Beauty and Revolution: A vindication of a Marxist philosophy of proletarian beauty

Midst the battle between past and present, where the past dominates the present, humankind dances to the rhythm of its rulers’ songs, like ants beneath a magnifying glass, stupefied by a burning sky of silent commands. To talk of these tortures inflicted by capitalism is to talk of ugliness, to talk of the absolute liberty of humanity is to talk of beauty. This essay attempts to argue a case for beauty in the context of current Marxist theory and praxis and contemporary artistic practice, defining and discussing beauty in the language of the revolutionary and outlining the ways in which beauty is a revolutionary force.

Humans are complex organisms that require certain substances to survive; how these biological prerequisites of life and the social demands that arise from them are met is highly political. The amount of socially necessary labour used in the associated processes of creation, appropriation and distribution is relevant to all areas of discourse. Thus political economy is not only socio-politically important but of psychological, even physiological significance. Capitalism has commodified socio-biological need, with foodstuffs taking on exchange-value, added to their ancient, intrinsic use-value. The labour involved, with its native use-value, has been converted, accordingly into a commodity. What could be seen as purely needs in the times of tribalism are now goods bought and sold in accordance with the constant fluctuations of supply and demand market forces. In this way, a historic process of thievery and tyranny has stolen the source of all vitality. The tree of life was cut down with the axe of ownership, at the dawn of class society, and then raised, dangled from a rope above humanity. That rope is, however, with each new almighty historic storm of human effort, where the modes of production are destroyed by a revolting class and replaced, moving the tree closer to its bleeding roots, which reach skyward from the corrupted earth. This is the dialectical process of historic movement that Marx labelled historical materialism. This not an inevitable process as determinists would assert but dependant on human activity, driven by need. Beauty works dialectically in this historic process, reflecting, even assisting revolutionary antithesis, as well as in the dialectics of living itself. It is from these processes of social existence that ‘beauty’ arises as a by-product of humankind’s productive powers.

To talk of beauty in this context; this alluring, mystical word must be defined in the language of the revolutionary. Beauty is defined by the common dictionary as a combination of qualities, usually colour, form, but also thoughts, events, relationships, which please the aesthetic senses or the intellect and are examples of excellence or attractiveness. The Thomistic definition of beauty is based upon the idea of a state of restfulness and bliss arising from cognition, thus, although Aquinas prudishly focused almost exclusively on beauty in the intellect rather than from sensorial perception, beauty is here still associated with pleasure and pleasant experience. Kant asserted that beauty consists of a ‘harmonious relationship between (physical) experience and the intellect’. Beauty again is essentially described in terms of pleasure and satisfaction, as well as ‘harmony’. Despite the anti-materialist philosophies of Aquinas and Kant, beauty, as described by them, is equated with pleasure and harmony. For socialists, beauty is: harmony, peace, equality; all of which are examples of pleasure for the masses, that is, universal pleasure. Furthermore, Marx took much influence from Epicurus, mainly in his materialism, but crucially, Epicurus based all moral judgements on pleasure and pain; pleasure for Epicurus was the epitome of beauty.

To take the Marxist critical realist ontological stance of contemporary Marxists like Alex Callinicos, existence and reality, is two fold: intransitive in the materialist sense but also socially constructed (by whichever present hegemonic force rules as sovereign). Philosophically, critical realism points out that primary qualities (for example: solidity, motion, number) exist within the entity itself, whilst secondary qualities (for example: colour, which is the result of light interacting with the sensitivities of the light receptors in the eye, which differs from creature to creature) are more of a social and/or cognitive construction. Similar polemics may be made about beauty in that it arguably exists intransitively, but also exists in the form of human social perception of it. In any case, beauty, generally manifested in something material, must posses both primary and secondary qualities.

