Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (76)

A Terrible Beauty: The Cultural Impact of the 1916 Easter Rising
Tuesday, 02 August 2016 13:31

A Terrible Beauty: The Cultural Impact of the 1916 Easter Rising

Written by

Paul Foley presents a history and analysis of the cultural impact of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.

As commemorations for the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising continue throughout Ireland, there have been many discussions on the impact of the rebellion on the political landscape in both Britain and the Irish Republic. Although the initial response to the armed uprising from the civilian population was one of indifference, it quickly turned to anger and hostility towards the volunteers. Once Britain subjected the rebellion’s leadership to secret trials and began executing them, this hostility was then re-directed towards the oppressor.

The direct political fallout from the Rising was the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922. This in turn led to a vicious civil war. In 1949 the Irish Republic was finally declared, although the island remains divided and the consequences of the English conquest remain. Over the following 100 years since the small army of volunteers entered the City’s General Post Office (GPO), the doomed rebellion has entered folklore as a heroic and romantic episode in the country’s turbulent history.

There are many reasons for this. Clearly there is the genuine heroism of a smaller oppressed nation taking on the might of a huge empire. Certainly the cruel response by the British in executing 16 of the Rebel leaders ensured they would be considered martyrs to a just cause. But the romance comes from the background of the seven men who formed the provisional government. These were not professional insurgents or experienced political activists. They were idealists, poets and visionaries. Although their initial brand of Irish Nationalism may have been different, by 1916 their views and outlook for a New Ireland began to coalesce.

CM easter 1916 Proclamation

Of the seven signatories to the Proclamation read out by Padraig Pearse on Easter Monday 1916, four were accomplished writers and poets. 

Thomas MacDonagh was a renowned poet and, along with Joseph Plunkett, edited the literary periodical ‘The Irish Review’. MacDonagh embraced the burgeoning renaissance in Irish literature, culture and language. He joined the Gaelic League but became radicalised by the industrial troubles of the early 20th century and subsequently joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). One of his last poems ’Wishes for my Son, Born on Saint Cecilia’s Day” was dedicated to his young son. The poem sets out his hopes for the young boy and for his future and that of his beloved Ireland:

But for you, so small and young,
Born on Saint Cecilia's Day,
I in more harmonious song
Now for nearer joys should pray-
Simpler joys: the natural growth
Of your childhood and your youth,
Courage, innocence, and truth:
These for you, so small and young,
In your hand and heart and tongue.

However MacDonagh was more than a poet. He wrote an award- winning musical cantata with the Italian composer Benedetto Palmieri based on the biblical story of the Israeli exodus from Egypt. He also wrote a number of plays. His best known was ’When the Dawn Is Come’ based on a rebellion against a tyrannical oppressor led by a seven strong army council. Although written before the Easter Rising had even been planned, the play had uncanny parallels with the later events.

The play was premiered at Ireland’s National Theatre, The Abbey, but MacDonagh became frustrated at the conservative nature of the theatre and its insistence at staging what he described as the ‘stereotypical portrayal of Irish themes’. His response was to establish a new avant garde theatre. ‘The Irish Theatre’, as it was called, produced plays from contemporary Irish playwrights as well as the works of European writers. His theatre was the first to stage Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ in Ireland. He also introduced Irish audiences to Ibsen with a production of ‘An Enemy of the People’.

During the industrial turmoil of 1913 MacDonagh supported the workers’ struggle and helped found Ireland’s first teaching union, the ASTI. The eloquence of his writing is captured in the final letter to his wife before being shot by British troops:

I am ready to die and I thank God that I am to die in so holy a cause. My country will reward my deed richly. I counted the cost of this, and I am ready to pay it.

The generosity of his spirit was evident up to the end. While standing before the firing squad he declared:

I know this is a lousy job but you are doing your duty. I do not hold this against you.

A British officer commenting on the deaths of the Rising’s leaders said.

They all died well but MacDonagh, he died like a Prince.

MacDonagh’s close friend and fellow editor of The Irish Review, Joseph Plunkett, also served on the seven man military council. Although considered a bohemian for his unconventional lifestyle, he was a devout Catholic. Like MacDonagh he was highly regarded as one of the country’s leading poets. Most of his poetry was romantic, laced with heavy religious symbolism. As with most of the leaders of the Rising, Plunkett’s views on the Nationalist cause developed to reflect the need for an Irish state built around the social and humanitarian needs of the people. This development was in part due to his strong friendship with James Connolly.

In 'I see his Blood upon the Rose', he uses the crucifixion as a metaphor ‘for our need to go beyond the self in search for human meaning’. Despite having no military experience, Plunkett became the chief military strategist in the Rising. When asked by his son who Plunkett was, James Connolly said:

This is Joe Plunkett and he has more courage in his little finger than all the other leaders combined.

The romantic image of the Rising has often been attributed to Plunkett’s story. Suffering from TB he joined the insurrection a week after having surgery. But it was his marriage to Grace Gifford, herself an activist in the fight for independence, that caught the public imagination. Their wedding took place in the small chapel in Kilmainham Jail. He was led into the ceremony in handcuffs with a platoon of soldiers - with bayonets fixed - on guard. Grace described their honeymoon which lasted just 10 minutes:

During the interview the cell was packed with officers and a sergeant who kept a watch in his hand and closed the interview by saying, ‘Your 10 minutes is up now'.

Grace never saw her husband again. The following morning at dawn, despite his illness, he was shot. In his beautiful poem ‘To Grace’ Plunkett writes:

The joy of spring leaps from your eyes
The strength of dragons in your hair
In your soul we still surprise
The secret wisdom flowing there:
But never word shall speak or sing
Inadequate music where above
Your burning heart now spread its wings
In the wild beauty of your love.

Plunkett’s murder in Kilmainham, along with that of Connolly, were the catalyst that ignited the backlash against British rule and led to the guerrilla war between 1917 and 1921. When we think of James Connolly we immediately think of a great Marxist thinker and leader of the Irish working class. A man of immense stature, a prolific writer on Marxism and Irish Independence. His seminal works ‘Labour in Irish History’, ‘The Re-conquest of Ireland’, and ‘Erin’s Hope and the New Evangel’ remain key texts for modern Marxists.

But Connolly was also a poet, playwright and author of many ballads. Perhaps not in the same league as MacDonagh, his work was still highly regarded. His play ‘Under Which Flag’ about the 1867 Fenian Rising was performed in Liberty Hall only weeks before the Easter uprising. The lead character was taken by Sean Connolly (no relation), who sadly became the first volunteer to be killed during the capture of Dublin Castle. The play was never published but the full text is available in the Irish State archives. His most famous ballad was the rousing call to arms ‘A Rebel’s Song’:

Come workers sing a rebel song,
A song of love and hate,
Of love unto the lowly,
And of hatred to the great.
The great who trod our fathers down,
Who steal our children’s bread,
Whose hands of greed are stretched to rob
The living and the dead.

The leadership of the Rising nominated Tom Clarke as the Republic’s acting President, mainly because of his seniority and experience in direct action. However Clarke was not interested in the trappings of leadership. It was agreed that Padraig Pearse would become the interim President. Pearse’s nationalism grew from a love of the Irish language and its culture. He established a bilingual school, St Enda’s College. His poetry was well respected although it tended to paint a rather romantic picture of Ireland and was deeply influenced by his Catholicism. Although initially a supporter of Home Rule, by 1914 he was committed to the need for an armed rebellion to liberate Ireland.

In 1912 Pearse published his angry poem ‘Mise Eire’ in which he decries a people abandoning the fight for Ireland’s freedom:

I am Ireland:
I am older than the Hag of Beara.
Great my glory:
I who bore brave Cúchulainn.
Great my shame:
My own children that sold their mother.
Great my pain:
My irreconcilable enemy who harrasses me continually.
Great my sorrow:
That crowd, in whom I placed my trust, decayed.
I am Ireland:
I am lonelier than the Hag of Beara.

Recognising the failure of the Rising, Pearse declared as only a poet could:

When we are all wiped out, people will blame us for everything …… in a few years they will see the meaning of what we tried to do.

It didn't take a few years: shorty after his execution the people of Ireland began to fight back. The night before he died Pearse wrote his last poem ‘The Wayfarer’ which although a lament, showed a great calmness at his fate:

The beauty of the world hath made me sad,
The beauty that will pass;
Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy
To see a squirrel in a tree
Or a red ladybird on a stalk.

Although the remaining signatories of the Proclamation were not known for their artistic achievements they have, albeit indirectly, made a significant contribution to the cultural history of the Rising.

CM easter bw sig proclamation

Tom Clarke, the oldest of the leaders, was a long time political activist and organiser. His prison memoirs ‘Glimpses of an Irish Felon’s Prison Life’ was published posthumously in 1922. The book contains reflections of his 15 years spent in prison for his activities fighting for Irish independence. Clarke considered the diary as ‘mere jottings’ but its eloquence and lack of bitterness or self indulgence places it alongside the very best of prison literature, such as Gramsci’s ‘Prison Notebooks.’

