Mikhail Lifshitz (1905-1983) was one of the Soviet era’s most original and controversial Marxist aesthetic philosophers, a self-avowed conservative and “ordinary Marxist” with a radical dialectical critique of contemporary culture.  Notorious for his highly informative and nuanced polemics against modern art in the 1960s (collected in “The Crisis of Ugliness”), Lifshitz’s main work actually dated to 30 years before, and came out of the encounter with Soviet avant-garde art when he was a student and later a lecturer at the Vkhutemas-Vkhutein art school. In the following fragments from an interview made shortly before his death, he describes this encounter and its implications for his work. 



Mikhail Lifshitz

Excerpts from “An Autobiography of Ideas”1
Translated from the Russian by David Riff

Mikhail Lifshitz (1905-1983) was one of the Soviet era’s most original and controversial Marxist aesthetic philosophers, a self-avowed conservative and “ordinary Marxist” with a radical dialectical critique of contemporary culture.  Notorious for his highly informative and nuanced polemics against modern art in the 1960s (collected in “The Crisis of Ugliness”), Lifshitz’s main work actually dated to 30 years before, and came out of the encounter with Soviet avant-garde art when he was a student and later a lecturer at the Vkhutemas-Vkhutein art school. In the following fragments from an interview made shortly before his death, he describes this encounter and its implications for his work.

Where do I see the real point of departure and the main situation defining my life? I would put it like this: it is a situation of great social change, a change that is not the negation of humanity’s cultural achievements, but their restoration, the negation of negation. By this, I mean the negation of the dissolution of humanity’s intellectual values in the age of the old class civilization’s demise. The popular intellectual tendencies of my youth could not accept such a line of questioning, as I came to realize. It was in their context that I encountered a variety of phenomena, all of them deeply alien to me, and all closely interconnected like branches growing from one single tree. This became clearer to me when I gained a deeper understanding of Lenin, and as I passed travails of the time. Vulgar Marxism, as broad as its influence may have been, was saturated with the same spirit of one-sided negation and had the same social grounding as the superficially triumphant fashionable forms of “leftist” art.

Beneath the colorful diversity of avantgarde leftism, there lay or rather boiled a certain spontaneous social energy. The revolution, though proletarian in essence, had also dislocated a huge stratum of small property-holders and their dependents, who actually made up the majority of old Russia’s population. Half-crazed by the horrors of the modern age, the petit bourgeois philistine is easily seduced by radical demands that, at least in his mind, appear more “leftist” than even the revolution itself. It is this spontaneous energy that gave rise to a multitude of phenomena in politics and culture, all of them called “infantile disorders of ultra-leftism.” In art, these were various tendencies, all of them in the thrall of a fantastic enthusiasm for destruction and negation. They could not understand Lenin’s idea of the organic alliance of the proletarian revolution with the highest results of older culture. Their avantgardism was an expression of the greatest danger facing the revolution: the growing pressure of petit bourgeois spontaneity. It led to economic chaos, disorganization on a mass scale, and all kinds of confusion, and with it came anarcho-decandent rebellion in the cultural field. These were painful symptoms in an epoch of great change. With the revolution, the masses had crossed an important historical boundary and came to realize that a new era of humanity was dawning. But those who wanted to control the consciousness of the masses fanatically preached their falsehoods: novelty despite reason, the new for the sake of the new as an anarchist cult.

It was my deep conviction that the communist revolution represents the renewal, purification, and emancipation of the entire sum of morality and culture in people’s lives. The goal was not just to give back to the people the developmental means of science, art, culture, and morality of which they had been deprived. Instead, the revolution would provide the grounds for a revival of morality, art, and culture. I firmly held to the position that genuine culture, if one can call it that, cannot help but bear the stamp of communism. In any case, it can always be translated into the language of communism. On the other hand, there is only a genuine relation to communist revolution in that which emancipates and gives the broadest of development perspectives to the frozen creative powers of society. I gleaned these ideas from the writings and speeches of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (especially in the period after the October Revolution), and came to understand them as his legacy.
To be truthful, I must say that in the mid-1920s, my convictions still had a utopian aspect. This was the utopia of an immanent synthesis, all too easily leading to a new Renaissance, in which highly developed artistic culture would fuse with the deep popular movements from below. In fact, this fusion demanded many more complicated and contradictory mediating links. My ideas in those years were of course naive. Formally, you could even call them mistaken. But as we know, Engels felt that formal-economic “falsehoods” could actually be true in a global, historical sense. In that broader sense, I still have not deviated from that older idea and do not advise anyone to ever lose confidence in it.  I have had to suffer some disappointments in my own illusions, but they were never colored by the bitterness of skepticism. On the contrary, it was precisely a loss of illusion, which then allowed me to gain an even greater faith. I grew even more firmly convinced: to reach the goal that stood at the center of my entire intellectual life, history had embarked on a highly complicated, twisty, long path, and it had plenty of time in reserve. Essentially, only that which goes through such stages of self-immersion can stand. That is, I didn’t just fail to lose my historical perspective, but learned from the social and personal experiences since.

