A Revolution of Souls: Culture Wars vs. Cultural Renewal

With its vastly expanded membership, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has the potential to help lead a grassroots cultural renewal.

Fumbling around for a political expedient and apparently strapped for any other ideas, Theresa May’s Tories have attempted to launch a fairly transparent culture war, perhaps deliberately intended to evoke the heyday of Thatcherite demagoguery even if it lacks the same strident swagger. Playing to a gallery of puce-faced social reactionaries and aiming to keep them on the same political side as the oligarchic interests which the party primarily serves, the Tories continue to whip up moral panic after moral panic - aided, abetted and indulged, it has to be said, by a petulant and increasingly befuddled liberal centre.

Unable and unwilling to meaningfully improve the grim economic prospects facing millions of working and young people, the Tories instead make a spectacle of singling out chosen folk devils for derision and uncomprehending contempt. The aim of the Tories’ exercise here is for it to rile up their own support base sufficiently to hold it together and keep it voting Tory. This approach does seem to have reaped some rewards. In spite of falling living standards, failing public services, sleaze, callousness, an increasingly frayed social fabric and the damage done to May’s personal credibility by last June’s general election, Tory support has so far held up frustratingly well. We should expect this; the spectre of a potential leftwing government will inevitably have a polarising effect. However inept the Tories might be, when the alternative is a socialist prime minister, many of those who feel they have some sort of stake in the status quo will look to them to defend it. Nevertheless, the resort to such a heavy-handed culture war strategy does suggest weakness, rudderlessness and some desperation on the Tories’ part. The same can be said for their continual (and sinister) attempts at character assassination and the demonisation of leading Labour figures.

While the success of Thatcher’s culture war was in fact uneven, she was completely upfront about the ideological dimension of her kulturkampf and made no bones about her intention “to change the soul”. As Hobsbawm argued, the objective of the Thatcherites was destroying not just “workers’ solidarity” but even any real “sense of social responsibility”,1 at least outside the nuclear family unit. Eliminating the labour movement and the Labour Party as serious opposition forces - not so much in their ability to form a government, but more importantly in terms of their ability to offer a fundamentally different political alternative - was the open aim of the Thatcherite New Right; it was with some justification that Thatcher could subsequently crow about her achievements with relation to New Labour.

Given the general historic marginality of socialist politics and ideas, and the lack of concerted socialist cultural and educational work, in Britain - particularly post-1979 - we should not be complacent about the possible potency of reactionary populism. The ideological foundations already laid and continually bolstered by conservative forces run so deep that intensified scapegoating and dogwhistle race-baiting, coupled with jingoism and bellicosity on the international stage, go with the political grain. There is, as should already be obvious, a deep well of nativist and chauvinist sentiment for the right to tap into. The historic cultural and ideological presence of the labour movement, by comparison, has been tentative, fragmented and subordinate. This long-running cultural and educational failure inevitably leaves Labour somewhat constrained in its ability to mount an effective response, at least in the more immediate term. This is not to say, however, that the Labour leadership does not have more potential room for political manoeuvre than it has chosen to exploit in some areas, policing and migration being two conspicuous examples. On policing in particular, Corbyn’s Labour risks not just failing to challenge the existing law-and-order common sense, but actively reinforcing and intensifying it, to its own likely long-term detriment.

It does seem fair to say that the revived Tory culture war strategy has caused a degree of disquiet on parts of the left. But rather than abandon cultural engagement in pursuit of economic gains, we should take this opportunity to re-examine our interventions in the cultural arena, and think about how we might deepen and extend them. It is after all impossible to neatly separate the cultural from the economic, and even if it were an option to drop the former and concentrate on the latter, it would not be desirable. The task of socialists is to fight not just for more robust social protections, better and genuinely affordable housing, higher wages, and so on - though we do fight for all that - but for a throughgoing political, social, economic and cultural reconstruction.

