Chris Guiton

Chris Guiton

Chris Guiton is a project manager, writer and Co-managing editor of Culture Matters.

JD Meatyard
Wednesday, 15 November 2017 09:15

JD Meatyard

Published in Music

Chris Guiton interviews jd meatyard, who describes himself as a left field artist much favoured in his Levellers 5 and Calvin Party days by the late great John Peel, with albums such as ‘Lies Lies & Government’ and songs such as ‘Tell Me About Poverty’. June 2017 saw the release of ‘Collectivise’ the 4th album in his current guise as jd meatyard - featured on BBC 6 Music’s Gideon Coe show. 

CG. Can you tell us something about your new album, Collectivise, and how it builds on your previous albums?

JD. Collectivise is a return to guitar, bass, drums…lo fi as a production bonus. The previous album ‘ Taking The Asylum’ was influenced by ‘songwriters’…like Cale’s ‘Paris 1919’… Jonathan Richman…Elliot Smith. For Collectivise the mood was different, darker, christ just walk out in the streets and see the despair…and the recording of the new album coincided with a family bad thing, a dreadful loss…with the personal and political in such a state the ‘tone’ of the recording added much to the songs themselves…‘songs I’d play everyday with songs painful to listen to even though I share the politics’ says one. So all in all, the songs on Collectivise reflect of course the crazy place we are now in - the horror show that is the every day for so many people… and the personal to, as ever. I couldn’t have an album with such a narrative lightened around the edges with mandolins and such - ergo guitar, bass, drums.

CG. You celebrate a diverse range of influences. Can you tell us a bit about how your music has evolved over the years?

JD. Well, with Levellers 5 (NOT Levellers!) back in the early John Peel days it was just pretty much a manic rant at times, 'like drunk kids let loose in a music store' said the MNE (true, as in we were like drunk kids…) held together by a great band. Then with Calvin Party we played the indie style of big guitars n' stuff…hey, all in all a pile of Peelie sessions n album releases, it was all a life to live. I headed over to live in Holland and packed in the ‘band thing’ as I wanted to just write songs - not songs for a band, just songs, any which way they came. So started jd meatyard…Ralph Eugene Meatyard was a photographer whose work I liked, interesting stuff for sure, and I needed a ‘name’ to be a solo singer songwriter sort of guy. It worked, we formed a 3 piece in Rotterdam, me and Johan and Nina, sparse - two guitars, a floor tom and snare…but what it opened up was the variety of song - the light n' shade maybe, loud quiet loud. It’s worked well on the albums, the eponymously titled sort of nervous solo debut, then ‘Northern Songs’ with the much demanded ‘Jesse James’ song on through to the new release…we got many indie radio show's support, and plays from Gideon Coe on BBC 6 Music…the new Peelie, which really helps!

CG. Brecht famously said, 'Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.' How relevant do you think this is now as we face a continued neoliberal assault on the 'cultural
commons', those elements of art and culture that rightly belong to all of us?

JD. ‘Art is all’, I used to believe. Problem is ‘culture’ is now a tool that we’re controlled by, there’s no argument to this…Edward Bernays pioneered such control of the masses at the behest of the New York/U.S elites early 20th Century. 'The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society'… keep us all in the mall whilst they go about screwing the planet. I do think that there is hope, the dumbing down of all culture, the collapse of the popular into little more than corporate funding is I think coming to an end…gotta say, social media has had a big part in this loosening of the reins, there is now an emerging culture of radical attack, of questioning, of challenging that hasn't been around for a long time…social media, the great channel for leaks that they can no longer control…the other day with the Paradise Papers tax stuff…no wonder they’re so frightened of Jeremy Corbyn! 

That I get hammered, and I do, for my tiny contribution - songs for Palestine, ‘4 Kids on a Gaza Beach’, for the left, ‘Jesse James’, ‘Blow it Out yr Arse’, 'St Peter at The Gate’, ’Collectivise’… people in Sheffield walking out of the show, others rolling their eyes ‘oh not more politics’, underlines the problem…the attacks I get are pretty severe at times.

CG. What are your thoughts generally about politics at the moment, in particular the hope offered by Jeremy Corbyn and the dramatic shift in the position of the Labour Party?

JD. JC has done something that I’d completely given up on, he’s energised so many people - people that had given up hope - many on the left/humanists that had walked away following Blair's band of closet neo-libs…the feeling now that there is a real possibility of success for a centre left government is astonishing given recent history. We now have a Labour Party fit for the name, a leader that matches many of us in historical choices - aye, we did play anti-apartheid shows, and shows for the miners and he/we never wore ‘Hang Mandela’ T shirts like some of the tory toffs. Yes, there is a wee political frisson about now with JC attracting crowds like never before…just as the Tories are chewing themselves up with the tax dodging and abuse charges ripping round the ether - good times…hopefully great, honest, progressive times on the way. There needs to be big changes globally. The corporate governance of the planet, profit is ALL, has worked for the elites but it has, no doubt, fkd the planet. The poor and the immigrants haven't fkd the planet the rich have.

CG. There’s a lot of heartfelt anger and honesty in your music. How do you combine the personal and the political in your songwriting?

