Talk by WSWS Arts Editor David Walsh

The political and theoretical sources of The Sky Between the Leaves—Part 1

By David Walsh
27 January 2014

WSWS arts editor David Walsh gave a talk in Detroit recently to SEP members and supporters to mark the publication of The Sky Between the Leaves. This is the first part of two.

Our movement, the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) and the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI), is alone in treating art from the point of view of the cultural and political development of the working class—because we are the only movement that concerns itself with the general problem of the workers taking power, much less makes preparations with that end in mind.

There is no question but that a new, angry, radicalized mass movement is going to emerge in response to the ongoing global war against workers’ conditions and their very lives.

On a daily basis, injury is added to insult is added to injury. The announcement of the evaluation by Christie’s auction house of the artwork at the Detroit Institute of Arts—a step toward privatization or selling off the art—is a clear signal by the financial elite to the population: we will grab everything, in spite of your opposition and hostility. It is a provocation of the social counter-revolution, in line with the budget talks, Obama’s health care “reform,” the cuts in food stamps, the ending of unemployment benefits for 1.3 million people. It is worthy of the French aristocracy prior to May 1789.

In that regard, writing of the year 1785 in A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens noted, “In both countries [France and England] it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes that things in general were settled for ever.” In other words, all hell was about to break loose! That is our situation.

It is our conception that cultural development is critical to resolving the crisis of working class leadership. The approach of social explosions raises before the revolutionary movement in a new and palpable, more pressing and direct manner the problem of working class consciousness. What will be the direction of the coming social upheavals? We know there will be the inevitable confusion, but how can we impart to this movement a politically advanced, socialist character? What political, intellectual and cultural food supply does this emerging movement need?

The approach of social revolution poses as a sharp, objectively driven question the need to broaden the thinking and activity of the working class and of our own movement, as the conscious element within the class. As the introduction to The Sky Between the Leaves argues, the general social-cultural awakening that needs to take place doesn’t occur independently of the revolutionary party. Our work on the WSWS and in publishing this book and others is motivated by that understanding.

It is a fight in part against narrowness, pragmatism, callousness, crudity, backwardness, against the “quick fix,” especially in America, which of course never fixes anything. It is a struggle for more universal thinking, for considerations of problems and conditions in their entirety and their development, for an understanding of all sorts of human personalities and psychologies and complex situations.

“Socialism is not a bread and butter problem, but a cultural movement, a great and proud world-ideology,” wrote Rosa Luxemburg in a letter to Franz Mehring on his 70th birthday in 1916.

The Russian revolutionary movement was saturated with a feeling for literature and culture generally. The following is a passage from Aleksandr Voronsky’s autobiographical work, Waters of Life and Death (1936), a marvelous book even in its abridged, English translation. Voronsky had been sent into exile for three years following his second arrest, in the years of reaction following the 1905 revolution in Russia. One of Voronsky’s fellow exiles addresses him here. One doesn’t have to agree with the sentiments, the man at the moment is quite frustrated and angry, but the reference to literature is significant:

“Who told you that a man must be consistent? Only fools, pedants and philistines are that! Now, you like the classics; are they consistent, tell me? Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, what a range—what a diversity of feeling! What contradictions and contrasts! You can only raise your hands to heaven! Take away their inconsistencies and what will remain of their genius? Nothing! I will whisper in your ear: I am trying to achieve consistency, but I like the confusion of feelings and thoughts. I like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Gogol for the very lack of clarity in their aims, for their sincere intellectual doubts, for their very complexity.”

Georgi Plekhanov

As I say, the generation that led the October Revolution, including Voronsky, was schooled in Marxism and the classics of world and Russian literature. Plekhanov played an indispensable role in that schooling, and remains indispensable in our education.

I would like to explain a few things about the new book, about its roots in our movement, and some related questions, including the attitude of pseudo-leftism to cultural problems. I don’t propose to go over the contents of the reviews and comments. Comrades can determine for themselves what they think of those, although I would be happy to answer any questions about them.

It should be clear to all of us, I think, that the split in 1985-86 with the opportunists in the British Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) leadership, one of the most significant and best documented in the history of the Marxist movement, provided the intellectual basis and political impetus for our recent work on artistic problems. The taking of power by the Trotskyists in the International Committee of the Fourth International meant the re-emergence and resurgence of classical Marxism after a decades-long struggle.

Under conditions of the break-up of the bureaucratic stranglehold over the working class, which had lasted many years, of which the conflict in the ICFI was both a foreshadowing and a critical element, the full depth and breadth of Trotsky’s analysis and the views of all the great Marxists could once again hold sway over, inspire and enlighten the movement. As “How the Workers Revolutionary Party Betrayed Trotskyism” (1986) concludes:

“The great liberating ideas of Leon Trotsky are once again firmly entrenched within the International Committee of the Fourth International.”

