Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Does class culture disappear under Socialism?

Or does it persist? I'm defining Socialism as a state where the workers' assume power over society and obtain ownership of the means of production. Marx once said that the first act of the working class upon winning would be to abolish itself, because it would be liberated, but I don't agree with that. I think the situation is more complex. You can't just ask a class to abolish itself, and there are reasons why a workers' culture would be necessary for a socialist society.

The great accomplishment of early capitalism was emancipating people from the kind of rural medievalism that they had been living under. This was forcefully done through both revolution and economic compulsion, some of which was extremely severe. The working class is generated from the bourgeois class in that people coming in from the country are hired by capitalists and are set to work at working class jobs. The capitalist facilitates their transformation into workers. Because the working class is generated as a side product of the bourgeois class it shares some of its characteristics, specifically the independence from tradition that it has established. Now, the question of ideology and thus of culture comes in because in their opposition to tradition the bourgeois class developed its own ideology explaining its origins and justifying its power in society as a class. Read about the Enlightenment and Adam Smith for details on this. Some workers end up sharing the bourgeois ideology of their superiors, seeing themselves not so much as Workers with a big 'W' as co-capitalists, after the same thing as their bosses. But other workers absorb the liberation without buying into the ideology, and these folks are the ones who would be ideal for a future society.

In this case, what makes working class culture important and a good replacement for bourgeois culture is its freedom, the idea that work is work but that when it comes down to it the bosses and the company don't control you. You have your own life, which may not fit the bill when it comes to polite society but it's your own. There's a freedom in owning your work without having to submit to ideological tests that is hard to find comparisons to. It's this intermediate idea, neither rural nor bourgeois, that gives working class culture its unique strength in this regard. It's history is not yet totally written, while that of bourgeois culture is full and on its way out.

Workers' assuming power in the United States or elsewhere would enable people to self determine themselves without reference to the past, taking elements from here and there, from middle class culture and from upper class culture, that look useful and leaving the rest behind. Because a socialist society would be more collective, the working class culture in the future would no doubt reflect that as well.

*on edit: There are two point that I should clarify, one being the relationship of working class culture under socialism to bourgeois and upper class culture, the other being the relationship between economic power and cultural ideology. The second one is easier to tackle.

Basically, I believe that although economics creates the basic culture that a person grows up with and experiences that there are large variations within that culture, so that automatic identification of a person possessing economic power with a corresponding fervor of that classes' ideology isn't automatically valid. There are working people who identify heavily with the ideology of capitalism and there are people who are in power whose class interest is more flexible than one would think. This is important because a Cultural Revolution, where socialist and working class culture would start to predominate in society would have to recognize this fact in order to be just. The Chinese Cultural Revolution penalized people who were from backgrounds other than pure worker or farmer who had in fact adapted themselves to revolutionary Chinese society, causing pain to people who would otherwise have been allies. This on top of using the Cultural Revolution to settle scores with political figures under the banner of them being 'secret capitalists'.

The other point is basically that a working class socialist culture worth its salt would not blanketly dismiss the entire products of bourgeois and upper class culture from throughout history but would instead take from them. I think that it's not education itself, which usually introduces people to these things in our society, but the form that education takes here that's the problem. In society today, at least in the U.S. but probably in many other places as well, access to high culture or to the products of bourgeois culture like literature and certain types of art is gotten through selling out to bourgeois culture. Workers who want to get the education that would allow them to approach these things more easily face having to give up their cultural identity and instead adopting the identity of whoever is teaching them. This does not have to be the case; and hopefully it won't be the case in the future----or in reading circles that can be started now. Denying that there are products of bourgeois society that are interesting and that people can benefit from, or saying that being exposed to them makes one a sell out, is a type of class chauvinism related to nationalism and something that's easily exploited by demagogues for their own purposes.
Works may be reinterpreted, but cutting ones' self off from all of history and declaring that it's cultural year zero, and attempting to start again, is not productive.

In both cases reality and the complexities of reality trump pure superficial ideology.


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