To celebrate the 150th birthday of Rosa Luxemburg, we publish an extract from the introduction to ‘The Revolutionary Heritage of Rosa Luxemburg’, a new look analysing the life and ideas of this great revolutionary Marxist.Continue reading Reclaiming the revolutionary legacy of Rosa Luxemburg
As the well-known saying goes “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” Language is the medium through which we express ourselves, and like it or not, it underpins our entire world-view. For example, the way we see colours completely depends on which language we speak. In Vietnamese green and blue are the same colour (xanh), while in Russian ‘blue’ is two separate colours (синий and голубой) and in the Himba language spoken in Namibia; dark blue, dark green, dark red, brown, purple, and black are all one colour (zoozu). However, it’s not just colour that language affects, but how gender and possession are expressed (in Gaelic the only way to say you own something is to say it is ‘at you’) and much more. Languages reflect the richness and diversity of human culture, and when we lose a language we also lose poetry, songs, stories, and a whole perspective on the world.
However, under capitalism profits are valued above all else, and culture is cast to the side. 2,473 languages are currently defined as endangered and recent studies have estimated from 60-90% of all currently spoken languages will be extinct by 2050.
Currently the world’s resources are concentrated in a few countries, and within them this vast wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny group of billionaires. English being the language of the largest imperialist countries means that it is valued above all others. Children in non-English speaking countries are told that learning English is the only way to become successful while children in English speaking countries miss out on all the benefits of bilingualism such as access to another culture, better concentration and multitasking, and even the delayed onset of dementia. Worldwide between 60-75% of people can speak two or more languages fluently, compared to only 20% in the USA and 5% in the UK. Under the capitalist system language is merely seen as a barrier to world trade and local identities as a hindrance to workers who are needed to be transient, unrooted, and able to move when the market dictates.
Closer to home, in Scotland we have our own minority language Gaelic or Gàidhlig which has around 57,000 fluent speakers, concentrated in the Highlands and Islands, but also with large communities in Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Inverness. Except for the Northern Isles it was once spoken all over Scotland, and until recently continued to be the main language of the Highlands. However, like all endangered languages it did not ‘naturally’ start to fade away, as is sometimes implied, but was brutally repressed.
The 1745 Jacobite rebellion made it clear to the ruling class at the time that the Highlands were a threat, as they were not yet integrated into the capitalist system or the British state. As a result, a series of laws were enacted aiming to destroy Highland culture, and unsurprisingly one of the main ways this was done was to make it illegal to speak Gaelic. However, the language continued to survive, and Gaelic was still the main language in Highland communities, churches, homes and schools.
A second blow came to the language in 1872 when a national education system was put into place. Under the new system all children had to be taught in English and faced severe punishments for speaking their native language. Many people alive today still remember being ruthlessly beaten in school for using Gaelic. The worthlessness of the language was ingrained from a young age and as a result confidence in the language dropped. This view that it would be better to just speak English and that Gaelic is somehow ‘worthless’ and ‘a waste of time and money’ is still around us today. Many think that Gaelic isn’t suitable for a modern society, or that it is only for ultra-nationalists who want to return to feudalism or the like. This is completely ridiculous; in fact Gaelic gives us access to a wealth of literature, poetry and culture.
Despite the pressures from the capitalist system in which English domitnates, Gaelic is still spoken by many. Gaelic education is now highly popular, as results have shown that children in these schools drastically outperform their single-language peers. However, despite some support from Holyrood, in Austerity Britain, Gaelic is not getting the support it needs to thrive.
Under socialism the way in which languages would be viewed would be completely different. Instead of the languages of the biggest imperialist countries dominating and all others being dismissed; bilingualism would be rightly valued. Sufficient resources could be allocated to minority languages like Gaelic, and without the pressures of the market all languages could flourish. Language is the key to the huge wealth of human culture, and under socialism it would no longer be stamped out.
Is it true then that we are doomed to live in a state that resembles nothing more than barbarism – an unstable economic system that will forever go through booms and busts, with the dictators passing their money around amongst themselves while the vast majority of mankind has to suffer for it?
The world of art, cinema and music, however, show us many things that contradict the idea that people are self-centred and care
nothing for unity and human solidarity.
Freed from the fetters of feudalism
In the towns the bourgeoisie established for themselves a system of trade and business that could exist independently of the Church and Crown. And with the rise of the bourgeoisie there came a huge advancement of the arts. No longer was art purely designed to display the majesty of God. Now art was a way of displaying one’s position in this world. For the bourgeoisie of the Italian Renaissance, art was directly linked to intellectual knowledge of the classical past, the beauties of nature, and the importance of the individual in the world. We see this in various works such as Michelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s Primavera, the portraits of Raphael and Titian etc.
Amongst this new breed of intellectual artist, probably the greatest was Leonardo da Vinci, a man who sought not glory and fame, but rather an understanding of the material world and its intricacies. Perhaps Leonardo’s greatest contributions to art were his scientific drawings. Here we see an artist who really saw a value in his work. These drawings were not made for money, and were never made to be seen by anybody apart from Leonardo, and yet they possess something which is fundamentally understandable to all humans: a need to observe and understand the essence of life.
