‘The End of the Cultural Battle’ – Alberto Asor Rosa (1964)

When one speaks of culture, all too often one forgets to specify the historical limits and sociological problems raised, which is not the least important reason why so often the proposals developed and the answers furnished are so behind the reality of the situation. The most important thing, then, is always to establish the specific characteristics of the current system: in order to see whether an alternative is, both as basis of the movement and in its meditated and reflexive manifestations, still possible, and in what forms and with what ends. For example, it has been insufficiently stated that the ideological and cultural behaviour of the bourgeoisie within the capitalist system evolves, in step with the objective capacities of the system, to achieve a dynamic equilibrium. With this fundamental fact in mind, it would be possible to establish a law – which is only seemingly contradictory – according to which modern bourgeois culture flourishes in a particularly vital way where the capitalist bourgeoisie is at the point of winning, but has not yet won an unlimited power (i.e., on the steep ridge of an achieved awareness, but that is not yet socially regulated), whereas the symptoms of profound transformation (not of decadence, of course – at least not in the common sense of the term) can be felt there where bourgeois power is exerted more fully and profoundly. 

         Thus, between economic development and cultural phenomena there is a discrepancy [sfalsatura]. But only in the sense that, in order to exist, the autonomy of intellectuals, considered as a separate social group or caste, requires a certain antagonistic space (political, ideological) with respect to the system. But there is nothing real, nothing social in this antagonism. The battle of modern intellectuals against capitalism – a battle that runs from Romanticism to the avant-gardes, and that still today is not completely extinct – does not wish to modify anything that exists, if not as a function of the survival of the separated intellectual values and labour that in the final analysis reaffirm the sanction of the constituted order. 

         It is, however, true that, for a long time, the great bourgeois culture and the great artistic experiences of the 19th and 20th centuries set themselves with extreme clarity (within the limits stated) the problem of a properly active resistance to the integrative drive of the system. Being unable to, in reality, alter anything of that which is, they at least expressed to the highest degree the fracture from which they themselves were born and developed. In other words, behind their backs lies an objective incompletion of the capitalist system, a problem that remains unresolved in the management of society at all levels; and art and culture represent not the glorification or the questioning of that incompletion, of that problematicity, but its desperate reflection (at times its malicious overthrow) that matured and was transfigured in the rebellion of languages, of forms and methodologies. Hence, they are a product of growth, because they always express an ever more careful inner-gaze by the system within the social and moral breakdown it has itself produced; but, on careful reflection, they are also an obstacle, an annoying accounting of difficulties and resistances within the development of the full capitalist dominion over the whole of society. From here stems the long-standing reluctance of the system to accept art and culture as part of itself. This because the system is, in its initial phase, more liberal and cruder at the same time. More liberal only because it has not yet reached a capacity for total control; cruder above all because it reacts to this relative and transient weakness with open and resounding battles, with declared and brutal attempts to overpower. Self-denunciationhas a precise, incontestable meaning in this situation: class cohesion, which is only realised in the bourgeoisie at a certain level of awareness, has not yet begun to operate thoroughly and the intellectual socio-economic process is therefore not dominated from top to bottom. Single bourgeois or groups of bourgeois repel with a desperately violent struggle the social destiny within which the system bit-by-bit encloses them as it engages in the effort to establish a society based upon exploitation. From one pole to the other of the map (from Kafka to Musil, from Joyce to Éluard; from the Russian revolutionaries to Brecht), the literary and cultural movement expresses an extremely powerful impetus towards a world other than this, [another world] which is also, inevitably, developed and formulated within the [present] structures, but is not completely reducible to them.*

[*Author’s Note: Of course, this borderline is mobile and varies chronologically and spatially not only in relation to historico-social development but also with respect to the inner characteristics of the intellectual formation of the social groups most interested in the clash. Nevertheless, the great zone across which the last cultural battle was fought in Europe and in the world appears to be that represented by, on the one hand, the avant-garde experiences of the twentieth century and, on the other, by the tradition of so-called ‘negative thought’, which germinated from the closed universe of classical German philosophy and came to the attention of figures such as Musil and Kafka. The chronological arc of this extraordinary ‘rear-guard action’ (as Mann himself defined it in his Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man) runs, more or less, from the middle of the last century [of the 19th C.] to the threshold of our 1930s. The success of this cultural attitude certainly does not exhaust itself then: it is enough to think, in what follows, of the out-and-out ‘popularity’ of a Sartre, an Adorno, and – today – a Marcuse. But there is a veritable qualitative dive between the ‘teachers’ and these cloying epigones, and it not only concerns the inner coherence, the formal solidity of the achieved results. The truth is that in the latter there is a lack of necessity, stemming from the disappearance of an interlocuter ready to subject themselves to that type of critique. In other words, there are no more two real entities confronting one another: one of the two has melted away (in the original form that for a time it had assumed, of course), and on the other side there remains merely the gesture fixed in the mirror, now but a stereotype, almost the product of a depraved habit of the caste to which they belong. Hence their words, having originally been critical, tends to become merely ideological and to lose all real incisiveness. Which is what we propose to show in this article.]

