Philosophy, cultural relativism, anti-intellectualism and the far right
Monday, 23 May 2022 23:39

Philosophy, cultural relativism, anti-intellectualism and the far right

Published in Cultural Commentary

Jim Aitken analyses the links between philosophical and cultural relativism, anti-intellectualism and far right politics, in a wide-ranging, discursive essay. The image above is of the Night of the Long Batons (29 July 1966), when the federal police physically purged politically incorrect academics who opposed the right-wing military dictatorship of Juan Carlos Onganía (1966–1970) in Argentina from five faculties of the University of Buenos Aires

The postmodernists would detest a title such as this one. They claim to be opposed to elites – who are seen as somehow remotely intellectual – while at the same time claiming a relativism in all artistic production which could rank the novels, say, of Nadine Dorries alongside the work of Dostoevsky. In all things, it seems, there is this relativism that seeks to bridge gaps between so called high and popular art forms and between thought and opinion; between all forms of discourse, even when there is very little of it about.

The deconstructiveness of their thought is also highly sceptical. While a healthy scepticism is certainly agreeable before making judgements and decisions, to continually vacillate is to create a vacuum which can be so easily filled by unwelcome forces. Today, these forces are the forces of the far right, both within the Tory Party and outside of it. And these forces are in power, or fighting for power, across Europe and the rest of the world.

Amazingly, these trenchant forces all claim they are challenging the elites that are holding back their bizarre vision of progress. These elites, they maintain, reside in universities, in the civil service (called ‘The Blob’ in The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail), on the left (as always), in the scientific community, in literary, artistic and media circles, among academics and so-called experts, and in the actual vacuum that is social media. In America they are called liberal elites while here in the UK all opposition is derided as mere ‘wokery.’

The grand narrative of capitalism

And this state of affairs can be attributed, in part, to the woolly relativist thinking that says there is no such thing as class when there are billionaires and those living in dire poverty, and where the grand narratives of socialism and communism have been discarded while the other grand narrative of capitalism continues plundering the planet and its peoples.

In a sense the outrage at liberal elites and wokery; at Black Lives Matter and climate protests, and against anything remotely left, whether politically or culturally, shows the deep unease within the actual real elites who continue to run the affairs of state. These elites are the same ruling classes that have always been in power and their shift further to the right actually shows their unease. This is because these ruling classes realise there is a strong reaction against their divisiveness of people on the basis of class, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. And they also realise the enormity of the forces gaining momentum against climate chaos, as well as those appalled at the corruption within the state. Before it was Jews and witchcraft as scapegoats, now it is migrants, Muslims and general wokery.

We have been here before. This classic anti-intellectualism is designed to divide people and blame others rather than the elite caretakers of the chaos that is capitalism. To divert attention, divide and rule. But throughout history there have been those who have consistently challenged how things were and sought radical change.

In the ancient world both Confucius (551-479 BC) and Socrates (469-399 BC) tried to achieve a higher level of good governance for their respective states by simply asking questions. Neither had a dogmatic manner but their aims were both the same – to educate by posing questions that can be enlarged upon and debated. Socrates was found guilty of corrupting the Athenian youth of his day and sentenced to death. Confucius never attained any high office of state though some of his former students did and made appeals on his behalf.

Around the time of Socrates there was a group of philosophers called the Sophists. While they did foster critical thinking, some like Protagoras and Hippias used logic simply as a suave exercise in cynical virtuosity to prove things like sin and virtue can be synonymous or that evil can be as desirable as good. Their logic simply led to an earlier form of relativism, negativism and a thorough lack of human values that Socrates believed would ultimately undermine Greek society.

Similarly, today’s anti-woke brigade of continually outraged Conservatives thrive in the absence of any socialist alternative offered. They are the adherents of political postmodernism which claims that class is dead despite Victorian levels of inequality. They applaud what they call good old fashioned common sense and rail – as Gove did during the Brexit campaign – against experts. This attitude took on deeply disturbing scenes at a Trump rally when he encouraged his audience in shouting ‘Fire Fauci’, the Chief Medical Officer in America, who was calling for measures to be taken against the rising cases of Covid.

History is littered with anti-intellectualism and it is clear that rich and powerful individuals do not wish scrutiny; do not wish to be intellectually or culturally challenged because their rule would be in jeopardy. However, the much-used phrase telling truth to power remains suspect for Chomsky. He maintains that the ruling classes are only too well aware of the truth and that they seek simply to conceal it and the people who should be told the truth are the masses oppressed by the rich and powerful.

