33 REVOLUTIONS PER MINUTE
Unpublished excerpt from a letter by Friedrich Engels to novelist Margaret Harkness:
Dear Miss Harkness,
It has come to my attention that a certain Marxman is now invoking the ideas of our good friend and comrade Karl Marx. Indeed, both Marx and I were astonished to find ourselves credited as “inspirations” for their debut recording. On 33 Revolutions per Minute, produced by the international capitalist cartel known as A&M Records, this group of Irish youngsters uses rap music and political sloganeering in a manner that reminds us of Gang of Four, Consolidated, and Test Department. There can be no doubt that Marxman are talented in their use of melody and rhythm. When I discussed this music with Marx himself he was much distracted, not so much by his frantic burrowings at the British Museum but by the task of reading Shakespeare aloud with his daughters each evening. However, he wrenched himself away from a discussion of Shakespeare’s history plays long enough to give some consideration to Marxman’s new single “All About Eve,” and granted that indeed this young group may have some significant musical merit.
As you know, I have written on the question of women (see my book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State), and while “All About Eve” takes a somewhat more liberal and less materialist view of the condition of women than it should, we nonetheless find ourselves in some agreement with Marxman here. Women should, and no doubt one day will, achieve full social and political equality. In the meantime, however, there is a class struggle to be waged; neither Marx nor myself is prepared at this juncture to bestow secondary status on questions of class, as Marxman do more than once on 33 Revolutions per Minute.
I must confess, despite these misgivings, that I find myself more attracted to this music than my dear friend Marx, who so notoriously refuses to be governed by his feelings. Its primitive Africanness embodies a sophistication that, if I did not know better, might lead me to conclude that precapitalist cultures are able to make an aesthetic leap from what Marx has termed the “childhood” of human history (in his discussion of Greek art) to the more advanced forms of consciousness of the industrial era. Of course, this notion is preposterous. Nonetheless I have from time to time broken off from my duties in my father’s factory to listen to it and find it to be at least stimulating if not enlightening. On playing one or two songs to the workers here I find that they too become excited and in some cases are almost transported by its power. “Do You Crave Mystique” and “Ship Ahoy” (featuring the Irish activist Sinead O’Connor) are outstanding pieces that suggest there may be some future in this sound if Marxman can abandon their juvenile notions that we inhabit a revolutionary moment and that they speak as representatives for the masses.
Why does Marxman’s political analysis remain so crude and theoretically underdeveloped? The root of this defect lies in their misunderstanding some of the ideas proposed by Marx and myself. Even a casual reading of the work that effected our “break” with the Young Hegelians (I speak, naturally, of The German Ideology) would enable Marxman to transcend their chief failing, which is to settle for liberal, nationalist, and even anarchist pronouncements. Their discussion of the dialectic (on “Demented”) is a typical example: “Phrase the dialectic / Dialectic phrase / Guard against the doublespeak / Like a verbal maze.” This critique of Hegel’s prose is convincing as far as it goes; but it fails to grasp the essential point of historical materialism, which views Hegel’s idealism as a moment that can be transcended, dialectically, first in philosophy and then in human history. In that respect Marx and I are in agreement that Gang of Four (who are based in Leeds, just a few miles from my father’s factory here in Manchester) have understood our ideas more fully than any other pop combo. I trust you are familiar with their savage assault on bourgeois values, Miss Harkness.
The song “Sad Affair” of course demonstrates the limits of Marxman’s political understanding, bound up as it is in a critique of English imperialism in Ireland that fails to consider the essential class character of colonialism. (This did not prevent the British ruling class, through the organ of the BBC, from banning the song, thus demonstrating the retarded nature of bourgeois political understanding on these islands.) Marxman’s involvement with bourgeois-nationalist leader Gerry Adams (of Sinn Fein) is of course a great disappointment to us.
Unfortunately, as you have no doubt guessed, the form of Marxman’s music is ultimately quite unacceptable to Marx and myself. We have written from time to time on the development of “tendency” literature (Tendenzdrama), which I referred to in a recent correspondence as that art that seeks an explicitly political function. We are opposed to this strategy and have repeatedly stated that we regard realism, regardless of the intent of the author, to be a more adequate mode of aesthetic expression. (It is for this very reason that Marx and I prefer to listen to Nirvana, the Pet Shop Boys, and Public Enemy, where the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances transcends even the most reactionary of political expressions, such as the despotic, anti-Semitic, and tyrannical fantasies sometimes embraced by the latter combo.) Our critique of Tendenzdrama can be extended to Marxman’s use of political slogans and so forth. There is little room in our commitment to aesthetic realism for this sloganeering, despite the presence of some enchanting rhymes and metaphorical allusions. I remind you of Marx’s own words on this subject, when he rebuked Ferdinand Lassalle for “transforming individuals into mere speaking tubes of the spirit of the time.”
I am sorely tempted to overlook the political limitations of Marxman’s music in favor of its driving beat and exquisite sense of melody, although I am afraid that Marx would never hear me out. In any case, there is a more serious problem, one that we urge members of our great movement to address with the utmost seriousness. The anarchist Proudhon said that all property is theft, but this is, as we know, a mere bourgeois indulgence typical of the infantile “leftist” tendencies that pollute the tributaries of syndicalism, mutualism, and the rest. Intellectual property is a commodity in the marketplace, Miss Harkness, and workers’ parties and communist cadres cannot afford to sit idly by while international capitalists exploit their labor. Accordingly, the agents working on our behalf, Manifesto Incorporated, will shortly serve writs on Marxman and A&M Records for infringement of copyright. I refer, amongst other examples, to the use of the lyric “Marx the man” on the opening cut of 33 Revolutions per Minute.
Previous philosophers have only syncopated the world, Miss Harkness. The point, however, is to rearrange it, preferably for multiformat exploitation of every conceivable kind.