This was a pledge to the working class—and a warning to its enemies—that the party has carried through on, and intends to carry through on to the end.

Pabloite notions (referring to the opportunist movement led by the late Ernest Mandel, Alain Krivine and others) about substitutes for the international working class as the revolutionary force in society, and all the other false paths (“student power,” the “Red University,” guerrillaism, Castroism, Maoism, etc.) that had dominated the left in previous decades, were decisively repudiated in the split of 1985-86. The scientific basis of the Marxist perspective was restored and developed. Inevitably, therefore, great emphasis was once more placed on the level of consciousness in the working class and the fight to elevate that consciousness, a fight that had been neglected or repudiated by the WRP in its period of degeneration.

The question of art and culture, and their role in broadening and educating the population, inevitably enters into any such effort. After all, if—like the Pabloites and the WRP leadership—your political perspective is to place pressure on various bureaucracies, if you are oriented toward the union officials and the Stalinists and the bourgeois nationalists, your attitude toward the problems of culture will be entirely different—if you bother about them at all!

The evolution of the Socialist Labour League-WRP’s relationship with the artists (like the Redgraves, Ken Loach and so on), from a principled to an opportunist one, is instructive in this regard, but that is a separate discussion. I think the recent commemorations of Dave Hyland, who was won on a principled political-cultural basis to the Trotskyist movement in the early 1970s, are highly relevant in this regard.

Important discussions on perspectives took place in the International Committee in 1987 and 1988, resulting in the statement, “The World Capitalist Crisis and the Tasks of the Fourth International,” published in August 1988. The statement advanced a perspective on the phenomenon of globalization in particular and outlined the objective basis for a new upsurge of the international working class.

That document, in a critical passage, also emphasized the struggle for principled socialist politics against the opportunists who “deny the necessity of any open struggle for socialist consciousness in the working class. It is not necessary, they say, to patiently nourish the workers’ movement with the rich fruit of Marxist culture. Rather, it is enough to dish out a few simple demands which will supposedly entice the masses and lead them to socialist revolution without even being conscious of their ultimate destination.”

This notion of nourishing the working class movement with the “fruit” of socialist culture—in other words, the party’s role in the political and cultural education of the working class, became and remained a central theme in the discussions in our international party at the time. In fact, the subject came up again and again, in different forms.

For example, these are some of the comments (numerous others could be cited) made by David North, then National Secretary of the Workers League, predecessor of the Socialist Equality Party in the US, in internal party discussions in early 1989:

“Comrades will often say that we’re building a revolutionary party … what is this revolutionary party? … We are fighting to build an international party of the international proletariat. That isn’t done with a few clever slogans. An enormous theoretical foundation must be built for such a movement to emerge, like the scaffolding of a skyscraper. A great deal of preparatory work must be done. … The party must create the theoretical nourishment that will sustain and be worthy of a mass movement.” (February 12, 1989)

“The development of the mass movement should not be conceived of as ‘spontaneous.’ Within the spontaneous movement, there exists a conscious element. The level of the spontaneous movement reflects the influence of the Marxists within it. The Bulletin [the Workers League publication at the time] must be a real force for the education of the working class. Comrades must take great pride in the development of the press. We must produce a paper worthy of the coming movement. It must be a paper which broadens workers’ outlook. Understanding important issues in history and culture will increase workers’ critical faculties in approaching struggles in the labor movement. We must [also] have good coverage of science and technology.” (February 19, 1989)

“There is an important development taking place. We want to broaden this paper [i.e., the Bulletin ] and really make it an instrument for the political and cultural education of the working class. Workers derive from this paper a great amount of knowledge. … We will have to find a culture editor who can prepare serious material for the paper.” (February 26, 1989) “What is it that separates us from everybody else in the final analysis? We oppose the bureaucracy. We fight for revolutionary consciousness in the working class. We fight … for the political and cultural development of the working class.” (March 19, 1989)

The insistence on the rich, broad basis necessary for the emergence of a genuine revolutionary movement was terribly important for the development of the party at that time. It was an antidote to the thin intellectual broth the WRP had doled out in its last years, in the pages of its News Line and elsewhere. This emphasis was both a breath of fresh air and a return to the conceptions of Trotsky and that generation of Russian and European revolutionaries.

The collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and the USSR in 1989-91 marked a turning point in the history of the international workers’ movement, and world culture, and the ICFI made the most searching analysis of the events.

At a plenum in March 1992, the ICFI analyzed the developments thoroughly, and drew far-reaching conclusions about the situation the party and the working class faced. We have cited this passage before from David North’s report, but it bears repeating:

“The intensification of the class struggle provides the general foundation of the revolutionary movement. But it does not by itself directly and automatically create the political, intellectual and, one might add, cultural environment that its development requires, and which prepares the historic setting for a truly revolutionary situation. Only when we grasp this distinction between the general objective basis of the revolutionary movement and the complex political, social and cultural process through which it becomes a dominant historical force is it possible to understand the significance of our historical struggle against Stalinism and to see the tasks that are posed to us today.” (12th Plenum of the ICFI, March 1992)

This understanding, in a sense, almost inevitably led to the renewed concentration on artistic and cultural problems, along with many other areas of work. There is no understanding what we have done, or why we have done it, in the past two decades without taking this analysis into account. It became possible on this basis to grasp the crisis in art in its relation to the crisis of perspective and leadership in the working class .

None of the current “left” intellectuals, who expound endlessly, pretentiously and often incomprehensibly, about problems of politics and culture offer the slightest genuine insight into the experiences and lessons of the class struggle in the 20th century, or the concrete role played by various parties (Stalinist, social democratic, centrist), movements and leaderships. Or, in many cases, to be less charitable, these intellectual figures deliberately and self-servingly avoid examining those decisive experiences. In this fashion, the oh-so “independent” and “deconstructive” and “critical” academic often covers up, or even sanitizes, the criminal-destructive activity of Stalinism, Maoism, reformism, anarchism and the other anti-Marxist tendencies in betraying revolutionary opportunities and helping preserve the oppression of the working class.

Our theory of art, with all its distinctive features, is part of our general theory of social development and history. We subscribe to the historical materialist conception, according to which, as Plekhanov explained it, human beings “do not make several distinct histories … but only one history, the history of their own social relations.”

So our perspective on contemporary cultural conditions takes as its starting-point our analysis of the great social experiences that have given the present era its specific character and that must find “multiform reflection in the minds of men” (Plekhanov), including in contradictory form in artistic production.

Returning to the 1991-92 period, the introduction to The Sky Between the Leaves explains that the Fourth International had foreseen that Stalinism, if not overthrown, would destroy the USSR, and now, our movement argued, the working class had suffered a major defeat. On what basis would a new revolutionary movement emerge? The fundamental objective contradictions of the capitalist system had not been resolved …

“But what of the subjective prerequisites for socialist revolution? Through what process would the objective impulses for the overthrow of capitalism find subjective expression in the consciousness of the working class?”

The introduction continues to discuss that March 1992 ICFI Plenum just referred to and its conclusions:

“The October Revolution was the outcome of a massive growth in the political consciousness of the international working class in the decades that followed the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848 and, especially, in the aftermath of the suppression of the Paris Commune in May 1871. …

“The growth of socialist consciousness was not only the product of the struggle for specific economic and political demands. The development of art and culture—through the work of writers, painters, musicians (often, but not always, partial to socialism) and the Marxist critics who appraised their efforts—played an immense role in shaping and broadening the outlook of the working class, of sharpening its awareness of the injustices of capitalism, strengthening and refining the workers’ outrage and willingness to sacrifice and making more ardent their belief and confidence in the possibility of realizing socialism and building a society based on genuine social equality and solidarity.

“Socialism required a cultural awakening among a significant section of the working class, for such an awakening is essential to the development of a conscious revolutionary critical attitude toward capitalist society. This awakening, however, did not occur independently of the efforts of the revolutionary party. Rather, it is the party—the most conscious section of the working class—that leads the fight for this development.”

These conceptions have animated our work over the past twenty years, and they find expression, I hope, in The Sky Between the Leaves. They also find expression in our ongoing defense of the Detroit Institute of Arts. It is no accident that the question of public access to artistic masterpieces has emerged as a political issue. The struggle over the DIA concentrates at a high level the conflict between the financial aristocracy and the working class, which is very sensitive to the effort to steal the artwork.

Workers have demonstrated that they care more about the art, even if they are uneducated aesthetically, than the powers that be or the upper middle class—or the pseudo-left for that matter, who have nothing to say about the issue; who agree with the union officials and the Democrats; who calculate, in fact, that they too might benefit, directly or indirectly, from the sale of the artwork.

We see an important correlation between artwork that illuminates reality and the growth of popular awareness and sensitivity. People are altered, in a profound manner, by art. The altering is a complex process, and it may not be immediate or direct, but it takes place just the same. In the final analysis, of course, the ability of art to influence and affect human beings, i.e., the depth and weight of a given artistic trend, is “determined by its importance for the class, or stratum, whose tastes it expresses, and by the social role played by that class or stratum” (Plekhanov). But we do not take a fatalistic or passive view toward this question. We fight implacably for a cultural change, for an improvement in artistic life.

