1920s >> 1926 >> no-265-september-1926

Materialism and Art. by George Plechanoff (Part 1)

We shall frankly state at the beginning that we intend to view art from the standpoint of the materialist conception of history.

What is the materialist conception of history?

We shall first describe what the idealist conception of history is, and then show wherein the materialist conception of the same subject differs from it.

The idealist conception of history in its true aspect maintains that the development of thought and knowledge is the last and ultimate cause of the historic development of mankind. This view reigned supreme in the eighteenth century, and passed into the nineteenth. Even Saint Simon and Auguste Comte both strongly upheld it, though their views in certain instances were in direct opposition to those of the philosophers of the eighteenth century. Saint Simon, for instance, was interested in the origin of the social organisation of the Greeks. [1]    His conclusions are as follows : “The religious system served as a foundation for their political system.  . . The first has been taken as a model for the creation of the latter.” As proof of this, he quoted the fact that the Greek Olympus has been a republican gathering; no matter how much the constitutions of the different states in Greece had differed one from the other, they had one thing in common, they were ail republican. [2] And this is not all. The religious system, which was the foundation of the Greek political system, according to Saint Simon, was in itself the result of their scientific conception of the universe. Their scientific conceptions were the ultimate foundation of their social life, and the development of those conceptions was the principal cause of the historical development of their social life, the main cause of the changes in the historical forms of their life.

Likewise Auguste Comte thought that “the entire social mechanism rested in the last analysis on opinions. [3] This is plainly a repetition of the view of the encyclopaedists according to whom “c’est l’opinion qui gouverne le monde” (the universe is ruled by opinion).

Another variety of idealism found its expression in Hegel’s absolute idealism. How does Hegel explain the historical development of humanity? An example will suffice. Hegel asks: Why has Greece fallen? After pointing out many causes, he shows that the main cause, according to his philosophy, was that Greece had expressed only one stage in the development of the absolute idea, and had to fall when this stage had been accomplished.

Hegel, although knowing that “Lacedaemon had fallen because of inequality of property,” nevertheless maintains that social relations, as well as the historical development of mankind in general, are determined in the last instance by the laws of logic, by the development of thought.

The materialistic conception of history is diametrically opposed to the above view. If Saint Simon, considering history from the idealistic viewpoint, thought that the religious opinion of Greeks explained their social relations, then we from the materialistic point of view will say just the opposite. And if Saint Simon, when asked where the religious views of the Greeks come from would answer that they are the result of their scientific views of the universe, we should in turn reply that the social relations of the Greeks determined their religious conceptions, both of which were determined by the rise and decline of the productive forces which the Greeks had at their disposal.

This is our historical doctrine. It is our point of departure in our investigation about art. It is clear that the investigation of a particular problem, the problem of art, will be at the same time a proof of our general view of history. If this general view be wrong, then it will explain very little indeed of the evolution of art. But if we should find that this theory explains the evolution of art better than any other theory, then this in itself will be a new and strong proof of the accuracy of our theory. But here we foresee an objection; Darwin in his famous book, “The Descent of Man,” brought together many observations as evidence that the sense of beauty plays an important role in the lives of animals. Our attention will be drawn to these facts, and we shall be told that the origin of the sense of beauty must be explained by biology; it will also be remarked that it is unpermissible to narrowly explain the evolution of this sense in men only through the economic basis of their society. And as Darwin’s view upon the development of species is undoubtedly materialistic, it will be urged that biological materialism gives excellent material for criticism of the one-sided historical (economical) materialism.

This objection is a serious one, and we shall reply to it. We will do this more gladly because, while replying to this objection, we shall at the same time reply to a series of similar objections that have been drawn from the domain of the psychic lives of animals.

First of all, we will make clear the conclusions to which we must come according to the facts brought out by Darwin. Let us see what are his own conclusions.

In the second chapter of the first part of his book, “The Descent of Man,” we read :—