Ancient Chinese and Roman emperors were constantly ill at ease with scholars and writers. It was said during the Dynasty of Qin Shi Huang (246-210 BC) that political power was consolidated by suppressing freedom of speech. Books like the Shi Jing (a poetry classic) and the Shujing (a history book from c.6th century BC) were ordered to be burned. Anyone refusing to give up their copies would be executed. The imperial library though still kept copies of such texts which confirms Chomsky’s view.

In imperial Rome too the Emperor Augustus (63 BC -14 AD) had his henchmen search houses for books he did not wish to be circulated. The poet Juvenal once said it is better to criticise emperors once they have died.

Rich, powerful, ignorant and stupid

The richest and most powerful capitalist economy on Earth has nurtured a culture of ignorance and stupidity. For decades now the United States has been well down the league table internationally for educational attainment. While Hollywood can show the luxurious living of the wealthy, along with the US media more generally, it seems there is little appetite to focus on the millions in jail, millions more homeless, and tens of millions living in poverty. In this mix could be added the extent of the drug problem, both legally prescribed by Big Pharma and drugs circulated by criminal cartels. There is also the incredible death toll annually caused through the domestic sale of weapons, running at 30,000 per year with some 11,000 deaths from this figure caused through suicide.

There is nothing to feel patriotic about with such figures, and those who would argue such a case would simply be labelled communists or socialists as if the use of those words brings to an end any more discussion. This is effectively saying that social conscience is both ludicrous and dangerous.

The show trials that took place in Soviet Moscow and the McCarthy trials that took place in Washington both revealed a sense of paranoia with alternative ideas. The left-wing ideas that were disseminating in the US would have improved the social conditions of the American masses and the ideas of many of those charged with being enemies of the State in the Soviet Union were highly intelligent and original thinkers. People like Kamenev, Zinoviev and Bukharin were leading Party figures and their loss robbed the revolution. As for Trotsky’s expulsion and eventual assassination, the international socialist and revolutionary movement would have a permanent split that could only aid the capitalist powers. Murdering opponents is stupid because it holds back progress by instilling fear, which works as a barrier to a better system being developed. Ideas should always have free rein, especially ones that are suspect so that they can be shown to be suspect. Discourse must always be seen as desirable because it can invariably lead to desirable conclusions.

While the bureaucracy of the USSR simply ossified the entire system without the vital intellectual input required in such a historical development, the actively encouraged ignorance in the West has given us Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Modi and others.

A Trump supporter being interviewed by Jordan Klepper replied to his questioning – ‘Do I have proof? No. Do I have articles? No. But my mind is made up.’ This kind of response is a fairly commonplace one precisely because it has been cultivated that way. Fox News and GB News both cultivate ignorance through demanding their views are the stuff of common-sense. The shock-Jockery of the hosts fill the airwaves with bile and legitimise draconian legislation like the Borders and Nationality Bill going through Parliament, as well as denying they hold any racist or sexist views.

In fact, most news media have become smiley and friendly forums for entertainment as much as informing viewers about our world. Since Brexit there is even less of a focus on the wider world with the result that even greater insularity prevails. That simply mirrors the media in the USA and fosters a culture of unquestioning acquiescence.

It was Oscar Wilde in his wonderfully satirical play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) who captured exactly the point of not educating the populace. Lady Bracknell tells Earnest:

I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.

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Wilde is ridiculing the upper classes that Lady Bracknell is talking about. Exactly the same sense of satire took place in Parisian clubs like the Le Chat Noir around the same time when Aristide Bruant, made famous by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his poster of him with his black cape and red scarf, would poke fun and insult his upper-class clientele. They would similarly be rolling in laughter like Wilde’s audiences. They control everything, after all, so why would they not feel safe?

It was Walter Bagehot (1826-1877) in his The English Constitution (1867) – clearly not the British one since that would include Celts - who seemed to grasp the essence of Conservatism:

The Conservative turn of mind denotes adhesiveness to the early and probably inherited ideas of childhood, and a very strong and practically effective distrust of novel intellectual suggestions which come unaccredited by any such influential connection.

 Psychologists would call such characteristics arrested development. To this day when Conservatives are ever challenged they claim their opponents are being political as if to imply that they are somehow not. It is politically infantile but when they find themselves in serious trouble in their Parliaments there is always the reserve teams on hand to help them out. They are the patriotic demagogues like Trump, clowns like Berlusconi and Johnson, the military and emerging Fascist parties.

It was the Italian philosopher Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944), the father figure of Fascism, who was responsible for a solution to guarantee capital’s security. Like Marx, he was much influenced by Hegel but arrived at totally different conclusions. He was proud to be called by Mussolini ‘the philosopher of Fascism’ and went on to co-write with Il Duce The Doctrine of Fascism (1932) as well as serving as Minister for Education in his Government and becoming a member of the powerful Fascist Grand Council.

