Revolutionary Art

Recently the Guardian published an article about a (then-upcoming) exhibition on post-Revolution Russian art at the Royal Academy, specifically referring to it as “brutal propaganda” and worrying that our admiration of it “sentimentalises one of the most murderous chapters in human history”. Unfortunately, the author seems deeply confused not only about what the exhibition represented but about his own opinions. This may, of course, be a reflection of the hazards of reviewing something that you haven’t seen yet.

To give him his due, Jones is particularly concerned with arguing that art should be placed in its proper social and political context; I agree, especially with art that had such a political and social motivation as some Soviet art did.

And yet, after visiting the exhibition, nobody could fairly claim that it failed to give the political context of the art — nor is it possible to say that the Royal Academy understates the “brutality” of the Soviet government, not only under Stalin but (as Jones is at pains to point out) under Lenin too.

From my perspective, the exhibition goes too far to the opposite extreme; the historical background on the wall of every room misses no opportunity to criticize the Bolsheviks, but in doing so completely fails to explain why anybody might have been motivated to create art for or about them. As pointed out on Twitter, for example, it’s not difficult to figure out why the Lithuanian Jewish graphic designer El Lissitzky, several of whose works feature in the exhibition, might have found it difficult to mourn the downfall of the Russian monarchy and the deeply anti-semitic Russian Orthodox church that supported it, nor why he might have felt positively about a government that took the risk of anti-semitic violence seriously. For Jones, though, putting Lissitzky’s in historical context means identifying them as “calls to merciless violence”: a partial contextualization that is perhaps even more misleading than a total lack of context would be.

More broadly, this is a mindset that does not allow any reason to support revolution, even revolution against a cruel and arbitrary autocratic monarchy and the backwards social conditions it perpetuated. Lenin and other leaders, it is taken for granted, planned from the outset a dictatorship for their own benefit; anyone who might have supported them from outside a position of power was merely misguided, and their motivations need no further explanation. After all, how could anybody seriously have imagined, as Lissitzky did in the late 1920s, a world in which ordinary people might have modern, spacious homes?

Of course, Jones could hardly be said to be an objective reviewer; on the one hand, he claims that we should “never stop looking at the art of the Russian avant garde”; on the other, he compares it to an exhibition of Nazi-era German art, to which there would “rightly be an outcry”. And, yet, a few years back he was arguing that “brutal regimes and empires have long contributed to a legacy of eye-popping realism” in the context of the Spanish Inquisition. I wonder what changed?

Reading A People’s History of the United States, ch.3

Notes on Chapter 3, Persons of Mean and Vile Condition. Previously: chapter 2.

This chapter and the previous one really interrelate, to the extent that I’m almost not sure it made sense to separate them. On one hand, it makes a sort of intuitive sense to dedicate each of the first three chapters to native Americans, black people, and white people, and their respective interactions with the white ruling class. But in reality, these were not separate historical processes that can be examined in isolation; each influenced the others to a significant extent, and it’s only in this chapter about “poor whites” that we really get a full picture of the situation of native Americans and black people (both slave and free).

In itself the chapter details the situation of white servants, rural tenant farmers, and urban artisans. In particular it shows how the development of capitalist land ownership and trade in England (and its colonies in Ireland) helped to instigate migration to the Americas which was in turn exploited for profit first by ship-owners then by colonial landowners. It goes on to note that although even at this early stage there was a dream of class mobility and equality, only the earliest indentured servants had significant financial success after gaining their freedom; later migrants remained relatively poor. Particularly significant in this chapter, though, is the examination of the ways in which class conflict (i.e., between rich and poor whites) is defused by the process of racialization. Racial distinctions were entrenched, argues Zinn, in order to heighten the perception by poor whites that they had interests in common with the white ruling class — i.e., that the white landowner was not an exploiter but a protector of their common interests. This meant, for example, that the poorer farmers further away from coastal regions could act as a “buffer” against the native peoples, and look to the governments for protection rather than with resentment; it also meant that white farmers and servants could be counted on for assistance against potential slave revolts, rather than (as had earlier been the case) becoming part of the rebellion themselves.

We also see in this chapter (and with some foreshadowing of the next chapter) more of Zinn’s idea (not unfounded) that nationalism and liberal ideals serve to mask internal conflicts, both as a historical process (i.e., that contemporaries used ideas of an American nation to attempt to build unity against a common enemy) and one reflected in the historiography (he is critical of “the emphasis, in traditional histories, on the external struggle against England [and] the unity of colonists in the Revolution”).

