Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Documents Of Barbarism

"This side of the socialist revolution, the revolutionaries are a minority."
--Unknown speaker, sampled on The Redskins’ ‘Lean On Me’.

Up to Tolpuddle on Sunday for the final, rain-soaked day of the Martyrs’ Festival. What with my bag being flooded by an errant water bottle, not having enough money to get a copy of Benjamin’s Illuminations (how are the workers meant to educate themselves when 300-page paperbacks still cost £16.99 a pop?) and running into some guys from school (a couple of whom I’d had pinned as neo-liberal thugs) – including my former Politics teacher – to whom I felt completely not up to speaking, I spent most of the time in my usual catatonic state. The usual rum crew showed up – the NUM, the SPGB, Free Palestine, the SWP and the British Communist Party (or was it the Communist Party of Britain? I can never remember) – and a few unexpected faces – the Bournemouth West and East Labour Parties (who I thought were a myth), the Irish Republicans (in the form of the Troops Out Movement), CND and Respect. As always, the speeches were made – Tony Benn making jokes about his pacemaker – and the sets were played – The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Billy Bragg (who I was hoping would stop after ‘The Red Flag’ but had local schoolchildren come on for a doctored version of ‘One Love’ of all things – "Let’s drop the debt/And it will be all right!" They’ll learn, they’ll learn.) Whilst, admittedly, it was alright for a free concert – ‘you pays your money’, in this case none – I kept feeling they should quit the folk crap and put some grime on; notably, for a movement supporting anti-racism, I saw only a handful of black faces, belonging to an Indian migrant worker making a speech, and a sub-par reggae band doing a version of ‘One Love’ as I entered (what is with that song?) Stupidly, I forgot to bring along my Walkman, and The Redskins.

The Redskins formed in 1982 from the ashes of York anti-fascist hardcore band No Swastikas. They released their first and only album, Neither Washington Nor Moscow, 4 years later – an odd amalgam of amphetamined Dexys’-style Northern Soul, punk, early James Brown and unreconstructed SWP rhetoric, it’s one of the few explicitly political albums from that era to have weathered the ravages of time. At the time they were darlings of the music papers, but are now barely remembered – where their sometime touring partner Billy Bragg is allowed to record tepid folk albums and publish books at will. The album seems, now, like an artefact, a time capsule playing the same recording over and over – almost the entire album is concerned with the miners’ strike that swept up the band; they relentlessly performed benefit gigs, and ‘Keep On Keepin’ On!’, released October 1984, formed a key part of the soundtrack to the strike. That summer, playing ‘Keep On Keeping On!’ on The Tube, they had invited one of the Durham miners on stage to make a speech; in a wonderfully symbolic moment, the microphone instantly cut dead. It was to prove prophetic – after the end of the strike they released a few singles, performed a benefit tour for the ANC; their penultimate single, ‘The Power Is Yours’, was a mournful look back at the strike ("We blew it…"). Soon after, the band split and frontman Chris Dean disappeared to Paris, becoming largely a recluse. The failure of the strike had clearly broken him – to The Redskins, as to the rest of the SWP, the strike was the first stage of the "crisis of capitalism", nothing less than the beginning of the end of history.

