Andrew Warburton continues his series on arts policy by interviewing Dr. Ben Walmsley, professor of audience engagement at Leeds University.
Cultural Commentary (67)
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?’
With six years of Tory austerity behind us, Brexit on the horizon and the left-wing reorientation of the Labour Party ongoing, Culture Matters is starting a debate about the possible arts and cultural policies of a future socialist government. As part of this initiative, we will be interviewing representatives of organizations on the left – political parties, trade unions, arts organisations etc. We want to gather their views on art and culture, their analysis of the way things are at the moment, and what the way forward might look like.
Andrew Warburton starts us off with an introduction to the topic and a brief description of the state of play at the moment.
After years of reduced funding to the Arts Council of Great Britain in the late 70s, 80s and early 90s, the last Labour government presided, comparatively, over a golden age for the arts. It was not without its failures (including the much-derided Millennium Dome), but Labour’s achievements during those 13 years included the ending of museum admission fees, the opening of the Tate Modern and a heavy increase in funding to the Arts Council from £179 million in 1998 to £453 million in 2009.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thangam Debbonaire, Shadow Minister for media, culture and sport and MP for Bristol West, recently gave the following interview about arts policies to Culture Matters and the Morning Star.
Q. Unlike some other previous occupants of your position, you’ve had direct experience in the arts, particularly music. How did that come about and how does it influence your outlook?
I was brought up surrounded by classical music. My maternal grandfather was on the car assembly line in Cowley, Oxford — his wife was a part-time nurse — and my paternal grandfather was an engineer in India. They’d both been exposed to classical music at a young age, by their parents among other people. My mother and father were both lucky enough to find their ways to excellent piano teaching and met at the Royal Academy of Music.
That was back in the days when students still got grants and scholarships and young working-class people could afford to get through college with the help of a bit of extra work.
This has taught me that no art form should ever be thought of as inherently and only ever for one class. Classical music was the balm of the working class a couple of centuries ago, when cheap tickets to Mozart operas and memorable tunes meant a labourer was just as likely to hum an aria on their way home from a night out as the landed gentry. The difference was that the upper classes had better seats.
Such socialist values inform my approach to the arts and culture. I don’t want working people to be excluded from appreciating or working in any of the things that can make life good and rich and enjoyable. That includes opera, ballet and classical music. The most immediate way art and culture influence my politics is that I want the enjoyment, fulfilment and inspiration I get from the arts and culture to be shared by the many, not restricted to the few. Classical music has always been in my life and particularly recently I needed the joy and calm it brings me — I’ve grown to love Beethoven symphonies at last, I love music for string quartets of all eras and in the last year I have been studying the work of Shostakovitch.
This again informs my politics — Shostakovitch suffered under Stalin and his perceived failure to honour what the latter had decided was good for “the people” caused him to be effectively barred from working and risk imprisonment or death. Eventually Stalin changed his mind about Shostakovitch’s music and the past was suddenly wiped away from official policy.
This should be a lesson for us all — dictating to people in the arts how to do their job is not the role of politicians.
As a former professional classical musician, with a strong interest in the opera and the theatre, the terms and conditions of musicians and actors — and everyone in the arts — matter to me.
Everyone thinks of the better-paid, celebrity musicians and actors but the vast majority are on very low wages or uncertain job conditions, often a life-time of what feels like zero-hours contracts, supplemented by casual part-time work.
Musicians have to train for years and practice or rehearse for hours every day to be any good and that sort of craft deserves to be recognised in pay and conditions.
Similarly, actors have to work their craft and be willing to travel and leave family life for weeks on end and this has to be recognised. I will continue to listen to Equity and the Musicians’ Union on how the Tory government is affecting rank-and-file musicians and actors.
During my campaign to be elected I was proud to be supported by my own unions, the Communication Workers Union and Unison, as well as my former union the Musicians Union. They believed in me and I value their support hugely. The Labour Party has its roots in the trade union movement and I will always honour that.
Q. Evidence suggests there’s a disproportionate amount of government money spent on art for the privilged minority. What’s your view on that?
The Tories are satisfied to leave the pleasures of some art forms to the better-off and that’s the key difference on all policy matters between Labour and them. We want the essentials and the good things in life to be enjoyed by the many, not the few, whether that be safe and affordable housing or a ticket to the opera.
The Tory and coalition governments brought about a reversal of the achievements of the last Labour government which, from 1997 to 2010, made significant progress towards democratising access to all art forms.
Really good outreach should be a condition of public funding. The Arts Council agrees that public funding should help with the fullest possible democratisation of the arts and that’s why its policy document is called Achieving Great Art for All and its funding is conditional on outreach. I would like that outreach to go further and I will be exploring how this would work under a Labour government with my colleagues and arts practitioners.
Recently I went to an open rehearsal in Bristol for the National Children’s Orchestra under-13s in Bristol’s Colston Hall. The orchestra is ethnically diverse and I also noticed that instruments traditionally dominated by men in professional orchestras were very gender-mixed.
When I was in local and national youth orchestras in the 1980s, we were in the dying days of the peripatetic music teaching system whereby children in most local authorities could learn the instrument of their choice and be given one on loan, for free, from good quality teachers in their schools. Saturday morning orchestras and bands supplemented this — again, all free.
This was something which flourished under Labour governments in the 1960s and 1970s and was cut to ribbons by Tory administrations from 1979-1997. And here we are again — funding which increased under the 1997-2010 government for arts and culture for young people has been cut once more.
During that period, Labour governments supported many arts programmes to increase effective outreach, providing free tickets to school children from low-income areas and introduced the Creative Partnerships Initiative which brought the arts to the children in their schools and in incredibly imaginative ways which made a lasting impact on those children and young people.
Local authorities are doing their best. But the pay, terms and conditions for specialist music, dance and drama teachers is often now so poor that they are leaving the profession.
Q. What do you think about the difficulties faced by minority ethnic groups in the cultural industries?
The removal of arts from our education system is a tragedy. It reinforces the exclusion of the working class, including young people from minority ethnic groups, from the arts as employees and consumers. It needs addressing and that’s one of the things I will be working on with my colleagues in the shadow education team.
There needs to be more people from minority ethnic groups and disabled people on boards of trustees of arts and culture organisations and for principles of diversity to be more embedded.
Organisations need to look and feel like places that people from minority ethnic groups and disabled people can be comfortable and inspired in, not alienated by.
There is a need to help arts organisations to reflect diversity in everything they do and I know the Arts Council is working on this. But this has to be balanced with the fact that Tory policies are also doing their damage.
Q. Apart from education and outreach, should the arts be subsidised?
Yes — take the cinema, which rarely requires direct subsidy as it can stimulate larger audiences and profit. But, again during the Labour 1997-2010 government, support for Channel 4 and tax subsidies for film production meant that the proportion of British GDP from film production multiplied. That brought more jobs — technical as well as creative — to Britain and working-class people.
That’s what subsidies for the whole range of the arts and culture forms can do, democratise access to participation and employment in all those industries.
