Sunday, 30 November 2008

Dialectical materialism, part 2

As we have said, Marxism sees the universe as governed by material processes. These do not work in a mechanical fashion, as in the ‘clockwork’ model proposed in the seventeenth century, but is propelled by relationships and contradictions. Dialectics is, in Engels’ words, “nothing more than the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought... Motion is the mode of existence of matter. Never anywhere has there been matter without motion, nor can there be.”[1]

For it [dialectics], nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything; nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away, of endless ascendancy from the lower to the higher.[2]

Dialectics can seem contrary to ‘common sense’ or even irrational, especially when set against formal logic. Yet the concept is confirmed both by our everyday experience and by scientific investigation. After all, no real piece of clockwork is created, set in motion, and simply ticks forever: in the real world, it will gradually wear down, rust and disintegrate into a new form.

We know the universe is in constant motion. Edward Hubble observed in 1929 that galaxies were moving away from us in every direction; every object in our solar system is in orbit around the sun. On Earth, the tectonic plates are constantly changing the shapes of the continents, pulling them apart, pushing them together, creating and removing land bridges, etc. Species appear, thrive for sometimes millions of years, then die out leaving only a few bones behind. We ourselves are not static but come into existence, develop and then pass away; while we live, our cells are regularly renewed, meaning that the physical stuff we are made of is not the same stuff we were made of ten years ago. Even concerning life and death, which seem to us such clear opposites, it is very difficult to find a clear line between the two states. As for the “ascendancy from the lower to the higher”, the perfect illustration is the evolution of species, in which species give way to new ones better adapted to their environment. (We should however avoid interpreting ‘higher’ as a value judgement, inappropriately imposing a notion of progress on an evolutionary process of best fit.) Dialectics shows that matter is not just in motion but is impelled by contradictions. Instead of a smooth progression of states, we have gradual accumulations of quantitative changes that occasionally undergo qualitative leaps into new forms. It is these changes of quality (again, quality in the sense of attributes or properties, not necessarily of being ‘better’) that distinguish chimps and archaic humans from their common ancestor, Homo sapiens from earlier human species, etc.

To take an example from anthropology, the faces of Homo sapiens are not prognathous like other human species but under the braincase. This trait, which allowed the expansion of key parts of the brain, required only a few genetic changes, suggesting a fairly sudden leap from one form to a crucially different one.[3]

Eastern thought has produced theories of dialectics, as in the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist traditions. In ancient Greece, dialectics was first formulated in the 6th century BCE by Heraclitus, who believed all things to be in flux. Everything was composed of opposites, and the only reality was that of change: hence his famous metaphor, “no one steps into the same river twice”[4]. The influence of Heraclitus was enduring. Hegel, the most significant influence on Marx, said “there is no sentence of Heraclitus’ that I have not taken into my Logic.”[5]

Hegel and Marx

Enthused by the French Revolution, Hegel developed a system that saw humanity advancing through historical stages, each of which took us closer towards realisation of the Idea. Hegel found the motor for these successive stages by reviving Greek dialectics.

Although Hegel’s system was a huge advance on its ‘mechanical’ predecessors, it still conceived the world from an idealist perspective, which (as we saw in part 1) put it in contradiction with itself. Marx adopted Hegel’s dialectics while adapting them to materialism. He explained it thus:

My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of ‘the Idea,’ he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of ‘the Idea’. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.[6]

For Marx the driving force of both natural processes and history was not contradictions between ideas but between material and social processes. This is the basis of what Marx called ‘the materialist conception of history’, which holds that social change is brought about by human actions rather than absolute and external forces.

We are not saying that Marxism does not recognise abstractions. Any item, considered in isolation, is an abstraction — abstraction is a necessary part of human thought. An actual object however is always concrete, and exists in relation to other concrete things. And all things that actually exist are in some state of motion. The variations in that motion are relative, but the existence of motion is absolute. Engels wrote:

Truth, the cognition of which is the business of philosophy, was in the hands of Hegel no longer an aggregate of finished dogmatic statements, which, once discovered, had merely to be learned by heart. Truth lay now in the process of cognition itself, in the long historical development of science, which mounts from lower to ever higher levels of knowledge without ever reaching, by discovering so-called absolute truth, a point at which it can proceed no further, where it would have nothing more to do than to fold its hands and gaze with wonder at the absolute truth to which it had attained.[7]

In this way the human search for knowledge never rests. It advances through a vast number of quantitative additions to the sum of knowledge, and occasionally — as with Newton’s theory of gravity, Einstein’s theory of relativity, etc — makes dramatic leaps into new conceptions of the universe. These conceptions are themselves succeeded, and so on, without end.

Formal logic vs dialectics

Dialectics may be termed the logic of change. Traditional logic — from the Greek logos, meaning ‘word’ or ‘reason’ — was originally formulated by Aristotle, and seeks to define laws for rational thought. Aristotelian logic contends that there are three laws of logic:

1. A equals A (a thing is equal to itself);
2. A does not equal not-A (a thing is not equal to something other than itself);
3. There is no thing which is not either A or not-A (i.e. there is no indeterminate middle ground).

These are the assumptions underlying syllogisms, which run like this:

Cleopatra is a human being.
Human beings are mortal.
Therefore Cleopatra is mortal.

The last statement seems a consistent and obvious conclusion, and formal logic does have its uses. Basic mathematics depends upon it. These laws seem self-evidently sensible, because a clock, say, is either a clock or it isn’t. And Marxism does not dispute that a clock is a clock. But fixed logic is limited because it deals only with fixed states, and does not allow for change, when in fact no thing is perfectly self-contained — every thing lives in a relationship with other things. The piece of clockwork we mentioned earlier will wear down more quickly if left outside in the rain than if it is kept indoors at an even temperature. It does not exist in glorious isolation but in a context with other things and processes.

These processes involve not a rigid ‘either/or’ but an infinite number of interdependent stages. At what precise point in time may we say, for example, that an ape has evolved into a human? On what day, at what minute or second, can the French Revolution be said to begin?

Three principles of dialectics

Hegel, and later Engels, outlined three main principles for dialectical motion:

1. The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa;
2. The law of the interpenetration of opposites;
3. The law of the negation of the negation.

1. The transformation of quantity into quality

Processes of change are not smooth and even. Some change is immensely slow, other change very fast. Dialectical materialism sees change as resulting from a series of quantitative changes, which accumulate until a qualitative change is brought about. This new quality is not a peaceful outgrowth of what existed before, but a radical break with it. A good example is the boiling of water. As the water gets hotter, it bubbles more and more but it is still water. When it reaches 100 degrees Celsius, however, it turns to steam, i.e. it is no longer water — quantitative change has passed into qualitative change.

Human DNA is separated from that of chimpanzees by just 2%, but this 2% is decisive; in it is encapsulated the leap of quality that makes us human beings.

2. The unity and conflict of opposites

“Contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality,” wrote Hegel, “and it is only insofar as it contains a contradiction that anything moves and has impulse and activity.”[8] Every thing is a balance between the forces that created it, and contains forces that will break it up or transform it. These contradictions are what create change. One of the most famous examples of this in Marxist theory is the class struggle:

It is common knowledge that, in any given society, the strivings of some of its members conflict with the strivings of others, that social life is full of contradictions, and that history reveals a struggle between nations and societies, as well as within nations and societies, and, besides, an alternation of periods of revolution and reaction, peace and war, stagnation and rapid progress or decline.[9]

The ultimate contradiction within capitalism is that it creates a proletariat that can destroy it.

Countless things in the universe exist in opposition to one another: rich and poor, capitalism and socialism, positive and negative, light and dark, thought and matter and so on. To understand a thing one must seek out the contradictory forces that combine within it. An atom is constructed around a nucleus containing positively-charged protons and neutral neutrons; negatively-charged electrons surround the nucleus, bound to it by electromagnetic force. The atom as a whole is electrically neutral, because the protons and electrons cancel one another out.