Shortly before his death he wrote:

I and my fellow signatories believe we have struck the first successful blow for Irish Freedom. The next blow which we have no doubt, Ireland will strike, will win through, in this belief we die happy.

Sean MacDiarmada became the commercial manager of the campaigning Gaelic newspaper ‘An Saoirseacht” (Irish Freedom). Under his management the paper became more political. In an editorial it described British rule:

Our Country is run by a set of insolent officials, to whom we are nothing but a lot of people to be exploited and kept in subjection.

In 1915 he was imprisoned for sedition when he called on Irishmen to refuse to fight for the British in the first world war. His poetic last words before being shot by a firing squad continue to resonate with revolutionaries across the world:

I die that the Irish Nation may live.

Probably the least known of the seven signatories to the Proclamation is Eamon Ceannt, a quiet intelligent man who had a great interest in Ireland’s history. He joined the IRB in 1913 and became an executive member of the ruling council. He was more a cultural nationalist than a political activist. He was an accomplished Uilleann pipe player and in 1908 played for the Pope in Rome. He wasn't known for his writing although he was an impressive public speaker. He was unhappy at Pearse’s call to surrender, feeling that the rebels should fight to the death. This reluctance is seen in a statement he issued to the Irish Independent before his death:

I leave for the guidance of other Irish Revolutionaries who may tread the path which I trod, this advice, never to treat with the enemy, never to surrender at his mercy but to fight to a finish. Ireland has shown she is a Nation.

At 2.30AM on the 8th May 1916 he wrote a last letter to his wife:

My Dearest Aine
Not wife but widow before these lines reach you. I am here without hope of this world, without fear, calmly awaiting the end…What can I say? I die a noble death for Ireland’s freedom.

The cultural relevance of the 1916 Rising began much earlier than that fateful Easter. At the turn of the 20th century there was a re-awakening of Irish nationalism. A passive acceptance of colonial rule, which had settled on the country since the middle of the 19th century, was beginning to stir. Writers started studying the ancient Gaelic culture as a means of developing a modern Irish identity. The purpose was to build a cultural identity distinct from the British colonial power and through this develop an Irishness that could liberate the country and create a new modern progressive state. Gaelic clubs sprang up all over the country. There was a renewed interest in Irish literature and folklore and how to build a new Ireland, an Ireland that could end the terrible poverty, both economic and spiritual, felt under colonisation. Rebellion against the British Crown was no longer enough.

One of the clearest voices of this ‘new renaissance’ was the playwright John Millington Synge. For him the fight was to win not only a ‘Free Nation’ but also a different type of nation. His views reflected the words of James Connolly who in 1887 said:

If you remove the English Army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain.

Synge had been writing in Paris when he was advised by W.B.Yeats to return to Ireland. He did so and in the remote Aran islands immersed himself in Irish traditional culture. The result was his dramatic masterpiece ‘A Playboy of the Western World’. It premiered at the Abbey in 1907, which led to riots on the streets of Dublin. Most of the hostility was whipped up by Conservative Nationalists. The leader of Sinn Fein, Arthur Griffith, denounced the play as immoral. Padraig Pearse, a future leader of the 1916 Rising, said:

It is not against a Nation he blasphemes so much as against the moral order of the universe.

Pearse called for a boycott of the Abbey in response to its staging of the play. But within 2 years Synge was dead and Pearse had changed his view, describing the great playwright ‘a true patriot’ and acknowledging that “He baffled people with images which they could not understand”.

This episode highlights the speed at which Ireland was changing and the growing desire for the arts to be at the core of a free and independent country. The combination of a cultural re-awakening and a desire for a new and separate Ireland with an intellectual idealistic and visionary leadership, brewed a heady cocktail which ignited on Easter Monday, 24th April 1916, with the volunteers’ march on key installations in the country’s capital.

What is interesting is the response of the non-combative cultural elite to the Rising. W.B.Yeats, one of Ireland’s greatest poets, appeared to be conflicted. Prior to the events of Easter 1916 he was mocked the Irish Nationalists, and denounced violence as a means of achieving independence. In his poem Easter 1916, we see this conflict. His initial ambivalent feelings towards the leaders of the movement for independence is caught in the poem’s opening lines:

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words....

But later he recognises the wanton murder of the leadership had changed things, changed them utterly and the use of ‘terrible’ and ‘beauty’ in the same sentence shows his conflict at the terrible loss - yet beauty - of their sacrifice:

I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

In contrast, Ireland’s other great writer, James Joyce, remained silent. He never made any direct comment on the events of that Easter. He did, however, push to have his Dublin novel ‘A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man’ published in 1916, which many believe was his contribution to the ongoing debate on the Rising’s merits. Within the book, he does appear to suggest that he disavows petty nationalism and that art is the higher calling:

I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or as art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I will allow myself to use-silence, exile, and cunning.

Sean O’Casey’s position is more complex. The great playwright was originally an integral part of the Independence movement and in particular the fight for a socialist republic. He was responsible for writing the constitution of the Irish Citizen’s Army, the armed protection established by Jim Larkin following attacks on workers during the 1913 Lock-out. However he fell out with his comrades and sat out the rebellion. Bitterness and self regard seemed to eat away at his soul, which may have clouded his judgement on the events of 1916. But it wasn't until the early 1920s when O’Casey wrote his famous trilogy of Dublin Plays that his true feelings became clear. ‘Shadow of a Gunman’ and ‘Juno and the Paycock” deal with the civil war and its aftermath while the third, ‘The Plough and the Stars’ directly addresses the Easter Rising.

‘The Plough’ was premiered 10 years after the Rising but the rancour felt by O’Casey towards his former comrades does not appear to have diminished. The Irish Marxist and Connolly biographer, C. Desmond Greaves, suggests that O’Casey’s protagonist Jack Clitheroe only joins the rebellion out of vanity and because of what people might say if he didn’t. He argues that O’Casey deliberately set out to ‘present the Rising and the motives of those who took part in a poor light’. Student protesters to the play, led by Frank Ryan, a Republican IRA organiser who later distinguished himself in the fight against fascism in Spain, objected to the implication that the men of the Citizen Army were motivated by vanity and ambition.

The other big beast of Irish Letters, Bernard Shaw, was more critical of Irish Nationalism. For him the Rebellion was foolhardy. However, he was outraged by the indiscriminate murder of the leaders and campaigned to have the executions stopped. His anger was palpable in a revised preface to ‘John Bull’s Other Island’ written in 1929:

Having thus worked up a hare-brained romantic adventure into a heroic episode in the struggle for Irish Freedom the victorious artillerists proceeded to kill their prisoners of war in a drawn-out string of executions. Those who were executed accordingly became not only national heroes, but martyrs whose blood was the seed of the present Irish Free State. Among those who escaped was its first President. Nothing more blindly savage, stupid, and terror mad could have been devised by England’s worst enemies.

This very much reflects the sentiment in Pearse’s graveside oration at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa on 1st August 1915:

But the fools, the fools - they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.

One glaring omission in much of the history of 1916 is the lack of recognition for the many women who not only contributed to the armed struggle but also the cultural life of the time. Unforgivably, many important women have been lost from the story of the birth of the Irish Republic, mainly because the achievements of women were not recorded and future historians tended to examine major events from the perspective of the men involved.

This year’s commemorations have tried to address this, with some specific events dedicated to the hundreds of women who fought for, cared for, and wrote about the tragic rebellion. Current Irish President, Michael D. Higgins, writing in SIPTU’s centenary edition of ‘Liberty’ stressed the importance to the revolution of the fight for equality and emancipation:

As such, the emancipation of women was an integral part of the social transformation called for by the leaders of the Irish Citizen Army, such as Francis Sheehy Skeffington and James Connolly. The atmosphere of equality that prevailed between men and women in the ranks of the ICA reflected the vision held by many Irish and International socialists of the time, for who women’s emancipation was a pre-condition for any just society.

Many women had become radicalised during the 1913 lock-out and become active in trade unions. Connolly declared in 1914 that the oppression of women and the oppression of the workers by “a social and political order based on private ownership of property” were inseparable, and he recognised what was the double burden on women.

Women occupied many positions of influence in the fight for independence. Helena Maloney was an activist in the socialist and trade union movement since 1903 when she joined ‘Inghinidhe na hEireann’. She became editor of its feminist paper ‘Bean na hEireann’. She was also the General Secretary of the Irish Women’s Workers’ Union (IWWU) who won 2 weeks holiday for her members. In later years she became a founding member of Friends of Soviet Russia.

The cultural heart of the country was a significant part of her life. She was an acclaimed actress who prior to the rising played opposite Sean Connolly in ‘Memory of the Dead’ a play written by Casimir Markievicz, husband of Constance. Maloney was also an active combatant in the fight for Dublin castle.

CM easter FT5S Countess Markievicz

Other leading women who campaigned for Irish independence and were active over the Easter week were Dr Kathleen Lynn who championed the cause of women’s health and welfare, and acted as Medical Officer to the rebels during the fighting. Constance Markievicz was second-in-command of the battalion that occupied the Royal College of Surgeons. Following her arrest she was sentenced to death but later this was commuted to life in prison. Markievicz became the first woman elected to Westminster following the limited suffrage won in 1918. Other women playing a leading role in 1916 were Winifred Carney, leader of the Irish Textile workers’ Union and Secretary and aide de camp to James Connolly; and Madeline Ffrench-Mullen, who was an officer in the ICA and commanded a small band of volunteers at Stephen’s Green.

