Marxism at the height of Capitalism

The Marxist school of economic thought comes f...
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by: Maria Portia Olenka C. Placino

“Iskolar ng Bayan, ngayon ay lumalaban!”

This is a familiar battle cry. What kind of UP student are you, if you have never heard this chant, everywhere in the university. They even chant it outside of the university–to the senate, the congress, the palace… This often shocks or at least overwhelms new students. Yet, at the same time, the older you grow in the university, the older these cries become, until such time that it grows devoid of meaning. The once passionate, powerful cry for freedom, becomes nothing more than an empty statement, lacking even the slightest of fervor. How did we become this, the most powerful and emotional aspect of rebellion and revolution, turning into a deadened piece ideology?

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were wrong when they assumed that capitalism would end immediately and that socialism would soon begin. They were very much mistaken in these assumptions. They lived at the time when capitalism was just beginning, and if  they were right about the process and evolution of society’s political-economy, it doesn’t look like socialism would follow, especially after the trauma lived through by the contemporary population.  What would then, come next?

For now, no one really knows for certain what would come after capitalism, largely due to the fact that no one really sees an end to the present-day capitalism. Socialism and even communism is a failure for the most part, in the countries that forced them into practice. China, initially one of the more successful communist countries, is now one of the most successful capitalist countries of the world. This very fact itself, shows that capitalism is inevitable, at least in the present circumstances.

Given the inevitability of being trapped in the capitalist political-economy of the current circumstances, one may wonder if there is still a place for the Marxist ideology. Raymond Williams quotes William Morris, “Even supposing he did not understand that there was a definite reason in economics, and that the whole system could be changed… he for one would be a rebel against it” (283). Does Marxism still have a place in today’s ideology, or is it merely a representative of hope for a better system and even a better future? Is there a point, still, for rebellion?

Then I remember Mideo Cruz, and the Kulo exhibit in the wider context of Philippine history. Once, people were willing to die fighting for the freedom to speak, the freedom to express. Once, the streets of Mendiola were bloodied by the deaths of rebels, fighting for equality, fighting for a voice. Now, people are no longer willing to die for a cause, rather, they  threaten, and are even willing to kill, in order to oppress. Are they not aware of the trap they have fallen into? Have we fallen so far from the hopes of Marx and Engels to the point that we would kill, or at least threaten to kill, in the face of a shocking voice unacceptable to a religious elite?

Raymond Williams, cites Karl Marx’s Preface to Critique of Political Economy:

“In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. the sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society–the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness… With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations the distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic, or philosophic–in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out” (284).

One would often wonder, whatever happened to the Filipino consciousness, for them, for us, to become a nation of oppressors. For an entire nation to result to violence and threats, just to silence another person’s voice. Is the religious superstructure in the Philippines still that strong, to enable its people to band together and scream for silence, rather than scream for a voice? Instead of being freed from the repressive state apparatuses, Filipinos were fighting to be closed-in, into the empty spirituality and religiosity, trapped within a materialistic symbolism, rather than being concerned with the state of reality of the Filipino life. Again, one can ask and wonder, what happened to us?

Such attitude almost reminds one of the internal conflict in Leo Tolstoy‘s character Konstantin Levin from Anna Karenina, “Maybe all that is good, but why should I worry about setting up medical centers that I’ll never use and schools that I won’t send my children to, that the peasants don’t want to sent their children to either, and that I have no firm belief that they ought to send them to?” (Tolstoy 244). There is this pervading conflict of fighting for what is right, for what is necessary; and for selfish desires, and even the exhaustion to have compassion for others, “I only mean to say that I will always defend with all my might those rights that I… that touch on my interests. When the gendarmes searched us as students and read our letters, I was ready to defend those rights with all my might, to defend  my rights to education, to freedom. I understand military service, which touches the future of my children, my brothers and myself. I’m ready to discuss anything that concerns me. But to decide how to dispose of forty thousand in zemstvo funds, or to judge Alyoshka-the-fool–that I do not understand and cannot do” (246). Such statements come from Konstantin Levin, the more exposed brother to the life, thoughts and ideologies of the peasants. It is Sergei Ivanovich, the brother out of touch from the life of peasantry, that maintains a dream-like ideology of society, “Well, you should leave philosophy alone,’ he said. ‘The chief task of philosophy in all ages has considered precisely in finding the connection that necessarily exists between personal and common interests. But that is not the point, the point is that I must correct your comparison. The birches are not stuck in, they are planted or seeded, and they ought to be carefully tended. Only those nations have a future, only those nations can be called historical, that have a sense of what is important and significant in their institutions, and value them” (247).

