200 years young
Sunday, 18 February 2018 07:06

200 years young

Published in Films

Scott McLemee reviews The Young Karl Marx, which, on the eve of 200th anniversary of Marx's birth, contains themes of economic crises and inequalities that remain relevant today.

Released last year but receiving as yet very little English-language press coverage, Der Junge Karl Marx is a nuanced and surprisingly accurate portrait of the revolutionary as a young man. That said, I cannot vouch for the chase scene. Regarding which, more anon.

First a couple of circumstances that bode well for the film's chances of reaching a wider audience once The Young Karl Marx (the title I saw it under at a film festival recently) becomes available on DVD and via streaming. Its director is Raoul Peck, the Haitian filmmaker whose I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary about James Baldwin, was nominated for the Oscars last year. And the timing is good: This coming May 5 will mark the 200th anniversary of Marx's birth. Add, say, the findings in World Bank report released this week, The Changing Wealth of Nations 2018, and the potential for interest in the film looks promising. Over the past two decades, global wealth grew "grew an estimated 66 percent," the report says, "from $690 trillion to $1,143 trillion in constant 2014 U.S. dollars at market prices," while "per capita wealth declined or stagnated in more than two dozen countries in various income brackets."

If anything, those figures understate the gap. It was defined more starkly two years ago by Oxfam: "[T]he richest 1 percent have now accumulated more wealth than the rest of the world put together…. Meanwhile, the wealth owned by the bottom half of humanity has fallen by a trillion dollars in the past five years."

As the middle-aged Marx put it when writing for The New York Tribune in 1859: "There must be something rotten in the very core of a social system which increases its wealth without diminishing its misery." His understanding of that system identified tendencies towards economic crisis and breakdown as inherent in the normal functioning of capitalism itself. The tweaks and patches improvised to keep things moving become, in due course, sources of turbulence. (How to square stagnating wages with the need for constantly renewed household purchasing power? With more and more consumer credit - plus the chance for investors to wager on securities tied to mortgage failure! That'll fix it.) These are insights it is unfortunately necessary to recover from time to time.

Peck and his screenwriters have availed themselves of very few of the imaginative liberties usually permitted in the making of a biopic. The Young Karl Marx sticks closely to the record, with some of the dialogue adapted from correspondence or memoirs and the casting director clearly working from portraits of the original figures. It can be difficult to imagine that there was ever a young man beneath the iconic Marx, with his prophetic and imposing beard. But August Diehl bears a striking resemblance to a drawing of Marx in his early twenties, and depicts him with just the confrontational edge that comes through in his letters to Friedrich Engels. The latter is played by Stefan Konarske - and again the likeness to pictures of the young Engels, especially in demeanor, shows more attention to the biographical sources than the genre necessarily requires.

KM4

The film opens in 1842 with Marx and his fellow philosopher-journalists at the Rheinische Zeitung being arrested for Marx's scathing coverage of debates in the local parliament - in particular, his articles on new laws taking away the traditional right of peasants to gather deadwood on a landowner's property. Marx himself later wrote that reporting on such grubby matters had been his first push towards studying economic issues. On screen, it appears as Marx's breaking point with the Young Hegelians (not a circle I ever expected to see on film) and the beginning of a series of clashes with government officials and hurried moves from country to country with his wife and children - living the life of an impecunious political exile that continues long after the end of the movie, which coincides with publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848. For the record, the final scene contains the only significant factual mistake I noticed: Marx tells Engels he will be writing for The New York Tribune, though in fact he was only offered the job in 1851.

Now, a film that begins with its hero writing for one newspaper and ends with him taking a position at another newspaper is going to need a lot more than verisimilitude going for it. And that is also true even - or perhaps especially - when intervening developments largely concern the shaping of a political doctrine. What The Young Karl Marx has working to its advantage is that the 1840s were an exceptionally lively decade. Cold War-era accounts sometimes made it sound like Marx was a misanthropic recluse, scribbling diatribes read mostly by other fanatics. Peck stands that myth on its head in the first scene of Karl and Jenny in Paris, attending a political banquet addressed by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

Such banquets were a big part of the oppositional political scene in France at the time. In reading about them, I've always imagined a big hall with waiters bringing food to large tables -- nothing like the event depicted in the film. What we see is more like an open-air rally during the daytime, with booths for food and books for sale. Proudhon takes the stage to speak about the need for an economy that won't grind the people into the dirt. He's surrounded by what looks like an entourage of co-thinkers who don't look especially happy about it when Marx throws "the master" a hard question, though both he and the audience seem to enjoy the exchange. And it so happens that some of that audience is black - a nice touch and Raoul Peck's reminder that his ancestors were part of French history even if historians have sometimes written them out of it.

In short, we get a glimpse at a culture of political debate - the first of several. In later events, the audience consists more and more of working men and women, some of them devoted to Proudhon, others drawn to the religiously-tinged radical vision of Wilhelm Weitling, a German tailor of great eloquence. In time, Marx and Engels find themselves both working and arguing with these comrades, with Marx in particular proving constitutionally incapable of politesse. Of course, he's even less diplomatic upon meeting a British industrialist who insists that if child labor is abolished, he won't be able to turn a profit.

