Orange Reaction

By Shaun Morris, Glasgow Marxists

The shadow of sectarianism loomed large this summer, as the annual Orange Order marches drew criticism and outrage. In Belfast and other parts of the North of Ireland, loyalist mobs clashed with police and intimidated nationalist communities when bonfires were removed on safety grounds. In Scotland, a Catholic priest was spat on by a passing Orange parade.

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Abolish The Monarchy: For a Workers Republic!

By Alex Johnson, IMT Edinburgh

With the recent announcement of the engagement of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and the upcoming wedding, we call not for celebration of but the abolition of the monarchy. The royal family is a feudal relic and symbol of national chauvinism which, along with the House of Lords, reveals what our so-called ‘democracy’ really is – a system designed and run to serve the interests of the ruling class. The monarchy is a drain on the public purse, receiving handouts of £35.7 million per year on top of countless other expenses. The upcoming royal wedding is an excellent example of this. While the royal family will pay for the wedding ceremony, reception etc., the taxpayer will foot the bill for the policing, security costs and public order arrangements around the event. Kate and William’s 2011 wedding saw £15 million spent of policing alone, with 5000 officers deployed. This time we can expect the same arrangements, if not even greater measures following the recent increase in terrorist attacks.

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100 years on: remembering the Representation of the People Act

By Max Wright, IMT Edinburgh

A century ago, on 6th February 1918, the historic Representation of the People Act was passed. Importantly, the 1918 Act allowed 8.4 million women and 5.6 million men in Britain to vote for the very first time. As Marxists, it is important to examine the victories – and shortcomings – of one of the first steps towards universal suffrage.

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Catalonia and Caledonia

By John Webber, Glasgow

The violent repression of Catalan voters by theSpanish police inspired instinctive feelings of solidarity in people around the world. The shocking brutality of the Guardia Civil against completely unarmed civilians only wanting to cast a ballot was considered unthinkable in a European country. In a few days, the events in Catalonia exposed the anti-democratic nature of both the EU and the Spanish State as the unity of Spain was ensured by force. In Scotland, hundreds of people attended protests in Glasgow and Edinburgh called by the Radical Independence Campaign. In the eyes of RIC and many supporters of Scottish Independence, Catalonian Independence is an inspiration and a fraternal cause. The SNP conference also heard speeches condemning the actions of the Spanish Government and moderate messages of support for independence activists.

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Scottish National Investment Bank: A Marxist View

The SNP Spring Conference endorsed a motion calling on the Scottish Government to establish a Scottish National Investment Bank (SNIB). The idea of National Investment Banking has recently found favour among the left of British politics, with left wing Independence campaign Common Weal publishing a blueprint and Jeremy Corbyn proposing a British bank with regional branches as a key economic policy.

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Poverty Amid Plenty

by Tam Burke, September 2017

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG),www.cpag.org.uk/scotland/, referred to the Scottish Government’s Report on Welfare Reform showing that 1 in 4 poor households lack enough warm clothes, are unable to afford school trips or have friends over for tea, and despite doing well at school grow up to be adults earning low pay. CPAG also show that in Britain, for 2014-15 (latest available figures) 28% of children are in poverty, almost 4 million in total. 67% of those kids have a parent in work! London has the highest amount of poor children.

 

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Expropriate Landlords!

