Gutov D.

Learn, learn and learn

In: Make Everything New - A Project on Communism

Edited by Grant Watson, Gerrie van Noord & Gavin Everall

Published by Book Works and Project Arts Centre, Dublin, 2006

PP. 24-37.


As we know from the Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, the “entire movement of history [is] communism’s actual act of genesis – the birth act of its empirical existence.” Certain key periods in this global drama have a special, exclusive value. The 1840s, for example, will always appear as a Copernican revolution in the history of thought, or, to speak with Marx, the earliest manifestation of communism’s self-awareness. The form of this manifestation is so beautiful that it will probably never cease to fascinate and attract.

One of the most profound ideas that Marx articulated in his manuscripts of 1844 never found any further theoretical development in his later texts. As the reader may have guessed, we are talking about what Marx called “completely crude and thoughtless communism,” which appears as private property held in common, and thus is little more than a “manifestation” of the latter’s “vileness.” This communism “has not yet grasped the positive essence of private property” and thus “remains captive to it and infected by it.”

The real course of the material world clarifies the meaning of texts that are often inaccessible to immediate understanding. The arduous movement of history over one and a half centuries has added a great deal of concrete meaning to these one and a half pages of text. I remember how we read this fragment when I was at school in the late Soviet Union; it seemed like the most accurate possible description of our own lives. The communism we knew “negate[d] the human personality in every sphere,” appearing as “the culmination of envy” and “leveling-down proceeding from the preconceived minimum.” Communism could only think the community as a “community of labor, and equal wages wages paid out by communal capital – by the community as the universal capitalist.” This form of communism seemed like  “a regression to the unnatural simplicity of a poor and crude man who has few needs and who has not only failed to go beyond private property, but has not yet even reached it.” All of this was a reality which is difficult to forget even today. (The more famous portions of the Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts about alienation seemed far less important to our unseasoned minds back then, even if they made such a great impact on Western contemporaries.)

Of course, there is no law according to which the passage of time brings only clarity. It also works in the opposite direction. Here, its force seems even more powerful, as it erases meanings and obscures the heart of the matter at hand. Just as Marx’ thoughts on crude communism now seem full of real historical content, his definition of genuine communism as the “positive supercession of private property” (which once had a direct,  practical meaning) now sounds like brilliant poetry, appealing to the emotions rather than to the intellect. Communism “is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man – the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.” [1] Beautiful words that make the spirit soar.

In his introduction to the Italian edition of the Communist Manifesto published in 1893, Engels wrote of Dante, who marked both “[t]he close of the feudal Middle Ages, and the opening of the modern capitalist era. […]” With Engels, we could repeat that “today, as in 1300, a new historical era is approaching. Will it give us the new Dante, who will mark the hour of its birth?”[2]

When Engels asked the question, Marx, modernity’s Dante, had already been buried at Highgate Cemetery in London for ten years. By now, only fools can deny that he was a literary genius. But our epoch has yet to fully understand the concrete meaning of his work.




One possible and necessary movement in this direction lies in the historical study of how Marx’ ideas were read and applied in key moments in history, in Lenin’s praxis, for example. Another such moment can be found in the Soviet 1930s, one of the darkest and most hermetic decades in history, thoroughly mythologized, and fraught with deep contradictions. From the perspective of the problem articulated above, the significance of this time is difficult to overestimate. Never in the history of humanity has the realization of communism ever seemed so close; never has its collapse been so tragic. This time sheds a light on Marx’ theory that is exclusive in its intensity and its specificity. Some of the many pages of Marxism written in this time deserve to be saved from oblivion. To find, comment, and bring these texts to the attention of people who are not indifferent to Marxism: this is how one could sketch out the goal of the Lifshitz Institute, founded in Moscow by a small group of artists and intellectuals.