  Sense of Beauty: This sense has been declared to be peculiar to man. I refer here only to the pleasure given by certain colours, forms and sounds, and which may fairly be called a sense of the beautiful; with cultivated men such sensations are, however, intimately associated with complex ideas and trains of thought. When we behold a male bird elaborately displaying his graceful plumes or splendid colours before the female, while other birds not thus decorated make no such display, it is impossible to doubt that she admires the beauty of her male partner. As women everywhere deck themselves with these plumes, the beauty of such ornaments cannot be disputed. As we shall see later, the nests of humming birds and the playing passages of bower birds, are tastefully ornamented with gaily coloured objects, and this shows that they must receive some kind of pleasure from the sight of such things. With the great majority of animals, however, the taste for the beautiful is confined, as far as we can judge, to the attractions of the opposite sex. The sweet strains poured forth by many male birds during the season of love are certainly admired by the females, of which fact evidence will be hereafter given. If female birds had been incapable of appreciating the beautiful colours, the ornaments and voices of their male partners, all the labour and, anxiety exhibited by the latter in displaying thleir charms before the females would have been thrown away; and this it is impossible to admit. Why certain bright colours should excite pleasure cannot, I presume, be explained any more than why certain flavours and scents are agreeable; but habit has something to do with the result, for that which is at first unpleasant to our senses ultimately becomes pleasant, and habits are inherited. With respect to sounds, Helmholtz has explained to a certain extent on physiological principles why harmonies and certain cadences are agreeable. But besides this, sounds frequently recurring at irregular intervals are highly disagreeable, as everyone will admit who has listened at night to the irregular flapping of a rope on board ship. The same principle seems to come into play with vision, as the eye prefers symmetry or figures with some regular recurrence. Patterns of this kind are employed by even the lowest savages as ornaments, and they have been developed through sexual selection for the adornment of some male animals. Whether we can or not give any reason for the pleasure thus derived from vision and hearing, yet man and many of the lower animals are alike pleased by the same colours, graceful shading and forms, and the same sounds.

And so the facts given by Darwin show that lower animals experience aesthetic tastes that coincide closely with those of man. But this does not explain the origin of these tastes; if biology does not explain the origin of our anesthetic tastes, it can even less explain their historical development. But let Darwin speak for himself:

   The taste for the beautiful, at least as far as female beauty is concerned, is not of a special nature in the human mind, for it differs widely in the human mind; it differs widely in the different races of man, and is not quite the same even in the different nations of the same race. Judging from the hideous ornaments and the equally hideous music admired by most savages, it might be urged that their aesthetic faculty was not so highly developed as that of certain animals, for instance, as the birds. [4]

If the conceptions of the beautiful are different with different nations of the same race, it is clear that we cannot look for the causes of these differences in biology. Darwin himself tells us that we should carry our search in a different direction. In the second English translation of his book, “The Descent of Man,” we read the following:

  With cultivated men such (aesthetic) sensations are intimately associated with complex ideas and trains of thought.

This is very important. It leads us from biology to sociology, as it is obvious, according to Darwin that social causes determine a civilised man’s conceptions of beauty and the association of the complex ideas connected with them. But is Darwin right in thinking that such associations take place only among civilised people? No, he is not. It is known that skins, claws and teeth play an important role in the ornaments of primitive man. How is it to be explained? With the combinations of the colours and lines in those objects? No. The savage attiring himself, for instance, in the skins, paws and teeth of a tiger, or skin and horns of a bison, exalts his own skill and strength. He who conquers the skilful is skilful himself, he who conquers the strong is himself strong. It is possible that there is some superstition intermingled with the idea. Skulcraft relates that the red-skinned tribes of North-western America love ornaments made from the claws of a grey bear, the most ferocious animal of that region. The red-skinned warrior thinks that the ferocity and bravery of the grey bear is transferred to the one who attires himself in that animal’s claws. And these claws, remarks Skulcraft, are partially an ornament, partially an amulet. [5] In this instance it is impossible to think that the red-skinned men liked animals’ skins, claws and teeth only because of the combinations of colour and line. [6] No, the opposite is much more probable, i.e., that these things first were worn merely as a sign of bravery, skill and strength, and only afterwards did they begin to call out aesthetic feelings and become used as ornaments. From this it follows that aesthetic feelings not only are associated with complex ideas among savages, but that they arise through the influence of such ideas.

Another instance: It is known that women of some African races wear iron rings on their hands and legs. The wives of the rich, for example, wear nearly forty pounds of those ornaments. [7] This, of course, is rather inconvenient, but this inconvenience does not prevent them from wearing with pleasure these chains of slavery, as Schweinfurth calls them. Why, then, is it so agreeable to a negress to wear such chains? Because it is through them that she seems prettier to herself and others. And why does she appear prettier? This is the result of a very complex association of ideas. Passion for such ornaments developed among the tribes which, according to Schweinfurth, now live in the iron age, and for which iron is a precious metal. That which is precious seems beautiful, for the idea of opulence is associated with it. A woman in one of those tribes appears more beautiful when she wears twenty pounds of those rings than when she wears only ten pounds; the difference, finally considered, is a matter of totality of wealth. It is clear that it is not the beauty of the iron ring that is the determinant, but the idea of wealth which is associated with it.


