East-European Marxist Literary Theory: A Conversation. Fu Qilin, Galin Tihanov
East-European Marxist Literary Theory: A Conversation
Abstract: Professor Galin Tihanov from University of London as an elected Member of Academia Europaea and Professor Fu Qilin at Sichuan University make a conversation on the new development of Marxist literary theory in East- Europe and talk about China’s situation of Marxist literary theory concerned.
Key Words: East-Europe; Marxist Literary Theory; Agnes Heller
Author: Fu Qilin is professor and Vice-Dean of the College of Literature and Journalism at Sichuan University(Chengdu ,610064, China), Young Changjiang Scholar and Chief Expert of China key Project of Philosophy and Social Science “Bibliography and Research of Eastern European Marxist Aesthetics”(15ZDB022). His research is mainly on Marxist literary theory. His recent publications include the books A Study of Agnes Heller’s Thoughts about Aesthetic Modernity (2006); A Critique of Grand Narrative and Construction of a Pluralist Aesthetic: The Budapest School’s Reconstructing of Aesthetics (2011); etc. Email: email@example.com .
关键词：东欧 马克思主义文学理论 阿格妮丝•赫勒
Tihanov: Hello, Prof. Fu Qilin, thank you very much for inviting me to take part in this conversation on East-European Marxist literary theory. Allow me to reverse the roles in this interview and ask the first question. I am interested in your book A Study of Agnes Heller’s Thought on Aesthetic Modernity. Why did you choose to write about her?
Fu Qilin: Thanks a lot for your question. I have been studying Agnes Heller, and more generally the Budapest School, for more than ten years, and recently I have been absorbed in East-European Neo-Marxist Aesthetics. I have chosen Agnes Heller’s aesthetics as my own subject because of her creative interpretation of Marxism. For me, she is the most important member of the Budapest School in Hungary, gathered under Georg Lukács’s guidance in the 1960s. She was influenced by Lukács’s slogan about the “Renaissance of Marxism” which declares that it is right to come back to Karl Marx. For more than sixty years, Agnes Heller has written a lot on literary theory and art and has advanced many exciting ideas which are seldom discussed in the West and in China. In 1953, she completed her dissertation on Chernyshevsky’s notion of ethics which originally deals with the “new man” from the perspectives of ethics and aesthetics. For me, her dissertation laid the foundation for her later aesthetics, though it is well-known that she then turned from the “Renaissance of Marxism” to Neo-Marxism or Post Marxism to reflective postmodernism. Heller’s book Everyday Life (1968) deals with the everyday individuality from the point of view of particularity and interprets art as the self-consciousness of human being (Dasein). After that, she concentrates on the theory of need, the study of human instincts, and the phenomenology of feeling on the basis of her social anthropology. In 1986, she and her husband Ferenc Feher edited a book, Reconstructing Aesthetics, which I have just translated into Chinese. There one can find some representative writings of the Budapest School and see their constructive attitudes towards literary theory and aesthetics; at the same time, they express their determination to deconstruct the traditional grand narratives of Marxism. In the last couple of decades, Heller has clearly been turning to aesthetics and art, visible in her books A Philosophy of History in Fragments (1993), An Ethics of Personality (1996), The Concept of the Beautiful (1998 in Hungarian, 2012 in English), Time is out of Joint: Shakespeare as Philosopher of History (2002), Immortal Comedy (2004). Just some years ago, she published her new book A mai történelmi regény (The Historical Novel Today, 2011, in Hungarian). Thus, although she is over eighty years old, I believe she is still an independent and creative thinker. In short, she has declared herself to be not a Marxist, but a post-Marxist, a post-modern philosopher. But maybe she is, instead, a real Marxist. Why? Still, her philosophy and aesthetics attach importance to individuality and human freedom in social reality and everyday life, in which I am very interested.
Tihanov: Well, how would you compare Lukács and Agnes Heller?
Fu Qilin: I think Lukács’s model is creative but too ‘grand’. So, Agnes Heller’s books criticize her teacher’s thought as a grand narrative, especially associated with Stalinism, particularly Lukács’s aesthetics and his realist idea of literature. When I read Lukács’s book The Specificity of the Aesthetic (1963), I thought Lukács emphasized everyday life, in contrast to Martin Heidegger’s attitude towards everyday life. Lukács mentioned his excellent student Agnes Heller in its preface, realising she had criticized his own idea; in the 1960s, many students of Lukács criticized his ideas. Although he emphasized the importance of everyday life in his book, in the end he abandoned this interest and wanted to lift his thought towards freedom and wholeness, namely a state of totality. The young Lukács was also concerned with capitalist everyday life, but he in the end was interested in the “metaphysics of tragedy”. According to Agnes Heller, the human being is contingent. Then, where is totality? How do we obtain totality by creating and enjoying literature? In a sense the concept of totality is a lie just like the concept of the Beautiful which originated in the Platonic divine field. Therefore Agnes Heller establishes her difference from her teacher by emphasizing the formation of individuality through the consideration of instincts, needs, feelings, historical consciousness and so forth.
