John W. Maerhofer. Rethinking the Vanguard: Aesthetic and Political Positions in the Modernist Debate, 1917-1962. New Castle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009

How has political revolution figured into the development of avant-garde cultural production? Is the vanguard an antiquated concept or does it still resonate in the 21st century? Focusing on the convergence of aesthetics and politics that materialized in the early 20th century, John Maerhofer’s book offers a re-interpretation of the historical avant-garde from 1917 to 1962, a turbulent period in intellectual history which marked the apex, crisis, and decline of vanguardist authority. Moving from the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution, to the anti-imperialist and anti-colonial movements in the Third World, to the emergence of neo-vanguardism in the wake of postmodernity, this study attempts to go beyond some of the traditional interpretations of the historical avant-garde that either ignore or discount the importance of revolutionary politics in the formation of radical art and culture.

“Revolution” became a dominating signifier of avant-garde cultural production, as the “manifestos” of many of these movements illustrate. It thus established a paradigm beyond the boundaries of avant-garde aestheticism. Maerhofer uses the term “vanguardism” to denote the practice not only of revolutionary art, but also of radical movements seeking to bridge the gap between revolutionary praxis and cultural production, so that revolutionary art could serve as a medium for political transformation.

He begins by challenging the aspects of revolutionary art that have set limits on the discourse of avant-garde cultural politics. He goes on to examine how specific authors have addressed those issues. His discussion of Négritude (ch. 4) should be understood in relation to the post-1956 crisis in vanguardism, in which the Euro-American models of revolutionary art and politics were reconfigured into the decolonization and anti-imperialist projects of the Third World, as in the work of Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon. The final chapter assesses such movements in the context of what Maerhofer calls the neo-vanguardism associated with late capitalist restructuring and with the post-Stalinist era of the Communist International.

Maerhofer distinguishes between the avant-garde and what he terms “vanguardism,” arguing that the “historical” avant-garde needs to be re-historicized. He reviews three theories of the avant-garde: Adorno’s aesthetic theory, Peter Bürger’s The Historical Avant-Garde, and Susan Suleiman’s Subversive Intent: Gender, Politics, and the Avant-Garde. Maerhofer argues that each of these theorists relegates political praxis – revolutionary activity in the socio-political realm – to a position of secondary importance.

He then looks at the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution on avant-garde movements from 1917 through the 1920s. This event was revolutionary in the most direct and literal sense. As such, it presented the artistic avant-garde with a fundamental challenge: What was to be the stance of the artistic avant-garde toward a “real” (political) revolution? Maerhofer examines the ways vanguardist movements began to model themselves on Lenin’s concept of the vanguard party. He looks closely at the notion of the committed writer/artist and the deepening of relations between aesthetics and politics up to 1930.

The second chapter traces the links between ideology and art, focusing on the form of the artistic manifesto. The manifesto was adopted by the artistic avant-garde in frank imitation of political practice. It mimics political discourse as the avant-garde mimics political revolution, perhaps as art mimics life – that is, in a highly ambiguous and problematic, even opaque manner. The artistic manifesto also reaffirms the distance between artistic and revolutionary practice. Maerhofer then looks at the relationship between the aesthetics and politics of the Surrealist movement, in particular the participation of many of the Surrealists in the French Communist Party. He examines the nexus between the avant-garde and Socialist Realism, a contentious issue that many historians have addressed.

Maerhofer’s aim here seems to be to rethink the supposed binary opposition between Socialist Realism and the historical avant-garde. By situating the debate within the framework of vanguardism, he suggests that Socialist Realism signals a new kind of vanguardism which might be called “totalizing.” The struggle to create revolutionary class consciousness in post-revolutionary society requires the end of avant-garde autonomy, for this autonomy had always been understood in relation to a bourgeois, and not a revolutionary, social and political reality. Political revolution impels the artistic avant-garde to carry out its aims in a social manner – to rebuild its prospects collectively. This very repositioning of the creative role of the intellectual struck at the core of avant-garde revolt.

Yet it is also possible from here to renegotiate the discourse of the historical avant-garde itself. For one thing, the artistic avant-garde suffered a crisis that forced it into a reactionary stance, since it had never really envisaged a continued existence after a political revolution. At the same time, the avant-garde was transformed, essentialized through its continued embrace of avant-garde autonomy, the “cult” of avant-garde sensibility. Not collective political practice but individual artistic achievement, the “cult of the avant-garde artist” remains the essential, defining characteristic of the avant-garde. This reveals the gulf – Maerhofer calls it a “tension” – “between the aesthetic and political positions in the continuing discourse of the historical avant-garde.” Maerhofer directs his argument against the anti-communist bias that he finds in theorists of the avant-garde who dismiss Socialist Realism as “Stalinist,” “authoritarian,” etc. In his view, Socialist Realism is an extension of what he terms “vanguardism” which at the same time also signaled a crisis in the historical avant-garde itself.

