Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Politics of Migration


The Politics of Migration

The issue of migrant labour and/or refugees is at, or near, the top of the political agenda in many countries round the world today.

There are two main reasons for this. First, the combination of globalisation and war over the last decade or so has generated flows of migration greater, possibly, than at any previous point in human history – in excess, possibly, even of the huge displacement of people caused by the Second World War. Second, the ruling classes in most of the affected countries put it there.

Despite the fact that these ruling classes are directly or indirectly responsible for the bulk of this movement of people (either by driving people out of one part of the world through poverty, unemployment or war, or attracting them to another part to meet labour shortages) they try to ensure that the prevailing attitude to the phenomenon of migration and to the migrants themselves, is one of hostility.

Obviously the details vary from time to time and country to country, but the general thrust of the ruling class argument, presented through the statements of politicians and complemented through innumerable press and media stories, remains essentially the same everywhere. It is that migrants are to be seen primarily as constituting a ‘problem’ for the ‘host’ country into which they come.

For a start there are always too many of ‘them’; ‘they’ are always arriving or about to arrive in vast numbers, like an invading army, into a country which is always already bursting at the seams. Then ‘they’ are pretty much always taking ‘our’ jobs, causing unemployment among ‘native’ workers, and at the same time jumping the queue to get houses and flats thus creating a housing shortage for deserving citizens. Their presence will also be putting all sorts of pressure on public services. Their children will be causing problems in schools because they don’t yet speak the local language or because they speak too many languages. Form time to time they will get sick and this will cause problems in the hospitals as they take up needed beds and use up scarce resources. They are also quite likely to be bringing and spreading foreign diseases. Remarkably these migrants and refugees also often seem to have tendency to crime – stealing, drugs, prostitution, knives etc – and other forms of bad behaviour but despite this the authorities still seem bent on giving them preferential treatment over local people.

But, even if they are not guilty of all this bad behaviour, ‘they’ are still a ‘problem’ because of their different and ‘alien’ culture – language (which makes them hard to understand) clothes, food (which makes them smell funny), religion (which makes their morals doubtful) and so on. It being well known that people of different cultures have difficulty mixing or living together.

Every socialist has to be able to refute these arguments and expose them for the reactionary rubbish they are. She or he needs at their finger tips concrete facts and statistics to dispose of the mass of exaggerations, myths and downright lies that invariably surround this subject and clearly such concrete facts will differ from country to country and case to case. However there are also certain basic theoretical points which underpin the whole debate.

The first is simply that a rise in population is not a bad thing. All over the world the system tries to convince us that the existence of people is a problem, and of more people a calamity. Obviously this is the perfect alibi for governments and ruling classes everywhere – if there is unemployment, homelessness, poverty etc it is because there are too many people – but it is complete nonsense, an absolute inversion of the truth. If an increase in population really caused unemployment or homelessness then unemployment and homelessness would have been rising relentlessly since the year dot. In reality there is not some fixed number of jobs or houses, and every increase in population means an increase in the workers able to make these things.

On the contrary a rise in population is, fundamentally, a result of an increase in the standard of living. The world’s population is not rising because people are having more children but because more children are surviving and living longer, which in turn is caused by caused by improved diet, health care and living standards. Equally an expanding capitalist economy generates a demand for more labour, which can be met either by natural increase in population or immigration. By the same token the real cause of rising unemployment is economic contraction or crisis and nothing to do with population size or, therefore, immigration.

The second general point is the link between hostility to migrants and racism. Many of those who oppose immigration or demand it should be limited, vehemently deny that this has anything to do with racism, saying it is just about numbers, but in reality this is never the case.

Racism as a systematic ideology developed in Europe from about 17th century onwards as a reflection of, and justification for, first the slave trade and then colonialism and imperialism in general. It established a mythical hierarchy of so- called ‘races’ or ethnicities, with white Europeans at the top, followed by Far East Asians, South Asians and African Blacks at the bottom. Attached to this hierarchy were innumerable prejudices and stereotypes, such as Blacks are lazy, Orientals are inscrutable and wily, and so on. Because Europe came to dominate the world culturally and ideologically as well as economically and politically, this racist hierarchy and its stereotypes achieved considerable worldwide acceptance, even in non- European societies. It is against this background, and resting on or mobilising these prejudices (spoken or unspoken), that opposition to migration always operates.

Finally it is necessary to understand the double game currently being played by our various rulers. On the one hand they require large amounts of cheap migrant labour to boost their profits, and they make sure they get it legally or illegally. On the other hand they encourage prejudice and racism against this migrant labour, both because of the general benefit they obtain from having readily available scapegoats and dividing the working class and because stigmatising and marginalising the migrants reinforces their status as cheap super-exploitable labour without employment rights or union organisation.

On this basis it should be clear why the attitude of socialists to migrants and refugees of all kinds is the opposite of our rulers: why we emphasise the potential benefits, economic, political and cultural, of immigration, and fight for the national and international unity of the working class by extending to all immigrants the hand of solidarity and saying ‘YOU ARE WELCOME HERE’

John Molyneux

21 November 2007

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Marxism and Climate Change


Marxism and Climate Change

Climate change is real and it is a serious threat. More or less all rational people, including even the US government who are at the very edge of that category, now know this to be the case. If climate change is not tackled immediately global temperatures will, before very long, rise to the point where millions die through the failure of their food supplies, floods, storms and other catastrophes and many millions more are displaced. If it is allowed to run unchecked even beyond that point incalculable horrors could be inflicted on both the human race and innumerable other species.

Faced with such clear and present danger the most widespread response, both in the media and amongst environmental campaigners is to say that this issue is so big, so urgent, that it stands above politics or ideology. Since, in the long run, climate change threatens all humanity, all humanity should unite to prevent it. Conservatives, liberals. anarchists, Marxists, especially Marxists, should submerge their differences and put to one side their doctrinal squabbles, special interests and philosophical goals and concentrate on the business at hand – saving the planet. This all sounds like common sense. In fact it is completely false.

To see why this is so just think what would be done about climate change if we really did live in a half way rational world, or if even a significant portion of the key players i.e. the politically and economically powerful, really did sink their differences, put aside their special interests and tackle the problem.

First, all the major governments – the US, Russian, Chinese, British, Japanese, German, French etc - would immediately initiate a massive shift from carbon emitting sources of power such as oil and coal to non - carbon emitting sources such as wind, wave and solar power. Second, they would complement this with government led programmes to insulate all buildings effectively so as to reduce drastically the amount of power used to heat them. Then there would be strict regulations introduced to prevent offices and other public buildings wasting power by being lit up at night. Finally there would be huge public investment in environmentally friendly forms of public transport, crucially buses, coaches and trains, so as to greatly reduce dependence on carbon emitting cars,lorries and planes and once the efficient and comprehensive public transport was in place this could be backed up, if need be, by legal limitations on, for example, cars in city centres or on long distance runs between cities.

One could think of many other measures that could and should be taken but the important point is that all these developments would be government led and legally enforced. There would also be education and propaganda directed at the public but this would be to win support for government action, not instead of it. There is nothing unusual about this. It is what governments and ruling classes ALWAYS do whenever they are serious about tackling an issue or meeting a threat. Thus it is inconceivable that ANY government would say that the way to deal with bank robberies and burglaries is to appeal to people’s consciences and to rely on the interventions of publicspirited citizens. Inconceivable that George Bush would say that the combating terrorism should be left to market forces or that the way to invade Iraq was to encourage as many Americans as possible to make their way to Baghdad under their own steam. Indeed it is precisely to secure centralised and effective action that ruling classes everywhere have created state machines to do their bidding.

Yet when we turn away from this utopian fantasy of rational action in a rational world to what is actually happening, we find that almost NONE of the things that most obviously need doing are being done and that just the leave it all up to the individual approach, which would be dismissed out of hand on other issues, is the one being adopted.

The reason for this abject failure is clear: the priorities and logic of capitalism. The principal holders of economic power in the world capitalist system are the giant corporations. According to the Fortune 500 list the world’s ten largest companies are as follows: 1.Wal-Mart, 2. Exxon Mobile,3. Royal Dutch Shell, 4.BP, 5. General Motors,6. Toyota, 7.Chevron, 8.DaimlerChrysler, 9.ConocoPhillips, 10.Total. It should be immediately obvious that of these ten, nine have an absolute vested interest in the oil/car economy.

