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Ben Watson: The culture question and the IS Network

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Article published in the prototype issue of Cactus, 2013

Ben Watson calls for ‘cultural criticism’ that rejects reviewing the latest hits – and makes us feel alive

In thinking about ‛culture’, it does well to recall a statement Marx made in 1850. He was writing about the turbulent years in France after 1848, in an article for a political and economic review published in Hamburg, Neue Rheinische Zeitung (articles later published as Class Struggles in France 1848-1850). Describing the revolutionary socialist politics the bourgeois pundits of the time reviled as 'Blanquism', Marx wrote:

This socialism is the declaration of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessary intermediate point on the path towards the abolition of class differences in general, the abolition of all relations of production on which they are based, the abolition of all social relations which correspond to these relations of production, and the revolutionising of all ideas which stem from these social relations.

The phrase which sticks in my mind is: “the revolutionising of all ideas which stem from these social relations”. For 25 years I was active in the Socialist Workers Party, opposing fascists and supporting strikes, but found that when I attempted to revolutionise cultural ideas which stem from capitalism – the commodification of art, the manufacture of stars, the workings of the culture industry, the plunder and reselling of heritage, the ideology that only money makes real – I met a barrage of objections. Not from comrades in my branch, who were invariably willing to listen to the insights I gleaned from Marx and Guy Debord and Theodor Adorno, but from 'leading comrades' whose opinions were ensconced in the pages of Socialist Review. Marxism was fine if it meant commitment to a complex theory which party experts could explain down to us, but if it became a method of improvising responses to cultural matters they didn’t already know about – a film by a new director, a performance by ‛unknown’ musicians, a self-published pamphlet of writing which struck me as extraordinary – then the smear-machine went into operation: ‛elitist’, ‛Proletkult’, ‛obscurantist’, ‛avantgarde’, ‛weird’, ‛idealist’, ‛eclectic’, ‛a diversion from the struggle’, ‛eccentric’, etc., etc.

So what I propose in this inaugural salvo concerning the IS Network’s ‛cultural’ coverage is a genuine application of Marx’s idea: to welcome any writing which revolutionises ideas stemming from capitalist social relations, and is predicated on abolishing class distinctions and privilege. The last time Marxist ideas became widely fashionable in Britain was 1968-72, so much so that academia developed a new discipline called ‛sociology’ to accommodate and (eventually) to defuse it. Left wing activists who could stomach bureaucratic day jobs found significant niches. Over time, and in the wake of significant defeats of the working class in the 1980s, sociology gradually sloughed off its Marxism – both the dialectic and the rhetoric – and instead embraced the methods and categories of market research. ‛Social class’ started to define an inert social layer, a set of people about whom generalisations could be made, one to be set alongside other categories beloved of market research – race, age and gender – or even omitted altogether. Too often, those who defined themselves as ‛socialists’ were influenced by these categories, so if I became excited by something which appeared to me to ‛revolutionise’ capitalist ideas, I’d be told I’d got the demographic wrong: ‛working class people’ do not like abstract art, or squeaky- bonk music, or experimental literature – even though the working class people around me were thoroughly entertained by such a ‛freak’ approach. I realised I was in a Trotskyist party with a Stalinist attitude towards artistic modernism – despite the fact that if you draw a graph of the peak moments for these outrageous practices (the 20s, the 60s), they correspond precisely to the periods when international capitalism was rocked by insurgent populations.

Should a publication aimed at working class readers only cover cultural products which are familiar to them from the ‛mass media’ or are endorsed by official institutions (an argument I met countless times trying to communicate some cultural enthusiasm via party publications)? If revolutionaries applied this attitude to their politics, they’d be committing suicide. Of course, social media available via the internet have already answered this question: freak culture is ubiquitous. Politically aware parents at my daughter’s primary school download Max Keiser’s tirades versus Goldman Sachs and Rupert Murdoch from YouTube before I can sell them a paper, and the passion and accuracy of this foaming investment adviser put the left to shame. The battles over what was allowed in party publications, the strategic importance of ‛the centre’ and its offset litho printer, is over – because new technology has found other ways of putting us all in touch. When Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan says “Social media is the worst menace to society” he’s been outflanked by history.

“The revolution will not be televised, it will be tweeted,” said a placard hand-drawn in Istanbul during the mass demos of early June, and if you’re watching world events unfurl on social media, you have to agree. This is an internationalist urban politics Marx would recognise – a politics so revolutionary and total, the bourgeoisie find it hard to recognise as politics. It’s the opposite of some guy in a suit built up as an ‛expert’ by a TV channel like CNN, Al Jazeera or Press TV. Of course, I don’t think the Istanbul protesters will win if the mass of people ignore them and still go to work; on the other hand, if this kind of politics is rejected, no ‛Marxist’ sect is going to lead the working class to victory.