All this seems almost ancient in 2007’s neo-liberal Britain, where there is no past unless it serves the purposes of ruling-class ideology (e.g. the Second World War, in which ‘the Blitz spirit’ and our defeat of the ontologically Evil Nazis are meant to serve as justification for the War On Terror), and no future, nothing into which to project the desire for a better life – an economic model based on infinite growth in a finite world can never provide one - a world where ‘a better life’ means longer hours for more commodities, and all other options are closed down, and ‘this is the best you’re going to get’. When you reach the end of history, how you got there ceases to matter – the logic of Leninism translated into the language of Kapital. The Socialists are famous for holding onto the past with both hands, guarding a history no-one knows, a litany of names and dates – Haymarket, the Martyrs, the Winter Palace (1905), Petersburg (1917), the Ukraine (1917), Kronstadt, Barcelona (1936), Budapest (1956), Paris (1968), and, I would wager, Yorkshire (1984) – guarded by melancholics, pub-squabblers, bronchitis cases, visitor centre staff, (and Billy Bragg, who signed my copy of Neither Washington… during my last visit to Tolpuddle). Sometimes snatched from the jaws of victory, sometimes doomed from the start, the failures and grand and small haunt the movement, leading to what Benn called "Left pessimism… ‘Oh, we’ll always be betrayed, everyone will betray us.’" We come up, again, against the limits of historical materialism: ‘the inevitable victory of the proletariat’ was, from the beginning, the guiding historical idea of revolutionary socialism; even by the time of the Bolsheviks, you can see the rhetoric changing from ‘inevitable victory’ to ‘victory by any means necessary’; by the time of ‘Lean On Me’ it was "Success comes to the strong/The struggle’s hard and the struggle’s long". By 1994 the Soviet project had finished, and social democracy, the compromise between labour and capital, was the only option going. The idea that historical materialism, in its deterministic Marxist form, was false was perhaps the end of the revolutionary project; nowadays the SWP and the trade unions demand an end to "Brown’s Pay Freeze" and longer coffee breaks. Anyone with more than reasonable demands would seem to have one option: that of Guy Debord, who had published the fatalistic Commentaries On The Society Of The Spectacle in 1989, then killed himself five years later.

And seeing as Chris Dean hasn’t been seen for years, it’s possible he took that option. It would be an ignominious end for The Redskins, just as Richey Edwards’ was for The Holy Bible: the album seems to have been sequenced almost ironically, beginning with the relatively short ‘The Power Is Yours’ and ending with the enormous, astounding second single (released before the miners’ strike) ‘Lean On Me’, going in exactly the opposite direction to what one would expect; in spite of the history, it’s incredibly fierce, determined, 43 and ½ minutes of passion and funk; music in which ‘soul’ – the possibility of transcendence, usually through the gooey medium of ‘love’, in swelling strings and yelping voices – becomes an expression of the immanence of revolution: love songs for solidarity. Possibility is the record’s voice, the whispered sentiment: their final single, ‘It Can Be Done!’ reels off the history of the Bolsheviks, the Spartakists, the Spanish Communists, counselling to "learn a lesson from your past"; in ‘Take No Heroes!’ Chris Dean, with at least one eye on posterity sings that "A man may die/But his dream survives."I hate to use the word ‘hopeful’ as anything other than a perjorative, but it almost is. You can see how something like this could be seen as merely your standard nostalgia-fetish for Communists, a dewy-eyed reminder of the days in which (they thought) they could bring the country to a standstill. But that’s not quite right: there’s something bizarre and mercurial about it that goes beyond the mere burden of circumstance, a voice, as Walter Benjamin wrote "exploded out of the continuum of history".

At this point we begin to enter murky territory: Benjamin was as much a mystic, a theologian, as he was a proper rubber-stamp historical materialist; the ‘Theses On The Philosophy of History’, written very shortly before his death, pursued by the Nazis, read like a lost scrap from the Dead Sea scrolls, treating history as a tangible inheritance (as, he notes in the final thesis, the Jews were taught to treat their past through the preservation of the Books Of Moses and regular prayers), an abstract, Gnostic quantity, instead of as simply a collection of events and the narratives constructed around them. As Benjamin himself notes, "’historical materialism’ is always supposed to win. It can do this with no further ado against any opponent, so long as it employs the services of theology." The kind of theology Benjamin had in mind was not that of Stalin: a Roman church built around atheism, in which the terms of God, Nation (Mother Russia), State and the Leader (in the form of Stalin, but also Lenin, of whom he had huge numbers of statues built; the personality was a function of the archetype, not the other way around.) His theology was older than that of revolutionary socialism, whose sense of history operated in messianic, Christian terms, with its Golgothas and meek inheritors; it was the theology of the 40-year desert wanderer, the casual miracle (the clocks stopping in Paris just as God made water flow forth from the stones), the black shrouds of grief and the endless living, waiting. (Only the Jews could have come up with the Passion, but only less perceptive minds would have made those three days of minor agony redemptive. For the Jews, the crown of thorns is never removed, the nail remains in the hand. A lifetime of dull agony.) For Benjamin, the Jew not merely wandering away from his theoretical Heimat (Israel) but from his ‘homeland’ (Germany), "the future did not… turn into a homgenous and empty time… in it every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter." By an act of faith – the kind of faith, as Kierkegaard and Shestov knew, can only come when your back is up against the wall – he moved past the limits of historical materialism (just to note, I know he was a secular Jew, a confirmed materialist. But even within the materialist worldview, it is possible to sympathise with certain aspects of religious feeling: prioritising certain aspects of existence (such as suffering), or treating material existence in an abstract manner, as a system of signs and tropes charged with significances. This is exactly what Benjamin does to make the leap beyond materialism’s dull bounds.)