The question of beauty’s social characteristic in the sense of human production arises here: is a beautiful object, made by a person, beautiful intransitively or is it only beautiful because it has been seen and called beautiful? Answering this question takes us further than critical realism into Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. An object made in the broad social context of the capitalist mode of production, to quote Marx, has ‘in it, the social character of men’s labour (appearing)… as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their… labour is presented to them a social relation, existing not between themselves but between the products of their labour… commodities (are) social things whose qualities are… perceptible and imperceptible by the senses.’ In relation to this, beauty, in the sense of a product of human labour, in natural linkage with humanity’s natural creative force that imagines before it creates and creates beyond physical necessity, arises as something physically perceptible but also something intransitively intangible; both subjective (socially) and objective. The object is arguably beautiful in both the ways listed in the question. It is beautiful socially in creation, beautiful in social relation with itself or other objects and intransitively beautiful. This sense of the intransitivity of created beauty is bought about by its conscious construction by a human, its continual cognitive formation that continues after its initial physical production. The apparent logical contradiction between the intransitive and perceptual reality of beauty can be solved with the polemics of cultural relativism in that an object can be objectively beautiful to one culture and objectively ugly to another. Relativism, broadly, argues that there are no absolute truths; Marxists would agree. It also argues that all judgements are subjective and relative to culture or individual perception, this is also arguably true, but I will take relativism further and argue that there cannot be subject without object, and where there is a subjective observation it is often objective to the individual. Epistemologically, this personal, objective judgement is arguably of equal material worth to any other. It is from this seemingly irresolvable aesthetic conflict between cultural subject and particular object that I shall attempt to draw up the dialectic of beauty. First there is the objective thesis, where beauty is found to be absolute and objective by an individual or a group, but this, with a broader cultural analysis, is found to be too abstract an assertion, made impossible by a host of epistemologically equal assertions, thus the idea arises of beauty being entirely subjective and relative and this, the antithesis, negates this thesis of objectivity. This however is found to be too broad and lacking in allowances for the particularities of individual observation. The dialectical synthesis, however, cannot be fully resolved in the epoch of capitalism, because of the capitalist disharmony of object and subject, the ruling of the present by the past and capitalism’s objectification of the subject and subjectification of the object. Beauty’s synthesis will only be found with the historic synthesis of communism where the complete synthesis of experience, the realisation of human subjective potential, the self-actualisation, the individual liberty of humanity and the socialisation of the means of production shall mean the unity of subject and object where beauty will be complete and absolute in the form of universal pleasure, harmony, peace, equality and the subsequent egalitarian aesthetic culture of beauty. The central problem, however, returning commodity fetishism, is that an object made in the conditions of capitalism is fetishised, reigning supreme over its human creator who is reified, robbed of subjectivity by its very existence. This fetishisation is what has partly given beauty, specifically in an art context, a confusing, iniquitous status of dishonesty: a capitalistically fetishised object, fetishised further by its mystic status as ‘art’ and the implicit obscure labour which is often surplus to obvious need or economic function. (This confusion however is the explicit aim of the bourgeoisie and has its routes in renaissance and neoclassical ideas of the sovereign subject.)

What, then, is the revolutionary role of beauty in artwork or in society? Why should Marxists, or any egalitarians, be concerned with beauty? Many today may consider beauty too regressive a topic for the context of egalitarian progression due to the arguably implicit cultural and social construction of which it consists. Furthermore, the seemingly abstract idea of beauty may not immediately appear as a topic Marxism is concerned with as a materialist school of thought, indeed, it is often ignored. Beauty is, by modern definition, subjective whilst Marxism is ostensibly concerned with the objective and material.

These confusions may be ironed out easily:
Firstly, social construction of norms, culture, stereotypes, personal and artistic ideals et cetera, is multifaceted and requires careful analysis in order to come to terms with the subtleties of both beauty and oppression. Marxism is actively concerned with social construction as it is naturally involved with the theorisation of sociability and the ways in which a collective creates its social narratives. Beauty seen here, as a social construct, is key. Furthermore, superstructure and cultural hegemony are not monolithic but reciprocal, involving cultural interchange and individuals’ internalisation of ideals and stereotypes. Cultural conflict may arise from bourgeois conflicts of interest and style, for example within the revolutionary bourgeois enlightenment, Romanticism’s emphasis on the sublime, the mystical, the emotional, posited against neoclassicism’s rational simplicity and symmetry. More interestingly, though, it can also involve proletarian cultural antithesis, thus elements of the superstructure can, occasionally, be more advanced in subjective or revolutionary potential and influence, than elements of the base structure. Examples of this advancement within the superstructure include the poetry of Alexander Blok who was of educationally bourgeois origins but welcomed the 1917 revolution with his work and reached out toward it, from his own old epoch, into the new. Alternatively, the Ashington Group of British 20
th century painters, entirely proletarian products of capitalism - miners, asserted their class interests, reflecting their reality, countering bourgeois narratives and bourgeois reality with the content and aesthetic of their naïve, socially realistic paintings, in which could be found both proletarian beauty, natural beauty and the grinding drudgery of alienated capitalist labour. Thus beauty is not an inherently regressive, bourgeois or patriarchal topic but something that is perceived by people on many levels and can be directed in different directions within the superstructure.