The prehistory of this initiative’s emergence is as follows. In the late 1980s, against the backdrop of massive anti-Communist hysteria, several artists interested in theoretical questions began to pay more and more attention to a strange phenomenon. It suddenly seemed that some texts stood out from the well-accustomed senselessness of Soviet dogmatism. The texts in question were written by one of the Soviet authors on aesthetics, Mikhail Lifshitz (1905-1983), notorious as one of the most wooden specimens of Marxist orthodoxy and of a Stalinist mold at that. At first, these deviations from the canon did not seem to be very great. Lifshitz, in a distinctive style that always played with the danger of sounding preposterous, characterized his own relationship to the communist party as follows: “I have always followed the maxim of St. Cyprian: ‘There is no salvation outside of the church.’”[3] Lifshitz’ own texts really do contain a degree of ecclesiastical baggage, stacks of dead formulas, scholastic turns of phrase, and ritual expressions customary to the Soviet epoch, but they have undergone a total transfiguration. Lifshitz consciously ignores the fact that certain words have been erased from the Marxist lexicon, simply continuing to use them in their original meaning, destroying any banality with his intonation and the energy of his style.   

In other words, the essence of our discovery in the late 1980s was that putting all outer similarities aside, Lifshitz had very little in common with orthodox Soviet philosophy, while his reading of Marx is almost singular and unique. This impression was almost overwhelming. It is a little like walking through a flea market of inexpensive, shoddy painting, reproductions and forgeries of classical art, and suddenly realize that you are standing in front of a real Chardin. It costs just as little, and is lying in the dirt, unwanted. You say: this is amazing! It’s a Chardin! But the people at the flea market tell you that this painting has been lying around for 50 years and no one wants to buy it, and anyway, all the other stall have Chardin as well. And really, it is not all that easy to set them apart, all the more since the author went to great efforts not to fall out of line, rigorously formulating his credo as follows: “Wisdom, and not only popular wisdom, teaches that one has to be like everyone else.” Bereft of self-advertisements, his writings speak in a soft voice and count on little more than understanding. As he once noted, “In our time, there is so much noise that no one pays much attention to theoretical ideas if they are published under names like ‘Experiments’ or ‘Characterizations.’”[4]

Unfolding in an extremely hostile environment over several years, the activity of slowly reading and discussing these brilliantly low-key texts was eventually formalized as the Lifshitz Institute, which was founded in 1994. The two key directions of its work are research and propaganda. The institute’s members have collected comprehensive libraries of books and articles by Lifshitz himself, many of which are bibliographical rarities. A significant portion of these texts has been digitized and is now accessible online, albeit only in the Russian language.[5]

Since the project’s principal participants are artists, at least some part of their activity unfolds in the space of artistic exhibitions, where photographs, films, and paintings made in the framework of the project are shown.[6] The Institute also carries out discussions and seminars, sometimes in the format of performances.[7]

The study of the real conditions under which Lifshitz worked plays an especially important role. The goal is to read Lifshitz against the backdrop of the political and artistic debates of the Soviet epoch. Since Lifshitz’ birth 100 years ago, the situation in Russia has changed cardinally not once but several times over. Yet during his lifetime, Lifshitz’ basic views remained steadfast from the mid-1920s onward, and were simply under further development. What sounded like a call for action in one situation appeared as extreme servility in another, only to reemerge as a provocation after yet another fundamental historical turn. Of course, a thinker’s thought has to stand for itself, but since we can never read it in its pure version, without considering the relations of the time, it is better to consider these relations in full.





Mikhail Lifshitz’ biography reflects the fate of Marxism in the Soviet Union. He was born in the small Ukrainian town of Melitopol in 1905. At the time of the October revolution, he is 12 years old. At the age of 15, in the middle of the civil war, famine, and typhoid fever, book by Lenin fall into his hands, defining his first deep impression of philosophy. In 1922, Lifshitz, who dreams of becoming an artist, travels to Moscow to enroll at VKhUTEMAS, the world’s first citadel of proletarian culture, a stronghold of radical innovation. From the mid-1920s onward, he becomes interested in the role of dialectics in German philosophy, studies the German language, and pores over Schelling, Hegel, and Marx, finding his way to a highly independent view of art, which, as he puts it, “was colored by the prevalent atmosphere of the renaissance of classical art on the basis of the new social formation that the revolution had created.”[8] He calls this the negation of the dissolution that beset humanity’s intellectual values as the old class civilization met its end.

