Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (117)

Class and Culture: Provocations for Cultural Democracy
Wednesday, 28 February 2024 19:37

Class and Culture: Provocations for Cultural Democracy

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Dr. Fran Lock, shortlisted for the 2023 TS Eliot Poetry Prize, writes about ACE's recent advice to cultural organisations, and the recent pamphlet Class And Culture: Provocations For Cultural Democracy, available to download below.

I began writing this review of CPB's recent short pamphlet, Class And Culture: Provocations For Cultural Democracy in the wake of Arts Council England's bizarre “advice” to arts organisations to be cautious of: “overtly political or activist” statements made by individuals who may be linked with them; suggesting in typically mealy-mouthed fashion that any expression of those personal political beliefs may expose arts organisations to “reputational risk” that could jeopardize funding arrangements.

This “advice” comes as part of a series of updates made at the end of January to the council’s 2023–26 Relationship Framework policies, which outline the conditions required for ACE support. It goes on to stipulate that “reputational risk” can be generated not only by the organisations themselves, but by staff or by any other individual associated with the organisation “acting in a personal capacity.” Not just a press, say, but their individual authors. In effect, ACE are strong-arming small press publishers (and other struggling arts organisations) to police their current and prospective lists, selecting work and awarding opportunity on the basis of corporate compliance as opposed to passion, originality, or any kind of artistic merit.

Much like the government's disastrous Prevent Strategy – which aimed to root out a poorly defined “extremism” by forcing teachers to spy on and report pupils at risk of “being radicalised” from organisations as diverse as Isis and the Animal Liberation Front – this is a grubby and ill-conceived tactic that can only create a climate of mistrust, close up the space of debate, and smother the legitimate expression of political opinion. It is also a tactic that will do irreparable harm to female, black, brown, queer, trans, crip, gyp, poor and working-class creatives, whose mere presence in the cultural sphere is inescapably politicised before they – before we – even open our mouths.

As many have rightly pointed out, the catalyst for this particular ACE update is doubtless the ongoing humanitarian crisis in occupied Palestine and the urgent moral imperative for artists to speak out against Israeli apartheid. It signals a desperate attempt to regain control of the mainstream pro-Israeli narrative, and to quell – or if not to quell, at least to silence – pro-Palestinian support through the backchannel of arts and culture.

Fewer commentators have made the link between ACE's update and the government's recently announced changes to the Criminal Justice Bill (8th Feb). The Bill further empowers police and criminalises protesters. Under new legislation protesters who cover their face can now be arrested and may face charges of up to £1000 or months in prison. Demonstrators will no longer be able to cite the right to protest in defence of peaceful direct actions such as roadblocks, lock-ons or sit-ins; police are now empowered to stop and search protesters for items such as padlocks and superglue, if – and I quote – they “suspect they are setting out to cause chaos”. I would argue that restricting freedom of political expression through the arts is the other half of a pincer manoeuvre designed to crush both direct and indirect forms of dissent. We should all be deeply troubled by this.

I would also add that hostility from cultural elites, governments, and funding bodies to politically committed art is hardly new. ACE et al. have nothing to gain from supporting people and projects that challenge their traditional business model; most major publishers are wary of any literature that openly and explicitly acknowledges the politics of its own oppression. A tangential and minor side-effect of the crisis in occupied Palestine is that it has brought into focus for a number of people the political basis upon which opportunities and resources within the arts and literature are awarded or withheld.

The Council's updates to its Relationship Framework policies at such a pivotal cultural moment has rendered their centrist political biases clearly and painfully visible. I feel two ways about this: on the one hand, it allows us, as cultural workers, to collectively acknowledge, name and resist a besetting unfairness. On the other, the fact that ACE felt secure enough to draft and openly announce these updates says something rather worrying about the current state of culture. While it's heartening that ACE's updates met with such spirited push-back, it's concerning that no such push-back was expected.

Class and Culture

All of this by way of preamble to the timely Class and Culture: Provocations For Cultural Democracy, which is an accessible, galvanising, sometimes fascinating exploration of culture, not merely as the medium through which the work of ideology flows, but as a vital, joy-giving force in the lives of working-class people, and as a potential site of radical resistance. As Mike Quille rightly points out in Creating Cultural Democracy, cultural production of all kinds provides a way of bringing people together and offers a place to 'imagine alternatives'. Which is, of course, why elites want us nowhere near it.

Of the ten areas covered in Class and Culture, my first port of call was Poetry Matters by Kevin Patrick McCann, which outlines not only the way in which working-class people are excluded from access to poetry, but also the methods by which working-class poets are assimilated, de-fanged, and tokenised. As McCann pithily puts it:

You can be a rebel and attack glaring injustices; just don't attack the real causes of those injustices. For example, you can attack racism as long as you don't make the connection between racism and the class system.

I've recently had a real window into how arts organisations laud representational triumphs in areas of gender, sexuality, and race, while ignoring the deep systemic (class-based) inequalities that create (and are inherent and structural features of) sexism, racism and homophobia. It suits elite institutions to position “otherness” as an identity category tied to marketable forms of visible difference, as opposed to challenging the structural production of otherness by and through the class system.

McCann's essay rightly points out how a representational model of inclusion allows institutions to nobble the political effectiveness of individual poets via awards and opportunities. This tactic allows organisations to pay lip service to the idea of diversity by granting limited participation for some inside of the systems that oppress us. It tricks us into thinking that the expansion of those systems to include more of us is a victory, when we would all be better served by working towards their destruction. As the recipient of such an award you serve a double purpose: in the first instance you function as a rebuttal to accusations of institutional inequality. The organisation in question can't be racist/ sexist/ homophobic/ classist because look at the black/ female/ queer/ working-class poet they just gave that grant to!

These are not cheerful thoughts, but the essay contains much enlivening material. Drawing on his vast experience as a teacher in a variety of contexts, McCann offers a persuasive and moving account of the transformational power of poetry in the lives of marginalised people. A key theme in this essay is how simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary poetry is. It is ordinary in that it springs out of everyday experience, and extraordinary in that allows for the authorship and articulation of that experience – often for the first time. McCann's contention is not that poetry provides a catharsis which allows people to endure the unendurable. Rather, that it creates the space and the language in which to resist the unendurable, to put into words both our grievances and our grief. In schools, in community centres, and in prisons, it has the potential to restore dignity and voice to the voiceless.

McCann contrasts the innate radicalism of poetry to the way in which it is often taught in schools, where successive generations of Tory “reforms” have routinised and shrunk the teaching of poetry to a loveless conveyor-belt curriculum where students are rewarded for the relentless memorising of disconnected facts, and discouraged from developing any kind of lively or critical conversation with and about literature. One of the things that's so great about McCann's essay is that it exposes the ideological basis behind this marginalisation of poetry in education. How it is used to demean and replace the lively and various languages of working-class people with that of their oppressors; how it limits and controls through language what can be thought, and thus robs us of a sense of our own history, our own traditions, aesthetics and identity; and how it confirms the lie that poetry is not for us, is the solely the fruit of middle-class literary production.

McCann's essay contains practical suggestions for countering this theft of art and culture through mutuality and cooperation towards an alternative socialist media, which highlights both the need for and effectiveness of grassroots networks of poets and poetry organisations. This feels significant at a time when the arts – and poetry in particular – is being forced to conform to the logics of the marketplace. An ever greater number of us compete for fewer opportunities, as budgets are slashed, funding withdrawn, and jobs are cut. This essay shows how we might build foundational solidarities upon which to grow an alternative publishing culture. But the essay also makes a pressing case for the need for financial support, and for that to happen organisations such as trade unions and the TUC must recognise the cultural front as not merely a minor or secondary site of struggle, but central to the building of a fairer society.

The mediocrity of millions

I found McCann's essay paired perfectly with Scott Alsworth's Reclaiming Literature, which I read immediately afterwards. Alsworth exposes the mechanisms through which literature has become increasingly marketised. This marketisation permeates every stage of the process, from craft (the formal and thematic choices an author makes, and what guides them) through to publication and promotion. Again, this was an essay that struck a profound chord with me, having seen from up-close the corporate shenanigans he identifies play out in real time. Like McCann, Alsworth is a rousing writer, and his observations have real bite:

Today's bestsellers, with a few noteworthy exceptions, are a pulp testimony to the mediocrity of millions. Literary fame is often engineered.

One of the most disheartening things about being a working-class writer within elite literary space is the realisation that you are beholden to chance – and to whims and trends you have no hope of influencing – in a way that your middle-class peers cannot and will never understand. Literary success is not a meritocracy, but a lottery. If you cannot or will not submit to the operating logics of the marketplace, then “success” inside that system becomes vanishingly unlikely. As a practical for instance, I frequently have conversations with horrified students who cannot conceive of a career path that doesn't involve a literary agent. I've had occasion to be frustrated, watching young, middle-class people attempt to leap-frog the stages myself and other working-class writers had to grind through so painfully; getting their collection in front of publishers before they'd submitted to more than a handful of magazines, or honed their craft as an open-mic reader. We inhabit a literary culture marked by incestuousness and nepotism; working-class presses often have zero distribution, no funding, no hype, and no connections to leverage. We're forced to take the long way round, which costs us an enormous amount of extra, invisible labour.

How heartening, then, to read Alsworth writing that 'Great ideas don't die' and exhorting us to 'reclaim the creative high-ground', to remember that 'some of the greatest writers in this country have been card-holding communists.' and that 'Ours is a proud cultural legacy, and it's one we can leverage'.

This idea of an alternative communist tradition of literature feels important. It is a reminder that we are not, in fact, powerless; that the game can be played by an entirely other set of rules. Alsworth has useful suggestions for building and strengthening our own coterie of writers: I like the idea of a communist journal of creative writing, but I'm also very taken with his and McCann's notion of accessible workshops and lectures from left-leaning practitioners and academics. It seems that teaching is at the core of developing a strong, active communist literature.

What would happen, I wonder, if were able to make available, not just creative writing workshops that dealt with the nuts and bolts of participants' writing, but short lectures on pivotal figures within our own radical literary traditions? What about online communist reading groups, teaching ways of looking at text, and reclaiming them from the often arid and ahistorical tedium of the classroom? I'm getting ahead of myself, but both essays contain exciting provocations that certainly deserve further conversation.

The radical potential of video games

Having quickly exhausted my area of expertise I moved off into more unfamiliar territory, sticking with Alsworth, who's writing I find immensely engaging, and who turns his attention to the virtual/ digital world in A Virtual World to Win. As an outsider to the sphere of gaming, this essay contained much that was new and surprising to me, not least gaming's originating and ongoing link with the military-industrial complex, via the US Department of Defence in ways that eerily echo Hollywood's relationship with the same. Alsworth writes about the exploitation of games industry workers, but also about the direct and indirect militarisation of video games, and their increasingly worrying status as vehicles for neoliberal – particularly anti-Marxist – ideology.

