Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (76)

Angels and Demons: one must subdue the other
Sunday, 24 March 2019 14:34

Angels and Demons: one must subdue the other

Written by

Sean Ledwith reviews Angels and Demons, by Tony McKenna, a collection of essays on artists, writers and politicians written from a historical materialist perspective.

The role of the individual in history has been one of the perennial debates throughout the development of Marxist theory. Marx and Engels in the nineteenth century were keen to dissociate themselves from the ‘great man view of history’ that had characterised much of bourgeois scholarship up to that point. The defining feature of historical materialism as an analytical tool in their hands was to transfer the focus of attention away from the actions and intentions of individuals, and onto the structural forces and relations of production that have combined to create a succession of modes of production across the millennia of human history.

At the same time, as revolutionary activists and not simply disinterested scholars, the founders stressed the ongoing importance of human agency and the capacity of individuals to operate with a degree of choice, albeit within the constraints of these subterranean processes. This fine balance between structure and agency is neatly encapsulated in a celebrated passage from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

Of course, subsequent generations of thinkers, seeking to follow the founders’ example, have not always succeeded in reproducing both elements of this conceptual tension; oscillating at times between the voluntarism associated with Sartre and others, and the subject-less paradigm constructed most intricately by Althusser.

Anyone looking for a modern attempt to recreate the dialectical balance between the individual and wider social forces in the spirit of Marx and Engels should refer to this highly readable collection of essays by Tony McKenna. The author impressively surveys the lives of a number of individuals across the fields of politics, philosophy and the arts who have had a major impact – for good or ill – on human affairs.

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Nicholas II

McKenna takes his theoretical cue from a passage in Trotsky’s seminal History of the Russian Revolution in which the character of Nicholas II is portrayed as an amalgam of the subjective and objective:

In Trotsky’s account, the personal and the political achieve a harmonious but terrible synthesis, for in the person of the last Tsar is embodied all the decadence, fatality, pettiness, self-deception, brass ignorance, denial and hopelessness of a historical tendency which has entered into an inevitable, mortal freefall. (3)

Developing the template provided by Trotsky for a distinctively Marxist approach to biography, the author persuasively argues that a nuanced version of historical materialism, eschewing both crude determinism and naïve individualism, can creatively identify the strands that link the lives of the one with the many. The personalities he discusses are not reducible to mere abstract cyphers, the personal representatives of mechanical, anonymous historical forces, but rather their art and activity, their interests and individuality, only resonates its full uniqueness and meaning in the context of the historical epoch, and the underlying social and political contradictions which set the basis for it. (6)

As a formulation of the Marxist conception of the role of the individual in history, McKenna here provides a valuable new iteration of the analyses of Marx, Trotsky and others in previous eras.

The author divides his ten subjects into the two categories alluded to in the title. This classification follows a method that in more familiar terms consists of radicals and reactionaries. In the former camp, we find Victor Hugo, Hugo Chavez, Rembrandt, Andrea Dworkin, William Blake and Jeremy Corbyn. The ‘Demons’ team is made up of Christopher Hitchens, Schopenhauer, Hillary Clinton and Trump.

It would be difficult to think of more diverse and anomalous assortment of case studies for McKenna’s thesis that historical materialism can usefully contextualise the personal with the political! However, he deploys with virtuosity a remarkable grasp of the breadth of cultural, economic and political forces at work in the lives of these personalities. Anyone interested in any of the above figures will find their understanding enhanced by McKenna‘s sophisticated delineation of how the respective subject’s ideology was shaped by the dynamics of the age.

The only slight drawback of the author’s selection is that the personalities are not analysed in chronological order. The reader for example can find herself rewinding from Hitchens in the twentieth century to Rembrandt in the seventeenth, and similarly from Dworkin in the twentieth to Blake in the eighteenth. McKenna perceptively suggests the key to explications of individual psychology from a Marxist perceptive should comprehend how major figures mediate most profoundly the most significant contradictions within the capitalist order at different stages in its development. (15)

It might have been preferable, therefore, if each study more evidently reflected a step-change in the operations of the rule of capital from the dawn of the bourgeois revolutions to today’s seemingly remorseless neoliberal hegemony. However, this consideration does not detract from the elegance and power of McKenna’s expositions.

The emphasis on contradictions in an individual personality is the fundamental insight that lies at the heart of McKenna’s methodology. Again, in this aspect he follows in the tradition of some of the best thinkers in the Marxist tradition. Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks of the 1930s, drew attention to ‘contradictory consciousness’ as one of the symptoms of alienation in the mental framework of every subject living under the role of capital.

Voloshinov, in the previous decade, explored the phenomenon of ‘multi-voicedness’ and the manner in which the consciousness of an individual can simultaneously contain ideological input from a range of sources, some of which may be conflicting. Likewise, the author here contends that the key to unlocking human personality is the way in which the contradictions of the age are manifested in the unique experience of every person. The result of this methodology is a sequence of portraits that fulfils Gramsci’s guidance on how biography in the tradition of historical materialism can produce insights that are superior to its bourgeois counterpart:

They never let you have an immediate, direct, animated sense of the lives of Tom, Dick and Harry. If you are not able to understand real individuals, you are not able to understand what is universal and general.

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Rembrandt, Self-portrait at the age of 63

In the moving chapter on Rembrandt, McKenna elucidates how the painter’s sublime genius lay in his ability to tune into the contradictions of the world’s first bourgeois revolution as the newly born Dutch capitalist state threw off the yoke of the Spanish Empire at the turn of the seventeenth century:

For he channelled this dualism in an art which attains a new depth of individuality and interority, illuminating the flickering shadows of the soul, while at the same time possessing the kind of aesthetic integrity which was able to express the suffering of an age, allowing it to bleed into the backdrop of his paintings. (96)

450px Rembrandt Rembrandt and Saskia in the Scene of the Prodigal Son Google Art Project

McKenna recounts how many of Rembrandt’s portraits of the 1630s, such as ‘The Prodigal Son in the Brothel’, are of the moneyed bourgeoisie whose ‘exuberant political freedoms' (89) are expressed in the lavish and salubrious scenes depicted around the characters. The optimism and self-confidence of an embryonic ruling class that is taking a torch to the decaying carcass of feudalism is almost palpable.

1024px Rembrandt The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp

The greatness of Rembrandt, however, is that the artist notes, amid the surging power of the Dutch bourgeoisie, a sense that its hegemony will be built not on the abolition of exploitation but only a new type of exploitation. Describing the iconic ‘Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholas Tulp’, McKenna draws our attention to the attitude of the scientists looking down on the corpse in front of them: They see him only in terms of an object like any other, to be appropriated, to be carved up; as a means to enhance their own material and intellectual powers. (93)

This picture is conventionally interpreted as representing the humanism and idealism of the scientific revolution of the early modern age. With an appropriate lightness of touch, however, McKenna deploys a Marxist lens to re-imagine it as a portent of the calculated disinterest the capitalist class retains for the millions of subjects who labour in its name.

At no point does the author’s analysis relapse into a crude materialism that might see Rembrandt as the artist of the Dutch bourgeois revolution and little else. McKenna does not lose sight of the fact that the reason the artist remains phenomenally popular is that he addresses anxieties and concerns that continue to exercise the human imagination, and that probably always will.

Rembrandt bue squartato 1655 01

For example, ‘The Slaughtered Ox’ from 1643 contains an enigmatic power that seemingly defies rational explanation. The image of a butchered bovine cadaver in a basement at first would appear to be an unlikely source of fascination. For McKenna, however, the painting brutally reminds us of the material reality of our existence as transient beings in a universe ultimately beyond our comprehension:

Rembrandt is making us aware that, ultimately, this is our destiny – that, each day, life crucifies us that little bit more and that little more slowly, through the sense of loss and suffering we must inevitably accumulate. (102)

If Rembrandt is rightly one of the eponymous angels of the collection, Christopher Hitchens as one of the most famous critics and polemicist of our age falls into the less desirable category. His championing of the calamitous Bush-Blair inspired invasion of Iraq in 2003 is probably the main reason Hitchens was suitably dubbed as a fallen angel in the eyes of many on the radical left. McKenna ultimately concurs with this damning verdict but does not elide over Hitchens’ undoubted qualities as a writer and is generous in acknowledging his subject’s stoical battle against cancer in the twilight of his life:

Hitchens had a wonderful facility with words. His literary flair surpasses that of his idol Orwell, in my view, in terms of its fluidity and grace…even in his later years, the increasingly rotund figure of this patrician journalist was in possession of a certain stoutly courage. (71-72)

Hitchens’ espousal of Western imperialism in his last decade can appear bizarrely incongruous in the light of his previous association with the revolutionary left. As McKenna observes, the most obvious explanation would be that ‘the allure of money and privilege no doubt played its part’. (70) But the author contends that a more productive line of thought is to trace the conflict that raged within Hitchens’ persona throughout his life between two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, the desire to shock the establishment, and on the other, the need to be part of it. In McKenna’s words:

The need to have it both ways, so to say-to be able to indulge the exhilarating frisson and enjoy the moral vitality which are the remits of the freedom-fighter, while simultaneously partaking in the silky confidences of the most famous and powerful; this was the central, elemental contradiction which fissured across Hitchens’ existence. (82)

Perhaps the moral of this particular life is that although contradictions are the essence of the human condition, they do not always play out without resolution. The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks forced Hitchens to decide whether he would decisively take the side of the oppressed or the oppressor. His total failure to comprehend Islamism as a distorted form of resistance to imperial hegemony led him into the welcoming arms of Cheney, Wolfowitz and the rest of the neocon cabal in Washington.

McKenna’s reflective adoption of a Marxist approach to psychology here highlights the advantage of not focusing on our interiority alone; but also perceiving how by events in the external world can force us to confront the contradictions within ourselves. The fiery fiasco of the ‘War on Terror’ forced Hitchens to face the paradoxes of his own existence – and he was found wanting.

Jeremy Corbyn Leader of the Labour Party UK

McKenna’s closing chapter is a timely assessment of the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. As the Tory government stumbles through the Brexit morass, the prospect of the Labour Leader walking through the black door of Number 10 is tantalisingly real. In the neatly titled ‘Chronicle of a Coup Foretold’ McKenna predicts that such a scenario would trigger a major crisis of the British state, in which the aspirations of millions of working-class people, long neglected by a venal elite, would be pitched against the centuries-old conservatism of the ruling class. Unlike the previous profiles in the book, McKenna does not detect any deep contradictions in Corbyn’s personality, and the author’s focus is more on a looming rupture in the wider body politic. In fact, it is fair to say that the Labour leader’s apparent lack of hidden agendas – conscious or otherwise – is the root of his remarkable appeal. Corbyn’s lack of complexity and personal ambition is a refreshing change from his recent predecessors in the post:

Jeremy Corbyn is a kind, decent, reasonable man who evinces a sense of faint distaste and aloofness to the more savage and Machiavellian manoeuvrings, which are so much a part of modern politics. (238)

Nevertheless, McKenna shrewdly cautions us that these qualities are eerily reminiscent of Salvador Allende, Chile’s doomed socialist Prime Minister of the early 1970s. Allende believed decency and reason would be enough to restrain the dark forces of military intervention that stood at his side in the last weeks of his administration. By the time he realised they were actually his deadliest enemies, it was too late. If Corbyn is not to suffer a similar fate in the future, the whole labour movement in the UK will need to realise there can be no common ground in the event of a clash between the ‘Angels and Demons’ – one must subdue the other.

