Why Theory?
Why Theory?
Why Theory?
Why Theory?
Why Theory?

Why Theory?

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Gang of Four
The Gang of Four are one of several British bands, including the Mekons, Red Crayola and Scritti Politi, most often characterized as “art rock,” who have attempted to introduce the theories of art into rock and roll music. Working within the framework of a Marxist aesthetic influenced by structuralism, such groups attack “reactionary structures” in rock and roll, and have even explored a search for a methodology of rock criticism. The Gang of Four feel that straight entertainment is invalid and have even questioned whether rock and roll music is so structured as to be reactionary per se. But such questioning has not led Jon King, Andy Gill, David Allen and Hugo Burnham to reject rock and roll altogether, as their own contributions have shown: “It’s not a group’s function just to be entertaining. A group should entertain and try to change things. You can’t change the actual status quo, the power structures, but you can change the way people think.” This does not mean simply shouting revolutionary slogans, because the band does not think that such activity changes the way people think. Rather they attempt to challenge people through music that disrupts conventional attitudes and ways of seeing.

On stage the Gang of Four reportedly work to present an image in contrast to the glamor so often exhibited by rock stars, and the band works to develop an egalitarian approach to making music. “We reject the classic notion that an artist is a gifted individual, different than–and separated from–society.”

Though their roots are in rhythm and blues, the utilization of Hendrix-like feedback, military rhythms with opposing beats in bass and drums, as well as disco and jazz-rock rhythms, dissonance and at times abrasive guitars all combine in a musical style that can best be described as minimalist, where “less is more” and a minimum of notes and beats are utilized. “The Gang of Four’s music works through a subtle kind of dislocation. Two rhythms will conflict, or there will be a deliberately off-key guitar break in the middle of a song, or one or more instruments will stop playing for a few seconds, something like an ’anti-solo.’

Lyrically the songs of the Gang of Four are generally complex and focus on reference points outside the traditional sphere of music, such as the torture of Irish political prisoners in the H-block and the Bikini Island H-bomb tests. But their socialist politics are not put forward, as such, in their songs; rather the lyrics are utilized to structure the approach and content in such a way as to challenge people to think and act on elements of capitalist society that are so often taken for granted.

In “Not Great Men” the message is explicitly that “great men” are not the motor force of history. Equally explicit is the relationship between these “great men” and the masses– “The poor still weak / the rich still rule.” But left unanswered is the question that if “great men” do not make history, then who does? It is the function of this song to pose a question that cannot be answered within the realm of popular ideology; it serves to challenge the audience to seek the answer elsewhere. Entertainment is not an effective medium for providing answers to pressing economic and political questions, especially when the viewer or listener is trying to relax after and before work; but it is an effective arena for raising questions that can only be answered by searching out an answer elsewhere.

Many of the songs on the Gang of Four’s newly released album, Entertainment! (Warner Bros.) demystify love and relationships in general, as well as the role of television and the evening news, and the military. Perhaps one of the most powerful challenges to the accepted role of popular music is “Love Like Anthrax.” With Kafkaesque references to waking up in desperation and feeling “Like a beetle on its back,” the song combines a somewhat heavy handed revulsion toward love and how individuals at times abuse their health, with a simultaneously spoken lyrical line that occasionally overlaps the first and more dominant lyrics. This technique, developed and utilized by Brecht in some of his plays, and the lyrics themselves, provide an interesting commentary on the prevalence of “love” as a common theme in popular music.

A song that is not on Entertainment! but which has received attention in the musical press because of its feminist content is “It’s Her factory.” A take-off from a daily newspaper headline that read “Unsung Heroines of Britain,” the song builds on that line as follows: “Unsung Heroines of Britain / convenient fiction / Housewife heroines, addicts to the homes / It’s a factory, it’s a duty.” Commenting on the song in an interview with the New York Rocker, Hugo Burnham said: “It talks about the situation where the woman is at home and has certain functions and does things, and it’s all accepted as the natural state of affairs. Our idea is to say ’Is this natural? Are there other options?’ We want to create debate.”

