I WAS delighted to take part in a fantastic event last week at the Klondyke Club in in Manchester. It was an event organised by young activists in Momentum to discuss culture and the labour movement.
It was very positive to see an event focused on this aspect of our movement. Any genuine, living mass movement must have a cultural aspect and by that I mean an interaction with the arts, be that literature, music or drama.
The socialist movement has always had a cultural aspect to it. And it should not be forgotten that the very act of making the lives or struggles of so-called “ordinary” working class people the subject of literature, music or drama has been and remains intensely political of itself, as it challenges the notion that these things are not a worthy focus of art or culture.
Historically, it has not only been the working class that has been excluded from making art, literature or music. It has also been the working class that has been excluded as the subject of art and literature.
This is perhaps why progressive poets such as Percy Shelley in the 19th century and Tony Harrison now have used in their poetry the figure of Prometheus — who in Greek mythology opposed the hierarchy between gods and mortals by stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humanity — as a personification of democracy, equality and socialism.
Tony Harrison also sees Prometheus’s class divide-destroying sharing of fire with humanity as a symbol of the struggle to make poetry an art form by and about working class people — that is, the “[uz]” of his famous poem “Them & [uz]”.
The socialist movement has always been artistically rich. The paintings on miners’ trade union banners still displayed every year at the Durham Miners’ Gala are an obvious example from Britain.
The cultural heritage of our movement that is shared every year at the Durham Miners’ Gala evidences how art has been used to make political statements and win people to political and moral arguments. The old Durham Area Dean and Chapter Lodge Banner, featuring a painting of a black worker and a white worker clasping hands next to the declaration “Fellowship is Life — Fellowship For All” was way ahead of its time.
Further afield, evocative artwork played a major role in communicating a political message to a population among which illiteracy was often widespread, as in murals by Diego Rivera in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century, in Cuba in the 1960s and even in the struggles of the most oppressed in 1970s Chile to achieve and defend Allende’s socialist government,.
Literature has also been a powerful populariser of socialist ideas and recruiting sergeant for the socialist movement.
Influential novels about socialism by working class writers such as Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and Walter Greenwood’s Love On The Dole are well known examples here in Britain. Both novels still have a life beyond the literary sphere in that they raise issues and truths that still have an impact today and still give rise to debate and discussions among members of the trade union and labour movement.
Indeed, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has had a long life as the introduction to socialist ideas and analyses for many trade unionists, particularly in the building trade but also more widely.
When it comes to the field of music, certain strands of folk, rap and punk music are of course very closely and clearly associated with the political struggles of so-called “ordinary” people.
In his recent Morning Star column, musician and poet Attila the Stockbroker was right to point out: “If a piece contains music and words and the latter engage with the actions of governments and corporations and all those things we generally define as politics then, ipso facto, it’s a ‘political’ song. It may be punk, folk, ska, rap, country, death metal [..] It may be loud or quiet. It may be fantastic or unlistenable. But it’s a political song. Full stop.”
This is true. Political song isn’t restricted by genre.
Radical singer Paul Robeson, who was persecuted in the United States for his politics as he supported the civil rights movement, socialism and the republicans in the Spanish Civil War, is still widely celebrated and his cultural significance cannot be underestimated.
Closer to home, the echoes of his singing to Welsh coal miners reverberate still in their cultural and political significance.
It is well documented how Rock Against Racism and bands who were part of it such as UK punk originators The Clash were, in the late 1970s, the gateway for many young into anti-fascist and then wider socialist politics. The modern underground hardcore scene, with its DIY ethic, is one of the descendants, via bands like Black Flag and Minor Threat, of the punk scene that bands like The Clash brought into being.
Key to that scene’s DIY ethic is the idea that music that speaks to our everyday lives can be created, produced, staged, performed and promoted outside the corporate channels by those who corporate channels would usually view as just being there as consumers of customers of a profit-driven musical product. There is a clear parallel between this ethic and practice and the way grassroots progressive political activism works.
Returning momentarily to the Durham Miners’ Gala, there could not be a more moving and emotionally powerful evocation of the tragic loss of life caused by the cut corners of capitalism than Gresford – The Miners Hymn, written for brass bands by a miner from South Tyneside called Robert Saint.
Written about the explosion at Gresford Colliery in Wrexham in 1934 that killed 266 men and boys, it’s played at every Durham Miners’ Gala to this day.
One of the most celebrated and notable interactions between the political and the artistic in the run up to the 2017 general election was support from significant elements within the UK grime scene for Jeremy Corbyn, his ideas and the change that he represents.
That interaction undoubtedly played a real role in many young people in communities marginalised by the political and economic establishment deciding to vote for the first time.
Key to the political aspect of UK grime and indeed key to much of the interaction between the ‘cultural’ and the political is its spontaneous and organic nature. It is not pre-planned or created by committee. A political movement that truly is a living, breathing movement inevitably inspires and influences art, music, literature and drama because these things are all expressions of life as it is being lived and the concerns and desires of our communities.
A dry, managerialist, top-down politics can never produce such an interaction — unless it is simply to motivate creative acts criticising it — because it doesn’t have such a relationship with people’s lived experience.
The vitality of a living, breathing movement to change society for the better in the 21st century will inevitably and naturally mean an interaction with art and culture in the widest sense. This serves as a reminder that political movements and struggles don’t exist in isolation from the rest of society and the rest of our lives but are part of the same lived and perceived experience.
n Richard Burgon is MP for Leeds East.
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