Angels and Demons is available here.

from The Acting Class: Tom Stocks visits Eton whose alumni include Tom Hiddleston, Damian Lewis, Hugh Lawrie and Eddie Redmayne
Wednesday, 20 March 2019 14:49

The Gentrification of Culture

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Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne discuss the decline and colonisation of working-class culture, introduce The Acting Class and call for culture to be at the cutting edge of counter-hegemonic challenges to the dominant culture

The products of film, television and theatre are disseminated in and through institutions and networks that are situated within economic and ideological constraints and hegemonic discourses. Representations of the working class within this circuit are often partial, uninformed and invariably negative. But, even so, they go on to have an afterlife as visual images recycled repeatedly until they harden into the taken for granted ‘knowledge’ of our society.

There is another recycling moment going on as well, the return, the doubling back from the progress made after the Second World War to the squalor, poverty, low wages, hunger and diseases that would have been recognizable to the Victorians. Nothing new to see here; just the British class system doing what it does best – allowing the middle and upper classes to use all the methods in their power to justify the cruelty and inequalities of the system it perpetuates.

The political and cultural expectations of the post Second World War period were conceptualised as an improvement in the living conditions of the working class – new housing, the welfare state, education, maintenance grants, a brave new world built by and made possible by the physical hard work and (to a certain extent) the tax contributions of the working class. The potential afforded by economic security – although far from accessible to everyone – led to a growing confidence amongst the working class at this time which in turn led to the demand for a more overt cultural presence.

There was an independent film movement in the 1970s, and during the 60s through to the beginning of the 80s television became more radical, showing the work of Ken Loach, Dennis Potter and John McGrath. Channel 4 signed up to the Workshop Agreement in the 1980s, which created an infrastructure of radical cultural workers whose praxis included political activism, education, and writing as well as film making. The work produced in all cultural spheres was often work that engaged with and explored in detail the lives of the working class. Seeing the lives of working-class people taken seriously on the television and cinema screens allowed an engagement with the cultural life of the country and provided the potential for political engagement and transformative politics.

The election of Thatcher in 1979 changed the way we think about culture and the way in which it is organized. Now it became something to be organized by an expert middle class, from the top down. It was to be sponsored, monetized, marketized and crucially, standardized. The support offered to radical cultural workers was removed and only those with independent means or rich parents could afford to take part in an increasingly narrow media landscape. In the process the popular culture of the working classes was appropriated and reinvented as middle-class culture.

The dominance of London in both the production and consumption of the arts, and the dominance of the middle class in London, has led to a situation where the middle and upper classes are able to dominate all areas of the arts: film, theatre, television, music and reproduce them in their own image, while at the same time ensuring the continuation of generational privileges.

london culture

The lack of social housing, the inability to rent cheaply, the lack of well-paid full-time contracted work, and the inadequacy of welfare benefits that are tied to stringent rules and surveillance all work together to marginalize the working class, and contribute to what has become a very narrow creative and cultural landscape. What appears to be the exclusion of the working class from geographical spaces gentrified by the professional middle class serves the additional function of excluding them from artistic production.

The decline of the culture of the working class has been one of the most powerful, telling developments in British society. John McGrath linked this decline of working-class culture to the systematic destruction by consecutive governments of the institutions embedded within the lives and history of the working class, out of which this culture grew and which sustained it. Crucially, for McGrath, these institutions were the very embodiment of working-class consciousness. If, as McGrath claimed, it was through these cultural institutions and the forms they took that the working class were able to recognize and identify themselves as a class with a distinct set of experiences differentiating them from other classes, then it follows that at the present moment, it is of the utmost importance that the working class produce their own cultural forms that are able to translate their own experiences.

Geographically we can consider gentrification as a form of internal ‘colonisation’. Colonisation is the practice of invading or settling on already occupied land for the purpose of acquiring assets and displacing indigenous populations by a more economically powerful and socially dominant group. Considering colonisation within this optic as a practice carried out by the middle classes brings into focus the ideological and material displacement of the working class. The success of the gentrification project can only be understood if we consider the physical, geographical aspect in a relational sense by mapping it onto cultural practices, forms of subjectivity and of course media representations which legitimise and normalise middle-class cultures of competitive individualism, status-seeking and accumulated and cumulative disdain for the working class based on feelings of superiority, career success and material acquisition.

The cultural and arts professions would like to consider themselves a meritocracy, magically escaping the structural determinants of class exclusion. In fact they are a perfect microcosm of the British class system, mediated through the lens of middle-class media workers who dominate the ‘creative’ industries which are responsible for telling the stories and projecting the images we have of ourselves and who ‘we’ are.

Our documentary feature film The Acting Class explores how this broader political economy works and with what consequences in the acting industry. The documentary won the International Labour Film Festival award 2017, an indication perhaps of the increasing awareness that the cultural industries are subject to similar dynamics of inequality and precarity as other sectors of the economy. The documentary interviews both established actors such as Christopher Eccleston, Maxine Peake, Julie Hesmondhalgh and Samuel West, as well as young aspiring actors trying to break into the profession today.

Maxine peake with tom stocks 700x455

Maxine Peake with Tom Stocks

Among the latter are Tom Stocks, a working-class actor from Bolton who set up Actor Awareness when he could not afford to take up his Masters in Acting at East 15 drama school. Among the multiple barriers to entry are:

- the dominance of the profession by the middle class in key decision-making roles; the project-by-project nature of the profession that gradually weeds out those who do not have access to an independent income (or the Bank of Mum and Dad);

- the London-centric nature of the profession that excludes actors of working-class origin from outside the capital;

- the subtle shaping of expectations and knowledge from a young age that makes acting seem ‘not for the likes of us’; and

- the erosion of culture and arts provision on the school curriculum.

In addition, there are the elite networks forged in Oxbridge and perpetuated in the profession, networks which Actor Awareness for example tries to counter by developing a network and mutual support system for the working-class actor.

The film has been seen by actors, educators, students, activists and trade unionists, as well as members of the general public. Digital technology has made possible alternative networks of film screenings and facilitated the organization of screenings in non-theatrical as well as theatrical venues. In this way the film becomes more than a series of images, it becomes a political intervention into present circumstances and offers the potential to change the conditions it is dealing with. Question and answer sessions build on immediate audience reactions of anger and emotional responses. One of the questions we are always asked is what can we do to bring about change?

This question has already contributed to the possibility of change, since audience engagement can have tangible results. For example, we have screened the film at a number of Equity branches, to help raise awareness within the actors’ union, and the film has fed into a wider process within the union to prioritise the issue of class exclusion in the sector. We also worked with The Equality Trust and Just Fair as part of their campaign to see Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 brought into effect. Section 1 requires public authorities to have ‘due regard’ to how their role can be used to reduce the inequalities of outcome that result from socio-economic disadvantage. This statutory duty could be a powerful lever for communities and activists to hold public bodies to account, for perpetuating class discrimination across all sectors and not just in relation to arts and culture.

Any counter-hegemonic challenge must begin with culture.

The film but can be purchased through the website and can be made available if anyone would like to arrange a screening.

Silenced voices from the margins: Irish working-class writing
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Thursday, 14 March 2019 15:29

Silenced voices from the margins: Irish working-class writing

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Jenny Farrell reviews a new anthology of working-class writing

A History of Irish Working-Class Writing, edited by Michael Pierse (CUP 2017) is a book to be greatly welcomed. It is the first study of such scope, attempting to present and analyse the entire body of Irish working-class literature. It begins with the first writings of rural workers in the 18th century and brings the reader right up to the present day.

The study of working-class literature was a significant field of Marxist research in the socialist countries, beginning in the Soviet Union, where the works of such authors were translated, analysed and published from early on. It is left to the German expert Gustav Klaus, author of the Afterword, to state this.

Twenty-two chapters examine various aspects of this seriously under-researched field of literature, ranging across three centuries and three continents. The book attempts to give as comprehensive an overview as possible. Its publication coincides with similar companions to the working-class literature of Britain and the United States. 

There is of course always a degree of reservation when working-class literature comes under the scrutiny of largely middle-class academics. In parallel to the militancy with which the gender of authors acceptable to writing about women is scrutinised, one might ask: How familiar are these academics with the working-class experience? How much of this experience will be grasped? What do they see, and what not? How high-handed will they be in commenting on the literary production of the working class? These are valid concerns.

In antagonistic class society, the working class comprises of those people who possess nothing but their labour power. They are in an exploitative relationship with the owners of the means of production, the bourgeoisie, and participate only marginally in the fruits of their labour. As producers of surplus value, they create the basis of national wealth, yet their living conditions are frequently precarious. The rural proletariat must be included among working-class writers. Small farmers are a periphery group of the rural proletariat, who often hardly exist above subsistence level, while contributing to the national wealth. Equally peripheral to the working class are the ever-increasing number of people in precarious employment, and the unemployed.

Working-class authors must be read not merely in terms of their origins but also of how central this experience is to their writing, how aware they are of the inhuman and war-hungry system that exploits them, how their characters envisage their own emancipation and a better, more humane and peace-loving world.

One of the most striking omissions in the book is any recognition of working-class writing in the Irish language. There is no dedicated chapter on this, nor is there any meaningful inclusion of writers in Irish.

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Decorated initial by Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin, 1821

We mention some of these here to indicate the seriousness of this exclusion. Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin (1766–1837), cowherd and labourer, later teacher and scribe, joined with the United Irishmen in their anti-colonial struggle. From a long line of Gaelic scribes, Ó Longáin, born when the role and prominence of Gaelic scribes was all but lost, eked out an existence, working as a wandering labourer, and living in poverty for most of his life. Neither is there any discussion of the 20th century literary giants Pádraic Ó Conaire, Máirtin Ó Caidhin, Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, or Máirtín Ó Direáin.

Pádraic Ó Conaire wrote the finest (only) no-holds-barred novel Deoraíocht (Exile) dealing with the raw reality of the Irish working class and Gaeltacht diaspora in early 20th century London, and a plethora of short stories in which his identification with the working class is made clear. 

Máirtín Ó Cadhain, a left republican who spent the 2nd World War years in the Curragh prison camp, is arguably the finest 20th century Irish-language prose writer. His collections of short stories and novel Cré na Cille (Graveyard Clay) reflect the grinding poverty and hopelessness of his people, the small farmers and fisher folk of the West Galway Gaeltacht, on whose behalf he agitated all of his adult life.

The prose writing of Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, a building labourer in Northampton and the English Midlands, especially his Dialann Deoraí (An Emigrant’s Diary) – express the life and feelings of mid-20th c fellow Gaeltacht labourers in England. A member of the British Labour Party, his writing breathes his socialist sensibility. 

Máirtín Ó Direáin

Máirtín Ó Direáin is the best 20th c Irish-language poet. His childhood in a poverty-stricken household in Inis Mór, Aran, instilled in him a lifelong sympathy for all oppressed, by the capitalist order which finds full expression in his poetry. His fine lament for James Connolly mirrors that of Somhairle Maclean, the leading 20th century Scottish Gaelic poet, of marked communist sympathies, remembered also for his poetic celebration of John Maclean and the Red Clyde.

