Culture: The Domain of Oppression & Liberation

"The School for Marxist Education is being established…for the purposes of advancing Marxist culture…and conscious political practice."
Statement of Principles, Fall 1975

The cornerstone of the Brecht Forum and New York Marxist School's educational conception situates movement-building within a transformative cultural process within society at large. From the beginning, our conception was based on the idea that a fundamental task of the left is to create, within existing society: a counter-hegemonic culture of working people and their allies, who are capable of:

  1. challenging the capitalist agenda,
  2. prefiguring new ways of thinking and of self-organization
  3. creating new ways of relating to each other and nature.

Given that the globalization of capital is now a practical reality, such that all cultural processes are in one way or other articulated within the domination of capital, how do we address the question of culture and cultures today? Can we speak of an existing human culture and the potential of a universal cultural process that does not submerge or oppress the differences among the peoples of the world, in the way Marx and Engels pronounced the development of "world literature" in the Communist Manifesto? The central questions that we take from Marx and Engels for this discussion are:

  1. How do we understand ourselves as cultural beings who form ourselves and our way of life through our interactions with each other and nature?
  2. How do we appropriate our species knowledge-our cultural heritage--to be able to shape ourselves and our way of life in emancipatory ways?

To get at some of the problematics that arise in addressing these questions, we have framed the question of culture in terms of “The Domain of Oppression and Liberation,” and have posed a number of approaches to this discussion. Hopefully, together we can find commonalties that can help orient our own individual work and the larger tasks of enriching our movement-building strategies, as well as identify some of the questions that need further exploration.

I. What do we mean by culture?

Raymond Williams traces the historical development of the concept "culture" in the first chapter of his book Marxism and Literature (1977). With the development of bourgeois society the terms society, economy and culture as well as the state and civilization undergo further transformation as the practical relations among people are being transformed, particularly in relation to the development of bourgeois civil society. Eventually, Williams writes, culture takes on two distinct meanings, one broad, referring to "whole ways of life" and the other narrow, referring to "intellectual life and the arts." For Williams, Marx gave "a new radical content to the original notion of 'man making his own history' by emphasizing 'man making himself' through producing his own means of life." He considered this "the most important intellectual advance in all modern social thought…[which] offered the possibility of overcoming the dichotomy between 'society' and 'nature,' and of discovering the constitutive relationships between 'society' and 'economy'." With this idea Williams believed we now had the intellectual and practical basis of "making cultural history material, which was the next radical move," since Marx's contribution, "as a specification of the basic element of the social process of culture[,]…was a recovery of the wholeness of history." But instead of this occurring, he argues, "the full possibilities of the concept of culture as a constitutive social process, creating specific and different 'ways of life'" were missed.

II. Culture, Labor & Natural History

In an article entitled “What is Man?” Antonio Gramsci writes: Man does not enter into relations with the natural world just by being himself part of the natural world, but actively, by means of work and technique ("by technique one should understand not only the ensemble of scientific ideas applied industrially but also the 'mental' instruments, philosophical knowledge."). [T]hese relations are not mechanical. They are active and conscious. They correspond to the greater or lesser degree of understanding that each man has of them. So one could say that each one of us changes himself, modifies himself to the extent that he changes and modifies the complex relations of which he is the hub…If one's individuality is the ensemble of relations which each of us enters to take part in, to create one's personality means to acquire consciousness of them and to modify one's own personality means to modify the ensemble of these relations…It is not enough to know the ensemble of relations as they exist at any given time as a given system. They must be known genetically, in the movement of their formation. For each individual is the synthesis not only of existing relations, but of the history of these relations. He is the precis of all the past. In developing his pedagogy of the oppressed, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire drew significantly from a comment made by Karl Marx in the first chapter of Capital where Marx says that the worst architect is distinguished from the best of bees in that "the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality." Our ability to imagine, to reproduce ourselves through purposeful activity, is what, for Freire as well as for Marx, makes us historical and transformative beings.

