The arts, trade unions, and working-class identity
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 02:03

The arts, trade unions, and working-class identity

Published in Visual Arts

Anthony D. Padgett reflects on the arts, trade unions, and working-class identity

“Hold tight” I call as we ride on my vintage motorcycle through the steep terraced streets of Lancashire towns. My last day of freedom as I lose all my work to the Coronavirus crisis. We pass the tall spires of a church converted into carpet shops. A few streets onwards, glimpse the copper dome of a newly built mosque, and a few streets more. We head past factories converted to student flats. On, into the countryside, where signs point to stately homes. Enjoy your tourist’s trip. And look for the ghosts.

The seventeenth century priesthood controlled the Bibles, written in Latin, until the printing presses were used to spread translations far and wide. And so the Protestant Reformation began. George Fox and the Quakers around Cumbria and Lancashire, an example of the new following of individual conscience and freedom of belief.

See there, on that Morecambe Bay headland, my sculpture, the “Praying Shell” (2013) a figure which kneels in prayer as its shell-like body opens to the spiritual.

AP Praying Shell 2014 resized

The eighteenth-century factory owners of the Industrial Revolution controlled the machines. Many of the journeymen weavers of the Lancashire cotton industry worked piecework and were against the introduction of machines that took their jobs away. So they became Luddites, smashing the new inventions to protect their livelihoods. Before long they were forced to move into the cities to work in factories. There they began to organise into unions and collectively bargain for better hours, pay and conditions, and the right to vote. The founding of the Trades Unions Congress in Manchester in 1868 was a move to protect workers’ rights and conditions.

See there, on the sands where the “Praying Shell” points, where 23 Chinese cockle pickers died in 2003, after working in worse conditions than one hundred years before.

Enough seriousness. Let’s go to the cinema. That Art Deco building, that’s now a DIY shop. We can buy tins of paint while we reflect on the twentieth-century media barons’ control of culture through records, film, and radio.

In “Dream World of Mass Culture” Susan Buck-Morss said that cultural critic Walter Benjamin proposed that the world of images produced by consumer society has a limited life, and is continually replaced by newer fashions and images. This change opens up the idea of radical, rather than just superficial, change that lies at an unconscious, mythic, level. This was not to return to a pre-industrial nature but make a radical reconstruction of the fragmented reality of industrial society: (1)

The trick in Benjamin’s fairy tale is to interpret out of the discarded dream images of mass culture a politically empowering knowledge of the collective’s own unconscious past” (2)

That was all in the 1930s. Let’s get contemporary and go to the art gallery. In that building, the one that looks like a museum, or a bank. It’s full of paintings of the aristocrats, their lives and beliefs. The posters outside promote eighteenth-century English painting, abstract art of the early twentieth century, and radical performance of the 1960s.

Art, that old dinosaur, where wealthy commissioners buy artworks and fund public exhibitions. The nineteenth-century workers understood the representational images they were told to revere and revolted against them. And the 1917 Russian revolution saw a new style of art, where avant-garde abstraction destabilised tradition in painting and in thinking. Kasimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky moved away from classical, narrative representation in support of abstractions and political and spiritual revolution (3). Then artists began to copy, to represent abstraction and it became a commodity rather than a breaking of structures.

Mmm, would we prefer the challenge of 1960s body performance around political issues? Where actions, demonstrations and protests were seen as anti-art? Until it was photographed, commodified and turned into the gallery art. I’m sorry if I disappoint you to point out that the photographs are on sterile, white walls. Protest seems to be great, as long as it doesn’t rock the art boat. 

We can’t get in the gallery, anyway. So let’s see some public art.  

ap peterloomemorial1

Here we are, at the base of Jeremy Deller’s “Peterloo Memorial” (2019) a series of concentric engraved stone platforms, in St Peter’s Field, Manchester. It marks the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, when 60,000 to 80,000 people (forerunners to the unionists) peacefully demonstrated for the right to vote. And how the yeomanry on horseback killed 18 of them.

Don’t tell anyone, but Deller’s work doesn’t have an access ramp, so disability activist Dennis Queen “called for protest groups to show solidarity with their cause by not going to the top of the monument until they too can access it.” And whilst it seems like the work is a memorial in a language that most people don’t understand, to them it is just inaccessible steps. Deller has created other union-themed work like his “Battle of Orgreave” (2001). Though, to be fair, he has been approached on numerous occasions to join the Artists’ Union of England and has never replied.

I wonder who the work really speaks to? The general public or the art collectors. It seems to be a gesture that no longer has the political power of the avant-garde. Henry M. Sayre wrote about this kind of work, calling it trans-avant-garde, saying that it appears be ground breaking and new but just reinforces old art ideas. And that this is just another commodity in the art market with no deeper political intention. (4).

So would working-class identity art from an upper middle-class artist be an appropriation of the identity and, whatever the conscious political intention, be devoid of political potential? I don’t know. But I do know that I, from a comprehensive, now feel less a voice of the working class than the public school educated Jeremy Deller. Who it feels like has become a voice for me.

Let’s ride past the university you went to. Were you lower-class and became middle-class by education levels? Me too. But I stayed comfortable-class, whilst some of my friend who didn’t go to university became rich-class.

And for a few years I was working-class despite being non-working – a mere government artist “drawing the dole.” And conversationalists in the upper middle class now discredit the title “working-class” by pointing to the fact that they work as hard as anyone. And would certainly think they worked harder than I did.

So how do we get into that upper middle-class gallery system – I wish that the curators would give me some feedback. Or listen to my feedback to them. And whilst these museums of curated corruption and oppression might gently rock, they stand untouched.

With the general defence that “art is subjective”, “it’s just what you feel” all just reinforces the idea of the connoisseur the person with an aristocratic sensitivity who knows better than the rest. The connoisseur’s background gives them this knowledge and insight. But the real basis of art criticism is who you know and what college you went to. Criticism is now used to justify what has already been accepted as good.  If you learn the game of art criticism, which I have tried to, you find this is no way in. Try and object and you will be ignored in a wall of silence.

Time to head on the open road. The thump, thump of the engine is reassuring. So here is my opinion: “Art is bought by people who don't understand what they are buying, sold by people who don't understand what they are selling, and made by artists who don't understand what they are making.” And we are then told we should believe it is art, whether we understand it or not.  And then we grow to like what we are exposed to. Obedient consumers.

So where to next on the bike? Back home before the Covid-19 curfew. To be stuck inside with our computers when we need to travel out of Walt Benjamin’s Dreamworld. Like the rebels in the film “The Matrix”(5).

We can dream an online possible dream. That united, artists can be valued. And, that if we harness the power of Artificial Intelligence, a union of artists can break through the systemic nepotism and cronyism. Or we can wake up and find we are divided and ignored.  With A.I. controlled by the institutions to reinforce their power structures.