         But what happens when the system passes the threshold of maturity and leaves its original incompleteness, its not-being a completed social and economic organisation? The system then becomes far less liberal, but also far more refined: less liberal because it can expect subordination without remainders; more refined because it uses this strength to forego global battles, preferring the path of objective absorption of so-called cultural demands within the well-defined structures and institutions that support them (the press, publishers, the cultural industry, democratic planning, the mass commerce of ideas). This does not only entail the obvious truth that the autonomy of intellectual practice (even if understood in the abstractly antagonistic sense that we give it) is gradually reduced within the system: and, in fact, it has become almost completely nullified, except in the illusions and the efforts of the vestal survivors of traditional humanism; but also, and above all, it entails that objectively the margin permitted for the ‘struggle of ideas’ has become reduced and almost completely annulled. This must be clearly understood: the bourgeoisie, at the time of its highest maturity, overcame by its spontaneous initiative the primitive ideological phase, which was ultimately so bare and compromising (and in many ways naïve, and sketchy), and discovered that the structures of society were able to resist without a protective veil any ideal attack coming from the opposite side. At this point, a semiautomatic functioning of the system takes place that limits itself to a (pseudo) natural selection of the integrable units and to an appropriate pigeonholing of the various discourses in the variety of locations assigned to them. To each is permitted a broad freedom of expression, or, better, broader, concrete possibilities to ‘publish’ their experiences, to ‘impose’ their proposals. But at the same time, an efficient, not crude, not oppressive location within the schema that permit an infinite possibility of variants and developments. The optimistic everyday opinion must thus be overturned: that oppositional culture was strong enough to impose its tenets (humanitarianism, antifascism, resistance, historicism) upon a weak bourgeoisie. The truth is that the bourgeoisie has achieved such a power as to be able to welcome all possible opposition demands as long as they accept to remain ideal and cultural demands. At the time when the capitalist system is engaged in the gigantic effort to make all its contradictions operate like dynamic mechanisms of exploitation, it becomes a game to encapsulate as a part of itself an oppositional culture and turn it into a docile instrument of direction and conditioning. The process is so advanced today that, the culture of opposition is tout court Culture, which is to say bourgeois culture, the culture of the capitalist system (think of what has happened in Italy, which was an extremely valuable experimental terrain of exploration of this type, after the cultural battles of the last fifteen-to-twenty years). It is clear that, when this takes place or has taken place, the cultural struggle become fully and seriously accepted as a moment of democratic life, but at the same time, it is emptied of all essential, decisive functions. Culture wins its battle, only to then discover that it has laboured and labours to allow the system’s mechanism to operate – with no end in sight.

         In other words, what happens is that no cultural production escapes the law of alienation and integration. It is a thought that frightens many, first, because it calls for a terrible pris de conscience and second, because it calls for a weighty acceptance of responsibility by those that formulate it or accept it. Why would it be otherwise? Why would an answer given to the bourgeoisie, in the forms that the bourgeoisie has elaborated as its own and then lent obligingly to its internal oppositions, escape the iron grip of a social organisation that moves towards the ever more rigorous application of the law of profit? Only today is the Marxist analysis of the commodity nature of every product of thought realised in its full range of meanings: it is systematised, used, valorised in relation to its effective capacity to adhere and correspond to the self-consciousness of capital. Also in this case the problem presents itself under a dual aspect: the cultural dialectic (or the battle of ideas) becomes increasingly fictitious, to the extent that the element of contradiction between culture and the real world (capitalist society) becomes increasingly inconsistent and superficial; on the other hand, Culture, notwithstanding the great variety of its positions, is shown to be entirely tightly entwined with objective structures of the capitalist mechanism, to which it adheres with the same spontaneity and naturalness as skin on flesh and flesh on bone; it therefore presents itself as an objective, real function of capitalist society, no longer necessarily mediated by the ideological plane. It is, therefore, at once appearance and reality: the appearance of contrasts that are non-existent or inefficacious, sublimated into the world of ideas, of ideologies and of abstract research methodologies; the reality of class interests that, in order to survive need to render as objects even people’s thoughts, and they do so in the most direct and brutal way, using them in the appropriate places, with the suitable instruments, for well-defined ends.