Shaun Morris

Nobody deserves to be homeless. A friend of mine is now facing homelessness just weeks before his final exams of university. I’m thankful not to be in his shoes, but it has made me think about how much power landlords have over their tenants’ lives.
My friend’s housing woes don’t begin with this eviction. He was kicked out of his previous home by an enterprising young landlord who wanted to convert his run-down suburban house into something he could flog on the market. Despite agreeing with the tenants to renew the lease, he changed his mind a few weeks later and told them to skedaddle.
This left my friend and his flatmates looking for a new place to live with only two months until the start of term. He feared he would have to move back to his family home and somehow commute over two hours to get to university. This was no real option, so he was forced to move into a place with a dodgy landlord.
The accommodation itself was an old townhouse that had been converted into a money maker. It was a single corridor with several rented rooms and a shared kitchen and bathroom. For this, the rent was not cheap but it wasn’t even near the university campus, a 45 minute cycle away. This is what students have to settle with when made desperate by the greed of landlords.
After nearly a year, the people living there were hit with a sudden demand to move out. As it turns out, the person they thought was their landlord was in actual fact a tenant. He was sub-letting the whole place to students without the knowledge of *his* landlord. He had even hung fake family photographs on the wall to support his story that it was a family home he had inherited! Once the real landlord had found out, he immediately demanded the place be emptied. With no lease and no rights, my friend and his flatmates are forced to squat there, fearing harassment or forcible eviction by the property owner.
For the second year in a row they find themselves desperately searching for a place to live, with final year exams looming. They’ve demanded that their rent be paid back to them, but there’s no way they can force the person who ripped them off to do this. All they can think to do is trash the place in revenge. My friend studies in Dublin, but his ordeal could have just as easily happened in Glasgow, Edinburgh or London (and I would bet it regularly does).
Rent is perhaps the clearest form of exploitation in capitalism. While people can incorrectly claim that profit is earned by the enterprise of the capitalist or interest (usury) is the cost of the risk a capitalist takes when lending money, landlords blatantly exploit the human need for shelter through their ownership of private property. What possible justification is there for this? Most landlords that students will have to deal with won’t even maintain their properties in a decent state, so what are we paying them for?
Young people have the poorest prospects for housing security than they have ever had. Home ownership is out of reach for a whole generation, throwing millions into the reserve army of renters that landlords can draw on to force rents up and conditions down when their tenants demand too much. With increasing casualization, exploitation and insecurity at work for young people, we are the worst hit victims of this crisis-ridden capitalist system.
Changing our fortunes requires a radical change in direction for our economy and society, demanding a break with capitalism and the exploitation it feeds off. We can abolish the current state of affairs if we struggle for the overthrow of the ruling class whose State defends the “rights” of private property over the needs of people. Our alternative is based on a democratic and socialist plan of production, where society’s resources are directed by need rather than profit, rent and usury.
That alternative begins with building a revolutionary labour movement that puts young people front and centre. It will be a movement armed with the broadest organisation of the working class and a revolutionary socialist programme. As Marxists we are at the forefront of preparing for this struggle.
Expropriate the landlords and capitalists! Homes and jobs for all!
Abolish rent, usury, profit and all exploitation! For world socialist revolution!Being a student in a time of capitalist crisis isn’t easy, and as many will know trying to make your loan stretch to the end of the month is a struggle. The days of generous grants seem a world away and it’s an endless juggle between money for food, rent, the electricity meter and having enough to buy a few pints at the end of the week. Of course, this isn’t just the reality for students but thousands of people across Scotland and Europe who have seen their standard of living plummet since the capitalist crisis of 2008 and the brutal austerity policies that have come as a result of it.
I was budgeting the other day when I realised just how much of my money goes on rent. For me two thirds of all the money I have coming in goes straight to my landlord and I am only left with one third for everything else. It struck me just how unfair this system is, where the law requires me to give the majority of the money I have to someone simply because they have a piece of paper saying they own the land and all that is built on it.
I do not live in a beautiful flat where the landlord works hard day-in, day-out to somehow earn these huge sums of money. In fact we had to argue with him for weeks just to get a fire alarm installed. There is damp and mould all over the place and the house was easily broken into because the building is so badly maintained. However the landlord continues to receive all this money for literally doing nothing. I’m not alone and I would argue that it’s a struggle for the vast majority of people in rented accommodation to get their landlord to do basic tasks and repairs.
Rent controls are obviously a start, however I believe we should go right to root of the problem; why should people be forced to pay rent at all? It isn’t right that landlords receive money from us just because they supposedly own the land or building. Why shouldn’t they work like everyone else? Under socialism we could have a system where these parasites are abolished and where society would collectively own the housing stock. No longer would we have to live with damp and unsafe houses, as these problems could be easily fixed if the money was in our own hands. Instead of profit being valued above all else, the aim of housing would be to create pleasant spaces for people to live, and everyone’s standard of living could be greatly improved.

Languages and Capitalism

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.

Dialectical Materialism

Conner Gettings

 

Dialectical materialism is often described as one of the three main pillars of Marxism, along with historical materialism and Marxist economics. These three complement each other in forming an excellent way of describing society and the physical world, as well as how they relate to one another. While historical materialism analyses history from a materialistic perspective and Marxist economics obviously deals with the economy, dialectical materialism is the philosophical and scientific outlook which underpins Marxism. It is the language and method that Marxists use to analyse the world and as such, it can be applied to virtually any area of thought or research; be it the historical development of society or a specialised area of science. This makes dialectical materialism a very powerful tool which can be used to understand current events, from how they arose to how they might be resolved. So to a Marxist a proficient understanding of the philosophy of dialectical materialism and how it should be applied in different situations is critical.

