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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 10, No. 7. June 11, 1947

The Basis of Culture

The Basis of Culture.

Let us go back to the beginning. Man is a tool-using animal: in other words, the basic condition of human existence was labour. The development of labour meant a closer drawing-together of men into society, which required the growth of means of communication. Language, music and the dance arose from the necessity for intercourse between men as a result of the problems posed by the growth of the labour-process. The solutions primitive men evolved to these problems are the primary basis of human culture.

With the development, of class society, and the resultant division of labour—which became final with the separation of the mental and the manual worker—the idea was naturally born that culture had no basis in the real world, but a separate and private existence of its own. The curious situation thus arose that men's ideas, while fundamentally dependent on the activity of men and shaped by it, were regarded as independent modes.

This meant that whatever class was dominant at a given stage of society was almost fatally moved to perpetuate this illusion. The spreading of a culture based in the working people would mean reversal of the established culture; and, provided the economic and other relations of men were so tending, the overthrow of the dominance of that class. The philosophy of Plato is inseparable from the existence of the leisured classes of slave society. Protestantism is essentially an aspect of the rise of the bourgeoisie. Marxism arose as the expression of the bitter experience of the working-class.

Priestley's division between "political democracy" and "cultural democracy" is therefore unreal. Men's political ideas, just as their philosophies, legal systems, religions and arts, are all the products of human activity, all an inseparable unity expressing the social relations of men. The "common man"—be he farmhand, labourer or factory-worker—has not the opportunity to enjoy that culture which attracts the delicate fancy of Mr. Priestley. Our "political democracy" leaves him free to do so, of course, just as he is "free" to smoke the same cigars as Mr. Churchill or buy a Rolls-Royce.

There can be no culture of, by or for the people until there is democracy of, by and for the people. Priestley's political democracy is bourgeois political democracy: his cultural democracy is bourgeois cultural democracy. Considerable work has been done—in New Zealand via the WEA and Community Centres—in "taking culture to the people," but this process has precisely the limitations mentioned above. Too much free discussion leads to too many opinions at variance with the ruling norms. In Hollywood films, Mr. Priestley says, "it is far more important to write a successful dance tune than to compose a symphony." Yes, it is more important, for the American ruling class, that Americans write shoddy dance tunes rather than revolutionary Ninth Symphonies. And remember that these same shoddy dance-tunes are the bourgeois prostitution of revolutionary negro jazz.