much of it had qualities of social awareness. Brecht, whose early works had expressionist qualities, supported this trend, while Lukacs felt expressionism to be an intrusion into critical and social realist literature and art, a distorted form of artistic dissidence, the by-product of the petty bourgeoisie, not the working class.

Debate on socialist realism

Although Brecht and Lukacs were eager to fight fascism, the differences between them sharpened. There were basic differences between them on the socialist realism of Soviet art. To Lukacs, socialist realism is the logical extension of the critical and social realism found in literature and art of the 19th Century. Socialist realism is the inheritor of the great realist literature and art of the past, whose vision and structure would serve the new working class order. Brecht, however, is convinced that only a radical break with the decadent bourgeoisie and its art will enable the people, led by the working class, to win the battle against fascism. He sees socialist realism as suffocating to art, an overlay of old and tired forms on a new revolutionary content. Lukacs’ general literary criticism, insofar as it appears to be of aesthetic contemplation only, is suspect to Brecht. As he puts it:

“It is the evidence of capitulation, of retreat from the fray. The utopian and idealistic element that one finds in Lukacs’ essays makes his works unsatisfactory, despite the great number of interesting things in them. In Lukacs, the only thing that matters is enjoyment, not the struggle or the way out, no advance.”

Lukacs, while respecting Brecht’s special talent, felt ever more strongly the theatre of anti-illusion to be a failure. In his opinion, the long-evolved realist aesthetic cannot be so easily interrupted and discarded. A new aesthetic cannot be born so precipitously, leaning on schematics and innovation of a sort that violates cultural heritage. Lukacs insisted that the spectator’s interest in a performance should not be dependent on gimmickry laid over the theme like a varnish. Art, in his view, should be rooted within the theme itself and should flower naturally from dramatic tensions. Drama can move, shock and surprise by stressing the explosive problems inherent in the social questions being dealt with by means of concentration, not interruption.

Directly opposing Brecht, Lukacs referred to Chekhovian theatre and its power. Chekhov dramatises the impasse and the conflict between the desires and intentions of the characters on stage and the social contradictions that make it impossible for them to be realised. Brecht, by way of contrast, devised a theatre of alienation, by which he meant theatre that alienates (separates) the audience from emotional entrapment, and compels them to think. Commenting on this, Lukacs writes: “All of theatre is based on one and the same alienation effect, but precisely for that reason what we witness is drama and not a simple alienation effect.”

Here, Lukacs means alienation to be a social condition characteristic of capitalist society, the separation of people from their work and from each other, and its existence as a leading factor in the content of art, literature and drama. We would find the root causes of alienation in the writings of Marx. In other words, Lukacs believes that alienation in its social presentation on stage does not need alienated theatrical contrivances to enhance the dramatic situation.(5)

There are several ideological influences in art, and as many schools of content, but realism has proven to be the most meaningful and penetrating. This is because realism is the creative reproduction of outer reality, the world of life and movement, and is the art that attracts most people.

The term realism is usually interpreted in a technical and narrow sense. In the visual arts it usually means the duplication of something, or a likeness of reality, painted by an artist. Sometimes realism is thought of as a rendering. In this sense Gilbert Stuart, who painted portraits of George Washington and other prominent figures of his time, could be called a realist. So could Norman Rockwell, who painted many commercial illustrations. However, neither were realists, and this is only one example of the confusion of terminology.

Realism is not a technique. Fundamentally, it is a philosophy that sees a class-divided world and a social reality that is working class oriented. Realism in art is attractive when it intensifies the viewer’s sense of social truth by its artistic recreation. The “non-realistic” fantasy dramas of Bertolt Brecht attract us because the audience sees a mocking vision of class oppression in semi-abstract form, but a vision that is supremely realist in substance. This makes Brecht a realist artist in the true sense. By the same token, the films of Spike Lee are moving in a similar direction.

Realism goes beyond simple duplication of life to reveal the underlying truth shaping the character of whatever it is concerned with. A look at two dramatists, Edward Albee and Lillian Hellman, reveals this process. In Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? we see a marriage in crisis. A college professor, bored with his life and who has failed to climb the ladder to success in the academic world, takes out his frustrations on his wife by ridiculing and tormenting her, as well as ridiculing everything else around him. His wife, who is also bored and frustrated, uses her husband as a scapegoat. The fierce interaction between them, and their use of another couple as vehicles to hurt each other, produces a dramatic tension on the stage. It is startling and looks real. We are reminded that marriage can indeed be a tortured form of relationship in modern life. But why?