As Lucy McDiarmid explains in her book ‘At Home in the Revolution’ the women’s strength and determination were extraordinary. In response to the sound of the firing squads, women prisoners began dancing the intricate 16-hand reel. This act of solidarity was not only brave and defiant, but must have been hugely unnerving to their captors.

As well as her soldier’s role, Constance Markievicz was an actor, appearing in a number of plays at the Abbey alongside Maud Gonne the activist, actress and muse of W.B.Yeats. She was hugely influenced by James Connolly, whose death greatly affected her. Dedicating a poem in his honour she wrote:

You died for your country my hero love
In the first grey dawn of Spring
On your lips was a prayer to God above
That your death will have helped to bring
Freedom and peace to the land you love love love everything.

Her sister, Eve Gore-Booth, was a respected poet and author who shared Constance’s passion for Irish Nationalism. The women differed in that Eve, a pacifist, could not support the use of violence by the rebels, no matter how just their cause. But that didn't diminish her support for the aims of the revolt nor for its leaders. Shocked by the callous murders of the leadership, she wrote her beautiful, short and poignant poem ‘Comrades’ as a tribute to the bravery of those that gave everything for their country:

The peaceful night that round me flows,
Breaks through your iron prison doors,
Free through the world your spirit goes,
Forbidden hands are clasping yours.
The wind is our confederate,
The night has left her doors ajar,
We meet beyond earth’s barred gate,
Where all the world’s wild Rebels are.

It is a disgrace that Alice Milligan’s name has almost disappeared from the annals of great Irish writers. Milligan, an Ulster protestant, threw herself into the cause of Irish independence. She was a prolific writer, contributing essays and stories to over 70 journals. She also wrote numerous plays, novels and short stories. As a poet she wrote epic poems on the theme of ancient Irish folklore. In a 1914 edition of 'The Irish Review 'Thomas Macdonagh described her as 'the greatest living Irish poet'. During the Rising she dedicated herself to fighting for prisoners’ rights including the right to be granted political status. An anthology ‘Hero Lays’ contains some of her best poetic work, including ‘Owen Who Died, A ’67 Man’ in memory of the 1867 Rising:

Right off to the coast-line of Connacht
’Twas he carried word
To the boys who were waiting upon it,
Of how Ireland was stirred.
His hand set a beacon alight
To burn on by day and by night
Sudden his coming and flight-
He has gone like a bird.

CM easter 50036954 glimpsesoferin

The 1867 Rising stuttered into life with a few sporadic skirmishes across the country. Having been undermined by disorganisation and police spies, the revolt soon petered out. The interesting fact is that the Rising was launched with a Proclamation declaring an Irish Republic based on social justice and equality. 50 years later a very similar Proclamation announced the declaration of an Irish provisional government in 1916.

Since 1169 Ireland has been occupied first by the Normans then the English. In those 847 years, thousands of its people have died either in the cause of liberty or by the cruelty and neglect generated by the occupiers, resulting in mass expulsions from the land and devastating famine. The culture, language, and national identity has been through long periods of suppression but the spirit of the people has kept its rich cultural history alive.

Many historians and political commentators have discussed the merits of the Rising. Some argue that it was an unnecessary sacrifice as the political climate was moving towards Home Rule, and that eventually Ireland would have had a measure of Independence. But that is the point: the British solution was a form of devolution but falling short of total independence. It took the 1916 revolt to provide the impetus for total separation. Although today that dream is still not fully realised, there can be no doubt that the sacrifice of the volunteers in 1916 brought the Free State and Republic much closer.

As we celebrate the centenary of the momentous events 100 years ago, what is the Rising’s legacy? I suggest that the political and cultural legacies have developed in completely different ways. The revolution brought together idealists with very different views on the nature of a new Irish Nation. However, they were all agreed that it needed to be a nation built on social justice, equality and with an internationalist outlook. Cultural enrichment of the people was to be a cornerstone of any new constitution.

Unfortunately, after the civil war in 1922, the reactionary Catholic elite took control. An economically conservative Ireland under De Valera created an era of stagnation. De Valera’s staunch Catholicism allowed the Catholic Church to grab control of the country’s education system, and ensured the Church would have the final say on the moral values of the young nation. Despite this conservative and reactionary cloud hanging over the new State, the cultural development of Ireland continued to progress both internally and across the world. Notwithstanding the oppressive use of censorship by the Church and state, a rich vein of novelists, playwrights and poets continued to use their creative imagination to challenge, educate and develop a cultural pathway for today’s writers and artists.

There is an unbroken line from MacDonagh, Plunkett, Yeats and Joyce through to Brendan Behan, Elizabeth Bowen, Molly Keane, Eava Boland, Patrick Kavanagh, Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney, Edna O’Brien, Paula Meehan, Jennifer Johnson, Anne Enright, Sebastian Barry. And there are hundreds more whose creative beauty was born from their forebears’ terrible struggle.

Perhaps it is fitting to leave the last word to Ireland’s great modern poet, the late Seamus Heaney. Written in 1966 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of 1916, his poem “Requiem for the Croppies” uses the 1798 revolution as a metaphor for the legacy of the heroes of 1916 on a future Ireland:

Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon,
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August…the barley grew up out of our grave.
Culture is ordinary: the politics and letters of Raymond Williams
Wednesday, 25 May 2016 19:06

Culture is ordinary: the politics and letters of Raymond Williams

Written by

Derek Wall introduces the life and work of Raymond Williams, and presents a review of a recent book about his politics and writings.

Raymond Williams, born in Pandy in Monmouthshire in 1921, was a working class Welshman who became one of Britain's greatest socialist intellectuals. A grammar school boy he read English at Cambridge, became a professor and wrote a series of books on Marxism and culture. He sold 750,000 copies of books like Culture and Society, Keywords, The Long Revolution and Marxism and Literature. He has shaped the left we have today. Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood likes to quote Williams' description of what it means to be politically engaged on the left: 'To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing'.

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett gave the Raymond Williams Foundation lecture in 2015. Jeremy Corbyn also seems to sound a lot like Raymond Williams, with his desire for a democratic, ecological and deep seated socialism.

Williams is best known for his work on culture. He argued that culture is ordinary and not elite, calling for a democratic approach to the arts. His most important piece of writing is in fact entitled 'Culture is Ordinary' published in 1958, remains worth reading today in the 21st century. 'Culture is Ordinary' is part a critique of T.S.Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. The poet famous for both The Wasteland and the musical Cats was interested in how we understand this slippery word and its wide implications. Notes Towards the Definition of Culture has some strengths. Eliot sees culture as a wide and multiple concepts including both artistic achievement and a description of a whole way of life. His examples of British culture are rather charming ranging from cheese to sporting events:

Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.

However, Eliot pursues a right wing elitist perspective. He argues that culture can be high or low, that only a minority fully engage with high culture, that culture is essential to prevent social disintegration. Ultimately only a kind of cultural elite can preserve and maintain the culture necessary for a civilised society to exist.

Raymond Williams in contrast argues that although distinctions are possible, citing the excesses of the media which even before tabloids like the Sun was crude and prejudice, culture is not the preserve of a tiny minority. In 'Culture is Ordinary' Williams argues that, 'An interest in learning or the arts is simple, pleasant and natural.'

Williams further noted that by becoming a student at Cambridge he didn't lose the working class Welsh culture that he had been brought up with. However, he had come to look at culture using two sets of academic perspectives. At Cambridge he became a follow of two cultural prophets, Karl Marx and the literary critic F.R.Leavis. He attended Leavis' lectures and was deeply influenced by him.

Leavis taught that literature was important because of its moral effects and its impact on everyday life. Williams agreed with him that formal artistic culture, such as a novel or poem or song, rather than being separate object was influenced by and influenced wider social life. Williams concept of the 'structure of feelings' also seems inspired by Leavis. However, Leavis was a cultural pessimist and, like Eliot, an elitist. He feared that culture was debased by industrial society, and feared the effect of mass American culture.

Williams learnt a lot from the Cambridge Marxists, but also came to reject some of their cultural analyses. He noted that the Marxists taught him several things: 'First, they said that a culture must be finally intrepreted in relation to its underlying system of production.'

Thus culture was if not totally determined by production was however strongly influenced by economics. A capitalist society shapes us with a capitalist culture. Also, the Marxists argued that education and access to culture was restricted by social class. Williams noted that with his working class background he was keenly aware that access to education was restricted. However, Williams also thought that Cambridge Marxism was also – paradoxically - elitist. While class and capitalism shaped culture, he thought there was also an independent and potentially resistant working class culture. Workers did not simply absorb capitalist norms, but created their own meanings. Williams also saw the Marxism of the 1930s as too prescriptive and dogmatic.

