This is just another of these “Bolshevist” exaggerations, I can hear a reader exclaim, as if the eye were not in all human beings a basically similar natural organ, which can change its structure only through illness or damage. Certainly there are different kinds of eyes in spiders, bees, snakes, cats, elephants and human beings–but in the human race there are no special eyes for workers on the one hand and for manufacturers, bankers, lawyers and ministers on the other. Even Marxists and Leninists should keep their feet a little in touch with the ground of the facts of nature.1

Take it easy, dear colleague with the camera! It is precisely with your example of the manufacturer, the banker, the minister, that we can convince you of your error. When a German manufacturer travels to America what do you think his physical eye sees? The Ford factories in Detroit, the slaughter-houses in Chicago, the derricks of Standard Oil, the President’s White House in Washington, and Fifth Avenue, New York. Do you think his eye, the eye of the German capitalist eager for business, well-fed, hungering for new profits, sees the hungry figures of the 6 million unemployed; the crushed ruined figures of the Ford workers who are not even 40 years old; the tiny, anemic children, who are worked to death at the age of seven in the textile and canning factories of this most democratic and most Christian state; the material and mental deprivation in the Negro quarters of the famous lynching state of Texas; not to mention the bloody brutality of the state and factory police who are bought, bribed and incided against strikers? And if, just in passing, he happens to see them-for he cannot always drive blindly past the underside of American freedom and “prosperity forever״–even then he doesn’t see them, for behind his retina the circuits of his brain are blocked; the pictures taken by the natural camera he carries in his head are not developed, are not visible to consciousness. And even if, as an exception, they were to penetrate the consciousness of this clever businessman, who is completely taken up with his calculation of percentages and his banquets, then they are neither in focus nor properly lit, and amidst the collection of pictures in his brain and his camera–supposing he has either of these to hand they form only a tiny exception–little shadows to set against the bright spots. And even the bourgeois reporter who goes to America or even–to compare great with little–to the working-class district of Wedding in Berlin to film “the people”, he will not even with his sharp eye find the real “types”, or if he does find them will not dare to record them on the photographic plate, will have no idea how to get them there without make-up.

So it is a question of the mind’s visual power, of that liaison staff between the retina of the physical. eye and the picture which the eye of the mind takes of the facts out there. How untrained most human beings are at seeing facts we can see from our neighbours or from ourselves. Can we judge distances accurately? Are we capable of stating five minutes after looking at a particular house, which architectonic details were in specific places? We take the same road every day but none of us has seen what a splendid, exciting pictoral theme for our proletarian camera this little paper-seller is, or what an impertinent, provocative criminal physiogonomy is flaunted by that swastikaed youth whom we meet daily and who perhaps one day with the kind permission of the democratic parties will shoot down one of our best colleagues. One needs the eye of a particular profession to see immediately certain details in nature, in technology, in the clothing or life style of our fellow human beings; one needs the special eye of a class to recognize the characteristic signs of the prevailing social relations in the internal and external life of our fellow human beings, in the way houses and factories are built and how they look, both in their interiors and in the general picture of the streets; yes even in the size, distribution and cultivation of the fields and meadows out in the country.


Front page from Die Arbeiter-Fotograf, 11, 11, 1928.

Front page from Die Arbeiter-Fotograf, 11, 11, 1928.

And this “class eye” must be trained. Millions of proletarians do not have it. Some of them possess it only in an imperfect way. Only very few have the experience and discipline to take the eye of their class with them everywhere, all the time, even on holiday, on trips and during the weekend, to games and entertainments, and to use it. For the proletarian cameraman the rule must be: No camera without a proletarian class eye.

The worst of it is that the majority of today’s proletarian proletarians–in direct contradiction with their class situation–not only have a very defective class eye, or none at all, but run around with a definitely petty-bourgeois eye. The bourgeoisie is delighted and deliberately attempts with its “cultural achievements” such as the church, school, the daily press, family magazines, illustrated weeklies, cinemas, and advertisements, to prevent the development of proletarian eyes and to stick
petty-bourgeois spectacle on the proletariat’s nose. So what is typical of the petty-bourgeois eye? Every shop window, every camera shop, every illustrated paper, whether it is the Berlin, Cologne or Munich version, whether it has Harry Peal and Lil Dagover in it or not, reveals not only the eye but the “soul” of the petty bourgeois. This is a “soul” with a longing for “higher things”, even if it is only in the form of a display of how the top ten thousand amuse themselves or how they “live graciously” with their great need for “closeness” in a “nasty” world wherein nevertheless virtue has it reward in the end. With their need for heroes, gods and film-stars, the bourgeoisie experience a perverse. pleasure when they can kneel in the dust in front of someone or something; with their lack of critical sense, they hunger for sensations and romance. Male and female members of the proletariat are bamboozled by the bourgeoisie and allow these papers, these illustrated weeklies, this Ullstein-literature, these films, these posters, to be put in front of their eyes and into their brains.
We are not raising here the question of Kitsch and lack of good taste. That is something, too, which can only be judged from a class point of view. From the point of view of the petty bourgeoisie all this is simply not Kitsch and not lack of taste. We are raising the question from the standpoint of social content. The content is unproletarian, counter revolutionary, and eyes – of adults and even more, of children – which take in nothing else year in and year out become blind to the facts of life, facts which are seen from the point of view of the proletariat. Is it proletarian visual culture when in nine-tenths of all working-class homes we see pictures, photographs and knickknacks which mirror the petty-bourgeois ideal of slick, romantic, unreal beauty; the petty-bourgeois longing for “leisure time”; the petty-bourgeois stupor of the family; the petty-bourgeois veneration of “higher” creatures, human or devine; and last but not least, the petty-bourgeois penchant for dirty stories and dirty jokes, which are the consequence of a sensuality crippled and repressed by morality and the church? In almost all pictures of the bourgeoisie, in the Kitsch as well as in “art”, we find the cult of leisure. Leisure is represented in the theatre as well as in the cinema, in the illustrated papers and in novels, in newspaper reports and in commercial advertisements, and when a member of the working-class for once goes to the photographer, he and his girlfriend are reproduced in exactly the same poses of more-or-less elegant leisure just like the company secretary from Tietz or the wife of the managing director of Krupp. Only the execution differs according to the purse and education. And when a worker manages to get a camera on the installment plan then in nine cases out of ten he begins, just like his bourgeois neighbor, with snapshots of some “beautiful landscape” or a “romantic nook”, a family party, a “pretty girl”; in other words, keeps the subject matter as far removed as possible from the class struggle because what he wants in his album is something to bring forth “nice memories”, something that allows him to “forget” his poverty and the dirt of everyday life. In the best of cases he aspires to take artistic photographs.

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1. This text was first published in Der Arbeiter Fotograf, IV, 7, 1930 and was reprinted in Asthetik und Kommunikation(West Berlin), lll, 10, 1973. It was translated from the German by Stuart Hood. English translation Copyright International General 1981. First published in Communication and Class Struggle. Volume 2: Liberation, socialism, eds. Armand Mattelart and Seth Siegelaub, 17–67. New York: International Mass Media Research Center