Max Raphael and a Marxist perspective on art (Part 1)

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By starting a new heading of ‘Readers’ Contributions’ on our website, and occasionally in our paper, we hope to encourage our readers and sympathisers to write texts and articles which can go into greater depth than is possible in our discussion forum, and so stimulate a longer term reflection. These articles, while being broadly based on proletarian politics, need not fully represent the positions of the ICC, or may deal with issues on which the ICC does not have a collective view. The question of art is clearly such an issue, and we welcome Boxer’s effort to deepen our understanding of the marxist approach to humanity’s creative productions.

The main purpose of this article is to bring the work of Max Raphael into the field of contemporary marxist attention and discussion where it belongs. The bourgeoisie calls many of its intellectuals “marxist”, which not only serves to give them a sheen of credibility but usually helps to debase genuine marxist contributions. Many learned individuals have important things to say around the various ideological spheres that have grown up around society and this is to be expected. But unlike the bourgeois “marxists” who pronounce on the ideologies of the ruling class, the views of Max Raphael are very clear on the necessity of the revolutionary overthrow of a corrupt and destructive capitalism by independent working class action, and this fact alone leads us to express an interest in trying to understand his works. Raphael wrote dozens of books and many more papers on art, mostly in French and German with a few in English. He said that if one wanted to understand his views on art then all of them should be read. We can’t do that or even approach it, but we can draw out some elements in order to give us a deeper perspective on art within a framework of the workers’ movement.

Art is a difficult question for marxists and this is reflected in the lack of positions from the political sphere in general, often in the face of much more pressing necessities. It is difficult and complex but it is an important part of society and elements of it have been covered by marxism, including Trotsky, by the ICC drawing out some salient points in its “Communism” series and in the excellent text by MH on this website, “Notes towards a history of art in ascendant and decadent capitalism”[1] which also refers to these previous contributions. In fact a short quote from Trotsky’s “Art and Politics in our epoch”[2], mentioned in MH’s text, indicates how Raphael approaches the question of art. The framework of the quote from Trotsky, quite correctly, is the drive towards destruction by decaying capitalism of everything that’s been built up within it, including art; an art, according to Trotsky, which will be destroyed “as Grecian art rotted beneath the ruins of a culture based on slavery”. Now while the content of the quote is apt in the framework of decay, it’s obviously not the actual case that Grecian art rotted beneath the ruins of Greek society. On the contrary, it persisted with strength, became incorporated into artistic developments and was revived again and again and still fascinates us today. Trotsky himself points to the complexity of the issue in his 1923 Communist Policy Towards Art: “ must make its own way by its own means”. This begins to point to the nub of the problem: what is the relationship of this ideological sphere which is art to the economic substructure of society[3]? This is the question that Max Raphael addresses over all his works; it is his mission to try to address it in all its glory. In his text MH clearly shows the relationship between an ascendant capitalism that used art to decorate and promote the consolidation of its dictatorship, and its decay which turned what art there was mostly into trash.

Marx, in a profound quote below, puts the whole question of the relation of the ideology (art) to the economic and political substructure (the productive basis) to the test and Raphael takes up the problem posed from here applying the marxist method to it with some rigour.

Who was Max Raphael?