In the early chapters, there is also a surprising sense of insularity. Although the popularity of the radical Scottish poet Robert Burns among the working class in 18th and 19th century Ireland is mentioned several times, there is no exploration as to why that might have been the case. Indeed, the epochal upheaval of the American and French Revolutions, their unprecedented and hope-inspiring effect on the working classes of all of Europe with the promise of equality, comradeship and liberty, are not part of the picture. Yet these events, along with the anti-colonial revolution in Haiti, were major factors in the development of the United Irishmen, who had mass support in Ireland and in their later years increasingly attracted working-class members. Without such a contextual, historical context, the writings of the working class lose the meaning they had at the time.

Robert Tressell Cover resized

Occasionally, the tone of an author towards the writer discussed comes across as slightly patronising. Dublin-born Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is the first major working-class novel in English literature. It was written between 1906 and 1910 and first published posthumously in abridged editions in 1914 and 1916. Tressell (Robert Noonan) found no publisher and no editor, and the abridged versions removed his socialist ideas from the novel. Its full text only appeared, exactly as he first wrote it, in 1955. The working class has widely embraced the novel as an important text about their experience and written from their own point-of-view. It is not merely about the working-class experience – it also reflects on ways out of it.

The Tressell-like main character Owen is a Marxist, and tries to explain to his fellow house-painters how the system works, the Great Money Trick, and how to change this life-denying system. Never before in the English realist novel, had the actual labour process been central to the depiction of class struggle. For the first time, Tressell reverses the assumption that life begins where work ends – work is essential to fully lived human life. A character’s attitude to labour is a touchstone of his/ her humanity.

This novel is discussed at different points in the study, but not always in full recognition of its achievement. For example in Michael Pierse’s own chapter, he generalises to a degree that devalues the differentiated image of the working class presented by Tressell. Paul Delaney on the other hand goes into deeper analysis in his chapter on early 20th c working-class fiction.

In chapters on working-class writers from the North of Ireland, there are glaring exclusions of just such authors. For example, the chapter entitled ‘Poetry and the Working Class in Northern Ireland’ focuses almost exclusively on the not so working-class in subject matter: poets Heaney, Mahon and Longley. Such emphasis on the existing canon occurs in several chapters and in a way misses the point. There is no reference to Ciaran Carson, bilingual (Irish and English) son of a postal worker and highly regarded writer and translator of poetry in both languages. There are other omissions, including again the Irish language tradition, for example Gearóid Mac Lochlainn. Equally, the names of Northern working-class fiction writers do not appear in this book: Danny Morrison, poet Ciaran Carson’s novelist brother Brendan Carson, Sam McAughtry or Ian Cochrane. Nor, strikingly, Man Booker Prize winner Anna Burns’s novels. They are not even listed in the many lists of writers that appear (without much comment) throughout this book.

However, despite these shortcomings, A History of Irish Working-Class Writing is a very good starting point for anybody seeking to discover something about this vital tradition. It highlights the stature of Sean O’Casey, Brendan Behan and other titans of Irish working-class literature. The authors have collected many names and writings of Irish working-class writers in Ireland, Britain, the US, Australia and New Zealand. For this reason alone, this book is an invaluable resource. Some of the better chapters discuss the literature they present in detail and analysis, making for more interesting reading.

rita ann higgins 2

Rita Ann Higgins

Two chapters that stand out for me in this respect are chapter 11 on ‘Solidarity and Struggle in Irish-American Working-Class Literature’ and chapter 14 on ‘Early 20th century Working-Class Fiction’ both of which look at their texts in terms of socialism and internationalism as well as offering more in-depth analyses. In other chapters, such engagement with the actual texts would have enriched them. For example, Heather Laird writing about working-class Irish women writers, comments about Rita Ann Higgins that she is one of the few female writers whose poems “feature female speakers with a strong grasp of the part state institutions play in consolidating the power dynamics that underpin the prevailing socio-economic and gender status quo”. After such a statement, the reader expects to be presented with the text and the evidence. Surely, one of the questions we have about working-class literature is not simply the setting but about in what way the writers’ understanding of their class within capitalist society is forged into an awareness of how to bring about a change to their lives.

This book proves that an independent archive of working-class writings must be set up to collect documents and manuscripts often deemed unworthy of publication by commercial publishers and unrecognised by mainstream academics. A great example for such an undertaking is The Working Class Movement Library, founded in Manchester by Ruth and Edmund Frow. Only in this way will important records of working-class lives, such as their autobiographies, but also their other writings be collected as the aesthetic statement of what the lives of so many were and are like.

A History of Irish Working-Class Writing is an academic publication. Priced at £79.99, it is ironically well beyond the means of the working class. However, despite its shortcomings, it is a valuable reference book. Everybody with an interest in working–class writings, as the voice of those who are marginalised and silenced in the writing of history, literary and art criticism, should ensure that their local library owns a copy for their readers.

A History of Irish Working-Class Writing, CUP 2017, is available here

A common treasury for all: Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 23 January 2019 20:44

A common treasury for all: Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers

Written by

John Storey tells the story of the 33 Digger communities, intended by Gerrard Winstanley as a first step in a revolution to change not just England but the world. Dug into the text is a poem by Fran Lock in memory of Winstanley, taken from Ruses and Fuses.

On Sunday 1 April 1649 a group of between twenty and thirty poor men and women began to dig the earth on St George’s Hill in Surrey. According to a government spy, ‘They invite all to come in and help them, and promise them meat, drink and clothes. . . . They give out, they will be four or five thousand within ten days. . . . It is feared they have some design in hand’.

The Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley, did have a design in hand. As Winstanley expressed it, ‘To dig up George Hill . . . we may work in righteousness and lay the foundations of making the earth a common treasury for all, both rich and poor. . . . Not enclosing any part into a particular hand, but all as one man, working together, and feeding together; . . . not one lording over another, but all looking upon each other, as equals’. Moreover, ‘every single man, male and female’ should have equal access to what is a ‘common store-house for all’.

What Winstanley envisaged was a movement from private to communal ownership. At first the two systems would co-exist, but increasingly, with the withdrawal of hired labour, the privately owned estates would cease to be viable and the communal system would prevail. As he explained,

No man can be rich, but he must be rich either by his own labours, or by the labours of other men helping him. If a man have no help from his neighbour, he shall never gather an estate of hundreds and thousands a year. If other men help him to work, then are those riches . . . the fruit of other men’s labours as well as his own.

Winstanley knew very well that ‘all rich men live at ease, feeding and clothing themselves by the labours of other men, not by their own; which is their shame, not their nobility’. And when the rich give charity, as if this justified oppression and exploitation, ‘they give away other men’s labours, not their own’. Without the labour of others, the rich would have to work the land themselves and it would become impossible for them to continue to maintain their large estates. In such circumstances, he argued, the rich would join the poor in the communal cultivation of the land. The result would be the end of private property, buying and selling, alienated labour, and the political authority which helped produce and reproduce all three.

In other words, Winstanley’s revolution does not propose to take land from the rich, but to deny to them the means to cultivate it. If the poor work together to produce for themselves, the rich will have no labour to hire and exploit. As he explains, ‘None can say, their right is taken from them; for let the rich work alone by themselves and let the poor work together by themselves; the rich in their enclosures, saying this is mine; the poor upon their commons, saying this is ours, the earth and fruits are common’. What is taken from the rich is the capacity to exploit the labour of others. If they want lots of land, let them work it by themselves. When this proves impossible, they will have to join with the new community of common ownership.

The refusal to work for the rich, and the inability of the rich to work the land themselves, would bring about the downfall of private property and class difference. The proposed mass withdrawal of labour from working the land for wages was in effect a general strike. What made it more sustainable than most general strikes, was that working for wages was being replaced by working as a community to support each other. In other words, the withdrawal of labour would produce an alternative economic and social system. Not giving hire nor taking hire would deny to the landowners the workers they needed to cultivate their estates.

Diggers 3

The result would be that ‘No man shall have any more land than he can labour himself, or have others to labour with him in love, working together, and eating bread together . . . neither giving hire, nor taking hire’. Without workers to exploit and oppress they would have to work the land themselves. Without hired labour the large landowner would have to reduce his property to a size he could work with just family and friends. As Winstanley puts it, ‘if the rich will still hold fast this propriety of mine and thine, let them labour their own land with their own hands’. But if the rich for some reason cannot labour, providing they give up their land they will be welcomed into the community.

As he further explains, ‘He that is now a possessor of lands and riches, and cannot labour, if he say . . . take my land only let me eat bread with you, that man shall be preserved by the labours of others’. Making the additional point, in a gesture that would never be reciprocated, ‘And if any of you that are the great ones of the earth, that have been bred tenderly, and cannot work, do bring in your stock into this common treasury as an offering to the work of Righteousness; we will work for you, and you shall receive as we receive’.

The brutality of the opposition the Diggers encountered was driven by the threat they posed to the system of property ownership. It quickly became clear that the Diggers represented something new; they were not squatting in the hope that local landowners would take pity on them and allow them to stay; rather, they were challenging the very idea of land ownership.

The attack on the Diggers included an economic boycott, harassment, violent assaults by hired thugs, and legal actions. It was all organised by local landowners. They even employed a clergyman, whose sole purpose was ‘to preach down the Diggers’. The men of property were determined to prevent the Diggers establishing themselves on the commons and the example this would set. When the Diggers moved their activities to Cobham Heath in August 1649, the opposition intensified, continuing what had gone before, but now burning dwellings and furniture, and hiring thugs to chase the Diggers from the area.

turning earth

by Fran Lock

i.m Gerrard Winstanley

god holds us all in the hollow of his hand, costing
our melt-weight. from boy to man. stripling into
ingot. i see it now, we are more precious, we are
not less base. our swords, they are not morphing
into ploughshares, and every cutting blade insists
upon its own utopian intercourse. god is not found,
but made. these yeomen, apprentice lads. oh, we
have smithied his kingdom, reckoned it level with
hot, dull force. they call this treason. we’d turn
the stifled earth and let it breathe. the ground, not
broke, but opened after all. god holds us close.
they only see what we tear down. but god will
know, will know us for waywardens of the soil.
the soul. brothers, i dream of a spring without
omission, rising blue and green from winter’s
cryptic jinx. sisters, i dream of a spring without
remission; a love that shrugs the slog of mongrel
toil. god holds, god knows. man is not made
for minting open mouths. man is not made for
driving stakes into the frozen ground. they skim
the fat, we till a trough of stones. man should
be held, man should be known by what he
grows: the shoot, the word, the human good.
we planted christ. came capsized and aspiring,
sweated our tenure in stockades, and stung
into hunger, ate grass. we planted christ. not
christ as a bright dividing line, but christ, an
immovable root that binds the chalky earth
together. crisis ripens a fist like a snail in beer.
we rage and are imperfect, yet we know, we
are vouchsafed, and all are saved. for it is hope
that we make grow.

Winstanley remained convinced that ‘you lords of manors . . .have none to stand for you but whom you force by threatening’. Men pulled down the houses out of fear of what might happen to them and their families if they refused. As Winstanley explains, ‘one soldier . . . forced . . . three country men to help him pull down . . . [a] house; . . . the men were unwilling to pull it down; but for fear of their landlords, and the threatening soldier, they did but their hands to pull it down’. And when the houses were burned, tools and crops destroyed, ‘their lords gave them ten shillings to drink, and they smiled one unto another; being fearful, like a dog that is kept in awe, when his master gives him a bone, and stands over him with a whip; he will eat, and look up, and twinch his tail; for they durst not laugh out, lest their lords should hear they jeered them openly; for in their hearts they are Diggers’.

