Sunday, July 27, 2014

Racism and Islamophobia

Racism and Islamophobia

Memet Uludag and John Molyneux

From Irish Marxist Review 10.

Memet Uludag, People Before Profit candidate for Castleknock in the recent local elections, found his posters were the object of sustained attack. First, there were pieces of bacon sellotaped to some of them, then many others were taken down or cut up and finally pictures of a pig’s head were attached to a number of them. The symbolism left no room for doubt – this was an ugly and vicious Islamophobic campaign.

However, the response to this outrage, or lack of it, on the part of a number of organisations and individuals on the left, showed a worrying degree of uncertainty, confusion and unease when dealing with the issue of Islamophobia. Two questions in particular arose, and do arise, with some regularity: Is Islamophobia a form of racism, isn’t it about religion? Isn’t Islamophobia to some extent justified given the alleged reactionary beliefs and practices of Islam as a religion and of states claiming to be Islamic. But clearly this is not some local difficulty in Ireland, rather it is a problem that affected the left right across Europe and has in many cases weakened the ability of the left to deal with emerging right wing and Islamophobic forces.

The purpose of this article is to argue a) that Islamophobia is most certainly a form of racism; b) that our opposition to Islamophobia should in no way be weakened or mitigated on account of Islamic beliefs or the behaviour of states in the Muslim world, c) that singling  out Islam for special criticism as being particularly reactionary among religions is false and itself a manifestation of Islamophobia, d) that clarity on the left and among avowed anti-racists  on these matters is vital because Islamophobia is one of the most important forms of racism in the world today and one of the main ideological weapons of divide and rule internationally for both the forces of fascism and the far right and for mainstream parties and imperialist ruling classes as a whole.

Islamophobia is racist

The argument that Islamophobia is not racist because is Islam is a religion not a race is completely false. First of all the definition of racism cannot be made dependent on whether or not its targets and victims constitute a distinct race for the simple reason that distinct biological races do not exist.  The ‘white’ race does not exist; the ‘black’ race does not exist; nor the Jewish race, nor the Asian race, nor the Indian and so on.  Human beings are all members of a single species. Irish people were long subjected to major racist stereotyping and discrimination in Britain but ‘Irish’ is a national identity and not a race.

The fact is the term ‘racism’ is firmly established in our language and social usage internationally – it is entrenched in the political discourse and debate of all countries – so we can’t and shouldn’t try to opt out of it. But what matters is not some arbitrary or fixed ‘dictionary definition’ of the word but an understanding of how racist ideology developed historically and of the social and political roles it has played. Socialists should start not from words but from social realities and processes and once this is done it becomes absolutely clear that Islamophobia is a form, the ‘latest’ form, of racism.
Racist ideology, in the form of prejudice against people of colour, arose and took definite shape along with the development of capitalism in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries as a justification for the immensely profitable slave trade[1]. It was developed and established by the European ruling classes, especially the British ruling class. At the time the rising bourgeoisie was engaged in a struggle against the feudal aristocracy waged, so as to attract popular support, under the banner of ‘the rights of man’ and ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. This could only be reconciled with the mass enslavement and forced transportation of millions of Africans to the New World – a process crucial to the development of capitalism – by denying equal humanity to black people, by insisting on their innate wickedness, inferiority and incapacity.

Racism further evolved as the ideology of empire, legitimising and rationalising the systematic conquest and subjection of the rest of the world (Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, Polynesia etc) by the rulers of Western Europe and their offshoots (in the USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa etc) – a process which developed over centuries and reached its apogee in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Empire was justified because non- European peoples were ‘child-like’ and incapable of self rule, at least until they had been led through a long period of ‘education’ by their imperial masters. The racism of empire was promulgated by the imperialist bourgeoisie but it was important to them that it became ‘popular’ i.e. percolated down into the working classes because it was the working classes who had to provide the soldiery for imperialist wars and more generally because racism served to bind the workers into support for the imperialist project as a whole.

With the decline of empire and the gradual disintegration of overt colonialism, which started with the First World War and intensified after the Second, racism mutated again. Now its main target became the immigrants who came to the advanced capitalist countries from the former colonies. Whereas the racism of slavery and empire emphasised biological inferiority, anti-immigrant racism stressed cultural difference and economic competition. ‘We’ were always about to be ‘swamped’ by a foreigners with an ‘alien culture’ who didn’t share ‘our culture’. ‘They’ were always ‘taking our jobs’ and being given ‘the pick of housing’. The form of this racism was determined by its function for the ruling class, not justifying British rule of India which was now impossible, but dividing the working class and providing scapegoats for the problems of the system. This became a racism that could deny it was racist claiming always and everywhere to just be about ‘numbers’ and ‘resources’. Hence the refrain, ‘I’m not a racist but…’

In analysing the historical evolution of racism it is important to understand that there was both change and continuity. Each shift in the dominant racist discourse built on the foundation laid by the previous form. Thus the anti-immigrant racism spread by the likes of Enoch Powell, Margaret Thatcher, UKIP and Marine le Pen doesn’t foreground the idea that black or Asian people are inherently inferior or uncivilised but nevertheless quietly trades on it. It is not said openly that Africans or Romanians are born criminals, but the assumption is made that having them live next door is ‘a problem’. No one uses the n-word when they know the cameras are rolling but when they think they are switched off it is a different matter.

The main function of anti-immigrant racism in the post-war period was internal, to help maintain social control within the core western countries. The role of justifying imperialist wars and interventions, of which there were many (mainly by the US) was played principally by anti-Communism. Racism was often there as an undertone (the ‘gooks’ in Vietnam etc) but combating ‘the red menace’ was the headline story. With the end of the Cold War there was an ideological vacuum – Islamophobia filled it.

Why specifically Islamophobia? First and foremost because of the central importance of oil, and therefore of the Middle East, for western capitalism. If the world’s major oil reserves were located in Tibet or the peoples of the Middle East were largely Buddhist we would probably have had Buddhophobia instead. Secondly because of the perceived threat to US control of the region posed by so-called ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, more accurately termed ‘Islamism’ or ‘political Islam’. Islamophobia started to be developed as a dominant theme in the media after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 which took that key country out of the US camp.[2] It was then ramped up many notches after 9/11 as a key ideological underpinning of the ‘War on Terror’ and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Islamophobia thus assumed the classic role of racism as an ideological construct legitimising imperialist war and conquest – one that could serve to motivate the pilots who had to drop the bombs, the soldiers who had to do the shooting and the torture, and to at least confuse (if not positively enthuse) the public at home who had to pay for it all. Moreover in playing this classic role it deployed the tried and tested themes and tropes of racism – the construction of a generalised ‘other’ – ‘they’, ‘the muslims’ who all share or are likely to share the same characteristics: backwardness, fanaticism, and a proneness to violence (‘terrorism’); and are therefore a threat to ‘our culture, ‘our way of life’.

Is there any justification for Islamophobia?

At one level the answer to Islamophobia is the same as the answer to all forms of racism, namely that we are all human beings with our different characteristics and it makes no more sense to see all Muslims as ‘the same’ than it does to see all black people, or French or Germans or Irish as the same.  And most liberal, well meaning people who think of themselves as not being racist would doubtless accept this. Nevertheless it is clear that for many of those people including some who would consider themselves part of the left there is a certain hesitancy, a reluctance to mobilise or denounce Islamophobia in the same way that they would anti-semitism or anti-black racism.

This is usually articulated in terms of Islam being a particularly backward or reactionary religion, especially in its attitudes to women and gay people. The immediate response to those who contrast the ‘enlightened’ West or ‘liberal’ Europe or ‘tolerant’ Christianity to ‘intolerant’ Islam have extremely short memories and highly selective vision.

On the question of women’s rights, even a purely verbal commitment to women’s equality is a recent phenomenon in our history, only becoming widely accepted in the last forty years or so. It can hardly be cited as an entrenched ‘western’ tradition or value and is still far from being achieved in practice. This is even more the case when it comes to LGBT rights where any widespread recognition of equality is a product only of the last couple of decades. In the 20th century the ‘enlightened’ West gave us two World Wars (claiming about 65 million lives), Fascism and the Holocaust, Stalinism and the Gulag, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Franco’s Spain, the Ku Klux Klan, lynching and Jim Crow, the Vietnam War and umpteen other atrocities.  And right now in Europe we have the National Front topping the poll in the French Euro elections, Jobbik at 16% in Hungary and Golden Dawn at 9% in Greece, never mind UKIP etc. In the Ireland of the Magdelene Laundries, the Christian Brothers, Savita, Youth Defence and the Tuam Bon Secours case we should be all too aware of how dubious and flimsy all claims of ‘our ‘ tolerance are.

But there is a deeper point involved here. It is a mistake to see social and political practices and social attitudes as fundamentally based on or determined by religious doctrines or affiliations. Certainly these things have an effect but fundamentally it is the other way round – it is material social relations and conditions that shape religious doctrines. As Karl Marx famously put it, ‘The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness’[3]

The history of religion, especially the history of Christianity, dramatically demonstrates the truth of this proposition. We have seen the early Christanity of the slaves and the oppressed in the Roman Empire who believed  ‘Blessed are the poor’, and the Christianity of the Emperors which preached ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s’; the Christianity of the Middle Ages that held that usury (money-lending) was sinful  and the Christianity of John Calvin with its Protestant ethic adapted to the rise of capitalism; the Christianity of Thomas Munzer who led the Peasants Revolt in Germany and of Martin Luther who slaughtered them; the Christianity of the Counter-Reformation that gave us the Holy Inquisition and of Oliver Cromwell who overthrew Charles I but crushed the Irish. More Recently we have seen the Christianity of the racist right and the Klan and the Christianity of Martin Luther King; of the pro-Apartheid Dutch Reform Church and of Archbishop Desmond Tutu; of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness; of the Catholic hierarchy in Rome and liberation theology in Latin America.