Let me return to my philosophical concerns. My main subject was dialectics as a theory of the unity of opposites, and the turn from relativity to the absolute and the eternal, from pure negativity to conservation and creation. The 1920s were characterized by a one-sided understanding of dialectics as the constant negation of the old. But from Lenin, I knew that there was another side to the matter. His last works contain warnings against blindly deifying the revolution and exaggerating the idea of negation. This went unheeded by those who spread Marxism in its trivialized form, spoiled by the vulgar sediment of the 1920s.

Another direction in my research, colored by the same conflict with vulgar sociology and formalism, was to restore the system of Marx and Engels’ views on aesthetics, which had been considered non-existent until then. Needless to say, this was no scholastic aesthetic, but a philosophy of culture, in which an important place falls to the critique of bourgeois civilization from an aesthetico-moral standpoint and the connected question of art’s historical fate. This was something new at the time and might have even seemed “non-Marxist” in a way.

It was my goal to show the presence of that aesthetic or better put aesthetico-moral basis whose absence is often hypocritically bemoaned by the opponents of Marxism or those who deviate from it so easily. In reality, there is intellectual-aesthetic content in Marxism from the very beginning, in the very nature of that theory. Even if it presents a precise, economically founded revolutionary science, the resulting worldview retains a high-humanist reserve of that ideal, revealing it consistently and gradually at all stages, all the way to the heights of political decisions, as one can see in the activities of Marx and Lenin themselves.

The change in my own aesthetic views came along with my growing interest in philosophy, and the conflict with conventional taste only deepened. I openly appealed to the traditions of classical antiquity and the classics of the Renaissance, brushing aside the empty reflection of commonplace innovativeness. But art and literature were dominated by vulgar-sociological and avantgardist ideas, both equally close to the relativism of a Western “sociology of knowledge” or to the “Marxology” of what was later to become the Frankfurt School, all of them decisively ignorant of Lenin’s understanding of how revolution and culture are interrelated.

In that sense, the views I had developed lay in contradiction to the dominant schemes of sociological art history and literary scholarship. I presented them in 1927 in a lecture held for the faculty and students of the Vkhutein with the title “Dialectics in the History of Art.” I still have the theses. The lecture was a success, but provoked perplexity and ire among the more “leftist” professors such as David Shterenberg. The second session was visited by an entire brigade of young snobs, students of Vladimir Fritsche from Moscow University, who argued that my line of questioning was outdated. But my student-friends and the more plebeian public supported me.

I continued to prepare my planned sketch of Marx’s aesthetic views, whose first rough draft I made in the same year of 1927. I managed to publish at least a part of it. Today, this attempt of my youth is also part of a collection of my work on Marx’s philosophy of aesthetics and culture, written over 40 years, from 1927 to 1967.

Before I talk about the 1930s, the most important period of my activity, I must say that everything I will describe was only an underlying tendency from the previous decade. My ideas had no access to the broader arena of public opinion, and how could they, considering the brutal monopolies exerted by alternating and competing schools, contrary to the accustomed image of the “free 1920s.” Such a monopoly in philosophy was exerted by A. Deborin and his school, while art history was dominated by Vladimir Fritsche, V. Pereverziev, and other smaller scholar-warlords feared by even Anatoly Lunarcharsky himself. My direction, lacking any and all organized position, had to suffer a defeat sooner or later. That happened in 1929, when I was accused of a “rightwing deviation in art,” a strong accusation at the time. It became impossible to continue, and I had to leave the Vkhutein. I accepted the invitation of David Ryazanov, who had approved of my first attempts on Marx’s aesthetic views, and started to work at the Marx-Engels Institute, where I was no longer responsible for aesthetics, but our larger Marxist endeavor, if one  can put it like that. This is where I first met Georg Lukács. That was in 1930.

