A Genuine Left Would Support Western Civilisation – by David McMullen

First published at On Line Opinion

… western civilisation is no longer western. It is global and a far better term is modernity. By the end of this century we can expect it to have totally supplanted all pre-existing conditions, even in the most backward regions. This will be a jolly good thing too.

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The pseudo-left wants to stop a multi-million-dollar donation by the conservative Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation to the Australian National University for a new course on Western civilisation. According to the heads of the staff and student unions at the university it is racist to prioritize western history or culture. It mustn’t be “privileged”.

I guess we are supposed to look back lovingly at all those civilisations that crumbled in the face of the western onslaught, for example, Czarist Russia, Qing China, Mughal India, Ottoman MENA and Aztec Mesoamerica. And then of course there were the remnants of hunter-gathering society that lived in harmony with nature, and from whom we can learn so much, so we are told.

Of course, western civilisation is no longer western. It is global and a far better term is modernity. By the end of this century we can expect it to have totally supplanted all pre-existing conditions, even in the most backward regions. This will be a jolly good thing too.

Western history should indeed be prioritized over other history because that is where modernity began. The history of other regions is still important, but mainly in order to understand how their traditional cultures are an obstacle to modernity.

By studying western history, we get to understand how the connection between the economic, social and political transform the way be live.

The collapse of the Roman Empire is a good place to start. That’s when things slowly began to get interesting. Under the dead hand of Rome, innovation had been forbidden or a matter of indifference. But with the “Dark Ages” came something of a technological revolution in comparison. For the first time we saw the harnessing of horse-power with the adoption of the saddle, stirrups, horse shoes, bridle, horse collar and tandem harness. Water and wind mills sprang up everywhere.  The cranks and gears used in mills would become the basis of modern machinery. Lock gates in rivers and streams appeared for the first time. There were ships that could sail into the wind. And in the meantime, the church was doing a good job preserving literacy for a later time when it could be put to good use.

We gradually saw the spread of the market. This was assisted by the political fragmentation of Europe where the local thugs (sorry, lords) did not have their own raw materials for weapons and finery, and also of course by the development of ocean going sailing ships.

However, the feudal conditions became a fetter that could only be broken by the development of capitalist property relations. Small scale production could not meet the demand of the growing markets. Production carried out with the cooperation of large numbers of workers using machinery replaced small scale individual production. Steam power for machines and locomotion replaced wind and water.

This new economic system was compatible with, indeed required, more freedom of thought and action by the individual. A totally new society sprung up.

Studying the emergence of the modern world also gives an appreciation of how progress can be a messy thing.

When Martin Luther undermined a pillar of the feudal order, the Catholic Church, the achievement did not come cheaply. Notably, the subsequent religious wars killed off a quarter or more of the population of central Europe and half the male population of Germany.  About the same time, we had The English Civil War. This was critical to the creation of modern Britain but was a protracted bloodbath and lead to the death of 40 percent of the population of Ireland. Then it took a century of mucking about for the French Revolution to replace the old feudal regime with a respectable bourgeois one.

And nearer to the present we have seen the rocky road out of feudalism achieved in the former Czarist empire, China and eastern Europe. In the 1940s, we had to resist fascism’s attempt to roll back history, and that struggle cost millions of lives. So, if you think change seems pretty messy in the Middle East at the moment just look back at modern history.

The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation will of course want modernity to stop at capitalism. They are aptly called conservative. In their view, not only are capitalist property relations superior to older forms but attempts to move beyond them are bound to be a tragic folly. Exhibit one is the failed attempts in the 20th century to create post-capitalist societies on the back of totally unsuitable pre-capitalist conditions. Exhibit two is the doubtful results of “socialist” tinkering under capitalism. That sort of evidence would not get past a committal hearing but it has wide acceptance.

We then have the revolutionary wing of western civilisation that I belong to. Modernity in its preliminary capitalist form is a vast advance on everything else past or present and lays the conditions for the next stage. We should welcome its global spread.