Socialist struggles throughout history have been inspired and driven not just by the immediate, pressing material hardships experienced by exploited and oppressed people, but also their desire for cultural enrichment and participation. The British labour movement is certainly no exception, as an evocative essay by Marcus Barnett illustrates very well. But as Barnett alludes to, scepticism among labour movement leaders meant that these cultural initiatives were ultimately deprived of the coordinated guidance that could have enabled their full development into a distinctively socialist mass counter-culture, and a permanent feature of the political landscape. The social and cultural “infrastructure” which had been built up was, amid bureaucratic indifference, allowed to wither. However, cultural activism remains absolutely vital if the Labour Party is to help broaden the horizons of the people it aspires to serve, represent and lead. To achieve this on a mass scale, Labour needs to learn to take culture seriously. In the words of E.P. Thompson:

Questions of ‘culture’ today are not peripheral to the real political issues of class power; they are central to the whole way of struggle. What is at issue is the mind of the working class: its consciousness of itself, its knowledge of its own potential strength.2

With its vastly expanded membership, now standing somewhere in the region of 570,000, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has the potential to help lead a grassroots cultural renewal solidly grounded in working-class and marginalised communities. Labour could play a crucial role in empowering these communities to unleash their collective potential and - crucially - enhance their own intellectual self-confidence and political assertiveness, equipping them to push the party in turn into more radical territory. In this way, and given time, a wider range of demands could then emerge autonomously from below and feed into a more open, newly-democratised Labour Party. The 2017 Labour manifesto was the cause of much excitement, but the programme contained within it - while representing a significant step forward - should be looked at as more of a starting point than an end goal. The movement which has gathered behind Corbyn and Labour now needs to be encouraged to articulate its own ideas about the society it wants to create.

There is always the danger, however, that the closer Corbyn’s Labour gets to office, the more risk-averse it becomes. With proximity to office comes heightened pressure to simply ‘get over the line’, to the exclusion of long-term strategic considerations. But Labour’s aim has to be to do far more than simply assemble an electoral coalition large enough to deliver a majority in the House of Commons. Instead, the party must work to bring about a real, sustained, structural paradigm shift, with the construction of a socialist democracy as its ultimate long-term aim. As a prerequisite for this, the British labour movement must ensure that it provides the tools (intellectual as well as organisational) needed to continually drive this process forward - and this requires laying down the foundations for a genuinely popular socialist culture.

Corbynism and Culture

In his 2017 conference speech in Brighton, Jeremy Corbyn spoke optimistically - and with unmistakable Gramscian overtones - about the emergence of “a new common sense about the direction our country should take”. No-one should be under any illusions about how long and arduous the road to a socialist hegemony remains, respectful hearings from the CBI notwithstanding. However, Corbyn has demonstrated an understanding that the task at hand is about far more than just cobbling together enough votes in the right places, and this recognition is important.

Ideological and cultural work, therefore, is unavoidably central to the struggle for socialism - which involves not just changing people’s minds as such, but enabling them to question and rethink for themselves what they want from the society of which they are a part; in other words, a concrete effort to unlock the intellectual and creative capacities of people who (by virtue of their position lower down in the social hierarchy) have had those capabilities stifled and stymied for their entire lives. And as Richard Seymour has explained, “since ideology is not just about a ‘battle of ideas’ staged in the national media, but about where those ideas connect with lived experience, activists in their local communities are best placed to win ideological battles.”3

Corbyn has been at his most radical when talking about culture and the arts, going to considerable lengths to emphasise the creative and intellectual abilities of ordinary working people, and lamenting the failure of existing social and political structures to facilitate their further development and encourage their ongoing participation in democratic life beyond the ballot box. The sureness of touch, and the avoidance of condescension, that the current Labour leadership has demonstrated in its discourse on culture is genuinely refreshing when compared to that of most of Corbyn’s forebears; Gordon Brown pretending to like the Arctic Monkeys is just one excruciating example among many.

Furthermore, Corbynism’s engagement with culture has already provided it with much of its impetus, energy and (for want of a less hackneyed term) momentum. Grassroots movements such as Grime4Corbyn have enabled the Labour Party - for the first time in years - to engage seriously with the needs, concerns and aspirations of hitherto disenfranchised (and frequently actively demonised) working-class youth of colour, while The World Transformed has also greatly enlivened Corbynism with its freewheeling approach to intellectual and cultural agitation. But the emergence of a movement like Grime4Corbyn, in support of an earnest, veteran white politician pushing 70 years old and who apparently loves nothing more than spending time at his local allotment, is most extraordinary of all.

In an essay for Soundings on Grime4Corbyn, Rhian E. Jones notes correctly that neoliberal hegemony has extended beyond the sphere of official politics to also stifle and constrain social life and cultural expression, its values even permeating supposedly alternative cultures and making “expressions of commitment to an oppositional popular culture seem outdated or implausible”. But, she points out, the rise of the internet and social media, “democratising the means of communication and consumption”, also led to the emergence of the “loosely organised and largely self-sustaining” Grime4Corbyn movement. As Jones also observes, this is almost certain to have marked the first time that many of these young people took a keen and enthusiastic interest in constitutional, parliamentary politics.

Locally-centred cultural initiatives have also emerged from the Corbynite milieu. Manchester’s Chorlton Socialist Club was set up by a group of pro-Corbyn leftists in 2017 with the aim of engaging in community-focused political work encompassing the ideological and the cultural. So far, Chorlton Socialist Club has organised gigs, film screenings and debates, as well as getting involved in local campaigns such as Save Turn Moss. There is also a sizeable overlap between Chorlton Socialist Club and Manchester Momentum - the two share a number of the same activists. Manchester Momentum has assembled an impressively ambitious and eclectic cultural programme of its own and has rightly earned plaudits for doing so. By organising such a broad and diverse range of cultural pursuits, Manchester Momentum and Chorlton Socialist Club aim to reach out beyond the ranks of seasoned left activists already accustomed to dry political meetings, instead drawing in curious newcomers with activities germane to their interests. Writing for New Socialist, Chorlton Socialist Club and Labour Party activist Sean Cummins cited The World Transformed as “an obvious touchstone” but noted in contrast how wearisome, tedious and unwelcoming constituency and branch Labour meetings can be. It could also be added that these meetings are often very light on substantial politics instead of administrative detail. In particular, Cummins stressed the importance of rooting any socialist renewal in local neighbourhoods:

Integral to the Labour Party becoming a radical and transformative government is the revitalisation of the way we do politics in this country, and that rejuvenation must be reflected not just at an annual Conference fringe event, but at local level too.

These social and cultural events are not provided as an alternative to politics; instead Cummins emphasises that the intention is to “channel the capacities and strength” of their participants into wider political activity. The approach taken by Chorlton Socialist Club and Manchester Momentum calls to mind Armand Mattelart’s dictum, which the Labour left would do well to adopt as its guiding watchword for socialist cultural engagement: “Acquiring and developing class consciousness does not mean obligatory boredom. It is a question of transforming what used to be used exclusively for pleasure and leisure into means of instruction.”4 Initiatives such as those organised by Grime4Corbyn, Manchester Momentum and Chorlton Socialist Club hold so much promise precisely because their activists understand that this cultural work has to be open, participatory and - importantly - fun if it is to build enduring camaraderie and solidarity among their participants, and thereby fostering a real and lasting sense of belonging.

Facilitating similar initiatives nationwide will necessitate, however, a radical transformation of the way the Labour Party and the wider labour movement relate to their communities. In addition, they need to do more than create what Mary Nolan has called a mere “culture of consolation”, in effect sheltering people from the outside world rather than spurring them on to political confrontation and action. Instead, socialist cultural activism must form part of an “active conflict with the dominant institutions and ideologies”.5 Labour’s tendencies towards paternalism and technocracy, and the predominantly electoral focus of its local constituency parties, have meant that it has so far failed to take on the responsibility of deliberately developing this kind of socialist culture. Corbynism’s cultural engagement has already showed signs of an important break with tradition in this area. The magnitude of this welcome deviation from Labourist orthodoxy should not be underestimated. But to understand fully what this entails, we first have to acquaint ourselves with Labourism’s historical political culture.

The Political Culture of Labourism

From the earliest days of its history, the Labour Party has tended to adopt a generally reactive and defensive posture. The original Labour Representation Committee (LRC), formed in 1900 and out of which the Labour Party was subsequently born, became the main political focus of the British labour movement after the Taff Vale judgement, which effectively made trade unions culpable for employers’ lost costs in the event of strike action. Had such a nakedly anti-working class judgement not been handed down, it is quite possible that the LRC would have disappeared altogether, like so many other socialist and labour-orientated political groupings before it.6 The Labour Party was not the product of an assertive and confident working-class movement looking to elevate and expand its struggle; rather, it was the product of a movement with its back to the wall.

But Labourism’s emergence as a political culture in fact preceded the formation of the party itself. Tom Nairn, in the first part of his 1961 essay The Nature of the Labour Party, traces its early development in the wake of Chartism’s collapse after 1848. He observes that - unlike some other European social-democratic parties, and despite the presence of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation as an affiliate to the LRC - the Labour Party was informed by no particular theoretical justification, and formed with no specific political objective in mind beyond providing the trade union movement with parliamentary representation. Moderate, corporatist trade unionism therefore formed Labourism’s political bedrock from the outset. While, Nairn argues, Labourism and its organisations were founded on a “narrowly corporative basis”, they proved to have “great strength and resilience”. Its intellectual evolution, nevertheless, was marked by “an especially profound and permanent subordination”, and although many fine and persuasive agitators emerged from Labourism’s more radical wing, it struggled to produce socialist theorists of real significance: “Socialism, hence, was apprehended primarily as a moral crusade propelled by emotions of outrage at injustice and suffering.” Raymond Williams elaborated on the implications of this particular point:

The main ideological element in the British working-class movement is one of moral critique. Again and again, even during the periods of fervent political radicalism, this moral critique has revealed itself as the decisive line. The ideas of brotherhood and cooperation, against selfish individualism, have always been more influential than ideas about political power as such. The developed language of Marxism, with its emphasis on class power, has sometimes qualified but never altered this decisive bearing.7

However, there have been attempts to expand the horizons of British socialism through culture since the early decades of the modern labour movement; myriad cultural initiatives (including cycling clubs, rambling clubs, socialist choirs and the Labour Church, just to name a mere handful) emerged from the late 19th century onward. These organisations can be credited with substantial achievements: they provided many working-class people with an education, renewed purpose, and a sense of belonging and fellowship. They helped countless workers find their own voice for the first time, release previously frustrated creative and intellectual impulses, and better understand the world around them. But the overweening moralism so characteristic of Labourism also imbued these early efforts at cultural engagement. Intersecting with this moralism was a general suspicion of popular working-class recreational pursuits, sometimes even outright disdain for them, and trepidation about their pernicious effects on moral standards. This somewhat high-handed approach to culture was very largely perceived as abstruse and alienating (if not simply plain dull) by the people at whom it was directed, and this severely impeded socialists in their efforts to attract a mass working-class audience. Many socialists of this period, most famously Keir Hardie, also had a background in the temperance movement; if anything, this consternation about alcohol often appeared to be driven as much by anxiety over immorality and iniquity as it was by fear that drink served as a distraction from the class struggle.

Heavily influenced by Victorian moral reformers’ discourse on ‘rational recreation’,8 these late 19th and early 20th-century socialists were inclined to use culture to inculcate sobriety and restraint into working people, rather than to foster the development of a working-class socialist counter-culture. Instead of waging a cultural and ideological campaign with the aim of empowering the working class and expanding its capacities, many socialists of this period tended to limit their cultural engagement to policing its morals: “The main question facing them was not - as it has been for recent historians - whether or not dominant ideologies were disseminated through music-hall songs but whether or not respectability and decorum were encouraged in the halls themselves.”9

This also translated, unsurprisingly, into a pervasive patriarchalism. As Chris Waters notes, socialist women of this era very often found themselves confined to “the kind of ancillary roles with which middle-class women were already familiar”. Men were generally reluctant to encourage the full participation of women in the political and cultural activities in which the labour movement was engaged; those women who did participate were frequently left to organise social events and perform other menial tasks. While some men puzzled over why so few women were inspired to get involved with the labour movement, they usually failed to acknowledge any connection between these low recruitment rates and the lower-ranking roles which women usually occupied in the movement’s organisational hierarchy. Those women who voiced their frustrations in this regard - and some took to the pages of the socialist press to do so - were generally ignored.10

By the turn of the 20th century, however, it was apparent that the cultural approach of these socialists had failed to make anything like the kind of popular breakthrough its advocates had hoped for. Instead, this socialist subculture withdrew further and further into itself, with some of its activists growing increasingly bitter towards a working class which had - as they saw it - spurned the enlightenment socialist culture offered them. That the working class by and large preferred the pleasures of music hall, gambling and sports only intensified the indignant ire of those socialists whose vision of moral advancement and self-improvement had been firmly rejected (their uncomprehending wrath only further compounding their isolation from the working class). Having failed to resonate with the masses, this brand of socialist culturalism went into terminal decline, while the formation of the LRC saw “a new emphasis on narrowly defined political activity” take precedence.11

As the labour movement turned its attention away from cultural agitation and towards parliament, it demonstrated early on an ardent willingness to genuflect before the sacred totems of established convention rather than challenging them. Already in the early decades of the 20th century, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) displayed a pronounced propensity “to emulate in toto the existing practice of the Party’s opponents”, such was its eagerness to emphasise its orthodox “fitness to rule”.12 Arguments and tensions persisted over the exact balance of power within the party, but in practice even at this stage the PLP had claimed for itself a high degree of autonomy from Labour’s other centres of authority, namely its annual conference and National Executive Committee13 - in the process, further centring the focus of the party’s political culture on itself and away from any attempts to cultivate a broad-based extra-parliamentary presence.

Regardless, the Labour Party had - almost despite itself - become attached to a multitude of institutions based in the workplace and the working-class community; this came to form what Ralph Miliband termed a “world of labour” consisting of “parties, trade unions, cooperatives, a labour and socialist press, associations and groups of every kind”. But as Panitch has qualified, the Labour Party itself - which, nervous about being seen as sectional, could never bring itself to openly embrace the role of party of the working class, serving it, leading it and acting in its interests above all others - played little active role in deliberately fostering and coordinating the development of this wider labour movement culture:

It must be remembered that the attachment of the dense network of pre-existing working-class institutions to the Labour Party in the first decades of this [20th] century took place in a manner, unlike the case in much of Western Europe, whereby the party itself was little involved as an agency in the formation of class identity and community.14

The organisations which developed within the orbit of the labour, trade union and co-operative movement were, Panitch notes, hitched somewhat uneasily to the Labour Party bandwagon. But Labourism, even in its left-wing variant, generally displayed little understanding of the need to provide its working-class constituency with an intellectual, educational or cultural lead, let alone develop any concept of what concrete, locally-rooted forms that kind of leadership might take. Instead, British labour movement culture has often been marked by a pronounced insularity, characterised even on the left by “an almost touching faith in the potency of votes and resolutions taken within the organisations of the movement”15 but with little organised, directed effort at waging a concerted battle to transform popular consciousness. In fact it seems more the case that, over the years, Labourism’s patrician and top-down modes of organisation have served to engender and solidify conservative attitudes among its largely working-class constituency:

Labour’s predominant ideological orientation was consistently one of presenting itself as a national party, not in the Gramscian sense of formulating and leading a hegemonic class project, but in the conventional idealist sense of defining a ‘national interest’ above classes… far from carrying [the working class] to a hegemonic plane it attached itself to it through reinforcing and on many occasions actively inducing those values of moderation, responsibility and class harmony that encapsulate class identity within a subordinate framework.16

What effects have these strategic limitations of Labourism had on constituency Labour parties? What sort of local organisations has this political culture produced? On the whole, Labour’s constituency parties (with honourable, if usually isolated exceptions) have served primarily as narrowly-focused electoral machines for getting out the vote - very often controlled with a stifling iron grip by MPs and their allies - rather than taking on the mantle of organising and solidarity work among the local community, establishing an ongoing presence in those communities on this basis, putting forward an alternative conception of how society and the economy might be organised, and addressing how working and marginalised people might free themselves from the fetters that constrain their personal development and deny them the opportunity to meet their full human potential. In pointing this out, the intention is not to downplay the contribution of those Labour activists who have spent years knocking on doors, delivering leaflets and so on in all weathers; instead, the point here is that local parties have hitherto had little support or encouragement from above to do much else. This is what has to change.

Nor can this historic failure be pinned solely on the right wing of the labour movement, predominant though that has been for much of the Labour Party’s history. Orthodox left Labourism, for its part, has combined that aforementioned insularity with a tendency towards an often unfocused militancy, which all too frequently it has been unable to back up in the heat of the struggle by drawing on the organised solidarity and understanding of the mass of working people. Willie Thompson has highlighted a tendency on the Labour left to confuse getting resolutions passed at party conference, and other such internal victories, for real advances in popular support. Historically, it too has often displayed a similar indifference to cultural and educational initiatives as the right wing of the labour movement. Thompson has described this economistic “militant Labourism” as:

a posture based upon the expectation that if only traditional practices and forms of struggle were applied vigorously and uncompromisingly enough and adopted by other disadvantaged minorities and groupings, they would mobilise the labour movement into an irresistible political force and win over, by force of example, further elements of the masses as well.17

However, the influx of New Left activists drawn into the Labour Party after 1970 - which included some radical young community workers18 - did attempt to transcend the limits of traditional left Labourism, linking up with a diverse array of extra-parliamentary social movements including second-wave feminism, LGBT rights and anti-racism. The cultural policies of the 1980s Labour General London Council, and the tremendous cross-community solidarities generated in the course of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, opened up new avenues of political struggle for the Labour left. But this new Labour left (which made strategic errors of its own) suffered a series of traumatic internal defeats in these years - and at the hands of two party leaders originally associated with the traditional (or ‘soft’) Labour left, Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. Kinnock especially elevated this war against the Bennite left into an electoral strategy in its own right,19 and the New Left’s waning power inside Labour cut off its extra-parliamentary cultural initiatives before they could develop further. The ‘soft’ left grouped around Foot and Kinnock, by now aligned with rightwing trade union leaders, sought to defang the democratic advances secured by the Bennites, attacked left-led local councils, and thwarted attempts by marginalised groups to self-organise inside the Labour Party (including, most infamously, opposing the establishment of Black Sections).20

Jeremy Corbyn himself, of course, was part of this Labour New Left and (nodding to the 1974 Labour manifesto, which bore the unmistakable stamp of his political lodestar, Tony Benn) has on various occasions called for a fundamental “redistribution of power and wealth”. Imperative to making this aspiration a reality, however, is the development of a serious strategy for locally-rooted counter-hegemonic work; any socialist hegemony will have to be built from the bottom up. The recent launch of Labour’s new community organising unit represents a welcome step and an important acknowledgement that Labour accepts there is a need to concentrate on more than just mobilising voters for polling day. But there is an overarching need to transform the basis of constituency Labour parties, expanding them into hubs of cultural and intellectual activity as well as immediate community solidarity work.

Organising for Counter-Hegemony

The neoliberal onslaught over the last 40 years has left the “world of labour” described by Miliband in tatters. That “dense network of institutions” has very largely disappeared from the working-class communities - now often tragically fragmented and atomised - that it once helped to sustain. Trade union membership has plummeted to around half of its peak (13 million in 1979) and other labour movement institutions have vanished entirely from many working-class areas. The social alienation resulting from this ruling-class assault, which has been resumed with renewed venom since 2010, has been profound. This poses severe challenges for any community-based political strategy which Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party might seek to develop.

Labour has yet to answer the very serious questions it faces about how it relates to working-class and marginalised people both in the workplace and in the local community. Commentators and some academics have made much of Labour’s ‘crisis’ in its ‘heartlands’; the policy prescriptions flowing from this have frequently been both opportunistic and reactionary. But it would be a mistake to dismiss this discussion as being conducted entirely in bad faith, though much of it evidently is. Labour’s working-class base has fractured considerably under tremendous pressure, a process which 13 years of New Labour government did nothing to meaningfully reverse despite the various palliatives it applied. There remains tremendous (and not entirely unjustified) cynicism towards the Labour Party across much of Britain, particularly - but not solely - in post-industrial towns and cities, as well as in Scotland and Wales. Britain’s regional inequalities meanwhile are colossal, and this impacts on the cultural sphere as well as the economic - not just in terms of funding (or the lack of it), but representation, accessibility and diversity. All this has only been exacerbated by years of fiscal austerity.

In the modern centrist imaginary, the working class - usually the object of pity, but in the age of Brexit and Trump, increasingly of scorn - is frequently infantilised, portrayed as embittered and sullen, and best dealt with via various attempts at pacification dished out from on high. But moderate Labourist paternalism, though not so patronising or as supercilious as the liberal variant, often appears as a close cousin of this basic sentiment. Jeremy Corbyn’s stress on the intelligence, ingenuity and imaginativeness of working people is, thankfully, drastically at odds with this particular feature of traditional Labourist political culture. Nonetheless, the task of rectifying the British labour movement’s historic, chronic shortcomings with regard to education and culture has barely begun. It will be crucial to rebuilding that damaged self-confidence, facilitating the development from below of a coherent systemic alternative to the prevailing neoliberal hegemony, and embedding socialist perspectives in the everyday life of working-class communities.

It is worth considering the cultural and educational history of other parties of the European left to see what lessons we can learn from them. In his epic history Forging Democracy, Geoff Eley examines a panoply of cultural initiatives and the resulting strategic approaches developed on the 20th century European left, including by Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Austrian Social Democrats (SPÖ). The latter party’s leading theorist, Otto Bauer, aspired to bring about “a revolution of souls”, transforming the worldview and lifting the sights of the working class through cultural and educational engagement. The SPÖ’s municipal stronghold of Red Vienna, with its “broad network of publicly subsidised cultural associations and clubs” as well as its tremendous achievements in the sphere of public housing, justly remains celebrated and admired.

Bauer’s “revolution of souls” was, however, technocratically and paternalistically conceived. Liza Featherstone laments the “lack of faith” the SPÖ showed in Austrian workers’ creative capacities and its disdain for “existing working class forms of fun”, observing that “the idea was not to take leadership from or share power with ordinary people, but to find ways to reshape them, to make them into the kinds of citizens that a better society would require”.21 Noting the relative ease with which Red Vienna and Austrian social democracy were suppressed by the Austrofascist dictatorship in 1934, Eley calls into question “the efficacy of the SPÖ’s socialist culture in Gramsci’s sense… these cultural energies and symbolic creativity were never translated into revolutionary action - that is, the confrontational readiness needed to convert the party’s democratic legitimacy into actual power.”22

Nor was this patrician approach to culture solely confined to the Austrian Social Democrats. Rather than unlocking and unleashing working-class creativity, and challenging social orthodoxy through the development of an oppositional working-class culture, Eley asserts that the German SPD “sought to appropriate existing ‘high culture’, whether in classical literature, theatre, art, and music or more widely in matters of taste and morality”. As with the ‘rational recreation’ favoured by many culture-focused turn-of-the-century British socialists, this tendency to police morals and prescribe preferred forms of culture for the working class ultimately meant that the SPD provided “little challenge to hegemonic values”, resulting in “a far-reaching failure to ground the party’s socialist ideals in any prefigurative approach to everyday life.”23

Eley also highlights the failure of European cultural socialism to confront its own deeply-ingrained assumptions of masculine predominance, with “the most basic of working-class cultural attitudes in the family” consistently going unchallenged. He argues further that this socialist political culture actively valorised and reinforced the prevailing conservative gender ideology, affirming “conservative models of respectability, counterposing them against the roughness of the disorderly poor, as the best defense against hardship and misfortune”.24 As Eley goes on to add, “this cleaving of conventional and reassuring ground left powerful territories of dominant ideology intact”, thereby severely blunting the impact of these attempts to construct a popular socialist culture.

Common to these historic attempts to engage on the cultural level, both in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, has been this frequent tendency to replicate the top-down logic of passive cultural consumption already inherent to capitalist culture, “to broaden access to high culture rather than challenge it - democratising the old culture rather than creating a new”.25 For all its false, pseudo-populist rhetoric of empowerment and choice, cultural consumption under capitalism is routinely alienating and disempowering. Kate Crehan, drawing from Gramsci, detects an inchoate “anxious defensiveness” in the often ambivalent relationship working people have with art: “a cluster of assumptions about what makes art ‘good’, coupled with a stubborn resistance to the dictates of the art world hegemony and its ability to confer value”.26 Creating new forms of socialist culture - democratic, open and participatory - will inevitably run contrary to what is a highly powerful and deeply-embedded common sense. But the early cultural successes of Corbynism (although still tentative) demonstrate that there is a real appetite for communal, shared forms of culture. The task facing the Labour left now is to build on this and take it into the community as part of a long-term commitment, one geared towards unshackling and developing the intellectual and creative capabilities of working and marginalised people.

We should remember, however, that the rhetoric of ‘community’ has all too often been deployed (not least by previous Labour leaders) to obscure social divisions and promote the notion of shared cross-class interests, as well as for the purposes of social exclusion and stigmatisation.27 The task for socialist community organisers is not, therefore, to obfuscate or skirt around the cleavages and inequalities that exist, and which certainly manifest themselves at the local level. Rather, it is to expose these divisions, and to provide the exploited and oppressed with the belief that these injustices are not immutable, but can be overturned - and to empower them so they can begin to mount that challenge. This is the meaning of socialist cultural work; it has to be an integral component of the Labour Party’s community organising strategy. As Jan O’Malley reminded us in her classic case study of radical community organising, The Politics of Community Action:

The socialist community worker sees his [sic] role as feeding in ideas and opening up possibilities in such a way as to expand the political horizons of possible change so sustaining and inspiring the local working class to have confidence to expand the struggle into other areas of their lives.28

Socialist cultural work is not just about encouraging radically democratic forms of artistic activity and social life. It is about providing working people with the self-confidence to analyse, contextualise, criticise and confront the dominant culture, and to create forms of culture which are truly theirs. This is just one aspect of the wider battle to transform society; the British labour movement now needs to face up to this struggle for counter-hegemony. If the Labour leadership is to facilitate lasting political and social change, and lay the groundwork for further socialist advance in future, it cannot afford to neglect this. Given the enormity of the shift from traditional Labourist political culture that this will require, and the immense challenge before the party as it faces the possibility of having to form a left government in the not-too-distant future, time is very much of the essence.

  1. Eric Hobsbawm, Politics for a Rational Left, Verso 1989, p187 

  2. E.P. Thompson, E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left: Essays & Polemics (ed. Cal Winslow), Monthly Review Press 2014, p112 

  3. Richard Seymour, Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, Verso 2017, p255-6 

  4. Armand Mattelart, Mass Media, Ideologies and the Revolutionary Movement, Harvester Press 1980, p54 

  5. Mary Nolan, Social Democracy and Society: Working-Class Radicalism in Düsseldorf, 1890-1920, Cambridge University Press 2002, p145 

  6. H.M. Drucker, Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party, George Allen & Unwin 1979, p18-19 

  7. Raymond Williams, Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism, Verso 1989, p135 

  8. Chris Waters, British Socialists and the Politics of Popular Culture 1884-1914, Stanford University Press 1990, p3-4 

  9. Waters 1990, p31 

  10. Waters 1990, p168-70 

  11. Waters 1990, p174-7 

  12. Lewis Minkin, The Labour Party Conference, Manchester University Press 1980, p14 

  13. Minkin 1980, p5-6 

  14. Leo Panitch, Working Class Politics in Crisis: Essays on Labour and the State, Verso 1986, p13-14 

  15. Willie Thompson, The Long Death of British Labourism: Interpreting a Political Culture, Pluto Press 1993, p85 

  16. Panitch 1986, p14-15 

  17. Thompson 1993, p101 

  18. Leo Panitch, ‘Socialist Renewal and the Labour Party’, Socialist Register 1988, Merlin Books 1988, p334 

  19. As it turned out, the Labour leadership’s war on the Bennite left failed to boost either Kinnock or Labour’s standing with the general public. While the Tories made hay with ‘loony left’ scare stories and the Labour leadership amplified their impact with its own attacks on the left, perceptions that the party was extreme, divided and incompetently led were little changed by 1987 than from January 1985, in the midst of the miners’ strike. See James Curran, Ivor Gaber and Julian Petley, Culture Wars: The Media and the British Left, Edinburgh University Press 2005, p260-70 

  20. Panitch 1988, p356 

  21. Liza Featherstone, Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation, OR Books 2017, p26 

  22. Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000, Oxford University Press 2002, p213 

  23. Eley 2002, p82 

  24. Eley 2002, p218 

  25. Eley 2002, p201 

  26. Kate Crehan, Community Art: An Anthropological Perspective, Berg 2011, p21 

  27. Seymour 2017, p131 

  28. Jan O’Malley, The Politics of Community Action: A Decade of Struggle in Notting Hill, Spokesman Books 1977, p172