Struggle, vol. 12, #1-2, 1996:

Editorial and Correspondence:

A Socialist Future, Reformist Aristocrats,

Partisan Art, Chain Gangs and Related Topics

by Tim Hall


. Well, dear readers, we are appearing again after long delay. Personal difficulties had me down but not out. And now, as if in answer to my call in our last issue for literature which creates an image of a future, post-revolutionary classless society, we have two chapters of a novel which does just that. It is Real Time: A Japanese Utopian Romance and its author, Alex Shishin, describes it as "my revolutionary socialist novel." Alex writes on July 5: "I have lived in Japan for some 18 years, am married to a Japanese and teach at a university. I have been a socialist since age 15. All that I have written has been against authority and exploitation in some way." We thank Alex for responding to my call, even though accidentally since it is highly unlikely that he has seen Struggle.

. Real Time is filled with optimism about a revolutionary future, yet it bases itself sufficiently on the conditions of the present to begin to make such a future seem possible. The two chapters we print here suggest methods that a humanity liberated from moneyed wealth and profit could use to solve some of the immense, seemingly insoluble problems we face today. Even in these brief selections, the characters seem touched with life, which can only be the result of close observation of and love for the working people. One chapter describes the future, the other the outbreak of the revolution in the present. The future chapter may not outline how the author sees the revolution eliminating the economic system of capitalism (which is, of course, a supremely difficult task), but it does hint at how cultural differences and environmental destruction might be dealt with. What is notable is that cultural differences still exist in this future but that the characters speak with complete ease about them, treating them more like various kinds of music than as barriers. What a beautiful thought! To be able to imagine and portray such a future in the midst of our present nightmare of ethnic cleansing -- this is the gift a revolutionary artist gives to us.

. The chapter on the revolution itself portrays an outbreak in a very backward university in Japan, and so -- it seems to me -- the modern side of Japan does not quite get confronted, but it is a lively and vibrant account in any case. The emphasis in this chapter on employee take-overs of factories and universities as the path of revolution is possibly a little misleading. Certainly a wave of workers take-overs could play a big part in a revolutionary movement, but it will still take a full-scale mass insurrection which overthrows the government (state power) to actually bring down the capitalists and put the workers in power. But this is secondary; on the whole, these chapters suggest that the novel is a revolutionary creative act. It does just what some of our "postmodern Marxists" (who might better be called "postmortem Marxists") have called for: it imagines an alternative to the present. (As if to thumb its nose at the postmodernists, Alex imagines a society of universal socialism, in which individuals are free and cultural difference is not a bogeyman. What a contrast to those pomos who have built academic careers writing that any universal concept leads to a system of totalitarian fascist dictatorship and that socialism cannot deal with difference!)

. Today, when ideas of revolution and socialism are momentarily eclipsed and so-called market capitalism and its postmodernist reflection are running rampant, it is especially welcome to see a revolutionary transformation portrayed creatively, not dogmatically, in a literary work. We hope to see Alex's whole novel soon.

Comic Interlude

. Before we get to another serious (this time direct) response to my last editorial, time out for a comic interlude. Oleg of Chicago, who now writes as Jack Hill (O the labyrinthine aliases of this former revolutionary who is now just an ordinary reformist!), has written another letter, to me this time, not to Struggle. (He wants to address me as a private individual, like I was a consumer in a laissez-faire society, not the editor of a certain ill-tempered magazine.) If you recall, our fellow's last letter complained that Struggle had uttered a few words of criticism of the Zapatista program (while supporting the Chiapas struggle) and that such political discussion did not belong in our pages. Obviously I didn't shut up but printed several other letters and rambled on about politics and literature at quite some length, and those readers who commented on the political discussion liked it greatly. So, I thought, start me up -- I'll never stop, and here I am, at it again. But Oleg-Jack Hill requests that this new letter of his not be printed at all. Why, of course not! I wouldn't think of violating a reader's wishes in this respect! We'll just talk about it in its absence! Because, try as he might, Jack Oleg-Hill cannot stop political discussion in these pages. In his letter (which I will not print), Hilljack Oleg states that I was dead wrong (when I called him an aristocrat who wanted to keep discussion of revolutionary ideas away from the masses). Those were pretty much his words (which I will not quote). He doesn't offer any proof, he just states it. Neither I nor the readers are to have the privilege of his enlightened reasoning so as to make up our minds consciously and take positions; that would be the method of a revolutionary Marxist, indeed of anyone scientific and democratic at all. Not Hill Jackleg -- he won't stoop to democracy!

