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Ian Birchall

More than just taste

(October 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 80, October 1985, p. 34.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

SINCE I seem to have failed to get my point across to Chris Glenn (September, SWR) at Marxism 85, maybe I can have another try. I will do so briefly because I largely agree with Chris Nineham’s article in the same issue and will not repeat points made there.

When I urged comrades to listen to the Style Council’s album Our Favourite Shop, it was not because I thought it would make a major contribution to their political education, nor even because I hoped they would enjoy it. I commended it to their attention because it seemed to me to be an excellent example of socialist propaganda in a genuinely popular (Number One on the album chart) form, and therefore worthy of study by revolutionary activists.

In a period when significant possibilities are opening up for revolutionary socialists, the ability to make and use a wide variety of imaginative and popular forms of propaganda is an important task. In the period of the Anti-Nazi League, the SWP discovered and exploited a variety of forms of mass propaganda. Unfortunately this on occasion led to a dilution of politics – it was sometimes assumed that anyone who bought a Clash album was already a 100 per cent revolutionary. Quite rightly in the last few years we have put greater stress on political clarity, but sometimes at the price of losing liveliness and imagination. Hopefully we have now reached a point where we can afford to experiment a little.

Now good propaganda doesn’t automatically flow from correct politics – otherwise Tony Cliff would draw the cartoons in Socialist Worker. There are also questions of style and technique. The great merit of Our Favourite Shop is the way it starts from individual experience (of unemployment, YTS, police violence, Milton Keynes, etc.). Now politically this has the danger of leading to a succession of single issue campaigns for good causes (a trap that Weller in fact seems to have fallen into). But at the same time the Style Council’s songs can appeal to people who are not yet at the point of wanting to bring down the whole insane system with the Redskins.

The need to discuss such issues seriously is quite separate from the question of the ‘musical preference’ of individual SWP members. One of the leading apparatchiks of the Ami-Nazi League actually likes opera. Fortunately he didn’t try to organise Wagnerian carnivals.

At the same time, musical preference does not exist in a social vacuum. What people like relates to their values, their experience and their social situation. For instance, I have never met a revolutionary socialist who likes Duran Duran. Maybe there is one out there somewhere. Or maybe not. Again, the Economist (17 August) reports that in order to improve its image with young voters the SDP is hoping to sign up rock stars – if it can find any takers, which so far it hasn’t! Surely more than just taste is at stake here.


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