Jazz & the Left (& honesty)
To be honest this summer has been a bit mad, which has meant that I’ve fallen behind on the usual monthly “Conversations on Communism” podcasts. The last conversation Elinor Taylor of Westminster (as she is commonly known) and I recorded was back in April and it was released over May and June. Since then, alack, I have been vexed by a conspiracy of deadlines and beleaguered by chores from the less glamorous end of academia, things like Examination Assessment Board meetings and marking… (I’ve also been swimming quite a bit in the sea and reading an interesting novel by Naomi Mitchison — so, actually, not that bad at all…)
But in the midst of all this came bounding up the energising launch of Advocating Classics Education (ACE), a project run by Professor Edith Hall and Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson (KCL). We, of the Open University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, are one of the 16 Higher Education “hub” institutions committed to supporting the provision of more Classical Civilisation and Ancient History into more non-fee-paying schools across the UK. The launch took place in London on 1 July. Throughout the day I was conducting interviews (alongside Mikey Taylor of Big Face Art) with various inspirational teachers and academics. These video interviews will be released by ACE over the next few months, but in the meantime if you’d like to know more you can read about the ACE project and Open’s contribution to it, in this blog post by my learned comrade Dr Emma Bridges.
Another welcome break from the grind came in the form of a trip to Manchester for a conference on 8-10 June held at the amazing People’s History Museum. This 3-day international conference, organised by Ben Harker (Manchester), was called Wars of Position: Marxism and Civil Society, and it was mind blowing. Since the theme of this post appears to be honesty, I should say I didn’t know a whole lot about the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci’s work before this year, but I’d been boning up a bit before this conference because I was generously invited to chair a panel.
A good short description of Gramsci’s influence on the British Left is given on one of the boards (pictured left/below) currently exhibited in the People’s History Museum foyer. The board was written by Ben Harker, in collaboration with PHM curators:
“Attitudes to the Soviet Union increasingly divided Communists after World War II. Over a quarter of British Communists left the Party in the late 1950s appalled by revelations of Stalin’s terror in the Soviet Union and by Soviet tanks crushing revolution in Hungary. Many of British Communism’s best-known cultural figures resigned at this point. They believed that their own party was beyond reform. The CPGB would regain its membership numbers by the early 1960s, but never its intellectual prestige.
Ongoing debates about the importance of culture in the party’s work sharpened in the early 1970s with the publication of extracts from ‘Prison Notebooks’ written forty years before by Italian Communist leader, Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci’s writing struck a chord with many, arguing that Communists in the West needed a different strategy to that which had brought revolution to underdeveloped Russia. In highly developed societies, Gramsci argued, the ruling class relied on culture to win consent for its domination. Communists therefore needed to work more through culture, patiently breaking down ruling class ideas and winning mass support for their alternative vision through what he called ‘wars of position’.”
Although the conference was organised around the Gramscian concept of ‘wars of position’, it was extraordinarily broad in scope, ranging from the Russian revolution (1917) right up to the modern day, across most — if not all — continents. The panel I chaired on the final day, for example, consisted of papers on Rosa Luxemburg, George Orwell and Huey Newton of the Black Panther Party. There were key-note addresses each day from Jodi Dean (pictured: on comradery), Neil Faulkner (on ‘The debt economy, the hollow society, and the crisis of revolutionary agency in the early 21st century’ — as cheery as it sounds) and Kevin Morgan (on communism and civil society).
The last key-note speaker mentioned — i.e. the historian of British communism Professor Kevin Morgan — had only a month or so before been lured into our makeshift studio in central London to record a podcast with fellow jazz enthusiast, Musicians’ Union representative and former CPGB member Brian Blain.
They were talking to Elinor and me about communism and jazz, and you can listen to the podcasts, either via iTunes, or if you’d like to read a transcript (and listen): Side A / Side B. Here are my favourite moments from each:
Side A’s highlight for me came when Brian spoke of what he called “that lightbulb moment” when the relationship between his twin passions for progressive politics and modern jazz suddenly became clear, through reading the landmark book Jazz: A People’s Music by American Marxist Sidney Finkelstein.
“His book unravelled the whole thing. He was the first real Marxist thinker — Marxist in the sense that I came to think was the reason Marxism was important: a flexible way of looking at everything… — And, he went through the whole story of jazz… [relating] the new people who were considered to be degenerate by your classical communist, and he could show that they weren’t degenerate, that they were part of an amazing tradition.”
My pick from Side B has to be when we were all sharing our favourite quotes about the dangers of “degenerate” jazz from the more puritanical corners of the communist membership. Elinor reads out one claiming that “dancing is a rather poor way of consuming surplus energy, and quite irrational from the point of view of personal efficiency.” It is easy to make fun of such ideas now, and we ought, of course, to be wary of suggesting that these quite extreme opinions indicate any kind of widespread consensus. But such examples, however extreme, usefully show the more earnest and dogmatic reaches of Party life — populated by those given to moralising and cultural policing — which did much to repel members of the public who valued the less buttoned-up sides of life, and who — like Brian — had only so much patience for balalaikas and “the dreaded Communist Party social”.
I’ll be back with the podcasts in September. Please do get in touch if you have any suggestions of topics, or people to invite to the conversations. It’s always nice to hear from listeners. In case you were wondering whether you were the only one listening: the podcasts have now been played over 1,300 times and George Thomson (Side A) is in the lead with 268 plays. If you’re wondering what a podcast on communism and jazz has to do with Brave New Classics — you’re not alone in this either, but (n.b. honesty theme) there is more to life than classics.