In 1922, Lifshitz writes his earliest theoretical texts, including “On the Aesthetic Views of Karl Marx” and “Dialectics in the History of Art.” His formulations of the time are infected by avant-garde radicalism, but point in the opposite direction: “Contrary to the trivial phraseology of our century, absolute beauty exists, as does absolute truth,” “Relativism is dialectics for idiots,” or “The time has come to say farewell to the mousy scrambling of reflection!” It is hardly possible to think of a worse place to assert such ideas than VKhUTEMAS. By proclaiming the return to the classics, Lifshitz draws the consequences of his teachers’ central lesson, namely that teachers themselves need to be rejected in full. Further study becomes impossible.

In 1927, Lifshitz makes his fundamental discovery: Marx had his own system of  aesthetic conceptions. This is something that no one had suspected. Working meticulously, he begins to collect all of the passages on art in Marx and Engels’ writings, eventually publishing them in 1933 as “Marx and Engels on Literature and Art.” This volume has been reissued many times in many languages, often credited to other editors, whose alterations to Lifshitz’ compilation damage rather than improve its meaning. In the same year, Lifshitz also first releases “The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx,” which was later translated into English and published in New York in 1938, and then in London in 1973 and 1976 (with a foreword by Terry Eagelton.) This text, written by Lifshitz when he was 28 years old, is the only of his books to find recognition in the English-speaking world. But even those who value his work highly do not suspect that Lifshitz continued his intensive examination of the Marxist view of art for exactly 50 years to come.

The 1930s, and especially their beginning, are the main decade in Lifshitz’ life. It is during this period that his main ideas take shape. In 1935, he publishes the book “Questions of Art and Philosophy,” an anthology of his first and ultimately most important texts on the history of social thought. He soon finds himself at the center of a small circle of like-minded people, who begin to publish the journal Literaturny kritik in 1933. This group had a strong influence, especially among students. I personally have met old people who voice great surprise when they hear that I am interested in a forgotten philosopher who once was their idol.

In any case, the group around Literaturny kritik makes a substantial critical contribution to the literary debates of the time, reflecting the many (often contradictory) voices that emerged to criticize the avant-garde after it ceded its hegemony over culture in 1932.[9] The broader polemic also included the famous Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács, who extended the discussion to the German émigré press in the “Brecht-Lukács debates,” held somewhat belatedly in 1936-38.[10] In 1933, Lukács had emigrated to Moscow, and collaborated closely with the “Literaturny kritik” group, and with Lifshitz in particular.

However, the widespread idea that Lukács was the mentor of Lifshitz and his colleagues seems historically unfounded. Lifshitz’ recently published notes show themselves highly critical of Lukács’ aesthetic theory.[11] In terms of literary taste, there were also key differences. Lifshitz and his closer associates championed the writer Andrei Platonov, who became one of the journal’s most important contributors. Platonov remains one of the most intriguing writers of fiction of the Soviet period, and is often referred to as the Soviet Kafka. Among other things, it was Platonov’s presence in “Literaturny kritik” and the journal’s defense of his work once he fell into disfavor that led to the journal’s closure by Central Committee of the All Union Communist Party (Bolshevik) in 1941.

In 1937, the mass terror of Stalin’s purges reaches its apogee. Lifshitz’s literary activities come to a complete standstill. In 1941, he joins the army and is wounded in combat. “After the war”, Lifshitz will later remember, “many things changed. These were not easy times. Upon returning from military service, I felt that I had been completely forgotten. I had reached rock-bottom. Above me, there was an oceanic mass of murky water.”

Soon after Stalin’s death, Lifshitz marked the beginning of the period of de-Stalinization commonly known as the Khrushchev Thaw with a new article in the journal “Novy Mir,” entitled “The Diary of Marietta Shaginian.” This polemic essay is a cutting satire on the Stalinist intelligentsia with its tinsel verbosity and its astonishing combination of epic exaltation and indifference. It provokes a frenzied response. The official party apparatus accuses Lifshitz of “unhealthy, petit bourgeois nihilism,” of “preaching anti-patriotic conceptions.” Again, he is deprived of any broader readership for years to come.

