Sunday, 18 February 2024 10:57

The need for counter-currents: 'Class and Culture', by the Communist Party of Britain

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The need for counter-currents: 'Class and Culture', by the Communist Party of Britain

The CPB recently published a short pamphlet with brief essays or 'provocations' on a sample of cultural activities, which is available to download below. Here, Jim Aitken reviews it.

This timely publication by the Communist Party of Britain comes out as the Arts Council of England (ACE) has just advised the organisations it funds to be wary of ‘overtly political or activist statements.’ While trying to maintain that ACE still supports freedom of expression, it tends to look a lot more like censorship.

Culture is now a battleground. It always has been, of course, but now this has become more heightened than ever before. There are several reasons for this. The first one is that capitalism won the Cold War, and rather than usher in an era of peace and prosperity for all, other enemies have been found to keep the lucrative arms industries happy. Not only that, but we can all see how the insatiable drive for more and more profit has destroyed our public services in order to maintain those profits. And in this mix conservative philistinism has also seen fit to cut arts spending as well.

Politically, since the end of the Cold War, the reformist parties have all moved further to the right. We see this with Labour today and we should recall that the party of Rosa Luxemburg, the SPD, though now in power in Germany, had previously been part of Angela Merkel’s CPD coalition government.

For Conservatives, the victory over the Soviet Union meant a victory politically, economically and culturally. And while the world economy is clearly capitalist in orientation and run politically by capitalist-minded politicians, the irritant for such people is that there is still far too much thought around that is socialist. It seems too many people are just far too decent and consider others as well as themselves. And regardless of how powerful and secure Capital may feel, inequality and the struggle for better wages will always endure and working people will always make up their own minds politically.

This is why culture today is such a contentious issue. In many respects it is the last bastion for alternative thought. Several contributors to Class and Culture stress that culture is a weapon in the class struggle. Scott Alsworth, however, in the section A Virtual World to Win, goes further by saying that ‘Culture is important not just because it unites us but because it’s an inviolable arena, belonging to the mind.’

It is almost like the Conservatives are saying that we should all be conservative in our thinking now. And that socialist, communist or even liberal thought is so last century, so passé. This is why there is a culture war going on today and this is why culture should always be allied to class as it is in this publication.

It was unfortunate that only a pamphlet could be produced by the CP since the topic of class and culture is so vast. Essentially, this is what the literary and cultural theorist Terry Eagleton has been writing about his entire academic life. Nonetheless, this pamphlet should start important discussions around this vital issue.

There are 10 areas covered in Class and Culture, all written it seems, by men which is unfortunate. The view of women is crucial here since their lives are so often under-represented in the cultural field or more invariably misrepresented.  A woman’s voice could have addressed this.

The topics covered range from the demand for cultural democracy that cites the thorny issue of access within an unequal society, to funding for classical music, poetry, literature, television, the virtual world, the bourgeois press, popular cinema, religion and the position of state monopoly capitalism.

All pieces are insightful and well analysed but it was disappointing that there was little mention of the role theatre can play in the class and cultural struggle. The recent TV drama Mr Bates v The Post Office (this may have come out after the pamphlet came out) is a case in point. This drama had the Tories on the clear defensive in Parliament. There was no reference to the Small Axe dramas by Steve McQueen on the difficulties that faced the Windrush generation on their arrival here. Similarly, the TV drama It’s a Sin by Russell T Davies explored what it was like for the gay community during the AIDS crisis.

There was no mention of how more popular music has impacted on the sense of how divisive society is, and the music of, say, Public Enemy or Stormzy not only reaches black audiences but white ones too. Everyone who reads this pamphlet will no doubt realise other omissions but the pamphlet itself is responsible for this because it engages in the way that it does.

Kevin Patrick McCann tells us in Poetry Matters of a desire for a ‘poetry of dissent, of rebellion, of revolution’ and he makes the point that ‘poetry is as natural as breathing.’ What militates against this as far as the ‘hostility to poetry from ordinary people’ is concerned ‘is the result of bad teaching.’ The education system is also picked up by Eddie Maguire when he tells us that the bourgeois press ‘continues the work that the education system has started.’

It was alarming to read that workers in the gaming industry can work more that 80-hour weeks without overtime payments and have to sleep in their offices during intense spells. And both the Army and arms manufacturers are involved in this industry with the Army actually advertising to gamers, ‘Binge gamers, the army needs your drive.’ And the games industry also reinforces racist stereotyping with good guys and bad guys with the bad guys ‘generic Middle Eastern terrorists. Or Iranians. Or nowadays, the Chinese or Russians.’ 

James Crossley in Religion and Culture argues convincingly that religion should be opposed to ‘reactionary and oppressive tendencies in all religions’ while at the same time promoting ‘freedom of religious belief.’ This is clearly true, but I couldn’t help thinking that Crossley missed an opportunity to take on the Christian nationalists in the US and elsewhere who act as a theological front for US imperialism. Just as culture is a weapon in the struggle, so too is religion.

It was also heartening that Maguire saw fit to make clear his republican credentials. Too often on the left it is assumed that republicanism is embedded but this is not always made explicit. Maguire bemoaned the large crowds mourning the late Queen and realises that royalty is an ‘excellent example of cultural hegemony.’ This was well said.

The Civilisation series that Kenneth (not Alan) Clark produced for TV in 1969 was informative, as Brent Cutler says in A Marxist Critique of Television. However, its patrician manner and elitist pronouncements so enraged John Berger that he wrote Ways of Seeing (1972) as a riposte. In this book he cut right through the mystification of all the professional art critics like Lord Kenneth Clark. It is Berger’s book that has enabled millions of people to look at and appreciate art for themselves by concentrating simply on how we look at paintings. It is Berger’s book that has undoubtedly had the greater effect. Berger, of course, was a socialist and Clark was not.

This pamphlet will hopefully create a great deal of discussion.  That must surely be its ambition and by linking culture to class the pamphlet deserves a wide focus. Alsworth spoke of there being ‘counter-currents’ within the gaming industry and there needs to be counter-currents created in all the arts. And these counter-currents must seek to link up with one another. Just as the ruling class fights on all fronts, including culture, linking the counter-currents in the arts becomes the challenge ahead. 

One final aspect occurs and that is the fact that we live in a multicultural society. Cultural links obviously have to be made across all areas because all cultures face the same issues of chronic underfunding. Not only that but some groups in society face racism and where that happens solidarity has to be shown. Cultures of the world, unite!

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Jim Aitken

Jim Aitken is a poet and dramatist living and working in Edinburgh. He is a tutor in Scottish Cultural Studies with Adult Education and he organises literary walks around the city.