Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Utopian Socialism of Oasis

Firstly, yes, this post is indeed a further step from my original intention with Histomat to have a blog that celebrated glorious moments in past class struggles. I am aware that from discussing Galloway to discussing the Gallaghers might well seem a bridge too far for many Histomat readers. However, Marxism does have something to say about culture, even though the exact relationship between Marxism and art is a matter of quite considerable debate. Leon Trotsky in Literature and Revolution put it like this:

'It is very true that one cannot always go by the principles of Marxism in deciding whether to reject or to accept a work of art. A work of art should, in the first place, be judged by its own law, that is, by the law of art. But Marxism alone can explain why and how a given tendency in art has originated in a given period of history; in other words, who it was who made a demand for such an artistic form and not for another, and why.'

There is a danger though when analysing popular culture of either stating the obvious or coming across as ridiculously pretentious and missing the bloody obvious. I ought to admit here that I am not a massive Oasis fan, that I find their music lacks originality, and if you want an expert's analysis of Oasis you will need to look elsewhere. That said, their new album does seem to mark a 'return to form' for the Gallagher brothers and in particular, their latest single 'The Importance of Being Idle' stands out, for me passing 'the law of art'. It is a great song and the video is not bad either - and it is really this song that I want to look at. I will put up the lyrics:

Oasis - The Importance Of Being Idle

I sold my soul for the second time
Cos the man, he don't pay me
I begged my landlord for some more time
He said "Son, the bills waiting"

My best friend called me the other night
He said "Man, are you crazy?"
My girlfriend told me to get a life
She said "boy, you lazy"

But I don't mind
As long as there's a bed beneath the stars that shine
I'll be fine
If you give me a minute
A mans got a limit
You cant get a life if your hearts' not in it

I lost my faith in the summertime
Cos it don't stop raining
The sky all day's as black as night
But I love complaining

I begged my doctor for one more line
He said "Son, words fail me"
It ain't no place to be killing time
But I guess I'm just lazy

I don't mind
As long as there's a bed beneath the stars that shine
I'll be fine
If you give me a minute
A mans got a limit
I cant get a life if my hearts' not in it'

This is about a far a cry from the 'Cool Britannia' that saw Noel Gallagher shake hands with Tony Blair in 1997 as you can get. This is a song about the bitter class reality of life in Blair's Britain today, where the only jobs available pay you shite and the only thing worse than not having a 'McJob' is not having one, and having to trawl around agencies feeling worthless.

The song is clearly inspired by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), and not only in the title. The first lines, 'I sold my soul...cos the man, he don't pay me' bring to mind Wilde's 1891 essay on 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism', which begins:

'The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody'.

One thinks too of Wilde, in the lyrics 'As long as there's a bed beneath the stars that shine I'll be fine', in particular his famous quote about how 'We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.' Wilde dreamt of another world, a future socialist society where machinery would serve human needs and human's would flourish as creative individuals. Marxists have traditionally regarded Wilde as something of a 'utopian' socialist, for daring to imagine what socialism would like. From Marx onwards, Marxists felt socialism would not be about the moral dreams of a few thinkers, which would be inevitably limited by the horizons of their imagination, but would be built by a world working class itself, acting for itself and in control of its own destiny. What mattered now was how to get there - 'what is to be done?' as Lenin put it.

Yet there have always been a few Marxists who tried to fuse the new 'scientific' and the old 'utopian' socialism. Karl Marx's son-in-law, French socialist Paul Lafargue for example in 1883 wrote a popular pamphlet, The Right to Be Lazy. Dave Renton has written about this work far better than I could, but needless to say the theme is very similar to that echoed by Wilde and now Oasis. Work under capitalism is not just a tyrannical process, working for some totalitarian corporation where democracy is an anaethema. It is also a profoundly alienating experience, working for 'the man' as a cog in a machine until work ends and you can escape and go back to doing what makes you feel human again. Yet often what you do 'outside work' is 'work' of a sort - but it is enjoyable as you have control over the products of what you have done.

Anyway, what to make of Oasis then? It would be wrong to make them out to be as consciously socialist as say, Wilde or Lafargue. However, The Importance of Being Idle does reveal a utopian socialist strand to the Gallagher brothers that I suspect could be traced back through much of their back catalogue. It should be remembered that Oasis have supported workers struggles (like the Liverpool Dockers) as well as campaigns (Unite Against Fascism). This is not to say that there are not other far less progressive strands influencing Oasis as well, but that is, in a sense, irrelevant. What Marxism should attempt to explain is less the nuanced political leanings of Noel and Liam Gallagher, reactionary or progressive, but why they have grown to huge popularity and mass success in Britain and internationally. Here, the fact that they are culturally working class artists, even if they are now multi-millionaires, is of central importance. Their remarkable success is in part because their songs speak of life as it is for millions of people, who have been on the recieving ends of a vicious class war waged from above over the last twenty or so years. At a time when working hours in Britain have soared to record levels yet real pay has stagnated, Oasis in their best work have related to the feeling of what it is like to live dominated by the experience of working for 'the man'. The sky may be as black as night, but there are always some who look at the stars.

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