Max Raphael was born in Germany in 1889 and studied philosophy and art at university. He also studied some of the writings of the workers’ movement including Marx and Engels. He was conscripted into the German army for the First World War and there are reports that he deserted in 1917. He led an austere and difficult life, suffered racial and political persecution and held no official academic position in the art world from whose cultural hierarchies he was completely isolated. In the 1920’s he was kicked out of Berlin’s Volkshochule after the directorate heard that his unofficial lectures on art included dialectical materialism. Despite, or rather because of, the unparalleled contribution that he was making to a critique of art and society he, as one later art commentator described, “scourged” the art institutions of both the democratic west and The Palace of Soviets. All sides treated him with suspicion and it was just a small group of friends and unofficial pupils that kept his work alive. He fled persecution in Germany in the 30’s for France where he met Picasso, Matisse and Rodin in Paris, but he never owned a work of art. He made visits to Sicily and Greece, where he studied Doric architecture and visited many art galleries, which he described as “mausoleums”. He was interned twice in France in camps for Jews and dissidents and after the second time fled to America where, living on his wife’s wages as a cleaner in New York City, he committed suicide in 1952. Some of his statements could be taken as support for anti-fascism but he was pursued by the Nazis in Paris and his critique of Picasso’s Guernica, an artist whom he called “the greatest of our time”, by no means follow the anti-fascist narrative. His study of Guernica, when it was on loan to New York, took days and he literally studied it from every angle. He was daring and thorough in his analyses and his starting point was both the general historical conditions, what was the weight of their application to the art produced and, from another direction within the ideology, what is the intrinsic nature of the artist, the effect of society on him, his materials and the work of art itself?[4]. Going from the single artist, the weight of society on the individual and the original “idea” for a work, how do you also factor in the developing altered state of consciousness that grips the artist?  On the ferment within the artist, Raphael, in his The Demands of Art, quotes Paul Cezanne, an artist who pretty much had his feet on the ground, on his state of mind when painting: “I am in such a state of cerebral agitation, in an agitation so great, that at one point I was afraid it would engulf my reason” (Letter to Emile Barnard while painting the landscape of Mont Sainte-Victoire. Cezanne, incidentally, despised capitalism and talked of the future emergence of “a truly revolutionary art”. How do you square all this? How do you take all these factors, subjective and objective, into account? The answers to these questions lie in the complexity of their dialectical relations.  Art won’t change the world and Raphael is clear that this task belongs to other forces. But the struggle to understand art is for him part of “the struggle for a social order in which everyone will have the fullest opportunity to develop their creative capacities”[5]. At the end of the section on Picasso, in his book Proudhon, Marx, Picasso[6], Raphael talks about the inability of the modern artist to be able to express any revolutionary content in an “... epoch torn apart by contradictions” -and how could they when stuck within a bourgeois framework? Raphael is referring to Picasso in this next quote from the same work but his words here have a much wider resonance: “Thus, what has not yet been born is in a sense already outmoded, for the motive force of history is already on the other side of the barricade. The mere fact that there is a proletariat conscious of its class and struggling for it – however little this fact has entered the artist’s consciousness and sphere of experience – already today deeply influences the subconscious of the intellectual worker. The need for a new, integral work of art adapted to a new social order, makes itself felt in all his creations. But all the convulsions and all the individual sufferings of a bourgeois genius will be inadequate to meet this need”.

The “eternal charm” of Greek art

With Trotsky’s quotes above, which Raphael is unaware of as far as I can see, there’s a certain ambiguity towards art: that Greek art is “buried” but that art must also “find its own way”, the latter implying some sort of independent existence.  This, I think, is representative of the fitful approach that, by necessity, marxism has taken towards the development of art. Engels recognised the problem of the question of the relations of the superstructure, art in this case, to the economic core. To make the issue more complex – and ultimately more rewarding – then the superstructures, the ideologies of society do not have the same relationship to the base but, further, have complex relationships between themselves. Raphael quotes Engels in this respect: “... In the first instance we all laid, and were bound to lay, the main emphasis on the derivation of political, juridical and other ideological notions, and of actions arising through the medium of these notions, from economic facts. But at the same time we have on account of the content neglected the formal side the manner in which these notions, etc., come about”[7]. Engels regularly returns to this question in the 1890’s in his correspondence with Paul Ernst, Joseph Bloch, W. Borgius and Conrad Schmidt – all quoted by Raphael in the section on Marx in Proudhon, Marx, Picasso. For Engels the relationship of art to the political economy is one that cannot be charted easily and mechanically. There is a relationship but it doesn’t take a parallel course: it diverges, moves in zigzags, can be far apart or closer but, generally, over the course of time the relationship exerts itself. The nature of this relationship, the relationship between subject and form, matter and spirit, the levels that they reach in the totality of their relations, their interdependence or not, is the question that Max Raphael deals with in some detail.

 He quotes Marx in respect of the above: “In order to examine the connection between spiritual production and material production it is above all necessary to grasp the latter itself not as a general category but in its definite historical form. Thus for example different kinds of spiritual production correspond to the capitalist mode of production and to the mode of production of the Middle Ages. If material production itself is not conceived in its specifically historical form, it is impossible to understand what is specific in the spiritual production corresponding to it and the reciprocal relationship of one on the other. Otherwise one cannot get beyond inanities”[8].

From what I’ve read of Raphael he was greatly motivated by the statement from Marx in his introduction in Grundrisse where the problem is posed more clearly (in a sense): “But the difficulty lies not in understanding that Greek arts and epic are bound up with certain forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still afford us artistic pleasure and that in a certain respect they count as the norm and as an unattainable model.