For Gentile the idealism of Hegel had to have action and Gentile went on to develop his own brand of thought which he called actual idealism. One of his key texts gives a clear indication by its title what he was on about –Theory of Mind as Pure Act (1912). In order to move away from class conflict, from both liberalism and Marxism, Gentile offered up corporatism as his solution whereby there would be the collective management of the economy by employers, workers and state officials. Corporate groups would organise society through its various areas such as agriculture, military, business, science and so on. The already rich would be perfectly secure and the workers would be firmly in their place. Today’s giant corporation Amazon comes immediately to mind in this regard and its model would be applauded by Gentile.

Fascist dictatorships are the most stupid ones of all. The horror and the evil of Auschwitz was also absolutely insane. During the Spanish Civil War the Franquist General Astray confronted the Spanish writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno at the University of Salamanca with cries of Muera la inteligencia! Viva la Muerte! (Death to the intelligentsia! Long live death!) And during a burning of left-wing books in General Pinochet’s Chile, soldiers burned a book on Cubism believing it had something to do with Castro’s Cuba.

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It was the American science fiction writer Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) who wrote Fahrenheit 451(1953) and this novel came out of the McCarthy witch-hunt trials that also threatened to – and did – burn books. As an emerging writer this alarmed him. It has an Orwellian feel to it in that firemen exist not to put fires out but to start them. If books are found to be in anyone’s home then the fire brigade is on its way to burn them. The central character Montag becomes disillusioned with his job and goes over to the other side where a small group of book lovers seek to protect all literature for future generations. Though Bradbury was conservative himself, he was appalled by the anti-intellectualism of his nation and went on to say how he believed the emergence of the mass media was hampering reading and an interest in books.

As well as making sure education has little impact, the ruling classes also manage to trivialise what is genuinely important – like our social conditions, wages, prices, housing, alternative progressive politics - and make popular the vacuous cult of celebrity. Again, Wilde stated in an interview for the St. James Gazette concerning his play, that:

(The Importance of Being Earnest) is exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy, and it has its philosophy…That we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.

Trivial TV

This comment sums up much of the TV we watch and it is clearly designed that way. And it has been going on for an exceedingly long time. TV and radio hosts are adept at talking trivia and it was pointed out by Epictetus (c 56- c 135 AD):

When we blather about trivial things, we ourselves become trivial, for our attention gets taken up with trivialities. You become what you give your attention to.

Bombarded by trivia and with a clear control over any opposing ideas, so-called democracy seems a safe haven for capital to flourish. For another science fiction writer Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) this was the anti-intellectual basis of democracy:

Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

Such a statement is all too near today’s political and cultural malaise. Of course, the concept of truth itself is suspect for the postmodernists which merely enables more and more exploitation of various kinds – through the mass media, through attacks on trade unions, climate protestors, Black Lives Matter activists, women campaigning against domestic violence – to take place.

Ruling classes have a fear and loathing of history. Liz Truss, the new Foreign Secretary and Brexit Minister, recently lauded our wonderful nation as the greatest on earth and told her audience that all nations have warts in their pasts and that dwelling on the past is not what matters but creating a brighter future is what truly matters.

Harold Wilson, twice a Labour Prime Minister, was considered by his politics tutor at Oxford to be the finest student he had ever had. He received a triple first in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and became the youngest Oxford don of the century at age 21.  Before becoming MP for Ormskirk he had previously been a lecturer in Economic History at New College and a research fellow at University College. With such a brilliant academic pedigree it seems incredible that he would boast that he had never read Marx’s Das Kapital.

Francis Wheen tells us in Marx’s Das Kapital (2006) that Wilson claimed to have got as far as page two ‘and that’s where the footnote is nearly a page long. I felt two sentences of main text and a page of footnotes were too much.’ Any cursory look at the opening pages of this text would show that there are indeed footnotes in the opening pages, but none more than a few sentences. Such a comment is a clear case of anti-intellectualism.

Before the English socialist Henry Hyndman actually acknowledged his debt to Marx and his text, he had initially told Marx that he did not wish to mention him by name in his England for All (1881) – presumably, like Bagehot before him, using England to mean Scotland, Wales and Ireland as well he told Marx he could not do so because the English ‘had a horror of socialism’ and ‘a dread of being taught by a foreigner.’ Take Back Control, Get Brexit Done and Build Back Better are founded upon such xenophobic nonsense.