Williams took from the Marxism of his student days an assumption that culture was bound up with economics and class. He developed the concept of cultural materialism, arguing that culture had a material effect. He also argued that Marxism can be prescriptive about any form of culture, and argued that as well as socialism requiring the collective ownership of production, it also need collective, rather than elite, ownership of the means of communication. Diversity and real democracy were necessary for a vibrant socialist culture. State ownership was not sufficient, and one group's perception of the meaning of culture would always be restrictive.

Towards the end of his life he argued that new electronic communication would transfer culture. Raymond Williams is an important thinker if we seek a socialist culture and we defend the idea that culture is ordinary by which he meant culture was for all of us not simply an elite. Those of us on the left should study is words with care: culture helps shape society, so we need to learn how to shape culture.

                                                                                                      

Book review of Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review,  by Raymond Williams, Verso, London, 2015.

Raymond Williams (1921-1988) was a self-described ‘Welsh European’, whose academic work as a literary theorist and activism, as variously a member of the Communist Party, Labour Party and Plaid Cymru, shaped the post-World War II British left. This recently reissued book provides a survey of Raymond Williams’ life and works. It is a novel and exciting project. Raymond Williams was interviewed about each of his most important books as well as his early biography and political essays. His opinions are subjected to detailed critique with a special attention from the interviewers on contradictions and silences in his work. This makes fascinating but often somewhat brutal reading.

Both the form and the content of this collection of interviews with the New Left Review (NLR) mark this as an important volume. Williams saw the book as a new and disturbing piece of literature. Three members of the NLR editorial board subjected Williams’ work to detailed scrutiny. Many of his major books and significant essays are examined. Such analysis was perhaps especially rigorous because the NLR editors knew his work in some detail, and believed his contributions were essential to the construction of Marxism in a UK context.

It is common to subject thinkers we disagree with to criticism, how much more painful but instructive to examine those with whom we sympathize with sharp analytical tools. Williams seems to have been plunged into personal crisis by taking part in the volume which, running to over 400 pages, took several months of interviews to complete. While this form may have been difficult for Williams, at times, it is an excellent overview of his work up until 1980 and provides a model for critical materialist scholarship. It would be good to see this form extend to other thinkers; it produces impressive results.

The contents, as well as the form, have considerable merit. A major intellectual figure from the 1950s to his death in 1988, Williams often seems forgotten, and even at his height of popularity seems to have been largely unnoticed outside the UK. There are a number of reasons why his considerable output remains important nearly thirty years after his death.

He challenged the Marxism that he encountered in the 1940s, as naïve, and embarked on a quest to make Marxist ideas both more sophisticated and accessible. While Britain is seen as distant from varied forms of Western Marxism some of the questions examined by thinkers as varied as Sartre, Althusser, Gramsci and the Frankfurt School were also addressed by Williams.

Equally, his experience as a working class socialist who gained access to an elite academic institution are instructive. He can be seen as a key thinker in the development of ecosocialism. His essay ‘Ecology and Socialism’ helped inspire socialists to embrace an ecological dimension in their politics and for greens to look to a socialist commitment in their environmental analysis.

The early chapters of the book, which are biographical, are perhaps the least challenging but most enjoyable. Raymond Williams discusses how he was born the son of a railway signalman in the Welsh border town of Pandy in Monmouth. He shone at grammar school. Without his knowledge, his headmaster and father successfully applied for him to read English at Cambridge. His father was an active member of the Labour Party and memories of the 1926 General Strike were strong in Williams’ community as he grew up. His left wing commitment deepened at Cambridge and he joined the Communist Party. He wrote Communist Party pamphlets with Eric Hobsbawm but drifted out of the party. During the Second World War he joined an anti-tank unit and fought in Normandy. His intellectual trajectory saw him developing theoretical insights from the literary critic F.R. Leavis as well as Marx and Engels.

The early chapters provide some of Williams' most charming and vibrant prose, but the remainder of the book is more instructive and, for Williams, often challenging. He was, for much of the postwar period, Britain's key left wing intellectual. He sold hundreds of thousands of books, which given their theoretical nature is impressive, and he appeared in numerous BBC television programmes.

His contention that 'culture is ordinary' was used to challenge elitist notions of culture, specifically T.S. Eliot’s notion that a kind of secular priesthood was needed to protect and promote culture. Williams engaged with Western Marxist approaches to literature and language, helping to introduce thinkers such as Gramsci, Althusser and Lucien Goldman to British audiences. His work helped promote the creation of a Marxist influenced form of cultural studies in the UK.

Raymond Williams is most important as a thinker who intervened and challenged both elite literary theory and the often simplistic and deterministic form of Marxism that dominated in the 1940s and 1950s. The suggestion in Politics and Letters is that, despite this, he was not always a rigorous and consistent theorist.

His first major work Culture and Society, published in 1958, is treated to extensive discussion in Politics and Letters. As far as I can tell Culture and Society argues that culture, rather than being ‘organic’ and fixed, is a product of social change. Williams describes the output of a number of key English commentators on culture from around 18th century onwards with an emphasis on the influence of the industrial revolution. Williams moves from Burke via William Blake to Carlyle and Arnold on to the interesting Marxist literary theorist Christopher Caudwell.

The barrage begins. Williams’ interviewers argued that he provides too little criticism of right wing thinkers under examination such as Edmund Burke, who was motivated by antipathy to the French Revolution. They also hint that Williams is too Anglocentric in the book, even failing to discuss the contribution of Marx and Engels who, of course, lived in exile in Britain during the period under study.

The interviews continue with Williams defending his political engagement during the writing of the book and agreeing with some of the critical points made by the NLR editors. He notes defensively but rather pleasingly that: ‘You have to remember that I read my own books too, and that in a competition for critical readers. I shall at least be in the final list.’ (106).

This dialogue is reflected through much of the remainder of Politics and Letters. Williams often seems better on intervention than sustained analysis, which is surely a strength. For example, despite the supposed weaknesses of Culture and Society, it was a largely successful intervention that challenged the notion of an elite culture. From his early employment with the Workers Education Association to his broadcasts with the BBC, Williams promoted an approach to culture that sought to build diversity and democracy.

I also feel that, while there is a small Raymond Williams industry, his approach can be seen as a contribution to a wider network of scholarship. On the left when we speak of a particular thinker, say Marx or Brecht, we import a form of methodological individualism. But intellectual production is a collective endeavour with key thinkers acting perhaps as nodes rather than unique originators. Perhaps one of Williams’ most important contributions to challenging this notion of an individual intellectual was his book Keywords, where he introduces a method that promotes a collective endeavour to research and understand, moving us beyond an author alone.

In Keywords Williams showed that words, rather than having an essential meaning, are subject to often dramatic change. One is reminded of the Russian theorist Bakhtin’s notion that the class struggle extends to the interpretation of individual words and that meaning is dialogic and polysemic. The interviewers in Politics and Letters, of course, take a sharp line, looking at contradictions and silences in Keywords. However, they acknowledge Keywords as a vital contribution, noting:

The intellectual effect of the kind of work initiated by Keywords could be regarded as akin to that of the Marxist critique of political economy – the demonstration that ideas and categories which are deemed universal and timeless are in fact eminently changeable and timebound. […] Your strategy in Keywords is to register the changes of meaning across a whole vocabulary very pointedly indeed.

Amongst Williams’ numerous works, The City and the Country is a key text for those of us on the ecosocialist left. In it, Williams develops his ideas about nature and culture, making way for his green political orientation in his essay 'Ecology and Socialism’. The City and the Country shows that ideas of nature and environment often fail to reflect the social construction of ecological concepts and issues.

The last section of the book deals with Williams’ political essays. These could be seen as marking a successful hegemonic project, a new left thinking that has become, at least in the UK, a left common sense, to some extent. Williams dominates political discourse on the left even though his name may be forgotten. The socialist and feminist leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood, quotes Williams. The current leader of the Green Party of England and Wales gave an annual Raymond Williams Foundation lecture in 2015. The Communist Party of Britain seems closer to Raymond Williams’ approach, with formulations that link culture to class politics. This website, Culture Matters, seems also to be very much in the Williams mould. I have no idea if the new and most left-wing leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, reads Williams, but he often sounds as if he does.

Williams seems to reject both a mechanistic Marxist politics that rejects culture, and culturalist politics that forgets class and economics. While the English Marxist historian E.P.Thompson critiqued Williams’ work as being too culturalist, Williams, towards the end of his life, defined himself once again as a Marxist. Williams also puts emphasis on a democratic and participatory form of left politics. Williams was, as noted, a keen early advocate of an ecological dimension to socialism.

During the 1980s the Communist Party of Great Britain was torn apart by a conflict between Eurocommunists and more traditional members, with the Party eventually dissolving in 1991. Supporters of the Morning Star newspaper then relaunched the present Communist Party of Britain. The Communist Party has had a strong intellectual influence on the wider UK left.

Williams was not a participant in the conflict within the CPGB in the 1980s, having left the Party during the Second World War. However, his work provides an insight into the conflict. Like the Eurocommunists, Raymond Williams stressed the need to engage with culture and new social movements, although he was keen that such engagements did not replace working class solidarity and activism.