Textbook boilerplate has it that the Manifesto launched an international revolutionary movement. But The Young Karl Marx shows what that truism leaves out: Marx and Engels were part of, and were shaped by, a movement from below of people who fought not for ideals but for survival. The point of the manifesto was to give that movement an analysis of some breadth and depth. Whatever the failings of Marx and Engels's shorter-term projections, the lines read in voice-over concern something closer at hand than 19th-century social conditions.

I failed to note down exactly which passage was used, but in looking over the text, I am struck once again by the lucidity and precision of what the authors saw:

All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property.

This vision of hybridity applies to The Young Karl Marx itself - a film in German, French and English, directed by a Haitian in a medium well suited to communicating across wide cultural differences. Which brings me back to how in the film, shortly after Marx and Engels meet and begin exchanging ideas, they soon run into police who are hassling immigrants. They try to escape, and the chase is on! I've checked the biographies and find no indication that this actually happened. But maybe the director is tipping his hat to American cinema by imagining Marx and Engels in a buddy movie.

This review first appeared here, at the U.S. website Inside Higher Ed.

 

......and its name is Communism
Sunday, 18 February 2018 07:06

......and its name is Communism

Published in Poetry

On the 170th anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto, Jenny Farrell introduces Brecht’s poetic re-writing of the Communist Manifesto, with its ‘spectre of communism, which continues to be a threat to the rulers and a friend to the damned of the earth.’

In February 1848, Marx and Engels published “The Communist Manifesto” (TCM). It remains to this day a remarkable piece of literature, a lucid and powerful explanation of politics, economics and culture. It outlines the central importance of class in understanding human history, and a programme to guide our struggle for a more humane, communist society with no class-based divisions.

Almost one hundred years after its first publication, on 11 February 1945, German communist poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht noted in his diary the plan to re-write this text in verse. He was still living in exile in Santa Monica. The end of WWII was approaching and with it the question concerning the future of Germany. Brecht recorded in his journal on 10 March1945: “terrible newspaper reports from Germany. Ruins and no sign of life from the workers”.

Brecht hoped to infuse the original text with “new, armed authority”. The past century had witnessed ever-deeper crises and two horrendous wars. It had also seen for the first time in history a successful revolution, in which the proletariat had taken power. Armed with this historical perspective, the awareness of later Marxist theory, and the need to revive the idea of communism as the only alternative to barbarism, Brecht resolved on this spectacularly ambitious challenge.

With Lucretius’s didactic poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) in mind, and the added challenge of hexameters, he began writing a didactic poem “On the Abnormality (Un-nature) of Bourgeois Relations”. At the heart of four intended cantos, two were to be a versification of the Manifesto, plus an initial one on the difficulties of understanding the nature of society, and a final one to demonstrate the monstrous increase in barbarism. Brecht wrote the second canto first, versifying the first chapter of TCM. This is the only part that Brecht worked on and fully developed. However, Brecht did not publish it during his lifetime, and the poem remained a fragment. Yet “The Manifesto” is awe-inspiring and truly memorable.

In his versification, Brecht follows the original text, often using its terms and famous formulations, but changing some of these around in the interest of dramatic effect and also modernising it. Take the opening stanza: TCM famously begins: “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism”. Brecht uses the phrase “A spectre is haunting” in the opening line, and marvellously personifies it as present in various places and situations around the world. He withholds the name of the personified spectre until the end of the stanza, creating an arc of tension and adding dramatic emphasis to the word “Communism”.

Here is an extract, translated by Jack Mitchell:

Wars ruin the world and a spectre is haunting the ruins.
Not born in war, seen around in peace too, for some time now.
Nightmare to rulers but friend to the children that live in the townships.
Shaking its head as it peers into half-filled plates in poor kitchens.
Standing in wait then for those that are weary at pit-head and yard-gate.
Visiting friends in the prisons, passing in without pass-card.
Seen even in offices, heard in the lecture-halls, personally
Sometimes mounting giant tanks and flying in death-dealing bombers.
Speaking in various tongues, in all tongues. Keeping silent in many.
Guest of honour in ghettos and slums, the terror of palaces
Some here to stay, and for ever: its name is Communism.

Apart from its friendly and ever-present character, Brecht stresses the fear “palaces” have of the spectre, and its willingness to defend itself. The new world situations enter into the image as the spectre mounts tanks and death-dealing bombers, referring to the Soviet army in WWII defending the Soviet Union from Nazi invasion.

JF EasternFrontWWIIcolage

The difference between the original text and its poetic ‘translation’ is evident in the gentleness with which Brecht describes the spectre’s actions: vivid actions take the place of theoretical explanation. This is not a judgement of better or worse, it is a comment on the specific nature of art and poetry. Art and poetry capture the nature of the world and of society in specific, individualised images, whereas a text like TCM aims to outline some general principles of history and society. Although it occasionally illustrates its points with references to art, it operates on a different, more abstract level.

