Thursday, July 13, 2017

Culture and Capitalism (1999)

Book Review from the March 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

'A Weapon in the Struggle: The Cultural History of the Communist Party in Britain'. Edited by Andy Croft. Pluto Press. 1998.

This is one of those irritating books the title of which offers a set of expectations which is almost totally out of kilter with its content. Thus the reader isn't offered a cultural history of the Communist Party of Great Britain, but rather a series of essays about the work and impact of various so-called Communist artists and critics living in Britain—some of whom, coincidentally, were members of the Communist Party.

Only in the short, six-page introduction, written by Andy Croft, is there any considered reference to the cultural policies and practices of the British Communist Party and, significantly, this introduction largely ignores the essays which follow. As Andy Croft put it himself: "These essays [consider] some of the achievements and failures of communist artists who, though mostly forgotten now, once had an extraordinary impact on British cultural life."

This said, such references as are made to cultural policies of the Communist Party of Great Britain, suggest that they were frequently hostile to the work of artists, including many of the artists who are the subject of the essays in this book. For the most part the CP's official attitude seemed based on the "norms and expectations being imposed by Zhdanov and the cultural policemen of the Soviet Union".

Indeed, Emile Burns (the chairman of the CP's National Cultural Committee in the early 1950s) went so far as to argue that nothing was to be learnt from the "decadent culture of capitalist society", and that "it is absolutely vital to the working class that they should see culture for what it is—the culture of a decaying class". Leaving aside the fact that culture can heighten our awareness of the world we live in, and thus affect a critique of capitalism, the idea that such cultural figures as Mozart, Shelley, Hogarth and Zola were mere apologists for the capitalist class is grotesque.

But if the title of the book causes readers to wonder about the possibilities of taking action under the terms of the Trade Descriptions Act, many of the essays are interesting and revealing. It helps that the focus of attention is wide rather than narrow and that it encompasses graphic art, pageants, jazz and folk song, in addition to poetry, the novel, film, classical music, and literary criticism. I particularly enjoyed Robert Radford's essay on "the graphic art of the three Jameses" (Boswell and Fitton and Holland), and the accompanying trenchant cartoons; Gerald Porter's piece on folk and vernacular songs; and Hanna Behrend's thoughtful article on Marxist literary criticism.

The latter faces four square the apparent paradox of economic relations determining the ideas that exist in the superstructure of society, whilst at the same time these same ideas provide the basis for further economic transformations. It also hints at a further dilemma: how can a political party judge the value and worth of cultural artefacts, both in terms of their political power and their cultural merit, in such a way as to favour some and criticise others? More about this would have been welcome but given the book's studied avoidance of the implications which flow from its own title, though I wasn't surprised that no more was forthcoming. Nevertheless a rewarding read not least because, if my reaction is typical, it will inspire a lot of further thought in readers.
Michael Gill

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