As socialists, we should all be in favour of that. The taxpayer gets a great return on that investment. Subsidies for the arts generate jobs inside and outside the sector, with an economic multiplier factor that helps boost economic growth and good jobs in the area where the subsidy is spent.
Q. What should be done about the different levels of arts provision between the north and south in England?
That disparity concerns me hugely. Part of my role will be to work on this with colleagues in the arts and culture industries and with people across the country to work out how we can remove this barrier to consumption and enjoyment.
There have been significant Labour achievements to balance this out. The Labour Gateshead council, supported by the Labour government, invested in world-class venues the Baltic art gallery, the Sage music and conference venue and a massive piece of public art, the Angel of the North statue by Anthony Gormley.
All attract pride from, and create jobs for, locals and stimulate tourism from around the world to one of the poorest regions in the country. Labour did a brilliant job of recognising that investing in arts and culture across the board increases the sum of human happiness, democratises access to employment and enjoyment and also helps with urban regeneration, as it did in Gateshead and Liverpool, to name just two of our northern cities.
Add to that the Creative Partnerships programme and good outreach by arts organisations and you have something that was really working to help spread the reach of all art forms to all people.
One reason for the funding disparity is that so many of our national arts institutions are based in London. Of course, we outside London can go and visit them and often do. But many cannot afford to, or would not know how to access them. Even so, many national companies bring their work to the regions through touring and live cinecasts and the last Labour government supported the development of more national iconic cultural institutions around the country, such as the various Tate galleries in Cornwall and Liverpool.
Q. Working-class people are finding it increasingly difficult to get into the arts as a career and, due to spending cuts and the sheer cost, to enjoy the arts as consumers. What should be done about that?
The tragedy is that we have now gone into reverse to what Labour were doing. A Tory government prefers the patronage approach, whereby funds are increasingly drawn from private donations or trusts, with much less public accountability and often severe cuts to access and employment.
Young working-class people find it much harder to get a job in today’s arts and culture sector thanks to the decrease in support for apprenticeships, education and outreach. By contrast, current Labour policy development is as always informed by our socialist principles. Excellent art should be for everyone. This was reinforced from 1997 to 2010, with free entrance to museums, theatre, opera and concerts for young people. And there was the wonderful Creative Partnerships programme which helped bring arts and culture to children in schools.
Q. What developments in Labour Party policies might we expect from the new leadership and shadow cabinet?
I’m going to to help develop our arts and culture policy in collaboration with workers in the sector and Labour members and councillors across the country, as well as the performing arts unions. I’ll be holding a series of events nationally to bring the key people together to help answer the question: “How can we make Britain a place where excellent arts and culture is truly accessible to all? How do we in Labour support the arts to do what they do best, without dictating how they do it?”
By accessible, I mean for the full range, including disability and learning disability as well as race, gender, age, sexuality and class. I also mean access to creative careers as well as enjoyment. My biggest priority for policy development will always be education, education, education. Everything starts there. The audiences, as well as the performers, producers, directors and technicians of the future, are all currently at school. They need to be exposed to and be able to take part in art and culture of the highest order and of the greatest range. Arts and culture should feel like something all children and young people feel is for them, not just for other people.
Roland Boer continues his series of article on Marxism and religion, with an examination of the relationship of Marx and Engels to the Theological Young Hegelians: Strauss, Feuerbach, Bauer and Stirner.
In order to develop their own system of thought, Marx and Engels had to distinguish themselves from the overwhelming theological frame in which German thought operated in the 1830s and 1840s. This framework was embodied above all in the work of the Young Hegelians, especially Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer and Max Stirner. Let me say a little more about these crucial engagements.
Ludwig Feuerbach’s Projections
Alongside David Friedrich Strauss’s controversial Life of Jesus (1839), Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity from 1841 was one of the most significant texts of the time. Marx saw the idea that religion and the gods were projections of human beings as a huge breakthrough. He used and extended what may be called the ‘Feuerbachian inversion’ at a number of points in his own work. Feuerbach’s idea is an inversion since it argues that previous thought about religion began at the wrong point, namely in the middle. God was not a pre-existing being who determined human existence; rather, human beings determine God’s existence, whom they then assume to be all-powerful over human beings.
Marx took up this argument and claimed that it marked the end of the criticism of religion: ‘For Germany the criticism of religion is in the main complete, and criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism’. He went on to suggest that the first great phase of criticism – the criticism of religion – began with Luther and ended with Feuerbach. The next revolutionary phase began after Feuerbach and Marx saw himself as part of this new phase.
For Marx, Feuerbach was the last word on religion. Statements such as the following are pure Feuerbach:
Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality.
However, Marx also wanted to go beyond Feuerbach on two counts. First, since human beings project religion from within themselves, the place to begin analysis is not in the heavens, but here on earth with flesh-and-blood people. Second, the fact that people do make such projections was a signal that something was wrong here on earth. If people placed their hopes and dreams elsewhere, then that meant they could not be realized here and now. So the presence of religion becomes a sign of alienation, of economic and social oppression. That needs to be fixed. We find this theme very strongly in the famous Theses on Feuerbach, especially the fourth and eleventh theses:
Feuerbach starts out from the fact of religious self-estrangement, of the duplication of the world into a religious world and a secular one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. But that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must, therefore, itself be both understood in its contradiction and revolutionised in practice. Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must then itself be destroyed in theory and in practice.
The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.
Marx would go on to use the ‘Feuerbachian inversion’ in a number of ways, not least to argue that Hegel’s position on the state was exactly the same as theology: it began with abstracted ideas such as state, sovereignty, constitution and tried to make human beings fit. Much later on, in 1886, Engels filled this picture out in his lucid prose and showed why Feuerbach was so important for the development of historical materialism.
Bruno Bauer’s A-Theology
Given Feuerbach’s importance, it is not for nothing that the first section of The German Ideology should be devoted to his work. But there is also a section given over to Bruno Bauer. After the joint work of The German Ideology, Marx would come back to Bauer in a number of writings, initially to defend him but then later to attack him mercilessly. Why? The basic reason was that Bauer had achieved a radical republican and democratic position through his biblical criticism and theology. Marx in particular was thoroughly opposed to such a possibility: theology dealt with heaven and was not concerned with earth – that was the task of the new historical materialism.
For Marx, Bauer was far too much under the influence of Hegel’s idealist method and in many respects Marx’s distancing from Bauer was an effort to come to terms with Hegel. So we find the repeated and often heavily satirical criticism (especially in the joint work with Engels, The Holy Family) that ‘Saint Bruno’ Bauer left matters in the realm of theology and thereby stunted his critical work. Marx was also excising the influence of someone who had been a close friend, first as joint members of the Young Hegelian Doktorklub from 1837, later as a teacher of the book of Isaiah at the University of Berlin in 1839 and as one who might have gained Marx a position.
The problem was that Bauer was dismissed from Berlin in 1839 for his radical theological and political positions. He argued that the church was ossified and dogmatic, for it claimed universal status for a particular person and group. In the same way that we find a struggle in the Bible between free self-consciousness and religious dogmatism, so also in Bauer’s own time the religious dogmatism of the church needed to be overthrown. In its place Bauer argued for atheism, a democratic Jesus for all and republicanism.
