Marxism and aestheticism

Despite Marx’s throwaway remark, Capital is not a ‘work of art’, argues Rex Dunn

In his biography of Karl Marx, Francis Wheen quotes from a letter which Marx wrote to Engels on July 31 1865. In this he mentioned his long awaited manuscript, which we now know as Capital volume 1:

There are three more chapters to be written to complete the theoretical part … But I cannot bring myself to send anything off until I have the whole thing in front of me. Whatever shortcomings they may have, the advantage of my writings is that they are an artistic whole …

Wheen comments:

Another letter, a week later, refers to the book as a “work of art” and cites “artistic considerations” as a reason for his delay in submitting the manuscript. Had Marx wished to produce a straightforward text of classical economics, rather than a work of art, he could have done so.1

That is precisely what Marx had done about a month earlier: in June 1865, he delivered two lectures, “later published as Value, price and profit”, which provide “a lucid précis of his conclusions”.

But I do not agree with Marx’s claim, because it contradicts his own aesthetic ideas (see below). This is despite the fact that he uses both literary devices and allusions to great effect. Yet most of the book is written in a plain, matter-of-fact style, which is appropriate for a scientific work requiring a great deal of empirical data, such as official reports by the Children’s Employment Commission, HM Inspectors of Factories and Public Health Reports.

Yet even from this standpoint, some people find Capital difficult to read. Engels himself criticised the first completed manuscript, saying,

How could you leave the outward structure … in its present form? The fourth chapter is almost 200 pages long and only has four sections. Furthermore, the train of thought is constantly interrupted by illustrations, and the point to be illustrated is never summarised after the illustration, so that one is forever plunging straight from the illustration of one point into the exposition of another point. It is dreadfully tiring, and confining too, if one is not all attention.2

By contrast, William Morris said that, at first reading, he “thoroughly enjoyed the historical part”, but confessed to suffering “agonies of confusion of the brain over reading the pure economics of that great work”.3

But why did Marx say that his masterpiece is a “work of art”? Why not stick to a scientific approach, based on categories of knowledge and the objectivity of concepts, as well as empirical data (as he had done earlier in those two lectures)? Perhaps he was expressing an atavistic lapse into his youthful past, since he had started out writing philosophical poetry. As Mikhail Lifshitz says in his book, The philosophy of art of Karl Marx,

the temptation remained with him for many years ... The conflict between his urge to write poetry and the stern necessity of finding an answer in the field of science to the problems of life constituted the first crisis in Marx’s intellectual development.4

After years of work, perhaps he had an irresistible desire to indulge himself in a bit of creative writing; because the aesthetic impulse was “part of his nature” (as he would later say about the poet, John Milton).

To return to Wheen’s biography, he observes:

Some German reviewers of the first edition accused Marx of “Hegelian sophistry”, a charge to which he happily pleaded guilty: ... “But … when I was working on the first volume of Capital, the ill-humoured, arrogant and mediocre epigones who now talk large in educated German circles began to take pleasure in treating Hegel ... as a ‘dead dog’. I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker, and even, here and there in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with a mode of expression peculiar to him.”5

But Wheen gives us a more compelling reason for Marx’s literary endeavours: “he is taking on ‘the delusive nature of things’ - a subject which cannot be confined within an existing genre, such as political economy, anthropological science or history”.6 When it comes to the question of the “delusive nature of things”, the bourgeois political economists, such as Adam Smith and Ricardo, were unable to throw any light on the subject. So Marx had to go beyond the dry achievements of bourgeois economics, because “Empirical measurements could never quantify the human cost of exploitation and estrangement.”

Literary devices and allusions

Against the stream of plain facts and figures, Marx’s creative moments are like diamonds in an old watch mechanism. His use of literary devices range from irony, hyperbole and satire to absurdism, often combined with metaphor - along with numerous references to the great writers of the past: eg, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Lawrence Stern, Dickens, etc. As for his use of metaphor, taking his cue from the gothic novel, Marx describes capital as “dead labour”, “big with value”; a “live monster that is fruitful and multiplies”. Later he adds that “vampire-like, [it] only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks”.7 This is a useful device for any theoretician, since it vividly encapsulates a view of what is real, without the need for a long explanation.