A third instance : In a certain tribe Batoka, in the upper part of the river Zambesi, a man whose upper incisive teeth are not pulled out is considered very ugly. Where did they get this strange conception of beauty? It, too, has been formed as the result of a complex association of ideas. With their incisive teeth withdrawn the men tend to imitate the ruminant animals, and Batoka is a shepherd tribe that worships its cows and bulls. [8] Here again the beautiful is that which is precious, and we see that aesthetic ideas rise on the foundation of ideas of quite a different order.


The best example, however, is to be taken from Livingston; it is also given by Darwin. In the tribe of Makalolo, the upper lip is pierced and a metallic or bamboo ring, called a pelele, is inserted. When one of their leaders was asked why the women wore these rings, he was very much surprised that such an absurd question should be asked. “For beauty. This is a woman’s only ornament. Men have beards. What would she look like without a pelele?” It is hard to say with certainty where they got the custom, but it is clear that its origin is to be sought in some complex association of ideas and not in the laws of biology, to which evidently it has no relation.


In view of these examples we feel justified in declaring that appreciations and feelings, called out by certain colours and lines in objects, even among the primitive peoples, are associated with very complex ideas, and many of those forms and combinations seem to them so beautiful only because of these associations. But what gives rise to these associations, and where arise the complex ideas associated with these feelings which are evoked when we see these things? Evidently this question can be answered not by biology, but by sociology. And if the materialist conception of history helps more toward its solution than any other view, if we are convinced that the association of complex ideas mentioned above is determined and created in the last instance by the state of the productive forces and economic conditions of the given society then we must admit that Darwinism does not in the least contradict the materialist conception of history.


Although we cannot say much here about Darwin’s relations to our doctrine, we shall at least note it.


Let us turn our attention to the following lines :—


   It may be well first to premise that I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as those of man, would acquire exactly the same manner. As various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker bee, think it a sacred duty to kill their fertile daughters, and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless, the bee, or any other social animal, would gain, as it appears to me, some feeling of right or wrong, or a conscience.


What follows from these words? That .in the moral conceptions of men there is nothing absolute; that moral concepts change with the conditions of the time.


But what creates these conditions? What causes their changes? Darwin says nothing about this, and if we say and prove that the productive forces create them and change them according to the development of those forces, then we shall not only not contradict Darwin, but shall even add to what he has said and explain what has remained unexplained by him. And we shall do it by applying to the study of social phenomena the same principles that served him so well in biology.


It may seem extremely strange to put Darwinism beside the historical conception of history. The domain of Darwin’s activity was entirely different. He viewed the descent of man as a zoological species. Those who are on the side of the named view wish to explain the historical destiny of this species. Their domain of investigation begins where the domain of the Darwinist investigations end.


Their works cannot replace that which the Darwinists have given us; likewise, the most splendid discoveries of Darwinists cannot replace their investigations, but can only prepare a ground for them, as the physicist prepares the ground for the chemist.


Darwin’s theory appeared in its time as a very big and necessary step in the development of biological science, and satisfied the most acute and searching questions that were put to it. Is it possible to say the same of the materialist conception of history? Is it possible to say that in its time it appeared as an inevitable step in the development of social science? And is it able now to satisfy all the demands put to it? To this we can reply with certainty. Yes, it is possible. Yes, it is able. And we hope to show that such a certainty is not deprived of foundations.


But let us turn to aesthetics. From the above quotations from Darwin it is clear that he views the development of aesthetic tastes in the same light as the development of moral feelings. Men, like many animals, have a sense of beauty—that is, they are able to feel a special kind of pleasure (aesthetic pleasure) due to certain objects and phenomena.


But what are the objects and phenomena which afford them so much pleasure? This depends upon the environment in which they are brought up, live and act. Human nature makes it possible for man to have aesthetic tastes and conceptions. His environment determines the transition from this possibility into reality. This environment explains how this given social man (i.e., society, nation or class) has certain aesthetic tastes and conceptions and not others.


This is the last conclusion of Darwinism, and this conclusion will not be opposed by any historical materialist. In fact, every one of them will see in it a new support of this view. The historic materialists have steadily maintained that if human nature is immutable, then it cannot explain this historical process, which presents a sum of constantly changing phenomena; but if human nature changes with the course of historical development, as we see it does, then it is evident that there must be some objective cause for these changes. And therefore in this, as well as in the other case, the duty of both historian and sociologist must be to go beyond the limit of discussions about human nature.


Let us take even such a quality as the proclivity to imitation. Mr. Tarde, who has made a quite interesting research into the laws of imitation, sees in them the soul of society. According to his definition, each social group is a complex of beings, partially imitating each other at the given time and partially having imitated before the same model. Imitation undoubtedly played a very important role in the history of all our ideas, tastes, styles and customs. The materialists of the eighteenth century have indicated its enormous importance; man consists wholly of imitations, said Helvétius. But there is little doubt that Tarde founded his theory of imitation on a false basis.


