Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The crooks are the rich who defend themselves with murder

The anger and ethics of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán

Mike Eaude

Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (1939-2003) was one of the last of the engagé writers of Southern Europe, left wing intellectuals produced by the large Communist parties of the 1960s and 1970s. Prolific journalist, essayist and novelist, he was an outstanding interpreter of Spain in its transformation from the sad, frightened country of the Franco dictatorship to its limited, but vibrant, bourgeois democracy today.

Occupied city

Montalbán, born in the year of Franco's Spanish Civil War victory, grew up in the slums of Barcelona during the grimmest years of the dictatorship. Many men were absent—dead, exiled or in jail. Montalbán met his father for the first time when, aged five, he passed a strange man on the stairs. A few streets down from Montalbán's home on the Calle Botella, the biggest brothel district in Europe thrived. Working class women in these post-war years often had to choose between prostitution and their children's starvation. Mass prostitution, which the anarchists had sought to abolish during the Spanish Revolution of 1936 by closing brothels and encouraging women to take up arms against fascism, prospered under the rule of Franco and the church.

1940s Barcelona was treated by Franco and a vengeful Catalan bourgeoisie as an occupied city. For the regime, Catalans were guilty of three cardinal sins—Communism, atheism and separatism. Franco set out to extirpate all signs of Catalan and working class culture.

In the Raval, the part of Barcelona's Old City where Montalbán grew up, particularly punished by the bombs of the Italian air force based on Mallorca during the civil war and a traditional stronghold of anarchism, 99 percent of the population was anti-Franco. Montalbán remembered women with children begging for scraps at their door, even though his mother had no income apart from what she earned by sewing. He remembered their fear of 'fascist commandos with their heads shaved to the scalp who forced people to drink castor oil' just for speaking Catalan. In a memorable phrase in The Pianist, a character says, 'I know the neighbours, almost all of them have lost the war and they carry the post-war round on their backs like a dead body.' Just to survive, the defeated and impoverished population needed basic solidarity with each other. This background, both an open wound and an ethical touchstone, pervades all Montalbán's writing.

Montalbán was one of the few who escaped from the Raval to the university, another world only a 15-minute walk from his home. At university he became involved in opposition politics, was arrested in 1961, beaten up personally by the notorious torturer Inspector Vicente Creix and sent to Lleida jail. This was, Montalbán said, his second university. He joined the PSUC, the Catalan Communist Party, a commitment he maintained throughout his life.1 Despite his international renown as a prize-winning essayist and novelist, he remained loyal to the solidarity of his childhood right up to his fatal heart attack in October 2003.

Released from jail in 1963, in an amnesty occasioned by Pope John XXIII's death, Vázquez Montalbán embarked on a career as a journalist. His early fame came from his skilful political analysis and acid, sarcastic turn of phrase, especially in the PCE-sponsored Triunfo. A more lasting claim to fame and the motive for this article is that, between 1977 and 1990, he wrote half a dozen novels that stand among the best in modern Spanish literature. The Pianist (1985),2 discussed below, is his masterpiece. Galíndez (1990) runs it a close second: it is a fictionalised account of the 1956 kidnapping in New York of an exiled Basque Nationalist leader and his torture and murder in the Dominican Republic by the dictator Trujillo.

Montalbán became best known, though, for crime novels, featuring his detective,
Pepe Carvalho. Of these, The Angst-Ridden Executive (1977), Southern Seas (1979) and The Rose of Alexandria (1984) fall into the half-dozen mentioned above.3 In Montalbán's crime novels, the crooks are revealed as the rich who defend their privilege with murder. This was not new. Raymond Chandler, king of the modern 'hard-boiled' crime novel, explained in the 1950s:

'The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels…where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of money-making.'

Chandler carries on in this vein, and doubtless readers of this journal need little convincing. However, Chandler was not a man of the left. Rather, like many writers of his period, he hated the gangstercapitalists who he blamed for destroying the lives of middle class people like himself in the 1930s Depression.

Like Chandler in Los Angeles, Vázquez Montalbán tears the mask of democracy off a city—Barcelona, in his case—run by crooks, but the context is very different.
The Angst-Ridden Executive and Southern Seas were written at the time of Spain's 1970s transition from dictatorship to bourgeois democracy. The background is not the defeat of the left in 1940s Los Angeles, but the mass struggle against the Franco dictatorship. Montalbán was not (as Chandler was) a former oil company executive, but an activist in that struggle. In his 1970s and 1980s novels, Montalbán is explaining how the change in 1970s Spain was not a 'rupture' with the dictatorship, but a controlled 'transition' to parliamentary democracy. He shows how 'the same dogs with different collars' continued to exercise power in the new Spain. The political structures changed, but economic power remained in the hands of not just the same class, but the same individuals.

Sceptic or cynic?

Montalbán's experience as a campaigning journalist had taught him that, with an increasingly sophisticated mass media assimilating opposition, it was not enough for a left wing journalist just to denounce injustice. He was ambitious to reach out to an audience even wider than the big readership of his articles in Triunfo. With crime novels, Montalbán found a popular genre with down to earth language, in which he could include the songs, memories, smells and tastes common to his own and millions of others' youth.

Montalbán conceived the Carvalho novels as a chronicle of contemporary Spanish and Catalan society, explaining events to his readers very soon after they had occurred:

'In each book I look at different questions: in The Angst-Ridden Executive the illusions of the transition from dictatorship to parliamentary democracy, in Murder in the Central Committee the crisis in the Communist Party, in Offside sport and the fleeting nature of media fame, in An Olympic Death entrepreneurs whose athleticism consisted in lining their own pockets as quickly as possible.'

In The Angst-Ridden Executive, for instance, Carvalho investigates the murder of Antonio Jauma, found dead with a pair of women's knickers in his pocket. The police quickly conclude that Jauma was the victim of a sex intrigue. Unconvinced,
Carvalho finds that Jauma was killed not because he was a womaniser—though he was—but because he was honest. Jauma was silenced because he had discovered a financial hole in the multinational company he worked for. The multinational had helped finance the 1973 coup in Chile, and now money is being illegally siphoned off to fund fascist groups during Spain's transition. As one of the characters explains, '[Fascist groups] probably won't be necessary, but the ruling class likes to cover all contingencies.'

In his investigation Carvalho visits six of Jauma's friends from their time together in the underground struggle at university 15 years before. Montalbán uses the investigation to look back into history, to note how each character has evolved, to examine who has betrayed their youthful beliefs and who has not.

He gives his narrative historical depth in another way too, throughout the Carvalho novels. The detective's office is at the seedy end of the Ramblas and he often wanders through the Raval, where streets, bars, shops and people he meets all spark off memories. In this constant inventory of the past, Montalbán is writing an alternative working class history, a history of those excluded from official history. The detective has a sort of 'family'—his call-girl girlfriend Charo, his 'secretary' and ex car thief Biscuter, and the ex-fascist boot-black Bromide. All three have their own carefully documented histories. Bromide, for example, was a volunteer with the Spanish Blue Division fighting for Hitler in 1941 against the Soviet Union. Living at the bottom of society, Bromide is a reminder that Franco didn't even look after his own.
The detective, clearly not to be identified with the author but nevertheless sharing much of his past and his point of view, is vital to making the novels work. Carvalho loves good food, wine, sex and long rambling conversations. Quite consciously, Montalbán challenged a certain puritanism on the left by creating a hedonist detective. Given the world's a mess, Carvalho ruminates, he has to look after himself, because no one else is likely to. For this reason, he has often been called a cynic. As if to reinforce this, the detective growls, 'I believe only in my stomach,' early in The Angst-Ridden Executive. But at the climax of the novel, when the murderer offers Carvalho a Nuits St George, Carvalho does not act cynically. Magnificently, he pours the exquisite wine onto the priceless carpet. He is a sceptic, as you have to be when listening to the lies of the powerful, but no cynic. He will not drink with a killer. Like Chandler's detective Marlowe, Carvalho is the moral man on the mean streets.

The revolutionary Marxist Ernest Mandel had a related criticism in his social history of the crime novel, Delightful Murder:

'In general all Montalban's books are soaked in an atmosphere of spleen, scepticism and fin-de-siècle ennui, very significant as the background of a whole layer of intellectual Eurocommunists. It is a break with Stalinist dogmatism and hypocrisy, but hardly a step towards greater lucidity of what this society and this world are all about'.4

There is some truth in Mandel's comment, for Montalbán's tone is often one of rather bitter sarcasm. This is rooted in his appreciation of the defeat the working class suffered in the transition, and his and its subsequent disenchantment with the new 'democratic' Spain. Mandel, however, fails to pick up the contradictions in Montalbán. As a Communist Party member, Montalbán supported all the nefarious deals made by the PCE with the ruling class to hold back working class struggle. However, as a novelist, where he lets his imagination rip, he shows a reality which does not excuse this CP-led defeat of the working class. Similarly, in his 1990s fiction he was an outspoken critic of Barcelona's Olympic Games and the building speculation, corruption and destruction of historic memory they brought, yet the party to which he belonged supported the games.

