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On ideology and culture

One of those weird ideology graphs

“Related to this, but not entirely the same, is the tendency to classify certain movements not by their actual structure, forms, and ways of struggle, but by the specific, formal ideology they adopt to describe themselves. As such, a movement with perfectly socialist content could easily describe itself in nationalist terms, as movements often adopt certain ideologies that have a base in the collective memories of the participants without necessarily accepting all of the implications this ideology presents. Nevertheless, it is common practice to dismiss and criticize movements solely based upon certain ideological shortcomings, instead of focusing upon the actual practices these groups employ; which, of course, is a natural continuation of the focus upon voluntarism employed by the radical left in its analysis of revolutions, because if revolutions are shaped by the ideological attitudes and the adoption of the “correct” programme by the political groups involved in the process instead of by the concrete practices of the groups involved and the specific conditions and circumstances these groups need to act within, then off course ideological deviations can be deadly for a potential revolution.”

This excerpt is from a previous post I made on the methodological problems within radical leftist treatment of revolutions, in which I primarily critiqued the tendency to analyse revolutions based upon the actions of revolutionaries and their thoughts and actions, while ignoring objective underlying conditions as determinants in the outcome of revolutions. In this post I would like to go deeper into the issue of ideology and consciousness, and I will argue that ideology is not necessarily the clear cut rounded whole that its creators envisage it to be but instead is understood differently and adapted when it goes through the different levels of hierarchy within an organisation. And besides that that the ideology a revolutionary movement adopts isn’t necessarily based upon how much a certain ideology is supposed to resonate with a certain group within society but also upon the traditions of struggle and political action that exists within the collective memory of the people involved in this movement, a collective memory that off course doesn’t necessarily correspond to the historical reality of the movement in question. Now this might all sound quite vague and unclear at this moment, but that’s what this text is gonna explain. Now seeing that alot of these subjects have already been touched upon in the works of a wide range of scholars with explaining power far beyond my own. This text will have a different structure from the normal article posted on this site, the main portion will be composed of excerpts of relevant articles that I think illustrate my point well interspersed with comments of my own. In this way I prevent myself from half-heartily parroting ideas that have been written down by people with levels of intelligence and with writing skills far exceeding my own. Note that I have not used correct academic citation to refer to books and articles as this is not an academic context and they can be really annoying to get completely right, rather I have simply chosen to simply put the information that is necessary to find the original text in the citation so that you are only a google search away from finding the origins of the quotes in question.

“The dishonest political position of the French Army
was now taking its toll. The soldiers still thought of themselves
as a revolutionary army. Yet at nights they heard the
blacks in the fortress singing the Marseillaise, the the ça Ira,
and the other revolutionary songs. Lacroix records how
these misguided wretches as they heard the songs started
and looked at the officers as if to say, “Have our barbarous
enemies justice on their side? Are we no longer the soldiers of Republican France? And have we become the crude instruments of policy?”
A regiment of Poles, remembering their own struggle
for nationalism, refused to join in the massacre of 600
blacks, ordered by Leclerc, and later, when Dessalines was
reorganising the local army, he would call one of his regiments
the Polish regiment.”

C.L.R James, “The black jacobins: Toussaint L’ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution”, 1989, p.317-318

In this memorable scene of CLR James’ book on the Haitian revolution we read how the black revolutionaries sing the songs of the French revolution and how the French troops (Poles in this case) become very distressed by this. CLR James uses this as an example of the intellectually dishonest position of the French revolutionary troops, yet there is little dishonesty about their position. Although there were a fair number of liberal abolitionists, significant parts of the then liberals would declare that their passionate and revolutionary calls for liberty certainly did not apply to blacks and nor to slaves. The interesting part of this anecdote is thus not the so-called intellectually dishonest position of the French revolutionary regime but rather how the black revolutionaries actively reinterpreted liberal ideology in ways not originally intended by at least part of their creators and their primary adherents in Western countries.

Let us move on to a second example.

“Students of Americanization are in general agreement regarding the semantic transformations that attend the dissemination of American cultural messages across the world. Depending on their precise angle and perspective some tend to emphasize the cultural strategies and auspices behind the transmission of American culture. Whether they study Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show when it traveled in Europe, Hollywood movies, or world’s fairs, to name just a few carriers of American culture, their focus is on the motifs and organizing views that the producers were trying to convey, rather than on an analysis of what the spectators and visitors did with the messages to which they were exposed. All such cultural productions, taken as representations of organizing worldviews, tend to lead researchers to focus on the senders rather than the receivers of messages. Such a focus, in other words hardly ever leads these researchers to look at the process of reception as more than one of passive imbibing. But, whatever the words one uses to describe what happens at the point of reception – words such as hybridization or creolization – current views agree on a freedom of reception, a freedom to re-semanticize and re-contextualize meaningful messages reaching audiences across national and cultural borders. Much creativity and inventiveness goes into the process of reception, much joy and exhilaration springs from it. Yet making this the whole story would be as fallacious as a focus centered solely on the schemes and designs of the senders of messages. Whatever their precise angle, researchers agree on the need to preserve balance in their approach to problems of Americanization.”

