A load of old Balzac

Is there such a thing as a 'Marxist art'? James Turley takes issue with Hillel Ticktin

It is to be welcomed that Hillel Ticktin is setting out his stall in terms of the Marxist method in the pages of the Weekly Worker. It often seems that the main expressions of Marxist political life, such as the 'official communists' and Trotskyists, either consider the matter settled (by their chosen dead guru) or ignore it entirely. Almost all the work on method goes on in academia - which is something at least, but Marxism has ambitions outside the publishing houses of Yale and Duke.

And one finds much with which to agree in the first of Hillel's articles ('For realism, for humanity', November 8). His two fundamental premises broadly check out - Marxism is realist (if the point is to "change the world", then there must be something we are to change); and if "starting from humanity" is a vague and slightly loaded phrase, it is not in itself untrue either (we shall return to the vexed question of precisely what it means).

Method and 'base'

It is unfortunate, then, that we are barely 500 words into the piece before he makes a real dog's dinner of the old question of 'base versus superstructure' - particularly with regard to art.

The problems really begin in the first paragraph: the Marxist method "applies only to political economy, its history and its philosophy - it would be absurd to argue that there is a Marxist physics, music, art or literature." Only, comrade Ticktin? This is a deeply problematic statement. Most Marxists (to say nothing of Marx and Engels themselves) have been labouring under the impression that there was, at the very least, a Marxist method in looking at the state - indeed, that is the crux of the ongoing dispute over the nature of the Stalinist countries.

Leaving aside the question of whether the political sphere is 'superstructural' in the same manner as - say - art, Ticktin agrees that the various elements of the superstructure maintain a "relative autonomy" (to put it in Louis Althusser's phrase). He writes, for example, that "the form of the surplus product ... [is] important for laws and the theory of laws, but the legal system has its own logic", in order to buttress his case for sealing the Marxist method into political economy. But this begs the question - when Marxists look at law, what are they? Are they Rawlsians? Schmittians?

The most fundamental problem with burying Marx in the economic base is that it runs the risk of separating the 'feedback' from the superstructure. Legal systems are not just a product of the essential laws of political economy plus their "own logic" - they have consequences for the economy itself. A class struggle fought at the level of the law that produces - say - more stringent penalties for employers whose negligence causes injuries at work will have consequences throughout the economic sphere. Marx himself dedicated several sections of Capital to examining the effect of the factory acts and 10-hour day on English industry - both won at the level of the state.

Ticktin himself admits all this further on - but he does not seem to draw the necessary conclusion: that a Marxist method of political economy and only of political economy is a contradiction in terms. The only way to get around this problem is to collapse everything into the economic in a vulgar way - but Ticktin takes it as axiomatic that you cannot; that things have their "own logic". This "own logic" is for Ticktin's Marxism, as female sexuality famously was for Freud, a "dark continent".

Method and 'superstructure'

Things get more, not less sticky when we turn to more unambiguously superstructural phenomena such as art. "Artists will transcend their background to reflect the real emotions and relations in the society, which in turn are determined by capitalism ... A reactionary like Balzac did in fact produce novels of great genius, as Marx noted. However, we should note that, although Balzac wanted to go back to before the French Revolution, his work is profoundly humanist and is a genuine reflection of the emotional and generally human problems faced by humankind."

Well, at least for art, we seem to have an answer to the question of what method should be employed in lieu of Marxism - Hillel comes out as a full-blooded romantic idealist!

There are two fundamental problems with this, which we may broadly call subjective and objective. The subjective problem is, precisely, the romantic view of artistic creation. Balzac-the-politician was reactionary, but as a "profound humanist" he is able to create, ex nihilo, works of genius. All this takes place on the subjective level of the artist; for a work of great genius to emerge, there has to be a genius (ie, someone with special access to the creative resources of great art: for Ticktin, "humanism") behind it. By reducing both sides of Balzac in this manner, we have no way for the objective factors of society to penetrate his work, except as a sort of backdrop-setting for his great understanding of the human condition.

The objective problem follows from this - it is not at all clear that Balzac's acuity for the "emotional and general human problems facing humankind" is at all an adequate explanation for the "genius" of the texts he wrote. Certainly there have been "works of great genius" which have no interest in "reflecting" anything to do with such problems - the most complicated, bizarre parts of Ulysses, in spite of Joyce's pretensions to the contrary, hold together only by sacrificing the very notion of problems that we all face. Various other classics have hinged on sexual difference, class conflict, cultural conflict and everything else. What, then, makes all these different sorts of works, well, work?