Marx’s book was never published in England during his lifetime. Activists, writers and academics had to rely on French and German editions until it was eventually published. The Irishman George Bernard Shaw found the book a marvellous read, having read the French edition in the British Library where much of Marx’s research had been done. For Shaw the book ‘revealed capitalism in all its atrocity’ and his passion for the text never dimmed. Not so Shaw’s fellow Fabian, HG Wells, who dismissed Marx as ‘a stuffy, ego-centred and malicious theorist.’

Yet, what took place was an enormous flowering of thought that came from Marx’s ideas. Of particular significance is also Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 which only appeared in English in 1959, having first been published in German in Moscow, 1932. These papers are also known as the Paris Manuscripts because the text was written there when the youthful Marx was a Left-Hegelian.

Refining Hegel’s concept of estrangement or alienation, Marx showed how such a concept has its origin in the exploitative economic system of capitalism. He also made clear the fateful consequences in the social formation of human individuals, and therefore in society as a whole.

Philosophers and writers found this a fertile analysis ripe for development. The notion of being alienated within society came to be explored in literature, literary theory, cultural theory, art, psychoanalysis, social sciences and in philosophy.

The existentialist philosophers, particularly in France, fused Marx’s ideas into their texts. Chief among them was Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). He was much more than just a philosopher, he was also a dramatist, novelist, biographer, literary critic and a political activist. Sartre had read Heidegger and Husserl and their influence is clear in his work. In the 1960s he had said that Marxism was the spirit of the age.

It is sad to see that this flowering of intellectual ideas that took place in France is now a country where the dominant narrative is Islamophobia, with writers and journalist like Michel Houellebecq and Alain Finlielkraut among the most Islamophobic. The demise of France intellectually is traced in The End of the French Intellectual (2016) by Shlomo Sand. The rampant racism there – as here – can be attributed to the imperial past, but also to the thinkers who came after Sartre like the postmodernists.

According to Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), Marx is now no more than a spectre. All we have left of him is Spectres de Marx (1991) which claims to be a work of mourning. A debt to him had been paid but with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, would anything of Marx remain? The capitalist triumphalism that greeted this collapse found its best expression in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man which came out in 1992. We are all liberal democrats now, he seemed to say, with liberal democracy the settled will of all people.

Only contemporary capitalism is becoming less liberal with attacks on wages, living standards, Muslims and migrants along with vapid anger directed at liberal elites – a group that had no mention whatsoever in Fukuyama’s book. And furthermore, just as Marx and his followers had claimed that capitalism, in its ravenous desire to seek more and more profit, would tumble under the weight of its own contradictions, this very system is seemingly prepared to ignore the warnings of climate catastrophe that awaits humanity unless we change tack. This is the logic, sadly, of where we are.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes The sleep of reason produces monsters No. 43 from Los Caprichos Google Art Project resized

There is a wonderful capricho (‘whim’ in English) etching by Goya (1746-1828) of a man who has fallen asleep at his writing desk.  Unknown to the man, various owls and bats fly above him as he sleeps. Goya called his piece El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The sleep of reason brings forth monsters). In this etching Goya is reminding us that reason must be ever vigilant so that monsters do not reappear. The collapse of communism never created any peace dividend and never ushered in so-called liberal democracy, and is showing an extremely illiberal tendency with people like Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro the clowns now taking over the asylum.

If the system of Capital is all about accumulating more Capital at whatever expense then the monsters are already on the loose. The victory over communism has been simply the opportunity for Capital’s monsters to fly wherever they want and create as much destruction as they can so long as profits are made. They even call it collateral damage.

Yes, we have been asleep. Our reason, our thinking has been defective, if not completely absent. Everything seems to point to our demise except for the groups mentioned earlier – climate protestors, Black Lives Matter activists, women’s groups along with all the community groups up and down the nation trying to keep the poor from sinking further. The challenge is to link all these groups and more to demand a world free from the greed that destroys us so that there can still be a world.

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Bertolt Brecht (1898 – 1856), in his play The Life of Galileo (1937), explores how truth can be problematic to those in power. They don’t want to face it because it changes their sense of themselves in the world, and therefore changes their relationship to everyone else. They would rather ignore truth completely. When Galileo asks them to look through the telescope and see for themselves the truth of how the cosmos is, they all refuse.

Galileo also says in the play:

Someone who doesn’t know the truth is merely a fool. But someone who does know it and calls it a lie is a criminal.

But lies and stupidity are still force-fed to us.  George Orwell (1903-1950), in his novel 1984, published in 1949, tells us that one of the three mottos supplied to the masses is IGNORANCE IS TRUTH. Ironically, a dumbed down reality TV show called Big Brother takes its title from the anonymous leader of Oceania featured in the novel. The warning Orwell was giving us in this novel simply has to make us question three-word slogans like Take Back Control and Get Brexit Done.