Already A.I. can decide what is quality, innovative and original. It can sort 77,000 images of paintings into historical order based on formal qualities and without any pre-knowledge of that historical order (6). It can determine if artworks are fakes based on brushwork (7). And paintings done by computers have been found indistinguishable from the work of professional artists (8).

This machine painter is a source of threat to artists who, after their disbelief, may secretly fear that they will be replaced. And want to be a neo-Luddite. But it cannot be ignored.

If the eighteenth century technological development brought social alienation and led to the death of God, then maybe in the 21st century it will bring a new community and the birth of a new God. But if we remain stuck in a technological dreamworld then that God might be Hal – not Hal Foster the art critic (9), but Hal the self-conscious computer from the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” (10) programmed to further reinforce the already biased and oppressive structures endemic in the art-world of the rich and powerful.

Image by Ignacia Ruiz
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 02:03

Religion and capitalism

Published in Religion

In the second essay in the series, Roland Boer discusses the relationship between religion and capitalism. The essay is also available as an ebook, and is part of the Culture Matters mission to reclaim and liberate all aspects of our human culture. Our aim with religious and spiritual life is the same as our aim in the arts and other cultural activities: to unearth and mobilise the radical meanings in religious thought, teaching and practice. For details, please go here.

What does the Marxist tradition have to say about the relationship between capitalism and religion? In this booklet, I deal with four topics: the suggestion that capitalism itself is a religion; the ‘economics of religion’ approach, which seeks to apply neo-classical economic theory to religion; Marx’s observations on religion in the bourgeois state; his development of the theory of the fetish to understand the inner workings of capitalism. Since this final topic is the most important, I devote the bulk of what follows to the fetish. For Marx, capital itself becomes a fetish in which money seems to produce money without mediation.

Capitalism as Religion

A proposal doing the rounds of late suggests that capitalism has replaced traditional religion as the faith of many people around the globe. The emphases and sources vary – ranging from Walter Benjamin’s fragment from 1921 called ‘Capitalism as Religion’ to Buddhist criticisms – but the outline is largely similar. Thus, capitalism requires one to believe in an all-powerful being. Some suggest it is money, which can give one power over others, if not determining who dies and who lives. Others draw on Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ to point out that the mythical ‘market’ is a wise and all-knowing entity that knows what is best, without human interference. (It is worth noting that Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ operates at the intersection between religious and secular meanings, which enables people to read it in both ways.) Some go do far as to suggest that the capitalist market economy will eventually lead human beings to a paradise of plenty for all. Milton Friedman, whose work influenced Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, was one of the more well-known proponents of this image of a market-based heaven on earth. He called it the ‘fecundity of freedom’ (Friedman and Friedman 1980, 3).

The mention of Friedman brings us to another feature of the capitalism-as-religion hypothesis: the economic specialists who function in a way very similar to ‘theologians’. Not only do they debate the core doctrines of capitalism, and not only do they develop new ‘schools’ or ‘churches’, but they also advise governments in much the same way that priests, ministers and theologians used to advise European governments of the past. And where you have doctrines and theologians, you also have sacred places for worship. These places may vary – stock markets and banks come to mind – but one must show due reverence to them and engage in the appropriate acts of worship. Individual life too has its rituals of this new religion, focused on spending and saving, on buying and selling.

I have said enough to show how this proposal works, but I must admit that I see some problems. The main problem is that it uses an argument from analogy: the fact that capitalism is analogous to or like a religion in some respects leads some to suggest that it is a religion. Why is this a problem? First, the step from analogy or likeness to being the same is not obvious. Second, it assumes the priority of religion. It begins with the historical reality that religion is much older than capitalism – true in itself – to the problematic suggestion that religion causes and shapes what follows it. Third, it leaves out the possibility that capitalism and religion may appear to be like one another in some ways because they share features common to large-scale organisations, movements and systems. Let me use another example: one could argue that political movements and religion are analogous to one another, but this does not mean that a political movement is a religion in and of itself. We might be able to ‘translate’ (the basic meaning of this word is to ‘carry across’) some terms from one side into the language of the other side. But this does not mean that they speak the same language.

Economics of Religion

The overall tone of these proposals concerning capitalism-as-religion is mostly negative. Against the assumption that capitalist economics is in some sense a ‘science’, those who propose that capitalism is a type of religion want to undermine the scientific claim. You may think you are exercising a ‘science’, say the critics, but you are no better than religious believers who have a blind faith in God or the gods. However, there is another approach that is more positive. It may be called the ‘economics of religion’, with the assumption that one can apply the dominant economic theories of capitalism (neo-classical economics) in order to understand religious activity (Witham 2010).

So we find the deployment of the supposedly neutral ‘supply and demand’, in which a specific religion might offer something that people want in a way that is better than other religions. Or the presence of many gods and religions is seen as a type of capitalist market: one has many products from which to choose, but which one will you choose? A prevalent assumption is that you will choose the one that gives you the most advantage in life, in comparison with other religions. This assumption relies on the curious idea that human beings ultimately make rational choices about what is best for themselves (Stark 1996). And it also assumes a very individualist idea of how human beings function in the world. It should not surprise us that this approach has been used to argue for the economic rationality of Christian dominance.

However, this economic approach to religion relies on a whole series of assumptions concerning economic analysis. Together they may be described as ‘economics imperialism’ (Milonakis and Fine 2009, Fine and Milonakis 2009). This type of economic analysis begins with the classical economic theory of capitalism and follows it through to the development of neo-classical economics. In this situation, the moral and political frameworks of earlier classical theory (Adam Smith was, after all, a moral philosopher) were dropped in the name of ‘science’. Mathematics was applied, numbers were crunched, tables produced and seemingly scientific models were developed (Weintraub 2002).

The result was an academic discipline that migrated from humanities to the sciences, or at least wanted to claim that it had made the transition. It sought to explain the world as it is rather than suggest a world that should be. Of course, it could do so only when capitalism was well established in many parts of the globe (Adam Smith made his moral arguments for laissez faire when it was clearly not the dominant approach). As Immanuel Wallerstein puts it, this type of economics, along with other disciplines such as sociology and political science, took the form of a university discipline in which ‘the Western world studied itself, explained its own functioning, the better to control what was happening’ (Wallerstein 2011, 264). This is precisely the point: in presenting itself as a descriptive and scientific approach, this particular type of economic analysis was really another dimension of the dominance of capitalism.

Through this whole development, three crucial steps were taken. First, the economics in question was de-historicised. In other words, it systematically forgot its own origins and historical process of development. If we forget our origins, it is a small step to assuming our assumptions are universal. Second, it was de-socialised. The social realities of any economic system were denied and blocked out. Rather than a market – of whatever type – relying on inescapable interactions between social beings, the ‘market’ became an entity unto itself. Third – and obviously related – this approach to economics became thoroughly individualised. The private individual became the primary actor in the market, making choices based on an ultimate rationality that would benefit the individual in question. Stripped down in this way, with history and society banished and the individual raised to become the primary focus, economics imperialism was born.

