Poetry and Politics, Part 1 : Art and Socialist Ideology

A recent edition of the NYT Book Review (Dec 14, 2018) was focused on Political Poetry. It addressed some issues and reminded me of others I have been exploring for a long time. I am always searching to clarify the importance of the arts to our society and likewise seeking to articulate a clearer understanding of progressive goals and actions.

To begin, as we were developing ideas and directions for this blog, I confronted some thorny personal issues. I am planning to keep this essay briefer than it might have been not by thinning out my turgid prose [duh] but by limiting myself to four issues.

      1. Subjectivity/Objectivity

Some time ago, I found this way of distinguishing these somewhat slippery ideas that seemed particularly helpful: each identifies the location of, for lack of a better word, truth. [Reality?] I understand all human perception to be inescapably subjective. Objectivity is an illusion. We have no access to objects outside our own truth, our own perception, our own limits. Our recognition of our own inherent subjectivity opens the possibility of dialogue.

Thus, when we seek a fair-minded, open, rational discourse, when we are seeking to avoid emotional, close-minded diatribe, I believe we cannot claim objectivity. Reason, logic, clear thinking, mutual respect, yes. Objectivity, no.

      2. Ideological Purity

I have no patience with ideologues who focus on the purity of their beliefs. Christian apologists are a prime example of such practice, but I know of dedicated socialists who defend their ideology with the same fundamentalist fervor. Especially over the last forty years or so, a devout and distorted Christianity has robbed progressive Christians of their public identity and made the term “progressive Christian” an oxymoron. Likewise, Stalinist and other totalitarian distortions of socialism and communism have robbed those terms of their power.

Are these developments a result of the failure to articulate a pure, precise, unified expression of these ideologies? I think the opposite is true: it is the devotion to doctrinal purity instead of progressive political action that has created this crisis.

Thus, as we seek to clarify our ideas here, we must operate within a complex and complicated sitz im leben. [Bam! First time I’ve used that term since 1978!] We want to argue ideas and ideologies here, but we must not be distracted from strategies for change and actions that seek… justice, peace, freedom, progress, the good? [There’s an issue for another post. Anybody else want to write it?]

      3. Materialism

If I were to speak of a pure, essential element of a socialist ideology, materialism would be among the most important doctrines. It has been helpful to me to more clearly understand the use of the term in Marxist thought. While economic realities are critical and the freedom from oppressive otherworldly spiritualities equally so, the crucial position of materialism, as I understand it, is its opposition to abstractions and theoretical, emotional, spiritual considerations. It is in this concrete, practical, material world where class warfare must be waged. It is in the actual, experiential improvement of the lives of the working class that progress must be sought and by which it must be measured.

At the beginning of this project, I am thinking (as I have explained in this and the previous section) that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Including who is at the table to eat, who cooks, who serves, who cleans up, who benefits from the manufacture and consumption of pudding, what impact the eating of pudding may have on the ecosystem, and, you know, stuff like that. But the color and taste and texture, the recipe and the presentation, the symbolism and significance of the pudding itself are not irrelevant.

      4. Art and Political/Social Action

As we were discussing topics and issues for conversation in polblogs.com, I wanted there to be a place for the arts, especially poetry. Initially, I fell prey to my own distorting stereotypes. I struggled to think of overtly socialist art – materialist, utilitarian Soviet architecture. Colossal propaganda. I dredged up Diego Rivera, WPA art, Woody Guthrie, Brecht, and a few more. I struggled with the difference between art and propaganda. I wondered, “Does materialism eliminate art?”

Utility,” I read, “tends to scoff at what is merely beautiful and thus misses the point.” [Confession: It was a “typical anti-intellectual … meme” which this venue is dedicated to rise above.] Is that what doctrinaire socialists must do? Or from the other side of the issue: Is a dedication to art an avoidance of effective progressive action? Is assigning value to art an affirmation of existing class structures? What would progressive political art look like?

So, here I am writing about art in polblogs.com, and in the About Polblogs section you can read, “Ours is a blog about politics, economics, social issues, and artistic expression.” Art talk is appropriate here. And related to politics, economics and social issues.
More on that to come.


Gregory Cowles, Ed., Pamela Paul, Host
Poetry Meets the Moment(s) podcast
(NYTimes Book Review, December 14, 2018)


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