On proletarian culture - Die Aktion

Brief article from Die Aktion looking at the bourgeois nature of culture under capitalism.

Submitted by Spassmaschine on July 2, 2009

The decline of bourgeois ideology began long before the collapse of bourgeois society. Bourgeois ideology was finished the moment the bourgeoisie became a ruling class. As a class based on exploitation, conquest, and competition, its cultural leaders preach freedom, peace, and humanity. They teach Kant and live off the interest.

The closer the bourgeoisie came to the pinnacle of its power, the crasser this contradiction became.

To the rising social class, the proletariat, the bourgeoisie left a bad heritage. In the area of culture the proletariat confronts a fundamental task. It must have the courage to cast off all bourgeois concepts of culture, morality, ethics, and aesthetics.

With sure instincts, the bourgeoisie turns up its nose at technology. It suspects that technology is the means by which capitalist society can be overcome and communist society constructed. Bourgeois culture views technology as something profane, something with which one can indeed make money and create comforts, but which otherwise is a matter of business.

To recognize and accept the moral and aesthetic value of culture - that is what confronts the proletariat. To apply ethics as an organizational principle and to accept ethical considerations as the standard of human relations, which is to say, as the standard of work - that is the proletariat's great task.

The victory of the proletariat transcends humanity's millenia-old dichotomy between good and evil. For every ruling class until now, good was what was evil for those ruled. The concepts of good and evil are inborn, and only because the classes that have ruled until now could not apply them as a principle without giving up their privileges has it been necessary to write a thousand complicated books about them. In reality good and evil can be organized just like cold and warm. The communist social order, which will be constructed without personal and class privilege, will not view the doctrine of good and evil as a mystical affair only accessible through revelation by higher beings (called professors), but will regard it as a regulator and teach about it. Schoolbooks will no longer teach "Do not torment animals, because they feel pain just like you do," but "It is evil to exploit another human being." This imperative alone is capable of illustrating the "profound philosophical" concept of good and evil, to show what good and evil are. People will endeavor to simplify all the complicated nuances in order to be able to apply them. Whether one should be good or evil (which is a contentious question in bourgeois society!) will, in communist society, be equivalent to the question, must one be cold?

The task of the coming revolution is not to introduce culture - the heritage taken over from the bourgeoisie will not allow it; rather the task is to clear the way for real culture. And only then, only later, only in a truly communist society will a culture become possible that provides a basis for the complicated, abstract, individualistic affairs of humanity. It will develop and promote the ethical and aesthetic needs of human beings and elevate them to a higher plane.

The proletariat will inject a new element into both ethics and aesthetics: the collective moment. It is easiest to trace the historical development of collectivism in art. The first artworks in history bore the character of a cult of the person: castles, palaces - buildings of whatever sort elected for one person or a family. Later, as the concept of ethics spread somewhat, as early as the rise of religions, we see artworks for an expanded community: churches, then museums, buildings of state, etc., all the way to warehouses - which, however, continue to represent authority based on the might of a preferential community. Artworks expressive of the collective can and will be created only by the proletariat.

The whole of laboring humanity is now excluded from the enjoyment of art. Even more effectively than a thousand chains, the lack of free time bars them from it. And, still worse, the "art" forced upon them by industry over the last hundred years has spoiled their sense and taste. Big-city buildings that violate all the dictates of harmony and natural law and whose construction has been guided solely by the principle of exploitation; convertible sofas the utterly cheap plunder of modern industry geared exclusively to sales; the pictures and drawings disseminated by the thousands in magazines and journals - all of this has corrupted and destroyed the natural instincts of the overwhelming majority in the "cultured" civilization of our time.

Proletarian culture must begin here. Not with monuments and art collections, but in the proletariat's own environs. This is impossible in a capitalist society based on the labor of others. Scarcely has technology freed a number of people from work than new "needs" ire invented in rapid-fire succession; every instance of technological perfection frees so-and-so many workers' hands for yet more intensive exploitation. The principle of capitalist society is not work but exploitation.

The defenders of the capitalist system fear that when this exploitive regulator disapears the initiative for raising the level of industry will also decline. But this declining initiative would be a blessing for humanity. There will remain sufficient drive toward creative work. Freed from the forced grind of drudgery, new talents, now lost as productive forces to the struggle for bread, will arise a thousandfold. The curtailment of work for own sake is the proletariat's most important cultural task.


First published as "Zur proletarischen Kultur," Die Aktion 10, nos. 35-36 (September 4, 1920), 492-494. Taken from the Antagonism website.