Return(s) to Marx? - 1st June 2002, Tate Modern

The briefing for this talk was to speak about the tradition of Cultural Marxism in Britain. Another speaker spoke on the tradition of philosophical Marxism in France. Thus the thesis was handed to us that each different country had its dominant form of Marxism.

 

Within Spitting Distance: Punks, Philistines and Professors

Let's be topical as well as historical. Let's talk of anniversaries and jubilees. This time, twenty-five years ago in June 1977, the Queen was celebrating her Silver Jubilee. On the 7th June the Sex Pistols hired a barge and sailed down the river Thames, in a mocking and provocative version of the Queen's own riverborne parade two days later. They played their repertoire, Anarchy in the UK blasting out as they floated past parliament. On landing, there were numerous arrests. The group had released a single - their second single - to commemorate the silver Jubilee. It was called God Save the Queen. Its cover and posters by Jamie Reid are notorious - a detourned Cecil Beaton portrait of the Queen taken from the Daily Express - in royal blue and silver with her eyes and mouth obscured with ransom note style newspaper headline lettering. In another she has a safety pin through her lip. Another version added swastika eye balls. The poster version set the queen's obliterated face against a Union Jack. The single sold rapidly - shooting up the charts and seemed certain to fulfil the record company, Virgin's aim of having it at number one in Jubilee week. But radio and TV banned the single and many retail outlets refused to stock it or sold it only in brown paper bages sold 'under the counter'. However there seems to be little doubt that despite this it sold more than the Jubilee week's number one chart single. Strangely though number one in the charts on jubilee week was Rod Stewart's I Don't Want To Talk About It. God Save The Queen was robbed of the top slot by the machination of record executives, media managers and shady others. Why speak of this? Because I think that punk as practical activity has been a significant - if unrespectable - way of lacing together culture, Britishness and revolutionary praxis, an ultimatum, a moment ripe with possibilities, and to stretch a point, then, Marxism (by which I mean merciless criticism of all that exists) - albeit with each one of those terms assaulted, altered and ripped and torn. In any case, it was a contradictory practice, literally, at the level of words - the retort 'Stuff the Jubilee', respinning, detourning the line 'God Save the Queen'. It set in motion a whole series of contradictions, which, of course, unmasked much, then destroyed it. To tie this in with Marxism is, of course, polemic - I intend to access the lived experience of culture as political activity - though not reducible to that - culture as an activity where decisions are made, choices taken.

Punk emerged out of an amalgam of Situationist high theory and negational practice, and unmusicianly rock n roll - it fused the critical negational energies of French theory from Debord and Vaneigem with the positive expressions of youthful creativity and generational revolt that had been incubated by a thousand working class American popsters and a trashy culture of movies, cartoons, pornography and tabloids. This is not at all the same as saying that it merged high and low - that was the culture-affirming principle of a later mode of postmodern cultural critique. Punk's mix was confusing, hot-tempered and disruptive. Its very basis was splitting - making impossible - that is ridiculous - certain previous cultural forms, upsetting and contaminating certain cultural signifiers - notably swastikas, liberally sprinkled over monarchs, hippy business men, such as Richard Branson and punks alike. Punk made a mark that looked like a wound or a rip, self-harm or social harm, no future orone built up anew from below, shambolically - contradictory in its very gesture. Punk cleaved apart so much. Its ludicrous and uncontainable contradictions align it with true revolutionary interruption of culture as business as usual - which draws on academic analysis as its wordy alibi.

But all that is not at all what is known as British Cultural Marxism. Of course. Cultural Marxism was happening somewhere else in Britain, at that same moment and. Elsewhere in 1977 it was not Debord and trashy movies that oriented cultural-political analyses, but rather other French theorists - Althusser and Barthes - who alongside some sort of version of Gramsci's hegemony theory were being imported into the ongoing project of Cultural Studies. Popular music formed a reference point - or even, back then still if not later on in the Madonna-Spice Girls phase, unpopular music, the musics, the fashions and worldviews- of subcultures - through the key texts of Resistance through Rituals: Youth Subculture in Postwar Britain (1976) and Dick Hebdige's Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979). But at this moment it was becoming apparent that the very basis on which Cultural Studies footed itself meant that the more 'cultural' its analysis the less Marxist it became, if only because to focus on one thing occludes a sense of the totality - by now increasingly a dirty word. (It must be noted that amongst this milieu that so condemned the Marxism it has itself represented there was no interest in attempting to diagnose and specify what Marxism is as political form, or indeed what was the social and economic basis of the apparently Marxist USSR.) A game of substitution began at this point - culture substituted for Marxism, - or perhaps cultural analysis rather than culture itself, and the two things - cultural analysis and Marxism - were severed. Or perhaps put otherwise an unbridgeable gap between theory and practice opened up - expressed as an unfortunate separation between theorists and audiences or consumers of culture. Cultural Studies professionalised and agonised.