In other words changes in the real conditions of people’s lives changed and shaped the content of their religious beliefs and the division of society into exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed produced out of nominally the same religion, polar opposites in political attitudes and struggle. Exactly the same is true of Islam and Muslims.

There is no space here for a history of Islam but the fact is it has gone through many centuries of change and transformation just like Christianity. There are now many different Islams in the world today – not only of different formal affiliation (Sunni, Shia, Ismaili, Wahabee, Sufi etc) but of different emphases and interpretations between different tendencies within each sect or affiliation. There are always significant differences between the Islam of the rulers, the Islam of the bazaar and the Islam of the urban workers and so on.

The horrible brutality of the Saudi Arabian regime, including its appalling oppression of women, is not primarily determined by its being a Muslim country but its being a plutocratic dictatorship controlled by a royal family of immense wealth. Their extreme conservative interpretation of Islam is used to reinforce their rule over their own people but proves no barrier to serving as the ally of the US in the region or enjoying the fleshpots of Europe from time to time.

Egypt is an overwhelmingly Muslim country but this doesn’t prevent the Egyptian military ruthlessly persecuting the Muslim Brotherhood and attacking Coptic Christians when it suits them. When the Egyptian masses rose in their millions to overthrow Mubarak many of them paused in the middle of the street fighting to kneel in prayer (under the fire of water cannon).

In other words there is no basis for seeing Islam more inherently any more reactionary than any other religion and even less basis for stereotyping all Muslims or somehow holding them collectively responsible for the deeds of Osama Bin Laden or the Iranian Ayatollahs.  

Why Islamophobia matters

As we have shown Islamophobia is a form of racism and racism is always unjust and oppressive, a weapon of reaction everywhere. But there are a number of reasons why clarity on the question of Islamophobia is particularly important at the present time. First, Islamophobia has been promoted and normalised by the media throughout America and Europe in a way that has ceased to be the case for anti-black racism, and this is clearly shaped by its usefulness as a cover for wars, interventions and internal repression (‘Homeland Security’, anti-terrorism legislation, deportations etc).

Second, once Muslims are stereotyped and discriminated against on the basis of their religion this will slide inevitably into discrimination on the basis of skin colour, appearance, name etc. Just as anti-immigrant racism claimed to focus on cultural difference but still built on all the old ideas of innate inferiority, so beneath ‘liberal’ Islamophobia the cruder racism will lurk and come to the surface.

The racists and Islamophobes who defaced and destroyed Memet Uludag’s posters did not trouble to find out whether or not he was actually a muslim – his name and appearance were enough. It will be the same with UKIP, the EDL, Geert Wilders and all the far right parties.

Third, Islamophobia is seized on and used by the actual fascists. The ultimate agenda of fascism is not just racism and ethnic cleansing but the conquest of political power, the destruction of parliamentary democracy and the crushing of the independent organisations of the working class (the left and the trade unions). For the fascists racism is a means to this end, a tool to be used in the building of support and the mobilisation of masses behind its anti-working class banners. From their point of view the question of who are the targets of their racism is a secondary matter. Their strategy is to pick on whoever is selected by the wider society (i.e. by the ruling class) as the scapegoat of the day and present themselves as those who will push the struggle against this ‘enemy’ to the limit. In Britain in the 1930s the target of Oswald Mosley was Jews. In the 1970s for the National Front it became Afro-Caribbeans. In the 1990s it was Asians. Now it is ‘Muslims’. In much of Eastern Europe it is Roma. If the government says restrict immigration they will say ‘send them back’. If the government says ‘British jobs for British workers’ they will say drive the foreigners out of the workplaces. If Tony Blair says militant Islam is the main enemy in the world, they will say burn down the mosques.

Precisely because of this an understanding of Islamophobia and its racist character and a determination to combat it is matter of a vital importance for all the left.

[1] See Peter Fryer’s powerful account in Ch.7 of his magnificent Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain. Pluto Press, 2010.
[2] One point on which clarity is needed is militant Islamism is absolutely not a threat to ordinary people in America or Europe. There is not the remotest possibility of an Islamic invasion or conquest by any means of Britain, France or Ireland , never mind the US. However Islamism, which is a kind of variant on nationalism, can be a threat to our rulers’ interests in the Middle East.

Art and the First World War

Art and the First World War

From Irish Marxist Review 10

The images for this article have not appeared. The article WITH the images can be read at


Art reflects society. This statement, which is based on a core proposition of historical materialism, is fundamentally true – all art has its roots in developing human social relations – but it is also a condensation of a very complex interaction. This is because the social relations that art reflects are antagonistic relations of exploitation, oppression and resistance. So we should also remember Brecht’s words that "Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it".

