Reply to Curtis Cole: Unity & struggle with progressive & revolutionary artists

 Gay activist Harvey Milk played by Sean Penn in "Milk." The film was the work of many artists includings director Gus Van Sant, writer written Dustin Lance Black and actors such as Penn, Emile Hirsch and Josh Brolin.

"First, let’s appreciate the radical art that is made (not just in subculture margins, but sometimes in a ways that reach millions).

"Second, let’s appreciate the role that radical artists currently play (Hunger Games was recently playing in theatres!)

"Third, let’s understand that many radical people will wobble back and forth between revolutionary politics and left oppositional politics for a long time and this will be resolved in real life, not by arguments in the main.

"Fourth, let’s develop a long term, strategic relationship of “unity and struggle” – with a genuine appreciation of people trying to do radical things under difficult constraints, and also under the pull of notoriety, great wealth, active courting by slick imperialists like Bill Clinton, etc.

"Finally—We need to have a communist pole (that is clear and very bold about road and direction and goals and about supporting revolutionary struggles of the people internationally), that is able to conduct real politics (including extolling and critiquing in the realm of art), that appreciates the different and diverse roles that people can play (and do play)."

We are posting two essays at the same time.

 

The first, by Curtis Cole, is entitled False Progress: Queer Equality and the Media .

This essay, the second one, is an answer to Curtis by Nat Winn. It argues that revolutionaries must not be mechanical in evaluating artists and the cultural superstructure — and that we  should develop a long term policy of “unity and struggle” with radical artists operating in major arenas of art, media, film and music.”

Progressive artists and the revolutionary movement:

A relationship  of unity and struggle

by Nat Winn

 

Thank you for writing this Curtis. We certainly need more writing and critical thinking and communist discussion on popular culture and revolution. In that spirit I would like to share some ideas and concerns I had when reading this article.

There is a very simple binary that runs through this article of progressive vs. “false” progressive or revolutionary vs. reactionary.

In many circles of the left there is kneejerk opposition to “Hollywood” or “bourgeois artists”. There is an assumption that the cultural superstructure is uniformly reactionary and that it all somehow serves the ruling classes and this system.

Reality seems to me to be much more complex than this. In the cultural superstructure there seems to be much higher level of class struggle and political struggle (far more than in other arenas such as the state, etc.). There is a reason why the reactionaries of our political system aim a lot of their fire at “Hollywood and the media” in ways we should understand dialectically and appreciate politically.

Let's celebrate when big time artists and media figures who can reach millions of people make positive contributions to the struggle for human liberation!

You begin your article by criticizing Seth MacFarlane for the belief:

Is this really such an indictment? If an artist attempts to bring attention to a social problem through a particular medium is it thus necessary to attack the artist for their naiveté? When interacting with people in general and artists in general can we really write off those who don’t come to the table already articulating revolutionary or communist ideas and sentiments. It seems to me if we did this we would be a very lonely bunch.

Communists need to form revolutionary alliances out of the raw materials life and actual society give us (not complain that everyone who shows up isn’t what we hoped for).

You criticize MacFarlane harshly for an interview for criticizing Black people who are against gay marriage. But are we to expect that MacFarlane come to the interview with the same analysis we have? Is MacFarlane not understanding in some small way a very real problem of homophobia inside the Black nation, even if he doesn’t have nuanced understanding of the history and relationship of Black Power and Gay Liberation at a particular point in history? Isn’t this more two sided and contradictory than the way you come at it?

The Clash -- music that inspired and channeled revolutionary sentiments.

There are questions regarding Hollywood and media that seem to be broken down in two ways:

1. If people are millionaires and if their art is in the form of commodities that have “success” in this society – can’t we assume it is somehow reactionary? And isn’t the main question HOW is it serving its reactionary role?

Then there is a question that Curtis avoids when he lumps Democracy Now with the establishment media for allowing anti-gay voices onto its news program. The question is such.

2. Often the radicals in the world of art (cinema, poetry, music, etc.) are radical social democrats (or democratic socialists, or revolutionary democrats and anti-imperialists. Susan Sarandon, Warren Beatty. Some are religious leftists like Martin Sheen or radical populists like Bruce Springsteen, etc.) of various kinds and degrees. Some like Donald Sutherland or the Clash are more deeply radical – some even of a communist kind for a while --- but today they are rare. Those forces are different from actual liberals of an establishment variety. (Al Franken, Robert Redford, Alex Baldwin, Barbara Streisand – who are considerably LESS radical and much more explicitly plugged into the system, its current rulers and politics.)