In summary, this pioneering book shows that his thinking was neither consistently rigorous or original, but that he helped challenge both a particular form of rigid Marxism and an elitist approach to culture. In doing so he opened up ideological space for the British left in 2016, which in its diversity notes both class politics and ecology as well as the importance of structural change in ownership, and includes debates around identity and intersectionality. Raymond Williams contributed to some vital changes in the left political landscape in Wales and England, and we can still gain from close study of his words.

Part Two of this article is an edited version of a review first published in Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, www.marxandphilosophy.org.uk.

Contradiction: the crucible of historical materialism
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Tuesday, 26 April 2016 09:19

Contradiction: the crucible of historical materialism

Written by

Roland Boer continues his series of article on Marxism and religion, with an examination of the relationship of Marx and Engels to the Theological Young Hegelians: Strauss, Feuerbach, Bauer and Stirner.

In order to develop their own system of thought, Marx and Engels had to distinguish themselves from the overwhelming theological frame in which German thought operated in the 1830s and 1840s. This framework was embodied above all in the work of the Young Hegelians, especially Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer and Max Stirner. Let me say a little more about these crucial engagements.

Ludwig Feuerbach’s Projections

Alongside David Friedrich Strauss’s controversial Life of Jesus (1839), Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity from 1841 was one of the most significant texts of the time. Marx saw the idea that religion and the gods were projections of human beings as a huge breakthrough. He used and extended what may be called the ‘Feuerbachian inversion’ at a number of points in his own work. Feuerbach’s idea is an inversion since it argues that previous thought about religion began at the wrong point, namely in the middle. God was not a pre-existing being who determined human existence; rather, human beings determine God’s existence, whom they then assume to be all-powerful over human beings.

Marx took up this argument and claimed that it marked the end of the criticism of religion: ‘For Germany the criticism of religion is in the main complete, and criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism’. He went on to suggest that the first great phase of criticism – the criticism of religion – began with Luther and ended with Feuerbach. The next revolutionary phase began after Feuerbach and Marx saw himself as part of this new phase.

For Marx, Feuerbach was the last word on religion. Statements such as the following are pure Feuerbach:

Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality.

However, Marx also wanted to go beyond Feuerbach on two counts. First, since human beings project religion from within themselves, the place to begin analysis is not in the heavens, but here on earth with flesh-and-blood people. Second, the fact that people do make such projections was a signal that something was wrong here on earth. If people placed their hopes and dreams elsewhere, then that meant they could not be realized here and now. So the presence of religion becomes a sign of alienation, of economic and social oppression. That needs to be fixed. We find this theme very strongly in the famous Theses on Feuerbach, especially the fourth and eleventh theses:

Feuerbach starts out from the fact of religious self-estrangement, of the duplication of the world into a religious world and a secular one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. But that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must, therefore, itself be both understood in its contradiction and revolutionised in practice. Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must then itself be destroyed in theory and in practice.

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.

Marx would go on to use the ‘Feuerbachian inversion’ in a number of ways, not least to argue that Hegel’s position on the state was exactly the same as theology: it began with abstracted ideas such as state, sovereignty, constitution and tried to make human beings fit. Much later on, in 1886, Engels filled this picture out in his lucid prose and showed why Feuerbach was so important for the development of historical materialism.

Bruno Bauer’s A-Theology

Given Feuerbach’s importance, it is not for nothing that the first section of The German Ideology should be devoted to his work. But there is also a section given over to Bruno Bauer. After the joint work of The German Ideology, Marx would come back to Bauer in a number of writings, initially to defend him but then later to attack him mercilessly. Why? The basic reason was that Bauer had achieved a radical republican and democratic position through his biblical criticism and theology. Marx in particular was thoroughly opposed to such a possibility: theology dealt with heaven and was not concerned with earth – that was the task of the new historical materialism.

For Marx, Bauer was far too much under the influence of Hegel’s idealist method and in many respects Marx’s distancing from Bauer was an effort to come to terms with Hegel. So we find the repeated and often heavily satirical criticism (especially in the joint work with Engels, The Holy Family) that ‘Saint Bruno’ Bauer left matters in the realm of theology and thereby stunted his critical work. Marx was also excising the influence of someone who had been a close friend, first as joint members of the Young Hegelian Doktorklub from 1837, later as a teacher of the book of Isaiah at the University of Berlin in 1839 and as one who might have gained Marx a position.

The problem was that Bauer was dismissed from Berlin in 1839 for his radical theological and political positions. He argued that the church was ossified and dogmatic, for it claimed universal status for a particular person and group. In the same way that we find a struggle in the Bible between free self-consciousness and religious dogmatism, so also in Bauer’s own time the religious dogmatism of the church needed to be overthrown. In its place Bauer argued for atheism, a democratic Jesus for all and republicanism.

Max Stirner’s World History

So we find Marx and Engels at the point where Feuerbach’s inversion has enabled them to step beyond the criticism of religion and focus on the criticism of the earthly conditions of human struggle, and Bauer’s radical theology had to be negated since religion cannot provide – so they argued – a radical critique. The engagement with Max Stirner was different. Most people do not bother with the endless pages of The German Ideology given over to a detailed refutation of Stirner’s The Ego and His Own, preferring to stop after the early description of the new historical materialist method.

However, the Stirner section is crucial for the following reason: Marx and Engels developed the first coherent statement of historical materialism in response to Stirner’s own theory of world history. The way they wrote the manuscript (which was never published in their lifetimes) is important: as they wrote sections on Stirner they found that increasingly coherent statements of an alternative position began to emerge in their own thought. Some of these statements remained in the Stirner section, while others were moved to the beginning of the manuscript and placed in the Feuerbach section.

As these responses to Stirner became longer and more elaborate, we find the following: in contrast to Stirner’s radical focus on the individual, Marx and Engels developed a collective focus. Instead of Stirner’s valuation of spiritual religion, they sought an approach that was very much of this world. Above all, Stirner wanted to provide a schema of world history that was pitched against Hegel. The reason why Marx and Engels devoted so much attention to him is that they too want a schema of world history that overturns Hegel.

The catch is that the very effort at producing a theory of world history was still very much engaged with religion. One only has to look at the structure of Marx and Engel’s criticism – which moves through the major books of the Bible, quotes the Bible ad nauseam, and criticizes Stirner’s prophetic role and theological dabbling – to see that what is at stake is religion. In the same way that the final edited form of the Bible moves from creation to the end of history and the new Jerusalem, so also does Hegel offer a theory of world history in terms of the unfolding of spirit, and so also does Stirner do so in terms of the ego. But what about Marx and Engels?

I suggest that the content of their proposal – with its collective and materialist concern with modes of production – is quite different from the proposals of the Bible, Hegel and Stirner. But the form of their proposal is analogous. By this I mean that the construction by Marx and Engels of a new historical narrative was based on a crucial lever: the Bible may have had Christ, Hegel may have had the world spirit, and Stirner may have had the ego. For Marx and Engels it was nothing other than contradiction, or rather, the contradictions within modes of production, contradictions that manifest themselves as class-conflict and revolution. In other words, the engagement with Stirner was the crucible of historical materialism, from which emerged a new approach to history that turns on contradiction.
Counter Culture, Propaganda And Political Consciousness
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Friday, 29 January 2016 11:22

Counter Culture, Propaganda And Political Consciousness

Written by

Chris Jury traces the relations between culture, oppositional consciousness and class struggles in recent history.

“It may be good to have power based on arms but it is better and more joyful to win and to keep the hearts of the people.”
-Goebbels, Speaking in The Triumph Of the Will, Directed by Leni Riefenstahl

Throughout history ruling elites have been all too aware that political consciousness is culturally created. From the Egyptian pyramids to Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph Of The Will, and through to the BBC's Dragons' Den, ruling elites have always understood that their power rests not only upon the guns and money they control but also, and just as importantly, on the ‘false consciousness’ of the people.

For all oppressed groups ‘power’ is as much an idea as it is a physical reality, and it has often been pointed out that we all collude in our own oppression by obeying the rules and playing the game even though we know the rules are fixed against us. The main reason we do this is because we can't imagine how it could be otherwise.

Thus in order for revolt, rebellion and/or revolution to take place, a number of ideas have to be become widely believed:

(i) That the current regime is illegitimate (Change is necessary, even unavoidable).
(ii) That there are legitimate, credible and desirable alternatives (The new order would be better than the old order).
(iii) That the current regime can be overthrown. (Change is possible).

When a person comes to believe these three ideas simultaneously they can be said to have developed an 'oppositional consciousness', and this consciousness is a crucial factor in bringing about progressive political change because without them individuals and groups will not undergo the inevitable hardships explicit in any fight for progressive social change - because they don’t believe change is necessary, possible or even desirable. But these ideas do not arise inevitably out of material conditions.

The Cage                                                             

A Man wakes up to find himself locked in a cage with a wooden treadmill. A thick mist surrounds the cage and he can see no other cages or any other landmarks. He called out for help and a Guard appeared. "Why am I in this cage?" Asked the Man. "It's the natural order." Said the Guard. "People like you always live in cages. If you behave yourself and work the treadmill for 8 hours a day you'll get everything you need." The Man tried to argue but the Guard made it clear the Man was never getting out of the cage, so the Man had no choice and tried to make the best of it.