The most striking example of this is his anatomical drawing showing a foetus in the womb. To call this a purely observational and scientific work is to misunderstand what Leonardo wanted to capture in his study: the fundamental beginnings of all human beings, the state in which mankind exists before it enters the world; something every human being has to go through.
When we are told by bourgeois collectors and critics that art is something beyond everyday human life, in a realm of ideals of beauty, they ought to be reminded that Leonardo, one of the greatest artists of all time, never sought to reflect anything but the most fundamental human life in his works. Even in religious works Leonardo offers us humanity first and foremost. In the Virgin of the Rocks we see a mother looking after children. In the Last Supper we see a group of individuals eat a humble meal.
The Golden Age
In Golden Age Holland, people of all different social standing were buying art of different varieties. The poorer folk could buy etchings or cheap paintings showing ‘genre scenes’, which usually depicted comic depictions of quack doctors, drunkards, prostitutes etc. as well as still life paintings, which displayed all the fundamental material requirements for the good life. This was art that could be understood by anyone, and the Dutch people took pride in being able to own individual works of art.
The more wealthy class could have their portraits painted, reflecting their belief in their own self-worth. Among the portrait painters of Amsterdam was Rembrandt van Rijn, a man who revolutionised the way we see each other. Rembrandt painted in a style of thick impasto and dirty colours, determined to capture the essence of his subjects rather than painting an exact likeness.
Amongst his most intimate and touching works are those he made of the women and children he knew. The portrait of his son
Titus is a great example of this.
Here we see a boy stare directly into the eyes of his father. As a portrait, it is miles away from the flamboyant and over-complimentary style of Rembrandt’s contemporaries like Rubens and Van Dyke. Rather than create an image of an ideal,
Rembrandt has sought to show us directly the connection he feels to another human being. It is not only in pictures of people he loves that Rembrandt does this, in almost all his portraits, commissioned or not, Rembrandt attempts to show us the humanity of his subjects.
Vermeer and the Old Masters
Vermeer’s work is notable in that unlike contemporaries like Jan Steen, he does not attempt to present the people he depicts in a humorous way, but attempts instead to show them in their apparently most dull and uninteresting moments. He paints a lady reading a letter or a child playing on the street with as much intense care as any other artist would paint a mythological scene.
For Vermeer at his most profoundly beautiful and touching we should look at the small painting known as The Milkmaid. Here we have a women at work, doing something she must have to do every day. Seeing something like this in real life we would be forgiven for being uninterested or bored. And yet this painting is anything but boring. It shows directly the beauty of everyday life most people will miss if they do not pay attention.
Here Vermeer seems to be calling for us to appreciate the little things that go on every day. It is miles away from what a working class person might understandably think of the art of the Old Masters. Who could fail to see why Vermeer has felt the need to use Lapis Lazuli, an expensive blue pigment, to create the stunningly beautiful apron around her waist? The bourgeois historian may (wrongly) point out that these works reflect humanity only due to Dutch Protestant materialism (Vermeer converted to Catholicism). In reply to this we should examine some of the Catholic art of this period and see if we find anything different
Caravaggio and the Church
Caravaggio painted everyday reality; the people he saw on the streets of Rome – prostitutes, beggars, criminals – and the religious aspects of his works are always linked to the poverty and deprivation Caravaggio saw all around him.
Caravaggio was not a slave to the power of the Church. Many of the works he produced were rejected by those who commissioned them because of his insistence on using real life models for his religious figures, particularly his use of famous Roman prostitutes as models for his Madonnas. Many bourgeois art historians have depicted Caravaggio as a straight foreword thug (he famously killed a man in a duel). Yet what they forget is that Caravaggio lived in a time of extreme poverty and crime, from which he could not escape. He saw the world around him was full of horrors, and yet he was able to look through these horrors and see the humanity that connects us all.
Take for example his altarpiece The Seven Acts of Mercy. Here we have a religious work, based upon a Christian ideal of mercy. Yet where is the work of God? Where is the authority of the church? The angels and the Madonna and child do not appear any less human than the rest of the figures. On the right we see a woman feeding an old prisoner with milk from her breast, on the left a man taking off his cloak to give to a naked beggar. What could be more human than an image like this? Here Caravaggio reflects how our worst moments we can still rely on our fellow man to help.
A reflection of humanity
Marxists have absolute confidence in the working class. Art has the power to influence people, and so it should not be seen as a useless luxury reserved for those who have too much time and money. Art reflects better than anything else the beauty of human existence. Art is not necessary in the way food and shelter are, but rather it is there to offer us consolation and give us reason to live, and this is something we all need. Without some means of understanding life artistically, we would be left with a hollow kind of existence.
Art is at once a reflection and a driving force for life. Under socialism, the alienation of working people from art and culture will be destroyed and art can finally take the place in society it should have.