 Another way in which Brecht departs from the original is that he addresses his readers directly. He also establishes the speaker as intermediary between the reader and the founders of scientific communism:

Much you’ve heard tell of it. This, however, is what its founders say.
If you read history you read of the deeds of immense individuals;
Their star, in its rising and falling; the march of their armies;
Or of the pomp and destruction of empires. For them, for the founders
However, history is foremost the history of conflicts of classes.
They see the peoples internally split into classes and
Warring within. Patricians and knights, plebeians and slaves
Nobles, peasants and craftsmen, proletarians and bourgeois today
Keep in their turn the whole mighty household in motion, creating
And distributing the goods that are needed for living, but also
Fighting their fight to the death, the old fight, the one for dominion.

A central theme in TCM are the modes of production, and production itself. While Marx describes the objective laws of capitalist production, Brecht invests his imagery with the sense of natural laws. While Marx presents facts and outcomes, Brecht focuses on activities:

Never before was unleashed such a wild surge of creation
As that which the bourgeoisie in its epoch of sway has unfolded
One which bowed nature to man and made steam and electrical power
Cleared rivers for shipping and continents ready for tillage.
Never before had humanity guessed that asleep in its womb
Such liberations were lurking and powers of production like these.

Overproduction in capitalism, leads to its reversal, the destruction of commodities. The following quote is from the translation by Darko Suvin (see endnote):

Immemorial hunger had plagued the world when granaries emptied:
Now, nobody knows why, we’re hungry when they’re too full.
Mothers find nothing in the bare pantry to fill the small mouths
While sky-high mountains of grain rot behind walls.
& while bales upon bales of cloth are warehoused, the ragged family,
Overnight kicked out of its rented home, wanders freezing
Through emptied city quarters.

He illustrates the commodity nature of all labour:

Just as the capitalist sells his commodities, likewise the worker
Sells his commodity, namely his labour-power, being subjected
Therefore to competition and all the ups and downs of the market.
Appendage merely to the machine he sells his simple knack
Costing no more than the cost of his keep and whatever little he needs to
Reproduce and bring up his kind, that most useful of species
Since labour-power’s price, like the price of all other commodities
Depends on its cost of production. Out of the tiny workshop of old
Handicraft grew the great factory ordering army-wise
Work and the workers, slaves of the bourgeois state but also
Slaves of a certain bourgeois, his overseers and the machine.

He highlights the way capitalist production dehumanises:

Instead of feeding off
Its proletarians, now it must feed them. It needs to employ them
But has no employment for them and yet lets their numbers swell.
And dehumanization wins, marking the victims
and victimizers….

 He also draws on other, later works of Marx, including for example the theory of cyclical crises and the hidden fetishism of commodity economy, adding this to the Manifesto.

The house does not exist for dwelling, the cloth for dressing
Nor the bread for stilling hunger: they must bring Profit.
If the product however is only used, but not also bought
Since the producer’s pay is too small – were the salary raised
It wouldn’t pay to produce the commodity – why then
Hire the hands? For they must produce at the workbench more
Than a reproduction of worker & family if there’s to be
Profit! Yet what then with the commodities? In good logic therefore:
Woolens and grain, coffee and fruits and fish and pork
All are consumed by fire, to warm the God of Profit!
Heaps of machines, tools for entire armies of workers,
Blast furnace, shipyard and mine and iron and textile mill
All sacrificed, cut up to appease the God of Profit!
Yet their God of Profit is smitten with blindness. He never sees
The victims. He’s ignorant. While he counsels believers he mumbles
Formulas nobody grasps.

 Note how specifics evoke all the senses and make the images more memorable: “Woolens & grain, coffee and fruits and fish and pork” appeal to our senses of touch, smell, taste and vision. “Blast furnace, shipyard and mine and iron and textile mill” add red heat, the contrasting coolness and paler colour of the sea, the darkness and depth of the mines, the women and children of the textile mills, the sounds of industry.

JF At the Coal Face. A Miner Pushing a Tub 1942 Art.IWM ART LD 2240

At the Coal Face. A Miner Pushing a Tub, Henry Moore, 1942

Brecht’s “The Manifesto” is not simply a reiteration of TCM in verse form. It is more than that, it is an expansion of the original based on Marxist theory. Readers in later times will bring their experience to the poem.

Now however those weapons wielded with deadly effect
To shatter the feudal world are turned on the bourgeoisie.
Yes it too has brought forth a class that will bear those death-dealing
Weapons against it, for all through the centuries, bound in its service
Grew with the bourgeoisie also the proletariat of the modern
Workers, living by labour and finding work only so long as they
Work in the bourgeois interest, increasing his capital interests.
Just as the capitalist sells his commodities, likewise the worker
Sells his commodity, namely his labour-power, being subjected
Therefore to competition and all the ups and downs of the market.
Appendage merely to the machine he sells his simple knack
Costing no more than the cost of his keep and whatever little he needs to
Reproduce and bring up his kind, that most useful of species
Since labour-power’s price, like the price of all other commodities
Depends on its cost of production. Out of the tiny workshop of old
Handicraft grew the great factory ordering army-wise
Work and the workers, slaves of the bourgeois state but also
Slaves of a certain bourgeois, his overseers and the machine.