JD. Thanks. Its easy, no? What’s the old one - ‘the personal is poltical’? I don't know how songwriters can avoid being political! Of course I get it, Ed Sheeren and the like are ‘business’ artists - they write flatlining songs for a flatlining audience - formulaic, high production and a marketing plan to suit. We don't expect anything from such artists…however, I am surprised that so few ‘serious’ artists that have the opportunity to comment don’t bother to do so - each to their own. However, for Morrissey, Radiohead and the rest who play the ‘non political’ card as an excuse to pocket the Netanyahu $$$…well, what can you say, sick. It’s my naivety I guess, I expect more from artists. For me, what else is there? The pain, the tragedies, the loves and losses…fk, it's all there in the everyday of life, to seperate politics from personal is to artificially divide reality. So, for me, there’s no contrivance, it's life.

CG. At Culture Matters we are very interested in what an incoming Labour Government would do to develop arts and culture policies that reverse the impact of austerity, make the link between progressive art and progressive politics, and support culture for the many not the few (to coin a phrase!). What are your thoughts on what a socialist arts and culture policy should offer us?

JD. Financial backing for creatives, right now there’s little or no support unless you’re already making $$$…I beg PRS now and again for support - nada, nothing, nunca. We need targeted support for those with a catalogue of, let's say, meaningful music. Sad thing is that in music particularly there’s a real dumbed down practice - the mainstream now is the aural equivilent of Enid Blyton, kids read EB, no probs, however adults listen to the aural equivalent. Little from the left field gets through…Sleaford Mods bravo. Support for ‘alt’ venues would help, this would include ‘hands on’ support in terms of creating a culture of arts/music clubs aimed at that very real alternative audience…funding for progressive ideas is what we need.

CG. What's it like working in the music scene at the moment? How has it changed over your life? What do you think of other bands and musicians these days?

JD. See above, ha. Since John Peel left us its been a struggle for many bands, JDM is lucky. I get support from many independent radio shows and Gideon Coe on BBC 6 Music has played songs from all my albums as JDM. But when Peel was around it made a difference with others who used him as a marker - so we’d get better gigs then and plays from other network DJs - it's noticeable how so may doors shut when the great man died.

CG. The DIY culture that emerged with punk still appears to be going strong. A grassroots approach to music is a great way of empowering people who might otherwise feel excluded. What are your thoughts on this, and how might the labour movement best support this?

JD. Like many, music was my door to everything else. The house as a kid revolved around C & W, played on the record player and also live by my ma n' da, brother and sister …great singalongs until the dreaded introduction of Lanliq - those days ‘buckie’. Then dub and reggae got me asking how come so many Scottish names…slave history and nasty empires entered my vocab, Lou and the Velvets blew open my eternal love of New York, and introduced me to Warhol and 3 hour long screenings of looking at the Empire State Building - the very notion of ‘alternative’ in the arts and of course in life too. Punk was such a break, the sheer bravado and ‘fk you’ attitude was so liberating and yes, empowering, as it blew away so much deadwood in music and beyond, for a moment it terrified the establishment. This is what I mentioned before - the government can, if it wants to, fund street level creativity through music and the arts by encouraging people with ideas to create spaces, small venues with real spirit, progressive places that encourage participation with artists and the public. Such activity is critical in fostering a ‘knowing’ public rather than a shopping mall mass taught only to, well, shop and little else. We need a mass of people with a critical, intelligent mindset if we are to break the corporate ruling of our lives, our world. The arts, music is central to the creation of a better future for us all - nearly said ‘for the many, not the few’ - phew! Painting, music, photography, all creatives have a critical role to play in saving the world from a
toxic culture that will see this planet drained to an empty shell - as long as they make $$$$$$…we can change the everyday from one of banal consumption at best to something more vital, a life worth living.

CG. I see you’re about to tour the Netherlands, and also live abroad part of the time. How do you find foreign audiences react to your music and does spending time abroad give you a different perspective on life?

JD. Aye, back to Rrrrrrrotterdam, what a place. I never realised the toughness of the Dutch until we moved there for a couple of years and Rotterdam, port city n' all is as tough as it comes. Holland was cool for the music, my music. They got the punk thing, shared like most northern European countries a liking for ‘alt’ stuff - so you get such acts touring these places…unlike Spain, Malaga city where the kids are into either 80s Bronx beats or the most insipid pop you’ve ever heard - ‘rock’ ground to a halt here with Duran Duran, punk never happened down this way…I get back to the UK for recording and gigs, see family. I love being back for the first few days…Pogues Irish bar in Liverool, up to Glasgow to see a game..recently discovered the wonder that is Bristol, recording the new album there...what a great city, now there’s a place that seems to be getting good culture to the centre of  things. But after the first few days I’m sort of looking for my return flight…different perspective, for sure, back to the calm of El Palo.

 “Some People is an epic track – If there was still a Peel Festive 50 it would be in the Top Ten this year”, Louder Than War. For more info and to buy his CDs go to jd meatyard

The Bread and Roses Songwriting and Spoken Word Award
Friday, 10 November 2017 11:27

The Bread and Roses Songwriting and Spoken Word Award

Published in Music

The Communication Workers Union (CWU) and Culture Matters are pleased to announce a new Songwriting and Spoken Word Award.

