Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain (1991) Summer School Lectures - The Capitalist Class

Images of Capitalism and Socialism

There are many images of capitalists as individuals but not as a class. The most famous picture of a capitalist was the one illustrated on the inside cover of books and pamphlets published by the old Soviet Progress Publishers printing press. The author had published works such as THE CONDITION OF THE WORKING CLASS, ANTI-DUHRING, SOCIALISM UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC, THE ORIGIN OF THE FAMILY, PRIVATE PROPERTY AND THE STATE and DIALECTICS OF NATURE. His name was Frederick Engels.

Engels was a capitalist but he was also a revolutionary socialist. There was no contradiction. As Marx and Engels optimistically wrote:

Finally, in times when the class-struggle nears the decisive hour, (…) a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that has the future in its hands (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO).

No contradiction exists with someone who is simultaneously wealthy and is actively working for the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of socialism. To refer to someone as a “champagne socialist” on the grounds of their comfortable circumstances is to commit an ad hominem attack; a mere logical fallacy which attacks the person not the socialist ideas they hold. Circumstances do not dictate the soundness or otherwise of the socialist argument against capitalism. To take part in socialist politics does not require self-impoverishment and the wearing]of sack cloth and ashes.

Crude and Negative Propaganda

The crude cartoon images of the capitalist, used in today’s political propaganda by groups like the SWP and The Socialist Party, are not meant to enlighten but instead to cause outrage and hatred; a negative propaganda leading nowhere.

The politics of outrage and hate wants to eliminate political opponents not to argue a rational socialist case against capitalism. There is no intention by these groups to make socialists and build-up a socialist majority: the necessary prerequisite for the establishment of socialism. Today’s crass cartoons of the capitalist would have left Marx and Engels incredulous. Marx and Engels did not hate “the bosses”. The socialism of Marx and Engels was not a politics of outrage and hate.

In the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO Marx and Engels actually praised the capitalist class for what they had achieved in such a short space of time. They wrote: “The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part” in the development of the forces of production which included co-operative and social labour. And that “revolutionary part” was to lay the ground for socialism. Workers were also advised by Marx and Engels to approach revolutionary politics with “sober senses”.

Even in the preface to the first edition of the first volume of CAPITAL, Marx said he did not blame the capitalist class for being exploiters of the working class. Marx said he only dealt with capitalists as the “bearers of particular class-relations and interest”. CAPITAL is a work of science not ethics. In capitalism, capitalists have to behave as capitalists. Capitalist have to exploit the working class. They are what Marx called: “The personification of capital”.

This did not stop capitalists becoming cartoon caricatures. The capitalist is always shown as a fat white man sitting astride a pile of money. This cartoon figure is usually annotated with the word “capitalism” to denote his class, class power and class privilege. A variation on a theme is the “fat Tom cat” parodying the cartoon capitalist of the 1920’s and 1930’s, although little is said about the thin mean cats on the make.

Art as Propaganda

The images of the capitalist and worker degenerating into crude political representation within Communist Party journals was found most notably in the 1920’s and 1930’s during the Weimar Republic which had been established in Germany after the First World War. Not only was there the repetitious use of the cartoon figure of the top-hatted capitalist but also the idealised image of male industrial workers. The image of the capitalist produced by KPD cartoonists would be transformed by the National “socialists” into a more anti-Semitic caricature of the world Jewish financier

Not all political representation of capitalists and workers during the Weimar period was crude political propaganda.

George Scholz, a painter associated with the KPD, painted many images of the capitalist class. His most famous painting shows a capitalist passing-by a gaunt looking newspaper salesman. The capitalist is being driven in a luxury car; again someone depicted as corpulent, male, and bow-tied holding a large cigar in his right hand.

However, he is shown sitting alone and childless. The newspaper salesman might be poor and exploited but he has a son walking next to him. The meaning of the painting is transparently clear; the working class, despites its exploitation and poverty, has a future while the capitalist class does not. In fact, It is very good propaganda although Scholz would never have thought to extend the political point of capitalism having no future to Uncle Joe’s Russia. A copy of the painting can be found on Pinterest

Scholz’s other notable oil painting with collage is the “industrial farmers” submitted to the Ersten Internationale Dada-Messe in 1920. The painting was in response to Scholz having to beg for food for his family from a local farmer who told him instead to search through the compost heap of decaying vegetables suitable only for pigs. The motif in the painting contains all the themes later explored by Brecht and Weil in their opera, The Seven Deadly Sins of the Petit Bourgeoisie, particularly gluttony and greed.

The painting, though, is moralistic not political. It is a snapshot of a degenerate capitalism but with no socialist future. In fact, the future is announced in the background through the window of the farmer’s house with the approaching priest (ideological conformity) and capital (reinvestment of profit to make more profit) in the form of a new threshing machine (see Looking at DADA S. G Blythe and E. D. Power p. 63 – 66 2006).