Progressive artists often swing between really radical sentiments (and actions) and support for left liberal politicians of the Clinton or Obama variety. How should communists handle such realities?

Part of the question is whether we should have “unity and struggle” with such forces. Should we uphold when they do good things and have a comradely critical attitude when they slide toward occasional support of left liberals (of the Obama variety)? Should we have a long term and strategic approach to necessary allies?

Some people think that millionaire artists must be pigs, and assume that radicals who occasionally support Obama are “just liberals” (i.e. reformists, pro system, etc.)

You ponder over this question when you write:

Avatar, the film by James Cameron, depicts the defection of a corporate mercenary soldier joining an indigenous rebellion against ecocide and genocide. It proved quite controversial in some corners -- with sections of the left incapable of seeing its radical intent and themes. Debate here on Kasama was intense for a while.

You answer his question by stating:

The powerful art of Tupac Shakur is part of the deep current of African American art that is often searingly critical of U.S. society, and moving in its depiction of pain and determination. His own work and politics "divides into two" -- in ways that illustrate the need for a policy of "unity and struggle" among revolutionaries and artists (including with revolutionary artists like ).

While I appreciate the real struggle in grappling with this question, the conclusion seems still mechanical. “He is rich, so he must be a pig”.

I appreciate also Curtis’s breakdown of the positive and negative aspects of particular episodes on how they affect the thoughts of people watching. This is a necessary exercise and you conduct it with great rigor. However the binary way in which it is done implies that we must break down to people what is “ok” and what is “wrong”.

This becomes clearer when you state as a solution to people getting saturated with bad ideas:

Finally—We need to have a communist pole (that is clear and very bold about road and direction and goals and about supporting revolutionary struggles of the people internationally), that is able to conduct real politics (including extolling and critiquing in the realm of art), that appreciates the different and diverse roles that people can play (and do play). Again, we need to build revolutionary alliances out of the raw materials that life and actual society give us (not complain that everyone who shows up isn’t what we hoped for or want).

People in this conversation

  • Guest - thegodlessutopian

    Greetings comrade Nat.

    I first want to thank you for taking the time to read through my lengthy piece and providing your thoughts as to the strengths and weaknesses of my article. I also want to thank Kasama for publishing it as part of your fantastic organization. I appreciate your faith in my ideas and writing.

    To move onto the meat, so to speak, of the coming debate allow me to begin to write out my counter-prose to your conclusions…

    Early in your counter-prose you assert that, “

    <blockquote>In many circles of the left there is kneejerk opposition to ‘Hollywood’ or ‘bourgeois artists’. There is an assumption that the cultural superstructure is uniformly reactionary and that it all somehow serves the ruling classes and this system… Reality seems to me to be much more complex than this.”</blockquote>

    I would agree that there is much Knee-jerk reaction in various Leftist circles to Hollywood’s movies. Some of that reaction is justified while others are not. I would also agree that things are certainty more complex than there initially appear.

    I think it is impossible to say whether all of Hollywood’s movies and pieces serve the capitalist system.

    There are many anti-war movies along with many patriot-waving jingoist films which preach American Exceptionalism. I am of the opinion, however, that the majority of Hollywood’s movies fall the reactionary side. Though they often share some core belief of revolutionaries they always fall back on liberal, or worse conservative, ideas. When was the last time an anti-war movie released which not only was against armed conflict but was against it for the sole reason of life?

    I cannot remember very many as most fall back on the “we should withdraw because it is an unwinnable war and it might hurt America’s prestige.” This kind of narrative if rife in Hollywood productions and even extends towards other social issues.

    One must often remember that to survive in the ultra-conservative society that is the United States Liberals and False Progressive must imbue their creations with doses of nationalism and anti-communism for every “progressive” cause they endorse. They must to this otherwise they will come under overwhelming attack. This is revealed in Bill Maher when he viciously assaults both communism and Islam, in a Boots Riley interview, despite supporting the struggles of the Queer community.