Albee is interested in effects, not in causes. We are given only a glimpse of the suffocating atmosphere of academic life in the university. Why doesn’t the professor try to succeed at the university? What is meant by success? The professor cannot see beyond the scope of his profession, and his wife cannot see beyond the human failures of her husband. It is the theatre of lost souls. This is not realism, but a psychological exploration of tragedy in personal terms only. In Virginia Woolf, we see and hear much but learn very little.(6)

In Lillian Hellman’s two related plays, Another Part of the Forest and The Little Foxes, we also see families in crisis. However, here each of the characters are being shaped by circumstances external to themselves. In these plays, the post-Civil War South is being penetrated by Northern capitalism, and money rules everything. The desires, dreams, needs and illusions are all dependent on money. Human relationships are reduced to money relationships, and we see the new society being born in the ashes of slavery and chivalry.(7)

Again, it should be repeated that realism is a way of perceiving, a philosophy, not a style of reproduction or representation. Unreal-like methods or forms can be used to reveal truths to us in art. We have learnt to understand fairy tales, fables and fantasies. We recognise symbols. We have learned to interpret allegories, metaphors, legends and myths. As artistic devices they are not real. But they are valid for art if their meaning is real.

Here is another example. Over 300 years ago in Spain, Cervantes wrote his epic, Don Quixote De La Mancha, the story of an aging aristocrat who goes out to right the wrongs of the world, accompanied by a simple servant, Sancho Panza. The novel is a fantasy in its form. The Don meets all classes of people, visits all sorts of places. He espouses the values of the old morality, justice and honour, which appear to find no place in a world of immorality, injustice and dishonour as represented in fantastic places and things. He battles against evil in the form of windmills but cannot win. His dreams are utopian, old dreams which cannot be realised in conditions of a changing Spain whose landed nobility was being replaced by the new class of mercantile capitalist aristocrats. In this fantasy, Cervantes showed that it was impossible to return to the “virtues” of feudalism. The Don was dreaming an “impossible dream”.

To Don Quixote, the windmill was a symbol of evil. To capitalism at the time, it was a power source for production. Cervantes shows us the pain that comes with progress at a definite stage in history. The simple servant, Sancho Panza, may be seen as a symbol of the common people. As an oppressed and exploited people under feudalism and capitalism, their interests were attached to neither system. They are outsiders. From the moth of Sancho Panza come detached, humorous and foolish remarks, as if he is an uninvolved commentator on the adventures going on. This adds to the realism of a novel whose literary form is unreal.

Realism has appeared in the history of art in many categories: as fantasy, symbolist, moralist, satire, historic realism, humanism, critical realism, social realism and as socialist realism. The categories and the forms change, as each is a means of conveying some aspect of social truth.

Art and contradiction

Marxism rejects formalism which reduces art to its surface relationships – that is to say, its style, structure and devices – and consigns art to contemplation, pleasure and remote aestheticism. At the same time, it is recognised that these ingredients fill a need for many of us. It is another living contradiction. Marxist aesthetics is fundamentally social, but it is not vulgar sociology. It disallows a flag-waving art that offers the lazy mind a handy, prefabricated system of interpretation and enjoyment. Simply put, Marxist aesthetics is neither narrow sociology nor elevated refinement. At its best, Marxism brings together all the comprehensive elements within art to creatively probe and portray social life with its movements and contradictions.

Contradiction is an elementary characteristic of life, and a built-in factor in art. One of Lukacs’ contributions to literary criticism was to show that great novels came from authors whose social views were in contradiction to what they wrote. Balzac, who Lukacs acclaims as the most prominent writer of the 19th Century, is an example. Balzac was a royalist in outlook, and he hated the money-grubbing new bourgeoisie of post-revolutionary France. He harkened back to the old days of the aristocracy with its supposed high principles, ethics and morality. But his thoroughness, keen observation and, above all, scrupulous honesty in writing about French society in the post-revolutionary era produced over 100 novels that were not only condemnations of bourgeois France but also of the decadence of the past aristocracy. It was a refutation of his own leanings, a contradiction, and this antithetical element enriched his work with a vibrant realism.(8)

Yet Brecht, in his revolutionary fervour, dismissed Balzac as a writer of potboilers. As Lukacs analysed the power and contradiction of writers like Stendahl, Tolstoy and Thomas Mann, Brecht criticised them as mystifiers and self-inflated pontificators.

