Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (58)

Angels and Demons: one must subdue the other
Sunday, 24 March 2019 14:34

Angels and Demons: one must subdue the other

Written by

Sean Ledwith reviews Angels and Demons, by Tony McKenna, a collection of essays on artists, writers and politicians written from a historical materialist perspective.

The role of the individual in history has been one of the perennial debates throughout the development of Marxist theory. Marx and Engels in the nineteenth century were keen to dissociate themselves from the ‘great man view of history’ that had characterised much of bourgeois scholarship up to that point. The defining feature of historical materialism as an analytical tool in their hands was to transfer the focus of attention away from the actions and intentions of individuals, and onto the structural forces and relations of production that have combined to create a succession of modes of production across the millennia of human history.

At the same time, as revolutionary activists and not simply disinterested scholars, the founders stressed the ongoing importance of human agency and the capacity of individuals to operate with a degree of choice, albeit within the constraints of these subterranean processes. This fine balance between structure and agency is neatly encapsulated in a celebrated passage from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

Of course, subsequent generations of thinkers, seeking to follow the founders’ example, have not always succeeded in reproducing both elements of this conceptual tension; oscillating at times between the voluntarism associated with Sartre and others, and the subject-less paradigm constructed most intricately by Althusser.

Anyone looking for a modern attempt to recreate the dialectical balance between the individual and wider social forces in the spirit of Marx and Engels should refer to this highly readable collection of essays by Tony McKenna. The author impressively surveys the lives of a number of individuals across the fields of politics, philosophy and the arts who have had a major impact – for good or ill – on human affairs.

SL 1

Nicholas II

McKenna takes his theoretical cue from a passage in Trotsky’s seminal History of the Russian Revolution in which the character of Nicholas II is portrayed as an amalgam of the subjective and objective:

In Trotsky’s account, the personal and the political achieve a harmonious but terrible synthesis, for in the person of the last Tsar is embodied all the decadence, fatality, pettiness, self-deception, brass ignorance, denial and hopelessness of a historical tendency which has entered into an inevitable, mortal freefall. (3)

Developing the template provided by Trotsky for a distinctively Marxist approach to biography, the author persuasively argues that a nuanced version of historical materialism, eschewing both crude determinism and naïve individualism, can creatively identify the strands that link the lives of the one with the many. The personalities he discusses are not reducible to mere abstract cyphers, the personal representatives of mechanical, anonymous historical forces, but rather their art and activity, their interests and individuality, only resonates its full uniqueness and meaning in the context of the historical epoch, and the underlying social and political contradictions which set the basis for it. (6)

As a formulation of the Marxist conception of the role of the individual in history, McKenna here provides a valuable new iteration of the analyses of Marx, Trotsky and others in previous eras.

The author divides his ten subjects into the two categories alluded to in the title. This classification follows a method that in more familiar terms consists of radicals and reactionaries. In the former camp, we find Victor Hugo, Hugo Chavez, Rembrandt, Andrea Dworkin, William Blake and Jeremy Corbyn. The ‘Demons’ team is made up of Christopher Hitchens, Schopenhauer, Hillary Clinton and Trump.

It would be difficult to think of more diverse and anomalous assortment of case studies for McKenna’s thesis that historical materialism can usefully contextualise the personal with the political! However, he deploys with virtuosity a remarkable grasp of the breadth of cultural, economic and political forces at work in the lives of these personalities. Anyone interested in any of the above figures will find their understanding enhanced by McKenna‘s sophisticated delineation of how the respective subject’s ideology was shaped by the dynamics of the age.

The only slight drawback of the author’s selection is that the personalities are not analysed in chronological order. The reader for example can find herself rewinding from Hitchens in the twentieth century to Rembrandt in the seventeenth, and similarly from Dworkin in the twentieth to Blake in the eighteenth. McKenna perceptively suggests the key to explications of individual psychology from a Marxist perceptive should comprehend how major figures mediate most profoundly the most significant contradictions within the capitalist order at different stages in its development. (15)

It might have been preferable, therefore, if each study more evidently reflected a step-change in the operations of the rule of capital from the dawn of the bourgeois revolutions to today’s seemingly remorseless neoliberal hegemony. However, this consideration does not detract from the elegance and power of McKenna’s expositions.

The emphasis on contradictions in an individual personality is the fundamental insight that lies at the heart of McKenna’s methodology. Again, in this aspect he follows in the tradition of some of the best thinkers in the Marxist tradition. Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks of the 1930s, drew attention to ‘contradictory consciousness’ as one of the symptoms of alienation in the mental framework of every subject living under the role of capital.

Voloshinov, in the previous decade, explored the phenomenon of ‘multi-voicedness’ and the manner in which the consciousness of an individual can simultaneously contain ideological input from a range of sources, some of which may be conflicting. Likewise, the author here contends that the key to unlocking human personality is the way in which the contradictions of the age are manifested in the unique experience of every person. The result of this methodology is a sequence of portraits that fulfils Gramsci’s guidance on how biography in the tradition of historical materialism can produce insights that are superior to its bourgeois counterpart:

They never let you have an immediate, direct, animated sense of the lives of Tom, Dick and Harry. If you are not able to understand real individuals, you are not able to understand what is universal and general.

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Rembrandt, Self-portrait at the age of 63

In the moving chapter on Rembrandt, McKenna elucidates how the painter’s sublime genius lay in his ability to tune into the contradictions of the world’s first bourgeois revolution as the newly born Dutch capitalist state threw off the yoke of the Spanish Empire at the turn of the seventeenth century:

For he channelled this dualism in an art which attains a new depth of individuality and interority, illuminating the flickering shadows of the soul, while at the same time possessing the kind of aesthetic integrity which was able to express the suffering of an age, allowing it to bleed into the backdrop of his paintings. (96)

450px Rembrandt Rembrandt and Saskia in the Scene of the Prodigal Son Google Art Project

McKenna recounts how many of Rembrandt’s portraits of the 1630s, such as ‘The Prodigal Son in the Brothel’, are of the moneyed bourgeoisie whose ‘exuberant political freedoms' (89) are expressed in the lavish and salubrious scenes depicted around the characters. The optimism and self-confidence of an embryonic ruling class that is taking a torch to the decaying carcass of feudalism is almost palpable.

1024px Rembrandt The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp

The greatness of Rembrandt, however, is that the artist notes, amid the surging power of the Dutch bourgeoisie, a sense that its hegemony will be built not on the abolition of exploitation but only a new type of exploitation. Describing the iconic ‘Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholas Tulp’, McKenna draws our attention to the attitude of the scientists looking down on the corpse in front of them: They see him only in terms of an object like any other, to be appropriated, to be carved up; as a means to enhance their own material and intellectual powers. (93)

This picture is conventionally interpreted as representing the humanism and idealism of the scientific revolution of the early modern age. With an appropriate lightness of touch, however, McKenna deploys a Marxist lens to re-imagine it as a portent of the calculated disinterest the capitalist class retains for the millions of subjects who labour in its name.

At no point does the author’s analysis relapse into a crude materialism that might see Rembrandt as the artist of the Dutch bourgeois revolution and little else. McKenna does not lose sight of the fact that the reason the artist remains phenomenally popular is that he addresses anxieties and concerns that continue to exercise the human imagination, and that probably always will.

Rembrandt bue squartato 1655 01

For example, ‘The Slaughtered Ox’ from 1643 contains an enigmatic power that seemingly defies rational explanation. The image of a butchered bovine cadaver in a basement at first would appear to be an unlikely source of fascination. For McKenna, however, the painting brutally reminds us of the material reality of our existence as transient beings in a universe ultimately beyond our comprehension:

Rembrandt is making us aware that, ultimately, this is our destiny – that, each day, life crucifies us that little bit more and that little more slowly, through the sense of loss and suffering we must inevitably accumulate. (102)

If Rembrandt is rightly one of the eponymous angels of the collection, Christopher Hitchens as one of the most famous critics and polemicist of our age falls into the less desirable category. His championing of the calamitous Bush-Blair inspired invasion of Iraq in 2003 is probably the main reason Hitchens was suitably dubbed as a fallen angel in the eyes of many on the radical left. McKenna ultimately concurs with this damning verdict but does not elide over Hitchens’ undoubted qualities as a writer and is generous in acknowledging his subject’s stoical battle against cancer in the twilight of his life:

Hitchens had a wonderful facility with words. His literary flair surpasses that of his idol Orwell, in my view, in terms of its fluidity and grace…even in his later years, the increasingly rotund figure of this patrician journalist was in possession of a certain stoutly courage. (71-72)

Hitchens’ espousal of Western imperialism in his last decade can appear bizarrely incongruous in the light of his previous association with the revolutionary left. As McKenna observes, the most obvious explanation would be that ‘the allure of money and privilege no doubt played its part’. (70) But the author contends that a more productive line of thought is to trace the conflict that raged within Hitchens’ persona throughout his life between two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, the desire to shock the establishment, and on the other, the need to be part of it. In McKenna’s words:

The need to have it both ways, so to say-to be able to indulge the exhilarating frisson and enjoy the moral vitality which are the remits of the freedom-fighter, while simultaneously partaking in the silky confidences of the most famous and powerful; this was the central, elemental contradiction which fissured across Hitchens’ existence. (82)

Perhaps the moral of this particular life is that although contradictions are the essence of the human condition, they do not always play out without resolution. The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks forced Hitchens to decide whether he would decisively take the side of the oppressed or the oppressor. His total failure to comprehend Islamism as a distorted form of resistance to imperial hegemony led him into the welcoming arms of Cheney, Wolfowitz and the rest of the neocon cabal in Washington.

McKenna’s reflective adoption of a Marxist approach to psychology here highlights the advantage of not focusing on our interiority alone; but also perceiving how by events in the external world can force us to confront the contradictions within ourselves. The fiery fiasco of the ‘War on Terror’ forced Hitchens to face the paradoxes of his own existence – and he was found wanting.

Jeremy Corbyn Leader of the Labour Party UK

McKenna’s closing chapter is a timely assessment of the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. As the Tory government stumbles through the Brexit morass, the prospect of the Labour Leader walking through the black door of Number 10 is tantalisingly real. In the neatly titled ‘Chronicle of a Coup Foretold’ McKenna predicts that such a scenario would trigger a major crisis of the British state, in which the aspirations of millions of working-class people, long neglected by a venal elite, would be pitched against the centuries-old conservatism of the ruling class. Unlike the previous profiles in the book, McKenna does not detect any deep contradictions in Corbyn’s personality, and the author’s focus is more on a looming rupture in the wider body politic. In fact, it is fair to say that the Labour leader’s apparent lack of hidden agendas – conscious or otherwise – is the root of his remarkable appeal. Corbyn’s lack of complexity and personal ambition is a refreshing change from his recent predecessors in the post:

Jeremy Corbyn is a kind, decent, reasonable man who evinces a sense of faint distaste and aloofness to the more savage and Machiavellian manoeuvrings, which are so much a part of modern politics. (238)

Nevertheless, McKenna shrewdly cautions us that these qualities are eerily reminiscent of Salvador Allende, Chile’s doomed socialist Prime Minister of the early 1970s. Allende believed decency and reason would be enough to restrain the dark forces of military intervention that stood at his side in the last weeks of his administration. By the time he realised they were actually his deadliest enemies, it was too late. If Corbyn is not to suffer a similar fate in the future, the whole labour movement in the UK will need to realise there can be no common ground in the event of a clash between the ‘Angels and Demons’ – one must subdue the other.

Angels and Demons is available here.

from The Acting Class: Tom Stocks visits Eton whose alumni include Tom Hiddleston, Damian Lewis, Hugh Lawrie and Eddie Redmayne
Wednesday, 20 March 2019 14:49

The Gentrification of Culture

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Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne discuss the decline and colonisation of working-class culture, introduce The Acting Class and call for culture to be at the cutting edge of counter-hegemonic challenges to the dominant culture

The products of film, television and theatre are disseminated in and through institutions and networks that are situated within economic and ideological constraints and hegemonic discourses. Representations of the working class within this circuit are often partial, uninformed and invariably negative. But, even so, they go on to have an afterlife as visual images recycled repeatedly until they harden into the taken for granted ‘knowledge’ of our society.

There is another recycling moment going on as well, the return, the doubling back from the progress made after the Second World War to the squalor, poverty, low wages, hunger and diseases that would have been recognizable to the Victorians. Nothing new to see here; just the British class system doing what it does best – allowing the middle and upper classes to use all the methods in their power to justify the cruelty and inequalities of the system it perpetuates.

The political and cultural expectations of the post Second World War period were conceptualised as an improvement in the living conditions of the working class – new housing, the welfare state, education, maintenance grants, a brave new world built by and made possible by the physical hard work and (to a certain extent) the tax contributions of the working class. The potential afforded by economic security – although far from accessible to everyone – led to a growing confidence amongst the working class at this time which in turn led to the demand for a more overt cultural presence.

There was an independent film movement in the 1970s, and during the 60s through to the beginning of the 80s television became more radical, showing the work of Ken Loach, Dennis Potter and John McGrath. Channel 4 signed up to the Workshop Agreement in the 1980s, which created an infrastructure of radical cultural workers whose praxis included political activism, education, and writing as well as film making. The work produced in all cultural spheres was often work that engaged with and explored in detail the lives of the working class. Seeing the lives of working-class people taken seriously on the television and cinema screens allowed an engagement with the cultural life of the country and provided the potential for political engagement and transformative politics.