Max Stirner’s World History
So we find Marx and Engels at the point where Feuerbach’s inversion has enabled them to step beyond the criticism of religion and focus on the criticism of the earthly conditions of human struggle, and Bauer’s radical theology had to be negated since religion cannot provide – so they argued – a radical critique. The engagement with Max Stirner was different. Most people do not bother with the endless pages of The German Ideology given over to a detailed refutation of Stirner’s The Ego and His Own, preferring to stop after the early description of the new historical materialist method.
However, the Stirner section is crucial for the following reason: Marx and Engels developed the first coherent statement of historical materialism in response to Stirner’s own theory of world history. The way they wrote the manuscript (which was never published in their lifetimes) is important: as they wrote sections on Stirner they found that increasingly coherent statements of an alternative position began to emerge in their own thought. Some of these statements remained in the Stirner section, while others were moved to the beginning of the manuscript and placed in the Feuerbach section.
As these responses to Stirner became longer and more elaborate, we find the following: in contrast to Stirner’s radical focus on the individual, Marx and Engels developed a collective focus. Instead of Stirner’s valuation of spiritual religion, they sought an approach that was very much of this world. Above all, Stirner wanted to provide a schema of world history that was pitched against Hegel. The reason why Marx and Engels devoted so much attention to him is that they too want a schema of world history that overturns Hegel.
The catch is that the very effort at producing a theory of world history was still very much engaged with religion. One only has to look at the structure of Marx and Engel’s criticism – which moves through the major books of the Bible, quotes the Bible ad nauseam, and criticizes Stirner’s prophetic role and theological dabbling – to see that what is at stake is religion. In the same way that the final edited form of the Bible moves from creation to the end of history and the new Jerusalem, so also does Hegel offer a theory of world history in terms of the unfolding of spirit, and so also does Stirner do so in terms of the ego. But what about Marx and Engels?
I suggest that the content of their proposal – with its collective and materialist concern with modes of production – is quite different from the proposals of the Bible, Hegel and Stirner. But the form of their proposal is analogous. By this I mean that the construction by Marx and Engels of a new historical narrative was based on a crucial lever: the Bible may have had Christ, Hegel may have had the world spirit, and Stirner may have had the ego. For Marx and Engels it was nothing other than contradiction, or rather, the contradictions within modes of production, contradictions that manifest themselves as class-conflict and revolution. In other words, the engagement with Stirner was the crucible of historical materialism, from which emerged a new approach to history that turns on contradiction.
A number of articles currently on Culture Matters touch on ideas of communism in cultural theory, in particular Andy Croft's The Privatisation of Poetry and Andrew Moore's Ghostly Communism - Provocative Documents for Thought. Here, Marc James Léger argues for maintaining a sense of human subjectivity in theorising leftist collectivism, from the writings of Max Haiven to the work of the activist arts group Not An Alternative.
I recently noticed an online article written for Roar magazine in June 2015 by a friend of mine, the Halifax-based activist and scholar Max Haiven. The article, titled “Reimagining our Collective Powers Against Austerity,” defines the concept of the commons in terms of grassroots democracy, horizontalism, sustainable reciprocity, community-level decision-making and radical autonomy. What intrigued me about his article was not so much what he had to say about the need to replace state sovereignty with commons, but the way that individuals and individualism figure in his discussion.
In the following I reflect on the tendency of social movement activists to dismiss individualism and try to complicate this by addressing psychoanalytic theories of subjectivity, which for previous generations was part of the standard mix of Freudo-Marxism, but that today, after the influence of postmodern discourse theory, have seemingly disappeared, as Michel Foucault once said, like a face in the sand at the edge of the sea. I contrast Max’s critique of individualism with the ideas of Not An Alternative, an activist group for which individualism is also a problem, but where, in contrast, psychoanalytic concepts are adopted and made use of in their Occupy strategies.
Brushing up against liberal ideology, Max’s text replaces the notion of “the public” and “counter-publics” with that of the commons, and so it makes sense that he would challenge the idea of the individual as an enlightenment concept that presupposes the public as its counterpart. The principle of egalitarian reciprocity that underwrites the commons involves, he says, “connections between communal and individual responsibility and autonomy.” He takes this beyond the idea of human rights, made in our capitalist world into a notion of the “self-contained, contract-making individual” as the source of political and economic power – the liberal social contract writ small. We must deconstruct this politics of white, male property owners – a “lethal fantasy,” he says, since none of us are self-sufficient monads. Instead, we always rely on collaboration, cooperation with others to create community and commons. He writes: “Our powers have been turned against us, to the point where we are at risk of undermining the network ecology of collaborative life that actually sustains us. Ecce Homo! This is what comes of the fetishization of the individual!”
The individual, according to Max, “is a dangerous but intoxicating fiction,” a “political box” we must deconstruct so that we can build commons. Since privacy implies private property regimes, as opposed to creative commons, neither are people or even the objects they make fully free, and so we must wake up from the adolescent dream of complete liberation from community, responsibility and accountability. Whatever social structures we have, he says, they should be used to build commons-in-struggle: human rights beyond human rights transformed into “rights to the commons” of education, health, material abundance, lifeways, migration, and the freedom to “practice one’s identity and body and mind and sexuality as one chooses.”
Max’s article contrasts interestingly with another text published in Roar magazine in February 2016: “Occupy the Party: The Sanders Campaign as a Site of Struggle,” written by the New York-based art collective Not An Alternative (NAA), a group comprised of core members Beka Economopoulos, Jason Jones and political theorist Jodi Dean. A few days ago I saw Beka Economopulos on the news show Democracy Now! She was participating in a campaign in which supporters of Democratic Party nominee Bernie Sanders had gathered in Zuccotti Park to telephone voters in the states of Illinois, Florida and Ohio and encourage them to vote for Bernie. I myself endorse the Sanders campaign and encourage people to use the hashtags: #hillarysowallstreet, #killarywarhawk and #bernienumnum (#bernienumnum is of course a reference to the hilarious Peter Sellers film The Party, where the main character interrupts the dinner party of a status quo establishment).
It’s significant that these activists have chosen to campaign on the site of the first Occupy Wall Street encampment, since Sanders is the only candidate who in some ways addresses the concerns of this grassroots movement. I know Beka from my brief interactions with NAA and I met her and Jason at the 2012 Creative Time Summit. The day after the Summit we also met at a Strike Debt assembly and march, where, as it happens, I met Max Haiven for the first time. Being familiar with the writings of Jodi Dean, I wasn’t surprised to see Beka on the Democracy Now! episode holding two placards, one of which read #Political Revolution and the other, #Not Me Us. The latter slogan would seem to fit perfectly with Max’s sentiments as well as Jodi Dean’s, even though there are significant differences between them in terms of the viability of party politics for the left. Jodi Dean has written extensively about the need for radical collective action and often criticizes individualism. For example, she writes in her book, The Communist Horizon:
“Some might object to my use of the second-person plural “we” and “us” – what do you mean “we”? This objection is symptomatic of the fragmentation that has pervaded the Left in Europe, the UK, and North America. Reducing invocations of “we” and “us” to sociological statements requiring a concrete, delineable, empirical referent, it erases the division necessary for politics as if interest and will were only and automatically attributes of a fixed social position. We-skepticism displaces the performative component of the second-person plural as it treats collectivity with suspicion and privileges a fantasy of individual singularity and autonomy. I write “we” hoping to enhance a partisan sense of collectivity. My break with conventions of writing that reinforce individualism by admonishing attempts to think and speak as part of a larger collective subject is deliberate.”