The final attack on Cobham Heath occurred on 19 April 1650. The hired thugs violently attacked men, women and children. One woman was so badly beaten that she later miscarried. Houses were burned down, crops destroyed and the Diggers forcibly dispersed. More hired thugs were paid to occupy the site to prevent their return. Local inhabitants were warned not to provide lodgings for or food to the Diggers. They had been defeated by the organised power of the local landowners: they brought the court case; they paid for the clerical attack; they hired the thugs to violently confront the Diggers and to break up their tools and destroyed their dwellings and to eventually drive them from their work on the land.

The digging on St George’s Hill, Cobham Heath and in the other 32 Digger communities was intended as a first step in a revolution to change not just England but the world. Winstanley refers to ‘our work of the earth’s community’. He also says, ‘And not only this common, or heath should be taken in and manured by the people, but all the commons and waste ground in England, and in the whole world, shall be taken in by the people in righteousness, not owning any propriety; but taking the earth to be a common treasury, as it was first made for all’.

He also knew ‘that the earth was made to be a common treasury of livelihood for all, without respect of persons, and was not made to be bought and sold . . . [and] none ought to be lords and landlords over another, but the earth is free for every son and daughter of mankind, to live free upon’. When he talked about the world being turned upside down, he really did mean the world and all who inhabit it.

Street art, Bristol
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Friday, 14 December 2018 19:59

Caught Doing Social Work? - socially engaged art and the dangers of becoming social workers

Written by

Stephen Pritchard offers some provocations on themes around instrumentalism of the arts and artists, gentrification and artwashing in the age of neoliberal capitalism.

Many people in the artworld believe that art can deliver social change. Many are following yet another artworld trend – that of socially engaged art. This is perhaps best represented by Assemble winning the 2015 Turner Prize. An important moment in the turn (or perhaps return) towards “Useful Art”.

assemblegroup

Assemble group photo, 2014

Many more see socially engaged art as a way of instrumentalising artistic practices in the name of state, corporate and other agendas. The English state, for example, instrumentalises art as a means of “improving” the economy, health and wellbeing, social ills, education, the environment, urban places, crime rates, unemployment, on and on and on. Art can, some argue, offer salvation to all our ills: Panacea Art.

Cultural policies around the globe are being honed to embed art and culture as a way of supporting and delivering the agendas of almost every government department and non-government organisation; harnessed by big businesses to unleash the false fog of corporate social responsibility.

In this sense, socially engaged art becomes yet another tool employed to support the target-driven, cost-benefit values of the dominant neoliberal ideology that is strangling our lives in the noose of individualism and strapping us into the straitjacket of uncaring personal gain.

A humanistic, socialist cultural democracy

The problem with this perspective is, for me, three-fold. Firstly, and most importantly, the type of social change being sought here is always state-led and thereby powered by political and economic agendas, meaning the arts will always be instrumental. Beautifully crafted, state-funded tools impose the soft power that’s so important to neoliberalism.

Secondly, there is the question of what is social change? Arguably anything: Good or bad; emancipatory or totalitarian; always ideological; never likely to result in paradigm-shifts. Recycling household waste is social change; but then so is Nazism.

Thirdly, people who not part of the artworld are not usually listened to. Their words, thoughts, ideas, wishes, dreams, hopes, fears are ignored or sanitised. Most people are disenfranchised by cultural policies “done to them”, not by, with and for them. This isn’t social justice. This isn’t democracy.

I believe in the radically political project (or perhaps projects) of cultural democracy. People-powered participatory democracy. Humanistic and socialist democracy. The arts have been used very effectively to implement all sorts of state agendas for time immemorial, but they have also been equally effective in opposing the state, opposing capitalism. So, does our work support neoliberal ideology or contest and oppose it?

 Missionaries, Mercenaries, Mediators and Mobilisers

We all learn and experience and express ourselves through cultural activities (whether “high” art or “popular” cultures and subcultures). Our creativity leads us to everyday revolutions that change our ways of being and living in our everyday cultures.

So why do we privilege artists to “engage” people in projects or “work” with people in ill-defined and misunderstood “social” spaces or places?

Are we, as artists working in “the social”, working as Missionaries preaching the Western European, white, middle-class, male, able-bodied gospel of the neoliberal creative industries and Creative Class?

Are we working as Mercenaries, engaging “disadvantaged” people and people in “difficult” places and communities somehow deemed to be in some way lacking in culture, for the sole reason that we need to make a living, a career, to make money?

Are we working as privileged Mediators capable of listening to people who are not listened to – who are ignored – with the sole purpose of helping amplify their frustrations, their anger, their fears, their hopes, their ideas, their demands for rights?

Are we working as Mobilisers – as political activists?

I ask, then, which side are you on?

Who Pays the Piper?

We are privileged. It’s how we use that privilege that matters. We must recognise that our practices are powerful and that we are influential. We must use our influence positively to bring about real and lasting change – radical change.

This is not the time to be instrumentalised by the state, by local authorities, by corporations, by NGOs, by those with vested interests in developing or profiting from our present neoliberal hegemony and the dominance of a neo-colonial Western culture propped-up by art, and proliferated using the slow violence of socially engaged art.

We must not be mercenaries or missionaries.

We can be mediators only if we recognise the privileged position of being able to mediate, and only if we do this with humility and when we do this ethically.

We can be mobilisers working as part of a broad movement of movements for radical social and political and economic change.

We can help bring down the citadels.

We can be part of the demand for the Right to the City.

We can be part of the movement to take back the city.

We can challenge status quos.

We can call for the decolonisation of our racist Western culture.

We can call out those who proliferate inequity, selfish individualism and greed.

We can stand together with those who are denied the privilege given to us.

Are we, then, truly using our privilege to help bring about truly radical acts?

A Revolution of Everyday Life?

We must never help governments and developers displace people.

We must say no to those who want to use us to deliver their neoliberal agendas.

We must never work as NGO artists, subtly instilling Western culture and language and ways of living on different people from different places.

We are not social workers or community workers or community developers or doctors or nurses or psychotherapists or teachers or preachers or community consultants.

We are not foot soldiers of capitalism.

We are not place-makers.

We are not the servants of the neoliberal Creative Industries ideal.

We must never be story-harvesters.

And we are not social cleansers.

Human relationships, radical action and democratic grassroots participation must happen in our everyday lives.

We need a Revolution of Everyday Life: revolutions of everyday lives.

As artists, we can help bring about a revolution of our everyday lives, of everyone’s lives and ways of being and living.

We can help people self-organise, cooperate and reignite our understanding of ourselves as individuals who are stronger collectively.

But we must never get caught doing social work.

Have you been caught doing social work?

Disturbing the Dust on a Bowl of Rose-Leaves

Cultural policy, like fortune, has always favoured the rich and powerful. But it has never before been harnessed so nefariously in the name of “social work”.

We must say NO! We must remember our roots; revisit our histories. We must understand how and why our arts and cultures have been separated from our everyday lives.

We must be wary of those who seek to enforce their values upon our creativity or denounce it as inferior to other cultural activities.

The qualities of radical acts exist in the form of aesthetic experiences not shallow, monolithic Kantian aesthetics.

Our everyday acts and our everyday cultures transcend instrumentalism.

Our everyday lives take must not be determined by institutions – artworld or otherwise.

We are to them like dandelions. We are weeds.

Yet, whilst they regard themselves as fragrant roses, safe within their walled gardens, we know that old roses, old cultivars, grow weak with age. We know that, as dandelions, as wildflowers, we are vigorous and hardy and that we can grow anywhere – whether inside or outside the false boundaries of their garden.

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.

- T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, 1935. (From The Four Quartets, 1941.)

Stephen Pritchard blogs here. 

Culture for the many, not the few: notes towards a socialist culture policy
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Saturday, 28 July 2018 08:19

Culture for the many, not the few: notes towards a socialist culture policy

Written by

Chris Guiton and Mike Quille present an analysis of what culture means, and what a democratic and socialist approach to culture policy might look like.

Introduction

The mission of Culture Matters Co-Operative Ltd is to promote cultural democracy, which we understand to be a more democratic and socialist approach to all cultural activities (including the arts). These notes set out our contribution to the current debates around cultural democracy. They set out our thoughts on

- What culture means and why it is so important

- The links between cultural activities and politics, and current examples of the way cultural activities function in class-divided societies like our own

- The general principles of a democratic and socialist approach to all cultural activities

- Details and illustrative examples of specific measures which might form part of a programme for an incoming Labour government.

What culture means and why it is important

What is culture? ‘Culture is ordinary: that is where we must start’ said Raymond Williams. This means that culture includes not just the arts, but much, much more. It includes all those learned human activities which give life purpose, meaning and value, and which human beings engage in for enjoyment, entertainment and enlightenment.

So as well as the arts, culture includes sport, religion, eating and drinking, fashion and clothing, education, the media and many other popular activities.

What does culture mean to us? Fundamentally, cultural activities are social, unifying and egalitarian. They assert our common humanity and solidarity against divisions of class, gender, race and other social divisions caused by capitalism. And cultural activities, especially art, can directly inspire and support radical change in the real world.

Taking part in cultural activities, as consumers and as producers, is not some optional extra for us. It is absolutely essential to our development as humans. It sustains our health, well-being and happiness, including our freedom from oppressive political systems and exploitative economic arrangements.

Culture, politics and class

Class-based divisions in society, based on unequal property ownership, constrain or prevent our enjoyment of culture. Cultural activities may be fundamentally liberating and social activities, but in societies divided by class they are limited, appropriated and privatised by ruling elites.

Throughout history, tiny minorities of dominant social classes have tried – and often succeeded – in turning culture into circuses, to go with the breadcrumbs thrown from the tables of the rich and powerful. In these societies, cultural activities become inaccessible, costly, irrelevant, and even an instrument of oppression. It tends to be owned, organised and delivered in undemocratic ways. It legitimises, conceals or ignores oppression and exploitation. And it is often used to promote diversionary and reactionary political messages and values.

So struggles develop against these tendencies to privatise and undermine culture, and to develop and sustain a cultural commons for the many, not the few. We, the many, face a cultural struggle against the co-option, misuse and appropriation of cultural activities. This struggle to regain enjoyable, meaningful and accessible cultural activities is like our economic and political struggles for fairer wages, for ownership and control of essential social goods and services like the railways, the utility companies and the National Health Service.

Just as commercial markets and the profit motive have shown themselves unable to provide adequate public services in areas such as health, energy and transport, so they are also unable to provide accessible culture. The aggressive inroads of neoliberal capitalism, bringing profit-making motives into cultural production, delivery and consumption, and privately owned, corporate influence and control over culture, are major challenges for a socialist cultural policy.

Current Cultural Issues

It is well understood on the Left why we need to win state power and implement political and economic policies to tackle austerity, the assault on our public services, growing poverty and inequality and the lack of political and economic democracy in Britain. What is less well understood is why and how we need to develop cultural policies, which are often perceived as being of secondary importance to political and economic issues.

Here are some examples of the issues we face, which show the need for an inclusive culture policy which can implement cultural democracy:

- in sport, we face high ticket prices for football games which exclude families on tight budgets from attending together. There is the growth of corporate boxes at events, and undemocratic ownership and control of clubs and the way that sport is organised. There is too much funding for elite sport, and not enough at grassroots level. There are the spoiling and corrupting pressures of drugs and cheating in many sports, which inevitably follow from stressing the capitalist values of competitive individualism.

