Molloy by Samuel Beckett – part one (1950)

Not to want to say, not to know what you want to say, not to be able to say what you think you want to say, and never to stop saying, or hardly ever, that is the thing to keep in mind, even in the heat of composition.
(Molloy, page 27)

Molloy is the first of a trilogy of novels which continued with Malone Dies and The Unnamable, and quickly came to be referred to as The Beckett Trilogy. That’s how it’s titled in the old Picador paperback edition I bought in the late 1970s.

Beckett wrote Molloy in French and it was first published by Paris-based Les Éditions de Minuit in 1951. The English translation, published in 1955, is by Beckett and Patrick Bowles.

Molloy is in two parts of equal length. This review is of part one, the long, first-person narrative by Molloy himself.

Beckett’s prose mannerisms

Let’s look at the continuities of style and approach Molloy shares with More Pricks than Kicks, Murphy and The First Love tetralogy of short stories:

Wall of solid prose The book is divided into two halves. The first half of about eighty pages has no paragraph breaks at all. It is like a wall of prose, and sometimes feels like an avalanche of concrete. It is physically difficult to read. It is challenging to know where to stop for a break, and how to mark your place so you find exactly the same place to resume at.

It has a first-person narrator who is fantastically vague about every aspect of his life:

I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got here. Perhaps in an ambulance, certainly a vehicle of some kind. I was helped. I’d never have got there alone. There’s this man who comes every week. Perhaps I got here thanks to him. He says not.

I don’t work for money. For what then? I don’t know. The truth is I don’t know much…

Forgotten To say the narrator is forgetful is an understatement. His main activity is not being able to remember anything.

  • Her name? I’ve forgotten it again
  • I’ve forgotten how to spell too, and half the words.
  • I’ve forgotten the half of it. Ah yes, I too needed her, it seemed. She needed me to help her get rid of her dog, and I needed her. I’ve forgotten for what.

I don’t know The phrase ‘I don’t know’ is a real mannerism or tic, cropping up numerous times on every page.

  • Yet I don’t work for money. For what then? I don’t know. The truth is I don’t know much. For example my mother’s death. Was she already dead when I came? Or did she only die later? I mean enough to bury. I don’t know.
  • She never called me son, fortunately, I couldn’t have borne it, but Dan, I don’t know why, my name is not Dan.
  • They let me keep my hat on, I don’t know why.
  • And the thing in ruins, I don’t know what it is, what it was, nor whether it is not less a question of ruins than the indestructible chaos of timeless things, if that is the right expression.

This is doubly true of the phrase I don’t know why. You just add it to the end of a common-or-garden sentence to make a Beckett phrase. ‘I’m in this room. I don’t know why.’

  • Dear bicycle, I shall not call you bike, you were green, like so many of your generation. I don’t know why
  • She never called me son, fortunately, I couldn’t have borne it, but Dan, I don’t know why
  • They let me keep my hat on, I don’t know why.
  • It was she dug the hole, under a tree. You always bury your dog under a tree, I don’t know why.

It is the poetics of Alzheimer’s Disease, of dementia, a permanent fog of unknowing. Possibly some readers find some of this funny, but it reminds me all too much of my Dad losing his mind, and that wasn’t funny at all.

And when the narrator describes visiting his gaga old mother and devising a method of communicating with her which amounts to giving her a number of taps on the skull, up to five taps, each number meaning a different thing, despite the fact she’d ceased to be able to count beyond two… I can see that it might be designed to have a certain dark humour, but it reminded me of my mother’s state at the end of her life.

She knew it was me, by my smell. Her shrunken, hairy old face lit up, she was happy to smell me. She jabbered away with a rattle of dentures and most of the time didn’t realize what she was saying.

Perhaps Nearly as much of a mannerism is the recurrent use of ‘perhaps’:

  • Perhaps they haven’t buried her yet.
  • All I need now is a son. Perhaps I have one somewhere.
  • I’ll manage this time, then perhaps once more, then perhaps a last time, then nothing more.
  • Perhaps I’m inventing a little, perhaps embellishing…
  • But perhaps I’m remembering things…
  • For the wagons and carts which a little before dawn went thundering by, on their way to market with fruit, eggs,
    butter and perhaps cheese, in one of these perhaps he would have been found, overcome by fatigue or discouragement, perhaps even dead.
  • And she did not try and hold me back but she went and sat down on her dog’s grave, perhaps, which was mine too in a way…

Or The two tics above are accompanied by a less frequent but just as tell-tale mannerism, which is to make a declarative statement then tack ‘or’ and an alternative clause at the end – ‘or nearly x’, ‘or about y’. The narrator describes something, then immediately says ‘or’ it was something else. Much virtue on your ‘or’. It creates a permanent sense of uncertainty and indeterminacy.

  • All that left me cold, or nearly.
  • But deep down I didn’t give a fiddler’s curse about being without, when they were all gone they would be all gone, I wouldn’t be any the worse off, or hardly any.

It’s part of the way that more or less every declarative sentence i.e. one that appears to be conveying a piece of information, is immediately contradicted or queried or undermined by uncertainty.

A and C I never saw again. But perhaps I shall see them again. But shall I be able to recognise them? And am I sure I never saw them again? And what do I mean by seeing and seeing again?

The English language is continually crumbling away and collapsing in his hands.

They Some undefined group – ‘they’ – have done a lot of this to the narrator, like the ‘they’ that kicked the narrator out of his cosy home in the four short stories.

  • What I’d like now is to speak of the things that are left, say my good-byes, finish dying. They don’t want that. Yes,
    there is more than one, apparently.

Highfalutin In fact, one big noticeable change from Beckett’s previous prose fictions is that he has now dropped the Joycean fascination with out-of-the-way vocabulary which clotted Pricks and Murphy and to some extent Watt. There are some arcane words, but only a handful, instead of the riot of incanabula you find in the earlier books.

  • that would have allowed me, before parading in public certain habits such as the finger in the nose, the scratching of the balls, digital emunction and the peripatetic piss, to refer them to the first rules of a reasoned theory.
  • But not knowing exactly what I was doing or avoiding, I did it and avoided it all unsuspecting that one day, much later, I would have to go back over all these acts and omissions, dimmed and mellowed by age, and drag them into the eudemonistic slop.
  • And when I see my hands, on the sheet, which they love to floccillate already, they are not mine, less than ever mine, I have no arms

Presumably this was one major result of Beckett’s decision to start writing his texts in French and then translating them back into English: a) French doesn’t have so many words as English b) and nothing like so many weird and functabulous words c) and therefore sentences which could have been conceived around an arcane English word, can’t be reconceived around one when he translates back from the simpler French, otherwise he’d have to have rewritten the book. Instead the vocabulary is much more limited and plain.

Crudity There is, however, just as much interest in bodily functions described in vulgar words as in all his previous works. He enjoys shocking the bourgeois reader with his potty language:

  • My mother’s death. Was she already dead when I came? Or did she only die later? I mean enough to bury. I don’t know. Perhaps they haven’t buried her yet. In any case I have her room. I sleep in her bed. I piss and shit in her pot.
  • For if they accused me of having made a balls of it…
  • What a story, God send I don’t make a balls of it.
  • I give you my word, I cannot piss, my word of honour, as a gentleman.
  • I shall have occasion to do so later perhaps. When I seek refuge there, beat to the world, all shame drunk, my prick in my rectum, who knows.
  • Unfortunately it is not of them I have to speak, but of her who brought me into the world, through the hole in her arse if my memory is correct. First taste of the shit.
  • How difficult it is to speak of the moon and not lose one’s head, the witless moon. It must be her arse she shows us always.
  • For as long as I had remained at the seaside my weak points, while admittedly increasing in weakness, as was
    only to be expected, only increased imperceptibly, in weakness I mean. So that I would have hesitated to exclaim, with my finger up my arse-hole for example, Jesus-Christ, it’s much worse than yesterday, I can hardly believe it is the same hole.

Or this pretty dithyramb about farting. People talk about Beckett’s bravery in facing the nihilism of the universe or the emptiness of existence. They shouldn’t forget about the farting.

I wrapped myself in swathes of newspaper, and did not shed them until the earth awoke, for good, in April. The Times Literary Supplement was admirably adapted to this purpose, of a never failing toughness and impermeability. Even farts made no impression on it. I can’t help it, gas escapes from my fundament on the least pretext, it’s hard not to mention it now and then, however great my distaste. One day I counted them. Three hundred and fifteen farts in nineteen hours, or an average of over sixteen farts an hour. After all it’s not excessive. Four farts every fifteen minutes. It’s nothing. Not even one fart every four minutes. It’s unbelievable. Damn it, I hardly fart at all, I should never have mentioned it.

Summary of Beckett’s prose mannerisms

So you could argue that, on one level, the text is assembled from these seven or eight mannerisms (plus others I’ve probably missed), and which are deployed over and over and over again.

About thirty pages in the narrator appears to say that he is dead, so maybe this is a literary vision of what death is like:

But it is only since I have ceased to live that I think of these things and the other things. It is in the tranquillity of decomposition that I remember the long confused emotion which was my life…

And again:

And I too am at an end, when I am there, my eyes close, my sufferings cease and I end, I wither as the living can not.

But later he appears to imply that neither of the terms living or dead are adequate to describe his situation. So, characteristically, maybe he is dead and maybe he isn’t. It hardly matters. The situation, the attitude and the prose mannerisms are so like the ones displayed in More Pricks and Murphy and First Love, The Expelled, The Calmative and The End (except for the omission of the highfalutin terms) that any ‘factual’ claims the text makes seem secondary to the consistency of the same old same old prose style.

It isn’t what the prose says that matters – it’s what it does and this is create a kind of quite novel and distinctive kind of poetry of decreptitude.

A flow of prose

It is not quite stream of consciousness but nearly –  one apparent subject leads on to another, seamlessly, in a great mud flow of prose.

This is one of the things which makes it so hard to read – that it isn’t really ‘about’ anything, about particular events or objects or people in ‘the real world’ but flows on continuously, introducing new subjects, people and perspectives, few of them ever named or identified, just abstract de Chirico figures in a barren colourless environment, who bob up for a while – like the men he names A and C – and disappear just as inconsequentially.

Some passages have a real surrealist vibe and could be describing a Max Ernst landscape:

For what possible end to these wastes where true light never was, nor any upright thing, nor any true foundation, but only these leaning things, forever lapsing and crumbling away, beneath a sky without memory of morning or hope of night.

A short example of how the intensity of his worldview, his bleak landscape, can become visionary and beautiful.

Facts as colours

There is one effect I’d like to try and define. For in the endless river of ‘perhaps, or something else, what do you call it, I can’t remember, I don’t know, well that’s one way of putting it’-type prose, just occasionally things like actual ‘facts’ surface for a moment. Nuggets of what, in another text, would be ‘information’ about the narrator or some of the other ‘characters.

For example, the narrator, remembering watching two men set off for a walk into the country, casually mentions that he is on an ‘island’.

Or suddenly mentions that he was on his crutches, hobbling, because of his bad leg (p.14).

Or that he has no teeth.

All I could see was her taut yellow nape which every now and then I set my teeth in, forgetting I had none, such is the power of instinct.

In a normal narrative, these facts might have had ‘significance’ i.e. they would have gone towards building up a picture of the narrator and maybe developing a psychological profile. But there is no psychology in Beckett, or rather there is just the one big Alzheimer Psychology – the inside of a mind which can’t remember anything or make head or tail of anything and isn’t sure whether it’s alive or dead.

Thus these ‘facts’ are not ‘facts’ in the conventional sense. They are more like sudden streaks of paint, a daub of blue here, a splat of red there, which suddenly crystallise certain ‘areas’ of the text, but don’t ‘mean’ anything, certainly don’t carry the literal meaning they would bear in a traditional novel.

Maybe it’s a kind of prose abstract expressionism. Take Blue Poles painted by Jackson Pollock in 1952, the year after Molloy was published.

Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock (1952)

The right-angled splash of red at the top left, what does that ‘tell’ you? Nothing. It just kind of crystallises an area of the canvas, it brings that particular area into focus. The red splash need not have gone there, but it did, and once it did, it adds another layer to an already complex composition, and it feels like a kind of finishing touch, a cherry on the icing that brings that particular area into… focus.

I’m suggesting that the ‘facts’ in Beckett’s text do something similar. On one level – because language can never escape its primary purpose of conveying meaning – on one level we learn that the narrator has a gammy leg and uses crutches. Fine. But when you actually read these nuggets embedded in the vast flow of text, moments like this don’t come over as they would in a normal novel, it’s more as if they’re moments of clarity around which the huge fog of the rest of the text arranges itself, highlights like the tip of an iceberg appearing in an Atlantic of uncertainty – or sudden splashes of red which somehow bring that area of the canvas into focus. They’re part of a design rather than pieces of information.

Words convey meanings. You can take many of the hundreds of ‘facts’ contained in the text and spin these into a meta-narrative, a literary critical interpretation. Or take my view, that the words and even their ‘meanings’ are more like colours deployed on a canvas to create an overall design or effect.

