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.

Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.