As it did so, it took on an air of neutrality and universality. After all, without its specific historical and social circumstances and focused on the individual, it became easy to apply this approach to economics to all sorts of human activities. It was applied to human behaviour (Becker 1976) and especially religion (McCleary 2010). This could happen only in light of the developments I have already outlined. Until now, I have insisted that this is a specific approach to economics. It is actually neo-classical economics, a revision of classical economics that sought to turn it into a universal ‘science’ that could be applied to all human activity. Tellingly, its claim to universality is reflected in the claim to be simply ‘economics’. There is no describing term, no epithet – such as ‘neo-classical economics’ or ‘economics imperialism’. Just ‘economics’, with the assumption that there is no other type. By now, it should be obvious that there are profound problems with this approach. It may seem to be a more positive approach to religion within the framework of capitalism, but it has profound problems in the way it universalises a specific approach to economics.

Marx on Religion and Capitalism

In light of these developments, it is worth returning to Marx to see what he has to say about religion and capitalism. These appear in different phases of Marx’s works. The first comes from an early piece, ‘On the Jewish Question’, which is a response to a piece by Bruno Bauer. The latter had been Marx’s teacher at the University of Berlin and they had once worked closely together. But by this time they began to have serious differences. For our purposes, one feature of Marx’s argument is important, although we should remember that this early text by Marx is heavy with dialectical theory and specific historical moments. Marx is responding to Bruno Bauer’s claim that ‘political emancipation’ would be achieved when everyone gave up their particular religious claims, the ‘Christian state’ was abolished and a thoroughly secular and atheistic state established (Bauer 1843b, 1843a). Marx responds by arguing that the ‘Christian state’ – the final form of the absolutist state after the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) – does not disappear with the secular bourgeois state, but that the bourgeois state is the full dialectical realisation of the ‘Christian state’.

To back up his argument, he looks not to France or elsewhere in Europe, but to the United States, which many saw as the first glimmers of the future. Here, argues Marx, religion has become a private affair, exercised by any citizen while the state itself is ostensibly secular. Now Marx becomes fully dialectical: this secular state is not a negation of the ‘Christian state’, but its full realisation. Indeed, the so-called ‘Christian state’ – proclaimed in Europe in the nineteenth century – was not Christian at all. Instead, the fully realised Christian state is ‘the atheistic state, the democratic state, the state which relegates religion to a place among other elements of civil society’ (Marx 1844, 156). Or as Marx and Engels put it in The Holy Family, ‘the politically perfected, modern state that knows no religious privileges is also the fully developed Christian state’ (Marx and Engels 1845, 111).

Marx’s argument in this case is more political than economic, so let us extract the economic point. The bourgeois state is Marx’s concern, which he already found emerging in the United States. And this form of the state appears only with the establishment of capitalism. Crucial to this state is the separation of religion and politics: one religion, or indeed one form of religion, is no longer supported by the state to the exclusion of others. Is this the death of religion? Not at all, for religion becomes the private affair of each individual in the realm of ‘civil society’. In your private life, you can practice whatever religion you like. This private practice is what characterises ‘civil society’. For Marx – and here he borrows from Hegel – this ‘civil society’ is not a neutral term, designating all that is outside the state’s control. Instead, it is bürgerliche gesellschaft, bourgeois society, a creation of capitalism and the bourgeois state. In this context, with its cult of the private individual, religion becomes a private affair.

Capitalism and Fetishism

However, the most substantial contribution by Marx to understanding capitalism appears elsewhere – with his lifelong interest in fetishism. This argument requires some careful and detailed analysis. I make no apologies for this, since it is crucial to understanding not only Marx’s arguments concerning capitalism and religion, but the very nature of capitalism itself. Many will perhaps know the section of Capital I called ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof’. Fewer will know that he constantly reworked the idea of the fetish over four decades, or indeed that his completed argument in relation to capitalism appears in the third volume of Capital. Since I will focus on Marx’s arguments in the volumes of Capital, let me summarise his four decades of working with the idea.

The story of the fetish itself begins further back, in the fifteenth century (Pietz 1985, 1987, 1988). When the Portuguese began sailing tentatively down the West-African coast in their tiny caravels in search of a way to the ‘East’ that managed to get around the Muslim-dominated lands of the Middle East, they encountered local people with their own cultures and religious practices. As the Portuguese established forts, refuelling stations and slaving posts, they also attempted to understand cultures that were vastly different from their own. In particular, the amulets and objects, endowed with super-human powers and keys to social exchange, had to be understood. They found the term ‘idolatry’ inadequate, for it had become an elaborate term in the Christian tradition. Church fathers and theologians had developed a complex understanding of idolatry that went far beyond its initial biblical framework: idolatry had become a mirror of ‘true religion’, requiring a cultic practice, institutional structure, clergy, sacred objects, architecture and tradition.

This understanding of idolatry seemed not to apply to the practices of the West Africans. Instead, the Portuguese used the term fetisso, the origin of which is still disputed. But they played a double game: on the one hand, the term was used to suggest that the primitive Africans were irrational, for they attributed super-human and magical powers to simple objects of wood, stone or metal; on the other hand, the Portuguese also would swear by and even consume a fetish (where needed) to ensure a commercial exchange. In short, they looked own on the claim that the fetish had powers in social networking and yet they recognised such powers in their everyday interactions with the Africans.

The term ‘fetish’ caught on. The Dutch, French and English Protestants used it to describe Roman Catholic practices, while Enlightenment intellectuals used it in the eighteenth century as the basis for a general theory of religion. One of these intellectuals was Charles de Brosses, who published a work on fetishism and ancient Egypt (Brosses 1760). I mention this work, since Marx was deeply influenced by it when he read it as part of his early research into religion and art (Marx 1842). In fact, Marx wrote – as part of his collaboration with Bruno Bauer – a manuscript called A Treatise on Christian Art. But the manuscript is now lost!

Even without the manuscript, we can trace the development in Marx’s ideas of the fetish, whether in terms of criticising the decisions of the Rhine Province Assembly, in his early deliberations on the alienation of labour, as well as his reflections on the mediating role of money. What did Marx find so useful in the idea of the fetish? The core was that the fetish entailed a transfer of powers: human beings attributed to the fetish certain human powers, so much so that the fetish itself came to determine human lives. At the same time, human beings were diminished, giving up powers that they originally had. This core idea would run through Marx’s reflections, coming to fruition with his efforts to understand capitalism.


This effort appears above all with the three volumes of Capital. This requires some careful analysis, since it is important understand how Marx develops his argument in his search for the secret of capitalism. We begin with the most well-known treatment, concerning commodity fetishism in the first volume of Capital  (Marx 1867a, 81-94). Here Marx attempts a dialectical leap: he argues that the transferral of powers in the commodity-form – the notion that everything, no matter how different, may be exchanged in terms of its value – is both illusory and real, both mystified and concrete. The best way to see how Marx attempts his massive leap is to focus on the following passage:

There [with commodities] it is a definite social relationship between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of the relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the product of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities (Marx 1867a, 83).

