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Being Labour, The world beyond West Lancashire

Does the Labour party need philosophers?

07.28.08 | 3 Comments

There’s the start of an interesting debate over at Though Cowards Flinch (TCF), with somewhat  opposing views on the value of intellectualism/academia to the Labour party/movement, and what counts as good music, put forward by TCF author Dave Sample and Miller 2.0. As seems increasingly to be the case, I started with a brief comment but finished with something that is maybe more appropriate as a linked post in itself.  I’m really still learning blogosphere. So here it is, with a few grammatical changes to suit its move from comment to post 

1)   On music  I think Dave (the pro-academic) is a bit harsh on the music that Miller 2.0 (punk etc etc)  likes when he condemns it as “exactly the sort of barbarism I have a big problem with”. 

What with being quite old and with kids who like listening to ‘Crazy Frog’ instead, none of the stuff that Miller 2.0 listens to has come the way of my ears, so I speak ignorantly, but I’m pretty sure from my discussions with real young people about such stuff that Miller 2.0, were he inclined, could come up with a pretty good argument to defend many of punk groups etc. as fine exemplars of people prepared to push at the edges of philosophical debate in a way which is, ultimately, quite ‘progressive’.  I do at least remember the Sex Pistols’ statement ‘The Beatles are fake’ and when I look back on it I could argue that this actually evidences succinctly an understanding of the right then-in-development philosophy of postmodernist (Foucaultian) concepts of all modernism/enlightenment being illusion.  In this respect was not 1970s punk simply putting in music-as-drama terms what John Osborne and other angry young men had starting up over the previous two decades, only with more room for a lot of words than you get in songs and neater haircuts.  Would Dave condemn Look Back in Anger as barbarism? Equally, when the The Cure (I seem to remember but it may have been someone else) spent a bit of the 1980s singing about the ‘joy’ of being an quasi-existentialist in reference to Camus (L’Etranger), or when Jarvis Cocker ups the irony when singing of the ‘common people’, is that anti-intellectual, or is it a deliberate and clever pastiche of what intellectualism means in modernity?  (I’ve no idea whether miller 2.0 likes this stuff, but the point is the same.) 

I (and perhaps Dave) do not have much truck with the central, essentially conservative, concepts of (earlier?) postmodernism, but I do see that it has had a place and continues to have a place as a challenge to Western social  norms, and has created the intellectual energy for a later ‘reclaiming’ of the enlightenment by Habermas, and even latterly Baudrillard (hat tip to Toodle Noodle, commenting at Dave’s Part, for putting me right on that here.

And in any case…………Isn’t the most important thing about music that it can simply transcend the inevitably time-bound/socially constrained philosophical standpoint?  Franz Kafka may not have been a Marxist but he certainly knew a thing or two about the alienated human condition and it’s not for nothing that Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis feels real release when his sister plays the violin.  If I read, lets say, the Chanson de Roland, I don’t get my kicks from assessing whether or not it is a statement of pre-enlightenment in a pre-enlightenment age (‘cos it’s not) but from the rhythmic power of the meter and the appropriate repetition of the key phrases.   Mind you, Dave’s right on one thing.  Baroque’s a bit crap. 

2 On Dave’s “…..nor can one pretend that a meaningful understanding of something as basic as the role of the state in society be achieved without appraising the works of Rousseau, Locke or indeed Lenin”. Well perhaps I may be a bit harsh on Dave in my turn, but this absolutist ‘you can’t really have a proper view on how to live/act till you’ve read this’ sounds a bit strange from someone who, on two occasions in his posting, is careful and quite right to note the dangers of seeing Western/Anglo American art forms as all there is. 

Similarly, there is a need to recognize that it is quite possible to establish and live with a coherent world view without ever having considered the individual’s role in society.    People with the happy circumstances to be able to comment much more lucidly and comparatively than I can on both Western and Eastern philosophical foundations (e.g. Chakravarti Ram-Prasad at Lancaster University) will tell you, for example, that Confuscianism focuses on the ‘dao’ (way) as a set of ethics (‘metaethics’) and creates for the individual a way of being which, while maybe having some kind of dialectical relationship to how the individual then acts, does not necessitate an assessment of the relationship between the individual and the ‘other’, including the state.  In short, people operating from this tradition (notwithstanding the global superimposition of Western values) are not worse off intellectually, they are what we might describe as ‘differently intellectual’. I would argue, in keeping with this, that many of the people Dave suggests are ‘lacking intellect’ in some way (and I accept he does not say this with intent to offend) are in fact simply ‘differently intellectual’……… 

3) On Miners’ Reading Clubs and CLP Political Education Officers and such: ……..And, in this end this embracing of ‘different intellectualism’ is something that, as members of a modern (or is that postpostmodern) Labour party we need to embrace and value, as others in the party have done before with success. 

I readily admit that, like Dave, some of the stuff that’s appeared recenltl as debate on the Labour member discussion pages has made me think ‘Oh for f***’s sake’, and disengage promptly.  Dave’s reflection on the demise of reading clubs and the decline of in-party political education is  useful, but we need to move on from there towards how we best deal with that in a way which a) enhances the coherence of what we do as a party b) is inclusive of the ‘different intellectualism to which I‘ve referred above.  Some of this can, of course, be achieved through the opportunities opened up by new technologies, and most notably blogging.  I’ve certainly learnt a fair bit of stuff that I now value through selective blog reading (including both these bloggers) and the ‘blog penetration’ levels now make this seem significant, but blogging is still only a part of it. For the rest of the answer, I think it’s useful to look back to the 1970’s/1980’s when the party was last in this sort of mess nationally, and what parties like

Manchester did.   I would argue that in Manchester, more possibly than you got in any other part of the country (possible exception London), what saved the party, AND CONTINUES through the establishment of local tradition to make it so electorally successful, was an (initially hard-fought for) willingness to open out the party to other intellectual traditions – most notably but not exclusively feminist ones, and the consequent development of strategic alliances the like of which Gramsci would have been quite chuffed (I didn’t really get Dave’s criticism of Miller 2.0 on the score of bastardising Gramsci).  What you got in Manchester ultimately was a party which, while not perfect, did have the ‘added value’ – to borrow a management term for a second – that comes with the ‘orthodox’ left picking up on and gaining from the strengths of other intellectual traditions, but at the same time creating an opportunity to do something of what the Miners’ Clubs and Political Education Officers used to do. Of course, such ‘opening out’ has happened in other areas, and more recently too – Oxford with its consequent electoral success in local elections might well be a good example, and I’d be pretty confident that it forms a pretty integral part of both Dave’s and Miller 2.0 own ‘party practice’, but it’s also something that at large in the Labour movement we need to be conscious of and promote because as a conscious movement it has receded in the face of the pervasive but intellectually stunting new orthodoxies of communitarianism/neo-liberal-by-the-back-door. 

And in the end, this opening out may have to include listening to and engaging with all sorts of whacky musical forms with non-judgmental ears.  Not baroque though – Dave and I  will, I think, agree that that’s just going too far. 

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