The World Exists to Be Put On A Postcard: artists’ postcards from 1960 to now @ the British Museum

Last year the writer, curator (and sometime expert on The Antiques Roadshow) Jeremy Cooper donated his quirky collection of 1,000 postcards designed by artists from the 1960s to the present day, to the British Museum.

This FREE exhibition presents a selection of 300 works from the collection, and features a wide range of artists and artist collectives from the past five decades including Gilbert & George, Richard Hamilton, Yoko Ono, Guerrilla Girls, Tacita Dean, Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman, Dieter Roth, Carl Andre, Claes Oldenburg, Gavin Turk, Rachel Whitehead and many more.

The collection – which took 10 years to assemble – now means that the British Museum has one of the world’s leading collections of this rather unexpected art form. I, for one, certainly hadn’t realised how widespread and flexible an art form ‘the postcard’ had become.

Dada Land (1975/1977) by Bill Gaglione and Tim Mancusi. Reproduced by permission of the artists

The idea is that, since the radical conceptual and political breakthroughs of the 1960s, artists have found the postcard to be a cheap, flexible, democratic, accessible and fun format to present a whole range of ideas, whether satirical, subversive, silly or surreal.

Hence, if only at the level of invitation to an art show, many of the most famous artists of the past years have used the format, while others have gone to town with whole conceptual explorations of its possibilities.

The exhibition is divided into the following categories or headings:

Richard Hamilton (1992-2011)

In an early work such as Whitley Bay 1996, Hamilton used details of commercially produced postcards in his pop collages. Two years later he produced a concertina, ‘pull-out’ postcard. You unclipped it and eight postcard-sized unfolded, each showing a commercial image of Whitley Bay, which was progressively blown up larger and larger until the image became just an abstract blur of dots and patches.

Dieter Roth (1930-1998)

Swiss-born Roth produced various postcard art. He collaborated with Richard Hamilton on paintings made in Spain, and then produced postcards depicting the paintings, but conceived of as artworks in their own right. In a series titled 120 postcards Roth overpainted and reworked a clichéd tourist image of Piccadilly, to create a set of independent artworks.

Fluxus

The Fluxus art movement drew in a large number of artists, composers, designers and poets during the 1960s and 1970s who engaged in experimental art performances. Japanese artist On Kawara made a series titled ‘I GOT UP’ in which he simply sent postcards to hundreds of friends around the world marked with a date stamp declaring ‘I got up at…’ and then the time and date. He continued the series from 1968 to 1979.

An example of the I Got Up series by On Kawara (1979)

These postcards now fetch extraordinary sums at auction. The one above, sent in 1979, was part of a lot of On’s I GOT UP postcards which sold for £162,500. Wish I’d known him and he’d sent me one! As with so much ‘subversive’ art which was going to change the world, it is now bought and sold by Russian oligarchs and Chinese billionaires for sums you and I can only gawk at.

Ben Vautier created a postcard titled The Postman’s Choice with an address box and stamp space on both sides, so you filled in two addressees. Who should the post office send it to?

I liked the extended-size postcard, Beached, by Lawrence Wiener (b.1942). It was made to publicise a video he made in five sections of himself throwing, pulling, lifting, dragging, and levering natural materials to make a sculpture on a beach in Holland.

Beached by Lawrence Weiner (1970)

Feminism

Postcard art was a way for women artists of the 1960s and 70s who felt excluded from the male art world to bypass the traditional gallery system.

From 1971 to 1973 American artist Eleanor Antin (b.1935) sent fifty-one postcards of her hundred-boots project to a thousand people in the art world. During a two-and-a-half year roadtrip round California she placed the hundred boots in various incongruous settings and photographed them. What a brilliant idea!

Four details from 100 Boots (1971-73) by Eleanor Antin

Lynda Benglis (b.1941) and Hannah Wilke (b.1940) made postcards of themselves naked.

Lynda Benglis nude postcard

They were working to ‘challenge the idea of female objectification, often using their own bodies to explore sexuality in their work’.

Ponder-r-Rosa series by Hannah Wilke (1977)

Yes, I always find that pictures of naked young women help me to stop thinking about women in terms of their appearance or sexuality. Male gaze duly obliterated.

Performance

Stelious Arcadiou (b.1946) grew up in Melbourne, Australia, changed his name to Stelarc in 1972, and specialised in self-inflicted performances in which his body was suspended from flesh hooks. And his preferred way of promoting these performances was via photos on postcards distributed to other artists, galleries and critics.

Stelarc, Event for lateral suspension (1978)

In 1979 artist Chris Burden gave an art performance in which he described his relationship with a truck named ‘Big Job’, while clutching a gigantic wrench, and sent out postcards recording the event.

Big Wrench by Chris Burden (1979)

Conceptual I

This category includes Carl Andre – who made postcards of bricks or sections of concrete arranged in urban and landscape settings – landscape art by Richard Long, showing photos of places he’s visited and sculptures he’s made from natural materials in remote locations – and quite a few by Gilbert and George in a variety of settings and with text subverting their own status as artists and the whole point of art. Silly but oddly compelling, as usual.

Gilbert and George in a rural setting (1972)

Richard Long’s postcards of artworks he’d made as part of his long treks, in places as different as rural Devon and Mongolia, struck me as clever use of the medium. Some of  his artworks were temporary, made of mud or stones which would decompose or be assimilated back into the landscape. Some resulted in no tangible work whatever, just the record of the walk. Long’s postcards were, therefore, postcards from nowhere, mementos of things which never existed or would soon cease to exist. One of the things I’ve loved about Richard Long’s walking art since I first came across it is the way he captures the spooky, empty, vanishing nature of long-distance walks. You are intensely here, now, in this place. And yet half an hour later you are a mile away, over hill and dale, and the hereness and the nowness… are just memories… or photographs… or postcards…

Conceptual II

American artist Geoff Hendricks (b.1930) made a series of seven postcards depicting beautiful photographs of clouds. He styles himself a ‘cloudsmith’. Very relaxing.

Sky Post Card #7 by Geoff Hendricks (1974)

Endre Tót

Born in Hungary in 1937, Endre Tót trained as a painter but became involved with the Fluxus group. He is represented by possibly the best works in the exhibition, a 1974 series titled One Dozen Rain Postcards.

In these Tót made Xerox copies of photos from newspapers, printed them in purple, and then typed dots and dashes onto the surface of the copies in order to give the effect of rain. Each variation of the rain motif is deliberately humorous: some show heavy rain falling in just one place, or it raining indoors, and so on.

One of the One dozen rain postcards by Endre Tót (1971-1973)

These were all very witty – with other subjects including horizon rain (the dashes all running horizontally parallel to the horizon of a sea postcard) and new rain/old rain – but they also struck me as a genuinely innovative use of the size and shape of the postcard format.

Paradise regained

American photographer Duane Michals (b.1932) made a series of six postcards which starts out with a fully clothed couple in a modern office and, in each one, items of clothing are removed from the people while the office becomes more full of pot plants and foliage, until they are naked in an apparent forest.

Paradise regained by Duane Michals (1968)

Graphic postcards

Some of the most innovative postcard art comes in graphic form i.e. text only, or text over minimal imagery. Hence the bold declarative text The World Exists To be Put On A Postcard by Simon Cutts which gives the show its title. Personally, I liked the extreme minimalism of this graphic postcard, made all the funnier by that fact that it required not one but two modern artists to create it, Peter Doig and Matthew Higgs.

There’s a painting on the wall by Peter Doig and Matthew Higgs (1996)

Postcard invitations

In a more traditional use of the format, artists often sent out invitations to art exhibitions (or happenings or performances) in the shape of postcards, detailing the location and time of the exhibition. Many of these were treated like ephemera and lost, only years later did collectors start to value them.

Invitation to Holy Cow! Silver Clouds!! Holy Cow! (1966) by Andy Warhol © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London

There’s the original invitation card for the now legendary Freeze exhibition organised by Damien Hirst which introduced the world to the (YBAs) (Young British Artists), and a funky 3-D postcard Julian Opie sent out as an invitation to his 1996 exhibition Walking Dancing Undressing Smoking showing the cartoon of a trim woman in his trademark strong black outlines, but done in that process where, if you shift your point of view, the figure appears to move.

Political postcards I

Because they are cheap and, by their very nature, designed to be distributed, postcards have been an appropriate format for all kinds of artists promoting their political agendas. Using the postal system they can easily be circulated thereby evading traditional gallery and museum networks, which is why many postcard artworks were often politically subversive or carried a social message. Images satirising and lambasting Ronald Reagan and Mrs Thatcher abound.

Thatcher Therapy Dot-to-Dot Puzzle No. 1 (1984) by Paul Morton. Reproduced by permission of the artist. Courtesy Leeds Postcards

There’s a post-card designed by John Lennon and Yoko Ono with the simple text WAR IS OVER. Its optimistic innocence is counterpointed by a completely different pair of postcards by photo-montage artist Peter Kennard of a) some cruise missiles plonked on the back of the hay cart in Constable’s painting The Haywain and b) the super-famous montage of Tony Blair taking a selfie against the backdrop of Iraqi oil wells going up in flames.

There’s another really vivid one with the big angry text I DON’T GIVE A SHIT WHAT YOUR HOUSE IS WORTH (by Leeds Postcards, 1988).

Political postcards II – Feminism

Back  in the gritty 1970s artist Alison Knowles and composer Pauline Oliveros published a set of cards commenting on the outsider status of women in the world of classical music. The idea was to take photos of women composers and to attach a big text describing each classical male composer with the kind of derogatory comment they felt women composers were all-too-frequently dismissed with e.g. she’s a lesbian.

Beethoven was a lesbian by Pauline Oliveros with Alison Knowles (1974)

Similar outsider anger is the unique selling point of the Guerrilla Girls collective with their well-known poster slogans such as ‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?’

But best of all is the set of works by Jill Posener who, in the 1980s, sprayed witty graffiti ‘with political, feminist, lesbian and anti-consumerist themes’ onto billboards, defacing irritating, sexist and patronising advertising campaigns with hilarious jokes.

Saw his head off by Jill Posener (1981)

Altered postcards

Because they’re so cheap and cheerful artists have felt free to manipulate, transform, burn, cut up, deface, collage, paint over and generally muck about with postcards. Yoko Ono published a white postcard with a little hole in the middle for you to look through at the sky. Ray Johnson cut up, pasted and wrote over whatever printed material he could find. Genesis P/Orridge made a series of postcards in which the same black and white images of his mum and dad were positioned closer and closer to each other, until they merged.

In the 1980s Michael Langenstein (b.1947) made a series titled Fantasy and Surreal Postcards, collages of commercial postcards in which iconic images are made to do funny things, for example the Statue of Liberty is shown on her back in the Hudson River apparently dong the backstroke, or Concorde is shown having flown into and got stuck half-way through one of the great pyramids at Giza.

Excalibur by Michael Langenstein (1986)

Excalibur by Michael Langenstein (1986)

Portrait postcards

Portraits often appeared on exhibition invitations, for example there’s one of David Hockney inviting to an exhibition in the 1960s. American artist Carolee Schneeman (1939-2019) and Anthony McCall made their own Christmas postcards. Again, the best of the bunch was, for me, the funniest one, which showed British artist Peter Hutchison (b.1930) being showered with foot-high letters in a work titled Struggling with language from 1974.

Struggling with language by Peter Hutchison (1974)

Recent postcards

Despite being overtaken by digital technology, emails, texts and numerous forms of social media, the postcard continues to thrive, in the real world out there, as well as in the art world. This last section showcases recent postcard art by Tacita Dean and Frances Alÿs, by Braco Dimitrijevic and Alison Wilding, Gillian Wearing and Jeremy Deller.

Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin are pictured wearing scruffy anoraks and each holding a pair of big balls, in the tradition of the smutty seaside postcard. Meanwhile, Rachel Whiteread – an avid collector of postcards, apparently – has punched holes into innocuous scenic postcards thus turning them into miniature sculptures.

Untitled (2005) by Rachel Whiteread. Photograph © 2018 Rachel Whiteread

Thoughts

Who knew so much work existed in this area, who knew that ‘the postcard’ was a modern art genre in itself. Sceptical to being with, I am now totally converted. The categories I listed above aren’t exhaustive: there were quite a few one-off creative and experimental projects which come under no particular category but are also included.

A test of an exhibition is whether, at the end of it, you want to go round again, and I did. Having gone round once carefully reading the labels, I then went round again, just for fun, stopping at the ones which made me smile or laugh out loud (smiling at the rain postcards, guffawing at Jill Posener’s brilliant anti-sexist cards from the 80s).

It’s fun and it’s FREE. Pop along for an entertaining and enlightening experience.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Lee Bul: Crashing @ Hayward Gallery

This is a major retrospective of the art of the (female) Korean artist Lee Bul, born in 1964 and still going strong, so something of a mid-career snapshot. It brings together over 100 works in the five enormous exhibition rooms of Hayward Gallery, plus some work located outside.

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing showing Monster Pink (left) and Civitas Solis II (in the background) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Oh for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!

As you walk into room one, you immediately realise that much of Lee’s art is big, involving costumes, installations, mannequins and dummies.

You also realise that it is done to a high degree of finish. Everything looks very professional and seamless. It comes as no surprise to learn that much of her recent work is conceived by her but created by a studio of craftspeople and technicians.

I’m always a little envious of my teenage kids. When they come to art exhibitions like this, they roam at will, attracted by whatever is big and brash, rarely bothering with the boring wall labels or grown-up ‘issues’, enjoying things purely for what they look like and how much fun they are. They would certainly find lots to admire here, from the point of view of the spectacular and dramatic.

Monster Pink, pictured above, is accompanied by Monster White both of which look like assemblages of wriggling worms, like some mutant aliens from Dr Who. The same sci-fi vibe attaches to what look like fragments of space suits dangling from the ceiling. On closer examination you can see that these are life-size depictions of the human body in the style of Japanese manga comics, in which both men and women have sleek, perfect bodies, often encased in futuristic body armour.

Lee has produced dismembered versions of these, half a sleek, armoured torso, or combinations of limbs and extremities, moulded into striking but disconcerting fragments of mannequins. Soft pink sacks hang next to sleek machine-tooled silhouettes.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Cyborg WI on the left (photo by the author)

Up the concrete ramp, in room three, there’s what seems to be a model of a futuristic city, held up by thin scaffolding, some kind of hyper-freeway emerging from a tall plastic mountain, complete with a massive neon sign clicking on and off.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… (2005) Photo by the author

Nearby is a big ‘cave’ made of shiny plastic, with a ‘door’ to go in through, a ‘window’ to look out of, and walls decorated with a mosaic of mirror fragments.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (photo by the author)

Best of all, from an excitable teenager’s point of view, are two big transport machines.

Downstairs in long, low room two, is what appears to be a space-age hovercar not unlike the one Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi use to go to the city of Mos Eisley to look for Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Live Forever III (photo by the author)

To my amazement, visitors are actually encouraged to get into this device (once they’ve slipped on some protective plastic bags to go over their shoes). As I was saying to myself the immortal line ‘These are not the droids you’re looking for’, the gallery assistant lowered the roof and sealed me in.

You’re forced to lie quite low in the beautifully upholstered leather chair and watch a TV monitor placed right in front of you. If only I could have flicked the ignition, heard the engine roar, made a secret tunnel door open up and slid down a chute into the nearby River Thames to begin a high-speed boat chase against the baddies who’d just blown up the MI6 building.

Alas, all that actually happens is that the screen hanging in front of your face plays tacky Korean karaoke videos. You’re invited to put on headphones, pick up the handy microphone and join in which I was far too intimidated to do.

Finally, up the Hayward’s heavy concrete stairwell to gallery four where a) the entire floor has been covered in futuristic reflective silver plastic, giving it a Dr Who-TV set appearance, and b) and in which floats one of Lee Bul’s most iconic works, a huge model of a zeppelin made from shiny reflective silver foil.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable - Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo: Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought…

My son, a big fan of manga, animé, graphic novels and sci-fi, would have loved all this, consumed purely as spectacle, as weird and wonderful objects of fantasy and imagination.

However, art is rarely this simple or free. The artists themselves, and certainly their curators and critics, are all too ready to catch the butterfly of fantasy in a net of explanations, drag it back down to earth, and pin it to a board next to all the other specimens in their collection. For example, when you look up the Wikipedia article about Lee, it begins:

Lee’s work questions patriarchal authority and the marginalization of women by revealing ideologies that permeate our cultural and political spheres

firmly dragging Lee’s art into contemporary art discourse with its all-too-familiar obsessions of gender, race, ideology and politics.

The free exhibition handout and the wall labels are where you go for more information about Lee, and they certainly are extremely informative and illuminating. In addition, there are two timelines printed on walls – one telling the history of South Korea since the 1950-53 war to the present, and one describing the development of modern art in Korea from the time of Lee’s birth (1964) to the present day, with a special emphasis on women’s art and issues.

All very interesting, but the more you read, the more you become weighed down by interpretations of art which see it all in terms of ponderous ‘issues’ – of ‘challenges’ and ‘subversions’ and ‘questionings’ – the more it feels like you are sitting through a dreary two-hour-long sociology lecture.

KOREA

The South Korea Lee was born into was ruled by a right-wing dictator who had come to power in a military coup, General Park Chung-hee, who ruled with an iron fist from 1963 to 1979. Park inaugurated a series of five year plans designed to modernise Korean society and the economy at breakneck speed.

But Lee’s parents were left-wing dissidents and, although they weren’t arrested, were subjected to harassment, periodic house searches, banned from government employment and hassled into keeping on the move, never settling long in one place.

Thus Lee’s childhood memories are of often cold and bleak makeshift homes and the oppressiveness of the authorities set against a vista of brave new towns, cities, motorways and buildings built quickly of shoddy cement, destined soon to crumble and become seedy and derelict.

THE FAILURE OF UTOPIAS

Amidst all the other ‘issues’ addressed in the art, it was this latter notion – the failure of utopianism – which interested me most. It seems to me that we are currently living through just such an epoch of failure, the slow-motion failure of the dream of a digital future.

Having worked in four British government departments or agencies on their websites and IT projects for the past eight years I have seen all manner of cock-ups and mismanagement – the collapse of the unified NHS project, the likely failure of the system for Universal Credit which was launched in 2010 and still doesn’t work properly, let alone the regular bank failures like the recent TSB collapse. All this before you consider the sinister implications of the recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica-U.S. Presidential elections debacle.

I have also observed the negative impact of phones and laptops on my own children i.e. they have both become phone addicts. As a result of all this I have very strong, and generally negative, opinions about ‘the Digital Future’.

That’s why I warmed to this aspect of the work of Chinese art superstar, Ai Weiwei, as displayed at the 2015 Royal Academy retrospective of his work. Twitter, Facebook and all the rest of them sell themselves as agents of ‘liberation’ whereas they are, quite obviously in my opinion, implements of a new kind of surveillance society, instruments of turbo-charged consumerism, and the tools of Russian hackers and any number of other unknown forces.

Yet people love them, ignore the scandals, can’t give up their phones or Facebook accounts, and big corporation, banks and governments carry on piling all their services online as if nothing could possibly go wrong with this technology.

With all this in mind I was surprised that there was no mention anywhere of the digital utopia, of digital technology, of phones and screens and big data anywhere in this big exhibition. Instead the utopias Lee Bul is concerned with seemed to me very dated. People wearing futuristic (manga) outfits or living in futuristic cities – this all seemed very Flash Gordon to me, very old tech, a very 1950s and 60s definition of what the future is going to look like.

This feeling that her art is very retro in its vision was crystallised by one of her most iconic works, which was a star feature of the 20th Sydney Biennale in 2016 – the enormous foil zeppelin – Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon.

I’m perfectly aware that the Hindenburg Zeppelin is an enduring symbol of technological hubris and disaster – that it burst into flames and crashed to the ground in 1937. I’ve seen the black and white film footage many times, I’ve even watched the terrible 1975 disaster movie they made about it.