Rob Kroes, American Empire and Cultural Imperialism: A View from the Receiving End

Here we have a quote on a significantly different subject, namely: Americanization. And more particularly about how American cultural influences and the promotion and introduction of Americanized culture all over the world is not a clear cut process, it is not an influence that is passively received by its audience. It is rather an influence that is actively adapted an reinterpreted by its audience, creolization and hybridization being the words used by Kroes. And thus just like the Haitian revolutionaries singing liberal revolutionary songs, non-American audiences actively reinterpret the meaning of American culture and by extension ideology in the context of their own lives and surroundings. In this piece of text Kroes also establishes a second important principle, namely that in this example Americanization cannot be endlessly reinterpreted but that the original intent of the creators does place a sort of boundary upon the attempts to reinterpret something.

Now onto two quotes about Argentinian working class struggles.

“For instance, Victor Barrios recalls a May 1st commemoration in Rio Cuarto in the 1940s: “The colorfulness of their vestments was mixed with blue, white and red flags. They would all march in columns and accompanied by music and songs led by Don Pierino Rosso who would alternate the National Anthem, The Marseillaise, [the Anarchist anthem] Son of the People, and The Internationale.” A final example can be found in the memoirs of Miguel Contreras, the main Communist labor leader in Cordoba Province. In his Memorias he recalls the following anecdote: In the year 1913 the unemployed organized a demonstration like I had never seen in this province, under the slogan Bread and Jobs. In front with their Argentine flags, red flags, and posters, went the workers‟ unions of bakers, printers, leather makers, shoemakers, and the banners of the [Anarchist federation] FORA and the Socialist Party. All the workers showed up with their tools […] It was impressive to see such a crowd, a great number of male and female workers with the tools held up high, shouting their slogans and singing worker anthems, Son of the People, The Internationale, The Marseillaise.”
Contrera´s anecdote represents a fusion of political and cultural traditions, which he recalls as something “impressive,” while at the same time it shows an example of what can be described as a left worker culture. At the same time, it is worthwhile to point out that the Communist leader seemed to find “normal” the coming together of unions, political tendencies, and even Anarchist and Communist songs with The Marseillaise, the revolutionary emblem of the sans culottes and even of Argentine Liberalism. What stands out in Contrera‟s memoir are not the political and ideological differences, but rather that it was a labor demonstration of unemployed workers, where each worker raised his or her tools, giving it a distinctive class character.
This last example, together with interview excerpts cited, seem to indicate that both workers and popular classes in Argentina‟s small cities and towns shared a common experience, as defined by E. P. Thompson, which was expressed in “correct behavior” and a “class language.” Altogether, these “clues” permits us to begin to unravel the complexities of worker culture in Argentina that might explain the persistence of relatively high levels of political involvement and labor mobilization throughout the 20th century. What is more, the widespread age range suggests a transmission of experience over decades, while the broad differences in political affiliation imply a sharing of perceptions and imagery among these workers. One possible explanation is that this ordinary culture is forged in the complexities of social production relations. If so, then horizontal class cohesion would seem stronger than other vertical identities. At the same time, these “class notions” would seem not only to have a workerist ideal but also to endow leftist ideas with positive values.
As such, it would seem that popular memory is based on an undercurrent grounded in a leftist underworld which, over the years, has managed to withstand dominant culture, repression, and even the left‟s own failure to live up to its own traditions. At times this hidden culture emerges and is registered as a spontaneous explosion. What the press reports as a passing or ingenuous fact, might find its origins in a tradition forged in the experience, struggles, and resistance of generations who have opposed capitalist exploitation. In the cases analyzed, the leftist tradition experienced since childhood by the workers considered seems to have determined their political and trade union participation once they reached adulthood. Clearly, this tradition did not determine a particular political affiliation, and most changed at least once during their life. And yet, Communists, Trotskyists, Peronists, Nationalists, and Guevarist guerrillas expressed themselves with a commonality of feelings and values. This does not mean that ideology or politics have no relevance in the imagery expressed in the testimonies, or that they shared conditions or suggested similar solutions. What it does imply is that they seem to share a common culture understood as a “correct behavior” that forged structures of feeling. This culture has influenced their lives to a degree where their political stance is felt to be a natural result.
As such, militancy cannot be considered as an “awakening” or as “youthful follies.” Politics throughout generations of Argentines is linked to a series of practices, feelings, and experiences that are shared by parents, children, uncles, and grandparents. In fact this implies the existence of specific popular memory that has endured over time enriching itself, resignifying, and most of all resisting.“

Mariana Mastrángelo, “Granny Used to Sing Bandiera Rossa and the Internationale, and Went to Mass Every Day.” Politics and Culture in Argentina