The Award is now open for submissions. The purpose of the new Award is to encourage songwriters and spoken word performers to write material meaningful to working class people and communities, and to encourage those communities to engage more with songwriting and spoken word. There is a £100 cash prize for each of the top five entries. The judges will be from CWU and Culture Matters.

Dave Ward, General Secretary of the CWU, said,

I welcome this new partnership with Culture Matters. The arts and culture generally are vital to the labour movement, and working class communities across the country. Good access to the arts, sports and other cultural activities are part of the social wage. State support needs to be re-balanced so that working people everywhere can enjoy cheap, accessible and good quality provision. 

We are sponsoring this Award because we want to encourage our members in the CWU, and working people everywhere, to express themselves creatively on themes that matter to them as workers.

So get writing and get performing, and send your entries in!

Submission Guidelines and Award Rules

Entry is open to all, regardless of trade union membership. The submission guidelines are as follows:

- Entries should broadly deal with any aspect of working class life, communities and culture and show commitment to the common people, the common good and the common language of music and the spoken word.

- Entries are restricted to original material, in English, by solo or duo artists/performers.

- Entries must be submitted as audio or video files (MP3/4 format, YouTube link or similar), via e-mail.

- Entrants must be resident in the United Kingdom.

- Entries must be accompanied by an entry fee of £5, to be paid by bank transfer to Culture Matters Co-operative Ltd, The Co-operative Bank, 089299/65822760.

- Entrants may submit up to three songs/performances.

- The organisers accept no responsibility for entries that are incorrectly submitted or not delivered due to technical faults.

- By entering the Award, entrants agree to accept and be bound by the rules of the Award and the decisions of the judges.

- Entries should be sent via email to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. The deadline for receipt of submissions is midnight on 2 February 2018. When emailing submissions please provide your full name, postal address and phone number.

The winners will be invited to perform at the CWU annual conference in Bournemouth in April 2018. All entries remain the copyright of the entrant but CWU and Culture Matters will have the right to publish them online and in other media.

On Fighting On - An Anthology of Poems from the Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2017
Tuesday, 07 November 2017 11:09

On Fighting On - An Anthology of Poems from the Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2017

Published in Our Publications

On Fighting On - An Anthology of Poems from the Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2017

£5 (plus £1.50 p&p) ISBN 978-1-907464-24-9.

Culture Matters, an imprint of Manifesto Press, has published a new anthology of poems from the Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2017, sponsored by Unite.

The purpose of the new Award is to encourage poets to focus on themes which are meaningful to workin g class people and communities and to encourage those communities to engage more with poetry. Entrants were given the opportunity to deal broadly with any aspect of working class life and culture and show commitment to the common people, the common good and the common music of poetry.

Mike Quille, the Editor of the anthology, said, “We wanted to encourage Unite members and working people more widely to engage with poetry and the arts generally. And encourage the mainstream poetry world to lift its eyes beyond the narrow poetry ‘bubble’ and be more attentive to the labour movement. The poems in this collection reflect a broad range of themes and moods. They show very clearly the collective strength of writing by working people.”

The Award was kindly supported by Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union. Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite, said, “We sponsored the first Bread and Roses Poetry Award because we believe that our members, and working people generally, have an equal right to join in and enjoy all the arts, and other cultural activities. We believe we should be able to afford them, get to them, and enjoy them, and that art should seek to engage with all sections of the community. Working-class people face a continual cultural struggle to defend our cultural commons, to keep cultural activities open to the many, not the few.”

The booklet is priced at £5 (plus £1.50 p&p), and is available from manifestopress.org.uk, culturematters.org.uk and the usual outlets. ISBN 978-1-907464-24-9.

 

Muses and Bruises
Monday, 06 November 2017 16:10

Muses and Bruises

Published in Our Publications

Muses and Bruises - Poems by Fran Lock, Collages by Steev Burgess

 £8 (plus £1.50 p&p) ISBN9781907464256.

Culture Matters, an imprint of Manifesto Press, has published a new collection of poetry by Fran Lock. The poems are accompanied by collages by Steev Burgess.

Fran lock is an activist, writer and illustrator, and one of the finest political poets around. Like John Clare, Lock evokes the troubling, often agonising effects of capitalist society on personal and social identity. Her feminist and socialist poetry weaves psychological insight and social awareness into themes of poverty, mental health problems, sexual abuse, domestic violence and political struggle. Vivid, lavish and punchy, it combines a deep sense of anger and injustice with vulnerable empathy and compassion.

The poems in this collection revel in richness and in strangeness. They are about the unlikely places where working class women find beauty and meaning, and the unlikely materials from which they are composed. The fragmented yet coherent collages of Steev Burgess complement and enhance those meanings perfectly. The images dance with the poems, singing together about muses and bruises, fantasy and reality – grind and grime with a lick of glitter.

 

Thursday, 12 October 2017 08:30

Culture Matters Supporter Survey

Published in About us

We're reviewing Culture Matters and would really like some feedback from our readers and supporters. What is your overall impression of the website? How well are we fulfilling our mission of promoting a socialist and progressive approach to the arts and other cultural activities, where culture is organised for the many, not the few? What do you think of the quality and range of the material we publish? Have you considered joining the Culture Matters co-operative? If not, why not? How can we encourage involvement in our work? Please take a few minutes to complete this survey:   

Survey Monkey/Culture Matters Supporter Survey

Thanks to those who have already responded.