The other main centres of power in capitalism are the state machines of the major nations but these are tied directly and indirectly by a thousand strings to these same corporations. Moreover they are locked into competition with each other on behalf of their respective national capitalisms. Thus not only do these state apparatuses not want to make the changes necessary to halt climate change they feel they cannot afford to lest their rivals steal a march on them by opting out of the process of change. To put it very concretely the US ruling class says to itself we can’t really cut our carbon emissions (which would hit profits and damage our economy) for fear the Chinese don’t follow suit and thereby gain a competitive advantage.Likewise the Chinese ruling class will not want to cut back in case the Americans use the opportunity to race ahead.

So compelling is the logic of capitalist competition that both corporations and governments are willing to put at risk the whole future of humanity and the planet rather than lose their position in the world market.

And this is why it would be folly for socialists to drop their distinctive politics or put to one side their distinctive Marxist ideology in the cause of stopping climate change. The reality is that only the Marxist analysis of capitalism reveals the true cause of climate change and, even more importantly, identifies the vested interests standing in the way of preventing it reaching catastrophic proportions. And only socialist politics linked to the mass movement of the working class can mobilise the social and political power able to overcome the resistance of those vested interests and force through the changes necessary to save humanity from disaster.

John Molyneux

15 October 2007

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Is Marxism Economic Determinist?


Is Marxism Economic Determinist ?

The criticism of Marxism that it 'puts too much emphasis on the economic factor' or 'falsely reduces everything to economics' is the main theoretical objection to Marxism in academic circles. The reason it is so popular with professional sociologists, historians, political philosophers and the like is because it fits so neatly the needs of their social situation. Academics are people who earn their living, or like to believe they earn their living, on the basis of their ideas. Instinctively they are repelled by a theory which seems to downplay the role of ideas in history, and therefore to downplay the role of people like themselves. The professional ideologist is naturally drawn to theories which suggest that in the end it is the power of ideas that is decisive in shaping the world.

Within this there is a narrower career interest in theories that are 'sophisticated' and 'complex', and in questions 'in need of more research and development' - so many research grants and publication opportunities - and a strong bias against definite answers of any kind. 'Communism', the young Marx wrote,' is the riddle of history solved, and knows itself to be so', but such a claim would appall the typical academic who would much prefer the riddle to remain unsolved.

But if this explains the popularity of the objection we still have to assess its truth and on this I would start by saying that all talk of the primacy of ‘economics’ in Marxism or of Marxism reducing everything to ‘economics’ is inaccurate and, at best, ‘loose’. Marx’s theory of history, as The German Ideology makes clear, does not begin with ‘economics’ or with ‘economic motives’, but with human needs – both biologically determined and historically developed – and with the organization of production to meet those needs. Nor does Marx claim that the organization of production determines everything in history, merely that it constitutes a foundation or base on which everything else in history rests.

Moreover this fundamental Marxist proposition must be true, for the simple reason that any individual who is unable meet their needs for food, drink, shelter etc will die, and that any society unable to organize social production to meet those needs, at least to some degree, for most of its members, will cease to exist. To depart from this premise is, as Marx put it, ‘possible only in imagination’. Ruling classes and their ideologists can avoid it because the material work to meet their material needs is always done by others, and because those others (slaves, peasants, workers) are socially subordinate to them, and can be ignored or dismissed.

But isn’t this a round about way of saying everything reduces to economics? No. The human needs we are talking about range from the very basic and absolute need for air, to the only slightly less pressing needs for drink, food, clothing, and shelter, to the need for social interaction (care, language, socialization etc) for babies to grow up human, the needs for love and sex (both a necessity for the survival of the species and a felt need by individuals) and ‘spiritual’ needs for art, music etc. Which of these needs can be called ‘economic’? In a sense none of them – is the need for air an ‘economic’ need? At the same time without economics i.e. the social organization of production, none of these needs, except air, and even that may become problematic, can be met on a consistent basis. For example, without material production there can be no art, which requires such things as walls, paper, canvas, pencils, paint or whatever and above all people with the time and energy to be artists.

What then is the relationship between this economic base of organized production and what Marx calls the ‘superstructure’ of politics, law, philosophy, religion, art etc.? Clearly, as we have seen, economics is a necessary condition for the rest, but does it determine them in some mechanical or absolute sense? Not according to Marx who mainly speaks of shaping or conditioning rather than strict determination. The conditioning of the superstructure by the base is best understood, in my opinion, in terms of a combination of constraints and impulses.

First, the economic level of society constrains or set limits to what is possible at the ideological or superstructural level. For example, modern art and modern culture generally, is obviously impossible on a feudal or medieval economic base. Equally it was not possible to achieve modern political democracy- parliamentary government, universal suffrage etc. - without the development of capitalism with its cities and its working class.

Second, developments in the economic base create powerful impulses for change. For example the early development of the bourgeoisie within feudalism gave an impulse to the rise of a new form of Christianity – Protestantism- which would challenge the alliance of Catholicism and the feudal aristocracy. Similarly the later development of industrial capitalism into monopoly capitalism created a very powerful impulse towards imperialism, the division of the whole world between the ‘great’ powers, and that in turn generated a huge pressure towards war.

Thus neither the Reformation nor the First World War were accidents of history or mainly caused by ideology; on the contrary they had profound ‘economic’ causes or, more accurately, causes located in the development of the forces and relations of production. At the same time it was by no means economically determined that Martin Luther would nail his 95 Theses to door of the church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517, or that world war would break out in August 1914 following an assassination in Sarajevo.

Let us apply this historical method to a contemporary problem: the likelihood of a US attack on Iran. On the hand there is a very strong economic impulse to attack Iran. To defend its global economic empire the US needs to assert its military dominance, especially over the crucial regions of the Middle East and Central Asia. The disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq create an incentive to try to recoup the situation with another throw of the dice in Iran, before Iran gets a nuclear weapon. But there are also certain basic constraints ( what the US can afford)and a number of complicating factors such as the real possibility of military defeat in Iran, the danger of provoking huge turmoil in the region with disastrous consequences, the probability of massive opposition domestically and internationally. In such a situation an attack on Iran is fundamentally economically caused and motivated, not ideological or religious, but it is also not absolutely economically determined. It hangs in the balance and may depend on factors such as the judgment and character of US political and military leaders, and the strength of resistance in the Middle East, the US and elsewhere.

John Molyneux

14 September 2007

Friday, September 14, 2007

What about human nature?


What about human nature?

In my experience the two most common objections to Marxism are 1) that it fails to take account of human nature, 2) that it reduces everything to economics.

Actually the two objections contradict each other – the ‘human nature’ argument suggests that socialism won’t work because people are basically greedy and self interested; the overestimating the economic factor argument claims that Marxism fails to take enough account of the role of ideas and ideals in history. The contradiction is not usually noticed because the two arguments are deployed in different spheres. The first is mostly encountered in the sphere of everyday political debate and discussion. The second is most common at the level of theoretical critique in the academic world. For this reason I shall devote a separate column to each.

We should begin by recognising the plausibility of the human nature argument. It is plausible partly because it has such a long pedigree. It embodies an idea that has been central to bourgeois ideology for centuries and to ruling class ideology for millennia. The Christian religion, for example, taught that people were all born ‘wicked’ and this justified both the power of the church to bring them salvation in the afterlife and the power of the state to keep them in order in this life. It is also plausible because it seems to fit with historical experience, with the simple fact that all past attempts to achieve a society of freedom and equality have failed. Finally it is plausible because it seems to explain a lot of our personal experience – all those occasions when we have been treated badly by workmates or let down by friends or people around us just seem to be apathetic.

All this plausibility, however, does not make the argument sound and it is precisely in the last area, the area of our personal experience, that we find the most obvious evidence of its falsity. Yes, it is true that everyday life presents plenty of examples of selfishness, callousness, lack of sympathy and so on, but it is also the case that it offers many examples of the opposite, of kindness, self sacrifice and solidarity – of people who help strangers in difficulties, who risk their lives to save those in danger, who devote their lives to what they see as good causes. IF it really were human nature to be selfish, if we were actually programmed to be that way, such altruistic behaviour would either be non-existent or at best extremely rare, but it is not. What experience actually shows is that human nature permits both selfish and unselfish behaviour, both apathy and commitment,

cowardice and bravery and that which predominates depends on both circumstances and conditioning.