So why am I writing this article for a journal instead of just posting it online? Because there’s still a need for measured exposition of argument; well-edited sites and journals save us from the vanity, abuse and misinformation encountered elsewhere on the web; and it’s right for the IS Network to try and salvage a political tradition travestied by the blundering politics of an immobile bureaucratic leadership. But this kind of internet politics – peer-to-peer, grassroots, rank-and-file – demands in its turn a completely different approach to culture than that of either the capitalist mass media or the print-based left. For example, it is utterly pointless ‛reviewing’ major art exhibitions on a website when copyright considerations mean you cannot reproduce any images. All you provide is a pitch for wannabe ‛arts commentators’ with a lefty tinge – and a poor plug for the real thing. The internet means we can post the art we like directly on people’s screens. And that’s just what the IS Network should do.

Since Marcel Duchamp exhibited a urinal as art, it’s been demonstrated a thousand times that what demarcates post-war art as ‛art’ is power and money rather than any quality intrinsic to the art object. Up-to-date people know this. A large part of the humour in Iain Sinclair’s prose rests on the fact that the streets of London supply far more shocking and bizarre sights than anything served up in art galleries. Sinclair writes stunning art reviews…of charity shops and rubbish tips and choked canals. This irreverence isn’t some kind of ‛philistine’ lapse: it’s the starting point of a genuinely materialist approach to culture. Attention to personal aesthetic experience over and above art given a seal of approval by power and money. A revolutionary who hasn’t learned from Dada to trust their own reactions above authority is no revolutionary, and lags behind the mass of people in the world today.

The litmus test in all this has to be our attitude towards money. “Watch television, by all means…”, Frank Zappa told his children, “but always ask the question: how much is that guy being paid to say that?” In a draft for The Civil War in France (1871) reproduced in Eugene Gogol’s Towards a Dialectic of Philosophy and Organisation, Marx expressed equally 'bad taste' contempt for the Great and the Good. The great achievement of the Commune was that it shattered “the delusion that administration and political governing were mysteries, transcendent functions only to be trusted to the hands of a trained caste” (p. 84). “State parasites, richly-paid sycophants and sinecurists” were replaced by “removable servants … paid like skilled workmen twelve pounds a month … The whole sham of state mysteries and state pretensions was done away with by the Commune…all the posts hitherto divided between government, police and prefecture, now doing their work publicly, simply, under the most difficult and complicated circumstances, and doing it, as Milton did his Paradise Lost, for a few pounds.”

This is something like Jerry Hicks, in his recent electoral campaign for Unite general secretary, saying he’d take an average member’s wage to serve – and criticising the £2,000 a week Len McCluskey receives for the job. It demolishes the myth that top jobs are paid a ‛market’ rate. Marx’s reference to John Milton is apposite. Milton excoriated bishops who lived in palaces and said they should live in the same manner as their congregations. Literature has currently become so commodified that even the left consider ‛best sellers’ are worthy of attention in a way ‛worst sellers’ are not. But if you have grabbed somebody’s attention on a website or blog, or in the pages of a journal, you can tell your readers about anything – you do not have to worship the fetish of mega-sales which allows publishers to turn a buck. Those who believe only money makes real cannot grasp the social necessity which makes Paradise Lost a great work of art; nor can they understand how works of art can (and should) be measured by the ‛simple’ actions of a regular Communard, or a regular Unite grassroots activist. “Culture is the inversion of life,” proclaimed the Situationists. They were echoing Marx.

So a genuinely revolutionary cultural magazine would not curtsy before the ‛names’ which make up the current cultural fiasco, would not concede that money makes real, would refuse the left’s ‛sociological’ excuse for recycling news about best-selling drivel. It would seize on any writing or images or music which set us on fire, which make us feel alive, which gee us up to bring down capitalism. “Oh, you only want propaganda!” retorts the party hack, thinking thereby they’ve made a clever point. No, I want to save tradition from the conformism that threatens to overpower it; I want to read books which measure up to Milton, and music that measures up to Beethoven, and art that measures up to Kurt Schwitters. Culture that measures up to our activity as revolutionaries. I don’t want to read about Martin Amis!

A revolutionary cultural magazine would inscribe the words of William Blake over the desks of its editors in letters of flame:

Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age! Set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have hirelings in the Camp, the Court & the University, who would, if they could, forever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War. Painters, on you I call! Sculptors! Architects! Suffer not the fashionable Fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works or the expensive advertizing boasts that they make of such works” (Milton, 1808, Plate 2)

And if you respond by pointing out that Blake has only invoked men and missed out half the human race and so his words are profoundly reactionary, you have succumbed to identity politics and abandoned any historical imagination. You will only ever be led along by ‛correct’ postures made by slick politicians and wily liars. Blake was addressing the actualities of his time – paid artists were male – and he didn’t see this as a privilege to be coveted, but a betrayal of a human urge to create and communicate. His preface ends with the lyrics to ‛Jerusalem’ and a quote from the Bible: “Would to God all the Lord’s people were Prophets”. EP Thompson was correct: Blake was inspired by a radical democratic politics which had survived among London artisans since the English Civil War. Blake’s attack on Christianity’s denigration of sex would have to be the start of any politics for the emancipation of women.

