working class culture

Ralph Dumain rdumain at
Wed Oct 4 10:09:03 MDT 1995

Your query on working class culture mixes so many distinct issues
together it becomes difficult to disentangle them, which is a
prerequisite for moving the discussion forward.

1.  The Proletcult controversy is far removed from the present
situation, hence is relevant only as another depressing example of
the cultural politics of political manipulators.   Proletarian
culture of any kind was rather problematic then given that the
society inherited from Czarist days was overwhelmingly
pre-industrial and peasant.  The questions now are different.


>Is this working class culture because it deals with workers'
>experiences, struggles and values? Is it working class culture
>because it comes 'from below'? Trotsky says no because "the
>proletariat ..., though it has culture in politics, has little
>culture in art." Is this wrong?

The Trotsky quote has nothing to do with the question of South
African working class culture and its movement agitprop, so let's
separate these issues.  The question whether Trotsky is wrong in
relation to South Africa is meaningless.  Whether Trotsky was
wrong in the context of the USSR in the 1920s is a question that
requires further information, i.e. the definitions of "culture"
and "art".  If the definition if "art" refers to certain
formalized modes of cultural expression, e.g. literature, then
Trotsky could be right, but Trotsky would have also recognized
that formal culture is not the only kind of culture.  So please
make more precise what issues are at stake here.

Now for the question of working class culture and agitprop
theater.  Agitprop is a legitimate but limited part of artistic
culture, working class or otherwise.  Even in "bourgeois" culture,
authors such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Upton Sinclair are
considered part of the history of literature, if not major league
players strictly on literary merit alone.  There is no need to
exclude agitprop labor morality plays from working class culture,
but to equate the two would be a deplorable example of political
manipulation and bullying all too familiar from the legacy of


>In South Africa it is assumed there is such a thing as a working
>class culture. Examples are many and quite persuasive. For
>instance, there are "cultural workers/activists" in COSATU (the
>Congress of S.A. Trade Unions) whose task is to nationally
>organise productions, be they poetry readings, songs, mine
>dances or plays.

I confess my near total ignorance of South African culture(s), but
common sense tells me that the question of working class culture
in South Africa could not possibly rest upon the existence or
non-existence of political art productions created or sponsored by
trade unions.  The only question is whether there is a movement
afoot to monopolize, manipulate, and narrow the focus of cultural
expression in the service of a labor bureaucracy such as a
Communist party.

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