Perhaps as important as the lyrical content of their songs is the Four’s conceptual approach to music and entertainment, and the effect it has had on others. They view their music as a process that challenges the audience to question and think, and have influenced other musicians that tour with them to do the same. Groups such as Scritti Politi have dedicated their collective efforts to a “rigorous dissection of the whole process of valid music production,” where “music is seen as one of a range of activities, rather than being an unquestioned absolute” for the band. Some of the more experimental bands use film projection or seemingly random sound patterns to distance the audience from the music, a concept that some would call Brechtian since the distancing effects create a space in which the presentation can become a critical comment on itself. The playwright’s “alienation effects” are techniques of drawing attention to the artifice of theater that serve to keep the audience critically alert rather than swept up in emotional identification with the characters and their plight. “I’m not writing for the scum who want to have the cockles of their hearts warmed,” Brecht declared in a 1926 interview. The play’s material incidents “ought to be presented quite coldly… objectively.” 

But what is most important in the music of the Gang of Four, and those groups who share their approach, is that for the first time since Brecht’s plays received wide attention in the 1920s, we are seeing a conscious intervention by socialists to fuse advanced Marxist theory with widely popular culture.

Discussion of the major progressive punk and new wave bands is important at this time for several reasons. Many of the progressive bands have recently released albums in the US, and have received considerable attention in the music press, with the Clash receiving a rave review of London Calling, and the Gang of Four’s Entertainment! an only slightly less enthusiastic review, both in the Rolling Stone (which has generally avoided much coverage of the punk scene, and tended to ignore most of the political developments in British rock and roll, with the notable exception of the writing of Greil Marcus). As we have pointed out, the progressive new wave bands actively inject political themes into their work in subtle and complex ways. Finally, these bands are developing a vital and dynamic approach to the music they play, and are influential both in Britain and the US.

And it is such influence that indicates how important communist intervention in the cultural class struggle is. Each of these bands has helped break down the hegemony of certain ideas that have surrounded and penetrated popular music for years; ideas that not only held back progressive political expressions, but also held back much meaningful creativity in the realm of popular music. It is for this reason that the response of the US left must be carefully analyzed. The left can potentially intervene in the cultural class struggle to help change the world for the benefit of the working classes only if it develops an understanding of the role and potential of scientific cultural criticism.

Popular Culture and Revolutionary Theory: Understanding Punk Rock

Raya Dunayevskaya
Raya Dunayevskaya also known by the pseudonym Freddie Forest, was the American founder of the philosophy of Marxist humanism in the US. The Russian-born thinker was an important and influential figure on the US radical left. At an early stage, she recognized the need to combine struggles against racism and capitalism—two oppressive structures that were intimately linked.

Dunayevskaya challenged the premises of established Marxism by promoting a humanist alternative to the myriad forms of alienation that define modern society. As Adrienne Rich put it:

Dunayevskaya vehemently opposed the notion that Marx’s Marxism means that class struggle is primary or that racism and male supremacism will end when capitalism falls. “What happens after” she said, is the question we have to be asking all along.

In 1940, she was involved in the split in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) that led to the formation of the Workers Party (WP), with which she shared an objection to Trotsky's characterisation of the Soviet Union as a 'degenerated workers' state'. Within the WP, she formed the Johnson–Forest Tendency alongside C. L. R. James(she being "Freddie Forest" and he "J.R. Johnson", named for their party cadre names). The tendency argued that the Soviet Union was "state capitalist", while the WP majority maintained that it was bureaucratic collectivist.

After more than a decade of developing the theory of state capitalism, Dunayevskaya continued her study of the Hegelian dialectic by taking on a task the Johnson–Forest Tendency had set itself: exploring Hegel's Philosophy of Mind. In 1954 she initiated a decades long correspondence with the critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, in which the necessity and freedom dialectic in Hegel and Marx became a focal point of contention. She advanced an interpretation of Hegel's Absolutes holding that they involved a dual movement: a movement from practice that is itself a form of theory and a movement from theory reaching to philosophy. She considered these 1953 letters to be "the philosophic moment" from which the whole development of Marxist Humanism flowed.

Dunayevskaya wrote what came to be known as her "trilogy of revolution": Marxism and Freedom: From 1776 Until Today (1958), Philosophy and Revolution (1973), and Rosa Luxemburg, Women's Liberation, and Marx's Philosophy of Revolution (1982). In addition, she selected and introduced a collection of writings, published in 1985, Women's Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution. She consistently argued that the realities of our times made a revolutionary humanist perspective essential for both theory and practice.