In a letter to Engels of October 8 1858 Marx wrote: “The proper task of bourgeois society is the creation of the world market, at least in outline, and of the production based on that market. Since the world is round, the colonisation of California and Australia and the opening up of China and Japan would seem to have completed this process.” He was being rather optimistic but his point of view is clear. And notice the reference to Australia. No black armband there. (You may like to check out more Marx at the Marx Engels Archive.)

While capitalism is an advance it is still the exploitation of the many by the few.  But as luck would have it capitalism is an incubator of the next stage, a classless society based on social ownership of the means of production. Capitalism turns most people into workers with no vested interest in capitalism; it unshackles our brains from pre-capitalist, traditional junk; and it creates a level of economic development that makes it possible to imagine equality because it would no longer be a case of sharing want and toil.

We can expect a messy transition. To start with those who want change will be confused about what they want and how to get there while those opposed to change will have a very clear idea on both counts and years of practice. But let’s hope the transition is not as tortuous as the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

However, that is for the future. At the moment there is no revolutionary movement nor any support for revolution. For now, fully entrenching and advancing the present capitalist stage of modernity is the priority. There are still large regions of the world where backwardness and tyranny reign supreme.  MENA is a priority area from the point of view of lifting tyranny from people’s backs. Then in the long hall we have Sub-Saharan Africa. It is the most backward region and has a huge and growing population. Possibly a third of people will live there by century’s end.

Unfortunately, there seems to be an alignment of toxic trends hampering this process. In the US and Europe, “both sides of politics” are heavily infected by isolationism and protectionism. Europe has its disgraceful agricultural policy that adds to Africa’s misery and a limited ability to project military power.  Then we had Obama’s appalling failure to stay the course in Iraq and to intervene in a timely fashion in Syria.

And now nobody is denouncing Trump’s failure to do the right thing and occupy Syria while arranging regime change. Doing nothing is a policy fully endorsed by both the pseudo-left and the alt-right. The former all supported Saddam and now some even support Assad.

The pseudos have also built a whole movement over the last 20 years or so opposing the global spread of capitalism. And even more insidiously, they oppose economic development because it is “unsustainable”. They want the darkies to live in noble simplicity.

To get down to brass tacks, a genuine left would align itself with the neo-cons and support their re-emergence. They stand for an activist foreign policy of regime change, nation building and economic development. There needs to be military support for change where it has a chance of success. (It is worth noting here that the recent Iraqi elections have been surprisingly open notwithstanding the violent efforts of Baathists and Islamo-fascists.)  Diplomacy should be heavily focused on giving kleptocrats and tyrants a hard time.

Australia could play a special role given the failure of the Americans and Europeans. We can pressure them to act and take a much more activist military policy. Being a pipsqueak power, our contribution is limited. However, we can be good at training and deploying special forces.

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David McMullen lives in Melbourne and he can be found at The Communist Manifesto Project.

 

 

 

“Factfulness”

Just finished this book and VERY strongly recommend it.

First do this quiz is at the main site for the book (with lots of other very useful material):
http://forms.gapminder.org/s3/test-2018

Do above first for quick preview without spoilers. Numerous surveys done with this quiz. Consistently show that most people including most “experts” do worse on choosing between 3 plausible answers to basic factual questions about the world than random one out of three guesses of “Chimpanzees”.

Continue reading

Cinco de Mayo – 200 years of Marx

Best known for the 1862 defeat of the French empire by Mexico, 5 May was also Karl Marx’s birthday 200 years ago in 1818.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinco_de_Mayo

This May also marks the 50th anniversary of the “May 1968 events in France” which marked the peak of a global upheaval known as “the sixties” when the world was again reminded that revolution is for advanced western capitalist countries too:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_1968_events_in_France

I don’t have much to say about any of these unrelated events, and birthday’s are not in themselves historical events. But this does seem a suitable moment to suggest some reading on Marx.

As a former “suixante-huitard” I can confirm we neither knew nor needed to know much about economics. But it is all the more our duty to help the coming next generation of rebels understand that it is no longer optional. Such work has been put off for more than a century and the coming economic crisis won’t wait another century before there are more upheavals in which rebels will be far too busy rebelling to spend time figuring out how we might actually transform the world economy when we win.