         If things are to be understood in these terms, how can one arrive at serious conclusions that re-establish a serious, correct relationship between intellectual labour and revolutionary action? It must be admitted that to this point the bourgeoisie has led the game: it has been able to impose upon the workers’ movement the requests that coincided with the answers that it was willing to grant, if not today, tomorrow. Following in response to the great ideological phase of the bourgeoisie came a minor ideological phase of the workers’ movement: taking up the concepts of the universality of culture, of workers’ historicism, of socialist humanism, through idealist or positivist readings of Marx, the invoking of the national tradition and the necessity of alliances in the camp of ideas as well as in the political one, did nothing but retrace the path of bourgeois thought, modifying and contesting it in a way that was itself bourgeois (and on this plane, it was not even true that the ‘workers’’ position was always more advanced, on an infinity of problems, than the bourgeois position). Today the bourgeoisie does us the great favour of freeing up the field from many ideological accretions, whereas the traditionalists (humanists, historicists, etc.), recognising they have no more enemies to fight, and not being fought as enemies by anyone, lament and weep over the crisis of Civilisation while others propose shrewder and newer formulations. But once again it is a case of formulations and schema that do not escape the field of culture and so end up, in one way or another, falling back into the equivocation they want to escape. In the light of these considerations, the proposal of a ‘revolutionary culture’ appears to negate itself as contradictory. In this case, as in those examined so far, it is not only the precise valuation of the intrinsic (and, if you will, reciprocal) interdependence of Culture and the bourgeoisie, but also the definition of the real class nature of the working class within the capitalist system. Indeed, one has the courage to submit to revision or refusal all (or nearly all…) the values of bourgeois civilisation, but one comes to a fearful stop before that which is the Highest bourgeois Value, the organic Summa of the values expressed in a given period of the history of Man, by a determinate class, for determinate ends: the cultural values are refused, but a culture of values is not refused. Even more important is that the search for a ‘workers’ culture’ means perpetuating in new forms the old misconception, according to which the working class represents within the capitalist system a universalist rather than universal striving [tensione] (i.e. more generalising) than that of the bourgeoisie. From this perspective, culture is nothing but the expression of this generic tendency of the working class, a way for it to be closer and more responsive to the ideal of a more human life for Man. The reality is that whatever discourse (even this discourse) cannot even begin if it does not underline that, on the contrary, the working class posits in the anti-capitalist struggle the presence and exigency of its own drastic and irreducible particularity: its being alien and other with respect to the system, its manifesting itself as permanent and fundamental contradiction with respect to capitalism and, hence, also with respect to the whole of society that identifies itself with and founds itself on capitalism. After all, here is the very principle of revolution. To assert that the only way to understand the system is that of understanding how to destroy it, can only mean this: to lead every intellectual enquiry to the meaning and function to worker particularity and autonomy. If one carries out this preliminary task, the fracture often singled out between bourgeois culture (the only form of Culture, because Culture is bourgeois) and the working class in struggle, will no longer appear so scandalous. 

         In terms of research and concrete engagement this means, above all, to posit the ruthless critical self-destruction of all bourgeois cultural disciplines. The ambition, nurtured by some, to use them as they are to initiate the revolutionary process, has, in truth, no chance of taking place, [at least not] before they have been made to touch their class limits and overcome them in negation and self-negation: this means arriving in all fields to the very bones of bourgeois cultures’ structures and functions, discovering uses, functions, their determinate location within this society and tearing the last shreds of flesh, the final pitiful mystifications, the easy self-deception, the complicit wink behind which they hide, even if imperfectly. Since the bourgeoisie chooses the defence permitted to it by its objective strength today, it is necessary to pursue it along this road, understanding that the cultural and ideological discourse is not only wrong, ineffective in that it no longer represents for capital an absolute necessity for survival, but only one of the many forms in which its rich and complex inner dialectic unfolds and operates; it is necessary to methodically discover the modes through which the class adversary moves and behaves at all levels; it is necessary to penetrate the heart of capitalist strength. What is here being proposed is not very much; it is simply a new standpoint, a different perspective for analysis and judgement; but its fecundity is extraordinary: not that it leads to the closure of the research, as some fear, but rather it brings it out in all its richness to be explored and won. The cultural and artistic history of the bourgeoisie is put in question as a whole: its validity, in the highest points of its splendour, grasped all the more profoundly and intensely the more energetic and documented is the refusal to continue today the positive dialogue with the latest bourgeois cultural and artistic exhibitions. 

