Andrew Warburton continues his series on art and cultural policy by interviewing Theresa Easton and Pam Foley at Artists’ Union England, the union for visual and applied artists.
Andrew Warburton is a writer and editor in Boston, Massachusetts. He is a member of Labour International (the international section of the British Labour Party) and Momentum.
Andrew Warburton continues his series on arts policy by interviewing Dr. Ben Walmsley, professor of audience engagement at Leeds University.
Socialist policies for arts and culture are not created in an ideological vacuum. Rather than thinking we must devise policies that reflect our ideology perfectly and then impose those policies on the world, the seeds of a socialist approach to art can be found in the here and now. If we are to identify those seeds and elucidate ways to draw them out, we require a grasp of the present state of things, and a clear understanding of the way the arts should be developed for the collective good and for the working class.
With six years of Tory austerity behind us, Brexit on the horizon and the left-wing reorientation of the Labour Party ongoing, Culture Matters is starting a debate about the possible arts and cultural policies of a future socialist government. As part of this initiative, we will be interviewing representatives of organizations on the left – political parties, trade unions, arts organisations etc. We want to gather their views on art and culture, their analysis of the way things are at the moment, and what the way forward might look like.
Andrew Warburton starts us off with an introduction to the topic and a brief description of the state of play at the moment.
After years of reduced funding to the Arts Council of Great Britain in the late 70s, 80s and early 90s, the last Labour government presided, comparatively, over a golden age for the arts. It was not without its failures (including the much-derided Millennium Dome), but Labour’s achievements during those 13 years included the ending of museum admission fees, the opening of the Tate Modern and a heavy increase in funding to the Arts Council from £179 million in 1998 to £453 million in 2009.
Andrew Warburton interviews one of the organisers of screenings of some socialist films at the islington Mill, Salford.
One proof of Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to inspire grassroots action among Labour members and in the community as a whole is the ever-expanding list of cultural projects and activities bearing the name ‘… for Corbyn’. First, we had ‘Poets for Corbyn’ (a collection of poems released by Pendant Publishing in August 2015). Then we had ‘Dance for Corbyn’, a mixture of speakers and DJ sets in London, and soon there will be ‘Rock for Corbyn’, a night of live music in Warrington. Next week sees the beginning of a Greater Manchester-based project called ‘Films for Corbyn’, involving the screening of socialist films in aid of various causes, including the pro-Corbyn activist group Momentum.
The first film, screened on 24th August at the Islington Mill in Salford, is the documentary, ‘The Hard Stop’, about the shooting of Mark Duggan, a young black man, by the Metropolitan Police. Speakers at the screening will include Claudia Webbe, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee; Carole Duggan, the mother of Mark Duggan; and the poet Mark Mace Smith.
I asked Simon, one of the project’s organisers, what inspired him and his Momentum colleagues to start a film series in support of the Labour leader. A testament to the dynamic nature of grassroots organising associated with the Corbyn-led renewal of the Labour Party, Simon’s responses also demonstrated the importance of combining socio-cultural activities with the more serious business of political organizing.
What was the inspiration for ‘Films for Corbyn’?
I suppose ‘Films for Corbyn’ came out of us on the committee of Manchester and Trafford Momentum thinking about socials we could do to keep people engaged in politics. I think it’s important that as well as doing all of the important organising meetings, we do events which allow people to socialise and have fun, so that we don’t lose the energy from all of the people who have become enthused with politics for the first time in a while (or ever!) thanks to Jeremy Corbyn. I worry that it’s quite easy for people to become bored or disillusioned with politics, especially in the Labour Party, whose structures are often bureaucratic and unwelcoming to new people.
Will the project raise money for a particular cause?
We were initially going to donate any funds raised to our local Momentum group, which has been building a grassroots pro-Corbyn movement without any funding. The committee has had to finance our activities out of their own pocket, and that has become increasingly difficult as we have had to book bigger spaces to cope with the numbers of people coming to our events, which has risen dramatically in recent months. We will also be donating to causes which are related to the films we are showing. So our first screening will also be redistributing donations to the Duggan family.
Where will the films be shown?
This is initially a Manchester project, so we will be concentrating on showing films around the Greater Manchester area, with our first screening being in Salford. We don’t have any plans as of yet to show films in other regions, but if there is interest elsewhere it would be exciting to expand this project to other parts of the country
What kind of films do you intend to show?
We intend to show films from a radical working class or socialist tradition, which explore issues affecting some of the most marginalised groups and people in society, which are issues Jeremy Corbyn has been campaigning on throughout his political life.
What is your larger vision for the series, i.e., is it an educational project or part of a bigger political campaign?
For us, educational projects and political campaigns go hand in hand, and we want ‘Films for Corbyn’ to be both of these things. Not only is it something which we hope will maintain and attract enthusiasm for supporting a left-wing Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, the films and discussions we will host will hopefully raise further awareness of issues in Britain which the Labour Party should be fighting. Promoting political education is something we have been doing in Manchester and Trafford Momentum and is something which we feel there needs to be more of.
What do you see as the great socialist filmmakers or classics of socialist film?
Personally, I’m a massive fan of the work of Cinema Action, which was a left-wing film collective whose members produced amazing (but overlooked) documentaries from the late ‘60s to the ‘80s. Particularly for me, the work of Marc Karlin and Steve Sprung, such as ‘The Year of the Beaver’ and ‘Between Times’ stand out. As someone who is more interested in documentaries, I also admire the series produced by Granada in its glory days, such as ‘World in Action’. And I, of course, love a bit of Adam Curtis.
The first film in the ‘Films for Corbyn’ series will be shown on 24th August at the Islington Mill, James Street, Salford. Tickets are £5 (£3 unwaged) and are available through Eventbrite at the following link: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/films-for-corbyn-opening-the-hard-stop-tickets-26874738065.
Andrew Warburton reviews the Spring issue of the Marxist journal Crisis and Critique, which focuses on art, music and culture in the Soviet Union under Stalin.
One sign of the enormity of Joseph Stalin’s influence on the international labour movement throughout the twentieth century is that intellectuals on the left continue to debate the lessons to be learned from his regime. These lessons concern not only the political experience of totalitarianism but also the cultural phenomenon of “socialist realism” and the nature of communist art. One of the most significant analyses of Stalinist culture in recent times, reprinted in 2011 by Verso Books, is Boris Groys’ The Total Art of Stalinism. Groys' book has provided, for many people, a completely original understanding of twentieth century communist aesthetics. This is why the Spring issue of the Marxist political journal Crisis and Critique - titled “Stalin: What Does the Name Stand For?” - comes at such an opportune time. This article is a review of that issue.
A troubling question that may arise for some readers approaching this topic for the first time is why the journal’s editors would publish an issue with such a provocative title. One might expect conservative or liberal-minded critics to react to the question with a straightforward condemnation of Stalin. The explanation the editors, Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza, give is that reductive interpretations of Stalinist culture - for instance, approaching that culture as “pathological,” “unintelligible,” or “irrational” - fail to adequately explain its driving force. By offering an immanent explanation of the “political rationality” of Stalinism, they hope to arrive at a clearer understanding of a culture that includes, among its contradictory effects, an apparently irrational campaign of terror and an enormous increase in Russia’s productive forces.
This approach can be seen, in many ways, as an extension of Boris Groys’ own analysis of Stalinism. Similar to Ruda and Hamza, Groys describes his approach as an “immanent” one and contrasts it with historical work that explains Stalinism through a “detailed chronology of historical facts.” For Groys, the latter approach results in misunderstandings of communist culture’s “inherent logic” and gives rise to an “outside observer’s fascination with the ceremonies of the centralized Soviet bureaucratic apparatus.” According to Ruda and Hamza, this fascination also encourages a limited representation of Stalinism as pathological or irrational and prevents an understanding of its internal dynamic. In contrast to this approach, the authors mentioned here begin with the assumption that all the features of Stalinist culture - even its excesses - must be available to analysis.
For anyone not familiar with Groys’ thesis, Alexei Penzin’s essay in this collection - Stalin Beyond Stalin: A Paradoxical Hypothesis of Communism - offers a precise summary and critique of both The Total Art of Stalinism and another book by Groys focusing specifically on communism: The Communist Postscript. In fact, as Penzin shows, Groys’ thesis on communist art is deceptively simple: rather than portraying Stalinism as a betrayal of the revolution and of modernist forms of art, as many critics and historians tend to do, Groys considers “socialist realism” to be their consummation.
His reasoning for this is that whereas the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s wanted to use art to remake society completely from scratch (i.e., it wanted art to become a productive force that would break with every aesthetic and social formation that went before), Stalin and the socialist realist “regime of art” turned this dream into a reality by remaking society as a “totalized” aesthetic form. As Groys points out:
Under Stalin the dream of the avant grade was in fact fulfilled and the life of society was organized in monolithic artistic forms, though of course not those that the avant-garde itself had favored.
It is difficult, in the light of this thesis, to think of socialist realism as a simply “reactionary” form of art, because it contains within it - in a more radically politicized form - all the lessons of the Russian avant-garde. Whatever one’s thoughts on Stalinism, many of the authors in the present issue of Crisis and Critique cannot help but respond to Groys’ insistence on its artistic and ideological power.
Tatlin’s Tower (1919) by Vladimir Tatlin, avant-garde constructivist design.
Although this issue of Crisis and Critique concerns itself primarily with politics, one essay, in particular, responds to the call for an immanent exploration of Stalinist art and culture in a way that aligns with Groys’ project. The essay - Who is Stalin? What is he?” by Lars T. Lih - pays particular attention to the mythical dimensions of two cantatas by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Hail to Stalin and Song of the Forests.
Rather than explaining the Stalinist features of these compositions as reactionary impositions on the composers’ otherwise “authentic” careers, Lih chooses - like Groys - to analyse the Stalinist integrity of these artworks by “taking Stalin into account.” This means placing the librettos in the context of Russian literary history and understanding Stalin, both the “mythical figure” and the “actual individual,” as the latest representative in a succession of Russian leaders, including Peter the Great and Boris Godunov. Song of the Forests, for instance, portrays Stalin in the act of mobilising the people for a great “reforestation project.” According to Lih, this representation contrasts Stalin deliberately with Pushkin’s character of Peter the Great in a poem of the same name. Whereas Pushkin’s Peter was an imperialist whose “great project is to remove a forest associated with darkness and primitiveness,” Stalin emerges as an anti-imperialist builder of peace whose “main motive in the cantata [is] ‘happiness for the narrod [i.e., the people].’”
Prokofiev’s Hail to Stalin, on the other hand, uses the “folklore-like expressions of the Soviet people” to portray Stalin in different states of mythic transcendence drawn, apparently, from ancient traditions. In the line “the sun now shines differently to us on earth… it is with Stalin in the Kremlin,” Lih sees Stalin as “a sort of vegetation god who guarantees fertility and growth.” Amid all this, the leader is portrayed, for Lih, as a “sacred” figure who demonstrates the ability to access a “sacred truth” and mediate between this truth and the life of his people; he does this, however, through a Marxist understanding of the laws of history, not through any divine communication.
The implication of Lih’s readings supports Groys’ thesis that Stalinist culture offers its consumers access to a mythology that transcends economic necessity and touches the transhistorical. As Lih points out, the Stalin one finds in these works is
an entryway into myth - a symbol whose meanings can only be grasped through knowledge of the Stalin of history, but whose ramifications far transcend him.
In Stalin’s lifetime, critics and philosophers already understood that the overcoming of the contradictions of capitalism would inevitably lead to a radically different approach to the distinction between aesthetics and economics. In 1938, the Soviet Marxist Mikhail Lifshitz explained that the capitalist mode of production had brought the “inimical relationship… between the poetical play of fantasy and the prose of life” to its fullest possible tension. By alienating workers from their labour, capitalism emphasized the sharp distinction between work and play to an intolerable degree.
With this in mind, Lih’s insights into the mythic dimension of Stalinism are clarified: Stalinist art works derive their power from portraying the Soviet Union’s socialized mode of production - in this case, the reforestation project of Shostakovich’s Song of the Forests - as transporting workers out of the “prosaic” level of existence and thereby resolving the contradiction between a reality reduced to economics and the desire for mythic existence. The consumer of the Stalinist artwork aesthetically attains such an existence: his life is no longer limited to economic exchange and his aesthetic senses are liberated from the compartmentalized world of “play.”
As Lifshitz points out:
Communist society removes… the abstract contradiction between ‘work and pleasure’… Together with the abolition of classes and the gradual disappearance of the contradiction between physical and spiritual labour, comes that all-sided development of the whole individual which the greatest social thinkers hitherto could only dream about.
Stakhanovite from the OGPU plant (1931-1939) by Vitaly Tikhov.
Many of the authors in the present issue of Crisis and Critique demonstrate an acute awareness of the power of ideology, which is really another word for “myth.” This awareness, of course, places great importance on art, literature, and aesthetics as bearers of ideology. However, the authors also seem ambivalent about the role of ideology in communist politics, an ambivalence that’s heightened, of course, by the awareness that so many communist experiments have degenerated into ideologically repressive regimes (Stalin being the quintessential example). The fact that many of the writers seem to believe that the existence of democratic, working-class organizations will never produce meaningful changes without some larger political - and ideological - oversight only heightens the sense of ambivalence.
Jean-Claude Milner, for example, in his article “The Prince and the Revolutionary,” points out that Lenin’s gravest “political mistake” was that he believed too much in Marxist economics and failed to understand the importance of a political imaginary. Believing he possessed full knowledge of Russia’s economic situation and that an “affirmative doctrine of economic management” would be enough to build socialism in the country, he failed to grasp the sheer level of ideological manipulation required. It was therefore left to Stalin to create a political mythology capable of transforming society through fiat. One only has to return to our earlier discussion of Groys and Lih to understand the aesthetic character of this mythology.
Other writers in the collection dismiss Stalinism as not introducing anything original to the Marxist-Leninist tradition. The writer and Trotskyist activist Paul Le Blanc learns songs from Maoists in India but finds that the aspiration these comrades express - “we demand our share of wealth earned by our sweat!” - bears no essential relationship to the “Stalinist reference points” they use. The essence of the Maoists’ songs, for Le Blanc, is “far more consistent with core beliefs… found in such revolutionaries as Marx, Lenin, and Krupskaya.” In other words, in contrast to Lih, Milner, and Groys, Stalinism is reduced to a husk containing a properly revolutionary core, and any original aesthetics produced under Stalin could only be in the service of reaction.
Le Blanc’s dismissal of Stalin finds support from Louis Proyect in his review of Crisis and Critique’s new issue on the blog The Unrepentant Marxist. Proyect describes some of the authors in “Stalin: What Does the Name Stand For?” as “crypto-Stalinists,” saying they’re “more interested in what Stalin said than than what he did.” He goes on to argue that “abandoning the rigid dichotomies of crypto-Stalinism is a major task facing the left.” However, the role played by language and aesthetics in Groys and in the writings of the so-called crypto-Stalinists in Crisis and Critique suggests that a fundamental disagreement exists between Proyect’s Marxism and the postmodern dialectics of the former writers. Their interest in “what Stalin said” and in official Soviet ideology arises from an emphasis on the role of language and aesthetics in the shaping of history.
Hence, for Groys, socialist realism may resolve the problem of art’s subordination to market forces and might even allow art to accede to its true power as art. But that doesn’t make Stalinism palatable. Equally, the unpalatability of Stalinism does not mean that philosophers should simply stop questioning what art would look like if it were freed from market forces. With the Soviet Union being our only model of a society in which the market was completely abolished, this question is inevitably going to come up against Stalinism. By dismissing those who attempt to understand Stalinism and who see it, theoretically, as an “answer” to a philosophical dilemma, Proyect surely fails to understand the dilemma itself.
Stalin: What Does the Name Stand For? is a varied and profound collection, which adds to our understanding of Stalinist culture. The willingness to approach Stalinism from the “inside” is daring, and yet, it mustn’t be avoided simply out of fear of irrationality or “evil.” Without an understanding of the rationality that motivates seemingly irrational events, communist projects of the future will be impoverished.