3. The negation of the negation

During a process of change, the ‘negative’ quality that caused the change is itself ‘negated’ or transformed into something new. As one thing comes into being, its predecessor passes away. As the steam comes out of the kettle, it represents the negation of the water. The steam itself won’t last forever — for example it might change into condensation on a window. As the steam is the negation of the water, so the condensation is the negation of the steam. This is the negation (in turn) of the negation (that caused the original change).

Whereas metaphysics moves in circles, this movement is best described in terms of a spiral: the thing returns to where it was, but at a higher level, and the thing it used to be is not entirely replaced. Thus elements of feudalism live on in bourgeois society — the British monarchy being an obvious example — and elements of older species survive in newer ones. When a human gets goose pimples, it is because in apes and early humans this raised the hairs to trap a layer of warm air. We have evolved into a new form for which the response is ineffective because we are a relatively naked ape. However, the goose pimples remain — they are vestigial, which means that they have lost their original function. Or Engels offered this illustration:

Butterflies, for example, spring from the egg through a negation of the egg, they pass through certain transformations until they reach sexual maturity, they pair and are in turn negated, dying as soon as the pairing process has been completed and the female has laid its numerous eggs.[10]

Marx and Engels did not ‘invent’ socialism. It had already been put forward by a number of earlier groups and thinkers, from the Diggers in the English Civil War period who wanted communal property rights to utopian [11] socialists such as Owen or Saint-Simon. What Marx and Engels did was build upon existing socialist thought and, by putting it upon a scientific basis, take it to a higher stage.

Dialectics and the ruling class

Dialectics is a problem for any ruling class because it wants the period of its rule to last for ever, and to present its values as being eternal. If one accepts that change is fundamental to everything, one must accept that this includes systems of government and modes of production, whereas the bourgeoisie wishes it to be taken for granted that there will always be inequality, war, and so on. It often justifies them on the grounds that they are caused by the selfishness of ‘human nature’: an absolute which it is futile to try and change. Marx wrote in Capital,

In its rational form [dialectics] is a scandal and abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen... because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.[12]

The debate between dialectics and what we might term metaphysics is then one of two opposing philosophical systems. They have consequences in politics, just as politics has consequences for them. The most superficial understanding of history shows that forms of society come into existence, develop and interact with others, and then pass away to be succeeded by new forms. The non-dialectical model tolerates rigid classifications, erects walls between disciplines. It considers societies (or other subjects) abstractly, unhistorically. In an early article, for example, I noted a shortcoming in Gombrich’s The Story of Art: it has no conception of the historical forces that conditioned stylistic change in the arts.

I am not claiming that bourgeois science cannot be excellent and offer profound insights into how things work. But as well as the good work we must wade through reductionism, mystification and confusions. There is no mystery to the bourgeoisie’s resistance to a scientific approach: it is impossible to study society scientifically without being struck by the pressing need to change it.


Although these processes can be analysed in retrospect, predicting them is difficult. The reason is that so many different processes are at work that it is practically impossible to know quite how their interactions will resolve themselves. We may speculate about future events, based upon the most accurate information we have, but there is no such thing as fortune-telling. Nor is dialectical materialism a magic wand that can explain all problems. Here is Trotsky:

The dialectic... does not replace concrete scientific analysis. But it directs this analysis along the correct road, securing it against sterile wanderings in the desert of subjectivism and scholasticism.[13]

Readers may wonder what the relevance is of ‘the unity of opposites’ or ‘the negation of the negation’ to the real world or to art. In fact they are evident everywhere, not just in Marx and Engels’ own writings but in the processes of the natural world. “Nature,” said Engels, “is the proof of dialectics.”

Max Raphael described art as “the active dialogue between spirit and matter” [14] — two aspects both in contradiction and in unity. The motor of a novel’s plot is often described by critics as a conflict between the protagonist and his or her environment: what is this if not a contradiction? What is the clashing of lines, shapes and colours upon a canvas, or the contrast in tone between strings and woodwind in a symphony, but a contradiction?

In this blog, we will explore the direct relevance of dialectical materialism to art in more detail. As we explore the origins of the aesthetic sense, the history of artistic styles, etc, it will become more and more clear that without a scientific perspective, those “sterile wanderings in the desert of subjectivism and scholasticism” will only confuse the study of art.

Reading on dialectical materialism

Engels, Dialectics of Nature
Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German PhilosophyMarx and Engels, The German Ideology
Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific
Engels, Anti-Dühring
Trotsky, The ABC of Materialist Dialectics
Plekhanov, The Development of the Monist View of History

[1] Engels, part 1 chapter 6 of Anti-Dühring (1877).
[2] Engels, Part 1 of Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886).
[3] See Michael Balter, ‘What Made Humans Modern?’, Science (February 2002).
[4] Fragment 91 of Heraclitus’ ‘book’, known as On Nature, which only survives through citations by other writers.
[5] Hegel, Volume I of Lectures on the History of Philosophy.
[6] Marx, Afterword (1873) to the second German edition of vol. 1 of Capital (1867).
[7] Engels, op. cit.
[8] Hegel, Science of Logic (1812–1832).
[9] Lenin, The Three Sources and Component Parts of Marxism (1913).
[10] Engels, chapter 13 of Anti-Dühring (1877).
[11] ‘Utopian’ because their goals cannot be achieved.
[12] Marx, op. cit.
[13] Trotsky, The ABC of Materialist Dialectics (1939).
[14] Max Raphael, The Demands of Art (1968).

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Dialectical materialism, part 1

This blog has referred several times to dialectics and materialism. There is a huge literature on this topic by some of the finest Marxist writers, and I will list key texts at the end of part 2. These writings come highly recommended. I here offer a summary, as it will be hard to get far with the Marxist theory of art without some understanding of this concept.

“The great basic question of all philosophy,” wrote Engels, “especially of more recent philosophy, is that concerning the relation of thinking and being”.[1] Dialectical materialism is the ‘philosophy’ of Marxism — although Marx himself never used the term [2] — and its theoretical method. It provides the scientific basis for studying not just art but every process in the universe.


In Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, his great defence of materialism, Lenin explained how the study of epistemology “invariably discerned two principal alignments, two fundamental trends in the solution of philosophical problems”:

Whether nature, matter, the physical, the external world be taken as primary, and mind, spirit, sensation (experience — as the widespread terminology of our time has it), the physical, etc, be regarded as secondary — that is the root question which in fact continues to divide the philosophers into two great camps.[3]

The two great camps are idealism and materialism. Idealism is sometimes taken to mean commitment to a great cause, but in philosophy it is an outlook contending that nature and human history is ultimately based not on matter but on the mind — on ideas.

Engels located the origins of idealism in early humanity’s struggle to understand its experience:

From the very early times when men, still completely ignorant of the structure of their own bodies, under the stimulus of dream apparitions came to believe that their thinking and sensation were not activities of their bodies, but of a distinct soul which inhabits the body and leaves it at death — from this time men have been driven to reflect about the relation between this soul and the outside world...

The quandary arising from the common universal ignorance of what to do with this soul... led in a general way to the tedious notion of personal immortality. In an exactly similar manner, the first gods arose through the personification of natural forces. And these gods in the further development of religions assumed more and more extramundane form, until finally by a process of abstraction... there arose in the minds of men the idea of the one exclusive God of the monotheistic religions.[4]

The debate over whether the spirit or nature is primary has its origins not simply in perceptual confusion but in the division of labour. As society became more wealthy, it could support people who performed only mental work, such as priests and philosophers. These thinkers gave an exaggerated significance to thought, assuming that the mind and the body were separate. This led them to erect abstract theories which related only inadequately, if at all, to observed experience.

The neo-Platonist Plotinus declared for example in The Enneads (compiled 270 CE) that “there is for this universe no other place than the soul or mind”. His hierarchy was crowned by an Idea so general that it was called simply The One. Platonist idealism proposes an ideal or perfect state that is more real than things as they appear. Plato famously illustrated this with his image of the cave. Light came in the mouth of the cave and threw the shadows of objects inside it against the back wall. Human beings could observe only the shadows — the real objects were beyond our perception. Somewhere — no one has ever been able to say where — there is an ideal concept of, say, a book, but in the books around us we can see only its imperfect manifestations. The idea of a book has common properties that cannot be reduced to any particular book in a particular place and time. Ideas therefore were eternal and existed separately from the material world.