Here are a few examples. An obvious starting point is Marx’s famous introduction to the commodity in chapter one:

A commodity appears, at first sight, as a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.

This is because under its rule we have “a definite relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things”. It is analogous to “the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world”:

In that world, the productions of the human brain appear as independent things endowed with life, and enter into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is with the world of commodities. This I call the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour.8

In chapter 2 he personifies the commodity, switching between the worker and the capitalist, whom he mockingly calls “our friend”. In chapter 6, he discusses the buying and selling of labour-power. Now he introduces another gothic metaphor: ie, an upper world of appearances and a murky underworld, where we will find the hidden workings of capital:

Accompanied by Mr Moneybags and by the possessor of labour-power, … [we] take leave for a time this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face: “No admittance except on business.”9

In chapter 10, which is about the working day, Marx compares capital to “Shylock, clinging to the letter of the law of 1844”. But there was a loophole in it, which allowed employers to “keep the children at work with male adults … until 8.30 pm. There were protests, but capital answered: “My deeds upon my head! I crave the law. The penalty and forfeit of my bond.”10

On the other hand, Marx was not afraid to provide examples of real individual workers, who suffered from the harshness and indifference of the capitalist class, whilst the latter goes on bended knee to please royalty. Cue the story of Mary Anne Walkley, a 20-year-old girl who died “from simple overwork” after labouring uninterruptedly for more than 26 hours, making millinery for the guests at a ball given by the Princess of Wales in 1863.11 More often than not, Marx eschews literary devices and allusions in favour of reality, because the truth is worse than fiction!

To bring us up to date, near the end of Capital volume 1, in chapter 25, there is a section on globalisation: ie, the free movement of capital and labour across borders, as a means to reduce labour costs and maximise profits. But the system is a moving contradiction. To illustrate this, Marx alludes to Cervantes’ novel, Don Quixote. As soon as “adverse circumstances” arise, “Sancho Panza rebels against the ‘sacred’ law of supply and demand, and tries to check its inconvenient action by forcible means and state interference.”12 Cue protectionism and Donald Trump’s introduction of tariffs against China and the European Union in 2018!

Finally, at the end of chapter 32, where he is talking about the historical tendency within capitalist accumulation, Marx uses another famous metaphor: “capitalist production begets … its own negation” - the proletariat. Therefore the bourgeoisie produces “its own gravediggers”. We shall have to wait and see.

But the many years it took Marx to complete Capital came at an enormous personal cost, contributing to his ill health - carbuncles, bad liver and all. Hence Wheen quotes Jenny Marx:

There can be few books that have been written in more difficult circumstances. If the workers had an inkling of the sacrifices that were necessary for this work, which was only written for them and for their sakes,…they would perhaps show a little more interest.13

Like Marx, but in a different way, given the unequal division of labour within the Marx household, Jenny also suffered undue hardship. As his first secretary, she had to decipher her husband’s work; otherwise the publisher would have found it impossible to read Marx’s disorganised and almost illegible scrawl. At the same time, she had to perform her household chores and look after the children, like a good Victorian housewife.

Marx’s ideas about art

When we compare Marx’s claim that Capital is a work of art with his aesthetic ideas, it does not stand up! He must have been elated by the knowledge that the long and painful gestation of his magnum opus was nearly over. Therefore it is conceivable that, for a moment, he might have forgotten the complexity of his own thought. In order to place Marx’s ideas about art in their proper context, there are two main points to consider:

1. Essentialism (in a materialist form) underpins all his thinking.

2. His entire intellectual output must be considered as a coherent whole, within which the future of humanity is central.

Early on he describes the human as a “species being”, who “makes himself practically and theoretically”; whose telos or final end is “the realm of true freedom” (although this necessary development of the species can be frustrated by accident). Art is bound up with this. It also has its own telos: the achievement of art’s autonomy, which is an expression of mankind’s innate desire for “freedom and fulfilment” at the highest level. This leads us to the concept of homo aestheticus.