Lenin
Thursday, 21 September 2017 14:17

Russian Revolution Centenary: Marking 100 Years Since the October Revolution

Published in Festivals/ Events

Culture Matters is pleased to support the international, one-day conference on the October Revolution organised by the Russian Revolution Centenary Committee, which takes place in London on 4 November 2017. The full programme has been announced and includes sessions on:

An introduction to the history of the Russian Revolution

The impact of Russian revolutionary politics on British society and the labour movement

International perspectives on the contemporary relevance of the Russian Revolution

The art and cinema of the Revolution.

russianrevolution

Speakers include:

Tosh McDonald – President, ASLEF

Andrew Murray – Chief of Staff, Unite the Union.

Mike Wayne – academic, educationalist, filmmaker, activist and cultural theorist.Professor in Screen Media, Brunel University.

Sarah Badcock – historian of Imperial and revolutionary Russia, author ‘A prison without walls? Eastern Siberian exile in the last years of Tsarism’

Mary Davis – women’s and labour movement historian, author ‘Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics’, founder Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee

Aleida Guevara – paediatrician, Cuban revolutionary, Angolan medical mission veteran, and daughter of Che Guevara

David Lane – leading academic and writer on USSR, state socialism, Marxism and class

Christine Lindey – pioneering art historian, Morning Star arts critic, author ‘Art in the Cold War: from Vladivostok to Kalamazoo’

Richard Leonard, MSP – Labour Party’s frontbench spokesperson on the economy in the Scottish Parliament

Vijay Prashad – historian, editor LeftWord Books, author ‘No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism’

Brinda Karat – MP for West Bengal Communist Party of India (Marxist), former student activist and trade union organiser, leading Indian women’s movement activist

Teresita Vicente de Sotalongo – Cuban Ambassador in London

Adrian Weir – labour movement historian, Asst Chief of Staff, Unite

Johanna Scheringer-Wright – MP for Thuringia and German Left Party (Die Linke) member

Vyacheslav Tetekin – veteran of Soviet solidarity with African liberation movements, former MP Russian Duma CP of Russian Federation, member of editorial board of Sovetskaya Rossiya (Soviet Russia)

Full details and tickets are available from: Russian Revolution Centenary Conference

Spark - A Festival of Revolutionary Film

still from October 1928

As part of the centenary, the programme includes a film festival, which takes place at two of London's most renowned independent cinemas: the Phoenix and the Rio. It features classics of early Soviet cinema by Pudovkin, Eisenstein and Vertov. Beatty’s Reds will also be shown as a unique and daring Hollywood film about the Revolution.

Film's potential as a tool to explain and win support for the Revolution was recognised early on by young communist filmmakers. One hundred years on, this festival celebrates the lasting international impact of Soviet cinema. 

Screenings take place on eight consecutive Sundays from 24 September. Ticket are just £10/8 and can be purchased through the host cinemas. Full listings can be found on the  Russian Revolution Centenary Committee's website: Spark Film Festival. A preview of the festival by John Green is available here: Spark Illuminates Russian Revolution

Mike Jenkins
Wednesday, 06 September 2017 17:24

Bring the Rising Home!

Published in Our Publications

Bring the Rising Home! Poems by Mike Jenkins, with paintings by Gustavius Payne

£9 (plus £1.50 p&p) ISBN 978-1-907464-22-5.

Culture Matters has published a new collection of poetry by the Welsh socialist poet Mike Jenkins. The poems are accompanied by full colour paintings by Gustavius Payne.

In May 1831, miners and others took to the streets of Merthyr Tydfil, protesting against wage cuts and unemployment generally. The protest spread and soon the whole area was in rebellion – the red flag was flown as a symbol of workers' revolt for the first time. The social and economic conditions which sparked the Merthyr Rising are never far from Mike Jenkins’s poetic imagination, but there are also poems here about drunks, jailbirds, footballers, a mining disaster, and Northern Ireland.

Weaving through both poems and images are themes of individual isolation and alienation, and the urgent need for collective action to change the conditions of working people. Mike Jenkins’s vivid, lyrical poems are accompanied by full colour paintings by the Welsh socialist painter Gustavius Payne, whose bold, striking, and deeply sympathetic paintings complement the poems perfectly.

The message is clear: isolated, people are powerless, but together they are strong. They need to organise into trade unions, join a socialist party and challenge the ruling class. Here is a poetic and painterly union of two socialist Welsh artists who, in their own brilliant, artistic way, are bringing the Rising home.

 

Lugalbanda
Thursday, 17 August 2017 06:27

Lugalbanda: Lover of the seed

Published in Our Publications

Lugalbanda: Lover of the seed

£4.99 (plus £1.00 p&p) ISBN978-1-907464-23-2 

A new version by Doug Nicholls, this book is a fundraiser for the Free Ocalan campaign. It brings to the attention of modern readers a poem written 5,000 years ago but still with incredible relevance to us today.