Idealist philosophy takes many forms, but we can agree with Lenin that it “always, in one way or another, amounts to the defence or support of religion.”[5] The eighteenth-century subjective idealist George Berkeley claimed that our knowledge was based on our perceptions. His highly individualistic theory could not explain why we have so many perceptions in common, and he found his answer by recourse to God — the last resort of many a theory in trouble.

However much the material world may change, the ‘real’ world becomes that of reason, whose eternity and immutability demands some form of eternal intelligence. For some idealists this is God, for Hegel it was the Absolute Idea or Spirit. Whereas a materialist believes the natural world can be studied, analysed and eventually understood, the idealist ultimately finds it unknowable and mysterious, as no human mind can compare to God’s, apprehend the ideal state of things, etc. This discourages attempts to command nature and promote change, and tends to conservatism. As Engels put it with reference to Hegel:

No philosophical proposition has earned more gratitude from narrow-minded governments and wrath from equally narrow-minded liberals than Hegel’s famous statement: “All that is real is rational; and all that is rational is real.” That was tangibly a sanctification of things that be, a philosophical benediction bestowed upon despotism, police government, Star Chamber proceedings and censorship.[6]

This conservatism is assisted by the position of religion in the social structures of class society. Many thousands of priests, preachers and others draw their living and social influence from religious institutions that would cease to exist in an atheist society; religion also serves to demobilise the working class. It thus becomes a vested material and ideological interest, zealous in promoting its false ideas.


The most significant alternative to idealism was empiricism, a philosophy with origins in ancient Greece that re-emerged in Britain in the 17th century, particularly through the thought of Locke, Berkeley and Hume. It contended that we could only have knowledge of the world through our sensory perception. There were no general ideal concepts, only particular objects.

The drawback of this theory is that if we reject the possibility of objects of having general characteristics in common, it becomes impossible to understand relationships between them. Hume’s argument required him to deny phenomena such as cause and effect: if we are holding a book at a height and let go, there is merely a very high probability that it will fall to the ground. Even if there is no known example of somebody letting go of a book from a height and it not falling to the ground, for Hume there must remain the possibility that the book will instead float off into space, turn a somersault, or do something equally unpredictable. Our beliefs were merely habits accumulated from experience — scientific certainty was impossible.

Empiricism may have either an idealist or materialist character. If empiricism decides that it is impossible to trust our senses as to whether anything exists, it becomes idealist. If it decides that material objects do exist, but that it is impossible to generalise about them, then it turns to materialism. Either way, empiricism is highly problematic. With its emphasis on testing hypotheses through observation of nature, rather than a priori reasoning (knowledge attainable by reason prior to experience), it has an obvious role in scientific inquiry. But its scepticism about our subjective sensations, and therefore about our ability to gain knowledge, is ultimately anti-scientific. There are also profound problems of method. Every time empiricists talk about a book, or other object, they are using an abstract, universal category. They do not mean one particular book, but books in general. Simply by discussing such objects, empiricists contradict their philosophy.


Whereas idealism tries to explain things through abstract philosophising, materialism draws conclusions from what is empirically observable. It is opposed to superstition and religion.

Materialism contends that everything in existence, including living beings, is made of matter and evolved from material processes. Human consciousness is inseparable from the body whose processes create it, and matter exists independently of our awareness of it. Because of these processes, matter is in a constant state of change — only the existence of matter is eternal. It existed long before minds evolved capable of perceiving and analysing it, and human consciousness can be aware of only the tiniest fraction of the things happening in the universe. We can only draw conclusions about the world as subjective human beings, using our senses and intellect to observe and assess external phenomena. To understand reality and human society, Marx wrote, means not

setting out from what men say, imagine, conceive... in order to arrive at men in the flesh; but setting out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process demonstrating the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, images of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.[7]

Our consciousness is the product of matter and our ideas are reflections of material processes. This does not mean we are a passive part of our environment. We are able to change it: this is what made possible human evolution through labour.

The materialist conception of the world had its beginnings in the ancient world. In India the Hindu thinker Kanada developed an atomist theory around 600 BCE, which in subsequent centuries was developed by Buddhist atomism. China too developed materialist theories, for example that of Yang Xiong in the 1st century BCE. In ancient Greece, materialism came to maturity in the 4th century BCE with the atomist theories of Democritus and Epicurus. The Roman poet Lucretius wrote a philosophical poem entitled De Rerum Natura, designed to explain Epicurean theory to a Roman audience: everything in the universe was made of atoms moving in an infinite void, ruled by chance. Gods existed, but played no part in human lives. Forms were made of changing combinations of atoms, rising then losing out to new forms.

Materialism lost currency during the Christian era, which could only conceive of philosophy through religion. It was when the rising bourgeoisie resurrected natural philosophy and scientific inquiry that materialism won a new lease of life, particularly in capitalism’s leading power: as Marx observed, “Materialism is the natural-born son of Great Britain.”[8] This was the period of Bacon, Hobbes and Locke. The bourgeoisie’s materialism and emphasis on reason was the ideological aspect of its struggle against the feudal system and the superstition and absolutism upon which it was built. It was also expressive of the bourgeois need to measure and understand nature so as to exploit it more effectively.

We get a taste of this new materialism from Marx’s précis of Francis Bacon:

To him, natural philosophy is the only true philosophy, and physics based upon the experience of the senses is the chiefest part of natural philosophy... According to him, the senses are infallible and the source of all knowledge. All science is based on experience, and consists in subjecting the data furnished by the senses to a rational method of investigation. Induction, analysis, comparison, observation, experiment, are the principal forms of such a rational method. Among the qualities inherent in matter, motion is the first and foremost, not only in the form of mechanical and mathematical motion, but chiefly in the form of an impulse, a vital spirit, a tension — or a ‘qual’, to use a term of Jakob Böhme’s — of matter.[9]

Materialism in Britain was conditioned by the historical experience of its bourgeoisie, which had merged with a bourgeoisified landowning class and identified to some extent with its institutions. Thus Hobbes called for a strong monarchy to keep down the unruly masses. In eighteenth century France, however, the contest between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy was much starker, and bourgeois materialism could fully assert its revolutionary character. Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, Diderot and Helvétius insisted in carrying the torch of reason into natural history, religion, social institutions and other dark and dusty corners of human assumptions. France became in Lenin’s words “the scene of the decisive battle against every kind of medieval rubbish.”[10] When Baron d’Holbach’s atheist The System of Nature was published in 1770, it was too radical even for Voltaire, and it offended King Louis XVI so much that he demanded that copies were hunted down and destroyed.

French materialism culminated in Germany in the thought of G. W. F. Hegel. A great enthusiast for the French Revolution, Hegel was a towering philosophical figure of his age, and greatly respected by Marx and Engels. He surpassed the metaphysicians by reviving Greek dialectics and restoring motion to history (we will explore dialectics in detail in part 2), but the great contradiction in his philosophy was that although his dialectics ruled out absolutes, he was unable to let go of the idealist notion of a governing Idea. Thus, as Engels explains in Ludwig Feuerbach, “the revolutionary side is smothered beneath the overgrowth of the conservative side.”

Problems of bourgeois materialism

The materialism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was often contradictory. It sought a rational theory of reality, and a scientific method, but even a great thinker like Newton opened a door to idealism by enlisting God as the ultimate cause and motor of natural processes. This was a metaphysical materialism that envisaged an eternal clockwork universe: matter was in motion, but that motion was mechanical and did the same thing over and over again. Engels explained the problem:

To the metaphysician things and their mental reflexes, ideas, are isolated, are to be considered one after the other and apart from each other, are objects of investigation fixed, rigid, given once and for all. He thinks in absolutely irreconcilable antitheses. ‘His communication is “yea, yea; nay, nay”; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.’ For him a thing either exists or does not exist; a thing cannot at the same time be itself and something else. Positive and negative absolutely exclude one another; cause and effect stand in rigid antithesis one to another.