But there is a problem with Marx’s ideas about art: they are not contained in a single, coherent work. Rather, they are scattered throughout his oeuvres. Because his ideas were never written down in a single work, the idea that a Marxist theory of aesthetics is both possible and necessary is disputed by many. (Some poststructuralists argue that “art has no history”.14) It now behoves me to tease out the main themes outlined here.

Marx’s essentialist approach to philosophy, as opposed to atomism, is explained in Scott Meikle’s book, Essentialism in the thought of Karl Marx. He points out that Democritus and Epicurus saw reality as “atomistic small bits, which combine and repel in a void”, but they would have had a “hard job accounting for the persisting natures of things on that basis”. On the other hand, Aristotle realised that we need to have “a category of form (or essence), because what a thing is, and what things of its kind are, cannot possibly be explained in terms of their constituent matter (atoms), since that changes, while the entity retains its nature and identity over time”.15 Aristotle is Marx’s starting point.

Like Marx, he was an optimist, which he extends to the entire cosmos; in the sense that “Things are always moving toward their full completeness”. The acorn is not destined to become an oak tree, because it might fall on barren ground. But its teleology - ie, “end” or “purpose” - is to grow into an “adult and fully formed oak tree”.16 Marx, of course, approaches Aristotle from the standpoint of materialism: ie, there is no need for a guiding intelligence. On this basis he sees societies “as whole entities”. They have their own categories, which we need to deploy in order to understand them - in particular, the changes that they undergo. Marx also introduces other Aristotelian categories, such as entity and form; form and content; necessary and accidental change; decay and transition; as well as the final form or telos of a given entity - be that a mode of production or humanity itself.

This is nowhere clearer than in his treatment of the value form, which is at the heart of capital. His treatment begins with an essence in embryo - ‘The elementary or accidental form of value’ - and proceeds through a series of necessary metamorphoses of the form, until it finally universalises itself over the whole of society with the attainment of the final form, capital, where the supply of social labour itself has the value-form thrust upon it. The metamorphoses are necessary, not in being inevitable (they cannot be, since accident can frustrate development), but as being realisations of potential in the very value-form itself.17

Barring historical accidents, the telos of the value form is linked to that of humanity itself:

Universal social interconnections in an alienated and fetishised form, the [attainment of] the world [capitalist] market [by the end of the 19th century] furnishes the possibility of having universal social interconnections without the alienated form: ie, the possibility of mankind gaining conscious control over the universal social interconnection he has created; ie, a society of freely associated producers according to a commonly agreed plan.18

We first come across this train of thought in Marx’s 1844 Economic and philosophical manuscripts (EPM), which also forms an integral part of Marx’s ideas about art. As Terry Eagleton says in his preface to Mikhail Lifshitz’s book, The philosophy of art of Karl Marx,

Art … is powerless by itself to emancipate men struggling within class society, and yet, even within the present, can provide powerful images of such emancipation. In the EPM, Marx seems to see a prefiguring of the refined and intensified senses of men liberated from historical alienation; but he insists too that only by an objective development of human nature will such a “wealth of subjective human sensuality” be released.19

One of the first occasions when Marx talks about communism is in the third manuscript of his EPM: “Communism is the positive supersession of private property”, which will lead to “the resolution of the conflict between man and nature, between man and man … between objectification and self-affirmation, between freedom and necessity, between individual and species.”20

In The German ideology (1846), Marx and Engels continue this idea by calling for an end to the bourgeois division of labour, which reinforces man’s “objectification”, because, as Marx says in the EPM, it depresses the worker “both intellectually and physically”: it reduces him/her to a mere cog in the machine for the purpose of the “accumulation of capitals”:

In the present epoch, [we have] the domination of material conditions over individuals, and the suppression of individuality by chance, … thereby setting existing individuals a very definite task ... the abolition of private property and of [the bourgeois] division of labour [as the] union of individuals by modern productive forces and world intercourse ... With communist society … the original and free development of individuals ceases to be a mere phrase.21

It is only in this context that we can understand Marx’s and Engel’s famous statement:

With a communist organisation of society, there disappears the subordination of the artist to local and national narrowness, … also the subordination of the artist to some definite art, thanks to which he is exclusively a painter, sculptor, etc ... In a communist society there are no painters, but at most people who engage in painting among other activities.22

Under communism, despite the abolition of the bourgeois division of labour, apart from necessary labour, which is freely associated labour, people will continue to make ‘impractical’ art objects. We need to bear this in mind when we consider Marx’s famous statement in Capital volume 3, written many years later. As Lifshitz explains,

Communist society removes not only the abstract contradiction between ‘work and pleasure’; … also the very real contradiction between feeling and reason, between “the play of bodily and mental powers” and “the conscious will”.