Take the ‘fact’ that the narrator appears to attempt to commit suicide at one point.

I took the vegetable knife from my pocket and set about opening my wrist. But pain soon got the better of me. First I cried out, then I gave up, closed the knife and put it back in my pocket. I wasn’t particularly disappointed, in my heart of hearts I had not hoped for anything better. So much for that.

In a ‘normal’ narrative this would be a big deal. Maybe in Molloy it is, but it doesn’t feel like it and doesn’t shed any particular light on what preceded or what follows it. It’s the apparent inconsequentiality of ‘incidents’ like this which suggests to me that they are more part of an abstract pattern or design than a catalogue of important ‘facts’ which need to be analysed and assembled into a psychological profile.

Other mannerisms

Sex

I like Leslie Fiedler’s description of Beckett ‘twitting the bourgeoisie’ a) because it seems accurate b) because it conveys something of the spotty schoolboy element in Beckett. ‘Miss, Miss, Sam said a naughty word, Miss’. And indeed he enjoys writing arse, prick, piss, shit, and one four occasions, cunt. Ooh. I feel so twitted.

Now the obvious way to twit the bourgeoisie from the era of Madame Bovary or Les Fleurs du Mal (both French books which were banned for immorality in the 1850s) onwards, was to be explicit about sex. But here Sam double-twits the bourgeoisie by writing about sex but in an entirely banal, unglamorous, factual and rather sordid way.

Thus, half-way through the first half of the book, Molloy remembers an affair with a woman whose name, characteristically, he can’t remember (‘She went by the peaceful name of Ruth I think, but I can’t say for certain. Perhaps the name was Edith.’) They have sex, fine, but the point is the entirely blunt, factual, downbeat way the narrator describes it.

She had a hole between her legs, oh not the bunghole I had always imagined, but a slit, and in this I put, or rather she put, my so-called virile member, not without difficulty, and I toiled and moiled until I discharged or gave up trying or was begged by her to stop. A mug’s game in my opinion and tiring on top of that, in the long run. But I lent myself to it with a good enough grace, knowing it was love, for she had told me so. She bent over the couch, because of her rheumatism, and in I went from behind. It was the only position she could bear, because of her lumbago. It seemed all right to me, for I had seen dogs, and I was astonished when she confided that you could go about it differently. I wonder what she meant exactly. Perhaps after all she put me in her rectum. A matter of complete indifference to me, I needn’t tell you. But is it true love, in the rectum? That’s what bothers me sometimes. Have I never known true love, after all? She too was an eminently flat woman and she moved with short stiff steps, leaning on an ebony stick. Perhaps she was a man, yet another of them. But in that case surely our testicles would have collided, while we writhed.

So you there you have Beckettian sex. Frank and factual but treated with the same indifference and puzzlement as everything else in a Beckett narrator’s life. But, you are also aware of the deliberate crudity, designed to offend.

I would have preferred it seems to me an orifice less arid and roomy, that would have given me a higher opinion
of love it seems to me. However. Twixt finger and thumb ’tis heaven in comparison. But love is no doubt above such base contingencies. And not when you are comfortable, but when your frantic member casts about for a rubbing-place, and the unction of a little mucous membrane, and meeting with none does not beat in retreat, but retains its tumefaction, it is then no doubt that true love comes to pass, and wings away, high above the tight fit and the loose.

By the way, Molloy says he met Ruth or Edith or whoever in a rubbish dump, which literary critics might point out as an anticipation of the setting of the entire play Happy Days but which can equally be seen as an indication of the narrowness of Beckett’s range of settings.

Flexible style

As the text progresses it becomes more varied. Beckett deploys different registers of English. Not wildly so, this isn’t Joyce, but he creates a narrating voice which can slip easily into older locutions, invoking older English prose styles or syntax. For example in the sex passage, above, ‘Twixt finger and thumb ’tis heaven in comparison’ feels like a quotation or is certainly cast in the style of 18th century English to achieve that effect.

What I do know for certain is that I never sought to repeat the experience, having I suppose the intuition that it had
been unique and perfect, of its kind, achieved and inimitable, and that it behoved me to preserve its memory, pure of all pastiche, in my heart, even if it meant my resorting from time to time to the alleged joys of so-called self-abuse.

It’s easy to be distracted by the mention of self abuse in this sentence from its other elements, particularly ‘it behoved me’. My point is that his tone of voice is flexible enough to allow 18th century pastiche and more formal registers to weave in and out of the pricks and arses, or the more dully limited passages where he forgets this or that. In other words, when you really come to study it, Beckett achieves a surprisingly flexible and varied style.

So I was able to continue on my way, saying, I am going towards the sun, that is to say in theory towards the East, or perhaps the South-East, for I am no longer with Lousse, but out in the heart again of the pre-established harmony, which makes so sweet a music, which is so sweet a music, for one who has an ear for music.

Or:

But I preferred to abide by my simple feeling and its voice that said, Molloy, your region is vast, you have never left it and you never shall. And wheresoever you wander, within its distant limits, things will always be the same, precisely.

‘Wheresoever you wander’ sounds like Romantic poetry. ‘Saving your presence’ is a 17th century phrase:

But I am human, I fancy, and my progress suffered, from this state of affairs, and from the slow and painful progress it had always been, whatever may have been said to the contrary, was changed, saving your presence, to a veritable calvary, with no limit to its stations and no hope of crucifixion…

Or:

I apologise for having to revert to this lewd orifice, ’tis my muse will have it so.

By contrast, the first part of the following passage seems to be a parody of Communist Party rhetoric, which then, in its last clauses, carries out a characteristic Beckettian tactic of deflating into a common or garden image.

It is indeed a deplorable sight, a deplorable example, for the people, who so need to be encouraged, in their bitter toil, and to have before their eyes manifestations of strength only, of courage and of joy… without which they might collapse, at the end of the day, and roll on the ground.

Clichés

How would you describe those homely common-or-garden phrases which your old ladies or stupid people use, clichés, chatty rags and tatters of speech? Beckett likes including them, as if to undermine, throw away, banalise the endless meandering.

  • And though it is no part of my tottering intentions to treat here in full, as they deserve, these brief moments of the immemorial expiation, I shall nevertheless deal with them briefly, out of the goodness of my heart, so that my story, so clear till now, may not end in darkness,
  • And this is perhaps the moment to observe, better late than never, that when I speak of my progress being slowed down, consequent on the defection of my good leg, I express only an infinitesimal part of the truth
  • The idea of strangulation in particular, however tempting, I always overcame, after a short struggle. And between you and me there was never anything wrong with my respiratory tracts.
  • You can’t have everything, I’ve noticed…

Humour

Some of it clearly is intended to be funny, and is funny. Especially if you say it out loud in an Irish accent.

Oh well, I may as well confess it now, yes, I once rubbed up against [a woman]. I don’t mean my mother, I did more than rub up against her. And if you don’t mind we’ll leave my mother out of all this.

Maybe it’s an optical illusion created by growing familiarity with the text and its mannerisms, but as I became more familiar with the tone and voice, it seemed to me that, as it went on, there were more funny moments. Or turns of phrase which are humorous, especially if said aloud.

…for I knew I was bound to be stopped by the first policeman and asked what I was doing, a question to which I have never been able to find the correct reply.

Molloy contains a celebrated sequence where the narrator debates with himself how to keep the 16 ‘sucking stones’ he has found on the seashore distributed equally between his four pockets. (He sucks stones to keep off hunger and thirst.)

I’ve just come across this sequence being performed by Jack MacGowran on YouTube, and it seems to me the two important things about this are that a) Jack was Irish and so delivered the English text with a noticeable Irish certain lilt from which it hugely benefits, and b) MacGowran was a character actor i.e. used to playing parts which are a bit cartoony, almost caricatures of the humble and downtrodden, for example his performance as the everso ‘umble servant, Petya, in the movie version of Dr Zhivago. Beckett liked MacGowran’s performances of his works. He wrote the solo monologue Eh Joe specifically for MacGowran. Here he is bringing Molloy to life.

Maybe you just have to imagine Molloy as a derelict, half-senile, Irish tramp and then the highfalutin’ words and occasionally ornate phraseology become that of a gentleman beggar, down on his luck.

Maybe. It would be nice to think so. An easy solution to the problems of the text. But I don’t think it solves everything – meaning there are sentences and passages I don’t think fit even the most flexible notion of the erudite tramp, passages which speak with a different voice altogether:

There are things from time to time, in spite of everything, that impose themselves on the understanding with the force of axioms, for unknown reasons.

Kafka’s presence

Kafka’s very short story, A Messenger from the Emperor, is only 388 words long in Ian Johnston’s translation but it is a great example of the way Kafka takes a factual premise and turns it into a kind of surreal vision which piles up obstacles which make every effort to escape or progress more and more impossible in order to convey to readers a claustrophobic sense of the hysteria and panic Kafka felt, according to his letters and diaries, almost all the time.

Beckett does something similar, takes a common or garden object or incident and then quickly extrapolates it beyond all normal limits. Thus, upon escaping from Ruth’s house and hiding out down a dark alley, as day breaks, the narrator suddenly starts talking about the threat from ‘them’, and before we know it, has amplified this trope into a state of Kafkaesque paranoia.

They wake up, hale and hearty, their tongues hanging out for order, beauty and justice baying for their due. Yes, from eight or nine till noon is the dangerous time. But towards noon things quiet down, the most implacable are sated, they go home, it might have been better but they’ve done a good job, there have been a few survivors, but they’ll give no more trouble, each man counts his rats. It may begin again in the early afternoon, after the banquet, the celebrations, the congratulations, the orations, but it’s nothing compared to the morning, mere fun. Coming up to four or five of course there is the night-shift, the watchmen, beginning to bestir themselves. But already the day is over, the shadows lengthen, the walls multiply, you hug the walls, bowed down like a good boy, oozing with obsequiousness, having nothing to hide, hiding from mere terror, looking neither right nor left, hiding but not provocatively, ready to come out, to smile, to listen, to crawl, nauseating but not pestilent, less rat than toad. Then the true night, perilous too, but sweet to him who knows it, who can open to it like the flower to the sun, who himself is night, day and night. No there is not much to be said for the night either, but compared to the day there is much to be said for it, and notably compared to the morning there is everything to be said for it. For the night purge is in the hands of technicians, for the most part. They do nothing else, the bulk of the population have no part in it, preferring their warm beds, all things considered.

Does this scary vision of a city monitored by watchmen and technicians, whose work leaves only ‘a few survivors’ and frightens the narrator into ‘hiding from mere terror’, does this mean anything? Or is it colour? Or can the text be seen as a collage of snippets like this – the sex descriptions with Ruth, the hymn to his bicycle, the description of sucking stones or knocking on his mother’s skull – are they not intended in any way to be a continuous narrative (despite appearing on one seamless chunk of prose) but more like picture-scenes cut out and pasted onto a vast canvas, not following each other in sequence, but placed just so, to counterpoise each other. Perhaps.

At moments like this the text ceases to be a hymn to collapse and decay and becomes something more feverish and excitable:

Oh they weren’t notions like yours, they were notions like mine, all spasm, sweat and trembling, without an atom of common sense or lucidity.

Sequence of incidents

It can’t be called a plot but ‘notable incidents’ occur in this order:

  • the narrator is in his mother’s room and has scattered memories of her
  • he sees two men leave the town and walk into the country, who he names A and C, one walking an orange pomeranian dog (p.10)
  • he’s stopped by a policeman
  • he gets on his bicycle which he loves (p.17)
  • maybe his father’s name was Dan, he communicates with his mother by rapping on her skull (pp.18-19)
  • he’s stopped by a policeman who takes him to the station (p.20)
  • under questioning he remembers his name is Molloy (p.23)
  • the police release him and next thing he knows he’s walking along a canal (p.26)
  • he ponders how much he farts (p.29)
  • he’s back inside the town and obsessed with asking someone whether it is the town he was born in, he can’t tell (p.30)
  • he’s cycling along when he runs over and kills the pet dog, Teddy, of a lady referred to as Mrs Loy or Sophie or Lousse (p.31)
  • she owns a parrot who can only say ‘Fuck the son of a bitch’ (p.36)
  • he wakes to find himself imprisoned in a locked room, stripped and his beard shaved off (p.37)
  • a complex obsessively detailed description of the moon moving across the barred window (p.38)
  • the valet brings him new clothes and he pushes over all the furniture in the room with his crutches (p.41)
  • they return his clothes but without some of his belongings which he enumerates (p.43)
  • the door is open now so he goes downstairs and out into the garden where he sees Loose scattering seeds on the grave of her dead dog (p.44)
  • Lousse seduces him into staying with her, he can do anything he wants but she likes to watch him (p.46)
  • he remembers living with and having regular sex with Edith (p.53)
  • Edith dies while taking a bath in a warm tub which overflows, flooding the lodger below (p.54)
  • one warm airless night he walks out on Lousse, taking his crutches (p.55)
  • he stays in a shelter but is kicked out, then on the steps of a boarding house (p.56)
  • then in the filthy alcove of a back alley where he makes a very half-hearted attempt to slit his wrist with a blunt vegetable knife (p.57)
  • he describes in minute detail a silver toy he stole from Lousse (p.59)
  • he cycles clear of the town and gives the Kafkaesque description of the terror of ‘them’ (p.62)
  • he crawls into a hole and doesn’t know what happened to him for months or years afterwards (p.63)
  • suddenly he’s describing the period he spent by the seaside, living on a beach and a detailed account of his method of sucking stones and trying to keep track of 16 stones divided between four pockets; this goes on for a very long time (p.64)
  • sometimes women come to gawp at him, the strange old joxer on the beach
  • eventually he decides to return to his town, though it requires crossing a great marsh which is being drained in a major public work (p.70)
  • he tells us his stiff leg started growing shorter (p.71) an extended description of how difficult that makes walking, and his attempts to compensate
  • a review of his physical frailties including his big knees, weak legs, silly toes, asthma and arsehole (p.74)
  • he repeats several times that he’s reached an astonishing old age (p.76)
  • he is suddenly in a forest where he encounters a charcoal burner (p.77)
  • when the charcoal burner tries to keep him there by grabbing his sleeve, Molloy hits him over the head with a crutch then kicks him in the ribs (p.78)
  • wandering in the forest, with one of his typical nonsense discussions of how the best way to go in a straight line is plan to walk in a circle (cf the discussions about which direction the moon was heading relative to the window bars, and the very long discussion of how to keep his 16 sucking stones distributed equally between his four pockets) (p.79)
  • out of nowhere comes some kind of ‘solemn warning’ in Latin
  • a meditation what exactly he means when he says ‘I said’, he is obeying the convention of fiction whereas what really happens is more like a feeling bubbling up from inside his body (p.81)
  • he wonders how to get out of the forest and considers crawling, when he hears a gong (p.82)
  • it is deep mid-winter, perhaps, or maybe autumn, when he commences to crawl out of the forest, sometimes on his belly, sometimes on his back (p.83)
  • he reaches the edge of the forest and tumbles into a ditch from where he sees a huge plain extending into the distance and faraway the turrets of a town, is it the town of his birth, where his mother lives, who he still wants to visit – the main motor of the narrative? he doesn’t know, but at that moment hears a voice saying: ‘Don’t fret, Molloy, we’re coming.’

So there’s a variety of locations, namely the unnamed town of his birth, the house of Lousse where he is prisoner for some time, the seaside where he sucks stones and is gawped at by visiting women, and the forest where he kicks the old charcoal burner.

Above all, the text is drenched in negativity, phrases describing failing, collapsing, dying or decaying, the end, end of all etc.

And once again I am, I will not say alone, no, that’s not like me, but, how shall I say, I don’t know, restored to myself, no, I never left myself, free, yes, I don’t know what that means, but it’s the word I mean to use, free to do what, to do nothing, to know, but what, the laws of the mind perhaps, of my mind, that for example water rises in proportion as it drowns you and that you would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till all is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what it is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery.

Biographical snippets

Biographical or factual snippets about the narrator do occasionally surface amid the mud. His name is Molloy. He has a mother he called Mag. She called him Dan, though it’s not his name, maybe his father’s name was Dan. His legs are infirm so he needs crutches. Despite this he loves cycling. He’s cycling on his way to visit his ailing mother when he runs over the pet dog, Teddy, of a lady named Mrs Loy, or Sophie or Lousse, who takes him in. He has a beard.

Literary significance

I can see that it is a masterful experiment in prose content and prose style. Presumably it was radical for the time, just after the war. And yet, certainly in the visual arts, it was an era of year zero painting depicting devastated worlds, post-nuclear worlds. I’m not saying this is that, but Molloy’s extended minimalism falls in with that mood. There are no colours. Everything is grey, the grey of a brain-damaged Alzheimer’s patient unable to make any sense of the constantly shifting pattern of memories and half memories.

And many, many passages just seem like inconsequential gibberish.

The Aegean, ‘thirsting for heat and light, him I killed, he killed himself, early on, in me. The pale gloom of rainy days was better fitted to my taste, no, that’s not it, to my humour, no, that’s not it either, I had neither taste nor humour, I lost them early on. Perhaps what I mean is that the pale gloom, etc., hid me better, without its being on that account particularly pleasing to me. (p.29)

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe up. Maybe down. Maybe nothing. More varied and strange mixing learned references and crudity and Alzheimer’s tramp with something larger than that, a strange voided narrative voice, perhaps without it maybe moving forward, forward, me, not me, speechless talking. It has a strange and brooding and puzzling and confusing magnificence.

Credit

Molloy by Samuel Beckett was published in French in 1950. The English translation by Patrick Bowles was published in 1955. Page references are to the Picador paperback edition of the Beckett TrilogyMolloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable.


Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

György Lukács on Franz Kafka (1955)

Brief biography of György Lukács

From the 1920s to the 1960s György Lukács was one of the leading Marxist philosophers and literary critics in Europe.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1885, the son of a very affluent Jewish banker, he benefited from a superb education and was a leading intellectual at Budapest university, combining interests in literature and (Neo-Kantian) philosophy, and founded a salon which featured leading Hungarian writers and composers during the Great War.

The experience of the war (although he was himself exempted from military service) radicalised Lukács and he joined the Hungarian Communist Party in 1918. His cultural eminence led to him being appointed People’s Commissar for Education and Culture in the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic which lasted from 21 March to 1 August 1919 and took its orders directly from Lenin. Lukács was an enthusiastic exponent of Lenin’s theory of Red Terror.

When the Republic was overthrown by army generals who instituted the right-wing dictatorship which was to run Hungary for the rest of the interwar period, Lukács fled to Vienna where he spent the 1920s developing a philosophical basis for the Leninist version of Marxism.

In 1930 he was ‘summoned’ to Moscow to work at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, although he soon got caught up in Stalin’s purges and was sent into exile in Tashkent. But Lukács was fortunate enough to survive – unlike an estimated 80% of Hungarian exiles in Russia, who perished.

At the end of the Second World War Lukács was sent back to Hungary to take part in the new Hungarian communist government, where he was directly responsible for written attacks on non-communist intellectuals, and took part in the removal of independent and non-communist intellectuals from their jobs, many being forced to take jobs as manual labourers.

Lickspittle apparatchik though that makes him sound, Lukács in fact trod a careful line which managed to be critical of Stalinism, albeit in coded and often abstruse philosophical phraseology. Due to his experience and seniority, Lukács was made a minister in the government of Imry Nagy which in 1956 tried to break away from Russia’s control during the so-called Hungarian Uprising. Nagy’s government was suppressed by the Soviets, and Lukács along with the rest of the Nagy government was exiled to Romania. Nagy himself was executed, Lukács only just escaped that fate. Yet again Lukács had experienced at first hand the brutal and repressive force of Soviet tyranny.

He was allowed back to Budapest in 1957 on the condition that he abandoned his former criticisms of the Soviet Union, engaged in public self-criticism, and on this basis was allowed to keep his academic posts, to continue writing and publishing his theoretical and critical works, up to his death in 1971.

His was a highly representative life of a certain kind of Central European intellectual in the twentieth century. He was reviled at the time by the people whose lives he blighted and by a wide range of liberal and conservative opponents.

Modernism as a symptom of capitalist society

In 1955 Lukács delivered a series of lectures on the clash between Realism and Modernism and a year later the lectures were published in essay form in a short book titled The Meaning of Contemporary Realism.

The message is simple: Realism good, Modernism bad. Simple enough, but the interest and, for me at any rate, the great pleasure to be had from reading this book is in the secondary arguments, in the clarity with which he presents his premises and works through the ideas and theories which support his case.

Lukács begins with a sweeping premise: the era we live in is dominated by the conflict between capitalism and socialism. Looking back at the nineteenth century we can see how Realism in the arts emerged with the newly triumphant bourgeoisie, and was a result of the new social conditions brought about by their rise and overthrow of the last vestiges of power of the European aristocracy.

(Realist authors would include Stendhal, Balzac and early Flaubert in France, Tolstoy in Russia, George Eliot in England, Mark Twain in America.)

Realism in literature was followed by Naturalism in the final third of the nineteenth century, which paid more attention to the grim social conditions of mature capitalist society but also, in the hands of a novelist like Zola, began the process of reducing human beings to ciphers worked on by malign environments. Darwinism, when applied to society by right-wing theorists, could be made to make people appear simple tools of their genetic inheritance, while late-Victorian socialist theories could make people appear pawns and slaves of their working environments.

Émile Zola (1840 to 1902) was the chief exponent of Naturalism. He regarded his novels as sociological experiments. In Lukács’s opinion, Zola abandoned the tricky balance which the realist novelists maintained between character and ‘type’, in favour of the latter: he created countless social types, which helps explain why Zola wrote nearly forty novels without a single memorable character in any of them.

(Naturalist authors are spearheaded by Zola in France, with maybe Jack London in America, George Gissing and Arthur Morrison in England.)

By the end of the century (during the 1890s) a shoal of literary movements developed which prioritised an interest in decadence, perversion, the macabre and gruesome, the so-called Decadent movement and the gloomy atmosphere of Symbolism.

This brings us to the eruption of Modernism about the time of the First World War, the movement which, Lukács claims, is still praised and defended by bourgeois capitalist critics at the time he’s writing (1955). But for Lukács, Modernism represents a colossal failure of humanity. Modernism turns its back on history and society, its protagonists are almost all loners undergoing nervous breakdowns, hopelessly alienated from societies which are portrayed as stuck, static, incapable of change or improvement.

From T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land to Samuel Beckett in Waiting For Godot, Modernist writers depict complete psychological collapse, in Beckett’s case the degradation of human beings into mumbling vegetables. He backs it up with references to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and other European works which foreground hopelessness and despair, and he was, of course, writing during the heyday of French existentialism, which became a byword in the 1950s for black sweaters and anguish.

All of these Modernist works and writers, Lukács argues, are symptoms of the alienating effect of living under Western capitalism. All these writers, artists and composers bear out Marx’s insight that in the capitalist system people are alienated from each other and from themselves.

Specific points

This makes Lukács sound like a cumbersome Stalinist commissar, but in fact the book is a pleasure to read from start to finish because:

  1. it moves relatively quickly, not belabouring the points
  2. it makes references to all kinds of writers, most from the European and not the Anglo-Saxon tradition so which we Brits are not very familiar with
  3. it features a whole series of thought-provoking ideas

Time

There is a fascinating discussion of subjective versus objective time, and how Modernists of all stripe, including Modernist philosophers, became fascinated by trying to describe the undifferentiated flow of sense impressions and ideas which became known as stream-of-consciousness, most famously in the works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

Lukács compares and contrasts Joyce and Woolf’s approaches with the way Thomas Mann uses what, at first sight, is also stream of consciousness to capture the thoughts of the poet Goethe in his novel Lotte in Weimar (1939). Mann is a realist writer and so, in Lukács’s opinion, when he uses stream of consciousness it is as a tool to help particular individuals and events emerge against a clearly defined social backdrop.

Static Modernism versus dynamic Realism

Joyce’s worldview is static. More than one critic has pointed out how Ulysses portrays a Dublin trapped in stasis and his masterpiece, Finnegan’s Wake, portrays a vast circular movement. But, says Lukács, human beings only achieve their personhood, only become fully human, by interacting with other humans in a constantly changing, dynamic society. Realist authors select characters and details to portray their understanding of this ceaseless dialectic between the individual and society.

Solipsism and nihilism

A full and proper understanding of society in all its relations is empowering, an analysis and understanding which gives people the confidence to mobilise and change things. By contrast, Lukács accuses Modernists of turning their backs on a healthy interaction with the world, of rejecting society, and rejecting a historical understanding of how societies change and evolve.

And it is no great leap for Modernists, in Lukács’s view, to pass from the belief that nothing ever changes, to despair. Rejecting society and history leads the protagonists of Modernist fictions to:

  1. be confined within the limits of their own subjective experiences (Joyce, stream of consciousness, Beckett’s monads)
  2. ultimately deprive the protagonist of even a self – a personal history, since that history is (in a normal person) largely a record of the interaction between themselves and the host of others, starting with their family and moving outwards, which constitute society

As Lukács puts it:

By exalting man’s subjectivity, at the expense of the objective reality of his environment, man’s subjectivity is itself impoverished. (page 24)

Man is reduced to a sequence of unrelated experiential fragments. (page 26)

Heidegger versus Hegel

In this context, Lukács invokes the teachings of Heidegger, the godfather of 20th century existentialism, with his fundamental idea of Geworfenheit ins Dasein, that human beings have been ‘thrown-into’-Being’, abandoned in a godless universe etc etc, all the self-pitying tropes which have been promoted by existentialist philosophers, critics, playwrights, novelists, film-makers, rock stars and millions of teenagers in their lonely bedrooms ever since.

The individual, retreating into himself in despair at the cruelty of the age, may experience an intoxicated fascination with his forlorn condition. (page 38)

By contrast, Lukács goes back to the origins of Western philosophy to invoke the fundamental insight of one of its founders – Aristotle – that man is a social animal: we only fully live and have our being in a social context. This insight recurs in various Western thinkers and finds its fullest modern embodiment in the vast system of Georg Hegel (1770 to 1831) who, in the early nineteenth century, applies his theoretical model of the dialectic to the continual interplay between the healthily-adjusted individual and the society they find themselves in.