Secondly, Marxism is at its core an anthropological study. It is a method for the analysis of the material conditions of human existence and a basis for subsequent revolutionary praxis. It is indeed materialist and concerned with objective fact, but humans are essentially subjective, changeable, inconsistent and in constant dialectical conflict. Marx talks of the psychic value of man lying in his ability to objectify his intentions, seeing himself as subject, and the determining factor: seeing his creations as object. Thus the revolutionary must be concerned with the subjective to a great degree, as it is in the realm of the subjective where there is agency, where dynamism can be most frequently observed. Beauty is tied up with man’s productive capacity; as distinct from other animals which do not recognise the subjective, objective or beautiful, who merely create for immediate physical need and who do not, as far as can be seen, imagine before creating. Beauty is a materialist ideal in so much as it is only ever specific, particular to the material thing or situation. It is not a universalism; rather, it is diverse. Thus beauty’s subjectivity and diversity far from making it an abstraction from which Marxists should run and hide, renders it central to analysis and praxis.

Within beauty there is an almost binary opposition; an opposition that is connected with, but different from aforementioned battles within the superstructure between working class and ruling class. Beauty is a socially constructed, oppressive phenomenon in some respects but is also a form of pleasure and liberation. Indeed, that oppressive social construction involved proletarian as well as bourgeois beauty and so is not always wholly imposed. There is, then, bourgeois beauty and proletarian beauty. Dialectically this is manifested in an aesthetic and economic struggle between the bourgeois thesis and the proletarian antithesis, intertwining and battling within the same narratives of culture and society. The ruling classes endeavour explicitly to demean the sensuousness of the proletarians: limiting true pleasures, replacing them, where possible, with false intoxications, demeaning their taste, sublimating certain impulses, anathematising others, socioeconomically constructing cultural, personal, and artistic ideals and steretypes, encouraging the capitalist process of the object’s subjectification and the subsequent disharmony of object and subject, reifying humanity and fetishising the commodity and the art object; this is bourgeois beauty. Proletarian beauty could be found in the subject’s objectification of intention, in the socioeconomic construction of culture, not from capitalist, hierarchical base structure, but egalitarian base structure, in dialectically realised cultural enlightenment and education, in the abolishment of superior ideals and social templates, favouring individual, autonomous, cultural and artistic ideals, in re-harmonisation with natural processes and pleasures, in mass self-empowerment, in revolutionary praxis.

Thus beauty is something Marxists must be concerned with theoretically, but, more crucially, what is its revolutionary function? It is, as previously stated, inextricably linked with socialism in its bond with the productive, subjective power of humankind and with universal satisfaction. But added to this, it can, arguably, play a role in the material actions of revolution. Rosa Luxemburg famously stated that socialism requires a ‘complete spiritual transformation in the masses degraded by centuries of bourgeois class rule.’ What is more powerfully transformative of the human spirit than beauty? To talk of beauty in the context of practical revolution, we must further concretise it for the sake of example, thus I shall hereafter discuss beauty in the form of art. Art has always been, arguably, the vanguard of socioeconomic, dialectical change, that is: the vanguard of revolution; immediately reflecting or actively assisting in altering relations of production and power. In the epoch of tribalism, humans primitively generated beauty, unfettered by the chains of class society and alienation, reproducing the entirety of nature, as a by-product of their natural, raw productive powers, (but fettered still by physical need). With the arrival of class society in the form of ancient society, where the mode of production (based on labour relations of slavery) allowed a greater synthesis of skill and labour for easier production and reproduction of the means of subsistence, art and beauty became increasingly refined in both practice and theory. Each new order of Greek architecture represented a new stratum of society, a new kind of productive relation. The Corinthian order arguably reflected a cultural antithesis to the traditional societal conformity seen, for example, in the Doric order. With the decentralisation of classical empires (and the rise of monotheism) came the feudal mode of production. The art of this era reflected the economic relations between lord and surf but also articulated revolutionary antithesis to classical beauty with naïve, didactic, religious tapestries and paintings with complex patterning. Most significantly, the revolutionary role of art and beauty can be seen in the artistic works of the enlightenment and the bourgeois revolutions: most famously the English, French and American revolutions. The literary writings of Marquis de Sade directly acted in the French revolution, challenging traditional concepts of hierarchy, authority, sexuality and the mind. De Sade being regularly imprisoned for his revolutionary activities in the search for political change and beauty (as well as for his more atrocious acts). Jacques-Louis David’s ‘The ‘Oath of Horatii’, not an explicitly revolutionary painting, became a symbol of the revolution in that it epitomised the new bourgeois age of rationality, clarity and order with its beautifully idealised, definite rendering of reality.

