Ergastulums and gallows: material work and social causality in the artistic work (part 1)

It is material work in its dialectical relationship with social causality, a condition ontologically prior to any intentionality, that will bring us closer to true art.

Modern dialectical materialism has definitively eliminated any teleological conception of social science. - G. Plekhanov

Today, are we facing idealistic fallacies? Just like the bourgeois anti-art of the 20th century.

The culture of our vulgar society ―let's call it postmodern[1]― contains certain artistic problems that, through the materialist theory of art (especially Plekhanov and Lunacharsky[2]) around social causality, we will try to elucidate only fleetingly and briefly and in a non conclusive way.

The immediate causality of material work in human consciousness and this back in spiritual production, ―that is, material work itself with its dialectical interactions with historical-social causality, as a necessary condition without which true art cannot exist― , is the basis from which this review starts.

The purpose of this reflection is to extend the scope of materialist aesthetics to analyze and to a certain extent combat the conformism and defeatist escapism that threaten contemporary artistic production, an activity that, in our days more than ever, is extraordinarily flat and foolish.

The fact that a confrontation is manifest between social antagonists is crystal clear. Likewise, a curtain of fog is cast around the fundamental question of whether the artistic is, or should be, an integral part of this struggle.

The artist by example stimulates us to act in life, by putting his idea into practice through "useful" work that he performs in the same material reality that, together with him, directs our efforts towards the transformation of nature and society, ultimately of reality.

The artist is not only an intellectual, he is also a worker. Art ceases to be art if it only communicates ideas. It is when they become matter through work, that is, it is in objectified work where the artistic exists - as a condition that there is a causality with reality - the nodal point of materialist aesthetics.

How pervasive is the materialist aesthetic in the Engelsian doctrine of the transformation of the ape into man on material work with special application in the origins of art? Plekhanov warns that “men make their history by trying to satisfy their needs[3]

It is with the needs that (opposite) interests arise, these interests engender hostilities between society and its eventual division. Originally, human needs are given by nature, but it is with the development of the productive forces that these vary significantly in quantity and quality. Simultaneously the influence of this "artificial environment" with the concrete needs, establishes and determines the relationships between men in the social process of production.

With a society divided into classes whose interests are fundamentally contrary and which lead to clashes, the organization of the gens is replaced by a State determined by the existing productive forces to satisfy the dominant interests. In this way a society is conditioned immediately and directly by the economic relations that are its own; consequently, these relationships equally mediately and indirectly condition all their imaginations and their product: art, science, etc. However, knowing the economy of a country is not enough to understand its art history (Plejánov, 1973).

After the emergence of the capitalist socioeconomic structure, it is no longer the material conditions of work, but the class struggle that plays the decisive role in the development of art and its essential contents. More indisputable is that with the social division of labor, art is increasingly detached from the forms of work linked to material production. In The Subversion of Science by Mr. Eugen Dühring Engels writes:

It is clear that, while the work of man was still so little productive that it hardly left any surplus, the increase in the productive forces, the extension of commerce, the development of the State and of law, the birth of art and science were not possible but by a greater division of labor. The work had to be based on the great division between masses occupied in simple manual work and a small number of privileged people who directed the work, dealt with commerce, public affairs and later with art and science.[4]

Despite what is thought that art, or the aesthetic can be a form of social consciousness, we must not lose sight of the fact that, above all, art is a form of social work. Capitalist production is hostile to forms of human activity such as literature and poetry, where until the Middle Ages production conditions existed which, despite the antithesis between theoretical work and practical work, allowed a certain parallel development with reciprocal influences and coincident zones (Bosch, 1972).

When one wants to examine the relationship between spiritual production and material production, it is first of all necessary to examine the latter not as a general category, but as a specific historical form. (...) If material production is not examined in its specific historical form, it is impossible to obtain the characteristics of the spiritual production that corresponds to it and the reactions of one to the other.[5]

This hostility is shown and accentuates the antagonistic opposition between the material (industrial) and the spiritual (artistic) forms of production of modern life conditioned by the development of large-scale industry, that is, the development of the productive forces that leads to a social stage with an organization divided into classes and their subsequent struggle that predominates in capitalist life.

On the other hand, a certain form of material production derives first of all from a certain organization of society, then from a certain relationship between man and nature. The political system and ideological conceptions are determined by these two factors. Therefore, so is the character of spiritual production. (…) For example, capitalist production is hostile to certain branches of spiritual production, such as art and poetry.[6]

From the above it is established that: the development of art depends on the "reciprocal relations" between material production and the type of social organization (divided into classes) as a historically determined dialectical unit. Likewise, the principle of the necessary relationships between material and spiritual activity is established as the key to the interpretation of the specific culture of a given historical moment.

But what is a reciprocal relationship? In The Materialist Conception of History, Plekhanov mentions that there are different historical-social "factors" that are decisive for the development of societies, where each one of them influences all the others and vice versa, such intricacies of mutual influences and direct reactions "do not it leads more than to vertigo”[7]in that adventurer who undertakes the campaign to explain the course of development of the social labyrinth.

He describes the class struggle as a struggle of human passions, in turn as a struggle of material interests, where opponents "fought ardently" for their goals and resorted to the means provided by public law, thus public law will also be, like human passions, a factor of development.

This conflict will appear as a struggle that splits, socially separates work, therefore, we have a third factor, the economic one: the development of the productive forces (Plejánov, 1973). Social development is given by reciprocally related factors.