The imprisoned political leader Abdullah Ocalan draws attention to the first Sumerian civilisation built between the Tigris and Euphrates, in the troubled lands today covered by Iraq and Syria. This civilisation was forgotten for over 2,000 years, buried under sands, but when it was rediscovered it was realised that the Sumerians had brought to humanity agriculture, architecture, the first writing, the first schools, the first written poetry, the first laws and many other notable inventions.

This delightful and surprising story of the exploits of Lugalbanda and what powers he chooses as a reward for looking after the chick of a monstrous bird in the mountains is a joy to read, so distant yet so near. It also compels us to think about some profound truths in our own world.

A fantastic read for young and old and whether you have read poetry before or not. The author’s notes on the poem will surprise and challenge you as they extract layers of meaning from the poem.

 

Glastonwick Festival
Friday, 19 May 2017 17:37

Glastonwick Festival

Published in Festivals/ Events

Chris Guiton tries to prise some cultural theory from the feisty, punky, bolshie lefty that is Attila the Stockbroker. Attila manages (if that's the right word) Glastonwick festival. The links to festival info and tickets are: Glastonwick Beer and Music Festival 2017 and Ropetackle Centre/Glastonwick Tickets

Q. Where did the idea of Glastonwick come from?

The idea of Glastonwick came to me in the early 90s. I was performing at lots of music festivals where the beer was always the corporate, overpriced urine of Satan, and going to beer festivals where the entertainment was ALWAYS a f***ing blues band. A f***ing BORING blues band (is there any other kind?) plodding away in the corner singing ‘I woke up this morning....’ WHAT A BLOODY SHAME! IF YOU HADN’T  I WOULDN’T HAVE TO LISTEN TO THIS BOLLOCKS!

A light came on in my head. ‘Let’s have a music festival with good beer, and a beer festival with good music’ I thought. I know about music (and poetry, obviously) my mate Alex Hall knows about beer – 22 years later here we are!     

Q. Looking at the artists roster, Glastonwick appears to have a strong progressive political element to it. Can you tell us how this came about?

How do you THINK it did? What am I going to put on? DISCO? Hippy Covers bands? Prog rock?  :) I’m a stroppy Leftie poet/musician and  I travel the country (and the world) doing gigs, often at political events.  I meet like-minded people. If they are spiky, irreverant, entertaining and above all WRITE THEIR OWN MATERIAL, I invite them to Glastonwick.       

Q. Do you want to tell us a bit about your own political journey?

I’m stroppy, left wing, concerned about other people and about the future of the planet. Always have been. Punk, Rock Against Racism, anti fascist stuff, Miners’ Strike benefits, the 20 year battle to save our football club, Brighton & Hove Albion...culture always to the fore. 3400 gigs in 24 countries. Hundreds of benefits. Earned my living as Attila since 1982.

Q. Who are the people who've influenced you most, as a musician and poet?

THE CLASH and HILAIRE BELLOC.      

Q.  Brecht famously said, 'Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.' How relevant do you think this is now as we face a  continued neoliberal assault on the 'cultural commons', those elements of art and culture that rightly belong to all of us?

It is the best thing anyone has ever said about culture and is 100% true.  I put it another way.  'When I talk about cherry blossom in my poetry, I mean boot polish.'      

Q. Glastonwick is taking place this year just before one of the most important general elections held in a long time. Its outcome could determine whether we seek to build a fairer society or end up with a plutocracy which benefits only a wealthy elite. Rosa Luxemburg's quote, "Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism." feels very apt! How do you think artist should respond to this challenge?  

I give you the title poem of my latest poetry book, published a couple of weeks ago.

UNDAUNTED
by Attila the Stockbroker

9 November 1989:
Fall of the Berlin Wall.
9 November 2015:
‘Election’ of Donald Trump.
Cause and effect.
The ghastly end 
to a chain of events 
going back to the 80s.
Gorbachev’s brave reforms.
Yeltsin’s kleptocratic gangster-coup.
9/11. Gulf War.
Islamic State.
Brexit 
and the rise of the populist Right.
This is a pivotal moment.
In the centenary year
of a Red revolution which shook the world
the Left needs to reclaim its heritage
and move forward.
Undaunted.
But in order to do so with clarity
we first have to look back.
 
Not right back to the beginning.
That path has been well-trodden
by thousands of writers 
in millions of words:
the victories and the travesties,
the advances and the betrayals.
I’m going back just 28 years:
to February 1989 in East Berlin.
I was there. 
On my four tours of the GDR
between 1986 and 1989
I had watched the East German Left 
organize to growing effect
against the fossilized Party leadership 
and now, inspired by Gorbachev’s Soviet reforms,
they were openly demanding change.
More democracy.
More socialism.
(I’ll never forget the banners:
‘Mehr Sozialismus, bitte!’)
Of course things couldn’t stay the same.
Gorbachev was right to do what he did.
But he was betrayed.
The good went out with the bad.
The baby with the bathwater.
And the people paid the price.
 
