Art, socialism, and the political imagination

"The liberators are imprisoned in their vision of liberation, trapped between a failed present and a future that is yet to be born"

Benjamin Ramm
2 November 2015

Flickr/The Weekly Bull

, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Let’s all live rich lives through music, dance and art!”
Jeremy Corbyn to Mumsnet, 28th July 2015

“Yes, culture has been the main instrument of class oppression. But culture, and it alone, can become the instrument of socialist emancipation.”
Leon Trotsky, ‘Culture and Socialism’, 1927

Jeremy Corbyn is not often associated with artistry  –  his rhetoric is rarely crafted, and his style is never finessed. Yet Corbyn has a deep, long-standing passion for the arts, and an ambitious plan for cultural regeneration. Over the past decade, the culture brief has been treated dismissively by successive governments, and frequently ignored altogether by leading politicians. (Andy Burnham, a former culture secretary, did not even mention the arts in his leadership manifesto). Contrary to the image of Corbyn as a man who subsumes everything to politics, the new Labour leader has spoken of the “broader, intrinsic worth” of the arts, which enrich us in “intimate, often immeasurable ways”. Corbyn belongs to a socialist tradition that seeks to nurture the ability of every citizen to create and appreciate art.

Corbyn’s national strategy for the arts signals a shift from the status quo in both policy and philosophy. He proposes creative apprenticeships that pay the living wage, a cabinet committee on the arts, and a drive to encourage every child to learn a musical instrument or act on stage. More broadly, he has challenged the cross-party consensus on arts funding, warning of “a dangerous retreat into a callous commercialisation” of culture:

“Under the guise of a politically motivated austerity programme, this government has savaged arts funding with projects increasingly required to justify their artistic and social contributions in the narrow, ruthlessly instrumentalist approach of the Thatcher governments.”

Instrumentalism, which calculates the value of an activity solely in relation to its utility, cannot measure the intangible and immaterial benefits of culture. The arts inherently challenge utilitarian assumptions, because they demonstrate that use is not the same as value: culture has value in part because it comprehends a world beyond use, where truths are uneconomic and inefficient. That which has little utility may have great value: “poetry makes nothing happen”, wrote Auden, but it is “a way of happening, a mouth”. (As he noted in 1939, “If the criterion of art were its power to incite to action, Goebbels would be one of the greatest artists of all time”). Ironically, this was evident in the collection published by Poets for Corbyn, largely comprised of slogans, screeds and clumsy hagiography. For political poetry to be powerful, it must operate on a different register to rhetoric, revealing the human impact of political decisions. Poetry recasts the world in its own light, and derives from a distinct impulse, as JFK observed:

“When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgement.”

In asserting the value of the arts for all, Corbyn avoids indulging in the patronising populism of his predecessors, who meekly mimicked the tastes of the electorate (declaring a love of the Arctic Monkeys or a devotion to the X Factor). Corbyn speaks of art, not of entertainment, and is sceptical of the ‘bread and circuses’ approach to cultural policy, which purports to ‘give the people what they want’. The prevailing attitude presumes that high art is only for the wealthy, conflating the elitism of achievement  – “the best which has been thought and said” –  with an elite. In Marxist terms, the cultural ‘choice’ on offer is misleadingly narrow, mandated by monopolistic corporations that scupper diversity and accentuate simplicity. Corbyn wishes to recapture the concept of ‘self-improvement’ (for acculturation rather than merely acquisition), and has even suggested a requirement for public art in public places. This is not, as it may seem at first, a diktat for state propaganda: it stems from a belief that shared spaces are enriched by work that is beautiful, inspirational and thought-provoking.

All ideologies dedicated to liberation are confronted with the question of how to respond to their cultural inheritance. Leftist thinkers have been divided in their response to Walter Benjamin’s observation that “There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”. For Mao Zedong, the poet-tyrant, the spectre of civilisation could not be allowed to haunt the socialist imagination: it was necessary to destroy the Four Olds (Old Culture, Old Customs, Old Habits, Old Ideas). For Trotsky, by contrast, workers must “master all the culture of the past”, so that it can be incorporated and transcended:

“The art of past centuries has made man more complex and flexible, raising his psyche to a higher level and enriching his mind in many ways. This enrichment is an invaluable conquest of culture. Mastery of the old art is therefore a necessary prerequisite not only for the creation of a new art, but for the construction of a new society, because for communism, people are needed with a highly developed psyche. Is the old art capable, however, of enriching us with the artistic cognition of the world? Yes, it is. And it is precisely for this reason that it is capable of nourishing our feelings and cultivating them. If we were to indiscriminately renounce the old art, then immediately we would become poorer in spirit.”

There can be no Year Zero in a culture that respects artistic expression, which itself embodies the democratic virtues of plurality and nonconformity.

“I do write quite a bit of poetry myself”, Corbyn told supporters at the Arcola theatre in Dalston, as well as “totally random paintings that are abstract beyond belief… I find the combination of colour and movement fascinating”. It is tempting to psychologise Corbyn’s abstraction: politics frames his material world, while art allows him to imagine the possibilities beyond it. Adorno wrote that art offers a totality that the fragmented world cannot  –  a utopian distillation in formal perfection. But it relies on fragmentation for its inspiration: some of the most beautiful art has been created in wretched social conditions. Immersed in a great work, it can seem as if the world itself is redeemed by artistic beauty, and we can be tricked into conservatism: why change a world in which such beauty can be created? The fact that peace and prosperity often produce bad poetry (‘happiness writes white’) deepens this reactionary tendency  –  one of the slogans of the Futurists was “Fiat ars, pereat mundus” (Let art flourish, though the world perish). Lenin was gripped by this conundrum: according to his close friend Maxim Gorky, Lenin expressed the fear that his favourite Beethoven sonata would soften his heart:

“I know of nothing better than the Appassionata and could listen to it every day. What astonishing, superhuman music! It always makes me proud, perhaps with a childish naiveté, to think that people can work such miracles! … But I can’t listen to music very often, it affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things, and pat the little heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty.”

For Lenin, politics required unflinching discipline (“you have to beat people’s little heads, beat mercilessly”) and a bureaucracy of inhuman scale. Art, the realm of the particular, had to be subsumed to the needs of the general, in which the individual is a number, not a name. “Alas”, lamented Brecht, the poet-proletarian, “we who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness / Could not ourselves be friendly”.

At the heart of Marxist philosophy is an intriguing paradox. Revolution promises to transform not only society and the individual, but the nature of art itself. Consequently, it is as difficult for us to fathom the new art, or indeed the new artist, as it would be for Fallen Man to imagine the bounties of heaven. (A vindication, of sorts, for Marx’s lack of a prescriptive vision). There is an echo of Leonardo’s image of Vitruvian Man in Trotsky’s sketch of utopia:

“All the arts  literature, drama, painting, music and architecture will lend this process beautiful form… Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.”

An intoxicating vision, but one obscured by its own ambition. The ever-ascending peaks mean that we cannot see the landscape in its entirety; we cannot see what we might be. At the height of the 2008 election campaign, Barack Obama alluded to this radical potential by reviving the phrase ‘We are the ones we have been waiting for’. This formula was reconfigured by Neal Lawson, in his cautious endorsement of Corbyn:

“In the summer of 2015 Labour is starting to prefigure the world we want to make happen. Because there are no short cuts to a good society   no leader and no elite of the right or left is going to do it for us  we were always the people we have been waiting for.”

In truth, we are not yet ourselves: we are becoming the ones we have been waiting for.


For a number of years during the 2000s, I attended Lib Dem party conference, first as a voting member and then as a media commentator. Ideologically, I shared the party’s vision of liberal social democracy, yet I felt a curious disconnect with the delegates. In the bars, night after night, I encountered zealous activists who argued over policy minutiae while expressing little interest in what constituted the ‘good society’. Only in hindsight did I realise that their focus on granular detail –  on the composition and negotiation of legislation  – was more essentially political than the visions I was seeking. Perhaps the dream of radical politics is not having to discuss politics any longer; of reaching the plateau on which each individual can fulfil their potential. (“There is an actor, a singer, a painter, a poet, a dancer in all of us”, Corbyn declared in Dalston).

This desire to transcend the political, to go beyond power relations, has a troubled history. In the late 1960s, thousands of Californian communes attempted to abolish politics altogether, removing hierarchies and coalitions in favour of ‘free and equal’ association. The experiment failed: instead of egalitarian self-organisation, the communes saw the return to a ‘state of nature’, in which the strongest prospered; rape and bullying was widespread. This experience underscores the importance of a counterveiling power  –  socially in the form of law, politically in the form of organised labour –  and reminds us that attempts to transcend the political cannot succeed. Leftists are burdened by the knowledge that they can never leave the sphere of politics to luxuriate purely in the moment. (That coda in the Appassionata that stirs your soul: how can you enjoy it without thinking of those who cannot hear it?) The liberators are imprisoned in their vision of liberation, trapped between a failed present and a future that is yet to be born. How do we break free from these shackles? Maimonides suggests that, at any given time, we should think of ourselves and of the world as equally balanced between good and evil; and that our next deed can tip the scales either way. This is an act of political imagination that may yet hasten our transformation.

Crossposted from Medium.

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