Getting Down to Brass Tacks

. First Alex Shishin sends a socialist novel excerpt as if in response to my call. Then Jack Hilloleg proves himself to be the very aristocrat I branded him in last issue. We are on a roll. We have heard from a socialist in Japan, a reformist in Chicago, now we will hear from a revolutionary in Mexico. Tamar Diana Wilson de García has come through, as usual, with another intelligent contribution, this time on the relationship between politics and literature. I reprint her letter below:
Dear Tim,
. I was entranced by the correspondence concerning literature and politics in the last issue of Struggle. Although I do not presently belong to a Marxist study group, I would think that a discussion of the politics of human creations (in all their forms) should be a central theme. I would argue that no created textualized effort -- whether artistic, literary, classical, popular, academic, or scientific -- is devoid of political meaning. All human creation is embedded in a particular historical conjuncture and influenced by the particular social and economic configurations (whether hegemonic or subaltern) present at a given historical period. This means that authors, artists, researchers, scientists, etc., being socially and economically situated in a particular historical field of force, all communicate a political view, whether or not this is their intent, and whether or not they do so consciously or unconsciously, overtly or covertly. Their audience, whether a mass audience or a particular sub-sector of the population, also normalizes these creations according to a particular political orientation, whether they do this consciously or unconsciously: they amalgamate it to their previously constructed and evolving world view -- anchored at least partially in their contemporary global and class position.
. Many creations are political in their implications if not in their intent. Hollywood films, now a part of a world popular culture, can be highly conservative, such as is Die Hard, or radical in implications, such as is Total Recall, even though this may or may not have been the conscious intent of script writer(s), actor(s), or director. (In Die Hard, the "bad guys" are unsavory German-speaking terrorists spuriously associated with liberation groups seeking an independent Ireland and an independent Quebec; in Total Recall, capitalist elements control the sale of oxygen: the poor are deformed and mutating for lack of this vital substance, recalling the fact that some poverty stricken peoples in the underdeveloped world also become deformed and crippled due to malnourishment.) Some writers (Charles Dickens, Jack London, John Steinbeck, to name a few of the best known) consciously attack the status quo; other authors sustain, even romanticize, the social arrangements that crush populations beneath their weight -- even though this too may of may not be their conscious intent. Thus intent by the creator is one factor in the politics of creation. Whether this intent is consciously explicated or unconsciously transmitted are two possibilities. In either case, however, political messages are always and irremediably present.
. Another question is whether the conscious intent of a creator is realized in practice by those who receive/appropriate his/her creation. Some otherwise lovely and liberating creations can be utilized, through recontextualization and distortion, to support the most oppressive and exploitative status quo. Among other sciences (including social sciences), theoretical ("pure") physics has political implications both in conception and in application., Let it not be forgotten that Einstein, a socialist and a pacifist, believed that atomic energy would be used to alleviate poverty: instead governments in power throughout the world have exploited it mainly for its potential to decimate "enemy" populations, causing the deaths of substantial numbers of non-human populations at their test sites as well. The author, artist, scientist thus may have one (conscious) intent while those in power may unmitigatingly distort and undermine this intent in an effort to sustain and augment their power.
. The messages transmitted by human creations and the messages received are two different faces of the politics of creation; but politics, conscious or unconscious, intended or implied, integrally connected to any given creation or so interpreted by its users, viewers, readers are present always and without exception. The persecution, even assassinations, of artists and scientists in various countries under various political regimes should make this indisputably obvious. The only question remains, when we compose or discover (discovery implying interpretation), when we create, are we conscious of the politics we are communicating along with our creation? This is under our control. How our creation will be politically received and utilized may not be.
. Exciting topic! I hope more people will write in to consider it further, more profoundly and in all its facets.
Thanks Tim. Regards from Tamar

. Well, that was a mouthful -- and a thoughtful piece. Clearly we agree on the inevitability of political meaning in works of art and literature, and this has been the main point we have been stressing in our editorials, especially in our polemic with Roger Shattuck of Boston University and his Association of Literary Scholars. People like Shattuck are out to discredit any linking of creative work with revolutionary or left-radical political stands; of course, they consider bourgeois political stands like Ezra Pound's fascism, T.S. Eliot's upper-class conservatism or, even, D.W. Griffith's racism (Birth of a Nation) not to be central to the assessment of these figures. Those are the big boys of modern (bourgeois) creativity and, by George, they belong in the canon! (The canon is the list of authors generally recognized by bourgeois academia as "great".) The actual politics of Shattuck's "non-politics" was betrayed in his newsletter, where his "Theses" called for kicking the radicals out of the university. Don't point out that the canon is political, or we'll get very political with you and throw you out!