However it’s at this point of the book that some of its flaws start to become apparent. After all, what is a history of the United States of America before 1776? A history of the thirteen colonies that would then go on to declare their independence? This seems to exclude, for no objective reason that I can see, the colonies in what would become Canada, for example; is their situation significantly different, thus leading to their later divergence? Or is that merely historical accident? It has also overlooked (after the beginning of the first chapter, at least) the non-British colonies in North America, even ones which (like Florida) would soon become part of the United States, and while New York for example is discussed at length (especially in the urban context) there’s very little discussion of whether the Dutch colonial authorities had been much different from the British.

Reading A People’s History of the United States, ch.2

Notes on Chapter 2, Drawing the Color Line. Previously: chapter 1. Next: chapter 3.

When I originally read this chapter a few years back, it struck me for two reasons: firstly, it was the first time I’d seen an attempt to explain how the slave trade came about; secondly, because it went further than that and identified the slave trade as being the origin of modern racism. In reading again, the causative process is more clearly identifiable: the use of slave labour grew out of economic pressures (to increase productivity while minimizing cost in the colonies), and over the next several decades the system was increasingly institutionalized through the passage of legislation that denied Africans and African-Americans equal rights, while granting increasing privileges to lower-class whites.

It’s that latter process that I found most fascinating: rather than racism having been the result of some inherent human bias, early black slaves and white indentured servants seemed to find that their situations, while not identical (Zinn gets into the specific situation of indentured servants in the next chapter) were close enough that their interests aligned with each other against the employer/enslaver. The solution that was found to this problem, to prevent black and white people working together for their common interests, was to undermine those interests, for example by punishing “fraternization” and, for example, by rewarding white servants with their freedom for informing the authorities of rebellion.

One thing that stands out in this chapter is that by focusing on the history of America and what happens in the Americas, important context can be lost. Although Zinn does note that the enslavement of Africans by Europeans in fact began before Europeans reached the Americas, not much thought is given to why this might be the case. I’m currently also reading Empire of Cotton, which looks at the international history of the cotton industry and argues that the enslavement of West Africans was prompted, in part, by the importance of West Africa as a market for cotton fabric being exported from India by Europeans. There is, of course, only so much international history that can reasonably be covered in a book on US history, but it seems to me that so many of the significant events and processes that directed the course of American history are, really, international.

Overall, on the second reading, this chapter felt a little lightweight; on subsequently reading chapter 3 (on poor whites) it seems like a lot of the internal social pressures are described better there, and with equal relevance for the relationship between white and black people as between rich and poor whites.

Book: A History of Modern Russia, by Robert Service (2003)

The original edition of this book covered up until the 1990s. This is a review of the second edition, extended up to 2002; there’s also a third edition up to 2009.

Service’s biggest problem boils down to his lack of self-awareness. He has a number of unexamined assumptions about what constitutes a correct way of managing an economy and a government, and thus applies these without justification. Of course, there are plenty of things to criticize the USSR for, but, for example, while the arbitrary nature of the legal system might be something most people would agree is bad, on the other hand one might reasonable wonder if there are not valid debates to be had over the size of the state sector of the economy (Service repeatedly refers to it as “hypertrophied”). To take another example, in the conclusion he presents ‘free’ elections as held in the 1990s as being an unquestionably positive step, even while admitting that, in practice, these elections where deeply flawed. One might wonder why a flawed democratic process that pretends to be “liberal” is fundamentally better than, or even any different to, a flawed democratic process that does not. Perhaps what one pretends to be is more important than what one actually does?

Another tendency that irritates me is his constant assumption that, unlike all the Soviet leaders and officials discussed in the book, he (Service) has interpreted Lenin (and, to a lesser extent Marx) correctly.

All in all, this is not the worst history of the Soviet Union. While his liberal and anti-communist sympathies are clear throughout, Service for the most part refrains from moralizing and rejects the most exaggerated nonsense claims that have been made about the scale of the USSR’s problems; for example, he recognizes that the famines of the 1930s were not somehow orchestrated by Stalin. (He also avoids the self-importance of Figes, who seemed to think he was doing Soviet leaders a favour by accusing them of only mass-murder, rather than genocide, and that the biggest flaw of post-Soviet leaders has been not to run the country as he would have.) He’s also better on the Cold War than some other histories have been, and so while Carr (for example) is better on the early years of the Soviet Union (1917–27), Service is the best I’ve read on Stalin and the post-Stalin period (which admittedly isn’t saying much). The post-Soviet era is covered increasingly briefly, with Putin’s election in 1999 being almost the final event of note despite the book claiming to cover up to 2002; it also suffers, to be fair, from the most significant parts of Putin’s leadership having taken place after this edition was published (and so I’ll give the third edition the benefit of the doubt in this regard).