The election of Thatcher in 1979 changed the way we think about culture and the way in which it is organized. Now it became something to be organized by an expert middle class, from the top down. It was to be sponsored, monetized, marketized and crucially, standardized. The support offered to radical cultural workers was removed and only those with independent means or rich parents could afford to take part in an increasingly narrow media landscape. In the process the popular culture of the working classes was appropriated and reinvented as middle-class culture.

The dominance of London in both the production and consumption of the arts, and the dominance of the middle class in London, has led to a situation where the middle and upper classes are able to dominate all areas of the arts: film, theatre, television, music and reproduce them in their own image, while at the same time ensuring the continuation of generational privileges.

london culture

The lack of social housing, the inability to rent cheaply, the lack of well-paid full-time contracted work, and the inadequacy of welfare benefits that are tied to stringent rules and surveillance all work together to marginalize the working class, and contribute to what has become a very narrow creative and cultural landscape. What appears to be the exclusion of the working class from geographical spaces gentrified by the professional middle class serves the additional function of excluding them from artistic production.

The decline of the culture of the working class has been one of the most powerful, telling developments in British society. John McGrath linked this decline of working-class culture to the systematic destruction by consecutive governments of the institutions embedded within the lives and history of the working class, out of which this culture grew and which sustained it. Crucially, for McGrath, these institutions were the very embodiment of working-class consciousness. If, as McGrath claimed, it was through these cultural institutions and the forms they took that the working class were able to recognize and identify themselves as a class with a distinct set of experiences differentiating them from other classes, then it follows that at the present moment, it is of the utmost importance that the working class produce their own cultural forms that are able to translate their own experiences.

Geographically we can consider gentrification as a form of internal ‘colonisation’. Colonisation is the practice of invading or settling on already occupied land for the purpose of acquiring assets and displacing indigenous populations by a more economically powerful and socially dominant group. Considering colonisation within this optic as a practice carried out by the middle classes brings into focus the ideological and material displacement of the working class. The success of the gentrification project can only be understood if we consider the physical, geographical aspect in a relational sense by mapping it onto cultural practices, forms of subjectivity and of course media representations which legitimise and normalise middle-class cultures of competitive individualism, status-seeking and accumulated and cumulative disdain for the working class based on feelings of superiority, career success and material acquisition.

The cultural and arts professions would like to consider themselves a meritocracy, magically escaping the structural determinants of class exclusion. In fact they are a perfect microcosm of the British class system, mediated through the lens of middle-class media workers who dominate the ‘creative’ industries which are responsible for telling the stories and projecting the images we have of ourselves and who ‘we’ are.

Our documentary feature film The Acting Class explores how this broader political economy works and with what consequences in the acting industry. The documentary won the International Labour Film Festival award 2017, an indication perhaps of the increasing awareness that the cultural industries are subject to similar dynamics of inequality and precarity as other sectors of the economy. The documentary interviews both established actors such as Christopher Eccleston, Maxine Peake, Julie Hesmondhalgh and Samuel West, as well as young aspiring actors trying to break into the profession today.

Maxine peake with tom stocks 700x455

Maxine Peake with Tom Stocks

Among the latter are Tom Stocks, a working-class actor from Bolton who set up Actor Awareness when he could not afford to take up his Masters in Acting at East 15 drama school. Among the multiple barriers to entry are:

- the dominance of the profession by the middle class in key decision-making roles; the project-by-project nature of the profession that gradually weeds out those who do not have access to an independent income (or the Bank of Mum and Dad);

- the London-centric nature of the profession that excludes actors of working-class origin from outside the capital;

- the subtle shaping of expectations and knowledge from a young age that makes acting seem ‘not for the likes of us’; and

- the erosion of culture and arts provision on the school curriculum.

In addition, there are the elite networks forged in Oxbridge and perpetuated in the profession, networks which Actor Awareness for example tries to counter by developing a network and mutual support system for the working-class actor.

The film has been seen by actors, educators, students, activists and trade unionists, as well as members of the general public. Digital technology has made possible alternative networks of film screenings and facilitated the organization of screenings in non-theatrical as well as theatrical venues. In this way the film becomes more than a series of images, it becomes a political intervention into present circumstances and offers the potential to change the conditions it is dealing with. Question and answer sessions build on immediate audience reactions of anger and emotional responses. One of the questions we are always asked is what can we do to bring about change?

This question has already contributed to the possibility of change, since audience engagement can have tangible results. For example, we have screened the film at a number of Equity branches, to help raise awareness within the actors’ union, and the film has fed into a wider process within the union to prioritise the issue of class exclusion in the sector. We also worked with The Equality Trust and Just Fair as part of their campaign to see Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 brought into effect. Section 1 requires public authorities to have ‘due regard’ to how their role can be used to reduce the inequalities of outcome that result from socio-economic disadvantage. This statutory duty could be a powerful lever for communities and activists to hold public bodies to account, for perpetuating class discrimination across all sectors and not just in relation to arts and culture.

Any counter-hegemonic challenge must begin with culture.

The film but can be purchased through the website and can be made available if anyone would like to arrange a screening.

Silenced voices from the margins: Irish working-class writing
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Thursday, 14 March 2019 15:29

Silenced voices from the margins: Irish working-class writing

Written by

Jenny Farrell reviews a new anthology of working-class writing

A History of Irish Working-Class Writing, edited by Michael Pierse (CUP 2017) is a book to be greatly welcomed. It is the first study of such scope, attempting to present and analyse the entire body of Irish working-class literature. It begins with the first writings of rural workers in the 18th century and brings the reader right up to the present day.

The study of working-class literature was a significant field of Marxist research in the socialist countries, beginning in the Soviet Union, where the works of such authors were translated, analysed and published from early on. It is left to the German expert Gustav Klaus, author of the Afterword, to state this.

Twenty-two chapters examine various aspects of this seriously under-researched field of literature, ranging across three centuries and three continents. The book attempts to give as comprehensive an overview as possible. Its publication coincides with similar companions to the working-class literature of Britain and the United States. 

There is of course always a degree of reservation when working-class literature comes under the scrutiny of largely middle-class academics. In parallel to the militancy with which the gender of authors acceptable to writing about women is scrutinised, one might ask: How familiar are these academics with the working-class experience? How much of this experience will be grasped? What do they see, and what not? How high-handed will they be in commenting on the literary production of the working class? These are valid concerns.

In antagonistic class society, the working class comprises of those people who possess nothing but their labour power. They are in an exploitative relationship with the owners of the means of production, the bourgeoisie, and participate only marginally in the fruits of their labour. As producers of surplus value, they create the basis of national wealth, yet their living conditions are frequently precarious. The rural proletariat must be included among working-class writers. Small farmers are a periphery group of the rural proletariat, who often hardly exist above subsistence level, while contributing to the national wealth. Equally peripheral to the working class are the ever-increasing number of people in precarious employment, and the unemployed.

Working-class authors must be read not merely in terms of their origins but also of how central this experience is to their writing, how aware they are of the inhuman and war-hungry system that exploits them, how their characters envisage their own emancipation and a better, more humane and peace-loving world.

One of the most striking omissions in the book is any recognition of working-class writing in the Irish language. There is no dedicated chapter on this, nor is there any meaningful inclusion of writers in Irish.

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Decorated initial by Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin, 1821

We mention some of these here to indicate the seriousness of this exclusion. Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin (1766–1837), cowherd and labourer, later teacher and scribe, joined with the United Irishmen in their anti-colonial struggle. From a long line of Gaelic scribes, Ó Longáin, born when the role and prominence of Gaelic scribes was all but lost, eked out an existence, working as a wandering labourer, and living in poverty for most of his life. Neither is there any discussion of the 20th century literary giants Pádraic Ó Conaire, Máirtin Ó Caidhin, Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, or Máirtín Ó Direáin.

Pádraic Ó Conaire wrote the finest (only) no-holds-barred novel Deoraíocht (Exile) dealing with the raw reality of the Irish working class and Gaeltacht diaspora in early 20th century London, and a plethora of short stories in which his identification with the working class is made clear. 

Máirtín Ó Cadhain, a left republican who spent the 2nd World War years in the Curragh prison camp, is arguably the finest 20th century Irish-language prose writer. His collections of short stories and novel Cré na Cille (Graveyard Clay) reflect the grinding poverty and hopelessness of his people, the small farmers and fisher folk of the West Galway Gaeltacht, on whose behalf he agitated all of his adult life.

The prose writing of Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, a building labourer in Northampton and the English Midlands, especially his Dialann Deoraí (An Emigrant’s Diary) – express the life and feelings of mid-20th c fellow Gaeltacht labourers in England. A member of the British Labour Party, his writing breathes his socialist sensibility. 

Máirtín Ó Direáin

Máirtín Ó Direáin is the best 20th c Irish-language poet. His childhood in a poverty-stricken household in Inis Mór, Aran, instilled in him a lifelong sympathy for all oppressed, by the capitalist order which finds full expression in his poetry. His fine lament for James Connolly mirrors that of Somhairle Maclean, the leading 20th century Scottish Gaelic poet, of marked communist sympathies, remembered also for his poetic celebration of John Maclean and the Red Clyde.

In the early chapters, there is also a surprising sense of insularity. Although the popularity of the radical Scottish poet Robert Burns among the working class in 18th and 19th century Ireland is mentioned several times, there is no exploration as to why that might have been the case. Indeed, the epochal upheaval of the American and French Revolutions, their unprecedented and hope-inspiring effect on the working classes of all of Europe with the promise of equality, comradeship and liberty, are not part of the picture. Yet these events, along with the anti-colonial revolution in Haiti, were major factors in the development of the United Irishmen, who had mass support in Ireland and in their later years increasingly attracted working-class members. Without such a contextual, historical context, the writings of the working class lose the meaning they had at the time.

Robert Tressell Cover resized

Occasionally, the tone of an author towards the writer discussed comes across as slightly patronising. Dublin-born Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is the first major working-class novel in English literature. It was written between 1906 and 1910 and first published posthumously in abridged editions in 1914 and 1916. Tressell (Robert Noonan) found no publisher and no editor, and the abridged versions removed his socialist ideas from the novel. Its full text only appeared, exactly as he first wrote it, in 1955. The working class has widely embraced the novel as an important text about their experience and written from their own point-of-view. It is not merely about the working-class experience – it also reflects on ways out of it.

The Tressell-like main character Owen is a Marxist, and tries to explain to his fellow house-painters how the system works, the Great Money Trick, and how to change this life-denying system. Never before in the English realist novel, had the actual labour process been central to the depiction of class struggle. For the first time, Tressell reverses the assumption that life begins where work ends – work is essential to fully lived human life. A character’s attitude to labour is a touchstone of his/ her humanity.

This novel is discussed at different points in the study, but not always in full recognition of its achievement. For example in Michael Pierse’s own chapter, he generalises to a degree that devalues the differentiated image of the working class presented by Tressell. Paul Delaney on the other hand goes into deeper analysis in his chapter on early 20th c working-class fiction.

In chapters on working-class writers from the North of Ireland, there are glaring exclusions of just such authors. For example, the chapter entitled ‘Poetry and the Working Class in Northern Ireland’ focuses almost exclusively on the not so working-class in subject matter: poets Heaney, Mahon and Longley. Such emphasis on the existing canon occurs in several chapters and in a way misses the point. There is no reference to Ciaran Carson, bilingual (Irish and English) son of a postal worker and highly regarded writer and translator of poetry in both languages. There are other omissions, including again the Irish language tradition, for example Gearóid Mac Lochlainn. Equally, the names of Northern working-class fiction writers do not appear in this book: Danny Morrison, poet Ciaran Carson’s novelist brother Brendan Carson, Sam McAughtry or Ian Cochrane. Nor, strikingly, Man Booker Prize winner Anna Burns’s novels. They are not even listed in the many lists of writers that appear (without much comment) throughout this book.

However, despite these shortcomings, A History of Irish Working-Class Writing is a very good starting point for anybody seeking to discover something about this vital tradition. It highlights the stature of Sean O’Casey, Brendan Behan and other titans of Irish working-class literature. The authors have collected many names and writings of Irish working-class writers in Ireland, Britain, the US, Australia and New Zealand. For this reason alone, this book is an invaluable resource. Some of the better chapters discuss the literature they present in detail and analysis, making for more interesting reading.

rita ann higgins 2

Rita Ann Higgins

Two chapters that stand out for me in this respect are chapter 11 on ‘Solidarity and Struggle in Irish-American Working-Class Literature’ and chapter 14 on ‘Early 20th century Working-Class Fiction’ both of which look at their texts in terms of socialism and internationalism as well as offering more in-depth analyses. In other chapters, such engagement with the actual texts would have enriched them. For example, Heather Laird writing about working-class Irish women writers, comments about Rita Ann Higgins that she is one of the few female writers whose poems “feature female speakers with a strong grasp of the part state institutions play in consolidating the power dynamics that underpin the prevailing socio-economic and gender status quo”. After such a statement, the reader expects to be presented with the text and the evidence. Surely, one of the questions we have about working-class literature is not simply the setting but about in what way the writers’ understanding of their class within capitalist society is forged into an awareness of how to bring about a change to their lives.