. The critique of the canon through the assertion of the political in art is a positive survival of the 1960's rebellion in American literary and academic life. Tamar and ourselves are part of this healthy current. The key word in Tamar's piece is "embedded." She refuses to bow to the pressure which is constantly felt, and which originates from the high bourgeois academic circles, to separate aesthetics from life. Art inescapably reflects life.

. The bourgeoisie's art reflects its life, the primacy it places on military power and money-grubbing, the inhuman violence it uses to promote its ends. But the bourgeoisie wants the working class and the oppressed, if not directly supporting bourgeois art values, to detach their art from life, because too close an artistic expression of the life of the downtrodden leads to dangerous, i.e., revolutionary, conclusions. To their everlasting credit, revolution- ary and progressive artists like Tamar refuse this detachment and demand that art and literature express the living, the turbulent, the real.

. Tamar's piece raises an interesting question for how activist writers and artists might approach the question of how to reflect life. She points out that the audience "normalizes," i.e., integrates, the experience of the art work into their already-existing outlook. Now, some of the audience will already have a critical, even a revolutionary, attitude towards existing society, resulting from their experiences, influence of activist groups, literature, relatives and so forth. Others will have an accepting, supportive attitude to society generated and imposed by the moneyed capitalists through the media, the educational system, established art, music, etc. The fundamental basis of these outlooks is the class position of the person experiencing the art work, though other factors such as race, nationality, gender, etc., also play their part. Among the oppressed classes there generally will exist, within the thought of each individual, a set of ideas which contradicts capitalist reality alongside a set of ideas which supports or resigns itself to it; the conflicts between the two are seldom satisfactorily resolved and give rise to many tensions.

. Revolutionary creative workers create because they are dissatisfied with this situation, this "normalization." We hope to jar loose, even overthrow, the benumbing ruling class ideas from the minds of the oppressed working masses and to fan the sparks of proletarian rebellion which arise from their conditions and are also present in their minds. We strive with all our might (and we know from Tamar's creative writing that she does, too) not to allow our readers to "amalgamate" our rebel art to the pro-capitalist, reactionary ideas in their "previously constructed and existing world view." We strive for a mental revolution against those ideas, against the world view they are part of, interacting with a political revolution, not to "amalgamate" with them.

. The basis for the rebellious stand of revolutionary artists and writers lies in the nature of the society reflected by their work. Works of art express politics because the world of their creators is divided, most basically by social class, and the creators inevitably express the viewpoint of one or another class. Art reflects life, yes, but works of art express political tendencies, that is, theytake sides in the broad sense in political conflicts. Being "embedded" results in having a position in this class struggle, whether or not one is conscious of it (as Tamar later points out). Classes arise from economic position, they are in conflict with one another, and you are "embedded" in one. Independently of any individual's will, the classes contend with each other for control of the society. The conflict between the working class and capitalist class is the most basic to capitalist society and is irreconcilable, no matter how many ways it may be temporarily glossed over or diffused. The exploiting capitalist class works to benumb and suppress the exploited workers; the working class may seem acquiescent for a while, but in fact clashes are constant, if only at a low level at times: an undercurrent of rebellion is always flowing. This current eventually breaks out into mass struggles and revolution; meanwhile, the intermediate classes take all sorts of stands, one of which is that art is non-political.