But the Guard turned out to be an incompetent idiot and after a while the Man thought, "Hang on a minute I'm as good as him, why should I live in a cage while he swans around like Lord Muck?" So the Man decided to try and get out of the cage. He started banging his head on the bars to try and break them but he gave up very soon because it clearly wasn't going to work and it really hurt. Then one day the idiot Guard dropped the key to the cage and when he was gone the Man let himself out of the cage. It was only then that the Man discovered that the cage was surrounded by a wide pit of fire that he could not cross. The Guard returned and told him that there is no way to escape to anyway because beyond the flames of the fire pit, there is a Dark Forest full of vicious man-eating wolves and that, "People like you always live in the cages and don't know how to defend yourself in the Dark Forest." So the Man accepted that there was no alternative to his life in the cage and gave up trying to escape.

Then one day a group of rebel mutineers appeared with a set of keys. They had come to set the Man free. But the Man was frightened. "Aren't people like me meant to live in the cages?" He asked the Leader of the mutineers. "And anyway how are we going to get over the pit of fire? And what about the man-eating wolves?"

"Don't you want to free?" Asked the Leader. "Of course!" Said the Man. "But it's not possible. The world is the way it is and there's nothing we can do. There is no alternative."

The Leader tried to persuade the Man but the Man refused to try and escape saying it was dangerous and pointless. "I don't like the cage." He said. "But it is safe in here and I get everything I need."

"Okay, suit yourself." Said the Leader. "We're going to fight to be free." And the mutineers started to run off but out of the mist a squad of Guards appeared and all the mutineers were gunned down, right there, in front of the Man. The Man was so pleased he was clever enough not to get involved with the mutineers and realised that he was never, ever going to try to escape from the cage again.

Raising Oppositional Consciousness                                                    

So I've just told a story, a cultural object, to try and convey my meaning to you. By telling you the story I'm inviting you to imagine yourself living in the cage and by empathising with the situation, understand the point I'm trying to make.

And at the point I've left the story, it is clear any future mutineers would have a hell of a job persuading the Man to try and escape from the cage. They'd have to persuade him that he was unjustly being kept in the cage, that he didn't have to accept his imprisonment, that the Guards could be overcome, that there is a way over the pit of fire and there are no ravenous wolves in a Dark Forest, and that there is a life outside the cage. It might be very difficult to persuade the Man of this because although living in the cage is horrible it is safe and escaping might involve all sorts of risks that could literally cost the Man his life.

Raising oppositional consciousness always involves an imaginative leap of this kind. We have to illustrate to people how and why the world they live in is unjust. We have to help people to imagine and envision a world that doesn't exist yet, an alternative reality that could exist but only if they were prepared to fight for it. And we have to convince people that the fight could be won, and that it is worth the sacrifice involved in the fighting.

Dry political theory and strategy papers aren't going to do this because the process is largely emotional and imaginative, and we have to be able and willing to use emotional and imaginative tools to inspire people to make the sacrifices inevitably required by any political struggle. Thus the books, posters, pamphlets, songs, graffiti, films and theatre associated with contemporary campaigns and movements for social change, are not simply a feel-good sideshow to the main business of political action, but an integral part of creating the oppositional consciousness essential to making political change happen is not possible.

 

 

 

In any given situation it is oppositional consciousness rather than the underlying economic circumstances that determines whether resistance, revolt and revolution take place. This is not to deny that brutal and oppressive economic realities can in themselves be important factors in developing oppositional consciousness, just that they are not the determining factors as economists (Marxist or otherwise) might claim.

We’ve Never Had It So Good?

The Wall St crash of 1929 and the austerity measures that followed plunged the West into the Great Depression. It took WW2 and an entirely managed wartime economy to drag the world out of this depression.

In post WW2 Europe a form of highly regulated managed capitalism combined with the rapid expansion of the Welfare State gave rise to unprecedented economic growth. In the UK the period from 1950 to 1973 was characterized by exceptional economic growth, a fall in the ratio between the highest and lowest paid (i.e. increasing equality), low inflation and near full employment.

This led to increasing disposable household incomes for ordinary people, which combined with the political idea of ‘democratising’ elite privileges to stimulate a burst in technical innovation that gave birth to the modern consumerist age. By 1957 Harold Macmillan was able to famously say, "Let us be frank about it: most of our people have never had it so good."

As the Fifties turned into the Sixties washing machines, fridges, central heating, cars, televisions all started to become affordable to working people. The Welfare State also meant that ordinary people (in the UK and Europe) were getting medical care free at the point of use, free access to education, (right up to undergraduate level and beyond for the brightest students), and a benefit system designed to ensure that no citizen ever again had to suffer the deprivations and indignities of the 1930’s. It was true! Exactly as Macmillan said, we had never had it so good!

But what happened next seems to fly in the face of this economic reality, because what followed was a 15-year period of sustained and intense left-wing resistance, revolt and rebellion, which involved occupations, sit-ins, violent riots, police brutality and murderous terrorism.

1960-1979: Power To The People

 

The resistance, riot and revolt of the Sixties and Seventies was not the result of oppressive economic conditions but was the result of several, initially distinct, cultural phenomena that conflated and gave rise to the cultural idea of the ‘rebel’ being central to the way a generation defined itself. These cultural phenomenon can be summarised as:

The relentless ‘freedom’ discourse of The Cold War.
The 'Liberation' struggles of the former European colonies.
The African-American Civil Rights movement.
The emergence of Rock & Roll as a profoundly ‘rebellious’ form.
The identification between black and white youths that came about as a result of the power of ‘black’ music.

By the end of the Sixties to be a ‘rebel’ was to be cool; to be a white kid and have black friends was really cool; and to be ‘young, gifted and black’ was exceptionally cool.

For perhaps the first time in Western history oppositional consciousness was the dominant mainstream disposition of an entire generation. To be patriotic was not ‘cool’; to dress like your Mum or your Dad was not cool; to be obedient was not ‘cool’; to respect authority was not ‘cool’; to work hard and do as you were told was not ‘cool’. By the end of the Sixties to be ‘cool’ was to be angry, rebellious and defiant.

The Cold War

The Cold War is perhaps the defining cultural feature of this post-war era. Western Cold War propaganda conceived the West as ‘free’ and the East as ‘oppressed’. The West meant the capitalist, representative documentaries of Europe and it’s ex-colonies; The East was Russia and China and their Communist satellites. This basic conflict between ‘the free’ West and the ‘repressive East’, defined both elite & popular Western culture for 40 years. In the elite arena of ‘Art’ the idea was that the repressive East used Art as propaganda to impose its evil doctrine on their helpless citizens, therefore in the West ‘Art’ that conveyed political ideas was to be avoided at all costs - hence the dominance of the abstract in post-war painting and sculptor and the dominance of the L’Art Pour L’Art philosophy of the 19th Century Aesthetes across the entirety of elite Western culture in the post war period – Western Art was free because it didn’t say anything.

In popular culture we were reminded that we were ‘free’ (and they were not), on a daily basis. Russian and East European ‘dissidents’ and ‘defectors’ were endlessly valorised on the news and even scripts of popular TV shows like Robin Hood were purposefully written using the language of liberation and resistance. For the capitalist ruling elites of the West there was however an unforeseen and unwelcome repercussion of this endless ‘free West’ propaganda - we started to believe it! We actually started to believe we were free, that we were democratic citizens entitled to determine our own futures and not beholden for our livelihoods to the prince, bureaucrat or businessman.

Colonial Liberation

From the end of WW2 into the 1980's, most of the Third World European colonies in the Third World freed themselves from direct colonial rule after 300 years of brutal Imperial exploitation and oppression. This process started with the Independence of India in 1947, which was achieved without a war of independence due to the non-violent strategy led by Ghandi. But most other colonies were forced to fight for the freedom through violent military insurrection. The Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya 1952-60, and the French Algerian War 1947-62, started the trend and were followed by violent independence struggles in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Algeria, Uganda, Egypt, Tanzania, Zaire, Guinea, Senegal and Nigeria, to name but a few.

The success of these violent revolutions established the three principles of oppositional consciousness. (i) The colonial powers were widely shown to be morally and politically illegitimate as they controlled these countries against the wishes of the indigenous population and only by brute force. (ii) The successful liberation struggles proved that it was possible to overthrow these colonial powers. (iii) It was recognised by all that whatever the negative economic or political consequences of liberation, the reality of living free from racist colonial rule was worth fighting for.

The victories of the former colonies demonstrated convincingly that the world didn't have to be the way it was and that as rich and powerful as the Western Imperial powers were, they were not invincible. This had a transformative power on popular political consciousness not just in the third world but also in the first - especially amongst the Afro-Caribbean community of the USA who were inspired and emboldened by witnessing their brothers in Africa fighting for freedom.

Civil Rights

 

The participation of African-Americans in WW2 had a profound influence on the communities sense of self worth and this combined with the victories of colonial struggles in Africa and the relentless cold war discourse of freedom and of America as ‘the land of the free’, to bring about an oppositional consciousness within the African-American community in the USA and by the mid to late Fifties the Civil Rights movement had been born.

