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Irving Howe

Books in Review

From Two Old Masters

(August 1947)

From The New International, Vol. XIII No. 6, August 1947, pp. 189–190.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Literature and Art
Selections from the Writings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels
International Publishers. $2.25. 154 pp.

This book should be read by three groups of readers: those interested in Marxism; those interested in literature and art; and finally those interested in Marxism and literature and art.

Most of the selections are available elsewhere in English translation, but it is very useful to have this compilation, especially since there is no Stalinist introduction to besmirch it. It contains selected passages from books, unpublished fragments and letters which reflect the cultural attitudes of Marx and Engels. It is divided into four sections:

I do not wish in this brief notice to start juggling the old chestnuts about Marxism and art, propaganda and art, etc., which have contributed so much to the dreariness of recent years. I wish only to note a few reactions to the book which will, I hope, stimulate others to read it.

Marx and Engels did not write a comprehensive work of esthetics; they dealt with the subject only in passing. Marx did have in mind a book on Balzac, whom he greatly admired for his depiction of 19th century French social types; but even if that book had been written, it would probably have been an unpretentious study of certain social implications of Balzac’s novel, and not a “Marxist analysis” of Balzac as a writer. Marx and Engels developed a method of historical analysis, but there is no indication that they considered it also a method of literary criticism or a substitute for literary criticism. They were tempted occasionally to apply their method to literary history, but they nowhere indicate in these writings that they believed literature to be only an aspect of history.

These selections from Marx and Engels contain statements which if made by latter-day Marxists would, at least until a few years ago, have been considered downright heretical, as for instance one by Marx:

“It is well known that certain periods of highest development of art stand in no direct connection with the general development of society, nor with the material basis and skeleton structure of its organization. Witness the example of the Greeks ...”

Now it is true that if anyone so desired he could go through this volume and find some pretty crude statements in which the authors, especially Engels, judge literary works by political standards. But this would be a misleading procedure for at least three reasons:

  1. During the early years of Marx’s and Engels’ intellectual development, their historical method was itself often crude and still fuzzy with Hegelian verbiage; many of the selections are taken from this period and it is only natural that its crudity should overflow into literary judgment.
  2. While in their published writings Marx and Engels confine themselves usually to discussions of cultural history and origin, they reserve most of their literary judgments for private letters and usually hastily written “off the cuff.” Thus there are some harsh statements by Marx in a letter on Heine; yet it is common knowledge that he considered Heine the greatest German poet of his time. Marx was able to distinguish between categories of discourse.
  3. Some of the crudities are merely personal lapses of taste, usually those of Engels. By comparison with Marx, Engels’ literary writings seem almost pedestrian. (Yet in fairness to Engels it should be noted that he writes that “The writer is not obliged to intrude on the reader the future historical solutions of the social conflicts pictured.”) Marx indulges more frequently in strictly literary judgments; he had a much finer esthetic sensibility than Engels and his remarks show a strong interest in and love for literature as sheer literature, that is, what James T. Farrell calls “the refreshment value” of a work of art. (A Note on Literary Criticism)

Yet, though there were lapses, one can only marvel that men who spent their lives in political conflict still had such fine and certain taste. They did not allow their newly developed and explosively powerful method of historical analysis to obliterate their feeling for the cultural tradition of the past. In Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Goethe, his favorite authors, Marx did not seek “solutions”; nor did he analyze them in terms of their “social context.” That was left for others.

It is clear from these writings that the Marxist historical method contributes a great deal to an understanding of the origins and development of a cultural tradition or a work of art – the more so, Engels tells us, “the longer the period considered and the wider the field dealt with.” That is, it helps in the intellectual placement of literary material antecedent to its literary judgment in somewhat the same way that Freudianism does. But I think all the internal evidence of this book substantiates Edmund Wilson when he writes in his essay, Marxism and Literature, that “Marxism by itself can tell us nothing whatever about the goodness or badness of a work of art ... A man may be an excellent Marxist but if he lacks imagination and taste he will be unable to make the choice between a good and an inferior book ...”

But to return to the book. There are some things in it that are quite extraordinary. I have mentioned already the selection called by the editor The All-Revolutionizing Power of Money. Though draped in Hegelian linguistic paradoxes, this fragment, based on selections from Goethe and Shakespeare, is a remarkable tour de force on the dehumanizing role of money in modern life.

There are some things with which the modern reader is bound to disagree – as for instance, I think, Marx’s judgment that the reason we are attracted to Greek culture is that Greece represents the childhood of humanity and the “Greeks were normal children.” That seems to this reviewer a gross over-simplification.

But the essential virtue of Marx’s and almost always Engels’ writings on literature is that they are aware of the existence of culture as an activity of human beings which is its own sanction – and which, though subject to and part of historical development, still possesses value not reducible to that relationship. For though their historical method necessarily involves reduction of complex phenomena of conceptually ordered sequences – as must any historical method – they are equally aware that this very same method may be fatal for an analysis of art. They did not establish an esthetics, they didn’t claim to, and they didn’t relieve their followers of the obligation of knowledge and taste. They did, however, change man’s vision of this world – which was enough.

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