Shades of Stalinism

It is impossible not to observe a distinct taint of Stalinism in the reaction of the Socialist Workers Party to the recent controversy over the Danish cartoons, writes Lawrence Parker. This raises an ominous question mark over the SWP's ability to constructively engage with cultural production

Alex Callinicos has argued: "There is no comparison between The Satanic verses and the Danish cartoons. The latter are crude attempts to insult muslims, while [Salman] Rushdie's novel was a complex work of art by an author of Indian muslim origins who was trying explore the roots of the faith into which he was born" (Socialist Worker February 11).

On one level, Callinicos's remarks are reasonable enough. It is quite plausible for a Marxist to draw distinctions between cultural artefacts. Georg Lukács, for example, was concerned to educate the workers' movement as to the superiority of Balzac over Zola. Whatever one may think as to the correctness of this particular judgement, the enterprise of drawing out qualitative distinctions is theoretically sound.

In the German ideology, Marx sketched out the democratisation of art through a sweeping away of the division of labour and its associated bourgeois specialisations: "In a communist society there are no painters but at most people who engage in painting among other activities "¦" (D McLennan Karl Marx: selected writings Oxford 1977, p190). But this should not lead us into envisaging some mish-mash where my neighbour's crude daubings of his wife in the nude are equal in value to my elegant triptych dealing with the heightening of sexual joy after the revolution.

This abstract equality (and concurrent inability to make qualitative judgements) would merely mirror our present-day world, where all commodities are clustered under exchange values. The capitalist market cannot make true qualitative judgements, only quantitative ones in relation to differing exchange values. Therefore, under capitalism, it is possible to equate two million cans of baked beans with a Picasso. By eradicating this insanity, communism clears the ground for a true (democratic and socially informed) reading of quality.

So we are unable to condemn Callinicos for making such a distinction. However, using it as the intellectual scaffold on which to elaborate a limitation on the freedom of expression is another issue entirely. Our current society is host to a small army of creative workers in the art and media worlds. A key appeal to these groups on the part of progressive movements is the proposal for unlimited freedom of expression (democratisation and despecialisation does not mean we want to dispense with particular talents). Such a demand is recognition of the extreme limits that capitalist commodification places on creative workers and the manner in which they are alienated from their products. This includes the right to be offensive to anybody or any particular group. Of course, such progressive movements might advise prospective cartoonists against producing the sort of work that appeared in Denmark, but such freedoms are manifestly indivisible.

The SWP retort to this would seem to be that, while it agrees with the idea of freedom of expression in general, there are times when such a right has to be suspended. Such a methodology is essentially Stalinist. Walter Benjamin visited Moscow in December 1926-January 1927 and remarked that in its formative years the bureaucratic regime was "trying to bring about a suspension of militant communism "¦ to depoliticise the life of its citizens as much as possible. On the other hand, its youth is being put through 'revolutionary' education "¦ which means that they do not come to revolution as an experience, but only as a discourse" (W Benjamin Moscow diary London 1986, p53).

Ditto the SWP, which agrees with freedom of expression in theory but denies it in practice. From another perspective, I am fresh out of college, interested in revolutionary thought but with a ferment of artistic ideas running around my head. Looking at the SWP through the prism of the Danish controversy, it is unlikely that I would see this organisation as an appealing prospect, despite the 'general' guarantee of my artistic freedom. Or, if I did join and the SWP initially found my creative work to its taste, I might still be looking over my shoulder if the 'political' line changed to clash with my own output. Again, shades of Stalinism.

Callinicos's complaint against the cartoons quoted above seems to revolve around an intention to offend muslims. On the surface, this seems like common sense. However, if we explore a little deeper, such remarks only throw up more problems. In a famous analysis, alluded to above, Lukács explores how a royalist such as Balzac was able to transcend his political views to "discern the contradictions in the capitalist economic order and the problems of capitalist culture" (G Lukács Writer and critic London 1970, p85). Dubious ideologies can sometimes throw up valuable truths.

Interestingly, Lukács was utilising the works of Marx and Engels to argue against the Stalinist view that sought to judge every work of art solely on the basis of the author's class origins or political views. Was it then Balzac's intention to produce works that Marxist thinkers could subsequently hail as great works of realism? Of course not. Which presumably means that Callinicos would consider Lukács (and by that token, Engels) as merely providing cover for a reactionary agenda. Using the SWP's grisly logic, Balzac's intentions were less than honourable and therefore we can comfortably damn him to a reactionary hell.

Nobody is saying that historians will look back on the Danish cartoons and make any claims of greatness for them (although they will certainly help students understand some of the political tensions of our age). But that is not really the issue. Rather it is the underlying Stalinist logic of the SWP's positions.

But then the SWP, despite its relatively large output of reviews and articles, does not really have a great record of constructive cultural engagement. Who can ever forget Julie Waterson's accusation that Irvine Welsh was anti-working class because he dared to flag up some uncomfortable facts of life?

The SWP generally employs a classical 'socialist-realist' method of judging a work of art by its surface politics (in the narrow sense of the word). Rarely does it discuss aesthetic meaning in any great depth. It is this same narrowness of approach that lends itself easily to the Callinicos formulation of trial by intention. This means that such writing misses the positive aesthetic meaning wrapped in reactionary politics, and also misses the reactionary aesthetics lurking underneath a progressive political surface.

To be fair to the SWP, the cultural writing of organisations such as the Alliance for Workers' Liberty (with the notable exception of Clive Bradley) is significantly worse. Also, some of the left's problems on this issue stem from its contemplative position. It seems as if we have an awful lot of reviewers but precious few creative producers. However, even if this position were to be reversed, the left would still have to theorise its output. And it is clear that the challenge here is to break out of a horrible Stalinist rut.