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Mass-Culture in different Marxist concepts

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Mass-Culture in different Marxist concepts

Günter Mayer


1. Term of culture



 — not very precisely used in history of concepts on culture

– ambiguous in its generality, abstractness

– tendency in the traditional use (look for instance Eckward B. Taylor, 1871) to define

culture as the quintessence of knowledge, beliefs, art, morals, behaviour and all other

capacities, talents and customs, which have been acquired by human beings as part

of society – in relation to nature and to each other

– tendency to understand the aspect of value in the phenomena of culture, the

Judgements as to value in culture not as aspect of mens activity, productivity, as

process of action, interaction, but more substancialized: culture (as Rickert put it)

seems to be the totality of real objects, materialized results of creative productivity,

of values as goods, as symbols – to be cultivated as meaningful creations.



In Marxist orientated theories of culture, referring to this tradition and with the aim to constitute, elaborate a materialist concept of culture, bases on the general principals of historical materialism in the GDR there are two different concepts:

The first is to distinguish between material culture and mental culture (or intellectual culture)

The second is to distinguish between objective culture, subjective culture and the criterion, the measure of cultural evaluation: a classs-specific concept of personality, of the development of individual subjectivity,



At first I would like to sketch and discuss the first distinction between material and mental (intellectual) culture.

It is the older one, coming from the idea, to ask, where the quintessence of knowledge, belief, arts, morals etc., the concepts of education, for the development of talents, abilities etc., comes from, in how fare they are determined by the historical process od material production and reproduction of society, the development and the level in the production forces of a society, in how far knowledge, beliefs, arts etc. can be understood as reflection of the material (physical) conditions.

The approach is predominant a gnoseological one, less axiological. What is called >material culture< is focussed on the analysis of labor – as essential for the development of progressing mastering and control of nature, as essential for the development of human interrelations above all in the material relations of production. This includes the analysis of the class-structure, the basics contradictions between the main classes of a society (the ruling and the oppressed) – as the material ground for the conflicts, the struggles between the classes which are taking place in ideology, philosophy, politics, arts, religion etc., that is: in the filed of >mental culture<.

The procedure was to transfer the basic (fundamental) question of philosophy (as Engels put in Ludwig Feuerbach and the going out of classical philosophy) – the distinction between matter and consciousness on a materialist understanding of culture.

But this concept had and has a lot of lacks, deficiencies.In the abstract conception of culture

  • the aspect of evaluation is underestimated, undervalued. There is no clear criterion, why for instance, culture from the view point, the interests, the needs of different classes is not the same, why the same goods, objects are evaluated in different ways: cultivated by the one class, refused by the other – in the same whole of, let us say, bourgeois, capitalist society.

  • There is no clear differentiation between cultural value, oeconomic value, moral value, aesthetic value. The tendency is to identify, to mix up cultural, moral, aesthetic values.

  • The tendency is – again – to substancialize (reificate) the cultural evaluation: under the pressure of tradition, of the cultural heritage, the materialized results of cultural evaluation.

  • So Kammari (1955) wrote: culture is the totality of material and mental goods, created by mankind in the process of social practice, expressing the degree of mastering nature and society.

  • These >goods< seem to be values in itself. The specific social relationship is lost, the relational character of value is hidden.(similar ti the fetish-character of commodities)

  • The tendency is – again – to underestimate material culture and to overestimate mental (intellectual) culture. The first is only the material precondition for the better, higher. And mental, intellectual culture seems to be culture in the true sense: science, knowledge, the arts – as means for education, socialization of the individuals.

  • There is no place to understand, to inquire the phenomena of culture in housing, in the development and use of language, in the development of human interrelations (behaviour, or for instance sexual life). All these phenomena don’t fit the gnoseological narrowness of >intellectual< culture, drawn from the model of sciences, knowledge, arts.

  • And also in the field of arts the main point are the >high<, differentiated genres of the arts, the classical, >serious< ones – not the popular –only Folk-Art-traditions as to be cultivated and revitalized – but not the products of >entertainment<, which are enjoyed by the masses and which are understood as >kitsch<, >Pseudo-art<, >Anti-art< — worthless and bad for the cultural development.

  • In this concept culture from the view point of socialist cultural politics is understood as process of cultural revolution – of course the general change of the conditions of labor, the obolition of the alienation in shaping new material relations of production – but mainly as process of mass-education: to bring the masses the cultural goods (knowledge, arts) to which they had no access under the conditions of capitalist expropriation



The other distinction is that between objective culture, subjective culture and the measure of cultural evaluation: a class-specific concept of personality, of the development of individual subjectivity.