In this issue of Marxist Humanism, we attempt for the first time (for us) to introduce a serious discussion of philosophy. Raya Dunayevskaya’s 1965 essay on Alienation, which we reprint in this issue, is of even greater significance today in a society which now feels even physically threatened by the ‘alienated youth’ it keeps on producing and who will play a big part in digging its grave.

Then Why Theory? Why Now? Because ‘if it seems like a natural fact, how we think changes how we act’ and theory can help expose the counter-revolution within the revolution and pose an alternative, a philosophy of liberation in which leaders aren't allowed to keep theory for their own use. 

Marxist Humanism Autumn 1981

Alienation, Dunayevskaya argued, is not just about the separation of the product from the producer—the fact that workers produce more value than they obtain in wages. This imbalance was the consequence of being alienated from one’s own activity, both at work and in our relations with other people (and with nature) outside of the workplace. As Marx stated:

Private property is thus the product, the result, the necessary consequence, of alienated labor, of the external relation of the workers to nature and to himself…though private property appears to be the reason, the cause of alienated labor, it is rather its consequence.

The unequal distribution of property, income, and resources is the necessary result of alienated human relations, not the other way around. Marx penned those words in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844—known as his Humanist Essays. Dunayevskaya discovered these writings, which were virtually unknown in the English-speaking world at the time, during her research on the Russian economy, and was the first to publish parts of them in English.

According to Dunayevskaya, the many unfinished and aborted revolutions since 1917 showed that Marxists would pay a hefty price for relying on hierarchical and elitist forms of organization while neglecting the need for a thoroughgoing reorganization of human relations before and after the seizure of power. A philosophical reconstruction of Marxism based on Marx’s humanism became imperative.

Although a number of thinkers came to be associated with socialist humanism over the years, Dunayevskaya’s approach differed from many others in two important respects. Firstly, she did not ground humanism in an essentialist or ahistorical view of human nature, but in actual forces of revolution. She called it “a movement from practice that is itself a form of theory.”

Mass freedom struggles, Dunayevskaya held, were not simply a force to be harnessed in the name of “making” the revolution. They raised theoretical questions that had to be heard, absorbed, and developed — such as “When does my working day begin and end and why do I have no say in it?” “Why am I seen not as a person but in terms of a racial stereotype?” or “Why does the person who claims to love me still treat me as an object?” Such questions posed by new social movements compelled Marxists to broaden their view of the entire emancipatory project.

Raya Dunayevskaya's Marxist Humanism and the Alternative to Capitalism

Why Theory?
On their second album Solid Gold, Gang of Four openly assert their intention to approach pop music as critical theory with a song titled, appropriately enough, “Why Theory?” In answer to their own query of why critical theory should have a place in rock music, the band sings “Each day seems like a natural fact / And what we think changes how we act.” The critical theory that Gang of Four present in their music is a Marxist one centered on the premise that before revolt can take place, one must first penetrate through the consciousness that is determined by capitalistic ideology in order to understand why a revolution is necessary.

Gang of Four locate their Marxist theory in the Althusserian notion of expressing resistance through the contradictions inherent in the Ideological State Apparatuses of the corporate-controlled rock music industry, and the way in which Gang of Four express their theory of Marxist thought is by inducing in the listener an alternative consciousness achieved through contradictions and disorientations that serve to mirror the very sense of disorientation and contradiction that capitalistic consciousness creates.

Gang of Four were clearly absorbed with the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, whose pre-WWII ideas about the crucial role of culture as a battleground in ideological struggle achieved new currency in the ’70s. 

From Gramsci came the notion of “common sense”—platitudes, maxims, social conventions, and so forth—as the means by which the dominant class naturalizes its value-system and convinces everybody else that the world is as it only can be. “Why Theory?,” on Gang of Four’s second album, Solid Gold, translates Gramsci’s ideas into ultra-accessible vernacular: “We’ve all got opinions/Where do they come from?/Each day seems like a natural fact/And what we think/Changes how we act.” Without explicitly answering the question of the title, the song suggests that theory is a way to untie your mental chains, apprehend the truth of oppression, and perhaps find a way to freedom. 

Remembering Gang of Four's Andy Gill, Who Ripped Punk to Shreds