Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Changed utterly

(May 1992)

From Socialist Review, No.153, May 1992, p.8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The political right on both sides of the Atlantic has been waging a campaign in defence of ‘Western culture’ against ‘multiculturalism’, claiming cultural values are under attack from a ‘politically correct’ relativism.

But it is not only the right who see things in terms of a battle over culture. So do some of those who put up resistance to them. Many oppose ‘Western cultural imperialism’ in the name of ‘indigenous peoples’ facing ‘cultural genocide’, or of ‘Islamic culture’ or ‘African culture.’

The argument is often completely confused. Part of the confusion is over the meaning of the term culture itself. It means two different, although related, things.

First it refers to the general way of life of a particular group of people – including such things as the way they get a livelihood, their religious practices, the relations between the sexes, their moral attitudes, their sense of time, their treatment of old people and children, their cooking and their language.

But on top of this, culture has a much more restricted meaning, referring to art, music and literature.

The connection between the two meanings is that culture in the narrow, artistic, sense is an expression of culture in the wider, way of life, sense. Art grows out of the soil of the wider culture and displays certain of the elements within it in a form that can bewitch or delight, thrill or frighten.

It is this which enables their ‘culture’ to provide a sense of identity to people from a particular society, something to which they can try to cling at moments of social instability and personal insecurity.

But in a class society, culture in the narrow sense can never be more than a partial expression of people’s wider way of life, because there are different ways of life for each class. And art and literature tend to express the way of life of those classes who alone have the resources and the leisure to sustain artistic production – the privileged, exploiting classes.

As society changes, so culture changes. It cannot be a changeless, fixed thing. Any attempt to treat it as such is a fiction, an ideological device used to bind people to certain approved patterns of behaviour.

This is particularly important in the modern world, which has been changed utterly by the development of capitalism over the last two centuries. Everywhere people’s lives have been transformed as they have been subordinated to market relations and dragged from the relative isolation of rural life into contact with vast population centres.

When people talk of ‘traditional culture’ of any sort, they are harking back to something which no longer fits the reality of their lives anywhere. This is true of attempts to force us to accept an ‘English culture’, most of which was created by and for leisured gentlemen living in a predominantly agrarian society. It is also true of those who, out of a justified revulsion at such cultural reaction, would have us turn to ‘Celtic culture’, ‘Indian culture’, ‘African culture’, or any other.

The dynamic of capitalist accumulation is creating a worldwide way of life (or rather, contrasting worldwide ways of life for the opposing classes), in which the tempo of work, patterns of consumption, styles of dress, forms of recreation and forms of sexual relations increasingly cut across the old cultural barriers.

If there is, in this sense, increasingly a world culture, it is not surprising that art – both in its popular and its ‘highbrow’ forms – is increasingly international, with a world audience for films and TV programmes, rock bands and symphony orchestras, novels and operas.

To see this either as proving the superiority of ‘Western culture’ or as ‘cultural imperialism’ is to get things the wrong way round. The spread of a certain form of culture has followed the spread of capitalism across the whole globe. As capitalism first took root in parts of Europe and North America, it destroyed the old European cultures and then fused certain elements from them into a new, capitalist culture. Now as it has spread further it has caused more destruction, but also added to the synthesis.

Thus the popular music of modern capitalism grew out of the mixing of certain Afro-American and European folk forms to create jazz and rock, and has spread out to incorporate Latin American, African and Asian elements into new ‘fusions.’

The novel was a literary form created with the rise of European capitalism. But the best novelists of the late 20th century are those like Ngugi, Rushdie, Ochabe, Okri, Marquez and a score of others who have used the form to give expression to the experience of societies more recently absorbed into and transformed by the world system.

Their work is the best answer to Saul Bellow’s derogatory and racist comment that he would show an interest in Third World art when a Zulu wrote War and Peace!

We can turn to elements from past cultures to criticise capitalist culture and highlight its deficiencies. But we cannot replace it by them. We can, and should, admire the art of the Incas, the plays of the ancient Greeks, the tolerance and egalitarianism of the Kung. But we cannot simply adopt their cultures, any more than we can live according to the norms of behaviour of Beowulf.

The culture created by modern capitalism is a deficient, distorted culture – the culture of a class society which drains meaning from the lives of millions of people. It is a culture which has condoned slavery while preaching freedom, producing Belsen as well as Beethoven.

The point is not to worship this culture in the manner of so many post modernists, but to recognise it as the only terrain we have to fight on, since the system which created it has made obsolete and destroyed all others.

Existing society has a contradictory character, producing exploitation and barbarism, but also struggles against them. And the world culture it has created is similarly contradictory. It is often barren and deficient, but also provides a single frame of reference within which the exploited and oppressed right across the globe can fight against capitalism for a better way of life and, with it, a superior culture.

It is this, of course, which the chauvinists who laud ‘European’ culture are trying to prevent.

Last updated on 18 June 2010