At first sight this mode of thinking seems to us very luminous, because it is that of so-called sound common sense. Only sound common sense, respectable fellow that he is, in the homely realm of his own four walls, has very wonderful adventures directly he ventures out into the wide world of research. And the metaphysical mode of thought, justifiable and necessary as it is in a number of domains whose extent varies according to the nature of the particular object of investigation, sooner or later reaches a limit beyond which it becomes one-sided, restricted, abstract, lost in insoluble contradictions. In the contemplation of individual things it forgets the connection between them; in the contemplation of their existence it forgets the beginning and the end of that existence; of their repose, it forgets their motion. It cannot see the wood for the trees.[11]

The eighteenth-century materialists cannot be reproached for their limitations, as these limitations were rooted in the immature state of science at the time. Although the bourgeoisie initiated a tremendous blossoming of inquiry into the natural world, it necessarily began as what Engels called “a collecting science”, an accumulation of knowledge. While their data was still inadequate, it was not possible for them to draw the most profound conclusions from it. For example, they did not have the benefit of three key nineteenth-century discoveries which Engels believed unlocked dialectics for subsequent science: the discovery of cells as the structural units of all living organisms, the transformation of energy, and the Darwinian theory of the evolution of species.

Bourgeois materialism also faced an ideological problem. The capitalist class was a great champion of reason and materialism. In its fight to overthrow the feudal system, it was necessary to break down superstition, the divine right of monarchs, and the monopolies of religious institutions. But once it had become a ruling class, the bourgeoisie found that it, too, was exposed by the searchlight of reason. Thus its rational materialist outlook had to compromise with idealism, because the bourgeoisie does not like to accept that capitalism is not eternal. If capitalism is just one more mode of production, then it can, like slavery and feudalism, be overthrown by a more advanced form.

For these two reasons — scientific limitations and political necessity — idealism persisted in bourgeois theory. We see it in Kant, who claimed that we may perceive the qualities of a thing, but are unable to perceive the “thing-in-itself”. Spinoza too, although describing the universe as material, saw a need for God in the unification of thinking and being. In the early twentieth century, Lenin had to confront the positivism of Mach, Bogdanov, etc. In our own time, the compromise can be seen in the fashionable nonsense of post-modernism, which contends that there is no objective reality at all.

The lesson is that the light of dialectical materialism — one might simply say the light of truth — is rather too penetrating for anyone who wishes to support the capitalist status quo. To argue against the proletariat demands arguing against its philosophy.

The inheritors of Hegel

Hegel’s dialectics were a step forward from metaphysical materialism, but his system remained an idealist one. Subsequent thinkers took from Hegel what they would. The Young Hegelians, who briefly counted Marx among their adherents, preferred a left radical interpretation, emphasising Hegel’s dialectics over his idealism. It fell to Ludwig Feuerbach to make the decisive philosophical break. His book Essence of Christianity (1841) reaffirmed materialism, describing God as merely a projection of human needs and seeking to replace religion with love. Nothing existed outside of nature, which had produced humanity. Engels gives a taste of how exciting Feuerbach’s book was “after long years of abstract and abstruse Hegelianising”:

The spell was broken; the “system” was exploded and cast aside, and the contradiction, shown to exist only in our imagination, was dissolved. One must himself have experienced the liberating effect of this book to get an idea of it. Enthusiasm was general; we all became at once Feuerbachians.[12]

Hegel and Feuerbach had prepared the way for a richer and more rigorous understanding of how things worked. For Marx, the Hegelian system had turned reality on its head by putting thinking before being — someone needed to turn it the right way round. Marx’s philosophical achievement was to bring maturity to materialism by incorporating Hegel’s dialectics. In this way materialism becomes not just a philosophy of nature but a science of development and of human history. Marxism extends material processes into human society, seeing it as a succession of stages of development, wherein ideas and culture are ultimately based upon the forces of production.

The best case for materialism is that there is evidence for it. Its hypotheses about nature can be tested, and every new scientific discovery confirms it. Atoms were first conceived in ancient India around the 6th century BCE, and a century later appeared in Europe through Leucippus and Democritus (the latter giving us the word átomos which implies the smallest possible division of matter). In the last couple of hundred years, science has caught up with speculation after a series of discoveries: Brownian motion (1827), the electron (1897), that atoms have nuclei (1909), the proton (1919), the neutron (1932) and so on in a constant process whose latest achievement is CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator designed to explore the smallest components of all known things.

By contrast, idealism creates a theory in the abstract and then demands that reality conform to it. The existence of God or other supernatural agencies has never, in all of human history, been proved, nor is any test conceivable which could do so. It is senseless to base one’s attitude to life upon a thesis which is riddled with absurdities and for which there is no objective evidence. The Christian Bible tells us “God created Man [sic] in his own image” (Genesis 1:27) — in fact the reverse is true. Marxism opposes every kind of attempt to explain the world through eternal, unchanging absolute values, be it in the form of gods, Fate, the Immanent Will, or anything else. It is humanity, and human needs, with which it is concerned.

Materialism, however, is only a part of the Marxist philosophy. As we have already mentioned, a passive, lifeless materialism is still a poor model. To really understand the richness of how everything works, our materialism must also be dialectical.

[1] Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886). Asked to write a review of a book on Feuerbach, Engels took the opportunity to write this ‘short, coherent account’ of how he and Marx formulated their philosophy from the work of their predecessors, Hegel and Feuerbach. Part 4 is a concentrated exposition of dialectical materialism.
[2] Like most Marxist ideas, various attempts have been made to undermine it from mistaken positions. One case is Zbigniew Jordan’s book The Evolution of Dialectical Materialism (1967), which seizes upon the fact that the major statements of dialectical materialism as such — Anti-Dühring, Ludwig Feuerbach, Dialectics of Nature — were written by Engels and not Marx. He concludes from this that dialectical materialism was Engels’ invention and that Marxist was not even a materialist but a ‘naturalist’. In fact, Marx was too busy writing Capital to produce treatises on his philosophy, just as he had no time to fully formulate his aesthetics. The attempt to drive a wedge between Marx and Engels contradicts Marx’s own work and praxis, in which both dialectics and materialism are so obviously essential as to make a nonsense of Jordan’s argument.
[3] Lenin, from Chapter 6, section 4 of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908).
[4] Engels, op. cit.
[5] Lenin, The Three Sources and Component Parts of Marxism (1913). Lenin’s extremely concise introduction to Marxism via its three ‘component parts’: German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism.
[6] Engels, op. cit.
[7] Marx, The German Ideology (1846, pub. 1932).
[8] Marx, chapter 6, section 3d of The Holy Family (1844). This work was Marx and Engels’ critique of the Young Hegelians — the title is a sarcastic reference to Bruno Bauer and his supporters.
[9] ibid.
[10] Lenin, op. cit..
[11] Engels, Anti-Dühring (1877). This work has long been ranked with Capital and the Communist Manifesto as one of the most important works of Marxist theory, and is the most authoritative text on dialectical materialism from Marxism’s founders. It contains a great deal of polemic against a now-forgotten theorist, so the first three chapters were later extracted to form the pamphlet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.
[12] Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886).

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Can animals create art?

This blog has of necessity compared humans and animals several times in tracing the course of our evolution, and has concluded that art is a human activity. Before we proceed, we should address the question of whether animals can create art.

Some animals, particularly our anthropoid near relatives, seem capable of artistic sensibility. Biologists have handed pencils and paintbrushes to elephants, primates and other animals, and the resulting images seem to display an awareness of aesthetic properties such as balance, emotion and form, to the extent that it has proved possible to fool art experts into thinking they are the work of human artists [1]. Humans find their work beautiful, and ape paintings were owned by Miró and Picasso. Are these animals creating art? And why can their work give humans aesthetic pleasure?