A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But does he not find joy in a child’s naivety, and must he himself not strive to reproduce its truth at a higher stage? Does not the true character of each epoch come alive in the nature of its children? Why should not the historic childhood of humanity, its most beautiful unfolding, as a stage never to return, exercise an eternal charm? There are unruly children and precocious children. Many of the old peoples belong to this category. The Greeks were normal children. The charm of their art for us is not in contradiction to the underdeveloped stage of society on which it grew...”[9].  There’s a great deal in this quote but in relation to art this follows on from Marx’s statement a couple of paragraphs earlier in his introduction explaining that, in certain periods, the flowering of art is out of all kilter with the material foundation of society and its general development. “...certain periods of the highest development of art stand in no direct connection with the general development of society, nor with the material basis and skeletal structure of its organisation”. He further talks about the different elements in the domain of art itself and how they influence one another, and predates Raphael in saying that within this domain whatever hasn’t yet been born is already outmoded.

The negation of cause and effect by reciprocal action

There was very little motivation (and time) to move Marx and Engels in the direction of art but what they did say about the question takes us forward in leaps and bounds and particularly on the way we approach it. Idealist philosophy a la Proudhon is of no use here, relying as it does on its fundamental a priorism. In relation to the problem posed by Marx and the “eternal nature” of Greek art, founders of historical and dialectical materialism were not impelled to delve further into the question of art. Raphael writes in The Marxist Theory of Art:Moreover, those who wanted to treat these problems empirically had no exact science available to help them. Aesthetics was unusable, consisting as it does of a mixture of metaphysical deductions and empirical findings which are determined by the deductive method rather than by objective laws; on the other hand, the history of art, to the extent that one may be said to have existed, was concerned with a host of external manifestations rather than with the phenomenon of art itself”. Raphael himself finds aesthetic values useful for art in general with its “normative values” and the “aesthetic values” of play (and sexuality) in relation to art.

the study of the mind, right up to today, remains crude and the line between subjective emotion and scientific method difficult to draw. You could say that art developed in a certain aloof, autonomous manner “away” from society – in fact in one of his letters Engels uses the term “the relative autonomy of art”. More than that, art also has certain relationships with other ideologies as well as relationships within the different domains of art itself. Again Raphael quotes Engels: “Political, legal, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic, etc., development is based on economic development. But all these react upon one another and also upon the economic basis. It is not that the economic situation is cause and solely active, whereas everything else is only passive effect. On the contrary, interaction takes place on the basis of economic necessity, which ultimately always exerts itself”[10].

The “eternal charm” of Greek art in Marx’s 1857 introduction to Grundrisse, is a long way from, a lot more complex than Trotsky’s idea of Greek art being interred under ruins. And it is from this passage of Marx that Max Raphael sees the most important tool for building up a marxist theory of art. This passage from Marx is no simple statement but the posing of a fundamental problem and from it Raphael attempts to show that dialectical materialism can provide the way for going forward in the face of all the apparent contradictions. For him a detailed analysis of the statement by Marx “... will show that dialectical materialism, providing it is applied correctly, supplies us with the means for successfully overcoming all such initial obstacles as arise from social and individual factors, and for going forward to a theory and sociology of art. This method also enables us to eliminate the almost inevitable drawbacks of the initial situation, namely the fact that art and the pseudo-scientific method for dealing with it serve as a metaphysical refuge for the reactionary bourgeoisie and, at the same time, afflict all superficial, and hence dogmatic, Marxists with a kind of anxiety neurosis”[11]. If an “eternal charm” exists, despite changed historical, social and economic conditions, then there must be an eternal source to it. So the task for marxism is to produce something of an accurate analysis of the spiritual process that connects historical conditions with “eternal charms”; that is, according to Raphael, “the values created by mankind transcending the limits of a given epoch”. The problem remains unsolved. Marx excluded religion from communism because it sets limits on the creative ability of mankind and diverts action away from class struggle by preaching class collaboration. But he certainly saw art as part of a new society, because while it could also have an opiate effect it could also be a powerful weapon. Art is a synthesis of nature (with history) and the human mind and in its expression it acquires a certain autonomy from both.

