"Communism is dead"; long live communism!

10 November 2011

MP here

Yesterday evening - in, as I wrote the day before, the sixth week of a master's degree - I attended a lecture designed to introduce fellow students and myself to a selection of "theoretical frameworks", to give an overview of film theory, its aims and its uses. I'd encountered all of these theories before at undergraduate level. I find a lot of them (psychoanalysis, for instance) are prone to what may be truisms, overemphasised by the field so as to appear radical and written so as to seem irrefutable; others (audience or reception studies) strike me as self-serving, barely constituting theory at all, never mind film theory. This said, I did find the session, which lasted just less than two hours, useful overall.

If I came out with a generally positive - or more forgiving - feeling, though, I spent the opening twenty minutes or so silently agitated, visibly animated and, in the end, close to biting through my own tongue. The first PowerPoint slide attended to "marxism", and it was with great dismay that I read as its first line, "key theorist: Louis Althusser". Here we go.

Granted, Althusser's name was given as "only one example of many", but that he was listed at all is indicative of the general misconception with which academics approach marxism - to say nothing of how these "marxists" approach(ed) film studies. I genuinely worry for the name of marxism - and with it, socialism/communism - if this is the kind of stuff presented to people. But then, I don't know if I should worry: if a socialist revolution happens, it'll be the workers carrying it out; academics will merely sympathise from afar... or not.

First point of contention, then: if we're to have a PowerPoint slide on marxism at all, it should be stressed - and, I think, not stressed enough - that this form of "academic marxism" is quite removed from "classical marxism". And, isn't there a contradiction to be found in the term itself? It seems positively strange to me to even refer to a theoretical framework applicable to films as "marxism" - to say nothing of introducing it to students presumably unfamiliar with it - without actually referring to Marx himself, or Engels for that matter.

Therein, of course, lies the problem. Marx died in 1883 - Engels in 1895 - before the onset of cinema toward the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th. They were therefore unable to write on it (though here's a collection of stuff on art in general). Following the founders of marxism, leading revolutionaries in the early 20th Century wrote much material on art and its place in contemporary society, and also provided insights as to what forms it might take under socialism. To name but a few, G. V. Plekhanov's Art and Social Life (1912) can be found in its entirety here; Leon Trotsky's Literature and Revolution (1924) is here (and for the more savvy of you, a Kindle version is downloadable here), while his excellent pamphlet "Culture and Art" is here.

There's an index page to more specific stuff here, at the Marxists Internet Archive, but you get the gist. What remains remarkable about many of these writers is that their published work was always concerned with addressing the wider revolutionary concerns through which they were also living and carrying out. As Marx had put it: anyone could describe the world, the point was to change it.

So, why Althusser? Why any of the thinkers, not mentioned yesterday but surely awaiting anyone else present who might delve further (Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, Barthes, Kristeva, Deleuze, Said, Žižek, all of whom have at some point been associated with at the very least a Left tendency if not outright marxism)?

The history of marxism itself is long and complex, made so by its apparent entry into the academia, which besides from generating a great many publications on society in general and film in particular, has helped, in my view, less to serve a revolutionary workers movement than to give it a dirty name, by being inaccessibly obscurantist to both the educated elite and the ordinary worker excluded from it.

Labelling these kinds of thinkers "marxists" is to bastardise the socialist movement itself. In fact, to take them at their word feeds back into the fatal error of misbranding what is meant by "classical marxism" - carried through by Lenin and the Bolsheviks to the first and only socialist revolution in Russia, 1917 - by ignoring what Trotsky himself called Stalinism: the ideology by which the Russian revolution was betrayed. Referring to Stalinism merely as "communism" or "socialism" is to imply that the degeneration of the Bolshevik revolution was due to some internal defect, and that its success is not conditioned by historical and social forces, as if the proponents of capitalism needn't have done anything towards an active, conscious counterrevolution because communism was inherently doomed anyway.

If proponents of capitalism were already genuinely (and rightly!) fearful of Bolshevism, they were only too quick and happy to employ its degenerated form against it, using Stalinism interchangeably with marxism, happily adopting in the process Stalin's own wish to be viewed as the natural successor of Marx and Lenin. For this reason, the difference between the Stalinism that apparently ended when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the socialism it betrayed in the 1920s cannot be stressed enough.

You have to sift through 19 images to get the Berlin Wall with a Google Image search of "end of history"

With these things in mind, it's not difficult to see why certain thinkers get thrown into the broad framework of "marxism". So again, back to the question of academia. Why must we question academic marxism itself?

As a member of the old message board from which this blog emerged wrote in September 2009:

I think that we have to begin with the realisation that the academy is an inherently bourgeois institution. The entire reason that universities exist, from the point of view of the bourgeois state, is to prepare priviliged individuals for competition on the middle-class labour market. It's thus absolutely not in the least bit surprising that in economics and business schools there is a broadly anti-Marxist leaning, and an elevation of neoclassical (pro-capitalist) economic theory, and that out of these schools comes the so-called 'libertarian' worldview. In the 1920s and '30s the neoclassicists engaged in debate with Marxists, but that hardly happens anymore.