The aesthetic abilities of animals

Aside from early experiments such as those of Nadjeta Kohts, the first systematic investigation of animals’ aesthetic abilities took place in the 1940s, when the American psychologist Paul Schiller gave paper marked with outlined figures to a chimpanzee named Alpha to test her drawing skills. Alpha tended to draw within the marked lines and would even finish off incomplete patterns, demonstrating “a tendency to produce a symmetry or balance of masses on the page”.[2]

The real pioneer in the study of art by animals was Desmond Morris, the anthropologist — and artist — who has spent his life comparing humans with other animals. Over a two-year period starting in 1956, Morris experimented with introducing drawing and painting to primates, in particular his chimpanzee protégé Congo. Morris was not trying to prove that apes were the equals of human artists — his hope was that studying painting in animals might cast light upon the biological origins of the artistic impulse. Congo surprised him with forceful compositions that were interesting enough to exhibit at the ICA in 1957. More recently, the gorillas Koko and Michael in California [3] had work exhibited in 1997–8 and, because they had been taught sign language, could even give names to their paintings.

Bird, by Koko the gorilla‘Bird’, by Koko the gorilla

What researchers like Schiller and Morris found was that apes recognise the limits of the paper area (the ‘field’). Morris found that if he drew a shape on one side of a piece of paper, Congo would draw another on the opposite side, suggesting a sense of composition. They show awareness of pre-marked shapes and their own markings have rhythm, symmetry and balance. Their style of marking even changes depending upon the media used. While working, they become increasingly involved and excited, even becoming upset if they aren’t allowed to complete what they are doing. “Both man and the apes,” Morris concluded in his book The Biology of Art, “have an inherent need to express themselves aesthetically.”[4]

It is also possible that species of the Homo genus prior to our own created art objects. Is art, then, not unique to Homo sapiens?

The distinction between animals and humans

This blog has already discussed some of the distinction between humans and animals. Marx recognises that human beings are animals and that they have animal needs, such as ‘eating, drinking, and procreating’. But he also points out:

It is obvious that the human eye enjoys things in a way different from the crude, non-human eye; the human ear different from the crude ear, etc.[5]

Humans crucially have a non-animal need, namely to find fulfilment through social creative labour. Through the skill of tool-making we discovered intellectual complexities unknown to other animals and became the first and only species to acquire language, i.e. symbolic communication. Refining these skills over 2 million years, we learnt to separate the utilitarian and spiritual functions of our objects. Finally modern humans appeared, and only then did art flourish. Art was the result of a long process of development that no other animal has undergone. As Marx wrote:

The use and fabrication of instruments of labour, although existing in the germ among certain species of animals, is specifically characteristic of the human labour process.[6]

Some animal species use tools, and recently evidence has even been found of tool-making among animals (for example Kanzi the bonobo or Betty the crow). This suggests that they are more sophisticated beings than Marx and his contemporaries recognised. But animals’ tool use is not comparable to humans’. No animal transforms the raw material of nature to premeditated ends except in a rudimentary fashion. Such achievements in animals, although their discovery is accompanied by grand statements that ‘humans are no longer unique’, illustrate the low level of their skills in these areas compared to our own.

Some ‘aesthetic’ activity in animals in the wild does not involve tool use at all. No discussion of animals and art is complete without mentioning the male bower bird, who builds remarkable structures from leaves and twigs, which he decorates with collected objects ranging from shells and flowers to pieces of glass. Each bird spends hours perfecting his individual creation, moving items around until he is satisfied. This certainly has the appearance of aesthetic activity.

Example of a bower bird’s bowerExample of a bower bird’s bower. Photo: bdonald (flickr)

Labour in animals however is instinctive, governed by the genetics of survival. I don’t mean that animals have zero consciousness, or may be dismissed as automatons. But an animal seeks to find a mate and pass on its genes by having offspring. The bower bird creates his bower purely because he wishes to attract a female: the bower is his species’ equivalent of a peacock’s gaudy feathers or the ‘dance’ of the wolf spider. The forms of the bowers always fall within very limited parameters — there is no creative exploration of materials, properties, etc, only the recreation, again and again, of a similar inherited pattern.

Or we may take the example of birdsong. It often sounds musical to the human ear, can be highly complex, and in some species even has dialects. This doesn’t make birdsong art. It is a functional behaviour usually practised by the male, either for territorial reasons or as a means of attracting a female. However beautiful we may find the dawn chorus, it probably arises for two reasons: firstly, so males can advertise their having survived the night, and thus their ability to feed young; secondly, because females often lay eggs at first light and are at their most fertile in the early morning. The males accordingly burst into competitive song. The dawn chorus is about birds’ struggle to promote their genes, not the joy of music.

Even if we agree that the aesthetic brilliance of male sexual displays are motivated by reproduction, does this not imply that females show a sense of beauty when they choose a particularly magnificent male as a mate? Presented with a range of seductive techniques such as dances, plumes, songs and so forth, are they not making an aesthetic choice? Darwin believed they were:

When we behold a male bird elaborately displaying his graceful plumes or splendid colours before the female, whilst other birds, not thus decorated, make no such display, it is impossible to doubt that she admires the beauty of her male partner.[7]

There is a difference however between a sense of beauty and a response to reproductive stimuli. Let us take the peacock’s tail as an example. Darwin once wrote that “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!” — it was a mystery to him how this extraordinary but totally impractical display could have evolved. Only later did he realise that it was an indicator of sexual fitness. The peacock’s feathers advertise it as a mate, precisely because it must survive the costs in terms of energy required, hampering of flight, and attraction of predators. Experiments have shown that when the length of a peacock’s feathers is clipped, it receives less response from females. To our eyes, the feathers are not any less beautiful because they are slightly shorter. But the female is not choosing according to a human idea of beauty; it is choosing according to evolutionary stimuli which communicate that longer plumes are a signal of greater fitness. There is a huge difference between such judgements and an appreciation of beauty, or a sensitivity to art. We will look at this again when we examine ‘beauty’ as such in a dedicated article.

Humans create aesthetic objects even under conditions of extreme hardship, but art as such is never necessary for our survival (which is not to say that objects produced out of necessity never have aesthetic qualities). As we have discussed before, the specific forms taken by art are a learned cultural behaviour and the skills are lost if they are not handed on to new generations. Songbirds, in contrast to other bird species, do actually pass on their songs as learned rather than genetic behaviour. This exception to the rule does not alter the fact that their songs are functional in purpose — songbirds only learn the songs of their own species.

To reduce art to this functional, instinctive level is to deny that it is art at all. The consequence of animals never mastering tool-making is that they have never become aware of themselves as subjects in an objective world, have never experienced a separation from nature, and therefore never sought to assert their species character upon that objective world to try and bring it under their control. Marx observed:

The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It is not distinct from that activity; it is that activity. Man makes his life activity itself an object of his will and consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity directly distinguishes man from animal life activity.[8]

Humans are uniquely alienated from their animal being, and enter into a subject-object relationship with nature. An animal is one-sided and immediate, a human is universal. Human beings are not limited to one particular environment, to one narrow pattern of behaviour. We may think rationally upon any subject; we may exert our powers upon any aspect of the material world. Thus there is a profound qualitative difference between instinctive behaviour and the relatively autonomous creative labour of art. Because of our rich, dialectical relationship with external reality, humans need to objectify themselves in their labour in order to realise themselves as humans.

The painting apes

Even allowing that animals do not create art in their natural state, apes in particular have a demonstrable ability to draw and paint when encouraged to do so. Aren’t their pictures evidence of artistic ability?

Painting by Congo the chimpanzeePainting by Congo the chimpanzee, in his typical ‘fan’ composition

There is clear evidence that apes have a degree of graphical intelligence. It is not remarkable that some animals share behaviours with us that we would call ‘aesthetic’. Like us, apes communicate, play, have social organisation, have emotions, practice deception, and so on — they even have culture. Chimpanzees are our nearest surviving relative. However, we need to interpret that fact carefully. Chimpanzees and humans diverged from a common ancestor (which has yet to be identified for certain) approximately 6 million years ago. This is an immense amount of time, even in evolutionary terms, within which the two species have taken fundamentally different paths. Just as there is clear variation between the aesthetic abilities of different animal species (we can get paintings out of apes, but none out of dung beetles), there is a quantitative and qualitative difference between human and non-human practice.

The Belgian art theorist Thierry Lenain pointed out that apes in the wild who found deposits of white clay would probably play with it and smear it all over the surrounding trees, but after that would lose interest and do something else [9]. Only when presented with an enclosed field upon which to make markings, in a captive environment when there is little stimulation elsewhere, can apes become absorbed in painting. To train Congo how to paint, Desmond Morris sat him in a child’s chair with the paper in front of him on a table, and if he hadn’t controlled Congo’s access to the colours the chimp would simply have mixed them all together into a kind of mud.

Because they have never mastered tool-making, animals have never developed the means — paints and brushes, musical instruments, etc — by which their species-being may be objectified, nor have they developed a consciousness that wants to be objectified. A chimpanzee can be taught how to use a paintbrush because anthropoid physionomy is similar to ours, but a brush in its hand is an alien thing because it is not of chimpanzee provenance. The history of human production is what Marx called the ‘open book of man’s essential powers[10] — evidence of our need to objectify ourselves through labour. By contrast, chimps in nature don’t draw or paint, and nor does any other species of animal: their need for play has plenty of outlets for expression. Even though primates possess enough graphical awareness to make paintings, they are only creating images because of human intervention, using human tools, for human assessment. It is the human agent who presents the ape with painting equipment, chooses which paintings are worth displaying, and attaches value to the work. The animal therefore is becoming an extension of human artistic activity.

The one participant who attaches no value whatsoever to an animal’s paintings is the animal itself — primates will sometimes tear a painting up once their interest in the immediate act of making marks is exhausted. One might argue, like the psychologist Frans de Waal, that animals, not being human, do not share our attitudes to art: ‘their goal is not to create an enduring visual image that will please, inspire, provoke, shock, or produce whatever effect it is that the human painter seeks to achieve.’[11] But it is unlikely that animal painters have any preconceived ‘goal’ at all. Marx’s opinion was clear:

A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement.[12]

Lenain proposed that the painting ape is simply engaged in play, enjoying breaking up spaces with marks. The marks with which it fills the available field are structured partly by the field and partly by the instruments used, both of which are determined by a human, not the ape. Once an area of colour has been applied, this becomes a secondary field in relation to which another colour can be applied. Thus a ‘composition’ is built up.

If each stroke blooms spontaneously on the page, with no thought other than to provoke clearly visible marks within the outline of that page, the succession of marks will automatically pay tribute to and echo its structure. This is the way in which monkey painting produces ordered forms and rhythmical compositions: by playing totally innocently at the game of visible disruption of a regular image field... The aesthetic properties of ape painting are generated in a very significant measure by the whole painting equipment rather than by the ape himself.[13]

The apes have no purpose beyond the immediate enjoyment of making marks. They do not adapt their materials (e.g. by mixing colours to make desired new ones), nor do they conceive of the field as an imaginative space. Through symbolic communication, humans enter into a relationship with the world in which their aesthetic behaviours gain an imaginative autonomy; an ape’s gestures exist functionally and for themselves, a kind of visual game devoid of concepts or values.

Desmond Morris saw parallels between the development of infant apes and children. Both enjoy experimenting with lines and shapes until the age of three, where the child takes a conceptual step the ape cannot: it draws a circle, adds two dots, and realises that it has created a face. The child has crossed the threshold into symbolic representation, where very few animals can follow. Whatever glimpses we may think we see of aesthetics in the bower bird’s restless bower-making or an ape’s painting, the animal can rarely step beyond an immediate relationship with nature because it does not have our capacity for symbolic communication. The existence of a rudimentary aesthetic sense in apes is not enough to make their paintings art, any more than their various vocalisations mean they are singing or performing poetry.

It was no accident that animal art had to wait until the 1950s for its decade of fame. Given that animals are unable to create representational images (the exceptions that have been observed are both ambiguous and highly exceptional), an interest in art by animals could only be conceived by a society that had ‘discovered’ abstract art, and had revised its definitions of aesthetic value in the wake of abstract expressionism and ‘primitivist’ schools such as Tachism [14]. It was this coincidence of the art scene with psychological research that put paintbrushes into the hands of animals. (The philistine sections of the media did not miss the chance to joke about parallels between modern art and ‘monkey painting’.) Similarly, a revival of interest in ape painting in the 1990s was based upon an overemphasising of biology and a broad movement to break down assumptions about human uniqueness. It was because of a socially conditioned human context that paintings by animals ever came into existence at all.

Why we find animal ‘art’ beautiful

The fact remains that humans can find ape paintings, bird and whale song, and other ‘aesthetic’ activity by animals very beautiful.

Lenain relates the story of the Japanese artist Hokusai, who

unrolled on the ground a long roll of paper and painted it with big blue hoops. Then he took a cock, dipped its feet in red paint and made it walk across the paper. His audience at once recognised a river studded with red maple leaves in autumn.

The cock simply walked across paper — it was the human beings who imposed a meaning on the images that were created. Hokusai had demonstrated that humans are able to anthropomorphise anything. The cockerel had not the slightest intention of producing art and didn’t even know it had done it. What it produced was a pattern of images that resembled art to human eyes.

Drawing by Siri the elephantDrawing by Siri the elephant. Art professor Jerome Watkin said Siri’s drawings were “very, very beautiful. They are so positive and affirmative and tense, the energy is so compact and controlled, it’s just incredible. This piece is so graceful, so delicate, I can’t get most of my students to fill a page like this.”[15] It would be interesting to see the drawings that were not picked out for the public...

Keats, in his famous Ode to a Nightingale, sees the purity of the nightingale’s song as an opportunity to reflect upon human contradictions and mortality. Its song has been transformed through the human imagination into a symbol, a “high requiem” — yet the human condition was certainly no concern of the nightingale’s. There are also many examples of birdsong inspiring feelings in musicians, such as the transcriptions made by Messiaen for his Reveille des Oiseaux (1955).

Humans can see beauty anywhere. That we can find aesthetic pleasure in animal behaviours does not make them art, any more than finding pleasure in a waterfall makes the natural occurrence of falling water art: we are projecting human meaning, forms and purpose into actions by an animal who had no conception of those things. The materials used, the picture frame, the brush strokes, the juxtapositions of colours and forms, mean that animal drawing and painting resembles human art, but it is difficult for us to tell the difference between the two, because our perceptions are governed by our humanised senses. To judge non-human behaviour on the basis of human experience and perception is anthropocentric, and leads to misunderstanding of what animals do.


Human species prior to Homo sapiens exhibited aesthetic and cultural behaviours, which would be no more surprising than that they could make sophisticated tools. But, as with animals, there is no evidence that these cultural behaviours were as consistent and widespread as in our own species. If ape paintings are interesting, it is as gestural reactions to space and context, rather than as insights into how art arises in humans. Upon the evidence we currently have, only with Homo sapiens do we see true art.

Commentators who wish to blur the distinction between humans and animals tend to stress the ways in which animal behaviour is similar to ours, pointing to complex social organisation, tool use, ‘moral’ behaviour, and so on. The New Scientist for example has proposed six areas in which humans are claimed not to be unique as they like to think, and one of them is culture. If one thinks in fixed categories, for toolmaking to be no longer ‘uniquely human’ is indeed epoch-making. But what such arguments cannot overcome is that there is an enormous qualitative difference between a chimp using a twig to catch termites and the achievements of human social labour. Even the Oldowan technology, the crudest and most basic early human tool-making, cannot be learned by chimps. Tool-making is not essential to any animal’s way of life, but is impossible to separate from ours. “To claim that distinctly human mental abilities such as language or mathematics have been demonstrated in rudimentary form in animals does not, as is so often claimed, knock man off his pedestal,” wrote nature writer Stephen Budiansky. “Instead, such claims perpetuate the very idea they seek to challenge: that human minds are the gold standard against which all other minds should be measured.”[16] However technically correct it may prove to say that humans are not ‘unique’ in making tools, having culture, etc, the reality is that we are unique among animal species in our totality, in the sum of our creative and intellectual powers.

