Humphrey Jennings, The Silent Village, 1943
Thursday, 18 January 2018 17:34

A socialist challenge to the status quo

Published in Festivals/ Events

'Meanwhile, what about Socialism?', a quote from Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier, was the question posed by the AV International Arts Festival 2016, held in North East England in March. Since 'socialism' was the most looked-for word in 2015, what more appropriate title for a progressive arts festival could there be?

Thematically linked by Orwell's road map of a democratic socialism based on equality and fairness, the events were all inspired by themes of socialist political struggle, and created by artists committed to the importance of cultural action in contributing to a progressive politics. Over the course of a month, a varied and wide-ranging programme was offered including 12 exhibitions, 48 films, many talks and discussions, and some special performances by artists.

The film screenings and discussions about British film maker Marc Karlin, whose work critiques both Thatcherism and Blairism, were highlights, as were the politically and aesthetically radical films from the Soviet Union.
The screening of Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's Winstanley was a reminder of the almost forgotten tradition of English communism, and the programme of British political documentaries from the 1930s to recent times exposing injustice and deprivation offered practical and utopian alternatives.
Why on earth, it made you wonder, aren't films like this being made any more?

The Festival ended with a live performance by Kris Canavan. Over 22 hours he pounded the pavement of Jarrow opposite derelict industrial land, crushing 200 concrete blocks, reflecting the number of proletarian protesters who marched to London, denouncing the crushing of their shipbuilding industry and their community by the capitalist system.

Thanks to the artists involved and the powerful, synergistic curating of the Festival Director, Rebecca Shatwell, all the events contributed to the sense of a developing manifesto, a collective challenge to the apolitical, self-referential mainstream art world, and to the harsh and corrupt consensus of the political world.

From different positions, in different art forms and geopolitical contexts, a common message emerged of international artists successfully removing progressive politics from the language of nostalgia and mourning and suggesting new and vibrant forms of resistance.

Neoliberal capitalism increasingly appears to be morally, culturally and politically bankrupt. It certainly has come close — and may come closer — to financial bankruptcy. Which is why the question AV poses: “What about socialism?” couldn't have been more timely.
Chi Onwurah MP
Thursday, 18 January 2018 17:34

Introduction to the AV 2016 Festival

Published in Cultural Commentary

Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Minister for Culture, introduced the International AV Festival in the North East with this address.

I’m delighted to be here at the Mining Institute, Newcastle, one of my favourite buildings in the city, built by engineers for engineers, and now enjoyed by everyone. As an engineer myself that is a particular pleasure. And I should also add that its great to have two women up here, speaking, contrasting and competing with all the portraits of men that hang around us.

Meanwhile, What About Socialism?
Thursday, 18 January 2018 17:34

Meanwhile, What About Socialism?

Published in Festivals/ Events

Socialism was the most looked-for word in 2015, but how often do you get an arts festival focused on it? Mike Quille previews the International AV Festival in North East England.

In 1936 George Orwell was commissioned by the Left Book Club to write about the class divisions, poverty, unemployment and social injustice caused by the collapse of financial capitalism in 1929, and the subsequent economic depression in the North of England. The resulting book, The Road to Wigan Pier, is a classic of committed writing, a sympathetic account of working class life in the North and a vivid analysis of the state of socialism in England. Exactly 80 years later, and a few years after another major failure in the capitalist system, the biennial International AV Festival of visual art, film and music, based in North East England, takes a similarly committed stance towards socialism. The Festival mirrors the structure of the book with Part One this year, followed by Part Two in 2018.

Part One features works by established and emerging artists and film-makers who like Orwell situate themselves in direct relation to political argument, struggle and propaganda. Presented in partnership with 14 venues across the North East, the programme, curated by Festival director Rebecca Shatwell, includes a grouped exhibition of 12 installations, 48 film screenings and special events, including 17 UK premieres and one world premiere.

The programme is wide-ranging and ambitious. Uniquely for an arts festival, it has been curated to address the challenges of global capitalism by deploying events, exhibitions and artworks with regional, national and international relevance. Thus there are several exhibitions with strong local historical roots, such as exhibitions about Thomas Spence, local arts collective Amber Films, and the Jarrow Crusade. There are several films by British film-maker Marc Karlin, who made influential radical films in the 80s and 90s, an exhibition and re-creation of Orwell's commissioners, the Left Book Club, and some fine documentaries from the 30s, 40s and 50s by film-makers sympathetic to the socialist project.

There is a  tremendous range of international themes and artists, diverse but interlinked. One weekend of the month-long festival is focused on events, discussions and films from left wing Japanese artists, with themes of political hi-jacking, terrorism, and support for Palestinian resistance.
Another weekend focuses on Ukrainian documentary movements, and features the world premiere of a newly rediscovered early Soviet film masterpiece by Mikhail Kaufman, brother of Dziga Vertov, the famous Soviet film director who made ‘Man with a Movie Camera’. The film has a live soundtrack by Test Dept. and is one of several potential highlights of the festival.