    (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-9qBY-Bypk&amp;feature=player_embedded)

    In the beginning of my article I say this…

    <blockquote>“that discrimination, a serious subject which leads to murder and suicide, can be abolished with the help of insulting comedy sketches.”</blockquote>

    To which you reply…

    <blockquote>“Is this really such an indictment? If an artist attempts to bring attention to a social problem through a particular medium is it thus necessary to attack the artist for their naiveté?” </blockquote>

    I think “attack” is too strong of a word for when dealing with liberals in a direct manner I prefer constructive criticism. Following this I perfectly believe it justified to “attack” them for otherwise their reactionary ideas will never be corrected. When doing this “correcting” in a face-to-face manner it would probably be wise to undertake it in a form less condemning than my own article but such would be a struggle for another time as there are no such liberals to currently face.

    It is true that we shouldn’t expect of liberal to have the same analysis that we revolutionaries do. Yet I am not saying as much here. I never expected them to have similar beliefs. My beef is with their hijacking of the term “progressive” and using it for their own reactionary purposes. While everyone is entitled to their own opinion I prefer to do whatever I can in order to try and call out those who believe in reactionary forms of “progress.”

    Though we do need to make alliances wherever we can with people who will listen to our views and co-exist peacefully, it must be noted that these “False Progressives” often will not do as much. This is because most of them, long ago, made peace with their bourgeois roots. Can anyone say that they would expect Seth McFarlane to allow onto his show revolutionary views which threaten his exuberant livelihood? Perhaps in the smaller grassroots circles but very unlikely in the juggernaut of Hollywood.

    To move onto your next point…

    <blockquote>“If people are millionaires and if their art is in the form of commodities that have “success” in this society – can’t we assume it is somehow reactionary? And isn’t the main question HOW is it serving its reactionary role?”
    </blockquote>

    This is an important question, one I thank you for asking.

    To answer this question one must examine what product has sold so much to become a success and under what conditions. This is vital because without proper context we are left to large generalizations. Though it is tempting to say that because American society is so reactionary anything which sells is inherently reactionary. There could be a strong case to make of this but it is not the position I take. To understand this we can look at the Communist Manifesto. How many copies of this classic has been sold in the United States? Surely millions of copies. Yet I do not any Leftist would dare say the Manifesto is reactionary.

    One must remember the fads which the bourgeoisie press in order to sell products. Often superficial on the outside many products are either apolitical or serve a fulcrum status as a propaganda bit. Because an item sells does not mean it is inherently reactionary.



    <blockquote>“Part of the question is whether we should have “unity and struggle” with such forces. Should we uphold when they do good things and have a comradely critical attitude when they slide toward occasional support of left liberals (of the Obama variety)? Should we have a long term and strategic approach to necessary allies?”
    </blockquote>

    This is a hard question to answer simply die to lack of precedents.

    One could say that a United Front concept could be applied to any progressive constructs in order to weaken the Political-Right. Yet one could also argue that such a front already exists.

    Surely in some form revolutionaries and liberals share the scene in regards to causes, the detractor is that the revolutionary view is never heard (often doe to liberal censorship). This might be found in the amount of times various strands of liberals have been called “communist and Socialist” for their upholding of gay rights and immigration. This could also be seen in the recent drive by ultra-reactionaries such as Glenn Beck to label all “False Progressives” as legitimate threats to American capitalism, to blur the distinction between reformist and revolutionist.

    On to the next rebuttle…


    <blockquote>“While I appreciate the real struggle in grappling with this question, the conclusion seems still mechanical. “He is rich, so he must be a pig.” </blockquote>

    Such was said in relation to my manner of deduction as to which Liberals could become actual progressives and which couldn’t.

    This is a simplified statement, one which, I believe, does not touch on my thesis. The conclusion drawn here is that because the liberal in question is rich he must be a pig, a class enemy. Yet such was not my own conclusion. My own conclusion was that because the liberal was wealthy the odds of him changing were drastically lower than one who possessed a far lesser amount of capital. I think this is perfectly in line with the Marxist tradition as it is only natural to assume that those with a higher class position-often indicated by wealth- will fight tooth and nail to defend it.

    With that my counter-assentation comes to a close. Though the ending of comrade Nat’s criticisms has some heavy conclusions about how to interact in society and developing long terms goals those beliefs are something for another article to tackle. We share different theoretical lenses in this regard but I do not believe it is of enough consequence to go into detail. Though I will say that I absolutely agree that appreciation should be given to those radical artists that operate under oppressing conditions and that censorship is never the answer.

    Thank you comrade Nat for your honest thoughts on my piece.

    Sincerely,
    Curtis Cole.