This is a continuation of my initial list for “Studying Philosophy” as preliminary reading to help understand Maksakovsky’s “The Capitalist Cycle”:

https://c21stleft.com/2017/10/19/studying-philosophy/

At present the only other short item I would add to the four main short works there is Engels on Feuerbach:

https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1886/ludwig-feuerbach/

I am still working on a similar list for “Studying Economics”. Meanwhile I just came across a recent book of translations of early 20th Century “orthodox marxism” co-authored by Maksakovsky’s translator, Richard B Day with Daniel Gaido. That whole book looks very appropriate for this 200th anniversary:

Responses to Marx’s Capital: from Rudolf Hilferding to Isaak Illich Rubin

A detailed description is here, together with link for free download of the full text .pdf.

https://libcom.org/library/responses-marxs-capital-rudolf-hilferding-isaak-illich-rubin

I haven’t finished reading it but certainly intend to include on the final list the first two chapters of translations from Kaufmann and Bauer.

Marx’s “Introduction” will also need to be on the list:

https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch01.htm

Likewise Hilferding’s 1910 “Finance Capital” was an important follow on from “Capital” needed by Maksakovsky and indicating the vast amount of work that has to be done to seriously grasp another full century of capitalist development since then.

https://www.marxists.org/archive/hilferding/1910/finkap/index.htm

Those two chapters of recent translations from Day and Gaido explain why the above two long available “classics” are important and provide a clear link between the philosophical and economic background useful for understanding Marx and Maksakovsky.

After 200 years, of not understanding Marx, “It’s Time”.

Where do correct ideas come from?

“Where do correct ideas come from? Do they drop from the skies? No. Are they innate in the mind? No. They come from social practice, and from it alone; they come from three kinds of social practice, the struggle for production, the class struggle and scientific experiment. It is man’s social being that determines his thinking”.

Scan10025

(Cartoon from ‘Rabelais’, La Trobe University SRC newspaper, 1970)

“Once the correct ideas characteristic of the advanced class are grasped by the masses, these ideas turn into a material force which changes society and changes the world. In their social practice, men engage in various kinds of struggle and gain rich experience, both from their successes and from their failures. Countless phenomena of the objective external world are reflected in a man’s brain through his five sense organs  —  the organs of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch.

“At first, knowledge is perceptual. The leap to conceptual knowledge, i.e., to ideas, occurs when sufficient perceptual knowledge is accumulated. This is one process in cognition. It is the first stage in the whole process of cognition, the stage leading from objective matter to subjective consciousness from existence to ideas. Whether or not one’s consciousness or ideas (including theories, policies, plans or measures) do correctly reflect the laws of the objective external world is not yet proved at this stage, in which it is not yet possible to ascertain whether they are correct or not.

“Then comes the second stage in the process of cognition, the stage leading from consciousness back to matter, from ideas back to existence, in which the knowledge gained in the first stage is applied in social practice to ascertain whether the theories, policies, plans or measures meet with the anticipated success. Generally speaking, those that succeed are correct and those that fail are incorrect, and this is especially true of man’s struggle with nature. In social struggle, the forces representing the advanced class sometimes suffer defeat not because their ideas are incorrect ! but because, in the balance of forces engaged in struggle, they are not as powerful for the time being as the forces of reaction; they are therefore temporarily defeated, but they are bound to triumph sooner or later.

“Man’s knowledge makes another leap through the test of practice. This leap is more important than the previous one. For it is this leap alone that can prove the correctness or incorrectness of the first leap in cognition, i.e., of the ideas, theories, policies, plans or measures formulated in the course of reflecting the objective external world. There is no other way of testing truth. Furthermore, the one and only purpose of the proletariat in knowing the world is to change it. Often, correct knowledge can be arrived at only after many repetitions of the process leading from matter to consciousness and then back to matter, that is, leading from practice to knowledge and then back to practice. Such is the Marxist theory of knowledge, the dialectical materialist theory of knowledge.