And so where Max sees individualism as a dangerous fiction, Dean sees it as a fantasy. I tend to appreciate Dean’s ideas and I certainly agree with her further critiques of the singular focus on micropolitical practices of self-cultivation and individual consumer choice. NAA and Jodi Dean are super-savvy activists and a boon to the movement.
The Democracy Now! episode showed people who disagree with NAA’s idea that grassroots activists should “occupy the party,” however. For example, Vlad Teichberg is quoted saying that OWS should remain outside the two-party system. In the way the episode was edited, Beka responds to this with the statement: “I’m thrilled that they’re here [i.e. those who disagree with the Zuccotti Park telephone campaign]. I believe that social movements, Occupy, are about disagreement – right? – yet a fidelity to what binds us together in struggle.” I want to reflect further on NAA’s Roar article but this simple statement implies, I would think, a nod to Alain Badiou’s notion of fidelity to an event and the truth procedure that follows from it. In other words, Beka is making an allusion to Badiou’s notion of “the communist hypothesis.” The buzz term fidelity is here not simply accidental, it’s potentially, insofar are people are followers of Badiou, or at least familiar with his work, a sort of conscripting concept.
In their artwork, NAA often use over-identification strategies, also known as the tactic of subversive affirmation. Examples include the pranks of the Yes Men, who pose as business leaders and infiltrate conferences to deliver in their speeches the kinds of information that corporate executives typically avoid, and the now defunct Colbert Report, a television parody of right-wing news pundits. During Occupy Wall Street, NAA made OWS protest tools that mimic the design of yellow and black police tape. The visually stimulating NAA tape was used extensively by OWS activists in their demonstrations. In the lead up to the one-year anniversary of OWS, the police had cordoned off certain streets near Zuccotti Park. In response, NAA made imitation police control cinder blocks out of polystyrene. These were spray painted with the same colours and fonts used by the NYPD and read: OWS Protecting the People from the Powerful. Cayley Sorochan and I used their instructional video on how to make book bloc shields and created for our Maple Spring marches red book shields of Alain Badiou’s The Rebirth of History and Slavoj Žižek’s The Universal Exception. Since we were a book bloc of only two people – impractical literati you might call us – we marched with these book shields alongside the demonstration in mimicry and mockery of the small police squads that would sometimes march alongside the demos. Cayley and I would certainly agree with the notion of fidelity to the idea of communism.
Not An Alternative, Occupy Police Blocks, 2012. Courtesy of Not An Alternative.
This notion of fidelity is part of Badiou’s contribution to the radical theory of praxis, as defined in his two main books: Being and Event and Logic of Worlds. According to Badiou, it’s impossible to understand the idea of fidelity without an idea of subjectivity. Subjectivity and subjectivization are very different words from individual and individualism. Although individualism is by and large an enlightenment concept and an essential component of bourgeois ideology, one could say that since the Rights of Man is an essential, core aspect of the French Revolution, individual rights are part of the first sequence of what Badiou defines as the communist hypothesis. Marxists, in fact, have never entirely eliminated the individual subject from dialectical theories of humanism, and beyond this, notions of subjectivity – whether you characterize them as individualist or not – are essential to numerous strands of materialism. But what about commons? In Capital, Marx described the way that cooperation and solidarity, insofar as they exist inside a capitalist mode of production and are mediated by money, and so despite the good intentions of leftists nevertheless contribute to capitalist social relations. For all of the criticism one might make of possessive individualism, and all things being equal, it remains not only a communist but a human challenge to go beyond the hegemony of capital as the concrete universal. This is patently the case in the context of global warming.
For Badiou, being, or ontology, is associated with Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic notion of the subject and with mathematical set theory. Being is infinitely multiple and not particularly significant in terms of creating a meaningful event in the worlds of love, science, art or politics. For Žižek, on the other hand, we are never so fortunate as to inhabit the good graces of truthfulness since humans, as subjects of language, are never at the level of what Badiou derisively refers to as animality, defined as the bare subject before becoming faithful to an idea through the transformative procedure that follows an event.
What is important about NAA is that they appreciate these kinds of complex issues, even if such questions do not always make activism simple. In “Occupy the Party,” they address the limitations of the Democratic Party, the electoral system, parliamentary democracy, and the state form. These are essentially meaningless to any radical revolutionary politics that would be able to deliver “internationalism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism and worker control of the means of production.” And so why vote for Bernie at all? Why not build autonomous political structures outside the two major U.S. parties?
One quick answer is that, according to polls and analysts, Bernie is the only Democratic candidate that is critical enough of the oligarchic establishment to win an election victory against the likely Republican candidate, Donald Trump, a demagogue whose ideas many have begun to compare to Hitler’s. The point that NAA make in the article is that the left has no means at the moment to implement its principles, that “our principles become the barriers to their own realization.” And so the more we try to occupy places of power, the greater is the danger of co-option. As they put it nicely: “The dilemma of left politics is that we appear stuck between beautiful souls and dirty hands.” They write:
“Politics involves knots of principle, compromise, tactics and opportunity. Their push and pull against one another accounts for much of what many dislike about politics: banal rhetoric, betrayals, splits. Finding a candidate or party with which one fully agrees is impossible. Something is always missing, always off. This is not (only) the fault of the political system. It’s (also) a manifestation of the ways people are internally split, with conflicting, irreconcilable political commitments and desires.”
Nothing therefore is unified and self-identical, not individuals, not institutions, and not movements for social change. The question then, in the battle for hearts and minds, and in political organizing, is whether the level of individual subjectivity is something we should or even can eliminate? Beyond endless deconstruction, what is to be done?
For NAA, the political struggle cannot be a matter of numbers, or majority rule, but the insistent push in the streets and squares. They give as examples Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, two movements that have challenged the status quo and changed the parameters of political possibility. The extent to which these movements have actually done this is debatable. They have certainly affected the media representation of critical issues, but they are also conflicted internally, as NAA is right to mention, by very different political philosophies and orientations. Like BLM, NAA proposes that movements for change should not create another mass political party but should occupy the existing parties, with the Sanders campaign extending these struggles within the Democratic Party, forcing a split within the party. “The more we engage, they say, the more damage we can do, at every turn demonstrating the gap between people and practice.”