Is it really those who are detached from the realities of life, that are able to imagine a more ideal world? A world that common good, the common interest will pervade in the human imagination?  Is still useful to fight for the freedom of the oppressed if it is they, themselves who want that oppression? Do you fight for something that they never wanted in the first place? Where then, do you place Marxism in the everyday consciousness of the Filipinos?

Perhaps, it is useful to remember the times when the population is fighting for their freedom. Dexter M. Santos’ Rizal X reminds the audience of the difficult time of the Marcos Regime, the time where the Communist Party of the Philippines was most active, the time when Filipinos are willing to leave their families, sometimes even in the pain of death, just so the nation can regain its voice. Act II, Part V, Fili Revolution pertains to this era, as Filipinos fought oppressors, yet seem to still fall into the same trappings all over again. Curtain Call  was performed by a character living in UP village, in memory of those who lost, despite winning:

“When the lights start fading in
and the sound caves itself in
I’ll be right beside you
Wherever you are

I’ll stay with you,
until the night falls
I’ll be with you to
to face it all
you don’t need to worry.
I’ll be with you…
until the curtain call

I’ll stay with you,
until the night falls
you don’t need to worry,
I’ll be with you…
until the curtain call.”

Is it curtain call for idealism, for communism, for Marxism? Is it an empty ideology now as it is robbed of meaning in the life of the proletariat, the everyday Filipino? Or is there still hope? Rizal X, after all, was ended on a positive note, with a song Pabalik sa Palaruan:

“Hindi ba’t nais mong lumipad
Sa rurok ng langit
I handa ang iyong mga pakpak
Ang liwanag mong taglay
At diwang malinis
Mula sa Maykapal ay gagabay

Lagutin ang gapos ng iyong diwa’t damdamin
Taglayin  mo ang lahat ay ginigiliw
Lagutin ang gapos ng iyong diwa’t damdamin
Malayang lumipad
Malayang lumipad
Malayang lumipad

Hindi ba’t nais mong sumakay
sa mabilis na hangin?
Landas ng puso’y iyong lakbayin
Angkinin mo ang pangarap
Pag-asa’y bukas
Ang tungkulin mo’y iyong tuparin

Ang puso ko’y iiwan ko sayo

Lagutin ang gapos ng iyong diwa’t damdamin
Taglayin  mo ang lahat ay ginigiliw
Lagutin ang gapos ng iyong diwa’t damdamin
Malayang lumipad
Malayang lumipad
Malayang lumipad”

Though we are nowhere the end of capitalism, it is not reason enough to stop fighting for idealism and what one believes as right. There is still no reason to be subjugated and oppressed, despite the fact that most people, particularly of the proletariats, accept such subjugation and oppression. It is still a matter of fighting the strong currents of the oppressive cultures. Going back to the Kulo controversy, F. Sionil Jose’s position, reminds us of a romantic criticism, as opposed to Mideo Cruz’s materialistic critique of society. Raymond Williams cites Alick West’s Crisis and Criticism:

“Romantic criticism was a great achievement. Its conception of social relations as constituting beauty in art, of a conflict and antagonism in these relations and of the same conflict reconciled in art, of poetry as the voice of humanity against oppression and injustice and the duty of the poets to cooperate in ending them– all these ideas are of the highest value. Instead of abusing them, or divorcing them from their social meaning, or preserving only their idealism, we have to use them. We cannot use them simply as they stand, because of that idealism. As indicated earlier, the romantic poets were unable in the particular circumstances to give a material meaning to their social conceptions… Hence, in romantic criticism, the social relations which constitute beauty in art are not the actual social relations, but the conception of the relations” (Williams 291).