The Wall fell.
The brave activists of the Left
who brought it down
were swamped by hordes 
blinded by Bild Zeitung,
fighting over bananas. 
Across Eastern Europe
worlds collapsed overnight.
People celebrated.
In many ways they were right to.
Party by all means, we shouted –
but organize as well.
Take control of your own destinies. 
Don’t believe the lies of the West.
They promise you exotic travel 
but you will have no money to travel 
They promise exotic cars
but you will have no money for cars
They will destroy your industries
privatize your futures
and make you paupers in your own lands.
But too few listened.
The cold, cruel masters
of a new world smiled.
It’s the end of history, they said.
Socialism has failed
the red banner has fallen
and now, workers, we are your masters,
all over the world.
We’ll close down. Sack. Downsize. Relocate. 
Ship in cheap labour. Outsource. Bring in robots. 
Force down wages. 
Crush your spirit.
Cast you aside
secure in the knowledge that your champions are dead 
and that our pet media mouthpieces
can save us from your wrath
by blaming your fate on others:
immigrants, refugees
and your sacked co-workers 
now recast as your enemies -
as scroungers off your taxes.
Slowly the vice tightened:
slowly the penny dropped.
Twenty years on from the fall of the Wall
opinion polls stated
that a majority all over Eastern Europe 
(not the liberal elites of course,
laughing into their lattes,
but the forgotten masses
ignored by the world’s media)
believed that their lives were better before 1989.
That what was allowed to go into their mouths
mattered at least as much
as what was allowed to come out of them.
That without economic democracy  -
without jobs, healthcare, education, housing -
political democracy was meaningless 
and that globalization, free trade
and neo-liberalism
were the enemies of working people everywhere,
East and West.
But the mass Red parties of the European Left
had disappeared in a welter of spineless apology
and self-loathing
leaving an open goal
for the populists of the Right.
And now
while we argue amongst ourselves
it is the likes of Trump, Le Pen and Wilders
who try to steal our clothes -
who use progressive-sounding weasel words
to spread the politics of hate.
 
Elsewhere in the world 
the modern secular movements
for liberation and education
slowly collapsed without their Soviet mentors,
leaving a void.
A people still oppressed and poor
searched for their own champions,
their own protectors.
Enter the fundamentalists.
For Trump and Le Pen
read ISIS and the Taliban:
the same weasel words,
the same dead-end reality –
literally so
for those young, duped jihadis.
 
So where do we go from here?
One thing is for sure.
Now as then
the choice is clear.
Socialism or barbarism.
We must reclaim 
the territory which the populists have stolen.
This is the challenge.
A hundred years on
from the great stand in Russia
Let’s make another stand.
A modern stand.
A stand against globalization and neoliberalism.
Against nationalism and division.
Against racism and homophobia.
Against fundamentalism and misogyny.
Undaunted.

Q. Culture Matters has embarked on some work to develop arts and culture policies in the labour movement which tackle the geographic, class and financial barriers that many working class people face trying to access the arts, as both consumers and performers. What are your thoughts on what a socialist arts and culture policy might look like?

Glastonwick.

Q. Brexit has divided the Left. Assuming it goes ahead in one form or another, how do you think we best maintain an internationalist perspective and support cultural links with comrades in the EU and more widely? 

By carrying on doing exactly what we’re doing now.  Here’s another poem.

ROCK ‘N’ ROLL BREXIT
(Written on the ferry home, Oct 10 2016)

by Attila the Stockbroker

I’ve just toured with my band Barnstormer
from Dunkirk to Lucerne and back
through France, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland
without showing a passport once.
Yes, non-EU Switzerland too –
a little bridge, an empty hut.
In my punk rock youth
I remember 
how musicians had to carry carnets 
for our instruments 
when we crossed the Channel -
everything down to the last spare string 
painstakingly listed on a pointless green form
checked and stamped at every border
after standing with the truckers in endless queues.
I remember the invasive French customs 
- douane, not moeurs -
whose cretinously predictable searches
for non-existent drugs
took the edge off many an otherwise enjoyable tour.
Search the big posh cars
driven by the suits,
I’d always say
after these unimaginative custodians 
had finished their fruitless checks:
no-one imports half a ton of heroin 
dressed like we are
driving a scruffy transit van
with ‘CLEAN ME’ 
written in the dirt on one side 
‘WE HATE CRYSTAL PALACE’
on the other
a large knob and testicles
adorning the back
and empty beer bottles
rolling around on the floor.
Are we going to have to go through all this again?
Just because Rupert Murdoch 
was pissed off by the fact
that no one in Brussels
took a blind bit of notice of him?
Lord give me strength!

Only joking, of course.
Brexit was an informed decision 
taken by the British people 
after serious consideration
of the established facts
presented intelligently
and objectively 
by the rigorous guardians 
of the Fourth Estate.
And anyone who suggests anything else
is patronizing and supercilious.
So if in a few years time
a British number plate for a band touring Europe
becomes the equivalent of a plague signal on a door 
in medieval times
and I am once again obliged to fill in ridiculous forms
and perhaps even at my advanced age
stand naked in a room 
with a gloved finger up my arse
and my foreskin peeled back
as I once did in Calais in the Eighties
I shall hold myself proudly to attention
and celebrate the fact 
that I am British
and we have 
Taken 
Back 
Control.

