As representatives of Historical Materialism (a London-based journal of Marxist theory) Steve Edwards and Antigoni Memou participated in the 48-Hour Communal Life Seminar, convened by Chto Delat, ‘What Struggles Do We Have in Common?’ The seminar was productive in bringing together activists, artists and thinkers (and these need not be separate people) to talk and live together for two days. We met comrades from Russia and Belgrade; we also met activists, artists and media workers from Britain – even from our own city – who we did not know. Introductions of this type can be significant in developing networks of resistance to capitalism. We found the discussion fascinating (we talked much); the film screenings were instructive (we learned together); and we enjoyed the dumplings, vodka and the company (we laughed a great deal).
The question posed by the seminar is an important one for artists and activists, but so is the question ‘what struggles do we not have in common?’ One possible criticism of the seminar is that it lacked antagonism on questions of fundamental importance for all involved: is the distinction art and activism a genuine opposition? Is art activism in any way effective? What critical and theoretical resources do we need to create revolutionary change? Which legacy and which way forward? Who? Many questions; few answers.
In the learning play that emerged from the seminar Antigoni Memou played an activist; Steve Edwards (beside himself) intervened from the audience as Stan Evans who called for a boycott of the whole event as a mere charade of revolutionary politics served up for the well-heeled audience of the ICA. This intervention revolved around a leaflet written by Edwards and Vlidi Jerić of the Prelom Collective and issued under the name of the ‘League of Revolutionary Cultural Workers’.
On Stan Evans and the League of Revolutionary Cultural Workers
Stan was born in the late 1950s in the industrial west midlands of England (though the name suggests Welsh derivation). He served an apprenticeship as a print worker on a local newspaper, but having become involved with Maoist politics in the early 1980s he moved to London to work in the print shop of a national newspaper and immerse himself in party activity. During this time newspaper owners began a serious campaign to break the print unions’ resistance to the introduction of computerised type-setting technology. This campaign was instigated by Eddy Shah, proprietor of the Stockport Messenger, with a dispute in1983. Many see this confrontation as a dress rehearsal for the decisive government defeat of the miners’ union (NUM) in the defining strike that lasted from 1984-1985. The state took an intransigent and interventionist role in support of Shah’s union-busting activity: a new integrated police command was created, surveillance heightened and restrictions on movement instigated. All of these techniques were employed again in the following year against the NUM. Strengthened by the Thatcher government’s anti-union laws that restricted the right to strike and engage in solidarity action, in 1986 News International attempted a large-scale reconstruction of the print industry by moving newspaper production facilities from their traditional base in Fleet Street to a new computerised-production plant in Wapping, East London. The print unions – the National Graphical Association (NGA) and the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT), with solidarity from certain ‘refusnik’ members of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) – staged a bitter year-long strike, which was ultimately broken,in part because the electrician’s union (EEPTU) accepted the anti-union legislation, crossed picket lines and maintained the operation of the new presses. The result was that the print unions, which were among the best organised and most militant British trade unions, suffered a major defeat and hundreds of print workers lost their jobs. The defeats of the NUM and NGA/SOGAT were key moments in the ruling-class offensive against the organised working class and proved pivotal in the development of the neo-liberal project in Britain. The most active union members and political militants in the NGA/SOGAT were forced out of the printing shops, Stan prominent among them. At this point he went to work as a full-time organiser for the Communist Party of Britain-Maoist (CPG-M).
The CPG-M was founded in 1972 when a group of militants resigned from the largest of the British Maoist groups. In the late 1980s, the League of Revolutionary Cultural Workers (Marxist Leninist) split away from the dwindling remnants of CPG-M, arguing that the party did not engage sufficiently in cultural agitation. By this time Stan had come into contact with activists in Equity – the actors union – and members of the short-lived artists’ union. He had begun to engage in self-criticism and reeducation, reading widely on Marxist cultural politics (though, he still hasn’t read Alain Badiou – who Stan remembers from his earlier incarnation as a prominent militant of the Union des communistes de France marxiste-léniniste [UCFml]). In the early 1990s, the LRCW(ML) fused with a small group influenced by the ideas of the Situationist International and, after an intense period of internal debate and ideological struggle – which sometimes spilled over into a struggle of a more physical nature – removed (ML) from its title. The current membership of the League of Revolutionary Cultural Workers (LRCW) is forty-seven people of whom around twenty-two continue operating. Their main activity now consists in intervening in events and arguing for their revolutionary line. (With their minimal resources they are no longer able to publish a newspaper and depend of the leaflet as their key agitational tool.)
The two actors currently involved with the League were unavailable on the evening of Friday 10th September, which was a great pity. Stan (cadre name Rosa) and Vlidi (cadre name Vladimir) disrupted the performance of Chto Delat’s learning play by handing out their leaflet; Stan also intervened verbally on several occasions during the event. They called for a boycott of the faux theatricals taking place under the remit of the ICA. The central charge against Chto Delat is that they are hypocritical careerists who, under the guise of revolutionary critique, travel the world www amusements for the international bourgeoisie. According to the LRCW, Chto Delat claim to be Leftists, but objectively they serve capitalism and imperialism. The LRCW utterly rejects the ideological separation of art and activism, theory and practice embodied in this event and continues to affirm that a dialectical praxis is essential to any genuine revolutionary movement; only charlatans maintain a separation between these dialectical terms. The LRCW also accuse Chto Delat of doing nothing to counter the petty-bourgeois appeals to individualism emanating from the audience; indeed, Comrade Nikolay Oleynikov intervened in direct support of petty-bourgeois ideology by advocating Anarchistic-Libertarianism!!!
However, Stan Evans and the LRCW feel compelled to issue a statement of self-criticism. They recognise that the leaflet issued by LRCW contains a serious theoretical error, which, in collapsing economic and ideological struggles, may lead to revisionism on the road to economist liquidationism. The printed line ‘They speak of corporate sponsorship, and they take the money of the bankrupt ICA’ should have read: ‘They speak of corporate sponsorship, and they take the money of the ideologically bankrupt ICA’. The LRCW fully accepts criticism for this inexcusable lapse in the purity of its fighting and revolutionary line.
Stan Evans has always been beside himself.
Steve Edwards attempted to provide a contribution to Chto Delat’s learning play by an intervention from an ideological and political position that is not his own (in the 48-hour seminar he outlined a very different perspective from that advanced by Stan and the LRCW). The aim in creating Stan was to outline a fourth position, which in standing outside the opposition objectified in the performance on stage – artists and intellectuals versus activists/and all of these groups contrasting to the choir – further highlighted the reflexive nature of the events depicted. There was potential in this intervention to instigate a critical mise-en-abyme. However, Stan was a botched character and his part played poorly; ‘amateurish’ would be to credit too much. Inexcusably, he failed to stage a walk-out of the event. He couldn’t even walk-out himself; he kept sitting back down in his ICA seat. When one member of the audience suggested he abandon his ‘script’, Stan should have retorted: ‘Comrade, you are mistaken. There is no script here.’) Stan did not become ‘typical’ and could not fulfill his role.
This brings us to a problem with Chto Delat’s learning play. For Brecht a performance emerged from prolonged discussion and rehearsal, so that an entire political situation could be distilled into a single gestic action. It is a fundamental characteristic of the political modernist tradition from Brecht to Godard that a character must be able to perform a role, while not inhabiting it, drawing attention to the performance and asking the audience to assess its significance. (Brecht once suggested that an actor should play a Nazi thug while highlighting that he too was a victim). Chto Delat’s learning play was a rapidly improvised event and there was minimal time for rehearsal, development of roles or styles of acting. Under these circumstances, while the leaflet produced in the name of the LRCW captures something of intervensionist politics; it is, frankly, incoherent. Despite a shared vitalism apparent in the final lines, the fusion of Maoism and anarcho-Situ politics seems profoundly weird and untenable. It is a patched up montage of diverse slogans; a jumble of intellectual positions; a spewing out of 30 years undigested rhetoric. The quickly drafted leaflet is ultimately as much of a letdown as Stan’s character. The LRCW, Stan and the leaflet were fluffed. The intervention failed to become a point of critical perception.
Nevertheless, the rapidly improvised event has its own advantages: unexpected moments, startling occurrences and wonderfully improvised instances, such as Eshan’s Faradjadniya’s brilliant reply to Sasha Skidan – ‘there is no need to shout’; Vladan Jeremić’s ‘Tourist with a Flower Hat’ was a great character, and the guys from Turbulence, who turned into ‘stewards’ to escort him out, responded fantastically. The set was marvelously make-shift and the choir and wolf girls were great; the wolf howling made for a fantastic finale. But the main action that unfolded on stage was under-developed, insufficiently theorised and overly polarised and; comrades sometimes slipped out of role. One member of the cast addressed Stan as Steve forgetting she was beside herself and so was he. (Stan insisted that he was a worker with nothing but a state pension; his line on ‘super-annuated intellectuals’ was fleet of foot, but on the whole he was too slow, his responses sluggish. He ought to have replied that he knew of this ‘Steve’ who is an academic windbag and a Trotskyite scoundrel in the pay of the CIA). In the timeframe available for learning and development, it was difficult to remain consistently beside oneself. For that you probably need specialist technicians called actors.