Mandel's remarks also make one ask, what would a revolutionary detective novel be like? How would it be different from Southern Seas, in which the detective reveals the lies of the powerful, gives voice to the working class, expresses and practises solidarity with the poor, explains the history of the people and places he describes, shows the ruling class as imbeciles or cynics, deliberately avoids handing over criminals who are criminals because of their social oppression to the police who are portrayed as the enemy, and recognises explicitly that a detective—one person— cannot change the world, however much he wants to?

No escape

Southern Seas' title announces its theme—the yearning to run away. Carlos Pedrell, a capitalist with artistic leanings who is terrified of ageing, wants to follow in the steps of Gauguin. But a year after leaving, supposedly for a South Pacific island, he is found dead. His exotic destination was much closer to home—the cheap estate whose construction he himself had financed in the suburbs of Barcelona. Montalbán, good materialist that he is, always explains where people's money (or lack of it) comes from. In the 1950s Pedrell had made his fortune building blocks of flats, 'vertical shanty-towns', for workers who migrated from southern Spain. These were thrown up without basic services or transport on the outskirts of industrial cities like Barcelona.

The central character of Southern Seas is Ana Briongos, a Communist and car factory worker who lives on the estate built by Pedrell. Unlike the other characters, she knows there is no escape to a fantasy world, which is why she fights in union and party for a better world here and now. It is Ana who explains to Carvalho the Moncloa accords of late 1977, the pact that rounded off the transition. The Communist Party, which had already accepted the monarchy in return for its legalisation, now signed with government and bosses an agreement to restrict wage rises to a maximum 22 percent when inflation was running at 29 percent. Ana, the rank and file fighter, explains:

'No one swallowed the Moncloa pacts, but we had to defend them with all the good faith we could muster…that in the long run they would favour the working class. In short, we spouted what they'd told us to say. Soon everyone saw it was a sell-out, like all the rest.'

With the character of Ana, Montalbán breaks with traditional 'hard-boiled' novels by introducing the organised working class. He also breaks with their characteristic sexism—Ana speaks with her own voice.

The defeated within the defeated

The Pianist is a non-Carvalho novel that takes the two high points in Spain's 20th century class struggle, the revolution of pares them. The choral novel is divided into three parts. In the first, a group of anti-Franco ex-university friends, on a night out in 1983, go to a fashionable club in the Raval, with transvestite singers and an elderly pianist. Javier Solana, the new Socialist minister of culture, is holding court at one of the tables. Not even Montalbán, so politically prescient, could have realised how suitable a representative of Spain's new rulers Solana was. This affable, smiling cultural mandarin would become NATO general secretary, and be responsible for the bombing of Belgrade in 1999 on behalf of the main imperialist powers.

Half the group of friends, now building their professional or business careers, look back on the transition as 'a confused period', and the other half are disoriented by how little was gained in the transition. At the end of the night Montalbán leaves the group of friends and follows the old pianist, who walks home to his dingy flat where a bedridden old woman awaits him. Lovingly, the old man talks to the invalid and washes her.

The middle part of The Pianist moves back to 1946 in the same Raval. This intense heart of the novel draws on Montalbán's childhood memories and is one of the most deeply felt and beautiful passages in his 80-odd books. A group of young people are on the flat rooftops, the only place where they can talk freely and escape the ubiquitous spies and cops of the dictatorship. They are fascinated with stories of history, unlike the group in the first section who want to escape from their recent history. A new tenant arrives, just released from prison. It transpires that he is the old pianist of 1983. Again unlike the group in the first section, this 1946 group show solidarity with Albert, as he is called, and help him find Teresa, the invalid of the first and the third section will tell us just who he is.

This third part takes place in Paris in mid-July 1936. The pianist Albert has newly arrived on a music scholarship and goes to see a well known Catalan musician, Doria, and his girlfriend, Teresa. His career loosely based on the painter Salvador Dalí's, Doria had appeared in the first section as a grand old glory of Spanish music, revered by Solana; in the second as someone praised by the dictatorship's press; and in the third as an iconoclastic revolutionary. To Doria's shock, when Franco's uprising comes on 18 July, just four days after the massive Popular Front demonstration in Paris on Bastille Day, Teresa sees through his revolutionary posing. 'Bla, bla, bla,' is her reply to Doria's empty aesthetic verbiage. She leaves him and accompanies Albert, who has decided to give up his music career and return to Barcelona to defend the revolution by fighting with the POUM.

When asked in an interview why he, a PSUC militant, made Albert a POUM member, Montlbán replied: 'Because those of the POUM were the defeated within the defeated.' The reply reflects the novelist's post-transition pessimism, but also his understanding that the POUM, crushed by Stalinism, represented the defeat of the revolutionaries within the general defeat of the Republic. This recognition led Montalbán in the 1980s, alongside other PSUC militants, to insist that the PSUC should correct the murderous calumny of 1937 that Andreu Nin and the POUM were fascists. It did.

When The Pianist came out in Spain in 1985, it was widely acclaimed. It was later voted book of the 1980s in an El País readers' poll. Almost everywhere, it was reviewed as an elegiac novel looking back to the glorious, irrecoverable time of the civil war and lamenting the sad fate of Teresa and Albert, the defeated of the defeated. Times had changed, and revolution was no longer desirable or possible.

Despite their praise, though, the critics misread the novel. In fact, they reflected the point of view of the group of friends in the first section. They overlooked the critique of the friends' 'aesthetic' or 'individualist' abandonment of class struggle, which is implicit in the novel's backward-moving structure, in which the 1983 present can only be understood through the 1936 and 1946 pasts. Doria and Solana represent, in their different ways, the continuity of opportunism.
Nothing can be expected of them. But the 1983 friends' lack of interest in history and in Albert, the POUMist, underlines the failure of the anti-Franco left in the transition. Albert is left alone, with nothing but his love for Teresa and his unbroken integrity. If the lessons of solidarity and history are forgotten, Montalbán is telling us, then the tragedy of losing the civil war is repeated in the tragedy of losing the transition.

The Pianist is a stunning political novel. It is written with the sarcastic anger or 'spleen' of Vázquez Montalbán at his best. And it contains, too, the melancholy undercurrent of understanding that, in both civil war and transition, capitalism won out. It is true that Montalbán the Eurocommunist fails to make a balance sheet of Stalinism and thus offers no political perspective that will help us win next time. Political analysis, though, is not the function of fiction. In the novels mentioned, he creates imaginative worlds with historical depth, and insists that no change is possible without understanding of our history.

1: The PSUC, though autonomous to some degree, was part of the PCE, the Spanish Communist Party. The PSUC disintegrated in the 1980s and Montalbán ended up supporting one of its descendants, Iniciativa per Catalunya, a rather right wing 'eco-socialist' ex Communist Party.
2: Published in translation by Quartet in 1989, but now out of print.
3: Six of Montalbán's 20 Carvalho novels are available in English, published by Serpent's Tail, including The Angst-Ridden Executive and Southern Seas.
4: Out of print now, Delightful Murder was published by Pluto in 1984.

"How can we just think locally?"

About a year ago Workers World Party leader Larry Holmes gave a speech in New York City entitled "The global class struggle today".  I encourage everyone to read the printed talk here, The podcast is also available. 
I bring up a year-old speech because I believe it, more than any other talk I studied last year, reflected the reality of the class struggle internationally, and the challenges we face here in the United States.  It also reflected the centrality of generalizing specific local labor fight-backs, giving them and their cadre a larger scope.  Lock-outs today at places like American Crystal Sugar and Cooper Tire must be at the center of such work this year.  Other such struggles, where the workers refuse final surrender, will emerge.  In this context, it is important for Marxists to remember that the working class, and its organized fraction, have the social weight because of their location in production, to bring solidarity and union-power to bear to keep fighting, and perhaps start winning a few fights.  No other segment of the population has such weight; that is why workers struggles are central to the programs and perspectives of Marxist-Leninist parties.
Larry Holmes makes this beautifully clear:

....The unions seem demoralized. But in an uneven way they will begin to fight. We as communists must agitate for a classwide, militant response to this attack. It doesn't matter whether it is not going to happen next week or unlikely that it will happen in a few months. What are we if we don't advocate for it? Organized labor, community, students and all the oppressed must come out together.

Usually these struggles against budget cuts develop locally. Our job is to agitate for a broader reaction to it that is both national and even international.

At this stage of the capitalist crisis, which is fully global, fully centralized, our class enemy is global, conscious and against us. How can we just think locally? It is OK for a while, but ultimately it won't work. It won't raise the political or class-consciousness level of our class, [which] won't be able to fight back.

Generalize the struggle

We will face another problem that is all too prevalent — fragmentation. The ruling class wants to have a thousand guerrilla battles with the workers. They want every struggle to be separate, to be localized, because, with some exceptions, they can chew you up and digest you. They know that the more national and international [the struggle] becomes, even if it is only symbolic in the early stages, the harder it is [to divide and conquer].

As communists, it is incumbent upon us to find ways to struggle against that. We want to be with the workers everywhere. We are not against local struggles. We have an obligation to generalize and synthesize the class struggle to a higher level, especially now with the unique character of this global crisis. We have to be concerned with the entire working class.

