The Power of Culture June 27, 2003
By Ted Glick
"No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetical
expression. If such a movement has caught hold of the imagination of
the masses, they will seek a vent in song for the aspirations, the
fears and hopes, the loves and hatreds engendered by the struggle.
Until the movement is marked by the joyous, defiant singing of
revolutionary songs, it lacks one of the most distinct marks of a
popular revolutionary movement; it is a dogma of the few, and not the
faith of the multitude."
-James Connolly, Introduction to "Songs of Freedom," 1907
I was at a coalition meeting a couple of weeks ago where, in
connection with a projected protest action against government
officials, I put forward the idea that, in addition to our acts of
protest, we should organize something like a celebration or a
festival of resistance. It seemed to me, and to the group whose
proposal I was representing, that this would be complementary to the
anti-government protest, a way to put forward a positive, affirmative
I was taken aback at the reaction of some of those present at the
meeting. "What is there to celebrate,?" several said. Others spoke as
if such a position was insensitive and racist, disrespecting of those
around the world and in this country who struggle for survival. For
others it was as if the use of music, poetry, spoken word, theater,
art or other forms of creative political expression was somehow not
truly political, not serious.
I thought a lot about this afterwards, trying to understand why some
of my sister and brother progressive activists would see things this
way. And the more I thought about it, the more I came to believe that
this view of culture is rooted in a short-sighted and ultimately self-
defeating view of the prospects and possibilities for social change.
This approach emphasizes "fighting the power" to the exclusion of
just about anything else. It seriously misses out on the importance
of positive personal relationships and a culture of support to keep
us as healthy and balanced as is possible over the long haul of our
struggle for justice. It fails to appreciate that it is, indeed,
forms of cultural expression that have been absolutely essential for
oppressed people to sustain themselves, to keep hope alive, to enjoy
and appreciate others, during periods of time when the odds for
change seem very long.
And it completely misses the importance, as Irish revolutionary James
Connolly understood, of forms of cultural expression if what we want
is not "a dogma of the few" but, instead, "the faith [and direct
action] of the multitude."
It was the civil rights movement of the 1950s which broke the back of
McCarthyism and initiated a sustained period of mass political
ferment in this country that continued for close to two decades.
Where did that movement grow out of? The Black church, an institution
in which gospel music and song are absolutely integral and basic. And
a hallmark of that movement was that it was a singing movement.
Would there have been an American Indian Movement arising out of the
bleak conditions of urban and reservation Indian poverty in the early
70s if there had not been cultural traditions of music, dance and
other forms, traditions often forced underground, over the many
decades of European-American dominance?
And was it just an accident that out of the mass women's movement of
the late 60's and 70's emerged a wide range of women musicians and
poets who expressed the rage and hope of that movement and helped to
broaden and sustain it and make it more effective?
The progressive movement following the war on Iraq is sorting out how
we build upon the powerful peace sentiment which manifested itself so
massively prior to that war. A key task of the peace forces is to
develop positive connections to the movements for social, economic
and racial justice here in the USA. Those connections will only be
strengthened to the extent that, in our activities and events, forms
of cultural expression inspire us all and deepen our understanding
that in unity there is strength.
Ted Glick is the National Coordinator of the Independent Progressive
Politics Network (www.ippn.org). He can be reached at
or P.O. Box 1132, Bloomfield, N.J. 07003.
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