Book: The Origin of Capitalism, by Ellen Meiksins Wood (2002)

The aim of this book is to place capitalism into historical context: a social system that was brought about by specific conditions and historical trends. Particularly, it is concerned with showing that capitalism was not simply an expression of natural human tendencies; to “truck, barter, and exchange”, as Adam Smith claimed and (according to the author) many even on the left tend to accept unquestioningly. Rather than being an opening up of opportunities, by removing ‘unnatural’ feudal restrictions, capitalism represented an imposition of market imperatives.

The central claim of the book is that capitalism arose in England not due to mercantile activity in the towns or market activity in general (both of which had existed for centuries) but due to the extension of market relations to a new context, namely, relations between agricultural landlords and tenant farmers. She describes this as part of a shift from “extra-economic” relations (the political, juridicial, and military means by which the aristocracy, for example, extracted its income from the lower classes) to economic means (rents and wage-labour based in property rights). In doing so she also examines the development of Enlightenment conceptions of rights and property that served to reinforce this tendency.

For me, the really interesting aspect of this book wasn’t the detail of the argument (although this was informative in itself) but the challenges to assumptions, the refusal to accept the naturalization of capitalism (“assuming the very thing that needed to be explained”). In particular it challenges even left-wing assumptions about the ways in which economic development occurs, rejecting an oversimplified system of stages through which all societies progress. The subject of this book is further examined in the author’s other works: The Pristine Culture of Capitalism examines the differences in development out of feudalism between England and France, and Democracy against Capitalism develops the project of historicizing capitalism, while Citizens to Lords and Liberty and Property trace the history of political thought in its social context.

Reading A People’s History of the United States, ch.1

I’ve started re-reading Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” with some friends, and as we go through and discuss I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts on it and some of the issues that came up in the discussion. I’m particularly trying to read with a Marxist perspective, that is to say, looking for the economic basis for the events and processes described or else for evidence that economic causes are an insufficient explanation. This is Chapter 1, “Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress”. Next: chapter 2.

The first thing that really stood out to me about this chapter was not the descriptions of Spanish and English violence towards and exploitation of Native Americans, but that Zinn is using it as a way of laying out his philosophy of history and as such setting the groundwork for the rest of the book. He argues, in short, that a work of history cannot be unbiased, and that neutrality inherently masks a support for the status quo (i.e., for the ruling class). As such, the intention behind this work is explicitly to show another side of history, details that may be overlooked in histories in favour of (or not in opposition to) the status quo. In this sense it fits into the tradition of Marxist histories like E. P. Thompson’s “The Making of the English Working Class”, although Zinn was not, as far as I know, a Marxist in either his politics or his historical approach.

In terms of the historical content of the chapter, the parts which I found the most significant were those which hinted at the broader worldwide historical processes. Although only a few paragraphs are spent on the motivations behind Colombus’ voyages, the implications here go well beyond the activities of the early Spanish colonists. Spain had, as of its first contact with the Americas, only very recently ended a long-running series of wars against the Muslim Emirate of Granada. The increasing cost and complexity of wars in this period meant Spain, along with other states, needed to find a new financial basis in order to support them. Along with the attempt to find new sources of income from trade with Asia, this also prompted a shift in forms of land ownership (in part because huge tracts of land were granted to the nobility in return for military and financial support, with an impact on Andalusian agriculture that lasted into the twentieth century). As such, the colonial ventures of this period are a fundamental part of the development of capitalism on an international scale.

One thing that seemed weak in this chapter was an understanding of the reasons and justifications for European brutality towards Native Americans. While, objectively, we may now understand that the conflict was brought about due to the European need for resources, particularly given the expansionist tendencies implicit in the newly-emerging capitalist social relations, this in itself doesn’t help to understand the subjective reasons — the justifications Europeans made to themselves for their behaviour. Zinn does briefly refer to these economic impulses, even specifically to the Marxist concept of primitive accumulation, but there’s little in the way of an explanation of the mindset that justified these impulses. Relevant to the topic, for example, would be an understanding of the ways in which liberal–capitalist property rights developed in the context of colonialism (e.g., Locke), but even this seems to me to be only a partial explanation — was the belief that their ownership of the land was justified sufficient to justify (even to themselves) the violence with which they enforced that ownership?