One might wonder, then, if everything is barred, to use Lacanian parlance, can institutions and individuals be occupied in the same way? The critique of liberal individualism has certainly seen its fair share of occupations in the twentieth century, from the “personalism” of forced collectivization and the gulag, to Maoist dormitories, Khmer Rouge social engineering and Symbionese Liberation Army abductions. If that be the case, one would rather be a member of a party that one has joined than be on either the receiving end of things, or worse, on the wrong side of History. Think for example of The New Babylon (1929), a wonderful Russian silent era film that depicts the events leading to the Paris Commune and its reorganization of the divisions that were already present in capitalist relationships, represented by the contrast between Dmitri Shostakovich’s “La Marseillaise” juxtaposed with the “Can-can” from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. But then Socialist Realist films like this get criticized for its stock characters.
Closer to our “postmodern” times than Stalinist and Situationist purges, micropolitics skew the problem of dissent and difference within the ranks in favour of the capillary and rhizomatic formations of post-human subjects. Affinity rather than discipline becomes the watchword of social movement activists and the process of radicalization is understood to take many paths. Fidelity to a truth procedure can get pretty confusing in the context of a horizontalist grassroots movement, especially, as Badiou says, when one thinks in terms of equivocal concepts like democracy and in the absence of a strong ideology.
Where there is no unified political formation you have what’s called massism, the relatively (dis)organized masses pitted against state and corporate power without the guidance of leadership and party programme. Self-directed leadership in these kinds of contexts is not always effective and if someone decides to opt out of leaders and programmes altogether, as does the Invisible Committee, the question of collectivism gets to be very local and insular. We’ve all experienced the kinds of conflict and tensions that can easily erupt in the absence of a general will. As Naomi Klein said, it’s easier for people in the movement to give in to callouts and the micro-policing of comrades than it is to focus on changing the power structure. The pretense of speaking with authority, for example in the case of Anonymous, in the media campaigns of Adbusters, or in the over-identification tools of NAA, can certainly have illuminating and beneficial effects. In my view the significance of the resurgence of the left in the 2000s can be explained as a critique of the limits of postmodernism and a renewal of political economy and macro-political thinking.
Psychoanalysis teaches us that the unconscious does not begin and end at the point of conscious effort or political identification. As all advertisers know, ideology, propaganda, and spectacle are operative at the level of the psyche, even if the outcomes are never certain or predictable. This is certainly true when Bernie describes himself as a socialist. The American public, politicians and news media often don’t seem to know what to do with such statements; they seem more comfortable with the outlandish buffoonery of Donald Trump. Why is this? NAA explains it nicely, “Just as Occupy was never about one group, so the Sanders campaign is not about him. It’s about changing the conditions of political possibility.” The Democrats are terrified of being taken over by politics, they argue, and the mobilization of the left gives them reason to be afraid. But how useful is this notion of fear? True, the billionaire class is afraid to lose control of its enormous economic power and so it does everything to prevent social movements from directing change, as was noticed in Greece with the debacle that followed the referendum on the debt crisis.
But fear is also an intrinsic part of their game. As Badiou said in The Meaning of [Nicolas] Sarkozy, “The electoral operation incorporates fear, and the fear of fear, into the state, with the result that a mass subjective element comes to validate the state.” Once the state is occupied by fear, Badiou argues, “it can freely create fear.” The dialectic is one between fear and terrorism: a state that is legitimized by fear becomes ready to become terroristic. One sees this everywhere in the building of a security state, with surveillance of the enemies created by global imperialism spreading to encompass the control of all leftist organizations, no matter how small they might be. As Badiou puts it: “Control will change into pure and simple state terrorism as soon as circumstances turn at all serious.”
The experience of the Black Panther Party is only one case it point and based on this and similar experiences, a “post-traumatic” left tends to avoid ideas like revolution and vanguards. Militants in the capitalist North must therefore convince both the working class and the middle class that things can be done through the system and that they shouldn’t fear the existing conditions of economic decline since, when fear takes hold, the aspiration to class mobility leads to identification with centrist and conservative politics, which guarantees declining living standards, poverty and misery for the vast majority of people.
In this context, psychic resourcefulness, the ability to speculate, reflect, and criticize is essential. Individualism, for lack of a better term, is an asset to social movements, against both conformity to the dominant neoliberal order as well as to idealist temptations within our own political thinking. Of course we have to be idealistic, but better to do so as materialists. It might be better, even if more alienating and academic sounding, to use the terms subject formation and social formation than that of individuals and publics. Lacan teaches that psychoanalysis is not a recipe for politics. As Žižek puts it in How to Read Lacan, “psychoanalysis does not show an individual the way to accommodate him or herself to the demands of social reality.” Having been excommunicated from official psychoanalytic milieus, Lacan made an entire theory of the concept of excommunication, understood in terms of what is unanalyzable and yet shared through the chain of signifiers. One way to think of this is with the Lacanian formula according to which “there is no Dasein (ontology) except in the a-object.” For Lacan, writing in The Logic of Phantasy, “there is no subject except through a signifier and for another signifier.”
The scandal of psychoanalysis is that the truth of the subject does not reside in himself or herself and such knowledge remains to this day an enigma, something that we avoid through the mechanism of fetishistic disavowal: our criticism of individualism is a measure of our repudiation of the knowledge that is made available to us by psychoanalysis. This is the reason that critical cultural and political theory can today speak about jouissance, knots and split subjectivity, while also proposing that we remain faithful to movements for progressive radical change. From our entry into language our primary narcissism is always already part of a commons of symbolic meanings and social structures, the point is to change them for the better.
In Philosophy for Militants, Badiou says that the goal of the twentieth century was to create a new man at any cost, so that humanity could become the new God. What we have today, he says, is the inhumanity of technological annihilation and bureaucratic surveillance. How then does humanity overcome the inhumanity in which it is immersed? Franco Berardi asks a similar question in his book The Uprising about the hypercomplexity of the technolinguistic automatisms that cause us to behave like swarms. The bio-economic totalitarianism of financial abstraction is due to the acceleration of the infosphere, with little prospect of being able to reverse this trend. If the only imaginable process of subjectivization is that of immersion, then we need to think like Bifo of ways to subvert subsumption. For Badiou, this requires the courage to create “new symbolic forms for our collective actions”: truths that are not reducible to law and its transgression but that rather create a generic will.
My take on individualism is that we should be collective while also being human. This to me is definitional of leftist class struggle. It means ridding ourselves of the idea of creating a positive unconscious of knowledge that could be located either in social structures, as Louis Althusser and Foucault taught us, or in the persons of individual subjects, inclusive of those who are part of the movement and those who are not. Notwithstanding the irreconcilability of difference, there is more to enjoy in human variance than there is in the pretense of conformity and the strictures of correctness.
Think for example of both the hilarity and the pathos in a film like Miloš Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (1967), where the effort to keep up appearances and respectability clashes with such human foibles as hunger and neuroses like voyeurism. This is not at all to deny the call for solidarity, organization, responsibility and mutuality on the left, but is rather to challenge what is now the orthodoxy of the discourse theory and social constructionism that has argued for the disappearance of the human subject. This erasure is a delusion of all positive systems and so-called materialisms that have not incorporated the complex of existing critiques of social systems and political structures.
Chris Jury traces the relations between culture, oppositional consciousness and class struggles in recent history.
“It may be good to have power based on arms but it is better and more joyful to win and to keep the hearts of the people.”