The third chapter looks at Ezra Pound, Louis Aragon, and Louis Zukofsky, in an attempt to analyze the politics of left-to-right vanguardism. These three authors do not represent the full spectrum of avant-garde responses, but Maerhofer examines them to reveal some of the very different ways in which aesthetics and politics interacted in the avant-garde, and the very different conceptions of what constituted “revolutionary” art.

Chapter four looks at the role of vanguardism in the development of Third World revolutionary consciousness from 1950-62. This period saw a decline in influence of the vanguardist model in “first-world” spaces, ushering in the neo-avant-garde or postmodernism. Maerhofer analyzes movements that used vanguardism to generate solidarity against colonialism and imperialism. He argues that while the universal tenets of vanguardism tend to conflate aesthetic and political radicalism, what distinguishes Third World vanguardist praxis is its ability to evoke what E. San Juan, Jr. calls the “life and death” struggle of the Third World artist “to raise political consciousness, awaken the spectator of fate to become an actor, and intensify the people’s commitment to revolution.”1

The interconnection between cultural nationalism and revolutionary praxis, much of it in the terminology of Marxism-Leninism, is what distinguishes Third World revolutionary discourse from the European model. Political nationalism generated sympathy with the anticolonial struggle. This merging of the national and anticolonial gave great imaginative force to the development of vanguardist thinking, but also tended to substitute itself for the historical struggle against global capitalism.

Maerhofer then looks at the aesthetics and politics of Aimé Césaire, whom he sees as representing the crisis of vanguardism in his inclusion of Surrealism and Marxism-Leninism in the early Négritude movement. To the extent that it was successful, Négritude appropriated Marxist-Leninist terminology while shifting the terms of aesthetic vanguardism away from European models towards an emerging social reality in the colonial world. Frantz Fanon, he argues, localizes the vanguard by focusing on the use of nationalism in the anti-imperialist struggle, a turn which also reveals what Maerhofer argues are the limitations of Third World revolutionary theory: the danger, too often realized, that anti-colonialist vanguardism can turn into its opposite, a rhetoric that masks and apologizes for a reactionary political resolution to the contradictions of anticolonialism, just as anticolonial political movements can and often did end in an anti-revolutionary, neo-colonialist outcome. In my view, this is consistent with what Fanon, in his critique of Négritude, identifies as the overarching problematic of the Third World Project: how to sustain anti-colonial commitment in the face of this tendency.

The final chapter is a critique of postmodernism, or the neo-avant-garde, in which politics are subsumed by aesthetic intentionality. Using a Marxist analysis from such writers as Fredric Jameson, Alex Callinicos, Barbara Foley, Perry Anderson, and David Harvey, Maerhofer attempts to analyze “the absence of political engagement in postmodernist aesthetics, or in slightly different terms, the total aestheticization of politics that occurred at the expense of the political commitment.” He concludes by offering a prescription for “returning” to the model of class-based vanguardism that critiques and rejects the apoliticality and political passivity that have been a consequence of postmodernist influence.

This book engages an important topic and encompasses a broad range of theoretical and artistic productions, as well as a great breadth of scholarship. Maerhofer is familiar with the major theoretical debates bearing upon his subject. The bibliography is extensive, making the book a mine for further research. It is to be hoped that others will build upon his work by integrating Chinese communist experience into the argument.

My one complaint about the book is that its philosophical-theoretical language relies heavily upon the abstract terminology of postmodernism. This will be difficult to understand for those not accustomed to contemporary literary theory. It also threatens to encourage “descent into discourse”2 – the retreat from political openness into the kind of obscurantism which Maerhofer himself opposes.

This is a shame, because his book presents a radically new way of viewing the concept of the “vanguard” and even of recuperating Socialist Realism. Maerhofer shows, in effect, that Socialist Realism and anti-colonial Marxist-influenced literature – rather than literary avant-gardism – are a vital part of the legacy of 20th-century revolutionary movements. His work deserves to be widely known.

Reviewed by Grover Furr

Montclair State University
Montclair, New Jersey


1. Maerhofer, 156, quoting San Juan, From the Masses to the Masses, 1994, 83.

2. Bryan Palmer, Descent into Discourse

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