The students in this country are trying to organize a fightback from California to New York and everywhere else. We are fortunate that our comrades in FIST (Fight Imperialism, Stand Together) have some influence there. They have called the month of March a month of student protest against the cuts and tuition hikes. Some of them are talking about a strike. And we should see if there is a basis for building support around them that can last beyond their activities — sort of a student-worker-community alliance.


Gustav Mahler: a Marxist view

Composer Gustav Mahler: A centennial appreciationBy Dorian Griscom
31 January 2012

Composer Gustav Mahler is remembered for his nine symphonies and equally for his famous song cycles, including Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth"), Rückert Lieder, Kindertotenlieder ("Songs on the Death of Children"), Des Knaben Wunderhorn ("The Youth's Magic Horn") and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen ("Songs of a Wayfarer"). He also left behind a draft for a tenth symphony.

Mahler is known today almost entirely for his large-scale compositions, and these works were by and large rejected during his lifetime by a public that regarded him first and foremost as a conductor. Mahler held major conducting posts across Europe—in Prague, Leipzig, Budapest, Hamburg and most notably Vienna, and he also appeared in Berlin, Amsterdam, London and Paris. Toward the end of his life he came to the United States, where he directed both the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera.

Mahler's music was not widely heard in concert halls and on recordings until the middle of the 20th century, about 40 years after his death. Today, however, he is among the most widely listened to of 19th and 20th century classical composers. Last year, which marked the 100th anniversary of Mahler's death in Vienna on May 18, 1911, witnessed concerts, new recordings, lectures and exhibitions around the world celebrating his life and music.

His work speaks to a very wide audience, while his life and career remain the subject of intense scholarly interest.

Gustav Mahler was born on July 7, 1860 in the village of Kalischt in Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and now known as Kaliste in the Czech Republic. He spent most of his childhood in the nearby city of Iglau, now called Jihlava and located in Moravia, also part of the Czech Republic.

Mahler came from a Jewish family, which significantly limited his prospects in a region in which anti-Semitic discrimination had deep roots. Anti-Semitism, as we shall see, would later confront Mahler in his conducting career.

The young Mahler showed an extraordinary musical ability at a very early age. When he was four, he was discovered plunking out popular melodies on the piano in his grandmother's attic. At the age of six he was writing short compositions. Training in piano and harmony from local musicians followed. A local newspaper reports a concert in which "the Fantasia on Themes from the opera Norma, for the pianoforte, by Sigmund Thalberg, [was] played by the young virtuoso Mahler, who fully deserves the praise that we have often lavished on him in the past. He played this evening with as much brilliance as on previous occasions, and his performance was rewarded with a veritable ovation." Mahler was 12 years old at the time.

At the age of 15, the future composer began his studies in Vienna, one of the world's most prominent cultural centers and the virtual birthplace and capital of classical music from the period beginning with Haydn and Mozart in the late 18th century.

Two months after Mahler's arrival, Richard Wagner visited the city in connection with productions of two of his operas, Tannhauser and Lohengrin. Mahler, like many of the other young students at the conservatory, worshiped Wagner. At this time he was also exposed to Beethoven's late string quartets. He saw Franz Liszt perform Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. Mahler was also influenced by Anton Bruckner, who was then on the conservatory's faculty.

Following graduation, Mahler took up a few provincial operatic conducting posts. His gift for conducting was immediately apparent, although he at first considered the work mainly drudgery necessary to sustain him financially while he pursued composition. Nonetheless, having taken up the baton, Mahler showed himself to be a fanatical perfectionist. While he made no friends among singers or administrators, he substantially improved the quality of the programs and productions wherever he conducted.

Higher appointments followed. Between the age of 25 and 30, Mahler went on to conduct in the major cultural centers of Prague, Leipzig and Budapest. Mahler's time in Budapest, between 1888 and 1891, also saw the beginning of his struggle to find a sympathetic audience for his compositions, a battle that would consume him for the rest of his life.

He had composed his First Symphony in a six-week burst of inspiration in late 1887 and early 1888. Mahler conducted the premiere of an early version of this work in Budapest on November 20, 1889. The response, as was so often to be the case over the next two decades, was generally unfavorable. Mahler expressed his feelings to his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner:

"Naively, I imagined that it would be child's play for performers and listeners, and would have such immediate appeal that I should be able to live on the profits and go on composing. How great was my surprise and disappointment when it turned out quite differently! … My friends avoided me afterwards; no one dared to mention the performance or the work to me, and I went about like a leper or an outlaw."

Despite these difficulties with his career as a composer, Mahler was widely admired as a conductor by the time he was 30 years old. His next conducting post was in Hamburg, where he remained from 1891 to 1897. There he continued to give original readings of Mozart, Wagner and Beethoven, riling many traditionalists, and gaining for himself a dedicated following at the same time. He also put on productions of the latest operas of Verdi and Puccini, and conducted the first German performance of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. The composer, who was present, wrote that Mahler was "simply a genius, burning with the desire to conduct."

In the summer of 1892, Mahler traveled to London to conduct a number of German operas, including Beethoven's Fidelio as well as Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and all four operas of Der Ring des Nibelungen. George Bernard Shaw, the playwright also known for his music criticism, wrote of a performance of Wagner's Siegfried that he attended: "The impression created by the performance was extraordinary, the gallery cheering wildly at the end of each act." English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams said he could not sleep for two nights after seeing Mahler's performance of Tristan.

Never content to confine himself to the conducting side of his career, Mahler continued during this period to search for an audience for his compositions. Performances of his continuously revised First Symphony, movements of the Second Symphony and his songs invited hisses, boos and catcalls, intermingled with shouts of approbation. The leading composers and conductors of the day were every bit as divided with respect to this new music as the listening public.

It was during his tenure at Hamburg that Mahler developed a routine, which would continue for the rest of his life, of composing exclusively on his time off during the summer, to allow himself to focus entirely on each new composition and to prevent his composing from interfering with his conducting career. In 1893 he began spending his summers in the Austrian countryside. The following year he had a small hut built for him to compose in. He would set out for the hut each morning, often remaining there until evening. It was there that he composed his colossal Third Symphony, completed in 1896.

Mahler moved on from Hamburg in 1897 to begin his work as chief conductor at the Hofoper in Vienna, one of the most prestigious posts in the world. His 10 years in Vienna were the apex of his career as a conductor and also saw the completion of four of his nine symphonies. Mahler became a fixture in the cultural life of a city that Sigmund Freud, Gustav Klimt and Stefan Zweig all called home.

Vienna at the turn of the 20th century was a city of profound contradictions. While home to a vibrant cultural life that witnessed intense ferment in the arts and sciences, it was also the heart of the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire, in the center of a continent on the brink of war and catastrophe.

Vienna was headquarters of the large and influential Social Democratic Party, a leading section of the Second International. Still nominally a revolutionary party, the Austrian SPD generally followed its more famous German counterpart in gradually abandoning Marxism in favor of parliamentarism and narrow trade union politics, a process that culminated in the Austrian party's support for its own bourgeoisie at the outbreak of the First World War.

Despite its ultimately fatal political flaws, it is also true that the Austrian party played an enormous role in the political and cultural life of the country and especially of Vienna. Its newspaper, the Arbeiter-Zeitung, enjoyed a mass circulation. Lectures, meetings and mass demonstrations were a constant presence in the city's life. Mahler, though by no means politically active, voted for the party in a number of elections.

Leon Trotsky summed up the fundamental historical dynamic underlying the contradictions of political and cultural life in fin-de-siècle Europe in his Literature and Revolution, written in the early 1920s: "Capitalist society passed through two decades of unparalleled economic prosperity which destroyed the old concepts of wealth and power, and elaborated new standards, new criteria of the possible and of the impossible, and urged people toward new exploits. At the same time, the social movement lived on officially in the automatism of yesterday. The armed peace, with its patches of diplomacy, the hollow parliamentary systems, the external and internal politics based on the system of safety valves and brakes, all this weighed heavily on poetry at a time when the air, charged with accumulated electricity, gave sign of impending great explosions."

Trotsky went on to explain that "Futurism was the foreboding of all this in art," and the same general circumstances shaped the world of music and other areas of cultural life. It is fair to say that the main artistic currents in Vienna reflected this "foreboding," most notably the Vienna Secession led by Gustav Klimt and including such other artists as Koloman Moser, Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele and Richard Gerstl, and the architects Otto Wagner, Joseph Maria Olbrich and Josef Hoffmann. Mahler was a close friend of some of the figures in the Vienna Secession. His own compositions doubtlessly reflected the "impending great explosions" of which Trotsky wrote, as did those of younger composers Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg, who would go on to found a movement known as the Second Viennese School.

In most respects, Mahler flourished in his decade in Vienna. His position at the Opera was one of near complete authority. He directed the first productions of such major staples of today's repertory as Eugene Onegin, Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann and Puccini's La bohème. He put on new and revised productions of many Verdi, Mozart and Wagner operas as well.

At the same time, Mahler's composing kept pace. Over his summer holidays between 1900 and 1907 Mahler worked on his fourth through eighth symphonies, which were introduced to mixed receptions. He also traveled to Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam to conduct his own compositions, which began to attract a following among a small circle of conductors. Composers Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Webern and Berg also supported Mahler.

It was also during his Vienna period that Mahler met and married the young and beautiful Alma Schindler. They met in November 1901 and were engaged to be married roughly a month later. Though Alma herself was a composer of considerable talent, Mahler forbade her to compose. This devastated Alma, but she instead devoted her musical gifts to supporting Mahler's career, copying out parts and writing transcriptions of his compositions. Nevertheless, Mahler's domineering manner, on this and other matters, took its toll on their relationship.

Alma was known as a femme fatale. Mahler's junior by nearly 20 years, she later had an affair with the architect Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, whom she would marry after Mahler's death. The affair, towards the end of Mahler's life, shattered the composer and led him to consult with Freud. The problems of their complicated relationship aside, Alma and Gustav Mahler's partnership was a profound one that deeply affected the composer's musical life.

Mahler's life in Vienna was stormy on other than personal grounds. Anti-Semitism had wide support and was encouraged, as elsewhere, as a means of weakening the workers' movement. The notorious anti-Semite and leader of the Christian Social Party, Karl Lueger, became mayor of Vienna in 1897.

The composer, who had converted to Catholicism largely to shield himself from official anti-Semitism in his quest for the position of director of the Hofoper, encountered opposition from the anti-Semitic press even before arriving in Vienna. The Reichspost, an anti-Semitic daily, wrote on April 14, 1897: "The Jews' press will see whether the panegyrics with which they plaster their new idol at present do not become washed away by the rain of reality as soon as Herr Mahler starts his Jew-boy antics at the podium."

While Mahler clashed with many of the musically conservative elements as he fought to remake the Vienna Opera into what he thought was required, he also faced continuous sniping on religious and political grounds. He was ultimately driven from his post by a venomous press campaign in 1907 that alleged "mismanagement" of the Opera on Mahler's part.

The next and final stage of Mahler's career took him to New York, where he led first the Metropolitan Opera and then the New York Philharmonic. He made his debut at the Met on January 1, 1908, and went on to have a successful season. The next year, he took over the conductorship of the recently re-formed New York Philharmonic, but continued to make some guest appearances at the opera. His work in New York also aroused the impatience and hostility of conservative elements, including wealthy patrons of the Philharmonic.

During this period Mahler also continued to return to Austria for the summers, where he composed his final works, Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony.

The composer had suffered the tragic loss of one of his daughters to scarlet fever in 1907, and shortly afterwards had himself been diagnosed with a heart ailment, which, though not immediately life-threatening, left him susceptible to complications like the bacterial endocarditis that struck him in the late winter of 1910. Today this condition is treatable, but a century ago it was not. Mahler returned to Europe in April 1911, and died a month later.

Gustav Mahler wrote music of considerable extremes—in length, scope and intensity. Accordingly, his music presents the listener with unique challenges. It demands special attention, owing to the sheer length of some works (his symphonies are, on average, between an hour and ninety minutes long), their ambitious framework and the heights and depths of emotion they traverse. Mahler expressed his own aims when he famously told Jean Sibelius that "A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything." Delving into the musical worlds Mahler discovered is an important and engaging project, well worth the undoubted effort it entails.

Mahler was sometimes accused of disrespect for the musical tradition he inherited, but in fact among his greatest strengths was the zeal of his devotion to the accomplishments of his predecessors. His own compositions were based on the careful study he made of the works of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Wagner in particular. He not only paid homage to these composers in his work, he sought to build on the traditions they established.

Mahler made much use of the Sonata and Rondo forms pioneered by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and then further explored and expanded by the Romantic composers such as Schumann, Chopin, Berlioz and Brahms. Mahler brought new life to these models through the use of the leitmotif (recurring theme), first elaborated in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique and then used by Wagner to underscore characters and conflicting forces in his massive operas, and further developed in Richard Strauss' tone poems.

While various movements in symphonies prior to Mahler's had been related by certain unifying features, Mahler brought their integration to a new level, blurring the line between tone poem and symphony, and rendering the latter a more flexible vehicle of expression, one that would go on to possess a relevance somewhat analogous to that of the novel in literature throughout the 20th century.

The symphonies and song cycles of Mahler were not composed on utterly separate planes, but rather interpenetrated and fertilized each other. In other words, Mahler began with one axis of poetical inspiration for his songs, from which his symphonies generated and in turn pressed beyond their own boundaries, leading to a search for new poetical material and a repetition of the process at a higher level.

This process can be traced in Mahler's symphonies, which have been divided by musicologists into three groups centered around his song output. The first or broadest of these stretches from about 1890 to 1901, encompassing his early songs, his first song cycle, "Songs of a Wayfarer," and then his song settings from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Alongside these song cycles are the first four symphonies, the second, third and fourth of which are often referred to as the "Wunderhorn" symphonies, as they all contain musical quotations from these songs.

The second period spans 1901-1907, the prime of Mahler's career as a conductor in Vienna, and includes his fifth through eighth symphonies, which coincided with his Rückert Lieder and Kindertotenlieder, both based on the work of the German Romantic poet Friedrich Rückert.

Last is the period from 1908 until Mahler's death in 1911, during which he wrote his last and largest song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde, and his Ninth Symphony, and also began writing his tenth.

The "Wunderhorn" songs were composed between 1898 and 1901. Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the source of their text, was a collection of German folk poetry compiled by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim at the beginning of the 19th century. Mahler's songs, like the poems themselves, are by turns pungently comic, poignantly tragic and bitingly ironic. The symphonies Mahler wrote alongside these songs very much share their folk inspiration. Marches, dances and folk melodies are a presence in each.

Mahler's First Symphony, predating Des Knaben Wunderhorn by some years and initially subtitled "Titan" after a novel by Jean-Paul Richter, was, according to the composer, inspired by his early life and youthful loves. It is perhaps most famous for its third movement, which develops a minor version of the popular round "Bruder Martin," or "Frère Jacques," and took its inspiration from an 1850 woodcut by Moritz von Schwind depicting a band of forest animals bearing a casket containing a hunter. The outer movements, though cast in a more typically symphonic mold, contain extreme contrasts and instrumental dramatization characteristic of program music or opera.

The Second, or "Resurrection" Symphony, one of three choral symphonies composed by Mahler, opens with a funeral march that was originally performed as a stand-alone tone poem and entitled "Totenfeier." This is followed by two briefer movements, a ländler (German folk dance) and a scherzo. The fourth movement is a setting of a "Wunderhorn" text entitled Urlich ("Primal Light"), sung by a contralto. A cataclysmic closing movement with full chorus culminates with a setting of a poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, entitled Die Auferstehung ("Resurrection"). The Second Symphony traces the theme of intense suffering, alienation, death and the possibility of rebirth, which would preoccupy Mahler through the remainder of his composing career.

In his focus on personal suffering, however, Mahler did not ignore the fate of humanity. As Bruno Walter, the famous conductor and disciple of Mahler, put it, from his Second Symphony onward, Mahler "shifted his gaze to the tragic existence of man." It is fair to say that Mahler's music, in its premonitions of crisis and upheaval, anticipated, in the broadest sense, the intractable crisis of world capitalism that exploded in 1914 in the First World War.

Mahler's "gaze," however, saw the world through a lens tinted by a variety of Christian mysticism, along with the writings of irrationalist idealist philosophers such as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, and the literature of German Romanticism. This finds expression perhaps in an over-intoxicated sentimentalism that puts off some listeners, but Mahler's music also expresses a broader artistic vision, a more humanistic one, and reflects as well the rigorous demands he placed on himself as a creative artist.

In this connection it is worthwhile noting the naturalistic element in Mahler's compositions, which incorporated the sounds of nature and the outside world to an extent classical music had never seen before. His Third Symphony, which seeks to portray the cosmos rung by rung up the ladder of evolution, has passages in its first three movements where cataclysmic primordial explosions, flowers dancing in the wind and animals romping through the forest are indelibly portrayed. In an extraordinary example of the way in which the sounds of the world stimulated his musical imagination, Mahler exclaimed to a friend on a walk during which they heard in the distance the intermingled sounds of military marches and fairground noises: "Do you hear that? That is polyphony and that is where I got it from!"

The symphonies and songs, though containing great extremes of emotion and many fresh and vibrant effects, are far from chaotic collages of noise. Every one of Mahler's compositions is regulated by a sense of form that insists on a logical development of themes, often on a massive scale.

Twentieth century symphonic composers all owed a debt to Mahler, whether they acknowledged him as a forerunner or not. Among the great symphonic composers who followed him were Sergei Prokofiev, Darius Milhaud, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Sibelius and Carl Nielsen. Perhaps the greatest was Dmitri Shostakovich, who was certainly Mahler's most direct and worthiest musical descendant.

Shostakovich stood on Mahler's shoulders not only with respect to form, but also in the spirit of his symphonies. Among Shostakovich's 15 symphonies were a number that explicitly and directly portrayed epic struggles of the 20th century, including the 1905 and 1917 Revolutions and the siege of Leningrad during the Second World War. Shostakovich readily acknowledged Mahler as one of his chief influences.

 Arnold Schoenberg
Mahler is also credited with influencing Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, the chief figures of the Second Viennese School, which originated the atonal style of composition and, somewhat later, serial, or twelve-tone music. All three of these composers, between 15 and 25 years Mahler's junior, wrote youthful works that were somewhat close to the latter's in style, but also possessed traits—non-tonal structures and increasingly pervasive dissonance—that indicated they were headed in a direction quite distinct from Mahler's.

Mahler's attitude toward Schoenberg and his music was far from antagonistic. He defended Schoenberg's efforts at a performance that was interrupted by hecklers and in which the opposing sides nearly came to blows. Nevertheless, the assertion by Berg and others that Mahler, had he lived past 1911, would have embraced atonality or perhaps even serialism, must be regarded with a certain skepticism. It is at least equally likely that, like Richard Strauss, who lived until 1949, Mahler would have continued to write in a lyrical style that, while going beyond the tonality that characterized the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, held fast to the same basic harmonic moorings consolidated during the period of the Enlightenment.

The innovations of the musical avant-garde in the first decades of the 20th century had something of a dual character. There was much that was fresh and invigorating in the works not only of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, but also the impressionists Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel; the foremost members of the group known as "Les Six," Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud; others who did not readily fit into a defined category, such as Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, Prokofiev, Erik Satie and Villa-Lobos; and more experimental figures such as Charles Ives, Edgar Varèse and George Antheil. The mention of these names evokes the enormous flowering of artistic experimentation during this period. The avant-garde trends reflected the social ferment of the time and in many cases consciously associated themselves with the struggles against the war, autocracy and inequality.

Somewhat later, Schoenberg and others systematically and uncritically embraced atonality. The work of the post-Second World War avant-garde, in many cases turning away from any effort to write for a large audience, reflected, indirectly, the degree to which artists and intellectuals were thrown into despair by the horrors of the Holocaust, as well as the crimes of Stalinism. It must be said that Mahler, in an earlier period, while he certainly did not shy away from the discordant, the ugly or the tragic, interwove these elements with what he clearly believed to be the more fundamental beauty of the world and the possibilities for humanity.

There is a reason that Mahler's music continues to find a broader audience than that of many of the more experimental generations that followed. It has less to do with the "uneducated" public, which allegedly does not possess the special acumen supposedly required for appreciating modern music, than with the problems of the academic music that has been composed in more recent decades.

Mahler's music went from being broadly condemned or ignored during his lifetime, to a period when it was championed by a relatively small circle of composers and conductors, to a revival over the last half century that has not flagged to this day.

American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, whose life and career as both composer and conductor bear some comparison with that of his great predecessor, played a major role in this revival. Bernstein's recordings of the complete Mahler symphonies were the first, and other conductors and major orchestras have followed. Mahler's symphonies and song cycles have become staples of the repertoire.

Mahler's music speaks in a fundamental way to the monumental and often tragic experiences through which humanity has passed in the course of the 20th century. Whether each listener, or even most listeners, is consciously aware of this connection or not, it undoubtedly exists. Mahler's music shares with that of Shostakovich the ability to tap deep emotional responses bound up with major social and historical experiences.

The generation of listeners who rediscovered Mahler in the 1960s and 1970s were part of a period of renewed social struggles. Those who listen to Mahler today do so in a period which, in a political sense, more and more recalls the period in which Mahler himself composed. The unresolved questions of the 20th century—the dangers of war and dictatorship, the contradictions of an outmoded social order—are once again coming to the fore.

A new era of social upheaval will inject new life into the arts and pose new challenges to artists. The artist who wishes to rise to these challenges, and the worker, student and intellectual impelled to understand more profoundly the cultural framework in which they arise, or who simply wishes to experience deeply emotional and expressive music, would do well to listen to the works of Gustav Mahler.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Off the ballot and into the streets

Well-said, Workers World Party:
....what has the electioneering season got to do with the problems facing so many tens of millions of workers and oppressed communities in this country? Will anyone in either the Republican or the Democratic party, from Obama, Romney and Gingrich on down to those running for lower offices, put forward a program to do what the people want?

Poll after poll shows a rising tide of anger at the very, very rich and the financial institutions that serve them. People want jobs or an income to live on if they can't get work. They want the rich to pay a lot more taxes so that social services aren't cut while more workers are laid off. They want their money spent on the environment and schools and hospitals and housing, not bailouts to the banks and endless wars.

Obama's State of the Union address, his opening shot in the campaign, tried to tap into this anger when he said he was for an economy where "everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules." This is open to many interpretations. By the same set of rules, does he mean an economy where someone with $1 billion and someone with $10 both have the right to start a bank? One where a rich person and a poor person will both be punished equally for stealing a loaf of bread?

Capitalist politics is aimed at obscuring the class differences that lead to poverty, on the one hand, and obscene wealth, on the other. In this season of open reaction versus liberal demagogy, it is what the movement does in the streets that will count and lay the basis for real change.

Obama Selects Bush As Running Mate

via Dissident Voice

Obama Selects Bush As Running Mate

Return of “The Decider” Stuns Washington; GOP Presidential Debates Thrown Into Chaos

by Michael K. Smith / January 30th, 2012

Related Headlines

Bush Pick Hailed as “Pragmatic Master Stroke”

Outraged Biden Joins Tea Party, Threatens To Sue

Obama Lauds Bush Vow To “Follow the Cheney Tradition” as VP

Washington, January 27 — Barack Obama today named George W. Bush of Crawford, Texas as his running mate, the first ex-president selected to run for Vice President on a major party ticket. The president announced his historic step before an ebullient crowd of Blackwater mercenaries on the White House lawn. ”There’s an electricity in the air, an excitement, a sense of new possibilities and of pride,” Obama told a section of cheering snipers moments after disclosing the stunning development.

Calling for an end to partisan bitterness, Obama introduced Bush as “an exciting choice” and “clearly the best” for healing a divided nation. Bush thanked the president for continuing the family dynasty, and offered to formally adopt him into the Bush clan if he thought it would “help carry the South.”

Obama said the decision to choose the former president was a ”difficult” one, but explained: ”GW has excelled in being bailed out, and this country certainly needs more of that!” He added that GW’s political return was ”really the fulfillment of a classic American tradition: to fail continually at everything and emerge triumphant anyway.”

Harvard Lawyer Obama Cites Constitution

”History speaks to us today,” Obama told the Blackwater throng. ”Our founders said in the Constitution, ‘We the people’ – not just the identity politics focus groups, but all of us.”

”Our message,” the president went on, ”is that America is a country of diversity where the spirit of conciliation overcomes all philosophical differences. As President Bush has said many times: ‘ politics stops at the water’s edge.’”

Bush, who was anointed president in 2000, has received the endorsements for the Vice Presidency of numerous Democratic Party organizations, including, On Our Knees, Inertia Unlimited, and Strength Through Servility.

Increase in Pragmatic Energy Seen

”He loves Israel, he’s charismatic, he believes in God,” enthused one adviser to Obama. ”We have broken the barrier. He will energize, not just southerners, but a lot of Republicans, which will make the Democratic Party more inclusive.”

Another adviser to Obama said that although Bush had engendered “unfortunate” bad publicity around foreign policy issues, he nevertheless would bring “new chemistry, new passion, and new understanding” to the ticket, especially of an often overlooked minority group: the rich. “People never seem to realize that as wealth concentrates in fewer and fewer hands, the wealthy become a smaller and smaller minority group,” said Obama campaign manager Marshall Cash.

In the last three weeks Obama interviewed seven prospective candidates and made it plain that he was seriously considering a break in precedent and selecting a candidate who “reflects our values,” rather than just another identity politics token.

Ranking aides to Obama indicated last week that Bush had outdistanced Biden in his personal interview with Obama, as well as in his press comments afterward. Some aides said Biden had proved somewhat disappointing, a comment that angered the outgoing vice-president, who is threatening to sue.

Factors in Choice Listed

What apparently swayed Obama, Democratic officials said, was Bush’s experience in ramming through deeply unpopular policies, his considerable support among Blue Dog Democrats, and perhaps most important, his appeal to blue-collar superpatriots, coupled with his traditional “tough love” views, which seem to coincide with the president’s.

Bush had emerged in recent weeks as the strong favorite among pragmatic liberals, typified by the vastly influential NAACR, the National Association for the Advancement of Crackpot Realism. But Democratic advisers to Obama said the decision in favor of Bush was based heavily on the notion that his political strength would enhance Obama’s support among the super-rich and religious fanatics. “They vote,” explained Obama at the announcement ceremony.