Despite the obvious courage of the Civil Rights activists and the justice of their cause, most white Americans did not initially identify with the trials and tribulations of black America, which were perceived as either ‘natural’ (i.e. it was the black person's own fault), exaggerated (i.e. it can't be as bad as they say), or as the sufferings of a far off distant foreign land (i.e. this might be happening in Mobile, Alabama but it isn't happening in my town). And so initially in the 1950's, the black community was very much fighting alone - until the culture changed.

Rock & Roll

And it changed because in 1953/54 black Rhythm & Blues was fused with white Country music to form 'Rock & Roll', which became in due course, the single most significant cultural factor in building bridges of empathy between black & white America.

Initially, in the fifties it was Rock & Roll performed by white artists from the South, but as the fifties became the sixties, black music written and performed by black artists crossed the segregation lines in to mainstream white culture in the form of the Blues, Soul, Motown, Funk and Reggae.

But the cultural impact of Rock & Roll wasn’t just that it was ‘new’, Frank Sinatra had been ‘new’ once, no, the thing about Rock & Roll was that it was disgraceful. It wasn’t the lyric content of Rock & Roll that made it subversive, ("And we rolled, reelin' and a rockin'. We was reelin' and a rockin'. Rollin' till the break of dawn." are hardly radical lyrics), it was that the form itself, and the way it was enjoyed, rejected the musical and social norms that had gone before, and to be a Rock & Roll fan in 1955 was to be a rebel; to not do as you were told and not to look to your elders as role models but to your peers. To be a Rock & Roll fan in 1955 was to be out of control, to be dangerous.

Unsurprisingly the ‘establishment’ turned on the new music with vitriol and Rock & Roll fans were defined by mainstream society as ‘outsiders’ within their own society; as being in opposition to the white middle-class men who were trying to stop their fun and were demonising them simply for wanting to dance. But then amazingly as Rock & Roll became the mainstream so did this sense of the young being outsiders and in opposition to the old, suddenly to be young, rebellious and defiantly rebellious was the mainstream!

Over time the attraction to black music forced white youth to re-examine and redefine how they related to black people. As a result the Civil Rights movement started to achieve success partly through the growing support from the white community and especially the urban, educated, white youth of the North. In turn, watching news coverage on the TV of white and black youths fighting together for Civil Rights, seeded in the mainstream white audience a number of ideas, namely: (i) That the USA (the land of the free) was a country capable of violent oppression and injustice like any other; (ii) That there were legitimate, credible and desirable alternatives to segregation and oppression; (iii) That the U.S. government could be beaten – i.e. that change was possible.

It just so happens that these are the basic ideas of oppositional consciousness.

Then came the Vietnam War, a war that was going to be fought by young people (mostly black) on behalf of the very white middle-class men who had, just a few years before, tried to stop them dancing. So in opposing the Vietnam War the interests of the youth of white and black America coincided, and due to the success of the Civil Rights movement and the impact of Rock & Roll, many of these young people had already developed an oppositional consciousness, which meant that this particular generation were willing to fight.

There is not space here to delve further into the history of the Sixties but suffice it to say that the violent overreaction of governments to radical youth activism escalated oppositional consciousness across the Western world. In Europe this led to many white middle-class youths becoming radically politicised resulting in Grosvenor Square, CND, the LSE, the Radical Student Alliance... to name but a few.

Privileged, often middle-class, young people were kicking-off all over. In Paris in May 1968 the middle-class student revolt led to an alliance with the trade unions and there was very nearly an actual revolution. In other places the rebellion was so ferocious it turned into terrorist violence. In Northern Ireland the Catholic Civil Rights movement led to the reactivation of the IRA as a terrorist organisation. In Italy the Red Brigade was formed, and in Germany Baader-Meinhof.

But it wasn’t just middle-class students. In British Industry the effect of the spread of oppositional consciousness into the mainstream of popular culture was dramatic.

By the early '70's, industrial strife was said to be 'the British disease'. Things were so bad that in 1969 even the Labour Party tried to control the trade unions but Barbara Castle's paper, 'In Place Of Strife', was rejected and by 1974, when Edward Heath tried and failed to take on the miners, trade union density had risen to over 55% of the total workforce. 13 million of us were members of trade unions. Men like Red Robbo, at British Leyland in Birmingham, represented a real challenge to the ‘managers' right to manage’. Ideas of worker control of industries were seriously being discussed and despite, or perhaps because of, the ‘never had it so good’ economic conditions, the British working class were more empowered and more willing to fight than at any time since the early years of the 20th Century.

 

 

 

By 1979 the ruling elites had had enough of the economic costs that all this 'freedom' had imposed on their businesses. They realised that full employment and job security had encouraged rebellion and revolt and that structural unemployment and financial insecurity were crucial to reasserting capital's control. So counter-intuitively perhaps they planned to regain control by purposefully making material conditions worse for the working class and deliberately creating fear, anxiety and insecurity in order to encourage people to be passive, obedient workers. And so with Reaganomics and Thatcherism the ruling class launched a class war to reassert their profits, power and authority – a class war that is still going on today.

And culture has been central to that class war. In the UK since 1979 positive images of the working class and/or radical political struggle have almost entirely disappeared from the mainstream media. Business and businessmen are relentlessly valorised in the mainstream media (Dragons' Den and The Apprentice), consumer goods are fetishized and the celebrity culture of Big Brother and The X Factor endlessly promise the poor and underprivileged that ‘it could be you’; that any of us can be rich and privileged if only we can get on the telly, and of course if we ‘want it enough’.

Modern capitalists certainly know that political consciousness is culturally created and in 2014 they spent $650 billion on doing it – it’s called advertising. Modern advertising is remarkable in that it has largely succeeded in persuading millions of us that our ‘freedom’ is best expressed by buying things we don’t need and can’t afford. This is an incredible political achievement that Goebbels would have been proud of as it flies in the face of centuries of Christian teaching and social practice. In England, even as recently as 30 years ago, conspicuous consumption, debt and self-promotion were regarded as vulgar, yet today they are the hallmarks of status and prestige across the whole society.

But it is Thatcher’s 'there is no alternative' (TINA), narrative that has been so culturally effective in stifling dissent for the last 30 years. TINA is so powerful because if you can get people to believe there is indeed no alternative to neoliberal free markets, free trade and capitalist globalization, then what is the point in opposing them? The argument is that neoliberalism is the only legitimate system because it is the only possibility. There are no alternatives so obviously there is nothing to replace the system with. And change obviously isn’t possible because there is nothing to change to, because there are no alternatives. It's clever stuff - if you can get people to believe it.

And it seems they have done just that because despite the most catastrophic crisis in global capitalism since 1929; despite the fact that ordinary people are literally being asked to pay for the debts created by the bad bets of the casino banking culture; despite the conspicuous 19th century levels of inequality directly linked to that casino culture; despite the blatant and evident dismantling of the Welfare State; despite the lay-offs, closures and pension heists; despite all this, we are seeing nothing like the levels of radical resistance and revolt that were seen in the boom years between 1950 and 1973.

The economy boomed 1950-73 yet there was revolt and rebellion across the world. Since '79 wages across the West have stagnated and the welfare state dismantled and there's barely been a murmur. Why? Because the culture dictated the consciousness of the working class not the material conditions. From the birth of Rock & Roll and The Angry Young Men in 1956 to the Punk explosion in 1976, oppositional consciousness was at the heart of Western popular culture. But after Thatcher's election in '79 the ruling capitalist elite relentlessly reasserted through the mainstream media its cultural hegemony of obedience, hierarchy, and inequality, and for 30 years has put out the consistent message that there is no credible or legitimate alternative to capitalist economic liberalism, and that the benefits of free markets far outweigh any disadvantages. And it seemed to almost everyone that they had won the propaganda war and the Left's propaganda had failed to such an extent that 'the Left' had ceased to exist as a meaningful political force. It seemed that ideological history had indeed ended.

Or so they thought

Because somehow, despite all their propaganda, the ideas of equality, liberty and fraternity have not only survived but have found a new form of expression and a new burst of energy.

Since the mid-nineties the internet has allowed for a flourishing of independent counter-culture and media to be widely accessible outside of the mainstream and this has allowed oppositional consciousness to survive, even prosper, despite the success of the TINA narrative in the mainstream. This is primarily a cultural phenomenon, rather than a technological one, with social media being merely the vehicle to distribute the alternative news, information and cultural memes at a nominal cost.

Indeed, it could be argued that 'the internet' is serving the same function today as 'Rock & Roll' did 50 years ago. 'The internet' as a concept is rebellious, subversive and uncontrollable, just as 'Rock & Roll' was. Sure it is owned and controlled by corporations, just as most record companies were in the previous era, but it also allows for an unprecedented level of free expression beyond the confines of the mainstream media.

The idea that the current regime is illegitimate is almost ubiquitous on the internet, similarly credible and desirable alternatives are all over the web as is the idea that change is possible. Thus the internet creates a sort of permanent, vibrant counter-cultural oppositional consciousness that bubbles along entertaining, educating and informing but completely under the radar of the mainstream.