 

Book: Altered Pasts, by Richard J. Evans (2014)

I’m planning to start writing about books I’ve read, as a starting point for writing more generally. My basic intention is not necessarily to write a review per se, but rather an explanation of why I think someone should (or perhaps shouldn’t) read a book; why I think it’s interesting or significant, and so on, rather than giving it marks out of five. So here it goes.

I came across this book while researching the concept of inevitability in historical process, via a pointer towards E. H. Carr and then a review by Owen Hatherley. It is in itself a critique of a trend in historical writing for “counterfactual” history (that is, “historical” writing about events which did not take place), which the author connects particularly with conservative historians such as Niall Ferguson. For example, some have argued that counterfactual histories allow greater understanding of events which did take place by examining those which didn’t. Evans picks apart these claims, showing that the counterfactual methodology is neither sufficient nor necessary for good historical analysis.

Evans further identifies a tendency of counterfactualists to position their work in opposition to what they see as a stifling tendency towards “determinism” (particularly associated with Marxism, or at least, with misinterpretations of Marxism). This opposition is tantamount, he suggests, to a rejection of causality altogether, if the claims are to be taken at face value. He then proceeds to show that the counterfactualists are not opposed to determinism in practice, suggesting that their opposition is in fact merely an ideological distaste for left-wing theories which minimize the importance of “great men” like Churchill; he observes a disproportionate lack of counterfactuals coming from the political left. Evans is particularly strong in critiquing counterfactuals relating to the World Wars and rise of Hitler (his own historical specialty), including a trend within the British Eurosceptic Right to use hypotheses along their lines to make ideological points about the European Union. Thus, more broadly, this book is about placing intellectual tendencies within their historical context.

After reading this, I became aware of a newly-published collection of counterfactuals relating to the Russian Revolution (Historically Inevitable?, Brenton et al., 2016), which I suspect reflects similar prejudices and assumptions — the assumption that a revolution could be averted by arresting or assassinating one individual, for example, or even the characterization (in the introduction) of the idea of the revolution as a product of historical forces as being “quaint”, rather than this being merely a basic belief in causality, that things mostly happen for reasons and not for no reason at all. It is this, fundamentally, that makes it an ideological claim, in my view: to suggest that it is outdated and even silly to believe that the Russian Revolution was caused by anything more than the whims of a handful of individuals is to dismiss any critique of economic and social conditions; ironically, a dismissal of any real alternative in the name of exploring imagined ones.

 

On Capital

I initially intended to write a review of Capital, but in the process of doing so it turned into something more like an attempt to explain some of the basics of Marx’s theory. So, here it is. Note that it’s based on my own fairly limited knowledge and interpretation, so it’s entirely possible I’m mistaken about any or all of it; writing/explaining is as much a learning exercise for me as anything else, as well as an attempt to improve my writing regardless of the topic.

What even is Capital? It’s often also known, even in English, by its German title, Das Kapital. It was the life’s work of Karl Marx, and only the first volume was published in his lifetime; another two were published posthumously, along with various collections of his notes and drafts.1 But still: what is it? A handbook for revolution and mass murder, as some would claim?2

It’s actually more like a literature review (hence the subtitle, A Critique of Political Economy). Marx sets out to analyze contemporary economic theory in order to expose the assumptions underlying the capitalist system. Part of how he does so is by taking their claims at face value and trying to figure out what such a world might look like. In effect he’s constructing a model and tweaking one variable at a time to see how it alters the system as a whole; in this volume, it’s production, whereas in later volumes (which I haven’t read) he looks at exchange, and so on.

He begins by defining a commodity: a thing that is produced with the intent that it be exchanged for something else (as opposed to a thing that is produced with the intent of using it). Therefore, in turn, a capitalist society is one in which the majority of production is the production of commodities, unlike for example feudalism, where although commodities might be produced, most people are producing things for their own consumption or their family’s. These first few chapters, says everyone who’s ever read it, are the hardest, as Marx talks about various seemingly-basic concepts of value in seemingly-excessive detail, building up concepts like money on top of that. In the process, he traces back the fundamental concept of ‘value’ to its source: human labour, or at least, useful labour.3 How do we figure out what’s useful? Well, it’s useful if people are willing to pay for it. Of course, you can’t know that beforehand; this is an early example of a dialectical relationship, meaning what might now be called a feedback loop — two factors that constantly influence each other and find an equilibrium. (Also one of the most overused words in Marxist political writing.) So, the basic value of an item comes from the labour that went into producing it, but you can only figure out what that value is by the social processes of exchange.