In Europe in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance art ‘reflected’ society in that a huge amount of it was commissioned by the church and religious subject matter was predominant. But this didn’t stop Michelangelo, for example, using an ostensibly religious subject, such as David, to express both revolt of the people of Florence against rule by the Medici bankers and homoeroticism. Rembrandt ‘reflected’ the early bourgeois society of the 17th century Dutch Republic by painting numerous portraits of Dutch burghers but also drew attention to, and showed his sympathy with, the outcasts of that society in his etchings of beggars. Constable ‘reflected’ the industrial revolution sweeping Britain at the time not by painting factories but by painting the English landscape as a rural idyll, much as Wordsworth and Coleridge took off to the Lake District. William Morris expressed his hatred for late Victorian capitalism by celebrating the visual culture medieval Europe.

A very large amount of art, in many different countries, reflected the cataclysm of the First World War but it did so in a wide variety of ways.

But first we should see this in historical perspective. War has been an important theme in art since war became a central feature of human society – with the division of society into classes and the development of the state. Thus in the art of Pharaonic Egypt we find depictions of Ramses II in his war chariot; in Ancient Greece numerous representations of the Trojan wars in sculptures and on vases; in medieval Florence Paulo Ucello gives us ‘The Battle of San Romano’, which also pioneers the development of single point perspective. !7th century Dutch art features a whole school of maritime paintings which specializes in naval battles (reflecting the major role played by sea power in the Dutch Revolt and in the establishment of the Dutch Republic with its empire stretching from New Amsterdam to Batavia.

The overwhelming majority of all these art works, whether they are masterpieces or mediocre, do not just depict war, they celebrate it. ‘The ruling ideas in society are the ideas of the ruling class’, says Marx, ‘The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production’, and this applies even more strongly to painting and sculpture than to poetry and literature, because of its dependence on commissions, on wall space in palaces, churches and public buildings and its embodiment in very expensive physical materials (eg marble and bronze).  Consequently, from the Parthenon marbles depiction of the Battle of the Centaurs and the Chinese Terracotta Army, through Leonardo’s lost Battle of Anghiari, Titian’s portrait of Charles V at the Battle of Marburg, to David’s Oath of the Horatii and Napoleon Crossing the Alps, and Lady Elizabeth Butler’s Scotland Forever!, we find literally innumerable works glorifying war and military leaders. 18th and 19th century British art, in particular, is filled with (generally second rate) paintings recording the progress of Britain’s military exploits and colonial conquests – Woolf at Quebec, Clive of India, Nelson, Wellington, Gordon at Khartoum, the Battle of Omdurman and so on.

The only important exception to this pattern is provided by Goya’s extraordinary series of etchings The Disasters of War born out of his direct experience of the Spanish peasants’ resistance to Napoleon’s occupying army. To this day these brutal works remain the most searing sustained indictment of the inhumanity and horror of war in the history of art. But as I said they were absolutely an exception – until the First World War.

Before we come to how that change occurred we need briefly to review the development of art leading up to the War.

Modernism, Futurism and Vorticism

The emergence of modern art dates roughly from the mid-19th century with Courbet and Manet, followed by the Impressionists (Monet, Pissarro, Sisley etc), Symbolists (Redon, Moreau, Klimpt) and post-impressionists (Seurat, Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh). In the early 20th century this development accelerated and, in artistic terms, radicalized with the swift and overlapping succession of avant-garde movements such as the Viennese Secession, Fauvism, Analytic and Synthetic Cubism, Die Brucke and Die Blau Reiter (Expressionism), Orphism, Futurism, Rayonism, Vorticism and the beginnings of abstract art with Kandinsky[1]. Artistically it was cubism that was to prove the most profound and most important of these movements[2] but in the years just leading up to the War it was Futurism that held centre stage and made the biggest impact in avant-garde artistic circles across Europe.

Futurism was a poetic and artistic movement founded in Milan in 1909 by the Italian poet, Felippo Marinetti who authored its grandiloquent manifesto. Futurism was a response to the dramatic eruption of modernity – modern industrial capitalism concentrated in Italy’s northern cities – within traditional Italian society. It denounced the past and all its works in favour of the new and the modern, enthusiastically and uncritically celebrating the machine, speed, the automobile and the aeroplane. With a great fanfare Marinetti’s manifesto declares:

1.  We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness.
2.  Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry.
3. Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.
4.  We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
 5. We want to hymn the man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the Earth, along the circle of its orbit.
6.  The poet must spend himself with ardor, splendor, and generosity, to swell the enthusiastic fervor of the primordial elements.
7.  Except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them before man.
8. We stand on the last promontory of the centuries!... Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.