This and other controversies are still with us, and they include all the big questions in art: content and form, politics and aesthetics, the meaning of realism, art and freedom and, of course, dialectics and contradiction.

Censorship and artistic “freedom”

Contemporary controversies over the issue of artistic freedom reflect another dimension of these problems. Artistic freedom is a cause celebre today in view of attempts at censorship and suppression. Rock groups, stand-up comics and painters have had engagements and exhibits cancelled, being accused of promoting drugs, indiscriminate sex, violence, indecency, suicide and general nihilistic lifestyles in their work. The recent storm over the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and the startling art of Andres Serrano resulted in the cancellation of their exhibits and threats of funding cuts against supporting museums and galleries by the National Endowment for the Arts. In another case a few years ago, a performance by the actress Vanessa Redgrave with the Boston Symphony Orchestra was stopped by Zionist pressure groups because she was a supporter of the Palestinian cause. This is all a by-product of the Reagan-Bush years which fostered a right-wing spread of Babbit-like ignorance and hatred.

Other forms of political censorship, suppression and artistic destruction go back to the days when Nelson Rockefeller cancelled the completion of a mural by Diego Rivera in the newly built Radio City because there was a portrait of Lenin in it. There were attempts to remove a mural at the main post office in San Francisco because its creator, Anton Refreiger, was known for his left-wing views. When the Zeckendorf apartment complex was built at Union Square in New York City, the old building housing the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union was demolished and with it a mural by Hugo Gellert honouring the workers. Gellert’s mural was expendable to the real estate sharks, and art was sacrificed on the altar of private profit.

Censorship and suppression of artistic freedom are bruising issues, but the way they are dealt with shows a limited degree of social perception by many. The Mapplethorpe controversy is a case in point. The argument between his defenders and opponents is confined to restrictive aesthetics, devoid of a social context. His defenders praise his photographs as being provocative evocations of the human figure, with emphasis on sexuality and homosexuality. It is seen by many as the “humanisation” of voyeurist aesthetics. The opponents, led by art critic Hilton Kramer, see in Mapplethorpe’s work an intrusion of pretentious eroticism into the domain of “high art”. Kramer argues that true art, or “high art” as he calls it, possesses the attributes of “universal beauty” which can be achieved only by transcending the mundane and the ephemeral. In other words, true art must be free of momentary concerns and social commentary which Kramer long ago labelled propaganda.

Both disputes reveal a superficial understanding of what freedom really is. When Kramer lumps eroticism and social commentary together as inimical to art, he creates a dangerous smokescreen of confusion, making it obligatory to side with Mapplethorpe’s supporters, because objectively Kramer becomes the art critic for Jesse Helms.

The sad fact is that for almost four decades the main spokespersons for artistic questions have been representatives of the liberal (and anti-communist) intelligentsia, avant-gardists and some leftists claiming to be Marxists. Marxism-Leninism as a voice in culture and art has itself been largely censored from American life for more than 40 years. Two generations of creative and performing artists have been prevented from even an acquaintance with Marxist-Leninist theories of art and freedom. How else to account for the shallowness of views on this major question today?

Basically, there are two interpretations of the general meaning of freedom. The first interpretation and the prevalent one, especially in art, sees freedom as the absence of restraint. The arts, more than any other human activity, are sensitive to the concept of restraint. This concept, the absence of restraint, can be traced back to the 18th Century and the rise of the bourgeoisie. To overcome the feudal system, the new men of business had to free themselves of taxes, duties, levies and other burdens put on them by the king, the aristocracy and the church, which amounted to restraint on trade, the denial of freedom to conduct commerce. This was the credo of the laissez-faire economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo and social philosophers like Mills, Rousseau, Voltaire and Jefferson.

Some artists have idolised the view of freedom as the absence of restraint. Full freedom for the individual had a glorious ring to it but is in essence an abstract notion of freedom that has been idealised to rationalise rampant individualism and excess. It is the principle of bourgeois freedom.