Fame only descends upon Lifshitz in the mid-1960s, albeit in a scandalous form. In 1966, he publishes a polemic piece against the neo-modernist tendencies in post-Stalinist art with the title “Why I am No Modernist” in Literaturnaya gazeta and follows it up with the book The Crisis of Ugliness. From Cubism to Pop-Art in 1968. Both texts subject the entire aesthetic project of 20th art to a scathing critique. Essentially, they develop ideas Lifshitz had already formulated during his time at VKhUTEMAS. He does not only reject the bourgeois world, but also refuses all those hypertrophied forms of protest that Lenin once called “communism’s infantile disorders.”

Most readers had little idea of the role that Lifshitz had played in the 1930s, nor did they necessarily remember his publications from the early 1950s. Thus, his attempts to call the progressive nature of modern art into question falls upon deaf ears; its author is perceived as a living embodiment of half-baked Soviet obscurantism, who had come out of nowhere.

In 1972, Lifshitz publishes the book “Karl Marx. Art and the Social Ideal”. In it, he presents a collection of his work from 1927 to 1967. He is fully aware of the reaction that these texts will provoke in the era of the Soviet intelligentsia’s massive rejection of Marxism. In 1973, Lifshitz, who is almost 70 years old and who bears no academic titles, receives the degree of doctor of philosophy for this contribution. Soon afterward, he receives the title of  academician. This late rehabilitation earns him the reputation as the most conservative and reactionary writer of the Brezhnev-period, a reputation that persists to this day.

In the last years of his life, Lifshitz works to systematize ideas first voiced in the early 1930s, ideas that did not enjoy any further development due to the dramatic conditions of the time. But in 1983, he passes away unexpectedly. He does not manage to finish many of the undertakings that he had begun, nor does he live to see the publication of many of the projects he had completed. His huge archive remains in a great number of file-folders (around 700 in total), whose graphic execution reveals the hand of an artist trained in the school of VKhUTEMAS.

In 1985, Lifshitz’s book “In the World of Aesthetics” finally reaches publication. It includes one of his most important theoretical texts, “A Man of the Thirties.” In the next years, Lifshitz’s principal works are published in three volumes. The first volume is printed in 1984, the second volume in 1986, and the third volume in 1988. If something seemed amiss during the author’s lifetime, then these posthumous publications appear as the apogee of untimeliness. The perestroika is in full bloom. The abolition of the entire Soviet system is the order of the day. Other than a small group of enthusiasts, no one pays even the slightest attention to these invaluable contributions to the relation between Marxism and aesthetic philosophy.




At this point, it seems high time to let Lifshitz speak for himself. In a recently published book of rough drafts and notes from Lifshitz’ archive, there is a small fragment that reads: “A common mistake made by many great people – they think that their readers understand not only the denotatio but also the connotatio of what they are saying, to use medieval terms. Of course, they are also often forced to say something quite different than what is really on their mind, though they still say what they want to say nevertheless. Since many readers and listeners, especially in following generations, know neither the intellectual folklore nor the real relations of the time, they take these words all too literally.

            Hegel and his ideal of the Prussian police state met this fate, as did Chernyshevsky with his paradoxical simplifications. This is the fate of all of humanity’s great conservatives, whose searching, innovative thinking needs to find its expression in a transfigured and even inverted form.

            But if great people simply had to make this mistake, if they are guilty without being at fault, then we ordinary people do not necessarily have to make the same mistakes all over again.”[12]

Of course, this observation can be related back to Lifshitz himself. (In fact, the work of the Lifshitz Institute primarily aims at re-reading his texts against the backdrop of the Soviet era’s intellectual folklore and the real relations of this time.) But for now, it seem more important to emphasize that this fragment is actually talking about Marx. At risk of formulating the subject of this text too abruptly, we might say that that the 1930s allowed modes of reading Marx that did not take all of his words at face value.