In addition to 1936, the other main historical reference point for the festival is 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union and artists' response to this moment and to the subsequent rise of capitalism. There are exhibitions by Ukrainian, Indian, Romanian, and Russian artists on this theme, including a Romanian cartoonist who will be making new drawings on a gallery wall, responding to national and international news.

The Road to Wigan Pier has some faults, but it persuasively argues that the basis of democratic socialism is equality and fairness, and that people of all classes need to understand about oppression and inequality in order to make socialism work. The festival is focused on achieving the same end. Dig out and re-read Orwell's book, then come along for an updated, globalised, multimedia – and potentially more progressive – version of it.

AV 2016 Part One: Meanwhile, What About Socialism? is on from 27 February to 27 March. The full programme is at

Paul Robeson: The Artist As Revolutionary
Thursday, 18 January 2018 17:34

Paul Robeson: The Artist As Revolutionary

Published in Music

Paul Robeson died 40 years ago this month. Gerald Horne writes about the great singer, actor and communist, victimised by McCarthyism and the US apartheid system.......and what 'the tallest tree in our forest' would make of the Oscars today…..

A major ritual takes places annually in the USA: the nomination and awarding of ‘Oscars’ or awards for movie-making, particularly performances. And regularly, there is an outcry – in recent years a Twitter-storm – about the absence of nominations for African-Americans and other peoples of color in a nation that is increasingly diverse and elected its first black president in 2008. To be sure, there are exceptions: ’12 Years a Slave’, directed by Britain’s own Steve McQueen, did quite well in the star-studded Oscar ceremony a few years ago but this tends to be the exception that proves the rule. 

This unfortunate state of affairs would not have surprised Paul Robeson, who—among other accomplishments—was once among Hollywood’s brightest stars. Born in New Jersey in 1898 and passing away in Philadelphia in 1976, Robeson was variously a star athlete, lawyer, singer, actor and an expert students of dozens of languages, including German, Russian, French, Spanish, Norwegian, Chinese, etc. But he met his Waterloo when he dared to express support for socialism at a time during the Red Scare of the 1950s when his homeland, the US, was moving in a diametrically opposing direction. His income dropped precipitously from the six figures to the four figures. There were numerous attempts to inflict mayhem upon him. His passport was taken way, preventing him from travelling abroad—particularly to London where he had resided during a good deal of the 1920s and 1930s—in order to pursue his livelihood. Repeatedly, he was hauled before congressional investigative committees in Washington, D.C., as his inquisitors sought to prove that he was a member of the US Communist Party, an affiliation he denied. It is possible, however, that he had been a member of the British Communist Party.

Finally, in the late 1950s, as the movement against apartheid in the US gathered steam, and the political atmosphere became more liberal, his passport was returned and Robeson headed directly to London, where he resumed his career as a singer and actor, notably reviving his portrayal of “Othello,” still considered to be the premier portrayal of Shakespeare’s Moor. He also travelled and performed incessantly, particularly to Moscow, which he had first visited in the 1930s. Indeed, his hectic schedule doubtlessly contributed to a deterioration of his health and in 1965 he chose to return to the USA, where he settled into retirement.

On the USA side of the Atlantic, despite his monumental accomplishments, Robeson is not hailed universally because of his refusal to abjure socialism, and because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. My own opinion is that if Robeson is to be excoriated for his pro-Moscow sympathies, perhaps the same animosity should be directed toward President Franklin D. Roosevelt. For just as Robeson felt the need to ally with Communists in order to beat back his pro-apartheid antagonists, FDR acted similarly in order to defeat his pro-Nazi opponents. If anything, like many activists before and since, Robeson miscalculated the progressive potential of the US itself, a topic I pursued at length in my book, ‘The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the USA’.

Robeson was a sacrificial lamb in that the attack on him was accompanied by an agonizing retreat from the more egregious aspects of apartheid –with the two being linked. That is, in order to compete more effectively with Moscow in the “Third World” as African nations were surging to independence, with many of these leaders – including Kenyatta of Kenya and Nkrumah of Ghana – being personal friends of his, Washington found it necessary to ease Jim Crow pressures against peoples of African descent at home. But the price of the ticket was the battering of those like Robeson who had crusaded “prematurely” for anti-colonialism, in his case beginning in the 1930s when he founded the Council on African Affairs, the organization closest to his heart.