At first, Marx assumes the position on fetishism with which he has worked until now: the fetish signals a transferral of attributes from human social relations to the fetish (now the commodity-form) and vice versa. In earlier texts, he used this argument in relation to labour, alienation and money. The first sentence in the quotation makes the same point: the social relation between men assumes a fantastic form in the relation between things.[1]

Now Marx faces a problem: how does the transfer of the fetish take place? Is this transference real or illusory? Three answers have been offered: a) the transfer is, like religion, illusory; b) the analogy with religion is misleading; c) Marx attempts to move dialectically beyond the opposition. The first answer argues that we suffer from a mistaken belief that the products of labour, like the fetish, gain such powers. In this case the political response is straightforward: all we need to do is indicate why those beliefs are mistaken, show what the object really is – a product made by human hands – and the task is done. At times Marx seems to assume such a position, sprinkling his text on the fetishism of commodities with phrases such as ‘grotesque ideas’, ‘mystical character’ and ‘unsubstantial ghost’.

The problem with this argument is obvious, since it would make commodities, labour, money, exploitation, and suffering a grand delusion. Is Marx then misguided in his use of the idea of fetishism, especially in light of its religious ties? Some would suggest so, arguing that the understanding of how powers are transferred to the fetish is illusory, a product of the imagination, but that those gained by the commodity are real. Marx was really showing that the perception of how those attributes are passed over to commodities is mistaken; he sets out to correct the mistake. Marx would have done better – so the argument goes – to have used an analogy other than religious fetishism.

How exactly does the transfer take place between fetish and human beings? Marx may well argue that workers, processes of material production, social relations and the product made are real; indeed, he argues that the powers transferred and thereby gained by the product are also real and materially grounded, which then means that the effects on human beings – exploitation, suffering, ruined bodies – are equally real. But are the perceptions of this process held by workers illusory? No, for the transferral of powers between commodities and human beings appear to those producers as ‘what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things’ (Marx 1867a, 84).

Their bodies know perfectly well what is going on. Yet their perception of how this process works is illusory and mystified: commodities do not have this power in themselves, for it comes from the labour power of those who produce commodities. It is both/and rather than either/or. Marx pushes at the edge of language to explain what is going on. For example, the qualities of the products of labour ‘are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses’ (Marx 1867a, 83)

Once again: although one may reveal the process of transferral and thereby show how value appears in the product of labour, that value appears ‘just as real and final, as the fact that, after the discovery by science of the component gases of air, the atmosphere itself remained unaltered’ (Marx 1867a, 85). In order to express what he is trying to argue, Marx formulates a curious phrase to express this dual character of social relations and the transferred relations between commodities: ‘socially valid as well as objective thought forms’ (Marx 1867b, 90).[2] Not only does this apply to the theories of bourgeois economists; it also applies to the very process of fetish transfer itself.

In other words, the process of transferral is a thought form that has become objective, utterly real. The commodity-form and the value of abstracted labour it attracts are both products of thought and objective, imaginary and real, mysterious and concrete. As with the fetish, or indeed the idol of the religious believer, the gods may not be real, but the transfer of powers to the object made, along with the resultant effect on the worker, is very real indeed.

On three other occasions in Capital and its preparatory materials, Marx returns to fetishism – in the third draft of Capital and then twice in the third volume of Capital. In these texts, Marx works away at the question of fetishism, exploring the various means by which more and more elements of capitalism end up ‘confronting living labour power’ (Marx 1894, 802) as alien, abstracted, all-powerful and utterly dominating. As he does so, the idea undergoes a process of expansion and distillation, so much so that the discussion of commodity fetishism in the first volume of Capital becomes an ‘introductory framework’ (Dimoulis and Milios 2004, 29). Initially, he expands the fetish to include virtually all of the dimensions of capitalism but then he distils this variety to three and then one essence.


In the only extant section of the third draft of Capital, Marx identifies a whole series of items that are both the products of labour power and yet become powers independent of it. Apart from noting money, commodities, and even use and exchange value, he is particularly interested in abstractions from the social process of labour. Thus, the social forms of labour are inverted and now appear as the forms of the development of capital. So also, the productive powers of social labour look like the productive powers of capital – specifically as the social combination of individual labour capacities in the workshop and as the objective conditions of labour (including machinery, fixed capital and the application of forces of nature and science).

All of these seem to be contained within the capital-relation and appear to be independent of the worker. We also find the capitalist as a personification of the social character of labour, of the workshop, of capital itself, as well as items such interest, rent, wages and profit, until the development of society as such turns out to seem as though it is the development of capital itself. All of them face the labourer as pre-existing, objective, alien realities that rule his life; they ‘stand on their hind legs vis-à-vis the worker and confront him as “capital”’ (Marx 1861-63, 457-58).[3]

In this treatment two developments have taken place. The first is to argue that the very process of ‘capitalisation’, which involves the extraordinary shift of properties from the social conditions of productive labour to capital, is itself a form of the fetish transfer. The significance of this initial move should not be under-estimated. Let me use the example of use value, which is usually understood to be outside the zone of the fetish (at least on a reading of the first volume of Capital). However, once use value too becomes a fetish, it throws into relief the fact that use value is an abstraction as well, that it does not have a material existence in the conventional sense of the term, that the value so attained by the product is a transfer of human powers to it. All of which means that the end of capitalism does not mean the restoration of some primal use value; rather, use value too must be destroyed in the revolution.

Second, Marx is moving to the position that the whole of capital is itself fetishised. When we arrive at the third published volume of Capital, more items are added. Some are familiar, such as interest, profit, the capitalist as the personification of capital, the products of labour in all their various manifestations, or the form of the conditions of labour, which is ‘alienated from labour and confronting it independently’ (Marx 1894, 812). But others are relatively new: land as an independently producing entity, specifically in terms of ground rent; the landlord who personifies both land and this process; the abstraction of labour, which is a ‘mere ghost’ (the Holy Ghost, the third person of the trinity) that somehow produces wages; those wages themselves, as a portion of the product of labour power; surplus labour -> surplus value -> surplus product, and thereby profit; the circulation process, since it seems as though commodities emerge from within circulation; and the collection of the world market, movements of market prices, credit, industrial and commercial cycles, alternations of prosperity and crisis – all as ‘natural laws’ and as ‘blind necessity’ (Marx 1894, 801-18).


Thus far, I have traced the way Marx expands the category of the fetish to include ever more items involved in capitalism. By now, he has moved well beyond commodities and the commodity-form to include almost every component of capitalism. He is fully aware of the shift, mentioning that his earlier treatment of the fetish transfer in commodity production and money really dealt with only ‘the simplest categories of the capitalist mode of production’ (Marx 1894, 813). At the same time, he also begins a process of distillation, focused initially on a threefold pattern: capital, land and labour (Marx 1894, 801-18).

