Engaging culture

Issue: 108

Gareth Jenkins

A review of Alan Sinfield, Literature, Politics and Culture in Postwar Britain (Continuum, 2004), £9.99

No argument about the kind of society we want can ignore the question of culture. Stalinism provided a bureaucratic parody of the relationship between culture and the masses; and in the Cold War West arguments about culture retreated into disengagement from politics. A few voices kept alive the notion that the ‘value’ of culture might depend whose side you were on and how you linked it to broader political struggles.

Only with the upsurge of struggle (May 1968, mass strikes, anti-imperialist struggle, civil rights, the women’s movement, gay liberation) was there something like a revival of a Marxist understanding of culture in the 1970s and 1980s. Conservative academics were outraged that a new generation should undermine the idea that ‘culture’ possessed ‘universal’ values. Worse still, in their eyes, all kinds of ‘popular’ culture became subjects for debate and study. The barbarians, if not the lower orders, were taking over.

Alan Sinfield, born in 1941, belongs to this new generation. This is the third edition of a book that first appeared in 1989. It has a lengthy new introduction, which combines autobiography and social analysis and considers how far cultural materialism, applied to post-war British literature and culture, has intervened in political struggle.

Cultural materialism holds that we should not see culture as abstracted from its material conditions of production or reception. Culture is not some free-floating ideal, existing outside the world of exploitation or oppression. It is an area of contention, in which dominant groups seek to buttress their power and subordinate groups seek to carve out subversive alternatives. Culture must be historicised to prevent its being given a spurious universality that only serves to mask its role within class society.

This is what Sinfield proceeds to do in this wide-ranging and very readable book. He places a number of themes—notably, the representation of class, homosexuals, black people, women, youth music, and the role of left cultural critics—in the context of shifts in British capitalism from welfarism to Thatcherism. At every stage, and more pointedly in the conclusion, he raises the question of what role cultural critics play in broader struggles to end exploitation and oppression.

Sinfield has stood fast (as the new introduction fully shows) against the tendency, extremely prevalent over the last 15 years in the postmodernist academy, to retreat from a socialist struggle over culture. For this, if for no other reason, the reissue of this book is extremely welcome.

But is cultural materialism simply Marxism under a different name? Marxist ideas about class certainly play a large part within cultural materialism. Nevertheless, there is a heavy import from a very different tradition—particularly from the tradition that places great emphasis on how the world is represented, if not constructed, through language. We can sum these ideas up as theories that explain oppression (in particular) by the power of culture rather than the power of material circumstances.

To be fair, this does not characterise Sinfield’s overall approach. He is very conscious of culture’s material and social determinations. But there is a strand in Sinfield’s work arguing that ‘storytelling’ is a source of power at every level of experience.

Now, this yields a number of insights—but it does point to a problem. To use just one of Sinfield’s own examples: Thatcher’s mantra ‘There is no alternative’ may well have been powerful—but surely not primarily because working people found it a plausible story (that implies a positive acceptance), but because they lacked the confidence to mount an effective challenge.

It would be grossly unfair to accuse Sinfield of abandoning the very materialism he so clearly endorses. But the danger of emphasising the power of culture to shape and determine our lives lies in the implication that there is little we can do beyond exposing the ruses of culture. What thus emerges is scepticism about ‘big’ political struggles. The chapter added in 1997 argues that the failure of welfare capitalism is so disastrous that, as far as he is concerned, the elaboration of a comprehensive new politics is not on the agenda—or at least not yet, though hope for a revolutionary conjuncture is still there, as is the desirability of socialist advance, however limited.

The kind of certainty that past cultural critics had about the role of the working class now seems to be fractured beyond repair. There are now only subcultures to work in. It is as if Sinfield has resisted the theoretical lure of postmodernism but succumbed to its practical conclusions that there is nothing beyond the local and the particular. This pessimism was perhaps excusable in 1997—before the rise of the anti-capitalist and anti-war global movement. And maybe the 2004 introduction is less despairing. Sinfield quotes Brecht’s demand to reject what we regard as natural as unchangeable. ‘The political impetus in Brecht’s proposition’, he says, ‘has become immensely stronger. If we cannot change the world, it is not going to last very much longer.’