Tihanov: What you are saying about Agnes Heller and Lukács and your interpretation of their work is very interesting. Thank you.
Fu Qilin: You’re welcome. I would like to ask you some questions now. In recent years, I have studied East-European Neo-Marxist aesthetics and literary theory, some aspects of which are also the subject of your own research. So I want to know about the current situation of East-European Marxist aesthetics and literary theory.
Tihanov: Well, the main question here is how Marxism evolves after 1989. For a very long time after the changes, Marxism ceased to be a serious subject of academic inquiry. And now this is beginning to change. Marxism is once again receiving attention. But not the classical version of Marxism, the Marxism of the second half of the 19th century, but perhaps rather Post-Marxism, in other words developments within Marxism since the 1960s. And Russia, of course, is a different case. The Russians are trying to study Post-Marxism, especially Slavoj Žižek’s ideas and the works of some French left-leaning philosophers, notably Rancière and Badiou. But in Russia, this goes hand in hand with the revival of Western Marxism, particularly the work of Lukács, which in the latter half of the 1990s and early in the 21st century saw several new translations and editions. There is a group of intellectuals in Russia who very actively study Goerg Lukács; the most visible of these people are Sergei Zemlianoi and Viktor Aрslanov, the latter also an expert on Mikhail Lifshits and his works on Marxist aesthetics of the 1930s. Until the 1990s, the Russians didn’t even have a translation of Lukács’s Theory of the Novel, which is a pre-Marxist, still very important, book. In 1994 this fundamental work finally appeared in Russian. Later, in 2003, in Zemlianoi’s translation, History and Class Consciousness was published in Russian, which of course could not have been translated under Communism, because it was considered a deviation from Marxist orthodoxy. These works were supplemented by a Russian translation of another of Lukács’s pre-Marxist books, the collection of essays Soul and Form, and some of his political writings of the 1920s. All this was paralleled by a revival of the work of Mikhail Lifshits, who had known Lukács personally and had worked with him in Moscow on Marxist aesthetics and literary theory during the 1930s. Together, Lukács and Lifshits belonged to a group of thinkers around the most prominent Soviet journal of literary criticism before World War Two, “Literaturnyi kritik”, which was closed down in 1940. For most of the 1930s, it was the most serious Soviet journal of Marxist aesthetics. This is where the Soviet Marxists began publishing and studying Hegel’s aesthetics. This is where they began translating and studying Giambattista Vico. Lukács and Lifshitz were close friends, yet otherwise they were very different thinkers; Lifshitz later evolved into a hard-core Stalinist and he was, in many ways, much more inflexible and doctrinaire than Lukács. Lukács was more refined, more tolerant to innovation, although they both were often staunch opponents to modernism and the avant-garde. I think this irreconcilable rejection of potential competitors, but also allies, is the major line of differentiation between Western Marxism and Post-Marxism. Western Marxism, which Lukacs and Gramsci were the most important representatives of, still believes in the ideological purity of Marxism. Just as Lukács didn’t accept the avant-garde, he also doggedly sought to differentiate Marxism from all sorts of current ‘bourgeois’ thinking: Heidegger, Existentialism, etc. Similarly, Gramsci was concerned to preserve the purity of Marxism in constant polemics with idealist philosophers, such as Croce and others. But if we look at Post-Marxism, we immediately see the difference. Post-Marxists believe that Marxism remains a very important method of analyzing the contradictions of capitalist society. Yet it should do so assisted by other methods; notably, the most important methodological ally of Post-Marxism becomes psychoanalysis. You can see this already in the works of the Frankfurt School which is a kind of transition between Western Marxism and Post-Marxism, sharing same features with Western Marxism and some other features with Post-Marxism. You can clearly trace this in Erich Fromm, in particular, and in Marcuse. What is more, Fromm is also very interested in Buddhist philosophy, as is clear from his major work, To have or to be. Thus you can see Post-Marxism seeking to broaden its appeal by also enlisting some help from other philosophical and methodological currents, something unthinkable for Western Marxism. And if you look at Žižek，Žižek also seeks some support from psychoanalysis, in his case Lacan, a more recent version of psychoanalysis. Equally, Žižek is also open to Deconstruction and Derrida. This willingness and ability of Post-Marxism to seek intellectual allies and strike methodological partnerships is the reason why Marxism could see a revival during and after the 1960s. Chronologically, also based on this criterion, we should really be confining Western Marxism to the period between World War One and the 1960s; Western Marxism was called into life, after all, by the need to think through the philosophical consequences of the October Revolution in Russia which didn’t go according to Marx’s forecast that the revolution would first success in an advanced Western country. From the 1960s onwards, we have this gradual transition to Post-Marxism, which clearly came to dominate the landscape since the 1980s. Thus, to answer your question, in Eastern Europe at the present moment I think Post-Marxism is the most viable version of Marxism. And it will take maybe a little bit longer still until scholars in Eastern Europe could go back to the classical theory of nineteenth-century Marxism and begin to study it seriously as a historical phenomenon, and as a phenomenon of a particular Western-European culture.
Fu Qilin: Would you like to discuss the development of Bulgarian Marxist aesthetics?
Tihanov: Yes, this is a good question. In one respect, early on the situation in Bulgarian was actually a little bit similar to that in China. In Bulgaria the works of Marx and Engels were initially translated not from the German but from the Russian. And here, in China, the works of Marx and Engels were initially translated not from the German but from the Japanese. Thus both in China and in Bulgaria Marxism arrived through a different culture, as it were. We need to think what the implications are of this. And we might continue this analogy because China gave the Japanese the foundation of their own culture, and Bulgaria gave the Russians their alphabet. But when you invite a body of work in translation from another language, as was the case with Marxism early on in Bulgaria (from the Russian) and China (from the Japanese), you also borrow the terminology, you borrow the conceptual frameworks through which you understand Marxism. To return to your question, the most interesting episode in the history of Bulgarian Marxist aesthetics occurred at the time when Marxism had not yet become official doctrine in Bulgaria, that is to say, the time before 1945, and it has to do with Todor Pavlov who emigrated to the Soviet Union and studied philosophy there. He very quickly rose through the ranks and became a professor at the Institute of Read Professorship in Moscow. Pavlov developed the so-called theory of reflection, to which he dedicated an entire (very large) book. Pavlov’s theory of reflection was based essentially on Lenin’s work Materialism and Empiriocriticism, one of Lenin’s important writings. And the argument, with reference to aesthetics, is very simple. The argument is that art is a reflection of reality. It is a very crude argument because it proceeds from the premise that the superstructure merely reflects the base, is simply determined by the base. But we know that Engels wrote a very interesting letter to Joseph Bloch in which he argued that actually the superstructure – culture, law, religion, etc. – is also autonomous to some extent and influences in tern the base. So the relationship here is a little bit more complicated. It’s a two-way street. Overall, Todor Pavlov disregarded this refinement introduced by Engels. And he very crudely accepted that art and literature, being all elements of the superstructure, reflect reality in a straightforward manner.
Fu Qilin: What is reality according to him?
Tihanov: ‘Reality’ for him is the totality of economic and social life determined by the mode of production. This is the orthodox Marxist view. It’s a very different view from that of Western Marxism which understands by ‘reality’ the totality of culture, not just the totality of economic life. So for Pavlov, art reflects this ‘reality’, i.e. the available social and economic orders in their conflict. There were actually some interesting debates in the 1930s around the Marxist theory of reflection. The so-called contradiction between artistic method and outlook, or world view, comes to mind. The Marxist literary theorists around the journal “Literaturnyi kritik”, which I already mentioned, studied Balzac and concluded that, politically, he was a reactionary, a monarchist, and yet his work reflected in such a brilliant manner the contradictions of French capitalist society that, as Engels famously put it, one could learn from his novels more about capitalism, how capitalism works, than from any book of economic research. In other words, Balzac’s political outlook was benighted, but his artistic method was quite advanced, as these Soviet Marxists would have it. But Pavlov’s theory of reflection was much more dogmatic. So if you imagine an encounter between Pavlov and Lukács, if there had been an encounter between these two people, they would probably have had very little to say to each other. Because Pavlov was very much adhering to this dogmatic, narrow-minded Stalinist version of Marxism, and Lukács, even when he tried to be a loyal Soviet communist, was still essentially a Marxist of a Western cultural mold. He couldn’t disregard the fact that Marxism, in the end, is also a culture-specific phenomenon, it’s not a pure abstract philosophy. You know Herzen’s famous simile: “Hegel’s logic is the algebra of the revolution”; algebra is part of mathematics, and in mathematics the rules are very clear: 2+2 is always 4, and 2 times 7 is always 14, etc. But this is not the case with philosophy, not even with Marxist philosophy. We should always remember that classical Marxism in the second half the 19th century is essentially a Western philosophy. It is not a Russian philosophy, and it is not a Chinese philosophy, but a Western philosophy that came out of, and was evolving in, a Western cultural framework, in a Western cultural context which inflected this philosophy in a most powerful fashion. This is why, for example, Marxism was every bit as interested in making a claim to scientific rigor as some other strands of West-European culture at the time, notably Positivism. Nineteenth-century Western Marxism and Positivism are very close, because Positivism also believes in this Enlightenment idea that history flows in one direction only and draws into the orbit of amelioration, of perfection different societies, the Chinese, the Americans, the people of Benin—their social evolution will inevitably take them to that predictable point of perfection. Marxism shares the same belief essentially. All societies would undergo a period of class struggle until they reach Communism, the promised kingdom of freedom. How exactly and when this would happen, whether by navigating a transition from Feudalism to Capitalism to Communism, or, as in some Asian countries, largely skipping Capitalism, is a secondary issue – there is essentially this prescribed direction of perfection. And so if we imagine an encounter between Pavlov, the dogmatic Stalinist theorist of reflection, and Lukács, maybe these two people would have either bitterly quarreled or they would not have had much to say to each other; more likely the latter.
Fu Qilin: Thank you very much for your discussion of the important Bulgarian Marxist aesthetician, Pavlov, 巴甫洛夫（Ba fu luo fu） in Chinese.
Tihanov: Todor Pavlov left the Soviet Union to return to Bulgaria in 1936. In Bulgaria, especially after 1945, he exerted huge influence on the humanities and social sciences. He was also the President of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, so if you imagine today’s Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, you could get an idea of the authority vested in Todor Pavlov’s figure at the time; he had immense institutional power to shape people’s views.
Fu Qilin: A Soviet aesthetician is Moisei Kagan who edited a book called Lecture on History of Aesthetics, published in 1980 in Russia. Sevenl years later, A Chinese scholar 汤侠生（Tang Xiasheng） translated it into Chinese. In it, Kagan regarded Bulgarian Marxist aesthetics as an important part of Marxist aesthetics around the world. He also mentioned Todor Pavlov, especially his Theory of Refection. Would you like to talk about the relationship between theory of reflection of Todor Pavlov and Lenin’s philosophy of reflection in his book of 1909?
Tihanov: Yes, this is the book I referred to earlier, Materialism and Empiriocriticism. The foundation of Todor Pavlov’s theory is indeed Lenin’s work and the Marxist principle of the base-superstructure. When you mentioned Kagan, one should realize that his book was, after all, a textbook written by a Soviet Marxist. He was professor of aesthetics at Leningrad State University. At that time, when a Soviet Marxist wrote a textbook he often felt he should mention all the satellite countries and offer some acknowledgement of the work that was being done there. He mentions Todor Pavlov also because his textbook was to serve as a survey of the field, giving a bit of information about various players, various figures in that field. But if we are earnest about all this, we should understand that Todor Pavlov was not being taken seriously at the time. Even in Bulgaria, already by the end of the 1970s, no one was really taking serious interest in his work. And in the 1980s, he was already forgotten precisely because his theories were very crude and dogmatic. We read Lukács, Adorno and Benjamin, not Todor Pavlov. It’s very difficult to go back to Todor Pavlov today.
Fu Qilin: My last question concerns once again Kagan’s book. He talked about Marxism in various countries, including Eastern European and Western Marxist literary theory and aesthetics, but he didn’t mention Chinese Marxist aesthetics at all. What is the reason?
Tihanov: Yes, you have to be right that he must have mentioned all sorts of countries, not least because it is a textbook, but he doesn’t, as I hear from you here, ever mention Chinese aesthetics. I think he simply didn’t know the work of his Chinese colleagues, certainly not that of his contemporaries of the 1960s and 1970s. It was simply the Soviet ignorance of this body of work, which is no excuse but is at least an explanation. In Bulgaria people would not have known the work of their Chinese colleagues from the 1960s until 1989, and similarly in the Soviet Union; this was all due to the Sino-Soviet split that began in the 1950s. This split and its political aftermath meant that in the 1970s Kagan could not mention approvingly Chinese Marxist works on aesthetics, even that written before 1960. Mao’s works, those written before 1945, had been translated into Russian in a serious four-volume edition that came out in 1952-1953, including his speeches on art and literature; so Kagan may have known them but it was still impossible for him to mention them in the 1970s while relations between the Soviet Union and China were frosty. As you know very well, China had a different trajectory as a society, as a country, and Chinese-Russian or Chinese-Soviet relations were pretty good until about 1957, but after that they became very complicated and very reserved, to say the least. These are, I think, the reasons for this. First, the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, with its critique of Stalinism was not welcomed by Mao who saw in this a retreat by the Soviet Union from the agenda of a global communist revolution. And the second reason was even more important, I think. We mentioned during this conversation the complexity of Marxism: there is a classical western Marxism born in the second half of the 19th century in Germany and England, there is then East-European Marxism (including the Russian version, Leninism), and there is Post-Marxism, initially a version of Marxism in the affluent West, beginning in the 1960s. These different versions of Marxism do bear the imprint of the respective cultural contexts. They also reflect the characteristics of the societies in which they originated and by which they were espoused. And so you cannot expect China with a population of more than one billion people and with an unbroken cultural history of 5,000 years to accept the Soviet version of Marxism. Projecting Marxism onto a history spanning 5,000 years requires deep and extensive modifications in what you project. In a society that has Confucianism and Buddhism as a living tradition, you have to take into account the philosophical, moral, and religious deposits of that tradition. But the Soviet Union mistakenly believed that it can impose its own version of Marxism, the one they called Marxism-Leninism, to all communist countries, to the Bulgarians, the Poles, the Czechs, the Hungarians, the Yugoslavs, the Chinese. And the smaller East-European countries had to put up with this to some extent, they were also, in a sense, sharing certain features of historical evolution that made them more amenable to accepting Soviet Marxism (which was varied by them locally to a degree). But China was different, for China didn’t have to settle for this. Also, Chinese Marxism was evolving at a different pace from Soviet Marxism. By the late 1930s Soviet Marxism was already above all a doctrine aiming at conserving the victory of socialism in one country, and although this briefly changed for about ten years in the course of World War Two and immediately after that, the conservative nature of Soviet Marxism quickly regained authority in the latter half of the 1950s – whereas the revolutionary impulse of Chinese Marxism was still unspent as late as the 1960s. This is a very important divergence to stress, because theories do look very different when they are tailored to the agenda of revolution rather than the agenda of peaceful construction and retrenchment. So China went its own way and developed its own version of Marxism which is different from the official Soviet version in some important aspects (e.g. the role of the Party; the dynamics of the revolution vis-à-vis international politics; the role of the peasantry), which in turn meant that in the Soviet Union, especially after 1960, Chinese Marxism was looked at with profound suspicion and hostility. And this is the reason why Kagan couldn’t mention Chinese Marxist aesthetics. Even if he knew some of it, talking about Chinese Marxism in the Soviet Union would not have been easy.
Fu Qilin: I agree with you. However, Chinese Marxist literary theory is very important, especially to mention Mao Zedong’s Yan’an Talks in 1942. I have just written a paper about this with the title “The Reception of Mao Zedong’s Yan’an Talks in the English World”. Obviously, a lot of scholars from the English world studied and was interested in Mao’s talks on literature and art.
Tihanov: Yes, because they were free to study it seriously, and the Russians, the Soviet Russians, especially after the 1950s, were not.
Fu Qilin: An Australian Sinologist Bonnie McDougall translated the original version of Mao’s talks in 1942 into English in 1980 and discussed them connecting with New Criticism and reception aesthetics.
Tihanov: Thank you; and if you know of other translations of Chinese Marxist aesthetics into English, I will try to read those as well. This is very important. And let me maybe just mention that Moisei Kagan is well-known because he wrote mainstream textbooks, but he is not the most interesting Marxist aesthetician during the Soviet period. There is a much more interesting person, who was a teacher of Kagan’s, also working in Leningrad, a Russian Jewish Communist called Yeremia Yoffe. He was the supervisor of Kagan’s PhD dissertation. Yoffe was also a film and theater theorist, but – most importantly – he tried to marry Marxism with semantic paleontology, a peculiar strand in Soviet cultural theory, originating in research on language, myth, and folklore. These days hardly anyone reads Moisei Kagan in Russia, and he is all but forgotten amongst serious (even left-leaning) scholars of aesthetics. He is consigned to history, whereas Yeremia Yoffe has recently been republished, and there is renewed interest in his work. He is a much more interesting Marxist thinker than many of his more dogmatic contemporaries, who – because they were more loyal and more dogmatic – were given opportunities to write textbooks, to sit on various committees, etc., thus gaining considerable popularity at the time.
Fu Qilin: Thank you very much for your new information and penetrating insights.