Given the historic moment, the extraordinary burst of urbanization combined with electrification and numerous other startling technical innovations and scientific breakthroughs, the appeal of this one-sided intoxication with the machine and speed is not hard to understand. And it managed to inspire some powerful works of art such as Boccioni’s sculpture, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space and Balla’s Abstract Sound +Speed. However, the Manifesto went on to say:

9. We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.

Here we see revealed the reactionary arrogance, brutality and incipient fascism that lay at the heart of Italian Futurism[3]. In the event the eagerly anticipated War was to claim the lives of a number of Futurist artists, most notably Umberto Boccioni and the architect Antonio Sant’Elia, and destroy Futurism as an art movement. Marinetti’s militarist bravado could not survive the brutal reality of the war experience, at least not as an inspiration for avant-garde art.

Much the same happened with the British incarnation of Futurism, namely Vorticism. The Vorticist art movement was formed in 1914 by the artist and writer, Wyndham Lewis, in loose association with a number of other artists including David Bomberg, William Roberts, Christopher Nevinson, Henri Gaudier-Bresca, Jacob Epstein and Edward Wadsworth. The aesthetic of Vorticism , as displayed in its magazine BLAST[4] was a combination of cubism and futurism but Lewis’s general world view and attitude to war was similar to that of Marinetti. Nevinson was also strongly influenced by Marinetti and another influence on Vorticism was the poet, Ezra Pound, who gave it its name. Like Marinetti, Pound went on to become a fascist and Mussolini supporter. Vorticism did not survive the war. A number of the artists went to war and some became official war artists but the war changed their attitudes and their art practice.[5]

Nevinson, Nash and others

The two most important British war artists were Christopher Nevinson and Paul Nash. Between them they produced some of the most powerful depictions and expressions of the horrific reality of the war.

Nevinson was the son of a war correspondent and a suffragette. He trained as an artist the Slade School of Art. At the start of the war Nevinson joined and ambulance unit where he tended wounded French soldiers and for a while served as a volunteer ambulance driver. In January 1915 ill health forced his return to Britain but he was later made an official war artist and returned for a while to the Western Front. 

At first he used a Futurist and Vorticist approach to produce extremely effective representations of soldiering which did not romanticize or glorify war but also stopped short of actually showing the slaughter. Probably the best example of his work at this period was La Mitrailleuse which his fellow artist, Walter Sickert, called ‘probably the most authoritative and concentrated utterance on the war in the history of painting’[6].


C W R Nevinson  French Soldiers Resting              C W R Nevinson La Mitrailleuse

But Nevinson was deeply affected by his work with the wounded, especially a group he found more or less dumped and left to die in a shed outside Dunkirk. The memory of this haunted him and it was some time before he found the strength to depict it. The result when he did was a dark brooding and compassionate painting ironically entitled La Patrie in which no trace of Futurist enthusiasm remains.

C.W.R. Nevinson  La Patrie, 1916

 At first when he became an official war artist Nevinson seemed to lose his critical edge, and focused on relatively sanitized images of aerial combat, but when, after a while, he produced tougher images he immediately fell foul of army censorship. In particular they refused to permit him to exhibit his 1917 work Paths of Glory on the grounds that it showed British dead.

C W R Nevinson, Paths of Glory, (1917.).

Significantly this work was straightforwardly naturalist and showed no trace of Futurist/Vorticist influence.

Paul Nash, whose work is described by Richard Cork as ‘the most impressive… made by any British artist during the conflict’ [7] was a very different case from Nevinson. Before the war Nash was a rather anaemic water colourist and landscape painter with no radical or avant-garde tendencies. The experience of the war transformed him and by November 1917 he was writing to his wife:
I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.[8]
What Nash did to convey his message, and get round the problem of the censor at the same time, was use landscape in such a way show the full horror of the war without depicting dead soldiers.
Paul Nash  The Wire (1917)

Paul Nash We are Making a New World (1918)

Paul Nash, The Menin Road (1919)

No one looking at these pictures of land that has been tormented and tortured can fail to grasp that they are gazing on killing fields of appalling dimensions.

Some of the most haunting images of the war – they are close to unbearable to look at – come from a very unlikely source. Henry Tonks was a surgeon who became Professor of Fine Art at the Slade School of Art where he taught amongst others Augustus John, GGwen John, Wyndham Lewis, Stanley Spencer, David Bomberg, John Nash and William Orpen. When war broke out he resumed his medical career and in 1916 became a lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps . This led him to produce pastel drawings recording facial injury cases.




Henry Tonks, Faces of Battle,  1916

Here the most straightforward artistic naturalism turns, simply by virtue of the reality it depicts, into a devastating indictment of the war.

Many British artists – William Orpen, John Nash, Stanley Spencer, William Roberts, David Bomberg and others produced war related work – but the dramatic effect of  the First World  War on British art is, perhaps best summed up by the example John Singer Sargent. Before the war Sargent was one of London’s most successful society portraitists painting pictures like this:


Serving as a war artist turned him into the painter of this:

John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1919.