This book proves that an independent archive of working-class writings must be set up to collect documents and manuscripts often deemed unworthy of publication by commercial publishers and unrecognised by mainstream academics. A great example for such an undertaking is The Working Class Movement Library, founded in Manchester by Ruth and Edmund Frow. Only in this way will important records of working-class lives, such as their autobiographies, but also their other writings be collected as the aesthetic statement of what the lives of so many were and are like.

A History of Irish Working-Class Writing is an academic publication. Priced at £79.99, it is ironically well beyond the means of the working class. However, despite its shortcomings, it is a valuable reference book. Everybody with an interest in working–class writings, as the voice of those who are marginalised and silenced in the writing of history, literary and art criticism, should ensure that their local library owns a copy for their readers.

A History of Irish Working-Class Writing, CUP 2017, is available here

IWD 2019: Pioneers of Women's Emancipation in Ireland
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Thursday, 07 March 2019 15:22

IWD 2019: Pioneers of Women's Emancipation in Ireland

Written by

To mark International Women's Day, Jenny Farrell reviews Pioneers of Women’s Emancipation in Ireland, by Priscilla Metscher

Since times immemorial, people involved in the struggle for a better world have given expression to their aspiration not only in political texts and deeds, but also in artistic ways. These artistic expressions are not mere decoration, but an integral part of understanding and changing the world.

As explored in a previous article, the United Irishmen (and women) made extensive use of literary satire, and published songs in their political publications. Mary Ann McCracken wrote insightful, emancipatory letters to her imprisoned brother, Henry Joy. James Connolly took time out to write two plays and over twenty songs, poems and ballads. The play "Under Which Flag?" was first performed by the Workers' Dramatic Company in Liberty Hall three weeks before the Easter Rising (March 26, 1916). To quote the Irish suffragist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington who reviewed it:

It is a play of country life in Ireland at the time of the Fenian Rising... the dramatic conflict is fought around the person of Frank O'Donnell, a farmer's son, who in the first act announces his attention of joining the English Army, but at the end of the third act, having been shown the right path by his parents and sweetheart, and the old blind patriot Brian McMahon joins the fighting forces of the Irish Republican Brotherhood instead.

In the play, the farmer's wife Ellen replies to her eldest son Pat's intention to emigrate to America.

Far off hills are always green. Always slaving for other people, is it? And do you think you will get out of that by going to America? Faith then, you won't. The poor of the world are always slaving for other people, always going hungry that others may be fed, naked that others may be clothed, badly housed that others may live in palaces. 'Tis the way of the world in America as well as in Ireland.

In a short story discovered recently and attributed to Connolly, "The Agitator's Wife", another powerful woman character features at the heart of the piece. To quote Connolly: "No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetical expression."

Priscilla Metscher’s study, Pioneers of Women’s Emancipation in Ireland (Connolly Books, 2018) focuses on the political thinking, activities and lives of eminent Irish fighters for women’s emancipation, from a Marxist perspective. The author examines in turn Mary Ann McCracken, Anna Doyle Wheeler, William Thompson and James Connolly.

Mary Ann McCracken’s (1770-1866) emancipative ideas concerning the lot of women in her day are revealed in the correspondence with her brother Henry Joy McCracken, a founding member of the Society of United Irishmen, while he was imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail. The goal of the United Irishmen was a separation from England and the setting up of a republic along the French model. Women were sworn into the Society and some actively participated in the ’98 Rising. Mary Ann McCracken is just one example of how mainstream historiography has neglected women’s contribution in shaping the outlook of their society. It is through her we can see that feminist ideas were gaining ground in Ireland in the late 18th century.

Next, Priscilla Metscher turns to two outstanding figures among the early socialists in the first decades of the nineteenth century, Anna Doyle Wheeler (1785-1848) and William Thompson (1775-1833). Both came from the Irish Ascendancy and had connections with leading socialists in Britain and France. Their ideas on the emancipation of women are expressed in their jointly authored Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, To Retain Them in Political and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery, which was first published in 1825. This publication went further than the writings of the English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft by creating a set of concepts regarding the mutual oppression of the sexes under social inequality. While Wollstonecraft had commented on the degradation endured by women, Wheeler makes practical proposals concerning the equal rights for all citizens.

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Anna Doyle Wheeler

Irish socialist James Connolly took a firm stand on the question of equal rights for women. He saw it as one of the prerequisites of a future socialist society in Ireland:

Of what use … can be the re-establishment of any form of Irish state be if it does not embody the emancipation of womanhood.

Where necessary Connolly took direct action. When the Belfast textile manufacturers began to speed up production, Connolly, on request from the women workers, organised them as a textile branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.

Within the socialist movement in Ireland and Britain, Connolly stands out as one of the few socialist leaders of the time who insisted that the economic and political emancipation of women must be an integral part of any socialist programme. As Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, editor of the suffragist newspaper the Irish Citizen stated:

Mr. James Connolly…is the soundest and most thorough-going feminist among all the Irish labour men.

This study outlines the thinking and actions of each individual considered in it. Implementing their beliefs put them to the forefront of the political movements of their times. Priscilla Metscher considers these pioneers within their times, showing what they achieved, or where their thinking fell short. In this sense, they were both ahead of their times and of their times. By reading about and understanding these pioneers of women’s emancipation, the relevance of their insights and activism becomes clear. Their lives and work are to be recognized, celebrated – and above all built on.

The booklet is published by Connolly Books and available from them for €7, see here.

'So now yir tellt!': the life and work of Alex Hamilton
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Friday, 01 March 2019 09:39

'So now yir tellt!': the life and work of Alex Hamilton

Written by

David Betteridge discusses the life and work of Alex Hamilton, 1949-2018. It is a companion piece to Jim Aitken's essay-obituary of Tom Leonard.

I

This is not a proper obituary, although it started out as such. It is more a “thinking-through-writing” kind of thing, trying to wrestle a meaning out of some confusion. My subject is my friend of forty years, recently deceased, the prolific and talented and largely unpublished author, Alex Hamilton, aka Sandy Hamilton (to those who knew him from childhood), aka S&eh? (to those with whom he exchanged emails, who shared his love of puzzles), aka Alex. Hamilton (with a precise or pedantic dot after the first name, as he sometimes signed himself), aka Alexander P. Hamilton (as inscribed on the brass plate screwed to his coffin, which, following his own instructions, was lowered into the ground without a word being spoken), aka Django Ross or Cordelia d’Amfreville (pen-names that he adopted, the first mainly for works where he explored the punning possibilities of several languages, the second mainly for erotica).

As an author, Alex is remembered, if at all, for being one of the contributors to a handsome paperback collection of prose and verse published in 1976 by Molendinar Press, Three Glasgow Writers. The other two contributors were Tom Leonard and James Kelman, whose careers as authors, and later as professors of literature, rose and rose, while Alex’s flat-lined, then declined. I have been trying to understand why the two succeeded, by all measures, while the other, my friend, failed.

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Alex reading at the Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, in 1976, at the launching - jointly with Tom Leonard and James Kelman - of Three Glasgow Writers, published by Molendinar Press. This still is taken from a video recording of the occasion, reproduced here by permission of the Contemporary Centre for Arts, Glasgow. (Ref. TE3/1976/117)

You can read Tom Leonard’s works and you can read works about him quite readily, whether in book form or online, as in Jim Aitken’s superb essay in Culture Matters, written a few weeks after Tom’s death, which came a few weeks after Alex’s. Even more readily, you can read James Kelman’s works and works about him, and you can go on reading them, as he is still alive, happily, and still producing noteworthy literature - witness his recent novel, Dirt Road. Alex’s works, by contrast, are hard to find, either because they were never published, or because they are tucked away in magazines e.g. Gutter, or are long out of print. It was not always so, however.

In 1981, three of us, Ian Murray, Adam Currie and myself, all friends of Alex’s, persuaded him to let us publish a selection of his short fiction, under our Ferret Press banner. With support from the Scottish Arts Council, this collection came out the following year, with the title Gallus, Did You Say? and Other Stories. In putting this selection together, we were able to draw on a pretty wide range of previously printed and/or broadcast outings. Ian Murray’s Introduction to Gallus lists some of these sources:

Alex. Hamilton was born in Glasgow in 1949 and still lives there, as he has done for most of his life. He is known best for the stories in this collection, which have been published and broadcast both in Britain and the United States. His work has appeared in many journals and magazines, including the Times Educational Supplement, Akros, and Transatlantic Review, and in the book Three Glasgow Writers (Molendinar Press, 1976). Some of his stories have been broadcast on BBC television and radio and Radio Clyde. The author’s reputation as a reader of his own work makes him a frequent visitor to schools and colleges, where he was invited to give over 20 readings last year, and he has read from his more adult fiction at the Kelso and Frayed Edge Festivals, the Third Eye Centre, and the University of Glasgow.

Alex. Hamilton was awarded Scottish Arts Council writer’s bursaries in 1974 and 1979.

II

What went wrong - if indeed it is fair to call failing to get published necessarily wrong - after the initial interest in his work? Part of the answer, it may be argued, was Alex’s retreat, after Gallus, from writing in a fluent and readable and refreshing mixture of vernaculars, with some Scottish Standard English spliced in whenever he judged that a character’s speech-style demanded it. Alex himself did not regard it as a retreat, but rather as an advance, a striking-out into new literary territories, with new language uses to suit. If readers did not see fit to advance with him, he reckoned that that was their loss. In an email sent to me in 2016, he wrote this, referring to himself, oddly, in the third person:

He's long since given up writing for the (etymologically & demotically) ignorant. He - I - write(s) for a player-audience of two. If you exit before I do, there'll be a player-audience of one. If I exit before you: "CURTAIN!".

First of all, post-Gallus, Alex began to experiment with very short texts in a most elegant style of English, almost Augustan. One such piece, I recall, was called “Abdul, the Tobacco Curer”. He duplicated and spiral-bound a few copies for giving to friends, and for submitting (unsuccessfully) to publishers. Its content was slight, I have to say. Then he went on to elaborate that style in other texts, playing with words at every twist and turn, and wangling in allusions, drawn from various sources, print and otherwise. Thereafter, other languages besides English were plundered and bent to the same purposes, including French, Greek, Latin, Russian, and especially Scots. An interest in typographical high jinks followed, and photo-montage. Joyce’s portmanteau coinages and Mallarme’s calligrams were among his inspirations. As the form that he used became increasingly witty, and increasingly condensed, to the point of extreme brevity, his content became decreasingly significant, I thought. Often, the whole point of a text was a single pun, or a paradox.

When we discussed his writing over too much beer, or, in later years, over coffee or wine, and I questioned the form-over-content imbalance, Alex replied that he had no interest in putting across messages of any kind. He would leave such sententious and tendentious stuff to those authors with axes to grind. He held especial scorn, for example, for Susan Sontag and such engaged essays of hers as Regarding the Pain of Others.

Once, he went so far as to say that he no longer held any belief in any grand narratives or big themes, his early commitment to Socialism and membership of the Labour Party having lapsed, as also his optimism regarding the possibility of any substantial social or political progress. Too many years working as a project manager on various EEC- and EU-sponsored public-private enterprises on brown-field sites - a job he entered after leaving the teaching profession - had tired him, and jaundiced him. He grew to distrust the political and business elites whom he was hired to serve, as also the popular and populist movements that gained support in the Nineties and Noughties across much of Europe.

Technological progress was a different matter: he embraced it happily, notably in connection with computing, hi-fi, and medicine; and for a while he engaged full-heartedly and doggedly in certain discrete issues that impinged on his life, as he listed in an email to me dated 2010:

Yup, sir: the enlightenment continueth. Wickedness encroacheth, or attempts to.

I've played my little part agin: the poll tax; the identity card scheme; the proposed closure of the FM network; & the environment on various fronts (& backs). 

Persistence. 

III

So that you can see and judge for yourselves, what I mean about Alex’s “retreat” - or his “advance” as he regarded it - let me juxtapose an early bit of text (published) against several later ones (unpublished):

From Our Merry (1976):

See, she had this wee kitten in her hands, and it was that toty you’d have thought it shouldn’t have been away from its mother....

“Heh, that sa a wee stoatir,” says Andy, and bends down to get a stroke at it.

“Lee it alane, you!” goes Merry, just as sudden as that, screaming and cuddling it real tight the way she does with her dolls. “Yir no tae touch it, awright? Awright? ... Kiz it’s mines!”

“Heh, wait a minnit, Merry,” I goes. “Whitdji mean, it’s yours? It’s probbli jiss ta stray ur that an that mean zit’s naebdi’s... relse if it sno a stray, it’s sumdi else’s.”

Compare the above with the following typical mini-text emailed to me in 2010. Note his copyrighting:

I think that I mentioned that I'm re-reading - and re-enjoying - Ellman's Joyce.

The attached occurred yestreen.

            PRODDY GÆL SUN

Anglophile Ἴκαρος was a dead loss to his patter.

                                               © DJANGO ROSS

Or this (2017):

As you know, I've been immersed in færie tales for the past couple of years, including Joseph's (translated) versions of a wheen of Celtic wans. Like you and Berger and the tellers of yore, my attitude is that a story's only a story, for if the hearers' interest wanes, you don't get your dram...

Currently reading thro - one per eve, of course - the latest (Penguin) translation of 1,001 Nights, which attempts to give all the stories, y compris the centuries' accretions. They haven't succeeded, but - kiz they hivnae nklewdit mines.

Which allows me to tell you of which, videlicet:

Sharazad's One Thousand and Second Tale

Woman, saith the Caliph. These three years, these thousand and one nights, thou hast succeeded in pleasing thy Lord. Thus, woman, I'm raisin thee to the status of my currant Sultana.

Or this, with graphics and a touch of colour, called The Retiree (2015):

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IV

The last time I saw Alex was at a screening of The Sense of an Ending at the Glasgow Film Theatre. Afterwards, he praised the film, and said even better things about Julian Barnes’s novel, of the same title, on which the film is based. I was surprised to hear Alex speak well of these two contemporary works, as he usually saved his plaudits for the past, notably for works from the eighteenth century. He especially liked Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which he read and re-read several times over, in its complete six-volume edition; and, from the first half of the twentieth century, he especially liked James Joyce’s exuberant and encyclopedic two novels, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, complemented or contradicted by Samuel Beckett’s increasingly condensed late plays and novellas. Julian Barnes and the film-makers did well, I thought, to break into this company of merit.

Looking back, from after Alex’s death, I begin to see the deep relevance that The Sense of an Ending had for my friend, especially when considered in light of the essay in literary criticism, by Frank Kermode, that lay behind the novel and the film, that Alex knew from his student days.

I have a hunch that Alex consciously shaped the way he lived and worked during the last decades of his life, with especial urgency in the last few years, by when I suspect he was beginning to have intimations of mortality. He shaped it so that the resulting narrative would made sense to him, even though the wider world’s narrative did not. In so doing, he was exercising the same set of skills that Kermode reckoned a novelist exercised in writing fiction, and we exercise in reading it.

Alex’s narrative prompted him systematically to edit loose ends from his life, cutting them out abruptly if that proved the neatest thing to do. Friends and family alike got this treatment. What is more, he increasingly ordered his life along almost monastic lines, governed by a sort of home-made liturgy of the hours. He set aside time each day for reading, and for writing; for listening to BBC Radio 3; for walking to the library to consult the only journal he had any regard for, The Economist; and for calling in at a shop where he could buy past-their-date foodstuffs cheaply, including not-quite-stale bread. Twice a week, he walked to a branch of Tesco about a mile from his house, sometimes on the way to a free concert or lecture in the University or Art Galleries; there he bought items that were discounted. Once, I recall, when I met him there by chance, he pounced on a tin of sardines, at 39p. “This is enough,” he told me, “for three meals, with a bit of bread.”

When at last his doctor told him how little time remained to him, without fuss Alex engaged the services of a lawyer, and gave his final instructions. (I know about this from a phone conversation I had with Alex’s former wife, after the event; she in turn had learned the details from the lawyer.)

Alex wanted to be interred with no ceremony in a plot in the same graveyard as his parents. He wanted the money that he had saved from his frugal living to be spent on two things: the printing of a collection of his writings, the details of which I have not yet been able to discover, and the performance of a cello concerto, in memory of his father, who had been a skilled worker in the shipyards, as well as a skilled amateur cellist. (This concerto he had already commissioned, from Edward McGuire.)

Eddie was one of the last people to see Alex. He visited him a couple of times at his flat. This is how he describes their meetings:

I had not been in touch with him for a few months and thought it was time to update him on progress in my composing the cello concerto that he had commissioned the year before. So, on October 4th 2018, I brought him a bound copy of the draft version of the piece, and pointed out where music had to be completed in each of the 3 movements. I was able to say the soloist - Robert Irvine - was hoping to premiere it in the Spring of 2019. It was not until about 2 hours into our conversation that he told me about his terminal cancer diagnosis. So I said I'd keep in regular touch. My next and final visit was nearly 3 weeks later on October 24th, again at his flat. He was much weaker then but was optimistic about attending the concerto premiere in the Spring. So I was surprised to learn that he had died a week or two after that - I had planned a third visit in November. I hadn't heard about him going into the hospice.

There was one matter that took Alex and Eddie a while to agree on: how to phrase the concerto’s dedication. Alex did not want his own name to appear on the score, only his father’s and the composer’s. After some discussion, they agreed to add the words “Commissioned anonymously”. My own suggestion to Eddie was that, when he publishes the work, he changes the dedication to, “Commissioned anonymously by his son”. Why edit oneself out, and become a ghost? That is one of the questions about Alex that I am puzzling over.

V

Alex’s burial did not go the way his sense of an ending had prescribed. To start with, there were more people at the graveside than he wanted, ten in all, if you count the undertakers and the gravediggers, plus a Golden Labrador called Hector, who seemed to enjoy the outing, to judge from a photograph taken by an old school-friend, who decided to invite himself along. The dog is straining at his lead, eager to be off sniffing. The photograph also shows another eager soul, quite unmourning because of her young age, namely Alex’s infant grand-daughter, whom he never knew he had. There were also more words spoken in that country churchyard than Alex had bargained for, not at the moment of interment, but immediately afterwards, when half an hour of animated conversation burst out. Some of it sprang from the mourners’ pent-up anger or sadness or bewilderment at the way Alex had lived his life, and treated them; some of it sprang from shared memories, or from shared curiosity about the others.

While there was no ceremony or service or religious observation, there was one little gesture of traditional leave-taking from one of the ten. The old school-friend took a handful of soil from the box offered by the undertakers. He went to the grave’s edge, and threw it on top of the coffin with its bright new brass name-plate. He didn’t want to not do anything after all the years he had known Alex - or Sandy, as he called him - and enjoyed his company.

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Email attachment received from Alex in 2015

I have a sense of an ending of my own, different from Alex’s, and better than the one that actually happened. I have only belatedly arrived at it, some months after Alex’s grave was filled in, and the mourners went home, and the JCB mini-diggers that did the digging were taken to other jobs.

First, I would have been there at the graveside, along with many, many others - we should have invited ourselves. His old pals, James Kelman and Tom Leonard, would have been there, Tom Leonard restored to health, without any need of his walking-stick and a tube up his nose. Second, a cellist would have played the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite Number 3, just as a colleague of my sister’s had done at her funeral some years earlier. Alex was there, and expressed great pleasure at hearing that noble music. Third, a jazz guitarist would have played another piece of music that Alex liked, Django Reinhardt's Nuages. When he was young, Alex played the guitar quite well, and till the end kept his instrument out of its case in his living room; but latterly he was unable even to hold it properly, let alone play it, as a disabling disease turned first one hand, then the other, into crab-like claws. Django famously lacked the use of two fingers, after being burned in a fire; Alex lacked the use of any. Fourth, every one of us there would have thrown our handful of earth into the grave, and either recited something or sung something, con brio. Fifth, we would all have gone to a pub somewhere afterwards, and held a riotous wake. Sixth, every one of us would have received a fat package through the post a few weeks later, from Alex’s lawyer. In it would have been a volume of Alex’s best writing, handsomely printed, and a CD of Eddie McGuire’s Cello Concerto. Seventh, we would have learned that we had been misinformed, and that Alex’s life never had taken a wrong turning.

This is me writing fiction, of a consoling kind.

VI

Looking back, summing up, it is clear that Alex was for a while a significant figure in an informal movement combining authors and publishers and broadcasters and readers and teachers, especially secondary school teachers such as Alex himself was at that time. Collectively, they shifted the centre of gravity of Scottish Literature further towards the vernacular, or vernaculars (plural) rather. Others continued that movement, with increasing success, while Alex chose to follow his other path, pursuing other projects. Tom Leonard and James Kelman, his former book-mates in the Molendinar Press volume, went on to become international faces and voices of the movement, each in his own distinctive way, and many others joined them, one of my favourites being Anne Donovan. Her story Hieroglyphics (2001) says a lot about vernacular and standard forms of a language, and says it in a vernacular so precise that it is an idiolect. Reading it sheds light on Alex’s early work.

The story describes a child’s struggles to decipher print, coming to Standard English texts from a Glasgow vernacular starting place. One word that gives her especial difficulty is her own forename: MARY. “That's ma name. Merry. But that wus spelt different fae merry christmas that you wrote in the cards you made oot a folded up bits a cardboard an yon glittery stuff that comes in thae wee tubes...” Here we find a lovely echo of lines written by Alex a generation earlier.

He similarly transliterated that girl’s forename as “Merry”, in his own story “Our Merry”, from Three Glasgow Writers.  I remember querying Alex’s use of “Our” in his title, at the time we were getting Gallus ready for the press. I asked him if “Oor” was not the form he needed. Quickly and correctly, he pounced on my levelling, flattening, ignorant tin-ear. “It might be ‘Oor Wullie’,” he said, referring to D.C. Thompson’s cartoon character, “but in the North part of Glasgow, where my character comes from, and where I come from, it’s just as I wrote it: ‘Our Merry’.” There we see the same precision that made him place a dot after his own forename. “Alex. is an abbreviation,” he insisted. “It’s an abbreviation of Alexander, cutting the word short; hence the dot. So now yir tellt!”

VII

It would be a mistake for me to try to draw too large a conclusion about literary careers from considering Alex’s particular example. There is no compelling reason why writers should confine themselves to using vernaculars, there being plenty of good poems, short stories, novels, plays, etc. written in varieties of Standard English. There is no compelling reason, either, why they should desist from word-play and allusion and experimentation with layouts and fonts. If overly “realist” and “anti-formalist” assumptions were allowed to govern which works are deemed good, and therefore published, and which are deemed not good, and therefore not published, literature would be impoverished. Had such criteria been applied in the past, we would have lost access to a great deal of Hugh MacDiarmid’s polymath and polyglot output, to take one mighty example.

Other writers, too, would have remained in a limbo of unpublishability. Scotland’s first modern Makar, Edwin Morgan, would have suffered; or, at least, his concrete poetry inventions would have failed to make it into print. Similarly, some of Alastair Gray’s most typographically adventurous pages. And where would Hope Mirrlees’ s Paris be?

My comradely disagreement with Alex about the later direction of his writing did not relate to its form, considered on its own, nor to the demands it makes on us as readers to raise our game, but to its diminution of content. That is to say, my disagreement related to his conscious avoidance of engagement with the world, and the peoples in it, and their unavoidable concerns with big issues. In fact, I enjoyed Alex’s textual extravaganzas, as did a friend in London, the composer and poet David Johnson, to whom I showed some of Alex’s later work. “It is the sort of experimentation that excites by sound and rhythm more than sense,” he wrote, “as if he was writing in a language invented on the spot, or from a sort of speaking in tongues. Is it visionary? Mad? These questions alone spark an interest in me...” No, I just wanted Alex’s adventures in form to serve something bigger; and so, I suppose, did all those publishers who so often sent him rejection slips, or plain ignored his submissions.

Ernst Fischer considered this diminution of content phenomenon, across all the arts in his far-ranging study, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach. He saw it as a problem intrinsic to late capitalism, affecting creative individuals who were, or who became, detached from the realities of society, or indeed from their own true natures; in other words, as in Marx’s classic definition, individuals who were alienated. Fischer wrote:

The de-socialisation of art and literature produces the recurring motif of flight: the motif of deserting a society which is felt to be catastrophic.....

Alex’s flight became the dominating feature of his life and his work alike. How I wish he had chosen - had been willing and able to choose - to stay in touch with more things, more people, more issues, while still playing as he wished with form and language. How I wish he could have made Joan Miro’s manifesto-motto his own. In a 1948 interview, Miro, speaking of his own work, said, “Plant your feet firmly on the ground if you want to be able to jump up in the air.”

Suddenly, having pursued my argument thus far, I am aware of a certain rather large anomaly, namely a work-in-progress of Alex’s called The Reinhardt Variations, which I have only just remembered. It recounts the tale of a young technocrat’s journeys across several nations of Eastern Europe. Here, Alex avoided the form-over-content imbalance. He rendered chunks of real life, experienced at first hand, taken from a time and from places undergoing epochal change. Sure, the language may have been difficult in places, compressed, over-written perhaps, full of parodies of different kinds of writing, from newspaper journalism, to company report, to political polemic, to letter, to diary entry; but it was about something significant. Unfortunately, he never finished the novel, or even, latterly, spoke of it. It sank. I am left wondering if anything of it survives, maybe on a memory-stick or disk. I hope so, as it would show that Alex’s “retreat” (or “advance”) in his writing was not in a straight line, not 100 percent consistent. 

VIII

There was a conference on brownfield site development in Moscow some years before Alex retired, that he attended. He was called to speak about his own work on such projects, being at the time employed by the European Commission in a variety of countries. He prefaced his remarks by quoting, in Russian, the opening sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same holds true, he told his fellow-attendees, even more so, of countries. As his life wore on, and the world’s politics got ever more dysfunctional, as it seemed to him, and as his own affairs went the same way, he became an expert in unhappiness; but it was his genius to carry on nonetheless, to hold fast, with a wry smile on his haggard face, and a bon mot forming in his mind, to be saved in his computer file.

Although, as I have shown, he favoured playfulness over seriousness in his writing, and in his public persona, I sensed a deep seriousness inside him, that darkened and hardened and shrank as the years went by, ending up as a nihilism similar to - and maybe even modelled on - Samuel Beckett’s, but without the Irishman’s great concern for the “still, sad music of humanity”, achieved through plain speech beautifully handled. A passage in Beckett’s Molloy expresses this nihilism perfectly. Alex read the novel both in its original French and in its later English translation, and sometimes quoted from it:

All I know is what the words know, and the dead things, and that makes a handsome little sum, with a beginning, a middle and an end as in the well-built phrase and the long sonata of the dead. And truly it little matters what I say, this or that or any other thing...

Clearly it did matter, however, at least some of the time. Alex’s dying instruction to his lawyer to arrange for a selection of his writings to be published was proof of that.

IX

There is much more that I could say about Alex’s life, and the way he chose to live it and to end it, yoking on as he did of a sort of Stoicism, if that is not too grand a term for his self-directedness, and his matter-of-fact acceptance of all the losses he suffered, and in some cases brought on himself; or should he be termed a Cynic, rather; or just a plain old misanthropic bastard? Maybe I have already said too much, divulging private matters about my friend. My intention is not to speak ill of him, but to recognise and try to understand his pursuance of his chosen craft, and to mourn the things that went wrong.

I am left with the questions I started with. The biggest one is this: how could a man who knew so much about other people’s lives choose so narrow and austere a narrative for himself? Here was a man who was deeply read in such deep studies of life as King Lear - to the extent that he sometimes adopted the mad king’s estranged and then reconciled daughter’s name, Cordelia, as a pen-name - and yet, looking back with selective fondness to his long-dead father, he chose to elevate his role as a son over all his other dealings with people, including his own daughters? And how could he lavish so much care on his complex weaving of witticisms and word-play - much ado about little - while neglecting so much else? It was as if, to reverse the idea contained in a line spoken by Cordelia in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Alex wanted his epitaph to be: “My tongue's more richer than my love.”

Ernst Fischer’s analysis of the de-socialisation of literature puts Alex in his historical context, but I am still left wondering why. Why, in this particular case, yet not in others, do we see a recurrence of Fischer’s motif of flight? To take two obvious counter-examples, Tom Leonard and James Kelman, both of whom came from similar class origins to Alex’s, and pursued similar destinations: they signally stayed grounded, never ballooning away into the least hint of alienation. Why the difference? Clearly, there is no simple iron law or hidden societal hand requiring de-socialising and flight. There must be other factors at work also.

Reading a life is the hardest thing.

X

While struggling to put this piece together, I found that a verse-elegy began to form in my mind. It went through about a dozen drafts, before the following text emerged. Alex would have thoroughly disapproved both of its form and of its content.

Dead Letters

by David Betteridge

Friend, I let you down;
and you let me go.
In doing so, you let me down;
and we let the silence that ensued
between us grow and grow.
We both were wrong,
needing as we did -
and still do - the other there,
in touch, if not in step or tune,
aware.

Disuse, the destroyer,
eroded friendship’s base;
and then, not telling anyone,
you went to a private place,
and straightway died;
you died with unanswered letters
left, and no good-byes.
I am not the only one estranged.
Year on year, you cut adrift
alike your family and your friends,
you hurting man.

Young, you kept your ear
close to the People’s complex voice;
you wrote their lives;
and your voice was heard.
Then, by cold degrees,
you privileged your own small take
and slant on things,
and your own sharp wit.
These led you to your solitude,
and turned the key on it.

Too soon you settled
into garret-ways, ensconced
in the clean order of your top-floor flat,
with the storm-doors shut.

Sitting there,
you pleasured in thesauruses,
and in the alphabet.
You had software that provided
every font of every type.
You wove them closely
into ever-dwindling texts,
with an ever-dwindling sense of right.

Your favourite letter
of the twenty-six was “O”.
You wrote the “O” that gives expression
to surprise; the “O” of salutation, too;
and the “O” of moans and groans,
extending once, in a tale of yours,
to twenty pages, then in colours
fifty more, some garish red, some blue.
You wrote the Venn diagram’s encircling “O”,
that separates one thing from the rest,
including (and excluding) self;
also the “O” that signifies an open wound,
or eye, or grave; and, finally, the “O”
that is the empty “O” of nothing, of which
no thing will come, as Lear observed;
and so it proved,
as your life’s course attests.

You found delight in Joyce,
striving to out-fun in print
that magic-making Irishman.
Now and then, in miniscule,
you ran him close,
but quite forgot to keep
your soul and heart engaged,
as he did his, and your feet
earth-pressed, like Antaeus.

Words, old friend, lost friend:
they were your true companions.
You kept faith with them,
cherishing them till death,
punning cleverly all the way
to the grave full-stop of your last breath.

Why did you not keep faith
with more?

Why did you turn
from the prime substantial world?
Why did you favour emptied signs
and metaphors?

Too late now to redraft
your life’s plot,
to redirect the great talent
that you had,
that it might serve a better end!
What’s done is done.
We must let it be.

Oh, that you’d kept in touch
with wider themes,
and with wiser friends than me!

Further reading: Caroline McAfee’s contribution, called “Glasgow”, which is part of Varieties of English Around the World, published by John Benjamins, Amsterdam and Philadelphia, 1983, available online. It contains extracts from Alex’s short stories, and from an early novel, Stretch Marks.

 

A common treasury for all: Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 23 January 2019 20:44

A common treasury for all: Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers

Written by

John Storey tells the story of the 33 Digger communities, intended by Gerrard Winstanley as a first step in a revolution to change not just England but the world. Dug into the text is a poem by Fran Lock in memory of Winstanley, taken from Ruses and Fuses.

On Sunday 1 April 1649 a group of between twenty and thirty poor men and women began to dig the earth on St George’s Hill in Surrey. According to a government spy, ‘They invite all to come in and help them, and promise them meat, drink and clothes. . . . They give out, they will be four or five thousand within ten days. . . . It is feared they have some design in hand’.

The Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley, did have a design in hand. As Winstanley expressed it, ‘To dig up George Hill . . . we may work in righteousness and lay the foundations of making the earth a common treasury for all, both rich and poor. . . . Not enclosing any part into a particular hand, but all as one man, working together, and feeding together; . . . not one lording over another, but all looking upon each other, as equals’. Moreover, ‘every single man, male and female’ should have equal access to what is a ‘common store-house for all’.

What Winstanley envisaged was a movement from private to communal ownership. At first the two systems would co-exist, but increasingly, with the withdrawal of hired labour, the privately owned estates would cease to be viable and the communal system would prevail. As he explained,

No man can be rich, but he must be rich either by his own labours, or by the labours of other men helping him. If a man have no help from his neighbour, he shall never gather an estate of hundreds and thousands a year. If other men help him to work, then are those riches . . . the fruit of other men’s labours as well as his own.

Winstanley knew very well that ‘all rich men live at ease, feeding and clothing themselves by the labours of other men, not by their own; which is their shame, not their nobility’. And when the rich give charity, as if this justified oppression and exploitation, ‘they give away other men’s labours, not their own’. Without the labour of others, the rich would have to work the land themselves and it would become impossible for them to continue to maintain their large estates. In such circumstances, he argued, the rich would join the poor in the communal cultivation of the land. The result would be the end of private property, buying and selling, alienated labour, and the political authority which helped produce and reproduce all three.

In other words, Winstanley’s revolution does not propose to take land from the rich, but to deny to them the means to cultivate it. If the poor work together to produce for themselves, the rich will have no labour to hire and exploit. As he explains, ‘None can say, their right is taken from them; for let the rich work alone by themselves and let the poor work together by themselves; the rich in their enclosures, saying this is mine; the poor upon their commons, saying this is ours, the earth and fruits are common’. What is taken from the rich is the capacity to exploit the labour of others. If they want lots of land, let them work it by themselves. When this proves impossible, they will have to join with the new community of common ownership.

The refusal to work for the rich, and the inability of the rich to work the land themselves, would bring about the downfall of private property and class difference. The proposed mass withdrawal of labour from working the land for wages was in effect a general strike. What made it more sustainable than most general strikes, was that working for wages was being replaced by working as a community to support each other. In other words, the withdrawal of labour would produce an alternative economic and social system. Not giving hire nor taking hire would deny to the landowners the workers they needed to cultivate their estates.

Diggers 3

The result would be that ‘No man shall have any more land than he can labour himself, or have others to labour with him in love, working together, and eating bread together . . . neither giving hire, nor taking hire’. Without workers to exploit and oppress they would have to work the land themselves. Without hired labour the large landowner would have to reduce his property to a size he could work with just family and friends. As Winstanley puts it, ‘if the rich will still hold fast this propriety of mine and thine, let them labour their own land with their own hands’. But if the rich for some reason cannot labour, providing they give up their land they will be welcomed into the community.

As he further explains, ‘He that is now a possessor of lands and riches, and cannot labour, if he say . . . take my land only let me eat bread with you, that man shall be preserved by the labours of others’. Making the additional point, in a gesture that would never be reciprocated, ‘And if any of you that are the great ones of the earth, that have been bred tenderly, and cannot work, do bring in your stock into this common treasury as an offering to the work of Righteousness; we will work for you, and you shall receive as we receive’.

The brutality of the opposition the Diggers encountered was driven by the threat they posed to the system of property ownership. It quickly became clear that the Diggers represented something new; they were not squatting in the hope that local landowners would take pity on them and allow them to stay; rather, they were challenging the very idea of land ownership.

The attack on the Diggers included an economic boycott, harassment, violent assaults by hired thugs, and legal actions. It was all organised by local landowners. They even employed a clergyman, whose sole purpose was ‘to preach down the Diggers’. The men of property were determined to prevent the Diggers establishing themselves on the commons and the example this would set. When the Diggers moved their activities to Cobham Heath in August 1649, the opposition intensified, continuing what had gone before, but now burning dwellings and furniture, and hiring thugs to chase the Diggers from the area.

turning earth

by Fran Lock

i.m Gerrard Winstanley

god holds us all in the hollow of his hand, costing
our melt-weight. from boy to man. stripling into
ingot. i see it now, we are more precious, we are
not less base. our swords, they are not morphing
into ploughshares, and every cutting blade insists
upon its own utopian intercourse. god is not found,
but made. these yeomen, apprentice lads. oh, we
have smithied his kingdom, reckoned it level with
hot, dull force. they call this treason. we’d turn
the stifled earth and let it breathe. the ground, not
broke, but opened after all. god holds us close.
they only see what we tear down. but god will
know, will know us for waywardens of the soil.
the soul. brothers, i dream of a spring without
omission, rising blue and green from winter’s
cryptic jinx. sisters, i dream of a spring without
remission; a love that shrugs the slog of mongrel
toil. god holds, god knows. man is not made
for minting open mouths. man is not made for
driving stakes into the frozen ground. they skim
the fat, we till a trough of stones. man should
be held, man should be known by what he
grows: the shoot, the word, the human good.
we planted christ. came capsized and aspiring,
sweated our tenure in stockades, and stung
into hunger, ate grass. we planted christ. not
christ as a bright dividing line, but christ, an
immovable root that binds the chalky earth
together. crisis ripens a fist like a snail in beer.
we rage and are imperfect, yet we know, we
are vouchsafed, and all are saved. for it is hope
that we make grow.

Winstanley remained convinced that ‘you lords of manors . . .have none to stand for you but whom you force by threatening’. Men pulled down the houses out of fear of what might happen to them and their families if they refused. As Winstanley explains, ‘one soldier . . . forced . . . three country men to help him pull down . . . [a] house; . . . the men were unwilling to pull it down; but for fear of their landlords, and the threatening soldier, they did but their hands to pull it down’. And when the houses were burned, tools and crops destroyed, ‘their lords gave them ten shillings to drink, and they smiled one unto another; being fearful, like a dog that is kept in awe, when his master gives him a bone, and stands over him with a whip; he will eat, and look up, and twinch his tail; for they durst not laugh out, lest their lords should hear they jeered them openly; for in their hearts they are Diggers’.

The final attack on Cobham Heath occurred on 19 April 1650. The hired thugs violently attacked men, women and children. One woman was so badly beaten that she later miscarried. Houses were burned down, crops destroyed and the Diggers forcibly dispersed. More hired thugs were paid to occupy the site to prevent their return. Local inhabitants were warned not to provide lodgings for or food to the Diggers. They had been defeated by the organised power of the local landowners: they brought the court case; they paid for the clerical attack; they hired the thugs to violently confront the Diggers and to break up their tools and destroyed their dwellings and to eventually drive them from their work on the land.

The digging on St George’s Hill, Cobham Heath and in the other 32 Digger communities was intended as a first step in a revolution to change not just England but the world. Winstanley refers to ‘our work of the earth’s community’. He also says, ‘And not only this common, or heath should be taken in and manured by the people, but all the commons and waste ground in England, and in the whole world, shall be taken in by the people in righteousness, not owning any propriety; but taking the earth to be a common treasury, as it was first made for all’.

He also knew ‘that the earth was made to be a common treasury of livelihood for all, without respect of persons, and was not made to be bought and sold . . . [and] none ought to be lords and landlords over another, but the earth is free for every son and daughter of mankind, to live free upon’. When he talked about the world being turned upside down, he really did mean the world and all who inhabit it.

Rosa Luxemburg and the spiritual growth of the proletariat
Thursday, 03 January 2019 21:58

Rosa Luxemburg and the spiritual growth of the proletariat

Written by

‘The most precious thing' said Rosa Luxemburg, 'in the sharp ebb and flow of the revolutionary waves is the proletariat's spiritual growth.' Jenny Farrell presents two letters by Rosa Luxemburg, murdered one hundred years ago in Berlin by the proto-Nazi Freikorps.

Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, founder members of the German Communist Party and fearless anti-war activists, were murdered on 15 January 1919. It is not difficult to discover the details of their political and public lives. However, we would like to honour their memory by highlighting their spiritual and ecological awareness, through presenting two private letters by Rosa Luxemburg to the Russian-born Sophie Liebknecht, wife of Karl Liebknecht.

RL 1

These letters reveal the private person, the inner landscape of Rosa, an aspect rarely explored in the letters of Marxist writers. The correspondence highlights her sensitivity towards the way we express our humanity in our relationship with the natural world, and that our political, economic and cultural struggles for a humane existence are not ends in themselves, or merely material struggles. They are also moral and psychological struggles for an empathic, compassionate life, for an almost ecstatic, peaceful unity with oneself, with others and with nature.

1. Vronke, 2 May 1917

My dearest little Sonyusha!* Your dear letter arrived here in perfect time yesterday, 1 May. It and two days of sunshine have done much to cheer me up. For my heart was very sore these last few days, but now things are looking up again. If only the sun would stay that way! I am outside almost all day, strolling around in the bushes, searching every corner of my garden and finding all kinds of treasures. So listen: Yesterday, May 1st, I met – guess who? – a radiant common brimstone! I was so happy that my whole heart pounded. It flew up to my sleeve – I wear a purple jacket, and the colour probably attracted it – then it bobbed up and down the wall. In the afternoon, I found three different beautiful feathers: a dark grey one from a redstart, a golden one from a yellowhammer and a greyish-yellow one from a nightingale. We have many nightingales here, I heard the first one early on Easter Sunday, and since then it comes to the big silver poplar in my little garden every day. I put the feathers in a lovely blue box for my small collection: I also have feathers there that I found in the yard of Barnimstraße** – from pigeons and chickens, and also a beautiful blue one from a jay in Südende***. The “collection” is still quite small, but I like to look at it sometimes. I have already decided to whom I will give it.

This morning I discovered a hidden violet right next to the wall I was walking past! The only one in my whole garden. How does Goethe put it?

A violet in the meadow stood,
With humble brow, demure and good,
It was the sweetest violet.

I was so happy! I am sending you it here, with a kiss pressed lightly on it, may it bring you my love and my greeting. Will it still be little fresh when you get it? ...

Then this afternoon I met the first bumblebee! A very big one in the new shimmering black fur jacket with golden yellow belt. It hummed in a deep bass and flew first to my jacket, then in a big arc high above the yard. The buds of the chestnuts are so big, rosy and swelling, shiny with juice, in a few days they will probably pop out their leaves, which look like little green hands. Remember, last year, how we stood in front of such a chestnut with young leaves and you called in droll desperation: “Rosa! (You roll the “R” even more than I do), what can you say? What can you say at such delight?”

And another discovery made me happy today. You may remember, last April I phoned you both urgently at 10 o’clock in the morning to come to the Botanical Gardens and listen with me to the nightingale giving a whole concert. We sat quietly hidden in dense shrubs on stones beside a tiny streamlet; but after the nightingale, we suddenly heard a wistful call, which sounded something like this: “Gleegleegleegleeglick! I said it sounded like some moor or water bird, and Karl agreed, but we simply couldn’t work out what it was. Just think, one morning a few days ago, I suddenly heard the same lamentation near here, so that my heart throbbed, impatient to find out what it was. I had no peace until I discovered today: it’s not a water bird, but the wryneck, a grey woodpecker. It is only a little bigger than the sparrow and has its name because it tries to frighten its enemies by strange gestures and head contortions. It lives on ants only, which it catches with its sticky tongue like the anteater. The Spanish call it hormiguero – the antbird. Mörike by the way wrote a lovely funny poem on this bird, which Hugo Wolf set to music. I feel like I’ve been given a gift, knowing what the bird with the sad voice is. Perhaps you could let Karl know about this, he would be delighted.

What do I read? Mainly scientific books: plant and animal geography. Just yesterday I read about the causes of songbirds disappearing in Germany: it is due to increased rational forestry, horticulture and agriculture, slowly destroying all their natural nesting and feeding habitats: hollow trees, wasteland, scrub, and withered foliage in gardens. It was so painful to read this. I’m not worried about their singing for people, but the image of the silent, unstoppable demise of these defenceless little creatures hurt me so much, I had to weep. It reminded me of a Russian book by Prof. Siber about the destruction of the Redskins in North America, which I read in Zurich: Slowly but surely, civilised people drive them off their land and submit them to silent, cruel annihilation.

I must be unwell that everything shakes me so deeply now. Do you know? Sometimes I feel that I am not a real person, but some bird or other animal in a failed human form; inwardly I feel much more at home in such a small shred of garden as here, or in a field amongst bumblebees and grass than - at a party conference. I can tell you all this: you will not immediately sense a betrayal of socialism. You know, I will hopefully die for the cause anyway: in a street battle or in prison. But my innermost self belongs more to my coal tits than to the ‘comrades’. And this is not because, like so many bankrupt politicians, I find a refuge, a rest in nature. On the contrary, here too I find so much cruelty at every turn that I suffer a great deal. Imagine, for example, that I simply cannot forget the following little episode. Last spring I was on my way home from a walk across fields, in my quiet, empty street when I noticed a dark little spot on the ground. I bent down and saw a soundless tragedy: a large dung beetle lay on its back and defended itself helplessly with its legs, while a whole load of tiny ants swarmed over it and consumed it – alive! I looked at it, took out my handkerchief and began to chase away the brutal beasts. But they were so cheeky and stubborn that I had to fight a long battle with them, and when I had finally freed the poor wretch and taken him far onto the grass, two legs had already been eaten away ... I fled tormented, feeling that I had done him a very dubious favour.

There is long twilight in the evenings now. How I usually love this hour! In Südende I had so many blackbirds, here I can’t see or hear any. I fed a pair all winter and now it has disappeared. In Südende I used to stroll the street around this time in the evening; it is so beautiful when even in the last violet rays of daylight the rosy gas flames suddenly flicker in the lanterns and look so strange in the dusk, as if they were a little ashamed of themselves. Then the indistinct shape of a porter’s wife or a maid scurries through the street, quickly running to the baker’s or grocer’s to fetch something. The shoemaker’s children, with whom I am friends, used to play in the street in the dark until they were robustly summoned home from the corner. At this hour there always used to be some blackbird that couldn’t find rest and suddenly screeched or babbled like a naughty child, s startled rom sleep and flying noisily from tree to tree. And I stood there in the middle of the street, counting the first stars, reluctant to go home, leaving the balmy air and the twilight in which day and night nestled so softly together. Sonyusha, I will write to you again soon. Put your mind at ease and be cheerful, everything will be fine, even with Karl. I will write to Mathilde about your household worries and do whatever I can. Goodbye until the next letter, my dear little bird.

I embrace you.

Your Rosa.

* Russian pet name for Sophie (Sophie was a native Russian speaker, Rosa was very fluent)

** The Women’s Prison in Berlin

*** The district in Berlin where Luxemburg lived

Translated by Jenny Farrell

RL 2

2. Wrocław prison, mid-December 1917

Yesterday I lay awake for a long time – these days I can’t fall asleep before 1 a.m., but I have to go to bed at 10, because the light goes out then, and then I dream to myself about various things in the dark. Last night this is what I was thinking: how odd it is that I’m continually in a joyful state of exaltation – without any particular reason. For example, I’m lying here in a dark cell on a stone-hard mattress, the usual silence of a church cemetery prevails in the prison building, it seems as though we’re in a tomb; on the ceiling can be seen reflections coming through the window from the lanterns that burn all night in front of the prison. From time to time one hears, but only in quite a muffled way, the distant rumble of a train passing by or quite nearby under the windows the whispering of the guards on duty at night, who take a few steps slowly in their heavy boots to relieve their stiff legs. The sand crunches so hopelessly under their heels that the entire hopeless wasteland of existence can be heard in this damp, dark night.

I lie there quietly, alone, wrapped in these many-layered black veils of darkness, boredom, lack of freedom, and winter – and at the same time my heart is racing with an incomprehensible, unfamiliar inner joy as though I were walking across a flowering meadow in radiant sunshine. And in the dark I smile at life, as if I knew some sort of magical secret that gives the lie to everything evil and sad and changes it into pure light and happiness. And all the while I’m searching within myself for some reason for this joy, find nothing and must smile to myself again – and laugh at myself. I believe that the secret is nothing other than life itself; the deep darkness of night is so beautiful and as soft as velvet, if one only looks at it the right way; and in the crunching of the damp sand beneath the snow beneath the slow, heavy steps of the sentries a beautiful small song of life is being sung – if only one knows how to listen properly.

At such moments I think of you and I would like so much to pass on this magical key to you, so that always and in all situations you would be aware of the beautiful and the joyful, so that you too would live in a joyful euphoria as though you were walking across a colourful meadow. I am certainly not thinking of foisting off on you some sort of asceticism or made-up joys. I don’t begrudge you all the real joys of the senses that you might wish for yourself. I would just like to add to this my inexhaustible inner cheerfulness, so that I could be at peace about you and not worry, so that you could go through life wearing a star-speckled cloak, to protect you from all things petty, trivial and alarming.

If you enjoyed these letters, you can read more here.

An armoury of ideas: reading for rebellion in 2019
Thursday, 27 December 2018 22:38

An armoury of ideas: reading for rebellion in 2019

Written by

Kitted out with optimism, Mark Perryman makes a New Year selection of books as weapons to help bring down a government

Not much doubt which argument will rage on long after any Christmastime peace and goodwill has disappeared – Brexit. Fintan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure is an account of this most dismal of sagas which locates its gestation in a mix of imperial delusion and cultural confusion rather than this deal, that deal or no deal.

On a similar front England’s Discontents by Mike Wayne is an exploration of English national identity that provides a highly effective insight towards understanding the political terrain of post-Brexit Britain. This new terrain will be sited on competing definitions of ‘control’ and precisely who, or what, we need to take it back from.

Gianpaolo Baiocchi’s We, The Sovereign describes models of sovereignty that retain both an egalitarian impulse and the power to transform.  Most on the Left would regard staying in the EU as a necessity towards any such ambition but that doesn’t mean the arguments in the new book The Left Case against the EU from Costas Lapavitsas should be discounted either. Leave? Remain? The key surely is Change. 

Whether or not Labour can come out the other side of the seasonal break from Brexit starting to look more and more like the next Government will be the crucial question of early 2019.  Jeremy Corbyn and the Strange Rebirth of Labour England, by Francis Beckett and Mark Seddon, revisits the roots of Corbyn’s rise to provide readers with credible optimism towards that end.  Matt Bolton first wrote up his critique of Corbynism as a blog, describing it as possessing a ‘terrifying hubris’. Harsh but his was a critical account that was decidedly well thought-out and deserving of a considered read. Now Matt, with co-thinker Frederick Harry Pitts, has turned their shared line of argument into a book Corbynism : A Critical Approach.  I wasn’t convinced by their answers but there are some very good questions raised, too good to simply be dismissed out of hand.     

MP JmcD

Here’s one question that most certainly needs asking – will it be the economy that shifts things in 2019, stupid? Yes, almost certainly. The publication of the collection Economics for the Many edited by John McDonnell is a comprehensive range of the kind of policies that will not only roll back austerity but also in the process lay the foundations for a durable alternative.

However, any such project should also be about the quality of the lives we lead, which is why Melissa Benn’s Life Lessons is such a vital companion volume.  Making the case for a ‘national education service’ this book is an explicit critique of the managerialism that has monetised our children’s education.

Of course the New Year is also a time to look back over the past twelve months. No one is better equipped to inject some biting satire into remembering the events of 2018 than cartoonist Steve Bell. If Steve’s latest collection Corbyn: The Resurrection, covering the years 2015-18 failed to make it as a stocking-filler, my advice is to rush out and buy yourself a copy to be sure of a happier New Year.  

MP BS

Of course neither Brexit nor Corbynism exist in a vacuum. Trump and the revival of the Democrats in the mid-terms, especially the breakthrough of new, young, Left candidates, was a 2018 transatlantic example of certain commonalities. Where we go from Here  is an account by Bernie Sanders of the two years since Trump’s election and what this means for the future of American politics.  By the end of 2019 the next round of Democrats’ Presidential primaries will be fast approaching, making sense of the parallels and differences with our situation in the UK that Bernie helps reveal thus becomes increasingly vital. 

MP 3

Both Trumpism and Brexit have unleashed some ugly forces. The Chris-Howard Woods, Colin Laidley and Maryam Omidi edited collection #Charlottesville details one particular moment when a nakedly white supremacist politics came up against militant resistance. But for an insight into how to build a mass, popular and victorious movement around anti-fascism and racism there is no better book than David Renton’s latest, Never Again, a historiography of Rock against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, 1976-1982.

Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin in their co-authored National Populism describe the resurgent Right from Trump via the German Afd, Liga in Italy, and Marie le Pen in France to the Brexiteer ultras with ‘Tommy Robinson’ in tow  as a revolt against liberal democracy. A useful schematic for understanding the causes, it however fails to address what a progressive and in particular anti-racist alternative might look like.

A much better, and hugely original, starting point therefore is the one outlined by Will Davies in Nervous States. Utilising a wide range of both analyses and examples Will points to how reason has declined, and feeling has come increasingly to take its place. He doesn’t patronise the latter but via an understanding of it reasserts the cause of a rational, radical politics properly equipped for the era in which we live. Brilliant.

What kind of political organisation may be up to the task of not only resisting the rise of this populist-racist right but also reclaiming the cause of reason versus reaction? Paolo Gerbaudo’s The Digital Party is a wide-ranging, and international, survey of those parties that have gone furthest to embrace the organisational changes the new modes of communication demand of us all and as such is a compelling read for the future of politics.

 While some things change, others remain the same. The brutal, dehumanising treatment of the Palestinians by Israel continued in 2018. And this time the shooting by the Israeli army of unarmed protestors who joined Gaza’s Great March of Return offended even many of Israel’s hitherto staunchest supporters. But sadly still nothing seems to change.  What a relief therefore to read Nathan Thrall’s The Only Language they Understand an unashamed search for a principled compromise, that won’t satisfy entirely either side but will most.  

One of the welcome after-effects of Corbynism has to be the revival of a Left intellectual culture. One of the best examples of this is the journal  Renewal.The latest edition in particular carries a superb piece by left-wing economist Christine Berry available as a free download ‘how does a movement prepare for power.’  

Compass has always confounded convention by combining the work of a thinktank with the ambition of being a campaign hub. Occasionally wrongfooted by the rise of Corbynism, the latest Compass publication The Causes and Cures of Brexit showcases the organisation’s thoughtful strengths at their best, not demonising the support for ‘Leave’ but seeking to understand its rationale, something too few even recognise. Also available as a free download here.   And my favourite popular-intellectual initiative of 2018? The return of the political pamphleteer in the shape of Dan Hind’s excellent ‘New Thinking for the British Economy‘ series.

In the twentieth century it was 1917 that framed the efforts of those who followed in the footsteps of revolution.  John Maclean, by Henry Bell, details Scotland’s flirtation with revolutionary politics, while a special edition of New Formations marks the 2019 centenary of  Rosa Luxemburg’s murder with a range of essays detailing her continuing influence and significance.  

MP 4

The journal Twentieth Century Communism remains the unrivalled source of insights into 1917’s aftermath worldwide, the latest issue providing a rare focus on African communism. That aftermath was, of course, not unchanging. The first transformation we might date to the post-1956 New Left, chronicled in a brand new Socialist Register Reader with contributors ranging from Ralph Miliband and Jean-Paul Sartre to Rosana Rossanda and André Gorz.

And then a decade later a further convulsion, 1968, which in 2018 celebrated its 50thanniversary. The Voices of 1968 is an invaluable collection of original material from this most extraordinary of years ranging right across Europe and the USA for its sources.  Fiercely critical of the ‘official’ communist movement yet ardent defenders of its own particular interpretation of 1917, and Leninism more widely, John Kelly’s critical, yet not unfriendly, account in Contemporary Trotskyism details the particular appeal of this version of a revolutionary politics.

Of course ‘revolution’ in the era of late capitalism has come to mean all manner of things.  Alan Bradshaw and Linda Scott’s Advertising Revolution accounts rather brilliantly for the word’s evolution via a Beatles hit into a Nike advert and a message even Trump embraces. Taking a different tack Oli Mould in Against Creativity demolishes all manner of claims to ‘liberate’ body, soul and mind via a corporatised version of the power of the creative. Neither critique eliminates the necessity for social change, but both books force us to tackle a bastardised vocabulary as a barrier to making it happen. 

 MP 5

Versemongering in the cause of social change has a long and rebellious history. Dread, Poetry & Freedom by David Austin provides not simply a biographical account of Linton Kwesi Johnson but a political history of the context of his poetry. Fusing their poetry with street-level activism the ‘Poetry on the Picketline’ collective stand unashamedly in the tradition of LKJ’s campaigning performances. Their debut collection Poetry on the Picketline, published by Culture Matters, gives a great feel of what they bring to any protest party. I also recommend that you aim to experience them live on picket lines in 2019. 

At the core of much of this is an admirably do-it-yourself ‘We are all poets’ philosophy. To help us on our way, iambic pentameters and the like, there’s no finer how-to read than Michael Rosen’s classic What is Poetry?    

Undoubtedly the political novel of 2018 was Jonathan Coe’s Middle England. A funny, if sorry, tale of generational political drifts and divides set in the present and immediate past. An epic – read it before Brexit Day, 29thMarch, ouch!

For children’s reading in 2019 how about going back in time? Michael Rosen has edited a new collection of old socialist fairy stories Workers’ Tales and he’s also adapted an all-time favourite Dickensian tale, Oliver Twist, into a brand new story retold alongside his version of the original, Unexpected Twist. Or for something entirely of the present, the third in Michael’s Uncle Gobb series Uncle Gobb and the Plot Plot is bound to be a 2019 favourite.

Pushkin Press are past masters at hunting down children’s books from around the world for translation and republication. Two of my favourites from 2018 were Jan Terlouw’s Winter in Wartime, a tale of a Dutch teenager in the wartime resistance, and Ele Fountain’s Boy 87 a story of childhood, refugees, and survival.

For the practical task of planning the year ahead there’s no better tool than the hugely stylish Verso Radical Diary and Radical Planner  – the perfect New Year treat for the well-organised person in your life. Sadly, there’s no entry for a 2019 General Election date, not yet......

MP 6

And my book of the New Year? Michael Rosen has collaborated with Kimberley Reynolds and Jane Rosen to produce a fantastically illustrated anthology of radical writing for children called Reading & Rebellion. Stretching back to the start of the last century right through to the beginnings of the 1960s revolt this book is an absolute treat of a revelation for children, and grown-ups, of all ages. The perfect read for a New Year and a new generation who more than anyone else will help ensure a future where peace and goodwill is more than a seasonal marketing gimmick but instead at the core of human existence.  

No links in this review are to Amazon, if you can avoid purchasing from this tax-dodging low-wage employer please do so. Mark Perryman is the editor of The Corbyn Effect. His new book Corbynism from Below will be published by Lawrence & Wishart in Autumn 2019.

Street art, Bristol
Friday, 14 December 2018 19:59

Caught Doing Social Work? - socially engaged art and the dangers of becoming social workers

Written by

Stephen Pritchard offers some provocations on themes around instrumentalism of the arts and artists, gentrification and artwashing in the age of neoliberal capitalism.

Many people in the artworld believe that art can deliver social change. Many are following yet another artworld trend – that of socially engaged art. This is perhaps best represented by Assemble winning the 2015 Turner Prize. An important moment in the turn (or perhaps return) towards “Useful Art”.

assemblegroup

Assemble group photo, 2014

Many more see socially engaged art as a way of instrumentalising artistic practices in the name of state, corporate and other agendas. The English state, for example, instrumentalises art as a means of “improving” the economy, health and wellbeing, social ills, education, the environment, urban places, crime rates, unemployment, on and on and on. Art can, some argue, offer salvation to all our ills: Panacea Art.

Cultural policies around the globe are being honed to embed art and culture as a way of supporting and delivering the agendas of almost every government department and non-government organisation; harnessed by big businesses to unleash the false fog of corporate social responsibility.

In this sense, socially engaged art becomes yet another tool employed to support the target-driven, cost-benefit values of the dominant neoliberal ideology that is strangling our lives in the noose of individualism and strapping us into the straitjacket of uncaring personal gain.

A humanistic, socialist cultural democracy

The problem with this perspective is, for me, three-fold. Firstly, and most importantly, the type of social change being sought here is always state-led and thereby powered by political and economic agendas, meaning the arts will always be instrumental. Beautifully crafted, state-funded tools impose the soft power that’s so important to neoliberalism.

Secondly, there is the question of what is social change? Arguably anything: Good or bad; emancipatory or totalitarian; always ideological; never likely to result in paradigm-shifts. Recycling household waste is social change; but then so is Nazism.

Thirdly, people who not part of the artworld are not usually listened to. Their words, thoughts, ideas, wishes, dreams, hopes, fears are ignored or sanitised. Most people are disenfranchised by cultural policies “done to them”, not by, with and for them. This isn’t social justice. This isn’t democracy.

I believe in the radically political project (or perhaps projects) of cultural democracy. People-powered participatory democracy. Humanistic and socialist democracy. The arts have been used very effectively to implement all sorts of state agendas for time immemorial, but they have also been equally effective in opposing the state, opposing capitalism. So, does our work support neoliberal ideology or contest and oppose it?

 Missionaries, Mercenaries, Mediators and Mobilisers

We all learn and experience and express ourselves through cultural activities (whether “high” art or “popular” cultures and subcultures). Our creativity leads us to everyday revolutions that change our ways of being and living in our everyday cultures.

So why do we privilege artists to “engage” people in projects or “work” with people in ill-defined and misunderstood “social” spaces or places?

Are we, as artists working in “the social”, working as Missionaries preaching the Western European, white, middle-class, male, able-bodied gospel of the neoliberal creative industries and Creative Class?

Are we working as Mercenaries, engaging “disadvantaged” people and people in “difficult” places and communities somehow deemed to be in some way lacking in culture, for the sole reason that we need to make a living, a career, to make money?

Are we working as privileged Mediators capable of listening to people who are not listened to – who are ignored – with the sole purpose of helping amplify their frustrations, their anger, their fears, their hopes, their ideas, their demands for rights?

Are we working as Mobilisers – as political activists?

I ask, then, which side are you on?

Who Pays the Piper?

We are privileged. It’s how we use that privilege that matters. We must recognise that our practices are powerful and that we are influential. We must use our influence positively to bring about real and lasting change – radical change.

This is not the time to be instrumentalised by the state, by local authorities, by corporations, by NGOs, by those with vested interests in developing or profiting from our present neoliberal hegemony and the dominance of a neo-colonial Western culture propped-up by art, and proliferated using the slow violence of socially engaged art.

We must not be mercenaries or missionaries.

We can be mediators only if we recognise the privileged position of being able to mediate, and only if we do this with humility and when we do this ethically.

We can be mobilisers working as part of a broad movement of movements for radical social and political and economic change.

We can help bring down the citadels.

We can be part of the demand for the Right to the City.

We can be part of the movement to take back the city.

We can challenge status quos.

We can call for the decolonisation of our racist Western culture.

We can call out those who proliferate inequity, selfish individualism and greed.

We can stand together with those who are denied the privilege given to us.

Are we, then, truly using our privilege to help bring about truly radical acts?

A Revolution of Everyday Life?

We must never help governments and developers displace people.

We must say no to those who want to use us to deliver their neoliberal agendas.

We must never work as NGO artists, subtly instilling Western culture and language and ways of living on different people from different places.

We are not social workers or community workers or community developers or doctors or nurses or psychotherapists or teachers or preachers or community consultants.

We are not foot soldiers of capitalism.

We are not place-makers.

We are not the servants of the neoliberal Creative Industries ideal.

We must never be story-harvesters.

And we are not social cleansers.

Human relationships, radical action and democratic grassroots participation must happen in our everyday lives.

We need a Revolution of Everyday Life: revolutions of everyday lives.

As artists, we can help bring about a revolution of our everyday lives, of everyone’s lives and ways of being and living.

We can help people self-organise, cooperate and reignite our understanding of ourselves as individuals who are stronger collectively.

But we must never get caught doing social work.

Have you been caught doing social work?

Disturbing the Dust on a Bowl of Rose-Leaves

Cultural policy, like fortune, has always favoured the rich and powerful. But it has never before been harnessed so nefariously in the name of “social work”.

We must say NO! We must remember our roots; revisit our histories. We must understand how and why our arts and cultures have been separated from our everyday lives.

We must be wary of those who seek to enforce their values upon our creativity or denounce it as inferior to other cultural activities.

The qualities of radical acts exist in the form of aesthetic experiences not shallow, monolithic Kantian aesthetics.

Our everyday acts and our everyday cultures transcend instrumentalism.

Our everyday lives take must not be determined by institutions – artworld or otherwise.

We are to them like dandelions. We are weeds.

Yet, whilst they regard themselves as fragrant roses, safe within their walled gardens, we know that old roses, old cultivars, grow weak with age. We know that, as dandelions, as wildflowers, we are vigorous and hardy and that we can grow anywhere – whether inside or outside the false boundaries of their garden.

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.

- T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, 1935. (From The Four Quartets, 1941.)

Stephen Pritchard blogs here. 

Culture for the many, not the few
Thursday, 13 December 2018 14:22

Culture for the many, not the few

Written by

Mike Quille presents some principles and practical policies to implement cultural democracy.

This article is a contribution to debates around cultural democracy in the socialist left, the labour movement and academia. It includes discussion of:

- What culture means and why it is so important
- The links between cultural activities and politics, and current examples of the way cultural activities function in class-divided societies like our own
- Why we need a democratic and socialist approach to all cultural activities, going beyond the narrow, elitist and top-down approach of Arts Council England
- Specific measures which might form part of a programme for an incoming Labour government

The real meaning of culture

Culture matters to the many, not just the few. For a large part of our lives, particularly in our leisure time, we make choices – or choices are made for us – on what to do with our time. Whether to watch television, and if so what to watch. Whether to surf the internet, go on Facebook, or read a newspaper or magazine. Whether to visit an art gallery or concert hall, go to the pub or out for a meal, listen to some music, buy some clothes, make some clothes, play an instrument, go to the opera, play football, watch football, go to church, sing in a choir, paint a picture or play computer games.

All these activities, and many more, have a cultural dimension. They entertain, educate and enlighten us, and help us to enjoy life by giving it meaning, purpose and value. And the choices we make are socially determined. Their accessibility, cost and their very meanings are conditioned and constrained by the choices made by the owners, controllers, and gatekeepers of culture – the rich and the powerful, the politically dominant social classes in capitalist societies. We make our own culture, but we do not make it as we please, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. 

So culture is essential to being human. Culture is ordinary and culture is everything, a whole way of life, and it is closely linked to society, to the economy, and to politics. Let's unpack these ideas in more detail.

 

As Raymond Williams said: “Culture is ordinary: that is where we must start”. So culture includes not just the arts, but all those learned human activities which give our lives meaning and enjoyment. To restrict the term, and political discussion of it, to a selected menu of arts-based activities is to devalue and exclude the majority of cultural activities as practised by the majority of the population. As well as the arts, culture includes sport, TV and the media generally, eating and drinking, fashion and clothing, education, religion and many other popular activities. This makes for a looser and more varied set of concerns to think about, integrate into political manifestos and campaign about. But it is fairer, more inclusive and is far more relevant and appealing to the labour movement and most working people.

Fundamentally, human cultural activities are social, unifying and egalitarian. They tend to express and assert our common humanity and solidarity against divisions of class, gender, race and other social divisions caused by unequal economic arrangements such as the capitalist system. And cultural activities such as art, music and religion can directly inspire and support radical change in the real world, both personally and politically.

Taking part in this wide range of cultural activities, as consumers and as performers/actors, is not some optional extra for us. It sustains our health, well-being and happiness, promotes our freedom from oppressive political systems and exploitative economic arrangements, and is absolutely necessary to our development, liberation and flourishing as human beings. Culture is therefore essential to the socialist project of transforming society for the benefit of working people – the many.

As workers, we’re well aware of the economic struggle, the struggle for a fair return for our labour and for food, shelter, and other material necessities. In these days of austerity economics and flatlining wages, it’s a constant struggle to make ends meet on low incomes and inadequate benefits. The chaos and cruelty around the introduction of Universal Credit is the worst but not the only example of deliberate attacks on the poor by the Tory Government.

As voters and political activists, we’re also aware of the political struggle. This is the struggle to change the terms and conditions of our existence for the better – to liberate our social selves and prioritise social justice and the common good across all areas of state power and policy. So we struggle for various forms of social rather than private ownership of the land, farms, factories, offices, shops, utilities and banks. And we struggle to gain democratic control of social institutions, so that we all have an equal say in what happens in our lives.

Socialists, however, have always recognised that there is another struggle, which accompanies, expresses and supports the economic and political struggles. This is the cultural struggle, the struggle for cultural democracy, to apply fundamental socialist principles of shared ownership and democratic control to everyday and ordinary cultural activities.

How is class linked to culture?

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

Throughout history, tiny minorities of dominant social classes have tried – often successfully – to turn cultural activities into circuses, to go with the breadcrumbs thrown from the tables of the rich and powerful. In these class-divided societies, culture tends to become inaccessible, costly, irrelevant and of poor quality. It tends to be owned and organised in undemocratic ways. It tends to legitimise, conceal or ignore the ongoing, systematic oppression and exploitation of working people. And it is used to promote diversionary and reactionary political messages and values, in order to prevent the development of radical, anti-capitalist ideas such as cultural democracy.

So a continual struggle goes on to develop and sustain a cultural commons for the many, not the few. We face a cultural struggle against the co-option, misuse and appropriation of cultural activities, just like our economic and political struggles for better wages and for ownership and control of essential goods and services like our schools, our railways and our health service.

Just as neoliberal capitalism has shown itself to be incapable of providing adequate public services in these areas, so too it cannot sustain cultural production, delivery and consumption. We are witnessing the insidious and often hidden growth of corporate influence and control over cultural institutions – not only institutions like Arts Council England, but also social media platforms, broadcasters, sports clubs, pubs and clubs, and supermarkets.

These cultural institutions, which are of such importance to the everyday lives of so many people, present a major challenge for a socialist cultural policy seeking to implement shared ownership and democratic accountability into the cultural landscape.

What’s wrong with current popular cultural activities?

For the many, massive problems flow from the unequal and undemocratic ownership and control of cultural activities.

In sport, owners and management bodies are failing to make sport accessible, affordable and enjoyable for everyone, through sky-high ticket prices, undemocratic, ineffective regulatory authorities, and subsidies for elite sport at the expense of school sports and grassroots sports. Commercial pressures mean that capitalist ideologies of individual excellence and competitiveness – rather than the social and co-operative nature of most sport which is its most essential and appealing characteristic – cause regular scandals in most sports, involving drug-taking, cheating and corruption.

In the media, private ownership of large swathes of the means of communication by gigantic corporations like Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook prevent us enjoying human interaction without being watched, manipulated and influenced by commercial capitalist interests. We face privately owned media companies like Sky, Netflix, Disney and Fox, dedicated to making profits rather than meeting human need. And we face state-controlled media like the BBC, designed to support and legitimise the economic and political status quo, and institutionally biased against radical politicians, newspapers and ideas.

Our daily activities of eating and drinking are also cultural activities, as well as biological necessities. We do so in company with family and friends, for pleasure and to express and enhance our common and social natures. Yet corporations produce and sell us food and drink loaded with too much sugar, salt, and fat, and we are pressurised into consuming unhealthy amounts and types of of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Children and other vulnerable, poorer members of society are particularly at risk in a system where corporate profits depend on obesity and drunkenness.

Religious institutions own and control huge resources - land, buildings, capital - which do not always meet and serve the needs of many people for collective gatherings to express and strengthen shared beliefs and a commitment to the common good, and for refreshment, comfort and inspiration. Most religions have a powerful strand of concern for the poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed and exploited, yet their vicars, priests, bishops and other leaders often fail to call for and to practise social justice.

In the arts, the situation is not much better than when Raymond Williams said, in a Guardian Lecture in 1985:

The central socialist case, in matters of culture is that the lives of the great majority of people have been, and still are, almost wholly disregarded by almost all arts.

What’s wrong with the arts, and Arts Council England’s ‘Cultural Democracy in Practice’?

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

MQ pi 04 2016 map

The continuing, monumental failure of Arts Council England to develop and sustain fair allocation of the massive increase in resources it has received from the taxpayer and from Lottery funds over the last 20 years or so is truly appalling. Imagine the outcry if there were far more hospitals per person in the London area than elsewhere, or far more schools for the better off than for the poor, everywhere. Yet this is broadly the situation in the arts, and one which ACE is not even planning to tackle.

Clearly fearful of the true implications of implementing cultural democracy in a class-based, unequal society, which would obviously involve replacing their current structure, funding and mission to subsidise culture for the rich, ACE have attempted to co-opt the language and the concepts in the recent report which it commissioned on ‘Cultural Democracy in Practice’. This document has come under heavy criticism, including this statement from the Movement for Cultural Democracy:

We are agreed that the Arts Council report has almost nothing to say about Cultural Democracy – in practice, in principle or as public policy. It is a crude, historically whitewashed and politically inept attempt to co-opt to its own cause a long standing and now re-emerging strand of radical cultural debate, policy and practice that fundamentally challenges its record and its structure – particularly its use of lottery funding.

The MCD has now published a new statement on rebalancing funding of the arts.

There are other problems apart from funding. For working-class people wishing to have an arts career, it is getting harder to become a musician or actor or writer without rich relatives to support you. As Jeremy Corbyn has said:

There is a poet, author, singer, pianist, actor, playwright, and artist in every single person.

But cuts and curriculum changes in education mean our children are being deprived of the chance to learn how to appreciate and participate in artistic, sporting and other cultural activities at both primary and secondary school stages, as well as facing exclusion and discrimination when they attempt a career as writer, performer, musician, actor or artist.

The Government’s politically-driven austerity policies have led to huge cuts in cultural facilities, including libraries, community centres, youth facilities and sports facilities. These cuts are set to continue for years to come, and have been knowingly targeted at the least well-off sections of society.

MQ library closures

We also face the possibility of an expansion in leisure time in the next few decades, as labour-saving technology generates more unemployment, under-employment and free time. Again, this will impact more on the working class generally, and on less skilled workers, younger people trying to build careers, and people who are already socially excluded and discriminated against for various reasons. Over time there will thus be an increasing need for accessible, relevant cultural activities for large numbers of people who are currently excluded from participation

What would a better culture policy look like?

To tackle these problems, what should be the general principles for a Labour government’s culture policy, a policy to implement genuine cultural democracy?

Firstly, acceptance that culture is ordinary and everyday, and that it is essential and not marginal to working people’s lives. Both spectatorship and engagement in cultural production and consumption are fundamental to human fulfilment and flourishing, and therefore central to any progressive political programme. It is not just an aid to ‘economic regeneration’, still less a sticking plaster to mask the deindustrialisation, decay and worsening health of many working-class communities, particularly in the North.

Secondly, we need a more inclusive approach to culture and culture policy, covering cultural activities which matter to most working people, and which can attract the support of the labour movement. We need to start promoting culture as part of the ‘social wage’ for everyone, like health, education and welfare benefits, not an exclusive extra for the better off. We need to break down long-established hierarchies between different kinds of cultural activities and practices, which often reflect and perpetuate class divisions, and which again point to the importance of integrating the economic, political and cultural struggles in our attempts to build Blake's new Jerusalem, a classless society.

Thirdly, we need to develop democratic, inclusive and bottom-up cultural policies in which communities of practitioners and audiences are empowered, through various structures of shared, social ownership and democratic control, to direct culture towards their own defined ends. Those ends should be self-determined, and could be entertainment, personal fulfilment, self-expression or as a contribution to the struggle for a better world.

More broadly, we need to think about ways of facilitating and encouraging grassroots cultural formations and activities. There are some very good examples of people working together at various forms of cultural activity – whether learning to play a musical instrument, paint, write poetry, cook, play football or make films – for enjoyment, education or the value generated by doing things in a social environment. These activities may not be explicitly political, linked to any defined progressive thinking or located in the trade union and labour movement. But by providing platforms for people to share their work and ideas, and by encouraging people to do things socially and collaboratively, they build confidence, promote learning and open the doors to deeper levels of cultural and political engagement.

Specific policy proposals – some examples

It would be inappropriate to construct a detailed blueprint for culture policies, as there is a prior need to consult, discuss, and democratically decide on priorities. But there would surely be a consensus on the left about the following priorities for an incoming Labour government:

- Dismantling the barriers of class, cost and geography that stop working people from accessing culture, as consumers and as practitioners;

- Embedding cultural education – both appreciation and practice – into the national curriculum;

- Reclaiming the media – newspapers, online platforms, TV and radio – by reforming its funding, ownership and control and providing space for working-class voices and truly diverse, community-based providers. Facebook, Google, Amazon, broadcasters and newspaper publishers all require radical reformation, taxation and regulation, to lessen and ultimately abolish the influence of billionaire private owners;

- Radical shifting of public spending on the arts and sport, towards more support for grassroots participation, working-class communities and provision outside London;

- Increasing the representation of the working class in all cultural institutions, especially the arts, sports, and the media, in terms of content, audiences and practitioners;

- Developing partnerships between secular and religious authorities, so that as congregations dwindle and resources lie unused, local communities - particularly the poorest and most oppressed sections of those communities - can be empowered to access and benefit from their material and non-material resources;

- Regulating, taxing, and democratising other relevant cultural institutions, including food and drink corporations, breweries and pubs, supermarkets, arts facilities and sports clubs. All these institutions have potential to be specialist hubs in a common socialist project to meet need (rather than make profit) across the whole span of cultural activities. Various kinds of social ownership models and democratic management arrangements need to be applied to cultural institutions including ownership by the state, local authorities and local community co-operatives.

Conclusion

Cultural activities often reflect and serve the needs of the dominant class, in a class-divided society such as ours. At the same time they can also provide the space to resist the status quo and overcome alienation and oppression. They can help people envision better, fairer ways of organising our society, as well as promoting our physical, mental and spiritual well-being. To help culture works its magic on the many, not just the few, we need to imagine a world in which we have a stake in all the cultural activities available to us, and they are organised and delivered to meet our needs as human beings and not to make profit or to reflect and legitimise a set of exploitative and oppressive econmic and political institutions.

Demo

The Labour manifesto of 1945 contained these words:

We desire to assure to our people full access to the great heritage of culture in this nation.

Cultural democracy was promised in 1945 and is long overdue. Now is the time for the Labour Party to present a new democratic and socialist culture policy in the next manifesto, and to develop local, co-ordinated campaigns involving CLPs, trade unions, and activists, across all the cultural areas. Why? Because culture matters to the many, not the few.

This article is an extended version of an article first published in New Socialist. With thanks to Roland Boer, Theresa Easton, Chris Guiton, Sophie Hope, and Jack Newsinger for their inspiration, assistance, comments and contributions to this article. Further contributions from writers, activists and artists on the detail of a socialist culture policy, are welcome, please send them to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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