The demotion of human beings comes from regarding us as just another biological organism. From this perspective, art has the same origins in both apes and humans, and in humans simply takes a more complex form. This approach reduces art to a genetic imprint, denying it its dialectical and relatively autonomous character and failing to recognise the role of labour in our evolution [17]. The difference between human and animal practice is not merely one of quantity but of quality.

We may be accused of ‘species arrogance’ for our conclusion. Yet if we describe animal communication, aesthetic sensibility, grasp of abstraction etc as rudimentary, it is because science shows that they are rudimentary compared to our own. There is no point in regarding animals other than as they are. The academic Lawrence Wilde pointed out that ‘Marx intends no slight against animals when defining human uniqueness’. Animals have their nature and we humans have ours. Our intelligence is greater than theirs, but dogs have superior smell, cheetahs can run faster, sharks can swim better, songbirds have perfect pitch, etc. Referring to the passage from Capital quoted earlier on the instruments of labour existing ‘in the germ’ in animals, Wilde comments:

The fact that the ‘germ’ is present in other animals does not detract in the slightest from the force of Marx’s argument that, according to available empirical evidence, humans and other animals can be distinguished in essence by the way in which they produce. This carries no connotations of deficiency on the part of animals. Indeed his characterisation of the animal as immediately ‘one with its life activity’ suggests a simplicity and integrity which many humans might envy. It is possible to view any comparison of closely related forms in terms of inferiority or superiority, but it is not necessary to do so... To identify a capability in humans by comparing them with animals does not imply a disability in animals; it states merely that they are different in essence.[18]

Compared to humans, animals live according to immediate physical need. This does not mean they are automatons or machines, or that they should not be respected. They are simply a different kind of being. And they are beings that cannot create art.

[1] See for example the case from Sweden of the ape given the nom de plume ‘Pierre Brassau’, reported in Time in February 1964.
[2] Schiller, Paul, & Hartmann, G. W. (1951). ‘Manipulative completion of bisected geometrical figures’, American Journal of Psychology, 64, 238-246.
[3] A gallery of paintings by the gorillas Koko and Michael can be seen at the Gorilla Foundation’s Koko website. The page is headed by the patently absurd claim by Roger Fouts that “it is part of ape nature to paint”.
[4] Desmond Morris, The Biology of Art (1962).
[5] Marx, third manuscript, ‘Private Property and Communism’ from The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (1844). I have quoted this before, and I’m sure readers will forgive me if I do so again.
[6] Marx, ‘The Labour-Process or the Production of Use-Values’ from Capital, vol 1.
[7] Charles Darwin, from chapter 3 of The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871).
[8] Marx, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (1844).
[9] Thierry Lenain, Monkey Painting (1997, originally in French). Lenain’s book, which uses a dialectical and materialist approach, is an excellent study of ape paintings and why they should not be considered to be art.
[10] Marx, op. cit.
[11] Frans B. M. de Waal, ‘Apes with an Oeuvre’ from The Chronicle of Higher Education (November 1999). De Waal is a Dutch ethologist and primatologist whose work emphasises the similarity between humans and animals.
[12] Marx, ‘The Labour Process or the Production of Use-values’ from Capital, vol. 1 (1867).
[13] Lenain, op. cit.
[14] Tachism (or Tachisme) is often seen as the European counterpart to American abstract expressionism. Deriving its name from the French tache or ‘splash’, it was an improvisatory style that drew upon gestural painting, hoping to achieve ‘authentic’ expression through spontaneity.
[15] Cited in David Gucwa and James Ehmann, To Whom It May Concern: An Investigation into the Art of Elephants (1985).
[16] Stephen Budiansky, ‘Cheep imitations of human thought’, Times Educational Supplement (1999).
[17] This flawed perspective can produce some very wild claims. See for example this article, in which chimpanzees are described as having “a culture as rich as humans”.
[18] Lawrence Wilde, ‘“The creatures, too, must become free”: Marx and the Animal/Human Distinction’, Capital and Class issue no. 72, Autumn 2000. This blog isn’t the place to discuss Marxism’s position on animal rights — people interested in the topic may find Prof Wilde’s essay rewarding.

Sunday, 2 November 2008


It would take a very long list indeed to do justice to Marxist theory of art. I offer below a selection of recommended sources available in English. I will add to this bibliography as I go along so that it includes the most important and relevant texts referred to in this blog.

Not every writer listed here is a Marxist, but their contributions are no less useful for that.

Ed. Baxandall and Morawski:
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels on Literature and Art (2006). An essential collection of the most significant writings of Marx and Engels on our topic. Originally published in 1973, this essential anthology of Marx and Engels’ writings relevant to art was re-edited and re-issued, with a new introduction, by Macdonald Daly in 2006.

Childe, Vere Gordon
Childe was an Australian archaeologist whose books on the development of civilisation, heavily influenced by Marxism, were among the most important and influential archaeological works of the twentieth century. Some of Childe’s data has, inevitably, become outdated, but his broad framework still stands.
Man Makes Himself (1936). A classic of materialist anthropology following human and social evolution up to the founding of the first civilisations.
What Happened in History (1942). A short, accessible book, similar to Man Makes Himself, but covering a broader sweep of history from the evolution of humans to the fall of the ancient world.

Diamond, Jared:
Guns, Germs and Steel (1998). Diamond’s magisterial study offers a powerful materialist explanation for the emergence of agriculture and why the uneven development of human societies is environmental, not racial, in origin. Invaluable for anyone interested in the material basis for the emergence of civilisation.

Eagleton, Terry:
Eagleton is Britain’s most important Marxist critic.
Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976). Eagleton’s concise and readable introduction to some of the main themes of Marxism theory, concentrating upon four areas: Literature and history, form and content, the writer and commitment, and the author as producer. A good starting point for beginners.

Engels, Friedrich:
Anti-Dühring (1877). This work has long been ranked with Capital and the Communist Manifesto as one of the most important works of Marxist theory, and is the most authoritative text on dialectical materialism from Marxism’s founders. It contains a great deal of polemic against a now-forgotten theorist, so the first three chapters were later extracted to form the pamphlet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, one of the most widely read expositions of Marxism.
Letter to Margaret Harkness (April 1888). This short letter contains an important statement on realism.
Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886). Asked to write a review of a book on Feuerbach, Engels took the opportunity to write this ‘short, coherent account’ of how he and Marx formulated their philosophy from the dialectics of Hegel and the materialism of Feuerbach. Part 4 is a concentrated exposition of dialectical materialism.
The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). Engels’ major work on the development of early society and its relation to material life, offering amongst other things an explanation of the oppression of women. Although much of its data has been surpassed by subsequent scholarship, the materialist core of the work remains valuable today. The edition with the 1972 introduction by Eleanor Leacock comes recommended.
The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876). This article was later included in Dialectics of Nature. Some of the scientific data used by Engels have been superceded, and in fairness to him we should point out that the article is a draft only. However Engels’ ground-breaking argument remains a fine example of the dialectical method applied to evolution.

Fischer, Ernst:
Ernst Fischer was an Austrian Marxist who began as a supporter of Stalinism, but later repudiated it and became prominent in the rediscovery of ‘humanist’ Marxism.
The Necessity of Art (1959). Fischer’s thesis that the goal of art is to restore the lost unity of humankind is a little far-fetched, but this book remains a fine contribution.

Fuller, Peter:
• ‘Art and Biology’, New Left Review 132 (1982). (Note: to read the linked article requires a subscription to NLR.) Fuller’s article overemphasises the importance of biology to the origins of art, but includes an interesting discussion of Darwin and aesthetic expression in animals.

Geras, Norman:
Geras today is a liberal apologist for imperialism. He joined self-styled ‘leftists’ like Nick Cohen in supporting the invasion of Iraq and was a founding signatory of the Euston Manifesto.
Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend (1983). Geras makes a powerful case that Marx acknowledged the existence of ‘human nature’. Geras does not have a sufficiently historical interpretation of human nature, but the book is valuable as far as it goes.

