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Ian Birchall

More Sounds

(April 1983)

From Socialist Review, No.53, April 1983, p.30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

I know what I like

Dear Socialist Review,

Noel Halifax’s article The Sounds of Struggle (SR 52) marked a welcome break from the recent cultural policy (or non-policy) of Socialist Review. When a boring ex-Trotskyist called Ted Grant was thrown out of the Labour Party, Socialist Review dissected the manoeuvre with loving care. But when an exciting black singer called Eddy Grant got to number two in the charts with a record openly advocating street violence, Socialist Review did not deign to notice.

Or again, asked to vote for what they considered to be event of the year’ for 1982 New Musical Express readers put the Falklands War second and Greenham Common third. What came first? The breakup of The Jam. The most prestigious bourgeois newspaper in Europe, Le Monde sent its correspondent to London specially for The Jam’s farewell concert. Once against Socialist Review was looking the other way.

Certainly Noel’s article was a cut above other recent Socialist Review contributions on music. Jennifer Batchelor’s defence of Wagner (SR 48) was just a rerun of the tired old argument about ‘taking over the best of bourgeois culture’ (though why Wagner’s anti-Semitic pretentiousness should be the ‘best’ I don’t know). Opera used to be for the elite but now ‘we’ can all see it on television. Jennifer should ponder Brecht’s remark that ‘literary works cannot be taken over like factories.’

The other side of the coin to Jennifer’s paternalism is Marta Wohrle’s liberalism in defence of disco music (SR 49). Disco is as good as anything else because it is ‘quite good fun’. This attitude is nothing but passive consumerism. Many years ago, back in the good old days when he was half-way to being a Marxist, Edward Thompson wrote a crushing rejoinder to this sort of cultural liberalism:

‘The imagery is that of the prospectus of a new self-service store. Mr Wollheim will draw Proust and Mr Jones will draw Seventy Splendid Nudes and Mr Brown will draw the ‘Book of Revelations’ and I will draw the Niebelungenlied – and what the hell shall we all do with what we draw?’

As against all this Noel asserts quite clearly that music is political, and that the only music worth bothering with is that which comes out of the rock tradition. At the risk of seeming ungrateful, I nonetheless feel obliged to express some reservations about Noel’s arguments.

First of all, is it really still necessary in 1983, to prove one’s Trotskyist credentials by belabouring the Proletcult? The Proletcult was a far richer and more complex phenomenon than Noel’s caricature would suggest. I would commend to Noel’s attention Victor Serge’s 1925 essay Is a Proletarian Literature Possible?; this gives a vivid account of what the Proletcult actually meant in practice:

‘... the fifty workers in the Workers Springtime group have been turning out “extensive work in the last period, having tackled 15 plays, 76 short stories, 261 poems and 20 lectures, in 96 evening meetings attended by 450 writers.” Don’t laugh at these laconic statistics. Remember that two-thirds of these workers walk in the winter snows of Russia with holes in their boots. They don’t go to the cafe. They work and write with the lovely candour of children determined to grow up.

‘The Vagranka Group in the Rogoysko-Siminovsky suburb of Moscow is made up of sixteen workers who write for the press. Perkati-Pole, an old Bolshevik writer, a forgotten man, blind and dirt poor, gathers them in his comfortless lodgings and teaches them how to get rhythm into their verse and prose. There are not enough chairs; they crouch in a circle on the floor. They arrive smelling of tar, machine oil and metallic dust.’

As far as the claim that Socialist Realism somehow descends from the Proletcult, this is nothing but an unfounded smear. In any case the relevance of the Russian debate is limited. The cultural level of the Russian working class in 1917 was utterly different from that of the British working class in 1983, and there can be no real comparison as far as cultural struggle is concerned.

I am likewise unconvinced of the relevance of the German experience which Noel discusses. There is nothing unique about the way in which the German SPD used cultural organisations in order to consolidate its base. In 1926, for example, our very own Herbert Morrison had organised twenty London Labour choirs – though the projected London Labour Symphony Orchestra never got off the ground.

Morrison, incidentally, was adept at using music in a manipulative way. His biographers tell us that at Party socials he

‘rationed the dances to one person, and never concentrated on the gay young “flappers”, but flirted with the more elderly ladies. In this way he built up a core of devoted admirers, his “key women” ... He knew how to charm them and was proud to have them almost fighting each other to get a dance with him.’

But all this belongs to a bygone age of reformism; we can scarcely imagine the Labour Party developing such cultural practices again. Its lack of an actively involved working class base makes it impossible.

Which leaves us with the question of what is to be done. Here I found the latter part of Noel’s article rather disappointing. Noel seems to be so busy looking over both shoulders simultaneously to prove that he is both a swinger and a Bolshevik that he doesn’t offer any perspective for intervention. Yet the important thing to be learnt from Trotsky’s writings of the twenties is not his critique of the proletcult, and not his defence of the autonomy of art (we have bourgeois critics in profusion carrying that argument), but his insistence on the role of the Party in cultural struggle. Trotsky argues that the Party must intervene sensitively and intelligently with artists groping for new forms to express new situations and new values – but it must intervene.

‘The domain of art is not one in which the Party is called upon to command. It can and must protect and help it, but it can only lead it indirectly ... The Party stands guard over the historic interests of the working class in its entirety. Because it prepares consciously and step by step the ground for a new culture and therefore for a new art, it regards the literary fellow travellers not as the competitors of the writers of the working class, but as the real or potential helpers of the working class in the big work of reconstruction. The Party understands the episodic character of the literary groups of a transition period and estimates them, not from the point of view of the class passports of the individual gentlemen literati, but from the point of view of the place which these groups occupy and cam occupy in preparing a Socialist culture ... The Party will repel the clearly poisonous, disintegrating tendencies of art and will guide itself by its political standards.’

Noel is quite right to stress the roots of music in working class creativity and self-activity. (The point might well be studied by Colin Sparks, who in the same issue of Socialist Review uses the analogy of the orchestral conductor in a rather sinister defence of the necessity for managers under socialism. A cursory glance at Top of the Pops will reveal that it’s quite possible to get by without a conductor).

But the problem of ‘selling out’ is not simply one of an eternal contradiction between working class creativity and the capacity of bourgeois culture to co-opt and defuse radicalism. It may be true that Elvis Presley, John Lennon and Tom Robinson all ‘sold out’. But they were not all the same sell out. The trajectory of an individual artist will depend on the state of ideological health of the system, the general level of the class struggle, and the alternative forms of organisation offered by the working class movement.

To take one example among many. Listen to The Jam’s Little Boy Soldiers (on the Life in the European Theatre LP) and ask yourself why performers with that degree of analysis and sheer hatred of the capitalist war machine aren’t in some sort of organised relation with the revolutionary left. It’s no good saying they’re too rich or that Polydor wouldn’t let them; Paul Robeson and Charlie Chaplin weren’t exactly short of a bob or two. The answer must lie in the relative isolation of the revolutionary left and its lack of adequate structures for cultural intervention. It may well be that, Rock Against Racism, like the Rank and File Movement, is too ambitious a form of organisation for the present phase of the downturn. But the fact remains that the task of the Party is cultural struggle, not cultural-commentary.

As one of the Redskins put in on Channel Four a few weeks ago: ‘There are too many rock and roll philosophers interpreting the world; the point is to fucking change it.’

Now shouldn’t he be in the SWP?

Ian Birchall

Editor’s Note: Chris Moore of the Redskins is a member of the SWP. As we said before, socialists argue over music – any other contributions to this debate, or any other would be welcome.

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Last updated: 26 March 2010