Why speak of this then? Or how did we get here? It seems to me that any discussion of Cultural Marxism in Britain demands to speak of Cultural Studies (despite Cultural Studies' distancing from and then eventual repudiation of Marxism). It is precisely the sceptical critique of the yoking together of these three terms - British, Cultural and Marxism - that provides the thematic of the last three decades of Cultural Studies, particularly as seen through the set of theoretical interests expressed in Stuart Hall's influential line, a detourned version of which gives this paper its name: 'within shouting distance'. 'Within shouting distance' meant that yes, there were useful aspects of Marxism - issues of capital's power and global reach, class, the general theory - and that these could not fall away from any aspirantly critical political theory meant "working within shouting distance of Marxism, working on Marxism, working against Marxism, working with it, working to try to develop Marxism." But the gap which had to be shouted across was apparently too wide - and Marx - or Marxism - according to Hall, "did not talk about or seem to understand […] our privileged object of study: culture, ideology, language, the symbolic." So for Hall the encounter with Marxism was with a problem, not a theory, and Marxism, apart from its so-called 'Euro-Centrism'; is always characterised as a reductive, economistic entity, hidebound to a base-superstructure model of economic and socio-cultural forms. Into this failure flooded waves of cultural and semiotic analysis, and a determined project to counter determinism. The message was doubled - Marxism could not speak of culture - Marxism spoke of culture only in deterministic ways. Doctrinal, reductionist, parading an immutable law of history - Hall's version of Marxism was, in many respects, a parody and crude, and the sort of thing necessary for launching a new brand. But perhaps that redress, that tipping the scales back in favour of 'culture' and in particular in favour of ('favour of' in all its senses) popular culture was a response to a characteristic of the British left - in particular in its academic variant, as well as British intellectual life across the political spectrum.

Prominent in cultural analysis from the Right and the Left since Matthew Arnold, through FR Leavis and on to Richard Hoggart was a nostalgia for a type of organic society prior to the influx of corrupting mass cultural influences. For the postwar British communists and labourists this disdain for mass culture was most usually a disdain for American commercial output which fed capital-friendly and modernizing pleasures, and, apparently, in the process assaulting community and traditional working class values of solidarity - or the problem with it was that it diverted from the sheer effort needed to bring about enlightened consciousness. This purview forced the ground of cultural analysis away from high cultural output and onto the terrain of culture as way of life - 'culture is ordinary', as Raymond Williams put it - but, it might be added, it shouldn't be glitzy or cynical. Williams' attempted to refoot culture - 'one of the most complex words in the English language', as he tells us - and turn it into the textures of everyday life, rather than culture as civilising, high art practices - though in practice he often turned to literature as the ground for examining historical change and political meaning.

Class and culture intertwine, obviously, in British Cultural Marxism and in a variety of ways - class meshes with tradition - as in the working class traditions uncovered by EP Thompson in The Making of the English Working Classes, or class and tradition threaten to uncouple in Hoggart's disruption of tradition by mass modernity. Tradition and class played another role in Perry Anderson's differently accented critique. A strongly Empiricist tradition in British bourgeois intellectual life amounted, he argued in 1968 in 'Components of the National Culture', to backwardness across the board, in economics, sociology, literary criticism, political science, art history, history and anthropology, and the absence of a grand social theory. This lack of a grand theory, Anderson noted, accounted for the recourse to literature and literary criticism on the part of British Marxists, for, he noted: "in a culture which everywhere repressed the notion of totality, and the idea of critical reason, literary criticism represented a refuge". As alternative, Anderson's plugging of the gap where a grand totalizing theory should be involved importation via New Left Books of a host of European figures - Adorno, Benjamin, Gramsci, Lukacs, Goldmann, Colletti and so on, as well as a recontextualised Marx.