From Franz Marc to George Grosz

The story of art on the other side of no-man’s land is not, of course, the same but it is remarkable similar. In pre-war Germany it was Expressionism rather than Futurism that was artistically dominant but there were a number of links between the two tendencies (particularly via the influence of Kandinsky and Robert Delauney). In addition the powerful influence of the philosophy of Nietzsche ensured that there was no shortage of artists willing to greet the outbreak of war as a great ‘cleansing’ and ‘purification’.[9]

Two examples are August Macke and Franz Marc, founding members in 1911 (along with Kandinsky) of the Expression avant-garde group, Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). Prior to the war both produced work that was brightly coloured, optimistic even ‘exalted’.

August Macke, Girl with Blue Birds, 1914.

Franz Marc, Little Yellow Horses, (1912).

In his major study of the period Richard Cork writes of Macke

Like so many of his contemporaries, he greeted the declaration of war with an initial enthusiasm that led him to anticipate ‘walloping’ the French in August…. (Max) Ernst recalled, ‘Influenced by Futurism, he accepted war not only as the most grandiose manifestation of the modern age but also as a philosophical necessity’. [10]

His close friend, Franz Marc, took a similar view and both signed up to fight. But both were rapidly disillusioned by the reality.  Cork continues:

Macke was sent with his Rhineland Regiment to France on 8 August. Whatever Nietzschean illusions he may have harboured about the purgative value of war were quickly destroyed. ‘It is all so ghastly that I don’t want to tell you about it’, he wrote to his wife.[11]

Within two months Macke, after fighting in seven battles, was dead – to the dismay of Marc. Eighteen months later Marc was also killed, at Verdun, but not before he produced a bleak ‘Sketchbook from the Battlefield’ including The Greedy Mouth which shows the war as a strange devouring monster.


Another example is the expressionist sculptor, Ernst Barlach,  for whom it was a ‘holy war’ which he depicted as a charging swordsman of ferocious power.


Ernst Barlach, The Avenger, (1914)

Three months participation as an infantry soldier in 1915 (after which he was invalided out) was enough to turn Barlach into a convinced opponent of the War and this so influenced all his subsequent work that he was later denounced by the Nazis as a ‘degenerate’ artist.

Many other German artists went through this transformation. Max Slevogt is a case that parallels John Singer Sargent. Before the war he was a painter of pleasant impressionist landscapes. He became an official war artist and what he saw turned him into an artist who produced searing indictments of the slaughter.


Max Slevogt, The Country House in            Max Slevogt, Paroxysm of Destruction
Godramstein.  1912.                                     (Spectres fight with their own Severed Limbs)

Otto Dix was an enthusiastic volunteer in 1914 and fought on the Western and Eastern Fronts, including at the Somme, until his discharge in December 1918. But after the war nightmarish prints that are reminiscent of Goya in their unflinching depiction of the brutality of war.


Otto Dix, Wounded Man, 1916                       Otto Dix, Storm Troopers advancing
                                                                          Under a Gas Attack, 1924.

Kathe Kollwitz is in some ways a special case because of her politics, artistic style,  gender and different, gender related, experience. As a committed socialist (and member of the SPD) she was producing naturalistic, or one could say social realist, depictions of working people, the poor and their sufferings long before the war. She was not really part of the expressionist, cubist or futurist avant-garde and, perhaps for personal biographical reasons (the death of her siblings. including her younger brother Benjamin) death, grief and mourning were always central themes in her work. One of her most powerful pieces, Woman with Dead Child, dates from 1903. Despite this she initially supported the war, doubtless influenced by the SPD, but then in October 1914 her son, Peter, was killed on the battlefield and this sent her into prolonged depression. However, she turned profoundly against the war and eventually came to the conclusion ‘that Karl Liebknecht was proved right’.[12] Her artistic response to the war focused not on the horror of battle but on the grief of widows and mothers.

Kathe Kollwitz, The Survivors, (1919)       Kathe Kollwitz, Widows and Orphans, (1919)

Perhaps the most radical of all the war artists was George Grosz who viewed the war with hostility from the start and already in 1914 produced an ink drawing, Pandemonium, which depicted crowds in the grip of ‘patriotic’ frenzy and war fever. In 1915 he made a series of drawings and lithographs which, in the words of Richard Cork, were ‘obsessed with corpses’ such as Battlefield with Dead Soldiers and The Shell. But what also distinguished Grosz was the satirical savagery with which he depicted the profiteers and bourgeois whom he held responsible for the war.


George Grosz, Pandemonium, 1914     George Grosz, The Explosion, 1916

George Grosz, For the Rich the Booty,                   George Grosz, These War Invalids are
For the Poor the Curse of War, 1919.                      Becoming a Positive Pest!, 1920.

Grosz was an active revolutionary as well as an artist. He took part in the Spartacist Rising of January 1919 and went on to be a founder member of the German Communist Party.