The pernicious anti-intellectualism that permeates contemporary capitalist countries also leads to a frightening level of political illiteracy. Brecht captured this sense particularly well in his era:

The worst illiterate is the political illiterate. He hears nothing, sees nothing, takes no part in political life. He doesn’t seem to know that the cost of living, the price of beans, of flour, of medicines all depend on political decisions. He then prides himself on his political ignorance, sticks out his chest and says he hates politics. He doesn’t know, the imbecile, that from his political non-participation comes the prostitute, the abandoned child, the robber and, worst of all, corrupt officials, the lackeys of exploitative multinational companies.

This pretty much sums up the state of the western, liberal democracies today. Ignorance is desirable for the ruling elites. Marx, studying the capitalism of his day, predicted the growth of such multinational companies. He followed the logic of capitalist competitiveness, accumulation and insatiable greed. It has brought us to where we are today.

Sophistry and postmodernism seem weak tools to deal with this impasse. Terry Eagleton, in his book The Illusions of Postmodernism, published in 1995, castigates it by saying that it ‘does not envision a future for us much different from the present.’ This statement remains a powerful indictment against it. Marx’s famous statement in his Theses on Feuerbach of 1845 said that philosophers had only ever interpreted the world, and if this can be updated for today we may be able to say something like this – that the postmodernists have only deconstructed the world. The point remains to change it.

To George, from Sunny Wigan
Monday, 23 May 2022 23:39

To George, from Sunny Wigan

Published in Poetry

To George, from Sunny Wigan

by Christopher Norris 

At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked . . . . She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye . . . . [Her face] wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen.
- George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

His eyes caught mine, him on the morning train,
Northbound, next station Wigan, me
Up early, jobs to do,
Clothes slung on, hair not fit to see,
And kneeling, stick in hand, with that blocked drain
To clear, the kind of stuff that he,
Scoop-ready, took as cue
To tell the outside world that we
Poor plebs were padlocked to our ball-and-chain.

I know, I know, all part of his campaign
To shock the shameless bourgeoisie,
To give a close-up view
Of how we live, a woman’s knee
On cold, hard stones as just the thing to gain
A bit of extra sympathy
For us hell-dwellers who
Seem so far gone in misery
That, somehow, we’ve no reason to complain.

What grates when they go slumming to maintain
Their street cred and their pedigree
As our brains-retinue
Is just how often that esprit
De parti prolétaire sounds like disdain
For working-class identity,
Or what they take as true
Marks of it, like my making free
To meet his gaze with gestures so profane.

We get it constantly: ‘you live in vain,
Waste lives in routine labour, flee
The troubling thought that you,
So long downtrodden, might yet be
The very class best placed to ease the pain
Of age-old servitude, the cri
De coeur of your sad crew,
If only you’d promote your plea
With works and days less brutally mundane’.

It’s what we hate, that old class-hopper’s bane
Of thinking they’ve a special key
To others’ life-worlds through
Their reading, thinking, Ph.D.
In urban politics, enormous brain,
Or all the myths that guarantee
The many and the few
Won’t gel, the few on their quick spree
Up North, the many on their darkling plain.

One fantasy I like to entertain
Is how they might get uppity
When gawped at in their zoo,
Those Wigan folk – give him a flea
In his left ear, and then proceed to cane
That book’s dyspeptic parti pris,
The doleful tale it drew
From sifting through our life-debris,
Like me outside in curlers, stick up drain.

Give him this tip from me: next time you deign
To come, do meet the family,
Spare us an hour or two,
And let the lived reality
Sink in, the squalor but, as well, the strain
Of stoic humour that can see
The joke yet still say ‘screw
Your Wigan Pier stuff’ when the glee
Proclaims ‘down south’ the jester’s home domain.

Please know your nitty-gritty leaves a stain
Of patronage on all that we
Drain-pokers might accrue
Of self-respect, autonomy,
Or books, books, books as our road to attain
The kind of knowledge you would-be
Déclassé types won’t do
Much good with till your family tree
Sprouts new red leaves: then head up North again!

Unsettling art for unsettling times
Monday, 23 May 2022 23:39

Unsettling art for unsettling times

Published in Visual Arts

Sanjiv Sachdev reviews Exhibit A, a witty and politically subversive exhibition of mask images of celebrities by Hugh Tisdale and Dan Murrell.