Marxist-Leninist view of freedom

The second interpretation of freedom is the Marxist one, expressed at great length by Engels. This view sees freedom as operating within a class framework, and having true meaning when it expresses the will and the interests of the oppressed, the working class. In Engels we read that freedom is the recognition of necessity. He means that under exploitative class conditions, the individual (worker) takes the road to freedom by first understanding the fundamental oppressive nature of society, and then working to change it. In an off-the-cuff remark, Marx said: “Freedom is happiness achieved through struggle.”

Marxism, in taking a working class position, rejects all notions of pure freedom as utopian illusion. In every class-divided society, the freedom for some means the denial of freedom for others.

Freedom is realised through class struggle, and artistic freedom can be best realised when the artist works in that framework. On its own, artistic freedom is an illusion and ultimately a form of self-enslavement. Advanced class and political consciousness will see the question of censorship in a new light. Censorship is a means of ruling class control. But censorship may also be used against ruling class control. The denial of concert facilities for singers Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson and conductor Dean Dixon were examples of racist, ruling class censorship; however, the outrage against an insulting painting of the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington and its removal from an exhibition by a committee of protesting Black aldermen, was an example of censorship as a progressive act. So was the boycotting of American performing artists who went to South Africa.

In the current situation, choices are limited and tactics must be shaped accordingly. When Senator Jesse Helms and the right wing attack art for whatever reason, we must be on guard. This is thought control with fascist overtones. The danger is from the right wing, not Mapplethorpe.

Likewise, when Hilton Kramer attacks Mapplethorpe as a vulgariser of art, we have to see Kramer not as a mere protagonist of elitism but as an enemy of humanism and social realism. Here is an old Cold War ideologue, a bitter anti-communist who, in the ultimate sense, is in common cause with Helms, whether he knows it or not. A defeat of right-wing censorship would be a victory for artistic freedom, but it would not necessarily be a vindication of the artistic content of those singled out for attack.

Even as we defend the right of artists to work “freely and without restraint”, there must be social responsibility. Much of contemporary art, including censored work, is pretentious, glib and narcissistic. Whatever pleasure it gives, it pales in significance when compared to art of social cognition and class- based human sensitivity.

The Brecht-Lukacs debates strike some as an unnecessary exercise in polemics. It is seen as the posing of non-antagonistic contradictions that are resolved by human experience. In other words, art need not be frozen into one or another mold. There is validity to both classic art and its passive aesthetics as well as creative innovation that contains a significant message. We are all products of history and we take pleasure in the literature, music and art of the past. We are in good company. Marx and Engels loved the classics, from the Greeks to Goethe, Heine, Balzac and Stendahl. Lenin praised Tolstoy as the mirror of the Russian peasantry, despite contradictions.

The present age has brought forward an avalanche of artistic outpourings, many of which fail to strike a chord, but when revolutionary form and content blend successfully, as in Bertolt Brecht, art has made a giant step forward.

Debates on art, literature, film, music and theatre were alive in the circles in and around the US Communist Party at the time when Brecht and Lukacs were having their discussions in Europe. Essays appearing in New Masses, Masses and Mainstream, Dialogue and elsewhere enriched our understanding and sharpened our cultural vigilance, even though inevitable errors were made.

Thousands of young artists, writers, film workers, composers, musicians, poets and dramatists carry on, all too often in the dark of anonymity, because they have creative drive. They can go on without Marxist-Leninist guidance, but without such guidance they will be limited. Communists can go on without them, but without them we will be limited. Much valuable time has been lost. Marxist-Leninist education must be more fully developed, including the study of culture, art and aesthetics. It is a must for the future.


  1. Henri Arvon, "Marxist Esthetics", Chapter 7, Bertolt Brecht and George Lukacs, Cornell University Press, 1973.
  2. Ibid., Chapter 5.
  3. Brecht on Theatre, Hill and Want, New York, 1964. The points mentioned here and Brecht’s general views on theatre are comprehensively covered throughout these essays.
  4. George Lukacs, Essays on Realism, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1980.
  5. Ibid., see chapter "Expressionism: It's Significance and Decline".
  6. Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Athenaeum, New York, 1962.
  7. Lillian Hellman, Another Part of the Forest and The Little Foxes, Viking Press, New York, 1973.
  8. George Lukacs, Studies in European Realism, The Merlin Press, London, 1972, and George Lukacs, The Historical Novel, Beacon Press, Boston, 1963.
  9. Z.  Apresyan, Freedom and the Artist, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1968.
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