Here we have to remember that the human behaviour we experience is behaviour under capitalism and that capitalism massively conditions people towards selfishness. Of course the system preaches morality and altruism to children but look at how schools are actually organised: the children required to compete to come top of the class (or be punished for not trying), to pass exams, to gain entry to ‘good’ schools and top universities, to get the best jobs, and with any deviation from this self interested agenda subject to severe condemnation.

Nor is it just a question of early socialisation and childhood conditioning. As adults the system virtually forces selfishness on people if they are to survive or be treated with any social respect. Capitalists obviously have to be greedy, in the sense of pursuing maximum profits, unless they are prepared to renounce being capitalists. The managers who work for them have to adhere to the profit/ greed agenda or be sacked. Only the workers are pushed towards, and have an interest in, solidarity (which is what makes workers the socialist class) and such solidarity is not only seriously stigmatised (‘militants’, ‘troublemakers’ etc) but also frequently illegal. The wonder, under capitalism, is not how little but how much self-sacrifice and social responsibility we encounter.

Much the same applies, in a different way, to broader social and historical experience. If we explain the failures of the French, Russian, Chinese and other revolutions – the return of tyranny in Napoleonic or Stalinist form – by human nature, either the greed or ambition of bad leaders or the apathy and inertia of the masses, how do we explain the revolutions in the first place? Of course, in a sense, everything that has happened in human history must be compatible with human nature or it wouldn’t have happened, but in explaining everything in this way we explain nothing.

This raises the question, very seldom asked by most of those who invoke the human nature argument, of just what is meant by ‘human nature’ or what it consists of. I shall take it that by ‘human nature’ is meant a combination of the characteristics which all, or almost all, humans have in common and the characteristics which distinguish humans as a species from other species.

A complete list of such universal characteristics (especially in the biological sense) is obviously immensely long but those that are relevant to the issue of socialism are fairly few and pretty simple. Above all they consist of a number of basic needs which all humans share and which have to be met for humans to survive: the need for air, water, food, clothing, shelter, for social interaction with other humans, for sex. Equally the key distinguishing characteristics of humans relate to the means by which these needs are met, namely collective social labour, followed by language and expanded social consciousness.

Do any of these common or distinguishing characteristics that make up human nature constitute an obstacle to an equal society or to socialism? Both history (real history not bourgeois myth) and reason give a resounding no to this question. History, because for hundreds of thousands of years prior to the development of agriculture, i.e. the vast bulk of human existence, when ‘human nature’ was being forged and consolidated, people lived as hunters and gatherers in deeply egalitarian communities, with no division into rich and poor or leaders and led and with distribution of goods based on the principle of sharing.

Reason, because a glance at the state of the world today shows that capitalism, despite an abundance of resources, is extremely poor at meeting these basic human needs for most of humanity at the best of times and its worst (through war, climate change etc) threatens

even the limited provision that exists. Socialism, by contrast, would make its whole point of departure and raison d’etre the planning of production to meet the basic physical and social needs of human nature

Far from human nature being incompatible with socialism, socialism is just what human nature needs.

John Molyneux

27 August 2007

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Socialism and the Trade Unions


Socialism and the Trade Unions

The role of trade unions in the struggle for socialism and the related matter of the role of socialists in the trade unions, have always been questions of enormous strategic and tactical importance and, moreover, ones on which a Marxist approach differs sharply from that of reformists, anarchists, syndicalists and other radical tendencies.

History shows that in almost every country trade unions are the most elementary, most widespread and broadest form of organisation adopted by the working class. Their basic function is to defend and improve the jobs, pay and conditions of working people by enabling them to act in unison against their employers.

Whether union leaders and members are aware of this or not, trade unionism’s point of departure is the class struggle: the fact that there is a permanent and fundamental conflict of interest between workers who live by the sale of their labour power and bosses (capitalists) who strive to maximise profits by increasing the exploitation of their workers.

As such Marxists give strong and active support to trade union organisation and the trade union struggle (where it is waged, as it generally is, in the interests of workers – very occasionally trade unions wage reactionary, e.g. racist or sexist, campaigns). The basic principles of trade unionism - unity is strength, an injury to one is an injury to all and so on – are principles shared by socialists and Marxists, though obviously Marxist principles go beyond trade union principles.

This enthusiastic support for trade unionism already distinguishes Marxism from various other tendencies. There have been some socialist sects (for example some of the 19th century utopian socialists) who dismissed trade unionism as unable to achieve any improvements for working people, on the grounds that any increase in wages would be met by an equal increase in prices. Marx refuted this argument in detail in his pamphlet Wages, Prices and Profit and history has clearly vindicated him, so I will not repeat the argument here.

Some would-be revolutionaries or radicals have rejected the trade union struggle on the grounds that it was merely self-interested or that by its very success in improving workers’ conditions it corrupted them and reconciled them to capitalism. For Marxists, however, the interests of the working class (taken as a whole) are the interests of humanity and they should be pursued more vigorously not less, and the revolution is not an abstract goal for which the workers should sacrifice themselves, but necessary precisely because capitalism cannot meet the needs of workers or mankind.

Of course, the dominant approach to trade unionism is that of the reformists who acknowledge a positive role for unions but within quite narrow limits. For reformists trade unions defend the sectional economic interests of workers but should leave the wider political struggle to a political party operating through parliament. Also the workers’ economic interests are seen as legitimate, but subordinate to a wider national interest which transcends class. For Marxists, by contrast, the working class struggle is always both economic and political and the centre of gravity of the political struggle is not parliament but the workplace. Moreover the notion of a common national interest is myth behind which hides the interest of the capitalist class.

Marxism, therefore, argues that socialists should work consistently within trade unions both raising the level of their economic militancy and encouraging them to take up political questions. At the same time Marxists recognise that trade unions, despite their essential role in the struggle for socialism, do have certain limitations which mean they are not the only form of organisation needed by the working class.

First, trade unions basic activity is to negotiate the terms of sale of workers’ labour power within capitalism, whereas the aim of socialism is to abolish that sale altogether. This means that trade unions by themselves are not well suited to organising the actual overthrow of capitalism. For that task workers’ councils, which represent workers not as sellers of labour power but as producers and potential rulers of society, are also needed.

Second, to negotiate effectively with the bosses, unions have to strive as far as possible to include in their ranks every worker in the relevant industry, trade and workplace, regardless of that worker’s level of political consciousness or militancy. [To every rule there is an exception, and the exception here is workers who are organised fascists, who should be driven out of the unions]. This necessary inclusiveness means that although the unions have certain educative and ideological functions they are not well suited to leading the ideological struggle for socialist consciousness within the working class or to providing political leadership for the class at times of intense conflict. For these tasks a revolutionary party, bringing together the most conscious and committed elements in the working class, across all industrial or occupational boundaries, is what is required.

The Marxist understanding of trade unions has one further crucial and distinctive feature – the analysis of the trade union bureaucracy. Much bitter experience in many different countries has shown that trade union leaders display a tendency to betray not just the socialist revolution but even the most basic economic struggles of their own members. Nor is it only the top leaders who are prone to this but also full time trade union officials in general. The tendency is far too persistent to be a matter of personal failings.

Rather it is that trade union officials come to form a definite social layer, with interests distinct from those of rank and file trade unionists, who specialise in mediating between the working class and the employers. Most union officials enjoy higher wages and better working conditions than their members, and even if they negotiate a bad deal in which jobs are lost or hours increased, they do not lose their jobs or have to work longer. It is not, in most cases, that they are total traitors or servants of the bosses, for they still need to retain the loyalty of their members (with no members they have no salary and are no u8se to the bosses either) but they continually vacillate, now showing resistance and talking left, now backing down and undermining workers’ struggles

Socialist strategy in the unions has to take this well-established tendency into account. Socialist militants have to learn how to work with union leaders and officials when they move in the right direction and how to combat them when they vacillate or sell out. This involves not only supporting the trade union struggle and working in the unions as a whole, but also building within the unions networks of rank and file activists, able to put pressure on the leaders and act independently of them when necessary.

John Molyneux

6 August 2007

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Capitalism Today


Capitalism Today

Capitalism first began to emerge, within feudalism, in Europe and elsewhere, as long ago as the fourteenth century. Through a long series of struggles, revolutions and wars capitalism established itself as the dominant mode of production in Europe by the beginning of the 19th century. It was at this point that Karl Marx became the first person to produce a comprehensive analysis of capitalism’s structure and laws of development. It is useful to compare capitalism today with capitalism in Marx’s time to see what has changed and what remains the same.