“Among our comrades there are many who do not yet understand this theory of knowledge. When asked the sources of their ideas, opinions, policies, methods, plans and conclusions, eloquent speeches and long articles they consider the questions strange and cannot answer it. Nor do they comprehend that matter, can be transformed into consciousness and consciousness into matter, although such leaps are phenomena of everyday life. It is therefore necessary to educate our comrades in the dialectical materialist theory of knowledge, so that they can orientate their thinking correctly, become good at investigation and study and at summing up experience, overcome difficulties, commit fewer mistakes, do their work better, and struggle hard so as to build China into a great and powerful socialist country and help the broad masses of the oppressed and exploited throughout the world in fulfillment of our great internationalist duty”.

–   Mao Zedong

May 1963

Book review: The Civil War in the United States: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (edited and with an introduction by Andrew Zimmerman) International Publishers, New York, 2nd edition, 2016

civil war book cover

“Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded”. – Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 1867

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(The following review by Barry York is from the latest edition of ‘Recorder’, the newsletter of the Melbourne Labour History Society. It is published here in its unedited form).

This collection of writings by Marx and Engels about the American Civil War was originally published in 1937 by Dr. H. M. Morais. Dr Morais lost his college teaching job as a result. It’s good that in 2016 it can be published as a second edition without any job losses. Zimmerman, a professor of history in Washington DC, provides very useful introductory contextualisation to each section. There are nine parts in all, from Marx and Engels on slavery and abolition before the civil war through to ‘Slavery and the Civil War in Capital’.

Zimmerman’s introductions are helpful for those of us who need reminding of the significance of the various places, battles, politicians and military figures.

Marx and Engels certainly knew their stuff. Considering they wrote from England, Marx’s knowledge of American geography and topography is astonishing. It’s remarkable to read the extent of their detailed knowledge of the unfolding struggle against the “oligarchy of 300,000 slave holders”. They drew on wide sources of information, including correspondence with German communists who had fled to the United States following the defeat of the 1848 European revolutions and who took up arms for the Union. But they also read the American newspapers, including the New York Tribune. And Engels even communicated with a Confederate major.

This is how it should be, of course. ‘No investigation, no right to speak’. They did not see it through the lens of dogma, or force the events into some formula or ideological schema. Their letters and other writings reveal a materialist dialectical approach, an understanding that things unfolded as they did, influenced by human thought and motored by action, but not as one might wish they should. Revolutions are innovative and experimental, devising their own strategies and defining their own nature.

We must keep in mind that the American Civil War was Marx and Engels’ equivalent of ‘Vietnam’ (for those of us politicized in the 1960s). It was the big issue – “the most momentous thing happening in the world today” – especially for internationalists who see no distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’. The US struggle against slavery was also a source of inspiration following the dispiriting rise of Bonapartism in Europe.

It was also inspiring for Marx and Engels to witness the great support by the English working classes for the Union forces, at a time when the British ruling class was sympathetic to the Confederacy.

I was surprised by the extent of Engels’ military knowledge. He sure loved guns. Marx, by contrast, comes across as more adept at political and economic analysis. Engels emerges as less optimistic than Marx. But for Marx there was no doubt of Union victory. In a letter to his uncle (yes, he had one), Marx knew that the North had “a last card up its sleeve in the shape of a slave revolution”.

Marx and Engels were great pro-war ‘hawks’. Not for them the ineffective non-violent tactics of naval blockades. They supported and welcomed military invasion of the South.

The edited selection of writings reveal how Marx and Engels saw through the false argument that the emerging war was not about slavery but rather tariffs.

And they contended with the ‘ultra-leftists’ who were highly critical of Lincoln. It took 18 months before Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, but Marx and Engels recognised him as a strategic thinker who was creating conditions to take his class, the working class, with him against the pre-industrial slave owners.

Lincoln was their ‘Ho Chi Minh’. Marx’s letter to Lincoln on behalf of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864 can be read here: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/iwma/documents/1864/lincoln-letter.htm

Revolutions do not always succeed, they can fail, but they can push things forward. When one fails, you have another. Marx and Engels were very disappointed by Andrew Johnson’s presidency, following Lincoln’s assassination. He restored plantations to ex-slave owners and reversed the planned land reform program. Slavery was abolished but racial and class hierarchies kept in place. It took another century, marked by Jim Crow segregation and lynchings, before the next leap forward in 1965 with the Civil Rights Act.