In the 1920s-30s, the “Communist Manifesto’s” treatment of “eternal truths” like freedom, justice, religion, and morality was often taken all too literally. Toward the end of the Manifesto’s second chapter, Marx and Engels devise the figure of the bourgeois who fears that Communism “will abolish all eternal truths, instead of constituting them on a new basis, therefore [acting] in contradiction to all past historical experience.” Marx and Engels analyze this fear through the lens of class antagonism, whose fact remains unchanging, though its forms may vary. If class antagonism vanishes, they argue, then so do many “eternal forms.” “The Communist revolution,” they write, “is the most radical rupture with traditional property relations; no wonder that its development involved the most radical rupture with traditional ideas.”[13]

This sounds like a justification for the total relativization of all culture as a superstructure that can be annihilated at will, once the Communist revolution is underway. However, when one reconstructs the real situation the Manifesto was written in, and the relations that this portion of text was meant to illuminate, it becomes clear that Marx was saying something quite different. The rhetorical “no wonder” seems to scoff at the unchanging norms of the old world as a polemical device, a paradoxical simplification. But this “no wonder” can read somewhat differently. Have no fear, it seems to say, once the Communist revolution comes, those aspects of the produced by traditional property relations will already be gone; there is no need to abolish anything. In the light of those texts written no more than four years earlier, this reading sounds far closer to the insistence upon the historical inevitability of genuine communism, and not an apology of crude communism, which in 1844 to Marx was still “the abstract negation of the entire world of culture and civilization” by an act of will. However, since it is cloaked in the rhetoric of political struggle, this thought now appears in a different form that is easily misunderstood.

Under the conditions of quite another political struggle in the 1920s-30s, it is precisely this special quality of writing that Lifshitz characterizes with the words “great people are often forced to say something quite different than what is really on their minds, though they still say what they want to say nevertheless.” Thus, it becomes all the more important to grasp the inner content of Marx’ work, especially since he no longer felt it necessary to explain very often, especially in later years. The goal was to uncover this latent vein in Marxism – Lifshitz called it its cultural-anthropological aspect – and to evidence its continuity. Behind Marx’ political-economic discoveries about the essence of social formations, Lifshitz saw Marx’ philosophy of culture, or – in broader terms – his philosophy of history, which now needed to be exposed in full.

This is exactly why it seemed so important to Lifshitz – from the late 1920s onward – to   study Marx’ views on art. In his notes, he writes: “The main thing is the object of study. A person can only make his contribution, if he has the possibility of resting it upon a special object. My own possibilities were limited in this regard. The only way I was able to realize myself and to say what I had to say was by leaning on the discovery of Marx’ aesthetics. I agree that this is not so substantial, though this object cannot be reduced to the method of analysis applied. But why would you want to take my little object away from me? Let me keep it, like a poor dervish’s prayer carpet.”[14]

This ragged prayer carpet, which was “not so substantial,” served as the key to unlocking what Lifshitz called the careful rebirth of Marxism’s absolute content. “The genuine classics of Marxism,” he writes, “are hardly unfamiliar with absolute point of view, for which truth, justice, or beauty are not conventions of their time, but are actually the higher meaning of class struggle itself, while genuine value in general belongs to the objective predicates of activity itself.” This was Marx, but Lifshitz was already reading him not only through Hegel, but through Plato.

There was – and seems that there still is – no other way of understanding the meaning of that famous quote from the introduction to the “Grundrisse,” where Marx speaks of “period of [art’s] flowering, […] out of all proportion” with the level of development to be found in society’s material base, and point toward the difficulty that the arts of the past “still afford us artistic pleasure.”[15] Along with the Hegelian conception of the death of art, this quote became central to the Marxist understanding of artistic creativity in the 1930s, in theorists ranging from Benjamin to Lukács, or Max Rafael to Mikhail Lifshitz.  

The latter focuses his entire attention on developing a materialist conception of absolute truth (the reflection-theory, to use his terminology). “In this sense,” he writes, “Marxism’s only serious competitor is theology. Everything else looks provisional, incompletely thought out, and shamefully obscured with refined but tasteless phraseology.”[16] In his text “A Man of the 1930s,” basically a short guidebook to the discussions in the Soviet Union at the time, Lifshitz somewhat coyly names one of its section “The Truth Exists.” “The word ‘truth’,” he writes, “sounds overbearingly loud; whenever I say it aloud, I feel uneasy. But if the reader really finds that I have indulged in any superfluity by using this great word, I ask that he take into account the following mitigating circumstances. The idea of an unconditional truth that is also relative to historical meaning is not as obvious and as accessible in our time as it would seem at first glace. This is why saying it hardly entails breaking down open doors. Quite on the contrary.”[17]