The most immediately obvious change is in capitalism’s scale of operation. In the 1840s, when Marx began his analysis, capitalism may have been dominant in Europe but in its developed industrial form it was still more or less confined to a small corner of the north-west – Britain, The Netherlands, Belgium, parts of France and Germany. Today it is truly global.

Capitalism, by means of trade and, indeed, its armed forces, long ago ‘reached’ and affected virtually everywhere but now there is probably no country on the planet where the majority of goods are not produced on a capitalist basis. In 1848 Britain, the so-called ‘workshop of the world’, was by a long way the leading economic power, with France its nearest rival. By the end of the 19th century Germany had displaced France and the USA was advancing swiftly. By the end of the First World War the United States had clearly overtaken not only Britain but all of Europe. By the end of the Second World War US dominance was even more entrenched, with the state capitalist USSR its only serious challenger.

Today the USA remains economically, and, of course, militarily, dominant but, despite its victory in the cold war, its economic lead over the rest of the world is much diminished. In the fifties and sixties ‘economic miracles’ in Germany and Japan put America under pressure and now there is the emerging challenge from China, with India also making huge progress. In addition there are numerous significant and independent centres of capital accumulation, such as South Korea and Brazil, dotted round the world. Capitalism has thus ‘filled up’ the world more completely and is more poly-centred than ever before.

Along with this geographical spread has gone a huge increase in the size and range of capitalism’s major corporations – the Exxon Mobiles and Wal-Marts, the Toyotas and Samsungs – in other words in the concentration of capital, and in the intensity of global economic integration. It is not simply that the international transportation and sale of raw materials and manufactured goods has grown immensely but that the actual manufacture of individual commodities has become an international process.

The growth of the system has been anything but smooth, passing through severe international crises such as the Great Depression of the thirties and the international recessions of the seventies and eighties, and numerous national or regional upsets, nevertheless overall it has been massive.

The economic role of the state has also generally increased substantially, but again the process has been extremely uneven. Since the onset of neo-liberalism in the seventies and the ‘collapse of communism’ in 1989-91 the role of the state has clearly declined compared to the days of Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt and Keynes, but not nearly as much as neo-liberal ideologues expected or wanted.

Another major change has been the rise in the average standard of living of the masses, first in the advanced industrial countries of the so-called West, and second in a significant number of newly industrialising countries. Cross-cultural statistics on living standards are tricky and unreliable, but figures on life expectancy give the broad picture. In 1850 in the US life expectancy for the average white male was 38 years, and for white women, 40 years. By 2001 that had risen to 75 years for men and 80 years for women. In countries such as Canada, Sweden, France and Australia it is similar but even higher, while in Mexico, Brazil, Poland and even China it is now over 70.

Viewed superficially and one-sidedly these changes could be seen as a success story for capitalism. However, what has remained unchanged is even more basic than what has changed. First, the fundamental social relations of production are the same. The main forces of production are still owned and controlled by tiny minorities who produce in competition with one another, on the basis of the exploitation of those who live by the sale of their labour power The immediate producers remain alienated from their labour and the products of their labour – they produce a world not under their or, ultimately, anyone’s control. Society is divided into antagonistic classes – bourgeoisie and proletariat – whose interests are diametrically opposed. Second, the fundamental dynamic of the system also remains unchanged; it is the same in China today as it was in Britain in the Industrial Revolution, namely the drive to accumulate capital i.e. to pursue profit before human need.

Precisely because of this underlying continuity all the changes in capitalism described above have their dark or negative side.

The rise in living standards, though real, has been massively uneven – using again the measure of life expectancy we find, for example, Angola on 37, Mozambique on 40 and South Africa on 42.5 – and accompanied by rising inequality, both within nations and between them. In the US in 1980 the pay of company Chief Executives was 42 times that of a production worker; by 2000 it was 525 times greater! In 1998 the United Nations Development Program reported that the world's 225 richest people now have a combined wealth of $1 trillion which is equal to the combined annual income of the world's 2.5 billion poorest people and the wealth of the three richest individuals now exceeds the total GDP of the 48 poorest countries.

The economic growth experienced by capitalism has been paralleled by a growth in its destructive tendencies. In terms of wars and mass slaughter the 20th century was, by a huge distance, the most costly in history and today the capacity to eliminate human life is greater than ever. The emergence of the US as sole super power (and the potential threat to its position from China) has made it more not less inclined to use and threaten military force. To this must be added the devastating threat capitalism poses to the environment, and thus the future of humanity, through climate change.

But by far the most important consequence of the apparent international ‘triumph’ of capitalism has been, precisely as Marx foresaw, the production, in greater numbers with greater geographical spread.(from South Korea to South America), concentrated in ever growing giant cities (from Kolkata to Cairo), of its own gravedigger – the international working class.

John Molyneux

July 23 2007

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What is fascism?


What is fascism?

The worst defeat suffered by the working class in the 20th century – the coming to power of Hitler and the Nazis – led directly to the worst catastrophe for humanity in the century, the Second World War, and the worst single crime against humanity, the Holocaust. This nexus of events, therefore, poses a number of questions of the highest political importance: what was the cause of the Nazi phenomenon? What was the nature of the Nazi movement? What enabled it to take power? Could it have been stopped? Could it happen again? Above all, what lessons can we learn from the past to help ensure that it doesn’t happen again?

Obviously it is not possible to deal properly with all these issues in a single column, but what I will try to do is to set out the main lines of the Marxist analysis of Nazism, which can then serve as a basis for fuller answers to the above questions. This analysis was developed principally by Leon Trotsky in 1929-33, i.e. the years of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and it is best understood in relation, and contrast, to the bourgeois and the orthodox communist, i.e. Stalinist, interpretations of Nazism.

The bourgeois view of Nazism, embodied in thousands of press articles, books, films, TV programmes etc., oscillates between seeing it as an outgrowth of the German national character (its supposed authoritarianism, militarism, cruelty etc.) and as the product of the evil genius of one man, Hitler, who allegedly hypnotised an entire nation with his demonic oratory. These two interpretations, which formally contradict one another, are complementary in that they avoid any connection with social forces or economics, and especially any connection with capitalism.

However, two simple and obvious facts expose the falsity of the bourgeois view in both its versions. The first is that German Nazism was part of an international fascist movement that did not begin or end in Germany, but which existed with varying degrees of strength in almost every country, including supposedly ‘moderate’ Britain, and which first came to power with Mussolini in Italy. The second is that Hitler and his Nazi Party only became a serious political force in Germany in the wake of the international economic crisis that began with the Wall St. Crash in October 1929. Prior to this Hitler’s supposed oratorical powers had little appeal to the German people.

For Trotsky, and for all Marxists, fascism as a whole was a product of, and response to, the international crisis of capitalism that gripped the system following the First World War. It was an attempt to resolve that crisis in the interests of capital by dispensing with parliamentary democracy, establishing a reactionary dictatorship, and crushing the working class.

To this general analysis Trotsky made a crucial addition. He saw that fascism was not just a policy or political trend promoted by the capitalist class as such, or even by a section or wing of big business. Rather fascism began as a real mass movement based in the lower middle class or petty bourgeoisie. This class suffered acutely and in a particular way in the economic crisis: on the one hand crushed from above by the banks and giant monopolies, on the other pressured from below by the trade unions and organised working class. Driven to despair by the economic crisis and feeling ground between the great millstones of the two major classes the petty bourgeoisie ‘went berserk’, and became fertile ground for fascist demagogy.

It is this class basis, which provides the key to the understanding of fascist and Nazi ideology, including its anti-Semitic component. In one direction, ‘anti- capitalist’ rhetoric, but directed against international and finance capital rather than capitalism as such. In the other direction, and much more serious, bitter anti- communism , anti-socialism and anti - trade unionism. Then, uniting both elements, at least in the fascist imagination, anti-Semitism – the Jews as the sinister conspiracy behind both finance capital and communism (after all were not Rothschild and Marx both Jews?).Finally, standing above the classes, the mythical exaltation of the state, the nation, the leader and the race.

The petty bourgeois basis of fascism also shapes its development as a movement. No matter how many supporters it attracts fascism cannot take power by itself, because the lower middle class cannot overthrow the capitalist class proper. Instead it has to be ‘lifted’ into power by big business, as happened in Germany in the autumn of !932. But the ruling class will only take the risk of partially relinquishing control of their state to dangerous outsiders under extreme pressure and it has to be convinced a) that the severity of the crisis is such that it can no longer continue to rule in the old way, and b) that the gamble of unleashing the fascists on the organisations of the working class will succeed. Equally the fascists have to have proved themselves worthy of ruling class backing, by demonstrating in practice their ability to take on the workers’ organisations on the streets.