This is a grounded essay, rooted in deep insider knowledge and a clear love of the genre. It usefully triangulates political ideology, economics, and creative cultural output, bringing into focus the causal relationships between the dominant (capitalist) ideology, the conditions of the workplace, and the creative decisions of the studios. It also does much to convincingly highlight the radical potential of video games, an active and interactive art-form with the power to stimulate ethical engagement, but which is currently being hijacked, diverted and distorted along commercial and politically dubious lines.

What I found especially interesting, however, was the note of hope this essay sounded, citing the strides being made by cooperative studios to model alternative forms of work that have relevance outside the gaming industry as well as within it; I was excited to read about the activism of the Games Workers Union to open the way for a combined, collaborative pooling of skills in order to 'establish at least one video games studio, run as a workers' collective for peace and socialism'. The message is very much that the tools are already at our disposal, it only remains for us to seize them.

Precarity in the creative industries

The other essay in the pamphlet that really spoke to me was Ben Lunn's Arts Funding In Britain For Classical Music, which sounds dry, but is in fact an incisive case study on inequality of access and provision across the UK. More than this, it shows how the same funding bodies hijack and repurpose the language of 'anti-elitism' to their own ends, using it to justify closures and cuts to struggling projects and institutions – Lunn cites both Glyndebourne and Britten Sinfonia (which recently lost the entirety of its NPO funding) as examples of this 'insidious' tendency (Lunn's word, but an entirely appropriate one, I think). Lunn cares passionately about classical music, and the desire to restore to working-class people an aspect of cultural production from which they have been disinherited is clearly a powerful driving force in this essay.

While the essay maintains a detail-oriented focus on classical music throughout, Lunn's conclusions have far-reaching implications across the arts. One point that particularly struck me was the need for equality of access to education across the regions, and to 'a variety of idioms, aesthetics, styles and sensibilities'. This last feels especially significant to me, having witnessed firsthand the shoehorning of working-class creativity into one or two narrowly predetermined forms. Full cultural participation means a free choice from a range of options, not selectively editing which art forms are for poor and working-class people, and which are beyond the scope of our enjoyment or understanding.

Lunn also rightly calls for more fully contracted work that protects those working in the cultural industries. Again, there's not a working-class creative practitioner alive who would argue with that, working, as we tend to, at least one none-creative job to make ends meet. And name me one other sector where (true story) you are paid “if possible” at the end of April for a job you did at the beginning of March. The precarity of creative (and academic) jobs, the cost-of-living crisis, the continued utilities and rent hikes all contribute to our having to prioritise stable, paid work, effectively excluding us from and exhausting us for the practice of our art. This situation needs to be redressed urgently.

Lunn's other major contention is that any future vision for the arts needs to be led by artists and not by “arts managers”, who are guided by financial as opposed to artistic concerns. Again, I read in this a call to leverage the knowledge we already possess as artists, activists and workers and take control of our own cultural production.

Marxist approaches to the cinema and television

While I enjoyed Nathan Le-Bas' People's Modernism: A Marxist Approach to Cinema I would have welcomed perhaps a companion essay, looking at the visual culture of contemporary cinema, and reflecting on the position of cultural workers within the industry. How do the big studios co-opt the visual language and thematic concerns of dissenting cultures and social justice movements, only to reduce them to empty tropes? How does the narrative message of much neoliberal cinema sit awkwardly with many its employment practices – I'm thinking particularly here about the language of “empowerment”? I'd have been interested to read something along those lines too. Le-Bas' essay offers us a template for critically engaging with the history and language of the cinema; it reinvigorates a Marxist method of reading cultural texts that is in itself valuable, but I do think it would be greatly enhanced by a sister essay covering a few or more of the topics I just mentioned.

Similarly, Brent Cutler's piece, A Marxist Critique of Television left me wanting more. Cutler absolutely nails the increasingly negative portrayal of left-leaning (let alone communist) causes and characters in both drama and documentary strands of mainstream television. I have also been greatly troubled by this. In drama, communism is often presented as – at best – an anachronistic class-war agenda that detracts from neoliberal identitarian struggles such as the oppression of women or of black people. Never mind (once more with feeling) that racism and sexism are inherent and structural features of the class system and vis-versa.

My most uncomfortable brush with this tendency came while watching ITV's heavily fictionalised biopic of Kim Philby called A Spy Amongst Friends, where their ordinary-woman insert character was used to hammer home the message – with all the subtlety of a lump hammer – that you don't need communism because you can apply to join the system that abuses you and change it slowly from the inside over a period of decades, and all it will cost you is a lifetime's dedication to a soul-destroying corporate and political structure that hates you. This is presented as some kind of fabulous victory. I digress, but Cutler's essay is sharp on how ideology shapes narrative in line with neoliberal/ capitalist ideology and aspirations, and he rightly holds up the BBC's recent output for special criticism in this regard.

What's missing, however, is an account of the socialist creatives currently working in television who do amazing work. How effective are they at pushing back against this trend? To what extent have they been co-opted, compromised or tokenised by the system in which they work? Where can we go to find truly positive representations of working-class people and of communists?

It was also striking that the essay included no mention of the proliferation of (predominantly American) streaming services, and how this shapes engagement with and expectations of mainstream television. Do we take our lead from popular American TV shows, and does this slant narrative bias toward a neoliberal consensus? Is there a perception that older (thus supposedly more conservative) people are the only ones watching mainstream/ terrestrial television, and how does this influence thematic and narrative content? Finally, I'd also have been interested to read something about the role television plays in either opening the past to greater scrutiny, or in creating revisionist versions of our history in line with current centre-right mores. It's sound stuff, I just wish there was more of it!

The heart of a heartless world

James Crossley tackles the often thorny issue of spirituality in Religion and Culture, and I read this piece with great interest, especially as a current project of Culture Matters is a collection of poems on the insurrectionary nature of Christ's teaching, and the radical (revolutionary) love espoused by Christ and Mary Magdalene. I came to this essay hoping to be inspired.

And mostly I was. Crossley does a great job of teasing apart the way organised religion in particular has been used by elites to advance or obfuscate various political agendas, and I found myself nodding vigorously to this passage in particular:

It's in the interests of the ruling class to stress religious motivations for acts of terror (usually worded in terms of a 'perversion of Islam' or the like) at the expense of discussing the complexity of causes. This is because a primary focus on 'perverted' forms of religious motivation avoids implicating the actions of the ruling class.

While Crossley cites the example of radical Islam, this tactic is achingly familiar to me from the conflict in the North of Ireland, which even now is frequently presented in purely religious and sectarian terms. Crossley also writes with great clarity about how religion had been harnessed towards both reactionary and progressive ends, and he quotes one of my favourite passages of Marx, writing that religious suffering can be:

…the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

I was happy to read this passage in full. Often it is abbreviated to that last sentence alone, which is then misapplied to heap scorn on the spiritual aspirations of poor and working-class people. This is not what Marx meant. Rather, as Crossley writes, religion in a heartless world can represent a search and a striving for something better; religion points to a pressing need to 'understand the material conditions which give rise to its role'.

I certainly endorse the suggestion at the end of the essay to bolster and continue a lively critical discourse around religion and the way in which it is used to mobilise support and to justify the political decisions of various regimes. If anything, I feel this point might have been made with even greater force, given the rise of an increasingly intolerant, increasingly empowered religious right in both America and Europe. I also agree that it's time to acknowledge and promote the progressive role religion has played in shaping British history, but again this feels more pressing and potentially valuable than the essay gives credit for, especially given how many of our earliest radical and dissenting communities grew out of religious movements. Somewhere down the road I'd love to see a practical discussion about how we might bring this kind of education into schools and social/ community spaces.

Something else I thought might be useful for future discussion is the rise of various online wellness brands and spirituality/health gurus. I've been particularly struck over the last five years or so, by the ways in which these charlatans link spiritual seeking to the neoliberal cult of self-improvement via the worst aspects of predatory capitalism. Clearly, there is an unmet spiritual need, particularly amongst young women. I've been thinking a lot lately about the kinds of socialist fellowship that might offer an appealing alternative.

The economic, political and cultural struggles

Finally, with all these different thoughts swirling in my head I returned to the essays Misinformed: Monopoly Press and Bourgeois Hegemony by Alan McGuire and the final piece Culture Matters to State Monopoly Capitalism by Ron Brown, both of which are needle-sharp on exposing the nuts and bolts of ideological manipulation through various media channels, and offering practical suggestions to resist and counter these manipulations. What is heartening in both essays is that resistance is based upon mutual support across three key fronts – economic, political, and cultural – and builds on work already underway to recognise and integrate the cultural field into the struggle more broadly. While these essays provide a sense of the work still to do, they also offer encouragement in acknowledging how far we have come.

And that's where I'll leave things, for now. To sum up, 'provocations' feels like the most useful word here: while there are some areas that seem to beg further, deeper, more detail-oriented discussion, and while I would have welcomed more women's voices/ perspectives, what the pamphlet does provide is useful, timely and energising. All in all, it’s a great base to build on.

 

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

Vienna: city of contrasts and contradictions
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Friday, 26 January 2024 10:18

Vienna: city of contrasts and contradictions

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Dennis Broe gives us a brief tour of Vienna: its history, museums and galleries. Above image: the restored Wien Museum, site of a city grappling with its past 

What to say about Vienna? A divided city, poised between a gleaming future, voted in poll after poll the most livable city in the world, as a result of its socialist and social democratic reforms, and a torturous past, with both an absorbing intellectual and cultural tradition, in large part thanks to its Jewish population and a breeding ground for antisemitism and perhaps cradle of the Zionist worldview that is currently inflaming the Middle East, or, in the view of the global South, West Asia.

All these aspects of the city were on view this last holiday season as the city opened new museums devoted to its history. There was the newly restored Wien Museum, which did its best to question and foreground aspects of the city’s troubled past, and the Strauss House, a privately owned monument to the three Strauss family members of composers and musicians who had a popular tune, often a waltz, for every occasion. These included “The Revolution March” for the 1848 uprising which saw barricades in front of the city’s most famous landmark, St. Stephen's Cathedral, and the “Demolition Polka” written at the time of the pulling down of the medieval city wall to create the modern ring.

That work was done mostly by migrants, shipped in and then shipped out as the work was finished with the dust from the wall causing pulmonary tuberculosis, called the “Viennese disease,” in the workers and residents for the next five decades after the mid-1850s, and recalling the U.S. use of Chinese to perform the dangerous work of building the intercontinental railroad in the Sierra Nevadas where many of them perished and where, like that on the ring, their work was never acknowledged.

Döbling Wien Karl Marx Hof

Red Vienna: Karl-Marx-Hof, built between 1927 and 1933

The city’s reputation as the most livable in Europe begins with affordable housing, with 40 percent of all housing either public or subsidized by the city, and 60 percent of all tenants living in these homes. It was during the time of Red Vienna, following World War I, that large scale housing was built for the city’s poorest. They moved out of the hovels that barely sheltered them to modern apartments with electric and gas, then and now supplied by publicly owned utility companies, like the majestic and cheap transit system consisting of subways, buses and trolleys seamlessly crisscrossing the city.