Marx calls this the ‘Trinity formula’, which actually has three components: capital–interest, land–ground rent, and labour–wages. The key to this trinity is that relations between these terms have been concealed, specifically under the conditions of capitalism. The concealment produces the perception that capital simply produces interest in and of itself, without any need to consider labour power, surplus labour, surplus value, commodities, production, circulation and so on. Similarly, land produces ground rent in its very nature, masking the role of labour. And labour itself produces wages, for all one need do is turn up for work and wages are – naturally – forthcoming.

In each case, the fetish, or ‘capitalisation’, is in full operation. The trinity represents, from the point of view of capitalism and classical political economy, the pure and natural essence of capitalism. In the process, the specific and particular forms of these modes under capitalism become universalised: capital is thereby equated with the means of production, land with land monopolised through private ownership, labour with wage-labour. Even more, the process of personification applies not merely to the capitalist, but also to the landowner, who is now the embodiment of land, which – in a favoured metaphor – ‘likewise gets on its hind legs to demand, as an independent force, its share of the product created with its help’ (Marx 1894, 811).

Marx concludes:

In capital–profit, or still better capital–interest, land–rent, labour–wages, in this economic trinity represented as the connection between the component parts of value and wealth in general and its sources, we have the complete mystification of the capitalist mode of production, the conversion of social relations into things, the direct coalescence of material production relations with their historical and social determination. It is an enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world, in which Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre do their ghost-walking as social characters and at the same time directly as mere things (Marx 1894, 817).

In all this, I suggest that the primary feature is the first, concerning capital–profit (interest). The other two are subordinate to it, focused above all on the extraction of surplus value. So let us focus on this primary formula.

The Core of Capitalism

'The relations of capital assume their most external and most fetish-like form in interest-bearing capital’ (Marx 1894, 388). So begins the twenty-fourth chapter (in section five) of Capital volume three. Marx’s concern here is the externalisation of the relations of capital, especially in the most extreme form in which social relations are left far behind. And that most ‘fetish-like form’ is what is now known as the financialisation of the market, in which capital creates its own surplus value, money creates money, expanding of its own accord without the mediation of the commodity. Invoking the beautifully simple formula of M–C–M’, Marx argues that interest-bearing capital operates in terms of M–M’. The former at least gives the appearance of depending on social relations (the production of commodities), but the latter has dispensed with that: profit is now ‘the product of a mere thing’ (Marx 1894, 388-89).

Note what has happened to the fetishism of commodities, let alone all of the other instances of fetishism that I discussed above. In light of this argument, each of them has become a localised instance of fetishism, an example of a much more basic operation. In its pure essence, the fetish is nothing other than capital itself, and the fetish relation operates in terms of M – M’, which Marx describes as ‘the original starting-point of capital’ (Marx 1894, 389). Capital apparently produces surplus value in and of itself, unassisted by the processes of production and circulation.

All of this is only the first step beyond the fetishism of particular elements within capitalism. The next involves expanding the very notion of fetishism, for now Marx is interested in the logical extreme of the fetish. If the fetish involves the shifting of the powers and values of human social interaction to the relations between objects, then the full realisation of that transfer will result in the complete elevation of those things and the complete abasement of human relations, so much so that those relations simply disappear from the scene. The analogy with the transfer of human powers to the gods should be obvious: ‘In interest-bearing capital, therefore, this automatic fetish, self-expanding value, money generating money, is brought out in its pure state and in this form it no longer bears the birthmarks of its origin’. In this pure, ‘essential fetish form’ (Marx 1894, 390), capital embodies the whole process of production within itself, a ‘mysterious’, self-creating and self-generating source of its own increase (Marx 1894, 389). It may have various manifestations or even incarnations perhaps, as commodity, money, value, social forms of productive labour, capitalist, landlord, profit and so on, each of them with properties acquired but now regarded as inherent, but at its heart capital is a fetish.

Once again, Marx must deal with the tension between illusion and reality, between concealment and transparency, surface and depth, external and internal, absurdity and rationality. On the one hand, capital-as-fetish is due to a topsy-turvy world. M–M’, whether manifested in the form of money or commodities expanding their values independently of reproduction, is a ‘perversion’, a ‘meaningless form’ of capital, mystification ‘in its most flagrant form’, in short, ‘the fetish form of capital and the conception of fetish capital’ (Marx 1894, 390). Why? While interest appears to be a primary and inherent feature of capital, it is actually a portion of the surplus value, manifested as profit, extracted from the labourer. The problem is that the real source of this surplus value is now regarded as secondary, a by-product of the supposedly primary nature of capital. That is, what is unreal is the way this pure formula of capital assumes that capital produces surplus value in and of itself – money generating money, financial speculation, and volatilised markets and so on. At the same time, the process is very real, once we bring out of concealment the process of production that generates such surplus value. But Marx goes further: M–M’ may be a ‘meaningless condensation’, but it is also the ‘original starting-point’, the ‘primary and general formula’, the moment when the unity of production and circulation ‘appears directly’ (Marx 1894, 389). Capital itself has become an ‘objective thought-form’ with power to oppress.

In the remaining part of this important chapter, Marx cites approvingly Luther’s critique of usury and then the amusing fancy of a Dr. Price and his Jesus Christ sinking fund,[4] but the argument concerning fetishism has expanded far beyond that initial foray in the first volume concerning commodities, let alone Marx’s earlier journalistic writings. Now all that has gone before, the full range of items from commodities through to the personification of the landlord, have become incarnations of capital’s ‘pure fetish form’ (Marx 1894, 801-2). Capital can exist only as parasitic, as transferral – for which the terms capitalisation and fetishisation equally apply – in which the means of productions are transformed into capital. Or, as he now writes towards the close of this chapter, capital and fetish elide to become one word, ‘Capital-fetish’.

This insight into the core of capitalism is crucial and to get to it Marx found that the most useful tool was the fetish. He had discovered it many years before, had experimented in using it to analyse a range of economic features, and then made it a centre-piece of his analysis of capitalism. He may have begun with the basic idea of the fetishism of commodities, but soon enough he expanded the fetish to include all of the features of capitalism. Once he had done so, Marx was then able to distil the idea to locate the central fetishistic function of capitalism: money produces money, capital produces profit or interest in and of itself. Only a complex theory of fetishism can explain why ‘capital thus becomes a very mystic being’, especially ‘since all of labour’s social productive forces appear to be due to capital, rather than labour as such, and seem to issue from the womb of capital itself’ (Marx 1894, 814).[5]

In this sense can we say that capital becomes the ‘religion of everyday life’ (Marx 1894, 817).