If the petty bourgeois base of fascism makes it dependant on big business, it nevertheless enables it to offer the ruling class something beyond what is offered by ‘ordinary’ police or military dictatorship. This is a mass cadre at grass roots level which can smash workers’ organisations in the workplaces, on the estates, in the streets, far more thoroughly and effectively than just external operations by the police or army.

This analysis, developed in detail by Trotsky in his brilliant writings on The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, not only captured the essence of fascism but also showed how it could be fought. First, because fascism was such a mortal threat to all workers’ organisations, it was necessary to establish maximum working class unity against fascism by means of the workers’ United Front. (It was precisely this unity that Stalinism sabotaged in 1929-33 with its ultra-left notion that social democrats were social fascists). Second, the petty bourgeoisie could be won over to the side of the working class or at least neutralised, provided the socialist left could convincingly present itself as able to resolve the chronic crisis of the system. In the end this meant proving in practice its ability to overthrow capitalism. ( Again it was just this that was prevented by the later Stalinist policy of alliance with the ‘progressive bourgeoisie’ in the Popular Front.)

The contemporary relevance of these lessons should be clear. The crisis of the system, though less acute than in the 1930s, is still with us and, therefore, so is the threat of fascism, regardless of national character or individual leaders. If the threat is not yet immediate, all the more reason it should be nipped in the bud by strong united working class action. However to eliminate the fascist threat for good, to make the slogan ‘Never Again’ a permanent reality, it is necessary to destroy its breeding ground, the xcapitalist system.

John Molyneux

4 July 2007

Friday, June 22, 2007

The International Communist Movement Part 2


The International Communist Movement Part 2

As said in the last column the early years of the Communist International (1919-23) marked the highest point reached in the history of working class political organisation.

But the defeat of the European Revolution, and the isolation and consequent degeneration in Stalinism of the Russian Revolution was to have a devastating affect on the fundamental role and policies of the Comintern .

The key development was the adoption by Stalin and the Russian leadership of the policy of ‘Socialism in one Country’. Lenin, Trotsky and the entire Bolshevik leadership, like Marx and Engels before them, regarded socialist revolution as an inherently international process and saw the Russian Revolution as the first step in an international revolution without which it could neither build socialism nor survive. In 1924, Stalin, in the wake of the failure of the German Revolution, abandoned this internationalist tradition and opted for the view that it would be possible to complete the building of socialism in Russia alone, provided only that military overthrow by Western Capitalism could be avoided.

This had a profound impact on the policies of the Comintern and its member parties. Initially, the first task of these parties had been to pursue the revolution in their own country, thus simultaneously serving the interests of their own working class and of the Russian Revolution. Now the main task became to prevent a military attack on the USSR and this in turn meant the Communist Parties making alliances with various nationalist and reformist forces who, while totally untrustworthy from the point of view of workers’ revolution, could at least be induced to oppose war on Russia.

The first fruits of this shift to the right were seen in the British General Strike of 1926. In

1925 the Russian Trade Unions, on orders from Stalin, had formed an alliance with ‘left’ British trade union leaders, in what was called the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee, to oppose British intervention in the Soviet Union and this alliance started to have a big effect on the whole attitude of the British CP to the reformist union leaders, silencing criticism of them and reducing the ability of Communist trade unionists to act independently. At just this time the British working class and its trade unions, led by the miners, moved into a massive confrontation with the government and the ruling class, which culminated in the all out General Strike of May 1926.

After only nine days, however, this General Strike was called off and abjectly betrayed by the same left union leaders with who the CP had been in alliance. Moreover, the British CP had been prevented by the Comintern brokered alliance from warning the working class of the unreliability of these leaders or preparing its militants to act independently in the event of a sell-out. Thus the British working class suffered a defeat that set it back for a generation and the Comintern was complicit in it.

A fundamentally similar but even worse catastrophe followed in China in 1927. In the years 1925-7 the Chinese working class, especially in Shanghai and Canton, rose in a huge wave of revolt against the imperialist and feudal warlord hold on China and young Chinese Communist Party grew massively. But the line of Stalin’s Comintern was that the CP should not only ally with, but also subordinate itself to, the bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang led by Chiang Kai-shek, because Chiang was seen as a potential defender of the Soviet Union. In 1927, however, Chiang turned on his communist allies and literally put them to the sword. It was a disaster that led directly to Mao’s turn to the countryside and the peasantry and from which Chinese working class socialism has still not really recovered.

In the process of pursuing these disastrous policies other changes were occurring in the nature of the Comintern. To justify the tactics in China, Stalin reverted to the old Menshevik and social democratic line that the colonial countries were not ready for socialism and that in such circumstances Marxists had to support the ‘progressive’ national bourgeoisies. At the same time all opposition and democratic debate was eliminated from the international communist parties whose leaderships became ever more compliant servants of Moscow.

When, in 1928-29, Stalin embarked on forced industrialisation and collectivisation of agriculture – a state capitalist course which crushed the Russian workers and peasants - he needed to cover his tracks with left sounding phrases and slogans. Transferred to the international sphere, as they automatically were, these pseudo left slogans produced a sectarian policy of denouncing the Social Democratic Parties as ‘social fascists’ and rejecting any alliances, even with other working class parties and even against Nazism.

This phoney leftism had even more terrible consequences than the previous rightist strategy in that, by dividing and confusing the German working class in the crucial years of 1929-33, it greatly assisted the rise to power of Hitler. [ I shall deal more fully with the question of fascism in the next column].

Faced with the direct military threat posed by Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Comintern did a further about turn. From opposing even a workers’ united front it moved to establishing alliances with ‘democratic’ bourgeoisies in what became known as the Popular Front. Put to the test in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) this meant Communists repressing the spontaneously developing Spanish Revolution in the name of unity with sections of the Spanish bourgeoisie against Franco. In practice this not only stopped the revolution but also demobilised the Spanish working class and so aided Franco’s victory.

Meanwhile another force was at work in international communism. If socialism in one country was possible for Russia it was possible for lots of other ‘single’ countries. On this basis the idea of separate national roads to socialism gradually took hold in the various CPs. For a long time this remained subordinate to loyalty to Russia, but as the power of Moscow waned in the fifties and sixties so the nationalist reformist tendencies in the Stalinist parties came to the fore until they became more or less indistinguishable from Social Democracy.

The overall historical effect of Stalinism on the struggle for international socialism, therefore, was a) to preside over a series of catastrophic defeats which ensured the survival of capitalism and the victory of fascism, and b) to transform a movement for world proletarian revolution into a movement for international counter revolution and bourgeois reformism. Thankfully, today, the ability of Stalinism to block workers’ struggle and obstruct genuine socialism is enormously reduced.

John Molyneux

22 June 2007

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Revolution in Paint - 100 Years of Picasso's Demoiselles

A REVOLUTION IN PAINT – 100 years of Picasso’s Demoiselles

This year marks the centenary of the painting of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso. There cannot be many paintings whose anniversary would occasion an analysis in a journal of socialist theory – an ‘honour’ usually reserved for revolutions and other great events in the history of the class struggle - nevertheless Les Demoiselles certainly repays serious consideration. Aside from its individual stature as one of the outstanding paintings of the twentieth century, there is its enormous importance as a turning point in the history of art and, indeed, wider cultural history, and also its powerful resonance today.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is an oil painting on canvas begun by Picasso in late 1906 and completed in the summer of 2007. It is 243.9 x 233.7cm (8 ft x 7ft 8 inches) and has hung since 1937 in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The painting depicts five nude women, clearly prostitutes in a brothel. The three women on the left are standing with the leftmost shown side on and apparently drawing back a curtain to reveal the others, and with the second and third figures shown frontally and staring straight out of the canvass at the viewer. The depiction of all three women, especially the head of the furthest left, was influenced by Ancient Iberian (pre-historic ‘Spanish’) sculpture which Picasso had seen the previous year in the Louvre. The two women on the right, one standing slightly in the background between curtains, the other squatting in the foreground, have been given heads that resemble the African sculptures or masks which Picasso is known to have seen in the Musee d’Ethnographie du Trocadero. The bodies of all the women are rendered by means of flat, angular planes of colour with little shading or modeling. Jutting out at the center of the bottom of the painting is a bowl of fruit – a melon, grapes, pear and apple. The painting received its title not from Picasso but from his friend Andre Salmon in 1916, and it is either, depending on interpretation, euphemistic or ironic for it refers to a brothel or brothels on the Carrer d’Avinyo in Barcelona, of which Picasso evidently had personal experience.