The Dadaist Response

What has been presented here is, necessarily, a highly selective sample of the vast amount of art generated by the First World War in all the belligerent countries. A huge number of artists produced war related work – John Nash, Stanley Spencer, William Roberts, William Orpen, Albin Egger-Lienz, Oscar Kokoshka, Natalia Goncharova, Max Beckmann, George Leroux, Fernand Leger, Pierre Bonnard and Felix Vallotton are just a few of those not specifically Consequently a comprehensive survey is completely beyond the range of this article. What I have tried to show is a) the general trajectory of war art at the time, which was overwhelmingly in the direction of opposition to the war and b) some of what I consider to be the most powerful images.

However, there is one further and very different artistic reaction to the war which needs to be highlighted – that of the Dadaist movement. At the start of this article I noted that Constable ‘reflected’ the industrial revolution by painting its opposite, the English countryside, my point being that the fact that the relationship between art and its social context is often complex and dialectical does not make that relationship any the less real. Dadaism responded to the war not by depicting its battles or its horrors but with its own iconoclastic revolt against all past and existing culture.

Dada was founded in early 1916 at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich by a group of artists and poets who included Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Richard Huelsenbeck, Hans Arp, Marcel Janco and Hans Richter. As Dawn Ades notes, ‘It was essentially an international movement: of the Zurich Dadaists, Tzara and Janco were Rumanian, Arp Alsatian, Ball, Richter and Huelsenbeck were German.’[13] What brought them to Zurich was the same thing that brought Lenin there – its location in neutral Switzerland. The participant, Hans Richter, observes:

To understand the climate in which Dada began, it is necessary to recall how much freedom there was in Zurich, even during a world war. The Cabaret Voltaire played and raised hell at No.1 Spiegelgasse. Diagonally opposite, at No.12 Spiegelgasse, the same narrow thoroughfare in which the Cabaret Voltaire mounted its nightly orgies of singing, poetry and dancing, lived Lenin. Radek, Lenin and Zinoviev were allowed complete liberty…  It seemed to me the Swiss authorities were much more suspicious of the Dadaists, who after all were capable of perpetrating some new enormity at any moment, than of those quiet studious Russians … even though the latter were planning a world revolution.[14]

Dada was born out of disgust at the war. Richard Huelsenberg wrote in 1920, ‘we were agreed that the war had been contrived by the various governments for the most autocratic, sordid and materialist reasons’[15] Whereas Lenin and his comrades aimed to turn the imperialist war into a civil war and thus overthrow capitalism, the Dadaists declared war on the art and culture of a rotten society believing that it was irredeemably corrupted and complicit. To all official and established art they counterposed the defiant and nihilistic gesture, art that claimed to be anti-art.

 The idea of destroying bourgeois art with art or with gestures was always an illusion – capitalist society and the capitalist art world has demonstrated again and again its ability to incorporate this kind of artistic rebellion. And viewed in retrospect the actual art works produced by the Zurich Dadaists do not stand out as exceptionally radical, outlandish  or extreme within the story of modern art. Nor do they appear as in any way protests against the war.


Hans Richter, Autumn, 1917.                       Marcel Janco, Dance,  1916.

Nevertheless the Dada concept and the Dada attitude proved highly fertile in terms of the development of modern art in the 20th century. Within a few years there were Dadaist groups in Berlin, New York, Paris, Cologne and other cities involving artists as diverse as Max Ernst, Francis Picabia, George Grosz and John Heartfield ( the great photomontage artist). Dada typography was taken up by Russian constructivism. Dada also led directly to Surrealism, perhaps the most important and influential avant garde art movement after World War I. And in New York Dadaism produced the genuinely iconoclastic work of Marcel Duchamp, which really did change the course of modern art and our whole understanding of what constitutes art.


Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917                            Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q

Causes and Consequences

Having thus shown the profound effect of the First World War on European art at the time, it remains to try to say  why this happened, why the artistic response to the war was so qualitatively different to any previous war (war, after all, has always involved immense brutality) and then  to reflect on longer term consequences of this.

When it is matter of understanding why art developed as it did Marxism, with its historical materialist method, comes into its own. As Trotsky wrote:

It is very true that one cannot always go by the principles of Marxism in deciding whether to reject or to accept a work of art. A work of art should in the first place be judged by its own law, that is, by the law of art. But Marxism alone can explain why and how a given tendency in art has originated in a given period of history.[16]

Nevertheless, even with the aid of historical materialism, such explanation, seeking to show the relationship between general social historical development and specific developments within in the history of art, must involve a certain element of speculation. As Marx noted:

It is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out[17]

In this case I think we can identify the convergence of two main historical phenomena: the changed social position of artists and the specific nature of the war.

