Cultural Theory

Cultural Theory (15)

The corruption of art and culture by corporate capital
Thursday, 18 May 2017 14:21

The corruption of art and culture by corporate capital

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Mike Quille traces the links between corporate sponsorship and the distortion of history and art, in two recent exhibitions.

How do the ruling classes manipulate art and culture to secure political consent for oppression and exploitation? Two exhibitions on the 1917 Revolution in Russia go some way to providing an answer.

Most historians of Russian history in 1917 accept that both the February and October Revolutions in 1917 were both clear improvements on the Tsarist autocracy that preceded them.

Most cultural historians also recognise the explosion of creativity and the widespread democratisation of culture which followed the October Revolution. Art and cultural activities suddenly became exciting, accessible and relevant to many ordinary Russians.

But these are uncomfortable facts for our current rulers, who must crush any hopes for political or cultural progress if they are to stay on top. And there are two ways they can undermine those facts and hopes. One is to construct a biased and misleading narrative which ignores historical evidence and downplays artists’ support for the Revolution. This is the strategy which was followed in the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy, in its openly one-sided and distorted presentation of the politics and art of the Revolution.

The second way is to create a monumental fudge which obscures the real historical and cultural achievements of 1917, through a kind of chaotic eclecticism. This is the strategy followed by the British Library in its current exhibition of ‘a wide range of objects’ and in the mistaken, banal and often meaningless ‘guided tour’ offered by its curator in the Morning Star recently.

Let me take three examples from the curator’s article. The first is this statement:

‘Today, people are not so much concerned about the faults of capitalist society but are trying to find their way through the new challenges of the global world.’

How on earth anyone can write this in the middle of an election campaign in which the Labour Party are quite clearly trying to address the faults of a capitalist society which concern us all, is beyond belief.

The second is the individualistic focus on the ‘personal stories’ of those involved, and reliance on the ‘individual interpretations’ of visitors to the exhibition, rather than providing a broader historically-based understanding of Russian history, which is left for ‘academics to analyse’. Frankly, this is a cop-out, because curatorial practice, including the type of contextual and supporting material supplied, is bound to influence visitors’ perceptions.

It is also disingenuous, because the curators do have a message. They believe that the exhibition ‘can convey a simple idea that violence can only create more violence in response’. This is sloppy and simplistic thinking.

History is full of instances where individuals and classes have violently seized control of commonly held resources, and have been unwilling to give them up peacefully. They have had to be challenged, defeated and restrained by force as well as by peaceful argument, in order that most people can have a fair share of the earth’s resources. Of course peaceful persuasion is best, but what alternative is there to force if that doesn’t work to end exploitation? Would slaves, peasants and serfs have ever been freed without their violent, illegal rebellions?

The ‘violence breeds violence’ message conceals a defeatist political agenda. When the law itself is nothing more than a codification of unjust and oppressive social and economic relationships, it has to be challenged and changed by every means at our disposal.

Coincidentally – or perhaps not so coincidentally – both exhibitions have been sponsored by the Blavatnik Foundation. This foundation is the beneficiary of Britain’s second richest man, Leonard Blavatnik, who made a huge fortune after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the accompanying legalised robbery by private individuals and corporations of the wealth built up by the Russian people since 1917.

So money stolen from the Russian people is used to fund cultural exhibitions which – guess what? – distort the truth about Russian history. That is how dominant classes manipulate art and culture to secure consent for exploitation and oppression.

Have there ever been more obvious examples of the increasing corruption of our cultural institutions by corporate capital, masquerading as philanthropic or charitable foundations? A key demand of any progressive arts and culture policy must now be the complete abolition of private sponsorship of our common culture and heritage.

This article is also published in the Morning Star.

Proletkult banner
Wednesday, 26 April 2017 21:23

'Culture is not a luxury!': the Proletkult in revolutionary Russia

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 Lynn Mally tells the story of Proletkult, the experimental Soviet artistic institution which was in the vanguard of Russia's cultural revolution in 1917.

Two years after the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, Petrograd, home of the revolution, was a devastated city.  Severe food shortages had prompted the exodus of large parts of the population.  A general opposing the new regime began an assault on the city, bringing his troops to the suburbs.  But this did not stop a respected theater director from holding a lecture series on the history of art in an organization called the Proletkult, even though the audience changed constantly because of military mobilizations.  At the same time, the Proletkult theatre was preparing a performance for the second anniversary of the revolution written by a Red Army soldier.

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Members of the Petrograd drama studio performing a collective reading of Walt Whitman’s poem, “Europe,” in 1918.

Revolutions invariably challenge the cultural foundations of society, whether the participants consciously acknowledge this or not. Many Russian revolutionaries, like their Jacobin predecessors, welcomed the challenge.  They were not willing to limit their goals to the establishment of a new political and social order.  They hoped to create a new cultural order as well.  But how?  All the key elements were open to dispute—the meaning of culture, the revolution’s power to change it, and the consequences that such change would have for the new social order taking shape.

In the early years of the revolution, the Proletkult (an acronym for Proletarian cultural-educational organizations) stood at the center of these debates.  It began just before the October Revolution of 1917, starting as a loose coalition of clubs, factory committees, workers’ theaters, and educational societies.  By 1918 it had expanded into a national movement with a much more ambitious purpose: to define a uniquely proletarian culture that would inform and inspire the new society.  At its peak in 1920 the national leadership claimed some four hundred thousand members, organized in three hundred groups distributed all across Soviet territory. 

The Proletkult’s vocal advocates believed that rapid and radical cultural transformation was crucial to the survival of the revolution.  The leadership also insisted that the state support independent artist, scientific, and social programs that would express the values and principles of the victorious working class.  While skilled artists and intellectuals could help in the process, one of the organization’s core values was autonomous creation.  The ideas about art, science, and daily life should emerge from workers themselves.  Another bedrock principle was institutional autonomy, a demand that would soon put the organization on a collision course with the Communist Party.

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First Presidium of the national Proletkult organization, 1918. The poster in the background says “Proletkult.”

Although created by the revolution, the Proletkult drew on preexisting programs designed to educate and inspire the Russian working classes. The most radical was articulated by the Bolshevik intellectual, Alexander Bogdanov, who had been an outspoken opponent of Lenin after the revolution of 1905. He believed that it was essential to educate a proletarian intelligentsia that would be prepared to take over a guiding role once the socialist revolution came.  Bogdanov and his allies formed several small exile schools in Western Europe where they trained gifted workers in science and cultural history.  Several of these students became national Proletkult leaders after the revolution.

Factory committees and unions formed another faction with a large stake in the new organization.  Legalized in the wake of the Revolution of 1905, these workers’ groups quickly became involved in cultural activities.  They sponsored clubs, lecture series, artistic classes, and small theatres.  They also opened up libraries stocked with the Russian classics and socialist literature.  Newspapers and fliers came out of this milieu, where aspiring writers published their first poems filled with imagery about life in the factory.  Groups like these formed a natural base for the new organization.

Participants in adult education classes and open universities also flocked to the Proletkult.  Founded by charity groups and educational societies long before the revolution, these groups offered literacy courses and lectures in science and the arts for a broad audience.  They were staffed by artists and intellectuals sympathetic to mass educational projects.  For them, the Proletkult appeared to be a continuation of their original goals.

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Created for the first celebration of the October Revolution, the banner reads “Proletkult—Proletarian Creation Guarantees the World Commune.”

The first Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment (or Minister of Culture) was Anatolii Lunacharskii, an ally of Bogdanov.  He gave the Proletkult an independent budget to begin work.  That money went first to the national organization, which set up a rudimentary bureaucracy and started a journal called Proletarian Culture (Proletarskaia kul’tura).  As the new government took over the possessions of the old ruling class, the Proletkult claimed part of the spoils.  When the Soviet government moved to Moscow, the central Proletkult took over a large mansion on the city’s main boulevard.  This process was repeated in the provinces, where local circles occupied public buildings and manor houses for their operations. 

During the years of the Russian Civil War, from 1918-1920, the Proletkult expanded in a chaotic fashion across the country.  Bolshevik power was tenuous, and the shape of the new state hardly fixed.  This contributed to a kind of free-for-all, where local participants decided who would join and what their group would do.  Proletkult organizations drew in seasoned workers, peasants, and office employees. Some directed outreach programs to housewives. The Tula organization even opened a short-lived children’s group, led by a teenager, whose stated aim was to free children from the petty-bourgeois family structure. In its early years the Proletkult was more plebeian than proletarian. 

The organization’s activities were as diverse as the membership.  Several circles were simply renamed people’s universities, where the same teachers continued their classes with little interruption. While some art studios made posters to support the Bolshevik cause in the Civil War, others focused on color theory.  In many literature workshops, participants tried their hands at worker-centered poems and stories, recounting their experiences in the factory.  In others, they learned to recite the Russian classics.  While most music groups attempted to put new, revolutionary words to familiar melodies, a Moscow circle became attached to the musical avant-garde and began to experiment with a seventeen note scale.  Rather than serving as a catalyst for a new revolutionary culture, the Proletkult was a mirror reflecting the heterogeneous cultural world of the early Soviet years. 

This period of exuberant expansion came to an end with the conclusion of the Russian Civil War. With the Bolsheviks now firmly in charge, the central government began a sober evaluation of how best to spend its scarce funds.  The Proletkult was particularly vulnerable. Associated with an opponent of Lenin, it appeared to have oppositional tendencies. Its initial demand for complete independence underscored that view.  Lenin personally took on the organization, denouncing its leadership and its goals.  He chose to focus on the very small part of the organization’s work that tended toward the experimental and avant-garde. All of this was petty bourgeois nonsense, Lenin claimed.

The attack on the Proletkult was part of a massive policy shift by the Communist Party.  The working class was always a small minority in Russia, and the government now had to find a way to reach out to the peasant majority.  The new state program begun in 1921, the New Economic Policy, was designed to do just that.  Organizations like the Proletkult that aimed (at least in theory) to serve the proletariat alone were out of step with the changing direction.  The government slashed the Proletkult’s budget. Any activities that could be accomplished through regular educational channels disappeared from the curriculum.  Groups that operated in areas where there were few or no industrial workers closed. Very quickly the network of hundreds shrunk to a handful.

The Proletkult now had to strike a new direction.  It turned to work in clubs, and focused especially theatrical work as a way of instilling pro-Soviet messages. Ironically some groups that survived tended towards avant-garde experimentation.  That was particularly the case in Moscow, where film director Sergei Eisenstein led theater workshops in Moscow.  The group there also took part in musical experiments, like a concert of factory whistles.  Art circles gave up easel painting and began designing posters, book jackets, and union emblems.  Many other more visible associations claiming to articulate a distinctly proletarian culture sprang up during the 1920s.  They used Lenin’s critique to elbow the Proletkult to the sidelines.

In its reduced form, the Proletkult lasted until 1932.  In that year the government disbanded all independent cultural organizations, particularly those that claimed to represent the proletariat.  Instead it planned large cultural unions and began to formulate an official Soviet aesthetic, “socialist realism.” The new aesthetic was presented as the expressions of a more advanced state of historical development, a move toward a classless society.  The state’s adoption of this new direction turned proletarian culture, supposedly the harbinger of the future, into the culture of the past. Through these new organizations the doctrine of socialist realism would take shape.

“Culture is not a luxury” might serve as the motto of the Proletkult organization.  Participants’ ideas on cultural creation were expansive and participatory, different from the emerging Soviet state program favoring basic education and labor discipline. The Proletkult embodied the euphoric optimism of the early years of the revolution, an optimism that fostered the belief that any cook could run the state, any union could manage the economy, and any worker could write a sonnet. 

Currently, the U.S. government is preparing to rescind funding from local theatres, orchestras, and news outlets that are trying to formulate their own paths to cultural participation. In the UK, the Tory government’s policy of austerity economics, combined with the massively unequal funding for arts and culture in the London area compared to the rest of the country, continue to make the arts and culture generally more and more inaccessible to most of the population. In these reactionary times, Proletkult is a brave and shining example of participatory and emancipatory cultural democracy for working people.

Decoding the Culture of Capitalism
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 12 December 2016 16:07

Decoding the Culture of Capitalism

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Nick Wright reviews Neoliberal Culture, edited by Jeremy Gilbert, a challenging collection of essays which exposes the ideological and cultural project behind neoliberalism.

Capitalist realism is a useful concept. It allows an investigation of the ways in which the dominant ideas in contemporary capitalist society possess the power to order the actions and thoughts of working people, even as life and work compels a rejection of those ideas. In exploring this terrain, Neoliberal Culture assembles essays that trace connections between neoliberalism as specific set of ideological and social practices and discrete areas of social life — literary texts and technology, ideologies of consumption and food journalism and pornography and the projection of modes of sexual activity expressive of neoliberal culture. Valuable stuff, and other sections takes us some way towards a fuller critique of contemporary capitalism.

Editor Jeremy Gilbert interrogates Mark Fisher, author of the influential text Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? to map out the ground on which an Anglophone array of cultural theorists consider the relationship between the distinctive features of contemporary capitalism and the cultural practices that characterise it. “The hegemonic field which capitalist realism secures and intensifies is one in which politics has been ‘disappeared’,” Fisher argues. “What capitalist realism consolidates is the idea that we are in the era of the post-political, that the big ideological conflicts are over, and the issues that remain largely concern who is to administer the new consensus.”

The highly provisional nature of such insights is illustrated by the speed at which the politics of capitalist crisis has moved. His suggestion — that the notion of the post-political isn’t just an ideological ruse and that membership of political parties really is declining — is a conclusion subverted by the rapid rise of the new political formations that have emerged in contexts as far apart as the Sanders/Trump polarity in the US, Podemos and its alliance with United Left in Spain and, in Britain, the massive irruption of new forces into Labour politics.

Nevertheless, the problems he identifies must concern the working-class movement and Fisher draws on the experience of Blairism as the paradigmatic example of a “formerly left-wing party surrendering to capitalist realism.” This, he argues, isn’t a wholehearted embrace of neoliberal ideology but rather the acceptance that this is the way of the world, that there is no alternative.

We can argue with some of the terms in which this argument is pitched. Class collaboration, rather than representing a latter-day capitulation to capitalist realism, is itself in the political DNA of social democracy and is, historically, what has distinguished its theoretical apparatus and political practice from an explicitly socialist approach. Indeed, it is precisely social democracy’s failure to challenge the neoliberal narrative — exemplified by Labour’s failure to contest the trope that Britain’s present crisis is due to profligate public spending rather than the salvage of the banking system — that underpins the pervasiveness of the neoliberal mindset.

Cultural studies, as an academic discipline, has gained a reputation for harbouring the notion that the connection between transformations in the economic base of society have nothing but a highly attenuated relationship with developments in the cultural superstructure. In a departure from this tradition, the virtue of this book lies in its scope and in the well-grounded nature of its studies. Paul Gilroy’s examination of the ways in which the aspirational discourses of black entrepreneurship work to capture the imagination is characteristically rich in concrete examples which refer back to religious traditions, transatlantic experiences, musical genres and notions of masculinity.

Paul Patton finds both convergences and ruptures in Foucault’s “critique” of neoliberalism and the liberal and social-democratic theories of US philosopher John Rawls. What emerges is the utility of notions, to preserve monopoly capitalism’s ideological project, of individualised competition in a market economy as the default mechanism for managing and regulating human society.

In a piece given extra relevance by the discourses around Hillary Clinton’s candidature for US president, Angela McRobbie examines the strategies employed by neoliberalism to accommodate the aspirations of contemporary feminism. Another contribution by Jo Littler looks at the ways in which notions of meritocracy serve to obscure economic and social inequalities, while Neal Curtis examines how government, as well as knowledge-producing systems like universities and the media, failed to relate the 2008 market failure of finance capital to the system’s sustaining ideologies.

The value of this collection lies in the attention it pays to concrete manifestations of neoliberalism. The weakness, which cannot solely be placed at the door of cultural studies as a discipline, lies in the inadequacy of critiques of actually existing state monopoly capitalism which do not posit a compelling alternative. Political economy is weakened if it does not enrich our understanding of the cultural and ideological superstructure. The discipline of cultural studies is impoverished if it proceeds without an adequate analysis of the economic formation.

Neoliberal Culture is published by Lawrence and Wishart, £18. This review is also published in the Morning Star.

 

Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 12 December 2016 14:36

Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship

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Nick Wright reviews Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship, by Erdmut Wizisla.

The diverse appropriations of Walter Benjamin – the cultural theorist and critic — of his life and work, inevitably bear the marks of Cold War polarities. Liberal sentiment regards his intimacy with Bertolt Brecht as a Stalinist disfiguring of his sensibility. Gerschom Scholem's account has Benjamin more rooted in Jewish metaphysics. The not-so-New Left privileges his connections with the Frankfurt School.

Against these accounts, the great strengths of Erdmut Wizisla’s Benjamin and Brecht The Story of a Friendship rest on his exquisitely detailed scholarship and his irrefutable demonstration that the relationship between the two was not only reciprocal and creative but that it was grounded in a shared world view.

Brecht’s reputation for an unwavering political realism and his unshakable Bolshevism of a distinctive German temper is tamper-proof. Incontestably, it is marxism which anchors his aesthetic.

But Benjamin, who died on the French Spanish border by his own hand — caught between the Nazi tide and the refusal by the Spanish authorities to allow him passage to Lisbon and thus to refuge in the USA - has had the integrity of his ideological standpoint assailed from many directions.

Had Benjamin survived to join Brecht, who returned from exile in the USA to help construct the socialist order, the creative life of the German Democratic Republic would have been further enriched.

Erdmut Wizisla’s studies commenced in the GDR, he gained his doctorate with a study which is the foundation of this intricate and clear-sighted book. He heads the Bertolt Brecht Archive and since 2004 the Walter Benjamin Archives at the Academy of Arts in Berlin and is an honorary professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

The book puts a decisive end to the disputed discourse that marks our understanding of the relationship between the two giants of German culture. Its title bluntly refutes the analysis which derives from the earlier Story of a Friendship by Gershom Scholem. Whereas Scholem rooted his account in what are inevitably subjective reminiscences of his friendship with Benjamin Wizisla contests his view with a detailed account of Brecht and Benjamin’s collaboration which grounds Benjamin’s thinking in their shared politics and materialism as much as their friendship.

Thus, in notes on his Commentary on Poems by Bertolt Brecht Benjamin writes:
“The tradition of the oppressed is of concern to Brecht (Questions from a Worker Who Reads) The tradition of the oppressed is also the decisive factor in his vision of the banned poets. Brecht emphasises the basis, the background, against which ‘great princes of intellect emerge'. In bourgeois representation this background tends to be a uniform grey.”

Benjamin’s writing is marked by an exceptionally wide compass — from a deep engagement with German literature, both high culture and the popular culture of the lower orders — but also the religious and metaphysical elements in Jewish culture, fragmentary features of modern life, dialectics, the effect of montage technique and famously, the impact of mechanical reproduction on art.

The core of the book is a section which sets Benjamin’s eleven essays on Brecht’s work against the political conditions of Germany in the interwar years, drawing strongly on the cultural politics of the German left. More fragmentary evidence is available in the passages which give insights into Brecht’s attitude to Benjamin’s work. It is clear that Brecht gave practical support to Benjamin while their personal relations were deepened by shared exile in Paris and by Brecht’s hospitality in the summers of 1934, 1936 and 1938 at Skovsbostrand in Denmark. Many of the photographs that depict the two men show them playing chess during their shared sojourns.

Wizisla cites both Hannah Arendt and Adorno to support the view that Brecht regarded Benjamin both as “the most important critic of the time” and that he was Brecht’s “best critic”.

The book ends with an assembly of surviving documents that illustrate the exceptionally fruitful collaboration between Benjamin and Brecht with the participation of, among others the film and theatre critic Herbert Ihrering, philosopher Ernst Bloch and Georg Lukács in preparing the ultimately abortive project for a journal Krise und Kritik.(Crisis and criticism).

Wizisla speculates, drawing on recollections by Bloch, that the stimulus for this project may have lain in the formation of the Nazi Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur (Struggle League for German Culture). Bloch’s account has as the prospective title Journal of Cultural Bolshevism.

For the specialist Benjamin and Brecht The Story of a Friendship marks a new stage in the evaluation of both the period and the personalities and the passages which bring out the intensity and fraternity entailed in their collaboration are where Wizisla’s method is most fruitful.

Wizisla calculates that in that dangerous period after the German bourgeoisie handed power to Hitler Brecht and Benjamin spent ‘a total of more than eleven months living and working in direct proximity to each other’ — a good part of it in Brecht’s house in Denmark.

This is demanding stuff. Wizisla includes the minutes of their discussions around Krise und Kritik., a valuable source and one which demonstrates the ideological convergences and synergies that result from their collaboration as well as the extraordinarily fertile character of this period in which the changes in political direction entailed in the Communist International’s highly creative response to the realisation that the Nazi regime was no passing phenomenon were reflected and refracted through prism of their shared critical thought.

While marxism’s claim to be a general theory makes it especially attractive to people working in a wide range of specialisms it is sometimes true that specialists tend towards revisionism in relation to their own discipline and dogmatism in relation to the over arching theory. It is here that both what might be termed New Left assumptions about their relationship, and more particularly Scholem’s account, which seem to suggest that Brecht’s ideological fortitude positioned Benjamin as a subject, are subverted.

Because Benjamin’s writings are so fruitful for contemporary cultural theorists — especially those engaged in a critical encounter with modern visual culture and mass media — there is a tendency to read him against contemporary political configurations rather than see him in the context of the thirties. But both Benjamin and Brecht were politically active revolutionary intellectuals in a period when the strategic turn of the world communist movement was critical for the eventual defeat of fascism — and because they were partisans of this strategic reorientation their encounter, and their collaboration, can only be read as symptomatic of their shared politics.

Benjamin’s unwavering realism: "A total absence of illusion about the age and... an unlimited commitment to it" and Brecht’s characteristic fusion of political analysis with dramatic effect both illustrate their shared commitment to the idea, as Benjamin puts it, that': ‘the politically correct tendency includes a literary tendency’.

Such partisanship in cultural production and criticism is unpalatable to some.

For the general reader or for a partisan of the left it is an exemplary demonstration of the dialectical method in biography mobilising, as it does, both a deep understanding of the conjectural factors — political and cultural — that conditioned this friendship and the interplay of their cultural production.

The book draws on a rich assembly of writings, correspondence, texts, ephemera, documentary evidence and recollections. Clarity could be lost in this rich miscellany without Wizisla’s rigorous method — dialectical materialism at work.

The translation, by Elizabeth Shuttleworth, is of great elegance and clarity — not always the case in translations from the German.

Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship, by Erdmut Wizisla, ISBN: 9781784781125 Verso £16.99

An end to humbugism
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Friday, 09 December 2016 17:03

An end to humbugism

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Mark Perryman provides a seasonal round-up of the best books to cheer up the radical spirit in us all and give us food for Blake's 'mental fight'.

From chaotic Brexit to the triumph of Trump via the summertime Labour coup, 2016 will be a year to forget for many who cling on to an optimism that a better tomorrow remains not only necessary but possible too. The toxicity of racism, the brutal closure of the Calais refugee camp, the political murder of Jo Cox, the human disaster unfolding in Syria and ever-increasing landmass temperatures signalling the onward march of climate change - more than enough to have us all digging into our pockets for the humbugs while giving the holly and the ivy this year a miss. But there’s another side to all of that, for every setback there’s a fightback and in and amongst the mix more than enough to keep at least a semblance of belief in a radically different future. There’s always next year after all!

In Britain, across Europe, and in the USA, progressives are now up against a populist Right, which requires a populist Left in response. The Populist Explosion by John B. Judis is a richly analytical account of the similarities and differences of what this year emerged as a global phenomenon of racist reaction while Europe in Revolt edited by Catarina Príncipe and Bhaskar Sunkara reveal the resources of hope an insurgent European left provides. For the prospects of ‘what might have been’ read Our Revolution by Bernie Sanders and imagine what a President Trump-free 2017 might have looked like.

MP Our Revolution

Such an alternative right now however remains at a very low ebb. Books that begin to map out the beginnings of a journey back are needed more than ever. Fortunately 2016 began to provide a good variety of such handy volumes. Now out in paperback Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism remains for many the best of the bunch and for those who don’t have it already a must-have for any Christmas radical reads shopping list. A personal favourite for the combination of design, format and writing is ABCs of Socialism edited by Bhaskar Sunkara. A book to bring the optimist back to earth is The Corruption of Capitalism by Guy Standing, pioneer of the ‘precariat’ analysis, who continues his well-studied research to reveal the transformation of work being effected via the rentier economy. An updated edition of the trailblazing Inventing the Future from Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams provides a manifesto of change to counter the miserable terms and conditions Standing’s ‘precariart’ are forced to endure. But of course these conditions aren’t created simply by the world of work. Edited by Jeremy Gilbert Neoliberal Culture provides a much-needed breadth of critique that takes our understanding of the neoliberalism beyond any tendency to cling on to a workerist model of explanation. Taking a similarly broad scope is author Mark Greif, the title of whose new book rather gives this away, Against Everything, the perfect seasonal gift for oppositionalists everywhere, not that they will appreciate the gesture, being against such fripperies after all.

CM nunns thecandidate

After that little lot the season of not enough goodwill and too little peace may require a bit of cheer-me-up. The Candidate by Alex Nunns should do precisely that for the convinced Corbynite, with an account in riveting detail of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to power which reads more like a thriller than a chronicle, and that’s a compliment by the way! And for the year ahead, those plotting the downfall of Corbyn’s opposition from the Labour Right have the perfect Christmas present in the way of David Osland’s rewrite of the activist classic How to Select or Reselect Your MP. The annual Socialist Register 2017 edition is entitled Rethinking Revolution with a range of fresh thinking on a great theme ranging from Corbynism, the European Left and South Africa’s ANC to radical change in Bolivia plus a range of essays questioning the legacy of 1917’s revolutionary model.

Of course in 2017 there’ll be no escaping the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Get ready to make it a revolutionary New Year with the classic dissident account, Victor Serge’s Year One of the Russian Revolution. Or for a wholly original approach, treat yourself to the brilliant comic-strip style approach of 1917: Russia’s Red Year by Tim Sanders and John Newsinger. Quite the quirkiest account of 1917 I’ve read though, and all the better for it is Catherine Merridale’s incredibly original Lenin on the Train which describes Lenin’s journey to the revolution as a kind of communist version of great rail journeys: superb! The latest edition of my favourite journal Twentieth Century Communism has a particular interest in communist nostalgia, ranging over instances of this perhaps not very quaint phenomenon in Romania, Italy Greece and elsewhere. Without decrying the historical significance of the Russian Revolution there are plenty of other starting points for the revolutionary impulse. The Leveller Revolution from John Rees expertly and passionately describes the tumultuous times of the 1640s English Civil War as one such starting point. Not exactly a year of revolution but one of change nevertheless David Stubbs in 1996 & The End Of History chooses the year of Blur, Oasis, Three Lions and the eve of Blair as PM to entertainingly conclude that those particular twelve months were a kind of start for what became postmodern Britain.

To understand the evolution of an historical tradition of thought and action there’s no better collection than the recently re-issued Antonio Gramsci Reader. This peerless thinker and revolutionary’s writings from1916 to1935 remain the single most important application of 1917 to the world after WWI and the rise of interwar fascism; moreover they have stood the test of time better than most. A new collection of Eric Hobsbawm’s writings on Latin America Viva La Revolucion is a wonderful way to explore how interpreting the world can enable us to change the world, to kind of misquote Marx. Today such a philosophy, what was once called praxis, finds many different expressions in varied locations and situations. One example is activist-photography on the frontline between the state of Israel and Palestinian resistance, which is the subject of Activestills edited by Vered Maimon and Shiraz Grinbaum.

In 2016, as in 2015 and 2014, too the pivot of radical change on this island remains Scotland. Scotland voted against #ToryBrexit, for a social-democratic and green majority in favour of Scottish independence, led by the most impressive by far of all domestic party leaders. It is no surprise then that writing on Scotland and its politics produces some of the most thoughtful insights either north of, or all points south, of the border. Neil Davidson’s latest collection of richly intellectual essays Nation-States reinforces his reputation as the most creative author currently writing out of the Marxist tradition on the theories and intersections of a nationalist politics. Davidson’s writing combines critical analysis with a grand global overview. Scotland the Bold by Gerry Hassan is focussed more specifically on Scotland yet this liberates rather than restricts Gerry’s radical imaginary which he brilliantly applies to the present and future of this most turbulent of nations.

The dark side of versions of nationalism rooted not in liberation but blood and soil are covered in two powerfully critical memoirs. Gaby Weiner’s Tales of Loving and Leaving deserves to become a modern classic. This is a book that expertly yet effortlessly weaves family and generation into two of the most epic events of the twentieth century, the Russian Revolution and Hitler coming to power, while linking both to a consequence that we continue to live with in the 21st, century - mass migration. Fascist in the Family is the kind of title to get the reader to sit up and take notice before they’ve even started thumbing through the pages. Left-wing writer Francis Beckett retells the story of his father: elected as Labour’s youngest MP at the 1924 General Election, he became one of Oswald Mosley’s key allies in the British Union of Fascists, until he found even this lot not Nazi enough and helped found the National Socialist League. Told with a brutal honesty, it is a book of horrific tragedy.

To add some fiction over the holiday break, try Andrew Smith’s The Speech. Taking as its starting point the real-life Enoch Powell ‘Rivers of Blood’ tirade, Smith engages with themes of culture and community to reveal a fictional plot rooted in reality and hope. Originally published in the wake of Italy’s ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1969 the novel We Want Everything by Nanni Balestrini is both framed by this period of revolutionary youth culture but not trapped by it. As such, this is a novel of enduring inspiration as well as a riveting portrayal of revolt. Europe today is a very different place to ’69 and for a chunk of the British electorate they can’t leave the continent quick enough. Bruno Vincent’s pastiche Enid Blyton story Five on Brexit Island is the near perfect stocking-filler for politicos, remainers or leavers alike.

But why should the grown-ups have all the best books? A new Michael Rosen is the highlight of almost any Christmas for younger readers and his latest Jelly Boots, Smelly Boots will do anything but disappoint. Newly translated, An Elephantasy by Argentine children’s author María Elena Walsh combines surrealism and humour via an adventure that is every bit as revealing as it is funny.

CM The Elephantasy

Even post Bake Off sell-off, Christmas is arguably more than almost anything else a culinary event. For those looking to go past the Delias and Jamies, there are three cookery books to expand any chef’s horizons. Ideas to make a break with the traditonal yuletide fare, or simply spice up mealtimes the whole year round, are aplenty in Meera Sodha’s new book Fresh India. Looking beyond Christmas the latest Leon book Happy Salads by Jane Baxter and John Vincent will have any wannabe chef eagerly awaiting Spring to try out the vast range of recipes offered for warmer days. Substantially updated and entirely redesigned, the second edition of Laila Ed-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt’s The Gaza Kitchen is internationalism as you eat. History, politics and delicious recipes for those who like to cook up some solidarity.

And the perfect gift to put under the tree for the activist who is anti-consumerist until he, or she, realises that means no prezzies? The new edition of Verso’s Book Of Dissent will have ‘em whooping with revolutionary delight not just on the 25th but for the next twelve months too. Or if a different kind of inspiration is required, one from Michael Rosen for all from young adults to fully fledged grown-ups, What is Poetry? It's an easy-to-follow guide to both reading and writing poems, perfect for those with the secret ambition of releasing the inner rhyming couplet. Though our favourite gift is another from Verso, their 2017 Radical Diary destined to resurrect the annual Big Red Diary that some of a certain political age will remember with fondness. Luxurious design, historical dates and details, quotes, illustrated throughout, it has enough to turn the most dogged pessimist into an optimist for the year ahead.

MP walls come tumbling cover

And our book of the seasonal quarter, our number one for Santa’s red list? Well we have not one but two, because we’ve chosen a theme and there is a pair of such outstanding titles it has proved impossible to separate them - so we recommend splashing out and getting both. Trump, Farage the #brexit fallout, has seen a revival of a right wing populism built round a naked racism, and with Le Pen 2017 could be worse still. What we desperately need is a popular anti-racism, not talking to each other to confirm our own opinions but to reach out, not pandering to the haters and the misinformed but conversing and where required challenging too. Daniel Rachel’s superb Walls Come Tumbling Down chronicles one such effort, via music, from Rock against Racism via 2-Tone to Red Wedge. A period when pop and politics, including Labour, learned how to work together towards what both understood in different ways as the common good. But no such effort would have been remotely possible without the singular experience of Rocking against Racism, a story now retold via Reminiscences of RAR edited by two men who set it all up, Red Saunders and Roger Huddle. This a book full of such sublime enthusiasm and vision it can only leave the reader wondering why nothing remotely like it has come again and what we can do in 2017 to make that happen. Daniel Rachel’s book will help convince us of the pitfalls of simply recreating the past, Roger and Red’s that despite this, when culture and politics click anything is possible.

Culture Matters indeed! 

MP RAR

Note: no links in this review to Amazon: if you can avoid buying from tax dodgers, please do so. Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football.

Consume and create: the cultural policy of the Cuban Revolution
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Tuesday, 08 November 2016 15:39

Consume and create: the cultural policy of the Cuban Revolution

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Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt traces the contours of cultural policy in Cuba since the Revolution.

On 26 July 1953, a group of young Cubans attacked two of the army barracks maintained by General Fulgencio Batista, who had retaken the country by force the previous year having earlier served as its elected president. The barracks assault ended in disaster, with many of the insurgents being killed, captured and tortured.

In his defence speech at the trial for his part in the failed attacks, Fidel Castro outlined a political programme which became something of a manifesto for the nascent 26 July Movement. This detailed five revolutionary laws and made reference to massive reforms in land, health and education, underwritten by social justice and an end to corruption. By the time of the first formal manifesto issued by the 26 July Movement in 1955, while Fidel was in exile in Mexico, education had become inextricably bound up with culture, in advocating the ‘Extension of culture, preceded by reform of all methods of teaching, to the furthest corner of the country in such a way that every Cuban has the possibility of developing their mental and physical aptitudes’. At the end of 1956, 82 men set sail for Cuba to wage an armed struggle against Batista’s dictatorship, from the Sierra Maestra mountains, which would last a little over two years.

In the early hours of 1959, Batista boarded a flight to the Dominican Republic and Fidel and his comandantes marched triumphantly upon Havana. Almost immediately, army barracks were turned into schools and those from the peasant population who had fought in the revolutionary war were taught to read and write. Before long, attention began to be paid to culture in the sense of the arts and literature, with a few early ideas coalescing that continue to determine cultural policy in Cuba to this day. The basis of the revolutionary approach is that culture:

• Belongs to everyone (as both spectators and creators) rather than being limited to an elite minority

• Should be detached from the market economy (copyright was revoked from 1967 to 1975, in a bid to provide access to the best of the world’s literature, and grants for artists were implemented from 1961)

• Is a form of social production (with humanity’s happiness as its end product)

• Stimulates not only social but also economic development (by increasing the cultural levels of the population in a country emerging from underdevelopment)

• Promotes revolutionary (and hence critical) thinking

One month after the Revolution triumphed, the National Museum of Fine Arts was reorganised, with a grant for its restoration being made a few months later. Museums and galleries were opened in every municipality, exhibiting artefacts and artworks that had previously been reserved for an elite audience.

Film was understood as an art form in its own right, partly as the result of a close connection between the revolutionary leadership and an influential group of filmmakers. The commissioning of film was initially centred on documentaries that attempted to mediate the pace of change, explaining land and housing reforms. Such educational documentaries soon gave way to more elliptical narrative adventures under the auspices of the Cuban Institute of Cinematic Arts and Industries (ICAIC). The film institute was founded just two months after revolutionary victory on the basis of ideas drawn up in 1954 by Cuba’s filmmakers, including Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Julio García Espinosa and Alfredo Guevara Valdés, the latter of whom would serve as director of ICAIC until his retirement in 2000 (with a hiatus from 1980 to 1991 while he worked for UNESCO).

ICAIC was set up not only to commission films but also to disseminate them, via 616 cinemas, 480 of which were built and restored in fixed locations, the rest of which formed part of a mobile cinema programme, being pulled by lorry, boat or beast around the island, as part of the extension of culture to its furthest corner. Consistent with the idea that culture belongs to everyone, the profit motive has been removed from the film industry, attendance costs have been kept deliberately low and going to the cinema nowadays costs roughly the same price as an egg. At the same time, silk-screen posters, which have consistently been used to promote films, capture their essence in witty and colourful visual aphorisms. In this way, the glamour and reverence that typifies Hollywood film posters has been subverted in the same way as the market economy.

Throughout these formative years, Cuba was the subject of growing hostility from across the Florida Straits. Washington inevitably reacted badly to Cuba nationalising industries in which Americans had a stake, and, in 1960, the US imposed an economic embargo which remains in place. In anticipation of the ideological blockade that was about to fall over the island, Haydée Santamaría Cuadrado – who had taken part in the 1953 barracks attacks – was charged with creating a pan-American cultural house, which became known as Casa de las Américas [House of the Americas]. The idea underwriting this institution was that not everyone on the American continent shared the ideological imperatives of the United States, and Casa de las Américas quickly became a nexus for cultural visitors from throughout Latin America and beyond, many of whom came to serve as jurors on its prestigious literary prize. Visual artists also visited from outside Cuba, donating works to the growing collection and making work in situ.

It is important to mention that cultural policy – the operational principles laid down for culture by the state – did not begin to be formulated in Cuba until after the key cultural institutions had been established. This is typically unconventional, and it is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it meant that the institutions were initially guided only by the general ideas which had been established for culture (listed above), rather than being beholden to any overarching administrative authority. Secondly, the delay in forming cultural policy meant that, when this did happen, there was scope for a more discursive approach.

A key moment for this was the First National Congress of Writers and Artists in August 1961, which, as the name suggests, was organised by the country’s writers and artists rather than being a top-down affair. The commemorative publication for this event featured a slogan that had been devised by writers and artists the previous year, firmly implicating their work in the social justice aims of the Revolution – To Defend the Revolution is to Defend Culture.

At the 1961 congress, an artists’ and writers’ union was formed, and a system of grants was set up to provide living and material costs for artists. In the same year, a literacy campaign was launched which saw quarter of a million mainly young people going into the countryside to teach the peasant population to read and write (ironing out some of the inequalities that persisted between urban and rural areas, which the Revolution was committed to overcoming). Rumour has it that, a few years later, Fidel and Che Guevara were playing golf at a requisitioned country club on the outskirts of Havana, discussing how the momentum of the literacy campaign could be carried over into the cultural field more broadly, and they hit upon the idea of building a world-renowned art school that could provide a creative education to scholarship students from Africa, Asia and Latin America. This led to the construction of the pioneering National Art Schools.

While the National Art Schools provided education to hundreds of professional artists, something even more ambitious was attempted at an amateur level. Tens of thousands of arts teachers, many of whom had taken part in the literacy campaign, were trained to disseminate creative skills to farms, factories and workplaces throughout the island, responding to what Fidel called the transition from spectators to creators. At the heyday of this programme, an estimated one million amateur artists were operating within a population of around six million. This programme continues today, centred on the Casas de Cultura [Houses of Culture] that exist in every town, and anyone can request time off work to attend the National Art Schools for a week of professional training.

The discursive, internationalist ethos of the Revolution reached its peak at the Cultural Congress of Havana in 1968, which brought more than 600 intellectuals together to discuss their role in relation to imperialism and underdevelopment. From the UK, such notable figures as CLR James, Herbert Read, Arnold Wesker and Ralph Miliband travelled to Havana to take part in these discussions, and, in some cases, found themselves lagging behind the revolutionary attitudes towards culture that were being developed there. To take just one example, CLR James argued for the abolition of the category of ‘intellectual’ at the same time as Cuba was working towards the democratisation of education and culture in a bid to ensure that everyone had the right to engage in intellectual labour. More generally, the 1968 congress provided a forum for defining the role of artists and writers in revolutionary situations, positioning intellectual work as the ideological corollary of armed struggle and situating artists and writers as the bridge between the political vanguard and the people.

A few months after the Cultural Congress of Havana, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and the story darkens. Relations between Moscow and Havana had been gradually improving since the missile crisis of 1962 revealed Cuba to be little more than a pawn in the game between the two superpowers. As Cuba was by now officially part of the international communist movement, the revolutionary government could not publicly oppose the invasion, which caused the loss of many international friends.

So far, this account has discussed the ways in which cultural institutions were set up and policy became practice, but it has said little about the various factions that had been united under the revolutionary banner. While the insurrection was being fought in the Sierra Maestra, the commitment of the Popular Socialist Party (PSP) to the mass movement caused it to oppose armed struggle until three months before the triumph of the Revolution. But, although the party played a negligible part in the insurrection, it had been developing ideas throughout the 1950s, with the leading artists, musicians and filmmakers of the day, which sowed the seeds for later cultural policy (notably the film institute).

This meant that, when the Revolution triumphed, it seemed logical to place culture in the hands of the PSP, and, in January 1961, their members were charged with running a new National Council of Culture (CNC), set up to implement the cultural policy of the revolutionary government. This created more than a little consternation in the cultural field, especially among the anti-communist factions of the avant-garde, and gave rise to some very public disputes, most memorably around the cultural supplement Lunes de Revolución, which ceased publication in November 1961.

In 1963–4, a series of heated debates took place around the kind of culture that could and should be made under the auspices of the Revolution. Generalising massively, more orthodox members of the PSP argued against films like La Dolce Vita and in favour of socialist realism while more culturally active party members and non-partisan artists and filmmakers advocated a situation in which all aesthetic tendencies could be pursued within a dialectical process of acceptance and critique. Ultimately, the latter perspective prevailed, but not before considerable disruption.

Returning to the period after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and Cuba’s diminished standing in the international community, we find tensions simmering around a Cuban poet called Heberto Padilla, whose disillusionment with Soviet-derived forms of socialism was reflected in his work. In 1971, Padilla and his wife were arrested on counterrevolutionary grounds. This prompted a letter to Fidel from many foreign intellectuals, including those, such as Jean Paul Sartre, who had previously been supportive of the Revolution. A National Congress of Education, which had been planned for April 1971, hastily had culture added to its remit, and Fidel took the opportunity of his closing speech to castigate the small minority of intellectual traitors who had criticised the Revolution from the comfortable capitals of Paris, London and Rome.

The following five years and more are universally derided – within Cuba and beyond – as the grey period. During this time, intellectuals were persecuted and deprived of money and status. Responsibility for the worst atrocities may be attributed to Luis Pavón Tamayo, a former army officer and lesser poet, who was appointed director of the CNC. In 2001, an attempt to rehabilitate Luis Pavón and his cronies on television triggered a deluge of analysis of the grey years. Central to this, the writer Ambrosio Fornet described how Pavón’s anti-intellectualism led him to denude the country’s established cultural producers of influence over the field in which they operated. Notwithstanding the overall mood of the time, institutions like Casa de las Américas provided a sanctuary for artists committed to the Bolivarian Revolution that had been ignited throughout Latin America.

The grey period officially ended with the opening of the Ministry of Culture in 1976, with the husband of Haydée Santamaría (the former Minister of Education, Armando Hart Dávalos) at its helm, which gradually restored trust between artists, writers and cultural bureaucrats. Pivotal to this development was the first congress of the governing party, which took place in December 1975 and formalised the basis for the Marxist-humanist cultural policy that thrives to this day. The congress sought to establish the most conducive atmosphere for the progress of art and literature. It also relieved artists and writers of any dogmatic expectations and recognised culture as both intrinsically valuable and inherently revolutionary.

Marxist-humanist cultural policy, as it has been uniquely formulated in Cuba, is underwritten by the conviction that those taking up mental labour might emerge from any sector of society. This democratising impulse implies that both passive spectatorship of, and active engagement in, creative production are necessary to human fulfilment. At the same time, the conception of art as a form of social production and of the artist as an integral member of society endures.

 

Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt is the author of To Defend the Revolution is to Defend Culture: The Cultural Policy of the Cuban Revolution (PM Press, 2015).

Wednesday, 28 September 2016 14:30

500 years of being unrealistic

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500 years after the publication of Thomas More's Utopia, and days after Jeremy Corbyn's election victory, Professor John Storey explains how utopian thinking seeks to place hope, optimism and imagination at the core of politics. 

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels called it the ruling ideas, Antonio Gramsci hegemony, Herbert Marcuse one-dimensionality, and Louis Althusser ideological state apparatuses. What all of these different concepts of power have in common is an insistence that power always produces a particular version of reality. To remain within this reality we are required to be realistic; realistic about this and realistic about that, but above all, realistic about what is possible and what is not.

Like everything else, there is a struggle over the meaning and experience of reality and the demand to be realistic is always an attempt to control desire. But desire is one of the things that make us human. Advertising tries to colonize and satisfy it with commodity solutions. Buy enough of the right things and all your dreams will come true. But humans have always sought to expand it beyond the here and now in search of something or somewhere better. Five hundred years ago in 1516 Thomas More named this desire Utopia.

If we want to describe something as unrealistic the word that is often used is utopian. Marx and Engels used it to describe a version of socialism that thought it could be achieved by mental effort alone. But there was another side to Utopian Socialism, one that Marx and Engels acknowledged and admired – its ability to encourage people to imagine the world in a different way. As they explained in the Communist Manifesto, ‘They attack every principle of existing society. Hence they are full of the most valuable materials for the enlightenment of the working class’. Enlightenment or what Miguel Abensour calls the ‘education of desire’ is at the very core of the political power of utopianism.

The role of utopianism is to make change conceivable and to encourage the organisation that might make it possible. It allows us to imagine differently and to think about the boundary between the possible and the so-called impossible in a new way. It can take many forms, both written and practiced, but at its core is the seeking of somewhere or something better. Does this make utopianism hopelessly unrealistic?

Well, only if we think that reality is something beyond human intervention. If instead we understand that what we call reality is a human construct that can always be constructed differently, it becomes difficult to resist Muhammad Ali’s observation that ‘Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion’.

Utopianism always challenges the current ordering of the possible, knowing that the impossible (a historical category) is always open to change. It continually confronts the existing with the possible. In doing this it can expose when the impossible (so called) is little more than an ideological screen in place to discourage demands for social change.

Of course there are what we might call objective conditions of possibility that clearly limit and constrain desire, but often what is presented as objective conditions of possibility are little more than ideological obfuscations designed to force desire to bow down before the twin gods of realism and impossibility.

Unrealistic is always put forward as an absolute, as if reality were fixed and unchanging and always beyond the reach of human intervention. However, once we recognize that reality is a historically variable human construct, the charge of being unrealistic seems far less conclusive and far less persuasive.

Utopianism has what Bertolt Brecht called, in a very different context, an alienation effect. It makes us see the familiar as suddenly unfamiliar. This making strange can have a shattering impact on what Antonio Gramsci called ‘common sense’ – that which hides from criticism as the self-evident, the habitual and the taken for granted. It is this aspect of utopianism, rather than the presenting of blueprints for a new society, that points to its political potential. By challenging the certainty of reality and expanding the range of the possible, it encourages us to desire differently. It points to the unrealized possibilities of human society.

In other words, utopianism promotes a realism that is unrestrained by prevailing versions of reality. It gives us the resources to imagine the future in a different way. Although utopianism cannot change the world, it can produce a demand for change, one that frees desire from commodity solutions and the confines of the prevailing structure of power, with all its realism and limited possibility, allowing us to embrace with Raymond Williams the optimism that ‘Once the inevitabilities are challenged, we begin gathering our resources for a journey of hope’.

None of this might be what Thomas More intended when he published his little book in Latin in 1516. But when he named a desire to imagine and construct alternative realities, that has since manifested itself in both writing and practice, he began a way of thinking and acting that has sought to place hope, optimism and imagination at the core of politics.

We have to first imagine what is possible and then organise to make it happen. Perhaps in the future when you hear or see something described as utopian you will ask the critical question, ‘Against whose version of reality is it unrealistic?’
Saturday, 17 September 2016 14:06

Modern Banality: Post-GFC, Post-Brexit and Post-Trump

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Professor Steve Redhead suggests the continuing relevance of Jean Baudrillard's post-political spirit.

Why are we where we, are post-GFC, post-Brexit and (maybe) post-Trump? Banality rules but Theory beckons. We certainly live, interestingly, in theoretical times. Previously we lived, theoretically, in interesting times. Study on the left globally has attached itself to ‘theory’ and ‘theorists’ as never before. And ‘high theory’ at that. But there has also been a delve into ‘the popular’ of culture as never before, too – both high and low popular culture. The celebrity intellectual culture which has developed inexorably over the past few years has produced open access online journals devoted to theorists such as Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard is one of the key theorists focused on, alongside Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek and Paul Virilio, in my forthcoming book entitled Theoretical Times partly being written through a website blog post, podcasts, vodcasts, tweets and various other social media. Baudrillard died in March 2007 from cancer but his work continues to be published a decade after his death. His posthumous publications have been very significant in shifting our long term view of Baudrillard - from a banal postmodern theorist to a global theorist with a mature system of thought which made sense of modern banality like no other. His most recent posthumous publication (in a new English translation) from the 1980s The Divine Left: A Chronicle of the Years 1977-1984 shines a light on the politics in France (and elsewhere) of the 1970s and early 1980s. Only French language versions existed in his lifetime. It fits in with his illuminating but misunderstood work of the time on what he called the silent majorities in books like In The Shadow of the Silent Majorities where he investigates the role of the masses in the ‘death of the social’.

The masses, he saw at an early stage of the proceedings which have evolved to the point where a Brexit could happen, banally just refused to play the game anymore. Anyone interested in why the Brexit vote occurred in June 2016 in the UK, or why Donald Trump defies electoral odds in the USA, or why Pauline Hanson’s right wing One Nation party can call for a Royal Commission into Islam in Australia would do well to go back to Baudrillard's texts from the early 1980s and explore notions of 'the divine left', ‘the death of the social’ and 'in the shadow of the silent majorities'. The chronicle of the years 1977-1984 in Baudrillard’s writings in The Divine Left show just how much things were changing in the years after punk culture took on the notion of modern power and how we have never really left the post-punk era.

But Baudrillard’s mature system of thought was already in train by the time the Sex Pistols, Clash, Slits and all emerged on the scene in 1976. By 1976 a key book in the Baudrillard oeuvre was written - namely Symbolic Exchange And Death. It was published in 1976 in French, but not really fully appreciated by English speaking readers until much later if at all. A 1993 English publication helped reorient somewhat but even today his work is thrown away into a dustbin labelled 'postmodernist'. Crucially, Symbolic Exchange And Death contained the theory of reversibility which would become so important to Baudrillard’s writing until his own death. As Sylvere Lotringer publisher of Semiotext(e) and long time friend of Baudrillard put it in the introduction to a posthumous Baudrillard book in 2010 called The Agony of Power 'reversibility is the form death takes in a symbolic exchange'. In 1976, the year zero of punk in global popular culture, punk cultural stirrings were embracing antecedents that Baudrillard shared – the pataphysics of Albert Jarry and Pere Ubu. In the mid-1970s a Cleveland punk band emerged with the name Pere Ubu to globally popularise the drama of writer Albert Jarry from the late nineteeth century which had so fascinated Baudrillard since the 1950s.

Baudrillard's first short book was on Jarry and Pataphysics. As popular music historian Clinton Heylin noted musician David Thomas in 1975 in Cleveland, Ohio named his band Pere Ubu after Albert Jarry’s caricature king because, to Thomas, it added a texture of absolute grotesqueness, a kind of darkness descending over everything which fitted the mid-1970s in America. When I was preparing my own book on the life and work of Baudrillard entitled The Jean Baudrillard Reader as Baudrillard lay dying in 2007, I never got the sense that he was aware of this pop culture connection. In his own lifetime, Baudrillard never declared any awareness of this popular music culture/Ubu connection, though he did once appear in a 'punk' costume of his own. He appeared in a gold lame jacket with mirrored lapels reading the text of his own self-penned 1980s poem 'Motel-Suicide', backed by a rock band at the Chance Event held at Whiskey Pete’s in Las Vegas in November 1996. The only surviving photo shows the short, balding, academic Baudrillard appearing as if he was auditioning for a place in a mid-late 1970s punk band and my publisher Edinburgh University Press duly used it as the cover shot for my book in 2008.

Nevertheless, Baudrillard’s attitude to power, law, culture, sovereignty and politics changed in this mid-1970s 'punk' period. The agony of power was as much about the power of agony. In his own agonising introduction to The Agony of Power Sylvere Lotringer claims powerfully, and in my view correctly, that Baudrillard’s two key ideas throughout his work were that, firstly, reality had disappeared and became replaced by simulacra and secondly that there was a potential symbolic challenge in this disappearance. This mid-1970s period is crucial for understanding Baudrillard’s work for the rest of his life, and especially its political implications for us today post-GFC and post-Brexit as we enter what Slavoj Zizek has hailed as a ‘new dark ages’ and ‘trouble in paradise’. What can be seen in hindsight as Jean Baudrillard’s 'post-punk' work is revealed in all its glory in The Agony of Power, a book praised from within by Sylvere Lotringer as nothing less than Baudrillard’s last'intellectual testament'.

Baudrillard’s posthumous The Agony of Power offers a different view of sovereignty and power from the classical legal conception of power often reproduced in major works of legal philosophy and sociology of law. Baudrillard’s perspective is a form of the 'patasociology' (echoing Albert Jarry's pataphysics) hailed by French theorist of 'the social' Jacques Donzelot who worked with Baudrillard at the University of Nanterre in France. Whilst there are many interesting books in the excellent Nomikoi Critical Legal Thinkers series produced by Routledge, the orthodoxy of the 'critical legal thinkers' chosen on law, politics and power contrasts strongly with Baudrillard’s radical late work on these issues underscored by his idea of integral reality and reversibility. There are books, so far, in the series on Law and Jacques Ranciere, Slavoj Zizek, Carl Schmitt, Giorgio Agamben, Louis Althusser, Niklas Luhmann, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, amongst many others, but none yet on Jean Baudrillard.

In all this posthumous work, especially in The Agony of Power, Baudrillard offers up a unique theory of power incorporating what he calls 'a double refusal' by which he means the sovereign’s refusal to dominate as well as the subject’s refusal to be dominated. As he points out in another posthumous book Carnival and Cannibal in a passage repeated word for word from The Agony of Power (and partially extracted by Semiotext(e) as the quote on the back cover of The Agony of Power) the radicality of his thinking is in the argument that power itself has to be abolished. For Baudrillard 'it is power itself that has to be abolished – and not just in the refusal to be dominated, which is the essence of all traditional struggles, but equally and as violently in the refusal to dominate. For domination implies both these things, and if there were the same violence or energy in the refusal to dominate, we would long ago have stopped dreaming of revolution. And this tells us why intelligence cannot - and never will be able to – be in power: because it consists precisely in this twofold refusal'.

The refusal to dominate, or to exercise sovereign power, according to Sylvere Lotringer, seeking to illustrate Baudrillard’s theory at its most banal, can be seen in the agonies of those involved in the revolts of May 1968 or the activities of the self-proclaimed 'post-political' Italian Autonomists in the 1970s or the failure of the Communist Party and other parts of the left in the late 1970s and early 1980s in France. They were, in Baudrillard’s theory, according to Lotringer’s interpretation, less than confident in wanting to dominate – they agonised about power, in both their resistance to sovereignty and their unwillingness to become involved in its exercise. Indeed, as Baudrillard has written emphatically, 'power itself is an embarrassment and there is no one to assume it truly'. Although Baudrillard is no longer with us his post-political spirit lives on. There are lesson here for the politics of our own Theoretical Times.
A Terrible Beauty: The Cultural Impact of the 1916 Easter Rising
Tuesday, 02 August 2016 13:31

A Terrible Beauty: The Cultural Impact of the 1916 Easter Rising

Written by

Paul Foley presents a history and analysis of the cultural impact of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.

As commemorations for the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising continue throughout Ireland, there have been many discussions on the impact of the rebellion on the political landscape in both Britain and the Irish Republic. Although the initial response to the armed uprising from the civilian population was one of indifference, it quickly turned to anger and hostility towards the volunteers. Once Britain subjected the rebellion’s leadership to secret trials and began executing them, this hostility was then re-directed towards the oppressor.

The direct political fallout from the Rising was the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922. This in turn led to a vicious civil war. In 1949 the Irish Republic was finally declared, although the island remains divided and the consequences of the English conquest remain. Over the following 100 years since the small army of volunteers entered the City’s General Post Office (GPO), the doomed rebellion has entered folklore as a heroic and romantic episode in the country’s turbulent history.

There are many reasons for this. Clearly there is the genuine heroism of a smaller oppressed nation taking on the might of a huge empire. Certainly the cruel response by the British in executing 16 of the Rebel leaders ensured they would be considered martyrs to a just cause. But the romance comes from the background of the seven men who formed the provisional government. These were not professional insurgents or experienced political activists. They were idealists, poets and visionaries. Although their initial brand of Irish Nationalism may have been different, by 1916 their views and outlook for a New Ireland began to coalesce.

CM easter 1916 Proclamation

Of the seven signatories to the Proclamation read out by Padraig Pearse on Easter Monday 1916, four were accomplished writers and poets. 

Thomas MacDonagh was a renowned poet and, along with Joseph Plunkett, edited the literary periodical ‘The Irish Review’. MacDonagh embraced the burgeoning renaissance in Irish literature, culture and language. He joined the Gaelic League but became radicalised by the industrial troubles of the early 20th century and subsequently joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). One of his last poems ’Wishes for my Son, Born on Saint Cecilia’s Day” was dedicated to his young son. The poem sets out his hopes for the young boy and for his future and that of his beloved Ireland:

But for you, so small and young,
Born on Saint Cecilia's Day,
I in more harmonious song
Now for nearer joys should pray-
Simpler joys: the natural growth
Of your childhood and your youth,
Courage, innocence, and truth:
These for you, so small and young,
In your hand and heart and tongue.

However MacDonagh was more than a poet. He wrote an award- winning musical cantata with the Italian composer Benedetto Palmieri based on the biblical story of the Israeli exodus from Egypt. He also wrote a number of plays. His best known was ’When the Dawn Is Come’ based on a rebellion against a tyrannical oppressor led by a seven strong army council. Although written before the Easter Rising had even been planned, the play had uncanny parallels with the later events.

The play was premiered at Ireland’s National Theatre, The Abbey, but MacDonagh became frustrated at the conservative nature of the theatre and its insistence at staging what he described as the ‘stereotypical portrayal of Irish themes’. His response was to establish a new avant garde theatre. ‘The Irish Theatre’, as it was called, produced plays from contemporary Irish playwrights as well as the works of European writers. His theatre was the first to stage Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ in Ireland. He also introduced Irish audiences to Ibsen with a production of ‘An Enemy of the People’.

During the industrial turmoil of 1913 MacDonagh supported the workers’ struggle and helped found Ireland’s first teaching union, the ASTI. The eloquence of his writing is captured in the final letter to his wife before being shot by British troops:

I am ready to die and I thank God that I am to die in so holy a cause. My country will reward my deed richly. I counted the cost of this, and I am ready to pay it.

The generosity of his spirit was evident up to the end. While standing before the firing squad he declared:

I know this is a lousy job but you are doing your duty. I do not hold this against you.

A British officer commenting on the deaths of the Rising’s leaders said.

They all died well but MacDonagh, he died like a Prince.

MacDonagh’s close friend and fellow editor of The Irish Review, Joseph Plunkett, also served on the seven man military council. Although considered a bohemian for his unconventional lifestyle, he was a devout Catholic. Like MacDonagh he was highly regarded as one of the country’s leading poets. Most of his poetry was romantic, laced with heavy religious symbolism. As with most of the leaders of the Rising, Plunkett’s views on the Nationalist cause developed to reflect the need for an Irish state built around the social and humanitarian needs of the people. This development was in part due to his strong friendship with James Connolly.

In 'I see his Blood upon the Rose', he uses the crucifixion as a metaphor ‘for our need to go beyond the self in search for human meaning’. Despite having no military experience, Plunkett became the chief military strategist in the Rising. When asked by his son who Plunkett was, James Connolly said:

This is Joe Plunkett and he has more courage in his little finger than all the other leaders combined.

The romantic image of the Rising has often been attributed to Plunkett’s story. Suffering from TB he joined the insurrection a week after having surgery. But it was his marriage to Grace Gifford, herself an activist in the fight for independence, that caught the public imagination. Their wedding took place in the small chapel in Kilmainham Jail. He was led into the ceremony in handcuffs with a platoon of soldiers - with bayonets fixed - on guard. Grace described their honeymoon which lasted just 10 minutes:

During the interview the cell was packed with officers and a sergeant who kept a watch in his hand and closed the interview by saying, ‘Your 10 minutes is up now'.

Grace never saw her husband again. The following morning at dawn, despite his illness, he was shot. In his beautiful poem ‘To Grace’ Plunkett writes:

The joy of spring leaps from your eyes
The strength of dragons in your hair
In your soul we still surprise
The secret wisdom flowing there:
But never word shall speak or sing
Inadequate music where above
Your burning heart now spread its wings
In the wild beauty of your love.

Plunkett’s murder in Kilmainham, along with that of Connolly, were the catalyst that ignited the backlash against British rule and led to the guerrilla war between 1917 and 1921. When we think of James Connolly we immediately think of a great Marxist thinker and leader of the Irish working class. A man of immense stature, a prolific writer on Marxism and Irish Independence. His seminal works ‘Labour in Irish History’, ‘The Re-conquest of Ireland’, and ‘Erin’s Hope and the New Evangel’ remain key texts for modern Marxists.

But Connolly was also a poet, playwright and author of many ballads. Perhaps not in the same league as MacDonagh, his work was still highly regarded. His play ‘Under Which Flag’ about the 1867 Fenian Rising was performed in Liberty Hall only weeks before the Easter uprising. The lead character was taken by Sean Connolly (no relation), who sadly became the first volunteer to be killed during the capture of Dublin Castle. The play was never published but the full text is available in the Irish State archives. His most famous ballad was the rousing call to arms ‘A Rebel’s Song’:

Come workers sing a rebel song,
A song of love and hate,
Of love unto the lowly,
And of hatred to the great.
The great who trod our fathers down,
Who steal our children’s bread,
Whose hands of greed are stretched to rob
The living and the dead.

The leadership of the Rising nominated Tom Clarke as the Republic’s acting President, mainly because of his seniority and experience in direct action. However Clarke was not interested in the trappings of leadership. It was agreed that Padraig Pearse would become the interim President. Pearse’s nationalism grew from a love of the Irish language and its culture. He established a bilingual school, St Enda’s College. His poetry was well respected although it tended to paint a rather romantic picture of Ireland and was deeply influenced by his Catholicism. Although initially a supporter of Home Rule, by 1914 he was committed to the need for an armed rebellion to liberate Ireland.

In 1912 Pearse published his angry poem ‘Mise Eire’ in which he decries a people abandoning the fight for Ireland’s freedom:

I am Ireland:
I am older than the Hag of Beara.
Great my glory:
I who bore brave Cúchulainn.
Great my shame:
My own children that sold their mother.
Great my pain:
My irreconcilable enemy who harrasses me continually.
Great my sorrow:
That crowd, in whom I placed my trust, decayed.
I am Ireland:
I am lonelier than the Hag of Beara.

Recognising the failure of the Rising, Pearse declared as only a poet could:

When we are all wiped out, people will blame us for everything …… in a few years they will see the meaning of what we tried to do.

It didn't take a few years: shorty after his execution the people of Ireland began to fight back. The night before he died Pearse wrote his last poem ‘The Wayfarer’ which although a lament, showed a great calmness at his fate:

The beauty of the world hath made me sad,
The beauty that will pass;
Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy
To see a squirrel in a tree
Or a red ladybird on a stalk.

Although the remaining signatories of the Proclamation were not known for their artistic achievements they have, albeit indirectly, made a significant contribution to the cultural history of the Rising.

CM easter bw sig proclamation

Tom Clarke, the oldest of the leaders, was a long time political activist and organiser. His prison memoirs ‘Glimpses of an Irish Felon’s Prison Life’ was published posthumously in 1922. The book contains reflections of his 15 years spent in prison for his activities fighting for Irish independence. Clarke considered the diary as ‘mere jottings’ but its eloquence and lack of bitterness or self indulgence places it alongside the very best of prison literature, such as Gramsci’s ‘Prison Notebooks.’

Shortly before his death he wrote:

I and my fellow signatories believe we have struck the first successful blow for Irish Freedom. The next blow which we have no doubt, Ireland will strike, will win through, in this belief we die happy.

Sean MacDiarmada became the commercial manager of the campaigning Gaelic newspaper ‘An Saoirseacht” (Irish Freedom). Under his management the paper became more political. In an editorial it described British rule:

Our Country is run by a set of insolent officials, to whom we are nothing but a lot of people to be exploited and kept in subjection.

In 1915 he was imprisoned for sedition when he called on Irishmen to refuse to fight for the British in the first world war. His poetic last words before being shot by a firing squad continue to resonate with revolutionaries across the world:

I die that the Irish Nation may live.

Probably the least known of the seven signatories to the Proclamation is Eamon Ceannt, a quiet intelligent man who had a great interest in Ireland’s history. He joined the IRB in 1913 and became an executive member of the ruling council. He was more a cultural nationalist than a political activist. He was an accomplished Uilleann pipe player and in 1908 played for the Pope in Rome. He wasn't known for his writing although he was an impressive public speaker. He was unhappy at Pearse’s call to surrender, feeling that the rebels should fight to the death. This reluctance is seen in a statement he issued to the Irish Independent before his death:

I leave for the guidance of other Irish Revolutionaries who may tread the path which I trod, this advice, never to treat with the enemy, never to surrender at his mercy but to fight to a finish. Ireland has shown she is a Nation.

At 2.30AM on the 8th May 1916 he wrote a last letter to his wife:

My Dearest Aine
Not wife but widow before these lines reach you. I am here without hope of this world, without fear, calmly awaiting the end…What can I say? I die a noble death for Ireland’s freedom.

The cultural relevance of the 1916 Rising began much earlier than that fateful Easter. At the turn of the 20th century there was a re-awakening of Irish nationalism. A passive acceptance of colonial rule, which had settled on the country since the middle of the 19th century, was beginning to stir. Writers started studying the ancient Gaelic culture as a means of developing a modern Irish identity. The purpose was to build a cultural identity distinct from the British colonial power and through this develop an Irishness that could liberate the country and create a new modern progressive state. Gaelic clubs sprang up all over the country. There was a renewed interest in Irish literature and folklore and how to build a new Ireland, an Ireland that could end the terrible poverty, both economic and spiritual, felt under colonisation. Rebellion against the British Crown was no longer enough.

One of the clearest voices of this ‘new renaissance’ was the playwright John Millington Synge. For him the fight was to win not only a ‘Free Nation’ but also a different type of nation. His views reflected the words of James Connolly who in 1887 said:

If you remove the English Army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain.

Synge had been writing in Paris when he was advised by W.B.Yeats to return to Ireland. He did so and in the remote Aran islands immersed himself in Irish traditional culture. The result was his dramatic masterpiece ‘A Playboy of the Western World’. It premiered at the Abbey in 1907, which led to riots on the streets of Dublin. Most of the hostility was whipped up by Conservative Nationalists. The leader of Sinn Fein, Arthur Griffith, denounced the play as immoral. Padraig Pearse, a future leader of the 1916 Rising, said:

It is not against a Nation he blasphemes so much as against the moral order of the universe.

Pearse called for a boycott of the Abbey in response to its staging of the play. But within 2 years Synge was dead and Pearse had changed his view, describing the great playwright ‘a true patriot’ and acknowledging that “He baffled people with images which they could not understand”.

This episode highlights the speed at which Ireland was changing and the growing desire for the arts to be at the core of a free and independent country. The combination of a cultural re-awakening and a desire for a new and separate Ireland with an intellectual idealistic and visionary leadership, brewed a heady cocktail which ignited on Easter Monday, 24th April 1916, with the volunteers’ march on key installations in the country’s capital.

What is interesting is the response of the non-combative cultural elite to the Rising. W.B.Yeats, one of Ireland’s greatest poets, appeared to be conflicted. Prior to the events of Easter 1916 he was mocked the Irish Nationalists, and denounced violence as a means of achieving independence. In his poem Easter 1916, we see this conflict. His initial ambivalent feelings towards the leaders of the movement for independence is caught in the poem’s opening lines:

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words....

But later he recognises the wanton murder of the leadership had changed things, changed them utterly and the use of ‘terrible’ and ‘beauty’ in the same sentence shows his conflict at the terrible loss - yet beauty - of their sacrifice:

I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

In contrast, Ireland’s other great writer, James Joyce, remained silent. He never made any direct comment on the events of that Easter. He did, however, push to have his Dublin novel ‘A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man’ published in 1916, which many believe was his contribution to the ongoing debate on the Rising’s merits. Within the book, he does appear to suggest that he disavows petty nationalism and that art is the higher calling:

I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or as art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I will allow myself to use-silence, exile, and cunning.

Sean O’Casey’s position is more complex. The great playwright was originally an integral part of the Independence movement and in particular the fight for a socialist republic. He was responsible for writing the constitution of the Irish Citizen’s Army, the armed protection established by Jim Larkin following attacks on workers during the 1913 Lock-out. However he fell out with his comrades and sat out the rebellion. Bitterness and self regard seemed to eat away at his soul, which may have clouded his judgement on the events of 1916. But it wasn't until the early 1920s when O’Casey wrote his famous trilogy of Dublin Plays that his true feelings became clear. ‘Shadow of a Gunman’ and ‘Juno and the Paycock” deal with the civil war and its aftermath while the third, ‘The Plough and the Stars’ directly addresses the Easter Rising.

‘The Plough’ was premiered 10 years after the Rising but the rancour felt by O’Casey towards his former comrades does not appear to have diminished. The Irish Marxist and Connolly biographer, C. Desmond Greaves, suggests that O’Casey’s protagonist Jack Clitheroe only joins the rebellion out of vanity and because of what people might say if he didn’t. He argues that O’Casey deliberately set out to ‘present the Rising and the motives of those who took part in a poor light’. Student protesters to the play, led by Frank Ryan, a Republican IRA organiser who later distinguished himself in the fight against fascism in Spain, objected to the implication that the men of the Citizen Army were motivated by vanity and ambition.

The other big beast of Irish Letters, Bernard Shaw, was more critical of Irish Nationalism. For him the Rebellion was foolhardy. However, he was outraged by the indiscriminate murder of the leaders and campaigned to have the executions stopped. His anger was palpable in a revised preface to ‘John Bull’s Other Island’ written in 1929:

Having thus worked up a hare-brained romantic adventure into a heroic episode in the struggle for Irish Freedom the victorious artillerists proceeded to kill their prisoners of war in a drawn-out string of executions. Those who were executed accordingly became not only national heroes, but martyrs whose blood was the seed of the present Irish Free State. Among those who escaped was its first President. Nothing more blindly savage, stupid, and terror mad could have been devised by England’s worst enemies.

This very much reflects the sentiment in Pearse’s graveside oration at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa on 1st August 1915:

But the fools, the fools - they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.

One glaring omission in much of the history of 1916 is the lack of recognition for the many women who not only contributed to the armed struggle but also the cultural life of the time. Unforgivably, many important women have been lost from the story of the birth of the Irish Republic, mainly because the achievements of women were not recorded and future historians tended to examine major events from the perspective of the men involved.

This year’s commemorations have tried to address this, with some specific events dedicated to the hundreds of women who fought for, cared for, and wrote about the tragic rebellion. Current Irish President, Michael D. Higgins, writing in SIPTU’s centenary edition of ‘Liberty’ stressed the importance to the revolution of the fight for equality and emancipation:

As such, the emancipation of women was an integral part of the social transformation called for by the leaders of the Irish Citizen Army, such as Francis Sheehy Skeffington and James Connolly. The atmosphere of equality that prevailed between men and women in the ranks of the ICA reflected the vision held by many Irish and International socialists of the time, for who women’s emancipation was a pre-condition for any just society.

Many women had become radicalised during the 1913 lock-out and become active in trade unions. Connolly declared in 1914 that the oppression of women and the oppression of the workers by “a social and political order based on private ownership of property” were inseparable, and he recognised what was the double burden on women.

Women occupied many positions of influence in the fight for independence. Helena Maloney was an activist in the socialist and trade union movement since 1903 when she joined ‘Inghinidhe na hEireann’. She became editor of its feminist paper ‘Bean na hEireann’. She was also the General Secretary of the Irish Women’s Workers’ Union (IWWU) who won 2 weeks holiday for her members. In later years she became a founding member of Friends of Soviet Russia.

The cultural heart of the country was a significant part of her life. She was an acclaimed actress who prior to the rising played opposite Sean Connolly in ‘Memory of the Dead’ a play written by Casimir Markievicz, husband of Constance. Maloney was also an active combatant in the fight for Dublin castle.

CM easter FT5S Countess Markievicz

Other leading women who campaigned for Irish independence and were active over the Easter week were Dr Kathleen Lynn who championed the cause of women’s health and welfare, and acted as Medical Officer to the rebels during the fighting. Constance Markievicz was second-in-command of the battalion that occupied the Royal College of Surgeons. Following her arrest she was sentenced to death but later this was commuted to life in prison. Markievicz became the first woman elected to Westminster following the limited suffrage won in 1918. Other women playing a leading role in 1916 were Winifred Carney, leader of the Irish Textile workers’ Union and Secretary and aide de camp to James Connolly; and Madeline Ffrench-Mullen, who was an officer in the ICA and commanded a small band of volunteers at Stephen’s Green.

As Lucy McDiarmid explains in her book ‘At Home in the Revolution’ the women’s strength and determination were extraordinary. In response to the sound of the firing squads, women prisoners began dancing the intricate 16-hand reel. This act of solidarity was not only brave and defiant, but must have been hugely unnerving to their captors.

As well as her soldier’s role, Constance Markievicz was an actor, appearing in a number of plays at the Abbey alongside Maud Gonne the activist, actress and muse of W.B.Yeats. She was hugely influenced by James Connolly, whose death greatly affected her. Dedicating a poem in his honour she wrote:

You died for your country my hero love
In the first grey dawn of Spring
On your lips was a prayer to God above
That your death will have helped to bring
Freedom and peace to the land you love love love everything.

Her sister, Eve Gore-Booth, was a respected poet and author who shared Constance’s passion for Irish Nationalism. The women differed in that Eve, a pacifist, could not support the use of violence by the rebels, no matter how just their cause. But that didn't diminish her support for the aims of the revolt nor for its leaders. Shocked by the callous murders of the leadership, she wrote her beautiful, short and poignant poem ‘Comrades’ as a tribute to the bravery of those that gave everything for their country:

The peaceful night that round me flows,
Breaks through your iron prison doors,
Free through the world your spirit goes,
Forbidden hands are clasping yours.
The wind is our confederate,
The night has left her doors ajar,
We meet beyond earth’s barred gate,
Where all the world’s wild Rebels are.

It is a disgrace that Alice Milligan’s name has almost disappeared from the annals of great Irish writers. Milligan, an Ulster protestant, threw herself into the cause of Irish independence. She was a prolific writer, contributing essays and stories to over 70 journals. She also wrote numerous plays, novels and short stories. As a poet she wrote epic poems on the theme of ancient Irish folklore. In a 1914 edition of 'The Irish Review 'Thomas Macdonagh described her as 'the greatest living Irish poet'. During the Rising she dedicated herself to fighting for prisoners’ rights including the right to be granted political status. An anthology ‘Hero Lays’ contains some of her best poetic work, including ‘Owen Who Died, A ’67 Man’ in memory of the 1867 Rising:

Right off to the coast-line of Connacht
’Twas he carried word
To the boys who were waiting upon it,
Of how Ireland was stirred.
His hand set a beacon alight
To burn on by day and by night
Sudden his coming and flight-
He has gone like a bird.

CM easter 50036954 glimpsesoferin

The 1867 Rising stuttered into life with a few sporadic skirmishes across the country. Having been undermined by disorganisation and police spies, the revolt soon petered out. The interesting fact is that the Rising was launched with a Proclamation declaring an Irish Republic based on social justice and equality. 50 years later a very similar Proclamation announced the declaration of an Irish provisional government in 1916.

Since 1169 Ireland has been occupied first by the Normans then the English. In those 847 years, thousands of its people have died either in the cause of liberty or by the cruelty and neglect generated by the occupiers, resulting in mass expulsions from the land and devastating famine. The culture, language, and national identity has been through long periods of suppression but the spirit of the people has kept its rich cultural history alive.

Many historians and political commentators have discussed the merits of the Rising. Some argue that it was an unnecessary sacrifice as the political climate was moving towards Home Rule, and that eventually Ireland would have had a measure of Independence. But that is the point: the British solution was a form of devolution but falling short of total independence. It took the 1916 revolt to provide the impetus for total separation. Although today that dream is still not fully realised, there can be no doubt that the sacrifice of the volunteers in 1916 brought the Free State and Republic much closer.

As we celebrate the centenary of the momentous events 100 years ago, what is the Rising’s legacy? I suggest that the political and cultural legacies have developed in completely different ways. The revolution brought together idealists with very different views on the nature of a new Irish Nation. However, they were all agreed that it needed to be a nation built on social justice, equality and with an internationalist outlook. Cultural enrichment of the people was to be a cornerstone of any new constitution.

Unfortunately, after the civil war in 1922, the reactionary Catholic elite took control. An economically conservative Ireland under De Valera created an era of stagnation. De Valera’s staunch Catholicism allowed the Catholic Church to grab control of the country’s education system, and ensured the Church would have the final say on the moral values of the young nation. Despite this conservative and reactionary cloud hanging over the new State, the cultural development of Ireland continued to progress both internally and across the world. Notwithstanding the oppressive use of censorship by the Church and state, a rich vein of novelists, playwrights and poets continued to use their creative imagination to challenge, educate and develop a cultural pathway for today’s writers and artists.

There is an unbroken line from MacDonagh, Plunkett, Yeats and Joyce through to Brendan Behan, Elizabeth Bowen, Molly Keane, Eava Boland, Patrick Kavanagh, Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney, Edna O’Brien, Paula Meehan, Jennifer Johnson, Anne Enright, Sebastian Barry. And there are hundreds more whose creative beauty was born from their forebears’ terrible struggle.

Perhaps it is fitting to leave the last word to Ireland’s great modern poet, the late Seamus Heaney. Written in 1966 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of 1916, his poem “Requiem for the Croppies” uses the 1798 revolution as a metaphor for the legacy of the heroes of 1916 on a future Ireland:

Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon,
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August…the barley grew up out of our grave.
Culture is ordinary: the politics and letters of Raymond Williams
Wednesday, 25 May 2016 19:06

Culture is ordinary: the politics and letters of Raymond Williams

Written by

Derek Wall introduces the life and work of Raymond Williams, and presents a review of a recent book about his politics and writings.

Raymond Williams, born in Pandy in Monmouthshire in 1921, was a working class Welshman who became one of Britain's greatest socialist intellectuals. A grammar school boy he read English at Cambridge, became a professor and wrote a series of books on Marxism and culture. He sold 750,000 copies of books like Culture and Society, Keywords, The Long Revolution and Marxism and Literature. He has shaped the left we have today. Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood likes to quote Williams' description of what it means to be politically engaged on the left: 'To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing'.

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett gave the Raymond Williams Foundation lecture in 2015. Jeremy Corbyn also seems to sound a lot like Raymond Williams, with his desire for a democratic, ecological and deep seated socialism.

Williams is best known for his work on culture. He argued that culture is ordinary and not elite, calling for a democratic approach to the arts. His most important piece of writing is in fact entitled 'Culture is Ordinary' published in 1958, remains worth reading today in the 21st century. 'Culture is Ordinary' is part a critique of T.S.Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. The poet famous for both The Wasteland and the musical Cats was interested in how we understand this slippery word and its wide implications. Notes Towards the Definition of Culture has some strengths. Eliot sees culture as a wide and multiple concepts including both artistic achievement and a description of a whole way of life. His examples of British culture are rather charming ranging from cheese to sporting events:

Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.

However, Eliot pursues a right wing elitist perspective. He argues that culture can be high or low, that only a minority fully engage with high culture, that culture is essential to prevent social disintegration. Ultimately only a kind of cultural elite can preserve and maintain the culture necessary for a civilised society to exist.

Raymond Williams in contrast argues that although distinctions are possible, citing the excesses of the media which even before tabloids like the Sun was crude and prejudice, culture is not the preserve of a tiny minority. In 'Culture is Ordinary' Williams argues that, 'An interest in learning or the arts is simple, pleasant and natural.'

Williams further noted that by becoming a student at Cambridge he didn't lose the working class Welsh culture that he had been brought up with. However, he had come to look at culture using two sets of academic perspectives. At Cambridge he became a follow of two cultural prophets, Karl Marx and the literary critic F.R.Leavis. He attended Leavis' lectures and was deeply influenced by him.

Leavis taught that literature was important because of its moral effects and its impact on everyday life. Williams agreed with him that formal artistic culture, such as a novel or poem or song, rather than being separate object was influenced by and influenced wider social life. Williams concept of the 'structure of feelings' also seems inspired by Leavis. However, Leavis was a cultural pessimist and, like Eliot, an elitist. He feared that culture was debased by industrial society, and feared the effect of mass American culture.

Williams learnt a lot from the Cambridge Marxists, but also came to reject some of their cultural analyses. He noted that the Marxists taught him several things: 'First, they said that a culture must be finally intrepreted in relation to its underlying system of production.'

Thus culture was if not totally determined by production was however strongly influenced by economics. A capitalist society shapes us with a capitalist culture. Also, the Marxists argued that education and access to culture was restricted by social class. Williams noted that with his working class background he was keenly aware that access to education was restricted. However, Williams also thought that Cambridge Marxism was also – paradoxically - elitist. While class and capitalism shaped culture, he thought there was also an independent and potentially resistant working class culture. Workers did not simply absorb capitalist norms, but created their own meanings. Williams also saw the Marxism of the 1930s as too prescriptive and dogmatic.

Williams took from the Marxism of his student days an assumption that culture was bound up with economics and class. He developed the concept of cultural materialism, arguing that culture had a material effect. He also argued that Marxism can be prescriptive about any form of culture, and argued that as well as socialism requiring the collective ownership of production, it also need collective, rather than elite, ownership of the means of communication. Diversity and real democracy were necessary for a vibrant socialist culture. State ownership was not sufficient, and one group's perception of the meaning of culture would always be restrictive.

Towards the end of his life he argued that new electronic communication would transfer culture. Raymond Williams is an important thinker if we seek a socialist culture and we defend the idea that culture is ordinary by which he meant culture was for all of us not simply an elite. Those of us on the left should study is words with care: culture helps shape society, so we need to learn how to shape culture.

                                                                                                      

Book review of Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review,  by Raymond Williams, Verso, London, 2015.

Raymond Williams (1921-1988) was a self-described ‘Welsh European’, whose academic work as a literary theorist and activism, as variously a member of the Communist Party, Labour Party and Plaid Cymru, shaped the post-World War II British left. This recently reissued book provides a survey of Raymond Williams’ life and works. It is a novel and exciting project. Raymond Williams was interviewed about each of his most important books as well as his early biography and political essays. His opinions are subjected to detailed critique with a special attention from the interviewers on contradictions and silences in his work. This makes fascinating but often somewhat brutal reading.

Both the form and the content of this collection of interviews with the New Left Review (NLR) mark this as an important volume. Williams saw the book as a new and disturbing piece of literature. Three members of the NLR editorial board subjected Williams’ work to detailed scrutiny. Many of his major books and significant essays are examined. Such analysis was perhaps especially rigorous because the NLR editors knew his work in some detail, and believed his contributions were essential to the construction of Marxism in a UK context.

It is common to subject thinkers we disagree with to criticism, how much more painful but instructive to examine those with whom we sympathize with sharp analytical tools. Williams seems to have been plunged into personal crisis by taking part in the volume which, running to over 400 pages, took several months of interviews to complete. While this form may have been difficult for Williams, at times, it is an excellent overview of his work up until 1980 and provides a model for critical materialist scholarship. It would be good to see this form extend to other thinkers; it produces impressive results.

The contents, as well as the form, have considerable merit. A major intellectual figure from the 1950s to his death in 1988, Williams often seems forgotten, and even at his height of popularity seems to have been largely unnoticed outside the UK. There are a number of reasons why his considerable output remains important nearly thirty years after his death.

He challenged the Marxism that he encountered in the 1940s, as naïve, and embarked on a quest to make Marxist ideas both more sophisticated and accessible. While Britain is seen as distant from varied forms of Western Marxism some of the questions examined by thinkers as varied as Sartre, Althusser, Gramsci and the Frankfurt School were also addressed by Williams.

Equally, his experience as a working class socialist who gained access to an elite academic institution are instructive. He can be seen as a key thinker in the development of ecosocialism. His essay ‘Ecology and Socialism’ helped inspire socialists to embrace an ecological dimension in their politics and for greens to look to a socialist commitment in their environmental analysis.

The early chapters of the book, which are biographical, are perhaps the least challenging but most enjoyable. Raymond Williams discusses how he was born the son of a railway signalman in the Welsh border town of Pandy in Monmouth. He shone at grammar school. Without his knowledge, his headmaster and father successfully applied for him to read English at Cambridge. His father was an active member of the Labour Party and memories of the 1926 General Strike were strong in Williams’ community as he grew up. His left wing commitment deepened at Cambridge and he joined the Communist Party. He wrote Communist Party pamphlets with Eric Hobsbawm but drifted out of the party. During the Second World War he joined an anti-tank unit and fought in Normandy. His intellectual trajectory saw him developing theoretical insights from the literary critic F.R. Leavis as well as Marx and Engels.

The early chapters provide some of Williams' most charming and vibrant prose, but the remainder of the book is more instructive and, for Williams, often challenging. He was, for much of the postwar period, Britain's key left wing intellectual. He sold hundreds of thousands of books, which given their theoretical nature is impressive, and he appeared in numerous BBC television programmes.

His contention that 'culture is ordinary' was used to challenge elitist notions of culture, specifically T.S. Eliot’s notion that a kind of secular priesthood was needed to protect and promote culture. Williams engaged with Western Marxist approaches to literature and language, helping to introduce thinkers such as Gramsci, Althusser and Lucien Goldman to British audiences. His work helped promote the creation of a Marxist influenced form of cultural studies in the UK.

Raymond Williams is most important as a thinker who intervened and challenged both elite literary theory and the often simplistic and deterministic form of Marxism that dominated in the 1940s and 1950s. The suggestion in Politics and Letters is that, despite this, he was not always a rigorous and consistent theorist.

His first major work Culture and Society, published in 1958, is treated to extensive discussion in Politics and Letters. As far as I can tell Culture and Society argues that culture, rather than being ‘organic’ and fixed, is a product of social change. Williams describes the output of a number of key English commentators on culture from around 18th century onwards with an emphasis on the influence of the industrial revolution. Williams moves from Burke via William Blake to Carlyle and Arnold on to the interesting Marxist literary theorist Christopher Caudwell.

The barrage begins. Williams’ interviewers argued that he provides too little criticism of right wing thinkers under examination such as Edmund Burke, who was motivated by antipathy to the French Revolution. They also hint that Williams is too Anglocentric in the book, even failing to discuss the contribution of Marx and Engels who, of course, lived in exile in Britain during the period under study.

The interviews continue with Williams defending his political engagement during the writing of the book and agreeing with some of the critical points made by the NLR editors. He notes defensively but rather pleasingly that: ‘You have to remember that I read my own books too, and that in a competition for critical readers. I shall at least be in the final list.’ (106).

This dialogue is reflected through much of the remainder of Politics and Letters. Williams often seems better on intervention than sustained analysis, which is surely a strength. For example, despite the supposed weaknesses of Culture and Society, it was a largely successful intervention that challenged the notion of an elite culture. From his early employment with the Workers Education Association to his broadcasts with the BBC, Williams promoted an approach to culture that sought to build diversity and democracy.

I also feel that, while there is a small Raymond Williams industry, his approach can be seen as a contribution to a wider network of scholarship. On the left when we speak of a particular thinker, say Marx or Brecht, we import a form of methodological individualism. But intellectual production is a collective endeavour with key thinkers acting perhaps as nodes rather than unique originators. Perhaps one of Williams’ most important contributions to challenging this notion of an individual intellectual was his book Keywords, where he introduces a method that promotes a collective endeavour to research and understand, moving us beyond an author alone.

In Keywords Williams showed that words, rather than having an essential meaning, are subject to often dramatic change. One is reminded of the Russian theorist Bakhtin’s notion that the class struggle extends to the interpretation of individual words and that meaning is dialogic and polysemic. The interviewers in Politics and Letters, of course, take a sharp line, looking at contradictions and silences in Keywords. However, they acknowledge Keywords as a vital contribution, noting:

The intellectual effect of the kind of work initiated by Keywords could be regarded as akin to that of the Marxist critique of political economy – the demonstration that ideas and categories which are deemed universal and timeless are in fact eminently changeable and timebound. […] Your strategy in Keywords is to register the changes of meaning across a whole vocabulary very pointedly indeed.

Amongst Williams’ numerous works, The City and the Country is a key text for those of us on the ecosocialist left. In it, Williams develops his ideas about nature and culture, making way for his green political orientation in his essay 'Ecology and Socialism’. The City and the Country shows that ideas of nature and environment often fail to reflect the social construction of ecological concepts and issues.

The last section of the book deals with Williams’ political essays. These could be seen as marking a successful hegemonic project, a new left thinking that has become, at least in the UK, a left common sense, to some extent. Williams dominates political discourse on the left even though his name may be forgotten. The socialist and feminist leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood, quotes Williams. The current leader of the Green Party of England and Wales gave an annual Raymond Williams Foundation lecture in 2015. The Communist Party of Britain seems closer to Raymond Williams’ approach, with formulations that link culture to class politics. This website, Culture Matters, seems also to be very much in the Williams mould. I have no idea if the new and most left-wing leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, reads Williams, but he often sounds as if he does.

Williams seems to reject both a mechanistic Marxist politics that rejects culture, and culturalist politics that forgets class and economics. While the English Marxist historian E.P.Thompson critiqued Williams’ work as being too culturalist, Williams, towards the end of his life, defined himself once again as a Marxist. Williams also puts emphasis on a democratic and participatory form of left politics. Williams was, as noted, a keen early advocate of an ecological dimension to socialism.

During the 1980s the Communist Party of Great Britain was torn apart by a conflict between Eurocommunists and more traditional members, with the Party eventually dissolving in 1991. Supporters of the Morning Star newspaper then relaunched the present Communist Party of Britain. The Communist Party has had a strong intellectual influence on the wider UK left.

Williams was not a participant in the conflict within the CPGB in the 1980s, having left the Party during the Second World War. However, his work provides an insight into the conflict. Like the Eurocommunists, Raymond Williams stressed the need to engage with culture and new social movements, although he was keen that such engagements did not replace working class solidarity and activism.

In summary, this pioneering book shows that his thinking was neither consistently rigorous or original, but that he helped challenge both a particular form of rigid Marxism and an elitist approach to culture. In doing so he opened up ideological space for the British left in 2016, which in its diversity notes both class politics and ecology as well as the importance of structural change in ownership, and includes debates around identity and intersectionality. Raymond Williams contributed to some vital changes in the left political landscape in Wales and England, and we can still gain from close study of his words.

Part Two of this article is an edited version of a review first published in Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, www.marxandphilosophy.org.uk.

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