And scholars too are subject to systemic pressures to produce a certain kind of thought, and in newly reformed or newly neoliberalised 'communist' societies such pressures are to produce anti-Stalinist thought, and not only that, but also to produce neoliberal/libertarian thought, and of course they, as upwardly mobile middle-class career academics, would have nothing to lose in doing so (that itself is the systemic pressure, there are rewards for producing such thought). And of course the Stalinist state had gone to the greatest imaginable lengths, all throughout its history, to identify itself as the logical and theoretical and moral continuation of Bolshevik Marxism. It was Trotsky who coined the term Stalinism; the Stalinists referred to themselves as Marxist-Leninists. So deep was the Stalinist betrayal of the revolution, it even expertly buried its betrayals, disguising counterrevolution as revolution.

So now the question of the New Left. Following Stalin's 'Year of Terror' in 1937, show trials, purgings, etc, communist parties all over the world suffered internal struggles and splits over whether to denounce or defend history's only successful proletarian revolution and the world's only workers' state. There is no overstating the immensity of the Stalinist blow to the struggle for socialism, it was crippling.

Two things happened in 1940. Trotsky, the last surviving Bolshevik participant in the 1917 revolution was assassinated in Mexico by a Stalinist agent, and two non-Marxists, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, adopting plenty of Marxist terminology, published Dialectic of Enlightenment, beginning the school of academic Marxism, ie: critical theory. Critical, not revolutionary. So in 1940 the Russian Revolution was finally stamped out entirely, and the same year the stage was set for what would replace it: a neutered, bourgeois form of Marxism that Lenin had even predicted in the opening passages of The State and Revolution in 1917. This is the bedrock of the New Left. Most of the world's Marxists are now middle-class career academics, who are subject to systemic pressures to produce a certain kind of thought. No wonder the premium on cleverness over truthfulness. Once a truth is stated it needn't be stated again, but cleverness 'liberated' from the search for truth can go on innovating, books can go on being published, careerists can go on and on up the ladder.

It's a lengthy quote but I think it gets to the crux of the matter. Meanwhile at his blog, The Unrepentant Marxist, referencing the state of marxism in the academy by way of Perry Anderson's Considerations on Western Marxism (1979), Louis Proyect wrote last month that

the key to understanding the “philosophical” turn [away from economic concerns to abstraction, thus inverting Marx's own evolution] was the series of defeats in the 1920s and 30s that left many intellectuals in despair. If Stalinist and imperialist hegemony militated against the revolutionary project, then the next best thing might be an academic career where a kind of watered-down Marxism might be tapped for interesting lectures on Alfred Hitchcock movies and the like for audiences at conferences in places like London or Paris, with travel and hotel paid by one’s employer. That would be much more profitable than writing analyses of the capitalist economy in order to help develop strategy and tactics for the workers movement. That might have been how Lenin became a celebrity of sorts in Czarist Russia but that route was excluded for the modern and chastened left academy. Plus, Alfred Hitchcock movies were a lot more fun than pouring over land tenure or labor demographics.

I recalled this quote to myself throughout yesterday's lecture: when film theory was posited as different to film criticism (reviewing) because it "digs up what film reviewers don't talk about" and that it isn't "about whether a film is good or bad", I couldn't help but think it all seemed a bit self-enabling, a means by which theorists get to carve for themselves a field wherein they meet, reference and refute other theorists, a kind of intellectualised self-elevation or -distancing from those to whom higher education is seen as an establishment for the lofty elite. And what of it? Where's its practicability? If theory isn't serving itself, what is it serving? The division of labour seems to find its cruel epitome in the academy.

The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia, 1991, dir. by Jan Svankmajer
Even before Althusser's namecheck was mentioned yesterday, marxism was briefly elaborated upon by the suggestion that "it is outdated, since marxism led to communism and communism has - well, we all know... though its ideas are becoming popular again because of the recession". Though it's very possible the lecturer was speaking of academic or Althusserian marxism as "outdated" (in which case, on the contrary, the communist revolution of 1917 led to "marxism"; and The Communist Manifesto didn't invent communism or marxism for that matter), I took the unfinished sentence to be an implied reference to the fall of Stalinism in the 1990s, after which history itself was declared dead: communism had been defeated (had indeed defeated itself) and capitalism, despite not always existing in history and having come into existence through revolutionary (i.e., not "natural") means, was here to stay.

To dismiss this as naive is an understatement. If socialism is an economic necessity because capitalism has run its course, that doesn't mean the success of socialism is inevitable; put another way, even if socialism doesn't overthrow capitalism (if the working class doesn't overthrow the ruling class), capitalism itself will fall. After the height of the Roman Empire, we had the Middle Ages. But I'm running away with myself.