-Goebbels, Speaking in The Triumph Of the Will, Directed by Leni Riefenstahl
Throughout history ruling elites have been all too aware that political consciousness is culturally created. From the Egyptian pyramids to Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph Of The Will, and through to the BBC's Dragons' Den, ruling elites have always understood that their power rests not only upon the guns and money they control but also, and just as importantly, on the ‘false consciousness’ of the people.
For all oppressed groups ‘power’ is as much an idea as it is a physical reality, and it has often been pointed out that we all collude in our own oppression by obeying the rules and playing the game even though we know the rules are fixed against us. The main reason we do this is because we can't imagine how it could be otherwise.
Thus in order for revolt, rebellion and/or revolution to take place, a number of ideas have to be become widely believed:
(i) That the current regime is illegitimate (Change is necessary, even unavoidable).
(ii) That there are legitimate, credible and desirable alternatives (The new order would be better than the old order).
(iii) That the current regime can be overthrown. (Change is possible).
When a person comes to believe these three ideas simultaneously they can be said to have developed an 'oppositional consciousness', and this consciousness is a crucial factor in bringing about progressive political change because without them individuals and groups will not undergo the inevitable hardships explicit in any fight for progressive social change - because they don’t believe change is necessary, possible or even desirable. But these ideas do not arise inevitably out of material conditions.
A Man wakes up to find himself locked in a cage with a wooden treadmill. A thick mist surrounds the cage and he can see no other cages or any other landmarks. He called out for help and a Guard appeared. "Why am I in this cage?" Asked the Man. "It's the natural order." Said the Guard. "People like you always live in cages. If you behave yourself and work the treadmill for 8 hours a day you'll get everything you need." The Man tried to argue but the Guard made it clear the Man was never getting out of the cage, so the Man had no choice and tried to make the best of it.
But the Guard turned out to be an incompetent idiot and after a while the Man thought, "Hang on a minute I'm as good as him, why should I live in a cage while he swans around like Lord Muck?" So the Man decided to try and get out of the cage. He started banging his head on the bars to try and break them but he gave up very soon because it clearly wasn't going to work and it really hurt. Then one day the idiot Guard dropped the key to the cage and when he was gone the Man let himself out of the cage. It was only then that the Man discovered that the cage was surrounded by a wide pit of fire that he could not cross. The Guard returned and told him that there is no way to escape to anyway because beyond the flames of the fire pit, there is a Dark Forest full of vicious man-eating wolves and that, "People like you always live in the cages and don't know how to defend yourself in the Dark Forest." So the Man accepted that there was no alternative to his life in the cage and gave up trying to escape.
Then one day a group of rebel mutineers appeared with a set of keys. They had come to set the Man free. But the Man was frightened. "Aren't people like me meant to live in the cages?" He asked the Leader of the mutineers. "And anyway how are we going to get over the pit of fire? And what about the man-eating wolves?"
"Don't you want to free?" Asked the Leader. "Of course!" Said the Man. "But it's not possible. The world is the way it is and there's nothing we can do. There is no alternative."
The Leader tried to persuade the Man but the Man refused to try and escape saying it was dangerous and pointless. "I don't like the cage." He said. "But it is safe in here and I get everything I need."
"Okay, suit yourself." Said the Leader. "We're going to fight to be free." And the mutineers started to run off but out of the mist a squad of Guards appeared and all the mutineers were gunned down, right there, in front of the Man. The Man was so pleased he was clever enough not to get involved with the mutineers and realised that he was never, ever going to try to escape from the cage again.
Raising Oppositional Consciousness
So I've just told a story, a cultural object, to try and convey my meaning to you. By telling you the story I'm inviting you to imagine yourself living in the cage and by empathising with the situation, understand the point I'm trying to make.
And at the point I've left the story, it is clear any future mutineers would have a hell of a job persuading the Man to try and escape from the cage. They'd have to persuade him that he was unjustly being kept in the cage, that he didn't have to accept his imprisonment, that the Guards could be overcome, that there is a way over the pit of fire and there are no ravenous wolves in a Dark Forest, and that there is a life outside the cage. It might be very difficult to persuade the Man of this because although living in the cage is horrible it is safe and escaping might involve all sorts of risks that could literally cost the Man his life.
Raising oppositional consciousness always involves an imaginative leap of this kind. We have to illustrate to people how and why the world they live in is unjust. We have to help people to imagine and envision a world that doesn't exist yet, an alternative reality that could exist but only if they were prepared to fight for it. And we have to convince people that the fight could be won, and that it is worth the sacrifice involved in the fighting.
Dry political theory and strategy papers aren't going to do this because the process is largely emotional and imaginative, and we have to be able and willing to use emotional and imaginative tools to inspire people to make the sacrifices inevitably required by any political struggle. Thus the books, posters, pamphlets, songs, graffiti, films and theatre associated with contemporary campaigns and movements for social change, are not simply a feel-good sideshow to the main business of political action, but an integral part of creating the oppositional consciousness essential to making political change happen is not possible.
In any given situation it is oppositional consciousness rather than the underlying economic circumstances that determines whether resistance, revolt and revolution take place. This is not to deny that brutal and oppressive economic realities can in themselves be important factors in developing oppositional consciousness, just that they are not the determining factors as economists (Marxist or otherwise) might claim.
We’ve Never Had It So Good?
The Wall St crash of 1929 and the austerity measures that followed plunged the West into the Great Depression. It took WW2 and an entirely managed wartime economy to drag the world out of this depression.
In post WW2 Europe a form of highly regulated managed capitalism combined with the rapid expansion of the Welfare State gave rise to unprecedented economic growth. In the UK the period from 1950 to 1973 was characterized by exceptional economic growth, a fall in the ratio between the highest and lowest paid (i.e. increasing equality), low inflation and near full employment.
This led to increasing disposable household incomes for ordinary people, which combined with the political idea of ‘democratising’ elite privileges to stimulate a burst in technical innovation that gave birth to the modern consumerist age. By 1957 Harold Macmillan was able to famously say, "Let us be frank about it: most of our people have never had it so good."
As the Fifties turned into the Sixties washing machines, fridges, central heating, cars, televisions all started to become affordable to working people. The Welfare State also meant that ordinary people (in the UK and Europe) were getting medical care free at the point of use, free access to education, (right up to undergraduate level and beyond for the brightest students), and a benefit system designed to ensure that no citizen ever again had to suffer the deprivations and indignities of the 1930’s. It was true! Exactly as Macmillan said, we had never had it so good!
But what happened next seems to fly in the face of this economic reality, because what followed was a 15-year period of sustained and intense left-wing resistance, revolt and rebellion, which involved occupations, sit-ins, violent riots, police brutality and murderous terrorism.
1960-1979: Power To The People
The resistance, riot and revolt of the Sixties and Seventies was not the result of oppressive economic conditions but was the result of several, initially distinct, cultural phenomena that conflated and gave rise to the cultural idea of the ‘rebel’ being central to the way a generation defined itself. These cultural phenomenon can be summarised as:
The relentless ‘freedom’ discourse of The Cold War.
The 'Liberation' struggles of the former European colonies.