Following Marx and Engels, there’s no vulgar “art comes from the economy” from Raphael.  For him there are three important questions posed by the quote from Marx above:

  • Myth as an intermediary in the move from the economic substructure to the ideology of art;
  • The lack of proportionality between economic and ideological development;
  • The “eternal charm” of an artistic expression whose economic foundations disappeared ages ago.

Mythology is a force created by mankind in order to try to subdue, control and affect the forces of nature. This is especially true of Greek mythology where the myths were accepted by the same people with the same cultural background, from the same economic order expressing a single collective character of the beginnings of the unconscious process from which art arises. Marx also said that mythology was an intermediate historically determined link which disappears when mankind gains mastery over nature; and in the section on Marx in his book Raphael goes into great detail about mythology. Greek mythology was a generally understood product of a single people’s imagination and its symbolic power is a bridge to a generally shared understanding. The symbol, for Raphael in The Demands of Art, “...for all its visible finitude, points to the infinite: it is a sensory synthesis of the finite and the infinite and hence has a character of necessity. Allegory (such as used by Picasso in Guernica for example, B) is merely a metaphor for the gulf between the two and hence always arbitrary. It leads to dogma rather than a dialogue between the self and the world”. Because of its specifics here this could be expressed with Greek art and not with Egyptian art for example, because the latter’s mythology was produced and mediated by a priestly caste. Later on, according to Raphael, Christianity and Christian art tried to join the forces of natural, popular development and priestly organisation. There’s no doubt about the assimilation and use of barbarian (i.e., non-civilised) art by Christianity and expressions of Christian art.

 All we’ve done here is taken a superficial view of Max Raphael’s analysis but they are nevertheless very important steps for beginning to develop a marxist view of art. I hope to return to these questions above, particularly the deeper elements of his book Proudhon, Marx, Picasso. But for now Marx saw Greek art as an expression of the “Historical childhood of humanity... its beautiful unfolding, as a stage never to return” expressing an “eternal charm”. How much more then does this apply to a much earlier “childhood” expression of art that Marx and Engels knew nothing about: Upper Palaeolithic cave art. We will look at this particular expression and Raphael’s analysis of it in the next part of this series.


Boxer, 4.2.15




[3] An explanation of the word “ideology” is necessary here. Raphael uses the term in relation to the domain of art in the same way that Marx and Engels use the term: ideology, in this case the ideology of art, is a superstructural element coming from the economic base in the same way that science, law, politics, philosophy, etc., are ideologies possessing elements of their own laws and history, affecting spheres within themselves, other ideologies and, to some extent, the economic base in a dialectical process. For Raphael, there is, following Marx, a relative independence of these ideological expressions and Engels talks of the “relative independence and relative autonomy of art” whose relationship to the economic base is neither mechanical nor linear but one which does ultimately assert itself as one of dependence.

The origins of art are obscure and inaccessible but it is very likely that they lie very much in the basic productions of society: clothes, shelter, food, etc. Art is part of humanity’s spiritual production with its dialectical relationship to material production.

For Marx the problem raised in this case is the dependence of spiritual production upon material production and Raphael (in Proudhon and the Sociology of Art says that “(for) Marx ideologies reflect material production in the human mind, the more or less illusory character of this reflection being ultimately determined by the class struggle”. The essential question posed by Marx in Grundrisse, and the one that Raphael begins to address, is that if there is an “eternal nature” to Greek art then what is its essence given that the economic basis of that society has long since passed?

Ideology in the marxist sense equals superstructure . The Italian communist left sometimes referred to marxism, historical materialism, as “ideology”. But what’s distinct about the ‘ideology’ of marxism - so distinct as to make the term ideology inadequate to describe it - is that it is the theory of class which has no need to mystify reality, and thus has a unique capacity to approach the relationships between ideology, ideologies and the economic base; and this is the work undertaken by Raphael in relation to art.

[4] In his book The Demands of Art, Raphael spends some 50 pages and six plates analysing one painting by Cezanne.


[6] Proudhon, Marx, Picasso Three Studies in the Sociology of Art, first published in 1933 in Paris and in English by Humanities Press in the US and Lawrence and Wishart in England, 1980.

[7] Frederick Engels, “Letter to Franz Mehring (July 1983), Selected Corresponence.

[8] Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Part 1, Moscow, 1963, p. 285.

[9] Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Penguin Books, 1973, p. 111.

[10] Engels, “Letter to Borguis”,  Selected Corresponence, pp 442-3.

[11] Max Raphael, Proudhon, Marx Picasso, p. 76.


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