“The Manifesto” saw a number of re-workings. Upon his return to Berlin, Brecht went back to the draft several times. Communist composer and fellow exile in the US, Hanns Eisler, later regretted the fact that he and Feuchtwanger had discouraged Brecht in this project. He said:

If we had an epic by Brecht, “The Communist Manifesto”, then this would have gone down in human history as a very rare work of art indeed. (…) we did not consider then that Marxism must be disseminated in many ways, in many areas and in manifold subtleties. (…) much becomes attractive by being poeticised, that is deemed boring in the flatness of everyday life, the difficulties of class struggle, or academic classrooms. Brecht casts a golden sheen.

The world-famous spectre that Marx described so clearly still haunts the world, wherever wars devastate innocent populations, man-made famine stalks poor countries, workers are paid poverty wages, and the powerful oppress the dispossessed. The spectre explains the reasons for such devastation and oppression. It speaks in countless languages, and is expressed in many cultural activities – sport and religion as well as all the arts. Those cultural activities are also the site of continuous struggle, throughout history, as ruling classes seek to control and manipulate them, and veil or corrupt their fundamentally social, co-operative nature in order to obtain consent and maintain social order, so that economic exploitation can proceed unchallenged.

Yet still people fight back, economically, politically and culturally. In short, the spectre of communism continues to be threat to the rulers and a friend to the damned of the earth:

Therefore the one class capable of defeating the bourgeoisie
And shattering the fetter its state has meanwhile become
Is, in our time, the working class. It is this by its size and condition.
All that once guaranteed life in the older society now is
Rubbed out, done away with, in the life of the proletariat.
Propertyless, head and provider no longer to wife and children
Hard to distinguish by nation or native place now, for the selfsame
Subjection at the selfsame machine marks him from Essen to Canton
Morals and religion confront the proletarian as fata morganas
Mirroring to him, far off unattainable, Edens in deserts.
/…/
His is the movement of the immense majority, and his dominion is
Domination no more but the subjection of all domination.
There oppression alone is oppressed for the proletariat must
As society’s undermost stratum, in rising, completely demolish
The social set-up entire with all its uppermost strata.
It can shake off its subjection only in shaking off all
Subjection from all people.

Works consulted:

Rita Schober, "Brechts Umschrift des Kommunistischen Manifests" in Vom Sinn oder Unsinn der Literaturwissenschaft, Mitteldeutscher Verlag Halle Leipzig, 1988.
Hans Runge, "Das Manifest" von Bertolt Brecht, Sinn und Form, Heft 2-3, 1963.
Robert Spaethling, "Bertolt Brecht and the Communist Manifesto", The Germanic Review, Columbia University Press, vol. XXXVII, 1962.
Socialism and Democray online, On Brecht’s “The Manifesto”: Comments for Readers in English, April 11, 2011.
Most quotations used here are from a translation by Jack Mitchell, unpublished.

For the full text of Brecht’s poem in English, please see the translation by Darko R. Suvin 1999, 2001, accessible here.

JF commmanifest

USSR stamp, 1956
Sunday, 18 February 2018 07:06

Our common humanity: Robert Burns and For A' That

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell discusses the focus on our common humanity in Robert Burns's For A' That, and the way it foretells the 'programme which will govern the world of liberated humanity'.

Every so often, history presents us with an amazing affirmation of our common humanity, a sense of continuity, the passing on of the torch. This applies supremely to Robert Burns’s song For A’ That.

Robert Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, on 25 January 1759. He lived in an age of revolution: the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, the anti-slavery and anti-colonial revolution in Haiti and an agrarian revolution in Scotland, to name some landmark events. The capitalist modernisation of agriculture brought with it financial gain on the one hand, and social polarisation on the other – wealthy tenants versus a rural proletariat.

JF Dean Castle in 1790 Ayrshire 3

Dean Castle, Ayrshire, 1790

A class struggle in the modern sense ensued. Those owning the means of production, providing food to the battlefields and the industrial centres, made enormous profits. The poor had too little to live on, and financial crisis, hunger and tuberculosis swept over Scotland.

The dispossessed of Scotland, among them Robert Burns, warmly welcomed the new ideas coming from across the Atlantic. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal”, was joined a few years later by the French declaring a new era of liberty, equality and fraternity. At this time, in 1795, not long before his early death aged 37 in 1776, Burns wrote his most famous song For A’ That, a song celebrating and affirming the idea of the universal brotherhood of the dispossessed:

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave - we pass him by,  = we pass by the coward who is ashamed of his poverty
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,  = aristocratic rank is only the face stamped on a coin
The Man's the gowd for a' that.        = gold

At the heart of all of Burns’s poetry are the concerns of the ordinary people of Scotland. By addressing the specifics of their lives, Burns achieves a universality that applies to all working people. He gives voice to milkmaids and ploughmen, weavers and farmers’ wives, soldiers and travelling musicians, creating a cosmos in which ordinary folk can recognise themselves as part of a whole community. Such complete and realistic portrayal of the people asserts their common humanity and engenders pride in themselves, and a hatred for their enemies. Depictions like these help Burns’s readers to feel the conflict between their humanity and the misery they endure.