As in any global city, public housing is now being contested with the omnipresent cranes, the sign of new private apartment complexes and condos being erected. As the Wien puts it, housing “is becoming a commodity” and, as the exhibit said disapprovingly “fixation on ownership does nothing to foster solidarity.”

Vienna 2 

Ominous cranes dot the landscape 

The city continues to be one of the great centres for both performing and visual arts, especially music. The latter was on display at the Vienna Concert Hall where the Vienna Symphony under the baton of 83-year-old conducting phenomenon Christoph Eschenbach performed a spirited, energetic, and passionate rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Opus 35. It was led by Bloomington Indiana’s own Joshua Bell’s superb phrasings on an equally spirited violin, followed by a more conventional number from the opera Eugene Onegin and the holiday staple Ballet-Suite from The Nutcracker.

On display also was Raphael’s tapestry designs at the Kunsthistorisches (Art History) Museum, one of which featured the evangelist Paul getting help from above to strike down a rich man who refused to share his wealth. This gave the lie in the present to the latest neoliberal guilt-assuaging mechanism known as Effective Altruism, which in Sam Bankman Fried mode simply translates as “steal as much as you can and give a little back loudly.” Then there was Michelangelo’s anatomically perfect male nudes at the Albertina, culminating in a room full of Egon Schile’s twisted contorted male and female nudes, the expression of desperate sexuality in a world, amidst the first World War, in pain and chaos.  

A Tortured History

Behind every great fortune is a great crime, and Vienna’s fortune was founded on kidnapping and ransom. In the 12th century Richard the Lionheart, returning from mass looting during the Crusades, was discovered in disguise and captured when he used gold coins lifted from the Byzantine empire. His British kingdom paid a huge amount to redeem him and it was with this money that Vienna built its city walls.

Speculation in the city also reached a frenzy when the crash of the Viennese stock market in 1873 triggered a global recession that also devastated the U.S. economy, and resulted in a rapid monopolization and the Gilded Age era of the robber barons.

The city does unfortunately have a history of rabid anti-Semitism, openly paraded during the fin-de-siecle administration of its mayor Karl Lueger. Lueger, founder of the Christian Social Democracy Party, did bring the city’s utilities—transportation, gas, water and electricity—under public control but he rationalized these takeovers by xenophobic means as a method of warding off British attempts at controlling the city.

Vienna’s globally famous culture was defined by the likes in psychology of Freud’s psychoanalysis and discovery of the unconscious, in drama by, according to Freud, his “double,” Arthur Schnitzler, by the Expressionism of painters like Max Oppenheimer, whose work is on display at the Leopold, and Oscar Kokoschka (at the Albertina modern), and in music with the twelve-tone discordant compositions of Arnold Schoenberg, an explanation of which is on display at the Schoenberg Center, all originating from a Jewish milieu. At the same time, and possibly as a reaction, Lueger gave open expression to Jewish stereotyping and enflamed prejudice.

Two of the city’s most famous one-time residents were formed in this crucible. Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, which is currently threatening to lead the world into a full-scale war in West Asia (The Middle East), originally favored assimilation for Vienna’s Jewish population. However, because of the virulence of the antisemitism in the city he turned instead to embracing a Jewish separatist homeland and state – now the apartheid state of Israel.

The other famous visitor, from his hometown in Linz, was Adolf Hitler, who arrived in the city during the last three years of Lueger’s reign and hatched his own lethal form of antisemitism.

There is a statue of Lueger at the Volksoper (the People’s Opera), which the mayor helped found and which over the holidays revived an operetta from the time of the Nazi invasion ,overlaid with a contemporary plot about its Jewish producers and directors’ fear of what will happen to them.

The more interesting Lueger statue though sits opposite the MAK, the Museum of Applied Arts, which boasted a fascinating exhibition highlighting both the creativity and wastefulness of fashion and the textile industry which alongside the arms industry and the Pentagon accounts for over 10 percent of the worlds CO2 and 20 percent of its water pollution.

Vienna 3 

The Lueger Statue graffitied 

The statue presents a heroic Lueger posed atop the workers of the city of whom he claimed to be their champion. The interesting thing about the statue though is that in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and defaming of slave traders’ statues in Europe, it has graffiti markings all over it. The back of the statue has the word “Nazi” scrawled on it and the front says, “I never felt so free,” markings made in 2022. The city left both the statue and the graffiti, a fitting way of both displaying and commenting on this conflicted and tortured period of its history.

The Not-So-Distant Nazi Past

According to the Wien Museum, when in 1938 the Nazis marched into the city, even they were surprised by the virulence with which the Viennese persecuted and robbed its Jewish population. As detailed in the 2023 novel The Vienna Writers’ Circle, Freud, before leaving the city, was required to provide a complete accounting of everything he owned. Today, visitors to the Freud Museum will find much of his collection of African and other artifacts which he was forced to leave when he moved to London.

This systematic looting was carried out by the vacuously named “Department of Property Transactions” and included stealing artworks, particularly by Max Oppenheimer and Oscar Kokoschka. Oppenheimer’s abundant and important work was sidelined because it had to be left when he fled (there is a painting in the Wien donated by a Gestapo officer) and Kokoschka’s pioneering Expressionist work was drained of its energy in exile, except for a brief anti-fascist mural period during the war.

Vienna 4 

Max Oppenheimer, whose career was disrupted and paintings were looted by the Nazis

The novel, whose central characters are a pair of upper middle-class Jewish writers, who were part of Freud’s circle which met regularly at Café Mozart, details an identity change ring to erase their Jewish past so they can continue writing and publishing under their new Aryan names. Except for one major incident though – as Chekhov says when a gun appears in the first act it must go off in the final act and this one does – theirs is a passive resistance. It contrasts with a recent article in The Guardian which describes the work of a Viennese woman in exile as part of the Communist-led Österreichische Freiheitsfront, the Austrian Liberation Front, where women, who could carry messages more easily, constituted the communications connective tissue of a group that actively gathered information and ultimately helped sabotage German factories.

This past is now being questioned, but in some ways the questioning is muted, a testimony to the persistence of the Nazi past. At the Wien, there is a room where the story is told of an attempt at denazification which quickly is snuffed out. However, the information is concealed behind a series of closed doors, so visitors opening the doors will get the story of the restoration of the past – but those not wanting to hear the story can simply walk through the room without opening the doors.

There was a similar reticence in the Natural History Museum’s exhibit “The Changing Arctic,” which is very good on the shrinking of the Arctic to the point where the continent now absorbs half the solar energy it did in 1980, and in pointing out that the Austrian Alps are expected to be entirely free of ice in the next 50 years.

However, there is not a word in the exhibit about the geopolitical strategic nature of the continent as the source of now more easily mineable minerals. Siberia, the largest bordering land mass, was seen as the grand prize if the U.S. proxy war in Ukraine on Russia had succeeded in breaking up the country.

The story told behind closed doors at the Wien is devastating. The denazification period effectively ended in 1947-48 when the Allies (U.S., British, French) started the Cold War, with the new enemy being the U.S.S.R. The story quickly changed in Austria from its citizens lining the streets to support Hitler, to Austria being the first victim of Hitler.

What followed was a rapid re-entry of former Nazis back into power. The Albertina Modern for example details how Oscar Kokoschka had to go into exile, but a lesser Expressionist artist Herbert Boeckl who joined the Nazi Party in 1941. In 1946 he was censored for failing to register as a former party member, but by 1952 was reinstated and represented Austria at that year’s Venice Biennale, the top national honor for any artist.

The actress Paula Wessely, star of the Nazi film Homecoming which justified the invasion of Poland, by 1948 was playing a half-Jewish victim of the Gestapo. When a bombed-out and then rebuilt Staatsoper, the national opera house, reopened in 1955, the opening night conductor of Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio was Karl Bohm, a Nazi sympathizer who the Allies had banned from public appearances.

This year’s world-renowned Vienna Symphony New Year’s concert featured a long video intermission about two boys who romp in the town of Linz over the music of Anton Bruckner in this, his centennial year. However, the lilting green fields and the mediaeval churches never hint that this, Hitler’s hometown, was the site of a massive German wartime arms industry. The Wien does an excellent job at disgorging this history – but it’s one that in its display is still kept in the closet.

Peace and Death

Finally, two exhibits summed up where we are today and where we have come in 2023. The first, “Peace,” at the Judenplatz Museum in the square that houses a memorial to the Jewish dead in the Holocaust, had an excellent piece by a Palestinian artist literalizing the prophet Isaiah’s words about transforming swords into ploughshares, with a rifle on top that then transmutes into a shovel below.

The museum points out that the Hebrew word for peace “shalom” and the Arab word “salam” are nearly the same, but then also features an exhibit with the Oslo Accords, which were supposedly the blueprint for a Palestinian state, written on toilet paper – which is exactly what they have been consigned to.

The problem with the exhibit though is that at various points it presents peace as a thing of the past, after October 7th in Israel and after the Russian special military operation in Ukraine. These events the museum states have “destroyed all prospects for peace for the time being.” This is false. At the moment when peace becomes a political issue, i.e. a ceasefire in Gaza and a negotiated settlement in Ukraine taking Russia into account in any consideration of European security, the museum denies its efficacy, which leads one to conclude that peace was not a real position but only a politically expedient one, used in the museum world to solicit funds.

A far more telling summing up of 2023 was to be had at The Dom, the museum of St Stephen’s Cathedral, whose exhibit “Being Mortal” might rather simply be titled “Death,”. And 2023 was a year not of peace but of death, in Ukraine, in Israel, in Gaza, with more death on the way as we usher in 2024 in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Iran and with a potentially new killing field involving global war in Taiwan.

The images in the Dom are startling. There are James Ensor’s skeletons seeking warmth in his 1896 “Death Chasing a Flock of Mortals”; Max Beckman’s 1916 frail, stretched-out victims of World War I, waged by the French and German elites on its working class in “Assault,” to the star of the show Alfred Kubin’s corpselike faceless woman, not a Florence Nightengale angel of mercy but an angel of death, with her hand over the mouth of a lifeless corpse of a soldier in bed.

Vienna 5 

Gunter Brus’ “Young Death” at the Dom Museum 

“Young Death” is Gunter Brus’ 2020 watercolour depiction, in the tradition of Ensor and Kubin, of a skeleton in tattered black garb that suggests the toll on the planet’s youth by Covid, drugs and war.

And finally there is Jan Bruegel the Younger’s “Triumph of Death” a reimagining of his grandfather’s painting where death is even more all-encompassing and omnipresent than in the original – this version was painted in 1602, two years into Europe’s most vicious killing based on religion, the 30 Years War.

If “Death” was a more fitting summation of 2023 than “Peace,” that theme also resounded at the end of the Staatsoper’s magnificent staging of Richard Strauss’ Elektra. The end result of all of Elektra’s scheming to revenge her father’s death by having her brother kill her mother results in Electra herself being strangled by the ropes suspended from the headless giant of her father that looms over her.