  • objective culture covers more than >material culture<, because there is no identity

between matter and object. The latter is wider, the view point is another: here we look for the real, objective social conditions and the therein existing potential, the possibilities for the development of individual abilities, the intellectual as well as the sensitive, of skills as well as of enjoyments and of pleasure. So to objective culture belong the material and mental conditions of labour as well as the material and mental conditions of education, the level of housing as well as the quality of political relationships, the ideas as well as the institutions of the society, organizing traffic, communication, trade, spare-time, entertainment, sports, health-care etc.

This totality is constituted, structured by the, for the type of social essential material relations. The distinction between matter and consciousness is not lost, but for the understanding and inquiry of culture the term objective culture covers more and gives more differentiation – better to understand the development of the individual: coming into life and social reality.

  • subjective culture covers in how far the individuals really make use of the objective

found conditions for the development of their subjectivity: in how far the abilities, knowledge and skill, sensitivity and enjoyments correspondent to the objective potential, in how far these are under the historical produced potential or in how far they create new potentials.

Of course, this can only be understood from a strict concrete historical analysis – not only referring to what Marx has called >Gesellschaftsformation< (Main type of feudal, bourgeois-capitalist, socialist societies) but also referring to special periods, phases of social development in these types of society. And of course we have to take into account, that the individual subjective culture cannot cover the total of in history, till to the time of individual life produced potential for the development of individual subjectivity.

But we are able to inquire, in which dimensions in the subjective culture of many individuals – due to their common conditions and their common subjective chances invariants are typical, to face this contradiction.

  • So the criterion of evaluation is clearer, based on a class-specific concept of individual subjectivity we are evaluating the existing objective conditions — as objective culture, and we are evaluating the reached subjective level as subjective culture. This enables us to say: in some of the objective conditions is more >culture<, in others less. And this is much more than education, but a real change in the fields of material production, in the praxis of political institutions, in building up new towns, in solving problems of environment, of settlement, of housing, of communication, transports etc.

  • And the same in looking for subjective culture. Some individuals have developed >more< culture, others less. In all totality of life-conditions, organized by socialist principles, i.e. of objective culture, some individuals for instance are realizing a little-bourgeois subjective culture etc.

  • Or: that people better may appropriate what is existing in the objective potentialities, the institutions of society generalize the >advanced< experiences in the development of subjective culture, improving the exchange of such experiences etc. And this is – once more- not only education.

  • Important for the development of this concept, this criterion is the development of a Marxist concept of personality, of a concept of the dialectics between individual and collective subjectivity, of a concept of historical types of individuality (as for instance Lucien Sève in his book >Marxism and theory of personality< has pointed out about 6 years ago), or: or the Marxist orientated Critical psychology run by Klaus Holzkamp, elaborated in the last years, or: as Irene Dölling has published in the last years.

  • And finally, this concept has much more complex political implications than the above mentioned one.

It is based on the general analysis of Marx in his >Grundrisse der Politischen Ökonomie<, >Capital<, >German Ideology<: the fact that the development of productive forces has reached a point of universality, of increasing interdependence, of productivity, s that the >worker< can stand aside, to control the process of automatical production (and we witness that in our time). This means from a cultural point of view in the sketched concept: first time in history there has been produced a potential, that masses of people can have chances to become >universal beings<, able to unfold their different talents, abilities, senses, enjoyments etc. – not only the few.

  • This implied a democratic concept of progressing mass-culture, a concept of cultural

revolution as part of social revolution: understood as process of mass-emancipation by the masses themselves – as producers, owners and consumers (and not only as consumers), creating new values in a new relationship to the cultural traditions. This impliesa communist concept of individuality – which is based on solidarity – not like the bourgeois concept on exclusivety (exclusiveness and in certain kind of luxury) On this subject we have a highly interesting book from Lothar Kühne, what is very important for our concept. It is anti-individualistic – only to realize by the collective subject of consciousness, organized political and social activities – where people are changing the objective conditions of life for objective culture, and themselves, their subjective culture – by their own practical, theoretical, intellectual, sensitive, emotional experience. And this doesn’t mean uniformity, is not the threaton of >collectivism<, but the shaping of social conditions, where the free development of the individuals (in their differences) will be the precondition for the free development of all (as Marx in Manifest). This is of course a highly programmatic appeal of the here sketched second concept – but we have to transcend reality when we will do more than describe the average of the to-day existing reality.