How does this play out in fiction? Well, the realist novelist such as George Eliot or Tolstoy chooses representative types, puts them in a narrative which represents realistic actions which capture the possibilities of their society, and selects details which highlight, bolster and bring out these two aspects. By and large things change in a realist novel, not least the characters, sometimes against the backdrop of dramatic social events (Middlemarch and the Great Reform Bill, War and Peace and the Napoleonic War).

It is the realist’s interest in the interplay between a character and his or her fully realised environment – from Homer’s Achilles to Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkuhn – which gives us a fully developed sense of character and, deeper than this, a dynamic sense of human potential. At bottom, the subject of the realist author is human change and development.

Moreover, Lukács goes on to point out that all literature is, at some level, realistic. It would be impossible to have a totally non-realist novel (whereas you can, for example, have an utterly abstract work of art). More to his point, about the value of society and history:

A writer’s pattern of choice is a function of his personality. But personality is not in fact timesless and absolute, however it may appear to the individual consciousness. Talent and character may be innate; but the manner in which they develop, or fail to develop, depends on the writer’s interaction with his environment, on his relationships with other human beings. His life is part of the life of his times; no matter whether he is conscious of this, approves or disapproves. He is part of a larger social and historical whole. (page 54)

So much for the Realist worldview, then.

The Modernist, on the other hand, rejects all this. More often than not Modernist characters are extremes, psychopaths, neurotic, going mad. Lukács points to all of Samuel Beckett’s characters, trapped in the cage of their solipsism, but also the many mentally challenged characters in William Faulkner, or of the man adrift on a sea of phenomena in Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities.

Details are chosen not to highlight the characters’ representativeness but to bring out the freakishness of themselves and the uncanny world they inhabit. And the plot or story is often sick and twisted (Faulkner), or barely exists (Joyce), or revels in degradation and decline (Beckett).

(I laughed out loud when he described the way Beckett stands at the end of this tradition, as an example of ‘a fully standardised nihilistic modernism’, making him sound like a standard edition family saloon or an entry-level fridge freezer, page 53)

In a striking manoeuvre Lukács invokes Freud as a godfather to Modernism, pointing out that Freud himself openly declared that his way of gaining insight into the structure of the ‘normal’ mind was via study of a colourful array of neurotics, obsessives and phobics. In other words, one of the major planks of thought underlying all Modernist psychology, Freudianism, is based on generalisations from the morbid and the unnatural (page 30).

Franz Kafka

Which brings us to Kafka. Kafka, for Lukács, even more than Beckett, for all his genius, represents the acme of the sickness that is Modernism. He points out a detail I’d forgotten which is that, as Joseph K is being led away to be executed, he thinks of flies stuck on flypaper, tearing their little legs off. This, Lukács says, is the vision at the heart of all Kafka’s fiction and at the heart of the Modernist worldview – humans are helpless insects, totally impotent, paralysed in a society they don’t understand, trapped in unintelligible situations.

Kafka’s angst is the experience par excellence of modernism. (page 36)

Lukács dwells on Kafka’s brilliant way with details, his eye for the telling aspect of a person or situation which brings it to life. But Lukács uses this fact to bring out the world of difference between the realistic detail in a realist fiction –which has been chosen because it is representative of the real world, properly conceived and understood – and the details in Kafka, which he selected with absolute genius in order to convey his crushing sense of the utter, paralysing futility and nonsense of existence.

Kafka’s fictions are absolutely brilliant allegories, but allegories of nothing, allegories of emptiness (pages 44 to 45).

Thoughts

Pros

This is just a selection of some of Lukács’s insights in this short and, for the most part, very readable book. He may have been a slimeball, he may have been a criminal, he may have been a hypocrite, he may have been a toady to power – but there is no denying he was a very clever man, very well read, and he conveys his learning fairly lightly. He doesn’t set out to be impenetrable, as most French theorists do.

And he’s candid enough to admit that many of the experiments and new techniques and works written by the Modernists were dazzling masterpieces, and to concede that much of the stuff written under the aegis of Stalin’s doctrine of Socialist Realism was tripe. He’s too sophisticated to defend rubbish.

But his basic critique that the Modernist works which Western critics, to this day, tend to uncritically adulate, do tend to foreground the outsider, the alienated, the loner, often with severe psychological problems, in fictions which often lack much plot or any interaction with other characters, and in which both hero and author have largely turned their back on wider society – this is very insightful. His analysis of these aspects of Modernist fiction is useful and stimulating.

And, having just read Kafka’s biography, his diagnosis of Kafka’s writings as the brilliant masterpieces of a very sick mind are completely spot on. I like the way he brings out the important of the just-so detail in Kafka’s works, the precise details which tip the whole thing over into paranoid nightmare.

Cons

However, all this good stuff is in the first part of the book. As the book progresses an increasingly more dogmatic tone emerges. What are at first scattered references early in the book to the Cold War and the Peace Movement coalesce into a sustained political polemic. Lukács links his concept of the Good Realist writer directly with the 1950s Peace Movement, which was strongly promoted by the Soviet Union amid disingenuous claims to want to end the Cold War (while all the time retaining a vice-like grip on Eastern Europe and funding destabilising communist insurgents around the world).

By contrast, Lukács explicitly links some of the philosophers and authors of angst (most notoriously Heidegger) with Nazism and so tries to tar all Modernist authors with the taint of Fascism, which is clearly not true, think of Kafka, and Joyce and Faulkner.

In other words, Lukács disappoints by dropping the insights of the early part in order to make a direct and crude connection between a writer’s underlying worldviews and current developments in international politics. He is not crude enough to blame individual writers for Fascism or capitalism – but he does point out repeatedly that they base their works on the same worldview that accepts the exploitation and alienation implicit in the capitalist system.

For most of the first half I enjoyed Lukács’s dissection of the psychopathology of Modernism. But when he began to directly relate it to capitalist-imperialism and to lecture the reader on how it led to The Wrong Side in the Cold War, the book suddenly felt crude, simplistic and hectoring. When he suddenly states that:

The diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it, is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writing (page 77)

I thought, How can such a clever, well-read man write something so crude, and I immediately thought of counter-arguments:

  1. Kafka’s visions of human life crushed by a faceless and persecuting bureaucracy could equally well have come out of Czarist Russia with its notorious secret police or, indeed, Stalin’s Russia.
  2. Kafka didn’t in fact live in an advanced capitalist society such as America, Britain or Germany – the endless, useless bureaucracy lampooned in his books is precisely not that of snappily efficient America or dogmatically thorough Germany, but precisely that of provincial Bohemia, a sleepy backwater entangled in the vast and impenetrable civil service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  3. And Kafka would have been horribly out of place in any social system, at any time, as his biography brings home with startling force.

Worst of all, when, in the middle of the book, Lukács says that what counts about a writer isn’t their actual works, not their words or pages or techniques or style, but the general tendency of their thought… the implication is that this tendency can be measured by a communist commissar like himself – and suddenly I could hear the tones of Zhdanov and the other Soviet dictators of culture, whose crude diktats resulted in countless artists and writers being arbitrarily arrested and despatched to die in the gulag, crying out as they went that they meant no offence – while the apparatchiks calmly replied that they weren’t being punished for anything they’d actually said or done: they were being condemned to ten years hard labour for the tendency of their work.

At moments like this in this suave and sophisticated book, you suddenly glimpse the truncheon and the barbed wire of actual communist tyranny, which gives it a sudden thrill and horror not normally encountered in a genteel volume of literary criticism.

So it’s a complicated business, reading Lukács – at one moment, immensely rewarding, at the next genuinely disgusting.


Related links

Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Marx and communism

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army’s advance into Poland in 1920 preventing them pushing on to support revolution in Germany
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the Left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, and how he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution

Communism in England

To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson (1940)

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was one of mid-twentieth century’s great literary journalists and critics. (In her biography of Somerset Maugham, Selina Hastings describes Wilson as being, in 1945, ‘America’s most influential critic’ p.482)

Friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and many other authors from that generation, he wrote extended essays on the French Symbolist poets, on T.S. Eliot, Proust, James Joyce and the classic Modernists, on Kipling, Charles Dickens, a study of the literature of the Civil War, memoirs of the 1920s and 30s, a book length study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and much, much more.

Edmund Wilson in 1951

Edmund Wilson in 1951

His style now seems very old-fashioned, a leisurely, bookish approach which was long ago eclipsed by the new professionalism of academia and the blizzard of literary and sociological theory which erupted in the 1960s.

Most of Wilson’s books are not currently in print, and many passages in this book demonstrate the relaxed, belle-lettreist, impressionist approach – often more in love with the sound of its own rolling prose than with conveying any clear information – which shows why.

Though Marx has always kept our nose so close to the counting-house and the spindle and the steam hammer and the scutching-mill and the clay-pit and the mine, he always carries with him through the caverns and the wastes of the modern industrial world, cold as those abysses of the sea which the mariner of his ballad scorned as godless, the commands of that ‘eternal God’ who equips him with his undeviating standard for judging earthly things. (p.289)

That said, Wilson was an extremely intelligent man, more of a literary-minded journalist than an academic, capable of synthesising vast amounts of information about historical periods, giving it a literary, bookish spin, and making it accessible and compelling.

Some themes or ideas

To The Finland Station is Wilson’s attempt to understand the Marxist tradition, and its place in the America of his day i.e. the angry left-wing American literary world produced by the Great Depression of the 1930s. He began researching and writing the book in the mid-1930s as well-meaning intellectuals all across America turned to socialism and communism to fix what seemed like a badly, and maybe permanently, broken society.

Like many guilty middle-class intellectuals who lived through the Great Depression, Wilson went through a phase of thinking that capitalism was finished, and that this was the big crisis, long-predicted by Marxists, which would finish it off.

He was simultaneously attracted and repelled by the psychological extremism and religious fervour of communism. Even after actually visiting Russia and seeing for himself the poverty, mismanagement and terror as Stalin’s grip tightened, Wilson couldn’t eradicate this feeling. He tried to analyse its roots by going back to the intellectual origins of socialism – then reading everything he could about Marx and Engels – and so on to Lenin and the Russian Revolution. This book is a kind of diary of his autodidactic project.

The myth of the Dialectic As Wilson prepared the book he realised that to understand Marx and his generation you need to understand Hegel – and he couldn’t make head or tail of Hegel, as his chapter on ‘The Myth of the Dialectic’ all too clearly reveals. He ends up comparing Hegel’s Dialectic to the Christian notion of the Trinity (Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis as a kind of modern version of Father, Son and Holy Ghost) in a way that’s superficially clever, but ultimately wrong. To understand Hegel’s importance for Marx and the German thinkers of that generation you should read:

More telling is Wilson’s point that Marx invoked his version of Hegelianism to give a mystical, quasi-religious sense of inevitability, a pseudo-scientific rationale, for what was simply, at bottom, the burning sense of moral outrage (i.e. at poverty and injustice) shared by so many of his contemporaries.

Aesthetics in Marx A later chapter dwells at length on Capital Volume One, pointing out that it is an aesthetic as much as an economic or political text, before going on to point out the ultimate inaccuracy of Marx’s Labour theory of Value.

The Labour Theory of Value Marx thought he had invented a new insight, that the value of a product is the value of ‘the labour invested in it’ – and that because the bourgeois owners of factories only paid their workers the bare minimum to allow them to live, they were thus stealing from the workers the surplus value which the workers had invested in the finished products.

This theory appeared to give concrete economic basis for the moral case made by trade unionists, socialists and their allies that capitalists are thieves. 

The only flaw is that there are quite a few alternative theories of ‘value’ – for example, as I’ve discovered whenever I’ve tried to sell anything on eBay, the ‘value’ of something is only what anyone is prepared to pay for it. In fact ‘value’ turns out to be one of the most tortuously convoluted ideas in economics, deeply imbricated in all sorts of irrational human drives (what is the ‘value’ of a gift your mother gave you, of your first pushbike, and so on?).

Wilson is onto something when he says that both the idea of the ‘Dialectic of History’ and the ‘Labour Theory of Value’ are fine-sounding myths, elaborate intellectual schemas designed to give some kind of objective underpinning to the widespread sense of socialist anger – but neither of which stand up to close scrutiny.

And although socialism or communism are meant to about the working class, Wilson’s book about Marx and Lenin, like so many others of its ilk, is a surprisingly proletarian-free zone, almost entirely concerned with bourgeois intellectuals and their highfalutin’ theories, with almost no sense of the experience of the crushing work regimes of capitalist industry, which were at the heart of the problem.

I’ve worked in a number of factories and warehouses (a Dorothy Perkins clothes warehouse, a credit card factory, the yoghurt potting section of a massive dairy) as well as serving on petrol pumps in the driving rain and working as a dustman in winter so cold the black binliners froze to my fingers. As in so many of these books about the working classes, there is little or nothing about the actual experience of work. The actual experience of actual specific jobs is nowhere described. Everything is generalisations about ‘History’ and ‘Society’ and ‘the Proletariat’ – which may partly explain why all attempts to put Socialism into action have been so ill-fated.

To The Finland Station

Wilson’s book is more like a series of interesting magazine articles about a sequence of oddball left-wing thinkers, often throwing up interesting insights into them and their times, always readable and informative, but lacking any theoretical or real political thrust. The book is divided into three parts.

Part one – The decline of the bourgeois revolutionary tradition

I was deeply surprised to discover that part one is a detailed survey, not of the pre-Marxist socialist political and economic thinkers – but of the careers of four of France’s great historians and social critics, namely:

  • Jules Michelet (1798-1874) author of a massive history of the French Revolution
  • Ernst Renan (1823-1892) expert on Semitic languages and civilizations, philosopher, historian and writer
  • Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893) critic, historian and proponent of sociological positivism
  • Anatole France (1844-1924) poet, critic, novelist and the most eminent man of letters of his day i.e. the turn of the century and Edwardian period

Why? What’s this got to do with Lenin or Marx? It is only in the very last paragraph of this section that Wilson explains his intention, which has been to follow ‘the tradition of the bourgeois revolution to its disintegration in Anatole France’ (p.68).

Scanning back through the previous 68 pages I think I can see what he means. Sort of.

The idea is that Michelet came from a poor background, taught himself to read and study, and expressed in his sweeping histories a grand Victorian vision of Man engaged in a Struggle for Liberty and Dignity. He was heavily influenced by the memory of the Great Revolution, which he dedicated his life to writing about. Thus Michelet is taken as a type of the post-revolutionary intellectual who espoused a humanist commitment to ‘the people’. He provides a kind of sheet anchor or litmus test for what a humanist socialist should be.

Renan and Taine, in their different ways, moved beyond this humanist revolutionary vision, Renan to produce a debunking theory of Christianity in which Jesus is not at all the son of God but an inspired moral thinker, Taine embracing Science as the great Liberator of human society. Both were disappointed by the failure of the 1848 French Revolution and its ultimate outcome in the repressive Second Empire of Louis-Napoleon.

Anatole France, 20 years younger than Renan and Taine, was a young man during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune. This turned him completely off revolutionary politics and steered him towards a dandyish appreciation of art and literature. France represents, for Wilson, a disconnection from the political life around him. He continues the trajectory of French intellectuals away from Michelet’s humane engagement.

Anatole France

Anatole France A Corpse

During the 1890s the Symbolist movement in art and literature continued this trajectory, moving the artist even further from ‘the street’, from the deliberately wide-ranging social concerns of a Michelet.

The Paris Dadaists moved even further away from the Michelet ideal, choosing the day of Anatole France’s funeral in 1924 to publish A Corpse, a fierce manifesto excoriating France for representing everything conventional and bourgeois about French culture which they loathed.

And the Dadaists morphed into the Surrealists who proceeded to turn their back completely on politics and the public sphere – turning instead to ‘automatic writing’, to the personal language of dreams, to the writings of people in lunatic asylums.

So Wilson’s point is that between the 1820s and the 1920s the French intellectual bourgeoisie had gone from socialist solidarity with the poor, via sceptical Bible criticism and detached scientific positivism, to dilettantish symbolism, and – in Dada and Surrealism – finally disappeared up its own bum into art school narcissism. It amounts to a complete betrayal of the humanist, socially-conscious tradition.

Now all this may well be true, but:

  1. It would have been good manners of Wilson to have explained that describing all this was his aim at the start of part one, to prepare the reader.
  2. It is odd that, although he takes a literary-critical view of the writings of Michelet, Taine et al, he doesn’t touch on the most famous literary authors of the century – for example, the super-famous novelists Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant and Zola, to name a few.
  3. And this is all very literary – there is next to nothing about the politics or economics of the era (apart from brief mention of the revolutions of 1830, 1848 and 1870 as they affected his chosen writers). There is no historical, social, economic or political analysis. The whole argument is carried by a commentary on the literary style and worldview of the four authors he’s chosen, with no facts or figures about changing French society, industrialisation, wars, the rise and fall of different political parties, and so on.

So even when you eventually understand what Wilson was trying to do, it still seems a puzzling if not eccentric way to present an overview of bourgeois thought in the 19th century – via a small handful of historians? And why only in France? What happened to Britain or Germany (or Russia or America)?

Having made what he thinks is a useful review of the decline of bourgeois thinking of the 19th century, Wilson moves on to part two, which is a review of the rise of socialist thinking during the 19th century.

Part two – The origins of socialism through to Karl Marx

You might disagree with his strategy, but can’t deny that Wilson writes in a clear, accessible magazine style. The opening chapters of this section present entertaining thumbnail portraits of the theories and lives of some of the notable pre-Marxist radical thinkers of the early 19th century, men like Babeuf, Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen.

Wilson’s account of the large number of utopian communities which were set up across America in the first half of the century is particularly entertaining, especially the many ways they all collapsed and failed.

The Mormons It is striking to come across the Mormons being described as one of the early American utopian communities. They were pretty much the only idealistic community from the era to not only survive but thrive, despite fierce opposition. As Wilson reviews the fate of the various utopian communities set up during the early nineteenth century, it becomes clear that the key to survival was to have a strong second leader to succeed the founding visionary. For example, all the communities which Robert Owen founded failed when he left because they were only held together by his strong charisma (and dictatorial leadership).Hundreds of Fourieresque communities were set up, flourished for a few years, then expired. The Mormons were the exception because when their founder, Joseph Smith, died (he was actually murdered by an angry mob) he was succeeded by an even stronger, better organiser, Brigham Young, who went on to establish their enduring settlement of Utah.

Babeuf François-Noël Babeuf was a French political agitator during the French Revolution of 1789 who vehemently supported the people and the poor, founding a Society of Equals, calling for complete equality. As the bourgeois class which had done very well out of the overthrow of the king and aristocracy consolidated their gains during the period of the Directory (1795-99) Babeuf’s attacks on it for betraying the principles of the revolution became more outspoken and he was eventually arrested, tried and executed for treason. But his idea of complete equality, of everyone living in communes with little or no property, no hierarchy, everyone working, work being allotted equally, everyone eating the same, was to endure as a central thread of 19th century communism and anarchism.

Robert Owen ran a cotton factory in Scotland, and focused in his writings the paradox which plenty of contemporaries observed – that the world had experienced a wave of technological inventions which ought to have made everyone better off – and yet everyone could see the unprecedented scale of misery and poverty which they seemed to have brought about.

Young Karl Marx was just one of many thinkers determined to get to the bottom of this apparent paradox. The difference between Marx and, say, most British thinkers, is that Karl was drilled in the philosophical power of Hegel’s enormous Philosophy of World History.

Marx arrives in chapter five of part two and dominates the next eleven chapters, pages 111 to 339, the core of the book. Wilson gives us a lot of biography. Karl is the cleverest child of his Jewish-convert-to-Christianity father. He rejects advice to become a lawyer, studies Hegel, gets in trouble with the police and starts work as a newspaper editor.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Friedrich Engels Through this newspaper Karl meets Friedrich Engels, who sends him articles to publish. Two years younger, handsome and full of life, Engels is sent by his father to supervise the family factory in Manchester, north-west England. Here Engels is appalled by the staggering immiseration of the urban proletariat, several families packed to a damp basement room in the hurriedly-built shanty towns surrounding Manchester, enslaved 12 hours a day in the noise and dirt of factories and, whenever there was a depression, immediately thrown out of work, whole families begging on the street, boys turning to theft, the girls to prostitution, in order to survive.

And yet when Engels talked to the factory owners – and he was a man of their class, an owner himself – all they saw was profit margins, capital outlay, money to be made to build big mansions in the countryside. Questioned about the lives of their workers, the owners dismissed them as lazy, shiftless, good-for-nothings. Engels was disgusted by their greed, selfishness and philistinism.

Traipsing the streets of the city, shown into the homes of hundreds of workers, awed by the scale of the misery produced by the technological marvels of the industrial revolution, Engels could see no way to reform this society. The only way to change it would be to smash it completely.

The hypocrisy of classical economists As for contemporary British political and economic writing, it was a con, a sham, a rationalisation and justification of the rapacious capital-owning class. Adam Smith, David Ricardo and the rest of the so-called ‘classical’ economists merely provided long-winded rationalisations of exploitation. Smith said that the free market worked with a kind of ‘hidden hand’, a magic force which united people all over the globe in common enterprises, like the cotton pickers in America who supplied factories in Manchester to manufacture clothes which were then sold in India. Smith predicted that this ‘hidden hand’ of capitalism would, as if by magic, mean that, although everyone in society pursued their own interests, they would ineluctably be brought together by ‘the market’ to work together, to improve the lot of all, to create a balanced and fair society.

Well, Marx, Engels and anyone else with eyes could see that the exact opposite of these predictions had come about. British society circa 1844 was full of outrageous poverty and misery.

Marx meets Engels These were the thoughts Engels brought when he met Marx in Paris in 1844. His ideas and his practical experience electrified the brilliant polymath and provided Marx with the direction and focus he needed. He set about reading all the British political economists with a view to mastering classical economics and to superseding it.

Although Wilson periodically stops to summarise the development of their thought and give a précis of key works, I was surprised by the extent to which this middle section about Marx was mostly biographical. We learn a lot about the squalid conditions of Marx’s house in Soho, about Engels’s ménage with the Irish working class woman, Mary Burns, and there are entertaining portraits of rival figures like Lassalle and Bakunin.

All this is long on anecdote and very thin on theory or ideas. Wilson tells us a lot more about Lassalle’s love life than the reason why he was an important mid-century socialist leader. I learned much more about Mikhail Bakunin’s family life in Russia than I did about his political theories.

Wilson is at pains to point out on more than one occasion that he has read the entire Marx-Engels correspondence – but makes little more of it than to point out how Engels’s natural good humour struggled to manage Marx’s bitter misanthropy and biting satire.

Friedrich Engels

Friedrich Engels

Swiftian insults Wilson is happier with literary than with economic or political analysis, with comparing Marx to the great Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, than he is trying to explain his roots in either German Hegelianism or economic theory. He repeatedly compares Marx’s misanthropy, outrage and sarcasm to Swift’s – passages which make you realise that bitterly anti-human, savage invective was core to the Marxist project right from the start, flowering in the flaying insults of Lenin and Trotsky, before assuming terrifying dimensions in the show trials and terror rhetoric of Stalinism.

Failures of theory In the last chapter of the section Marx dies, and Wilson is left to conclude that Marx and Engels’s claim to have created a scientific socialism was anything but. Dialectical Materialism only works if you accept the premises of German idealist philosophy. The Theory of Surplus Labour doesn’t stand up to investigation. Their idea that the violence and cruelty needed to bring about a proletarian revolution will differ in quality from the violence and cruelty of bourgeois repression is naive.

There is in Marx an irreducible discrepancy between the good which he proposes for humanity and the ruthlessness and hatred he inculcates as a means of arriving at it. (p.303)

The idea that, once the revolution is accomplished, the state will ‘wither away’ is pitiful. For Wilson, their thought repeatedly betrays:

the crudity of the psychological motivation which underlies the worldview of Marx (p.295)

the inadequacy of the Marxist conception of human nature (p.298)

In a telling passage Wilson shows how happy Marx was when writing about the simple-minded dichotomy between the big, bad exploiting bourgeoisie versus the hard-done-by but noble proletariat in The Communist Manifesto and to some extent in Capital. But when he came to really engage with the notion of ‘class’, Marx quickly found the real world bewilderingly complicated. In the drafts of the uncompleted later volumes of Capital, only one fragment tries to address the complex issue of class and it peters out after just a page and a half.

Marx dropped the class analysis of society at the moment when he was approaching its real difficulties. (p.296)

Larding their books with quotes from British Parliamentary inquiries into the vile iniquities of industrial capitalism was one thing. Whipping up outrage at extreme poverty is one thing. But Marx and Engels’ failure to really engage with the complexity of modern industrial society reflects the shallowness and the superficiality of their view of human nature. Their political philosophy boils down to:

  • Bourgeois bad
  • Worker good
  • Both formed by capitalist society
  • Overthrow capitalist society, instal communist society, everyone will be good

Why? Because the Dialectic says so, because History says so. Because if you attribute all the vices of human nature to being caused by the ‘capitalist system’, then, by definition, once you have ‘abolished’ the ‘capitalist system’, there will be no human vices.

At which point, despite the hundreds of pages of sophisticated argufying, you have to question validity of the Marxist conception of both the ‘Dialectic’ and of ‘History’ as anything like viable explanations of what we know about human nature.

Marx’s enduring contribution to human understanding was to create a wide-ranging intellectual, economic and cultural framework for the sophisticated analysis of the development and impact of industrial capitalism which can still, in outline, be applied to many societies today.