Still, I didn’t forget about my subject. I remember handing in a memorandum to the director of the institute with the proposal to create an Office for Aesthetics, for the aesthetic views of Marx and Engels. Nothing came of my initiative, which was met with no small irony, even if that irony was well-meaning. Ryazanov did not believe that Marx and Engels had their own system of aesthetic views. Nobody suspected as much back then...

In those years our whole propaganda machine devoted much attention to the analysis and appraisal of literature and art. This was one of main ways of spreading the Marxist worldview and also one of the ways forward for its own inner development, and not just up above in literary circles, but in the country at large. After all, any teacher of Russian literature would need to explain Pushkin or Gogol using the standard curriculum to guide and define the course of his thinking. What were these explanations, these typical trains of thought? The main idea was that the old literature was a socio-historical expression of the old class society. The same held true for visual art: when, for example, the Russian artist of the courtly epoch Venetsianov depicts a peasant girl, he presents her in the symbolic image of Primavera. She is wearing a beautiful sarafan, she is simple and fair, an embodiment of labor, joy, and poetry. Of course, it is not hard to prove (more or less convincingly) that such a view of peasant labor and the condition of the peasantry in Tsarist Russia has a courtly-idyllic character useful to the ruling class, that it is an idealization of life, a courtly convention, and a limited view, all of which are unacceptable. But what remains of all previous world culture, in that case? My example is taken at random, but it can be extended to anything; after all, the same holds true for Sophocles, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Pushkin, not to mention Dostoevsky or Tolstoy with their conservative social ideals. What else is there left to inherit for socialist culture and for the people? Formal, technical means, and mastery? Just the formal side?  

Indeed, the popular renditions of “abstract” Marxism and pseudo-scientific sociological schools continued to present the cultural legacy of previous epochs as a product of technology, a big trove of formal devices, while the intellectual content of the great works of culture were seen as the dangerous poison of the exploiting class’ ideology. Proponents of this idea tacitly assumed that to take over the legacy of the old culture meant to learn the formal devices used by writers and artists in the past to prove ideas alien or even hostile to the people. True, they had helped to do something bad, but one could learn from the way they defended the interests of their class. Here, there were different shades of meaning. The sociologists of the Pereverzyev school saw all creative acts as something like a boomerang effect from the side of a certain social stratum in the very depths of struggle. Others, on the contrary, condemned such sociological one-sidedness and put more emphasis on the formal side and craftsmanship, to be appreciated and taken over. 

It was in opposition to this mindset that the discussion against vulgar sociology unfolded in 1936 as one of the first big literary discussions of the decade. In short, the discussion touched upon two main questions. What is the intellectual or spiritual content defining the actual form of art? Is it objective truth in the broad sense of the word, including goodness and beauty, the truth of life itself, as reflected by the artist? Or is any artistic phenomenon a kind of “collective dream,” experienced by a social subject, class, or stratum as it struggle with other social subject to divvy up the spoils of society? Is there an inner equality between the greatness of an artwork and its “people-ness,” its narodnost’, its relation to the emancipatory struggle of the majority, or are the great works of art no more than ideological documents left behind by slave-owners, feudal lords, and capitalists?  For us the discussion ran down to proving that artworks are always expressions of socially progressive principles, and that the egotistical interests of the exploiting classes never added anything to art except for flaws and limitations. If there was such a thing as great literature in the past, it only existed in spite of those limits.

The result of the discussion of 1936 could be summed up in a general axiom: all craftsmanship is a translation of the truth of its content into the language of art, and not just in the sense of presenting a sum of evidence or knowledge in a pragmatic sense. The truth of art’s content should be understood as fidelity to reality, as justice in the social sense, and as good in the sense of morality. It is impossible for works of art to arise on the ground of reactionary social movements. There is a great opposition between these two phenomena. According to the representatives of the old vulgar-sociological and pseudo-Marxist schools, on the contrary, any ideas at all could lie at the root of the artwork. There was even a special campaign against Plekhanov, who correctly held that false ideas cannot lie at root of a genuine artwork. From the vantage of those arguing with that position, any content at all can form the basis of an artwork. All that matter is that an idea, even if reactionary or false, have a basis in society, and that there would later be people capable of expressing these ideas in art with the necessary strength and craftsmanship. 