. The class struggle (in which we are "embedded" as partisans) emerges in all forms of social life, including economics, culture and ideology, but most sharply in the political arena. Here it is not merely a matter of the dollar-dominated electoral contests in which the masses "choose" between one oppressor or another; it is primarily protests, marches, political strikes, rebellions (often termed "riots") and, at the highest level, civil war and revolution. Everyone has a stand of some sort on politics, and every work of art, literature or music suggests some kind of attitude towards it. Art has autonomy only in that it is a unique form of expression and representation of the currents of life; it is not isolated from life. All currents, all classes, have their expression in it. A partisan in life is a partisan in art. Art is not a domain of refuge from the great, soul-stirring battles of the age; it is a peculiarly compelling region in which the human mind grasps these conflicts in a combined emotional-rational way, a way which gives these works an influence on the person which cannot be obtained by, say, scientific prose. Some works have a clear partisanship for the working class and oppressed. Others may reflect life in a relatively rich and accurate way without containing a clear idea of partisanship. If these are penetrating enough, they may serve progressive ends, in spite of their creators' unclarity of purpose. This is sometimes true even when their creators' declared purpose is reactionary. Balzac's novels, for example, provided an unparalleled exposure of the workings of early French bourgeois society although Balzac professed himself a royalist. But the revolutionary artist is a partisan who wishes to penetrate life still more deeply than those who accept it or merely wish to reform it; the revolutionary creator wants to influence its social motion radically in the direction of the liberation of the oppressed. He or she not only refuses the detachment of art from life but also refuses to be detached from the class which is struggling to free that life, today the working class.

. Revolutionary artists try to grasp and express the direction of development of society, not simply to reflect its surface as it is. Consequently the revolutionary artist or writer works to strengthen the emotional and rational power of the rebellious undercurrent among the exploited and to undermine the benumbing power of the ruling class ideology and culture. Marxism, in its rich, full, original sense and not the dried-up revision of it that began with Bernstein and continued through Stalin, Trotsky, Khruschev, Mao and Brezhnev, provides the most comprehensive tool to grasp the motion of society, to depict it in its depth and motion, and to participate with the liberating class, the proletariat, in its transformation. We at Struggle attempt to employ the Marxist method in creative and critical work in order to create the most thoroughgoing reflection of society possible and thus hasten the revolution- ary change. We recognize the contribution that relatively thorough art may make even when its partisanship is not entirely clear, but we lay our heaviest stress on bringing forward the partisanship of the working class and oppressed people.

. Tamar's comments on individual works and authors are also interesting. (Leave aside the comments on Hollywood, since I am not familiar with the film she cites as radical -- Total Recall.) Tamar cites Dickens, London and Steinbeck as authors who "consciously attack the status quo." The phrase "status quo" may be useful at times to indicate capitalist society, but it is vague enough that it could simply indicate a particularly heartless, conservative capitalist regime as opposed to a liberal one which the masses have forced to adopt certain more humane reforms. Of the writers Tamar mentions, only one -- Jack London -- came out unambiguously for the proletariat to take over political direction of society. For his imaginative creation of this struggle London's Iron Heel has been loved by generations of class-conscious workers. Dickens, however, attacked the outrages of poverty and child abuse in Victorian England but never called for proletarian socialism. His class political stand was that of the liberal bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, revolutionary workers have always appreciated the outraged poetry-in-prose with which he exposed injustices; at the same time, we point to the limitations of his outlook and show that the abuses he protested can only be thoroughly eliminated by the proletarian revolution. Steinbeck, on his part, stood closer to the movements of the laboring masses than Dickens; his laborers strike, march, shoot at the money men and their flunkeys, but Steinbeck too held back from a call for proletarian socialism. He ended up expressing the desire of the working radical petty bourgeoisie for a vaguely defined shakeup that would favor the little guy -- a turbulent struggle but ultimately leading to reform. Grapes of Wrath and Woody Guthrie's fine song based on it, "Tom Joad," do still inspire the workers' struggle, but their limitations must be kept in mind. It is not that Dickens and Steinbeck were insincere or bad people, just that their actual positions must be looked at very objectively.

. Well, we have certainly belabored Tamar's contribution in hopes of becoming clearer on the nature of revolutionary and progressive art and literature. Tamar's interesting observations on the theory of reflection are a starting point for clarifying the active role of the partisan writer and artist. We thank Tamar heartily for her stand and her contribution to the discussion. Struggle is eager to receive such commentary and will reprint and comment on it, space and time permitting.