Gorky, Maxim:
V. I. Lenin (1924). Gorky’s warm reminiscences of Lenin, written upon the latter’s death.

Hauser, Arnold:
Hauser was a Hungarian-born British art historian strongly influenced by Marxism.
The Philosophy of Art History (1958). Outlines the philosophical basis for his epic Social History of Art.
The Social History of Art (1951). Hauser’s four-volume magnum opus took thirty years to write, and is an ambitious materialist survey of art from cave paintings to the age of film. It uses a Marxist method, considering art in the context of social and historical forces; the approach can be rather crude, but as the single most substantial work of Marxist art history this book cannot be ignored.

Holborow, Marnie:
• ‘Putting the Social Back Into Language’, adapted 2006 from a chapter of her book The Politics of English (1996). Holborow’s essay is a very good introduction to the Marxist theory of language.

Lafargue, Paul:
Lafargue (1842–1911) was a French Marxist and writer.
Reminiscences of Karl Marx (1890). This short biographical piece recalls Marx both as a friend and as a thinker.

Leacock, Eleanor:
Born in New York, Leacock was one of the leading Marxist writers on anthropology and feminism.
Introduction (1972) to Engels’ Origin of the Family. A valuable commentary that updates and enlarges upon Engels’ ideas by drawing upon subsequent anthropology.

Lenain, Thierry:
Monkey Painting (1997). Lenain’s book is an excellent study of ape paintings which uses a dialectical and materialist approach to explain why they shouldn’t be considered to be art.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich:
Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1909). This essay was Lenin’s answer to the positivism advocated by the likes of Mach and Bogdanov, and is an advanced study of materialism. In his Philosophical Notebooks, Lenin later took his dialectical materialism further with his 1914 notes on Hegel’s The Science of Logic. There have been attempts to argue that he broke from his position of 1909, but these do not stand up to investigation — in the Notebooks Lenin enriches the earlier work rather than refutes it.
The Three Sources and Component Parts of Marxism (1913). Lenin’s extremely concise introduction to Marxism via its three ‘component parts’: German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism. Excellent for beginners.

Levins, Richard and Lewontin, Richard:
The Dialectical Biologist (1985). Levins and Lewontin provide a Marxist commentary on biological theory. The section most relevant to this blog is their chapter ‘What is human nature?’, which puts even humans’ most basic biological needs in a historical perspective.

Marx, Karl:
Capital, vol. 1 (1867). Marx’s masterpiece of political economy, whose critique of capital has been vindicated by practical experience up to the present day. The second and third volumes were edited and published after Marx’s death by his lifelong collaborator Engels.
Comments on The Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction (1842). Written while the young Marx was editor of the radical journal Die Rheinische Zeitung, this argument against Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s instructions to the Prussian censor makes clear Marx’s commitment to freedom of the press.
Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (1844, pub. 1932). First published in 1932, these manuscripts of a work Marx planned on bourgeois political economy are only in draft, fragmentary form and are therefore less polished in content and style than his best finished works. Despite this they offer an invaluable insight into his ideas on aesthetics and alienation.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich:
The German Ideology (1846, first pub. in full 1932). Written in 1845–6, this work was not published until the 1930s. A critique of the philosophy of Feuerbach, Bauer, Stirner and others, which includes an account of the materialist conception of history and Marx’s famous formulation: ‘Being is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by being.’
The Holy Family (1844). This work was Marx and Engels’ critique of the Young Hegelians — the title is a sarcastic reference to Bruno Bauer and his supporters. Includes Marx’s brief summary of English materialism, later cited in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.

Morris, William:
Morris is a significant figure in Britain who helped Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling and others to set up the Socialist League in 1885. Despite the utopian and backward-looking character of some of his work (e.g. News from Nowhere or his medievalising poems and novels), Morris is the most important British socialist theorist of art until Caudwell — although neither is of the first rank.
• ‘The Socialist Ideal — Art’ in New Review (January 1891).

Novack, George:
Novack (1905–1992) was an American Marxist.
Understanding History (1956–68).

Plekhanov, Georgi:
Plekhanov (1857–1918) has been described as the founder of Russian Marxism.
Art and Social Life (1912). In this pamphlet Plekhanov attacks ‘art for art’s sake’ and proposes that art should “impart to its productions the significance of judgements on the phenomena of life”. Drawing a mechanical relationship between capitalist decline and a decline in the quality of art, Plekhanov creates a Marxist theory of ‘decadent’ art which would have bitter consequences under Stalin.

Raphael, Max:
Max Raphael (1889–1952) was a German art theorist who moved to France and then the US to escape Nazism. Adopting Marxism in the 1930s, he produced some of the most intelligent and sensitive Marxist writing on art.
Prehistoric Cave Paintings (1945). This essay was an important part of a new generation of work in the 1940s and 1950s that sought to go beyond early interpretations of Paleolithic art. Taking an art historical perspective, he proposed that cave paintings were highly organised and related closely to the structure of the cave.
The Demands of Art (1968). Published after Raphael’s death, this volume contains his extraordinary, stroke-by-stroke analyses of images by Cézanne, Degas, Giotto, Rembrandt and Picasso, including his highly critical response to Guernica. It also contains his fascinating but incomplete essay ‘Towards an Empirical Theory of Art’ which attempts a scientific theory of the artistic process.

Sánchez Vázquez, Adolfo:
Art and Society: Essays in Marxist Aesthetics (1965, English transl. 1973). This can be a little dry, and would benefit from more use of concrete examples, but it is an outstanding theoretical contribution. Highly recommended.

Sayers, Sean:
Marxism and Human Nature (1998). An excellent study that clarifies Marxist positions on morality, progress, history, and of course human nature. Sayers insists that Marxist theory is immanent, historical and relative.

Solomon, Maynard (editor):
Marxism and Art: Essays Classic and Contemporary (1973). This anthology of Marxist writings, from Marx and Engels to Marcuse and Benjamin, is probably the best general anthology available, complemented by Solomon’s erudite introductory articles. Its balance is imperfect — Solomon devotes a whole section to ‘utopianism’ whose place in Marxism is questionable.

Trotsky, Leon:
Leading Bolshevik, commander of the Red Army, and writer of some of the most important Marxist art theory.
Art and Revolution (1970). An anthology of Trotsky’s writings on art, including excerpts from Culture and Socialism and Literature and Revolution, and other essays and reviews.
Culture and Socialism (1927). Trotsky’s essay on culture as a social phenomenon.
In Defence of Marxism (1942). Written as part of a debate with sections of the revolutionary movement that were questioning whether to defend the USSR.
Literature and Revolution (1924). One of the few major theoretical works on art from the ‘classical’ Marxist writers of first rank, this work was part of Trotsky’s opposition to Stalinist orthodoxy. The reviews of Soviet writers in the first section may have lost some of their pertinence, but this book is outstanding. If you only read one Marxist book on art, this should be it.
Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art (1938). This short manifesto was written in collaboration with the Mexican painter Diego Rivera and French surrealist writer André Breton, but probably mostly written by Trotsky. Closes with the slogans, “The independence of art — for the revolution. The revolution — for the complete liberation of art!”
The ABC of Materialist Dialectics (1939). Part of a longer essay, A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers’ Party, this is a neat and simple introduction to dialectics.

Voloshinov, Valentin:
Part of the intellectual flowering that followed the Russian Revolution, Voloshinov was associated with the circle around Mikhail Bakhtin.
Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929). (The link is to a couple of extracts rather than the full text, which is apparently still in copyright.) This work is a fascinating attempt to extend Marxist theory to linguistics.

Lawrence Wilde:
“The creatures, too, must become free”: Marx and the Animal/Human Distinction, Capital and Class issue no. 72, Autumn 2000. Despite its hippy-sounding title, Wilde’s essay makes a useful argument that pointing out how humans and animals differ, as Marx did, does not mean disrespecting or demeaning animals.