So much for the basic facts. By far the most frequent comment on Les Demoiselles, in both journalism and art history, is that it marks ‘the birth of modern art’ (1). Let us first consider the justification for, and truth of, this bold claim.

Les Demoiselles and Modern Art

The simplest, most widespread, distinction between ‘traditional art’ (by which is meant European art from about 1300 onwards) and ‘modern art’ is that the former was engaged, at a minimum (it did other more important things as well, of course) in the attempt to imitate the appearance of people, things and scenes in the real world, whereas the latter is not. As it is commonly put, traditional art is representational, naturalistic or ‘realistic’(2), whereas modern art either willfully distorts physical appearances or, in abstract art, abandons them altogether. There are numerous problems with this crude distinction, not least the difficulty involved in regarding paintings of Madonnas, angels and Venuses as‘realistic’, but there is also clearly some truth in it. At least the faces of the Madonnas, the tunics of the angels and the breasts of the Venuses looked like observable faces, tunics and breasts. And while some ‘traditional’ artists (Holbein, Constable, Courbet) are more mimetic (imitative) than others (Botticelli, Bosch, El Greco) and some ‘moderns’ (Klee, Kandinsky) more expressionist or abstract than others (Modigliani, Bonnard) one has only to compare a representative list of traditionals with a similar list of moderns to get the point – on the one hand Van Eyck, Piero della Francesca, Titian, Rembrandt, Velazquez, Gainsborough, Goya, Manet, and Van Gogh who, despite the immense differences between them, were all engaged in producing recognizable images of persons and things; on the other Braque, Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, Ernst, Miro, Pollock, and Rothko who, despite their differences, were not.

And the point is also that the tipping point between the two, the clearest, most decisive assault on the past, the key breakthrough to the new, is indeed Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Before Les Demoiselles even Picasso’s own work, his Blue and Rose Periods, was clearly a continuation of the mimetic tradition, closer in many ways to Rembrandt, Goya, Manet, and Van Gogh than to his work of one, two or three years later. Les Demoiselles opens the floodgates, first to cubism and then in rapid succession to futurism, synthetic cubism, expressionism, vorticism, abstraction, suprematism, dadaism and more besides. Within just ten years artists were producing works, such as Malevich’s Black Square on White and Duchamp’s ready mades, which would not previously have been regarded as art at all (and were not so regarded by the majority at the time) but which have subsequently achieved, at least within the art world, classic and iconic status. Les Demoiselles is a veritable revolution in paint – the art equivalent of the French Revolution, indeed of the Storming of the Bastille.

Another characteristic of traditional art, very closely bound up with its naturalism, was the high level of craft skills it involved and demanded. These skills, developed particularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, lay especially in the precise rendering of surfaces: lace, satin, velvet, sable, glass, silver, feathers, flesh tones, the folds in drapery or robes and so on.(3) This is reflected in the way people commonly talk about art - ‘ Look at the detail!’ or ‘ It makes you feel as if you can touch it’ – and for many it was these skills that served as the surest guarantee of artistic quality, of the status of traditional paintings as ‘real’ or ‘great’ art. In retrospect it can be seen that the premium on these skills was waning from Monet and Impressionism onwards, but it was Les Demoiselles that was the decisive break. In 1907 it would have looked like, not just a move away from the traditional skills, but a full-scale assault on them. This was the beginning of art which would provoke the outraged cry, ‘My four year old can do better than that!’

For centuries, roughly from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century ‘beauty’ was a, perhaps the, dominant concept in aesthetic theory, the value, together with the closely related ‘harmonious form’, to which it was held that art should aspire. Of course there was always art which could not reasonably be described as beautiful, for example the dark fantasies of Hieronymous Bosch or Hogarth’s satirical series ( Marriage a la Mode, The Rake’s Progress etc.) but such work was generally deemed of a lower order than that of artists such as Botticelli, Leonardo and, especially, Raphael, where beauty and harmonious form were more clearly in evidence. The value of ‘beauty’ was supplemented, by Burke and Kant, with the concept of ‘the sublime’ to accommodate works, such as Michelangelo’s Last Judgment which, if not beautiful, were manifestly awe-inspiring. Above all, the concept of beauty ruled the genre of the female nude, where it had the added advantage of masking or alibying the issue of sexual desirability and lust. In the tradition of nude painting that stretches through Botticelli, Giorgione, Titian, Rubens, Velazquez, Goya, Ingres and Renoir, the aim of the artists was always to present their female subjects as beautiful. ( Rembrandt is, I think, the only significant pre- nineteenth century exception.) Clear inroads into this tradition were made by Manet’s Olympia, Cezanne’s Bathers series, and Toulouse Lautrec’s brothel scenes, but again it is with Les Demoiselles that the sharpest confrontation takes place. Picasso not only does not attempt to make the women ‘beautiful’ but, by the use of the African masks, positively insists on their ugliness (by the conventional standards of the day).

The enormously disturbing newness of Les Demoiselles is confirmed by the reaction, not of the public or the critics, but of Picasso’s avant- garde artist friends when they first saw it in his studio. Both Matisse and Braque were at first repelled by it. Picasso, Braque said, had been ‘drinking turpentine and spitting fire’ (4), while Derain is alleged to have claimed that ‘someday Picasso would hang himself behind his canvas’ (5).

Les Demoiselles and theories of modernism

There have been, of course, a number of more rounded and theoretically sophisticated accounts of the emergence of modern art, than the simple distinctions discussed so far. Probably the most influential, at least within the art world, is that of the American art critic, Clement Greenberg. Greenberg established himself by being the principal champion of abstract expressionism, and for twenty years or so (roughly the mid-forties to the mid-sixties) was the leading art critic in America and, therefore, the world. His status in art criticism approximated to that of Keynes in economics or F.R.Leavis in literature. Greenberg began in the late thirties as at least a semi- Marxist in the Trotskyist influenced milieu around Partisan Review, but during and after the Second World War moved, like so many, towards a mainstream or right wing liberalism and in the process became a rigorous formalist in matters of art criticism and history, rejecting, more or less absolutely, any discussion of the content or social context of art works.

For Greenberg Modernism was more than art and literature, it included ‘almost the whole of what is truly alive in our culture’ (6), and its essence lay ‘in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself – not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence’ (7). Each art form had to demonstrate in practice that the kind of experience it provided was not to be obtained from any other activity. This meant each art form systematically shedding all conventions not essential to its survival as art, and focusing with increasing intensity on its unique and defining characteristics. In the case of painting this was the making of marks on a flat, two-dimensional surface.

The limitations that constitute the medium of painting – the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of pigment – were treated by the Old Masters as negative factors that could be acknowledged only implicitly or indirectly. Modernist painting has come to regard these same limitations as positive factors that are to be acknowledged openly. Manet’s paintings became the first modernist ones by virtue of the frankness with which they declared the surfaces on which they were painted…

It was the stressing, however, of the ineluctable flatness of the support that remained most fundamental in the processes by which pictorial art criticized and defined itself under modernism. Flatness alone was unique and exclusive to that art…and so Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else. (8)

Greenberg’s account cannot be accepted as adequate or satisfactory. First, it treats the development of art as almost completely (and quite implausibly) autonomous from society, history and politics (except in the very last analysis of the existence of ‘modern’ society). Second, it operates by the slight of hand of simply excluding from the canon of modernism all painting not participating in the project of flatness (for example Surrealism, Rivera and the Mexican muralists, Francis Bacon). Nevertheless, the history of European art from about 1850 to 1950 shows that Greenberg has identified a real and important tendency. From Manet, through Impressionism, Gauguin, Cezanne, Cubism, Kandinsky and Mondrian, to Pollock and Abstract Expressionism, one can clearly see the compression of the three-dimensional picture space, which had been opened up in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.(8) It is like watching a stage in which the back drop moves ever closer to the apron until it has squeezed out, in Greenberg’s words, ‘the kind of space that recognizable three-dimensional objects can inhabit’(9).

There is no single painting that so clearly illustrates and exemplifies Greenberg’s argument as Les Demoiselles: the stripping away of non-essential conventions, the replacement of sculptural modeling by flat planes, the extreme compression of space between background and foreground – all these undergo a qualitative intensification in this work.