The African-American Civil Rights movement.
The emergence of Rock & Roll as a profoundly ‘rebellious’ form.
The identification between black and white youths that came about as a result of the power of ‘black’ music.
By the end of the Sixties to be a ‘rebel’ was to be cool; to be a white kid and have black friends was really cool; and to be ‘young, gifted and black’ was exceptionally cool.
For perhaps the first time in Western history oppositional consciousness was the dominant mainstream disposition of an entire generation. To be patriotic was not ‘cool’; to dress like your Mum or your Dad was not cool; to be obedient was not ‘cool’; to respect authority was not ‘cool’; to work hard and do as you were told was not ‘cool’. By the end of the Sixties to be ‘cool’ was to be angry, rebellious and defiant.
The Cold War
The Cold War is perhaps the defining cultural feature of this post-war era. Western Cold War propaganda conceived the West as ‘free’ and the East as ‘oppressed’. The West meant the capitalist, representative documentaries of Europe and it’s ex-colonies; The East was Russia and China and their Communist satellites. This basic conflict between ‘the free’ West and the ‘repressive East’, defined both elite & popular Western culture for 40 years. In the elite arena of ‘Art’ the idea was that the repressive East used Art as propaganda to impose its evil doctrine on their helpless citizens, therefore in the West ‘Art’ that conveyed political ideas was to be avoided at all costs - hence the dominance of the abstract in post-war painting and sculptor and the dominance of the L’Art Pour L’Art philosophy of the 19th Century Aesthetes across the entirety of elite Western culture in the post war period – Western Art was free because it didn’t say anything.
In popular culture we were reminded that we were ‘free’ (and they were not), on a daily basis. Russian and East European ‘dissidents’ and ‘defectors’ were endlessly valorised on the news and even scripts of popular TV shows like Robin Hood were purposefully written using the language of liberation and resistance. For the capitalist ruling elites of the West there was however an unforeseen and unwelcome repercussion of this endless ‘free West’ propaganda - we started to believe it! We actually started to believe we were free, that we were democratic citizens entitled to determine our own futures and not beholden for our livelihoods to the prince, bureaucrat or businessman.
From the end of WW2 into the 1980's, most of the Third World European colonies in the Third World freed themselves from direct colonial rule after 300 years of brutal Imperial exploitation and oppression. This process started with the Independence of India in 1947, which was achieved without a war of independence due to the non-violent strategy led by Ghandi. But most other colonies were forced to fight for the freedom through violent military insurrection. The Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya 1952-60, and the French Algerian War 1947-62, started the trend and were followed by violent independence struggles in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Algeria, Uganda, Egypt, Tanzania, Zaire, Guinea, Senegal and Nigeria, to name but a few.
The success of these violent revolutions established the three principles of oppositional consciousness. (i) The colonial powers were widely shown to be morally and politically illegitimate as they controlled these countries against the wishes of the indigenous population and only by brute force. (ii) The successful liberation struggles proved that it was possible to overthrow these colonial powers. (iii) It was recognised by all that whatever the negative economic or political consequences of liberation, the reality of living free from racist colonial rule was worth fighting for.
The victories of the former colonies demonstrated convincingly that the world didn't have to be the way it was and that as rich and powerful as the Western Imperial powers were, they were not invincible. This had a transformative power on popular political consciousness not just in the third world but also in the first - especially amongst the Afro-Caribbean community of the USA who were inspired and emboldened by witnessing their brothers in Africa fighting for freedom.
The participation of African-Americans in WW2 had a profound influence on the communities sense of self worth and this combined with the victories of colonial struggles in Africa and the relentless cold war discourse of freedom and of America as ‘the land of the free’, to bring about an oppositional consciousness within the African-American community in the USA and by the mid to late Fifties the Civil Rights movement had been born.
Despite the obvious courage of the Civil Rights activists and the justice of their cause, most white Americans did not initially identify with the trials and tribulations of black America, which were perceived as either ‘natural’ (i.e. it was the black person's own fault), exaggerated (i.e. it can't be as bad as they say), or as the sufferings of a far off distant foreign land (i.e. this might be happening in Mobile, Alabama but it isn't happening in my town). And so initially in the 1950's, the black community was very much fighting alone - until the culture changed.
Rock & Roll
And it changed because in 1953/54 black Rhythm & Blues was fused with white Country music to form 'Rock & Roll', which became in due course, the single most significant cultural factor in building bridges of empathy between black & white America.
Initially, in the fifties it was Rock & Roll performed by white artists from the South, but as the fifties became the sixties, black music written and performed by black artists crossed the segregation lines in to mainstream white culture in the form of the Blues, Soul, Motown, Funk and Reggae.
But the cultural impact of Rock & Roll wasn’t just that it was ‘new’, Frank Sinatra had been ‘new’ once, no, the thing about Rock & Roll was that it was disgraceful. It wasn’t the lyric content of Rock & Roll that made it subversive, ("And we rolled, reelin' and a rockin'. We was reelin' and a rockin'. Rollin' till the break of dawn." are hardly radical lyrics), it was that the form itself, and the way it was enjoyed, rejected the musical and social norms that had gone before, and to be a Rock & Roll fan in 1955 was to be a rebel; to not do as you were told and not to look to your elders as role models but to your peers. To be a Rock & Roll fan in 1955 was to be out of control, to be dangerous.
Unsurprisingly the ‘establishment’ turned on the new music with vitriol and Rock & Roll fans were defined by mainstream society as ‘outsiders’ within their own society; as being in opposition to the white middle-class men who were trying to stop their fun and were demonising them simply for wanting to dance. But then amazingly as Rock & Roll became the mainstream so did this sense of the young being outsiders and in opposition to the old, suddenly to be young, rebellious and defiantly rebellious was the mainstream!
Over time the attraction to black music forced white youth to re-examine and redefine how they related to black people. As a result the Civil Rights movement started to achieve success partly through the growing support from the white community and especially the urban, educated, white youth of the North. In turn, watching news coverage on the TV of white and black youths fighting together for Civil Rights, seeded in the mainstream white audience a number of ideas, namely: (i) That the USA (the land of the free) was a country capable of violent oppression and injustice like any other; (ii) That there were legitimate, credible and desirable alternatives to segregation and oppression; (iii) That the U.S. government could be beaten – i.e. that change was possible.
It just so happens that these are the basic ideas of oppositional consciousness.
Then came the Vietnam War, a war that was going to be fought by young people (mostly black) on behalf of the very white middle-class men who had, just a few years before, tried to stop them dancing. So in opposing the Vietnam War the interests of the youth of white and black America coincided, and due to the success of the Civil Rights movement and the impact of Rock & Roll, many of these young people had already developed an oppositional consciousness, which meant that this particular generation were willing to fight.
There is not space here to delve further into the history of the Sixties but suffice it to say that the violent overreaction of governments to radical youth activism escalated oppositional consciousness across the Western world. In Europe this led to many white middle-class youths becoming radically politicised resulting in Grosvenor Square, CND, the LSE, the Radical Student Alliance... to name but a few.