During this “American Spring”, now encapsulated in the phrase, ‘Civil Rights Movement’, movie stars like Sidney Poitier surged to stardom and Oscar fame. But as the socialist project retreated and Robeson became little more than a distant memory, progress on many fronts dissipated, not least in Hollywood. Thus, as we tap out our 140 character Twitter messages (#oscarstillsowhite), let us take a moment to recall how we arrived at such a parlous and perilous juncture. Let us recall the man once hailed as the “tallest tree in our forest”. Let us recall the great Paul Robeson.

Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary, by Gerald Horne, is published by Pluto Press. Thanks to PP for providing this article.

Billy Bragg on tour 2015
Thursday, 18 January 2018 17:34

Socialism of the Heart: an interview with Billy Bragg

Published in Music

 How did the last tour go, did you enjoy it? You had to put on extra dates, what were the audiences like? Do you think you're tapping into a new radical mood among young people, the same mood that got Corbyn elected?

The tour's just finished, it was great. I started with a couple of London shows at the Union Chapel, a non-conformist church in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency of Islington North. Built in 1877, it’s a wonderful gig to perform, but backstage isn’t really designed for rock and roll gigs. It’s a more of a Victorian warren. One of my crew asked if I’d seen the mural of Jeremy in one of the rooms? I went to investigate and found that, while it did depict a kindly looking fellow with a beard, this chap was carrying a lamb and his head was suspiciously backlit.

Following the London shows, I headed up to Scotland to do my first gigs there since the independence referendum. I was very encouraged to find that the energy of the Yes campaign had not dissipated, despite their defeat last September. I also found that Corbyn’s election means something different in Scotland. Progressively-minded people are happy that someone who opposes the neo-liberal consensus has been elected leader of the Labour Party, but they do wonder why it’s taken us so long to catch on to the idea that the Westminster system is broken.

It was an interesting time to be on the road up there. The Syria vote fired everyone up – even the doorman at my Glasgow hotel said it was outrageous that parliament had voted in favour of bombing. The Oldham by-election added some edge to things and the new left wing grouping, RISE, were holding their first conference on the coming weekend. As a result, the Scottish gigs were highly politicised.

We finished off with a gig at Butlins Skegness holiday camp. Sounds strange, I know, but it’s the best way to hold a festival in December and Butlins host music events most weekends through the winter. This one was the Great British Folk Festival and although I’m not really part of the tradition, the folk audience has always been very supportive. In a music business where most artists would rather not say anything politically controversial, the folk fans deserve respect as people who have helped keep the topical song alive.

I wasn’t too sure how my songs would go down at Butlins, but I gave them the same politicised set that I’d been doing in London and Scotland and it went down a storm. Every mention of Corbyn was cheered and when I finished with ‘There is Power in A Union’, they stood and sang along.

You're also one of the people that have kept the protest music tradition alive in this country, and helped make sure socialist values are kept alive and celebrated musically. Can you tell us something about your background, how you got into the protest music tradition, and why you've stuck with it when others have fallen away? Can musicians influence politics, do you think?

I got into politics through music. My earliest heroes were the singer-songwriters of the 1960s – Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Jackson Browne all wrote topical songs. My other love was American soul music. Listening to the likes of Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and the Impressions I heard the songs of struggle that were inspired by the civil rights movement.

Although people believed that music could change the world in the 60s, that has not been my experience. Ultimately, the responsibility for changing the world rests not with the artist but with the audience. To pretend otherwise is to fail to understand history. Having said that, I do believe that music has a role to play in inspiring the audience to take up that challenge.

Attending the Rock Against Racism Carnival in May 1978 was my first political activism. That event made me realise that I was not the only person who was troubled by the casual racism, sexism and homophobia I saw everyday at the office where I worked. However, it wasn’t the bands that gave me the courage of my convictions, it was being in that audience – 100,000 kids just like me. That day I realised that my generation were going to define themselves in opposition to discrimination of all kinds, just as the previous generation had been defined by their opposition to the Vietnam War.

The bands that played that day did a great service to me by creating an atmosphere in which my perceptions were challenged, which in turn led me to take a different view of things. That is the role that music can play in the struggle. I know, because it happened to me and so I try to challenge perceptions every time I do a gig.

Can you tell us more about the phenomenon that was Red Wedge, in the eighties, which you fronted? And the obvious next question, any chance of something similar happening in the next few years?

Taking its name from a poster by Russian constructivist El Lizzitsky, Red Wedge was an artist-led initiative that sought to encourage young people to support the Labour party at the 1987 election. When the miners' strike ended in defeat, those of us who had done gigs in support of the strikers and their families didn’t just want to go back to normal. Red Wedge was our way of continuing the struggle, taking the fight to the Tories at the next possible opportunity – the 1987 election.

We chose to work with (not for) the Labour Party because we felt they represented the best vehicle for getting rid of the Tories. The miners' strike had been a genuinely revolutionary moment, but it had failed. Now we had to take the next best option. We didn’t see the fight against the Tories as an either/or choice: our message to revolutionary colleagues was that we would come on to the street with them when it was time, if they would come into the ballot box with us.