Undoubtedly many of those translations opened up questions about class and culture, Marxism and culture. Walter Benjamin for one influenced debates. He was enthusiastically taken up by Marxists and Socialists who wanted a reengagement with the field of technological popular culture - away from the pessimism of those who mourned the loss of the 'organic society'. The reference texts were 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' and 'The Artist as Producer', and his essays on Brecht. Benjamin provided an engagement with popular cultural forms - and in particular offered a programme to practitioners - photographers and montagists in the main - who wished to engage culturally on democratic terms. Walter Benjamin's ideas flowed - via John Berger - into the best practice of Rock Against Racism and radical left post-punk as represented by the Gang of Four and the Pop Group. His work flowed into Cultural Studies too for a while, where, however, in a kind of permanent stand-off with gloomy Adorno - quite far from the actuality of the encounter - he became the ever-affirming proponent of all forms of technological mass culture (when not being Mr Postmodern Melancholy).

With new theoretical touchstones from so-called Western Marxism, the question of popular culture flowed back in. It always does in one way or another in British left-wing analyses - despite Hall's claim that Marxism "did not talk about or seem to understand" culture. Why? - because of the combined circumstance of a moribund and unconvincing high culture, whose legitimacy had been assailed by a fluid notion of culture as a way of life as proposed from Eliot through Williams - and this broadened notion of culture intermeshed with an actual vibrancy of uk postwar working class 'subcultures', a vibrancy that has its own historical, linguistic and geographical logic - in the form of colonial relations, the English language and the 'special' relationship with the USA. Which brings me back to where I started - with punk.

I have given you a rendition of a complex history that was no doubt partial, partisan and lacking. I have found it very difficult to speak of cultural Marxism in Britain - its history is by now so long and tangled and what counts as such depends on what you count as such, or where you start. It is impossible to say anything which is not just be one twist of the kaleidoscope of concepts, a temporary arrangement from a temporary perspective. I want to return to the beginning. Punk caused a problem for cultural analyses. Its nihilistic tinges tore up the careful strategies and alliances and theoretical filigree that was the basis of so-called Marxist cultural work. When Hebdige approached punk in Subculture: The Meaning of Style, he folded it back into a cotton wool padding of miscellaneous theories and literary references, all mobilised to clip the directly negational force and turn cultural analysis into upmarket style commentary and cultural practice into a free play with signifiers. It was also the case that punk terrified those who had embarked on cultural analysis as the identification of positive pleasures, productive resistances all over the place in every bit of cultural reception, resistances that were self-sufficient - their only aim the generation of readings and meanings. From such an angle there was no place for the annihilatory energies of punk's cultural challenge - to split the whole, to say that mass culture was shit, while adopting its guises and so really fighting it out on the terrain of the popular itself, replacing one deadening culture with a belligerent one. I am not claiming that punk is the true contender for the title of Cultural Marxism in Britain, but it left a legacy of class consciousness and critical practice - under the sign of refusla, rejection and splitting - that allows me to enter now into the present.

British Cultural Studies has now left Marxism far behind. After getting to just within shouting distance of Marxism, Cultural Studies went off in two directions. One headed for voyeuristic specialism, a sociology of culture that traffics in a reification of otherwordly and, then, ever more thisworldly practices. The other opts for style, surface, simulacra, textuality and the lure of 'theory'. Precipitate of both versions was the shift from the Althusser-influenced delineation of ideology, and ideological state apparatuses - whereby the state and its organs produce contexts for thought and thinking that serve class interests and the market is a force of control, an ideological justification of class oppression - to an embrace of culture - the ideological superstructure - in all its forms as an authentic or post-authentic expression of subjectivity. Ideology was no longer a problematically inescapable effluent, but rather the very site of pleasure, resistance, power and counter-power, a place of negotiation. This made possible the undoing of Cultural Studies into Cultural Policy and the fixation on the consumer, that is, on identities, on taste, the language of market research, of niche marketing, all capitalism's "refined" tools for product placement. It was as if the circle had been closed. Intellectual disdain for mass culture on the part of Cultural Studies progenitors was overthrown in favour of a positive affirmation of mass culture. When criticism disappears the only remedy is to wheel on Critical Theory in all its Germanic seriousness and with all its force. This is the latest twist, I think, in the braiding of Britain, culture and Marxism and it goes by the name of the Philistine Controversy. This set of debates kicked off by John Roberts and David Beech in the pages of New Left Review, and drawing in Jay Bernstein, Andrew Bowie, Malcolm Bull and others is part of a more general rediscovery of Adorno by the left in Britain - bringing him in from the cold to which he had been banished by populists who could not stomach his apparent elitism and chilly pessimism. What interests me about the Philistine Controversy is that it brings Adorno back in but with punk inflections (though punk is relegated to one reference in one footnote in one essay and does not make the index) - that is arrogant, angry and disrespectful of traditional canons of cultural authority - much like the art it endorses - rescuing for Marxist emancipatory theory the energies of dialectical negation. The philistine has been many things, or many people have been accused of being philistine, indeed it is said this presence has been one around which so much cultural critique has revolved - but more recently in Cultural Studies and its spawn Visual Culture has simply been abolished as a problem, in that it argued the philistine out of existence. How? by the insistence on absolute cultural relativism and the valuing of everything as a culture, everyone as a community. Beech and Roberts bring back a spectral philistine as a moment - the philistine is the alienated recipient of the contradictions of contemporary culture, and as such unmasks the violations of high art and low art, a cultural division sustained by social division, or the class system - as such. This is the rub - culture is not dissolved into the political, a la Cultural Studies where culture is seen as politics by other means, and equally culture is not immunized form the political, as in the 'New Aestheticism' or other culture-protectionist stances, nor is it simply swept away in favour of political analysis and engagement, as the too practically oriented activist Left might still be insisting. Rather it is faced as a one part of a totality - held up as separate, because its separateness is part of that totality which politically needs art to be autonomous. Such a stance insists on reinvoking a full-blown Hegelian totality with all its moments of negation intact, and on terms that refuse to provide ameliorating solutions through theory, but rather expose the contradictions and woundings, the 'primary alienation', the split in species being occasioned by the division of labour, which accompanies the unequal division of cultural access and benefit. So maybe this is what I would claim as the latest twist of cultural Marxism in Britain - and the return involved is as much to Adorno as to Marx. It is cultural Marxism in that it takes culture seriously refusing to dissolve into symptom of some other political reality, holding on to culture as culture - that is as something in certain ways autonomous - and yet, also, seeing cultural as slashed by, negatively formed by or located in relation to social division, social determination. I think that the insistence on negation - ironically mediated, uncompromising, the refusal to theorize away the contradictions and the pain - in the manner of those who make difference a badge of pride rather than a split in the social totality - lends the punk aspect. I started with.

To end - a reflection on returning -because what I have detailed here is a cycle of returns, of re-encounters with Marxism - and the return to Marx, it seems to me, is in fact perennial, not particular to this moment - just as capitalist exploitation and unequal society is not particular to this moment - though the analyses and practical activity of a new wave of anti-capitalists or anti-globalists may well be. But if we say that there is a return - to Marx - or of Marx - then unavoidably a danger involved in returning must be confronted. That which returns can look old, slightly askew in a world that has moved on. Or to quote one of Marx's more famous lines, a rehash of some unspecified bit of Hegel - returns and repetitions evoke the pattern of tragedy and farce. And certainly that is the case with the Sex Pistols - there is undoubtedly a farcical return, a cheap attempt to cash in again with a re-release of the single 'God Save the Queen' and a gig - belted out by people who are now fatter, richer (through property speculation in California) - though clearly at least in John Lydon's case still opinionated, for what it's worth, still enacting contradictions. And the CD re-release of God Save the Queen contains the inevitable remix - the track set to a dance beat by Neil Barnes - cynical marketing or the attempt to connect with another layer - just as the discourse and stance of various revolutionary Left groups have shifted to appeal to an anti-capitalist layer.

Perhaps it's better not to talk about it - this farce of the Sex Pistols. But then again, something made the repeated act possible - the pantomime of the Queen continues, 25 more years clocked up, the moment of negation is demanded, is necessary, and doesn't stop being so - even if this particular act of negation is no longer authentic in any way, and only echoes something - but then is the Golden Jubilee anything more than a farcical repeat of the tragedy of the Silvered version.

But I have not spoken to the comparative question of why cultural Marxism in Britain - why philosophical Marxism in France. All I can say is that there has been a cultural aspect to postwar British Marxism - be it in its academic form of Cultural Studies and related disciplines or be it in the practical politically organised activities of Rock Against Racism and the like. Its cultural aspect meant it was not just a matter of isolated discussions on method but that action - practical realisation - was crucial. This expands more broadly into cultural practice. So if we think crudely and comparatively for a moment, the civil rights movement Mad Pride has, through its Hackney anarcho-Marxist activities, translated the arcane aspects of Surrealism into something politically useful and mobilising, just as Punk extended the reach of the situationists by breaking through their clique mentality into DIY and self-activity. Is the British twist the peculiar efforts to massify the avant-garde - and thereby connect theory to working class practice - and because this is class politics, this occurs not through consensus but through public moments of rupture, which split apart as much as they conjoin. In this regard, I anticipate, if there is another return of Marx, that British cultural Marxism will be nothing if it does not find its living, seething embodiment.

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