The ideas of dialectical materialism, based on the best traditions of philosophical thought, are not a fixed dogma but rather a system of tools and general principles for analysing the world materialistically and scientifically. Words like materialism and materialistically are used a lot, and in a Marxist context materialism means that it is generally the material world and current physical conditions that influence both the actions and ideas of individuals and groups as a whole, rather than the other way about. The roots of dialectical materialism can ultimately be traced to the ancient Greek natural philosophy of atomism of Epicurus and Democritus and can be derived from that fact that everything that exists is material and is derived from matter, and that all matter is interconnected and interdependent.

There are many ways and viewpoints in which dialectical materialism can be understood, as befits a dialectical understanding of the world, but the main principle behind it is that nothing is static. Everything is in a constant state of change and flux no matter how stable or motionless it may seem, and over an infinite amount of time everything will, and must, transform or degrade. So according to this mode of thought, the idea that something is constant and will remain unchanged permanently is unmaterialistic and ultimately impossible. This can be seen in the realm of astronomy, a field where the tenets of dialectical materialism seem to be constantly verified. Objects such as stars, which were once thought to be infinite in time, were eventually shown to have lifetimes and are indeed not infinite.

Within a more terrestrial scope, this idea of constant flux can be applied to societies and regions around the globe. There is no country in the world where the working class is not in a continuous state of variation. In a single country at times it may be strong and proactive and at other times it may appear dormant and almost invisible on the surface; but in all periods there are ebbs and flows in the working class movement which will be influenced by certain events and the material conditions at certain times, such as an economic recession. The state of the working class may then go on to affect the conditions which affect its current state through actions such as mass strikes and so on; the processes and interactions between both can continue to influence each other. This is the essence of the dialectic nature of society and this also connects with historical materialism.

Dialectical materialism when viewed as a form of logic is always opposed to the more widely used and accepted mode of thought of formal logic that is prevalent among the bourgeoisie and general academia. Formal logic itself can ultimately be related to Aristotle of ancient Greece and this dogmatic way of thinking, in its rigidness, is a product of the time of its creation and its development in capitalist society. In formal logic an object A will always equal A. Whereas with dialectical materialism A will only equal A in the limit of abstraction, which we often enter into for the sake of functionality and simplicity in areas such as mathematics and physics. In dialectical materialism, however, we realise that despite this simplification, in reality A never equals A no matter how narrow you make the time interval between observations of it. This comes back to the idea of constant flux, where everything is in constant motion and as such is always changing, even if this change is almost undetectable. So in reality A equals A and at the same time it does not equal A, as A is constantly in the process of becoming something other than A, and it is this idea which formal logic in its stubbornness finds almost impossible to understand and implement in analysis. As such, when using formal logic one will always come up against contradictions in reality that cannot be easily solved and when these contradictions are finally overcome, they inevitably lead to even greater contradictions. When, however, using dialectical materialism the contradictions are not so much of a problem, rather they are expected due to the dialectical nature of the material world in which we live. This is a main reason why dialectical materialism is superior to formal logic when being used to understand the processes that are occurring all around us.

Aside from the ideas of everything having a materialistic basis and being derived from matter, that all matter is interconnected and interdependent, and that there is a continual flux of processes that at all times influence each other where necessary, there are three basic assertions that dialectical materialism makes that in many ways sum up these ideas and allow them to be applied to the physical world.

This first of these is: The Law of the Unity and Conflict of Opposites. In a very literal sense this law describes a situation seen in many dialectical processes of two or more opposing ideas or physical objects. Examples of this idea could be opposing class interests within society, such as those of the proletariat and bourgeoisie which will naturally be forced against one another. Or in the field of physics it could be used to describe the phenomena of electromagnetism, where there are positive and negatively charged particles which will attract oppositely charged particles and repel similarly charged particles which then leads to the creation of an electric current in closed circuits. The unity part of this law denotes the view that the opposites from various situations, once certain material conditions are met, can effectively remove or annihilate one another. Such as in society, following a successful revolution of the working class and the creation of the dictatorship of the proletariat (a commonly misunderstood phrase which means the working class democratically controlling society); with the eventual withering away of the state, the opposing class interests would also wither away due to the end of class society itself. In the case of physics, with the removal of any physical or potential energy barriers, equally and oppositely charged particles will collide to create a new particle or annihilate each other alongside the creation of energy. This effectively removes the influence of the opposite charges. This principle can also be applied in the opposite direction, in the creation of opposites in different situations and again with the correct material conditions.