Bauer, Bruno. 1843a. 'Die Fähigkeit der heutigen Juden und Christen, frei zu werden'. In Einundzwanzig bogen aus der Schweiz, edited by Georg Herwegh, 56-71. Zürich und Winterthur: Zürich Verlag des Literarischen Comptoirs.

Bauer, Bruno. 1843b. Die Judenfrage. Braunschweig: Otto Wigand.

Becker, Gary S. 1976. The Economic Approach to Human Behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brosses, Charles de. 1760. Du culte des dieux fétiches ou Parallèle de l'ancienne religion de l'Égypte. Paris.

Dimoulis, Dimitri, and John Milios. 2004. 'Commodity Fetishism vs. Capital Fetishism: Marxist Interpretations vis-à-vis Marx’s Analyses in Capital'. Historical Materialism 13 (2):3-42.

Fine, Ben, and Dimitris Milonakis. 2009. From Economics Imperialism to Freakonomics: The Shifting Boundaries between Economics and Other Social Sciences. London: Routledge.

Friedman, Milton, and Rose Friedman. 1980. Free to Choose. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marx, Karl. 1842 [1976]. 'Exzerpte aus Charles de Brosses: Ueber den Dienst der Fetischengötter'. In Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe, Vol. 4:1, 320-29. Berlin: Dietz.

Marx, Karl. 1844 [1975]. 'On the Jewish Question'. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3, 146-74. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1861-63 [1994]. 'Economic Manuscript of 1861-63 (Conclusion): A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy'. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 34. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1867a [1996]. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 35. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1867b [1972]. Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Erster Band Buch I: Der Produktionsprozeß des Kapitals. In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 23. Berlin: Dietz.

Marx, Karl. 1894 [1998]. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. III. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 37. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1845 [1975]. The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 4, 5-211. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

McCleary, Rachel, ed. 2010. The Oxford Handbook of the Economics of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Milonakis, Dimitris, and Ben Fine. 2009. From Political Economy to Economics: Method, the Social and the Historical in the Evolution of Economic Theory. London: Routledge.

Pietz, William. 1985. 'The Problem of the Fetish, I'. Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 9:5-17.

Pietz, William. 1987. 'The Problem of the Fetish, II'. Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 13:23-45.

Pietz, William. 1988. 'The Problem of the Fetish, III'. Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 16:105-23.

Stark, Rodney. 1996. The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2011. The Modern World-System IV: Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789-1914. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Weintraub, E. Roy. 2002. How Economics Became a Mathematical Science. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Witham, Larry. 2010. Marketplace of the Gods: How Economics Explains Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


[1] More fully, this transferral is a ‘mysterious thing, simply because the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour’ (Marx 1867a, 82-83).

[2] My translation and emphasis, with thanks to Jan Rehmann for this point (personal communication). The English translations try various formulations that do not capture the sense of Marx’s text.

[3] Or: ‘They confront the workers as shapes of capital itself, as combinations which, unlike their isolated labour capacities, belong to capital, originate from it and are incorporated within it’ (Marx 1861-63, 458).

[4] For Price, ‘One penny, put out at our Saviour’s birth to 5 per cent compound interest, would before this time, have increased to a greater sum, than would be contained in a hundred and fifty millions of earths, all solid gold’. The upshot: a state would be able to ‘spirit away the national debt through the mystery of compound interest’, even borrowing against the future (Marx 1894, 392-93).

[5] Or as he puts it elsewhere: ‘All forms of society, in so far as they reach the stage of commodity production and money circulation, take part in this perversion. But under the capitalist mode of production and in the case of capital, which forms its dominant category, its determining production relation, this enchanted and perverted world develops still more’ (Marx 1894, 814).

Oscar Niemeyer's futuristic civic buildings in Brasilia
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 02:03

Architecture and socialism

Published in Architecture

This section of Culture Matters is about architecture, including its role in shaping our collective future. Chris Guiton offers a foundation essay on achitecture and socialism.

Architecture is an expression and a reflection of human society. It has evolved over human history in response to our changing needs, innovation in building technology and design, and changes in the way we view the world around us. Part response to society’s functional needs and part creative expression, it offers the scope to shape our environment for either better or worse.

The practice of architecture provides us with a built environment where buildings function as places of work, as homes and as public spaces. The need for shelter from the elements in early human society took on greater significance as nomadic existence was replaced by a more settled, urban society. The simple requirement for shelter evolved into something that might be a place of work as well as a home, with different rooms developing specialist functions, and where people developed relationships with their family and community.

Hagia Sophia Church

Hagia Sophia Church

We can trace architecture’s lineaments through human history as it provides us with a way of looking at and understanding the past. Monumental structures such as the Giza pyramids, the Parthenon, Athens, the Hagia Sophia basilica and mosque in Istanbul, Il Duomo in Florence, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Chrysler Building in New York all tell a story about the economic and social forces that produced them. And about how that society wished to project its image into the future. This process is also represented in the more ordinary dwellings that were built for people and work, as well as in the public spaces and infrastructure that underpinned the development of cities, and in the very design and layout of those urban spaces.

As a profession, architecture has provided many socialists and progressives with the opportunity to help construct a better future. William Morris, the great designer, novelist and socialist activist, was very conscious of the role of architecture in society. As he put it: "the untouched surface of ancient architecture bears witness to the development of man's ideas, to the continuity of history, and, so doing, affords never-ceasing instruction, nay education, to the passing generations, not only telling us what were the aspirations of men passed away, but also what we may hope for in the time to come."

He appreciated the importance of simple beauty in things, where architecture was an expression of handicraft as well as “a work of cooperation. The very designer, be he never so original, pays his debt to this necessity in being in some form or another under the influence of tradition; dead men guide his hand even when he forgets that they ever existed. But, furthermore, he must get his ideas carried out by other men; no man can build a building with his own hands”. In other words, it isn’t just about the building of a house, but also, at a fundamental level, about the act of construction itself.

The German architect Walter Gropius, inspired by William Morris, but also by the emerging modernism school, established the Bauhaus in Weimar in Germany in 1919. The movement was hugely influential on modern design, with its simplified forms, harmony between an object or building’s function and its design, and focus on mass production. During its relatively short ascendency it produced some remarkable housing, schools and other buildings. Gropius, claimed it was apolitical but also said that his aim was to "to create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist."

His Marxist successor, Hannes Meyer, felt that the Bauhaus had lost its purpose and sought to move away from aesthetic considerations towards building designs based on the “life processes” of its future users. His new slogan was: “The people’s needs instead of the need for luxury!” Unfortunately, his politics led to his expulsion and he moved to the Soviet Union, but not before he had designed (with Hans Wittwer) one of the finest examples of functional architecture, the school of the ADGB (Federation of German Trade Unions) in Bernau near Berlin.

Less well known internationally, but no less significant, was the Vkhutemas, the Russian state art and technical school founded by Lenin in 1920. Both it and the Bauhaus were remarkably similar in their focus on modernising design and architectural education to reflect modern needs, under state sponsorship, merging craft traditions with modern technology. Unsurprisingly, the major artistic influences on the Vkhutemas were the constructivist and suprematist movements. Vladimir Tatlin's superb Monument to the Third International is a testament to their vision, with its futuristic ethos and revolutionary symbolism setting the tone for later projects.

CL Tatlins Tower 1919

Tatlin, Monument to the Third International

In the USSR, the ideological drive to forge a new socialist society, allied with rapid industrial development and accompanying migration from the countryside to the cities, combined to create a synthesis between radical art and architecture. The Constructivist movement created a number of highly innovative, large-scale housing developments, public buildings, leisure facilities and power stations, which were designed to create new forms of communal living, with shared spaces for eating and recreation.

A classic example is the Narkomfin Communal House in Moscow, built in 1930, which actually combined self-contained flats and integrated shared living spaces, reflecting the transitional nature of the times. It’s astonishing to reflect on how Constructivist architects created a new visual language in the face of material shortages, under-developed technology and a rapidly evolving political environment. Eventually, Constuctivism and similar experiments were abandoned when they were considered too advanced for the conditions that prevailed at the time. But this shouldn’t detract from the very real sense of energy and innovation that these movements expressed.

CG architecture image002

ADGB Trade Union School

What became known as Modernism synthesised many of these traditions at an international level and is the single most important new approach to architecture and design of the 20th century. It offered an analytical approach to function, innovation in structure and the elimination of ornament. It has produced many visually striking, and diverse, buildings, ranging from Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, beautifully integrated with the surrounding forest; Mies van der Rohe’s wonderful Barcelona Pavilion; Oscar Niemeyer’s futuristic civic buildings in Brasilia, which aimed to contribute to a new sense of collective identity and hope for the Brazilian people; Le Corbusier's government buildings in Chandigarh, India; the artistic complex developed over two decades on the south bank of the Thames, the Royal Festival Hall, Hayward Gallery and National Theatre; and Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton’s delightful Penguin Pool, London Zoo.

But if these buildings were realised in capitalist societies, what might architecture look like in a future socialist or communist society? Karl Marx was part of a western European cultural tradition which reflected a general optimism in the future of mankind, a belief in progress and the scope to build a better world. However, he said little about the actual shape such a society would take. He did not offer a coherent theory of architecture. But his writings reflect his understanding of the relationship between the country and the city and the effects of industrial urbanisation:

It [the bourgeoisie] has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put into the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades. The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society…The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cites, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and thus rescued a considerable part of the population from rural idiocy. - The Communist Manifesto.

The development of human society is inextricably linked with the development of the built environment. Walter Benjamin famously wrote in the The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction:
"Buildings have been man’s companions since primeval times. Many art forms have developed and perished . . . [But] architecture has never been idle. Its history is more ancient than that of any art, and its claim to being a living force has significance in every attempt to comprehend the relationship of the masses to art."

In one his conversations with Brecht, Benjamin said, “As a system of connectivity, the metropolis is formed by a boundless maze of indirect relationships, complex mutual dependencies and compartmentations.” The individual’s dialectical relationship with the society around him means that we have to understand modernism, and subsequent developments in architecture, not just in terms of the emergent materials and technologies which enable new forms of architectural expression, for example, reinforced concrete, steel frames and strengthened glass, but also with regard to the rapid urbanisation of populations across the world, which is one of the driving forces of capitalism. This suggest that architects have a clear responsibility to consider how the performance of their role impacts upon the structure and operation of future society.

In his Memoirs, Oscar Niemeyer, a key figure in modern architecture and a lifelong member of the Brazilian Communist Party, said, “Our concern is political too – to change the world...Architecture is my work, and I've spent my whole life at a drawing board, but life is more important than architecture. What matters is to improve human beings." The string of major works he produced over a long and productive life demonstrate how a progressive political vision can be combined with architectural boldness and radical urban planning.

We all have a fundamental right to urban spaces that work for our interests rather than against them. This includes efficient and low cost public transport; access to decent schools and hospitals; plenty of public spaces for recreation; effective distribution of good quality food and other necessaries; andaffordable, good quality housing. To deliver this means taking control over our lives, reclaiming cities for ourselves and implementing radical political changes which enable ordinary people to influence the shape of their urban environment.

This battle for ‘urban space’ is, of course, itself a product of economic and historical circumstances. Self-evidently, this is a class struggle as working class communities find themselves pitched against rapacious landlords and developers. Well-intentioned but often authoritarian and paternalistic attempts to clear slums and create model communities bump up against working class communities’ fight to assert their democratic rights and define urban space according to their needs. The continual search for profit and the capture of land value leads to ‘social cleansing’ as lower income communities are forced out of cities by the ongoing process of capital accumulation. Cities are explicitly redesigned in response to the threat of revolution, as in the rebuilding of Paris by Haussmann, or according to the demands of planners, bureaucrats and architects representing the interests of capital.

Marxist intellectuals and geographers such as Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey, have made a significant contribution to the discussion of the relationship between capitalism and urban space. Lefebvre coined the term, ‘the right to the city’ in 1968. He summarised it as a "demand...[for] a transformed and renewed access to urban life", where people exercise collective power to re-shape the very process of urbanisation in a way that underpins self-determination, the appropriation of social and physical spaces and the establishment of meaningful social relationships. For Lefebvre there was a dialectical relationship between urban reality and everyday activity (eg work, leisure, education and housing). By contrast with what are sometimes considered to be rather cold, modernist urban visions represented by architects and urban planners like Le Corbusier, his thinking offers a bottom-up approach based on the lived experiences of individuals which offers some useful pointers for the way forwards.
As David Cunningham and Jon Goodbun say in ‘’Marx, architecture and modernity’:

It is useful, therefore, to consider briefly what might be described as the three distinct tasks placed upon architectural knowledge in capitalist modernity. The first is to act as technicians of spatial development. Under capitalism, this is primarily the task of commodifying space. This is what the vast majority of architects spend the vast majority of their time involved in. The second task is a ‘poetic’ or artistic one, and is to do with somehow dealing with, expressing, intensifying or ameliorating the spatial experience of modernity. The third task is an utopian or avant-garde one, and is to do with imagining alternative socio-spatial futures. Although all three are always present in each other to some degree, there have been moments in the struggle over social space and its modes of production where the third task, imagining alternative socio-spatial futures, becomes an urgent part of defining the first task—the work to be done by everyday technicians of spatial development.

In a nutshell, aesthetics married to functionality has to be the cornerstone of a future architecture, where building for human needs and use, in harmony with the earth and not for profit, is the main objective. So, as we seek to advance the struggle for socialism, this leaves us with the following questions. How does architecture respond to global challenges such as population growth, climate change, growing inequality and environmental degradation? How can it embrace social activism and help tackle poverty in the urban environment? How do we ensure that it is not misused by the wealthy and the powerful to erect structures unrelated to the built environment and the social needs of the community as they seek to build monuments, and create icons, to their power?

