From Tue Jan 13 11:45:06 2004
From: Le Monde diplomatique <>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <>
Subject: Revolutionary culture
Date: Tue, 13 Jan 2004 17:07:20 +0100 (CET)

Revolutionary Culture

By Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Le Monde diplomatique, January 2004

ONE way of seeing culture is as a heritage, a long river that flows down through generations, transmitting moral and aesthetic values, ideologies, versions of history and symbols: new generations receive the cultural heritage created by previous generations, provided that there are channels and ports that allow this enormous gift to be properly given and received.

Revolutionaries, who question history, have always kept their distance from this idea of cultural heritage, regarding it as the product of former ruling classes that controlled the course of history but have since been overthrown. The French Revolution and the Russian Revolution both quarantined their inherited culture and denounced it as feudal, belonging to the class just defeated. At the time of the Soviet Revolution, probably the most radical of revolutions, there was a famous debate over proletarian and class culture. Some theoreticians of the revolution favoured a clean slate, the eradication of inherited culture to be replaced with the culture of the new proletarian class.

This was strongly opposed by Leon Trotsky, who was fiercely intent on the preservation of cultural heritage. He argued that, because there had been political change, culture had ceased to be bourgeois and had become simply human. So the revolution should make sure that the values of this culture were assimilated by everybody, with the intention of inaugurating a new historical era.

This was an early approach to solving the problem: what makes a cultural heritage reactionary is not the heritage itself but the way that reactionaries use it and deny most people access to it. There are simple remedies: opening libraries to foster reading; encouraging artistic production and bringing in audiences to widen enjoyment of the arts; and avoiding the kind of market-based culture exclusively enjoyed by certain social strata.

Of course there is another way of seeing culture—in its most omnipresent form, as consciousness. All humans have a culture as soon as they become conscious of their relations with others and with nature. A series of ideas of culture is based on this given. Culture covers everything involved in a self's conciousness of being, of existence, of relations with the world and others. That is why it is stupid to say that some people have culture and others do not. All who are aware of what they are and what they do, and above all of their role in relation to others, have culture. Nobody can be excluded from the realm of culture. y Based on the ideas of culture as heritage and as consciousness, there have traditionally been two forms of political manipulation of culture. There are the cultural politics of reaction—integrating culture-as-heritage and culture-as-consciousness into a body of established truths, defined by power, thus turning access to culture into a means for people to come to terms with the established order. At best, cultural policies of the right, of the forces of reaction, use culture as a means of integration, where necessary going on to mutilate, control, falsify and mystify culture (all these are characteristic of eras of fascism).

Progressive forces take political awareness as their starting point. They question the established order and intend to transform it for the better; this conditions their view of culture-as-consciousness. The left has seldom gone beyond attempts to take culture-as-heritage and make it instrumental to its objectives. All cultural politics of the left should be based on an unreserved acceptance and assimil ation of cultural heritage. Progressive cultural politics must promote critical consciousness as a way to modify views, and consider the development of class consciousness as a superior form of culture. Such politics need to take into account the development of the dynamic of history in terms of an overall idea of progress. This is difficult, because it gives the left the enormous job of rethinking the very idea of progress itself.

Cornelius Castoriadis said that the great choice of our time was between socialism or barbarism, counterposing two different cultures, opposing ideas of the historical relationship governing systems of the organisation of life, production and human relations; one based on benefits and material well-being for history's ruling minorities; the other based on socialism, in rational opposition to barbarism, which could create new human relations, a new culture and the possibility of a new consciousness of the human role in the world. Socialism is presented as a real cultural crossroads, the point from which cultural change could be reached.

TS Eliot, a fine poet of the right, defined the meaning of given cultural situations. He thought that contemporary people should understand that cultural givens existed and that they continued within the dialectical relationship between tradition and revolution. Each era had a cultural tradition that clashed with its critical consciousness. This confrontation between inherited culture and critical consciousness produced the possibility of continuity. We should thank Eliot for identifying this mechanism for understanding culture.

Progressive forces, in their commitment to progressive culture (not reserved just for the left), take on tradition and cultural heritage, and opting for revolution, add a critical awareness. But to achieve their aim they have to offer the world a vision, related to the choice between socialism or barbarism: they must find ways to survive despite destruction. When this first struggle for survival has been won, the second objective must be to create a culture of equality: that does not mean a culture of uniformity, but a culture intended to satisfy the needs, including cultural needs, of all humans.

The third objective must be a culture that liberates and struggles against alienation—not in the Marxist sense (in which people are deprived of the means of production, do not own what they produce and become alienated), but in a broader sense: liberation from negative ideas that prevent critical thought, liberation that brings freedom of collective and individual behaviour in politics, morality and sexuality.

The fourth objective must be to reclaim peace as the highest cultural value. War must be denounced as counter-revolutionary, as the threat of war is intended to establish a culture of fear that paralyses consciousnesses and makes people more conser vative. Peace is revolutionary because it is predicated on change. Peace frees creative energies, freedom of expression, realisation and transfor mation. The forces of progress are in the majority, and when they realise this the partisans of all that is conservative will be isolated. The left has to fight on two fronts: to defend its own critical awareness and to struggle against the state of fear that is now presented to us as the highest of cultural values. And the left must always fight for cultural heritage to be made accessible to everybody.