Her revenge condemns her, as death shadows even the most comfortable European cities and as the world, often propelled by the excuse of revenge, seems to move inexorably toward more confrontation and destruction.

A monument to Lenin
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 08 January 2024 16:36

A monument to Lenin

Written by

On Wednesday, 30 October 1929, the following article was published in the German Frankfurter Zeitung, translated into German by M. Schillskaya from a Soviet newspaper. The original Russian article had appeared following the 5th anniversary of Lenin's death in that year. It inspired Bertolt Brecht's poem 'The carpet weavers of Kuyan-Bulak honour Lenin'. To mark the 100th anniversary of Lenin's death, I have translated the article here into English for the first time since it appeared 95 years ago. Brecht's poem follows the article.

Just as Brecht let the newspaper report speak for itself, we will do the same, in memory of Lenin's power.

A monument to Lenin

There were once many fertile steppes in Fergana.
Around Syr-Darya, rich fields spread out.
Wheat, barley, oats and rice flourished there.

Even now, the skies around Fergana are bright and the gardens there are shady and cool. Gardens and steppes fall like blue waterfalls into the sandy desert, the desolate solitude and the poisonous swamps. This region was once the scene of great migrations of peoples, giant cities surged here, merchants, cobblers and kings lived in large dwellings. Young men made love tempestuously, Khans fought each other, and old men died peacefully. Now sand swirls and trickles here, blowing away the traces of the peoples and the last sad remnants of the hearths. Winds come from the Caspian Sea, hares are sucked in by the swamp, and the mosquitoes swarm over these marshes, more powerful than birds of prey. Once a fortnight the train comes through the Kuyan-Bulak railway station.

It whistles in the distance, emits hoarse cries at the sharp bends behind the sand drifts, or trills young and adventurously. The stationmaster then puts on his new cap and goes out to set the signal for entry. If the locomotive shouts young and shrill, it means that it will speed past the small Kuyan-Bulak station, leaving only a little smoke and a whiff of long distances on the platform. But if she screams hoarsely and with the last of her strength, you know that the train will stop in Kuyan-Bulak. It will bring water, hope and news. Then the whole of Kuyan-Bulak gathers on the platform. The cobbler Vasily Solntse and the community leader’s wife in an antediluvian smock, Semen Nikitish Trobka and the Red Army soldiers, white-blonde, light-coloured northerners. Two cisterns form the tail of the hoarse train, they bump against each other with their buffers, carefully painted with red oil paint, they bear the inscription “For petroleum”, but underneath it is written in chalk “For drinking water”. This water is intended for Kuyan-Bulak and should last for a fortnight. It always smells of petroleum, but everyone has got used to it and no longer notices it. Water without this odour would seem strange and unclean to the inhabitants of Kuyan-Bulak. They think that all water on earth tastes of petroleum and iron rust. The stokers and labourers of this slow train adjust the buffers for a long time, rattle chains, swear, smoke machorka and for some reason crawl under the train. The inhabitants of Kuyan-Bulak watch them with glee and never-ending curiosity.

Then the train moves on. The other train with the young, fresh voice races past, behind its windows lie strange, distant worlds as though in a fog. You only catch glimpses of blurred faces, suitcases and teapots. Sometimes you are lucky and catch a phrase of a song, but everything immediately scatters in the wind. The cobbler Vasily Solntse gazes after the train for a long, long time, his eyes glued to the railway tracks, to the steel lines of human migration. The stationmaster and the cobbler Vasily, the stationmaster’s wife in her antediluvian smock, Semyon Trobka and the Red Army guards, they all go home again. The station is quiet once more, there are few people here, the sky is bright and the swarms of mosquitoes are very large. Solntse the cobbler goes into his house, where behind the smoke-engulfed geraniums in the window, there are lots of pickled cucumbers, mandolin leaves and, for some reason, a mass of empty ammonia bottles.

Semyon Trobka has left the platform and sees Agripina Ivovna, the stationmaster’s wife, in the window. She is staring at the tracks and has wrapped herself in her dressing gown, decorated with birds, clouds, horsemen and flowers. She is freezing, shaken by fever as if she were sitting in a farmer’s cart. The white-blonde, fair-skinned Red Army soldiers are lying on their plank beds and chattering teeth can be heard from all the plank beds. They came here a year ago to protect the station from raids. They are all strong, giant Russian blokes, but they all suffer from the same illness - homesickness. When they have their attacks, they hunch over and all dream of the large, pale green meadows around Sudali (there may be a print error here, or else the town no longer exists) or Kaluga. They are also suffering from malaria, common in such places.

As soon as evening falls, all the inhabitants start shivering from the cold. From the highest authority, the stationmaster, to the half-wild Sarts living in their yurts, they all suffer from the terrible swamp disease, malaria. It is a gruesome hour when the sun disappears behind the sand drifts. Behind the railway station, white mountains of camel bones shimmer, and behind this ancient camel graveyard, a dense cloud of mosquitoes rises, humming and singing. The bite of the malaria mosquito is sharp and its hum is piercing. The whole railway station is filled with the song of mosquitoes, the swarms of mosquitoes enter the houses through the closed shutters and crawl under people’s clothes. Then the poor, orphaned Sarts, descendants of the Kokand Khans whom Peter the Great colonised, squat in their yurts, shaken by fever, dreaming of the distant, wondrous gardens in Namanhan, where it is cool and shady and a mild, yellow sun shines through wild apple trees and maples. Meanwhile, the Red Army soldiers whisper with hot lips on their beds. “At this time of year, the forests of the Kaluga region are in full bloom and the cows are calving.”

To suppress malaria, the swamp has to be doused with a layer of petroleum, but there is no petroleum at the Kuyan-Bulak station, it’s a long way to the town, and to get there is a lot of bother.
*
This is how many small railway stations in Soviet Russia lived and still live today. Apart from his wife and the few people at the station, the stationmaster never spoke to anyone for more than five minutes, because the trains never stop for more than five minutes. Last year, however, this withered and lonely station became the scene of a major event.

At the end of December, Stepa Gamalev, the Red Army man, with the agreement and co-operation of the stationmaster, the only administrative representative, and with the help of Vasily Solntse, the only representative of the proletariat, arranged a meeting of all the inhabitants of Kuyan-Bulak, Hare Spring in the local language. Vasily Solntse walked along the only street in the village and asked everyone to turn up at the Hare Spring tomorrow at sunrise. The inhabitants of Kuyan-Bulak tore themselves away from their looms and gazed after the man for some time. The next morning, the whole of Kuyan-Bulak had turned up at the Hare Spring. Stepa Gamalev took the floor and addressed the humble citizens of the U.S.S.R, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. He said that the day on which Lenin was to be commemorated was approaching. He said that on that day the life and deeds of this man would be spoken of in Moscow and in all the Soviet states of the republic, and that in his native village, in the Kaluga region, all the peasants would gather in the reading hall. He said that even the small, forgotten Kuyan-Bulak would have to acquire a plaster Lenin.

The orphaned, poor descendants of the Kokand Khans no longer dreamed of the wondrous gardens of Namanhan, they listened attentively to the strange man and remained silent. When Stepa Gamalev switched to commercial prose and explained to them that they would need money to buy such a Lenin, they nodded their heads understandingly in their high, pointed caps. After a week had passed, they brought the products of their labour, which had cost them many a sleepless night, into town on the clattering railway. With much haggling and bargaining, they sold their carpets to the merchants, and when they returned home, they gave the fourth part of their earnings to the Russian man, for Lenin.

There is no twilight in Kuyan-Bulak. Night here immediately turns into bright day, as if an electric light switch had been turned on, and just as quickly the bright day turns into a dark night. The fever shook the inhabitants of this small station more and more violently. Malaria brooded over the station like a smouldering, poisonous fire, and it was barely possible to catch one’s breath. In January, before Stepa and Vasily left for the town to do the shopping they had arranged, a second meeting of all the inhabitants of Kuyan-Bulak was held at the Hare Spring.

This time everyone came without hesitation, and Stepa Gamalev again spoke good words that penetrated deep into the hearts of the Sarts. He said that Kuyan-Bulak was one big fever. To suppress it, it would be necessary to pour a thin layer of petroleum from Semipalatinsk over the swamp behind the ancient camel graveyard; the mosquito swarms would die from it. It would be better to buy petroleum for the joint money instead of the plaster bust, because then the Sarts and Russians would no longer be shaken by fever at night. And it would also be a much better monument to Lenin, because he always looked after the Sarts and Turkmen and other tribes. The Sarts understood him immediately and nodded their heads vigorously in their high, pointed caps.

Two weeks later, on 21 January, the train to Kuyan-Bulak arrived as usual and, as usual, it shouted from afar in a hoarse voice at the sharp bends. The station master put on his new cap and went out to set the signal for entry. And as always, the whole of Kuyan-Bulak left the looms and came to the station. This time the train brought three cisterns. The third contained petroleum. The train was greeted with shouts of joy and the earlier sleepiness was blown away. The engineers, who had been travelling this route for a lifetime, were amazed. Clamour in Kuyan-Bulak? And when the train left the station five minutes later, leaving behind only a little smoke and the whiff of long distances, the inhabitants of Kuyan-Bulak, led by Stepa Gamalev, set to work.

The poor, orphaned descendants of the Kokand Khans took filled buckets in their hands and all went to the swamp, all of one mind. On that day meetings and assemblies were held all over the republic, enthusiastic speeches were made in towns and villages and good deeds were performed in Lenin’s memory. The requiem roared over hamlets, villages and large cities. Streams of black petroleum flowed over the swamp behind the Hare Spring.

If you ever use the Central Asian railway line and pass the small Kuyan-Bulak station, remember that this name means Hare Spring. The train only stops there for five minutes and, if you have time, you will see a red rag on the station building with the inscription:

This is where Lenin’s monument was to stand, but instead of the monument, petroleum was bought and poured over the swamp. This is how Kuyan-Bulak extinguished malaria in Lenin’s name and memory.

You will hardly have time to finish reading this inscription, because the train will only stop for five minutes, the locomotive will scream with its hoarse voice and rush off into the yellow sandy desert. You will speed past a few houses with smoke-covered geraniums in their windows, and grey hares will leap away across the sand drifts, scared to death.

Carpet weaving 1901

The carpet weavers of Kuyan-Bulak honour Lenin

by Bertolt Brecht

1
Often and copiously honour has been done
To Comrade Lenin. There are busts and statues.
Cities are called after him, and children.
Speeches are made in many languages
There are meetings and demonstrations
From Shanghai to Chicago in Lenin’s honour.
But this is how he was honoured by
The carpet weavers of Kuyan-Bulak
A little township in southern Turkestan.