From here Marx introduces the concept of commodity fetishism: the habit people have of thinking in terms of relationships between objects (i.e., the belief that the value of a commodity is somehow a property of the object itself) instead of relationships between people (i.e., in terms of who produces the commodity and how their labour is valued). This in turn is sort of a fundamental metaphor for the Marxist way of looking at the world: there’s underlying societal relations, which are specific to this society at this time and place, but they’re obscured by other ideas like the belief that they’re natural and that society always has been and always must/will be this way.

After Chapter 3 things get a lot more clear, particularly because, having set out the basics, Marx is now able to use some real-world examples. In particular, Chapter 10 is significant, because it’s here that he starts getting into the concept he’s most known for — class struggle. Chapter 10, ‘The Working Day’, discusses how, during the development of capitalism and the industrial revolution,4 it was necessary to change the way people thought about time — to take people who mostly judged time by the sun (which, naturally, varied by season), and impose a mental discipline where arriving and leaving work at a particular time actually matter. This matters more than you might realize, since it’s all part of the idea that capitalism (actually, every mode of production) developed over time, through a process of conflict between differing economic interests. In Marx’s model, laid out in the preceding chapters, technological advancement happens over a period of time, changing the relationships between groups of people (in the case of capitalism, leading to the rise in importance of cities and city-based business owners, the ‘bourgeoisie’, and their workers, the ‘proletariat’). This in turn brings the newly-ascendent class into conflict with the old ruling class (the aristocracy, for example), until the ascendent class is able to win political rights for itself (in Britain marked by the increasing significance of Parliament after the seventeenth century and decreasing power of the monarch). In turn, the development of industry leads to the increased number and importance of the urban proletariat, who then come into conflict with the bourgeoisie who own the factories. Over a period of decades during the nineteenth century, this conflict took the form of a fight for increased rights in the workplace — from limiting the hours a worker could be expected to work, and the age they can be expected to start work at, to the provision of education.

That will take you to about a third of the way through. Over the rest of the book, he looks at things like technological progress and how that relates to the relationship between worker and employer, wages, unemployment (and how unemployment is actually necessary and desirable from the perspective of an employer, in order to keep their profits up), and a host of other things. Then, in the final sections, Marx attempts to show that capitalism arose not as a ‘natural’ process, but as a result of violent upheaval (land enclosures, monastery dissolutions, vagrancy laws, etc.) and in particular colonization — something that’s often forgotten amidst the claims that capitalism rewards merit and hard work.

So, as for a review? It’s really difficult to ‘review’ a book like this — on the one hand, it’s probably the most significant political text I’ve ever read; on the other, it’s not something that I’d recommend others to read without caveats, since it’s pretty tough going. It is interesting, though, and feels a lot more relevant than, for example, J S Mill; despite being 150 years old, a lot of the topics Marx addresses are still very relevant. I also can’t overlook the helpfulness of David Harvey’s Companion to Marx’s Capital, which I read alongside Capital itself chapter by chapter; it’s very useful for giving modern examples, and for providing clarifications so that I could be reasonably certain I was along the right lines before going on to the next chapter. (He also has a series of video lectures, upon which the book was based, if that’s more your thing.) There are better (and shorter) introductions to the various aspects of Marxist theory (Value, Price, and Profit gives a decent overview of Marxist economics; Socialism: Utopian and Scientific is a good overview of Marx’s theory of history) but Capital draws them all together and goes into greater detail on everything.


  1. Actually, he apparently wanted to dedicate his life to writing about the French author Balzac, but wanted to get this Capital thing out of the way first; he never did. 
  2. Although usually the title of ‘most evil book in history’ is, for some reason, given to the Communist Manifesto, a much shorter book written twenty years earlier, during the political upheavals around 1848. It is, as its name suggests, more like a political party’s election manifesto — except the elections were actually continent-wide uprisings. 
  3. This is a refinement of an earlier theory of value, from a guy called David Ricardo; most of the refutations of Marx’s theory of value actually ignore his refinement, and refute Ricardo’s theory instead. 
  4. Incidentally Marx was one of the first to use the phrase ‘industrial revolution’.