- in the media, we face the private ownership of the means of human communication by gigantic media monopolies like Google, and by companies like Facebook, which appropriate information about us in order to practice surveillance and influence our commercial and political choices. We face privately owned media companies like Sky, Netflix, Disney and Fox, dedicated to making profits rather than meeting human need. And we face state-owned media like the BBC, designed to support and legitimise the economic and political status quo, and which are institutionally biased against radical politicians and newspapers.

- in our social cultures of eating and drinking, we face the terrible effects of profit-seeking capitalist corporations, loading our food and drink with sugar, salt and fats, and causing immense and increasing mental and physical health problems.

-‘There is a poet, author, singer, pianist, actor, playwright, artist in every single person’ said Jeremy Corbyn, but for working class people wishing to have an arts career, it is getting harder to become a musician or actor or writer without rich relatives to support you. Cuts and curriculum changes in education mean our children are being deprived of the chance to learn how to appreciate and participate in artistic, sporting and other cultural educational activities, at both primary and secondary school stages.

- we also face inaccessibility, obscurity, and vapid spectacle, and the fact that state funding is so unequal. Money that comes from our taxes and our Lottery tickets is overwhelmingly focused on cultural provision in the London area, which benefits mainly the already well off, and tourists.

- the massive expansion of the ‘creative industries’ and of cultural activities generally in the last few years means many more people are working in jobs linked to culture. Also, virtually everyone in the labour movement enjoys some form of cultural activity, as a consumer if not as a creator or performer. Creativity is seen as a major factor in the future economy, and a significant component of many kinds of work, both in the traditional cultural sectors and the wider ‘knowledge economy’. But the growth of the creative industries has failed to deliver on its meritocratic promise. Far from offering non-alienated labour, the chance for creative fulfilment, and post-industrial economic regeneration, young people entering the labour market today are being forced to accept poor pay and conditions, chronic job insecurity, and a lack of hard-won basic rights such as sick pay, maternity pay, and pensions. Cultural and creative labour markets are increasingly informal and closed to ‘outsiders’, operating outside equal opportunities and equality legislation and not reflecting the social and demographic make-up of contemporary society.

- the downgrading and exclusion of arts subjects from the educational curriculum of schools, combined with the marketisation of higher education away from the arts and humanities and the gutting of further and adult education, all combine to significantly reduce the opportunities for cultural and creative fulfilment of young people, and have a disproportionate effect on already marginalised groups. The opportunity for the best possible cultural and creative education, as consumers and as producers, should be available for all children, not just those of the wealthy.

- the Government’s politically-driven austerity policies, which have led to huge cuts in cultural facilities, eg libraries, community centres, youth facilities and sports facilities. These cuts are set to continue for years to come; and have been deliberately targeted at the least well-off, geographically and demographically.

- the possibilities of a vast expansion in leisure time in the next 10, 20 and 30 years, as labour-saving technology generates even more unemployment, under-employment and spare time. Again, this will impact more on the working class generally, and on less skilled workers, younger people trying to build careers, and people who are already socially excluded and discriminated against on the grounds of gender, ethnic origin, disability etc. Engagement in fulfilling cultural activities is set to become more and more important in most people's lives.

General principles for a culture policy

In general, a culture policy to implement cultural democracy would need to recognise:

- that culture is fundamental, not marginal. The creative activity embodied in culture is a form of social production, with humanity’s happiness and well-being as its end product. Spectatorship and engagement in cultural production and consumption, widely defined, are essential to human fulfilment and well-being.

- that an inclusive approach to culture is essential if we genuinely want to transform the world for the benefit of working people. Culture policy must cover cultural activities which matter to working people, and which can attract the support of the labour movement, so that culture is seen as part of the social wage for everyone. This means breaking down long-established hierarchies between different kinds of cultural activities and practices – which often reflect class distinctions – and reaffirming the legitimacy of cultural institutions and public funding based upon participatory, democratic and egalitarian principles.

- that we must challenge the narrow, centrally-dictated instrumentalism which has become so central to cultural policy and administration over the last thirty years, accompanied by oppressive monitoring and evaluation requirements, without maintaining an idealist, elitist position eg by focusing solely on the arts and excluding popular cultural activities. A genuinely socialist approach should be based on the understanding that culture, including art, belong to everyone, as creators, performers, and consumers.

- that we need to develop democratic, inclusive and bottom-up cultural policies in which communities of practitioners and audiences are empowered to direct culture towards ends that they define, whether that be entertainment, personal fulfilment, self-expression or as a contribution to the struggle for a better world, and avoiding value judgements on how and why people engage in culture. These might learn from and build on existing examples of successful 'DIY culture' in music, art, poetry and other fields, and large, public examples of working class culture such as the Durham Miners’ Gala.

- that we need to learn, through democratic, grassroots policy-making, how to develop policies and processes which can be used to encourage, enable and facilitate people to participate in cultural activities. These policy-making processes need to tackle concrete issues of accessibility, in terms of cost, geography and content; ownership and control of the institutions that fund, organise, deliver and regulate cultural activities; recognition of the fundamental need to embrace diversity of gender, race, nationality, sexuality, class, religion etc in the production and consumption of culture; and consideration of how to decolonise culture, and challenge the dualism of cultural ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’.

Specific Policy Proposals

The following examples of specific policy proposals reflect and build on many of the good ideas that have already been proposed as a contribution to the culture policy of an incoming Labour government. It is not an exhaustive list, further work is needed to clarify and develop the details, but we offer them in a constructive spirit to stimulate discussion:

- Require government policy makers (national, regional and local) to test proposed policy objectives against an over-arching objective of the promotion of a cultural democracy which works for the common good. Review whether relevant institutions and processes are fit for that purpose, and closely monitor implementation of such a radical policy in order to ensure that it is not captured by sectional interests.

- Dismantle the barriers that constrain or prevent ordinary people from accessing culture, particularly that which is publicly funded, based on cost, geography, class and social exclusion. Ensure that people generally have an equal opportunity to join in and enjoy all the arts and cultural activities.

- End the corporate capture of the Arts Council and other publicly funded arts bodies, exemplified by the recent appointment of Elisabeth Murdoch to the National Council of Arts Council England. Ensure that cultural funding is distributed equally, regionally and demographically, with regional, local and community participation to ensure that cultural spending empowers the communities that elect those representatives. Champion investment in people over large-scale vanity projects which benefit a narrow elite.

- End the distorting impact of corporate sponsorship and private philanthropy on the freedom and independence of cultural institutions.

- Ensure that leaders of cultural institutions – not only theatres, art galleries, concert halls and poetry publishers, but sports clubs, churches, and broadcasting and media corporations – seek to engage with all sections of the community, particularly the least well off and the least powerful.

- Explore ways to recover working class history and culture at a national, regional and community level, and restore the democratic and humanist cultural traditions that have been eroded by neoliberalism. This might build on the examples of local ‘people’s museums’ which have been set up in parts of the country, using community facilities and contributions by local people to build a picture of the locality.

- Recognise and support the important community role played by small music, visual and performing arts venues, many of which are facing closure as a result of commercial pressures or removal of grants or local funding. These play a vital role in developing creative ability and should be supported via business rates relief, direct subsidy and protection from commercial or residential development.

- Build on our rich history of community arts and sports by extending support, via regional culture councils and other relevant organisations and local authorities, to make space and resources available, so that creative and recreational activity is both available and accessible in urban and rural locations.

- Ensure that the cultural sector sets the standard in terms of workers’ rights, guaranteeing at least the UK Real Living Wage for all its employees, including artists and interns, management, technicians, cleaners and security staff. Introduce trades union representation into the governance arrangements of every public cultural institution.

- Rediscover the value of employer-supported workplace activities to facilitate sports and other forms of cultural participation.

- Provide proper funding for museums, galleries and libraries, to ensure that they play a much more active part in the lives of their communities, providing a place for creative activity and social connection and ensuring accountability to their publics. Museums and galleries should maintain free entry as a general principle, and offer genuine concessionary rates and free entry to low income groups to special events and exhibitions.

- Investigate and remove the barriers that exist in all cultural sectors towards equality of access to cultural and creative work by tackling the educational, financial, employment, career progression and management obstacles that prevent these sectors from reflecting the diversity of our population, particularly at leadership levels.

- Tackle the absence of significant working class representation in all cultural institutions (including the arts, sports, religion, the media, science and technology etc.) in terms of its content, audiences and practitioners.

- Amend the Equality Act to add consideration of class, social exclusion, poverty and inequality to the current policy framework, in parallel with the standard definitions of diversity, with their role factored in to all considerations of access, funding, participation etc.

- Empower and encourage local authorities to facilitate re-municipalisation at a local level, supporting social ownership for all cultural activities through co-operative and other forms of accountable, democratic self-organisation, where wealth is embedded and shared among communities rather than extracted for private gain.

- End the accelerating process of gentrification taking place in many of our cities, which first exploits and then drives out artists from local neighbourhoods. Encourage the recognition of artists as people who contribute to and enrich local communities. Consider options to set up a system of grants to provide living and material costs for artists working in community-based settings.

- Ensure art and culture are integral to the education system, free at the point of use, embedding arts education into the national curriculum so that all children in Britain, from primary school up, have the opportunity to access the best cultural and creative education, recognising the value it plays in the development of social, cognitive, emotional and physical skills and promoting lifelong arts learning.

- End the destructive audit and accountability culture, excessive testing and associated narrowing of the curriculum in our schools. Replace it with an approach to education which is holistic, enables children to live their lives to the full, and which addresses mental and physical health and wellbeing; encouraging students to think critically, questioning everything, nurturing enthusiasm for learning and intellectual curiosity.

 The media
 
- Reclaim the media (newspapers, online platforms, TV and radio) for the people by reforming its funding, ownership and control. Promote democratic accountability and pluralism in order to prevent market dominance by a small, powerful group of monopolistic interests, and create space for progressive and alternative providers capable of criticising and holding power to account.

- Reform and democratise the BBC to enable it to genuinely fulfil its public service broadcasting obligations and make a positive contribution to society, fully representative of its diverse audiences. Give adequate space and time to publicising and encouraging grassroots, DIY culture, and film and TV productions which offer a progressive or socialist vision of a fairer society

- Tackle the corporate capture of the web by monopolistic advertising platforms such as Google and Facebook via the introduction of effective regulation and taxation. Consider options for forms of social ownership of privately owned social media platforms. Facilitate the creation of decentralized social media networks, owned and controlled by the people.

- Introduce a statutory duty of care for the larger social media services, covering the key harms seen on social media platforms (harassment, misuse of personal data, hate crime, intimidation etc), backed by effective enforcement.

Sport and Leisure

- Challenge the commodification of football and other sports by using regulation and taxation to restrict corporate exploitation of clubs, players and spectators, and facilitate a return to the social and community origins of our national sports.

- As part of this new approach, tackle the chronic under-investment in football by enforcing a five per cent levy on Premier League broadcasting rights to be ploughed back into the grassroots game to improve pitches, facilities and training opportunities. Explore options to extend this policy to other sports such as cricket and rugby, which are similarly disfigured by corporate funding.

