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

The International Communist Movement part1


The International Communist Movement: Part 1

The last two of these columns have dealt with Stalinism in the Soviet Union. This one deals with the history and fate of the international communist movement.

Internationalism has always been a fundamental principle of Marxism and genuine socialism, and Marxists have always sought to organise their forces internationally. Faced with the betrayal of internationalism by the majority of the parties of the Socialist or Second International in 1914, when they supported their own ruling classes in the First World War, Lenin speedily grasped the need for a new (third) international. However, circumstances – primarily the combination of the War and lack of forces – prevented the realisation of this project until fifteen months after the Russian Revolution.

In March 1919 the First Congress of the (Third) Communist International was convened in Moscow in conditions of civil war in Russia and a rising tide of revolution sweeping Europe. Its aim was to create more than just a federation of national parties. The Comintern, as it became known, was to be a single international revolutionary organisation – the Russian Bolshevik Party on a world scale – capable of leading the international proletariat to victory worldwide.

At the time of its First Congress the Comintern was still relatively weak. Apart from the Russian Communist Party the bulk of the foreign Communist Parties participating were from Eastern Europe – the Hungarian, Polish, Latvian, Estonian CPs and so on. From Western Europe and elsewhere came mainly the representatives of small groups or trends, not yet fully formed parties and in many cases not yet fully formed Communists. But by the Second Congress in July 1920 not only had the number of parties represented increased dramatically, so had the size of their support in the working class, especially in Germany.

By now the Communist International had emerged as the highest point yet reached in the history of the organisation of the international working class and the most powerful threat to the rule of the bourgeoisie that has existed up to and including the present day. For the first and only time in history, three things seemed to coincide: a deep and general crisis of the world system, a massive upsurge in militancy and consciousness in the working class internationally, and the existence of strong interlinked revolutionary organisations in a number of countries. Tragically the Comintern did not succeed in its aim and the opportunity was missed.

Why was this? Essentially it was due to a failure of revolutionary leadership. The two crucial defeats were in Italy and Germany and in both cases the passivity of the workers leaders was the decisive.factor. In 1919-20 Italy experienced its biennio rossi, its ‘two red years’, in which there were mass strikes and large scale factory occupations, especially in Turin and Milan. But the leadership of the main working class party, the Italian Socialist Party, which had flirted with the Comintern, sat on its hands and did nothing. The result was not only the missing of a revolutionary opportunity but a terrible reactionary backlash. The two red years were followed by two black years, which culminated in the conquest of power by Mussolini’s fascists.

In terms of building a real revolutionary party it could be said that Italian Marxists were strategically late and tactically premature. On the one hand the revolutionary left remained for too long attached to the wavering and reformist leadership of the Socialist Party. On the other the actual break to form a Communist Party, when it came in 1921, was rushed through in such a way as to minimise the forces won from reformism.

In Germany the process was more drawn out but no less catastrophic in the end. The German Revolution began in October 1918 with a mutiny of sailors in Kiel which spread like wildfire through the German armed forces. Within weeks the Kaiser abdicated and power was assumed by the leaders of German Social Democracy. In January 1919 the revolutionary Spartacus League (shortly to become the German Communist Party) attempted to transform this democratic revolution into a workers’ revolution through an uprising in Berlin. The rising was premature and was put down by an alliance of the Social Democratic Government and right wing militia, called the Freikorps. Its leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxumberg, - Luxemberg was Germany’s foremost Marxist and revolutionary at this time – were murdered.

The so-called Weimar Republic with its Social Democratic government continued but so did the revolutionary crisis. In March 1920 came the Kapp Putsch, a rightwing military attempt to crush the republic, but it was defeated by a nationwide general strike. Then in 1921 the Communist Party, which had grown massively, launched another revolutionary offensive called the March Action. Again it was premature, and again it was defeated.

Still the chronic instability of German society persisted and it all came to a head once again in the summer and autumn of 1923.when Germany was gripped by extreme hyperinflation. In January 1923 1 US $ = 18,000 marks, in June 1$ = 100,000 marks, in December 1$ = 4000 billion marks! With workers carrying their wages in wheelbarrows, support for the Communist Party mushroomed. But having twice acted prematurely the German Communist leaders, acting on advice from Moscow, now did nothing - the moment was lost and German capitalism restabilised itself, at least for five years.

