Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Trotsky and the Russian Revolution

First of three articles on Trotsky's contribution to Marxism, published in Socialist Worker (UK)

This article was written before the Tunisian Revolution but is worth noting that what is happening in Tunisia at the moment and the way it is spreading to other North African and Middle Eastern countries is an excellent example of the first stages of the process of 'permanent revolution' theorised by Trotsky and outlined here.

Trotsky and the Russian Revolution.

Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) was murdered seventy years ago by an agent of Stalin who drove an ice pick into his head. Why write about him now? Because he was one of the greatest revolutionaries of the twentieth century and because, after the death of Marx, it was he, together with Lenin, who did most to develop Marxist ideas.
Trotsky’s practical revolutionary achievements were enormous. At the age of 26 he emerged as the leader of the Russian Revolution of 1905, when he was elected President of the St Petersburg Workers’ Council (Soviet). Then in 1917, once again president of the Soviet, he organised the October Insurrection which established workers’ power in Russia.
After that he became chief organiser of the five million strong Red Army which defended the Revolution against the counter revolutionary White armies backed by Western imperialism. Finally he led the Left Opposition in Russia which tried, unsuccessfully to resist the rise of Stalin and defend workers’ democracy and the original ideals of the Revolution.
Trotsky not only led the Russian Revolution in action, he was also, again with Lenin, Its main political inspirer and thinker. It was he who, as early, as 1905 most clearly foresaw the course the revolution was going to take.
At the time all Russian socialists and radicals thought that Tsarist Russia was heading for revolution, but they almost all thought it would just be a ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’ like the French Revolution of 1789. That is they thought it would overthrow the Tsar and establish a normal capitalist democracy like in Western Europe, and that only after that would the working class begin the struggle for socialism.
The more moderate wing of the Russian socialist movement, the Mensheviks, thought this meant the middle class would lead the revolution and the working class should limit itself to supporting them.
The revolutionary wing, the Bolsheviks led by Lenin, argued the middle class was too conservative to lead the movement and it would be up to the working class to make the revolution but they accepted the idea that Russia was too economically backward to move to socialism, particularly as the working class were only a minority of the population, compared with the vast majority of peasants.
Trotsky agreed with Lenin that the working class not the middle class would make the revolution. However, he argued that in doing so the logic of the struggle would lead to the establishment of workers power and to breaking with capitalism. To the objection that this would be blocked by the peasants he maintained that the peasants, even though they were the majority, would support the urban working class IF the workers gave a strong enough lead.
To the argument that Russia was not sufficiently economically developed to sustain socialism, Trotsky said this was true if you looked at Russia in isolation, but the Russian Revolution should be seen as the first breakthrough in a wave of international revolution. Workers power in Russia would lead to workers power in Germany and elsewhere in Europe where the level of industrialisation was high enough to make the transition to socialism.
Trotsky’s idea became known as the theory of Permanent Revolution. This didn’t mean revolution going on forever, but revolution not stopping at any intermediate stage until it had achieved its ultimate goal of world revolution.
In 1917 Trotsky was proved right – the workers, not the middle class, brought down the Tsar in February and moved on to take power themselves in October. Lenin came round to Trotsky’s view and won over the Bolshevik Party in April. Trotsky then joined the Bolsheviks and they united to lead the Revolution and to found the Communist International with the aim of spreading the Revolution internationally.
The theory of permanent revolution had significance way beyond Russia. It meant that the working class in colonial and third world countries where it was still a minority did not have to sit back and wait for socialism in Europe but could take the lead in fighting for their own workers revolutions.
Even today when modern capitalism has spread across most of the globe permanent revolution is still important in dictatorships like Egypt or oppressed countries like Palestine, because it says that in these countries the movement should not limit itself to achieving democracy or national freedom, or to methods of struggle acceptable to the middle class . Rather it argues that revolutionary socialists and the working class should take the lead in the struggle and try to transform it into international workers revolution. This is particularly relevant in the Middle East where it is the only way Palestine can really become free.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Politics of Culture

The Politics of Culture

This article was originally published in Socialist Worker (Ireland) No.323

Everywhere in contemporary society there is a division between what is known as ‘high culture’ and ‘popular culture’. High culture refers to things like opera, ballet, classical music, Shakespeare, Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Renaissance and modernist art, and Ancient Greek drama; popular culture to pop music, soap operas, TV game shows, romantic fiction, whodunits and Hollywood movies.

As can be seen by these examples the division is international and cuts across different media, art forms and genres. Television features both high and popular culture (if not in equal proportions), films divide into the art house movies of Bergman or Fellini and the blockbusters of Stephen Spielberg. Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and The Sound of Music are both dramas with songs, but we think of the former as an opera and the latter as a musical.

The division is not hard and fast; there are no border guards or checkpoints, and intermediate cases and crossovers abound. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings began somewhere on the fringes of high culture, but migrated into popular culture, especially with the production of the films. Where does jazz fit in, and which jazz? Are we talking about the ‘jazz’ of Bing Crosby or Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis? Nevertheless the division is real.

It can be thought of in various ways: as a question of the taste of minorities versus the taste of the majority (though you can definitely have minority or niche popular culture like grunge music or heavy metal); or as a matter of quality – high culture being seen as better than, superior to, popular culture (or requiring more education or more focused attention to be appreciated). However at bottom it reflects and is produced by the class divisions in society, essentially the division between the capitalist class or bourgeoisie and the working class or proletariat.
It is the profound differences between the life conditions, experiences and resources of the different classes that lie at the root of the split in the culture. Crude material factors – wealth, income, housing conditions, conditions at work etc. – play a big role here impacting directly on such things as numbers of books in the home and amount of leisure time, but they are by no means the whole story. Upper class people are trained from childhood in their families and their schools to be confident and step forward as leaders. Working class people are conditioned from birth to follow orders and lack confidence. It makes a huge difference as to how you feel when you step into a museum, art gallery or theatre or what you want when you open a book or turn on the TV.

Of course it is important not to be mechanical about this. There is no rule stopping a working class person reading Ulysses , listening to Bach or visiting the National Gallery, and many individual working class people do just that. Similarly there are many in the upper classes (the British Queen among them) who are cultural philistines and who prefer Coronation St. to Shakespeare any day. Then there is the complicating factor that between the capitalist class and the working class lie a series of hierarchically structured intermediate layers, commonly referred to as the middle classes , who range culturally from intellectual ‘art lover’ types to avid devotees of popular culture , while there are certainly cultural productions tailored specifically for the genteel middle classes – Gilbert and Sullivan light opera, aga sagas and Inspector Morse in the TV etc.

Overall though it is the basic class division in our society that conditions people’s taste – for what it is worth the radical French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu has proved this statistically – and the division in the arts and entertainment is part of a larger division which runs through the culture in its widest sense, including sport (polo, show jumping, rugby versus football, snooker and boxing), food (fine dining versus fast food), clothing (haute couture versus the high street), language (different class accents) and so on.

What attitude should socialists take to this class cultural divide? Several responses are possible. One would be simply to denounce high culture as irredeemably bourgeois and uncritically support popular culture as the culture of the working class. There are major problems with this: a) popular culture may be consumed by the working class, but it is overwhelmingly controlled and produced by the bourgeoisie and is mostly of very low quality - the bourgeoisie has no interest in raising the cultural or intellectual level of the working class; b) it can very easily fall into or merge with right-wing anti-intellectual populism as typified by The Sun.
Another response is the relativist view, widespread in university Media and Cultural Studies departments, that it is wrong (and reactionary) to make judgements of cultural or artistic quality, and all that counts is ideological analysis. This misses the fact that under capitalism working class people are not only economically exploited but also culturally (educationally, intellectually, emotionally etc) oppressed and they, and socialists, benefit from exposure to high quality art, even if it is bourgeois, because it expands their understanding of the world.

A more radical view rejects the dominant high culture as reactionary and counterposes to it, not mass popular culture but either ‘authentic’ working class ‘folk’ culture or ‘authentic’ avant-garde revolutionary culture, which takes a politically correct line – in other words not Shakespeare, Rembrandt or Tolstoy but either The Blackleg Miner or The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists or The Clash or, perhaps, Jean Luc Godard. In my view this is a preferable position to the previous two but suffers from narrowness. It leaves the working class cut off from many of the greatest cultural achievements of mankind. For, as Leon Trotsky pointed out during the Russian Revolution, the working class as an exploited and oppressed class lacks the opportunity under capitalism (or immediately after its overthrow) to develop an all-round autonomous working class culture.

The classical Marxist position, defended by Lenin and Trotsky, was that the best of bourgeois, and all past, culture should not be rejected by the working class but, as far as possible under capitalism, be assimilated by it, and taken over and preserved under socialism. As Trotsky put it in Class and Art Shakespeare will still speak to us when, ‘Capital will have become merely an historical document, together with the program of our party. But at present we do not yet intend to put Shakespeare, Byron, Pushkin in the archives, and we will continue to recommend them to the workers’. The healing of the split in culture, the achievement of a diverse but unified classless culture, would however be possible only in a classless socialist society.

To this standpoint, which I share, I would make two additions. Changed conditions in the last century have made it possible for some elements in popular culture, coming up from below, to achieve the quality, intensity and complexity associated with the best of high culture. This happens mainly in music, the art form closest to the people, but sometimes in other forms as well. My personal nominations would include Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Shane McGowan, Charlie Chaplin and Tracey Emin.

Also every major people’s movement develops, as it were, its cultural wing and accompaniment. The Irish national struggle is an obvious example with WB Teats, Jack Yeats, Synge, O’Casey etc. But think also of the black movement in the US with Paul Robeson, Miles Davis, Archie Shepp, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Nina Simone and many others, or the Russian Revolution with Mayakovsky, Tatlin, Malevitch, Rodchenko, Eisenstein, Vertov and so on. This has a necessary and positive role to play in helping to bring social change and needs to be encouraged by socialists, not to replace or dispense with traditional art or ‘high culture’ but in addition to it.

John Molyneux