FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Political Angels and Demons, Shaped by the Forces of History

Newly released by Zero Books, Tony McKenna’s aptly titled “Angels and Demons” is a collection of profiles of some very good and some very bad people in the past and present. It is the kind of book that is hard to find nowadays and a throwback in some ways to Lytton Strachey’s “Eminent Victorians” or Edmund Wilson’s “Axel’s Castle”. Like Strachey and Wilson, he evaluates prominent individuals against their social backdrop and from a decidedly radical perspective. It is a book that has the author’s customary psychological insight and literary grace. As we shall see, it demonstrates a remarkable breadth of knowledge about disparate cultural, political and intellectual strands that is seldom seen today in an age of specialization.

Your natural tendency is to think of human nature when people are categorized as either angels like Jeremy Corbyn or demons like Donald Trump. However, it is instead powerful historical forces that act on individuals and bring out their worst and their best, especially during periods of acute class tensions. In today’s polarized world, it is easy to understand why we end up with either a Corbyn or a Trump. As William Butler Yeats put it, the center cannot hold.

Six of the profiles are devoted to angels and the other four to demons. While you would certainly expect political figures to play a dominant role in such a collection, half are artists, writers or philosophers from a wide historical spectrum. What they have in common is their character formation in a “transitional” period such as the Netherlands in the 17th century as it was shaking off feudalism and becoming a bourgeois society that proved to be simultaneously amenable and oppressive to one of the angels: Rembrandt van Rijn. On the other side of the ledger, we find the demonic Arthur Schopenhauer who McKenna describes as a philosopher of “nothingness”. The opening paragraph on Schopenhauer will give you a sense of his approach:

Schopenhauer enjoyed a salubrious existence but it was far from a happy one. Georg Lukacs describes him as the first philosopher of a “grand bourgeois” status, which is accurate. He was born in 1788. His father was a wealthy merchant living in the semi-feudal backwater of Danzig which was to be, in his lifetime, annexed by Prussia. Heinrich Floris Schopenhauer, however, clearly had his gaze turned outward, toward the currents of Enlightenment thought which were wafting across Europe more broadly, the radical sense of republicanism, the breaking down of feudal barriers and trade tariffs and the set of economic freedoms which sanctified the individual and heralded the new epoch.

While by no means seen today—if he is seen at all—as demonic a figure as Nietzsche, the largely neglected Schopenhauer is worth examining for his pessimistic worldview and retreat into Eastern religion as a way of adapting to the status quo. With the promise of the French Revolution gone sour after the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, it is logical that a number of 19th-century philosophers would grow fatalistic. This includes not only Schopenhauer but Nietzsche and Kierkegaard as well. Starting out within the constraints of German idealist philosophy, it was only Karl Marx who penetrated through the veil of reaction and saw the way forward to a better world.

In his discussion of Schopenhauer, McKenna shows a familiarity with German philosophy that reminds me of the kind of training I received as a graduate student in 1967 at the New School, mostly pursued in order to avoid military service.

He is just as erudite in his discussion of Rembrandt, an angel. Could McKenna have had a dual major in art history and philosophy sometime in the past? These sorts of majors are likely to have landed him an adjunct position paying less than someone working at McDonald’s but they certainly served him well in doing justice to a wide range of subjects.

I confess to knowing next to nothing about Rembrandt prior to reading McKenna’s profile and can honestly report that it was enough to put a trip to the Metropolitan Museum on my busy schedule. Although every chapter in “Angels and Demons” makes for a compelling read, it was the portrait of Rembrandt that had me spellbound.

Titled “All Around are Familiar Faces: Rembrandt and the Portrait of Modernity”, the artist’s profile is grounded in historical materialism:

In the sixteenth century it was across the network of burgeoning towns, canal riven planes and bustling sea ports of the Low Countries where the winds of change were most profoundly felt. A marked urbanisation, an exponential growth in the size of cities and the seaside hubs of trade, had allowed for increased concentrations of artisans, investors, businessmen, small tradesmen, fisherman and waged labourers. Across these sections rippled the ideas of a modern and popular reformation. A new kind of political agenda which sought out individual liberties, and the destruction of the taxes and tariffs which inhibited trade and which had been visited upon the population by the gargantuan, grotesque feudal empire whose power was projected out from Habsburg Spain. The new breed of Dutch burgher more and more found himself and his economic interests pressed into irreconcilable contradiction against this mighty behemoth of empire, and in 1566, the pressure reached its zenith, and the damn burst asunder.

It was Rembrandt’s fate to have become successful because of this new breed of Dutch burgher but determined at the same time to paint the portraits of people who were its victims: the poor and the disenfranchised.

Among the paintings singled out by McKenna for this distinctive type of solidarity is “Two Negroes” (sometimes referred to as “Two Moors”) that stands out for its respectful and even empathetic rendition of men who the Dutch were enslaving by the thousands as part of their colonial empire.