At the conclusion of the day’s historic event, Obama and Bush clasped hands high overhead in the classic victory stance and called for world peace through the obliteration of Iran

Marxist thinking on the state

After spending the week making notes on the article The 1980 Elections: Reaffirming the Marxist Theory of the State which I posted earlier this week, I thought the Miliband article below would be a useful compliment:

State Power and Class Interests

Ralph Miliband

Work done in the last fifteen years or so by people writing within a broad Marxist perspective on the subject of the state in capitalist society now fills a great many bookshelves; and however critical one may be of one or other article, book or trend, it is undoubtedly very useful that this work should be available. There is, however, a very large gap in the literature, in so far as very little of it is specifically concerned with the question of the autonomy of the state. [1] How great a degree of autonomy does the state have in capitalist society? What purpose is its autonomy intended to serve? And what purposes does it actually serve? These and many other such questions are clearly of the greatest theoretical and practical importance, given the scope and actual or potential impact of state action upon the society over which the state presides, and often beyond. Yet, the issue has remained poorly explored and ‘theorized’ in the Marxist perspective. [2] The present article is intended as a modest contribution to the work that needs to be done on it. [3]

In the first volume of Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Hal Draper very usefully sets out what Marx and Engels said on the subject of the autonomy of the state, and shows how large a place it occupied in their political thinking and writings. [4] It was also this that I was trying to suggest in an article on ‘Marx and the State’ published in 1965, where I noted, in a formulation which I do not find very satisfactory, that there was a ‘secondary’ view of the state in Marx (the first one being of the state as the ‘instrument’ of a ruling class so designated by virtue of its ownership or control—or both—of the main means of economic activity). This ‘secondary’ view was of the state ‘as independent from and superior to all social classes, as being the dominant force in society rather than the instrument of a dominant class’, with Bonapartism as ‘the extreme manifestation of the state’s independent role’ in Marx’s own lifetime. [5] On the other hand, I also noted then that, for Marx, the Bonapartist state, ‘however independent it may have been politically from any given class, remains, and cannot in a class society but remain, the protector of an economically and socially dominant class’. [6] Some years later, in the course of a review of Political Power and Social Classes by the late and greatly-missed Nicos Poulantzas, I reformulated the point by suggesting that a distinction had to be made between the state autonomously acting on behalf of the ruling class, and its acting at the behest of that class, the latter notion being, I said, ‘a vulgar deformation of the thought of Marx and Engels’. [7] What I was rejecting there was the crude view of the state as a mere ‘instrument’ of the ruling class obediently acting at its dictation.

The Debate over State ‘Autonomy’

However, it is undoubtedly to Poulantzas that belongs the credit for the most thorough exploration of the concept of the autonomy of the state; and it was he who coined the formulation which has remained the basis for most subsequent discussion of the subject, namely the ‘relative autonomy of the state’. In essence, the view that this formulation encapsulated was that the state might indeed have a substantial degree of autonomy, but that, nevertheless, it remained for all practical purposes the state of the ruling class.

There has been considerable discussion among Marxists and others about the nature of the constraints and pressures which cause the state to serve the needs of capital—notably whether these constraints and pressures were ‘structural’ and impersonal, or produced by a ruling class armed with an arsenal of formidable weapons and resources. But beyond the differences that were expressed in these discussions, there was also a fundamental measure of agreement that the state was decisively constrained by forces external to it, and that the constraints originated in the national and international capitalist context in which it operated. The state might be constrained by the imperative requirement of capital for its reproduction and accumulation; or by the pressure from lobbies and organizations and agencies at the service of capital or one or other of its ‘fractions’; or by the combined impact of these and international forces such as other capitalist states or the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. But these at any rate were the kind of factors which had to be taken into account to explain the actions of the state. As has occasionally been noted in this connection, this Marxist view of the state as impelled by forces external to it shares its ‘problematic’ with the liberal or ‘democratic pluralist’ view of the state, notwithstanding the other profound differences between them: whereas the Marxist view attributes the main constraints upon the state to capital or capitalists or both, the ‘democractic pluralist’ one attributes them to the various pressures exercised upon a basically democratic state by a plurality of competing groups, interests and parties in society. In both perspectives, the state does not originate action but responds to external forces: it may appear to be the ‘historical subject’, but is in fact the object of processes and forces at work in society.

It is this whole perspective which has come under challenge in recent years, not only from the right, which has long insisted on the primacy of the state, but from people strongly influenced by Marxism. Two notable examples of this challenge are Ellen Kay Trimberger’s Revolution from Above: Military Bureaucrats and Development in Japan, Turkey, Egypt and Peru, [8] and more explicitly Theda Skocpol’s much-acclaimed States and Social Revolution, [9] which is, however, not concerned with the contemporary state but with the state in relation to the French, Russian and Chinese Revolutions. [10]

In the Marxist tradition, Skocpol writes, ‘whatever the variations of its historical forms, the state as such is seen as a feature of all class-divided modes of production; and, invariably, the one necessary and inescapable function of the state—by definition—is to contain class conflict and to undertake other policies in support of the dominance of the surplus-appropriating and property-owning class.’ This, she argues, fails to treat the state ‘as an autonomous structure—a structure with a logic and interests of its own not necessarily equivalent to, or fused with, the interests of the dominant class in society or the full set of member groups in the polity.’ [11]

This seems to me to be a valid criticism: the Marxist tradition does tend to under-emphasize or simply to ignore the fact that the state does have interests of its own or, to put it rather more appropriately, that the people who run it believe it has and do themselves have interests of their own. The failure to make due allowance for this naturally inhibits or prevents the exploration of the ways in which class interests and state interests are related and reconciled.

For her part, Skocpol goes much further than merely stating that the state has interests of its own or that those who run it do have such interests. For she goes on to argue that the Marxist perspective makes it ‘virtually impossible even to raise the possibility that fundamental conflicts of interest might arise between the existing dominant class or set of groups, on the one hand, and the state rulers on the other’. [12] But contrary to what she appears to believe, this second argument does not follow from the first, and in fact raises an entirely different question, of great interest, but which should not be confused with the first one. That first proposition refers to the interests which the state may have of its own, and leaves open the question of how these may be reconciled with other interests in society. The second proposition, on the other hand, assumes that the state may have interests ‘fundamentally’ opposed to those of all forces and interests in society. This is a much stronger version of the autonomy of the state, and needs to be discussed separately from the other, and much weaker, one.

The Scope of State Action

Perhaps the first thing to note in this discussion is how very large is the sphere of action which the state in capitalist societies does have in all areas of life. It is deeply and pervasively involved in every aspect of economic life. It is a permanent and active presence in class conflict and in every other kind of conflict. It plays a great and growing role in the manipulation of opinion and in the ‘engineering of consent’. It has, in Max Weber’s famous phrase, a ‘monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force’. It is alone responsible for international affairs and for deciding what the level and character of the country’s armaments should be.

To speak of ‘the state’ in this manner is of course to use a shorthand which can be misleading. The reference is to certain people who are in charge of the executive power of the state—presidents, prime ministers, their cabinets and their top civilian and military advisers. But this assumes a unity of views and interests which may not exist: great divisions between the people concerned are in fact very common, with ministers at odds with their colleagues, and civilian and military advisers at odds with their political superiors. If these divisions are so deep as to make a workable compromise impossible and as to paralyse the executive power, some kind of reconstruction of the decision-making apparatus has to occur. In the end, decisions do have to be made; and it is the executive power which makes them, ‘on its own’.

No doubt, there are many powerful influences and constraints, from outside the state, international as well as indigenous, which affect the nature of the decisions taken; and these may well be very strong and compelling. But it is ultimately a very small group of people in the state—often a single person—who decide what is to be done or not done; and it is only in very exceptional cases that those who make the decisions are left with no range of choice at all. Much more often, there is some degree of choice: even where governments are subjected to the imperative will of other governments, they are usually left with some freedom of decision in relation to matters which directly and greatly affect the lives of those whom they govern. Perhaps the best way to highlight the meaning of the autonomy of the state is to note that if nuclear war should occur, either between the ‘superpowers’ or between lesser powers armed with the capacity to wage such a war, it will occur because governments will have so decided, without reference to anybody else. There is no democractic procedure for starting a nuclear war.

The degree of autonomy which the state enjoys for most purposes in relation to social forces in capitalist society depends above all on the extent to which class struggle and pressure from below challenge the hegemony of the class which is dominant in such a society. Where a dominant class is truly hegemonic in economic, social, political and cultural terms, and therefore free from any major and effective challenge from below, the chances are that the state itself will also be subject to its hegemony, and that it will be greatly constrained by the various forms of class power which the dominant class has at its disposal. Where, on the other hand, the hegemony of a dominant class is persistently and strongly challenged, the autonomy of the state is likely to be substantial, to the point where, in conditions of intense class struggle and political instability, it may assume ‘Bonapartist’ and authoritarian forms, and emancipate itself from constraining constitutional checks and controls.

It is worth noting that the capitalist class has very seldom enjoyed anything like full hegemony in economic, social, political and cultural terms. One major capitalist country where it has come nearest to such hegemony is the United States—the prime example in the capitalist world of a society where business has not had to share power with an entrenched aristocracy, and where it has also been able to avoid the emergence of a serious political challenge by organized labour. Everywhere else, business has had to reach an accomodation with previously established social forces, and meet the challenge of labour. Moreover, it has also had to deal with state structures of ancient provenance and encrusted power that were strongly resistant to change. Capitalist hegemony has therefore been much more contested and partial in the rest of the ‘late’ capitalist world than in the United States; and even in the United States, economic and social contradictions and pressure from below, particularly since the Great Depression, have strengthened the state and given it greater autonomy than it enjoyed between, say, the Civil War and the Great Depression.

The idea that class struggle is of decisive importance in determining the nature and form of the state is a familiar part of classical Marxism; [13] and so too is the view that the purpose of the state’s autonomy is the better to protect and serve the existing social order and the dominant class which is the main beneficiary of that social order. As I noted earlier, it is this latter proposition which is under challenge; and rightly so. For the question: ‘What is the state’s autonomy for?’ cannot simply be answered in these familiar terms: the point is not that these terms are wrong; but rather that they are inadequate to explain the dynamic of state action and cannot provide a satisfactory ‘model’ of the state in relation to society in a capitalist context. The dynamic of state action is explained by Marxism in terms of the imperative requirements of capital or the inexorable pressure of capitalists; and these are indeed of very great importance. But to focus exclusively on them is to leave out of account other very powerful impulses to state action generated from within the state by the people who are in charge of the decision-making power. These impulses undoubtedly exist; and they cannot be taken to be synonymous with the purposes of dominant classes.

The Impulses of Executive Power

The two main impulses which are generated by the executive power of the state are self-interest on the one hand, and a conception of the ‘national interest’ on the other.

People in power wish for the most part to retain it. It is a spurious kind of worldy wisdom which affirms that all ‘politicians’ and people in power are moved by nothing but self-interest and are only concerned to serve themselves by acquiring and clinging to office. But it is naive to think that, whatever else moves such people, they are not also moved by self-interest, meaning above all the wish to obtain and retain power. Of one man of power, the late Lyndon Johnson, President of the United States, it has been said that he exhibited from early days ‘the desire to dominate, the need to dominate, to bend others to his will . . . the overbearingness with subordinates that was as striking as the obsequiousness with superiors . . . the viciousness and cruelty, the joy in breaking backs and keeping them broken, the urge not just to defeat but to destroy . . . above all, the ambition, the all-encompassing personal ambition that made issues impediments and scruples superfluous. And present also was the fear—the loneliness, the terrors, the insecurities—that underlay, and made savage, the aggressiveness, the energy and the ambition.’ [14]

No doubt, Lyndon Johnson was a very repulsive politician. But the sentiments and motives ascribed to him are hardly unique; and the different terms that may be used to describe the drives of other men and women in power do not affect the point: this is that there are many people for whom the exercise of great power is an exceedingly satisfying experience, for whose sake acts of extraordinary cruelty have been committed throughout history. The point would hardly be worth making if it was not so imperfectly integrated into the Marxist view of the state.

The reason for this, or at least one reason for it, has already been touched on, and lies in Marxism’s emphasis on economic and social processes as determinants of political action. The emphasis is perfectly legitimate but is easily deformed into an under-estimation of the weight which political processes themselves do have. The tendency to one form or another of ‘economic reductionism’ has had a marked influence on the Marxist discussion of politics and the state, even when the deformation has been acknowledged and pledges made to correct it.

The state is not the only institution which makes the exercise of great power possible; but it is by far the most important one. Nor does it only make possible the exercise of power as such, crucial though that is: it is also the source of high salaries, status, privilege and access to well-paid and otherwise desirable positions outside the state. [15] Nor is this only relevant for those people who are at the very center of the decision-making process. Thousands of people in the upper reaches of the state are involved, whom the state provides with high salaries and all that goes with state service at this level, not only in government departments, but also in innumerable boards, commissions, councils and other public bodies. Such people constitute a ‘state bourgeoisie’, linked to but separate from those who are in charge of corporate capitalist enterprise. Their first concern is naturally with their jobs and careers. Capitalist interests are in no danger of being overlooked; but they are not the sole or primary concern of these office holders.

Those who seek state power find it easy to persuade themselves that their achievement of it, and their continued hold on it, are synonymous with the ‘national interest’, whose service, they proclaim, is their paramount and overriding consideration. Here too, it would be short-sighted to treat these proclamations as mere sham, and as elicited purely by the wish to obtain and retain state power. It is much more reasonable to think that people in power are moved by what they conceive to be the ‘national interest’, in addition to being deeply concerned with their own jobs. This is all the more likely to be the case in that the ‘national interest’ is woven into a larger and very powerful sentiment, namely nationalism. There was in classical Marxism the hope and belief that a different sentiment, namely proletarian or revolutionary internationalism, would move not only the working class but its leaders, in opposition but also in power. The collapse of internationalism in 1914 dealt a shattering blow to this hope; and so, in different ways, did the fact that the Soviet regime alone survived the revolutionary convulsions which followed the First World War. Even if manifestations of revolutionary internationalism may occasionally be read into the actions of people in power (Cuba in Africa?), it is nationalism and what is taken to be the ‘national interest’ which everywhere form the main and even the exclusive frame of reference for state action today; and this is easily compatible with the pursuit of the self-interest of those who control state power.

If it is agreed that self-interest and a conception of the ‘national interest’ have been and are powerful influences in shaping the policies and actions of the people in control of state power, the question which immediately arises is how this relates to the interests of the dominant class—in other words, what is the relationship of state power to class interests?

The answer is that, throughout the history of capitalism, that relationship has on the whole been very good. The people in charge of the state have generally been strongly imbued with the belief that the ‘national interest’ was bound up with the well-being of capitalist enterprise, or at least that no conceivable alternative arrangement, least of all socialism, could possibly be more advantageous to the ‘national interest’; and they have therefore been particularly attentive to the interests of capitalist enterprise, whatever view they might take of capitalists. However, being attentive to these interests might well mean refusing to pay heed to capitalist wishes: very often, it was precisely because they wanted to ensure the best conditions for capitalism that they did things which ran counter to the wishes of capitalists.

A certain tension between state power and class interests is in fact inevitable, however good their relationship may fundamentally be. The dynamic of capitalism is the reproduction and accumulation of capital, and the maximization of long-term profit for each individual firm. This is the paramount aim, the all but exclusive concern of those who are in charge of the private sector of economic life: all else passes through this and must be subordinate to it. But this cannot be the dynamic of state power. For those who control that power, the ‘national interest’ in essence requires the defence of the existing social order against any internal challenge to it, and also the best defence they believe they can mount against commercial, military and ideological competition from other states. Of course, this may also include, and often has included, offensive action abroad. These twin concerns encompass, or at least seek to encompass, capitalist class interests: but this is not at all the same as saying that state action and these class interests precisely coincide. In fact, there is always likely to be some unhingement between what the state does, however much those who control it may be devoted to capitalist interests, and these interests. The state, for instance, needs revenue; and it cannot obtain all the revenue it needs from the subordinate classes. It must levy taxes upon capital and capitalists, and thereby drain off some of the surplus which accrues to them: hence the constant lamentations of businessmen, large and small, about the state’s taxation policies, and their complaints that the state, in its blind bureaucratic and greedy bungling, is forever undermining private enterprise. Similarly with reform and regulation: the containment of pressure from below, and indeed the maintenance of a viable and efficient labour force, demand that the state should undertake some measures of reform and regulation, which capital finds disagreeable and constraining, and which it certainly would not undertake on its own.

State and Class: a Partnership?

In short, an accurate and realistic ‘model’ of the relationship between the dominant class in advanced capitalist societies and the state is one of partnership between two different, separate forces, linked to each other by many threads, yet each having its own separate sphere of concerns. The terms of that partnership are not fixed but constantly shifting, and affected by many different circumstances, and notably by the state of class struggle. It is not at any rate a partnership in which the state may be taken necessarily to be the junior partner. On the contrary, the contradictions and shortcomings of capitalism, and the class pressures and social tensions this produces, require the state to assume an ever more pronounced role in the defence of the social order. The end of that process is one form or another of ‘Bonapartism’. Meanwhile, it makes for a steady inflation of state power within the framework of a capitalist-democratic order whose democratic features are under permanent threat from the partnership of state and capital.

This ‘model’ of partnership seeks to give due importance to the independent and ‘self-regarding’ role of the state, and to make full allowance for what might be called the Machiavellian dimension of state action, which Marxism’s ‘class-reductionist’ tendencies have obscured. [16] This is not a question of the ‘primacy of politics’: that formulation goes rather too far the other way, and suffers from a ‘state-reductionist’ bias.

By speaking of partnership between the state and the dominant class, I seek to avoid both forms of ‘reductionism’: the notion makes allowance for all the space which political and state action obviously has in practice; but it also acknowledges a capitalist context which profoundly affects everything the state does, particularly in economic matters where capitalist interests are directly involved. The idea of the ‘primacy of politics’ tends to abstract from the hard reality of this capitalist context: but no government can be indifferent to it. So long as a government works within it, so long does the partnership hold. If it seeks to pose a fundamental threat to capitalist interests, or a threat which capitalist interests judge to be fundamental, the partnership is dissolved and replaced by the determination of these interests to see the government destroyed. Nor in such a case is that determination likely to be confined to capitalist interests: it would be shared to the full by many other forces in society, and by people located in the state itself—military people, top civil servants, and many others.

The notion of partnership is scarcely contradicted by the experience of the governments of the left which have come to power (or to office) in capitalist countries in this century. For all practical purposes, the partnership has endured between such governments and capital, perhaps with more tensions and disagreements than when governments of the right have been in office, but not so as to bring about a complete break in relations. Great antagonism to the government might be expressed by members of the dominant class, business interests and their many agencies; but there was always a clear understanding on the part of these class forces that, even though the government might be doing some reprehensible things, it was also seeking to maintain the existing social order, to help business, to discipline and subdue labour, and to defend, in international and defence matters (and in colonial ones in an earlier day), what dominant class interests and the government both agreed to be the ‘national interest’. In any case, capital also knew that it was only a small part of the state that was now in alien hands: the top reaches of the civil service, the police, the military, the judiciary remained more or less intact, and vigilantly concerned to limit the damage which the government might do. Moreover, the hegemony exercised by the dominant class in civil society was never much affected by the arrival in office of a government of the left. All the ‘earthworks’ which that dominant class occupied remained under its control. On the other hand, governments of the left have always sought to contain the activism of their own supporters and to bid them wait patiently and obediently for socialist ministers to get on with their tasks. The one case where the partnership between a government of the left and dominant class interests was broken was that of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile. Given that break, the government’s only hope of obviating the dangers which it faced was to forge a new partnership between itself and the subordinate classes. It was unable to achieve this, or did not sufficiently strive to achieve it. Its autonomy was also its death warrant.

This proposed model of partnership stands in opposition to Theda Skocpol’s model of the ‘state for itself’ referred to earlier. According to that model, it will be recalled, ‘fundamental conflicts of interest might arise between the existing dominant class or set of groups, on the one hand, and the state rulers on the other’. In this view, the state would be no one’s partner or ally: it would be ‘for itself’ and against all classes and groups in society. In relation to countries with a solid class structure and a well-entrenched dominant class, such a model does not seem appropriate. For it is surely very difficult to see, in such countries, what the interests of ‘state rulers’ would be which would also place these rulers in fundamental conflict with all classes or groups in society. I have already noted that there are things which the state wants and does, and which are very irksome to the dominant class: but this is a very different matter from there being a fundamental conflict between them. Moreover, if such a conflict between them did occur, the state would in all likelihood be acting in ways that would favour some other class or classes. In other words, a new partnership would have been created; or the state would be acting, for whatever reason, in favour of a class or classes without any such partnership having been established. In neither case would the state be ‘neutral’, or acting solely ‘for itself’.

Of course, state rulers, in pursuing what they conceive to be their interest, and the ‘national interest’, may use the autonomy they have to adopt policies and take actions which turn out to be disadvantageous or disastrous for everybody (quite possibly including those who took the decisions). History is full of such failures of statecraft; and recent examples abound. Thus, it may be argued that the American decision to wage war in Vietnam was very disadvantageous to all classes in the United States, not to speak of the disaster it represented for the people of Vietnam. But it can hardly be claimed that the decision to wage war in Vietnam was taken in the interests of state rulers in fundamental opposition to the interests of the capitalist class in the United States. On the contrary, there was a perfectly good ‘fit’ between the two, as witness the support which most capitalist interests there gave to the war until its very end. Another instance is that of Hitler’s expansionist ventures, including his decision to take Germany into war. This turned out badly for everybody concerned: but there was no fundamental opposition between business interests in Germany and the Nazi leaders; and here again, there was ample support from business for Nazi policies. In this case, however, it is possible to argue that the Nazi regime provides an example of the interests of those in charge of the state being fundamentally opposed to the interests of everybody else: the war was clearly lost by 1943, and the only people whose interest it was not to bring it to an end were the Nazi leaders. Other instances of this sort could no doubt be adduced. But they do not provide a firm basis for a ‘model’ of the state as being ‘for itself’ and against everybody else.

State Power under Socialism

It seems to me that the ‘model’ of partnership advanced here can be useful in defining the relationship of the state to the working class in a socialist society. In the classical Marxist perspective, this relationship is defined in terms of the dictatorship of the proletariat. As may be deduced from Marx’s Civil War in France, and as it is presented in Lenin’s The State and Revolution, this means in effect the virtual dissolution of state power into class power. The state is not abolished but its functions and powers become largely residual and subordinate. Göran Therborn is well within this tradition in saying that ‘a strategy for socialism or for a transitional stage of “advanced democracy” must dismantle the government, administration, judicial and repressive apparatus of the existing bourgeois state’, and in urging ‘a political programme of changes in the organization of the state that will bring about a popular democracy’. [17]

For their part, both social democratic and Communist parties have adopted perspectives and strategies of a very different kind, according to which class power is strictly subordinated to state power. For social democracy, class power has always tended to mean the deployment of electoral strength by the working class and the election of a social democratic or labour government. Once this is achieved, the task of the ‘voters’ is done, save for the routine activities of the party or parties which support the government. Indeed, any manifestation of class power (for instance strike action) is frowned upon, disowned and opposed.

Communist parties place a greater emphasis in their pronouncements and programmes on grassroots activism, but the focus tends to be on the achievement of legislative and ministerial power in what is in effect the old state with a partially renewed personnel. Whatever might happen to the hegemony of the dominant class, it is not on this basis likely to be inherited by the hitherto subordinate classes. Partnership between state power and class power in a socialist context means something rather different. It requires the achievement of real power by organs of popular representation in all spheres of life, from the workplace to local government; and it also involves the thorough democratization of the state system and the strengthening of democratic control upon every aspect of it. But it nevertheless also means that state power endures and that the state does not, in any strong sense, ‘wither away’. It must, in fact, long continue to remain in being and carry out many functions which it alone can fulfil. Indeed, it requires some degree of autonomy to carry them out. For the working class is not a homogeneous bloc, with one clear interest and one voice; and the state alone is capable of acting as a mediator between the ‘fractions’ which constitute the newly hegemonic majority. Furthermore, it is also upon the state that falls a large part of the responsibility for safeguarding the personal, civic and political freedoms which are intrinsic to the notion of socialist citizenship. In this sense, and with proper controls, state power in a post-capitalist society is not in conflict with class power, but its essential complement.

[1] For an interesting survey of the bulk of this literature, see Bob Jessop, The Capitalist State: Marxist Theories and Methods, London 1982. The autonomy of the state, however, is not accorded any particular attention in this book and does not appear in the index.

[2] For a recent discussion of the subject by a ‘mainstream’ political scientist, which shows well how limited is an approach that takes no serious account of the state’s capitalist context, see E. Nordlinger, On the Autonomy of the Democratic State, New York 1981. Actual case studies are discussed in S. D. Krasner, Defending the National Interest: Raw Materials Investments and US Foreign Policy, New York 1978.

[3] This article is exclusively concerned with ‘late’ capitalist societies. The question presents itself rather differently in countries in the capitalist world which are poorly developed, and very differently indeed in Soviet-type regimes. Here again serious theoretical work has only commenced.

[4] Volume One: State and Bureaucracy, New York 1977, Chs 14–23.

[5] See my ‘Marx and the State’, in The Socialist Register 1965, London 1965, p. 283.

[6] Ibid, p. 285.

[7] See my ‘Poulantzas and the Capitalist State’, in NLR 82 (November–December 1973), p. 85, footnote 4.

[8] New York 1977.

[9] Cambridge 1979.

[10] See also Fred Block, ‘The Ruling Class Does Not Rule’, Socialist Revolution 33, (May–June 1977); and ‘Beyond Relative Autonomy’, in The Socialist Register 1980, London 1980, where he speaks of the ‘relative autonomy thesis’ as a ‘cosmetic modification of Marxism’s tendency to reduce state power to class power’. (p. 229).

[11] Skocpol, p. 27.

[12] Ibid.

[13] See Marx’s famous description of the Second Empire as ‘the only form of government possible at a time when the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the working class had not yet acquired, the faculty of ruling the nation’ (The Civil War in France, in Selected Works (1950), I, p. 470). Also Engels’s equally well-known remark: ‘By way of exception, however, periods occur in which the warring classes balance each other so nearly that the state power, as ostensible mediator, acquires, for the moment, a certain degree of independence of both’ (The Origin of the Family, Property and the State, ibid., II, p. 290). For many other such examples, see Draper, op. cit.

[14] The quotation appears in Murray Kempton, ‘The Great Lobbyist’, in New York Review of Books, 17 February 1983; and is drawn from R. A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, New York 1982.

[15] A recent example is provided by Sir David McNee, who retired in 1982 as Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and who was appointed non-executive chairman of the Scottish Express Newspapers: ‘Sir David, who left last September on an index-linked pension of £22,000, will be paid between £5,000 and £10,000 for the job. He recently sold his memoirs to the Sunday Mirror for £120,000, joined Clydesdale Bank for £5,000 a year as non-executive director, and in November the British Airways Board for £10,000 a year. In December he was nominated president of the National Bible Society of Scotland’ (The Guardian, 27 January 1983).

[16] Thus, Göran Therborn dissolves state power into class power when he asserts that ‘state power is a relation between social class forces expressed in the content of state policies’ (What Does the Ruling Class Do When It Rules?, nlb. London 1978, p. 34). Note also Jessop’s characterization of Poulantzas’s view of the state: ‘The state reflects and condenses all the contradictions in a class-divided social formation . . . political practices are always class practices . . . state power is always the power of a definite class to whose interests the state corresponds’ (op. cit., p. 159).

[17] Therborn, p. 25.