Privileged, often middle-class, young people were kicking-off all over. In Paris in May 1968 the middle-class student revolt led to an alliance with the trade unions and there was very nearly an actual revolution. In other places the rebellion was so ferocious it turned into terrorist violence. In Northern Ireland the Catholic Civil Rights movement led to the reactivation of the IRA as a terrorist organisation. In Italy the Red Brigade was formed, and in Germany Baader-Meinhof.
But it wasn’t just middle-class students. In British Industry the effect of the spread of oppositional consciousness into the mainstream of popular culture was dramatic.
By the early '70's, industrial strife was said to be 'the British disease'. Things were so bad that in 1969 even the Labour Party tried to control the trade unions but Barbara Castle's paper, 'In Place Of Strife', was rejected and by 1974, when Edward Heath tried and failed to take on the miners, trade union density had risen to over 55% of the total workforce. 13 million of us were members of trade unions. Men like Red Robbo, at British Leyland in Birmingham, represented a real challenge to the ‘managers' right to manage’. Ideas of worker control of industries were seriously being discussed and despite, or perhaps because of, the ‘never had it so good’ economic conditions, the British working class were more empowered and more willing to fight than at any time since the early years of the 20th Century.
By 1979 the ruling elites had had enough of the economic costs that all this 'freedom' had imposed on their businesses. They realised that full employment and job security had encouraged rebellion and revolt and that structural unemployment and financial insecurity were crucial to reasserting capital's control. So counter-intuitively perhaps they planned to regain control by purposefully making material conditions worse for the working class and deliberately creating fear, anxiety and insecurity in order to encourage people to be passive, obedient workers. And so with Reaganomics and Thatcherism the ruling class launched a class war to reassert their profits, power and authority – a class war that is still going on today.
And culture has been central to that class war. In the UK since 1979 positive images of the working class and/or radical political struggle have almost entirely disappeared from the mainstream media. Business and businessmen are relentlessly valorised in the mainstream media (Dragons' Den and The Apprentice), consumer goods are fetishized and the celebrity culture of Big Brother and The X Factor endlessly promise the poor and underprivileged that ‘it could be you’; that any of us can be rich and privileged if only we can get on the telly, and of course if we ‘want it enough’.
Modern capitalists certainly know that political consciousness is culturally created and in 2014 they spent $650 billion on doing it – it’s called advertising. Modern advertising is remarkable in that it has largely succeeded in persuading millions of us that our ‘freedom’ is best expressed by buying things we don’t need and can’t afford. This is an incredible political achievement that Goebbels would have been proud of as it flies in the face of centuries of Christian teaching and social practice. In England, even as recently as 30 years ago, conspicuous consumption, debt and self-promotion were regarded as vulgar, yet today they are the hallmarks of status and prestige across the whole society.
But it is Thatcher’s 'there is no alternative' (TINA), narrative that has been so culturally effective in stifling dissent for the last 30 years. TINA is so powerful because if you can get people to believe there is indeed no alternative to neoliberal free markets, free trade and capitalist globalization, then what is the point in opposing them? The argument is that neoliberalism is the only legitimate system because it is the only possibility. There are no alternatives so obviously there is nothing to replace the system with. And change obviously isn’t possible because there is nothing to change to, because there are no alternatives. It's clever stuff - if you can get people to believe it.
And it seems they have done just that because despite the most catastrophic crisis in global capitalism since 1929; despite the fact that ordinary people are literally being asked to pay for the debts created by the bad bets of the casino banking culture; despite the conspicuous 19th century levels of inequality directly linked to that casino culture; despite the blatant and evident dismantling of the Welfare State; despite the lay-offs, closures and pension heists; despite all this, we are seeing nothing like the levels of radical resistance and revolt that were seen in the boom years between 1950 and 1973.
The economy boomed 1950-73 yet there was revolt and rebellion across the world. Since '79 wages across the West have stagnated and the welfare state dismantled and there's barely been a murmur. Why? Because the culture dictated the consciousness of the working class not the material conditions. From the birth of Rock & Roll and The Angry Young Men in 1956 to the Punk explosion in 1976, oppositional consciousness was at the heart of Western popular culture. But after Thatcher's election in '79 the ruling capitalist elite relentlessly reasserted through the mainstream media its cultural hegemony of obedience, hierarchy, and inequality, and for 30 years has put out the consistent message that there is no credible or legitimate alternative to capitalist economic liberalism, and that the benefits of free markets far outweigh any disadvantages. And it seemed to almost everyone that they had won the propaganda war and the Left's propaganda had failed to such an extent that 'the Left' had ceased to exist as a meaningful political force. It seemed that ideological history had indeed ended.
Or so they thought
Because somehow, despite all their propaganda, the ideas of equality, liberty and fraternity have not only survived but have found a new form of expression and a new burst of energy.
Since the mid-nineties the internet has allowed for a flourishing of independent counter-culture and media to be widely accessible outside of the mainstream and this has allowed oppositional consciousness to survive, even prosper, despite the success of the TINA narrative in the mainstream. This is primarily a cultural phenomenon, rather than a technological one, with social media being merely the vehicle to distribute the alternative news, information and cultural memes at a nominal cost.
Indeed, it could be argued that 'the internet' is serving the same function today as 'Rock & Roll' did 50 years ago. 'The internet' as a concept is rebellious, subversive and uncontrollable, just as 'Rock & Roll' was. Sure it is owned and controlled by corporations, just as most record companies were in the previous era, but it also allows for an unprecedented level of free expression beyond the confines of the mainstream media.
The idea that the current regime is illegitimate is almost ubiquitous on the internet, similarly credible and desirable alternatives are all over the web as is the idea that change is possible. Thus the internet creates a sort of permanent, vibrant counter-cultural oppositional consciousness that bubbles along entertaining, educating and informing but completely under the radar of the mainstream.
On the internet people have access to cultural and intellectual material like they never have before; most of the defining literature of left wing discourse is available for free as PDF's on the internet; Wikipedia has democratised knowledge in an unprecedented way; subversive jokes, graphics, posters and images are constantly exchanged and disseminated across the globe. People can see pictures and photographs of demonstrations, revolts and rebellions from all over the world while the events are still taking place. The internet can give an unprecedented sense of being part of a movement while still being in your own living room (or bedroom). Even though we mainly use the internet as atomised individuals, suddenly all this oppositional discourse can come together and find a collective, public outlet. As a result across Europe we are experiencing an outburst of oppositional consciousness and the return of democratic socialist ideas to the public political discourse. Podemos, Syriza, Corbyn and even Bernie Sanders in the USA, are collective, real-world, public expressions of the virtual counter-culture that has been quietly working away for 15 years.
But the 'Arab Spring', that most famous previous example of internet inspired rebellion, shows us that while oppositional consciousness is a necessary prerequisite for revolt and rebellion, it is not alone sufficient to bring about permanent change. For that we also need determination, patience, courage, solidarity and self-sacrifice.
The full version of the flash fiction embedded in this article as The Cage is on the fiction section of the arts hub.
Susan Jones outlines how activism can help artists in an age of austerity and widening gaps between rich and poor.