But the prescriptive part of the theory, the bit which claimed that capitalism would, any day now, give rise inevitably and unstoppably to the overthrow of the capitalist system, well – look around you. Look at the device you’re reading this on – the latest in a long line of consumer goods which have enriched the lives of hundreds of millions of ‘ordinary’ people around the world (the telephone, cheap cars, fridges, washing machines, tumble dryers, microwaves, radios, televisions, record players, portable computers, smart phones) invented and perfected under the entirely capitalist system of America which – despite a century of hopeful prophecies by left-wingers – shows no signs of ceasing to be the richest, most advanced and most powerful nation on earth.

As so many people have pointed out, the Great Revolution did not take place in the most advanced capitalist societies – as both Marx and Engels insisted that it inevitably and unstoppably must. Instead it came as, in effect, a political coup carried out in the most backward, least industrialised, most peasant state in Europe, if indeed it is in Europe at all – Russia.

Part three – Lenin and the Bolsheviks

The final section of 123 pages goes very long on the biography and character of its two main figures, Lenin and Trotsky. (It is strange and eerie that Wilson describes Trotsky throughout in the present tense because, in fact, Trotsky was alive and well, broadcasting and writing articles when Wilson was writing his book. It was only later the same year that To The Finland Station was published – 1940 – that Trotsky was assassinated on Stalin’s orders).

Thus I remember more, from Wilson’s account, about Lenin and Trotsky’s personal lives than about their thought. Lenin’s closeness to his elder brother, Alexander, images of them playing chess in their rural house, the devotion of their mother, the family’s devastation when Alexander was arrested for conspiring with fellow students to assassinate the Tsar, Lenin’s exile in Siberia and then wanderings round Europe – all this comes over very vividly.

I was startled to learn that Lenin lived for a while in Tottenham Court Road, where there was a longstanding centre for communist revolutionaries. Wilson also quotes liberally from the memoirs of Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, about their trials and tribulations.

What comes over is that Lenin was good at lending a sympathetic hearing to working men and women, quick to make friends everywhere he went. Unlike Marx he didn’t bear rancorous grudges. Unlike Marx he didn’t have an extensive library and lard his books with literary references. Lenin was totally focused on the political situation, here and now, on analysing power structures, seizing the day, permanently focused, 24/7 on advancing the revolutionary cause.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by the alias Lenin

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by the alias Lenin

Hence his 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement addresses the practical problems of the communist movement at that specific moment.

I know a reasonable amount about the Russian Revolution itself. What fascinates me are the dog years between the death of Engels in 1895 and the Great War broke out in 1914. These were the years in which the legacy and meaning of Marxism were fought over by a floating band of revolutionaries, and in the meetings of the Second International, right across Europe, with factions splitting and dividing and reuniting, with leading communists bitterly arguing about how to proceed, about whether there would ever be a workers’ revolution and, if so, where.

Wilson brings out the constant temptation to so-called ‘bourgeois reformism’ i.e. abandoning the hope for a revolutionary transformation of capitalist society, and instead forming a democratic party, campaigning for votes and getting into the national parliament (in Britain, France, Germany, wherever).

This was the position of Edward Bernstein in Germany, who pointed out that the Social Democratic Party was having great success being elected and introducing reforms to benefit the working classes, building on the establishment of a welfare state, old age pensions and so on by Bismarck.

Reformists could also point to the way that the middle classes, far from being removed by the war between monopoly capitalists and an evermore impoverished proletariat, were in fact growing in numbers, that the working classes were better off, that all of society was becoming more ‘bourgeois’ (p.382).

This, we now know, was to be the pattern across all the industrialised countries. A large manufacturing working class, frequently embittered and given to strikes and even the occasional general strike, was to endure well into the 1970s – but the general direction of travel was for the middle classes, middle management, for ‘supervisors’ and white collar workers, to grow – something George Orwell remarks on in his novels of the 1930s.

The vision of an ever-more stark confrontation between super-rich capitalists and a vast army of angry proletariat just didn’t happen.

Lenin was having none of this bourgeois reformism. Wilson calls him the watchdog, the heresy hunter of orthodox Marxism. He turns out pamphlets attacking ‘reformism’ and ‘opportunism’. In Russia he attacks the ‘Populists’, the ‘Legal Marxists’, in books like Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908) (p.384).

His 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement attacks Bernstein and bourgeois opportunists. What is to be done is that the working classes can never get beyond trade union level of political activity by themselves – they need to be spurred on by a vanguard of committed professional revolutionaries. People like, ahem, Comrade Lenin himself.

The same thinking was behind the creation of the ‘Bolsheviks’. At the Second Congress of the Social Democrats in summer 1903 some delegates brought forward a motion that the party should let concerned and sympathetic liberals join it. Lenin vehemently opposed the idea, insisting that the party must remain a small, committed vanguard of professional revolutionaries. When it came to a vote Lenin’s view won, and his followers became known as the majority, which is all that Bolsheviki means in Russian, as opposed to the Mensheviki, or minority. But over time, the overtones of majority, the masses, the bigger, greater number, would help the Bolsheviks on a psychological and propaganda level in their forthcoming struggles.

Throughout his thought, Lenin also dwells on the special circumstances of Russia, namely that:

a) 999 in a 1,000 of the population are illiterate peasants
b) even educated intellectuals, liberals and socialists, had been demoralised by centuries of Tsarist autocracy, reinforced by the recent decades of anti-socialist repression (all the revolutionaries had been arrested, spent time in prison even – like Trotsky – long periods in solitary confinement, as well as prolonged stays in Siberia)

The vast gulf in Russian society between a handful of super-educated elite on the one hand, and the enormous number of illiterate peasants sprinkled with a smaller number of illiterate proles in the cities, meant that the only practical way (and Lenin was always practical) to run a revolution was with top-down leadership. Lenin writes quite clearly that Russians will require a dictatorship not only to effect the revolutionary transformation of society, but to educate the peasants and workers as to what that actually means for them.

While even close associates in the communist movement such as Bernstein and Kautsky criticised this approach, while many of them wrote accurate predictions that this approach would lead to dictatorship pure and simple, others, like Trotsky, were energised and excited by the psychological vision of a ruthless and cruel dictatorship. The only thing the Russian people understood was force, and so the revolutionaries must use force, relentlessly. Amid the civil war of 1920 Trotsky found time to write a pamphlet, The Defense of Terrorism, refuting Kautsky’s attacks on the Bolshevik government and defending the shooting of military and political enemies.

What this all shows is how difficult it is for liberals and people with moral scruples to stop revolutionaries who eschew and ignore moral constraints, particularly when it comes to revolutionary violence and terror. The most violent faction almost always wins out.

At the Finland Station

In his chapter on Marx’s Capital Wilson had pointed out (rather inevitably, given his belle-lettrist origins) that the book has an aesthetic, as well as political-economic-philosophic aspect – i.e. that Marx had crafted and shaped the subject matter in order to create a psychological effect (namely arousing outrage at the injustices of capitalist exploitation, then channelling this through his pages of economic analysis into the climactic revolutionary call to action).

Wilson’s book is similarly crafted. Having moved back and forth in time between the childhood of Lenin and Trotsky and their actions in the 1920s and 30s, even mentioning Trotsky’s activities in the present day (1940), Wilson goes back in time to conclude the book with a detailed account of Lenin’s train journey.

In April 1917 Lenin and 30 or so supporters were provided with a train by the German Army High Command which took them from exile in Switzerland, across Germany to the Baltic, by ferry boat across to Sweden, and then on another train through Finland, until he finally arrived in St Petersburg in April 1917, into the political turmoil caused by the overthrow of the Tsar and the creation of a very shaky provisional government.

Lenin was welcomed by pompous parliamentarians but it was to the workers and soldiers present that, with typical political insight, he devoted his speeches. He knew that it was in their name and with their help, that his small cadre of professional revolutionaries would seize power and declare the dictatorship of the proletariat. Which is what they finally did in October 1917.

‘All power to the soviets’ would be their catchphrase. Only time would reveal that this meant giving all power to the Bolshevik Party – leading to civil war and famine – and that, a mere 15 years later, it would end with giving all power to Joseph Stalin, one of the greatest mass murderers of all time.


Related links

Related blog posts

Marx and Engels

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army from conquering Poland and pushing on to foment revolution in Germany.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed Spanish communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, leading to street fighting in Barcelona and then mass arrests which Orwell only just managed to escape arrest, before fleeing back to England.

Communism in England

Karl Marx’s prose style

My daughter is studying sociology and I get to help her with her homework and read her textbooks. The flat, dull tone of would-be scientific writing is enough to drive you mad.

The prose style of Karl Marx, according to some people the founder of modern sociology, is the exact opposite.

It is a constant surprise how rhetorical Marx is: pithy poetic phrases, bombastic generalisations, baggy lists, nifty antitheses, classical references, all these are deployed in a tone dominated by sarcasm and satire – Marx constantly expects the ‘bourgeoisie’ to do its worst and is rarely disappointed.

This blog post simply aims to highlight the importance of techniques of rhetorical persuasion in Marx’s writings.

It’s based on a close reading of Karl Marx Political Writings Volume 2: Surveys from Exile edited by David Fernbach – specifically from Marx’s two long essays about the political turmoil in France between 1848 and 1852, The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850 and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Page numbers refer to the 1973 Pelican paperback edition.

Insults 

For a start Marx is not respectful. He doesn’t feel any inhibitions about abusing and insulting all his enemies, from the bourgeoisie in general to the hollow trickster, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who he calls

  • a grotesque mediocrity
  • a ludicrous, vulgar and hated person
  • the adventurer who hides his trivial and repulsive features behind the iron death mask of Napoleon

The Provisional Assembly which replaced the French king in February 1848, had the bright idea of declaring universal male suffrage i.e. all adult men were empowered to vote, most importantly in the election for a new president to replace the abdicated king. 1. The urban liberals in their idealism overlooked the fact that by far the biggest single part of the electorate was the millions of peasants, who outnumbered the populations of all French cities and towns several times over. 2. By the time the presidential election was held in December 1848, the political landscape had changed out of all recognition. The result was an overwhelming victory for the buffoonish figure of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte.

Thus Marx not only doesn’t like Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, he actively despises the backward, clumsy, ignorant peasants who voted for him.

The symbol that expressed the peasants’ entry into the revolutionary movement, clumsily cunning, knavishly naive, doltishly sublime, a calculated superstition, a pathetic burlesque, a cleverly stupid anachronism, a world-historic piece of buffoonery and an indecipherable hieroglyphic for the understanding of the civilized – this symbol bore the unmistakable physiognomy of the class that represents barbarism within civilization.

But his strongest vituperation is, of course, reserved for the hated ‘bourgeoisie’.

The mortgage debt burdening the soil of France imposes on the French peasantry an amount of interest equal to the annual interest on the entire British national debt. Small-holding property, in this enslavement by capital toward which its development pushes it unavoidably, has transformed the mass of the French nation into troglodytes. Sixteen million peasants (including women and children) dwell in caves, a large number of which have but one opening, others only two and the most favored only three. Windows are to a house what the five senses are to the head. The bourgeois order, which at the beginning of the century set the state to stand guard over the newly emerged small holdings and fertilized them with laurels, has become a vampire that sucks the blood from their hearts and brains and casts them into the alchemist’s cauldron of capital. (p.242)

Note how solid factual analysis (of the results of debt on French peasants) is inextricably entwined with highly alarmist and exaggerated similes and metaphors – of enslavement, troglodytes and vampires. Abuse and insults are an intrinsic part of Marx’s analysis, not an accident, not a removeable element – bitter hatred of the bourgeois enemy is a key part of Marx’s worldview.

Rhetorical repetition 

Marx uses rhetorical repetition, often in the time-honoured form of the three clauses trick.

Thus the awakening of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not of fleeing from its solution in reality; of finding the spirit of revolution once more, not of making its ghost walk about again.

Bonaparte represented the peasant’s superstition, not his enlightenment; his prejudice, not his judgement; his past, not his future.

Antitheses 

He likes antithesis, or the repetition of an idea with variations – ideally a straight inversion – to produce a snappy phrase.

The republic had announced itself to the peasantry with the tax collector; it announced itself to the republic with the emperor.

The December 10 Society was to remain Bonaparte’s private army until he succeeded in transforming the public army into a December 10 Society.

This tendency is more important than it seems because it indicates the underlying fondness for neat patterns of Marx’s thought. He thinks that History moves in neat antitheses, just like his prose (just like the neatly antithetical prose he learned as a student at the feet of the classically trained Idealist philosopher, Hegel).

Repetition of phrases

Sometimes Marx uses repetition with variation (as above). On other occasions he uses simple repetition, its flatness and bathos indicating the batheticness of the actors he attributes it to, in this case the charlatan, Louis-Napoléon. The use of deadpan repetition reminded me of modern stand-up comedy.

As a fatalist, [Louis-Napoléon] lives by the conviction that there are certain higher powers which man, and the soldier in particular, cannot withstand. Among these powers he counts, first and foremost, cigars and champagne, cold poultry and garlic sausage. With this in mind, to begin with, he treats officers and non-commissioned officers in his Elysée apartments to cigars and champagne, to cold poultry and garlic sausage.

Out of context this comes over as a bit flat, but in the warmth of his ongoing text this little trick comes as a moment of comic relief. Boom, boom.

Lists

There is nothing so glorious as a long, ragbag, rollercoaster of a list.

On the pretext of founding a benevolent society, the lumpenproletariat of Paris had been organized into secret sections, each section being led by Bonapartist agents, with a Bonapartist general at the head of the whole organization. Decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, rubbed shoulders with vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux, brothel keepers, portes, literati, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars – in short, the whole of the nebulous, disintegrated mass, scattered hither and thither, which the French call la bohème; from this kindred element Bonaparte formed the core of the December 10 Society…

Having conjured up this vivid Dickensian mob, Marx proceeds in his characteristic tone of High Sarcasm to reveal the ‘real’ motives of such bourgeois shams, and uses a panoply of rhetorical tricks to ram home his contempt for Louis.

… A ‘benevolent society’ – in so far as, like Bonaparte, all its members felt the need to benefit themselves at the expense of the labouring nation. This Bonaparte, who constitutes himself chief of the lumpenproletariat, who here alone rediscovers in mass form the interests which he personally pursues, who recognizes in the scum, offal and refuse of all classes the only class upon which he can base himself unconditionally, is the real Bonaparte, the Bonaparte sans phrase. An old crafty roué, he conceives the historical life of the nations and their performances of state as comedy in the most vulgar sense, as a masquerade where the grand costumes, words and postures merely serve to mask the pettiest knavery.

Note the use of three clauses to build rhetorical power. Note the insult words (scum, refuse). Note the ad hominem attack on Louis-Napoléon (a crafty old roué with a vulgar sense of theatre). Rhetoric and insults are central.

Conjuring ghosts and spectres

The word ‘conjure’ appears five times in the Brumaire, ‘ghost’ eight times, ‘spirit’ 16 times. Circe and her ‘black magic’ are mentioned.

The opening sentence of The Communist Manifesto is bold and memorable – ‘A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of communism’ – but reading further into Marx, you realise that the use of imagery connected to ghosts, spirits, conjurors and magicians is not that exceptional. It is a routine fixture of his imagination and his rhetoric.

Even a mere Vaisse [a deputy in the national assembly] could conjure up the red spectre… (p.212)

The social republic appeared as a phrase, as a prophecy, on the threshold of the February Revolution. In the June days of 1848, it was drowned in the blood of the Paris proletariat, but it haunts the subsequent acts of the drama like a ghost… (p.234)

All the ‘Napoleonic ideas’ are ideas of the undeveloped small holding in the freshness of its youth; they are a contradiction to the outlived holdings. They are only the hallucinations of its death struggle, words transformed into phrases, spirits transformed into ghosts. (p.244)

1. The frequency of ghost imagery reminds you that Marx the writer grew to maturity in the 1830s, the heyday of High Romantic writing, of plays and operas about the supernatural, especially in Germany, and so it’s no surprise that there is a certain Gothic quality to his imagination, teeming as it is with ghosts and spectres.

2. It worryingly reminds you that Marx was above all a writer, given to conjuring up words, classes, nations, conflicts with the stroke of a pen, without a second thought. Historical eras, sociological classes, leading politicians, can all be made to appear or disappear in a puff of smoke by Marx, the political prestidigitator.

The constitution, the National Assembly, the dynastic parties, the blue and red republicans, the
heroes of Africa, the thunder from the platform, the sheet lightning of the daily press, all the other publications, the political names and the intellectual reputations, the civil law and the penal code, liberté, egalité, fraternité, and the second Sunday in May, 1852 – all have vanished like a series of optical illusions before the spell of a man whom even his enemies do not claim to be a magician. (p.151)

So we find his compadre, Engels, writing in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions with the optimistic hope that all the reactionary types who had helped to crush the uprisings (specifically, in the Austrian empire) would be swept away.

The Austrian Germans and Magyars will be set free and wreak a bloody revenge on the Slav barbarians. The general war which will then break out will smash this Slav Sonderbund and wipe out all these petty hidebound nations, down to their very names. The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward. (The Magyar Struggle in Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 13 January 1849).

Unfortunately, their descendants in the Marxist-Leninist line of ideology would take them at their word and, instead of merely textual flourishes, would make real people in the real world and – in Stalin and Mao’s cases – entire groups of people (the kulaks, the urban intelligentsia), disappear with the stroke of a pen into freezing gulags or mass graves.

The language of theatre

The language of magic and conjuring is intimately linked with the lexicon of drama, theatre, comedy, masquerades, costumes and stage with which these texts are drenched.

Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm more swiftly from success to
success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds,
ecstasy is the order of the day. (p.152)

The opening pages of the Brumaire are famous for stating an enormous theory of history, which is that current political actors always clothe themselves in the names and values of previous ones. This allows Marx to compare all of the actors, throughout the book, with their predecessors in everywhere from ancient Israel to the Jacobin Revolution via the Rome of the Caesars.

Whether Marx’s theory that history repeats itself with modern political pygmies dressing up in the clothes of Great Men of the Past has any factual validity, as an imaginative and rhetorical trope it creates a vast sense of a) historical knowledgeableness, and of b) intellectual spaciousness – we feel we are privy to a mind which understands all of human history.

If we consider this conjuring up of the dead of world history, a salient difference is revealed immediately. Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time in Roman costume and with Roman phrases, the task of unchaining and setting up modern bourgeois society.

The first ones smashed the feudal basis to pieces and mowed down the feudal heads which had grown on it. The other created inside France the only conditions under which free competition could be developed, parcelled landed property exploited and the unchained industrial productive power of the nation employed; and everywhere beyond the French borders he swept the feudal institutions away, to the extent necessary to provide bourgeois society in France with a suitable up-to-date environment on the European Continent. Once the new social formation was established, the antediluvian Colossi disappeared and with them resurrected Romanity – the Brutuses, Gracchi, Publicolas, the tribunes, the senators, and Caesar himself.

This long quote demonstrates the way Marx thought of politics as intrinsically theatrical, and the way his imagination constantly recurs to Great Men of the (real or legendary) past.

But he is not only pointing out the way that modern political actors often invoke the shades of the Great Protagonists of the past to bolster their authority – there is also a deeper reference in this idea to Marx’s fundamentally Hegelian worldview: the worldview that History is moving through inevitable phases to an inevitable conclusion. The Jacobins ‘performed the task of their time’; Napoleon ‘swept the feudal institutions away’: both prepared the way for the triumph of ‘free competition’. Marx’s view of History is profoundly teleological; the basis of his entire position is that human History is moving along a pre-determined course towards a pre-determined end.

And if History is heading towards an inevitable conclusion, it must follow that we are all to some extent actors on a stage, playing parts in a drama which is already written. This premise maybe explains Marx’s fondness for theatrical metaphors.

The first act of his ministry was the restoration of the old royalist administration. The official scene was at once transformed – scenery, costumes, speech, actors, supers, mutes, prompters, the position of the parties, the theme of the drama, the content of the conflict, the whole situation.

The revolution made progress, forged ahead, not by its immediate tragicomic achievements but, on the contrary, by the creation of a powerful, united counterrevolution…

Marie’s ateliers, devised in direct antagonism to the Luxembourg, offered occasion, thanks to the common label, for a comedy of errors worthy of the Spanish servant farce…

Instead of only a few factions of the bourgeoisie, all classes of French society were suddenly hurled into the orbit of political power, forced to leave the boxes, the stalls, and the gallery and to act in person upon the revolutionary stage!

The people cried: À bas les grands voleurs! À bas les assassins! when in 1847, on the most prominent stages of bourgeois society, the same scenes were publicly enacted that regularly lead the lumpenproletariat to brothels, to workhouses and lunatic asylums, to the bar of justice, to the dungeon, and to the scaffold.

The terrible attempt of April 16 furnished the excuse for recalling the army to Paris – the real purpose of the clumsily staged comedy and for the reactionary federalist demonstrations in the provinces.

In the many places where Marx invokes the theatre, we join him in the audience watching a political drama which has already been written, assimilated and analysed: while the poor political actors take their parts in the farce or tragedy totally seriously, we, the privileged spectators, understand what is really going on behind the sham of bourgeois rhetoric and in the drama of History.

The rhetoric of both these long essays encourage in the reader a sense of superiority to other commentators and analysts, to the politicians and moralists who are taken in by the play. We are not taken in. We know what is really going on. We are the only ones who understand that all human existence, all human history and all political events are based on class conflict, that this dizzying vaudeville of political acts are all combinations on the theme of the ‘bourgeois’ control of power – and that the entire giddy play will one day come tumbling down when we, the clever ones, and the workers, rise up in revolution.

It is in the opening lines of the Brumaire that he expresses most pithily the idea that History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. (p.147)

Taken in isolation this has the crisp appeal of an Oscar Wilde witticism. But I hope I have provided enough context to show that it is just one among many examples of Marx’s highly theatrical way of thinking about history, and of his very dramatic and rhetorical way of writing.

It isn’t, in other words, the one-off insight it is so often painted as being.

On the contrary, this pithy quote is a key which opens up Marx’s entire imaginative worldview of the world as being a stage, a platform on which a pre-scripted drama is unfolding towards its preordained end and we, his readers and the members of his ‘party’ – sitting by his side – are privileged to be in on the secret of the plot, we are the cognoscenti, we have a front row seat at the great drama of History.

Summary

There are plenty more examples, and I could have elaborated a bit more on the connection between rhetorical tropes and his actual ideas – but I wanted to keep this blog post short and sweet.

The point is simply that, whenever you read that Marx founded a form of ‘scientific’ socialism, invented the objective ‘scientific’ analysis of society, of its economic and class basis and so on – you should also remember that he did so in texts notable for their sustained irony, ad hominem abuse, rhetorical play and theatrical melodrama.


Related links

Related blog posts

Karl Marx

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army from conquering Poland.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how,during the Spanish Civil War, the Stalin-backed Spanish communist party turned on its left-wing allies – specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was a member of – and how Orwell, having fought bravely for the Republic, was forced to flee the country, only just escaping arrest, interrogation and probable execution.

Communism in England

Red Star over Russia @ Tate Modern

David King

In the 1970s British designer David King was sent to Soviet Russia by the Sunday Times to find old photos of Leon Trotsky to accompany a feature. The feature never materialised but, rummaging about in the archives, King began to uncover the vast scale of the stacks of photos, magazine and newspaper articles, posters and propaganda sheets chronicling the early years of the Russian Revolution, which had been lost or forgotten.

He bought and borrowed what he could to bring back to Blighty, and then made further visits looking for more. It turned into a lifelong project. By his death in 2016 King had accumulated a collection of over 250,000 Russian Revolution-related objects which were bequeathed to Tate.

What better way to display the highlights of this vast collection than during the centenary year of the Bolshevik revolution, and so this exhibition opened on 8 November 2017, commemorating the outbreak of the revolution, to the precise month and day.

Entrance to Red Star over Russia at Tate Modern

Entrance to Red Star over Russia at Tate Modern

Red Star Over Russia

The exhibition displays some 150 photos and posters chronicling the years 1917 to the death of Stalin in 1953, showing the changing visual and design styles of the Soviet Union, from the radical experimental days of the early 1920s through to the dead hand of Socialist Realism imposed in the early 1930s. It continues on through the nationalist propaganda of the Great Patriotic War and into the era of ‘high Stalinism’ between 1945 and 1953, which saw the start of the Cold War as the Soviet Union consolidated its grip on occupied Eastern Europe and aided the Chinese Communist Party to its successful seizure of power in 1949.

In obvious ways this exhibition echoes and complements the huge show about the Russian Revolution which the Royal Academy staged earlier this year (although that show included many contemporary paintings and works of art; this show is almost entirely about photos and posters, magazines and prints).

Photos

The old black-and-white photos are doorways into a lost world. Here are Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin looking bulky in their greatcoats, their penetrating stares, their unremitting antagonism.

One sequence chronicles the famous series of photos of Stalin surrounded by Party functionaries who, one by one, were arrested and imprisoned during the 1930s and, one by one, were airbrushed out of the official photo, until only Stalin is pictured. This famous photo is the subject of King’s book The Commissar Vanishes.

Related photos show Lenin shouting from a podium with Trotsky leaning against it. After Trotsky was exiled in 1928, he also would be airbrushed out of this photo. In an adjoining room are ancient silent movies of Trotsky haranguing the crowd and the early Bolshevik leaders milling about the stand in Red Square.

Lenin harangues the crowd while Trotsky watches

Lenin harangues the crowd while Trotsky watches

The Terror began within a year of the Bolsheviks taking power. It came to dominate the entire society, as shown by newspaper photos which have been retouched to remove politicians as they are arrested and liquidated. There are even private photos whose owners have cut out the heads of ‘former people’ in terror lest they be found and the owners themselves arrested.

There are evocative photos of the revolutionary poet Mayakovsky, looking particularly stunning when he shaved his head and became a revolutionary firebrand, demanding that opera houses and all previous art be burned to the ground. The Russian Taliban.

The communist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky

The communist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky

I’m familiar with these photos but I’d never before seen the official photo of his body after he killed himself in 1930, disillusioned by the way the revolution was going. The exhibition includes a photo of him lying on a divan with a big red stain round his heart, where the bullet entered.

Similarly, there’s a powerful little set of photos showing Marshall Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the man responsible for radically reforming the Red Army, before himself falling foul of Stalin’s paranoia. Here he is looking proud in his military uniform. Here he is with his wife and little daughter. And then he was gone – arrested, tried and executed by a shot to the back of the head on 12 June 1937. The confession to treason wrung from him by torture still survives. It is spattered with his dried blood. Thus the Workers’ Paradise.

Tukhachevsky was not the only one. I was stunned to learn from a wall label that no fewer than 25,000 officers in the Red Army were arrested, executed and sent to labour camps between 1937 and 1941! What a paranoid idiot Stalin was.

When Nazi Germany invaded Russia on 22 June 1941 a headless, leaderless Red Army found itself forced right back to the walls of Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad. If they’d only launched the invasion six weeks earlier – as initially planned – the Nazis might have captured all three cities and the history of the world would have been very different. But ‘General Winter’ came to the aid of the Communist leadership, just as it had against Napoleon.

The exhibition shows how, when war broke out, official Soviet propaganda quietly dropped a lot of Bolshevik motifs and refocused attention on patriotic feelings for the Motherland. Now Stalin was rebranded ‘Leader of the Great Russian People’ and the war was christened ‘The Great Patriotic War’.

One of the six rooms in the exhibition deals solely with wartime propaganda, including posters warning people to be discreet and not give away secrets. It’s immediately noticeable how earnest and serious these were, compared with our own stylish and often humorous wartime posters on the same subject.

Don't Chatter! Gossiping Borders on Treason by Nina Vatolina (1941) The David King Collection at Tate

Don’t Chatter! Gossiping Borders on Treason by Nina Vatolina (1941) (The David King Collection at Tate)

Not unwise or foolish – Treason. And every Soviet citizen knew what would happen to them if they were suspected of Treason. The midnight arrest, the five-minute trial and then transport to some labour camp in Siberia. Russian authorities had to terrify their population to get anything done. By contrast, British authorities had to coax and laugh the population into better behaviour.

 

Posters

All this about the war is looking ahead. In fact the exhibition opens with a couple of rooms showcasing the fantastic explosion of creative talent which accompanied the early years of the revolution.

Progressive artists, writers, designers, journalists and so on threw themselves into the task of building a new, perfect, workers’ society. The very first room houses a big wall, painted communist red, and covered with vivid and inspiring revolutionary posters. Down with the bourgeoisie, Up the workers, Freedom for emancipated women, Strangle international capitalism, and so on.

Installation view of Red Star over Russia at Tate Modern

Installation view of Red Star over Russia at Tate Modern

Early photos show the workshops of idealistic artists creating poster art for a population which was, of course, largely illiterate and so benefited from big, bold images.

The sheer size of this illiterate working population also explains the development of ‘agitprop’ propaganda, conveyed through really simple-minded posters, books and comics, plays, pamphlets, the radically new medium of film and even – as photos here show – via steam trains festooned with Red propaganda pictures and bedecked with red flags.

These revolutionary trains were equipped with cinemas, exhibition carriages, mobile theatres and classrooms, and spread the message of Revolution and Freedom to remote regions all around the vast Russian landmass.

Above all, these young artists, fired by revolutionary idealism, found a new way to create extremely dynamic images, using exciting new approaches to photography and graphic design.

Photo-montage

The Cubists had experimented with collage as early as 1910, and members of the Dada movement (notably Max Ernst in Zurich and John Heartfield in Berlin) had also cut up and pasted together incongruous images from newspapers and magazines. But these had been semi-private experiments in the name of avant-garde fine art.

By contrast the immediate post-revolutionary years in Russia saw an explosive exploration of the potential ways photos can be composed, cut up and montaged together with new styles of design, layout, fonts and wording, to create dynamic and exciting images designed for a mass public.

A set of photos by the genius Alexander Rodchenko shows how vibrant and exciting black and white photos can be when they follow a handful of simple rules. They must be:

  • of extreme clarity
  • taken from above or below the subject
  • of subjects themselves dynamically geometrical in nature
  • use diagonals to cut right across the picture plane.
Tashkent 1933 (The David King Collection at Tate)

Tashkent 1933 (The David King Collection at Tate)

But how much more powerful these already dynamic images become if you cut and paste them into a montage, designed to be read from left to right and convey a raft of patriotic, revolutionary and inspiring subjects.

Photomontage from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: Catalogue of the Soviet Pavilion at the International Press Exhibition, Cologne 1928 by El Lissitzky and Sergei Senkin (The David King Collection at Tate)

Photomontage from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: Catalogue of the Soviet Pavilion at the International Press Exhibition, Cologne 1928 by El Lissitzky and Sergei Senkin (The David King Collection at Tate)

In fact a montage of just the ‘Great Leaders’ alone turns out to be tremendously powerful, helping to change their images into timeless icons (in a country with a 1,000 year-long history of revering timeless icons). But important to the composition is the presence of the masses, smiling, marching, teeming, liberated, which are cut and pasted into the spare spaces of the composition.

Raise Higher the Banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin! (1933) by Gustav Klutsis. The David King Collection at Tate

Raise Higher the Banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin! (1933) by Gustav Klutsis (The David King Collection at Tate)

(By the way, Klutsis, who made this banner and many other inspiring works like it, was executed in 1938.)

The exhibition includes a wonderful set of prints of purely abstract designs by the great Constructivist artist El Lissitzky – if I could, these would be the one item I’d want to take home from the exhibition. I love the energy of lines and angles and abstraction, and I’m a sucker for the use of text in pictures – so I love El Lissitzky.

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1920) by El Lissitzy. The David King Collection at Tate

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1920) by El Lissitzy (The David King Collection at Tate)

When you combine all these elements – striking photos and text montaged onto apparently abstract backgrounds made up of vivid colours broken by lines radiating energy – you come up with one of the really great design and visual breakthroughs of this period – the balanced and creative use of abstract design and photomontage to create images which are still inspirational today.

Take Alexander Rodchenko’s most famous work:

'Books (Please)! In All Branches of Knowledge' (1924) by Rodchenko

Books (Please)! In All Branches of Knowledge (1924) by Alexander Rodchenko

Or this 1928 poster by Gustav Klutsis: photos montaged onto an abstract pattern of dynamic diagonal lines.

Moscow All-Union Olympiad (Spartakiada) (1928) by Gustav Klutsis. The David King Collection at Tate

Moscow All-Union Olympiad (Spartakiada) (1928) by Gustav Klutsis (The David King Collection at Tate)

This is why the decade or so of artistic production in Russia after 1917 is the subject of so many exhibitions and books, and returned to again and again – because it saw such an explosion of experimentation in the visual arts, in theatre and cinema and literature, as extremely creative minds in all these spheres completely rejected the aristocratic and bourgeois, self-centred art of the past and tried to devise new forms and styles and genres to convey their exciting news that a New World was at hand.

Although their particular revolution deteriorated into repression and Terror, nonetheless their experiments captured general truths about the twentieth century as a whole, inventing completely new ways to harness the mass media of cinema and photography, popular magazines and consumer products, which could be equally well applied to the mass societies of the capitalist world.

Which is why, although they were created in a communist climate, Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, Klutsis and scores of others invented visual styles and techniques which film-makers, playwrights and directors, fine artists and graphic designers in the decadent West and right around the world have mined and plundered for ideas and innovations ever since.

Deinekin and the 1937 Paris Exposition

Of course it didn’t last, as we all know. By 1928, the Soviet government felt strong enough to put a decisive end to all private enterprise (which had been grudgingly reintroduced under Lenin’s New Economic Plan in 1922). This ended the possibility of any kind of independent funding for the arts, which now came under the iron grip of the state. Although the term Socialist Realism wasn’t officially used until 1932, its ideas were beginning to triumph.

Any experimentalism in the arts was increasingly criticised by the party for being ‘formalist’, which meant too avant-garde and experimental to be understood by the masses. By 1934 it was decided that ALL art must be Socialist Realist in nature, meaning:

  1. Proletarian: art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.
  2. Typical: scenes of the everyday life of the people.
  3. Realistic: in the representational sense.
  4. Partisan: supportive of the aims of the State and the Party.

One room of the exhibition is devoted to the triumph of Socialist Realist art in the form of the USSR’s pavilion at the 1937 ‘International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life’ held in Paris.

The pavilion was designed by Boris Iofan and dominated by a vast stainless steel sculpture by Vera Mukhina titled Worker and Collective Farm Woman

(There is a model of this building and the statue at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s current exhibition about opera; it appears in the section about Shostakovitch and music in Soviet Russia.)

These were to be the kind of heroic, larger-than-life, super-realistic, happy proletarian figures striding forward which were to become commonplace all over the Communist world, not only in Russia but in the conquered nations of Eastern Europe and in Communist China after 1949.

Inside, the pavilion was decorated with a vast mural by the painter Aleksandr Deineka, Stakhanovites, a tribute to Soviet workers (from all the Soviet republics) who had exceeded their work quotas and thus were Heroes of the Soviet Union.

Stakhanovites: A Study for the Esteemed People of the Soviets' Mural for the USSR Pavilion, 1937 International Exposition Paris by Aleksandr Deineka (1937) Perm State Art Gallery, Russia

Stakhanovites: A Study for the Esteemed People of the Soviets’ Mural for the USSR Pavilion, 1937 International Exposition Paris by Aleksandr Deineka (1937) Perm State Art Gallery, Russia

Eerily bad, isn’t it?

Comparing this with the thrillingly avant-garde photo-montages of a decade earlier, I realised how the earlier work really does use diagonal lines to create a sense of striving, reaching, stretching movement and dynamism – Lenin is always leaning out from the podium, in Klutsis’ poster the red flags behind Marx et al are always slanting, anything by El Lissitzky or Rodchenko is at an angle.

Compare and contrast with the Socialist Realist painting above, which is totally square, flat, straight-on and consists of vertical lines at 90 degrees to the horizontal. I think this goes some way to explaining why – although it is intended to be a dynamic image of ideal, smiling communist people striding towards us – it in fact feels remote and unreal, more like a spooky dream than an inspiration.

When the Great Patriotic War broke out, with Nazi Germany’s invasion of 1941, there was something of a return to earlier, rousing propaganda, reviving dynamic diagonals to convey strife, effort, heroism.

Fascism - The Most Evil Enemy of Women. Everyone to the Struggle Against Fascism (1941) by Nina Vatolina. The David King Collection at Tate

Fascism – The Most Evil Enemy of Women. Everyone to the Struggle Against Fascism (1941) by Nina Vatolina (The David King Collection at Tate)

The Great Patriotic War

The last room contains a number of works dating from the Great Patriotic War, including the ‘Treason’ poster (above). The wall label explains how the communist state deliberately changed the focus from Revolution to Patriotism. And, after all, we have evidence from the time that plenty of people fought bravely for the Motherland who wouldn’t have lifted a finger for Stalin or the Communist Party.

The best work in this last room is the immensely historic photo of Red Army soldiers raising their flag over Hitler’s ruined Reichstag in conquered Berlin.

It is interesting to learn that this photo – beamed around the world – was carefully staged by the Soviet photographer Yevgeny Khaldei. Makes sense when you really look at it.

Also (since this is one of the main things I’ve taken from the exhibition, visually) that part of the secret of its appeal is that it is yet another dynamic diagonal.

Soviet soldiers raising the red flag over the Reichstag, May 1945 (Printed 1955) by Yevgeny Khaldei. The David King Collection at Tate

Soviet soldiers raising the red flag over the Reichstag, May 1945 (Printed 1955) by Yevgeny Khaldei (The David King Collection at Tate)

As interesting as the knowledge that the famous photo of U.S. Marines raising the flag on the summit of Iwo Jima was a more complicated affair than it at first appears – as brought out in the Clint Eastwood movie, Flags of Our Fathers.

I wonder if any Russians have made a film about this ‘historic’ moment?


The promotional video

Russian revolution-related merchandise

Tate offers some 55 items of Russian Revolution merchandise to satisfy all your needs for decorative Bolshevikiana. I particularly liked the Death to World Imperialism posters and prints, a snip at £25.

The Red Star over Russia 2018 calendar was tempting, inciting you to smash international capitalism and strangle the worldwide bourgeoisie while you sip a frappuccino and work on your next powerpoint presentation.

Death to World Imperialism (1920) by Dmitrii Moor (1883 1946) The David King Collection at Tate

Death to World Imperialism (1920) by Dmitrii Moor (1883 1946) (The David King Collection at Tate)

And I was particularly delighted to see that Tate has arranged a Red Star over Russia wine-tasting evening so that you can:

‘Discover how the Russian Revolution in 1917 changed the wine world, and how the influential figures of this time redefined the styles and quality of wines in other regions of the world.’

Merchandising like this really rams home the message that ‘the revolution’ is as dead as the Dodo. It has been bottled and sold to the super-rich as a fashionable perfume.


Related links

David King’s books on Amazon

Russia-related reviews

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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