The core artists involved were myself, the Style Council, Junior Giscombe, Jerry Dammers and the Communards. In the lead up to the election, we were joined by Madness, the Smiths, Prefab Sprout, the Kane Gang, The The, Gary Kemp, The Beat, Tom Robinson and many others. What defined us was our opposition to Margaret Thatcher, rather than an avid support for the Labour Party.

Could Red Wedge happen again? I think that’s a question for someone under 30.

How has the music industry changed over the years? Could someone with your background and your openly political approach still make it, do you think?

The music industry has changed massively in the 33 years since my first record. When I started out, there were three weekly music papers that sold big – NME, Melody Maker and Sounds, as well as many smaller publications. There were only two pop radio stations, BBC Radio One and it’s regional commercial equivalent – Capital in London. And there was a weekly pop show on national tv that broadcast all the latest music and styles into your living room – Top of the Pops. All of that has either disappeared or had its voice drowned out by digital competition.

More significantly for someone who wants to make political pop, music has lost its vanguard role as the primary identifying medium of youth culture. When I was 19 years old, the only avenue of expression open to me was pop music. If I wanted to broadcast my thoughts about the world, I had to learn to play an instrument, write songs and do gigs. Now any 19-year-old can express their views by blogging or making a film on their phone or using the ready-made platforms of the social media.

Although we didn’t realise it at the time, back in the latter years of the 20th century, music was our social medium – we used it to speak to one another and to our parent’s generation. Now if 19-year-olds want to know what their peers are thinking, they don’t buy an album or look at the charts or in the NME, they simply check their Instagram account.

I also wonder if I’d have been able to overcome the amount of scorn and abuse directed at anyone who expresses a progressive opinion on social media these days. If I’d had to endure the slings and arrows of Twitter and Facebook while forming my political opinions, would I have thought better of it and just stuck to writing love songs?

Your latest book of lyrics, A Lover Sings, is published by Faber and Faber, the august publishing house for top class poetry. That's quite an achievement in itself, isn't it? What do you think about the difference between poems and songs?

The main difference is that you generally experience poetry in solitude, reading quietly somewhere. Songs tend to be more of a communal experience. To hear a favourite song sung by the artists who wrote it and to sing along with them and hundreds, maybe thousands of others, has the effect of validating whatever emotions you’ve invested in the song. It’s a kind of solidarity. The left know the powerful unity that can come from singing together but it doesn’t have to be a political song to make you feel that you’re not alone. You can’t get that sense of communion on the internet, which is why I think gigs are becoming more popular, particularly festivals where you can feel part of something bigger.

What's your thinking about current political issues, the new Labour leadership, and the sudden and unexpected resurgence of the political left?

Unexpected is the word! I think Jeremy Corbyn himself may have been the most surprised by his elevation. It’s clearly not just about him. There is something bigger at work. My hunch is that he has become a lightning rod for a different way of doing politics. His sudden popularity is less to do with his own position and more to do with an urge on the left to be part of a genuinely transformative movement.

That’s the feeling that I got in Scotland last year, when doing gigs with supporters of the Yes campaign during the referendum. People were energised not by nationalism but by a sense that another world was possible. That’s why the turn out was unprecedented – people knew that their vote would really mean something. I think the same urge is behind Corbyn’s landslide. At a time when globalisation has allowed corporations to set the agenda, our democracy has become less about change and more about rewarding the status quo. Corbyn challenges that cosy arrangement.

Whether he can survive until the general election is anybody's guess, but, again, I take heart from what happened in Scotland: the Yessers lost the referendum, but they didn’t go home and give up. They maintained the connections they’d made and kept the momentum going. My hope is that, now we Corbynites have been engaged in the process of changing our politics for the better, we won’t simply melt away if the Great Helmsman is brought down by Blairite revanchists within the PLP. They can oust him, but they will still have us to deal with in the ensuing leadership contest.

Finally, Billy, what do you mean by your phrase 'socialism of the heart'?

It’s a term I came up with after the fall of the Berlin Wall, at a time when ideology was being swiftly abandoned and the language that we’d used to debate our politics no longer meant anything to the public we hoped to engage. I’ve always believed that if socialism is not, at heart, a form of organised compassion, then it is not really worthy of the name. So I began trying to find ways of expressing the compassionate politics that I felt had to form the bedrock of our attempts to forge a new ideology that connected with people’s everyday experiences and ‘socialism of the heart’ was the first term I came up with.

Billy Bragg has just finished an intensive year's tour round Britain. A Lover Sings, The Selected Lyrics of Billy Bragg, is published by Faber and Faber.