  • Guest - Red Fly

    <blockquote>Should we uphold when they do good things and have a comradely critical attitude when they slide toward occasional support of left liberals (of the Obama variety)?</blockquote>

    Obama (and Clinton) are definitely not "left liberals." They are Ronald Reagan/George W. Bush Republicans in left liberal clothing. Occasionally they'll throw a bone to their activist base (or rather, the bourgeois elements of their activist vase), but the economic policies they promote are in the mainstream of neoliberalism and the foreign policy they serve and promote is of neocon hyper-imperialist type.

    Obama and his administration are engaged in six wars, supported a coup in Honduras, another coup in the Maldives, have engaged in one the most radical assaults on civil liberties in history, colluded with Democratic mayors and the pigs to smash the Occupy encampments, turned Bush's occasional drone strikes into a global drone assault...

    ...formed the Cat Food commission to gut Social Security and Medicare (which folks should seriously consider organizing a defense around), already offered to gut Social Security and Medicare in a Grand Bargain™ with the Repugs during debt ceiling negotiations, continues the no-strings-attached bankster bail out, hired Geithner, Summers, Rubin...principle architects of deregulation, took single-payer off the table, traded public option to insurance industry and hospital industry at the beginning and went around pretending like he supported it

    etc., etc., etc.

    He's not a bigot, he supports equality before the law for gay people, he doesn't hate women, he's obviously no racist, but overall he's still utterly reactionary.

    I know. Not the main point here. But it does bug me when I see even revolutionary people place the left-liberal appearance above the reactionary substance.

  • Guest - thegodlessutopian

    Reblogged this on <a href="/http://thequeerproject.wordpress.com/2012/07/25/100/" rel="nofollow">The Queer Gathering</a> and commented:
    A reply from Comrade Nat Winn on the subject of Queer Liberation and the Media.

  • Guest - Red Fly

    <blockquote>The NDAA, also known as the “indefinite detention bill,” was signed into law by President Obama on 31 December 2011. It has no temporal or geographic limitations, and can be used by Mr. Obama or any future president to military detain U.S. citizens. As in pre-Magna Carta days, you can simply be swept up and put away forever—disappeared—with no explanation of why, no right to call a lawyer or anybody else, and no right to a trial. You can actually be tortured to death, if the government decides it is in the national interest. The NDAA is probably the greatest rollback of civil liberties in the history of the United States. Under the Act, literally anyone can be described as a “belligerent,” or as they are now called, “covered person.” The president claimed that he signed the bill only to provide funding for American troops, and that he had been reluctant to sign it because it included American citizens. This b.s. was subsequently exposed by one of the bill’s sponsors, Senator Carl Levin, who revealed that it was Mr. Obama himself who insisted that the indefinite detention clause include U.S. citizens.</blockquote>

    http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/07/25/slouching-towards-nuremberg/

    I think Morris Berman can be fairly described as left liberal. Barack Obama? Not so much.

  • <blockquote>One must often remember that to survive in the ultra-conservative society that is the United States Liberals and False Progressive must imbue their creations with doses of nationalism and anti-communism for every “progressive” cause they endorse. </blockquote>

    I think this dichotomy between true and false progressives is false one.

    People, including wealthy artists, try to make a sense of the world around them and those who develop radical and progressive sentiments are often conflicted about the possible tactics in reaching emancipatory outcomes. The radical progressive and the "false" progressive coexist within the same individuals and it is through the course of real life events and experiences that which side dominates the other is decided. This is a dialectical view. It dictates that we unite with and encourage the more radical sentiments to become more fully developed.

    And this is not just among wealthy artists but among people who see themselves as revolutionaries and even ourselves. This is evidenced by our recent discussions here on Kasama with Phan Binh.

    <blockquote>I am of the opinion, however, that the majority of Hollywood’s movies fall the reactionary side. Though they often share some core belief of revolutionaries they always fall back on liberal, or worse conservative, ideas.</blockquote>

    This is also true with art itself. And it is simply not true that mainstream artists and producers are (virtually) incapable of producing radical art based simply on their wealth. We have had intense debates hear about movies like Avatar and Hunger Games. What about the works of Steig Larssen? The photos included on this post are meant to show that rich artists can and do produce radical art all the time (from Spartacus to Reds and Glory to Precious). These are not necessarily communist films per se, however, they are dealing with very crucial questions in society often in ways that frighten and alarm the ruling classes.