III Science and Culture

Today Science, with a capital S, fulfills the function that religion served in previous periods. It provides a way of understanding ourselves and nature, as well as providing the rationale about why things are the way they are. The application of science through industry and technology to all aspects of our life activities means that all of culture is practically and ideologically informed by science. Because so much of what is called science, and its expression in technology in particular, is experienced by individuals as dehumanizing, alienating and destructive to health and the environment, there is a deep suspicion of science while at the same time it is seen as all knowing and all-powerful. Science is at once denigrated and idolized in our culture.

In the 25th Anniversary roundtable on Learning and Transforming Consciousness held last October, biologist Richard Lewontin put forward that the reductionist idea that existence is composed of isolated individuals programmed to behave they way they do through their nature, in the case of life on our planet, via the genetic blueprint, is central to the dominant ideology. Lewontin stressed that this world view, which is given the cloak of objectivity through science, totalizes the separation of the mind and body, ideas versus material existence, denigrating completely the material reality of all existence, since it is the "blueprint", not the body and environment, that determines everything. Challenging this debilitating ideology, Lewontin proposed, is a necessary task of the left. On the other hand, revolutionary thinkers throughout have argued that science is crucial to the emancipatory project. Scientific thinking is necessary to engage in self-conscious political practice based on understanding the underlying dynamics of social and natural existence and one's specific historically formed realities and potentialities. And, science is constitutive of human life today so we must appropriate our species knowledge and be able to meet individual/societal needs in practical terms. Yet, we need to understand how scientific activity is constitutive of class hegemony and an arena of resistance. How is science at once bourgeois and universal?

IV Intellectuals, Activists and the Left Edward Said addresses a problematic similar to the one raised by Raymond Williams from a somewhat different vantage point. In his "Introduction" to The World, the Text and the Critic (1983) he writes During the late 1960s, literary theory presented itself with new claims. The intellectual origins of literary theory in Europe were, I think it is accurate to say, insurrectionary. The traditional university, the hegemony of determinism and positivism, the reification of ideological bourgeois 'humanism,' the rigid barriers between academic specialties: it was powerful responses to all these that linked together such influential progenitors of today's literary theorist as Saussure, Lukacs, Bataille, Levi-Strauss, Freud, Nietzsche and Marx. Theory proposed itself as synthesis overriding the petty fiefdoms within the world of intellectual production, and it was manifestly hoped as a result that all the domains of human activity could be seen, and lived, as a unity. The intellectual opening of the sixties that Said speaks of, where psychology, political economy, culture, science and philosophy informed each other, has receded. For many people socialist ideas have lost practical meaning and some of us have come to the conclusion that the best we can hope for is to put some kind of human face on what appears to be here to stay, capitalist relations. Many people in the left and socialist movements who want to maintain a transformative vision are now speaking about the need to come up with new ways of thinking and new ways of organizing.

V. Commodification and Challenges to Bourgeois Cultural Hegemony

The defining feature of contemporary cultures is the commodification of all aspects of our lives. This (re)production of material/cultural existence via commodity production has led to the one-sided development of individuals who do not experience themselves connected to the manifold range of societal developments and concerns from the sciences to the arts and a generalized condition of alienation from oneself, our species capacities, our laboring activity, each other, the results of our self-activity, and nature. The underlying reality, for each of our individual lives, that we are actually involved in a now universally established human cooperative effort is not what individuals immediately perceive as their reality. Most people understand that nature, and our nature, is governed by the rules of competition and self-interest. In practical terms, most people loathe the work they do. It is simply a means to an end, the acquisition of money for survival.

Our creative capacity that makes us specifically human is dreaded. Furthermore, under the rule of the fetishism of commodities "the relations connecting the labor of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things." [Marx, Capital Volume I]. And this reality is reflected in the predominance of an instrumental relation to ourselves, each other and nature. Furthermore, the immense division of labor (and of things) fragments knowledge and individual activity. Mental and manual labors become the special domains of "categories" of people. Experts "direct" the political, moral and economic realms of life, which are established within the ruling ideology as separate arenas of thinking and, in practice, in the institutions of society. Scientists do science; artists do art; ministers administer the soul, doctors the body and psychologists the mind. Value/judgment is distinct from objectivity/science/knowledge; the old mind/body or matter/spirit split continues to reign in everyday life and in our consciousness.