As Alan Moore has pointed out, Blake was the first counter-cultural artist, pioneering the words-and-pictures mix of cosmology, politics and sex which has characterised all great popular comics since. Blake’s call to arms vanquishes at a stroke the pseudo-historical sophistication of the SWP’s John Molyneux, who points out that “art has always served the rich”; Blake was the harbinger of a new class with a new politics and new relationship to written and pictorial authority. Blake’s star rises whenever the left rises: in the 60s with Allen Ginsberg, in the early 80s with Jah Wobble and Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore. Witness of the birth of global capitalism – enclosures reducing self-sufficient peasants to landless wanderers, the noose for petty theft, deportation, the slave trade – reading Blake allows the modern revolutionary to draw breath, to understand that disgust with commercialism is not some kind of recent pose amongst avant hipsters, it’s part and parcel of revolutionary socialism. It’s a prophylactic against those who think you can sell socialism like double-glazing. The party managed like a call centre. Such ‛realistic operators’ will either dismiss Blake as a ‛mystic’, or honour him (falsely) as a ‛great artist’ whose achievements we should ‛admire’. At a distance. We shouldn’t: Blake’s great because he measures up to us, to the spirit of working class firebrands on Facebook like Paz Thompson or Paul Furness or Sharon Borthwick or Paul Seacroft (who they? not party hacks, for sure…get on Facebook and find out). When Tom Paine, author of The Rights of Man, came to London, he stayed with William Blake.

Nothing stands still. The Russian Revolution of 1917 turned into its opposite, Stalinism, and sabotaged revolutions all round the world. In the post-war period, the artistic revolt of the 1920s and 1930s became a commodity shaped by a succession of empty fashions – Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, Conceptual Art, Fluxus, Postmodernism. When Maurice Saatchi curated Sensation! in 1997, an advertising mogul who’d worked for Margaret Thatcher's re-election found that Dada techniques of shock and contempt could serve Tories and high finance. Young British Art: a slew of useless celebrities was born. Some Trotskyist sects, echoing the Stalinist positions they claim to criticise, saw this as proving the ‛decadent’ nature of Modern Art, something all true proletarians should reject. The point is that the anti-capitalist, anti-hireling nature of true expression had migrated into other forms than ‛art’.

The commodity relation is inimical to our species-being and denies our natural feelings for others, which have to be suppressed in favour of an abstraction called ‛self’ – realising true art in the money environment is like growing a watermelon in Easter hay, impossible. Peter Brötzmann and Alan Wilkinson, two saxophonists who reconfigure your experience of music into something like a primal animal reaction, both began as fine artists, but could not perform the ‛tame bear’ shtick of being an ‛absolute rebel’ who obediently cranks out objects for the rich to buy; so Brötzmann and Wilkinson became minor figures in the world ‛jazz’ scene instead — until you see them live, in which case they become something as overpowering and inspiring as Blake.

The argument between true expression and money is vast, highly detailed and intricate. I have never met two people who deal with it quite the same way – whether they’re artists or simply (simply!) people selling their labour power. The problem ‛artists’ face is the same thing we all face: we’re doing something useful (hopefully), but the money-relation doesn’t reflect that, it reflects our ability to create surplus value for an employer. Culture is the royal road to discussing this predicament, detailing nuances that reflect every fibre of our being. If cultural criticism is worth doing, it’s because it bravely flies in the face of cultural authority and sales figures – i.e. ourselves considered as a mere means for the accumulation of capital – and dares to articulate our initial, truthful subjective reaction before it has been dominated by concepts (or ‛political correctness’). A recipe for utter subjectivism, anarchist relativism, nihilistic solipsism? No, because our collective political practice and our commitment to historical materialism allow us to unpick our personal reactions and explain them as responses to the unchosen circumstances in which we make history.

So what should ‛cultural criticism’ in an IS Network journal look like? A sharing of hitherto unspoken truths. Recommending the purchase of one commodity over others, on the other hand, is not an activity worthy of socialists. Like free-improvising saxophonist and community-activist Jack Wright, revolutionaries should reject the culture-industry’s racket, and feel free to point out they get hold of their music via CD-R copies or downloads or library loans or second-hand. Or at a local pub or church. Or playing with friends. The whole idea of ‛covering new product’ is work foisted on us by sharks trying to make money out of our attempts to create life-changing situations. An excited post by someone who’s just discovered Etta James or Archie Shepp or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is worth a thousand ho-hum reviews of some duff celebrity’s latest album. The person who replies to the question “What music do you like?” by saying “Oh, I haven’t bought a CD for ages” is suffering from the worstest of curses. Conversely, there’s no safe haven from the commodity, no zone of worthy culture untainted by the problematic. Worthwhile pop music tackles this issue head on. Despite the airs put on by its consumers, the refusal of ‛Classical Music’ to recognise commodification makes it indescribably more stupid. The only answer is to criticise commodification from the point of view of the worker, ie., someone whose very life essence, their labour power, is treated as a commodity by capital. How do you get by yourself? The IS Network should like to hear from you.


Thanks to Keith Fisher, Daphne Lawless, Esther Leslie and Andy Wilson for suggestions. Ben Watson is a member of the Association of Musical Marxists and broadcasts a radio show on Resonance 104.4FM every Wednesday at 2pm.