Full of melancholic irony, this last paragraph refers us to the notion of truth that emerged during the 1930s, namely truth as correspondence to the object of understanding. Even the most abstract formulations of those years were determined by the fate of the revolution, and of communism, its social ideal. In his notes, Lifshitz writes: “Hegel was partially right in asserting that history had ended. He was only wrong to put a period on it too early on, though after all even Marx seems to have been slightly premature with his Vorgeschichte (prehistory). The fact is, however, that society either dies or becomes equal to itself, to its notion. In this sense, Hegel is right.”[18]





The only thing Marx was wrong about was the timetable. Not one formation withers away without exhausting the possibilities for development that it contains. In other words, we still have some time for deliberation, which we need to use as effectively as possible, in order to avoid witnessing private property triumph yet again, becoming common property, and then becoming private once more, only gaining new strength in the process.

It seems clear today that the mechanism of the transition from genuine communism to its crude and thoughtless form was set into fatal motion in the 1920s-30s. Many of this antique tragedy’s contemporaries offered deep theoretical reflections on what was actually happening. One of the more straightforward observations a man of the 1930s was able to make, based upon his own life-experience and his reading of Marx, was as follows: under no circumstance will reality ever comply with any of our ideals. But this does not mean that reality does not have its own ideal, which we now need to comply with. (As Lenin put it while taking notes on Hegel’s Logic, “the difference of the ideal from the material is also not unconditional, not überschwenglich (inordinate).”[19] In the 1930s, this thought stood as the center of all debates on art, and not only art alone.)

This is the most general formulation of an exit-strategy from the dilemma that humanity continues to face today, as it rapidly comes closer to becoming a unified whole. On the one hand, one sees the fatal arrogance of intellectuals who think that intelligent people can project social forms or economy systems than the seemingly chaotic interactions of millions of people. In doing so, they fail to understand how much they do not know and in how far the market uses all forms of localized knowledge that each of us are privy to. (Thus, the accusation against communism’s arbitrary nature seems misdirected. The critique of consciousness’ megalomania belongs to the brightest pages of Marxist literature, as something immanent to communism. Reason’s rude interventions always provoke a response, as nature, society, and even things wreak their revenge.)

On the other hand, there is the fatal arrogance of intellectuals who think that the seemingly chaotic interactions of millions of people, ruled by supply and demand, and doling out bliss and strife with an invisible hand, is the best path of development. Growing more fascinating in its hallucinatory speed day by day, this kind of progress – as we remember from Marx – drank, drinks, and will drinks nectar from the skulls of those who have lost this race for survival.

To wait for a process - unconscious by definition - to grow more intelligent, and to read it lectures on the necessity of doing so seems naïve at best. But whoever would like to intervene in this process even a little must become more intelligent, so much is clear. The experience of the 1930s showed that even reason – our very own product – can go out of control, ruling us entirely, going against our expectations, rendering our calculations null and void. “Reason has always existed, though not always in a reasonable form,” Marx noted in a letter to Arnold Ruge.[20] Know thyself, moderate thyself, find the real meaning of existence: this is how the wisdom of Marxism was understood in the 1930s.

This might not sound very progressive at all to all too revolutionary ears. In fact, it is true. At the time, Marx and Lenin were understood as humanity’s two greatest conservatives, as people who deeply valued all previous culture and had nothing in common with neopathy. (Lifshitz used this neologism to denote a special type of ailment, the pursuit of anything new.) Of course, the reader will remember Lenin’s last article “Better Fewer, But Better,” where he writes, “We must come to our senses on time and fill ourselves with sound skepticism toward rapid-fire movement forward.” If we strengthen our control over the material forces that rule us, we need to make sure that we do not outstrip the level of control over our own reason, whose origins and developmental tendencies humanity does not yet fully comprehend.