Willing To Be Vulnerable is one of Lee’s most recent works and yet… isn’t it a very old reference to a long-ago event. It would be like discussing the rise of right-wing populism by reference to Adolf Hitler (German Chancellor when the Hindenburg crashed). It’s a plausible reference, sort of, but it’s not very up to date, is it? It’s not where we are now.

And then again, it isn’t even a detailed or accurate model of the Hindenburg. It’s just a big shiny balloon. An awesomely big shiny balloon. My kids would love it. I couldn’t really see it interrogating or questioning anything.

ARCHITECTURE

The grandiose rhetoric of Korean President Park Chung-hee’s regime, and its relative failure to build the utopia it promised, also explain the strong theme of architecture throughout the exhibition.

When you look closer, you realise that the big model of the kind-of super highway emerging from a phallic mountain – Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… – pictured above, is accompanied by a series of paintings and sketches on the walls showing aspects of architecture, visions and fantasies of architecture which come to ruin.

They are subtler, quieter work which would be easy to overlook in the first impact of all the big models and installations. I particularly liked one collage painting which gives an impression of some kind of disaster involving a glass and chrome skyscraper. The idea – urban apocalypse, skyscrapers in ruins – has been done thousands of times – but I admired the layout and design of it, the shape of the main image with its ‘feeler’-like hairs at the left, and the way the small fragment floats freely above it.

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable - Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable – Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

POLITICAL CRITICISM

Again, it’s only if you read the wall labels and exhibition guide quite carefully that you realise there is a thread of political satire running through the show. In room one, in between the more striking cyborgs hanging from the ceiling, are a couple of small mannequin models of President Park, naked, in full anatomical detail (reminiscent in the way they’re less than life size and so somehow feeble and vulnerable, of Ron Mueck’s mannequins of his naked dead dad, back in the 1997 Sensation exhibition).

Next to the ‘bat cave’ installation (Bunker), which I described above, is what at first seems like an enormous ‘rock’, made out of some kind of plastic. It’s titled Thaw and if you look closer you just about see another model of President Park, wearing his trademark dark sunglasses, as if he’s been frozen in ice in some alternative science fiction history, and is only waiting to thaw out and rise again…

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Next to this is a very big installation of a bath. Unusually, you are allowed to walk across the tiled floor which makes up a good part of the installation, towards the bath itself – a big rectangular affair as if in a sauna or maybe in the bath rooms of some kind of collective housing – to discover that it is ringed with what looks like white meringue tips, and that the bath itself is full of black ink.

This is Heaven and Hell and without the exhibition guide there’s no way you’d be able to guess that it commemorates Park Jong-chul, a student protester who was tortured and killed by the South Korean security services in a bathtub in 1987.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Thinking about political art, Peter Kennard’s blistering photomontages flaying political leaders such as Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair come to mind, for example the enormous photomontage of Tony Blair plastered with images of atrocities from the Iraq War which was on display at the recent Age of Terror exhibition at the Imperial war Museum.

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, with a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State, a photomontage by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, and a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

There is nothing that overt or emotional here. Everything is much more controlled, inflected, allusive. Given that Lee Bul is sometimes referred to as a political artist, there’s nothing at all that – for me anyway – packed any kind of real political punch.

WOMEN’S BODIES / DESIRE

With a certain inevitability, what the exhibition probably showcases most consistently is Lee Bul’s identity as a woman artist coming from a society which was extremely repressive, not only of political dissent, but of any form of feminism or gender politics.

The historical timeline tells us that a women’s movement only got going in Korea in the later 1980s and that Lee Bul was an enthusiastic part of it. It tells us that her earliest work went beyond sculpture to explore the possibilities of performance art.

Thus room two contains six screens on which we see some of Lee’s performances – ‘provocative performance works involving her own body’, as the commentary describes them – which she carried out between 1989 and 1996.

In Abortion (1989) she suspended herself from the ceiling of an auditorium for two hours and entertained the audience with lines from poems and pop songs as well as a description of her own abortion, a medical procedure which is still, to this day, apparently, illegal in South Korea.

The Monsters at the start of the show, the wriggly worm creations, turn out to be costumes which Lee wore either writhing around on the ground or walking the streets in order to question received ideas about X and subvert assumptions about Y.

Throughout the exhibition the ‘issue’ of gender and the ‘problematics’ of the female body are reiterated. For example, the timeline of women in Korean society describes ‘the rise of a generation of artists concerned with the representation of the female body‘ who also began ‘subverting the way that women are depicted in the media’.

The guide explains that

at the core of Lee’s recent work is an investigation into landscape, which for the artist includes the intimate landscape of the body

It turns out the her interest in the manga-style cyborgs comes less from a feeling for science fiction tropes or ideas around artificial intelligence and the possibility of improving human bodies by combining them with machine parts (from pacemakers to prosthetic limbs), no, she

is interested in what the figure of the cyborg – a transhuman hybrid of flesh and machine – can tell us about desire, our relationship to technology, and cultural attitudes towards the female body.

Or, as the press release puts it:

Shaped by her experience of growing up in South Korea during a period of political upheaval, much of Lee Bul’s work is concerned with trauma, and the way that idealism or the pursuit of perfection – bodily, political or aesthetic – might lead to failure, or disaster. Questioning women’s place in society, particularly Korean society, she also addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of ‘feminine’ beauty.

Actually, rather like the so-called ‘political’ works (Thaw and Heaven and Hell) I only discovered that Lee was addressing the ways popular culture shapes our idea of femininity or questions cultural attitudes towards the female body by reading the guidebook. It really wasn’t that obvious from just seeing the works themselves. The three or four cyborg fragments hanging from the ceiling are probably, but not very obviously, female. They could belong to any gender, and be about anything.

Later on there are a couple of ‘busts’ made of lurid plastic of human thoraxes encased in cyber-armour but they aren’t very obviously female. The fact that they’re made of garish pink plastic and the design of the manga-style armour is the striking thing about them.

In one or two of the videos, the artist is seen naked or semi-naked, which even I picked up on as probably a reference to the female body, although I’ve never understood how young, nubile women artists stripping off is meant to subvert anything. To me it plays directly to society’s expectation that the most important or interesting thing about nubile young women is their nubile young bodies.

But if you hadn’t been told by the exhibition website, press release, guide and wall labels that her work ‘questions ideas of femininity’ I’m not sure you’d particularly notice.

I was, for example, surprised to learn that the silver zeppelin ‘addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of feminine beauty’. Really?

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Via Negativa II

I haven’t yet mentioned another of the really impressive installations, Via Negativa II (2014) which is a maze made out of metal sheets suspended on stands, a bit like the stands you get at conferences but arranged to create an entrance into a convoluted labyrinth of shiny metal plates.

It’s not a very big maze – only three people are allowed in at a time. The ‘justification’ or ‘idea’ behind it? Well, the walls are covered with a text by an American psychologist, Julian Jaynes, in which he argued that early humans experienced a split consciousness when messages from one hemisphere of the brain to the other were experienced as auditory hallucinations. To make it art, the text is printed in a mirror image of itself i.e you can’t actually read it. You’d need to hold up a mirror to the text to see it printed properly.

I suppose this small metal maze is designed to recreate that sense of mild hallucination that Jaynes describes. At its heart there is certainly a great experience when you find yourself in a cubicle dominated by grids of yellow lights reflected to infinity in parallel mirrors. The other two visitors and I all jostled for the best position to take photos from. Maybe it’s meant to make you think about something, but it’s also just a great tourist photo opportunity.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

This is all great fun, but is it ‘questioning the limits of the human’ or ‘interrogating cultural ideas of the female’? Not really.

The international language of art

In fact, you don’t learn very much about the art or culture or history of Korea from this exhibition nor even – surprisingly – about feminism.

What comes over loud and clear is that this is now the international language of art – the same kind of brash, confident, well-manufactured, high concept work which you also see being produced by (the workshops of) Ai Weiwei, Damien Hirst, and numerous other superstars.

(Hirst sprang to mind as soon as I saw Lee Bul’s Majestic Splendour, a work consisting of rows of decomposing fish with sequins on, from 1997 which, of course, echoes Hirst’s A Thousand Years, a vitrine containing a cow’s decomposing head which he displayed in 1990. Great minds think alike.)

Not long ago I visited the fascinating exhibition of everyday products from North Korea held at the House of Illustration behind King’s Cross station. There I learned about the unique political system, the Cult of the Leader and the special economic policy (Juche) of North Korea. I learned about the importance of opera, theatre and enormous public performance in their culture, about the way the Korean language lends itself to blocky futuristic design, and about their fondness for a much brighter, more acid colour palette than we in the West are used to.

In Lee Bul’s exhibition I don’t think I learned anything at all about South Korea apart from being reminded of the name of its military dictator, and that its repressive military dictatorship was, well, repressive.

For me this exhibition shows that whatever her origins, whatever her personal biography may have been (the difficult childhood, the early anti-establishment and feminist performances), Lee Bul is now – in 2018 – on a par with Ai and Hirst in creating aroma-less, origin-free, international objets d’art for the delectation of equally rootless, cosmopolitan art critics, and for transnational buyers and billionaire investors.

I went to the press launch where the show was introduced by the director of Hayward Gallery – the American Ralph Rugoff – and the show’s curator – the German Stephanie Rosenthal. As they spoke I was struck by how all three of the people behind the microphones were members of an international art élite, a cosmopolitan, transnational art world which seems impossibly glamorous to those of us forced to earn our livings in the country of our birth and unable to jet off to international biennales in Venice and Sydney, to visit art shows at the Met in New York or the Foundation Cartier in Paris or the Mori Gallery in Tokyo or the Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul (all places where Lee has exhibited). Wow. What a glamorous jet-setting life!

Summary

This is a very well-put together overview of the career to date of one of the world’s most successful and distinctive artists. It’s packed with big, bold, funky, cool objects and installations.

If you think art needs to be ‘about’ something, then you will enjoy the way the commentary invokes issues around the female body, around social utopias, about architecture and landscape, about the interface of technology and humans, to explain Lee’s work.