We can show ourselves indifferent, discuss the relative importance of the factors: if human passions are those that predominate over the economy, or the economy over those, or if nothing predominates over nothing, or if each factor is governed by the law "lives and let live." Or we can get excited, establish a certain thread, incur in subtleties, and discover the internal causes, the "hidden forces" of the factors: human passions, public law, the economy.

In this way, Plekhanov's contribution arises and, at the same time, his criticism of the Theory of factors [8] (of social development), which is nothing other than this interweaving of factors that influence the activity of social being. These socio-historical factors can also be seen as "disciplines" of social science - ethics, politics, sociology, law, political economy -, each point of view "makes a special 'string' 'vibrate'. Each ‘string’ can be considered a factor of social development.[9]

In the deconstruction of this theory, through abstraction, we can reach various aspects of the social whole, the different manifestations of the activity of the human being are expressed as particular forces, independent categories, that push and determine the social future. But at the same time, says Plekhanov, it makes human activity fragmented, converting its different aspects into isolated forces and that does not lead to a unity in the conception of social life (Plekhanov, 1973).

Regarding unity, the synthetic Hegelian notion that explained the social activity of man through the universal properties of the "spirit", it is these properties that give "in itself" all history and all the final results of humanity, it is at the same time a teleological conception of social being.

The unitary notion of social man of dialectical materialism does not subordinate it to "abstract-evolutionary" natural laws, men make their history aspiring to satisfy their needs. How he satisfies those needs is determined by the means he has to exercise his dominion over nature, by the stage of his productive forces, this at the same time is reflected on his social relationships and on his spiritual activity.

The development of all artistic activity, being necessary to be aware of it, arises on the basis of social being and it is the forms of this that determine the forms of its consciousness. And although these forms may constitute part of history itself, so are the set of phenomena that are conditioned by economic relations. Even the stage of his feelings and ideas and the work of the imagination are the result of social relations. He calls these forms of consciousness "social psychology", "it is not possible to take a single step without them in the history of literature, art, philosophy, etc.”[10]

As is already known, the human temperament gets used to certain beliefs, ideas, ways of thinking, to certain ways of satisfying certain aesthetic needs; “When such a work faithfully translates the spirit of his time, it means that said work corresponds completely to the state of the spirit of the classes that at that time set the tone for social life”[11]

When important changes take place in the socioeconomic structure and, therefore, in the reciprocal relations between social strata - due to the development of the productive forces - they lead to certain changes in the psychology of these classes and with it the "spirit of their time". ”, these changes are manifest in new philosophical conceptions, new trends in art, new aesthetic needs appear.

The reciprocal influence between the factors does not consider the intellectual development of men as the primary cause of the entire social movement. Nor does it consider the predominance of one factor over the others, but instead weights all the same hierarchy towards the understanding of social phenomena. The artificial environment necessarily transforms the influence that nature exerts on the social being.

In such a way that the attention paid to artistic activity, that is, the objective (explanatory) reflection of the world, as established by the Theory of reflection with Lukacsian flavor, presents a fundamental question about the nature of the work of art and its purpose. , which as we already mentioned, is one of the forms of man's material work. However, there is a risk, as far as the intellectual and aesthetic understanding of the world is concerned, of a certain idealistic or mystical distortion of (basically material) artistic activity, by defining human activities primarily or exclusively as teleological rather than causal. (Bosch, 1972).

Continues in (part 2)...


[1] The rules of legitimation of truth have changed, the validity of the methods used by science to legitimize itself is questioned, a condition of crisis of credibility of meta-narratives, of philosophy; now, the narrative legality of the true makes use of sui generis pragmatic clouds, of the ether. Linguistic heterogeneity prevails, unstable combinations, an inconsistent logic of theoretical matrices, by layers; the production cost of intellectual work became cheaper; disbelief is such that what is most effective is opted for, now the operative criterion of validation is technological, inoperative to legitimize what is true or fair. The postmodern condition alleviates our inability to bear the immeasurable. He does not find his reason in the homogeneous language, he knows what he knows and what he does not know, no. See: Jean-François Lyotard The Postmodern Condition, 1979.

[2]Without belittling Lukács or at least notable Fischer.

[3]Plejánov, G. (1973) La Concepción Materialista de la Historia, México: Roca, p. 31.

[4]Engels, F. (1968) (Anti-Dühring), Madrid: Ciencia Nueva, p. 202.

[5]Marx, K. (1945) Historia Crítica de la Teoría de la Plusvalía, México: FCE, Tomo I, p. 262.

[6] Ibidem, p. 262.

[7] Plejánov, G. (1973) La Concepción Materialista de la Historia, México: Roca, p. 21.

[8]Plejánov (in Russia) along with Labriola (in Italy) are the ones who deserve the merit of having studied the emergence, and the historical role of the theory of factors; Let's say, his biggest conclusion is about the profound distinction between the “economic factor” and the economic structure. According to these authors, the economic factor and faith in the social factor are the result of opinion, they are a simple expression of a thought, but this opinion is accompanied by the little advanced development of the scientific thought of his time, a thought that has not reached maturity “the so-called factors are the product of knowledge that is in the process of development and formation” (Labriola, A. Sobre el Materialismo Histórico, Cap. VI, 1896). For Kosík, this implies an inconsequential analysis because for him the factors are certain historical forms of development, they are autonomous forces to the social consciousness of man, in this sense they become factors that influence social activity and are transferred to consciousness, they do not arise from it (Kosík, 1967).

[9]Plejánov, G. (1973) La Concepción Materialista de la Historia, México: Roca, p. 18.

[10] Ibidem, p. 33.

[11] Ibidem, p. 33.