Ultimately, this portrayal of ordinary people points to the need for revolutionary change. This prophecy of communism – in the sense of a common cause, expressing the essential commonality of working people – lies at the core of Burns's poetry, and is perhaps most clearly articulated in For A' That. It reflects a sense of dignity, a scorn for the rich and a longing for universal brotherhood. The ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity are no abstract slogans, but already extant, rooted in the lives of the people, logical projections of their humanity.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.                = take the prize
For a' that, an’ a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

Ferdinand Freiligrath, a poet of the German bourgeois revolution of March 1848 to July 1849 (later a renegade), first translated For A’ That into German (Trotz Alledem) in 1843. Freiligrath, who knew Marx and Engels, was a member of the Bund der Kommunisten (Communist League - founded in London in 1847), and a member of the editorial board of the revolutionary daily Neue Rheinische Zeitung, published by Marx and Engels between 1848 and 1849.

Freiligrath picked up Burns’s torch of revolution.He changed the text of Trotz Alledem to suit the German situation, whilst retaining the title, rhythm, and main idea, and it was printed in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung on 6 June 1848. This text survives in the German political song movement to this day.

JF Rheinische

The final edition of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, printed in red ink. Its editors were threatened with arrest or exile. Marx emigrated to London.

On 8 November 1918, the German sailors’ mutiny in Kiel sparked revolutionary revolt across the country. When it reached Berlin, Karl Liebknecht proclaimed a free socialist republic of Germany. On the 9 November, Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg founded a new daily revolutionary paper, Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag) as the paper of the Spartacus League, of which they were the leaders, and shortly afterwards of the Communist Party, founded on 1 January 1919. Two weeks later, on 15 January 1919, both Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered.

Liebknecht wrote the editorial for 15 January the previous day. It is his final public statement, and his legacy. The article, seizing the torch of revolution, is entitled Trotz alledem (For all That) and ends:

The defeated of today will be the victorious of tomorrow. (…) The German working class’s way to Golgotha is not over ... we are accustomed to being flung from the peak into the depths. Yet our ship keeps a straight course firmly and proudly to its destination. And whether we will still be alive when this is achieved - our programme will live; it will govern the world of liberated humanity. For All That!

 JF window


This window can still be seen in the former GDR Council of State building in Berlin

For A’ That

by Robert Burns

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man's a Man for a' that:
For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that:
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

Nothing to lose but our chains
Sunday, 18 February 2018 07:06

Nothing to lose but our chains

Published in Sport

Looking for a communistic sports event to take part in? As the annual cycling spectacle of the Tour De France begins, Mark Perryman argues the case for advancing to communism on two wheels.

Who would have guessed it? Karl Marx was clearly a bike mechanic when he wasn’t plotting the downfall of capitalism. ‘Nothing to lose but your chains’ is handy advice when the derailleur slips and furious pedalling propels bike and rider precisely nowhere.

OK Marx was more interested in liberating the workers of the world than the freedom of the road, though with committed cycle-commuter Jeremy Corbyn quite possibly in need of a Downing Street bike rack soon, there doesn’t seem a better time to make the case for cycling as the people’s sport.

For those who take an interest in the competitive side Le Tour will be on television for the next three weeks as it weaves its way from the Grand Départ in Germany, through Belgium, a quick detour to Luxembourg  and across France to the traditional finish on the Champs Élysées.

That’s two boxes ticked straightaway in my case for a people’s sport. Firstly, despite Sky’s sponsorship of the premier British team competing, the race is broadcast on terrestrial TV – both live and highlights packages are free to air on ITV4.

And secondly this is a genuinely internationalist event. Fundamentally French of course but shared with all manner of other European countries too in terms of where it may start – the stages too – but never the ending, that will always be Paris.  Not quite the proletarian internationalism of our Marxist dreams but not a bad model for a sporting culture beyond borders! And of course lined up along the route in their hundreds of thousands are the fans, none paying even a cent – or nowadays a Euro – for the privilege.

Nor is there any significant infrastructure to waste huge amounts of money on, leaving stadia and other facilities behind never to be filled again. Instead just about the only spend is to improve the road surface, for the benefit of all. It’s a sporting event not for the few but for the many – pedestrians, cyclists and car-drivers alike.

Of course like previous Tours this one will be mired in an unfolding drugs controversy. It’s particularly  awkward for British cycling fans because the spotlight will fall mainly on Team Sky, on rider and race favourite Chris Froome and Team Sky Principal Dave Brailsford.  Allied with both the unresolved drug allegations against Bradley Wiggins and the prolonged furore over sexism and bullying in and around the Olympic Team GB track cycling squad, this has all threatened to dim the golden glow of Britain’s single most successful sport over the past decade.  Cycling has taken a knock, there’s not much doubt about that. But the roots of its appeal are now so deep all the signs are that it will not only survive but continue to flourish too.