“How can one explain the rich history of labor militancy over more than a century without taking into account the subjectivity expressed in oral traditions? Argentine labor participated in the first May Day in 1890; had an early presence of Anarchist and Socialist organizations; was amongst the founders of the three Internationals; elected the first Socialist congressperson in America in 1905, and the first Communist in 1924; it elected the first Communist mayor in 1928 and established one of the first feminist labour newspapers at the end of the 19th century; and it consistently maintained a high rate of labor actions throughout the 20th century. At the same time, an analysis of the 1966 to 1976 left wing guerrillas shows that many came from small towns, and many were from labour families. Cities like Cruz del Eje, Rio Cuarto, Morteros, and San Francisco, in Cordoba Province, or Venado Tuerto, Rafaela, Felicia, and Reconquista in Santa Fe, or Diamante and La Paz in Entre Rios, had an important number of its citizens joining the Left and guerrilla organizations. The analysis of oral traditions contributes to finding a clue to explaining this militancy through labor and popular subjectivity.
[…]
The examples cited above should be more that suggestive for all those interested in Argentine labour history, especially since they seem to indicate that our traditional perceptions regarding Argentine workers do not fit reality. They suggest that class, or horizontal, loyalties are more important that political, or vertical, affiliations; that Peronist anti-leftism existed, but within limits among common workers; and that the process of leftist politicization and militancy had more to do with worker experience than with programmatic issues. If this is so, then it implies a broader, more heterogeneous and fluid politicization than has been considered up to now. This would make us reconsider many of our premises on the structuring of contemporary Argentine political society.
Evidently, the importance of these oral sources is not whether they are implicitly true or not, but rather that they grant us a possibility to trace sentiments and feelings over time. In all memory, and in every tradition, we can find elements of fact and fiction, and of the sentiments of a specific historical period. Political memory is not constructed from the present towards the past. Rather it is a dialectical relationship between both and between them and the life and culture of those we interview or the oral sources we consider. In this sense it is closer to a “structure in solution” or to a living and dynamic experience whose lessons and uses are always changing though anchored in a really existing past. Each particular testimony marks differences and similarities in the memory of Argentine workers. The similarities in descriptions and perspectives that show up in oral sources, beyond regional origin, skill, ideology, race or gender, represent a series of traditions (almost a folklore) that can be interpreted, in this case, as a labour or leftist culture. These traditions are translated in common structures of feeling. Taken as a whole, this type of source seems to have a singular vitality and a permanent updating of labour ideals that turn them into a subaltern and anti-establishment ideology.”

Pablo Pozzi, “Who Made the World?” Politics and Oral Sources in Argentine Labour Culture

These two longer quotes from two excellent articles that you should all go read right after you have finished this article add another element to the discussion. Namely the one of culture and of collective memory. In this article it is suggested how a base level working class culture which includes a set of norms, rules and viewpoints is present within the working class, a working class culture upon which the politicalization of this class is based. Not upon the strict and rigid interpretation of the ideologies they choose to adopt but rather upon an underlying and continuous working class politicalization that survived the rise and death of several socialist ideologies and their corresponding organisations.

Taking this argument and further amplifying it with my previous argument on how ideology is actively molded by its recipients (a point hinted at but not explicitly stated in the two last articles) contradicts views usually held by most parts of the radical left. Namely that ideology is a rigid message that can solely be interpreted in one way, whether that is a way that overglorifies the message of the ideology in question or heavily misinterprets it so it can be critiqued easier, all adherents of the ideology are expected to be perfect adherents of the professed singular message of the ideology with no room for active reinterpretation of ideological messages by the supporters of the ideology.

In contrast I would like to argue that ideology is not a clear cut, well defined whole but rather an entity that is often heavily reinterpreted and adapted irrespective of the wishes and desires of theoreticians and leaders, often based upon previous traditions and cultures of resistance present within the history of the group in question often going across different organisations that are often so central in radical leftist discourse on working class struggle and are often considered the same as ideology, as clear cut, well defined, and singular wholes. Taking into account of course that ideology and organisation still create boundaries in which these processes happen, boundaries that can of course be pushed and widened. I would furthermore argue that it is necessary for the radical left to move away from its strict interpretation of the subjective forces shaping struggle, namely the one based upon the previously mentioned interpretation of ideology and organisation, and rather move towards a view that takes the activities of the working class as the central subjective factor. An approach that thus would focus upon analysing the struggles of the working class as a whole with attention towards class struggle that is not necessarily tied to specific organisations, cross- and extra-organisational networks of activists and non-activists upon which the activity of the class is based, cultures of resistance and working class identity that have been shaped over centuries and active ideological reinterpretation by the working class based upon the general societal context. And this instead of the usual approach that focuses upon the efforts of a particular organisation and/or the need for it, while viewing ideology as something rigid and with only a singular interpretation and equating the entire subjective part of the workers struggle as in the hands of these two elements.

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About yeksmesh

Yeksmesh is kinda sorta an anarchist but with many influences, who likes to make jokes about trots. It is therefore pretty much certain that Yeksmesh will be put against the wall for petty-bourgeoisie infantile deviationist intransigence after the revolution has come.
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