Or, like me, you may come to the conclusion that these issues, ideas and texts may well be important to motivate and inspire the artist, to get her juices flowing – but that most of the works can just be enjoyed in and of themselves, as highly inventive three-dimensional objects – fun, strange, colourful, jokey – without requiring any sort of ‘meaning’ or ‘interpretation’.


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of other Hayward Gallery exhibitions

The Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848)

This little booklet is worth whole volumes: to this day its spirit inspires and guides the entire organised and fighting proletariat of the civilised world. (Lenin)

The history of the Manifesto reflects the history of the modern working class movement; at present, it is doubtless the most widespread, the most international production of all socialist literature, the common platform acknowledged by millions of working men from Siberia to California.
(Preface to the 1888 English edition)

Layout of this blog post:

  1. Historical background
  2. Marx’s uniqueness
  3. Marx’s failure to complete Das Kapital
  4. The background to the Communist Manifesto
  5. The basic idea
  6. Structure
    1. Part one – The achievements of the bourgeoisie and why it is digging its own grave
    2. Part two
      1. the role of communists vis-a-vis the proletariat
      2. the future of private property
      3. the invalidity of bourgeois ideas of justice, morality etc
      4. how the proletariat will take over power
    3. Part three – Description and dismissal of a number of rival socialist or communist movements
  7. My thoughts:
    • the Manifesto’s appeal
    • its problems
    • its legacy
    • what we need today

1. Historical perspective

Utopian dreams of overthrowing repressive social structures go back in Europe at least as far as the Middle Ages. In the 17th century the British civil wars of the 1640s not only established a Puritan republic but threw up a variety of utopian schemes for redesigning society. The French Revolution turned into the Terror, then gave way to the military adventurism of Napoleon, but the ideas contained in its Declaration of the Rights of Man – of social and political freedom – haunted Europe for the rest of the nineteenth century.

2. Marx’s uniqueness

What made Marx’s vision of a free, equal and just society different from all its predecessors was that he based it on a massive analysis of the economic and technological underpinnings of society (of the Victorian society he lived in and – he claimed – of all previous human societies, too).

Previous utopians had based their ideas on moral or psychological or religious premises. Marx claimed to have discovered objective scientific laws of history which proved that industrial societies would inevitably move towards a revolution which must usher in a communist society i.e. one where everyone was equal, everyone worked, everyone had a say in what work they did, natural resources were exploited fairly for the benefit of all, in which there would be no more ‘classes’, in which everyone would rejoice in their work and lead fulfilling lives.

Marx thought it was inevitable because all capitalist economies tend towards the formation of monopolies: companies buy other companies, deploy economies of scale and pay, get bigger, buy out other companies – think of American multinationals, Google, Microsoft, Unilever, Monsanto. Meanwhile the workers in these ever-larger concerns get more and more value squeezed out of them, getting poorer while company shareholders get richer. As the workers approach closer and closer to the condition of slaves, the owning bourgeoisie become more and more rich.

Marx thought this unavoidable tendency in all capitalist systems for the concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands, while more and more people join the ranks of the immiserated proletariat, was leading to a society divided ever more sharply into two opposing camps – a shrinking bourgeoisie and a growing proletariat. The size and misery of the proletariat could only be contained by the various lackeys of the system – the police, law courts, the fig leaf of ‘parliamentary democracy’ and all the other phoney frontages of bourgeois society.

Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.

Eventually, by sheer weight of numbers, it dawns on the proletariat that they have it in their own hands to rise up at ‘the decisive hour’, to overthrow the system, to eliminate the hated bourgeoisie, to seize control of the means of production and distribution, and to usher in the great day of universal freedom. Everything will be owned by ‘the people’ who will all have a say in how things are made and distributed.

3. Marx’s failure to complete Das Kapital

Marx spent thirty years sitting in the British Library getting haemorrhoids in the effort to flesh out his new theory of capitalism, with the aim of making it incontrovertible, unanswerable, irrefutable – a task he found, in the end, impossible.

The publication of volume one of Capital: A Critique of Political Economy in 1867 made Marx the foremost socialist thinker of the age – nobody could match its enormous erudition and its tremendous insights into the actual practical working of the capitalist economy. But despite all those hours in the library, he never completed volumes two or three before he died in 1883. It is important to realise that his life’s work as a scholar and theorist was left incomplete.

4. Background to the Communist Manifesto

Luckily for the general reader, a generation earlier he had produced a pop version of his ideas, in the form of the Manifesto of the Communist Party. The Communist Manifesto has been reprinted countless times over the decades since and became the single most accessible work by Marx,

It was published early in 1848. This was the year which saw political uprisings all across Europe. Young Karl was just 30 and deeply involved in European revolutionary politics. The manifesto was written to explain the programme of a new party, the Communist League. This had been established on June 1, 1847 in London by a merger of ‘The League of the Just’, headed by Karl Schapper and ‘the Communist Correspondence Committee of Brussels’, which was headed by Karl and his close friend and collaborator, Frederick Engels.

(A key characteristic of communist movements throughout the ages is the way they have always been divided into hundreds of groups on the left, which merge, splinter and fight each other like ferrets in a sack to promote their own special and uniquely correct view of the revolution. Left-wing politics has always been highly fissile. Thus a good deal of Marx and Engel’s best works were written not to attack the Bourgeoisie but to attack fellow socialists, Engels’s most influential work – Socialism Scientific and Utopian – was written for just this purpose, to rubbish all other flavours of socialism and communism and assert Marx’s vision as uniquely scientific and objective. The arcane in-fighting of left-wing groups in the 1840s and 50s prefigure the way that 20th century communist dictators like Stalin and Mao ended up putting so many of their own colleagues on trial. Communism is a radically unstable idea which, however, can tolerate no deviations from a very strict party line. The more you ponder this basic fact, the more you realise that it is an almost inevitable recipe for repression.)

5. Summary of the central idea

Less than thirty pages long, the Manifesto of the Communist Party was mostly the work of Karl, as he came up to his thirtieth birthday. The basic idea is simple.

The proposition is this: That in every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which it is built up, and from that alone can be explained the political and intellectual history of that epoch;

that consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes;

that the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class – the proletariat – cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class – the bourgeoisie – without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinction, and class struggles. (from Engels’s preface to the English edition of the Communist Manifesto, 1888)

6. Structure of the Communist Manifesto

Before we proceed, let’s be clear about terminology.

By bourgeoisie is meant the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labour. By proletariat, the class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live. (Engles 1888 note to the main text)

The Communist Manifesto is divided into three parts:

    1. Bourgeois and Proletarians
    2. Proletarians and Communists
    3. Socialist and Communist Literature

1. Part one – Bourgeois and Proletarians

Part one is in many ways the most inspirational and enjoyable part, a sustained hymn to the startling achievements of the new Victorian bourgeoisie, to the:

industrial millionaires, the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois.

I’m not the first person to point out that although Karl said the bourgeoisie were wicked appropriators of the wealth created by other men, although they had overthrown all previous social relationships, reduced the family to organised prostitution, enslaved millions, and thrown their poisonous tentacles right round the world in search of profit – Karl can’t help being excited and enthused by their astonishing achievements.

Modern industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages.

It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?

Impressive stuff, eh? Nonetheless, we need to hate the bourgeoisie. Why?

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self interest, than callous ‘cash payment’. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers. The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.

Marx says the modern industrial bourgeoisie has introduced a permanent sense of change, of unsettled and ever-speeding novelty into society, due to its need to continually disrupt and revolutionise the means of production, in order to invent new ways to make a profit.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

The endlessness of bourgeois rapacity has led it to spread its tentacles over the face of the earth, creating empires of exploitation to further its lust for profit.

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

But this energy is creating its own nemesis.

The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself. But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons – the modern working class – the proletarians.

Repeatedly, Marx asserts that this pattern – ‘the wheel of history’ – is inevitable and unstoppable.

The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.

The proletariat is the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Crucially, the proletariat is a class like no other in history because it contains all that is best in the entire history of humanity: its victory will be the victory of humanity.

All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.

It is an immensely powerful vision, combining a thrilling overview of all human history, with devastatingly accurate insights into the nature of contemporary social and economic change, and an inspirational prophecy of the end of all conflict and the advent of a fair and just golden age.

Part two – Proletarians and Communists

Part two addresses a number of distinct issues, among them the role of the communist party, the future of private property, and the precise nature of the revolution.

The relationship of the communists to the Proletariat A dicey subject because it becomes clear that the Proletariat needed to be wakened from their slumber and roused on to the barricades by thinkers, writers and activists who were, ahem, unfortunately, of bourgeois origin. Karl explains it thus:

Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.

Raised themselves, in other words, to the lofty eminence of agreeing with Karl and Frederick’s theories! Knowing that he’s tackling a slightly embarrassing and touchy problem (if the rise of the Proletariat is so inevitable, why should they need the help of any members of the bourgeoisie?), this section is more programmatic and dogmatic than the more thrillingly rhetorical tone of part one.

In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.

The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.

‘They have the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.’ This claim to a uniquely privileged understanding of History would underpin the idea of a vanguard communist party until, in Lenin’s hands, it formed the basis of a ruthless dictatorship, which, in turn, gave rise to Stalin whose techniques of central control by terror were copied by Mao and numerous other, lesser, communist dictators.

Because it follows from what Marx says that, if the leaders of the Communist party are the only ones gifted with this special understanding of History, then any deviation or dissent from their views must by definition be an attack on the Course of History itself, a kind of blasphemy against the Unstoppable March of the Proletariat, and must be dealt with ruthlessly because it threatens to derail the Forward march of History.

Fortunately, Russia had a lot of empty sub-Arctic territory where anyone who questioned the party’s ‘clear understanding of the line of march’ could be sent for re-education.

But Karl spends less time on this issue than on the fate of private property.

The communists want to abolish private property, and Karl’s arguments explaining why include an enormously important idea. He says that the kind of property he wants to abolish is only bourgeois property, the kind built up by expropriating the labour of the slaving proletariat – and that all the philosophy, morality, legal and cultural arguments any of his opponents bring against this proposal are bourgeois ideas of philosophy, law, morality and culture and therefore invalid.

There are two points here, one about property, two about the complete invalidity of all ideas derived from the bourgeois domination of capitalist society, which is much bigger.