Everything that came later was a further development and continuation of what I was able to invent and understand in those years. To be truthful, my theoretical insights were incommensurable to the few ideas that found their expression in print as philosophical-historical scholarship, or in publicistic and polemic articles. My major writings of the time were collected in the first anthology of my work, where my sketch of Marx’s aesthetic views appeared together with my articles from 1931-33: “The Literary Legacy of Hegel,” “Hegel and Dialectical Materialism,” “Winckelmann and the Three Epoch of Bourgeois Weltanschauung.” This publication was followed by my articles on Vico’s philosophy of history and on Chernyshevsky’s philosophical views.

Much of my life was devoted to polemics in the press and to my work as a teacher. I first developed the problem of art’s narodnost’ or “people-ness” in the face of class struggle in an extensive lecture that I delivered in 1938. I always tended to spread my ideas in conversations and lectures. My activities also included working as an editor. It was my initiative to publish a series of classic social thinkers who usually did not fit so easily into the rubrics of ordinary academia. These were thinkers in the borderlands between philosophy, social theory, literature, and art, but whose activity very clearly expressed the social potential of theoretical thinking. Their work combines a general philosophical scope with the study of man and society. It is harder to be more specific. If these notions were not so rusty, I would call it the humanistic and anthropological line in the history of world culture and the history of philosophy.

The publishing houses Academia and Izogiz organized and published translations of works by Lessing, Winckelmann, and other authors on the borderline between philosophy and aesthetics, including Goethe, Schiller, and Vico. I was responsible for this series of literary monuments as the editor in chief. There was also a plan to publish Montaigne, as of yet unrealized. There was an immediate connection between this editorial work and my theoretical interests, then linked to the compilation of two books with a propagandistic importance: the aforementioned anthology Marx and Engels on Art and the analogous read Lenin on Culture and Art. I try to unearth and restore the classical line in the history of thought that had led to Marxist aesthetics and to the Marxist humanist worldview at large. This task necessitated the publication of thinkers whose work had sketched the future as a humanist-aesthetic utopia much unlike what later modernist-decadent writing imagined. Its  cornerstones would be the truth of content and the truth of form. In other words, we meant the truth understood as the truth of human consciousness, the discovery of the reality surrounding us, and as truth-justice, truth in its social, moral, and social senses.

Needless to say the path from the classical tradition to Marxism is one from utopia to science, to the ideal of scientific communism. But I would like to add: to science but not science understood as something detached. This means that certain aspects of the aesthetic utopia should not be lost in science, and that the content of classical aesthetic should not be scrapped  entirely on the road to the scientific ideal; on the contrary, everything truly valuable in its content should be restored. In a word, I imagine the path from utopia to science as a path to a science that does not cross out the real, living, sensuously rich content of humanity’s previous dreams.


Further reading:
Dmitry Gutov. Learn, Learn, and Learn. In: Make Everything New. A Project on Communism. Grant Watson, Gerrie van Noord & Gavin Everall (Eds.). Dublin: Book Works and Project Arts Centre, 2006.
Mikhail Lifshitz. The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx. Trans. Ralph B. Winn. New York: Critics Group 1938. Reprinted with a foreword by Terry Eagleton. London: Pluto Press, 1973. Retranslation by David Riff forthcoming.
---Ausgewählte Werke. I-II Bände. B. I. Die dreißgen Jahre. Dresden, 1987.
---Die Krise des Hässlichen. Vom Kubismus zur Pop-Art. Dresden, 1971. 180 S.; 2. veränd. Aufl, 1972. 160 S.
---La Estética de Hegel // Historia y sociedad. Mexico, 1969. № 15. P. 83-91.
---Karl Marx y la estética. Trans. Malena Barro. La Habana, Cuba : Edit. Arte y Literatura, 1976. (Translated from the German translation.)
---La filosofia del arte de Karl Marx. Mexico: Siglo XXI Editores, 1981. (Translated from the 1938 English translation.)
Full selection of Lifshitz’s texts in the Russian original at www.gutov.ru/lifshitz
Stanley Mitchell. Mikhail Lifshits: A Marxist Conservative. In: Marxism and the History of Art. Ed. Andrew Hemingway. London: Pluto Press, 2006.

1 The full Russian original was published as Из автобиофрафии идей. Беседы М.А. Лифшица. Контекст 1987. Литературно-теоретические исследования. М.: Наука, 1988. p.264-318. Available online at http://gutov.ru/lifshitz/mesotes/avtobiograf.htm.