‘Fame, puts you where things are hollow’

- David Bowie

Celebrity masks of the likes of Simon Cowell, Princess Diana and Robbie Williams, are a familiar sight in tourist sites and seaside resorts. ‘Exhibit A’, a new show by Hugh Tisdale and Dan Murrell, converts this commonplace tourist trinket to witty, subversive and sometimes disturbing effect.

A rich seam of political caricature runs through British art; from Hogarth, James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson to modern day equivalents of Peter Kennard, Martin Rowson and Steve Bell, the wealthy, privileged and powerful are interrogated, scrutinised and savaged.

‘Exhibit A’ stands in this tradition. The legacy of John Heartfield’s coruscating photomontages, that foretell and depict the savagery of the Third Reich, is also evident. There are also echoes of that notorious inquisitor of fame, Warhol, the presence of Mao and Monroe inevitably invite comparisons. Fame, benign or malign, is weighed and questioned. In an era where fame is no longer seen as a by-product of achievement, but a pre-eminent value in its own right, these questions are worth posing.

MP Malcolm X for reviews

Masks have a long history in culture and art, enabling the concealment of individual identity and the assertion of others. Greek theatre masks enabled transformation into an array of roles, be it satyr or god, young or old, man or woman; Venetian masks were a subversive response to one of the most rigid class hierarchies in European history; African masks hugely influenced Picasso’s revolutionary ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’; ‘V for Vendetta’ Guy Fawkes masks were a ubiquitous feature of the Occupy era. Today’s Facebook age has social media ‘masks’ that portray cheery pictures of full lives of contentment and achievement concealing mishaps, setbacks or flaws.

Fifty mask images, of mostly twentieth century figures, line the gallery walls. Appearances are deceptive – what initially appear to be photographs actually use a range of techniques including intricate drawing, crayon, watercolour as well as deft photo-shopping. Some are black and white, others in colour. The punched out eyes in the masks vary in size and character and produce a dead eyed, glassy glare, removing human warmth with blankness.

 MP Orwell for reviews

Despite this, some of the pictures retain a benign aspect, including Orwell - sans eyes, Big Brother isn’t watching you? – the Dalai Lama, Stalin, in ‘Uncle Joe’ mode rather than that of murderous despot, and an avuncular Nixon, a mask of whom was used in a bank heist scene in the film ‘Point Break’. Without eyes, Pele and Frank Zappa take on a decidedly belligerent air. Marie Curie appears to assume X-ray eyes. Very apt!
Some themes are apparent, such as Artists as Art. Duchamp, one of these, would surely approve. Sometimes, the techniques used are associated with that artist, such as watercolour for Hockney. Damien Hirst, has ‘PRODUCT’ scrawled graffiti-style on his face and his lips appear sewn together, a critique of one whose artistic integrity is corrupted by Mammon. The cold, menacing image of Myra Hindley seems to allude to Marcus Harvey’s infamous portrait. Musicians are a prominent presence. The biro-blue of William Burrough’s picture reflects Burrough’s shambolic writing method. Many of the pictures are of iconoclasts who are now icons - Wilde, Malcolm X, Dylan, Picasso, Simone.

MP Simone for reviews

Some juxtapositions are particularly striking. A coarse, Super-8-textured image of JFK, with an extra bullet hole added, is near a black and white one of the last images of Lee Harvey Oswald, shortly to be assassinated himself. Nixon smiles near the terrified face of a Vietnamese child. A saccharine, almost kitsch, Christ stands close to Lennon, bringing to mind that latter’s then controversial remark that “We’re more popular than Jesus”. Some iconic fictional figures are present – the pared down Clockwork Orange is especially effective and memorable.

MP Clockwork Orange for reviews

One of the most disturbing images is that of Jimmy Saville, whose ghoulish black and white face, redolent of an almost fairy tale evil, wears rose-tinted glasses to chilling effect. Another horrific image is that of 2nd Lieutenant Henry Lumley, whose grievous first world war wounds still shock and appal.

The exhibition is one of unsettling art for unsettling times. Trump, in all his orange, poisoned open-mouthed glory, is, with grim inevitability, one of the 50, and was selected before his shock victory. With its thoughtful blend of reflection, comment and protest the show merits a wide audience.

‘Exhibit A’ by Hugh Tisdale and Dan Murrell, is on at Rich Mix, Shoreditch, London, till Saturday 28th January 2017.

Monday, 23 May 2022 23:39

Animal Farm: a powerfully written allegory but an untruthful, gender-blind analysis

Published in Fiction

Following her appearance on the In Our Time radio programme discussing Orwell's Animal Farm, Professor Mary Vincent reflects on its powerfully written but fundamentally untruthful and simplistic analysis of Soviet Russia, based on Orwell's mistaken interpretation of the Spanish Civil War and his blindness to gender issues.