F. Sionil Jose, was ahead of his time, at the height of his writing career. But in the face of a fast-changing world, he was not ready for the ugly, for the grotesque, for the decay, as actual tools for social change, rather than the concept of art and beauty that he was conscious of. He, along many others and their limited views of art, did not fathom and absorb the concept of the current consciousness of the Filipinos. Things changed, fast, and they were not ready for such changes. Art, good or bad, beautiful or not, is capable of changing people, of changing societies, whether they are ready for it or not. Williams looks into Christopher Caudwell’s definition of the value of art, “The value of art to society is that by it an emotional adaptation is possible. Man’s instincts are pressed in art against the altered mould of reality, and by a specific organization of the emotions thus generated, there is a new attitude, an adaptation” (297). People are meant to adapt. Though numerous Filipinos were not ready for the kind of art Mideo Cruz created, yet, they are meant to adapt to it, as artistic creation continues to move and to evolve, and sometimes, become powerful enough to shake the seemingly solid, yet oppressive conditions of society.

If the artist has this power, to shaken and even weaken established systems and beliefs, and more importantly to effect change, what exactly is their role and where does one draw the line, if a line can be drawn? Williams refer to Lenin’s words, “Every artist… has a right to create freely according to his ideals, independent of anything. Only, of course, we communists cannot stand with our hands folded and let chaos develop in any direction it may. We must guide this process according to a plan and form its results” (302). Then again, where does one draw the line of freedom of expression, responsibility of the artist, and the conditions of social consciousness and the desire for change? There never was and perhaps never will be a clear dividing and definitive line for this, perhaps there may be no need to. Yet, where does an artist, an artwork and even an audience position themselves in these circumstances? How does one fight for freedom at the same time bearing responsibility towards their fellow human beings?

During the academic forum hosted by the Department of Art Studies, a Catholic student gave a very Marxist argument on the issue of Poleteismo and the Kulo exhibit. She insists that artists should start creating works for the ordinary Filipino, for the poor, for the oppressed. This is the social responsibility oftentimes forgotten by exhibiting artists. How do you free the oppressed through your artworks? Does one go to the extent that Lenin did, create works for the sake of manipulating them and pushing them to want their freedom, or does selfish desire and a degree of self-expression out weigh this? There is no simple answer nor solution to these issues. More than a hundred years may have passed since the height of these arguments, yet, there is still no answer for it.

How do you free those who are content with their position as the oppressed? How far can you take your social responsibility in line with your freedom of expression and your own desires? Perhaps, simply trying is enough, until such time that society is really ready for a socialist and communist ideal. It is a possibility that socialist and communist movements were failures because it was forced. It may also be that there’s another form of political-economy waiting for people after the end of capitalism. But these values and beliefs, whatever they are and wherever they may take the population relies heavily on the ideals of art, because such beliefs can mostly be understood and accepted in the arts before anything else. It is a heavy weight of social responsibility for the artist.

The time, perhaps, is not yet ripe for revolution. After all, majority of people are comfortable where they are. The wealthy are unlikely to be willing to give up their riches and property for the population. The middle class, though often unhappy with their jobs and with what they have, are unwilling to move away from it. The poor, though oppressed and lacking opportunities, also seem comfortable enough on where they are, or at least unwilling still, to do something, in order to change to social structure of the Philippines. For a long time, we have been here, and by the looks of it, we would be here for a longer time still. In the meantime, art has a key role to play in preparing people for social change. Art, may in itself, create and inspire ideologies that would be key in the creation of a new political-economy, a new social structure. Though still dependent on the current political-economy,  it is after all anchored strongly enough to an independent structure–the imagination.Though artistic production may no longer be as intentional to create ideologies as in the conception of Lenin, it is still a big influence on the imaginary of the people, and artists can always take advantage on that imagination. They can take it beyond “the true, the good and the beautiful” towards the ugly, the grotesque, and even onward to an actual social change. It is unsure, whether socialism and communism would take hold of the world, but for now, a social imagination of change may be useful. Marxism, is not an empty and dream-like ideology, but perhaps may serve as a tool for the creation of an ideal imaginary, that may eventually pave the way to real social change. For now, society and art have to survive capitalism at its height and with Marxism, still, at the ideological level of imagination.


“Critical Theory.” Oxford Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Vol. 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 462-473.

“Marxism.” Oxford Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Vol. 3. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 185-191.

Santos, Dexter M., dir. Rizal X. Dulaang UP, August 2011.

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.

Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society 1780-1950. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1960.


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