Oscar Niemeyer's futuristic civic buildings in Brasilia
Thursday, 13 April 2017 15:01

Architecture and socialism

Published in Architecture

This section of Culture Matters is about architecture, including its role in shaping our collective future. Chris Guiton offers a foundation essay on achitecture and socialism.

Architecture is an expression and a reflection of human society. It has evolved over human history in response to our changing needs, innovation in building technology and design, and changes in the way we view the world around us. Part response to society’s functional needs and part creative expression, it offers the scope to shape our environment for either better or worse.

The practice of architecture provides us with a built environment where buildings function as places of work, as homes and as public spaces. The need for shelter from the elements in early human society took on greater significance as nomadic existence was replaced by a more settled, urban society. The simple requirement for shelter evolved into something that might be a place of work as well as a home, with different rooms developing specialist functions, and where people developed relationships with their family and community.

Hagia Sophia Church

Hagia Sophia Church

We can trace architecture’s lineaments through human history as it provides us with a way of looking at and understanding the past. Monumental structures such as the Giza pyramids, the Parthenon, Athens, the Hagia Sophia basilica and mosque in Istanbul, Il Duomo in Florence, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Chrysler Building in New York all tell a story about the economic and social forces that produced them. And about how that society wished to project its image into the future. This process is also represented in the more ordinary dwellings that were built for people and work, as well as in the public spaces and infrastructure that underpinned the development of cities, and in the very design and layout of those urban spaces.

As a profession, architecture has provided many socialists and progressives with the opportunity to help construct a better future. William Morris, the great designer, novelist and socialist activist, was very conscious of the role of architecture in society. As he put it: "the untouched surface of ancient architecture bears witness to the development of man's ideas, to the continuity of history, and, so doing, affords never-ceasing instruction, nay education, to the passing generations, not only telling us what were the aspirations of men passed away, but also what we may hope for in the time to come."

He appreciated the importance of simple beauty in things, where architecture was an expression of handicraft as well as “a work of cooperation. The very designer, be he never so original, pays his debt to this necessity in being in some form or another under the influence of tradition; dead men guide his hand even when he forgets that they ever existed. But, furthermore, he must get his ideas carried out by other men; no man can build a building with his own hands”. In other words, it isn’t just about the building of a house, but also, at a fundamental level, about the act of construction itself.

The German architect Walter Gropius, inspired by William Morris, but also by the emerging modernism school, established the Bauhaus in Weimar in Germany in 1919. The movement was hugely influential on modern design, with its simplified forms, harmony between an object or building’s function and its design, and focus on mass production. During its relatively short ascendency it produced some remarkable housing, schools and other buildings. Gropius, claimed it was apolitical but also said that his aim was to "to create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist."

His Marxist successor, Hannes Meyer, felt that the Bauhaus had lost its purpose and sought to move away from aesthetic considerations towards building designs based on the “life processes” of its future users. His new slogan was: “The people’s needs instead of the need for luxury!” Unfortunately, his politics led to his expulsion and he moved to the Soviet Union, but not before he had designed (with Hans Wittwer) one of the finest examples of functional architecture, the school of the ADGB (Federation of German Trade Unions) in Bernau near Berlin.

Less well known internationally, but no less significant, was the Vkhutemas, the Russian state art and technical school founded by Lenin in 1920. Both it and the Bauhaus were remarkably similar in their focus on modernising design and architectural education to reflect modern needs, under state sponsorship, merging craft traditions with modern technology. Unsurprisingly, the major artistic influences on the Vkhutemas were the constructivist and suprematist movements. Vladimir Tatlin's superb Monument to the Third International is a testament to their vision, with its futuristic ethos and revolutionary symbolism setting the tone for later projects.

CL Tatlins Tower 1919

Tatlin, Monument to the Third International

In the USSR, the ideological drive to forge a new socialist society, allied with rapid industrial development and accompanying migration from the countryside to the cities, combined to create a synthesis between radical art and architecture. The Constructivist movement created a number of highly innovative, large-scale housing developments, public buildings, leisure facilities and power stations, which were designed to create new forms of communal living, with shared spaces for eating and recreation.

A classic example is the Narkomfin Communal House in Moscow, built in 1930, which actually combined self-contained flats and integrated shared living spaces, reflecting the transitional nature of the times. It’s astonishing to reflect on how Constructivist architects created a new visual language in the face of material shortages, under-developed technology and a rapidly evolving political environment. Eventually, Constuctivism and similar experiments were abandoned when they were considered too advanced for the conditions that prevailed at the time. But this shouldn’t detract from the very real sense of energy and innovation that these movements expressed.

CG architecture image002

ADGB Trade Union School

What became known as Modernism synthesised many of these traditions at an international level and is the single most important new approach to architecture and design of the 20th century. It offered an analytical approach to function, innovation in structure and the elimination of ornament. It has produced many visually striking, and diverse, buildings, ranging from Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, beautifully integrated with the surrounding forest; Mies van der Rohe’s wonderful Barcelona Pavilion; Oscar Niemeyer’s futuristic civic buildings in Brasilia, which aimed to contribute to a new sense of collective identity and hope for the Brazilian people; Le Corbusier's government buildings in Chandigarh, India; the artistic complex developed over two decades on the south bank of the Thames, the Royal Festival Hall, Hayward Gallery and National Theatre; and Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton’s delightful Penguin Pool, London Zoo.