When I picked up Animal Farm to reread it before taking part in Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time the other week, I did so with some trepidation. Going to discuss it with colleagues who are more expert in Orwell’s life and works than I am seemed a daunting task, particularly as I had first read the book as a schoolgirl. But it took only a few pages for the power, and simplicity, of the allegory to take hold. The importance of Orwell’s experience in the Spanish Civil War in the shaping of the narrative leapt out from almost every page. The new society that the animals create remains a source of hope even as it is being gradually dismantled. This was the ‘state of affairs worth fighting for’ that Orwell had glimpsed when he arrived in revolutionary Barcelona in December 1936 and that had later been betrayed by Moscow. Paradise, briefly glimpsed, is slowly and inexorably lost.

It is this sense of inevitability that gives Animal Farm its power. The allegory is of the totalitarianism of the left, which Orwell believed had destroyed the Spanish revolution. There are, though, many other echoes of his Civil War experiences. The set-piece battles, the struggles to defend the windmill, the ‘victory’ declared when a piece of ground has simply been regained, all come from his time in the trenches on the Aragón front, where illiterate soldiers were taught to read. For the Republican government, literacy was emancipatory, rather than the tool of power it becomes for Orwell’s pigs. With the other animals, they establish a collective form of social and economic life on the farm, just as the villages of Aragón were collectivized. As a collective, Animal Farm is very like its Spanish forerunners: surrounded by agricultural land and so, in some senses, cut off; self-sufficient in food but with no means of making petrol, medicines or many manufactured goods; heroic but not necessarily efficient.

These drawbacks are clearly shown in Animal Farm but there is no sense that they contributed to the final outcome. The socialist utopia is betrayed by the pigs just as the Spanish workers were betrayed by Stalin’s henchmen. Any wider complexity or contingent circumstances are omitted or ignored. This may be an unfair criticism of the ‘fairytale’ of Animal Farm but it’s a significant issue with Homage to Catalonia. The relationship between the two is close. After all, Spain was where Orwell saw what he profoundly believed to be the truth of Stalinism when the POUM, whose militia he belonged to, was suppressed. This was, to him, the truth of experience; he and his fellow POUMistas were witnesses to the real nature of Stalinist power. He was thus compelled to reveal it. Animal Farm is a way of bearing witness.

As with all Orwell’s later writing, its power lies in its prose. This is plain, clear, and deceptively simple. It is the result of great skill and much craft, honed by his years of filing journalistic copy and informed by his audience. Orwell wrote for the ordinary man. His disdain for the literati led to some odd alliances—for example with the bombastic and reactionary fantasist, Roy Campbell—and his romanticized belief in the ordinary worker never wavered. The plainness of his prose conveyed a common sense approach to history and politics, determined, more than anything, by his own experience. Orwell always operated from first principles, with little background research or wider investigation. He lived his truth; as witness, he was the hero in his own narrative. He spoke out about the suppression of the POUM—a nasty, unnecessary skirmish that followed the reassertion of control by the central Republican government—and reinterpreted it as the central struggle in not only the Spanish Civil War but also the wider history of the European left.

He also spoke up for the innate goodness of the common man, the ‘crystal spirit’ he wrote of in the poem ‘The Italian solider shook my hand’. In Animal Farm, it is the animals themselves who play the role of the workers, who are also the people of England. As with the Italian militiaman—about whom Orwell knew absolutely nothing—it is an idealized picture rather than an analytical one. The pigs are a caste while the other animals are distinguished by occupation with very little, if any, differentiation between them. There is no complexity to the social world of Animal Farm.

This simplicity enhances the power of the fable, but make it impossible to use it as an analysis. Take, for example, the way gender is treated—or rather not treated—in the book. Interestingly, Napoleon is the only virile male in the book, at least the only one to sire children. The female pigs are simply breeders; the dogs are bitches but only so they can provide Napoleon’s vicious canine defenders. Clover is a mare but her gender isn’t important; Molly, the pony, leaves for another farm, seduced by sugar lumps and ribbons, a caricature of a silly girl. The association of masculinity, power, and violence is never explored. As with other forms of complexity, gender is simply absent. We can identify Stalin and Trotsky behind the characters in Animal Farm and the vision of Marx or perhaps Lenin. But don’t bother looking for Kollontai or Luxemburg or even Pasionaria.

Monday, 23 May 2022 23:39

Communism in the gunsights

Published in Fiction

Graham Stevenson reviews the recent In Our Time radio programme about George Orwell's Animal Farm.

