Joris Ivens: Socialist film makerI am re-reading Joris Ivens' autobiography _The Camera and I_ (International Publishers: New York, 1969). Ivens was a Dutch Documentary film maker who was born in 1898 and died some years ago in his nineties. He was famous for his sympathetic portrayal of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, the Russian collectivisation drive, the Vietnamese struggle against American imperialism and many other radical causes. One of his most acclaimed docos is _Borinage_ (1933) a story of the Belgian miners' resistance to wage cuts during the Great Depression.
This is an especially inspiring tale - the oppressed of the earth up against the power of capitalist authority and resisting it with all their collective nobility. But what particularly struck me about Ivens' retelling of the making of the film was an anecdote concerning three portraits in a miner's home in Wasmes where Van Gogh had lived. The portraits, which were painted by the miners themselves, were of King Albert, the Virgin Mary and Karl Marx.
When Ivens asked why these particular portraits, he was told that Prince Albert sometimes came and gave money to the victims of accidents. On such occasions his portrait was wheeled out. The portrait of the Virgin Mary was insurance against the possibility that there might be something after death. Then the miners added "when we really want something we take that portrait of Marx out in the streets." (Ivens, 1969: 90-1)
Ivens called these reasons 'sound' and although I am inclined not to agree with that choice of word, nevertheless we can learn something if we contemplate the deeper reasons for the portraits. IMHO the portraits actually represented three aspects of the consciousness of the miners. I would like to suggest that it is interesting to think of these aspects in terms of Hegel's master-slave dialectic and the ideologies of the slave or Unhappy Consciousness as Hegel termed it.
First there is the tendency of the slave to seek reconciliation and mutual forgiveness from the master. This is the moment of accommodation symbolised by Albert's portrait. It is of course the impulse that sustains both laborism and social democracy. The workers manoeuvre for crumbs from those who benefit most from the market and attempt to play one section of their rulers off against another. The workers desire not to be free from the master but only for the master to be nicer to them.
There is also an element of the stoical variety of Unhappy Consciousness present at this stage. In constructing the image of Albert as the charitable master the miners were ignoring the reality of their world. Kojeve's gloss on this aspect of Unhappy Consciousness is that the stoical slave 'tries to persuade himself that he is actually free simply by knowing that he is free - that is by having the abstract *idea* of freedom.' (original emphasis, Kojeve, A., Introduction to the Reading Of Hegel, Cornell Uni Press: London, 1969: 53)
The moment of dark despair and irrationality that periodically overwhelms the class is captured by the portrait of the Virgin. This can see thousands of workers march under the banner of the Virgin as in Poland during the heyday of Solidarity but also under the flags of Islam as in the recent Million Men March on Washington. Religion is an attempt to negate this world by projecting the existence of a just world beyond this vale of tears where the slave will be able to live as a free person.
Scepticism, the second variety of Unhappy Consciousness in the Hegelian schema, is absent. Admittedly it would be difficult to think of a painting that would represent scepticism, unless it were an exercise in abstract expressionism a la Jackson Pollack. Leaving such considerations aside, I think it is still instructive to ask why scepticism seems to be missing from working-class consciousness. The answer is, I think, that scepticism amounts to a denial of the existence of reality. but the brutality of the life of the working class prevents the development of such an ideology. Kojeve has pointed out the basis of scepticism is private property. Similarly Bhaskar observes that 'only those who need not sell their labor-power can afford to be sceptics.' (Bhaskar, Dialectic: the Pulse of Freedom, Verso: London, 1993: 331) In our time the quintessential sceptic has been the tenured academic in search of a brilliant career.
What though of the third portrait - the 'primitive' sketch of Marx? This is the moment when the class emerges as a class for itself and attempts to break out of the master slave dialectic and opt for the politics of emancipation rather than reconciliation. It is the third consciousness that we as Marxists hope for. The trick I think is to learn to be patient while the other moments of non-revolutionary consciousness are dominant.
But the Ivens story set me thinking not only of the complexities of working-class consciousness but also of the time on the old Spoons Marxism list when I posted that I sympathised with the Russian people carrying a portrait of Stalin in the demos because Stalin was a symbol of resistance to the kleptocracy and the implantation of robber-baron capitalism. Well all hell broke loose. The Trotskyists came from everywhere to condemn me as a Stalinist. Ridiculous really seeing I am from the Trotskyist tradition myself and I loathe and despise Stalin. In any case another round of Leon versus Joseph was triggered off.
The good thing about this list that there is no possibility of that happening again. The good moderator would intervene and that would be that. So I feel free to be a little provocative and say that when the Russian workers carry the portrait of Stalin onto the streets it is the equivalent of the miners of Borinage carrying the portrait of Marx onto the streets when they 'really wanted something.'
Similarly every time Stalin's portrait appears on the streets of Moscow it is an attempt by the people to put fear into the hearts of their rulers. It is also an indication that they yet might take once more events into their own hands and rule as a class in themselves. Certainly this is what Yeltsin fears above all else. And not only Boris, when the Russian working class radicalises and once more emerges as a historical force, then the bourgeoisie will tremble in Washington and London and all around this world.
Take out the video of the film _Air Force One_ and watch the scene when the Red General is released. As he walks from the prison the prisoners sing the Internationale and the masters turn pale with fear in Moscow and the Pentagon. The spectre is still haunting Europe, you see.Gary McLennan