But if these buildings were realised in capitalist societies, what might architecture look like in a future socialist or communist society? Karl Marx was part of a western European cultural tradition which reflected a general optimism in the future of mankind, a belief in progress and the scope to build a better world. However, he said little about the actual shape such a society would take. He did not offer a coherent theory of architecture. But his writings reflect his understanding of the relationship between the country and the city and the effects of industrial urbanisation:

It [the bourgeoisie] has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put into the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades. The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society…The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cites, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and thus rescued a considerable part of the population from rural idiocy. - The Communist Manifesto.

The development of human society is inextricably linked with the development of the built environment. Walter Benjamin famously wrote in the The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction:
"Buildings have been man’s companions since primeval times. Many art forms have developed and perished . . . [But] architecture has never been idle. Its history is more ancient than that of any art, and its claim to being a living force has significance in every attempt to comprehend the relationship of the masses to art."

In one his conversations with Brecht, Benjamin said, “As a system of connectivity, the metropolis is formed by a boundless maze of indirect relationships, complex mutual dependencies and compartmentations.” The individual’s dialectical relationship with the society around him means that we have to understand modernism, and subsequent developments in architecture, not just in terms of the emergent materials and technologies which enable new forms of architectural expression, for example, reinforced concrete, steel frames and strengthened glass, but also with regard to the rapid urbanisation of populations across the world, which is one of the driving forces of capitalism. This suggest that architects have a clear responsibility to consider how the performance of their role impacts upon the structure and operation of future society.

In his Memoirs, Oscar Niemeyer, a key figure in modern architecture and a lifelong member of the Brazilian Communist Party, said, “Our concern is political too – to change the world...Architecture is my work, and I've spent my whole life at a drawing board, but life is more important than architecture. What matters is to improve human beings." The string of major works he produced over a long and productive life demonstrate how a progressive political vision can be combined with architectural boldness and radical urban planning.

We all have a fundamental right to urban spaces that work for our interests rather than against them. This includes efficient and low cost public transport; access to decent schools and hospitals; plenty of public spaces for recreation; effective distribution of good quality food and other necessaries; andaffordable, good quality housing. To deliver this means taking control over our lives, reclaiming cities for ourselves and implementing radical political changes which enable ordinary people to influence the shape of their urban environment.

This battle for ‘urban space’ is, of course, itself a product of economic and historical circumstances. Self-evidently, this is a class struggle as working class communities find themselves pitched against rapacious landlords and developers. Well-intentioned but often authoritarian and paternalistic attempts to clear slums and create model communities bump up against working class communities’ fight to assert their democratic rights and define urban space according to their needs. The continual search for profit and the capture of land value leads to ‘social cleansing’ as lower income communities are forced out of cities by the ongoing process of capital accumulation. Cities are explicitly redesigned in response to the threat of revolution, as in the rebuilding of Paris by Haussmann, or according to the demands of planners, bureaucrats and architects representing the interests of capital.

Marxist intellectuals and geographers such as Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey, have made a significant contribution to the discussion of the relationship between capitalism and urban space. Lefebvre coined the term, ‘the right to the city’ in 1968. He summarised it as a "demand...[for] a transformed and renewed access to urban life", where people exercise collective power to re-shape the very process of urbanisation in a way that underpins self-determination, the appropriation of social and physical spaces and the establishment of meaningful social relationships. For Lefebvre there was a dialectical relationship between urban reality and everyday activity (eg work, leisure, education and housing). By contrast with what are sometimes considered to be rather cold, modernist urban visions represented by architects and urban planners like Le Corbusier, his thinking offers a bottom-up approach based on the lived experiences of individuals which offers some useful pointers for the way forwards.
As David Cunningham and Jon Goodbun say in ‘’Marx, architecture and modernity’:

It is useful, therefore, to consider briefly what might be described as the three distinct tasks placed upon architectural knowledge in capitalist modernity. The first is to act as technicians of spatial development. Under capitalism, this is primarily the task of commodifying space. This is what the vast majority of architects spend the vast majority of their time involved in. The second task is a ‘poetic’ or artistic one, and is to do with somehow dealing with, expressing, intensifying or ameliorating the spatial experience of modernity. The third task is an utopian or avant-garde one, and is to do with imagining alternative socio-spatial futures. Although all three are always present in each other to some degree, there have been moments in the struggle over social space and its modes of production where the third task, imagining alternative socio-spatial futures, becomes an urgent part of defining the first task—the work to be done by everyday technicians of spatial development.

In a nutshell, aesthetics married to functionality has to be the cornerstone of a future architecture, where building for human needs and use, in harmony with the earth and not for profit, is the main objective. So, as we seek to advance the struggle for socialism, this leaves us with the following questions. How does architecture respond to global challenges such as population growth, climate change, growing inequality and environmental degradation? How can it embrace social activism and help tackle poverty in the urban environment? How do we ensure that it is not misused by the wealthy and the powerful to erect structures unrelated to the built environment and the social needs of the community as they seek to build monuments, and create icons, to their power?

We hope this article will stimulate further articles on architecture and socialism.

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