The consequences of this can hardly be overstated. If the German Revolution had succeeded the likelihood is that capitalism would quickly have fallen in all the countries between Russia and Germany, and the possibility is that this would have created such revolutionary momentum that we would be living in a socialist world today. As it was the German defeat brought the post war revolutionary crisis to an end and ensured the isolation of the Russian Revolution, thus massively reinforcing the tendencies to bureaucratic degeneration and Stalinism that were already beginning to manifest themselves.

Behind the failures in Italy and Germany and elsewhere in Europe (e.g. Hungary and Bulgaria) lay the fact that in the short period of time available, less than four years, it proved impossible to transfer to the fledgling European CPs the experience and lessons of revolutionary strategy and tactics acquired by Lenin and the Bolsheviks over decades. Unfortunately the years that followed showed that it was much easier to transfer to the international movement the methods and policies of Stalinism. The consequences of this for the Comintern and for the international working class will be discussed in part 2 of this article.

John Molyneux

8 June 2007

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Anti-War Art at the ICA


Visual art has, in general, been slow to respond to the challenge of the Iraq War and the ‘War on Terror’, but now things seem to be changing. This year we have seen Mark Wallinger’s brilliant State Britain (based on Brian Haw’s protest in Parliament Square) at the Tate Britain, which is currently favourite for the Turner Prize. Then there have been a couple of small shows in East London, plus there will be work on show at Marxism and now the Institute for Contemporary Arts has weighed in with Memorial to the Iraq War.

Deliberately timed to coincide with the departure of Blair, the ICA has invited twenty five artists from many different countries, including Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, USA and Britain, to exhibit works which could serve as memorials to the war or which are proposals for such memorials. The idea of a ‘memorial’ to a war that is still going on is obviously open to challenge, and, indeed, is challenged in a written piece by one of the invited artists.

However the aim, explicitly stated in the Newspaper/ Catalogue accompanying the exhibition, is ‘ to show to a wider public that contemporary art is more capable of social and political engagement than perhaps they thought’, and the idea of a memorial is, perhaps, a vehicle for facilitating this. The main question is does it succeed and the answer has to be only partially.

As a literal public monument only one work here makes a real visual impact – Iraqi Stars by Marc Bijl, featuring three large five pointed stars, one green (for Iraq), one white (for the US coalition), one red/ black (for blood and anarchy). But many of the works, although not really viable memorial proposals, nevertheless ask the viewer to engage thoughtfully with various aspects of the war.

The first piece we encounter is Nate Sloman’s installation, Never Ending Story, consisting of old broken petrol pumps. This establishes from the start the central role of oil, but it also, more subtly, evokes America’s past – the America of Ed Hopper perhaps – and the whole history of the oil/car economy. Jalal Toufic’s Dual-Use Memorial highlight’s the extreme intellectual isolation of Iraq through sanctions; a rarely mentioned aspect of the conflict, worth remembering in the context of debates about boycotting Israel.

Jeremy Deller’s Twin Cities is small and simple, almost minimalist; just outline maps of Britain and Iraq with Iraqi cities marked on the map of Britain and the equivalent British cities marked on Iraq e.g. Aberdeen/ Kirkut, Mosul/Derry, but it makes its point effectively. Also moving are Collier Schorr’s three sketches focussing on soldiers who have been maimed and crippled – a perennial feature of war always neglected by the media, but dealt with by artists from Rembrandt to Otto Dix and George Grosz and many poets, singers, film makers etc.

The proposal I liked most, though it is completely unrealisable, is from Sam Durant. It suggests collecting war debris in Iraq and shipping it to London and Washington where it would be piled up round public buildings, beginning with 10 Downing St and the White House. This is accompanied by an illustrative photomontage and the famous quote from Walter Benjamin about the Angel of History.

On the down side, there are some pieces which approach the subject so obliquely that they barely register and there is nothing here to match the power of Wallinger, let alone the great anti war art of the past – Goya, Picasso, Nash, Dix etc. But this relative failure is not cause for condemnation. Masterpieces will not come to order and the effort to engage should be applauded and encouraged.

John Molyneux

3 June, 2007

Memorial to the Iraq War, Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London

23 May – 27 June. Admission: Mon-Fri £2/£1.50 concs. Sat- Sun £3/£2 concs.

Edited version of this article appears in Socialist Worker, 9 June 2007.