To a great extent the fragmentation within society is reproduced in left practices and in our attitudes towards the existing division of labor. We often characterize university professors as academic, scientists in the laboratories as elitist, artists as irrelevant unless they do political representational work, and our left intellectuals as arm-chair Marxists. All of these individuals are involved in human activities that are part of the reproduction of human existence, though their conditions of life and work may be more or less alienating and materially insecure. All of us are a part of the laboring population and cultural activity that comprises human existence. Our culture of fragmentation has given rise to a variety of cultural expressions generating divergent left critiques concerning the inherent character of these contemporary forms, whether high or low. Some argue that they are incipient popular expressions of resistance and on the other extreme they are seen to simply reflect the dominant culture. And of course, all these cultural forms, when they become a part of mass culture, are absorbed within the market culture. Since contemporary life necessitates a division of labor, how might we begin to envision the real overcoming of alienation and the many-sided development of individuals who could see themselves connected to and responsible for societal concerns and developments? How might individuals working in different arenas of human activity form common agenda, combat the dominant ideology, develop our individual and collective knowledge? Is this a key to creating a left force that could become a real pole of attraction to significant sectors of society?

VI Liberation as a Cultural Act

Paulo Freire, Amilcar Cabral, Antonio Gramsci, in particular, though certainly not exclusively, speak of revolution as a cultural process whereby, as Freire says, culture negates culture. In The Politics of Education (1985), Freire states: …as actors [people] transform the world through their work...This world, created by the transformation of another world they did not create and that now restrains them, is the cultured world that stretches out into the world of history...[but] one cannot or does not perceive that by transforming their work, men create their world. A world of culture and history, created by them, turns against them, conditioning them...Thus, cultural action for freedom...must transform itself into permanent cultural revolution.

In his article "National Culture" (in The Weapon of Theory) Amilcar Cabral puts forward that... For every society, for every human group considered as a dynamic whole, the level of the productive forces indicates the status reached by the society and each of its components in the face of nature...In addition, it indicates and conditions the type of material relations (expressed objectively or subjectively) existing between the various elements or groups which constitute the society in question: relations and types of relations between the individual or collective components of a society. To speak about this is to speak of history but it is likewise to speak of culture. Culture, whatever the ideological or idealist characteristics of its expression, is thus an essential element of the history of a people…[I]t is generally within the cultural factor that we find the germ of challenge which leads to the structuring and development of the liberation movement…[N]ational liberation is necessarily an act of culture.

Cabral, like Freire and Gramsci, believed it was imperative that every liberation movement analyze thoroughly the social structure, and as Cabral says "the cultural characteristics of each social category...from village to the towns, from one ethnic group to another, from the peasant to the artisan or to the more or less assimilated indigenous intellectual, from one social class to another, and even from individual to individual Cabral considered that: Whatever the complexity of this cultural panorama at the base, the liberation movement must be capable of distinguishing within it the essential from the secondary, the positive from the negative, the progressive from the reactionary in order to characterize the key line of progressive definition of national culture. [He insisted that in order] For culture to play the important role which falls to it in the framework of development of the liberation movement, the movement must be able to conserve the positive cultural values of every well-defined social group, of every category, and to achieve the confluence of these values into a stream of struggle, giving them a new dimension--the national dimension. This is precisely the problematic, though within quite different circumstances from those Cabral confronted in Cape Verde-Guinea-Bissau, that we face in creating a socialist culture that has national significance in a country like the United States.

VII Creating Socialism as a Cultural Process

Communism as the positive transcendence of private property, … as the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e. human) being…accomplished within the entire wealth of previous development. This communism, as fully developed naturalism equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man--the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species…Communism is the necessary pattern and dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development --which is the structure of human society. (Marx, Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844)

We have witnessed the demise of most socialist experiments and their inability to fully recognize the necessity of addressing the task of creating the new socialist man (Che's imperative as a totalizing cultural process). Given the existing capitalist realities and lessons from socialist experiments, people are increasingly discussing how in our current activities we can prefigure future possibilities. Epidemiologist Richard Levins raised in the Brecht Forum's roundtable commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto, that our question really comes down to this: What kind of society do we need to bring into being so that it makes sense to be kind? Simply put, isn't this the question we need to ask?

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