After Althusser, the slide defined the theoretical framework of marxism thusly: "[marxism] argues cinema inevitably inducts people into an uncritical acceptance of capitalism and related ideologies". I'm not so sure of this; it makes marxism seem like some conspiracy theory; but again, we must stress, this refers to a certain brand of marxism. Okay, fair enough.

The next and final part was problematic. "Problems: assumes a passive, uncritical audience; takes no account of ideas such as race and gender".

Immediately and naturally on the defensive against the notion that "marxism assumes a passive, uncritical audience", I raised an obvious question: surely that can be said of any theoretical framework! What is theory if not, by definition, an attempt to make explicit what it presumes is implicit? Ah, I forget, but this is academic marxism. Again, a major differentiation needs to be made here, because this PowerPoint slide is giving us marxists a very dubious name indeed.

As for marxism taking "no account of ideas such as race and gender" (given the off-slide elaboration that it's "about the economy"), I must here object. If man separates himself from animals at the point at which he begins to manipulate his natural surroundings so as to create his own basic sustenance - food, shelter, clothing - then the development of mankind, of history itself, is the development of the means by which this sustenance is produced.

That's the basic starting point of marxism: the economic structure of society determines the social life of the people who make up that society. In order to produce daily sustenance, humans enter into definite relations. These relations (class relations), determined by the economic structure, develop into various institutions, cultures, and so on: what Marx referred to as "the superstructure". Etcetera, etcetera: The Communist Manifesto is available in full here; for a succinct explanation of the base and superstructure, I recommend Chris Harman's "Base and Superstructure".

A statue of Lenin floats down the Danube in Ulysses' Gaze, 1995, dir. by Theodorus Angelopoulos
All of this is to say, however, that if an economic system such as capitalism creates class oppression - oppression of one class by another, of workers by capitalists - that is not to say that other forms of oppression "are not accounted for". If anything, classical marxism accounts for these forms of oppression, by explaining the ways in which they are determined by material reality (i.e., they don't "just exist" regardless of historical change).

In his Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Engels traced patriarchy as intrinsically linked with the development of private property; writing in 1981, Lyndsey German provides a compelling argument for women's liberation as a direct result of the emancipation of the working class; again, I recommend more than anything Chris Harman's precise overview of the distinctions between feminism and marxism, from his How Marxism Works.

As for the race issue, some more links. You can download a pdf of Benedict (brother of Perry) Anderson's Imagined Communities in full here; two articles on the website Socialist Worker attempt (reasonably, I think) to set the record straight about the notion that marxism downplays racial issues as "identity politics": Lance Selfa's "The Roots of Racism" (Oct 2010), and Keeanga Yahmatta Taylor's "Race, class and Marxism" (Jan 2011).

As a marxist myself, I find the notion that gender and race can be read as "issues" removed from material reality or not determined by it ("there will always be racism", "there has always been oppression against women") quite strange. I'm an egalitarian, though I am not a feminist, contrary to one film studies lecturer's baffling claim, at the University of East Anglia (where I did my undergraduate degree) that "everybody in the room [was] a feminist". Similarly, I can't look at the various forms of racism that are still occuring today without seeing their link to economic concerns.

Does Althusser "take no account of issues such as race and gender"? Maybe. Regardless, I silently noted that academic feminism is never criticised for taking "no account of issues such as race and class"; and those academics who concentrate on racial elements in a work - its identity politics - are never criticised for taking "no account of issues such as gender and class".

This seems symptomatic of a general - if unconscious - scepticism held towards marxism. To invest oneself in the continuing class injustices under capitalism demands too much: a questioning of who has access to education and who doesn't, to begin with, and from that, who has access to art, to culture, to the many things produced by society (by its exploited classes) only to oppress society (by exploiting classes) - not least of all wealth itself. We're back to those systemic pressures again, those pressures under which thoughts are reproduced unthinkingly due to the objective demands of capital itself.

Capitalism must be smashed; marxism provides a means of doing it. But I don't expect (m)any of the academic marxists to lead the way to revolution. Protesting the growing possibility of their academic faculty's funding cuts would be a start, though.


Ps. The opening image is a one-sheet for the 1949 RKO film directed by Robert Stevenson, which Wikipedia tells me was re-released as The Woman on Pier 13 and Beautiful but Dangerous "due to audience resistance to the title" (go the masses!). I haven't seen it but want to; the worst kind of spouse is a commie one, obviously.

Pps. One of the images above is from Jan Svankmajer's magnificent 1991 short, The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia, a kind of agitprop-style surrealist summary of Stalinism in Czechoslovakia. You can watch it on YouTube here.

Ppps. My last post ended with a link to some film poster design traits; today's final post-script contains a link to some other posters, originally posted in 2009 but brought to my attention by someone on my Twitter feed earlier: Alternate Universe Movie Posters. Here's my favourite: