Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (47)

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.

The cultural commons belongs to all of us
Monday, 30 January 2017 16:40

The cultural commons belongs to all of us

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Chris Guiton analyses and discusses the importance of the concept of the cultural commons.

In the 21st century we are witnessing the rapid encroachment by capitalism on what is often referred to as the ‘cultural commons’. These are the shared resources in the cultural sphere which belong to all of us rather than a wealthy or privileged minority. This goes beyond specific works of art to the broader cultural sphere identified by Raymond Williams, the Marxist writer and academic, as our “whole way of life - the common meanings…the arts and learning – the special processes of discovery and creative effort” (Moving from High Culture to Ordinary Culture). For Williams, “culture is ordinary”. It is not the preserve of a cultural elite, but a democratic right for everyone.

In recent decades, however, the cultural hegemony of neoliberal capitalism has expanded and deepened its economic, political and intellectual control over us. In Britain, this process has been sharpened by the deployment of the 2008 recession to justify austerity policies designed to erode public services, cut wages and deepen inequality. These policies are not only having an unequal, and adverse, economic effect on the less well-off and working people generally, they are having an unequal effect on arts and cultural provision. The consequence of this process is a poorer public realm, stunted human development and the diminution of the common good.

At Culture Matters we want to help defend and enhance the cultural commons and make as much art and culture available, as cheaply as possible, to as many ordinary working people as possible.
But let’s take a bit of time to look at how the concept of the ‘commons’ evolved and what it offers to us today. Early humanity lived in a state of primitive communism, characterised by shared ownership of all but a limited number of individual possessions. Art, music and story- telling in primitive communist times were almost certainly public, shared activities, which had the effect of developing and maintaining a sense of social solidarity.

With the development of class society, first slave society, followed by feudalism and then capitalism, came the appearance of private property based on an increasingly systematic appropriation of the means of production. The term ‘commons’ developed as a way of referring to those natural resources – for example, land and water – where people in class-based societies either have common rights to access and use those resources or where the land is communally owned and controlled rather than held in private ownership. The rights were available to defined groups of people in a particular community, under commonly understood arrangements that reflected customary use. As such, they reflected the society they were located within and its material conditions at a given historical point.

The experience of a tenant in 14th century feudal England would be rather different from that of a herder in the Mongolian grasslands in the 16th century or a Maine lobster fisherman in the 19th century. Many readers will be familiar with the feudal system that applied in England. Commons arrangements, including things like grazing rights, fishing rights and the right to collect firewood, developed to allow tenants access to manorial lands to help meet their reproductive needs. While this provided people with access to much-needed resources, it existed within the framework of a rigidly hierarchical society. A society’s structure clearly limits the benefits of common-pool property rights. In addition, these rights are often based on closed groups which themselves limit access. But what they demonstrate is both the opportunities and the constraints offered by the commons concept as an inherently political perspective, subject to historical processes as well as providing oppositional space to create new ways of living.

The economic pressures faced by the commons were exemplified by the enclosures that took place in England, as feudalism was replaced by first nascent then more assertive capitalism. These started to rise dramatically in the Tudor period as open-field, arable land was fenced off and converted to pastureland for sheep grazing by the landowners as they sought to increase the profits that could be derived from the rapid growth in the cloth trade. This inevitably meant the loss of common rights, created significant unemployment and led to the displacement of now impoverished rural labourers. This resulted in considerable social unrest, riots and a series of revolts across the country, typified by Kett's Rebellion in 1549, as the rural populace fought back and sought to restore the stability of the traditional commons system.

Cultural commons

The process of enclosure was given a significant boost in the 18th and 19th centuries as Parliament, via a series of Inclosure Acts, enforced consolidation of strips in the open field system into larger, unitary landholdings. Commons rights were extinguished, much of the remaining pasture commons lost and people who had previously subsisted on the land became part of the new, rapidly growing urban proletariat. By the early 19th century, the medieval peasant community had been virtually destroyed. As E. P. Thompson noted in The Making of the English Working Class, “Enclosure (when all the sophistications are allowed for) was a plain enough case of class robbery.”

But what are the implications of all this for us now? The late 20th and early 21st centuries are providing multiple examples of the very modern forms that enclosure takes today. It is seen to worrying effect, for example, in the corporate encroachment on the internet commons.

The internet was originally based on an open architecture system of communication, publicly available to all, developed over a period of years by collaboration and information sharing amongst scientists and engineers, and, crucially, developed with government support for the significant public investment required to make it happen. It offered an open forum for ideas and allowed innovation to flourish. But since its launch, it has fallen prey to a corporate ‘landgrab’ as the major computer software and services corporations sought to replace open technical standards for the web with closed, proprietary standards for browsers and operating systems, securing huge profits in the process. In the meantime, online media corporations have asserted virtual monopoly control over TV and high speed internet access, as they have grown, and merged, and fight to limit subscribers to their own services.

In the United States, this process has inevitably been accompanied by a decline in public interest broadcasting as time allotted to public affairs and local programming has declined, and opportunities for political bias in programming and advertising have increased. This is reflected in the UK which has seen a significant drop in recent years in spending on news, current affairs and children's television. The original BBC mandate to "inform, educate and entertain", whatever its original limitations given the elitism and authoritarianism implicit in its approach to mass education (and the fascist sympathies of its first Director-General, John Reith), looks increasingly fragile as commercial funding structures are introduced or threatened, overt political interference grows and pressure increases from commercial rivals.

The detrimental impact of corporate moves to control previously accessible resources is also seen very clearly in the intellectual property rights and copyright field covering literature, film and music, where the law is steadily being extended in duration and scope. Originally intended to balance the creators’ rights to control their artistic outputs with the public right to access once the copyright term had expired, we are now witnessing a surge in efforts by major corporations to protect and monetise ‘their’ property. These efforts focus on the supposed originality of an artistic creation while neglecting its foundation in general culture, a common property of all of us, from which it was derived.

snow white

An obvious example here is Disney’s success in securing a trademark for the name ‘Snow White’, from a story first published by the Brothers Grimm but based on a much older folk tale. The trademark covers all live and recorded movie, television, radio, stage, computer, internet, news, and photographic entertainment uses, except literature works of fiction and nonfiction. So, while even Disney understand that extending their ownership to literature would be a step too far, they clearly see no problem with asserting a broad-based proprietary ownership of a name considerably older than them – and in doing this are backed by the law.

Copyright provisions have been steadily extended over time and, in the UK, now stand at ‘life plus 70 years’ for most works (in the United States it was recently extended to 95 years from publication date as a result of extensive corporate lobbying). Unsurprisingly, the beneficiaries are usually not the authors, long since departed from this world, but the corporations who often own the copyright.

There is a fundamental contradiction between the enabling power of new internet-based technologies, creating the potential for a publicly available archive of all the art and culture ever produced and distributed publicly, and the application of an increasingly restrictive copyright law which seeks to control and monetise ‘creative property’, and which acts as a barrier to free expression.

Lawrence Lessig, a American professor of law, has written extensively on the subject, demonstrating how cultural monopolists seek to shrink the public domain of ideas, with the big media and technology corporations using technology and the digitisation of culture to control people’s access to it and what can we do with it. As he puts it in his book Free Culture:

We live in a “cut and paste” culture enabled by technology…Using the Internet and its archives, musicians are able to string together mixes of sound never before imagined; filmmakers are able to build movies out of clips on computers around the world. An extraordinary site in Sweden takes images of politicians and blends them with music to create biting political commentary…All of these creations are technically illegal. Even if the creators wanted to be “legal,” the cost of complying with the law is impossibly high. Therefore, for the law-abiding sorts, a wealth of creativity is never made. And for that part that is made, if it doesn’t follow the clearance rules, it doesn’t get released.

This is a sad but inevitable consequence of the turbo-charged capitalism that dominates the world today and which seeks to commodify everything it can, including culture.

Another field in which the theft of the cultural commons is very visible is sport. Sports such as football provide entertainment and emotional engagement for millions of people. But the steady commodification of such sports is plumbing new depths. Grossly inflated player wages and transfer fees; increasingly unaffordable ticket prices; the increased role of advertising and sponsorship; the money earned by the Premier League through selling airtime (linked to the formation of the Premier League itself); the growth of merchandising; and top clubs’ preference for buying players on the international transfer market rather than nurturing home-grown talent are all contributing to the degradation of the sport itself as a game played for reasons other than the pursuit of profit.
The result is a poorer experience for the consumer as the quality of the game declines, particularly at a national level, barriers grow for aspiring players, and a ‘winner takes all’ culture develops for the top players and the enrichment of a small group of clubs and their (often billionaire) owners.

The same processes are happening in all fields of culture, very obviously in the visual arts, which are scarred by elitism and commodification. Works by major artists, promoted by a self-serving network of art dealers engaged in what is effectively price-fixing, sell for astronomical sums to the super-rich, unable to think of anything socially useful to spend their ill-gotten gains on. They then often disappear from public view but are used as a mechanism to demonstrate the distance between the financial and social elite and ordinary people. The artwork may have little genuine artistic merit but this is almost irrelevant as self-referential emptiness and banality replaces any effort to mirror and interrogate the world around us. This bizarre process has reached its apogee in the work of Damien Hirst, where his brand identity has become the commodity, supplanting the artwork itself.

How have political parties in Britain reacted to this process? In his recent book Cultural Capital, Robert Hewison offered a well-pitched critique of culture policy under New Labour. He describes how a significant increase in funding for art and cultures was accompanied by the marketization and monetisation of culture. Funding became contingent on alignment with Government policy objectives, target-driven and reduced to a short-sighted instrumentalism. This led to the disastrous decision to build the much-mocked Millenium Dome. Since then, of course, in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, funding has been significantly reduced by successive governments. Crucially, Hewison notes that the New Labour objective of widening social access to the arts did not succeed. Audience levels barely increased at all. And the demographic make-up of those regularly enjoying the arts remained largely white, better educated and elderly.

The limited access that most working class people have to art and culture is a real issue for anyone interested in the struggle for a fairer, more just society. Enjoyment of the arts and cultural activities, as both producer and consumer, is an essential part of the ‘social wage’ for all workers. By social wage, we mean the amenities and services provided within a society from public funds. All members of society are as entitled to fair, equal and adequate ‘terms and conditions’ for culture as they are for their labour. Promoting recognition and understanding in the labour movement of the central contribution made by the struggle for a better ‘cultural commons’ to the quality of life of everyone is a core objective of Culture Matters.

Elinor Ostrom, the American political economist, has done a lot of valuable work on the role of the commons in providing an alternative to market economics and government intervention. She defined it as a general concept that refers to a resource shared by a group of people, built on principles of self-governance, community and local action. David Bollier, a noted writer and activist in this field, has identified the scope for the commons concept to provide “a new paradigm of economics, politics and culture.” He defines the commons as:

A social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity. It is a self-organized system by which communities manage resources (both depletable and replenishable) with minimal or no reliance on the Market or State. The wealth that we inherit or create together and must pass on, undiminished or enhanced, to our children. Our collective wealth includes the gifts of nature, civic infrastructure, cultural works and traditions, and knowledge.

He goes on to say that,

There is no commons without commoning – the social practices and norms for managing a resource for collective benefit. Forms of commoning naturally vary from one commons to another because humanity itself is so varied. And so there is no “standard template” for commons; merely “fractal affinities” or shared patterns and principles among commons. The commons must be understood, then, as a verb as much as a noun. A commons must be animated by bottom-up participation, personal responsibility, transparency and self-policing accountability.

This relates directly to our aspirations at Culture Matters to provide a broad-based platform which arts and culture producers and consumers can use for their benefit, sharing knowledge, ideas and resources, and creating an open – and oppositional - space which challenges the dispossession and commodification of our cultural resources. Which reclaims these resources for us all, and facilitates opportunities for collaborative artistic and cultural expression.

sandinista the clash

Encouragingly, there are always people ready to fight back and demonstrate the essentially social nature of culture. Think of performance poetry delivered in pubs, cafes and at festivals around the country rather than unnecessarily obscure poetry produced for the page and for the edification of a small elite readership. Think of the visceral power of punk rock as an anti-authoritarian rejection of mainstream music and stadium rock. Or the impact of FC United of Manchester, a club established and owned by its fans, which deliberately sets out to build strong links with the local community and democratise access.

What links these cultural expressions, consciously or unconsciously, is the legitimate desire people have to do things for themselves, make culture real, work within their communities and challenge the status quo. As we know, capitalism is very good at co-opting dissent, by turning radical images and ideas into marketable commodities. But this is all the more reason to develop a counter-culture which, as Antonio Gramsci described in his Prison Notebooks, seeks to create a new hegemony, presenting new ideas and new forces which challenge and disrupt capitalism’s dominant definition of what is ‘normal’ and ‘legitimate’.

We aim to develop Culture Matters as a countervailing force to the profit-centred, neo-liberal, market paradigm that developed under capitalism, challenging assumptions, articulating new visions and encouraging and promoting oppositional cultural perspectives and activities. This means identifying new ways of working and new structures that cut across traditional boundaries and, in effect, helps create a socialist and progressive cultural ecosystem, which develops new networks and new inter-actions between people. Let’s join William Morris, who declared in Art, Wealth and Riches:

All who assert public rights against private greed are helping us; every foil given to common-stealers, or railway-Philistines, or smoke-nuisance-breeders, is a victory scored to us.

Bread, roses and the cultural commons
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 30 January 2017 15:24

Bread, roses and the cultural commons

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‘The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too’ said the aptly named Rose Schneiderman early in the last century. She was right, we all need bread – fair material rewards for our labour – but we also need roses. We need a popular and extensive cultural commons, including free or cheap access to cultural activities, to develop and enjoy our essentially social natures.

The Culture Matters website aims to contribute to the cultural struggle, what Blake called the ‘mental fight’ for a new Jerusalem, for a more democratic and socialist society. The struggle will be long and hard. Over time, capitalism has penetrated our culture more and more. And culture, as Raymond Williams pointed out, is not just highbrow art but consists of all our ideas, values, beliefs and customs, including all the arts but also sport, religion, eating and drinking, watching TV, etc.

It’s true that capitalism’s dynamism and innovation has helped create a massive expansion in opportunities for cultural education and enjoyment. Think of the number of TV and radio channels, books, art galleries, films, music festivals, and sports facilities there are these days. But there is also a relentless drive for profit in capitalism. Every human activity, including art and cultural activity, has to be measured by its contribution to profitability. It is also fundamentally exploitative, as demonstrated in the famous passage of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, where the Great Money Trick is explained. This transfer of value from workers to owners is divisive and unjust, so in order to lessen social conflict there has to be an ideological drive to generate a culture of submission and acceptance of exploitation.

Capitalism shapes culture, and culture expresses capitalism, in many different ways. It’s why sport is so commercialised and corrupt, why so much organised religion is so uncritical of exploitation and injustice, why we have TV programmes like The Apprentice glorifying selfishness and ruthless competitiveness, and why the supermarkets encourage a culture of overconsumption of food and drink.

And it’s why we have a huge and long-term problem of unequal funding by the state for the arts in Britain today. The inequalities are of staggering, Dickensian proportions. Vast swathes of the arts and cultural activities are virtually impossible for most ordinary people – particularly poorer people – to access and enjoy, for reasons linked to social class, geography and education.

On top of these structural problems, we’re suffering massive cutbacks to support for arts and cultural activities across the country, particularly outside London and the South East. These are happening through cuts in funding, directly and through cuts in general support for local authorities – particularly in poorer areas. Critical and creative engagement with the arts is also being shunted out of the educational curriculum.

Culture Matters seeks to expose the Great Culture Trick, the shocking inequalities in the way the arts and cultural activities are currently funded and managed. It will also campaign for more progressive policies. Because we know that the arts and cultural activities can resist, oppose and help overcome alienation and oppression. They can increase awareness, arouse indignation, and imagine alternatives. Robert Tressell’s novel is a good example of that potential. But it’s also there in sports clubs, churches, supermarkets and pubs, as well as in art galleries, concert halls and poetry readings.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which triggered one of the most significant, popular artistic and cultural explosions of the twentieth century. Let’s make 2017 the year of campaigning for bread and roses.

If you think you can help with relevant material for this section of the website, please write to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This is an edited version of an article first published in the Morning Star.

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

Consume and create: the cultural policy of the Cuban Revolution
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).

Tuesday, 11 October 2016 14:41

Defending the freedom of artists

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Andrew Warburton continues his series on art and cultural policy by interviewing Theresa Easton and Pam Foley at Artists’ Union England, the union for visual and applied artists.

Artists’ Union England is a fairly new trade union, launched on May Day 2014, representing visual and applied artists individually in the workplace and collectively at “strategic decision-making events,” according to its website. It received its Certificate of Independence earlier this year, has over 600 members and recommends fair rates of pay for new graduates and more experienced artists. The union was established to address the representational needs of artists who work as sole traders, are often self-employed and who find it difficult to make their voices heard.

Placing the art of the people at the heart of our public life
Wednesday, 05 October 2016 14:36

Placing the art of the people at the heart of our public life

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Andrew Warburton continues his series on arts policy by interviewing Dr. Ben Walmsley, professor of audience engagement at Leeds University.

Socialist policies for arts and culture are not created in an ideological vacuum. Rather than thinking we must devise policies that reflect our ideology perfectly and then impose those policies on the world, the seeds of a socialist approach to art can be found in the here and now. If we are to identify those seeds and elucidate ways to draw them out, we require a grasp of the present state of things, and a clear understanding of the way the arts should be developed for the collective good and for the working class.

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?’
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