Mike Quille

Mike Quille

Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and chief editor of Culture Matters.

Culture for the many, not the few: notes towards a socialist culture policy
Saturday, 28 July 2018 08:19

Culture for the many, not the few: notes towards a socialist culture policy

Published in Cultural Commentary

Chris Guiton and Mike Quille present an analysis of what culture means, and what a democratic and socialist approach to culture policy might look like.

Introduction

The mission of Culture Matters Co-Operative Ltd is to promote cultural democracy, which we understand to be a more democratic and socialist approach to all cultural activities (including the arts). These notes set out our contribution to the current debates around cultural democracy. They set out our thoughts on

- What culture means and why it is so important

- The links between cultural activities and politics, and current examples of the way cultural activities function in class-divided societies like our own

- The general principles of a democratic and socialist approach to all cultural activities

- Details and illustrative examples of specific measures which might form part of a programme for an incoming Labour government.

What culture means and why it is important

What is culture? ‘Culture is ordinary: that is where we must start’ said Raymond Williams. This means that culture includes not just the arts, but much, much more. It includes all those learned human activities which give life purpose, meaning and value, and which human beings engage in for enjoyment, entertainment and enlightenment.

So as well as the arts, culture includes sport, religion, eating and drinking, fashion and clothing, education, the media and many other popular activities.

What does culture mean to us? Fundamentally, cultural activities are social, unifying and egalitarian. They assert our common humanity and solidarity against divisions of class, gender, race and other social divisions caused by capitalism. And cultural activities, especially art, can directly inspire and support radical change in the real world.

Taking part in cultural activities, as consumers and as producers, is not some optional extra for us. It is absolutely essential to our development as humans. It sustains our health, well-being and happiness, including our freedom from oppressive political systems and exploitative economic arrangements.

Culture, politics and class

Class-based divisions in society, based on unequal property ownership, constrain or prevent our enjoyment of culture. Cultural activities may be fundamentally liberating and social activities, but in societies divided by class they are limited, appropriated and privatised by ruling elites.

Throughout history, tiny minorities of dominant social classes have tried – and often succeeded – in turning culture into circuses, to go with the breadcrumbs thrown from the tables of the rich and powerful. In these societies, cultural activities become inaccessible, costly, irrelevant, and even an instrument of oppression. It tends to be owned, organised and delivered in undemocratic ways. It legitimises, conceals or ignores oppression and exploitation. And it is often used to promote diversionary and reactionary political messages and values.

So struggles develop against these tendencies to privatise and undermine culture, and to develop and sustain a cultural commons for the many, not the few. We, the many, face a cultural struggle against the co-option, misuse and appropriation of cultural activities. This struggle to regain enjoyable, meaningful and accessible cultural activities is like our economic and political struggles for fairer wages, for ownership and control of essential social goods and services like the railways, the utility companies and the National Health Service.

Just as commercial markets and the profit motive have shown themselves unable to provide adequate public services in areas such as health, energy and transport, so they are also unable to provide accessible culture. The aggressive inroads of neoliberal capitalism, bringing profit-making motives into cultural production, delivery and consumption, and privately owned, corporate influence and control over culture, are major challenges for a socialist cultural policy.

Current Cultural Issues

It is well understood on the Left why we need to win state power and implement political and economic policies to tackle austerity, the assault on our public services, growing poverty and inequality and the lack of political and economic democracy in Britain. What is less well understood is why and how we need to develop cultural policies, which are often perceived as being of secondary importance to political and economic issues.

Here are some examples of the issues we face, which show the need for an inclusive culture policy which can implement cultural democracy:

- in sport, we face high ticket prices for football games which exclude families on tight budgets from attending together. There is the growth of corporate boxes at events, and undemocratic ownership and control of clubs and the way that sport is organised. There is too much funding for elite sport, and not enough at grassroots level. There are the spoiling and corrupting pressures of drugs and cheating in many sports, which inevitably follow from stressing the capitalist values of competitive individualism.

- in the media, we face the private ownership of the means of human communication by gigantic media monopolies like Google, and by companies like Facebook, which appropriate information about us in order to practice surveillance and influence our commercial and political choices. We face privately owned media companies like Sky, Netflix, Disney and Fox, dedicated to making profits rather than meeting human need. And we face state-owned media like the BBC, designed to support and legitimise the economic and political status quo, and which are institutionally biased against radical politicians and newspapers.

- in our social cultures of eating and drinking, we face the terrible effects of profit-seeking capitalist corporations, loading our food and drink with sugar, salt and fats, and causing immense and increasing mental and physical health problems.

-‘There is a poet, author, singer, pianist, actor, playwright, artist in every single person’ said Jeremy Corbyn, but for working class people wishing to have an arts career, it is getting harder to become a musician or actor or writer without rich relatives to support you. Cuts and curriculum changes in education mean our children are being deprived of the chance to learn how to appreciate and participate in artistic, sporting and other cultural educational activities, at both primary and secondary school stages.

- we also face inaccessibility, obscurity, and vapid spectacle, and the fact that state funding is so unequal. Money that comes from our taxes and our Lottery tickets is overwhelmingly focused on cultural provision in the London area, which benefits mainly the already well off, and tourists.

- the massive expansion of the ‘creative industries’ and of cultural activities generally in the last few years means many more people are working in jobs linked to culture. Also, virtually everyone in the labour movement enjoys some form of cultural activity, as a consumer if not as a creator or performer. Creativity is seen as a major factor in the future economy, and a significant component of many kinds of work, both in the traditional cultural sectors and the wider ‘knowledge economy’. But the growth of the creative industries has failed to deliver on its meritocratic promise. Far from offering non-alienated labour, the chance for creative fulfilment, and post-industrial economic regeneration, young people entering the labour market today are being forced to accept poor pay and conditions, chronic job insecurity, and a lack of hard-won basic rights such as sick pay, maternity pay, and pensions. Cultural and creative labour markets are increasingly informal and closed to ‘outsiders’, operating outside equal opportunities and equality legislation and not reflecting the social and demographic make-up of contemporary society.

- the downgrading and exclusion of arts subjects from the educational curriculum of schools, combined with the marketisation of higher education away from the arts and humanities and the gutting of further and adult education, all combine to significantly reduce the opportunities for cultural and creative fulfilment of young people, and have a disproportionate effect on already marginalised groups. The opportunity for the best possible cultural and creative education, as consumers and as producers, should be available for all children, not just those of the wealthy.

- the Government’s politically-driven austerity policies, which have led to huge cuts in cultural facilities, eg libraries, community centres, youth facilities and sports facilities. These cuts are set to continue for years to come; and have been deliberately targeted at the least well-off, geographically and demographically.

- the possibilities of a vast expansion in leisure time in the next 10, 20 and 30 years, as labour-saving technology generates even more unemployment, under-employment and spare time. Again, this will impact more on the working class generally, and on less skilled workers, younger people trying to build careers, and people who are already socially excluded and discriminated against on the grounds of gender, ethnic origin, disability etc. Engagement in fulfilling cultural activities is set to become more and more important in most people's lives.

General principles for a culture policy

In general, a culture policy to implement cultural democracy would need to recognise:

- that culture is fundamental, not marginal. The creative activity embodied in culture is a form of social production, with humanity’s happiness and well-being as its end product. Spectatorship and engagement in cultural production and consumption, widely defined, are essential to human fulfilment and well-being.

- that an inclusive approach to culture is essential if we genuinely want to transform the world for the benefit of working people. Culture policy must cover cultural activities which matter to working people, and which can attract the support of the labour movement, so that culture is seen as part of the social wage for everyone. This means breaking down long-established hierarchies between different kinds of cultural activities and practices – which often reflect class distinctions – and reaffirming the legitimacy of cultural institutions and public funding based upon participatory, democratic and egalitarian principles.

- that we must challenge the narrow, centrally-dictated instrumentalism which has become so central to cultural policy and administration over the last thirty years, accompanied by oppressive monitoring and evaluation requirements, without maintaining an idealist, elitist position eg by focusing solely on the arts and excluding popular cultural activities. A genuinely socialist approach should be based on the understanding that culture, including art, belong to everyone, as creators, performers, and consumers.

- that we need to develop democratic, inclusive and bottom-up cultural policies in which communities of practitioners and audiences are empowered to direct culture towards ends that they define, whether that be entertainment, personal fulfilment, self-expression or as a contribution to the struggle for a better world, and avoiding value judgements on how and why people engage in culture. These might learn from and build on existing examples of successful 'DIY culture' in music, art, poetry and other fields, and large, public examples of working class culture such as the Durham Miners’ Gala.

- that we need to learn, through democratic, grassroots policy-making, how to develop policies and processes which can be used to encourage, enable and facilitate people to participate in cultural activities. These policy-making processes need to tackle concrete issues of accessibility, in terms of cost, geography and content; ownership and control of the institutions that fund, organise, deliver and regulate cultural activities; recognition of the fundamental need to embrace diversity of gender, race, nationality, sexuality, class, religion etc in the production and consumption of culture; and consideration of how to decolonise culture, and challenge the dualism of cultural ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’.

Specific Policy Proposals

The following examples of specific policy proposals reflect and build on many of the good ideas that have already been proposed as a contribution to the culture policy of an incoming Labour government. It is not an exhaustive list, further work is needed to clarify and develop the details, but we offer them in a constructive spirit to stimulate discussion:

- Require government policy makers (national, regional and local) to test proposed policy objectives against an over-arching objective of the promotion of a cultural democracy which works for the common good. Review whether relevant institutions and processes are fit for that purpose, and closely monitor implementation of such a radical policy in order to ensure that it is not captured by sectional interests.

- Dismantle the barriers that constrain or prevent ordinary people from accessing culture, particularly that which is publicly funded, based on cost, geography, class and social exclusion. Ensure that people generally have an equal opportunity to join in and enjoy all the arts and cultural activities.

- End the corporate capture of the Arts Council and other publicly funded arts bodies, exemplified by the recent appointment of Elisabeth Murdoch to the National Council of Arts Council England. Ensure that cultural funding is distributed equally, regionally and demographically, with regional, local and community participation to ensure that cultural spending empowers the communities that elect those representatives. Champion investment in people over large-scale vanity projects which benefit a narrow elite.

- End the distorting impact of corporate sponsorship and private philanthropy on the freedom and independence of cultural institutions.

- Ensure that leaders of cultural institutions – not only theatres, art galleries, concert halls and poetry publishers, but sports clubs, churches, and broadcasting and media corporations – seek to engage with all sections of the community, particularly the least well off and the least powerful.

- Explore ways to recover working class history and culture at a national, regional and community level, and restore the democratic and humanist cultural traditions that have been eroded by neoliberalism. This might build on the examples of local ‘people’s museums’ which have been set up in parts of the country, using community facilities and contributions by local people to build a picture of the locality.

- Recognise and support the important community role played by small music, visual and performing arts venues, many of which are facing closure as a result of commercial pressures or removal of grants or local funding. These play a vital role in developing creative ability and should be supported via business rates relief, direct subsidy and protection from commercial or residential development.

- Build on our rich history of community arts and sports by extending support, via regional culture councils and other relevant organisations and local authorities, to make space and resources available, so that creative and recreational activity is both available and accessible in urban and rural locations.

- Ensure that the cultural sector sets the standard in terms of workers’ rights, guaranteeing at least the UK Real Living Wage for all its employees, including artists and interns, management, technicians, cleaners and security staff. Introduce trades union representation into the governance arrangements of every public cultural institution.

- Rediscover the value of employer-supported workplace activities to facilitate sports and other forms of cultural participation.

- Provide proper funding for museums, galleries and libraries, to ensure that they play a much more active part in the lives of their communities, providing a place for creative activity and social connection and ensuring accountability to their publics. Museums and galleries should maintain free entry as a general principle, and offer genuine concessionary rates and free entry to low income groups to special events and exhibitions.

- Investigate and remove the barriers that exist in all cultural sectors towards equality of access to cultural and creative work by tackling the educational, financial, employment, career progression and management obstacles that prevent these sectors from reflecting the diversity of our population, particularly at leadership levels.

- Tackle the absence of significant working class representation in all cultural institutions (including the arts, sports, religion, the media, science and technology etc.) in terms of its content, audiences and practitioners.

- Amend the Equality Act to add consideration of class, social exclusion, poverty and inequality to the current policy framework, in parallel with the standard definitions of diversity, with their role factored in to all considerations of access, funding, participation etc.

- Empower and encourage local authorities to facilitate re-municipalisation at a local level, supporting social ownership for all cultural activities through co-operative and other forms of accountable, democratic self-organisation, where wealth is embedded and shared among communities rather than extracted for private gain.

- End the accelerating process of gentrification taking place in many of our cities, which first exploits and then drives out artists from local neighbourhoods. Encourage the recognition of artists as people who contribute to and enrich local communities. Consider options to set up a system of grants to provide living and material costs for artists working in community-based settings.

- Ensure art and culture are integral to the education system, free at the point of use, embedding arts education into the national curriculum so that all children in Britain, from primary school up, have the opportunity to access the best cultural and creative education, recognising the value it plays in the development of social, cognitive, emotional and physical skills and promoting lifelong arts learning.

- End the destructive audit and accountability culture, excessive testing and associated narrowing of the curriculum in our schools. Replace it with an approach to education which is holistic, enables children to live their lives to the full, and which addresses mental and physical health and wellbeing; encouraging students to think critically, questioning everything, nurturing enthusiasm for learning and intellectual curiosity.

 The media
 
- Reclaim the media (newspapers, online platforms, TV and radio) for the people by reforming its funding, ownership and control. Promote democratic accountability and pluralism in order to prevent market dominance by a small, powerful group of monopolistic interests, and create space for progressive and alternative providers capable of criticising and holding power to account.

- Reform and democratise the BBC to enable it to genuinely fulfil its public service broadcasting obligations and make a positive contribution to society, fully representative of its diverse audiences. Give adequate space and time to publicising and encouraging grassroots, DIY culture, and film and TV productions which offer a progressive or socialist vision of a fairer society

- Tackle the corporate capture of the web by monopolistic advertising platforms such as Google and Facebook via the introduction of effective regulation and taxation. Consider options for forms of social ownership of privately owned social media platforms. Facilitate the creation of decentralized social media networks, owned and controlled by the people.

- Introduce a statutory duty of care for the larger social media services, covering the key harms seen on social media platforms (harassment, misuse of personal data, hate crime, intimidation etc), backed by effective enforcement.

Sport and Leisure

- Challenge the commodification of football and other sports by using regulation and taxation to restrict corporate exploitation of clubs, players and spectators, and facilitate a return to the social and community origins of our national sports.

- As part of this new approach, tackle the chronic under-investment in football by enforcing a five per cent levy on Premier League broadcasting rights to be ploughed back into the grassroots game to improve pitches, facilities and training opportunities. Explore options to extend this policy to other sports such as cricket and rugby, which are similarly disfigured by corporate funding.

- Facilitate a shift of public spending on recreation and sport from high profile, elite sports to a greater range of community sports, encouraging a more inclusive and egalitarian ethos in sports institutions and activities, with full community participation in their governance, design and delivery.

- Improve the democratic accountability of sports clubs by giving supporters a greater say in how their clubs are run, at board level, including decisions regarding ownership changes and property sales.

- Require sports authorities to make significant improvements on provisions for fans with disabilities.

- Make the protection of public parks, playgrounds and leisure centres by local authorities and other bodies a legal requirement, prohibit privatisation and outsourcing, and provide proper funding to ensure they are properly maintained and remain free to use.

Conclusion

The arts and other cultural activities are often co-opted to reflect and serve the needs of the dominant class, in a class-divided society such as ours. At the same time, though, they can also provide the space to resist the status quo, to overcome alienation and oppression, and bring enjoyment and meaning into our lives. They can help people envision better, fairer ways of organising our society, as well as promoting our physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

These notes are intended to stimulate debate about the shape and content of a radical and comprehensive culture policy that a future Labour Government might be encouraged to adopt. Clearly, they are not the final word on the subject. Much work needs to be done to test ideas, develop detail and fill gaps. But, hopefully, they provide food for thought and offer a platform for further discussion. Readers are invited to submit general pieces (critical or creative) to our website, to help further the debate. They may also wish to consider joining the Movement for Cultural Democracy, which is a new campaign to drive a radical and transformative cultural programme in the UK.

Now is the time to seize the opportunity to create a comprehensive package of culture polices for the many, not the few.

With thanks to Theresa Easton, Sophie Hope, Jack Newsinger, John Storey and many others, for their valuable comments and contributions to this article.

Paul Summers, the Durham Miners' Gala, and arise!
Friday, 06 July 2018 13:37

Paul Summers, the Durham Miners' Gala, and arise!

Published in Poetry

Mike Quille interviews Paul Summers, including extracts from a major new poem which is published by Culture Matters. It will be launched at the People, Pits and Politics festival in Durham on Friday 13th July, the day before the Miners’ Gala, and is available for purchase here

Paul Summers is deeply rooted in the working-class pit communities of the North East, and the poem was commissioned from him by Culture Matters. Its aim is to show, as a poetical and political statement, the growing political importance under Corbyn’s Labour Party of the socialist values and politics of the old mining communities – the women as well as the men – who struggled for a more caring, collective and co-operative way of life through their sheer hard work, their trade unions, and their political affiliations.

This heritage is celebrated and recreated annually at the Gala in Durham, one of the world’s biggest working-class cultural festivals, and the poem links the processions at the Gala to the rebirth of a more class conscious, socialist politics in the labour movement and the Labour Party.

MQ: To start with, can you tell us something about yourself? What's your background, and how did you come to appreciate and write poetry?

PS: I was born in Blyth, Northumberland, in 1967. We lived in an old 2 up 2 down terrace in a place called Cowpen, half a mile west of Bates’ Pit (the last working pit out of the 10 or so that had existed in Blyth) where both my grandads had worked and half a mile east of Bebside village, where my great and great-great-grandads had settled in the 1850s to hew coals.

It was a lovely old working-class community: we had all the romantic clichés of back doors left open, borrowing cups of sugar or coal from the neighbours, a wash-day chorus of gossip in the back lane, as well as the less romantic realities of the domestic violence, the alcoholism and the undercurrent of racism. I suppose it was quite an anachronistic place on reflection; whenever I recount it to people now it feels as though I was brought up in Beamish Museum or on the set of When The Boat Comes In.

Most of the people in the street were old, retired miners, their wives or widows and they were all good talkers, fond of a yarn or a song and a bit of reminiscence about ye olden days, the hardships they’d endured and the mischief they’d got up to. They were an oral historian’s dream. I was captivated by them, seduced by their stories, and I think that’s what sowed the seed of me being a yarner of sorts too.

Class, politics, social history and cultural identity were ever present, all wrapped up in their tales of extraordinary ordinariness. I think I decided quite early on that I fancied being a south-east Northumbrian version of John Boy from The Walton’, documenting the place I lived in and the characters who I shared it with. To a greater or lesser extent, I’ve just about succeeded in fulfilling my career model. I’m not sure that being a poet featured highly in that plan but it’s what I’ve found I’m probably best at, despite still occasionally dabbling in bits of prose and drama.

I had a great comprehensive education too, and was encouraged by a few ‘special’ teachers to take my writing seriously and to keep on being in love with history and peoples’ stories.

I was 17 in 1984, when the Miners’ Strike started. It brought politics with a capital ‘P’ to our front door. It highlighted both the unities and divisions within the community, in opinion, ideologies and realities. I remember the pragmatism of some of the older fellas, like my granda, saying that most pits were like men and if you got 3 score and ten years out of them you’d have been lucky.

I remember the ferocity of support for Scargill from many others who were fighting for their futures (or their children’s futures) and who could foresee the coming desolation of a town without industry or opportunity. I remember witnessing the heavy hand of the police state first hand for the first time – waking up to find a long line of South Yorkshire SPG riot vans parked up along Cowpen Road, in readiness for any bother on the picket line.

I remember a few (slightly drunken) mates getting viciously beaten up by the coppers on the night that Scargill spoke at Croft Park, the home of the mighty Blyth Spartans. I remember the tales of hardship and suicidal depression you’d hear around the doors, the hate-filled stories of scabs and Tory vindictiveness, as well as the stories of incredible resolve, resilience and solidarity.

Anyhow, the strike was defeated and in a few years the pit was closed. Blyth didn’t fare too well for a decade or so after that. I think at some point in the late 80s we had the dubious honour of being voted the most depressing place in the country twice in a row, and being labelled as the heroin capital of the north.

Plenty to bear witness to, plenty to educate you in social injustice and existential torment, in defeat and optimism, in nihilism and hope, in grief and joy, in laughter and tears, plenty of complex stuff that a person could easily spend their entire creative life trying to unpick & make sense of.


MQ: Can you tell us something about your poetic career, what you've been trying to achieve and how that's changed over the years?

PS: I’d left school at 17 and motivated no doubt by TV lawyer Petrocelli, I started to work as a trainee legal executive at a solicitors’ office in Newcastle. It was a thoroughly Dickensian institution which paid us less than the dole for working from 8 till 5.30, and it fuelled my dislike for the upper classes, my hatred of privilege and my growing sense of social injustice. Luckily for me (in retrospect) I was sacked in 1987, for playing snooker when I should have been at Newcastle College doing my afternoon-release Legal Executive’s course.

If nothing else my dismissal encouraged me to go and do my A Levels and to start thinking about getting a degree. In the process of the former I met three literature lecturers/poets called Brendan Cleary, George Charlton & Tony Baynes. All three were interested in and supportive of my writing and at that moment in time that was the only motivation I needed. They introduced me to literary magazines and the work of other writers and they encouraged me to start submitting stuff myself.  

By 1990 I’d had bits and bobs of stuff published and had, by a strange fluke of history, found myself co-organising the Morden Tower poetry readings in Newcastle. The tragic suicide of my fellow co-organiser left me, the anxious rookie, at the helm. It was an interesting time – I met some great poets and my poetic education continued, and I made some long-lasting allies and friends. I also learned what a self-interested viper’s nest the creative world could be, and how the world of literature was still fairly bourgeois and unwelcoming to a working class man. All good lessons for a naïve, small-town boy.

I’d published a few little chapbooks through Brendan Cleary’s Echo Room Press in the nineties, and picked up a couple of writers’ awards from Northern Arts, but the last bus was my first proper collection. Iron Press published it on May 1st 1998, and luckily it was well received and reviewed. It even got the title sequence from the book in that year’s Forward poetry anthology, and a brief but favourable mention in the broadsheets.

the last bus was all about growing up in Blyth, all about the micro-universe of Cowpen, all about family, friends and acquaintances, all about love and loss. But it was also, by default, about the bigger stuff: about class, politics, identity and history, dead-set on exploring the tensions between romanticised and realistic representations of a working-class community. I was already tired of unquestioningly romantic Geordierama versions of working class existence in the north East. It created my version of Walton’s Mountain, not pre-war Virginia but Thatcher era, post-industrial Northumberland – and hopefully not just sentimental and eulogising. It was full of rage and love, the complexity of identity and familial relations. It was me trying to tell the truth, or my truth anyhow, to be authentic, to tell it how it was, warts and all.

The next few books just picked up the baton – any street, any town, ‘all human life is here’ (and worthy of poetry). In fact, I don’t think I’ve veered that far from that way of thinking in the following twenty years of writing. The focus on community or geography might occasionally shift, town to city, macro to domestic, Britain to Australia and back, but the desire to report, document and interrogate people and place remains the same. My muses or motivations to write remain the same too: rage and outrage, confusion and bewilderment, love, rapture and grief, all of them demanding the need to bear witness.

MQ. There are a number of issues around poetry and politics that I'd like to explore with you. What are your own political beliefs, and how do they influence your choice of poetic subject and approach?

PS: I like to think that I’m a compassionate socialist who isn’t averse to most of the core values of communism. I’d very much like to see the end of capitalism and neo-liberalism and for them to be replaced with a more equitable, just, democratic and sustainable model of society free of class division, elites, patriarchy and hierarchies.

Much of my poetry is shaped by this political positioning and my experiences as a working class, comprehensively educated bloke from the post-industrial North East of England. A reviewer once said that my work ‘wasn’t political in the way Brecht or Neruda’s was, but that it was full of politics nonetheless’. My granda, who was fond of a proverb, used to say it was fine to wave the flag but a different thing altogether to hit people over the head with the flag-staff. I think I try and do precisely that.

I hope I authentically and empathically represent and document aspects of my community, I hope I display compassion and care. I hope the questions I occasionally pose on our behaviours are relevant ones, and that my frequent outrage is well placed. I hope that me bearing witness to the things which appal and enrage me occasionally impacts on other people’s thinking.

I hope I occasionally encourage an intellectual or ideological response from people as well as an emotional one. I hope people find the beauty and tenderness in my poems which might re-energise them or keep a darkness at bay. I hope I model being a ‘decent’, compassionate person in my work. I don’t think you’d have to work very hard to establish my politics – I hope you can see the flag even though I am not always whacking you with it.

MQ: What's your view on the history of poetry, and its close historical association with politically dominant and leisured classes in society?

PS: Poetry may have been genuinely popular in the British Isles at several moments of history, when an oral tradition was dominant amongst largely illiterate societies. Whether it was a population transfixed by the retelling of a Viking saga or the romans of the troubadours and minstrels, folklore and song, to the doggerel of the music hall and the gin-house balladeers, or Kipling’s imperial jingoism. Oral transmission popularised poetry and made the form more accessible to all classes, not just the book-owning, forelock tugging, velvet-suited elites.

This all seems to have changed with the advent of modernism, when for one reason or another, poetry seems to have retrenched itself as a ‘difficult’ or ‘high’ art and retreated back into the confines of its ivory towers (or red brick university towers). And the upper classes asserted a new set of conventions to make the canon more exclusive and impenetrable, and by turns less human and engaging.

This position wasn’t really challenged in Britain until the 60s, when a generation of baby-boomer, working-class, grammar school kids started to introduce poetic narratives and styles that were more familiar and engaging to the broader population. This coincided with the Beat movement in the US, with May 68 in Paris and the Summer of Love in America. Poetry had a brief renaissance, existing happily alongside the words of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and their like. Even then though, the reach of poetry into the world of the working classes was miniscule in comparison to the gin-house days.

Since then, you could argue there has a been a painfully slow democratisation of the form. As Sean O’Brien suggested in The Deregulated Muse, the last thirty or forty years has undoubtedly seen a more diverse range of voices appear, denting the glass ceilings of gender, class, race and sexuality, and there are probably more physical and virtual platforms for dissemination than ever before. However, it’s still a long way from reaching mainstream status, where it’s readily consumed by the masses.

Despite the perennial broadsheet hype suggesting poetry is the new rock and roll, book sales and audiences suggest the contrary. It’s still a fairly marginalised artform with a limited reach, and limited opportunity for it to be a sustainable way of making a living, unless you find a niche in academia or socially engaged activities.

Some of the indie presses are trying their damnedest to increase this diversity and readership but mostly they do it without resource or capacity to impact on the already flooded cultural arena.

The premier publishing houses still have limited sized lists and equally limited marketing capacity and generally speaking they are still, in my opinion, fairly bourgeois and unchallenging in their choices of poets to champion.

Then we have the various splits & factions within the poetry world itself: around aesthetics, regional identities , our various sociological classifications and identities, the ascendancy of stage and page, the academic and the ‘popular’, the ‘majors’ and the ‘minors’, the left and the right, the ‘art for art’s sake’ mob and the politically engaged creative utilitarians.

We poets are a very disunited and disjointed village and fragmentation, as anyone familiar with leftist politics will tell you, has never been a strength in terms of furthering your message or realising change.

MQ: How do you think poetry can contribute towards making a better, juster, world?

PS: We as poets can bear witness to and challenge atrocity and social injustice at every level we find it, we can be moral arbiters and polemicists, agitators and rabble-rousers. We can flag up the experience of the marginalised and forgotten. We can be conduits for the telling and re-telling of histories, and the dissemination of alternative ideas and ideologies.

We can remind people of the things we share, our commonalities, as well as celebrating our difference. We can validate experiences and create a sense of universal interest. We can celebrate beauty, compassion and altruism. We can provide a space of sanctuary, delight or quiet grieving. We can make people laugh as well as move them to tears. We can remind each other of our humanity and of the responsibilities that goes with enacting and facilitating that humanity. We can encourage broader participation, be brave enough to take our work into non-traditional environments, we can be educators and facilitators, we can organise events and publish.

We can collaborate, collectivise and work cross-form. We can actually start to think like cultural democrats and political activists, rather than wallowing in our garrets or talking only to our respective choirs. We can do whatever our motivations, confidence and energy levels allow us. We can all be subversives if we understand what and who we are fighting against.

fish quay fugues

  1. i. doggerland

the old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.

- antonio gramsci

& the way will be perilous;
black ice & shark-eyed smiles,
several heaps of hogmanay vomit,
a vacant pizza-box draped with hoar,
its palimpsest of feast & greed,
bleak litany of the new & old,
dog-shit & fag-ends & crumbling roads,
the hours’ lash, the pains of labour,
the endless cycle of peddled fact.
& then the sanctuary of frozen sand;
its confluence of salt & wind-whipped crows,
the hymn of a sea cathedral hollow.

kick off your shoes my love & walk;
due east, towards the burgeoning sun.
plough on through the grave mounds
of haddock-frames & listless kelp,
tread slowly on the pebble field,
avoid the triggers of its toad-back traps;
then walk & wade & catch your breath,
beyond the bar where codling lurk,
let swell becalm your troubled blood,
squeeze shut your jaded eyes & dream;
the rapture of tectonic plates entwined
in acts of violence & of love, the red raw
ooze of magma’s birthing, each push,
each jolt, each breathless force exerted
sees citadels emergent from these waves,
a glimpse of doggerland’s trembling plains,
its strongholds of hope re-rendered
now un-drowned, their beacons still charged,
their gates agape, their monsters slain;
each edifice an altar awaiting our faith.

 

MQ. Can you say something about how you wrote this poem and what it means to you?

PS: doggerland is from a new sequence of poems I’m working on called the fish quay fugues. The poems document the flights of my imagination as I walk by the river.

Walking has become part of my creative practice. I walk every day, rain, hail or shine. Usually it’s the same route: from my house in North Shields down the bank to the River Tyne at the Fish Quay, then eastwards towards the Spanish Battery Prow, onto the Haven Beach at Tynemouth, then back home to Shields via Collingwood’s Monument, Knott’s Flats and Northumberland Park.

At low tide I walk out on the rocks in a vain search for sea-borne archaeological treasures and a high tide along the promenade. It’s become a form of meditation, sometimes a head-clearing exercising, sometimes a thought-refining process. Lots of creative ideas are polished and there is much philosophising en route.

I have spent, and continue to spend, a great chunk of my life trying to negotiate with myself over a position of continued optimism for humankind and for the arrival of some sort of socialist utopia: the great & ponderous dialectic between hope and despondency. History proves that I am more than capable of the latter path, the path of perpetual moping, angry cynicism or even nihilism, but it’s not a version of myself I’m particularly attracted to. It doesn’t seem like a very sustainable model for your general wellbeing or that of those around you.

So, I continue to dredge my psyche for a semblance of hope. I do this even though throughout my adult life, it has often seemed as if we have stumbled from one period of Brechtian ‘dark times’ to another, without any real or sustained recourse to any ‘light times’. I do this even though reality tells me I have experienced lots of ideological defeats and disappointments and very few victories.

Now that I am a decade into being a parent, I feel even more of an obligation to be hopeful, at least within my outward looking face. Otherwise, the prospects of my children’s futures are just too difficult to contemplate. It is because of this, I genuinely feel we must remain stubbornly optimistic, we must remain robustly hopeful that the ‘glorious day’ will come, equality & peace will prevail & that all the evils of capitalism will be kicked into touch for good.

I think these new poems are all addressing this nagging question of hope and despair, and generally speaking – up to now anyway – they are leaning towards optimism, even if that optimism is slightly metaphysical.

It strikes me that both optimism & hope may both be forms of necessary denial: essential parts of the toolkit of any forward-looking socialist trying to keep the red flag flying and the black dog at bay.

Extract from arise!

by Paul Summers

‘they being dead yet speaketh’

so history is done,
the shafts capped,

the breathless heaps
erased or made-over:

a short-cut to asda,
a low gradient jog,

somewhere for the dog
to take a shit.

no monument
save memory,

save anecdote
& frail romance,

no rusted remnant,
no totem mark,

only nature to sing
their hymn.

a broken picket-line
of hunch-backed thistles,

a huddle of poppies
in a fly-tipped fridge,

summer’s shrill birdsong
captive in a cage of gorse,

three score years & ten
of spoil beneath our feet,

our antecedents
rendered mute & obsolete,

our pasts & present
wedged asunder,

their marriage annulled
by devious progress.

history is done
the cynics proclaim,

they do not hear it
nagging in our veins,

they do not hear
the bitter wind

hiss its litany
of familiar names.

they do not hear
the whispered yakka

echo in the helix
of our complex genes.

they do not hear
the roll-call

of redundant lives,
of prospects slain

at altars of profit
& heinous spite.

history is done
the sages refrain,

they do not hear it
niggling in our veins.

 

MQ. Can you tell us a bit about what the Gala and mining history means to you?

PS: As I implied earlier, my family has had a connection to coal-mining since the late 1700s. The Summers ancestors started out working in the bell-pits of north Northumberland then migrated southwards towards Newcastle and south-east Northumberland as the process was more industrialised. Other branches of the family migrated eastwards from Cumbria or northwards from Cornwall into the Durham coalfield before they ultimately ended up in Blyth. My dad was the first man in his direct bloodline in over a hundred and fifty years never to work down the pit, choosing the relatively safety of the Town Gas Yard and a fitter’s apprenticeship instead. It’s safe to say that coal, and the traditions that go with mining it, is firmly embedded in our genetic make-up.

As a Blyth boy we always went to the Northumberland Miners’ Picnic at Attlee Park in Bedlington. We’d march from Blyth behind the Bates & Cambois Banner. It was similarly rousing but only a proportion of the scale of Durham by the time I can remember it. I’ve fond memories though, good rousing speakers, brass bands, abundant ice cream & candy floss. My mam had even been a Picnic Queen in the late fifties, representing West Sleekburn Colliery. It still exists today to a greater or lesser degree, and happens at Woodhorn Museum in early June.

I‘d never been to the Big Meeting in Durham until the early nineties but now I try to get there whenever I can. It’s an amazing spectacle and still incredibly moving I think. There were a quarter of million people there last year, and it’s still regarded as the biggest trade union event in Europe – and that’s despite the fact that we’ve got no deep-mines left in either the Durham or Northumberland coalfields.

arise! by Paul Summers is available here10% of sales income will go to to the Durham Miners’ Association, towards the restoration of Redhills and its development into a cultural hub for the area.

CM book Arise cover

arise!
Tuesday, 26 June 2018 15:50

arise!

Published in Books

£5 plus £2 p. and p.

ISBN 978-1-912710-03-4

arise! is a new long poem by Paul Summers, which is both a celebration of the past, and an inspiration for the future. The pamphlet was commissioned by Culture Matters for the Durham Miners' Gala this year, and it is sponsored by the Durham Miners' Association.

The poem celebrates the rich heritage and culture of mining communities, which is expressed so vibrantly and colourfully in the marches, the banners, the music and the speeches at the Durham Miners’ Gala. It invokes the collective and co-operative spirit of past generations of men and women who worked and struggled so hard to survive, to build their union, and to organise politically to fight for a better world.

arise! also celebrates the new, resurgent spirit in the Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, and the renewal of support for socialist solutions to the country’s growing economic and social problems.

It's wonderful to see the proud history of the Durham Miners' Gala represented in this powerful poem. Paul Summers has managed to capture the spirit of the Miners' Gala and its central place in our movement's mission to achieve 'victory for the many, and not the few'. – Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party.

A powerful, rhythmic and inspiring poem – Alan Cummings, Secretary, Durham Miners' Association.

‘arise!’is a full-throated song of defiant hope, seeing in the history of the coal industry much to mourn, yet much to celebrate. – Sean O’Brien, Professor of Creative Writing, Newcastle University

10% of the proceeds of sales of this book will go to the DMA Redhills Appeal, to help turn Redhills into a cultural hub for the area.

No Them Only Us
Thursday, 05 April 2018 18:39

Their walls are our stones

Published in Cultural Commentary

What would a radical, socialist culture policy look like?

Last September I reported on The World Transformed festival, organised by Momentum alongside the Labour Party conference in Brighton. It included several workshops on culture, looking at what the elements of a radical culture policy might be, building on the commitments in the 2017 Labour Manifesto.

That manifesto was a marked improvement on previous manifestos, and clearly reflected the personal vision of Jeremy Corbyn and his team. He was the only candidate in 2015 to support the role of the arts in nourishing everyday creativity, and its potential for political dissent.

The manifesto also backed policies to improve working class access to culture, both as workers in creative industries – musicians, actors, writers etc. – and as spectators and consumers of culture.

The open, participatory nature of politics which the Brighton workshops exemplified has now become the Movement for Cultural Democracy, with a new website, http://colouringinculture.org/cultural-democracy-home, and a series of planned regional events to consult on what a radical culture manifesto should look like.

Culture Matters supports this movement. We believe that culture is more than just the arts. Culture is ordinary and culture is everything, as Raymond Williams said. It includes all the cultural activities that are essential for our enjoyment, entertainment, enlightenment and exercise as fulfilled human beings.

Cultural democracy is about reclaiming and developing our artistic, intellectual, physical and spiritual commons. It’s about struggling in a democratic and socialist way to overcome the profit-driven pressures which make all kinds of cultural activities expensive, inaccessible or irrelevant. Or even worse, when they facilitate surveillance and manipulation – as in the current Facebook scandal – instead of nurturing human development and liberation.

As Len McCluskey said here a few months ago,

Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union, believes that our members, and working people generally, have an equal right to join in and enjoy all the arts and cultural activities. We believe we should be able to afford them, be near to them, and be able to enjoy them.
 
Most of all, we believe artists and leaders of cultural institutions – not only theatres, art galleries, concert halls and poetry publishers, but sports clubs, churches, and broadcasting and media corporations – should seek to engage with all sections of the community, particularly the least well off.

These radical calls for the democratisation and socialisation of culture should be at the heart of a new culture policy.

Our profit-driven capitalist economy seeks to destroy or co-opt the potential of the arts to express dissent and imagine alternatives. And it shrinks from the spectre of everyday, emerging communism, which is generated naturally when people get together in generous solidarity to enjoy the arts, sport, science, eating and drinking, and so much else. It throws up barriers between social classes, genders, ethnic groups, building divisive walls based on the private ownership of property.

We need to break down those walls. We need to reclaim and renew our artistic, physical, intellectual and spiritual commons. We need to democratise and socialise our cultural institutions – the art gallery, the football club, the newspaper, the church and the laboratory, as well as the economic and political ones – the factory, the corporation, the council, Whitehall and Westminster.

Their walls are our stones.

 

Cultural democracy: Revolt and Revolutions at Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Wednesday, 31 January 2018 21:21

Cultural democracy: Revolt and Revolutions at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Published in Visual Arts

Mike Quille reviews an involving, stimulating exhibition which encourages the growing appetite for cultural democracy.

The recent appointment of Elisabeth Murdoch to Arts Council England was yet more evidence of the increasing domination of public funding for the arts by corporate and right-wing interests.

There is growing resistance, however, among activists and artists. There are also signs that labour movement leaders are becoming more aware of the importance of cultural activities in the lives of their members – see for example Len McCluskey’s Introduction to the Bread and Roses 2017 Poetry Anthology.

The 2017 Labour manifesto also contained some progressive promises around devolving decision-making, increasing funding and boosting arts education in schools. It was a great improvement on previous manifestos, which had become more and more oriented towards art and culture as merely functional for economic regeneration.

It was flawed, though – see here for a cogent critique by Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt. Debates and discussions on the left are growing, and reports, articles and manifestos are being proposed, based on a much more radical approach to arts and culture. For example, see here for the result of discussions at the Momentum-organised The World Transformed festival in Brighton last September. Events are being planned around the country to present and consult on this manifesto, by the Movement for Cultural Democracy.

One of the features of this movement is a belief that the cultural struggle and the political struggle go hand in hand – that culture, as well as being entertaining and enjoyable, is essentially liberating in a political sense. Cultural activities are fundamentally social and equalising, asserting our common humanity against divisions of class, gender, race and other social divisions engendered by capitalism, especially its neoliberal variant. In this view, culture can inspire, support, and accompany radical change in the real world.

There is no better current example of this belief in the power of art to transform the world than the current ‘Revolt and Revolutions’ exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield. A variety of works, linked in various ways, showcase some of the strands of counter-cultural and anti-establishment movements of recent times, and invite us to join in.

At the entrance to the exhibition, The Internationale, as sung by the artist Susan Philipsz, is broadcast in the open air. It calls us in, resonating across the former coalfields and industrial heartlands of South Yorkshire. The faltering, saddened voice conveys both the sufferings endured by the northern working classes in the last fifty years, and their resilience and continuing determination to redress injustice through political action.

As we go inside the gallery, more music welcomes us. Ruth Ewan’s A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World is a selection of classics of political music and song, updated to include songs for the Trump era, which visitors can choose and listen to.

Resized Ruth Ewan A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World 2003 2017. Courtesy the artist and YSP. Photo Jonty Wilde D850167

Ruth Ewan, A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World, courtesy the artist and YSP. Photo © Jonty Wilde

Political music is also celebrated by two arpilleras, a kind of Chilean patchwork quilt, illustrating the key ideals of the New Chilean Song Movement. This was a powerful, persuasive cultural movement which accompanied and assisted the rise to power of Salvador Allende’s socialist government in 1970. One of its main supporters was the singer, guitarist and communist Victor Jara, later tortured and killed by the Pinochet regime. Pinochet’s admirers and allies included Margaret Thatcher, responsible for the privatisation of the local Yorkshire steel industry and the British state’s war against the miners and their socialist leaders, in 1984-5.

resized 2 Arpillera New Chilean Song 198083 unkown political prisoner Chile. Private Collection. Courtesy YSP. Photo Jonty Wilde D850171     YSP resized

Arpillera, New Chilean Song, 1980–83, unknown political prisoner, Chile, and an installation view including Helmet Head 1, Henry Moore, cast 1960. Courtesy YSP, photos © Jonty Wilde

Henry Moore was a socialist and the son of a miner, brought up in a household where meetings of the first miners’ union were held. His works have graced the Park for many years, and in this exhibition his bronze sculpture Helmet Head evokes the exterior toughness and interior vulnerability of hardworking, hard-up men and women.

Resized Revolt Revolutions installation view 2017. Arts Council Collection Southbank Centre London the artist. Courtesy YSP. Photo Jonty Wilde D850274

Revolt & Revolutions, installation view, 2017. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © the artist. Courtesy YSP. Photo © Jonty Wilde

There are many more artworks and a particularly vivid display of photographs expressing the punkish, counter-cultural spirit of the seventies. But the outstanding artwork is a 15 minute video of local resident Alison Catherall, still living in Castleford, birthplace of Henry Moore. It tells the story of the region over her lifetime, from the optimism and pride of the fifties and sixties to the Tories’ assault on the working class communities in the seventies, eighties and beyond, and her determination to crusade for a better life, a transformed world for young people through education, culture and heritage.

She tells her lifestory, from the optimism and pride when she was young in the fifties and sixties, to the Tories’ assault on local steelworking and mining communities in the seventies, eighties and beyond. Her voice rises and becomes impassioned as she talks about her continuing militant determination to crusade for a transformed world – a better life for young people through education, culture and heritage.

 

Resized Larry Achiampong and David Blandy FF Gaiden Legacy 2017 film still. Courtesy YSP and Castleford Heritage Trust 04

Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, FF Gaiden-Legacy, 2017 (film still). Courtesy YSP and Castleford Heritage Trust

This moving oral history of suffering and struggle is illustrated by film of a female avatar, taken from the video game Grand Auto Theft 5, striding through deserted pit galleries, up and down the hilly landscape, by day and by night and through all weathers. The local and particular story of suffering, endurance and resilience becomes universal, an artistic tribute to both local and global working class communities – particularly the experience and struggles of women to keep those communities alive.

This focus on art which comes from the experiences of the many, and is addressed to the many, is carried through not only in the curating of the exhibition – there are several exhibits inviting public participation – but in the events organised around it. For example, on February 20th, the evening of the UN Day for Social Justice, YSP are running a talk on ‘Do You Want to Change the World’ on the relevance of art and culture to the political transformation of society.

Helen Pheby is the senior curator at YSP responsible for the grounded, varied and interlinked themes running through this excellent exhibition. I asked her for some insights into her approach, to share with readers of Culture Matters. This is what she said:

'The inspiration for Revolt and Revolutions came from working with Henry Moore's family and foundation on a previous major exhibition and learning how radical he had been, not just as an artist, but also through his commitment to social justice.

I was conscious that we don't seem to be hearing much good news at the moment and wanted to share works by artists who are trying to make a difference, or who are giving a voice to people in our communities committed to positive change.

My hope was that this small show might be a catalyst, raise spirits and hopes a little, and suggest ways we can all have power. The public response has been very positive, with record visitor numbers in the gallery and people making pledges to make a difference. Our associated events, such as inviting people to change the world, are proving popular, suggesting a real appetite for people to get involved.

Helen’s hopes have surely been realised. By showing and promoting the power of art to change the world, through the exhibition itself and the activities, talks and discussions that run alongside it, Yorkshire Sculpture Park are encouraging the appetite for cultural democracy which is emerging from the labour movement.

Finally, Matt Abbott, the poet, has written this poem to accompany the exhibition. It's best listened to on the link, but here's the text as well:

Revolt and Revolutions

by Matt Abbott

Placard, pin badge, denim, leather.
Fist clenched tight at the end of your tether.
Minds in the margins all come together
the Revolution will not start itself.

When the turn of a phrase is the twist of a knife
and a movement swims at the tide of the strife,
a slingshot points at the status quo
the choir sings a resounding “NO!”:
change, is a product of protest.

Give a soapbox to a voice
that can’t be heard amongst the crowd.
There’s a rebel with a cause,
there’s a dream that’s not allowed.
There’s a sub-group that’s been silenced,
a door that’s slamming shut.
An establishment that works to keep you structured
in a rut.

Where optimism sits with solidarity and strength.
For justice and equality, we’ll go to any length.
Apathy is acceptance. Acceptance never improves.
So stand up, and be counted: we’ve got goalposts to move.

Grab a megaphone, and articulate your grievances.
Strum guitars, paint banners, leave writing on the wall…
In the shadows, is where you’ll find allegiances.
We might be tiny individuals, but together, we’re tall.

Give power to the vulnerable; a voice to the unheard.
Don’t allow the privileged to take the final word.
March longer, sing louder, fight for what is right.
Acclimatise to darkness, and you’ll never seek light.

Revolt, reject, and rejoice in your dreams.
Protest is always more potent than it seems.
Be it beret wearing ‘Ban the Bomb’ or mohawk wearing punk;
others pinched nostrils but we shouted when it stunk.

Revolt and Revolution: come and join the number.
because nothing serves injustice like society in slumber.
Music and colour. Peace signs and love.
There are far more below than there are sat above.

It takes an awful lot of raindrops to form a monsoon.
And this station has a glitch: it’s time to retune.
Do not succumb to victimhood, or silence, or stealth,
because the Revolution will not start itself.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield, is open 10am till 5pm and the exhibition, which is on till 15 April, is free. You can also visit this exhibition at the same time.

Listen to the Revolution: free ebook on 1917, art and culture
Wednesday, 24 January 2018 10:22

Listen to the Revolution: free ebook on 1917, art and culture

Published in Books

‘With all your body, all your heart and all your mind, listen to the Revolution.’ said the poet Alexander Blok in 1918.

As the centenary year of the Russian Revolution ends and we move into 2018, we have published Listen to the Revolution - The Impact of the Russian Revolution on Art and Culture.

It is widely recognised that the Revolution stimulated a creative and imaginative explosion across all the arts and cultural activities, not only in Russia itself but across the world. It reverberated throughout the twentieth century, and echoes of this cultural revolution still resonate today. The booklet brings together the series of articles published on the Culture Matters web platform in the course of 2017, to mark the impact of the Revolution on art and culture.

We hope you enjoy reading the articles, which look at the momentous, worldwide influence of the Revolution on cinema, theatre, art, sport, science and other topics. And we hope you are inspired to join the modern-day struggle for cultural policies and cultural activities which aim to revolutionise elitist, expensive and inaccessible art and culture and replace it with art and culture which everyone can enjoy - culture for the many, not the few.

Listen to the Revolution – culture matters!

Listen to the Revolution - The Impact of the Russian Revolution on Art and Culture is a free ebook, available from here. If you would like to place a bulk order for a print version of the ebook please contact us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Listen to the Revolution: free ebook on 1917, art and culture
Wednesday, 17 January 2018 17:59

Listen to the Revolution: free ebook on 1917, art and culture

Published in 1917 Centenary

‘With all your body, all your heart and all your mind, listen to the Revolution.’ said the poet Alexander Blok in 1918.

As the centenary year of the Russian Revolution ends and we move into 2018, we have published Listen to the Revolution - The Impact of the Russian Revolution on Art and Culture.

It is widely recognised that the Revolution stimulated a creative and imaginative explosion across all the arts and cultural activities, not only in Russia itself but across the world. It reverberated throughout the twentieth century, and echoes of this cultural revolution still resonate today. The booklet brings together the series of articles published on the Culture Matters web platform in the course of 2017, to mark the impact of the Revolution on art and culture.

We hope you enjoy reading the articles, which look at the momentous, worldwide influence of the Revolution on cinema, theatre, art, sport, science and other topics. And we hope you are inspired to join the modern-day struggle for cultural policies and cultural activities which aim to revolutionise elitist, expensive and inaccessible art and culture and replace it with art and culture which everyone can enjoy - culture for the many, not the few.

Listen to the Revolution – culture matters!

Listen to the Revolution - The Impact of the Russian Revolution on Art and Culture is a free ebook, available from here. If you would like to place a bulk order for a print version of the ebook please contact us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Listen to the Revolution: free ebook on 1917, art and culture
Thursday, 11 January 2018 10:42

Listen to the Revolution: free ebook on 1917, art and culture

Published in Cultural Commentary

‘With all your body, all your heart and all your mind, listen to the Revolution.’ said the poet Alexander Blok in 1918.

As the centenary year of the Russian Revolution ends and we move into 2018, we have published Listen to the Revolution - The Impact of the Russian Revolution on Art and Culture.

It is widely recognised that the Revolution stimulated a creative and imaginative explosion across all the arts and cultural activities, not only in Russia itself but across the world. It reverberated throughout the twentieth century, and echoes of this cultural revolution still resonate today. The booklet brings together the series of articles published on the Culture Matters web platform in the course of 2017, to mark the impact of the Revolution on art and culture.

We hope you enjoy reading the articles, which look at the momentous, worldwide influence of the Revolution on cinema, theatre, art, sport, science and other topics. And we hope you are inspired to join the modern-day struggle for cultural policies and cultural activities which aim to revolutionise elitist, expensive and inaccessible art and culture and replace it with art and culture which everyone can enjoy - culture for the many, not the few.

Listen to the Revolution – culture matters!

Listen to the Revolution - The Impact of the Russian Revolution on Art and Culture is a free ebook, available from here. If you would like to place a bulk order for a print version of the ebook please contact us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

'It is communists who think like Christians': free ebooks on Marxism, religion and communism
Monday, 19 February 2018 22:26

'It is communists who think like Christians': free ebooks on Marxism, religion and communism

Published in Books

Culture Matters has published three free ebooks containing essays by the theologian and writer Professor Roland Boer.

Our aim with the topic of religious and spiritual life is the same as our aim across the arts and all other cultural activities - to unearth and mobilise the radical meanings in religious thought, teaching and practice. We believe the intersection of religion and progressive politics is a field which merits serious study, as the intellectual bankruptcy of neoliberalism becomes increasingly obvious to people, reactionary politicians continue to hide behind a socially conservative interpretation of religion, and as recognition of the need for wide-reaching and progressive change in Britain grows.

Organised religion repels a lot of people these days, because of the perception that it is elitist, dogmatic and socially exclusive. But there is a radical strand in the modern Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other faiths, based on helping the poor, promotion of the common good, respecting the dignity of labour, and practising solidarity with the socially excluded. This radical strand includes political campaigning against the structural causes of poverty and inequality in the name of social justice, as well as encouraging individual acts of charity.

To take a few examples, all of the main Christian groups - Anglicans, Methodists, Catholics, United Reformed Church, Baptists, Quakers, Church of Scotland - are supporters of Real Living Wage campaigns, which aim to improve the situation of workers in low-paid, precarious employment. Churches of a variety of denominations have come together to help the victims of recent tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire and the Manchester Arena bombing. And consider also the critical statements made by Pope Francis about capitalism such as, 'We cannot wait any longer to deal with the structural causes of poverty, in order to heal our society from an illness that can only lead to new crises.' The pope has repeatedly cited the pitfalls of capitalism, decrying global income inequality and equating low-wage labor to a form of slavery. He has even said, in that bitterly ironic tone characteristic of Jesus' voice in the Gospels: 'It is the communists who think like Christians'.

Combining a progressive political strand with a radical application of religion could make a useful contribution to the national conversation about the direction of a future Labour Government. It also could empower people to reclaim their spiritual and moral heritage, and help inspire, motivate and underpin local campaigning activity. Just like art, religion can be a tool of oppression, a means of legitimating unfair distributions of power and wealth – but it can also be a powerful tool for the radical liberation of humanity. 

In the first essay, Professor Boer discusses Marx's description of religion as 'the opium of the people'. He says:

Marx’s most well-known observation concerning religion is that it is ‘the opium of the people’. The meaning would seem to be clear: opium is a drug that dulls the senses and helps one forget the miseries of the present. So also with religion. The catch is that Marx’s use of ‘opium’ is not so straightforward, for it actually opens the door to what may be called a political ambivalence at the heart of religion.

Go to Religion: the opium of the people? for the first essay.

In the second essay, Professor Boer analyses the various relationships between religion and capitalism, especially Marx's use of the term 'fetish'. He says:

Marx was then able to distil the idea to locate the central fetishistic function of capitalism: money produces money, capital produces profit or interest in and of itself. Only a complex theory of fetishism can explain why ‘capital thus becomes a very mystic being’, especially ‘since all of labour’s social productive forces appear to be due to capital, rather than labour as such, and seem to issue from the womb of capital itself. In this sense can we say that capital becomes the ‘religion of everyday life’.

Go to Religion and capitalism for the second essay.

In the third essay, Professor Boer discusses the biblical basis for Christian communism; the views of Engels, Kautsky and Lenin; its history in Europe and Russia; modern examples of the mutually supportive ways in which Christianity and communism operate in North Korea and China; and suggests some possible lessons for Western churches and socialist parties. He says:

Churches, mosques, temples and meditation centres need to remember that religion is not all about a private spiritual life focused on another world. This world too, with its exploitation, injustice and inequality, is also vitally important. As each tradition recognises, faith is collective and unitive, a fundamental part of our social natures and of human cultures.

Go to Christianity and Communism for the third essay.

We hope these essays stimulate critical discussion, and would welcome critical and creative responses to the issues they raise. We invite people to share the ebooks via their networks, join us in the debate and contribute ideas about to how advance this agenda. 

 

 

 

Books Please! The Russian Revolution, Arts and Culture
Sunday, 12 November 2017 20:00

Books Please! The Russian Revolution, Arts and Culture

Published in 1917 Centenary

Mike Quille outlines some of the ways the Russian Revolution has influenced art and culture across the world in the last 100 years.

The Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 was the world’s first attempt to create a socialist society. It was based on the active support of the majority of the population, workers and peasants alike, and apart from ending Russia’s disastrous involvement in the First World War, it liberated and enfranchised the Russian population politically, socially and economically. It was radically progressive in its social policies – for example towards women and children – and in particular in its truly comprehensive education policies, as outlined in an article by Megan Behrent in this new, commemorative section of Culture Matters.

What about its impact on culture? Unquestionably, the Revolution gave a massive boost to creativity and imagination and led to an explicit recognition, by artists and Bolsheviks alike, that art could serve the general population rather than elites, and thus advance the aims of the Revolution. The natural links between artistic creativity and emancipatory politics were made – not for the first time in human history, but in the strongest way to date.

This explosion of creativity occurred in the visual arts, film, poetry, ballet, children’s literature, music and many more popular cultural pursuits including sport and science, theatre and theology, fashion and clothing. Hardly an area of human cultural activity was unaffected by the Revolution - for an illuminating discussion of its effect on science, see Andy Byford's Revolution and Science under the Bolsheviks.

MQ childrens book.jpg  MQ childrens.jpg

Children's literature from the 1920s

Complementing the energy and political focus of cultural workers like artists and poets - see John Ellison's article on Alexander Blok - came a qualitative and quantitative change in the reception and appreciation of culture. There was a massive improvement in the ability and willingness of the mass of working people to engage with and enjoy the arts and other cultural activities, thanks to the government’s progressive educational policies and bold, imaginative attempts to connect the masses to culture, for example in the agit-trains and agit-boats that carried the political art of Mayakovsky, Lissitzky and Malevich to hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants.

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Agit-train; Agit-boat with theatre on board

These kind of bold, ambitious initiatives, developed in a relatively poor and backward country a century ago, make a telling contrast with our Arts Council’s timid attempts to encourage 'community engagement'. State policy towards the arts in this country is still dominated by the elitist mission of subsidising the interests of the richer segments of metropolitan populations.

What is often less discussed is the cultural impact of the Revolution across the world outside of Russia. It was a massive influence at the time, and has been for the last hundred years. Indeed, the purposes, meanings and effects of the Revolution on culture are still being played out today - a kind of 'cosmic background radiation', as Andrew Murray vividly describes it.

This brief survey will sketch out those influences, with a few examples where space allows. They are grouped into three kinds of influence.

The revolutionary impact on cultural workers

Firstly, there was the direct and worldwide influence of the Revolution on cultural activities such as art, literature, music and sport. The constructivist movement in the visual arts and in architecture, for example, was possibly the most influential global artistic movement in the twentieth century - see Jean Turner's article on avant-garde architecture.

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Tatlin's Tower;socialist architecture

As Owen Hatherley and others have pointed out, abstraction, pop art, minimalism, abstract expressionism, the graphic style of punk and post-punk, and architectural brutalism, postmodernism, hi-tech and deconstructivism are all heavily indebted to the constructivism which sprang from the Russian Revolution. Constructivism combined a radical new approach to technology and engineering with an explicitly communist social purpose. Malevich, Tatlin, Rodchenko and Stepanova all represented different strands of the constructivist movement, and their influence can be seen in buildings across the world in the twentieth century.

Numerous examples could also be drawn from the literary arts. In poetry and literature generally, the ‘turn to the people’ that the Revolution represented, the replacement of an elite perspective with a focus on the lives and concerns of ordinary people, took a massive step forward, particularly in developing and increasingly anti-colonial countries.

RR Diego Rivera at work on The Uprising and Agrarian Leader Zapata

Diego Rivera at work on The Uprising; Agrarian Leader Zapata

The kind of mutuality and affinities which the Revolution sparked in Indian literature and Asia can also be traced in African and South American art and culture, too, notably in the the work of Diego Rivera.

Up until the Revolution, the global dissemination of art and culture had always had an imperialistic dimension. It was inextricably entwined with the capitalist exploitative colonial project, a means of imposing metropolitan cultural values on other peoples. After 1917, just as the Revolution strengthened radical political opposition across the world, so it enabled indigenous cultural and artistic traditions to flower and make international connections, on a scale not seen before in human history.

Closer to home, an example of this international effect was the leftist poetry movement in 1930s Britain led by Auden, Macneice, Spender and others. They were inspired by the Revolution to create a more overtly political, even didactic literature. In both form and content they aimed to connect more closely with the mass of the population. And there’s no doubt of the huge influence of the Revolution on many other writers like George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Virginia Woolf.

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George Bernard Shaw; W.H.Auden and Benjamin Britten

This literary movement itself influenced musicians and composers like Alan Bush and Auden’s friend Benjamin Britten, who was also independently attracted to communist and specifically Russian culture.

It spread also to documentary film-makers like the GPO Film Unit and its successors, who started a fine tradition of compassionate and sometimes overtly socialist documentaries on the living conditions of the British people, before, during and after the Second World War.

MQ Coal Face 1935

It is a tradition which was continued by the ‘kitchen-sink’ dramas of the fifties theatre, in TV dramas such as the Wednesday Play and Play for Today, and the exemplary work of Ken Loach right up to the present day.

The wider world was if anything even more influenced by the Revolution than Britain. In literature, art, and music the list is virtually endless. It is striking how left wing political perspectives are so common across all the arts in the twentieth century, and this is partly due to the influence of the Revolution on global culture.

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Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin; Poster for Vertov's Kino-Glaz produced by Alexander Rodchenko

In cinema, the innovative techniques of Sergei Eisenstein, using ‘oppositional’ montage to create a new cinematic language, and Dziga Vertov, capturing ‘film truth’ in a radically new type of documentary, laid the foundations of world cinema - see John Green's comprehensive and authoritative survey of Soviet cinema. It is widely recognised that John Ford, Orson Welles, the Italian neo-realists, Carol Reed, Hitchcock, Coppola, Scorsese, and many others were heavily influenced by these Russian pioneers. 

The revolutionary impact on appreciation and enjoyment

Secondly, there is another kind of influence, which is the impact of the Revolution not only on production but on consumption - on ways of accessing, experiencing and enjoying cultural activities.

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Joan Littlewood; the People's Theatre, Newcastle

For example, there was the establishment of workers’ film societies in Britain, which brought quality cinema closer to working class people. The people’s theatre movement in Britain also grew very strongly in the 1920s, encouraged by G.B. Shaw, a strong sympathiser with the ideals of the Revolution. They were taken forward by Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl into both popular theatres and folk music clubs, before and after the Second World War. Joan Littlewood was heavily monitored by MI5: what better evidence can there be of Bolshevik influence?

Radical workers’ theatre in the rest of Europe and the United States was massively stimulated and energised by the democratising, anti-elitist influence of the revolution, and there was also a workers’ radio movement in Europe.

The revolutionary nature of art

The third kind of positive influence of the Revolution on art and culture was deeper and more general. It is an influence shared with every other progressive revolution in history.

Just as one of the main benefits of the Russian Revolution was to strengthen not only specifically radical political and economic alternatives to class-divided societies, but the very possibility of realising an alternative at all, so the Revolution did the same for artistic and cultural activities.

This is because as William Blake and others have recognised, artistic and cultural activities like poetry, art and music are fundamentally social and communal activities. That is why and how they evolved in human history: they are essentially acts of powerful, rousing and empathic communication which develop and deepen human sympathy and solidarity. Art – and other cultural activities such as sport and religion – can overcome and break down all kinds of barriers between humans. Cultural activity can overcome and dissolve, in reality as well as in our imaginations, the fundamental class divisions in human societies based on unequal shares of private property that have existed since ancient times.

The challenge to class-based society which the Revolution represented enabled and empowered artists, writers, musicians and their publics across the world to make, understand and enjoy art which was critical, challenging and oppositional to the status quo.

These countercultural, challenging strands can be traced in all the arts. This was something peculiar to the Russian Revolution, or totally new – evidence of artistic opposition to injustice, inequality and hierarchical oppression can be traced back through human history, as can the insistence of artists on the liberating power of creativity - see Doug Nicholl's article on Lugalbanda. But the Revolution strengthened that liberating, oppositional strand which is always, everywhere present in human cultural activities, the 'counter-hegemonic' forces identified by Antonio Gramsci.

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Pablo Picasso, Guernica

Without the Revolution, there might well have been artistic protests against war and imperialist aggression, progressive religious movements, museums and art galleries, and cultural education for more people. But would there have been Guernica? Liberation theology? People’s museums? Comprehensive arts and sports education?

The Revolution enabled a more confident, collectivist and communal challenge to elite forms of art – not only its themes and content, but its mode of production, distribution, accessibility, reception and criticism.

Inspiring art and progressive politics have always been inextricably intertwined, which is one of the reasons why conservatives and liberals always want to keep them separate. The Russian Revolution firmly connected them, and all the debates about art and politics since then have been influenced by it. For example, the very idea of art and other cultural activities needing to respond to the needs of the mass of the population and not just serve ruling elites was given an enormous boost, which has influenced arts and culture policies across the world ever since. Those agit-trains agitated the world!

The revolutionary impact through resistance and reaction

All these positive influences of the Russian Revolution on art and culture have also been resisted, undermined and often beaten back, in ‘cultural wars’ which continue today. 

This takes us to a fourth, very mixed legacy of the Revolution in world culture today, which is a consequence of the deep and long-lasting opposition of the capitalist powers to the Russian Revolution.

From the beginning there was diplomatic, economic and military opposition from the United States, Britain and other European powers to the anti-capitalist nature of the 1917 Revolution. This was temporarily replaced by an antifascist alliance in the Second World War, but thereafter quickly degenerated into various open and proxy conflicts across the globe during the Cold War.

This hostility and failure to support the fundamentally democratic advances made in Russia after the overthrow of autocracy caused tremendous suffering in 1920s and 1930s Soviet Union, directly and indirectly. Enforced isolation and the crushing of attempts to spread the radical impulse internationally were tragic, missed opportunities for what could have been an international flowering of human life, materially and culturally. Western elites, through acts of commission and omission, carry a huge responsibility for the sufferings of peoples across the world in the twentieth century.

In the Soviet Union, the defensive reaction to capitalist reaction and aggression led to the submersion and disappearance of some of the positive aspects of revolutionary culture. The pluralism of cultural policy under Lenin and Lunacharsky, and the bold ambition of the Proletkult - see article by Lynn Mally - was eroded into a much narrower approach to the arts and culture generally. Although the early Soviet state was always far more directly supportive of the arts and culture than capitalist democracies – particularly regarding literacy, cultural education and general access for the masses, for example – it also developed heavy-handed censorship arrangements, and intolerance of artistic and musical dissent and nonconformity.

The cultural influence of anti-communist hostility of the West was also expressed within capitalist countries. It took – and takes – many forms. Just to take one country, the United States, for example, there was the blatant, career-threatening persecution and blacklisting of left-leaning screenwriters, actors and directors in the film industry and other creative industries. 

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American postcard, 1930s

Another clear example is how the CIA covertly funded certain art forms such as abstract expressionism, and put pressure on various cultural institutions, in order to counter the left-leaning realist traditions in the visual arts (photography as well as painting) which were developing in Thirties America.

It is important to remember that this anti-communism is still current. The elites of Western powers have not forgotten or forgiven the power of artists to advance progressive and revolutionary political agendas. It is evident in the continuing prejudice of the American and British film industries against genres such as social realism and other cinematic attempts to tell the truth about capitalist exploitation and oppression. Individualistic, sexist themes which are congruent with capitalist culture, such as lone brave violent males supported by emotional caring females, dominate our screens. Because films generally are made for quick profit rather than for quality of insight and enlightenment, they rely overwhelmingly on superficial values including melodrama, sentiment, spectacle, glamour and celebrity, over real insight, intellectual depth and social relevance.

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Poster, Go to the Stadiums!

Sport provides another instructive example. As Gareth Edwards relates in his piece, the Revolution opened up the possibility of more grassroots-driven, widely-practised and co-operative forms of sport which did not rely solely on the excitement generated by individual competition. The remarkably progressive approach to womens’ rights in the polity and economy was paralleled by advances in the access of women to sport and physical pursuits, for example in the growth of womens’ athletic organisations. This caused a hardening of elite attitudes in the West. It was at least partly responsible, for example, for the crushing of womens’ football by the FA in 1921 and other attempts to maintain the cultural dominance of white men.

The Cold War and the triumph of neoliberal capitalism, with its accompanying culture of competitiveness, elite celebrity and individual excellence, has also tended to corrupt sporting ideals. The Olympics, instead of being a celebration of human sporting ability, was turned into another proxy ideological and nationalistic battle between capitalism and socialism, and has still not fully recovered. Recent and ongoing drugs scandals across swathes of sporting activity bear witness to the insidious pressures of commercialism, individual achievement through winner/loser competitiveness, and celebrity culture.

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Great art and poor curating at the RA: Alexander Deineka, In Defence of Petrograd; Malevich, Woman with a Rake

This anti-communism has also manifested itself this year, in various TV programmes and exhibitions. The exhibition of post-revolutionary Russian art at the Royal Academy, for example, was strikingly reactionary. Funded by the Blavatnik Foundation, a beneficiary of the sell-off of state-owned assets when the USSR collapsed in 1989, the exhibition abandoned the usual liberal approach of trying to provide a balanced historical account of the political background and art of the Revolution. Instead, it promoted an openly hostile perspective, which downplayed, denied and derided links between the progressive politics of the Revolution and the marvellously energetic and powerful art that it inspired. In general, mainstream media coverage of the centenary has been predictably hostile, uncomprehending, tepid, or plainly mistaken - exactly the same problems that characterise its coverage of Corbynism, and for exactly the same reasons. 

The revolutionary influence today

In complex and deeply interwoven strands across all of human cultural activity in the last hundred years, the Revolution has had a massive effect. Its power and influence can still be detected in debates about the links between politics and economics on the one hand and art, sport and religion on the other. In all these debates, the example of Russia is inescapable.

It has left us with some tremendous and enduring examples of excellence in all forms of artistic and cultural activities, across all the world and across the hundred years since 1917. And because of the resistance of ruling elites, it has also led to a polarisation of debates and of practices.

Ever since 1917, there has been debate about the detailed legacy of the Revolution for art and culture. But one thing we can surely all agree about, at least on the Left, is the way it strengthened the capacity and confidence of art and artists to creatively imagine difference, improvement, and radical alternatives to what is.

This influence is extremely relevant today. We face increasing struggles against the incursions of capitalism into our human culture these days. There are all kinds of different barriers and pressures – financial, geographical, thematic – which tend to twist and corrupt human culture. Naturally healthy and developmental cultural activities such as art, sport, religion, eating and drinking, in all their myriad forms, are facing pressures to become corralled into expensive, inaccessible, privatised and patrolled enclaves for the rich and powerful.

bread and roses

In the current struggles that we face to democratise culture, to make it accessible and relevant and affordable to the mass of working-class people, the example of the Russian Revolution is like a beacon of inspiration. It shows us that things don’t have to be the way they are, that tomorrow may not be the same – and that we can achieve and enjoy a better life.

The team at Culture Matters hope that this piece, and the accompanying articles in this section of Culture Matters, give you some sense of the power and range of global cultural influences which sprang from the Russian Revolution. However, perhaps the most enduring influence of the Revolution lies not just in our appreciation and enjoyment of its tremendous cultural legacy, but in the way it still stimulates and motivates us to act now to fulfil its promise – by replacing the culture, politics and economics of capitalism with a socialist alternative.

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