If, however, we turn to more Marxist theorizations of modern art Les Demoiselles retains its pivotal role. John Berger does not fully discuss modernism as such, but he clearly regards Cubism as the crucial modern movement and the revolutionary art of the twentieth century (11) For Berger, Cubism synthesizes the materialism of Courbet and the dialectics of Cezanne, and is a response to the scientific and technical breakthroughs of the period ( Planck, Einstein, electricity, the Eiffel Tower, the aeroplane etc) and the positive economic promise of monopoly capitalism (the possibility of a world of material plenty and equality) before it was dashed by war and fascism. But for Berger it was by painting Les Demoiselles that ‘Picasso provoked Cubism. It was the spontaneous and … primitive insurrection out of which, for good historical reasons, the revolution of Cubism developed.’ (12)

Perry Anderson’s account of modernism in his article ‘Modernity and Revolution’ has a similar point of departure to Berger, but is more systematic and is applied to the culture as a whole, not just painting.

In my view, ‘modernism’ can best be understood as a cultural field triangulated by three decisive coordinates. The first…was the codification of a highly formalized academicism in the visual and other arts, which itself was institutionalized within official regimes of states and society still massively pervaded, often dominated, by aristocratic or landowning classes… The second coordinate is …the still incipient, hence essentially novel, emergence within these societies of the key technologies or inventions of the second industrial revolution: telephone, radio, automobile, aircraft and so on…The third coordinate … was the imaginative proximity of social revolution. (13).

Les Demoiselles fits neatly into this schema. French art remained dominated by the aristocratic Academy with its annual Salons more or less to the end of the nineteenth century, and Manet, the Impressionists, and the Post – Impressionists (Seurat, Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh) were all met with derision. The automobile is developed, essentially in the 1890s, in Germany and France and the first mass production is under taken in the US in 1902. The Wright Brothers made the first powered flights in December 1903 and in September 1906 Dumont made a public flight in Paris. Marconi established the world’s first radio station in 1897 on the Isle of Wight, and opened the first wireless factory in Chelmsford in 1898. Above all the attention of Europe was captured by the 1905 Revolution in Russia. Moreover, if we examine the chronology of the landmarks of the modernist revolution in the other art forms we find that Les Demoiselles, almost invariably, precedes them: in music, Stravinsky’s Firebird is composed in 1910, and Rite of Spring in 1913, while the Ballet Russe is formed 1909, and Debussy’s L’Apres Midi d’un Faune is performed in 1912; in literature Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu is begun in 1909, Joyce’s Dubliners appears 1914, Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, 1914, and Metamorphosis, 1915.

Even from the standpoint of Georg Lukacs, the principal Marxist opponent of modernism, I think it would be fair to say that Les Demoiselles exemplifies many of the tendencies – fragmentation, , absence of perspective, abandonment of totality – which he held against modernism.

Of course one can push this too far. From a wider perspective, such as that of Marshall Berman in his powerful work, All That is Solid Melts into Air, ‘modernism’ is a cultural response to the whole experience of ‘modernity’ i.e. modern capitalism, not the product of any individual work or artist – and this is surely right. Modern art and modernism would have happened in some form regardless of whether Les Demoiselles had been painted or Picasso had been born. Indeed in this wider view modernism long predates Picasso, stretching back, perhaps, to Kant and Goethe or in painting to David and Goya or Gericault and Courbet. Perhaps what we really need is the idea of two modernisms: one encompassing the progressive culture of the whole epoch inaugurated by the French and Industrial Revolutions and still continuing today; the other deriving from the specific conjuncture analysed by Anderson and Berger and lasting to the Second World War, which perhaps could be called High Modernism (on the model of the High Renaissance or High Stalinism). This would have the advantage of combining Berman’s broad dynamic vision with Anderson’s rigour, without the latter’s numbing pessimism and the door it opens to post- modernism. (14)

Nevertheless this broad view does not negate the role played by Les Demoiselles at a crucial historical moment, nor its exceptional influence on the tempo and form of modernism’s development. Just as the knowledge that Lenin did not cause or create the Russian Revolution does not exclude the fact his part in it was greater that of any other single individual, so understanding the wider historical determination of modernism is perfectly compatible with recognizing the exceptional role of this particular work.

The Power of Les Demoiselles

I have so far discussed the impact of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon on the development of modern art in purely formal terms, and that was indeed the nature of its influence - it produced a flood of Cubist paintings of men with guitars and café tables, not a flood of paintings of prostitutes. Nevertheless it would not and could not have had this massive formal influence if it had not been such an exceptionally powerful painting in its own right, that is if its formal innovations had not been seen by other artists (especially Braque) to work in practice. And the moment we want to consider or analyse the power of Les Demoiselles as an individual painting we have to deal with its subject matter and see its formal qualities as a way of treating that subject matter. In other words we must view the painting as a totality, a particular fusion or unity of form and content.

This brings us to the simple and inescapable fact that Les Demoiselles is a picture of five prostitutes and is about prostitution. However, it is striking how many art historical and journalistic accounts do try to escape this fact or, at least, to avoid any serious discussion of it. Guardian art critic, Jonathan Jones, argues, ‘ Most of all, this is a painting about looking. . it’s misguided to see [it] as a painting “about” brothels, prostitutes or colonialism.’(15) This is evasion. Yes it is about looking, but precisely about looking at, and being looked at by, prostitutes. Everything in the picture’s composition reinforces this. Many paintings position us when we look at them – Titian’s Venus d’Urbino makes us the courtesan/Venus’s lover or patron, Manet’s A Bar at the Folies Bergere makes us a customer ordering a drink – but Les Demoiselles fixes us more definitively than any work I can think of, and it is as the client of the brothel for whom the women are displaying themselves. The phallic bowl of fruit jutting upwards in the center foreground becomes our phallus leading us into the brothel and towards the women. Thus the painting stages an ‘in our face’ confrontation with the institution of prostitution.

But if Les Demoiselles is ‘about’ prostitution, what exactly is it saying about prostitution?

There is, in the literature, a biographical story which purports to answer this question and thus to ‘explain’ the meaning of the painting: it is that Picasso had a friend who was infected by a prostitute with syphilis, from which he died, and that Les Demoiselles is an expression of the fear and anger felt by Picasso as a result. But, regardless of the truth or otherwise of this story, it does not account, or accounts only very partially, for the nature and power of the finished work, which is making a more general statement.(16)

According to John Berger that general statement is ‘ a raging, frontal attack, not against sexual “immorality”, but against life as Picasso found it – the waste, the disease, the ugliness, and the ruthlessness of it… instead of criticizing modern life by comparing it, as much in sorrow as in anger, with a more primitive way of life, he now uses his sense of the primitive to violate and shock the civilized… He is not in the least concerned with formal problems. He is concerned with challenging civilization. The dislocations in this picture are the result of aggression, not aesthetics.’ (17)

But, if the syphilis story is too narrow, Berger’s ‘rage against civilization’ is too broad. He is right about the element of rage in the painting, but insufficiently precise in identifying its target, again evading the issue of prostitution. Partly, I think, Berger is led astray by following the conventional view of the African heads on the women on the right as aggressive. My own view is that they are not intrinsically either frightening or savage and that are present in the painting for two reasons: a) because in African art, art from a pre-capitalist society, Picasso had found an important source for a new, non- naturalistic way of representing the world (18);b) in terms of the content of the painting, precisely as masks, as blocking mechanisms behind which the real features of the women are concealed.

A number of feminist art historians have seen the rage as directed primarily against women as such, and have viewed Les Demoiselles as a highly misogynistic painting. One of the most forceful of these, Carol Duncan, argues that the emergence of modern art coincided with women starting to claim equality (she cites the suffragist movement) and that a great deal of modern art expressed a defensive male sexist reaction to this.

Indeed, as women’s claims to full humanity grew, the more relentlessly would art rationalize their inferior status…In fact, the defense of male supremacy must be recognized as a central theme in modern art. Gauguin, Munch, Rodin, Matisse, Picasso and scores of other artists, consciously or unconsciously, identified some aspect of the sexist cause with all or part of their own artistic missions. Art celebrating sexist experience was accorded the greatest prestige, given the most pretentious esthetic rationales, and identified with the highest and deepest of human aspirations.

Nudes and whores – women with no identity beyond their existence as sex objects – were made to embody transcendent, ‘universally’ significant statements … the image of the whore even came to stand for woman in her purest, most concentrated form. (19)

For Duncan Les Demoiselles is the epitome of this sexist trend.

What is so remarkable about this work is the way it manifests the structural foundation underlying both the femme fatale and the new primitive woman. Picasso…dredged up from his psyche the terrifying and fascinating beast that gave birth to both of them. The Desmoiselles prismatically mirrors her many opposing faces: whore and deity, decadent and savage, tempting and repelling, awesome and obscene, looming and crouching, masked and naked, threatening and powerless. In that jungle-brothel is womankind in all her present and past metamorphoses, concealing and revealing herself before the male...Picasso presents her in the form of a desecrated icon already slashed and torn to bits… no other work reveals more of the rock foundation of sexist antihumanism or goes further and deeper to justify and celebrate the domination of woman by man. (20)


Duncan’s comments on modern art in general have some truth in them, certainly more than is usually recognized in conventional art history. It is also true that Picasso’s life, and some of his art, provides evidence of sexist attitudes. It is even the case that there is anger, misogynistic anger, in Picasso’s depiction of the Avignon prostititutes. Nevertheless, I believe Duncan’s judgment of Les Demoiselles is fundamentally mistaken and this brings us to heart of what the painting is about and the nature and cause of its power.

The central feature of Les Demoiselles is the confrontation between the artist/ brothel client/viewer - at this moment they are one and the same - and the gaze of the central women (second and third from the left). Yes, he and we enter the brothel and look at the prostitutes with anger, but this look, and this anger, is returned in spades (if I may use the card playing metaphor) in the implacable gaze of the prostitutes, which functions as both an expression of their situation and feelings, and as a mirror reflecting back his/ours.

Thus Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, far from being crudely sexist or simply misogynistic, is a uniquely intense and dramatic depiction of the mutual antagonism, estrangement and alienation involved in the institution of prostitution.

Bourgeois society oscillates between two attitudes to prostitution: on the one hand moral condemnation and legal persecution of the prostitute (largely the department of the church, the police and the courts); on the other, sometimes sentimental, sometimes risqué, glamorization, largely the province of the arts. In the latter, Hollywood has played its part but so has ‘high art’(Titian’s Venus d’Urbino, Boucher’s and Ingres’ Odalisques). In both cases what is evaded is the economic deprivation and emotional trauma which lead women into prostitution, and the sexual deprivation and emotional alienation which lead men to prostitutes.

Once this is grasped it also becomes evident that the formal innovations, which had such an impact on the course of art, all contribute to the intensity of the dramatic confrontation that is Les Demoiselles. Picasso needed the radical break with traditional forms of naturalistic representation, needed the assault on conventional standards of beauty, needed the African masks, to smash and eliminate any traces of sentimentality and glamorization. Above all Picasso needed the flattening, the extreme foreshortening of space in the painting, to thrust the women into our faces, to stage this eyeball to eyeball confrontation between us and them, client and prostitute, and to cut through the ingrained habit of evasion of the reality of prostitution. And it is precisely the success of Les Demoiselles in achieving this that make it so genuinely shocking, not just to Braque and Matisse a hundred years ago, but to us today, when its formal qualities have long become familiar. To look at Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is still to receive the visual equivalent of a sharp slap across the face.

For the issue of prostitution is still very much with us, and in all its forms from the concentrated hatred of the Ipswich murders, and the extreme exploitation and alienation of the virtual slave trade in women from Eastern Europe and elsewhere, to the milder, but insidious, relegitimation of sexism through lap dancing, lads’ mags and raunch culture.

Moreover, there is more involved and more at stake here than just the critique of one particular social institution. Bourgeois society’s mystification of prostitution and evasion of its realities (replicated in the art critics’ evasion of the real content of Les Demoiselles) is habitual not just because of the hypocrisy of so many bourgeois politicians, priests and moralists, preaching ‘family values’ in public while privately behaving quite otherwise, but because what the commodification of sex does to the human relations between the people involved is symptomatic of what alienation and commodification, i.e. capitalism, does to human relations as a whole. Marx explained this with great clarity:

Prostitution is only a specific expression of the general prostitution of the labourer, and since it is a relationship in which not the prostitute alone, but also the one who prostitutes, fall – and the latter’s abomination is still greater – the capitalist, etc., also comes under this head. [Marx’s emphases](21)

Of course it is not my argument that Picasso was intellectually conscious of all of this. We do not, and cannot, know exactly what passed through his mind as he worked on Les Demoiselles, and paintings are rarely visual illustrations of intellectual theses. My guess would be that Picasso worked part consciously, part intuitively, and was concerned more with the representation of feelings than of thought out ideas. But this is not really the point. What we have to work with and respond to is the painting itself and this confronts us with the fact - surely a significant one - that the picture which revolutionized art was a hugely powerful statement of rage at the commodification of sex and life.


1. See for example, Jackie Wullschlager ‘The day modern art was invented: Picasso’s Demoiselles’, Financial Times, 4 January 2007 or Jonathan Jones, ‘Pablo’s punks’, The Guardian, 9 January 2007.

2. I am here using ‘realistic’ in the way it is used in everyday language, the media, and mainstream art history, which basically accepts the method of representing the world developed in the Renaissance as true realism, and not in the specific Marxist sense developed by Engels, Lukacs and others. Lukacs distinguished between ‘naturalism’, the more or less accurate depiction of surface appearances, and ‘realism’, which penetrated surface appearances to reveal the real driving forces in society. Lukacs developed this distinction in relation to literature, so that for him Balzac was a great realist, whereas Zola was merely a naturalist, and ‘The central aesthetic problem of realism is the adequate presentation of the complete human personality,’(G. Lukacs, Preface to Studies in European Realism, 1948). It can perhaps be applied to some ‘traditional’ (i.e. European 1300-1900) visual art so that Rembrandt’s ‘realism’ could be contrasted to the ‘naturalism’ of Van Dyke or numerous hack portraitists. But it is very difficult to see how it can cope with post-1900 art, with its divergent phenomena such as geometric and expressionist abstraction, dadaism, Marcel Duchamp and the ‘ready-made’ tradition’, pop art, conceptual art, installation art, performance art etc. And it cannot be used to understand the difference between ‘traditional’ art and ‘modern’ art which is what I am concerned with here.

3. John Berger supplied the historical materialist explanation for this, linking it to the rise of capitalism and its fixation on property and commodities. See J. Berger, Ways of Seeing, London, 1972.

4. Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New, London, 1991, p.24

5. Carsten-Peter Warncke, Picasso, Koln, 1997, p.165. There is a significant difference between this and the outrage which greeted Manet and the Impressionists in that the latter came from the public and the press, whereas this came from the artists in Picasso’s immediate circle and resulted in the public not seeing the painting for nearly ten years.

6. Clement Greenberg, ‘Modernist Painting’ in C. Harrison & P. Wood, ed., Art in Theory 1900-1990, Oxford, 1993, p.754.

7. Ibid. p.755.

8. Ibid. p.755-6. Neil Davison has suggested that the position of the younger Greenberg in his earlier essay ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, is in some ways superior to the position cited here. I think that this is true, but space does not permit an account of the development of his views. Justice for Greenberg will have to wait.

9. What John Berger called ‘Not so much a window on the world as a safe in the wall’.

10. Clement Greenberg, op.cit. p.756.

11.See ‘The moment of cubism’, in John Berger, Selected Essays and Articles: the look of things, Harmondsworth, 1972 and John Berger, The Success and Failure of Picasso, Harmondsworth, 1965.

12.John Berger, The Success and Failure of Picasso, op.cit.p75.

13. Perry Anderson, ‘Modernity and Revolution’, New Left Re

view 144.

14. Obviously such a periodisation requires a sustained argument

of a depth and length that cannot be presented here.

15. Jonathan Jones,’Pablo’s punks,’ op.cit.

16. The story relates better to some of the numerous preliminary studies for Les Demoiselles, which feature a two male figures – a sailor, and a student carrying a skull, a possible ‘wages of sin’ memento mori.

17.John Berger,The Success and Failure of Picasso, op.cit. p.72.

18.See John Molyneux, ‘Picasso, modernism and the non-

European,’ Socialist Worker, 22 April, 2006.

19.Carol Duncan, The Aesthetics of Power, Cambridge 1993, p.


20. Ibid. p.96-7.

21. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,

Moscow,1967, p.93f.

John Molyneux

March 18, 2007