First, private property. Karl says communists only want to abolish the private property of the bourgeoisie since it all amounts to theft from the slave proletariat.

The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few.

What about the property of the non-bourgeoisie? Should they be worried about having it confiscated?

Here Karl resorts to some shifty arguments. He claims that the small peasant and petty artisans needn’t worry about having their property taken away because they have no property anyway. We day by day watch the monster squid bourgeoisie confiscate everyone’s property and so – the small peasant and petty artisan have no property to lose. (The only problem with this line of argument being that, of course they did.) Marx claims that a working definition of the proletariat – which he claims makes up nine-tenths of the population – is that they own nothing except their labour which they sell like slaves to the bourgeoisie.

You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.

Therefore, according to Karl, abolishing private property cannot hurt the workers or artisans or peasants because they have no property to ban. Only the bourgeoisie have property and since it is all the result of slave labour and therefore criminal, it is perfectly fair to confiscate it. All property must be confiscated by the revolutionary class, prior to redistribution.

This is a good example of the way Marx’s background in German philosophy blinds him to reality. He is used to dealing with Hegelian concepts which are neat and tidy. You can hear the conceptual tidiness in these ideas: the proletariat, artisans and peasants own nothing; only the bourgeoisie own anything; the bourgeoisie’s possessions are acquired through exploitation; therefore, it can all be confiscated by the new revolutionary communist government with a clear conscience.

Slick and compelling, this rhetoric completely ignores the way that peasants, for example, do own things, from icons and family heirlooms through to the tools of their agricultural work, to scraps of family land and maybe livestock.

It was following pure Marxist ideology which led first Stalin then Mao to force through the collectivisation of agriculture in revolutionary Russia and then China, on the basis that the peasants didn’t – and according to Marx shouldn’t – have any possessions of their own, so it wouldn’t matter. But the peasants did of course own all kinds of things, most importantly patches of land on which they grew food or livestock for themselves. When all of this was confiscated from them, they lost all motivation to work hard to grow just that little bit extra for themselves, and if they were caught anywhere doing so they were punished – with the result that agriculture in both Russia and China collapsed as a result of communist policies of collectivisation, resulting in the starving to death of millions of people.

There is a direct line between the conceptual tidiness of Marx’s writings, the rhetorical sleights of hand with which he makes absolute claims such as the peasants and artisans own no property which completely ignore the complex facts of reality on the ground – and the deaths of millions of poor people a hundred years later.

All bourgeois ideas are invalid, nay, criminal.

Law, morality, religion, are to [the communist] so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.

This is a massive idea, in its way the most important idea of the book.

We may sort of agree with Karl that the history of all previous societies has been the history of class conflicts. (It’s a dubious claim. Just because all previous societies – in fact all human history- has been pretty violent doesn’t prove the class-based nature of these conflicts. A moment’s reflection suggests that most violence in history has been between factions of ruling classes not between classes as such, or prompted by invasions by other groups. Could it just be that humans are violent by nature?)

We may give more agreement to Karl’s idea that the capital-owning class of Karl’s generation had built up huge amounts of money which they needed to constantly invest in new ventures in order to keep the system running.

We may agree that this ‘capitalist’ system had reached out from the cities into the countryside to make production more efficient, and stretched its tentacles right around the world in search of new raw materials and new markets to sell to – and that this process is the basis of imperialism, a process which was visibly gathering speed throughout Karl’s lifetime.

But we cross a very important line if we go on to agree that all the values expressed in a capitalist system are fake and invalid – are only fig leaves behind which the revolting bourgeoisie can do its work of exploitation.

But don’t wrangle with us so long as you apply, to our intended abolition of bourgeois property, the standard of your bourgeois notions of freedom, culture, law, &c. Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into a law for all, a will whose essential character and direction are determined by the economical conditions of existence of your class.

Yes, it’s clear that many laws in many societies are passed to bolster the ruling classes. It’s arguable that legal systems of many countries exist mainly or solely to protect the property and persons of the rich.

But to go one step further and to say that the very ideas of justice, law and morality are bourgeois prejudices which need to be abolished – that is a big line to cross, but it is a central element of Karl’s theory.

This section is devoted to proving that all bourgeois ideas of property, of freedom, of law and justice and of culture, are merely the contingent, transient notions thrown up to protect this particular form of economic production, the capitalist phase, and will, like the comparable notions of all previous ruling classes, eventually be overthrown by the coming communist revolution, this time forever.

The selfish misconception that induces you [the bourgeois apologist] to transform into eternal laws of nature and of reason, the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property – historical relations that rise and disappear in the progress of production – this misconception you share with every ruling class that has preceded you.

Cross that line – invalidate all those ideas of truth, justice or morality, in fact condemn them for their association with the criminal bourgeoisie – and you are left with no other source of values, ideas or morality except the proletariat whose guides are, of course, in practice, the ruling the communist party, which all experience has shown ends up being ruled by one super-powerful dictator.

The abolition of this state of things is called by the bourgeois, abolition of individuality and freedom! And rightly so. The abolition of bourgeois individuality, bourgeois independence, and bourgeois freedom is undoubtedly aimed at.

Marxist philosophers have spent 170 years devising ever-subtler refinements on the notion that ideas are produced by the social structures of the societies they originate in, and that all ideas are to some extent implicated or compromised by the power structures of that society, and so the palpable unfairness of Western capitalist society undermines its own ideas of justice, freedom etc.

All bourgeois ideas of truth, justice, law, morality and so on are merely tools and fig leafs for the ongoing exploitation of the proletariat.

But far from the scholarly seminar rooms of France and America where this kind of thing is debated, over in communist Russia and China, this principle allowed all so-called bourgeois notions of ‘fair’ trials, of the process of law, of freedom of speech or of the press and so on – all checks on absolute power – to be swept away in their entirety and replaced by revolutionary freedom, revolutionary justice and revolutionary morality.

Thus, by a grim logic, this ‘revolutionary justice’ tended to boil right down to the dictates of the highly centralised communist party which, in practice, boiled down to the whims and dictates of the man at the top. He issued ‘quotas’ of counter-revolutionaries or kulaks or saboteurs or spies or capitalist running dogs etc who needed to be eliminated and zealous functionaries rounded up suspects and eliminated them, without trials, without evidence, without any help or defence, without any of those discredited ‘bourgeois’ restraints on absolute lethal power.

By ‘individual’ you [opponents of communism] mean no other person than the bourgeois, than the middle-class owner of property. This person must, indeed, be swept out of the way, and made impossible.

Chinese counter-revolutionaries about to be swept out of the way and made impossible

Chinese counter-revolutionaries about to be swept out of the way and made impossible

The revolution So how will this perfect world actually in practice come about? How did Karl propose that we get from 1840s Britain, France and Germany to the classless utopia of the future?

Again I’m not the first person to point out that Karl left the nuts and bolts of this extremely important issue extremely vague and unclear, nor to point out that the later revolutions (in Russia or China) didn’t correspond at all with his prophecies. Here’s how Marx describes the transition.

We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.

Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.

So the proletariat are meant to ‘win the battle of democracy’ – does he mean in elections? What does he mean? The proletariat will use the power thus acquired to wrest control of capital ‘by degree’ from the bourgeoisie. There may be some ‘despotic inroads’ in the rights of property.

It all sounds like a peaceful if rather coercive process. There’s no mention of guns and street battles and firing squads, of prolonged civil war, famine and emergency measures.

Instead, having won ‘the battle for democracy’, the successful proletariat will then implement its ten-point plan:

  1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
  2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
  3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.
  4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
  5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
  6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
  7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
  8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
  9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.
  10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.

And then:

When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.

In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

By sweeping away the exploitative conditions which created it as a class, the proletariat will sweep away all exploitative relations and end all class antagonisms, forever. Society will become:

an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

Again, you can see the beautiful clarity of the concepts underlying this view of the world, history and social change. It is like a set of equations on a blackboard; everything balances and works out perfectly.

The amazing thing is that anyone, anywhere, took such a naive view of human nature, as to think this was remotely possible.

Part three

Part three of the Communist manifesto is the least interesting. It consists of dismissals of everyone else’s visions of socialism and communism, in each case Karl explaining why they fall short of the purity, clarity and accuracy of his own views, and/or how they are merely the fig leaves of reactionary forces.

One by one he demolishes:

  1. Reactionary Socialism
    • Feudal Socialism (aristocrats encouraging the proletariat against the rising bourgeoisie, with a secret agenda of protecting their aristocratic privileges)
    • Clerical Socialism (much rhetoric from priests about ‘brotherly love’, which in reality serves to support the existing regime)
    • Petty-Bourgeois Socialism (a version which accurately critiques the ills of modern capitalism but in the name of nostalgia for old ways of production and social relations i.e. backward looking)
    • German or ‘True’ Socialism (when imported into backward Germany, French revolutionary slogans were converted into grandiose philosophical phrases which were taken up by petty-bourgeois philistines who opposed actual social change)
  2. Conservative or Bourgeois Socialism (a section of the bourgeoisie understands social grievances and wants to do everything necessary to redress them – short of actually changing society)
  3. Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism (dating from an early era of industrialisation, various philanthropists judged the proletariat helpless victims and mapped out utopian communities for them to live in. As the proletariat has grown in power, these utopian socialists have grown fearful or resentful of it, criticised it and clung on to their (now reactionary) ideals – thinkers in this area include Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen)

As mentioned above, fierce criticism of all other socialist/communist thinkers or movements is an intrinsic part of Marxist thought right from the beginning, and would bear fruit in the twentieth century in a rich rhetoric of vituperation and, of course, the arrest and murder of millions of ‘right deviationists’, ‘capitalist lackeys’ and so on.


7. My thoughts

Basic appeal

Like Christianity before it, Karl’s scientific communism provides:

  • a complete analysis of present society
  • a complete theory of human nature
  • a complete theory of human history (in terms of class conflicts) all leading up to the present moment
  • the promise of an end to all sorrows and suffering in the imminent arrival of a Perfect Society
  • and a complete theory of who you are, where you fit into the story and how you,too, can be saved

And it’s all going to have a happy ending. Karl says so. Science says so. The revolution is at hand. Any minute the workers will rise up and overthrow the hated bourgeoisie. This time next year we’ll be living in paradise.

The Communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution that is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilisation and with a much more developed proletariat than that of England was in the seventeenth, and France in the eighteenth century, and because the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.

The Communist Manifesto had, as its object, the proclamation of the inevitable impending dissolution of modern bourgeois property. (1882 preface)

Millions of half-literate working men and women living in appalling conditions, working seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, were offered a vision that change would not only come, but was inevitable – not only in Karl’s Europe, but 70 years later, across continental Russia, 100 years later in China, and then across the newly independent nations of Africa and South America.

There’s no denying that Marx’s shrewd social and economic analysis, combined with his utopian rhetoric, have offered the hope of change and a better life to hundreds of millions of people.

Intellectual appeal

It’s such a powerful system partly because Karl combines mastery of three distinct fields:

  • philosophy
  • economics
  • politics

For the really well-educated, for the philosophically super-literate, Karl adapted the German philosopher Hegel’s idea of the dialectic to produce a vision of the motor of history. All previous philosophers considered human nature and society essentially static. Sure, stuff happened, but nothing that particularly changed human nature, so a 19th century philosopher could ponder essentially the same questions about human nature, reality and knowledge as Plato had done 2,000 years earlier.

Karl tore this static vision up and said humans are changed by the societies they live in, they are shaped and formed by their society. And every society is based on its technological and economic basis.

Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views, and conception, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life? What else does the history of ideas prove, than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.

It hadn’t been clear to previous ages, but as Karl and his contemporaries watched the bourgeoisie inventing steam engines and trains and telegraphs and factory production, they simultaneously watched them taking power in parliaments across Europe (for example, in the revolution of 1830 in France which brought to power the bourgeois king Louis Phillippe or in the changes wrought by the Great Reform Act in Britain in 1832, and so on) and saw that the two were related.

It was clear as never before that political power is based on economic power. And economic power is based on control of new technology. That society changes as its technological and economic base changes. And what people think is changed by these changes in society.

When people speak of the ideas that revolutionise society, they do but express that fact that within the old society the elements of a new one have been created, and that the dissolution of the old ideas keeps even pace with the dissolution of the old conditions of existence.

Ideas are socially determined. New technology = new economic arrangements = new classes (bourgeoisie overthrows landed aristocracy) = new ways of thinking.

Human nature is not fixed and static as philosophers in their book-lined studies had always thought (because, after all, it suited them very nicely to think that). Human nature is malleable and dynamic.

Thus 2,000 years of static philosophy are overthrown by Marx’s new dynamic philosophy based on the first, truly scientific understanding of economics.

And both together underpin the new politics outlined above i.e. the inevitability of a communist revolution led by the proletariat.

Like Christianity, Marxism is a belief system so vast and complex that you can enter it at any level – as an illiterate coal miner or a PhD student – and find you are surrounded by powerfully thought-through answers to almost any question you can ask about contemporary society, answers which are all the more impressive because they pull in evidence and arguments from such a wide range of the human sciences.

Problems

The biggest problem with Karl’s scientific communism was, of course, that it turned out to be wrong.

According to him, History was a kind of unstoppable conveyor belt and the most advanced capitalist countries would be the first to topple off the end into communist revolution, those being Britain, Germany and America.

But – despite plenty of social strife, none of these countries in the end had the communist revolution Karl said was inevitable. Instead, the big communist revolution took place in Russia, the most economically backward country in Europe, and then passed on to China, the most economically backward country in Asia.

The fundamental idea of communist inevitability – capitalism at its most advanced must evolved into communism – was categorically disproved.

Walter Laqueur, in his book on the Weimar Republic, says that some left-wing intellectuals as early as the 1920s were wondering if communism would turn out not to be a revolutionary force at all, but to be a centralised social system which would force industrialisation onto backward countries in a way their tottering aristocratic governments couldn’t. That it would turn out to be a form of compulsory industrialisation which would do capitalism’s job for it.

And that now appears to have been the case. Russia passed through a long period of forced industrialisation under a repressive communist regime, and has eventually emerged as a capitalist country. Reverted to being a capitalist country. China is doing the same.

In the Communist Manifesto Karl numbers among the bourgeoisie’s many crimes the way it drags all sectors of a nation into industrial production under a strong, centralised government.

The bourgeoisie keeps more and more doing away with the scattered state of the population, of the means of production, and of property. It has agglomerated population, centralised the means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. The necessary consequence of this was political centralisation. Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments, and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class-interest, one frontier, and one customs-tariff.

But this is precisely what China and Russia did during their communist years.

Meanwhile, the most advanced capitalist country in the world, America, went from strength to strength, successfully managing periods of great economic distress (the Depression of the 1930s) to emerge as the world’s leading economic power after World War Two, offering what most of the global population considered to be an unbelievably luxurious and free way of life, and most definitely not becoming a communist state.

Marx’s compellingly scientific vision of the inevitable unfolding of history turned out to be just about as wrong as it was possible to be.

Legacy

If Karl’s idea of scientific inevitability looks broken beyond repair; if his entire notion that the dictatorship of the proletariat would give rise to a classless society looks laughable, since we know it just gave rise to dictatorship, pure and simple – nonetheless, much of his analysis of the social effects of capitalism linger on to this day in the social sciences.

Chief among these I would select: the idea that capitalism must constantly seek the new, new technologies which disrupt old structures, create huge new markets and needs (the internet, mobile phones, laptops, tablets and so on).

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

The idea of job insecurity. Circumstances have fluctuated wildly over the past 170 years, but we are again living in a gig economy, a minimum wage economy, where many people are being paid the minimum required, with as little job security as necessary, by employers determined to screw as much value out of them as possible.

In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed – a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.

And the central idea of alienation, that people feel alienated from their work, as if they’re making or producing something for others’ benefit, that they no longer in fact ‘make’ anything, just contribute paper, reports, powerpoints or spreadsheets to a huge system which seems to generate vast wealth for the owners of multinational companies or big government departments, but brings no sense of closure or achievement to the people sitting in front of crappy computers all day.

Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him.

Though so much has changed, many of Karl’s descriptions of the nature of work in a capitalist system, and the alienation it engenders, remain eerily accurate.

We need…

Someone to update Marx. Since the collapse of Soviet communism in 1990 the left in the West has been rudderless. Tony Blair thought he could square the circle of being left-wing within a neo-liberal capitalist system with his idea of ‘the Third Way’, which boiled down to public-private initiatives and setting targets in all aspects of government. Bill Clinton did something similar. Both ended up being patsies to international business.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, released from the threat of serious socialist or trade union resistance, big businesses in all Western nations have zoomed ahead with massive pay rises for executives, accompanied by zero hours and gig economy contracts for workers, and the stagnation of pay among the middle management. Lots of people are really pissed off.

A Marxist critique helps explain why and how this is happening in terms of capital accumulation, the way companies constantly seek to casualise labour, and the way capital buys political parties and laws which further its interests.

It also explains why, without a plausible left-wing alternative, the disgruntled populations of the industrialised nations will be tempted to turn to populist, nationalist leaders, who encourage xenophobia, conservative values, protectionist economic policies, but will ultimately fail because they don’t understand the real economic trends underpinning the crisis. Donald Trump.

So insights derived from Marx’s economic and social theories can still help us to understand the present moment. The problem is that the central plank of his theory – the notion that an ever-growing industrial proletariat will become so numerous that it simply must overthrow its oppressors – is no long remotely credible.

Marx has left us the intellectual tools to understand why we are so unhappy, but with no idea how to solve the problem.

Which explains why you read so many newspaper and magazine articles lamenting the end of meritocracy, the rise in job insecurity, the way our children will be the first ones to have a worse quality of life than their parents, the ruin of the environment, and the growth in wealth among the super-rich – you read in papers and hear on the radio the same thing year in, year out — but nobody has a clue what to do about it.


Related links

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in 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 the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, only just escaping arrest, interrogation and probable execution himself

Communism in England

The Ghost by Robert Harris (2007)

This is a cracking thriller, exciting, intelligent and insightful about a range of contemporary issues.

Harris and Blair

The unnamed narrator is a ghost writer ie he co-writes the memoirs of sportsmen, entertainers, celebrities, people in the public eye who have a life story to tell but can’t write.

Out of the blue he is invited to ‘ghost’ the memoirs of former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (obviously based on Tony Blair, who stepped down from the premiership in June 2007; this novel was published in September of the same year).

Harris was an early supporter of Blair in the mid-1990s. As a personal friend he had access to Blair throughout his premiership and, as a political journalist (political editor of the Observer newspaper, aged just 30) he also possessed a solid understanding of the wider British political scene. This comes over in the book which shows both a humorous familiarity with both the publishing world and an insider’s knowledge of the machinations, the personalities, of high politics.

Harris takes us through the process of meeting agents, publishers, negotiating and signing a deal, with lots of snappy insights into the ruthless commercialism of the process and the boardroom politics involved.

The narrator has just split up with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Kate, who was once a devoted supporter of Lang and is now an equally firm denouncer of him as a traitor and war criminal, because of his decision to help the Americans invade Iraq.

So with nothing to tie him down, the narrator flies out to Boston, takes a cab on to the luxury house located on a remote stretch of the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s actually the ultra-modern beach-side mansion of the owner of the publishing house which has paid $10 million in advances for Lang’s autobiography, Marty Rhinehart.

Here he meets the man himself, his secretarial staff – notably the blonde, over-made-up Personal Assistant Amelia Bly – and Lang’s redoubtable wife, Ruth.

Elements of unease

The pace is superbly managed. Harris masterfully deploys plotlines, details and atmosphere to combine and create a powerful sense of unease, slowly undermining the breezy narrative tone, like a dinghy springing multiple leaks.