Other artists in Weimar Germany also painted images of the capitalist class and the working class in a similar style to Scholz, particularly Karl Volker (Industrial Picture), George Grosz (Swamp Flowers of Capitalism), Otto Dix (A Worker), H.M. Davringhausen (Profiteer) and Seiwert (Working Men). These images can be found in THE WEIMAR YEARS: A CULTURE CUT SHORT by the late John willet (p. 38-39 1984). Other images of the capitalist class and the working class can be seen in the book, NEUE SACHLICHKEIT AND GERMAN REALISM OF THE TWENTIES, (Arts Council of Great Britain 1978). The images are crude, bitter and angry. Hardly surprising: in their paintings, the artists drew on their experiences of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the politics of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler’s NSDAP. Most of their work would be labelled “degenerate art” once the National Socialists took power in 1933.

For most artists, it was easier to portray, in various forms of media, images of the capitalist class rather than the working class. However, there is one painting, The Internationale, painted by Otto Griebel in 1927, which depicts male industrial workers – no women are present – singing The Internationale in unison. The artist’s hand is shown politically and sympathetically on a mineworker’s shoulder.

Another artist, Kathe Kollwitz, also painted a group of workers singing Eugene Pottiers’s anthem, but she extended her pictorial representation of the working class to include females, Africans and children as well as male workers (loc cit p. 148-149).

Representation of Classes in Film

No visual representation exists today depicting the working class in all its complexity; now made up of engineers, nurses, doctors, midwives, builders, lorry drivers, surveyors, teachers and so on. There is no image of the world’s working class which does not exclude some workers on the spurious grounds that they are “middle-class”. There is no longer an attempt to illustrate in any form of media, a working class majority who are excluded from direct access to the means of production and distribution and forced to work for a wage and salary.

The reason is partly that the politics of class representation is still informed by a two dimensional imagery exported from Bolshevik Russia (Red Wedge and constructivist iconography is particular). German artists in the Weimar period, like Grosz and Dix, painted a very restrictive account of the working class because their sympathies generally lay with the Soviet Union and Stalin. There were never any images showing Russia as “state capitalist” or of Russia as a savage dictatorship in which workers were exploited just as ruthlessly as the rest of Europe. Images of workers coming out of Soviet propaganda were idealised and narrowly drawn from a small section of the working class, usually male industrial workers.

The propaganda hid the reality of life for the working class in Russia during the 1920’s and 1930’s. It was propaganda all right, but it was also a lie. As Adolph Hitler once wrote: “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed” (MEIN KAMPF). And the lie was that Russia was a worker’s paradise. The Socialist Party of Great Britain also added at the time that the best propaganda was the truth.

The nearest to capturing the image of capitalism, whether private, corporate or state, was the film MODERN TIMES (1936). MODERN TIMES portrays Charlie Chaplin as a worker – a mere appendage to the machine - employed in a factory dominated by Talyorisation, an anti-working class management technique imported into Russia by Lenin.

In the factory, Chaplin’s character is force-fed by a machine and made to work on an accelerating assembly line which causes him to lose control. He finally suffers a nervous breakdown after throwing the factory into chaos. He is made unemployed and is mistakenly beaten and arrested by the police as a “Communist agitator” after unintentionally taking party in a workers’ demonstration against the exploitation of the factory owners. Chaplain was never to be forgiven for taking part in this anti-capitalist film and later became ensnared in Senator McCarthy’s political witch-hunt after the Second World War when he was accused of alleged communist sympathies while living in Hollywood.

Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, depicted a totalitarian capitalist state but the imagery was one of political repression not state exploitation of the ‘proles’; an exploitation which is barely commented upon in the book. In fact Orwell’s imagery of the working class is unflattering; the ‘proles’ are easily led and bought off with a diet of pornography, trashy magazines and poor food. Even the recent film version of the book, starring John hurt, offers no image of the economic workings of a state capitalist regime in which ‘the proles’ sweat out surplus value to keep Big Brother’s repressive regime going. Nevertheless the film’s portrayal of the “two minutes of hate” is one of the most powerful images of political hatred, conformity and surrender to the cult of leadership in cinematic history

Ironically, some of Donald Trump’s supporters have used the cross-hand sign of political hatred taken from the crowd scenes of 1984 during the two minutes of hate. They have used this sign of political hatred in their own denouncement of Hilary Clinton at Trump’s Nuremburg-style rallies. “Hate Goldstein” is replaced with the inane chant by Trump supporters of “Lock her up”.

Dystopian novels and films depicting society in the near-future are largely anti-state not anti-capitalism. Or they are an anarchist’s wet dream like V FOR VENDETTA with its climatic ending as the Houses of Parliament is blown-up to the music of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Throughout the film, capitalism remains unquestioned and uncritically survives the destruction of Parliament and the authoritarian regime while the people are shown UKIP-like: “getting their country back”.

The one idea of the film is that “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people”. For its anti-statist politics and powerful imagery against the government, V FOR VENDETTA has been appropriated by conservative libertarians as well as by mainstream anarchists. It is an idea “which cannot be killed with a bullet”, as we are told by the film’s protagonist and lead character “V”. Maybe, but what you ought to be able to do is treat bad ideas with the contempt they deserve. And that is precisely what should be done with the idea behind V FOR VENDETTA: anarchic terrorism in a Guy Fawkes’s mask.

The establishment of socialism does not rest on violence and terrorism. Socialism does not need governments and political leaders; socialism will be only an administration of things not of people.

Representation of Classes Today

How are capitalists depicted today? They are never shown as a class but as individuals; usually as the “unacceptable face of capitalism” like the pantomime figure of Sir Philip Green (PANORAMA BBC 1 October 10th 2016). An individual capitalist is fair game in the media but not the capitalist class as a whole.

Does capitalism have an acceptable face? No, of course it doesn’t. All capitalists exploit the working class otherwise they wouldn’t be capitalists. “entrepreneurs”, as capitalists are weasely called, appear in television game shows like THE APPRENTICE (Alan Sugar), The DRAGON'S DEN (an assortment of rich investors), or as philanthropists in cod documentaries like THE SECRET MILLIONAIRE. But they are never shown as a class. They are never questioned as a class. Their function in capitalism is never made known. They are, as a class, invisible to our senses; only to be understood as a mere statistic like “the one-percent”.

However, images of the capitalist class are not politically relevant. What is important is to understand the relationship between the capitalist class and the working class. It is the daily images of war, poverty and unemployment caused by capitalism as an exploitive and historically redundant social system that are important and useful for socialists to show the historical bankruptcy of the profit system and the economic and social problems it causes..

The images of the effects of capitalism are more to the point. Images of war, death and destruction are all around us on an almost daily basis. The images showing the plight of refugees imprisoned behind barbed wire at national frontiers; the images of militarised policemen with batons, water cannons, tasars, machine guns, mace spray and tear gas, the images of world poverty, starving children and homelessness; the images of the destruction by farmers of foodstuffs to maintain prices; the images of empty luxury houses when there is homelessness and the images of the grim reality of unemployment queues because it is unprofitable for capitalists to employ and to produce.

Perhaps the most accurate and chilling images of contemporary capitalism are shown in the film THE CHILDREN OF MEN (2008). The film co- written and directed by Alfonsa Cuaron, depicts the bleakness of the capitalist city spewing out advertisements for commodities no one can afford and where refugees are rounded up by the militarised police to be shipped off to internment camps. It is a city of violence, terrorism, decay and empty religious fundamentalism. The film is raw and visceral.

The similarities that do exist between the social problems in the film and ones found in today’s world are testimony to the film’s consistently visual critique of capitalism. The refugees which arrive at the boundary of fortress Europe have been bought there by the chaos, and violence of wars fought elsewhere in the world. There they face barbed wire, police brutality and tear gas. Housed in slums they are at prey to child abuse, pimps and sexual enslavement. And all the richest nations can say in the face of this extreme poverty is “go away”. In 2008 such imagery was a dystopian fiction in a film; today it is reality (for a useful commentary of the film see

Images of Socialism

What images can be conceived of Socialism; a social system that does not yet exist? We could consider John Lennon’s “imagine” but its imagery is abstract rather than concrete. It might be easy to imagine a world without war, possessions, countries, greed and hunger but to try to depict such a society in visual media is extemely difficult. Utopian plans of the future from architects like Le Corbusier (CONTEMPORARY CITY1922) to Leon Krier (LABRYNTH CITY, 1971) often become stale and age very quickly.

Pictorially, though, we could take a 1:1250 ordnance survey map of the City of London which defines the legal status of private property ownership, turn it into a three dimensional computer image, and then deconstruct all the socially useless buildings either as conversions to the needs of a socialist society or left as hollowed-out ruins.

Each individual property marked out on the ordnance survey map could then be turned into orchards and parks with trees and landscape architecture. The former bank of England, for example, could be gutted out and transformed into a children’s adventure playground. And with an electronic rubber we could begin to erase the contours of private property ownership delineated on the ordnance survey map into common ownership under democratic control. A city that remained would be devoid of capital and capitalists, a city melting gently into the countryside.

This is what William Morris had in mind in his book NEWS FROM NOWHERE. Morris gave us an image in which 19th London with its capital-labour relationship no longer existed and the countryside had been reinstated among the ruins of capitalist finance, commerce and industry.

If the film CHILDREN OF MEN shows us the world in which we live in all its poverty, hate, violence bitterness and destruction; Morris’s NEWS FROM NOWHERE has the positive attribute of showing us visually how we could live in architectural spaces if only the restraint of commodity production and exchange for profit was removed: “it’s Easy if you try”.

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