Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Art and revolution

Reading Time: 5 minutes

What is the relationship between art, revolution, capitalism and class struggle? This year was the first time there was a commission on ‘art and revolution’ at the annual summer school of the Committee for a Workers’ International, the world socialist organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated.

Not only did it add a new dimension to the event, it also complemented the other discussions taking place over the week.
Suzanne Beishon provides a flavour of the discussion, that was led by Manny Thain.

We live in a world where artists have to sell art on the commercial art market to be ‘successful’, and where a narrow definition of what is considered ‘good art’ applies, determined by how much people are willing to pay for it.

Across the globe the majority of workers do not have access to art. Museums and exhibitions tend to be elitist and inaccessible. Art education is commercialised, with more emphasis put on courses like product design due to the fact that we live in a market system.

Economic crisis, as we are seeing, means increasing attacks on the working class in the form of longer working hours, low pay and job insecurity. The arts are often the first to be hit, with the closing of museums and libraries, cuts in arts education, etc, which are seen as unnecessary expenses. Longer hours at work also mean there is less time to either enjoy or create art.

Social role of art

The earliest examples of art show how it grew out of collective activity. The cave paintings of hunter-gatherer societies, a pre-modern form of communism, were a way for the tribe to illustrate the daily process of hunting and give the hunter a feeling of power over the animal. In Native American dance, for example, the whole community would come together and dance, in imitation of the buffalo and birds they hunted.

The seeds of capitalism first began to develop under feudal society, and the future bourgeoisie amassed a huge amount of wealth and property. They funded schools and colleges, and were patrons of artists, developing their own culture before coming to power after feudalism.

The working class does not have this luxury because it is not a property-owning class with control of the means of production. But it can use capitalist culture and add its own character, sometimes using it to promote struggle, mobilise people and raise consciousness. When the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, refers to bourgeois or capitalist culture, as he does in his book Literature and Revolution, he means everything that makes up capitalist society.

Pablo Picasso’s 1937 painting, Guernica, which depicts the Nazi bombing of the Basque town, Guernica, during the Spanish civil war, has grown to be more than about a single time and place. It has become a symbol of the entire struggle of the workers and peasants in Spain, and the tragedies of war in general. The poster art of France 1968 is another example of art exploding out of huge upheavals in society and being used by the working class to aid the building of mass movements.

The ruling class can make efforts to incorporate art born out of struggle into its society, making money from it and diluting its political significance. Rap and blues, for example, could not have been created by the ruling class. They grew out of the conditions of the black working class and poor of America. Yet they have been incorporated into the mainstream music industry.

Mirror of society

As with society, art develops through history. It has periods of leaps forward, stagnation, regression, progression, etc. As Lenin described: “art/literature mirrors the periods it is created in”; it tends to reflect the society in which it was produced. This is most evident under dictatorships like that of Stalin, Franco, Mussolini and Hitler. Under the capitalist democracy we see in western countries today, state influence over art is much subtler and there appears to be freedom of expression. But this is by no means the case.

The early 20th century was a time of great advances scientifically and culturally, but the huge scale of death and destruction in the First World War shattered the illusion that science in and of itself could automatically move humanity forward.

The great art movements of cubism, futurism and surrealism developed within this period. Futurism was a part of the revolutionary wave that engulfed Russia after the 1917 revolution. Within a few years, however, Italian futurists were backing Mussolini and fascism in Italy.

Surrealism was revolutionary to its core. The surrealists wanted to smash the establishment’s control of art and thought, linked to the idea that society can only be free after a socialist revolution. Like any movement, however, it was not homogeneous and many strands existed within it. Salvador Dalí, despite creating some amazing innovative work, was expelled from the surrealist movement for supporting Franco’s fascism in the Spanish civil war.

Luis Aragon, one of the founders of the movement, went over to the side of Stalin and ‘socialist realism’, in which art was reduced to the role of glorifying Stalin and his dictatorial system. André Breton, another of the leaders of surrealism, along with others, joined with Trotsky and the Left Opposition to oppose both fascism and Stalinism.

However it is important to recognise, as Trotsky argued, that “art should be judged first and foremost by the rules of art”, and that we cannot judge art by the political affiliation of the artist – although that and the context in which art is produced can be useful tools in understanding any artist’s work.

After the October 1917 revolution in Russia a creative wave spread across the country with the opening of galleries and schools to the masses. In 1919 the Museum of Artistic Culture was opened which brought together modern art, European and Asian art, folk art, and many more examples to reflect the diverse history of the new Soviet Union. It was an experimental, interactive museum and there were thousands of similar examples throughout the early years of the revolution.

In the period of civil war in Russia after the 1917 revolution, Vsevolod Meyerhold, a great theatrical innovator, set up the Theatre of October. It travelled between the Red Army’s frontlines to play to/educate the soldiers, rejecting the stage conventions of bourgeois theatre. They also aided Trotsky’s work by transporting information between the lines. Later, Meyerhold totally opposed Stalin’s ‘socialist realism’, becoming a member of Trotsky’s Left Opposition. As a consequence, he was executed in 1940.


As Stalin consolidated his rise to power, artistic innovation was stifled. In 1926 the Museum of Artistic Culture was shut down. By 1932 many artistic institutions had been shut down. Stalin imposed ‘socialist realism’ and ‘proletarian literature’ in 1934. Trotsky called Stalin’s Russia “a concentration camp of the arts”. The suppression of artistic freedom under his regime was part of controlling the majority. Yet, even the totalitarian regime of Stalin – and other forms of dictatorship – were unable to suppress all art, which were smuggled out like contraband, as Trotsky put it.

Trotsky’s campaign against Stalinism, which included the development of the Left Opposition and, in 1938, the founding of the Fourth International, also published Manifesto Towards A Free Revolutionary Art (see: ‘Surrealism’s Revolutionary Art’, Socialism Today No.120, July-August 2008) which was a programme, drawn up by Trotsky and signed by André Breton and the Mexican revolutionary artist, Diego Rivera, condemning Stalinism and fascism for suffocating artistic expression. It called on radical artists and writers to join and play a role in the revolutionary developments across the world.

Under a genuine socialist workers’ state, with every aspect of life free from the restrictions of capitalism, workers – with a shortening of the working week for example – would have the chance to participate in any part of society they wanted, including forms of art. In the meantime we need to look at the benefits and uses of art in the coming mass struggles, because, to paraphrase Picasso, art is not only decoration, it can also be a weapon of struggle.