McAra’s death Right at the start we learn that someone else had been working on the autobiography before our man – one of Lang’s entourage, a loyal party hack named Mike McAra. One bleak December night he appears to have fallen over the edge of the ferry you have to take to get to Martha’s Vineyard. Everyone concludes it was suicide. But a doubt has been planted in our minds…

Panic rush Meanwhile, McAra’s abrupt removal from the scene creates a crisis in the publishing timeline. The narrator is horrified to learn that the publishers expect him to deliver a finished manuscript within a month. Almost impossible, but his worries are assuaged by the fee: he’ll get $250,000! Well, that will help – but still it means the narrator feels crowded, hassled and under pressure.

Mugged and set up? When he leaves the publishers (at its horrible, modern, windswept offices out towards Heathrow) Rhinehart presses on him another manuscript he’d like the narrator to read. This is odd, given the tight deadline on the main book, and odd that it’s wrapped in a bright yellow bag.

Just after the narrator gets out of the cab back at his flat and is turning to open the door, he is brutally mugged, punched in the gut and knocked to the floor. When he comes round he a) feels terrible, bruised and grazed b) realises the bag has been stolen.

Recovering in the safety of his flat, the Narrator has a paranoid moment when he wonders whether Rhinehart gave him the yellow bag as a test, thinking someone might think the narrator was carrying the manuscript of Lang’s autobiography – and that this is worth mugging someone and stealing.

Terrorism The novel was written and published soon after the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London and the narrator conveys the jaded expectation that bombings might become a regular occurrence of modern London life. In fact, there is a (fictional) Tube bombing,  at Oxford Circus, on the same day he visits the publisher and receives the assignment.

Security When his cab arrives at the remote Martha’s Vineyard house, the narrator is unnerved at the level of security surrounding the former Prime Minister. Security guards patrol the perimeter of the property, check his ID as his cab approaches, the house windows are bullet proof and so on. The narrator is scared witless when there is a sudden emergency lockdown of the house, complete with metal panels descending over the windows and a deafening klaxon – although this turns out to be the regular weekly test.

Complicity in torture Even as he sets off, the Narrator sees on the TV news at home, then at the airport terminal and glimpses in the courtesy newspapers, a breaking news story that Lang is being named as having personally ordered the capture of four British Muslims in Pakistan by the SAS, who then handed them over to the CIA to be interrogated as possible terrorism suspects. This is to be the mainspring of the plot and to blow up into a fast-moving crisis.

The plot

Once past security, introduced to everyone and ensconced in the beachfront house, the narrator has a successful morning working session with Lang, teasing out personal stories from his early life.

However, the process has barely begun before it is blown off course by news that Lang’s former Foreign Secretary has personally intervened in the news story about the four Muslims, to name Lang as guilty of ordering their arrest.

Immediately, there is speculation on the TV news that Lang might be indicted at the Hague for war trials. Gathered round the TV in the isolated house, Lang, Ruth, Amy and the narrator watch, appalled, as the lead prosecutor at the Hague announces she will be leading a full investigation into the accusations.  While the group feverishly discuss what Lang’s response should be – fly back to Britain to face out the charge, fly to Washington to meet his pal the President – the narrator finds himself drafted in to write Lang’s official response, which is then released to the press.

All this blows a big hole in the Narrator’s plans for a week of cosy chats about his life and career, as Lang and his entourage abruptly depart for Washington, there to be photographed shaking hands with a grateful President etc, and leaving the Narrator suddenly alone in the big echoing luxury mansion by the slate-grey winter sea.

What McAra discovered

Here, to his discomfort, he has been given the room used by the dead aide, McAra, and it is as he is clearing out the dead man’s stuff that he comes across a pack of photos and documents from Lang’s university career, posted to him by the Lang Foundation archive.

And notices something odd. Among a series of old photos of Lang at Cambridge there’s one of him with various student actors in the famous Footlights review, and scribbled on the back a phone number. When the narrator tentatively rings it he is horrified to hear the voice of the ex-Foreign Secretary, Rycart, Lang’s mortal enemy, answering the phone. In a panic, he breaks the connection.

At the beach

With Lang now departed for the airport and nothing to do or read, the narrator finds himself brooding on McAra and his mysterious death. He borrows one of the house bicycles and cycles out to where McAra’s body was found on an isolated beach. Harris gives a brilliant description of a dark rainstorm coming in, then breaking. The narrator takes shelter in the porch of an old timer who comes out to tell him there’s no way that body could have drifted from the ferry route to this beach, not with the currents round here; and all about ‘the lights on the beach’ the night McAra’s body was found. And then about the old lady who was telling everybody what she saw until she had an accident, fell down the stairs, poor thing, and is now in a coma. The narrator is seriously spooked. Could it be McAra’s accident/suicide was staged. Was he in fact murdered? And why?

Barely has he started thinking this through than he is disconcerted to see Ruth Lang (and her bodyguard, who follows her everywhere) trudging up the beach towards him. She insists they pile the bike in the back of their hummer and drive him back to the mansion.

Sleeping with the Prime Minister’s wife

Here they have hot baths, dress and have dinner, during which the narrator finds himself confiding some of his new discoveries to Ruth. She is shocked, and then concerned. What has Adam got himself into? At the end of the evening she comes into his room, still in her night-dress and collapses in tears into his arms. And into his bed. And they have sex.

The narrator knows it’s a bad idea and in the morning it seems a lot worse. Ruth is brisk and hard and efficient, dismissing their overnight dalliance, making cutting remarks about him not being ‘a real writer’.

The narrator has had enough and decides to get off the island altogether for a break. The house servants this time persuade him not to cycle but to take the spare car, one of those all-mod-cons American jeeps. He is disconcerted to learn it is the car McAra was driving when he disappeared off the ferry, but it’s the only one available.

Where the satnav takes him

The narrator gets in and drives towards the ferry, all the time irritated by the satnav which he can’t figure out how to turn off. Doesn’t matter at first because it directs him to the ferry and then on to the nearest town, where our man will be quite happy to sit in a Starbucks and ponder his odd situation.

But the Satnav has other plans. It insistently tells him to turn around and take the next exit out of town. Because he is bored, irritated and curious, he gives in and does what it tells him. Only as he proceeds further into the new England wilderness does it dawn on him that he is following the route of McAra’s last journey.

Professor Emmett

The directions bring him to an isolated track into deep woodland, where there are a few scattered homesteads, and to the house of – he discovers when he looks at the mail in the mailbox – a certain Professor Paul Emmett. Even as he’s sitting there in the car wondering what to do next, Emmett’s car sweeps by and into his drive. So the narrator rings the intercom and gets invited up to the house.

Here Emmett proves himself at first a genial host, happy to answer questions about his magical year at Cambridge as a Rhodes scholar. He is less forthright about his memories of Lang, who he claims not to remember at all, until the narrator confronts him with the old photos he’s got showing Emmett and Lang together in the same drama production. He becomes cagey. Then when the narrator produces his news that McAra drove up here to meet him on the night of his death, Emmett point blank denies it. In fact he produces his wife who independently looks up their diary and shows that they were at an academic conference all the weekend in question. And his geniality has long worn out. He asks the narrator to leave.

Emmett – CIA – Lang?

In the nearby village of Belmont the narrator finds an internet café and spends some time googling Paul Emmett. He discovers Emmett is head of a typical right-wing US think tank and lobby group. He googles the CVs of the other directors and discovers they are all in the military or the arms trade. Then he stumbles across an accusation made years back by a CIA whistleblower that Emmett was himself a CIA agent, from as far back as the 1970s. The CIA? And Adam Lang, Britain’s Prime Minister?

Outside the internet café the narrator notices a black car parked a discreet distance from his jeep. He begins to look at the other occupants of the café with a suspicious mind. Is that just an ordinary couple sitting looking at the one laptop? What about the middle-aged guy over in the corner? Do they know what the narrator has found out? Is he being followed?

By now seriously spooked, the narrator uses the phone number he found on McAra’s Lang photo and rings Rycart again, but this time stays on the line. He explains who he is and how he found the number. Rycart tells the narrator to fly up to New York, he’ll arrange a secure cab to collect him, and bring him to an airport hotel where they can talk.

Conference with Rycart

And that’s what happens. Once frisked and checked out by the security guard-cum-cabbie, the narrator meets Rycart in an airport hotel and they tentatively share their knowledge. McAra had found out that Lang as a student was close to Emmett – hence them being together in the Cambridge photos – for Emmett had an American scholarship to Cambridge for a year.

Both of them think that Emmett must have been acting as a CIA recruiter even at that early stage, and that he recruited Lang as a CIA agent. For Rycart this explains why ‘everything went wrong’ during Lang’s premiership. Can he, he asks the narrator, think of a major decision the government took which did not favour US foreign policy? Agreeing to the invasion of Iraq and being its vociferous defender? Agreeing to ‘extraordinary rendition’ ie kidnapping suspects? Not contesting Guantanamo Bay? Unequal trade agreements? The list goes on…. All sponsored by a British Prime Minister who was in fact acting under orders from his American puppet masters!

Rycart confirms that this was McAra’s conclusion, too, and that – in a bombshell for the narrator – was McAara, one of Lang’s oldest and most loyal lieutenants, who handed Rycart the information about the four Muslims who were kidnapped by the SAS! Who betrayed his boss, having come to the conclusion that his boss had betrayed the entire country.

Their hotel room confabulation is suddenly interrupted when Lang himself phones the narrator’s mobile. ‘Where are you, man? In New York, why? Oh to meet your publishers, OK. Well, come up and meet us, we’re at the Waldorf Hotel.’

Rycart nods his agreement so the narrator says yes – now terrified that he is probably under surveillance and of what happened to McAra and to the little old lady. ‘They’ have shown they will stop at nothing to hush the story up.

Back with Lang

He gets a cab from the hotel airport to the Waldorf but finds the Lang entourage just on the point of leaving. They are hurrying to fly back to the Vineyard and the narrator gets caught up in the hurry and panic, and swept up into one of the cars.

Once aboard the small plane, and everyone is settled, the narrator gets one final opportunity to interview Lang – seven minutes it turns out to last, he tapes it – and asks him directly about McAra. Ruth had said they had a terrible row the night before McAra died: what was it about? Lang says he doesn’t want to talk about it. But when the narrator reveals that it was McAra who handed the evidence of Lang’s orders for the Muslims to be kidnapped over to Rycart, he is shaken to his core. ‘Mike, Mike, Mike, what have you done?’