         These are, doubtless, the heirs of the others, but degenerate, impoverished heirs and in many ways traitorous. It is not by chance that today much more than yesterday there is in culture and art a tendency to put oneself in ‘accord’ with society, and perhaps to seek an alternative from the harsh realities of the facts in easy ideological drivel. The truth is that the concept of worker particularity and the negation of culture are as one, and only by passing through the channel of this difficult acknowledgment is it possible to reach an active solution to the problem. Indeed, no one at this point will be able to satisfy me with a correct and rigorous cultural and ideological demystification; on the contrary, this demystification will be neither correct nor rigorous if it does not rest upon and become part of a much wider view of the relationship between intellectual labour and revolution. 

         The disappearance of the category of the positive (understood in the sense that intellectual research as such can refer to that which is given, only, which is to say, to that which belongs to the reality of the system) introduces to the second fundamental function of worker thought: the definition of a strategy of struggle through the concourse of a variety of types and levels of scientific investigation. Operativiness and non-systematicity are thus the dominant characteristics of an enquiry from the worker standpoint: nothing counts in this field that does not seek to serve action, does not tightly link itself to praxis. On the other hand, it is precisely for this reason that the attempt at an organic reconstruction, a coherent and complete methodology of historico-social facts is alien to the concept of workers’ science, even less an organic system of socialist science. The aggregation of the various enquiries is also an eminently practical, not theoretical fact, and depends more upon the rising up of specific needs of the class struggle rather than on the more general level of the reconstruction of research. Certainly, there can be profound correspondences between the different analyses of different objects, but as the point of arrival of an intimate adoption of the worker standpoint within them, not as an explicit initial intention of researchers who then, as experience demonstrates, end wrapping up within it the fundamental essence of their commitment. What takes place is a disrupting, a process of dissolution and crisis of the compact organism of bourgeois culture. One should not be amazed that within this framework entire traditional disciplines fall, or others are subjected to such radical revisions that they put in question the specific object of the investigation to which they applied themselves, or from which they were born (as it is true of literary criticism, which today can survive only if it starts by denying Literature; or for historiography, which has a single function, that of denying History). What comes to an end, in the strict reference to workers’ struggle, is that need for higher ideological cohesion (the system of values), which the bourgeoisie expressed in the very foundation of its culture in the constant preoccupation to win a social dimension that it ‘naturally’ possessed. The globality of research is here, conversely, concretely recuperated at the level of struggle, where alone it is possible to establish the efficacy of the single scientific contributions to a disruptive tension towards the system. Naturally, it is not a case of founding abstract norms of revolutionary valuation (another type ideologico-cultural tendency), but rather of rediscovering in this case as well the correct link between the various aspects of theory and the objective necessity of workers’ praxis. Only in this dimension will one be able to say whether the system can be known (and this is a clear scientific act, which can belong to sociology as much as to urbanism, to economic enquiry as much as to the historiographic), without concurring with the worker needs to overthrow it (and at this point sociology, urbanism, economic enquiry, historiography no longer have any meaning, nor do they possess scientific content, if they are unable to express valid elements for struggle; i.e., if they do not deny themselves as scientific investigations valid in themselves). No longer elaborations of (pseudo) alternative values, but proposed methods of struggle; no longer a battle of ideas and cultures, but a search for adequate instruments for class struggles. In this case as well, a position whose fecundity is still difficult to evaluate (against all the facile accusations of schematicism and sectarianism), if it is true to say that the emptiness of the workers’ position till today has been determined precisely by the incapacity of its official representatives to develop a proposal that is seriously, concretely alternative to the system (which means, and can only mean, a class proposal). Of course, one must set out from the presupposition, which we have theorised elsewhere, that the presence of the working class within the capitalist system objectively represents the most effective and sharpest instrument for understanding the entire ‘social’ reality of capitalism: the starting point and end point of all scientific investigation that does not wish to simply contribute to the transformation (i.e. the modernising, the without leaps or limits progressive and indefinite perfecting) of bourgeois class domination. We must set out from the proposition that the revolution is necessary and possible, because within capital there still exists, if anything it grows in dimension and maturity, the working class. But this is a presupposition that all our action tends to demonstrate and to organise.

(Quaderni Rossi, n. 2,1964)

(translated MM)

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