2. Concept of Mass-Culture


The main difference in Marxist orientated concepts of Mass-Culture is the following:

 — In most of the socialist countries the majority of people, involved in cultural studies,

assert, that mass-culture is a phenomenon only of the modern capitalist society – that the cultural relevant mass-processes in socialist countries are not >mass-culture< — but the genuine culture of the masses, which cannot be called >mass-.culture<.

In the last years this position has been critisized in some socialist countries – early in Poland, soon in the GDR, beginning in Hungary: It is a concept of socialist mass-culture which is not only important to inquire theoretically and practically the new potentials and achievements of a mass-culture of socialist type, but also the element of democratic, anti-imperialist and socialist mass-culture in capitalist countries – based on the wide term of culture, above sketched.

And this is also a tendency of left wing Marxist orientated theory of culture in capitalist countries as for instance in FRG, Italy.

 — Typical for the first concept is a soviet specialist for mass-culture-studies;

Gerschkovitsch. The main points of his position and arguments are the following:

. spare-time for masses, evolved from capitalist development, is a precondition for

mass- culture, but the first is not to be identified with the letter. The crucial point should be to look to the >content< of the spare-time of the masses, which mental cultural values are consumed by the masses.

. Mass-consumtion, the new means of audio-visual communication are a precondition

for mass-culture, but the first is not to be identified with the letter. He wrote: Outside,

aside of the mass-medias is no mass-culture, but not all messages from the mass-

media can be attributed to mass-culture (as for instance News; Comments, speeches

of Politicians, educational programmes, also not the by mass-media transmitted plays

of Shakespeare, or the symphonies of Beethoven). But of course the popular genres

of the arts.

That is he (Gerschkowitsch) asserts: mass-culture is mainly mass-art, are the popular

Arts (Here he follows Rosenberg&White 1965)

And the conclusion of Gerschkowitsch is: Mass-culture = a certain variant, part of

the arts, mediated by the mass-media

And that is: entertainment (as a drog)

easy, conformist, affirmative to the capitalist system

without critizism

vulgar, primitive



= art has lost its genuine, essential destination, it is non-art, Kitsch,


= is it Un-culture

Mass-culture from this point of view doesn’t express the real needs and experiences of the masses. It is culture against the masses. While consuming this >culture< the masses are only victims of the capitalist system, which is unable to garuantee, that the masses may take part have acces to the real genuine values of the arts. This system gives them only the industrial produced pseudo-art, their surrogates.

Gerschkowitsch defines: Mass-culture is the primitive, vulgar part of the arts in capitalist society, ideological mass-manipulation – the counterpart of the elitist art.

. In socialist society the real genuine values of the arts are disseminated, distributed to

the masses, who have now access to all achievements in history of the arts –organized

by cultural politics, organized by aesthetic mass-education. That millions of people in

socialist countries prefer products of mass-culture is a pitty. It takes a long time to

deliver them. But: Socialist culture is the real culture of the masses, because it is the

culture of real values. There is no split between elitist and >mass-culture< any more.

You know, of course, the sources, wherefrom Gerschkowitsch got his information about mass-culture in capitalist countries.

But: obviously this position is out of reality, there are only some elements of truth.

The concept of Gerschkowitsch follows the pessimist line of bourgeois cultural critizism completely. It is extremely conservative, narrow minded, paternalistic. Democratization is for him only distribution of artistic, aesthetic values.

There is no idea to ask for the cultural aspects in the political mass-activities in strikes, mass-demonstrations of different kind. In the black-white perspective of Gerschkowitsch all this doesn’t exist. Lenins concept of a second-culture, of elements of a democratic, anti-capitalist culture under capitalism is forgotten.

Because the restricted traditional term of culture he has only the arts in his mind. There is no question according the variety in the new cultural potentialities by progressing capitalist industrialization. That there is an inner dialectical development is forgotten. That is the methodological principles of Marxist analysis are forgotten.

Just in the same way the advanced traditions in Marxist orientated mass-culture in the Soviet-Union itself (remember Arvatow), in capitalist Germany of the twenties and early thirties (remember Benjamin, Brecht – and their concepts on aesthetics had been developed on a wide understanding of culture). The same is with the progressive tradition of Bauhaus.

The model, of what art is, is drawn from the pre-industrial time: the artist is only the single craftsman. Industrialization – in the concept of G. – can only destroy the real essential destination of arts.

The implication of industrial production — the elementarization, new forms of standards and of their combination of serial production, all what is changing with the change, which takes place not only in the arts, when the aesthetics evolved and drawn from manual labor passes over to an aesthetics evolved and drawn from industrialized labor and the sensual experiences of the new complexity, dynamics in modern societies — are not taken into account.

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