But it was a short flight and the plane is coming in to land. The narrator and the PA, Amelia, watch Lang, now haggard and gaunt, walk onto the plane steps and down and begin to cross the runway to the departure lounge, where they can see Ruth waiting.

A British voice rings out – ‘Adam!’ – it is one of the baggage handlers and Lang, ever the pro, breaks his walk to turn and shake hands with him when BOOM! – a big explosion throws the narrator, Amelia and everyone else back through the door.

A British suicide bomber has blown up himself and Lang. As the narrator recovers in hospital he finds out the bomber’s son died in Iraq and then his wife in a terrorist bombing. Ex-Army himself, he’d made himself a suicide vest. Lang is blown to smithereens, and so end the narrator’s worries.

Recuperation and writing

He recovers in hospital – it was his hearing which took the most damage – and then in a blaze of inspiration he writes the book, having found the ‘voice’ which can speak for Lang the strange, empty actor he’s got to know as well as anybody ever has, filling the book with his own brief, passionate involvement with this strange man.

He meets the deadline and the book is published on time. Like most ghosts, he isn’t invited to the launch party but Amelia is and she takes him as her plus one.

Ruth is there and air kisses the narrator – mwah mwah – then he sees her looking over her shoulder making some subtle indication of her head, turns – and is amazed to see Emmett standing behind him! He has a horrible flash, a moment if insight. What if… it wasn’t Lang that Emmett recruited?

The secret revealed

Back at his flat the narrator remembers some throwaway words Rycart used in their furtive hotel meeting: McAra had said something about the truth being in the beginning of his original long manuscript. What if he meant – in the beginnings? Suddenly he looks at the first word of each chapter of the manuscript and they spell out a hidden message:

Langs wife Ruth studying in 76 was recruited as a CIA agent in America by Professor Paul Emmett of Harvard University

So the most effective British Prime Minister in a generation turns out to have been manipulated in all his major policy decisions by his more clever, canny wife, who all along had been an agent for the CIA!

That explains why, as Rycraft enumerates them, that government was a lapdog to the yanks and never took a single decision that didn’t favour America’s aggressive foreign policy. Lang wasn’t influenced by the CIA: he was shallow and impressionable enough to be influenced in all these major decisions by his wife!

Envoi

The final, genuinely spooky, pages are written by the narrator on the run. Convinced his life is at risk he is now moving from hotel to hotel changing name, spending only cash. He is confirmed in his paranoia when he reads in the paper that Rycart and his driver have died in a freak road accident. God, the net is closing in.

In the final paragraphs we learn that he has sent the manuscript of the text we’re reading to his girlfriend, Kate – the one who was no friend to Lang – with instructions to open it and send it to a publisher if she doesn’t hear from him every month or reads that he is dead.

So the fact we are reading this novel at all implicates us, the readers – the narrator must have been killed. But at least the truth is out! It is a cheesy but convincing end to a brilliantly convincing thriller.


Politics

I shared the general euphoria when Tony Blair and New Labour came to power in 1997. As I worked on an international news programme in the late 1980s/early 1990s, I knew a bit about the Middle East, but wasn’t especially appalled when the Coalition invaded Iraq, though I knew (apparently, unlike most MPs) that the WMD argument for the invasion was a load of guff. So I am not one of the vengeful who feel Tony Blair must be indicted for war crimes.

International affairs have never been an appropriate place for western morality, it is entirely a question of Realpolitik and the art of the achievable. So I think the main accusation against the Americans isn’t immorality, but sheer ineptitude. Every schoolchild should be made to read Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks, a truly awe-inspiring account of the way the Americans screwed up every aspect of the invasion and especially the post-war ‘pacification’ of Iraq. We are still, 13 years later, dealing with the fallout, which may last more than a generation.

What is impressive about Harris’s novel is the way he dramatises so many points of view about the war and the resulting terror attacks – Lang gets to have his say justifying the invasion and the war on terror; Rycart, his ally-turned-enemy, has his say about betrayal at government level; Kate, the narrator’s girlfriend, embodies the reaction of many New Labour devotees turned vengeful in their disillusionment; and the ex-Army man who blows up himself and Lang represents all those who lost family as a direct or indirect result.

Amid the bombings, news alerts and general hysteria, the narrator is a deliberate everyman figure, someone we can all relate to, someone aware of the scary changes in the society around him but with a living to make, who just has to get on with it.

Having read a newspaper report accusing Lang of giving the authorisation for the four Muslims to be kidnapped and rendered to Guantanamo, the narrator thinks:

I read it through three times. It didn’t seem to add up to much. It was hard to tell any more. One’s moral bearings were no longer as fixed as they used to be. Methods my father’s generation would have considered beyond the pale, even when fighting the Nazis – torture, for example – were now apparently acceptable civilised behaviour. I decided that the ten per cent of the population who worry about these things would be appalled by the report, assuming they ever managed to locate it; the remaining ninety would probably just shrug. We had been told that the Free World was taking a walk on the dark side. What did people expect? (p.57)

That captures the feeling of most of us, doesn’t it? Aware that bad things are being done in our name but powerless to stop any of it.


Style and feel

Reviewing Harris’s previous thrillers, I noted that they all use ‘modern thriller prose’, fairly plain and functional in its clarity – but that he gave each novel a distinctive slant or angle. This one is comedy. The narrator is the wrong side of 30, in an unhappy relationship with TV producer ‘Kate’, lives in a poky top floor flat in Notting Hill, and wonders how his early ambitions came to this. Nonetheless he approaches every situation, almost to the end, with attractive hangdog humour, and quite quickly you are charmed by his humorous take on situations and people. Of the head of the publishing firm:

Maddox sat with his back to the window. He laid his massive, hairless hands on the glass-topped table, as if to prove he had no intention of reaching for a weapon just yet. (p.22)

It is a clever trick – in a book full of cleverness and alertness – to establish the narrator as an easy-going comic turn, before the suspense of the conspiracy starts to kick in. His humorous mind-set makes him easy to warm to and sympathise with and this makes it all the more plausible and compelling to accompany him on his slow-dawning journey of realisation.

This, Harris’s fourth thriller, seemed to me to have more a few more poetic touches, more descriptions and atmosphere than his previous novels. In particular there is lots of description of out of season New England seaside resorts in blustery January, of the lowering weather and half-abandoned streets.

After a while we came to a crossroads and turned into what I guessed must be Edgartown, a settlement of white clapboard houses with white picket fences, small gardens and verandas, lit by ornate Victorian streetlamps. Nine out of ten were dark but in a few windows which shone with yellow light I glimpsed oil paintings of sailing ships and whiskered ancestors. At the bottom of the hill, past the Old Whaling Church, a big, misty moon cast a silvery light over shingled roofs and silhouetted the masts in the harbour. Curls of wood smoke rose from a couple of chimneys. I felt as though I was driving on to a film set for Moby Dick. (p.53)

This one seemed to me to have more, and more imaginative, similes than its predecessors – a steady trickle of imaginative, stimulating, useful comparisons.

The receptionist at the hotel in Edgartown had warned me that the forecast was for a storm, and although it still hadn’t broken yet, the sky was beginning to sag with the weight of it, like a soft grey sack waiting to split apart. (p.195)

Amelia slipped into position in front of the computer screen. I don’t think I ever saw fingers move so rapidly across a keyboard. the clicks seemed to merge into one continuous purr of plastic, like the sound of a million dominoes falling. (p.125)

Not only is the plot gripping and enthralling, but sentence by sentence, Harris’s prose is a delight to read. Easy, limpid, intelligent, imaginative.

The book reeks of intelligence, a profound understanding of the processes of politics, a solid grasp of the social and political scene in the terror-wary 2000s. This is the second time I’ve read it and, like all Harris’s novels, I can imagine giving it a few years, and then rereading it again, for the pure intellectual pleasure of engaging with such a smart and savvy author.


Dramatis personae

  • The unnamed narrator – a seasoned, good humoured ghost writer
  • Kate –  his left-wing girlfriend, formerly a member of the Labour Party, who now hates Adam Lang
  • Marty Rhinehart – head of a multinational publishing corporation which spent a $10 million advance on Lang’s memoirs, who’s loaned his house out to Lang as a bolthole to work on the memoirs
  • John Maddox – scarily bullish chief executive of Rhinehart Inc.
  • Roy Quigley – 50-ish, senior editor at Rhinehart Publishing (UK Group Editor-in-Chief) who we see almost get sacked
  • Sidney Kroll – Lang’s sharp Washington attorney
  • Nick Riccardelli – the narrator’s hussling agent
  • Adam Lang – former British Prime Minister
  • Ruth Lang – his clever scheming wife
  • Mike McAra – former staffer for Lang, who spent two years doing preparatory research for his boss’s autobiography, then mysteriously disappeared off a ferry, presumed suicide
  • Amelia Bly – Lang’s elegant, blonde, over-made-up personal assistant, who, it becomes clear, Lang is having an affair with
  • Richard Rycart – former Foreign Secretary under Lang, now a rather vainglorious member of the UN, it is he who sends the International Criminal Court the documents implicating Lang in the kidnapping (‘rendition’) of four Muslim terror suspects
  • Professor Emmett – CIA agent who was sent to Cambridge in the 1970s to recruit rising stars, and recruited Ruth Lang

The movie

The movie was directed by no less a luminary than Roman Polanski. It is astonishingly faithful to the novel, featuring almost the identical scenes and much of the original dialogue, which shows how focused and lean Harris’s writing is. The most obvious change is that whereas Lang is assassinated by a (white English) suicide bomber in the novel, the same angry character assassinates him using a sniper rifle in the movie. I think the bomb is more fitting / ironic / poetical, and explains why the narrator is laid up in hospital for a while afterwards. People being shot are ten a penny in American movies, as in American life.

I watched it with my son (18), who hadn’t read the book, was thoroughly gripped by the narrative’s slow building of tension and fear, and then amazed at the final revelation that it was Ruth all along.

Credit

The Ghost by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 2007. All quotes and references are to the 2008 Arrow Books paperback edition.

Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

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