Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Saturday, January 22, 2011

John Molyneux on the politics of culture

The classical Marxist position, defended by Lenin and Trotsky, was that the best of bourgeois, and all past, culture should not be rejected by the working class but, as far as possible under capitalism, be assimilated by it, and taken over and preserved under socialism. As Trotsky put it in Class and Art Shakespeare will still speak to us when, ‘Capital will have become merely an historical document, together with the program of our party. But at present we do not yet intend to put Shakespeare, Byron, Pushkin in the archives, and we will continue to recommend them to the workers’. The healing of the split in culture, the achievement of a diverse but unified classless culture, would however be possible only in a classless socialist society.

To this standpoint, which I share, I would make two additions. Changed conditions in the last century have made it possible for some elements in popular culture, coming up from below, to achieve the quality, intensity and complexity associated with the best of high culture. This happens mainly in music, the art form closest to the people, but sometimes in other forms as well. My personal nominations would include Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Shane McGowan, Charlie Chaplin and Tracey Emin.

Also every major people’s movement develops, as it were, its cultural wing and accompaniment. The Irish national struggle is an obvious example with WB Yeats, Jack Yeats, Synge, O’Casey etc. But think also of the black movement in the US with Paul Robeson, Miles Davis, Archie Shepp, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Nina Simone and many others, or the Russian Revolution with Mayakovsky, Tatlin, Malevitch, Rodchenko, Eisenstein, Vertov and so on. This has a necessary and positive role to play in helping to bring social change and needs to be encouraged by socialists, not to replace or dispense with traditional art or ‘high culture’ but in addition to it.

Full article here, while those who want to read more of Molyneux on culture should read his reflections on Adorno on Beckett, plus I guess his blog more generally.

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