On the internet people have access to cultural and intellectual material like they never have before; most of the defining literature of left wing discourse is available for free as PDF's on the internet; Wikipedia has democratised knowledge in an unprecedented way; subversive jokes, graphics, posters and images are constantly exchanged and disseminated across the globe. People can see pictures and photographs of demonstrations, revolts and rebellions from all over the world while the events are still taking place. The internet can give an unprecedented sense of being part of a movement while still being in your own living room (or bedroom). Even though we mainly use the internet as atomised individuals, suddenly all this oppositional discourse can come together and find a collective, public outlet. As a result across Europe we are experiencing an outburst of oppositional consciousness and the return of democratic socialist ideas to the public political discourse. Podemos, Syriza, Corbyn and even Bernie Sanders in the USA, are collective, real-world, public expressions of the virtual counter-culture that has been quietly working away for 15 years.

But the 'Arab Spring', that most famous previous example of internet inspired rebellion, shows us that while oppositional consciousness is a necessary prerequisite for revolt and rebellion, it is not alone sufficient to bring about permanent change. For that we also need determination, patience, courage, solidarity and self-sacrifice.

 

 

 

The full version of the flash fiction embedded in this article as The Cage is on the fiction section of the arts hub.

west bank wall balloon girl
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Saturday, 12 December 2015 17:58

Art, activism and the cultural food chain

Written by

Susan Jones outlines how activism can help artists in an age of austerity and widening gaps between rich and poor.

The so-called golden age of arts funding gave way to debilitating austerity, felt particularly by artists who are now at the end of a long food chain, divorced from arts funding and policy decision making. But when did these divisions start, and how can artists use activism to create meaningful change for the future?

What do we mean by culture and why does it matter?
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Tuesday, 24 November 2015 18:40

What do we mean by culture and why does it matter?

Written by

What is culture and why does it matter? To help us answer those questions, Professor John Storey outlines a neo-Gramscian approach to culture. It exposes culture as a site of struggle, equips and empowers us to resist cultural domination, dissolves the barriers between 'high' and 'popular' culture, and thus helps us build the 'new Jerusalem'.

If we want to make the claim that culture matters politically, and be able to illustrate this claim against those who want us to see it as something quite distinct from the political, we need to be clear what we mean by culture. What I propose in this article is a working definition that will provide a way to think politically about all the things we call culture.

To claim that culture matters because it is ultimately political compels us to move beyond all definitions that reduce culture to the arts with a capital A. In other words, it is a definition that rejects the arbitrary – and elitist – distinction between culture and popular culture. The politics of culture involves all of us because it is about the making and circulation of meanings, meanings which affect all of us.

For example: meaning is produced by a play by William Shakespeare, but it is also produced by the latest episode of Coronation Street. If both produce meaning, and the production of meaning is how we are defining culture, it makes no sense to value one as culture and dismiss the other as popular culture. This does not mean that we cannot judge one as better than the other, but it does mean that we cannot rely on arbitrary categories of pre-judgement to make the decision for us. And of course ‘better’ always implies the questions: better for what and better for whom?

We must also reject the idea that the meaning of a play or television drama is the sole property of the text itself. Undoubtedly, they produce meaning but they are also sites for the production of meaning. And these meanings are variable, and often contested by those who consume them. Culture is a 'mental fight', as Blake wrote in 'Jerusalem'. It is a site of struggle between competing ways of making the world meaningful to us. And that cultural struggle therefore becomes a political struggle.

For the commodities produced by the culture industries (books, CDs, films, theatre, television programmes, etc.) to become culture, they have to be consumed and how they are consumed is always, ultimately, a question of politics. To paraphrase Karl Marx, a house only becomes a home when it is inhabited. So in a similar way a novel that no one reads is barely an example of culture. Culture involves both production and consumption. Both text and audience produce meaning: in political terms, a text can help change how we see the world, but so can the meanings we find in it.

There are two conclusions we can draw from a definition of culture as a terrain of shared and contested meanings. First, although the world exists in all its enabling and constraining materiality outside culture, it is only in culture that the world is made meaningful. In other words, signification has a ‘performative effect’; it helps construct the realities it appears only to describe. As Antonio Gramsci once pointed out,

'It is obvious that East and West are arbitrary and conventional (historical) constructions, since every spot on the earth is simultaneously East and West. Japan is probably the Far East not only for the European but also for the American from California and even for the Japanese himself, who, through English political culture might call Egypt the Near East … Yet these references are real, they correspond to real facts, they allow one to travel by land and by sea and to arrive at the predetermined destination.'

In other words, East and West are cultural constructions, directly connected to the imperial power of the West, but they are also forms of signification that have been realized and embedded in social practice. Cultural constructs they may be, but they do designate real geographic locations and guide real human movement and organize real political perceptions of the world. As Gramsci’s example makes clear, meanings inform and organize social action. To argue that culture is best understood as a terrain of shared and contested meanings is not, therefore, a denial that the material world exists in all its constraining and enabling reality, outside signification.

Such a concept of culture does not deny the existence of the materiality of things, but it does insist that materiality is mute: it does not issue its own meanings, it has to be made to mean. Although how something is made meaningful is always enabled and constrained by the materiality of the thing itself, culture is not a property of mere materiality. It is the entanglement of meaning, materiality and social practice, variable meanings in a range of different contexts and social practices. In other words, culture is always social, material and semiotic and always in a direct or indirect relation with the prevailing structures of power.

The second conclusion we can draw from seeing culture as a terrain of shared and contested meanings concerns the potential for struggle over meaning. Given that different meanings can be ascribed, for example, to the same novel or film, the making of meaning is always entangled in what Valentin Volosinov identified as the ‘multiaccentuality of the sign’. Rather than being inscribed with a single meaning, a book or a film can be made to mean different things in different contexts, with different effects of power. Contrast, for example, the interpretation of the film 'The Third Man' in the review elsewhere on this site, with the standard, mainstream interpretation.

Culture, understood as the making of meaning is, therefore, always a potential site of ‘differently oriented social interests’. Those with power often seek to make what is multi-accentual appear as if it could only ever be uni-accentual. In cultural terms, this is the difference between dictatorship and democracy.

The different ways of making something signify are rarely an innocent game of semantics, rather they are a significant part of a political struggle over what might be regarded as ‘normal’ or ‘correct’ – an example of the politics of signification. What are the class politics of Downton Abbey, or the gender politics of Game of Thrones? Is Trident a weapon of mass destruction, the use of which is impossible to envisage, or is it a necessary means of self-defense in an uncertain world? Is austerity a reasonable way to ensure we live within our means or is it a political choice that forces many people to rely on food banks and to become vulnerable to the Victorian diseases of malnutrition, scurvy, scarlet fever, cholera and whooping cough? In each example there is a struggle over meaning, a struggle over who can claim the power and authority to define social reality; to make the world (and the things in it) mean in particular ways and with particular effects of power.

Dominant modes of making the world meaningful are a fundamental aspect of the processes of hegemony. But hegemony is not something imposed that people passively accept. It is always a terrain of struggle between dominant and subordinate ways of understanding the world. While it is true that the forces of incorporation tend to be more powerful than the forces of resistance, this should not lead us to think of the consumption of culture as something always and inevitably passive. It is certainly true that the culture industries are a major site of ideological production, constructing powerful images, descriptions, definitions, frames of reference for understanding the world. However, we should reject the view that the people who consume these productions are ‘cultural dupes’, unable to resist the prevailing ‘common sense’.

People make culture (including popular culture) from the repertoire of commodities supplied by the culture industries. Consumption understood as ‘production in use’ can be empowering to subordinate understandings of the world. And it can be resistant to dominant understandings of the world. But this is not to say that consumption is always empowering and resistant. To deny the passivity of consumption is not to deny that sometimes consumption is passive; to deny that consumers are cultural dupes is not to deny that the culture industries seek to manipulate. But it is to deny that culture, especially popular culture, is little more than a degraded landscape of commercial and ideological manipulation, imposed from above in order to make profit and secure social control.

What is produced and how it is consumed can also challenge the taken-for-granted that always underpins hegemony. A progressive cultural analysis should insist that to decide these matters requires vigilance and attention to the details of the production, distribution and consumption of the commodities from which culture is made. These are not matters that can be decided once and for all (outside the contingencies of history and politics) with an elitist glance and a condescending sneer. Nor can they be read off purely from the moment of production, by locating meaning, pleasure, ideological effect, the probability of incorporation, the possibility of resistance, in, variously, the intention, the means of production or the production itself.

We need also to consider how meaning is generated through consumption, which should be understood as ‘production in use’. Because it is, ultimately, in ‘production in use’ that questions of meaning, pleasure, ideological effect, incorporation or resistance can be (contingently) decided.

This, I suggest, is a more optimistic, empowering approach to defining culture than traditional approaches. It enables us to engage with cultural products on more equal terms, and it enables us to break down the elitist divide between 'high' culture and 'popular' culture. I believe that if contributors to this website apply this approach, a wealth of meanings will be discovered which will help us build 'the new Jerusalem'.

The review of 'The Third Man' mentioned above is on the film section of the arts hub.

Page 6 of 6