The second assertion of dialectical materialism is: The Law of the Passage of Quantitative Changes into Qualitative Changes and Vice Versa. As this law states, quantitative changes can result in qualitative changes and in turn, qualitative changes can result in quantitative changes. A good example of this in practice is the process of boiling water. When boiling a body of water the temperature of the water must be raised to 100°C, or 373.15K, at the barometric pressure at sea level if you want to be specific. This is a quantitative change in the properties of the water. Once this temperature is reached the water undergoes a phase transition from a liquid to a gas. This can be considered a qualitative change in the properties of the water, and so this completes a cycle of this law.

The third law of dialectical materialism is: The Law of the Negation of the Negation. This statement neatly contains the idea of the constant change and flux of objects and processes mentioned previously. The negation of an object or property, usually caused by the said object’s or property’s antithesis, can in turn be negated itself so that the whole system can move on to a completely new state. This occurs due to the ever changing and dialectical nature of the world and events. The effects of certain incidents, such as an economic boom in capitalism, can cause living conditions of the working class to improve due to the more relaxed nature of the bourgeoisie towards reforms that the working class demands. So the working class will in itself become more relaxed and layers could possibly become less class conscious. If, however, the antithesis of an economic boom, an economic depression, causes the material conditions of capitalism to be almost reversed such that the bourgeoisie are forced to take away any reforms granted to the working class, then the living conditions of the working class will deteriorate accordingly and as such layers of the working class will become more radicalised and class conscious, and so on. This process will then continue according to the changing materialistic conditions of society and the confrontation of class interests, which will in turn influence each other.

These three laws of dialectical materialism and their associated concepts and applications form the backbone of the Marxist way of thinking. In the modern period, we as Marxists would say that formal logic is no longer able to progress science, or philosophy any further, as the contradictions that it has built up due to its very nature are becoming greater and greater. In a very similar way to the fact that Capitalism can no longer progress society forward as a whole due to its inherent failures. A good example of this is in the realm of cosmology. In cosmology, and in the physics community as a whole, the idea of the big bang dominates the general consensus of what created the Universe as we know it. While the idea of a massive explosion resulting in the Universe we see today is consistent with nearly all the observational evidence we have, formal logic breaks down when we try to explain what happened before the big bang. The idea that all the mass and energy in the Universe came from nothing more than the big bang, with nothing causing the big bang itself doesn’t feel like a satisfying answer. That’s because it isn’t materialistic at all. From our everyday experience we know we can’t get something from nothing and so as Marxists we would argue that obviously something must have existed before the big bang.

Formal logic in its rigidness finds it very difficult to link our current knowledge of physics with any new possible theories to explain the physical laws that could have existed before the big bang. This isn’t implying that dialectical materialism would allow us to answer these big questions easily, of course not, but it does allow a much easier theoretical link to be made due to its emphasis on change and its more flexible nature compared to formal logic. From a purely scientific point of view that’s where the strength of dialectical materialism lies; it allows the connection of seemingly disparate theories and ideas in a deeply profound and material basis.

One of the best demonstrations of the applicability of dialectical materialism and of the powerful insights it can give into physical processes is in the field of general relativity and gravitation. This area of science has been in the news a lot recently due to the first observational evidence of gravitational waves that was announced on Thursday 11th February.

The person who came up with our current understanding of general relativity and the force of gravity itself was Einstein. Einstein was able to do this through several factors. One of course was the material conditions into which he was born: a fairly wealthy middle class family that could afford to give him a good education. Another was the fact he possibly had a natural aptitude in science. This, however, is beside the point. The main factor was the analysis he employed when considering his thought experiments on gravity. Being a theoretical physicist he relied on theory more than observation and so having a good analysis of his ideas was vital. Of course he used dialectical materialism. Einstein wasn’t a Marxist but he did have many Socialist views and he did speak out against capitalism and the free market, so it’s no surprise he employed dialectical materialism in his work.