- Facilitate a shift of public spending on recreation and sport from high profile, elite sports to a greater range of community sports, encouraging a more inclusive and egalitarian ethos in sports institutions and activities, with full community participation in their governance, design and delivery.

- Improve the democratic accountability of sports clubs by giving supporters a greater say in how their clubs are run, at board level, including decisions regarding ownership changes and property sales.

- Require sports authorities to make significant improvements on provisions for fans with disabilities.

- Make the protection of public parks, playgrounds and leisure centres by local authorities and other bodies a legal requirement, prohibit privatisation and outsourcing, and provide proper funding to ensure they are properly maintained and remain free to use.

Conclusion

The arts and other cultural activities are often co-opted to reflect and serve the needs of the dominant class, in a class-divided society such as ours. At the same time, though, they can also provide the space to resist the status quo, to overcome alienation and oppression, and bring enjoyment and meaning into our lives. They can help people envision better, fairer ways of organising our society, as well as promoting our physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

These notes are intended to stimulate debate about the shape and content of a radical and comprehensive culture policy that a future Labour Government might be encouraged to adopt. Clearly, they are not the final word on the subject. Much work needs to be done to test ideas, develop detail and fill gaps. But, hopefully, they provide food for thought and offer a platform for further discussion. Readers are invited to submit general pieces (critical or creative) to our website, to help further the debate. They may also wish to consider joining the Movement for Cultural Democracy, which is a new campaign to drive a radical and transformative cultural programme in the UK.

Now is the time to seize the opportunity to create a comprehensive package of culture polices for the many, not the few.

With thanks to Theresa Easton, Sophie Hope, Jack Newsinger, John Storey and many others, for their valuable comments and contributions to this article.

Is There a Marxist Perspective on Education?
Thursday, 24 May 2018 10:50

Is There a Marxist Perspective on Education?

Written by

Martin Brown considers what a Marxist approach can tell us about our education system.  

Like everything else in a class-divided society, education is a battleground. In present conditions, what is taught, how and to whom, is largely determined by the capitalist class. “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force” wrote Marx. That’s as true today as ever. Let’s start by looking at what Marx and his successors had to say about education.

In the Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx and Engels argue (in a mock address to the ruling class) that education is: “determined by the social conditions under which you educate, by the intervention, direct or indirect, of society by means of schools, etc. They added; Communists “have not invented the intervention of society in education; they do but seek to alter the character of that intervention, and to rescue education from the influence of the ruling class.”

While Marx was alive, a fierce argument about the state’s involvement in education was going on within the British ruling class. On the one side was the view, expressed by the Bishop of London: "It is safest for both the Government and the religion of the country to let the lower classes remain in the state of ignorance in which nature has originally placed them."

On the other side of the argument, employers wanted a workforce who ‘knew their place’, but had enough literacy and numeracy skills to follow instructions, and an increasingly important and complex British industry also needed increasing numbers of skilled workers like mechanics, clerks and accountants. By the middle of the 19th century leaving the working class in ignorance was no longer an option. A chaotic mix of voluntary provision had emerged – church schools, non-conformist schools, charity schools, dame schools and factory schools and of course, many children in no school at all. Fearful of the emerging trade union movement and of radical organisations like the Chartists, the state was eventually forced to intervene to ensure that the gaps in the patchwork of provision by voluntary religious organisations was completed, ensuring that it was their ideology that prevailed and not that of the emerging working class.

In 1870, Marx applauded the Paris Communards’ action in making education free and for removing interference by church and state, and also having studied the educational experiments of Robert Owen, “placed great emphasis on the educative effect of combining productive labour and learning; presupposing a society in which labour had become a creative activity.” (Brian Simon, Intelligence, Psychology and Education)

When workers seized power in Russia in 1917, Marx’s theories were put into practice and education was a priority. Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet Commissar for Education and Enlightenment, spoke at the All-Russia Congress on Education, held within a year of the Revolution. He stressed the need for the workers and peasants to be given the education that give them the capacity to govern as the ruling class:

“When there came […] the October Revolution, the peasantry and the proletariat came forward without any skill in government, being as far removed from this as can be imagined. Now the power of the state has but one task: to give the people, as quickly as possible, the greatest possible amount of knowledge, to cope with the gigantic role which the Revolution has prepared for the people – to destroy the privileged right to knowledge, allowed before to only a small part of society …”

In a lecture ‘On the Class School’ given in 1920 at the Sverdlov University he emphasised that all children from whatever background should attend the same comprehensive co-educational school; “In a class society everything the state does has a strictly class character … what can we, as socialists, offer instead of this class school? … every boy and every girl, whatever family he or she is born into, goes to one and the same first class, to the unified labour school …” Lunacharsky promoted the understanding that children learn through play: “Play is a method of self-education. ‘Schoolroom’ teaching ignores this fact, it says: a child wants to run about – make him sit still; a child wants to make things himself, to occupy himself with something interesting – sit him down to his Latin! In a word it is a struggle against a child’s very nature. We take exactly the opposite standpoint … when children dance, sing, cut things out mould material into shapes, they are learning …”

Another feature of Soviet schools that was initiated by Lunacharsky was the importance of linking the school to human labour. A decree of 1918 declared that: “the principle of productive labour should underlie the whole educational system: the teaching in the schools must bear a polytechnical character”.

Soviet School

A Soviet poster describing the importance for all to be productive and help build new schools for the proletariat.

Cuba has applied and developed Marxist educational theory since 1959. Its education system is comprehensive, co-educational, secular and free from nursery to university level. Despite the US blockade Cuba spends a higher proportion of GDP on education than any other country in Latin America and the Caribbean, and has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

By contrast, Britain, or to be more precise, England, has led the world of education in the reverse direction. The Global 'Education Reform' Movement (GERM) is now largely controlled by the corporate world with deep connections to conservative politicians. The British 1988 Education Reform Act promoted standardisation, testing, accountability to central government, competition and privatisation. Initiated by the Thatcher government in Britain and the Reagan administration in the USA, GERM has become a global infection. In Africa and Asia profit-making, low fee-paying schools run by Pearson and other transnational corporations undermine national education systems.

The significant advances made in Britain after World War Two have been largely reversed. Selection, often under the guise of academies and 'free schools' is increasing, religious schools have increased in number and variety, and local education authorities (along with any semblance of local accountability) have disappeared. Tuition fees in universities are returning higher education into the preserve of an elite.

British education is in meltdown. Author and educationalist Peter Mortimore, writes: “Since 1988 our education system has been transformed into a market economy -- as if schooling is similar to shopping or using an estate agent. The ideological inspiration for marketisation stems from the work of Milton Friedman. His 'Capitalism and Freedom' provoked a new strategy for governing […] The key elements of this strategy are individualism, competition, choice, privatisation, decentralisation, deregulation and the use of the market in all public services.”

Along with these developments, governments, both Tory and Labour, have centralised control of the curriculum and established draconian inspection and testing regimes. As a result, the teacher's role has been reduced to that of technician with little control over what is taught and how. Austerity budgets have slashed education spending and while the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland have been able to resist some of these developments and retain a degree of local accountability (and Scottish higher education students do not pay tuition fees), both countries' education systems are massively underfunded. It is no surprise that there is now an acute teacher shortage. The Times recently reported “applications for teacher training have fallen by a third in a year, the government has missed its recruitment targets for the past five years and teachers are quitting in record numbers with a quarter leaving after just three years.”

A Marxist approach can help us understand how this situation came about and what has to be done to change it. Marx's views on school education were not elaborated - there are only scattered references in various of his works and there was no universal state education when he was writing, but later thinkers have developed his approach. Antonio Gramsci coined the phrase 'cultural hegemony' to describe the influence that the ruling class has over what counts as knowledge. The dominant class controls the subject class not with force but with ideas that conceal the true source of their power and the nature of the exploitation.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed radical Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, described conventional teaching under capitalism as the 'banking method', which he saw as mirroring and reinforcing an oppressive society. Under this model of teaching the teacher is viewed as knowing everything and the student nothing. The teacher talks and the student listens. The teacher (or rather the government) determines what is taught and how it is taught. Students become empty vessels and their role is to store the knowledge bestowed on them. Above all they are not required or expected as a result of their education to change the world by reflection and action. In contrast, the humanist, revolutionary educator will adopt another approach: problem posing education based on a dialogue between teacher and student in which both become responsible for a process in which they both grow. Their aim should be to become critical thinkers questioning and challenging what they encounter in the learning process.

friere

At last the hegemony of free market education model is being challenged by the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Labour’s emerging policy on a National Education Service is a breath of fresh air, and the skeleton policy - currently out for consultation has refocused debates around what children should be taught, how, and by whom. It includes the aim that education should be free at the point of use, that all barriers to learning are to be tackled, that all areas of skills and learning deserve respect. It promotes collaboration and co-operation over competition, proposes a restoration of local accountability, of practice being based on evidence, of assessment and inspection being used to support teachers and learners. At this stage the policies imply advances but lack detail. One response from an alliance of educational campaigning groups that makes the proposals explicit is to be found at www.reclaimingeducation.org.uk. Abolition of student tuition fees is implied but on the future of academies and free schools – a key ingredient of the market model – the alliance is unclear as is how local accountability can be restored.

There are historical injustices that will have to be dealt with too. Private education buys privilege. Grammar schools, religious schools and above all so-called ‘public’ schools are used to exclude others and have no place in a society that is building a socialist future.

In A Life in Education Brian Simon, the late Marxist, campaigner for comprehensive education and educational historian, summed up what is needed:

“Up to the age of 16 all children should have the opportunity to experience a full all round education embodying the humanities, arts, sciences and technology - this is and always has been the aim of comprehensive education. In such schools there are no blind alleys, no once-and-for-all tests to cut off or divest children from access to learning. Opportunities remain open for all. Well-equipped schools of this type serve their own neighbourhood in every locality. Such is the objective. To achieve this schools not only need generous resources in terms of buildings, equipment and staff; they also need to evolve the relevant pedagogical means carefully honed to ensure that all children are effectively assisted in their learning. This is an area where much has been lacking in both primary and secondary schools.

Education should be holistic, should address mental and physical health and wellbeing. It should help pupils think rather than learn facts, it should encourage pupils to question everything, to be sceptical, to think. Philosophy should be a central plank of education, from the earliest age. It should enable pupils to live their lives to the full not simply enable them to join the workforce.” 

Here, then, is a programme for the 21st century for any government worth its salt. The need now is to go even further, and finally create a genuinely national system of education. Current provisions, historically based are no longer acceptable. Such must be the agenda for the future.

 

Detail from a painting of Christopher Caudwell by Caoimhghin O Croidheain
Wednesday, 02 May 2018 13:27

A brief and breathtakingly brilliant life: Christopher Caudwell, activist and intellectual

Written by

Helena Sheehan reviews the life and work of Christopher Caudwell.

caudwell 188x300 pluto

Christopher Caudwell
Culture as Politics: Selected Writings of Christopher Caudwell

Edited by David Margolies, Pluto, London, 2018. 192pp., £17.99 pb
ISBN 9780745337227

 caudwell MR 195x300 mrp

Christopher Caudwell
Culture as Politics: Selected Writings of Christopher Caudwell

Edited by David Margolies, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2018. 192pp., $25 pb
ISBN 9781583676868

Christopher Caudwell was a brief and breathtakingly brilliant presence in the world. Born Christopher St John Sprigg in London in 1907, he published prolifically and died fighting in the Spanish civil war in 1937, before he even reached the age of 30.