The fact is, the romantic idealism implicitly proposed by Ticktin as his approach to art is entirely inadequate. The subjective problem of the artist and the objective problem of the text have scuppered it as a serious approach, and indeed nobody in the field - let alone a Marxist - has taken it seriously since the 1920s. The solution, meanwhile, is one that only Marxism can bring to the table in any meaningful way - ideology. Ideology, according to Althusser, acts as the basic unconscious structure within which conscious social activity takes place.[1]

At a stroke, both problems disappear - the significance of a text, the "unity of feeling" it embodies, is ideology at work; therefore, it becomes meaningless to talk of great genius fighting with reactionary politics since, after all, both are produced by ideology. By operating as a mediator between the material conditions of society and individual consciousness, it is a fertile conceptual framework for examining the production of art.

The Althusser problem

It is in this light that Ticktin's attacks on Althusser are disingenuous. Much heat is expended in criticism of the formulation, "determination in the last instance" - "ridiculous", we are told. (We are not told, of course, that the phrase itself is Engels'[2].) It is too vague - "there is no meaning to 'last instance', or at any rate the term is so broad as to leave the concept of determination contentless". This, to borrow a catchphrase from our subject, is nonsense.

Althusser and the Althusserians produced a complex body of theory behind their view of social determination, expounded at length in Reading capital[3]. Further gaps were plugged by Althusser's seminal essay on 'Ideology and ideological state apparatuses'.[4]  Interestingly, even in his polemics against "socialist humanism", Althusser readily conceded that the latter was "constituted by a coherent system of precise concepts tightly articulated together", instead of straw-targeting it.[5]

However, if we follow Ticktin's view on the matter of determination, it is not clear that the same can be said for his own view. The economic base provides the "dynamic", and sets the boundaries within which the superstructural formations can operate, and the direction in which they move. However, in the sphere of art, a work can just blast off into social outer space, provided it is fuelled by sufficient "humanism". The extent to which art (or anything else) floats free (or can float free, at least) of the social is for Ticktin entirely unexplored beyond these vague statements; by way of contrast, the equivalent "grey area" in Althusser, as identified by Ticktin is, in reality, "a coherent system of precise concepts" - structural causation, overdetermination, ideology, etc - "tightly articulated together" - whatever one's view of its merits.

Ticktin's fundamentals revisited

The roots of all this confusion, in my view, require us to go right back to the beginning, to the premises of Marxism according to Ticktin. The second of these is:

"Marxism starts from humanity. Gramsci explicitly puts it in terms of a humanity looking at itself in its own interest; a humanity arising out of nature and operating within nature. On the one hand, we are looking at the operation of human society over time and trying to understand it. On the other hand, humanity is the highest expression of the universe - it is the cosmos become conscious of itself. That consciousness is not there in the beginning, as with a god, or with Hegel, but evolves in and through humanity."

As we have said, this is true as far as it goes - the problem is that it is true of almost every other philosophical method on earth. Liberal philosophy; conservative philosophy; even the radically anti-humanist philosophies of Nietzsche, Heidegger and the post-modernists all take as their presupposition the relatively banal fact that humans are sentient beings. Theologies are only excluded only on a theoretically insignificant technicality - humanity as the highest point of creation, as carriers of the holy spirit within the universe, is much the same as it being the "self-awareness of the cosmos". To claim this as the basis for the Marxist method is ultimately no more meaningful than a statement like 'The Marxist method is a method'.

What distinguishes Marxism from other methods is that it starts, not from humanity as such, but from human history - which is to say, in the words of the Manifesto, class struggle. There is a necessary corollary to this - every site of class struggle is the site of the Marxist method. Yes, there is, for example, a "Marxist theatre" and a "Marxist music" - Bertolt Brecht became the most influential dramaturge of the 20th century by explicitly adopting Marxist methods in the theatre; and avant-garde composers such as Hans Eisler worked closely with him to this end. We are not talking vulgar Zhdanovite trash here. (Conversely, the Stalinist bureaucracies, whatever their censorship of new art, were happy to subsume extant classics into an approved 'great humanist heritage' - particularly after Khrushchev's 'thaw'.)

To deny this outright from the start opens the door to the whimsical sort of views expressed by Ticktin on Balzac. To deny the Marxist method its proper scope leads to an eclecticism, explicit or implicit, of a qualitatively different order to the one Ticktin identifies in Ernest Mandel.


 1. L Althusser, ‘Ideology and ideological state apparatuses’ in Lenin and philosophy and other essays London 1971.
 2. Letter to Conrad Schmidt, October 27 1890: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1890/letters/90_10_27.htm. Admittedly the context is a discussion of trade laws.
 3. L Althusser et al Reading Capital London 1970, especially pp186-89.
 4. L Althusser, ‘Ideology and ideological state apparatuses’ op cit.
 5. L Althusser, ‘Marxism and humanism’ in For Marx London 2005.