The faint-hearted should be warned that Marx and Engels sometimes used the term ‘Nigger’. They used it infrequently and ironically, usually.

Of all the great quotes by Marx in this book, one stands out for me: “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded”. (Captial, vol. 1, 1867)

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Toronto Museum – An exercise in ‘education’, irritation and Bertolt Brecht

‘We do not want to be depicted in the way we were when we were first discovered in our homeland in North America. We do not want museums to continue to present us as something from the past. We believe we are very, very much here now and we are going to be very important in the future’.

– North American Indigenous exhibit, Toronto Museum

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(by Tom Griffiths)

Recently my wife and I had the opportunity of visiting the Toronto Museum at the invitation of a Toronto based colleague of hers, in order to see a Viking exhibition. Well, historical remnants and explanations thereof – if you want to see the long boats you need to go to the Viking Museum in Oslo. We did not expect this to be able to match the Viking museum, not a fair ask in any case and in this sense our expectations were met.

Before moving on to the purpose of this post, which is not really about the Viking exhibits, two comments about it, both positive, are worth making, especially since they affected my expectations (and disappointments) of what I would be exposed to in the rest of the museum, or rather those parts I visited. And these left me peeved and irritated with Brecht buzzing around my head. But more on this later.

The two positives, while modest in themselves, showed an attempt being made by either the curating bods at Toronto or Oslo to engage the visitor in the life and times of the Vikings. And having vicariously visited Valhalla courtesy of Dirk Gently’s adventures in The Long Dark Tea-Time of The Soul I was ready to be engaged.

The first positive was an obvious attempt by the curators to explain aspects of context, specifically social and economic, that helped shape the Vikings. As one would expect these days particular attention was placed on the place and role of women, making them visible. This aspect painted with a broad brush. The other positive was about fine detail. As one would expect after a thousand odd years many of the exhibits were showing their age and associated brittleness. One, a sword, made decrepit and fragile by rust, was partnered by a reproduction that had been placed in front of it. Above the repro was a sign saying Touch Me. I didn’t need to be asked twice. Briefly, for a fleeting second, I was able to imagine myself there. I will leave it to your imagination to decide whether ‘there’ was somewhere in the former Viking territories or in Valhalla.

While it would be an exaggeration to say that I was buoyed by this experience, it had certainly lodged somewhere in my head as my wife headed off to work leaving me to explore the rest of the museum. At this stage Brecht was, shall I say, keeping a low profile.

Whilst I did not ‘do’ the whole museum I did see three of their substantial exhibitions. In order of my seeing them these were an exhibition of 1stC to 20thC AD Korean sculptures and artifacts, a North American Indigenous section and a series of 16thC to early 20thC bed and sitting room furniture in ‘typical’ domestic settings. A legacy of European style as the Museum put it. Hint: the inverted commas serve as a warning. By the time I had finished Brecht was buzzing furiously.

Leaving Odin, Thor and their Viking worshipers behind I headed off to a Korean exhibition, the focus of which was mythology, mythological figures (the King of Hell, for example), furnishings and residential representations of the wealthy and … I don’t know what the collective noun is for numerous Buddha statues gathered in a small space is – a chill of Buddhas perhaps? – and a chill of Buddhas.

An O.D. of Buddhas- insouciance for all

I entered this exhibition curious but without any specific expectations. I left it Buddha’d out, having been through a Charge of the Light Brigade moment – Buddhas to the right, Buddhas to the left … The benefit of this over dose was it forced me to think and what follows is a distillation of that.

There were several aspects to this, the most immediately obvious being the historical, the retreat inward in the face of powerlessness. Whilst not true in any absolute sense the old boy himself and his many followers were, like the Stoics of ancient Greece and the Brahmin aesthetes, to name but a few, suffering an acute on chronic shortage of places to go with any dissatisfactions or grievances they had with the material world. And more importantly the people generally had even fewer places to go – they had no choice other than to put up with it and figure out ways to survive.