Melvyn Bragg's discursive radio series, In Our Time, recently considered Orwell's Animal Farm with comment from Steven Connor, Grace 2 Professor of English at the University of Cambridge, Mary Vincent, Professor of Modern European History at the University of Sheffield, and Robert Colls, Professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University.  The usual response of the liberal-minded intelligentsia to Orwell, awe-filled exaggeration of his `timeless’ importance was there, as was to be expected. But it was refreshing to hear Professor Vincent openly judge Orwell as being completely wrong about Spain, as perhaps befits the author of original research in the social basis of Franco's support, particularly that provided by the Catholic Church, as evidenced in her “Catholicism in the Second Spanish Republic” (1996).

Much of the programme was a well-travelled rehearsal of the events of Animal Farm and of Orwell’s own life. A staunch critique of publishers’ reluctance to publish the text is made, hindsight-driven as it is an expected justification that publishers were fearful was focused on the assumption that it was merely the fact of the prestige of the Red Army and Commander-in-Chief Stalin that worried people who spend their lives sending out rejection slips!

Sloppy historical facts abounded; for example, it was said the Cold War had more or less started in August 1945, so it was “alright” to publish Animal Far then but not a year or two earlier. In fact, it was the British government’s announcement that it could no longer afford to prop up the right wing anti-communists in Greece as late as February 1947 that promoted US President Truman to announce a global programme of funding of such projects that was the trigger for the Cold War.

The truth is that Orwell’s book wasn’t (isn’t) very good and it only makes sense as a tongue-in-cheek fable about Communism. The 1941 drawings by Gertrude Elias for a storyboard for a cartoon film featured Nazi hoodlums as pigs – and the allegory rooted in personal experience. She mooted the idea for a cartoon to the Ministry of Information and the imagery and ideas were known to Orwell, who briefly worked there as a BBC Talks Producer. He and Elias knew each other and she was later very firm in that the core of his Animal Farm was effectively plagiarised from her, after the mischievous inversion of Nazi pigs into Soviet ones.

In 1946, the New Republic book reviewer, George Soules, panned Animal Farm with disgust: “the book puzzled and saddened me. It seemed on the whole dull. The allegory turned out to be a creaking machine for saying in a clumsy way things that have been said better directly. And many of the things said are not instantly recognized as the essence of truth, but are of the sort which start endless and boring controversy.”

Such a view of the work was common; indeed, it was not uncritically or well received at any point until the CIA heavily popularised it. Orwell wrote a preface to a 1947 Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm in which he makes it clear that this is an anti-Soviet work, designed to undermine the Soviet Union. One moment’s thought – a Ukrainian edition in 1947 – should make clear the malevolence with which this book was promoted. Amusingly, Melvyn Bragg comments that for a work slating propaganda this is “an irony”. Perhaps there is a more cynical explanation?
In terms of substance, its value is over-rated by the process of filling its gaps with belief that they are intended. It is helped in this by being written with great speed and little skill (the original work was sub-titled “A Fairy Tale”) and the fact that it isn’t very long. Supposedly, it is full of laconic irony and is a humorous satire, as critics of Orwell and his sources have long stated, his work is almost entirely at odds with the two famous anti-communist pieces.

Frustratingly, the radio discussion speeds past the 1930s and 40s, almost missing the Spanish war. Yet it is noted that Orwell’s contrary nature seemed always to start with opposing one thing and ending up against another. Although, the canonisation into a “saintly and heroic” figure in the 1950s is touched on, that he doesn’t see any contrariness in Nazism is passed over almost without comment. It is communism that is in the gunsights.

Seemingly, it is the rewriting of history that is the strongest motivator of Orwell; the “fragility of memory”. Yet, frustratingly, it is only as the broadcast programme is about to end and the off-air (intriguingly available on the web) discussion emerges that the expert of the piece, Professor Vincent is able to stress her view that “Orwell got it all wrong about Spain”. Defeat was not down to Stalin but to the military aid given by the Fascist powers that was not stopped by French or British politicians.

An account of how Orwell’s creative output, as opposed to his journalistic production, seems uncomfortably too well informed by material produced by women is available online here:
http://www.grahamstevenson.me.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1451:orwellian-mischief&catid=36:articles-and-reviews&Itemid=135

A short account of Gertrude’s life can be found here:
http://www.grahamstevenson.me.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1446:elias-gertrude&catid=5:e&Itemid=20

A pamphlet containing an extract from Gertrude’s encounter with Orwell is now available:
http://www.marx-memorial-library.org/shop/shop-books/item/674-gertrude-elias-pamphlet