What Marxists are more concerned with, however, is beauty in the service of proletarian revolution as well as beauty that assists the revolutionary amelioration of proletarian life. This is, as Marxists would see it, the aesthetic, economic battle that is of importance today. Here is where the spiritual transformation talked of by Luxemburg is essential, as socialism requires more of a mass spiritual shift than any other socioeconomic synthesis, because, unlike the bourgeoisie who planted their avaricious roots firmly Western in society in the renaissance, the proletariat has not had the luxury to realise itself culturally or politically – or at least not truly independently of bourgeois culture. Beauty can, like no other force, subjectify the economically objectified human; it can stir a deep psychic ability to change, it can without rationality, change, destroy or grow the social importance of an object or relationship. It is a force of love and not hate which renders it a revolutionary force of optimism and dynamism. It can empower the soul of the worker, who has been systematically taught docility and pessimism. In the Russian Revolution, as the proletarian masses became empowered, seeing themselves fully as the people of agency, with the historic power to change the world. A huge amount of creative energy erupted, in areas of industry and, notably, in artistic practice. This was the case even with illiterate peasants never previously exposed to art. Trotsky was committed to the dialectical education of the masses in bourgeois culture in order to realise proletarian culture whilst the Proletkultists aggressively asserted proletarian culture. Although Trotsky was right to argue that Proletkult, in this assertion of proletarian culture, was dangerously uncritical, un-dialectical, and thus counterproductive, he was possibly too harsh on the Proletkultists because they actually enabled mass creative self-actualisation with highly democratic bodies representing workers across Russia. The 1918 Proletkult conference having 330 delegates from different factories, workers’ clubs etc. Today in the struggle for equality, we may see beauty working for the amelioration of proletarian conditions, arguably, in the movement of contemporary socially engaged artistic practice. Its critical engagement with culture, its interaction with communities, its subjectification of working class audiences, its aims to influence social strategy, all show revolutionary potential. WochenKlausur, the current artists collective show the revolutionary power of beauty in their piece ‘Medical care for homeless people’ in which they provided a van from which the homeless could receive free medical care. Although they are not specifically political in their actions, their intentionally ‘non art’ art achieves beauty in the Kantian, Epicurean sense of satisfaction and harmony which is of strong subjective, socially revolutionary potential. They use, rather than paint or clay, the social problems of communities as their materials. These elements of beauty in revolutionary or quasi-revolutionary action show the almighty revolutionary potential power of beauty as a material force for changing the world.

Beauty is not merely a reflection of reality and humanity’s productive powers; it is a tool that can and must be used in the revolutionary transformation of the spirits and souls of mankind, in the subjective transformation of the objective world and in the cultural overthrowing of cultural hegemony. To conclude, beauty will be, in the epoch of classless, stateless communism, not the stifling stereotypes and ideals of capitalism, but the manifestation of individual self-actualisation, liberty and universal satisfaction. Proletarian beauty exists, currently, only in tangled, bleeding shards of light in the bourgeois bog of mechanised inhumanity. It will shine as a great, clear, bright light when the means of production are commonly owned and the bourgeoisie are merely the whispers of the past.


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