Hobbes’ dystopian description of the primitive world where life outside society was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ could also have been applied to the social conditions surrounding Buddha et al because life inside these societies wasn’t much better. From such materially and spiritually impoverished soil, “a heartless world” as Marx put it, sprang both need, “the sigh of the oppressed creature” and solution.

Withdrawing into the inner self was something they could do – and proselytise about – and they did. And yes, I know that proselytising about it is an external act and a defacto, if not intentional, political act but we moderns have Buddha et al at a considerable disadvantage when it comes to passing judgement on the value of what he or others were promoting as solutions to the miseries and injustices of social life.

So what is my gripe about confronting these ‘chilled out’ stone figures? None. As just mentioned, judging those times by today’s values and insights wouldn’t even make the grade as picking low hanging fruit; my gripe with the museum’s display is with how these concrete historical figures have been removed from their actual, material conditions and the human needs these ‘nurtured’ and gave birth to and rendered them abstract.

Museums all around the world, including Toronto, promote themselves as having an educative function. Unlike their Viking display, this was not education, but mystification. The saving grace, if I can put it that way, of the Buddas one can see in temples across South and SouthEast Asia – my favourites are the giant, recumbent Buddhas I’ve seen in Thailand and Sri Lanka, whose eyes peer lazily beyond, looking like they’ve just had a shot of heroin – is that they make no attempt to educate in a rational, secular sense; they are religious figures at places of worship.

There the term education takes on an entirely different meaning, one that is part of a religious faith’s ‘job description’. I disagree with the message but have no gripes with their honesty. I am unable to be so generous with the museum and this connects it with the following.

Another aspect is quite contemporary, a comment on the times. At the dawn of the modern era we see someone like Bacon revolutionizing philosophy by turning it outward, to the objective world of things. He took more than a passing swipe at medieval predecessors and ancient Greek philosophy alike for their looking inward and took a very direct swipe at Plato and Platonism generally: “when you taught us to turn our minds inward and grovel before our own blind and confused idols under the name of contemplative philosophy; then truly you dealt us a mortal injury.”

While not directed against Buddha or what his adherents stood for it could easily have done so. There was a world to conquer. The means to do it were emerging and these means were accompanied by and encouraged a spirit full of confidence and vision. This bullish spirit (or should that be Bolshie spirit?) of the young bourgeois revolution, so admired by Marx, is now in an almost apologetic retreat. Where once a critique of the shortcomings and hypocrisies of this revolution created elbow room for proletarian promise and daring do, there is now among ‘informed opinion’ and the broad spectrum of bourgeois ideology a de energised, timid state characterised by a sense of diminished hope and glumness if not outright funk.

And just when we thought things had reached rock bottom who should step, or rather who is pushed, onto the stage, but Buddha, eyes closed or glazed over telling us to focus on the inner self. Now in whose interest could that sage advice possibly be I wonder?

Tellingly, perhaps, my favourite figure in this section of the museum was the King of Hell, a diabolical little chap who at least displayed a sense of vitality. And here Brecht made his first appearance. As I looked and smiled at the King I was reminded of Brecht’s Mask of Evil: “On my wall hangs a Japanese carving/ The mask of an evil demon, decorated with gold lacquer./ Sympathetically I observe/ The swollen veins on the forehead, indicating/ What a strain it is to be evil.”

As with my little ‘mate’ the King there is tension, there is contradiction, there is life. And thank heavens for that! Or should that be thank hell?
After entering this exhibit with casual interest I found myself relieved to be leaving it and without consulting the museum map soon found myself outside (and then inside) the North American Indigenous Exhibit.

The North American Indigenous section

It may be odd to say this but these exhibits had a certain familiarity courtesy of my childhood and adolescence watching westerns on TV and Saturday arvo matinees. That being said the exhibits were of interest and some attention had been paid (not enough as I was soon to discover) to explanation of context.