We hope this article will stimulate further articles on architecture and socialism.

Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 02:03

Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship

Published in Cultural Commentary

Nick Wright reviews Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship, by Erdmut Wizisla.

The diverse appropriations of Walter Benjamin – the cultural theorist and critic — of his life and work, inevitably bear the marks of Cold War polarities. Liberal sentiment regards his intimacy with Bertolt Brecht as a Stalinist disfiguring of his sensibility. Gerschom Scholem's account has Benjamin more rooted in Jewish metaphysics. The not-so-New Left privileges his connections with the Frankfurt School.

Against these accounts, the great strengths of Erdmut Wizisla’s Benjamin and Brecht The Story of a Friendship rest on his exquisitely detailed scholarship and his irrefutable demonstration that the relationship between the two was not only reciprocal and creative but that it was grounded in a shared world view.

Brecht’s reputation for an unwavering political realism and his unshakable Bolshevism of a distinctive German temper is tamper-proof. Incontestably, it is marxism which anchors his aesthetic.

But Benjamin, who died on the French Spanish border by his own hand — caught between the Nazi tide and the refusal by the Spanish authorities to allow him passage to Lisbon and thus to refuge in the USA - has had the integrity of his ideological standpoint assailed from many directions.

Had Benjamin survived to join Brecht, who returned from exile in the USA to help construct the socialist order, the creative life of the German Democratic Republic would have been further enriched.

Erdmut Wizisla’s studies commenced in the GDR, he gained his doctorate with a study which is the foundation of this intricate and clear-sighted book. He heads the Bertolt Brecht Archive and since 2004 the Walter Benjamin Archives at the Academy of Arts in Berlin and is an honorary professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

The book puts a decisive end to the disputed discourse that marks our understanding of the relationship between the two giants of German culture. Its title bluntly refutes the analysis which derives from the earlier Story of a Friendship by Gershom Scholem. Whereas Scholem rooted his account in what are inevitably subjective reminiscences of his friendship with Benjamin Wizisla contests his view with a detailed account of Brecht and Benjamin’s collaboration which grounds Benjamin’s thinking in their shared politics and materialism as much as their friendship.

Thus, in notes on his Commentary on Poems by Bertolt Brecht Benjamin writes:
“The tradition of the oppressed is of concern to Brecht (Questions from a Worker Who Reads) The tradition of the oppressed is also the decisive factor in his vision of the banned poets. Brecht emphasises the basis, the background, against which ‘great princes of intellect emerge'. In bourgeois representation this background tends to be a uniform grey.”

Benjamin’s writing is marked by an exceptionally wide compass — from a deep engagement with German literature, both high culture and the popular culture of the lower orders — but also the religious and metaphysical elements in Jewish culture, fragmentary features of modern life, dialectics, the effect of montage technique and famously, the impact of mechanical reproduction on art.

The core of the book is a section which sets Benjamin’s eleven essays on Brecht’s work against the political conditions of Germany in the interwar years, drawing strongly on the cultural politics of the German left. More fragmentary evidence is available in the passages which give insights into Brecht’s attitude to Benjamin’s work. It is clear that Brecht gave practical support to Benjamin while their personal relations were deepened by shared exile in Paris and by Brecht’s hospitality in the summers of 1934, 1936 and 1938 at Skovsbostrand in Denmark. Many of the photographs that depict the two men show them playing chess during their shared sojourns.

Wizisla cites both Hannah Arendt and Adorno to support the view that Brecht regarded Benjamin both as “the most important critic of the time” and that he was Brecht’s “best critic”.

The book ends with an assembly of surviving documents that illustrate the exceptionally fruitful collaboration between Benjamin and Brecht with the participation of, among others the film and theatre critic Herbert Ihrering, philosopher Ernst Bloch and Georg Lukács in preparing the ultimately abortive project for a journal Krise und Kritik.(Crisis and criticism).

Wizisla speculates, drawing on recollections by Bloch, that the stimulus for this project may have lain in the formation of the Nazi Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur (Struggle League for German Culture). Bloch’s account has as the prospective title Journal of Cultural Bolshevism.

For the specialist Benjamin and Brecht The Story of a Friendship marks a new stage in the evaluation of both the period and the personalities and the passages which bring out the intensity and fraternity entailed in their collaboration are where Wizisla’s method is most fruitful.

Wizisla calculates that in that dangerous period after the German bourgeoisie handed power to Hitler Brecht and Benjamin spent ‘a total of more than eleven months living and working in direct proximity to each other’ — a good part of it in Brecht’s house in Denmark.

This is demanding stuff. Wizisla includes the minutes of their discussions around Krise und Kritik., a valuable source and one which demonstrates the ideological convergences and synergies that result from their collaboration as well as the extraordinarily fertile character of this period in which the changes in political direction entailed in the Communist International’s highly creative response to the realisation that the Nazi regime was no passing phenomenon were reflected and refracted through prism of their shared critical thought.

While marxism’s claim to be a general theory makes it especially attractive to people working in a wide range of specialisms it is sometimes true that specialists tend towards revisionism in relation to their own discipline and dogmatism in relation to the over arching theory. It is here that both what might be termed New Left assumptions about their relationship, and more particularly Scholem’s account, which seem to suggest that Brecht’s ideological fortitude positioned Benjamin as a subject, are subverted.

Because Benjamin’s writings are so fruitful for contemporary cultural theorists — especially those engaged in a critical encounter with modern visual culture and mass media — there is a tendency to read him against contemporary political configurations rather than see him in the context of the thirties. But both Benjamin and Brecht were politically active revolutionary intellectuals in a period when the strategic turn of the world communist movement was critical for the eventual defeat of fascism — and because they were partisans of this strategic reorientation their encounter, and their collaboration, can only be read as symptomatic of their shared politics.

Benjamin’s unwavering realism: "A total absence of illusion about the age and... an unlimited commitment to it" and Brecht’s characteristic fusion of political analysis with dramatic effect both illustrate their shared commitment to the idea, as Benjamin puts it, that': ‘the politically correct tendency includes a literary tendency’.

Such partisanship in cultural production and criticism is unpalatable to some.

For the general reader or for a partisan of the left it is an exemplary demonstration of the dialectical method in biography mobilising, as it does, both a deep understanding of the conjectural factors — political and cultural — that conditioned this friendship and the interplay of their cultural production.

The book draws on a rich assembly of writings, correspondence, texts, ephemera, documentary evidence and recollections. Clarity could be lost in this rich miscellany without Wizisla’s rigorous method — dialectical materialism at work.

The translation, by Elizabeth Shuttleworth, is of great elegance and clarity — not always the case in translations from the German.

Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship, by Erdmut Wizisla, ISBN: 9781784781125 Verso £16.99