The voices of the past exist in a symbiotic relationship with the present, "a secret protocol" which gives every generation, tied to the burden of its predecessors – just as the prophets prefigured the coming of the Messiah – "a weak messianic power", able to bring about the redemption, the resurrection, of all that once was, both remembered and forgotten. Artefacts like Neither Washington Nor Moscow, the replica ‘Coal Not Dole’ one can see at Tolpuddle, are not nostalgia items precisely because they are not reminders of the wounds of the revolutionary movement, fetish objects for self-pity, but of what people found in the conflicts; the old clichés like ‘community’ and ‘solidarity’, exactly what the non-society of post-Thatcher Britain sneers at: the students holding off the police and the workers sealing the factories in May 1968; the gangs of Budapest kids, controlled by workers’ councils, commandeering Soviet tanks in October; the scenes in David Peace’s GB84 (I think the main one was of the Battle of Orgreave), in the miners’ ongoing story (written in Yorkshire demotic) before they really join battle with the police ("We’d fuckin’ have ‘em, this time.") The voice rewinds and plays again in unchanging fragments of a present that had slipped out of touch, but not out of mind: "they reach far back into the mists of time. They will, ever and anon, call every victory which has ever been won by the rulers into question." The Jews – or so Nietzsche claimed – revenged themselves on the Romans, who organised a spectacular history of successive Emperors, an "empty, homogenous time", by making every event of the past point to the birth and death of a scruffy carpenter, "the vanquisher of the Anti-Christ." The points at which history as the writings of the victors, the ruling-classes, ruptures – at which, as Greil Marcus wrote, the individual and collective become "the subject, and not the object, of history" – (Zurich, 1916; Berkeley, 1964; May 1968; London, 1976-1979) become the points from which new narratives can begin, from which we can start making history up as we go along: "he cognises the sign of a messianic zero-hour of events, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the struggle for the suppressed past." Benjamin, just like the Situationists, understood that theory and strategy don’t change anything much; the emotions of the common man, the fealty we feel to the past, the scars from coal dust and police batons, the sickened disgust we feel for a world drained of dignity, in which greed and ignorance are the prime virtues, are what will build the future we want. ("Simply by stating ‘No Future’, the Sex Pistols were creating one." Record Mirror, quoted in England’s Dreaming.) Tony Benn was wrong when, on Sunday, he quoted one of the Cuban revolutionaries: "Our revenge will be the laughter of our children." "The ideal of the emancipated heirs", the fallacy of reproductive futurism, means nothing; only the voices of the dispossessed (including ourselves) can nourish dreams, the alternative on the other end of the Northwest Passage. Why should we work for our supposed children when things are fucked up for us?

Consumer capitalism can only exist if we treat "it as a historical norm", if we accept it as ‘common sense’, and "the tradition of the oppressed" teaches us it is otherwise. The revolutionary impulse – "I am nothing and I should be everything" – the cry of all the dead voices of the past, what is felt every day as we are shunted around the desert of capital, is genuine, and what we must stay true to. Despite the necrophile tendencies of the Tolpuddle set, it’s surprisingly heartening to see that some still halfway care. On this side of the socialist revolution, the revolutionaries are a minority. Afterwards, if we ever get there, they won’t need to be counted. "Only for a resurrected humanity would its past, in each of its moments, be citable. Each of its lived moments becomes a citation a l’ordre du jour – whose day is precisely that of the Last Judgement."


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