William Bosman, a contemporary of Rembrandt who sold slaves in the service of the Dutch East India Company, described Africans as “all without exception, Crafty, Villainous and Fraudulent”. McKenna describes the class basis for such racism. “The virulent racism here works in tandem with mercantile capital and the logic of the commodity form in its aspect as exchange value: the human being is reduced to a generic object, one of many, to be shipped out in order to realise its value on the world market.”

While I would not denigrate the efforts of Marxists in the academy, there is something extraordinary about McKenna’s body of work. Constrained by their professional obligations, most professors tend to specialize. This gives their work a narrow focus out of reach for the average reader, especially when it is behind a JSTOR paywall. Tony McKenna comes from a different place entirely as should be obvious from my previous reviews of his work. In “Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective”, another collection of wide-ranging articles, you will be struck immediately by the seemingly eclectic combination of high and popular culture with Vincent Van Gogh sitting cheek by jowl next to Tupac Shakur. Not limited to political analysis, he has also written a novel titled “The Dying Light” that is based on a little-known aspect of life in London in 1940, when many of its citizens began living in abandoned subway stations, or what they call the Tube, to protect themselves from German bombs.

In 1865 Marx stayed with an uncle who lived in the Netherlands and, as was popular at the time, wrote a “Confession” that enumerated his traits. For example, as to “Your chief characteristic”, he answered, appropriately enough, “Singleness of purpose.” And for “Your Maxim”, he cited Terence: “Nihil humani a me alienum puto, which means “Nothing human is alien to me.” After reading “Angels and Demons” and other books and articles by Tony McKenna, that would seem to be the maxim he lives by as well.

More articles by:

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
August 16, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Uncle Sam was Born Lethal
Jennifer Matsui
La Danse Mossad: Robert Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein
Rob Urie
Neoliberalism and Environmental Calamity
Stuart A. Newman
The Biotech-Industrial Complex Gets Ready to Define What is Human
Nick Alexandrov
Prevention Through Deterrence: The Strategy Shared by the El Paso Shooter and the U.S. Border Patrol
Jeffrey St. Clair
The First Dambuster: a Coyote Tale
Eric Draitser
“Bernie is Trump” (and other Corporate Media Bullsh*t)
Nick Pemberton
Is White Supremacism a Mental Illness?
Jim Kavanagh
Dead Man’s Hand: The Impeachment Gambit
Andrew Levine
Have They No Decency?
David Yearsley
Kind of Blue at 60
Ramzy Baroud
Manifestos of Hate: What White Terrorists Have in Common
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The War on Nature
Martha Rosenberg
Catch and Hang Live Chickens for Slaughter: $11 an Hour Possible!
Yoav Litvin
Israel Fears a Visit by Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib
Neve Gordon
It’s No Wonder the Military likes Violent Video Games, They Can Help Train Civilians to Become Warriors
Susan Miller
That Debacle at the Border is Genocide
Ralph Nader
With the Boeing 737 MAX Grounded, Top Boeing Bosses Must Testify Before Congress Now
Victor Grossman
Warnings, Ancient and Modern
Meena Miriam Yust - Arshad Khan
The Microplastic Threat
Kavitha Muralidharan
‘Today We Seek Those Fish in Discovery Channel’
Louis Proyect
The Vanity Cinema of Quentin Tarantino
Bob Scofield
Tit For Tat: Baltimore Takes Another Hit, This Time From Uruguay
Nozomi Hayase
The Prosecution of Julian Assange Affects Us All
Ron Jacobs
People’s Music for the Soul
John Feffer
Is America Crazy?
Jonathan Power
Russia and China are Growing Closer Again
John W. Whitehead
Who Inflicts the Most Gun Violence in America? The U.S. Government and Its Police Forces
Justin Vest
ICE: You’re Not Welcome in the South
Jill Richardson
Race is a Social Construct, But It Still Matters
Dean Baker
The NYT Gets the Story on Automation and Inequality Completely Wrong
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela Retains Political Control After New US Coercive Measures
Gary Leupp
MSNBC and the Next Election: Racism is the Issue (and Don’t Talk about Socialism)
R. G. Davis
Paul Krassner: Investigative Satirist
Negin Owliaei
Red State Rip Off: Cutting Worker Pay by $1.5 Billion
Christopher Brauchli
The Side of Trump We Rarely See
Curtis Johnson
The Unbroken Line: From Slavery to the El Paso Shooting
Jesse Jackson
End Endless War and Bring Peace to Korea
Adolf Alzuphar
Diary: What About a New City Center?
Tracey L. Rogers
Candidates Need a Moral Vision
Nicky Reid
I Was a Red Flag Kid
John Kendall Hawkins
The Sixties Victory Lap in an Empty Arena
Stephen Cooper
Tony Chin’s Unstoppable, Historic Career in Music
Charles R. Larson
Review: Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime
Elizabeth Keyes
Haiku Fighting
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail