Marxism and art

Author: 
The Ruby Kid

This is the text of a speech given by hip-hop artist and spoken-word poet The Ruby Kid at a Workers' Liberty meeting at Goldsmiths University in November 2012. He was speaking alongside the screenwriter Clive Bradley.


I’m going to talk quite mainly about music, and some poetry, although I’ll touch on other art-forms too. I’ll say now that I’m not going to talk particularly about my own work. Although if anyone has any questions about that maybe you can get at me afterwards.

To answer the question that titles this meeting – I think the short answer is “no”, and the longer answer is “not really, but…” Personally I have a lot of sympathy with the sentiment expressed by the English poet W.H. Auden in his elegy for W.B. Yeats, in which he said “poetry makes nothing happen”. He was responding the Yeats’ own soul searching in “Man and the Echo”, when he asked “did that play of mine send out certain men the English shot?” He was worried that his play “Cathleen ni Houlihan” had played some role in inciting the 1916 Easter Rising; I think art can have a catalysing role in shaping ideas, but I don’t think the direct cause-effect relationship Yeats worried about is very often a factor. It probably says more about Yeats’ own self-conception than much else.

I said I’d focus mainly on music, so just a few words on some history there. Song has always been a feature of working-class struggle. It’s an easy, collective activity. It’s participatory, it brings people together, and I think the act of doing it speaks to something that’s quite a fundamental part of what Marx called our “species being” – the essence of our humanity.

It’s also galvanising to participate in a vocal activity as part of a collective – the word “slogan”, a key part of the vocabulary of the left, originates from a Gaelic word referring to the war cries of the clans. It’s easy to understand the emotional, psychological, and cultural power of something shouted or sung in that context; for me, as a socialist, the best protest songs are “slogans” in that original sense – battle cries in class warfare, even if the cries are whispered or melodic rather than screamed.

Tangentially I think it’s a shame that our movement has lost some of its artistic culture. That’s been bound up with the deterioration of its political culture. Just look at the chants that are common on most demos – “they say cut back, we say fightback”, “we are the Tory haters”… really basic, lowest-common-denominator stuff. As the confidence, self-assertion, and political culture of our movement has decline, or been smashed up, our artistic culture has declined too. I think a healthy, vibrant labour movement would have all kinds of song, music, and performance taking place on a demonstration. If you look at what’s possible artistically at the high points of class struggle – workers’ theatre in occupied factories, early Soviet art – that gives us something to aspire to. Of course, it’s the high tide of class struggle that enables that rather than the other way around, but we should try and embody or prefigure some of that spirit where we can.

There’s no specific formula for defining whether a particular song or piece of music represents “protest”, or is explicitly “political”, and I think the attempt to apply one would lead us into very hot water indeed. I also think that, as leftist, we should very strenuously avoid an over-valorisation of “protest music” that refuses to acknowledge the value of a song – or any other piece of art – unless there’s an inherent, explicit political message that we approve of. Precisely because it speaks to and relates to something essential in our humanity – the use of our voices, collectivity, and so on – song and the spoken-word, my artistic avenue of choice, have an intrinsic value and have to be related to on their own terms, not just on whether a given work of art has a particular political content.

For example, there’s a vast and rich tradition of industrial ballads and songs of toil in this country – there’s a great appendix in Dorian Lynskey’s book 33 Revolutions Per Minute that talks about the influence of that tradition on the more modern protest songs he’s writing about. He talks about “a melting pot of topical ballads, labour songs, parodies, spirituals, and hymns”, which is a great image. Within that melting pot there are lot of songs which are just descriptive; it’s just the self-expression of working people talking about their lives. The “protest” isn’t explicit, but it’s there: for working people in early industrial society to think and write about their conditions was an implicitly radical act, as it allowed them to tell their own story and contextualise their experience rather than just meekly accepting it. The act of writing and singing the song can itself be the protest, not just the song’s content.

There was a lot of media chatter around the time of the 2010 student revolt about why there wasn’t more “protest music” coming out of that movement. That was very surreal to me, and a little frustrating. There was a litany of articles – mainly in the Guardian and NME – which engaged in some journalistic head-scratching about the “conundrum” of why, given that the tide of social protest was rising again, there weren’t more “protest songs” being made.

The whole debate was confused in my opinion and elided a vast amount of issues about the way the music industry has changed, but it also missed the important point that there was plenty of song being played and sung on those demonstrations. The fact that people couldn’t conceive of it as protest song because it wasn’t warbled by some guy with an acoustic guitar says more about them than about us, I think. It’s particularly odd when you look at the significant parallels between, say, grime and punk. If we’re capable of conceiving of punk as having an almost inherent potential to express protest – which seemed to be pretty consensual amongst the people writing these articles – I don’t see why grime should be viewed differently, when it shares a lot of the same participatory and anti-establishment characteristics.

The healthiest “Marxist” attitude to art can be arrived at when we cast our nets widely, and try and break down boundaries, rather than erecting them. Too much of what has passed for “Marxist” understandings and analyses of art has been restrictive and dogmatic, decreeing from above rules about content and theme that a work of art must follow in order to be deemed political worthy.

Against those restrictions, I’d quote from the fabulous art manifesto Leon Trotsky co-authored with the surrealist painter Andre Breton: “The free choice of these themes and the absence of all restrictions on the range of his explorations - these are possessions which the artist has a right to claim as inalienable. In the realm of artistic creation, the imagination must escape from all constraint and must, under no pretext, allow itself to be placed under bonds. To those who would urge us, whether for today or for tomorrow, to consent that art should submit to a discipline which we hold to be radically incompatible with its nature, we give a flat refusal, and we repeat our deliberate intention of standing by the formula: complete freedom for art.”

Fundamentally this is about relating to art on its own terms, and seeking to understand its value in terms of how it relates to what Marx called our “species-being” – the essence of what makes us human – not just in terms of how art can be used as a crude cipher for a political message. Art is not simply an instrument, it has an intrinsic value, and a genuinely radical-materialist attitude to art looks for the liberatory political potential even in works of art whose content isn’t particularly radical.

For me, the attempt – intentional or otherwise – to place dogmatic restrictions on what art must be, and what themes it must deal with, in order to have radical political potential comes from Stalinism.

The art theories developed by Stalinism in the 1930s – you’ll have heard the terms “social realism” or “socialist realism” – contended that a work of art – a painting, a novel, a play, a song, a poem – had no value unless it was a direct, explicit, authentic reflection of “the struggle”, and was explicitly an expression of protest. A lot of the people who established the framework through which a lot of people on the left still understand protest song – AL Lloyd, Alan Lomax, Ewan MacColl, Pete Seeger – were committed Stalinists.

In my view it was in large part the influence of those Stalinist ideas that was behind the hostility to Bob Dylan’s electrification of his music in the late 1960s. The work of those people is contradictory and there’s a lot of value in it – Lomax’s work, for example, in discovering, collecting, archiving, and preserving the musical and vocal traditions of the American agricultural working-class and of black workers in the south was incredibly important. But I think people like Lomax also helped perpetuate an idea on the left, that came from Stalinism, that art had to meet certain predetermined political criteria if it was to be considered at all valuable.

The point isn’t to reject what’s valuable in the work of those people, or by any means to imply that that simple, direct, protest-song register – a song like “Which Side Are You On?”, for example – doesn’t have its place. Of course it does. It has an essential place. The way that that song in particular has been sung and resung and rewritten and resung in working-class struggle after working-class struggle since the 1930s proves its place. But it is to say that to limit ourselves to that, or to fetishise that to the exclusion of everything else, is to miss the value of song and other art whose radical political potential is not necessarily in its content or “message” but perhaps in what its doing stylistically or maybe just even in how to makes you feel on that basic human level.

Ultimately I think those two different approaches to art speak to two different understandings of what socialism is. The first approach, which can’t see value in a song unless it’s a drab song of toil (I’m hyperbolising but you get my point), speaks to a conception of socialism which is shackling, and dull, and based on adherence to dogma handed down from above. The second approach speaks to a libertarian model of socialism, one that’s about removing shackles – political, economic and cultural – in order to liberate creative human potential to make and receive art not on the basis of whether it conforms to dogma but on the basis of how it engages with our species being.

That’s the model of socialism I believe in, and which Workers’ Liberty fight for. It’s a model within which the role of song and art is not crudely instrumentalist but an integral part of a project to liberate our common creativity from the restrictions capitalism places on it.