In general relativity, what Einstein brilliantly deduced in his field equations, that are a part of a larger set of partial differential equations, was that the force of gravity is paired with the energy and momentum of both matter and radiation; and it should be noted that the pairs of energy and momentum as well as matter and radiation and also interconnected and interdependent. The theory of general relativity states that gravity is paired with energy and momentum in that in the presence of matter or radiation, the curvature of spacetime is bent. If we can imagine such a thing as an empty universe, which of course dialectical materialism tells us is impossible, then spacetime would be perfectly flat and time and motion would move and change everywhere uniformly. Of course this isn’t the case and so every piece of mass and radiation in the universe is bending the curvature of spacetime. So that gravity is changing in our presence and as a result of this, the movement of matter and radiation is changing as well. Of course you need massive amounts of mass, like that of stars or black holes to see these effects easily but nonetheless it’s still occurring all the time.

Even more remarkable is that, as the name spacetime would suggest, even something as fundamental as time is affected by this process, as a consequence of the finite and unalterable speed of light in a vacuum in our Universe. So as mass or radiation moves, which both constantly do as a necessity of their existence, they not only change the gravitational field in their vicinity but also the passage of time for themselves relative to their surroundings. Another consequence of this is, is that as a mass moves it appears contracted and hence shorter relative to a stationary observer, and equivalently radiation appears gravitationally redshifted or blueshifted depending on the situation. Again this is happening to us all the time but we would need to be moving very close to the speed of light to noticeably see these effects, but they do happen and in the decades since Einstein first proved these effects theoretically, they have since been proven experimentally.

So we can see very clearly here that the most fundamental physical aspects of the Universe such as mass, radiation, the force of gravity; as well as other forces, energy, momentum and time are all interconnected and interdependent as dialectical materialism suggests. It is also thought now that the four fundamental forces in the Universe, which are, in order from weakest to strongest: gravity, the weak nuclear, the electromagnetic, and strong nuclear forces; are all different aspects of one singular force and are tied together in the hypothetical and aptly named Theory of Everything. These connections are things that dialectical materialism pointed towards long before formal logic acknowledged them.

Dialectical materialism is the language that Marxists use to communicate their ideas and utilise them to analysing the world and the material universe. Its universal applicability and flexibility make it an incredibly powerful tool and ultimately it is necessary for bringing about an international socialist revolution and an end to capitalism.

Art and socialism

Time and time again we are told that humankind is inherently selfish; that people are not interested in sharing with others and that a more equal and caring society, where people treat each other fairly and respectfully is a utopian ideal that can never be realistically achieved. What lies behind this is the idea that capitalism, with its free market economics and dog-eat-dog morality, is the most natural and practical economic system.

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

Capitalism emerged from feudalism, a system of perpetual war between lords and monarchs over land, where the Church was the dominating political and ideological force of Europe and people accepted their God-given place in the world without question. The bourgeoisie in its early stages played a progressive role. It was the class that was responsible for bringing mankind out of the oppressive feudal system.

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

Since Leonardo, this need to observe and understand the beauty of humankind has been carried on by artists with completely different professional careers. The Dutch Golden Age (roughly the entire 17th century) was a period of economic boom following the successful revolt of the Dutch against their Spanish rulers in the late 16th century. The Dutch Republic was intensely Protestant and its bourgeoisie were proud of the material success that their monopolised trade with Japan and other countries of the Far East secured them.

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

The Dutch Golden age spawned one other outstanding artist, Jan Vermeer. Vermeer lived a humble life in the town of Delft, painting small pictures for little money. Cheap though these painting were, their intense beauty and quality as works of art make them outstanding to the eyes of a modern viewer. Long before photographers became obsessed with capturing ‘everyday life’, Vermeer was painting quiet scenes of the Dutch middle class.

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

The painter Caravaggio worked mainly for the Catholic Church in Rome during the Counter-Reformation. While his works are undoubtedly religious, they are above all, to the modern eye, intensely humanist. Unlike his contemporaries, Caravaggio did not paint in the highly ornamental, decorative Baroque manner; full of absurd amounts of floating virgins and puffy cherubs.

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

The humanity reflected in these artworks is not something strange to be studied academically. It is a humanity that still connects people today and should therefore be understood as such. Socialism is, before anything else, a way of re-connecting mankind and eliminating the hatred and exploitation brought on by capitalism. In the development of human existence, the bringing of people together in overthrowing their oppressors is of infinite value.

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.