Workin' on the Chain Gang

. Now we move from the discussion of Marxist aesthetics to the Georgia chain gang. One of our frequent contributors, J. D. Barrett, Sr., author of the stories "A Home for Anna" two issues back and "Waking Moments" in last issue, was on it until recently. The letter below accompanied his poems (see pages 34-36 in this issue), all dealing with his experiences on the chain gang and in prison; the letter has been on my desk for a while and is reprinted here not as current news but to give an example of how in the midst of the most brutal oppression, revolutionary ideas still spread:
EF230647 Scott State Prison KA-2, PO Box 417 Hardwick, GA 31034
Dear Tim,
. I haven't heard from you in a while, so I decided to drop you a few lines (and another poem). We are going through some very drastic changes here in the Georgia chain gang! Our wonderful governor, Zell Miller, has appointed a new super conservative commissioner of corrections, and he is making life hell for us. Just recently, they stormed into this facility with a "tactical squad" who trashed all of our belongings, beat up a bunch of helpless old men, yelled and screamed at all of us and laid us all face down in the day room while the new commissioner told us happy New Year and that this is how you will be treated from now on. It inspired the poem I am sending. Both quotes in the poem are from things he has said in the papers.
. I hope things are going well with you. I am looking forward to my first Communist Voice; I have a couple of friends who are cautiously curious about it.
. Well, I will close; I know you must be busy. Best wishes and I hope to hear from you soon.
Joe Barrett

. That Joe lives so directly under the iron heel and is still able to write coherent protest works attests to the fact that despite drugs, gangs, prisons, whatever evils capitalist society spawns, revolutionary transformation is still possible. I include his address in hopes that readers will write to him.

A Comment on Political Fiction

. Moving on (we will get done eventually, dear reader), here is a letter from a talented writer whose stories are under consideration:
Trotwood, Ohio
Dear Mr. Hall,
. Thanks for the sample copy. It is indeed a wonderful magazine. I loved your line on political fiction vs. that which would pretend it's not. I plan on ripping it off the next time I get under attack from the college boys.
. The fiction's right on, particularly that "New Orleans International Airport" story. Most of the short fiction doesn't really seem that political. It just isn't aimed at the upper middle class. Maybe that's why it offends people so. That old fat ego's so used to being pandered to, they just don't like to be ignored....
. Again, thanks for your time.
Ben Whitmer

. Ben comments that our short fiction "doesn't really seem that political. It just isn't aimed at the upper middle class." In one respect, this is quite true. We are living in a period of ebb of the rebellious mass movements. We do not often get fiction in which outright revolutionary political struggle takes place or whose author indicates an outright commitment to proletarian socialism, or, in fact, fiction in which the oppressed wage an open political struggle at all, even for reforms. In a sense, what we have in Struggle is a publication whose editor is a Marxist who writes politically Marxist editorials and occasionally creative works which take such a stand, but who selects poetry, fiction and art from the best that we get which reflects a rebellious attitude to the culture, economics and politics of capitalist society. These works may not say the word capitalist, but I hope that they stimulate emotions and thought toward a systematic view and radical revolt. I try to steer these trickles of resistance against capitalism and for socialism, and to the help writers in technique where I can, at the same time applauding the merits of these works as they stand. For me they are steps in the self-discovery of the working class as a revolutionary class, though some, as Ben points out, may not seem like very big steps at all.

Again, an Uplifting Ending

. In keeping with the pattern set last issue of ending our interminable editorials with a bracing dose of moral uplift, I give you a note we received from the folks at a satirical zine called Have You Seen the Dog Lately?:
Dear Tim,
. Thanks for the issue of Struggle -- we are new readers of your publication and are pleased to hear such an intelligent, progressive voice in the 'zine community. I especially enjoyed the debate in the letters section about literature and anti-intellectualism. You expressed an interest in trading for Have You Seen the Dog Lately?, so we enclose two recent issues. We try to incorporate examinations of pop culture and high culture in a humorous way, though we are probably not yet equipped to respond to your call for "humorous believers in a classless future" (though we identify w/the description). Our references to socialism are derived from being raised by a couple of generations of socialists/communists. Though we tease a bit, please don't mistake us for anti-intellectuals! I strongly support your struggle for a revolutionary literature, as it provides a voice for what Brecht called "A worker who reads." Thanks for the trade.
Jenny M. / HYS&DL? editorial staff

. We thank Jenny and the folks at Have You Seen the Dog Lately? for their warm comments. It's nice to see that we are getting our point across among young people who are involved in the ferment of ideas and artistic creation. And it is inspiring, in these times of temporary socialist eclipse due to the betrayal of Marxist ideals by the leaders of the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, etc., to hear accounts of the socialist/communist torch being passed down through the generations. The triumphalist capitalists, the religious fundamentalists, the flag-wavers, the racists and reactionary national chauvinists can celebrate all they want. Capitalist oppression is deepening; the working class -- multicultural, multiracial, multinational -- is growing, not disappearing; these inevitably will bring a new revolutionary socialist working-class movement like sunshine after the rain. And with it will come a new art and literature, whose seeds we are planting now.

By Tim Hall

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