Every evening there twenty carpet weavers
Shaking with fever rise from their primitive looms.
Fever is rife: the railway station
Is full of the hum of mosquitoes, a thick cloud
That rises from the swamp behind the old camels’ graveyard.
But the railway train which
Every two weeks brings water and smoke, brings
The news also one day
That the day approaches for honouring Comrade Lenin.
And the people of Kuyan-Bulak
Carpet weavers, poor people
Decide that in their township too Comrade Lenin’s
Plaster bust shall be put up.
Then, as the collection is made for the bust
They all stand
Shaking with fever and offer
Their hard-earned kopeks with trembling hands.
And the Red Army man Stepa Gamalev, who
Carefully counts and minutely watches
Sees how ready they are to honour Lenin, and he is glad
But he also sees their unsteady hands
And he suddenly proposes
That the money for the bust be used to buy petroleum
To be poured on the swamp behind the camels’ graveyard
Where the mosquitoes breed that carry
The fever germ.
And so to fight the fever at Kuyan-Bulak, thus
Honouring the dead but
Never to be forgotten
Comrade Lenin.

They resolved to do this. On the day of the ceremony they carried
Their dented buckets filled with black petroleum
One after the other
And poured it over the swamp.

So they helped themselves by honouring Lenin, and
Honoured him by helping themselves, and thus
Had understood him well.

2
We have heard how the people of Kuyan-Bulak
Honoured Lenin. When in the evening
The petroleum had been bought and poured on the swamp
A man rose at the meeting, demanding
That a plaque be affixed on the railway station
Recording these events and containing
Precise details too of their altered plan, the exchange of
The bust for Lenin for a barrel of fever-destroying oil.
And all this in honour of Lenin.
And they did this as well
And put up the plaque.

This translation is taken from: Bertolt Brecht. Poems 1913-1956. John Willett and Ralph Manheim (eds.) with the co-operation of Erich Fried, London, Eyre Methuen, 1976.

A Babel of Thoughts: Creon, Antigone and Mandela
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Tuesday, 26 December 2023 09:28

A Babel of Thoughts: Creon, Antigone and Mandela

Written by

In each new outbreak of conflict in the world, there are different sets of structures of feeling at work, that is to say ways of thinking about issues whereby one’s hopes and fears and likes and animosities colour one’s thoughts. They draw on experience and on imaginings, sometimes productively, sometimes counter-productively – even frighteningly so, in other people’s opinion.

Beow is attached a downloadable pdf with my essay and new poem, “A Babel of Thoughts”. It is an attempt at getting inside the heads and hearts of a variety of people’s structures of feeling, as revealed in testimonies spoken on TV or written in the press, or given directly to me, or gleaned from forays into the pages of literature, all in the context of the appalling Israel/Gaza catastrophe. This is, I know, no substitute for political analysis. It is, rather, a complement to such an analysis, justifying – and being justified by – the point made in this website’s title, Culture Matters.

Sacred Tree or Paradise Tree? The Christmas Tree and Nature
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Saturday, 23 December 2023 15:44

Sacred Tree or Paradise Tree? The Christmas Tree and Nature

Written by
The ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews used evergreen wreaths, garlands, and trees to symbolise their respect for nature and their belief in eternal life. The pagan Europeans worshipped trees and had the custom of decorating their houses and barns with evergreens, or erecting a Yule tree during midwinter holidays. However, the modern Christmas tree can be shown to have roots in Christian traditions too.
 
The term 'pagan' originated in a contemptuous, disdainful, and disparaging attitude towards people who had a respect for nature, the source of their sustenance: "Paganism (from classical Latin pāgānus "rural", "rustic", later "civilian") is a term first used in the fourth century by early Christians for people in the Roman Empire who practiced polytheism, or ethnic religions other than Judaism. Paganism has broadly connoted the "religion of the peasantry".
 
As people gradually converted to Christianity, December 25 became the date for celebrating Christmas. Christianity's "most significant holidays were Epiphany on January 6, which commemorated the arrival of the Magi after Jesus' birth, and Easter, which celebrated Jesus' resurrection." For the first three centuries of Christianity's existence, "Jesus Christ's birth wasn't celebrated at all" and "the first official mention of December 25 as a holiday honouring Jesus' birthday appears in an early Roman calendar from AD 336." It is also believed that December 25 became the date for Christ's birth "to coincide with existing pagan festivals honouring Saturn (the Roman god of agriculture) and Mithra (the Persian god of light). That way, it became easier to convince Rome's pagan subjects to accept Christianity as the empire's official religion."

During the Middle Ages, the church used mystery plays to dramatize biblical stories for largely illiterate people to illustrate the stories of the bible "from creation to damnation to redemption". (Inventing the Christmas Tree by Bernd Brunner (2012) p 15 ) Thus, we find evidence of a connection between the Christmas tree and the Tree of Life in the Paradise plays as well as pagan sacred trees.

In western Germany, the story of Adam and Eve was acted out using a prop of a paradise tree, a fir tree decorated with apples to represent the Garden of Eden:

"The Germans set up a paradise tree in their homes on December 24, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve. They hung wafers on it (symbolizing the eucharistic host, the Christian sign of redemption); in a later tradition the wafers were replaced by cookies of various shapes. Candles, symbolic of Christ as the light of the world, were often added. In the same room was the "Christmas pyramid," a triangular construction of wood that had shelves to hold Christmas figurines and was decorated with evergreens, candles, and a star. By the 16th century the Christmas pyramid and the paradise tree had merged, becoming the Christmas tree."

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47da-e6af-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w.jpg
 
Full-page miniature of Adam, Eve and the Serpent, 1445(The New York Public Library Digital Collections)
 
The story of Adam and Eve begins with their disobedience, but the play cycle ends with the promise of the coming Saviour. The medieval Church "declared December 24 the feast day of Adam and Eve. Around the twelfth century this date became the traditional one for the performance of the paradise play."
 
Over time the tree of paradise began to transcend the religious context of the miracle plays and moved towards a role in the Christmas celebrations of the guilds. (Inventing the Christmas Tree by Bernd Brunner (2012) p 16). For example:
 
"The first evidence of decorated trees associated with Christmas Day are trees in guildhalls decorated with sweets to be enjoyed by the apprentices and children. In Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia), in 1441, 1442, 1510, and 1514, the Brotherhood of Blackheads erected a tree for the holidays in their guild houses in Reval (now Tallinn) and Riga."
2christmastree wuth horse
"Possibly the earliest existing picture of a Christmas tree being paraded through the streets with a bishop figure to represent St Nicholas, 1521 (Germanisches National Museum)". (The Medieval Christmas by Sophie Jackson (2005) p68)
 
Early records show "that fir trees decorated with apples were first known in Strasbourg in 1605. The first use of candles on such trees is recorded by a Silesian duchess in 1611."  Furthermore, the earliest known dated representation of a Christmas tree is 1576, seen on a keystone sculpture of a private home in Turckheim, Alsace (then part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, today France).
 

3Keystone sculpture

Keystone sculpture at Turckheim, Alsace (MPK)
 
The paradise tree represented two important trees of the Garden of Eden: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. It is likely that "because most other trees were barren and lifeless during December, the actors chose to hang the apples from an evergreen tree rather than from an apple tree."
 
The mystery plays of Oberufer

A good example of this old tradition is the mystery plays of Oberufer. The Austrian linguist and literary critic Karl Julius Schröer (1825-1900) "discovered a Medieval cycle of Danube Swabian mystery plays in Oberufer, a village since engulfed by the Bratislava's borough of Főrév (German: Rosenheim, today's Ružinov). Schröer collected manuscripts, made meticulous textual comparisons, and published his findings in the book Deutsche Weihnachtspiele aus Ungarn ("The German Nativity Plays of Hungary") in 1857/1858."

4paradiseplayweb

The plates giving an impression of costume designs, based on Rudolf Steiner's (who studied under Karl Julius Schröer (1825-1900)) directions, were painted by the editor's father, Eugen Witta, who saw the plays produced by Rudolf Steiner many times while working as a young architect on the first Goetheanum.
 
Before the actual performance the whole theatrical company went in procession through the village. They were headed by the 'Tree-singer', who carried in his hand the small 'Paradise Tree'—a kind of symbol of the Tree of Life. The story of the tree and its fruit is mentioned in the text of the play:

But see, but see a tree stands here
Which precious fruit doth bear,
That God has made his firm decree
It shall not eaten be.
Yea, rind and flesh and stone
They shall leave well alone.
This tree is very life,
Therefore God will not have
That man shall eat thereof.

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Actors portraying Adam and Eve are expelled from paradise (Eve: Ye must delve and I shall spin - our bodily sustenance for to win.) Performed by the Players of St Peter in the Church of St Clement Eastcheap, London, England in November, 2004.
 
The Paradise Tree: Egyptian origins?
 
Gary Greenberg has compared many stories of the bible with earlier Egyptian myths to try and understand where the ideas contained in the Old Testament originated. He explains:

"In the Garden of Eden God planted two trees, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and The Tree of Life. Eating from the former gave one moral knowledge; eating from the latter conferred eternal life. He also placed man in that garden to tend to the plants but told him he may not eat from the Tree of Knowledge (and therefore become morally knowledgeable). About eating from the Tree of Life, God said nothing: "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" (Gen 2:17). [...] Adam and Eve did not die when they ate from the tree. Indeed, God feared that they would next eat from The Tree of Life and gain immortality." (101 Myths of the Bible by Gary Greenberg (2000) p.48)

Greenberg notes the similarity of these ideas with Egyptian texts and traditions, specifically the writings from Egyptian Coffin Text 80 concerning Shu and Tefnut:

"The most significant portions of Egyptian Coffin Text 80 concern the children of Atum, the Heliopolitan Creator. Atum's two children are Shu and Tefnut, and in this text Shu is identified as the principle of life and Tefnut is identified as the principle of moral order, a concept that the Egyptians refer to as Ma'at. These are the two principles associated with the two special trees in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Not only does the Egyptian text identify these same two principles as offspring of the Creator deity, the text goes on to say that Atum (whom the biblical editors had confused with Adam) is instructed to eat of his daughter, who signifies the principle of moral order. "It is of your daughter Order that you shall eat. (Coffin Text 80, line 63). This presents us with a strange correlation. Both Egyptian myth and Genesis tell us that the chief deity created two fundamental principles, Life and Moral Order. In the Egyptian myth, Atum is told to eat of moral order but in Genesis, Adam is forbidden to eat of moral order." (101 Myths of the Bible by Gary Greenberg (2000) p.49)

In another description we can see the similarities between the Egyptian and biblical stories:

"Atum-Ra looked upon the nothingness and recognized his aloneness, and so he mated with his own shadow to give birth to two children, Shu (god of air, whom Atum-Ra spat out) and Tefnut (goddess of moisture, whom Atum-Ra vomited out). Shu gave to the early world the principles of life while Tefnut contributed the principles of order. Leaving their father on the ben-ben [the mound that arose from the primordial waters Nu upon which the creator deity Atum settled], they set out to establish the world. In time, Atum-Ra became concerned because his children were gone so long, and so he removed his eye and sent it in search of them. While his eye was gone, Atum-Ra sat alone on the hill in the midst of chaos and contemplated eternity. Shu and Tefnut returned with the eye of Atum-Ra (later associated with the Udjat eye, the Eye of Ra, or the All-Seeing Eye) and their father, grateful for their safe return, shed tears of joy. These tears, dropping onto the dark, fertile earth of the ben-ben, gave birth to men and women."

However, Greenberg points out the differences between the two stories:

"Despite the close parallels between the two descriptions there is one glaring conflict. In the Egyptian text Nun (the personification of the Great Flood) urged Atum (the Heliopolitan Creator) to eat of his daughter Tefnut, giving him access to knowledge of moral order. In Genesis, God forbade Adam to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, denying him access moral knowledge." (101 Myths of the Bible by Gary Greenberg (2000) p.51)

Why was Adam denied access to moral knowledge? Greenberg writes:

"God feared that he would obtain eternal life if he ate from the Tree of Life and it became necessary to expel him from the Garden. [...] The Egyptians believed that if you lived a life of moral order, the god Osiris, who ruled over the afterlife, would award you eternal life. That was the philosophical link between these two fundamental principles of Life and Moral Order, and that is why Egyptians depicted them as the children of the Creator. In effect, knowledge of moral behaviour was a step towards immortality and godhead. That is precisely the issue framed in Genesis. When Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, God declared that if Adam also ate from the Tree of Life he would become like God himself. But Hebrews were monotheists. The idea that humans could become god-like flew in the face of the basic theological concept of biblical religion, that there was and could be only one god. Humans can't become god-like." (101 Myths of the Bible by Gary Greenberg (2000) p51/52)

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 Adam and Eve and the Serpent—Expulsion from Paradise, ca. 1480-1500 (Anonymous)

Greenberg then describes the fundamental differences between Hebrew monotheism and Egyptian polytheism:

"The Hebrew story is actually a sophisticated attack on the Egyptian doctrine of moral order leading to eternal life. It begins by transforming Life and Moral Order from deities into trees, eliminating the cannibalistic imagery suggested by Atum eating of his daughter. Then, Adam was specifically forbidden to eat the fruit of Moral Order. Next, Adam was told that not only wouldn't he achieve eternal life if he ate of Moral Order but that he would actually die if he did eat it. Finally, Adam was expelled from the Garden before he could eat from the Tree of Life and live for eternity. [...]  When God told Adam that he would surely die the very day he ate from the Tree of Knowledge, the threat should be understood to mean that humans should not try to become like a deity. God didn't mean that Adam would literally drop dead the day he ate the forbidden fruit; he meant that the day Adam violated the commandment he would lose access to eternal life. [...] Once he violated the commandment, he lost access to the Tree of Life and could no longer eat the fruit that prevented death." (101 Myths of the Bible by Gary Greenberg (2000) p51/52)

The difference between the lord/slave relationship of monotheism and the nature-based ideology of polytheistic paganism is that the subject is denied an eternal place with the master in the former but is welcomed as an equal in the latter. This is because the subject is an integral part of nature in paganism:

"In the shamanic world, not only every tree, but every being was and is holy - because they are all imbued with the wonderful power of life, the great mystery of universal Being. "Yes, we believe that, even below heaven, the forests have their gods also, the sylvan creatures and fauns and different kinds of goddesses" (Pliny the Elder II, 3). (Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide by Christian Ratsch and Claudia Muller- Ebeling (2003) p24)

It is also important to note "that the "serpent in the tree" motif associated with the Adam and Eve story comes directly from Egyptian art. The Egyptians believed that Re, the sun God that circled the earth every day, had a nightly fight with the serpent Aphophis and each night defeated him. Several Egyptian paintings show a scene in which Re, appearing in the form of "Mau, the Great Cat of Heliopolis," sits before a tree while the serpent Apophis coils about the tree, paralleling the image of rivalry between Adam and the serpent in the tree of the Garden of Eden." (101 Myths of the Bible by Gary Greenberg (2000) p49/50)

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The sun god Ra, in the form of Great Cat, slays the snake Apophis. (Image credit: Eisnel - Public Domain) 
 
Thus, we have moved from the biblical story of Adam and Eve back to the earlier paganism (the connection with Nature) of the Egyptians. While there is much evidence that one of the sources of the origin of the Christmas tree is in the ancient pagan worship of trees and evergreen boughs, there is also a lot of evidence that another source of the Christmas tree is in the medieval mystery plays where the Paradise tree was a necessary prop for the biblical story of Adam and Eve. If we look back even further to Egyptian mythology, we can see parallels between the biblical stories of creation and the Egyptian myths that also illustrate fundamental philosophical and spiritual differences between monotheist and polytheist ideology, i.e. the differences between the 'enslaved' (with their Lord/Master who can reward or punish) and the people who work with and respect the cycles of nature (persons outside the bounds of the Christian community, ethnic religions, Indigenous peoples, etc.).
 
Indeed, Tuck and Yang (2012:6) propose a criterion (for the term Indigenous) based on accounts of origin: "Indigenous peoples are those who have creation stories, not colonization stories, about how we/they came to be in a particular place - indeed how we/they came to be a place. Our/their relationships to land comprise our/their epistemologies, ontologies, and cosmologies".

By the 1970s, the term Indigenous was used as a way of "linking the experiences, issues, and struggles of groups of colonized people across international borders", thus politicising their resistance to the dominant colonising narratives that historically spread while using Christianity as a form of social control on a global scale.

Thus, whether the Christmas tree arises out of the pagan worship of trees or the nature-based polytheism of Egyptian lore about Life and Knowledge (as the Paradise Tree), the Christmas tree still plays an important and special part in our lives today, demonstrating that our relationship with nature goes back millennia. We can choose to be exiled from nature or become involved in the cycles of nature in ways that end our current destructive practices. 

Whatever the circumstances, change is possible: books for the 12 days of Christmas
Monday, 18 December 2023 21:06

Whatever the circumstances, change is possible: books for the 12 days of Christmas

Written by

Mark Perryman provides an inspiring diet of books on politics and culture for Christmas and the New Year

Christmas – a time of giving, receiving, and treating ourselves. For those of us who like nothing more than to curl up with a good book to provoke thoughts and actions around how to change the world, what better opportunity to find the time for such a read? That's if all the eating hasn't sapped our will to do much changing of anything. Never mind, there's always the New Year for that. 

Here's my top twelve days’ worth of good reads to get us agitated and inspired over the Christmas period. 

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1. Andrew Simms and Leo Murray Badvertising: Polluting our Minds and Fuelling Climate Chaos

With his previous book Tescopoly Andrew Simms helped establish a connection between the hours, often involuntarily, we spend each week shopping and a politics that is both rooted in the everyday and transformational. With the ever-increasing imperative of the climate emergency Andrew's new book, co-authored with Leo Murray, extends that connection to the daily bombardment we all have to endure from advertisers promoting the goods that contribute towards this emergency: in particular fossil fuels, cars, budget airlines, and meat.  As we struggle under the strain of Christmastime consumerism, it’s an inspirational read of resistance.  

Available from Pluto books here

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2. Benjamin Kunkel and Lola Seaton (Eds) Who Will Build the Ark? Debates on Climate Strategy from New Left Review 

In 1956 the Communist Left was reeling from the fallout from the Soviet invasion to crush the Hungarian democratic revolution. Communist families, former comrades, over Christmas dinner hammers and sickles drawn. In those days the Communist Party of Great Britain could count on some 40,000 members. Repulsed by the sight of Red Army tanks on the streets of Budapest, over 10,000 resigned, and many of them became the basis  of the New Left. The 'new' has taken a variety of forms since, with today a new generation carrying forward the tradition. This latest New Left Review collection is testament to both its legacy and currency, most especially Lola Seaton's superb essay 'Green Questions'.

Available from Verso Books here

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3. Marios Mantzos The Social One: Why Jürgen Klopp was a Perfect Fit for Liverpool

Who will be top of the Premiership once the seasonal squeeze of games from Boxing Day to New Year's Day have been completed? With Chelsea struggling, Man Utd not doing much better while Spurs and Newcastle flirt with inconsistency, the field of serious contenders is already narrowing. Villa are this season's surprise package; City are losing points that previously they'd almost taken for granted; and Arsenal are repeating last season's excellent form. All three will surely be in the mix come the final whistle on 1st January. But for most neutrals, well apart from any with residual Evertonian sympathies obviously, if it can't be our own club, we'll favour Liverpool to be top. Not since Bill Shankly has there been a Liverpool – or indeed any – manager to attract such near universal approval and affection. The inspired title The Social One says it all, and the case that author Mariso Mantzos makes more than backs it up. 

Available from Pitch Publishing here

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4.  Jack Monroe Thrifty Kitchen

Christmas is a time of over-indulgence at the dining-room table. For a tasty antidote look no further than Jack Monroe, former firefighter, author of best-selling recipe books, and campaigner against food poverty. It’s a near unique combination, in the overcrowded world of 'celebrity chefs'. Meals that save us money, delicious into the bargain, with a constant reminder that food poverty is a phenomenon that is entirely man-made and should have no place in any society that dares to call itself 'civilised'. At 120 recipes, a bumper collection to feed both body and mind. 

Available from Pan Macmillan here

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5. Gary Younge Dispatches from the Diaspora: From Nelson Mandela to Black Lives Matter

25th December – no newspapers, for news and opinion junkies of a pre-digital disposition it’s an absolute nightmare. But for many Guardian readers, our daily paper is not the daily must-read that it once was. Steve Bell was excluded earlier this year, and Gary Younge left as the 2020s began. For many their combined sharpness of comment and acuteness of opinion is a big absence. Steve's cartoons live on in Philosophy Football mugs, tea towels, tees and prints; Gary's writing still pops up on occasion but a real feast of it is provided by this collection, ranging far and wide, to remind ourselves of how much we miss his weekly column.

Available from Faber & Faber here

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6. Lynne Segal Lean on Me: A Politics of Radical Care

Twelve days – for those with young children, elderly relatives, or both, they are days of care. Yet the crisis of care is writ large across our entire society, all year round, from cradle to an early grave. Lynne Segal, co-author of the classic text Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism makes the case for a society that sees care and caring as a foundational value. This requires both institutions we can rely upon but also affects the way in which we live our lives. The personal as the complement of, not the alternative to, the political. 

Available from Verso books here

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7. Daniel Rachel Too Much Too Young: The 2 Tone Records Story

The Specials can count two number ones, Too Much Too Young and Ghost Town, but neither topped the charts to grab that much cherished title 'Christmas Number One.'  Fellow ska band Madness came closest in Christmas 1981, when It Must Be Love reached number five. Number One? The Human League's Don't You Want Me. Author Daniel Rachel has become highly skilled at compiling popular oral histories of musical moments and movements. Previously with Walls Come Tumbling Down he brilliantly chronicled what was for me a formative period of  music and politics – Rock against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge. And now he brilliantly revisits the middle part of that trilogy, 2 Tone in glorious detail. Read, remember, enjoy, then stick some ska on the Christmas household soundtrack.   

Available from White Rabbit here

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8. Henry Bell & Joey Simons (Eds) Now's The Day, Now's The Hour: Poems for John Maclean  

For those north of the border, Christmas is simply a staging post before getting down to the serious partying of Hogmanay closely followed by Burns Night. Anyone not yet convinced Scotland and England are two independent nations – the long overdue recognition of which is required so we can get on with co-existing as neighbours on one small island – a visit to Scotland on 31st December or 25th January will be more than suffice to persuade. John Maclean remains a towering figure of the Scottish Left, deeply committed to both the internationalism of the 1917 Revolution and Scotland's own particular road to revolution. To mark the centenary of his death, or more accurately his murder by the British state, this collection of poems will lift Scottish and English spirits high. 

Available from Tapsalteerie here   

And for those unfamiliar with John Maclean, check out co-editor Henry Bell's John Maclean biography too. From Pluto Books here

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9. Nic Watts and Sakina Karimjee Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History

Christmas is supposed to be a time of 'peace and goodwill'. Not much evidence of the former in Israel and Palestine, nor the latter for those trapped by the cost-of-living crisis. There's always hope – however even that's not enough without the ideas, principles and movements to turn that into change. Christmas 1823 – who would have ever imagined back then that the scourge of empire and slavery would ever come to an end? But it largely has. Nic Watts and Sakina Karimjee's brilliant graphic novelisation of CLR James’ own stage adaptation of his book The Black Jacobins will both inspire and convince that, whatever the circumstances, change is possible.

Available from Verso Books here

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10. Naomi Klein Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World 

Ghosts of Christmas, past, present and future. A classic Christmas tale, but for materialists who scoff at the supernatural, nothing to do with the real world, surely? When Naomi Klein found herself ghosted by a real-life 'doppelganger' with the same first name, she assumed Naomi Wolf had similar politics, and as a fellow campaigning feminist at first she thought nothing of it. Prominent political women are quite used to being confused with other women. But then the 'other Naomi descends into conspiracism, and threatens to drag Naomi Klein, via association, down with her. Not quite the book we might expect from the author of No Logo and Shock Doctrine, yet the surprise is richly rewarded with a narrative that is part-thriller and part-investigation – a combination in Naomi (Klein's!) hands that doesn't disappoint. 

Available from Penguin here

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11. David Horspool More than a Game: A History of How Sport Made Britain

Next Christmas it will be 30 years since the very first Philosophy Football T-shirt. Name and number on the back, quote on the front, 'All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football'. Albert Camus, first obligatory product placement, is still proudly available. With that as our founding philosophy how could we possibly resist David Horspool's More than a Game? A thoughtfully constructed narrative combines chapter-by-chapter accounts of individual sports and the broader theme each serve to highlight. 

Available from John Murray here

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12. Verso 2024 Radical Diary & Weekly Planner

And then before we know it the twelfth day cometh and 2024 proper begins.  A year of almost certainly a general election, and equally almost certainly the end of 14 years of Tory governments (second obligatory product placement, yes in anticipation - no refunds available - we have the Steve Bell mug to mark 14 years of Tory 'progress' here). Though whether Labour can deliver the change on the scale required remains depressingly unclear. The year also begins with two centenaries, 100 years since the death of Lenin and the descent into Stalinism, 100 years since the first Labour Government and the descent into Ramsay Macdonald's 'National Labour' and a Lab-Con pact. There's the 40th anniversary of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike too and of Orwell's fateful '1984'. While the sport to look forward to includes Euro 2024 and the Paris Olympics.

So what else do we need for the start of the New Year? A diary of course! For those not entirely digitalised, Verso's Radical Diary is an annual must have of effortlessly stylish design, packed with monthly and weekly reminders of struggles past with plenty of space to write in the daily details of struggles present, nearest and dearests' birthdays, home and away fixtures, meetings, General Election canvassing days, whatever and whenever 2024 holds. 

Available from Verso Books here

Note: No links in this review are to tax-dodging websites owned by multi-billionaires. Best to buy from a local, independent bookshop.

Universal Basic Income, Artificial Intelligence and the Arts
Tuesday, 21 November 2023 12:01

Universal Basic Income, Artificial Intelligence and the Arts

Written by

2023 is the year A.I. art has spread exponentially. Artists are using A.I. and, whether they are declaring it or not, it’s out there and influencing everyone.

Following on from the 2023 Trades Union Council Congress motion on protecting workers against the use of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), I believe that we also need to disaster plan for the predictions of the Accelerationists (that technology will replace many human activities). And that companies who use A.I. should provide compensation to artists with a Universal Basic Income (UBI). And then what will people will do if they are provided with UBI, but no work?

To prove that A.I. has outstripped human creativity I used it to create the autobiography and artworks of a deep fake 1940s Surrealist "Antonia Pageta". These works were exhibited, published in a catalogue, and are reproduced in this piece.

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The Dreamer's Lament

A lesson of history is that technology replaces people. The 19th century Luddites lost in their protest against the manufacturers' use of machines to replace the skilled labour of textile workers, and despite periodic resurgence of craft skills, e.g. with the Arts and Crafts movement, the march of industrialisation has continued.

The middle-class belief that there will be broad support that the work of lawyers, doctors, curators etc will be ring-fenced against the rise in A.I. is not supported by the experience of precarious "gig economy" workers (such as arts workers) and the unemployed, whose own jobs may be replaced by machines. And the replacement of the art middle class by automation is a danger that should be prepared against. The middle classes needs to join sides with the working and unemployed classes to fight for a Universal Basic Income.

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The Bridge Between Worlds

Why? I propose 2 reasons why artist, musicians, actors and writers should receive a Universal Basic Income.

The first is that all artists provide the talent pool, and without the lower levels of artist you wouldn't get the upper, selected artists. A small number of elite artists have been granted most of the public funding available, in a neoliberal model that rejects the economic value of those below. This has been backed by bureaucratic arts funding systems, with artists who are not selected then at an added disadvantage in the marketplace as they have not received an endorsement from arts administrators. As artists only exist because of the network of other artists, so the income of artists should be shared. However, it seems unlikely that high earning "hero" artists are likely to share their income.

The second is that industrialisation has removed (and A.I. is removing) artists' livelihoods, and they need compensation. And if artists are replaced by A.I. then they should receive compensation (from those who have removed their livelihoods). Artists and arts professionals who become replaced can complain but might find little sympathy from the talent pool creatives from whom they have been selected. So, to get a broad support against A.I. we need an alternative model to fund all artists.

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The Labyrinth (series)

The fact that many people are artists by vocation, despite poor economic prospects, shows how deep-rooted in their nature being creative is. Instead of companies being seen as deselecting a human “resource” (artists) if they are seen as taking from artists their natural resource (of a livelihood) then they should be provided with compensation. Historically manufacturers have taken the livelihoods and natural mode of being from workers, and as such they should be compensated with Universal Basic Income.

In his 2017 Guardian article Andy Beckett says the Accelerationists argue that computer technology, and capitalism, should be massively speeded up.

Nick Land, (one of the founders of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU)) argues about the “disintegration of the human species” when artificial intelligence improves sufficiently. And for the replacement of nation-states by authoritarian, feudal city states.

Instead of this disintegration Mark Fisher argued that Britain is in a nostalgic stasis. With the same parties in power, struggling for momentum but yearning for the good old days.

In their 2015 book “Inventing the Future” Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams argued for a positive vision of change with equality in an economy based on automation, with the jobs replaced by a universal basic income.

I think that Fisher’s point might be applied to an artworld seeking institutional stasis. And the nostalgia of artists and creatives may put off change temporarily. But eventually we need to steer society to the UBI of Srnicek and Williams rather than be faced with Land’s feudal states.

In the Industrial Revolution skilled workers lost their jobs. In the Technological Revolution many skilled professional and clerical workers will lose their jobs.  As well as the middle class defending their working conditions, in the long-term they also need to organise with the working class for Universal Basic Income or risk being left with nothing.

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The Dreamer's Labyrinth

I believe that with A.I. set to replace many jobs then the focus should also be on what alternative works or activities those workers should perform. We need a different model of the function of art in society, where it has value in terms of being part of the experiential framework for mental and physical wellbeing in communities and individuals.

A shift to skills and process-based work, like craft and dance, might provide the model for continued meaningful creative activity. With artists as facilitators or enablers of art experiences, therapies and communal activities. With UBI they will have time and space to discover and develop activities that are not replaceable by A.I.

The A.I. images above were generated in Stable Diffusion following prompts. The prompts come from titles and descriptions in the A.I. autobiography of deep fake 1940s Surrealist Antonia Pageta. The autobiography was created in Sudowrite. They have been printed onto canvas and exhibited at Manchester Art Fair 2023, Morecambe Art Fair 2023 and currently at Morecambe Library.

Top Ten Books (and a T-shirt) for Understanding Labour Party Conference 2023
Saturday, 07 October 2023 17:54

Top Ten Books (and a T-shirt) for Understanding Labour Party Conference 2023

Written by

Mark Perryman offers a 'how to read guide' to the last Labour conference before the 2024 General Election

All things Keir, bright, shiny and new in Liverpool after an unlucky, for the many very unlucky thirteen years of the Tories in power. Well perhaps not that new, not if we allow history to get a peep in to the proceedings. Here are ten books to help us do precisely that.

1. Richard Toye: Age of Hope: Labour, 1945 and the Birth of Modern Britain

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If Labourism was a religion the source of its faith would be Attlee and all things 1945 – the NHS, the welfare state, comprehensive education and the nationalisation of coal, gas and electricity. It was a faith that helped establish a post-war consensus until 1979, when Thatcherism brought it all to a shuddering end, and never restored since. Richard Toye offers no hagiography of the 'Spirit of '45', rather an historical context of what came before, what came after, and leaves us thinking about the extent Labour can restore what has been lost.

Available from Bloomsbury Continuum here

2.  John Williams: Red Men Reborn: From John Houlding to Jürgen Klopp

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The north-south divide of party conferences used to be the alternating duopoly of Blackpool/Brighton, now the former for Labour replaced by Liverpool, which with the greatest respect to Evertonians is a 'red' city. For a less conventional start to conference revisit the survival of Bill Shankly's 'The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It's the way I see football, the way I see life' (product placement alert, these are words proudly worn on a Philosophy Football Shankly T-shirt) in this otherwise entirely modernised club. A lesson for Labour? Read John Williams' superb social history of Liverpool FC to see if any lessons can be learnt.

Available from Pitch publishing here 

3. Shabna Begum: From Sylhet to Spitalfields: Bengali Squatters in 1970s East London

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The 1970s saw institutionalised racism in (mainly Labour controlled) council housing, while on the streets a revived East London fascism developed in the shape of the National Front. Caught in between was a Bengali community from which emerged a squatters’ movement barely acknowledged by more conventional histories of both the area and the period. Shabna Begum challenges such an omission and begs the question when watching the 2023 Labour conference proceedings – do such omissions remain today?