The attack on Marxism has been unrelenting in recent decades, and it coincides, not accidentally, with the attack on the real, on life, as the basis of art.

“The effort to set art free from life … devitalizes and kills art. The very need of such an operation is an unmistakable symptom of intellectual decline.” (Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, 1924)

This has not been an operation mounted by a few aesthetes, advocates of art for art’s sake, or the relative handful of Russian Formalists, to whom Trotsky’s comments were addressed in the early 1920s. No, in recent decades virtually the entire academic and “left” cultural world has come to agree that art has little or nothing to do with life and reality. It is an extraordinary, unprecedented development.

On the part of the bourgeoisie, the hostility to artwork that demystifies reality, that cuts through the official version and lays bare what life is really like, is not something mysterious.

“A declining capitalism … fears superstitiously every new word, for it is no longer a matter of corrections and reforms for capitalism but of life and death.” (Trotsky, “Art and Politics in Our Epoch,” 1938)

The determined attack by considerable sections of the so-called intelligentsia on the uncovering of life as it is, even on the artistic possibility of such an undertaking, expresses, above all, their rapprochement with the ruling elite, the decline in their opposition to capitalism. Since the demise of the Soviet Union and Stalinism in power, on which many left intellectuals relied, the convergence of the “left” intelligentsia and capitalism has picked up steam, it has become a full-scale and shameful capitulation. The devastated condition in which the masses live is not an issue that intrigues most of the “left” artists and intellectuals, who have gone off into self-centered, lifestyle politics. They lack, in many cases, any critical attitude toward the social order. The very concept of the politically engaged and committed artist has come under ferocious attack.

Even the makers of relatively timid socially critical films at present have to swear in public a dozen times that it was not their intention … that the farthest thing from their minds was to make a socially conscious or socially realistic work … that no one should be confused on that score, etc., etc. It’s rather unseemly.

Of course, the inner life of the anxiety-ridden middle class professional is an endless source of artistic interest. Social reality has vanished from much of the art world, but libidinal and psycho-sexual reality--or pseudo-reality, in fact--and the irrational are doing very well. We know all sorts of things about the inner thoughts and feelings of the upper middle class philistine (or at least how he or she would like those thoughts and feelings to be perceived), and his or her self-pity, self-inflated despair, even out of control behavior. There is no shortage of that. It is not very edifying.

Raya Dunayevskaya

The concerted struggle to divorce art from the problem of the socially real, from the problems of society has been going on for decades. This is not the occasion to go into that in detail, but the discouragement and pessimism of the Frankfurt School intellectuals in the 1940s and beyond marks an important milestone.

“The rejection of progress and the repudiation of the working class as the central revolutionary force in modern capitalist society became in the decades that followed the essential principle and theme of petty-bourgeois left politics. We find them developed and repeated in the writings of [Herbert] Marcuse, [Raya] Dunayevskaya and countless contemporary anarchist, post-anarchist, post-structuralist tendencies.” (“Report to the Second National Congress of the Socialist Equality Party,” David North, July 2012)

Herbert Marcuse

The process has accelerated in recent decades. This is a comment on postmodernism by two postmodernist authors:

“Disappointment and skepticism led the postmodern thinkers of the past several decades to reject the possibility of reflecting reality in one’s thinking and one’s art.” According to such thinkers, “one’s optic or analytic frame never mirrors reality exactly as it is that it is always selective and unavoidably mediated by one’s pregiven assumptions, theories, values, and interests. The notion of perspective also implies that no one optic can ever fully illuminate the richness and complexity of any single phenomenon, let alone the infinite connections and aspects of all social reality. Thus, as [Friedrich] Nietzsche, [Max] Weber, and others have argued, all knowledge of reality stems from a particular point of view, all ‘facts’ are constituted interpretations, and all perspectives are finite and incomplete.” ( Postmodern Theory, Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, 1991)

Aleksandr Voronsky

No one, of course, would seriously suggest that thinking, or art, reflects reality “exactly as it is.” As Aleksandr Voronsky noted, “The object is never equal to the subject.” But, the question is, as that same critic asked, do our subjective sensations have any objective significance? Can thinking and art reflect reality with relative, qualitatively decisive truthfulness?

As opposed to the modern ultra-relativists and subjectivists, we answer yes to these questions and pose this to the artists as a challenge: Your task is not to produce photographs, exact copies, but to produce ‘pictures of life,’ based on your understanding and your powers of imagination, that convey important truths, truths that enlighten and stimulate and provoke. Is that possible? Yes, the entire history of art affirms that possibility. Human beings have been shaped and educated and civilized in part because of works of art for several thousand years. Marxism, as Lenin suggested, bases itself on that entire history.

To be continued

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