He left school at the age of 15 and began his working life as a cub reporter at the Yorkshire Observer, where his father was literary editor, and then as editor of British Malaya. Upon returning to London, he ran an aeronautics publishing company with his brother, edited one of its technical journals and designed gears for motorcars. In addition, he wrote reams of poetry, plays, short stories, detective novels, and aeronautics textbooks. He even edited a volume of ghost stories.

On top of all this, he read voluminously in philosophy, sociology, anthropology, psychology, history, politics, linguistics, mathematics, economics, physics, biology, neurology, literature and literary criticism and much more besides. He did so, not as a dilettante, but as one striving to come to terms with the knowledge of the centuries and to comprehend what it meant for himself and his own age. Despite his lack of a university education, he became a person of very considerable learning.

In 1934, at the age of 27, Caudwell became interested in Marxism and began to study it with extraordinary intensity, discovering quickly that it provided the key to the synthesis he was seeking. In the summer of 1935, he wrote his first Marxist book, originally called Verse and Mathematics, but sent off and accepted for publication by Macmillan as Illusion and Reality.

Upon the completion of this book, he moved to the east end of London and joined the Poplar branch of the Communist Party. He threw himself into all the routine party tasks, fly-posting, street-corner speaking, selling The Daily Worker, as well as joining battle with blackshirts, bravely facing consequent batterings and even arrest.

During this period of intense activism, he also wrote feverishly, producing a body of theoretical manuscripts posthumously published as Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture, The Crisis in Physics, Heredity and Development, Romance and Realism and Poems. Previous selections from his work have been published as The Concept of Freedom and Scenes and Actions. Verso has recently brought out a new edition of The Crisis in Physics.

This new collection called Culture as Politics is a welcome addition to the history of Caudwell publication. It is edited by David Margolies, who wrote The Function of Literature: A Study of Christopher Caudwell’s Aesthetics, the first book on Caudwell, who played a key role in bringing the work of Caudwell to his own generation, the so-called sixties generation. In bringing out this collection, he is continuing his sustained work on Caudwell and bringing his work to the attention of yet another generation.

He has selected passages from Illusion and Reality, Studies in a Dying Culture and Heredity and Development. Although they might not have been the same selections as someone else might have made, they have been chosen carefully and do provide a good introduction to the work of Caudwell that will hopefully lead readers to seek out more from Caudwell’s whole body of work.

Margolies also provides introductions to each section, which locates these selections within the context of Caudwell’s whole body of work as well as the circumstances of his life. Margolies has a thorough knowledge of Caudwell’s work, both published and unpublished, and is currently the executor of the Caudwell literary estate. Among many interesting features of his commentary is his identification of proto-Marxist dimensions in Caudwell’s pre-Marxist fiction.

For Caudwell, culture (in the broadest sense of the word, including science, technology, philosophy, etc) was shaped by the socio-economic conditions of its time. His work was infused with the explanatory force of historical materialism. He saw the dynamic not as a passive one, but as an active interaction in which culture in turn played a role in shaping the socio-economic milieu. He developed his ideas with a sweeping sense of history and his distinctive interpretation of past eras, such as ancient Greece and modern Britain, are really striking. The breadth of his knowledge and depth of his thinking are still remarkable and memorable.

What Caudwell was doing in whatever he wrote, whether it was about literature or anthropology or psychology or biology, was reaching out to conceptualise the world and nothing less than the world. He was determined to work over the whole inheritance of human knowledge from a new point of view. Philosophy, in the sense of an integrating Weltanschauung, was what gathered up all else. No matter what he was addressing, from poetry to politics to physics, he wanted to penetrate to the very core of it, to illuminate it within its full field of forces, to highlight it within its the network of interconnections, to see it within the whole. He sought to identify the world’s most basic patterns, to take the pulse of the world’s most basic rhythms.

Looking to the culture of his time, he saw that there was something at the very core of the social order that inhibited this impulse to integrality, that obstructed the search for synthesis. Everywhere he turned, it was fragmentation that prevailed. He asked why. He remarked: “Either the devil has come among us having great power or there is a causal explanation for a disease common to economics, science and art?”

Despite the magnificent achievements that he saw in his time – relativity, quantum mechanics, genetics, psychology, anthropology, art, aeronautics – it was nevertheless an epoch of confusion and dissension. Why, he asked, did each new discovery come as a Midas touch that brought new disappointment? Why did this strange doom hang over bourgeois culture in such a way that progress seemed only to hasten decline? Why was it that the search for a common truth, a common faith, brought only the proliferation of partial, myopic and contradictory views of reality?

At the heart of it all, he argued, was the subject-object dichotomy, that had its basis in the social division of labour, in the separation of the class that generated theory from the class that engaged actively with nature. This dichotomy distorted all realms of thought and activity, and indeed all social relations. It was a disease endemic to class society that had become more acute with its higher development. Only an integrated world view grounded in a vision of a new social order could bring to a higher synthesis what had been severed, to what had grown pathologically far apart.

As he looked around him, he concluded that many theories and many activities were rooted in the basic bourgeois illusion: that man was born free but was crippled through social organisation. In his illusory separation of individual consciousness from the natural and social matrix of its existence, the bourgeois had brought to a new level the dualism inherent in class society, generating in philosophy an ever sharper separation of individual from society, of mind from matter, of freedom from necessity, of history from nature, of emotion from rationality, making the fundamental subject-object relation increasingly insoluble. Instead, he stood in his own light, imagining that he could direct the social process without being directed by it, to determine without being determined, able to conceive only of self-determined mind in a one-way relation to its determined environment, an active subject contemplating a passive object, oblivious to the nexus of natural forces and social relations determining both.

Looking to the philosophical landscape of his time, Caudwell mapped the terrain and characterised the forces contesting the terrain. He took the pulse of the various players and detected the pounding beat of the tensions tearing at all efforts to comprehend. He knew that the history of philosophy throbbed to the rhythm of a wider, deeper process, even if philosophers themselves were oblivious of it.

He traced the history of modern philosophy in terms of the development of the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie. The first stage, that of bourgeois revolt against feudal restriction, had sparked a great crescendo into the environment, with the voyages of exploration, astronomy, geometry, gravity, with mechanistic materialism its climactic philosophy. The next stage, as capitalism consolidated, its materialism turned into its opposite, mentalism, turning away from the object toward the subject, reproducing the dualism of subject and object from the opposite direction. The rebirth of idealism came as the philosophy of a ruling class whose distance from its environment was increasing with the growing differentiation of labour.

He analysed the opposite philosophies of mechanism and idealism, as both dichotomising the world into inert matter and creative spirit. Then came positivism, marking the passing of the bourgeoisie from a progressive class to a reactionary one. If mechanism had sacrificed subject to object and idealism had sacrificed object to subject, positivism sacrificed both. Both matter and mind became elusive and unknowable.

Philosophy became increasingly impoverished with escalating and esoteric dualisms. Philosophy, instead of being an integrating force, became a divisive one. In every way, theory was flying apart from practice. Philosophy, even philosophy of science, was becoming increasingly remote from science. Art was drifting away from experience. Theory and practice were sundered in consciousness, because they were divided in social reality.

No longer able to discern the rhythms of the historical process, the bourgeois distorted whatever he beheld. It was not possible to break through the intellectual dissolution, to connect the parts to the whole, without addressing its social matrix and he could not connect the parts to the whole without querying his whole modus vivendi.

Consciousness tended to gather at one pole and activity at the other, causing distortion of both. This played out, not only in the distance between the pursuit of knowledge and other aspects of the labour process, but even within areas of knowledge. Even the sciences were subject to this rupture, bringing a morass of contradictions, both within and between sciences, with much scientific practice becoming more empirical, narrow, fractured and with theory becoming more remote, diffuse, disconnected. Experiment was generating a growing body of empirical knowledge that could not be fit into a theoretical framework. Without such a framework, scientists fell back on eclecticism, reductionism or mysticism. This process has escalated since his time.

Caudwell’s epistemological position was a critical realism grounded in socio-historical interactionism. Knowledge is generated in a social process, in an interaction between subject and object, which come into being simultaneously. They are mutually constituting and therefore inseparable. We can never know a thing apart from our knowing of it. Breaking with the illusion of the detached observer, he saw knowledge as an active relation, the product of social labour past and present.

The weight of his attention in his various studies in a dying culture was to the mentality of the bourgeois, the dominant ideology of his time and ours. He was, as E P Thompson noted, a superb anatomist of ideologies. He also looked to alternative ideological positions, to outsiders to the dominant world view, primarily the proletariat, but also women and oppressed races and nationalities. His anticipation of feminist consciousness and the dynamics of moving from oppression to liberation through various stages of exclusion, inclusion, critique, rebellion, was most advanced for a male Marxist of his era. As to the proletariat, his view of their active engagement with nature, capacity for critical consciousness and revolutionary transformation may seem idealised now, but it is not hard to see how it seemed to him then. Such optimism does not come so easily to us now.

We live in another time. The dying culture has not died. Indeed, in its way it thrives on a scale beyond anything he could have imagined. Yet his critique of it stands. Its decadence is manifest everywhere, overpowering whatever else struggles for life.

Looking at the philosophical landscape since he vacated the terrain, the battle of ideas for some decades intensified. Universities in the 1960s, 1970s, even into the 1980s, were full of conflicting ideas, contending paradigms, debates that went to the theoretical foundations of all disciplines. Along the same lines as his studies, all these debates in diverse areas ran along parallel lines and expressed deeper lines of cleavage. What has happened since is that this has died down, but without any of the problems raised by these debates being solved.

Theory has flown yet farther from practice in that now theory itself is repressed. The global system functions in such a way that it needs a higher level of education, but education aligned to the precise needs of the market and not oriented to conceptualising the system, let alone contesting it. Theory and theoretical debate is not thriving in this milieu. Unreflective particularity prevails. Where there is theory, it is much debased, mired in every sort of confused dualism, lazy eclecticism, ungrounded and mystified holism. The search for synthesis is more subverted than ever.

It is impossible not to wonder what Caudwell would have written about all this, about all that has unfolded since he died. What insights might he have had into the trajectory from positivism through neo-positivism to post-positivism, into existentialism, phenomenology and postmodernism, into the accelerating commodification of culture and knowledge? What studies might he have produced of film, television and cyberculture? What might he have done during the turmoil in the communist movement in 1956, 1968, 1989? What would he have made of the Moscow trials, the 20th Party Congress, the new left, third world liberation movements, new social movements, Marxism Today, perestroika, the end of the USSR?

We cannot be sure. Various commentators have had their say. When I was first reading Caudwell, I bought the 1971 edition of Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture with an introduction by Sol Yurick, who speculated that he might have become either a bitter cold warrior or a numbed apparatchik. In the margins I wrote: no and no.

His life would have been very different if he had returned. He would have become a major party and public intellectual. His thinking would have been challenged, not least by his own reflections on the world as it unfolded. Whether he would have left the party at some stage, I do not know, but I do believe firmly that, whatever he did, he would have lived by the views and values that he evolved in the last years of his life. Of course, any of us who have ever thought that we got him think that he would have thought what we think. Still, I believe that I am right about this at least.

I have lived now many years longer than he had the opportunity to live. I have looked at the world he never saw with eyes that saw in the way that they did shaped by the way that he saw. It has been no substitute for what the world lost when it lost him, but it has carried him on in the world. He wrote of the half-life of the dead in what they leave behind when they die. In reading him today, he lives on. I commend Pluto, Verso and Monthly Review for publishing these new editions and bringing Caudwell to the attention of new audiences.

This article is republished from Marx and Philosophy Review of Books.

‘Dreams to live on’: The Acting Class and working-class diversity in the arts
Wednesday, 25 April 2018 18:30

‘Dreams to live on’: The Acting Class and working-class diversity in the arts

Written by

Jack Newsinger reviews the documentary film The Acting Class, by Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne, which gives voice to the struggles of actors of working-class origin as they try to make it in an increasingly middle-class profession.

In 2014 Julie Walters worried that "Soon the only actors are going to be privileged kids whose parents can afford to send them to drama school. That’s not right. It feels like we are going backwards.” The response from some was less than positive. Lewis star Laurence Fox, for example, said that Julie Walters should “shut up”. Fox was educated at Harrow public school, as was Benedict Cumberbatch. Damien Lewis, Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston and Dominic West all went to Eton. The 'poshification' of acting has been a topic of public debate, alongside movements to improve BAME and gender representation in the cultural and creative industries, for a number of years. These issues have been forced high onto the agendas of some of our leading cultural institutions such as Arts Council England and the British Film Institute, and many now have official policies and guidelines designed to address the clear unfairness of access to different jobs in the cultural sector. But these initiatives, while potentially signalling a change in the mindset and practices of cultural institutions, are often top-down. There is little to suggest that there has been a transformation (so far) in the social composition of the people who make the decisions about what culture we get to see and hear.

That’s where films like The Acting Class come in. Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne’s documentary follows Tom Stocks as he builds a campaign to improve the opportunities for working class actors. Actor Awareness started online in 2015 and grew like a snowball into a fully-fledged movement, highlighting the difficulties and barriers faced by actors from working-class backgrounds as they enter the profession and providing support and solidarity. The film uses this platform to take a broad look at the barriers built into the system such as the prohibitive costs of drama school education, the scandal of audition fees, the expectations of working for free to build a career, the typecasting that working-class actors suffer, particularly those of colour. (If you wanted to build a system that kept working-class people out, it would be hard to think of a better one.) O’Neill and Wayne have put together a powerful film that represents the experiences of working-class actors at all stages of their careers, from new talent like Andrew Ellis and Amy Stout to well-established stars including Julie Hesmondhalgh, Maxine Peake and Christopher Ecclestone, to dissect the problems, common across much of the cultural sector, that prevent genuine working-class participation.

The stories of raising money for travel to London and audition fees, the feelings of insecurity engendered by entering the rarefied middle-class environment of the London cultural elite, the thrill of being offered a place, then all for nothing as the realisation that drama school is simply unaffordable to those who don’t have parents with enough money to pay for it (around £13,000 per year) are genuinely heart breaking. Dreams dashed. Tom Stocks himself had to twice turn down a place through lack of money. Andrew Ellis describes being recognised for his role in Shane Meadows’ film This is England while working on the check-out at Asda. Presumably this never happened to Fox.

Why is it important that working-class people become actors? As well as an issue of basic fairness – why should the upper-middle classes be able to buy their children a place at the front of the queue for all the exciting opportunities? – the problem is well articulated by Hesmondhalgh: ‘if art is coming from one very narrow part of society, then the stories and the conversations are only going to be coming from that place and they are only going to be about that place.’ Art and self-expression are as important to working-class people as they are to middle-class people. Perhaps more important. As Scott Berry, Artistic Director of Salford Arts Theatre says, ‘when you’ve got nothing else, dreams are what you live on.’

And this is the real power of the film: working-class people telling their own stories, in their own accents. The decision to mix together those at the beginning of their careers with the established stars, to show that working-class people have something worth saying and it can’t be dismissed as a few diamonds in the rough. The Acting Class is as good a dissection of the profound class inequality that we have in the cultural sector as any industry or academic report. And I say that as someone who has worked on a few.

You can find a screening of The Acting Class here. Follow Actor Awareness here.

The interplay between base and superstructure
Sunday, 15 April 2018 12:49

Marx and culture

Written by

Professor John Storey outlines Marx and Engels' theoretical contributions to cultural theory.

Although Karl Marx did not have a fully developed theory of culture, it is possible to discover the basis of one in his understanding of history and politics. What this understanding points to is the insistence that if we are to critically comprehend a cultural text or practice, we have to locate it historically in relation to its conditions of production. What makes this methodology different from other ‘historical’ approaches to culture is Marx’s conception of history, contained in the now famous (and often deliberately misunderstood) ‘base/superstructure’ model of historical development.

Marx argues that each significant period in history is constructed around a particular ‘mode of production’: that is, the way in which a society is organized (i.e. slave, feudal, capitalist, etc.) to produce the material necessaries of life – food, shelter, etc. In general terms, each mode of production produces: (i) specific ways of obtaining the necessaries of life; (ii) specific social relationships between workers and those who control the mode of production, and (iii) specific social institutions (including cultural ones). At the heart of this analysis is the claim that how a society produces its means of existence ultimately determines the political, social and cultural shape of that society and its possible future development. As Marx explains, ‘The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general’. This claim is based on certain assumptions about the relationship between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’. It is on this relationship – between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ – that Marx’s account of culture rests.

The ‘base’ consists of a combination of the ‘forces of production’ and the ‘relations of production’. The forces of production refer to the raw materials, the tools, the technology, the workers and their skills, etc. The relations of production refer to the class relations of those engaged in production. That is, each mode of production, besides being different, say, in terms of its basis in agrarian or industrial production, is also different in that it produces certain fundamental relations of production (not the only ones, but those from which others develop): the slave mode produces master/slave relations; the feudal mode produces lord/peasant relations; the capitalist mode produces bourgeois/proletariat relations. It is in this sense that one’s class position is determined by one’s relationship to the mode of production.

RC article

The Pyramid of Capitalist System, American cartoon caricature published in Industrial Worker, 1911

The superstructure consists of institutions (political, legal, educational, cultural, etc.), and what Marx calls ‘definite forms of social consciousness’ (political, religious, ethical, philosophical, aesthetic, cultural, etc.) generated by these institutions. The base ‘conditions’ or ‘determines’ the content and form of the superstructure. The relationship involves the setting of limits; the providing of a specific framework in which some developments are probable and others unlikely. Regardless of how we view the relationship, we will not fully understand it if we reduce the base to an economic monolith (a static economic institution) and forget that for Marx the base also includes social relations and class antagonisms and these also find expression in the superstructure. This means we should not think of the superstructure as a series of institutions that produce ways of thinking and acting that simply legitimate the activities of the base.

For example, capitalism is the only mode of production to introduce mass education. This is because capitalism is the first mode of production to require an educated workforce. However, while mass education is a requirement of the system, and it is organised as if it had no other purpose than to prepare people for work, it can also be a threat to the system: workers can be ‘educated’ into active and organised opposition to the exploitative demands of capitalism. In this example, and many others, we can see the superstructure as a terrain of both incorporation and resistance (‘class struggle’). Culture plays a significant role in this drama of legitimation and challenge.

Sometimes, as I have already suggested, the relations between base and superstructure are seen as a mechanical relationship of cause and effect (‘economic determinism’): what happens in the superstructure is a passive reflection of what is happening in the base. This often results in a vulgar ‘reflection theory’ of culture, in which the politics of a text or practice are read off from, or reduced to, the material conditions of its production (‘It’s Hollywood, so what do you expect?’). After Marx’s death in 1883, Frederick Engels, friend and collaborator, found himself having to explain, through a series of letters, many of the subtleties of Marxism to younger socialists who, in their revolutionary enthusiasm, threatened to reduce it to a form of economic determinism. Here is part of his famous letter to Joseph Bloch:

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Neither Marx nor I have ever asserted more than this. Therefore, if somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he is transforming that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various components of the superstructure . . . also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases determine their form.

What Engels is pointing to is that the base produces the superstructural terrain (this terrain and not that), but that the form of activity that takes place there is determined not just by the fact that the terrain was produced and is reproduced by the base (although this clearly sets limits and influences outcomes), but by the interaction of the institutions and the participants as they occupy the terrain. What Engels alerts us to are the other things we need to consider when engaging critically with culture. While Marx provides a general theory of history and politics, in which it is important to locate a cultural text or practice, there will always remain questions that relate to its formal qualities and specific traditions.

To take, for example, one of Marx’s favourite writers: it would be impossible to understand the novels of Charles Dickens without paying attention to the historical moment in which they were written. What Marx provides us with is a way of understanding this historical moment; an understanding that enables us to see in the novels examples of power, oppression and exploitation, not as the playing out of an ahistorical ‘human nature’, but as the outcome, directly and indirectly, of the social changes introduced by the capitalist mode of production. A Christmas Carol, for instance, is not just a key work in the invention of the ‘traditional’ English Christmas, it also outlines an attempt to build a consensus around a middle class that is able to temporarily accommodate the wants and needs of the working class. The Christmas that was invented, an invention in which the novel plays a key ideological role, was a festival directly connected to the processes of industrialisation and urbanisation; one that was more about hegemony than it was ever about religion. To understand this, we have to do more than consider the novel’s formal qualities; we have to be also aware of its historical moment of writing, ‘conditioned’ as it is by the capitalist mode of production.

During his life in England Marx would have witnessed the emergence of two new major popular cultural forms, stage melodrama and music hall. A full analysis of stage melodrama (one of the first culture industries) would have to weave together into focus both the changes in the mode of production that made stage melodrama’s audience a possibility and the theatrical traditions that generated its form. To understand this new type of theatre we have to take seriously its textuality, while at the same time recognising that its specific form is fundamentally related to the new audience and that without the dramatic changes in the mode of production this new audience would not have existed. While it is never a matter of reducing the cultural text or practice to a simple reflection of the mode of production, we have nevertheless to see it historically before will be able to see how this history is written in its very textuality.

The same also holds true for a full analysis of music hall (another early culture industry). Although in neither instance should performance be reduced to changes in the material forces of production, what should be insisted on is that a full analysis of stage melodrama or music hall would not be possible without reference to the changes in theatre attendance brought about by changes in the mode of production. It is these changes that ultimately produced the conditions of possibility for the performance of a melodrama like Black-Eyed Susan (probably the most performed play in the nineteenth century) and for the emergence and success of a music hall performer like Marie Lloyd. Ultimately, however indirectly, there is a real and fundamental relationship between the emergence of cultural forms like stage melodrama and music hall and changes that had taken place in the capitalist mode of production.

JS Black Eyed Susan Bury St Edmunds

Black-eyed Susan, performed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmund's, 2008

To conclude, as we have seen, Marx argues that ‘the social production of existence’ is always organised around a specific mode of production and that this always provides ‘the real foundations’ on which the superstructure can develop. In other words, the mode of production provides the foundations for cultural production. To understand what Marx’s is claiming in the architectural metaphor of base/superstructure we have to know the limits of what is conditioned.

To put it simply, once foundations are laid a building can take many forms and within each of these forms a whole range of other things can happen. But without the foundations none of these forms, or what takes place within them, is possible. This is why what Marx calls ‘the real foundations’ matter when we are thinking critically about culture; they do not in any simple way determine cultural production, but they are the real foundations on which it begins or begins to be modified and as such they help frame what is culturally possible.

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