Available from Lawrence Wishart here      

4. Lynne Segal: Making Trouble:  Life and Politics

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Another take on the 1970s and omission is provided by Lynne Segal's autobiographical account of the period.  Wilson vs Heath, Thorpe getting a look-in, two great Miners' Strikes,  the 3-Day week, the vote to join the Common Market, the Vietnam war, the emergence out of all this of Thatcherism. While on the margins the growth of social movements, most potently feminism, never enough to transform the mainstream yet with too much of a potency to ignore, however some tried. To achieve such weight in the 2020's there are some awkward lessons to be learnt from this most splendid read.

Available from Verso Books here  

5. Anthony Broxton: Hope & Glory: Rugby League in Thatcher's Britain

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Perhaps it is a little unfair to judge Labourism's relationship with popular culture via the deliberations of Labour Party Conference. But as the single biggest gathering of party members in one place I'd argue it's as good a place to start as any. Compare what we hear in the set-piece speeches from Keir and senior Shadow Cabinet members with Anthony Braxton's innovative account of Thatcherism, resistance and Rugby League. Or tour the fringe in search of anything like Anthony's grasp of class, popular culture and politics. No joy? Read this book for a sense of what Labour is missing out on. 

Available from Pitch Publishing here 

6. Ed Gillett: Party Lines: Dance Music and the Making of Modern Britain

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Or how about music and dance? Ed Gillett charts a movement of resistance and change that existed almost entirely outside of the party political. Labourism is surely the weaker for not finding the means to engage, and be changed by such an engagement. In part this is generational, Ed's book centres on the radical potential of 1990s dance music, the era of illegal raves, huge open-air gatherings and the 1994 Criminal Justice Act. But several decades on the fear remains that in Keir's dash for respectability the gap between party and parties will simply widen to turn into mutual hostility. What a waste.

Available from Picador here  

7. Alwyn Turner: All In It Together: England in the Early 21st Century

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Alwyn Turner is the unrivalled historian of late twentieth century Britain with Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s followed by Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s and concluding with A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s.  It’s a splendid trilogy, though reading one's youthful teens through to thirtysomethings as history is enough to make baby boomers feel old. Now it's the turn of millennials to start feeling the same way as Alwyn turns his attention to the Blair, Brown and Cameron years. Under the influence of Blair this period as primer for Keir at Number Ten? We won't have too long to find out.

Available from Profile Books here

8. David Broder: Eric Canepa and Haris Golemis (Eds) Facing the State: Left Analyses and Perspectives

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The days of 'Pasokification’, an  analysis pioneered by James Doran, appear to be long gone. In the 2010's Syriza, Die Linke, Podemos, Bloco, Rifandazione and Mélenchon challenged European social democratic parties from the Left. Without proportional representation this is a forlorn task in Britain, instead such a challenge came from within Labour – Corbynism. The annual Transform Europe! collection brings together writings and ideas from what remains of this challenge across the continent. The standout essay is from these shores – Hilary Wainwright on the greening of socially useful production. An absolutely vital argument in the face of trade union sectionalism that resists just such a change, aided and abetted, despite Ed Miliband's best efforts, by an over-cautious Labour leadership.

Available from Merlin Press here

9. Marral Shamshiri and Sorcha Thomson (Eds): She Who Struggles: Revolutionary Women Who Shaped The World

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Ellen Wilkinson, Barbara Castle, Audrey Wise, Harriet Harman, Mo Mowlam, Diane Abbott, Angela Rayner and plenty more from where that lot came. Part and parcel of Labour's past, present and future too? With Keir in the space of twelve months expected to be Prime Minister, and a whopping majority enough to virtually guarantee two terms, barring some kind of upset the next Labour leadership election could be a decade away. The long wait for Labour, unlike the Tories, Lib Dems and Greens, to have a woman leader continues. Would this change the party entirely? No. But neither is this absence irrelevant. For an idea of what a difference women can make to movements, She Who Struggles will inform and inspire in huge measure. 

Available from Pluto Books here

10. Colm Murphy: Futures of Socialism: 'Modernisation’, the Labour Party and the British Left, 1973-1997

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For my top pick Colm Murphy's impressive account of Labour's transformation out of the lows of a crushingly disappointing end to being in government, followed by years and years of defeat (sounds familiar?) cannot be faulted. Was Blairism a self-fulfilling prophecy after Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock’s failings, plus the Bennite retreat? Not at all, this book is no 1990s tribute act, rather the debates and alternatives are carefully tracked.

One plea though to author and publisher. This book has a sizeable potential readership from a broad spectrum across Labour and beyond. It should be being snapped up in Liverpool by delegates but is only available as an £85 (!) hardback edition designed for university libraries. When will academic publishers ever escape from their crushing lack of ambition? Let’s have a mass market paperback edition soon, please.

Available from Cambridge University Press here

Note: No links in this review are to Amazon. Please avoid buying from a tax-dodging platform which exploits their low paid workers.

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Bill Shankly 'socialism' T-shirt available from Philosophy Football

Mark Perryman is the organiser of Mission Possible: A Festival of Ideas for the Next Labour Government – details and tickets here

Walking the Fife Coastal Path
Sunday, 27 August 2023 10:03

Walking the Fife Coastal Path

Written by

Was it Capitalism that made me sick? The brick-wall bureaucracy that comes with working as part of a large organisation? Or the cumulative effects of years of low-paid, menial jobs? Whatever it was, I don’t think I’d ever been in more need of a break.

I’d been off work for 4 weeks with stress, a condition that had become apparent when I’d sent another non-collegiate email to one of my many line managers. I’d been working on a Helpdesk at a small university, earning just above minimum wage, forced to endure both the crushingly repetitive tasks that made up my daily routine, and prolonged exposure to the weakeners I worked with, colleagues at higher pay grades who only seemed to come alive when reminding me of my inconsequential status. There had been questions for me to consider – did my responses show that I was too quick to anger? Was I a misanthrope, or merely ground down? – but what was inescapable were the effects of day-after-day of incremental degradation, my intolerance of people who surrendered to hierarchies, and the need to do something about it.

We arrived at Elie late in the afternoon, after a long drive from Alnwick in Northumberland. The only break in the journey had come at a Starbucks in Dreghorn. We were staying on the narrow seafront. There was a cafe overlooking the bay, a pub – The Ship Inn – and an art gallery. The tide was out, the beach flat and early dusk-lit. The scene was simplicity itself, serenely bustling simplicity. So taken was I by the sight that greeted us, it took a while to register that the place was full of second-homers, I mean I’d rarely seen so many nautically-striped shirts and tasselled deck shoes and four-by-fours in such a confined space.

CH1 bees

No matter. The next morning, I woke to a cloudless sky, to herring gulls and the sea. I breathed deep. My plan – a plan I’d been nurturing for weeks now – was to find the coastal path that passed through Elie, and walk. Just walk. I didn’t know where it would take me but I didn’t care; all that concerned me was escaping the memory of the psychic violence of the familiar and the full of shit.

From a motor home park-up overlooking another tiny bay, I set off through thick bracken. The path went past a lighthouse, before it reached the shore and opened-up, threading between pastureland, and rocky beaches of thick sand and seaweed.

Here’s someone coming the other way. Path’s a bit narrow…I’ll just wait here.

Good morning!

Good morning!

It was waymarked with signage decorated with puffins and shellfish. Walkers were advised to look out for the Brown Angus butterfly and report any they saw. I peered into the clear light towards the sea: sitting on the shimmering rocks at the very edge of the land, was what looked like a cormorant, and I could feel my face was creased with the exhilaration of it all.

Someone else – look like locals – catch their eye and – hello!

Hello!

About half a mile from Elie I went past a sign for a farm shop, and made a note to return at some point, buy some local honey. But not today. Today I was walking. By now the path had started to rise and fall more expressively. The beaches had been replaced by jagged linear strata of volcanic rock, and the simple restorative effects of the landscape – the grasses and breeze, the seabirds, the space – were embroidered by something more, the contemplative appeal of the human unfamiliar. I passed a derelict, unnamed building, and then, rising over a thicket of thrift and daisies and thistle that was growing at the bottom of a flight of wooden steps, I saw another, the ruin of a castle.

They’re not local, not dressed like that. Where can I go? Not quite enough room there… haven’t I just passed somewhere – ah yes that’ll do…whoah careful! – and smi… oh. Ignore me then. Bit rude.

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Round the next rise-and-fall of the path, I saw the witch’s hat of a spire, emerging from a cornfield. It disappeared from view and then I was at the building it belonged to, a robust old church: another sign told me this was the 14th century St Monan’s kirk, the place of worship closest to the sea in all of Scotland.

Morning!

Good morning!

Beautiful day!

It is, it is! You see? That’s the way to do it? Not hard is it?

The path skirted the seaweed-covered foundations of the church before taking me past a couple of cottages and up a narrow flight of steps lined with rosebay and teasels. From there it wound steeply through the town itself, disappearing and reappearing between rows of pastel-coloured terraces and alleyways before dropping down to the working harbour. The tide was out and the boats in the quay sat in mud. One becalmed boat was bright orange and called Defiance.

Obviously posh. A train of posh. Might be nice posh? No, still no eye contact, not from any of them, even though I perched myself on that rock so they could sweep past, like they had some divine right-of-way.

Coming out of St Monan’s were the remains of a saltworks. There wasn’t much left beyond grassy mounds of earth but the windmill that had been used to grind the mineral had been restored and there fellow walkers gathered; there were more people still in the tidal pool at the edge of town – a briny-cold dip, deep-set in the dark volcanic rock – and then I was back on the coastal path proper.

More posh. Crew Clothing, polo shirts. Yep. Thought as much. You’re welcome.

From St Monan’s the landscape changed. On the landward-side of the path were steep banks, dense with vegetation; out to sea, the rocks were no longer black but a rusty deep red. Although there had been butterflies all along the route, now it seemed as though I was walking through clouds of them. I wondered if this had something to do with a change in flora, but I didn’t know enough about the species that surrounded me to make an accurate guess. I felt the same – a wonder-filled curiosity – when I saw a pale yellow bird staring at me from a thicket; it wasn’t until I saw an illustration on the next sign that I realised it had been a yellowhammer. A yellowhammer!

A waymarker said it was ½ a mile to a town called Pittenweem. That would mean I’d walked about 4 miles. On the outskirts of the town was another tidal pool, with seals stretched on the rocks alongside. I climbed to a viewing point where people were looking out for bottlenose whales. It was next to a desultory crazy golf course, which seemed apposite, somehow.

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Standing there, I suddenly felt the jolts and undulations of the walk in my legs and decided to head back to Eli. There was time for Pittenweem another day. I’d certainly be back along the path; I’d enjoyed my introduction to Fife, but part of me suspected it still had work to do.

Wankers! Cough-wankers-cough. Too loud? Fuck it, see if I care, you snotty, entitled fuckers!

Come on Ollie!

Yeah, come on Ollie, you little prick!

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