MP Cycling chain for tweet

Marx, notwithstanding my spurious claims for his contribution to the art of bicycle maintenance (famously, similar claims have been made for Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance too) is at least partially responsible for the answer. Cycling, like all sport, is socially constructed. It is a leisure activity we can take part in without scarcely even noticing. What other sport can double up as a means of getting to work, to do the shopping, to pop down the pub?  A bike can provide the basis for a family day out too, perhaps best of all it’s a habit we can pick up as children and once we’ve learned not to fall over it’s a skill we never lose. 

It’s true that at the upper end of cycling culture, particularly among men suffering from a midlife cycling crisis, the bikes cost the proverbial arm and a leg. Many observers suggest that this in part explains the decline in golf, and maybe it’s true that middle-aged men who should know better are investing in handbuilt carbon frames with all the gear to go with it, rather than ever-escalating green fees to tee off at the most expensive 18 holes. Yes the recession hurts even the most highly paid, so there’s almost certainly something in this. Still the class enemy on two wheels represents only a tiny fraction of cycling’s growing popularity. 

Likewise with the impact of the drug, bullying and sexism scandals. Elite success, Wiggins and Froome winning Le Tour, bucketloads of Olympic Cycling Gold medals certainly contributed something to cycling’s appeal. It was a bit like Coe, Ovett, Cram and Elliott’s success on the track coinciding with the late 1970s to early 1980s running boom.

It may be a a factor, but it’s not the total explanation that the media-boosters would like to claim for their coverage. Other more important reasons are implementation of socialist and green policies like increasing investment in safer cycling routes and paths, sunnier summers, and austerity staycation culture. These things help explain cycling’s growing and enduring popularity, not to mention the likelihood of it growing more popular under a genuinely cycle-loving socialist PM. There’s a durability to this appeal which is unlikely to be materially affected by news of dodgy medicines or bullying coaches.

Sport’s core attraction is always assumed to be competition. Wrong. For most this only applies to the spectators, those who watch but don’t do. Being on the losing side bringing up the rear does more to deter the young from sport than virtually anything else. And once deterred, regardless of the presence of compulsory sport lessons, hardly anything else proves effective in reconnecting the inactive with participation.

I think it was Jose Antonio Viera-Gallo, Undersecretary of Justice in Allende's Marxist government, who said this: 'Socialism can only arrive by bicycle.' So I’ll conclude with a quick mention of just about the most communistic sports event I’ve ever taken part in – the increasingly popular cycling sportive. No, the organisers aren’t planning revolution via long rides through the countryside, but to my mind the format unwittingly subverts the competitive instinct, via equalising participation.  There are staggered starts over varying distances, so nobody knows who the winners are – or crucially, the losers either.

For some people, it’s racing against their own individual clock, but for everyone it’s a collective race against the shared distance and terrain. And more often than not, participants are raising money for a good cause. The same prize, wherever you finish – what could be more politically progressive than that?

Not that I’ve ever seen Marx on one mind, he must be back in his bike shed working on unfettering those chains……

Thanks to Hugh Tisdale for both images. The ‘Nothing to Lose but Your Chains’ Cycling T-shirt is now available from Philosophy Football.

Education, Culture and Capitalism
Sunday, 18 February 2018 07:06

Education, Culture and Capitalism

Published in Education

Chris Guiton presents a foundation essay for the education section, sketching out some of the links between education, culture and capitalism.

The purpose of this introductory article is to sketch out the background to some issues around links between education and the general ‘cultural struggle’ which Culture Matters is aiming to support and promote. Education is itself a cultural activity, and is also the main gateway for most people to engage with art and cultural activities, and so education and culture are inextricably linked in the struggle for a better world.

Most people recognise that education plays a crucial role in society, providing people with the skills they need to understand and navigate the world around them as they grow and develop, constructing knowledge in a social context. As John Dewey, the 19th century American progressive educationalist put it, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” But while education can be viewed as a force for positive social change, which encourages children to think critically and challenge authority, it can also be a mechanism for reinforcing the prevailing ideology and strengthening the capitalist status quo. And this is where things start to get interesting.

Mainstream pedagogues (educational theorists who look at the method and practice of teaching) have traditionally taken a ‘functionalist’ view of education, arguing that it performs a number of important functions: promoting social solidarity, encouraging cooperation and developing essential skills such as literacy and numeracy. Progressive and Marxist pedagogues, on the other hand, refute the functionalist view that industrial capitalist societies are meritocracies and that an individual’s position in society is based on talent and hard work. The central challenge articulated by progressive pedagogues for many years is how to make education relevant to everyone, not just a select minority and, how to give it a critical and emancipatory quality that contributes to overturning capitalism, ending exploitation and developing a fairer world.

Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist and one of the leading ‘functionalists’, considered the major function of education as the transmission of society’s core norms and values, binding individual members of society together, creating social unity and using the hierarchies and rules that exist within schools (seen as society in miniature) to encourage conformity and train people to fulfil particular roles in the workplace. Developing this functionalist perspective, Talcott Parsons, an American sociologist, believed that schools act as a bridge between the family and society, representing the main agency of socialisation, preparing children for the adult world and underpinning the division of labour. He argued that schools operate on meritocratic principles, based on equality of opportunity, and where people are rewarded by society for their hard work.

This belief fails to tackle the criticism that the values of an education system are those of the ruling elite, or that equality of opportunity is an illusion in an unequal society where wealth and privilege, and access to education, are more important than individual merit. Karl Marx pointed out in The German Ideology:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.

Ideas are presented as universal, politically neutral concepts when in fact they represent the interests of the ruling class. Marx explained that “each new class which puts itself in the place of the one ruling before it, is compelled, simply in order to achieve its aims, to represent its interest as the common interest of all members of society i.e. to give its ideas the form of universality and to represent them as the only rational and universally valid ones”.  Concepts such as ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘liberty’ are defined and deployed by politicians and the media as if they are uncontentious and common-sense expressions rather than ideological constructs which serve particular social interests and which are designed to support the current political order.

There was, of course, no universal state education when Marx was writing. To understand how education can be used for reactionary ends, it’s helpful to look at later Marxist thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci who coined the phrase ‘cultural hegemony’ to describe the influence the ruling class has over what counts as knowledge. He understood that culture is a key site of political and social struggle and that this hegemony is exercised through a range of civil society institutions, including the media, religion and education, using them to ‘manufacture consent’ and confer legitimacy on the status quo. For Gramsci, education is not part of a conspiracy by the ruling class but one way in which what we count as knowledge is socially constructed.

Its power lies in its invisibility. The ideology of democracy and liberty, along with beliefs about individual freedom, the role of free markets and competition under capitalism are generated historically by the mode of production through the agency of the dominant class. The dominant class controls the subject class not with force but with ideas, concealing the true source of their power and the nature of the exploitation.

A very visible example of this is seen in Britain and other countries today, with the significant shift of political gravity to the right since the 1970s as neo-liberalism, with its evocation of ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ and assault on the state, public services and collective provision, became the dominant ideology. As we know to our cost, even social democratic parties lost their raison d'être and subscribed to the new faith in the individual, markets and privatisation. As a result, we are now faced with the spectacle of working class voters not only deserting the Labour Party because it lost sight of working class interests, but failing to recognise the leftward shift represented by Jeremy Corbyn’s election as party leader. A poisonous combination of internal and external challenges are preventing the message getting across, including: a nakedly hostile media; damaging attacks by the Blairite undead; growing voter apathy; and the disjunction at an individual level between immediate, personal concerns and broader, public concerns which inhibits understanding of the fundamental source of their exploitation. If ever, we needed a Gramscian ‘war of position’ to develop a counter-hegemonic challenge to the neo-liberal status quo, it is now!

Adding his own perspective on how ideological control functions, Louis Althusser, the Marxist philosopher, viewed state education as part of what he called the broader ‘Ideological State Apparatus’ designed to convey the ideology of the ruling class. In this instance, the aim was to socialise working class children into accepting their subordinate status in capitalist society and produce an efficient and obedient work force, submissive to authority.

In their study, Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life, which is equally applicable to the British context, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis built on Althusser’s ideas and argued that, “Work casts a long shadow over the education system; education is subservient to the needs of those who control the workforce, the owners of the factors of production.” They believed this happened through the operation of the ‘hidden curriculum’ in schools, which, by replicating the world of work, justifies and reinforces existing social inequalities. This takes place via a number of mechanisms, including: 

  •        - Giving privileges to older students, encouraging respect for elders in later life.
  •        - Using school rules, prizes as well as punishments, to encourage conformity to the rules of society.
  •        - Emphasising the importance of regular attendance and punctuality, in preparation for the workplace.
  •        - Division in male and female education, for example via the subtle encouragement of different subject preferences, underpinning the sexual division of labour.
  •        - Requiring automatic respect for teachers, and forcing students to understand that they have limited autonomy, helping children learn respect for those in authority in the workplace.
  •        - Underlining the importance of completing schoolwork, whether or not it’s boring, preparing children for the essentially dull, repetitive tasks that characterise many  jobs.
  •        - Encouraging competition between pupils, instilling acceptance of later competition for the best jobs
  •        - Using school uniforms and dress codes to teach the importance of looking smart in the workplace.

Of course, many children learn to push back and challenge the norms that schools seek to impose on them by failing to take an interest in lessons, ‘messing about’ while at school or going truant. Ironically, this prepares them for low paid, unskilled jobs in later life as this rejection of the prevailing learning culture becomes a way of coping with the tedium of the workplace. Unfortunately, this implicit rejection of the ideology of individualism and meritocracy does not usually translate into a genuine understanding of the nature of capitalist exploitation or encourage political engagement.

But all is not lost. As Bowles and Gintis understood, the educational system reflects the contradiction between the needs of accumulation and the needs of reproduction. To accumulate profits and develop the means of production, capitalists have recognised that the workforce needs to be trained to cope with the ever-changing demands of technology and capitalist production. This requires people who can think for themselves. But there’s an inherent conflict between so-called ‘democracy’ in the political realm and the hierarchical and authoritarian nature of the workplace. If people have the opportunity to think critically, it is not difficult for them to recognise that the illusion of equality and democratic participation via the electoral system is in stark contrast to the lack of democratic control that ordinary people exert over the economy, ie. what is produced and how it is distributed.

By grouping future workers together, the education system provides the potential for people to use the educational tools they are supplied with against the system itself. Teaching literacy opens the door to books that challenge the status quo. And you cannot encourage creative thinking and understanding of sophisticated intellectual concepts without encouraging people to question the prevailing ideology. This contradiction between what schools promise and what they really deliver, between ideology and the way society actually works, has the potential to radicalise people and spur them into action.

This is the significance of Paulo Freire’s theory of education that goes beyond traditional Marxist thinking and links radical critical theory and the imperatives of progressive struggle, linked to an understanding of the dynamics of domination and oppression and the constraints as well as the possibilities that generates.

Freire was a Brazilian pedagogue and critic of conventional teaching methods. In the Pedagogy of the Oppressed he characterised these as the ‘banking method’ which he saw mirroring and re-enforcing an oppressive society. Under this model of teaching the teacher is viewed as knowing everything and the student nothing. The teacher talks and the student listens. The teacher (or the rather the government!) determines what is taught and how is it is taught. Students are empty vessels and their role is to store the knowledge bestowed on them. Above all, they are not required or expected as a result of their education to change the world by reflection and action (ie. praxis).  Freire recognised that students may come to reject the education fed them and achieve praxis anyway, but what he describes as the humanist, revolutionary educator will adopt another approach: problem posing education based on dialogue between teacher and student in which both become responsible for a process in which they both grow. Their aim: to become critical thinkers, questioning and challenging what they encounter in the learning process.

But if state education puts obstacles in the way of the development of critical thinking - driven as it is by the demands of capitalist ‘rationality’, marketisation and endless testing - then we need to rediscover a radical pedagogy that embraces, as Freire puts it, “Liberation [as] a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it.” The critical pedagogy proposed by Freire and others in this field such as Henry Giroux offers a route for young people to develop a social awareness of cultural and political alternatives, enabling them to connect their experiences with classroom learning and understand that with knowledge comes power.  

This is why reactionary politicians of all major parties have sought to marginalise such teaching methods as a deeply harmful distraction belonging to “trendy, 1960s progressive educationalists” and of no relevance in a modern education system. Three examples of how this threat has been addressed by governments in recent years bring this into sharp relief and underline the nature of the struggle in today’s education system: the prescriptive method of teaching young children to read using phonics, reducing the narrative content in reading and undermining the development of ‘reading for pleasure’; the attempts to shift teacher training away from universities and teacher training colleges and into schools where, it is hoped, such contaminating ideas as those of Freire won’t be picked up; and the increasingly narrow specification of the curriculum that the Government is forcing through, marginalising the arts and humanities.    

But, as Gramsci recognised, no culture is completely hegemonic. Even the most sophisticated political systems will face pockets of ‘counter-hegemonic’ cultures: perspectives on society that challenge the dominant ideology, and which have revolutionary potential if they can be identified and supported. These might be located in the traditional beliefs held by older people, the shop-floor culture of industrial workers, youth sub-cultures or other groups in society.

In The Long Revolution Raymond Williams defined culture “as a whole way of life”, thereby dissolving the boundary between everyday culture and ‘high culture’. A fully developed cultural education implies opening up our society by means of art and culture. The dialectic between education and culture at a general level - the beliefs, norms and values that condition society - as radical education becomes a mechanism for resistance to and change of a dominant culture in all its manifestations, also applies directly to the more specific area of the arts and humanities. Cultural education in this sense is an indispensable part of the broader education system, and is not a luxury that can be added when other educational goals have been delivered.

Learning is a creative process, and what we learn depends on how we learn. It is well understood that studying the arts opens up spheres of experience and development in people that go beyond the immediate subject studied, developing levels of cognition and emotion that feed into people’s ability to understand the world around them and cope with everyday life and social situations.

The education system plays a decisive role in awakening and encouraging creative potential in people. It has the capacity to develop empathic as well as political engagement. The arts take us into imagined worlds created by different minds and enable us to understand how others live. In addition to giving us aesthetic pleasure, they provide a broader canvas on which to understand historic, social and political issues.

By awakening our imagination, art intensifies and complements our own experience. Art represents people, cultures, values, and perspectives on living, but it does much more. While bringing us pleasure, art also teaches us about life. While reading a poem, listening to music or looking at a painting we are encouraged to look outside ourselves, ask challenging questions and participate in the wider world. 

Similar benefits flow from other cultural activities such as sport and religion. As well as being satisfying in themselves, they provide multiple opportunities for social engagement, emotional growth and development of cognitive skills, encouraging a commitment to the common good.

Clearly, schools aren’t the only site of struggle. Seeking to change schools without seeking to change wider society is a recipe for frustration and eventual failure. But education as one of the forces for radical change, which goes beyond schools, colleges and universities into a lifelong commitment which reflects the dialectic between an individual and the society around them, and which is delivered via trade unions, local authorities, Further Education colleges, the Workers’ Education Association and other institutions, is clearly a prize worth fighting for.

We hope this article stimulates further contributions on the subject of education and culture.