When the Restoration of the Stuarts in England temporarily restored the reign of ancient nobility, this nobility was not in the least inclined to imitate the extreme representatives of the revolutionary bourgeoisie— the Puritans—but displayed a strong inclination to habits and tastes directly contrary to the Puritan rules of life.


Puritan strictness of morals gave place to extreme licentiousness. To do and love that which the Puritans had prohibited became a good. The Puritans were very religious; the Restorationists were latitudinarian, even atheistic. The Puritan persecuted the theatre and literature; their fall gave a signal to a new and strong passion for those things. The Puritans wore short hair and condemned luxury in clothes; after the Restoration, long hair, fashionable dressing and card-playing became the passion. In short, we discover not imitation, but contradiction, which evidently also exists in human nature. But why did this sense of contradiction in the mutual relations of the nobility and bourgeoisie develop so strongly in England in the seventeenth century? Because this was an age of very bitter struggle between nobility and bourgeoisie, or rather say “the third estate.” We may conclude, then, that, though man undoubtedly has a strong tendency to imitate, this tendency develops only in certain social relations, as in the relations which existed in France during the seventeenth century, where the bourgeoisie willingly, though unsuccessfully, attempted to imitate the nobility : recall Moliere’s “The Bourgeois Among the Nobility.” In other social relations the tendency to imitate is replaced by the opposite tendency, which we shall call the tendency of contradiction. But we expressed this incorrectly. The tendency to imitate did not disappear among the English of the seventeenth century. First of all it was most certainly, with all of its previous strength, displayed in the mutual relations between the people of the same class. Beljame says about the English of the higher society : “These people were not even unbelievers; they denied a priori, so that no one could mistake them for the round-headed, and also so as not to give themselves the trouble to think.” [9] About these people we can say that they denied for the sake of imitating. But in imitating the infidels they, of course, contradicted the Puritans. Imitation proved to be, therefore, a source of contradiction. But we know that if among the English noblemen the weaker people imitated disbelief more vigorously, that this arose because disbelief was considered well-breeding, and it became such only in virtue of contradiction, only as a reaction against Puritanism—a reaction which, in its turn, came as a result of the above-mentioned class struggle. Therefore, in the foundation of all this complex dialectics of psychic phenomena lay facts of social order, and out of this it is clear to what extent and in what sense the conclusion made above from Darwin’s thesis is correct: that man’s nature makes it possible for him to have certain conceptions (or tastes or inclinations), and that upon his environment depends the transition of this possibility into a reality; the environment makes him have precisely these conceptions (or tastes or inclinations) and not others. If we are not mistaken, the same was admitted by one of the Russian historical materialists.


   If the stomach is provided with a certain amount of food it sets to work according to the general laws of digestion. But is it possible through this to explain why there is in your stomach every day tasty and nourishing food, and in my stomach such is a scarce guest? Do these laws explain why some eat too much and others die of hunger? It seems that this explanation is to be sought somewhere else, in entirely different laws. The same is true with a man’s mind. Once he is put in a certain condition, once the surroundings give him certain impressions, he combines them through certain general laws; and here also the results differ extremely, according to the diversity of the received impressions. But what puts it in this state? What determines the affluence in character of those impressions? This is a question which is not to be solved by any laws of thought.

(To be concluded in the next issue.)


Translated for “Modern Quarterly” by Bessie Peretz.

[1] Greece had a special meaning for Saint Simon, because, according to his opinion, “c’est chez les grecs que l’esprit humain a commence a s’occupeur serieusement de l’organisation sociale. ”
[2]  See his Memoire sur la science de l’homme.
[3]  Cours de philosophic positive, Paris, 1869, vol. 1, pp. 40-41.
[4]  Descent of Man, p.50.


[5] Historical and statistical information respecting the history, conditions and prospects of the Indian tribes of the United States, vol. 3, p. 216.


[6] There is a case, however, where, objects of the same kind are liked only for their colour.


[7] Schweinfurth. Au Coeur d’Afrique, Paris, 1875, vol. 1, p. 148. Also Du Chaillu : Voyage et aventures dans l’Afrique equatoriale, Paris, 1863, p. 11.
[8]  Schweinfurth, vol. 1, p. 148.


[9] Alexandre Beljame, Le Public it les Hommes de lettres en Angleterre du dix-nuitieme Siecle, Paris, 1881, pages 1-10. Also Taine, Histoire de la Literature Anglaise, vol. 2, p. 443, and following.