Conscious forms of consciousness continue to develop, whether the world wants them to or not. Through bitter experience, the birth of communism’s empirical being continues, bringing about a perfect form of sociality, equal to its notion, cleansed of egotism. This is precisely why the movement in this direction cannot do without a love for art (which is not unselfish passion, but unselfish passion, as Lifshitz once put it.)

Revolutionary action takes place when it stands up against an intolerable force. It is not enough for this force to simply exist. It also has be acknowledged as something with which there can be no reconciliation. If properly understood, art makes life intolerable under the conditions of total purchase and sale. (Hence, the development of the intriguing theme torture through beauty during the Soviet 1930s.) This may be especially true in Russian icon-painting, in the painting of Peruggio, or in classical Chinese pen-and-ink drawings, but basically it holds true everywhere: (until it does not identical to its notion), art is part of the communist movement. It is the most radical critique of reality, the critique of consciousness’ erroneous relationship to the world.

The Soviet 1930s witnessed the unfolding of a tragedy on a scale hitherto unknown to world history. In this sense, their status is singular, exclusive. To speak with Hegel, this can only happen once and only with one people. The self-awareness that this epoch produced is invaluable to anyone who remembers that the proletarian revolution constantly criticizes itself. With merciless thoroughness, it holds a mockery to the half-measures, weak sides, and ineptness of its first attempts. Learn, learn, and learn, as Lenin put it. The intellectual and artistic experience of those who witnessed the 1930s, embodied in the prose of Platonov, the music of Shostakovich, or the writings of Mikhail Lifshitz, needs to become an inalienable part of communism, understood not as an invented ideal, but as a real movement, capable of overturning the present state of affairs.


July 2006



Editorial contributions and translation from Russian: David Riff


[1] Quotes in the preceding section cited after Karl Marx, Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, MECW, Vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers 1975-2005), 293-295; (accessed July 5 2006)

[2] Friedrich Engels, Preface to the Italian Edition of the Communist Manifesto, 1893, (accessed July 5 2006)


[3] Mikhail Lifshitz, Chto takoe klassika [What are Classics?] (Moscow: Iskusstvo XXI vek, 2004), 105

[4] Ibid, 105

[5] These online archives can be found at and (accessed July 5 2006)

[6] For more on the connection between Lifshitz and its participants artistic praxis see Dmitri Gutov/David Riff, “Die Lehre von Marx ist allmächtig, weil sie wahr ist” [The Marxist Doctrine is Omnipotent Because It is True], Springerin. Band XI Heft 4 / Band XII Heft 1 (Winter 2006), p. 22-26. English version online at (last accessed July 5 2006)

[7] For more on the specific mode of these discussions, see Dmitri Gutov/David Riff, “Complete agreement is the ideal of the human race,” Chto delat/What is to be done? ¹ 9 (May 2005). (accessed July 5 2006)

[8] ??????????? Kontekts 1987 (Moscow 1988), 272

[9] For a sampling of the positions of the Literaturny kritik group and its associates, see Angel Flores (ed.), Literature and Marxism: A Controversy by Soviet Critics (New York: Critics Group, 1938)

[10] For insight into the German-language debate, see the excellent volume Aesthetics and Politics: Theodore Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Bertolt Brecht, Georg Lukacs  (London & New York: Verso, 1977).

[11] Mikhail Lifshitz, Chto takoe klassika, 99-166

[12] Mikhail Lifshitz, Chto takoe klassika, 106-107

[13] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848),, (accessed on July 6 2006)

[14] Mikhail Lifshitz, Chto takoe klassika, 158

[15] Karl Marx, Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy (“Grundrisse”), 1857-61  (London: Penguin, 1973), 111, (accessed July 5 2006)

[16] Mikhail Lifshitz, Collected Works in Three Volumes, Vol. 1 (Moscow 1984), 45

[17] Mikhail Lifshitz, V mire estetiki [In the World of Aesthetics] (Moscow, 1985), 247

[18] Mikhail Lifshitz, Chto takoe klassika, 142-43

[19] Vladimir Lenin, “Annotations on Book I (Being) of Hegel's Science of Logic,” Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, n.d), (accessed July 5 2006)

[20] Marx to Ruge, September 1843, MECW, Vol 3. (New York: International Publishers 1975-2005), 142,, accessed  July 5 2006