Together with the abolition of classes, and the gradual disappearance of the contradiction between physical and spiritual labour, comes the

all-sided development of the whole individual ... Only communist society, in which “the associated producers regulate their interchange with nature rationally, bring it under their common control, instead of being ruled by some blind power”, can establish the material basis for “the development of human power which is its own end, the true realm of freedom” … The shortening of the working day is its fundamental premise.23

Homo Aestheticus

Under a communist organisation of society, everyone will have sufficient leisure time - along with an all-rounded education - to engage in free labour in order to produce impractical objects (aesthetic value), in accordance with individual aptitude. This goes way beyond necessary labour, even though the latter is now freely undertaken to produce practical objects (which may include an aesthetic ‘input’), along with technology and machines that can be used to produce them, in order to make life easier (ie, production of use value). Necessary labour also includes intellectual labour to advance human knowledge and solve problems: eg, in the field of philosophy or science and technology.

Art evolved as a separate activity through different modes of production, which culminated in the bourgeois epoch, wherein we have the production of impractical art objects - an activity which has now become an end in itself, not a means to an end. Hence we arrive at the concept of art’s autonomy. Art, which is “the free play of physical and psychical activities”, cannot drive purely intellectual labour, such as philosophy, mathematics or science. The primary motive of the philosopher, the scientist or mathematician is not to create beautiful objects, but to extend human knowledge, solve problems, etc. A mathematical formula, etc, may exhibit a certain beauty of form, but this is not intentional. It is for others to discover, as long as they possess an aesthetic awareness (which is innate, but also needs cultivation). The same applies when we see things in nature: When we hear Robert Browning’s thrush singing its song, we may think it is beautiful; but it does not do so for that reason.

Art’s autonomy was an achievement of the bourgeois epoch, but this was very one-sided. The market is the culprit. On the one hand, it transforms art into a commodity. At the same time, the artist is cut off from his/her audience. The pricing of the artefact now becomes the foremost factor. The old community of interests, values, tastes and knowledge is replaced by a depersonalising process. Therefore the artist comes under pressure to produce in accordance with the tastes which are set by the market and its buyers.

On the other hand, the producers of other commodities - the workers - are separated from the producers of art objects. They also lack the education and leisure time, as well as the money, to appreciate art, which is now produced by “a remote spectrum of experts”. Finally, because art cannot escape commodification, we have the fetishisation of the art object, which has acquired a ‘cult’ status, including secular works. This is because the art object doubles up as an exchange value, which supersedes its intrinsic value as a work of art. Thus art’s autonomy comes under attack, because both producers and consumers lose sight of the fact that art should be based on a form of labour which is a “free activity of the spirit”.

Marx refers to this problem in his Theory of value (published after his death). In one section, he compares John Milton to a journalist hack: Milton is described as an unproductive labourer, because he wrote Paradise lost “for the same reason that a silk worm produces silk”:

It was an activity of his nature … But the literary proletarian of Leipzig, who fabricates books under the direction of his publisher, is a productive labourer; for his product from the outset is subsumed under capital, and comes into being only for the purpose of increasing that capital.24

However, the degradation of art has moved on since Marx’s time. The erstwhile artist has to contend with the mass consumerist/mass media society, on the one hand, and the art market, on the other. The artist and his audience receive a stream of images every day from the mass media, which also plays a role in the rise of modern celebrity:

Fame [once] stood for a social agreement about what was worth doing; hence the traditional pairing of fama and what the Renaissance called virtu, ‘prowess or accomplishment’. [But today] the celebrity … is famous for being famous - nothing else; hence his gratuitousness and disposability. The artist who understood this best and became known for understanding it was Andy Warhol.25

Meanwhile, the art industry, including its cherished art institutions - eg, the Museum of Modern Art in New York or the Tate Modern in London - behaves like this:

On November 15 2017 Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi was sold at a Christie’s (New York) auction for $450 million - “the highest sum ever commanded by a painting”.

A painting sold for half a billion dollars - everybody got rich, and a good time was had by all. The lawyers and accountants and shippers and storage managers got their crumbs. The media covered the event like the spectacle it was.26

Consider the artist-provocateur, Banksy (net worth: £20 million). In a recent stunt, allegedly to undermine the art market, just as his ‘Girl with a balloon’ (an example of low-grade art) was sold at Sotherby’s (for $1.4 million), a built-in device shredded the picture - but only halfway. So now it is worth more than it was before - which reinforces the commodification of art. Therefore Banksy’s stunt helps to exacerbate the degradation of art, as well as the erosion of its autonomy.

The task of freeing art from the commodity form - which is the antithesis of art, as Marx sees it - remains. But without a renewal of the social revolution, the art entity will go into terminal decline, which asks questions about the future of mankind as a ‘species being’.

Aesthetic realisation

Basing himself on Marx’s aesthetic ideas, the aesthetician, Stefan Morawski, reminds us that the need for “aesthetic realisation” is a “fundamentally human value”, because it is the “source of both present and potential harmonious formal value”. But in order to achieve this there has to be a unity of form (Gestalt) and content (Gehalt) within the artwork - even if it is tendency art, which has both an “artistic-cognitive and ideological dimension”.27

Consider the work of the Russian avant garde, many of whom were transformed by the revolution: ie, they wanted to participate in building a new socialist society. El Lissitsky’s poster, ‘Beat the whites with the red wedge’ (1919-20), is a wonderful example of this. The artist works under conditions of alienated labour and human social relations, but he/she can also engage in disalienated labour. As long as the artist responds to the human desire for ‘freedom and fulfilment’, he/she is an unproductive labourer - the harbinger of homo aestheticus in a future communist society, in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”. This “includes the prospect of every person realising his or her specific artistic aptitudes, which all will command”. On the other hand, more and more artists see themselves as merely productive labourers, who are willing to be subsumed under capital, etc.

The following is derived from Marx and Engels on literature and art (1974), edited by Stefan Morawski and Lee Baxandall:

In his EPM, Marx writes that, unlike animals, man “forms things in accordance with the laws of beauty”. Nature provided the springboard, although human creativity goes beyond this. But this depends on the individual’s position within the division of labour: “The most beautiful music conveys no meaning to the unmusical ear - is no object for it, because [his/her] object can only be the confirmation of [his/her] essential powers”, which are subjective. For these to develop, there must be an “objectively unfolded richness of man’s essential being … an eye for the beauty of form - in short, senses capable of human gratification; senses confirming themselves as essential powers of man, either cultivated or brought into being. For not only the five senses, but also the … mental senses, [including] the practical senses (will, love, etc) - in a word, the human sense, the humanness of the senses - comes to be by virtue of its object, by virtue of humanised nature. The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present. The sense caught up in crude practical need has only a restricted sense ...”

Re man’s essential powers and his species activity, “We have before us the objectified essential powers of man in the form of sensuous, alien, useful objects, in the form of estrangement, displayed in ordinary material industry.” As for science, it “airily abstracts from this a large part of human labour and … fails to understand its own incompleteness, while such a wealth of human endeavour unfolded before it means nothing more than … “need”, “vulgar need”.28

Here we see the telos of humanity. This is linked to the development of class society, along with that of art, for which the former has to be abolished, so that humanity can achieve our full potential as a species being, as homo aestheticus. There is also a clear distinction vis-à-vis the needs of science, which are strictly practical - a means to an end ...

In a letter to Lassalle, a political activist-come-playwright, in 1859, Marx criticises his play, Franz von Sickingen. He did not do so because of its leftwing political tendency - ie, its content - but because it was deficient in the aesthetic sense - ie, its form - which both Marx and Engels regard as “the primary constituent of any work of art” (Morawski). The latter has to be “competently disposed”, which enables the content to “shine brightly through”. Form is therefore the very basis of art. It is also a means whereby art can distance itself from reality, in order to critique the latter more effectively - albeit subjectively, by means of the artist’s individual style. This is not the case with philosophy or science, wherein the objectivity of concepts are of paramount importance.

In a letter to Margaret Harkness (friend of Eleanor Marx) in 1888, Engels addresses the question of realism in art. Here he turns to Balzac, whom he describes as “a far greater master of realism” than German Tendenzdrama; because he is concerned with being truthful to detail, based on “typical characters under typical circumstances”. When he describes French society during the 1820s, “Balzac is compelled to go against his own class sympathies and political prejudices, [because] he saw the necessity of the downfall of his favourite nobles, and described them as people deserving [their fate].”29

To sum up, if we take Marx’s theory and practice in the round, then we have the basis for a Marxist theory of aesthetics. Under communism, whilst the need for freely associated labour to produce necessary wants decreases, thanks to mechanisation and the shortening of the working day, more human beings will still want to make ‘impractical’ art objects in their spare time. By so doing, they will be multi-skilled, able to combine their creative talents with technology, and will be freed from advertising and commercial restraints, etc. This is because artistic labour, in this sense, is the highest expression of “the human desire for freedom and fulfilment”, which is what makes us unique as a “species being”. Thus we begin to understand the concept, homo aestheticus; it is when the telos of man and art become one. But, once again, this may be frustrated by accident!

Meanwhile we can forgive Marx the occasional lapse, since he was human like the rest of us. When he said that Capital is “a work of art”, it was the voice of the inner poet trying to be heard - a throwback to his youth. But this runs contrary to the development of his theory and praxis, as a philosopher sui generis. If Capital is a “work of art”, it lacks unity of form and content. An aesthetic sensibility is certainly evident, but only intermittently. This is because Marx’s primary concern was to produce a scientific analysis of the workings of capital, which would otherwise remain hidden from view. Therefore we need to study it thoroughly in order to understand reality.

To do so, a knowledge of Marx’s aesthetic ideas is not essential. But, at some stage, we need to grasp the latter as well, if we are to understand Marx fully - which is another challenge!



1. F Wheen Karl Marx London 1999, p302. The fact that Marx uses the phrase ‘work of art’ suggests that he meant art which is produced by artists, who have their own sphere within the bourgeois division of labour, as opposed to skilled work.

2. Ibid p312.

3. Ibid.

4. M Lifshitz The philosophy of art of Karl Marx London 1973, p13.

5. F Wheen Karl Marx London 1999, p310.

6. Ibid p304.

7. K Marx Capital Vol 1, London 1992, p143.

8. Ibid p32.

9. Ibid p103.

10. Ibid pp166-67.

11. Ibid p150.

12. Ibid p355.

13. F Wheen Karl Marx London 1999, p313.

14. J Roberts Art has no history! London 1994. He writes: “The extensive influence of poststructuralism on all schools of art history has brought about a widespread derogation of questions around intentionality and social agency. Free-ranging textual interpretation has come to outweigh causal analysis. Art has no history! reverses this bias. Putting the artist back into art history, the essays reinstate the claims for historical materialism as a theory of the conflictual socialisation of individuals.”

15. S Meikle Essentialism in the thought of Karl Marx London 1985, p9.

16. See the introduction by Trevor J Saunders to Aristotle’s Politics London 1981, p36.

17. M Lifshitz The philosophy of art of Karl Marx London 1973, p10.

18. Ibid p139.

19. Ibid p8.

20.K Marx Economic and philosophical manuscripts London 1975, p348.

21. K Marx and F Engels The German ideology London 1974, pp117-18.

22. Ibid p109.

23. M Lifshitz The philosophy of art of Karl Marx London1973, p115-16.

24. II Rubin Essays on Marx’s theory of value Montreal 1982, pp262-63.

25. R Hughes The shock of the new London 1991, p346.

26. G Adam Dark side of the boom: the excesses of the art market in the 21st century London 2018. See my article, ‘Understanding the dark side’ Weekly Worker June 7 2018.

27. Marx and Engels on literature and art: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/subject/art/index.htm.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.