Then it happened, an exhibit that not only caught my attention (seized it was more accurate) but made me audibly laugh in surprise and approval. This was the highlight of the museum and demonstrates how the dead and buried can be made to live, for their living descendents to embrace the challenges of modernity without sacrificing their heritage and how easy this transformation can be. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

This exhibit was of three native Americans, life size plaster cast figures, two men and a woman, originally installed about 100 years ago. The male figure to my left was squatting and reaching for something with his left hand; in the middle, and standing was the female figure and to her left the second male figure in a semi squatting pose. An unremarkable exhibit of the past and a defeated past at that. Comforting for the victors perhaps, but not so for the vanquished and it was this discomfort (pissed offness is probably more accurate) that transformed what was before me into something exceptional. What I actually saw and what had given the exhibit life and relevance was the male figure to my left reaching for a power drill, the female figure holding a tripod and camera and the remaining figure wired up with a ipod.

After my initial ‘wow’ response my gaze fell to an explanatory note at the base of the trio. It said it all:

‘We do not want to be depicted in the way we were when we were first discovered in our homeland in North America. We do not want museums to continue to present us as something from the past. We believe we are very, very much here now and we are going to be very important in the future’.

European Style through the Ages

I left the Indigenous display in a buoyant mood and soon ended up, in more familiar territory, in the Samuel European Galleries where I was assailed and increasingly irritated by the ‘legacy of European style through the ages’ – the ages here meaning the late middle ages – the birth of the modern period – to the 20thC. I later discovered, courtesy of their website, that during the period covered, “Europe witnessed agricultural, social, economic and industrial innovation that would change how Europeans lived, worked, and viewed with the world around them” and was invited to “examine the influence these changes had through the lens of decorative arts development in central and Western Europe. Walk among period rooms and vignettes, including those of the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical, and Victorian periods, and discover the different stylistic signatures of each.”

Now, I need to disclose that I gained this information after my visit and after the irritation I increasingly felt as I walked “among the period rooms and vignettes” conversing in my head with Brecht as I went. Had I had this info with me at the time my irritation would have been greater.

The problem I had was not with what was there but with what was not. The period rooms and vignettes displayed were, not surprisingly, either the “stylistic signatures” of the emergent bourgeoisie (landed or otherwise) or of the decaying aristocracies of Europe. This fails to surprise on two levels. The first is that the display artifacts were made by skilled craftsmen using quality materials and these have a tendency to last and to be handed down across generations. The second is political, or ideological more broadly and ironically sits in the same camp as that identified and rectified by the Indigenous activists referred to above. In much the same way as the common working people – you know, the ones that actually make all the stuff and keep it working – are written out of history, the lens employed at the museum airbrushes them out too. The pity of this is that their signature appears in every single exhibit, but remains unseen and devalued. As I traipsed my way through the centuries, looking at these rooms with their ‘stylistic signatures’ the one signature that emerged as dominant was that of class, of ownership.

On the one hand this is all rather ho hum – what had I expected to see anyway? But on the other, consigning it to the ‘ho hum’ department is itself a problem because it colludes with the obscuring of social relations. The question that kept repeating in my head was ”where are the people?” And I mean all of them – the property owners, the quality sort of chap with his quality sort of wife, their servants (who cooked the meals? who changed the sheets and cleaned? who…?) the craftsmen who had built everything before me. Where were they? And what were their quarters like? where and how did the craftsmen live?

The Indigenous example – the power drill, the camera and the ipod – demonstrated how the past can be made highly pertinent to the present, how the gap between them shrinks and can be traversed. With curatorship guided by curiosity and social awareness and how these are shaped by the times, we can be given the opportunity of asking questions of history. We can tackle, like our indigenous friends, how we can bring these questions into the present and ask ourselves what aspects of this past remain tangled in the present, holding us up and what aspects have opened doors and propelled us forward.

But why Brecht? Why him in my head, needling me? Brecht is one of my favorite poets and the answer lies in one of them, Questions From a Worker Who Reads:

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates ?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock ?
And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times ?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live ?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?
Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them ?
Over whom did the Caesars triumph ?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants ?
Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone ?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him ?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep ?
Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it ?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors ?
Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill ?
So many reports.
So many questions.

 

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