From about 1848, when the bourgeoisie lost its role as a revolutionary class and moved firmly into the camp of reaction, a split opened up between the more advanced artists and the aristocratic/ bourgeois ruling classes. Beginning with Courbet and progressing through the Impressionists to the likes of Seurat, Van Gogh, and Toulouse Lautrec the artists, in Clement Greenberg’s phrase ‘migrated to Bohemia’. We are not talking about proletarian art here – the artists remain predominantly of middle class origin and petty bourgeois in their objective class position[18] – but in many cases they live and work along side the working class and the poor and this is reflected in the art – its subjects and their treatment. Courbet paints stone breakers and supports the Paris Commune, Seurat depicts workers on the banks of the Seine, Van Gogh paints peasants and postmen not kings and emperors, and Picasso’s blue period gives us the Parisian poor. The development of capitalist society with its growing educated middle class also made it more possible for artists to survive, albeit with difficulty, by selling their work, independently of state, church or ruling class patronage.[19]  In art, as in life, there were right wing as well as left wing tendencies but both right and left were in some sense in revolt against the old order. Thus, the late 19th and early 20th century prepared the ground for artistic revolt against the war.

However, the main factor was undoubtedly the character of the war itself. The imperialist nature of the war and the absence of a significant element of national liberation was important in that, once the early illusions disappeared, there was widespread perception that it ‘wasn’t worth it’ and that lives were being sacrificed ‘for nothing’ i.e. for no legitimate political or moral purpose. But history had long been replete with brutal dynastic and imperialist wars, without producing anti-war art. Here the sheer scale and duration of the war, and of the slaughter, was hugely important. Previous wars had fought largely either by mercenaries or relatively small professional armies and even if they lasted a long time consisted of a series of battle of shortish duration. There was no precedent for the mass conscription and prolonged war of position in trenches that dominated the First World War.

This meant, as we have seen in our brief survey, that significant numbers of artists were drawn into the war as participants, and became casualties, in a way that had not happened before. The enormous casualty rate also ensured that the war reached back into and affected the whole of society. When in his ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, the poet Wilfred Owen evokes the image of young men drawn from ‘sad shires’ and ‘the drawing down of blinds’ we see this happening all across England. No town or village, scarcely a family, remained untouched by the catastrophe.

Thus history created both a supply of potentially anti-war artists and a social demand for anti-war art. Moreover the shift from initial, naïve, enthusiasm to bitter disillusionment and opposition which we have seen among artists was a reflection a much wider societal reaction.

When it comes to consequences we can note three main things. First, the profusion of anti-war art became part (a small part, of course, compared to the revolt of the masses) of the struggle against the war, not just ‘a mirror to reflect reality but a hammer to shape it’.
Second, the art, like the poetry and novels, helped to fix the image of the war as a disaster in the popular consciousness and social memory, thus making it much more difficult to rehabilitate it or retrospectively ‘celebrate’ it. Third, it put an end – one cannot say ‘forever’ but up to the present and for the foreseeable future – to art that seeks to romanticise or glorify war and that is a small but permanent step forward.

[1] The pivotal role of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon in this process is discussed in John Molyneux, ‘A revolution in paint: 100 years of Picasso’s Demoiselles’, International Socialism 115,  July 2007.
[2] See John Berger, ‘The moment of cubism’, in The Moment of Cubism: And Other Essays, London 1969.
[3] In 1919 Marinetti was to co-write another famous manifesto – the Fascist Manifesto of Benito Mussolini.
[4] BLAST was edited by Lewis. Only two issues appeared, one in Summer 1914 and one in 1915, but they had a lasting impact on British art.
[5] With the partial exception of Wyndham Lewis.
[6] Walter Sickert, The Burlington Magazine, September/October 1916
[7] Richard Cork, A Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde Art and the Great War, Yale University Press, 1994,        p.196.
[8]  Paul Nash (1949). Outline : an autobiography and other writings. Faber and Faber, London.
[9] The backing of the war by German Social Democracy was also a significant factor in securing the initial support of many artists including Katthe Kollwitz who will be discussed later.
[10] Richard Cork, as above, p.42
[11] As above, p.43.
[12] Karl Liebknecht, close comrade of Rosa Luxemburg, voted 1 out of 111 SPD Reichstag deputies against War Credits. He went on to form the Spartakus League (forerunner of the German Communist Party, and participate in the Spartakus Rising in the German Revolution. As a result he, along with Rosa Luxemburg, was murdered by counter revolutionary Freikorps in January 1919. Kollwitz marked his death with a powerful woodcut, Memorial sheet for Karl Liebknecht.
[13] Dawn Ades, ‘Dada and Surrealism’ in Nikos Stangos ed., Concepts of Modern Art, London 1981, p.111.
[14] Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art, London 1966, p.16.
[15] Cited in Dawn Ades, as above, p.111.
[16] L.Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, London 1991, p.207.
[17] K.Marx, !859 Preface,
[18] In their large majority artists remain owners of their own means of production, and sellers of the products of their labour, not of their labour power.
[19] In a way that was not possible for Goya or Velasquez or Michelangelo.