    As communists we need to recognize the possibilities for struggle in the cultural superstructure, not only at its margins and in alternative genres and scenes, but right in Hollywood and mainstream music, art, television where millions of people can be reached and made to think about radical solutions to big time social boiling points.

    This is going on fairly constantly on a level you seem to not be recognizing.

    Communists have a responsibility to develop a real world politics and ability to understand and speak to the complexity of this realm of struggle in a way that draws the alliance of progressive artists as well as connecting with larger and larger sections of people.

  • Red Fly,

    When I use the term left liberal, I am speaking about sections of the ruling class who nominally constitute it's "left". I am not referring to folks like Dennis Kucinich or Morris Berman. Sorry for the confusion. I guess it's part of developing a common language. Perhaps there is a better term.

    I think there has been a basic consensus for a long period of time between those who would constitute the right and those who would be the left of the ruling class about neoliberalism. That being said I would argue that the two sides are not identical in their ideas about how to rule over their empire.

    I would differentiate left liberals from the base of people who often end up supporting them or from more radical progressive forces and those who do not constitute a section of the ruling class. I would refer to these latter forces as progressive (though progressives themselves cannot be looke at as a homogeneous block).

    I don't disagree with you points about Obama at all.

  • Guest - Tell No Lies

    I really appreciate these sorts of exchanges. At the end of the day this is an argument over the merits of the view that ones position within the production process determines ones politics. Such views are seductive, but I think generally mechanical and wrong. Simple litmus tests are tempting because they are simple, but they are wholly inadequate to the task of understanding the complex and highly mediated relations that exist between ideas, culture and social relations. Of course in general the ruling ideas (and cultural values) of an epoch are the ideas of the ruling classes. The problem is that the ruling classes are not monoliths. They are made up of thinking individuals whose motivations are just as complex and contradictory as the rest of us. In general they embrace ideas and cultural values that rationalize, justify and legitimize their own social standing. But this is contradictory for a number of reasons. First there are often multiple and competing interests involved. Individual capitalists are often torn between their interests as individual capitalists and their perceptions of the interests of the capitalist class as a whole. This is why, for instance, you get people like Warren Buffet calling for increased taxes on people like Warren Buffet. Second, even rich people feel the pull of a larger human community. They don't like to think of themselves as selfish and often this translates into real concern for others. There is a long list of members of the upper classes who have gone over to the side of revolution, including, for example, Friedrich Engels. So the idea that somebody's social position tells you what you need to know about their ideas is clearly wrong. Even if on balance most members of of the upper classes will tend to embrace reactionary ideas and values, the ones who don't are important enough to us that we really have to investigate things. All of this gets considerably more complicated when somebody's wealth derives from their work as an artist, even if, as in many cases, they reinvest returns on their work into capitalist enterprises like production companies. Artists are often especially attuned to the contradictions of this society. This is often what drives them to be artists in the first place and what makes their art resonate with larger publics.This, of course, doesn't necessarily make them communists, but sometimes its does, and in any event if we confine our list of friends to those who presently identify as communists we will be sad and lonely people. Nat has already said much of this in different words. I jst wanted to express how much I appreciate these discussions. These are not simple matters.

  • Guest - Ghan Buri Ghan

    Curtis' article was rough around the edges, and slightly didactic, but it was actually an earnest and eager attempt at a marxist cultural analysis of shows like "Family Guy" from a queer perspective. (And clearly written by a young person who enjoys and understands the show)

    This article, while much more well-written, is on total autopilot. Writing about the complex yet positive cultural role of Seth MacFarlene? And invoking The Clash and Tupac to do so?

    Yeah dude check out some of this "progressive popular art" -

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JCxrepzzFPY
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twLwJ6nF1nE
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ymCoiZS0HLA
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&amp;NR=1&amp;v=AsoQwvYWfe4

  • <blockquote>Curtis’ article was rough around the edges, and slightly didactic, but it was actually an earnest and eager attempt at a marxist cultural analysis of shows like “Family Guy” from a queer perspective. (And clearly written by a young person who enjoys and understands the show)</blockquote>

    I couldn't agree more and we welcome and encourage more of it.



    <blockquote>This article, while much more well-written, is on total autopilot. Writing about the complex yet positive cultural role of Seth MacFarlene? And invoking The Clash and Tupac to do so?</blockquote>

    My point wasn't to describe or judge the role of Seth MacFarlene. What I wanted to do was critique the basic argument of Curtis's piece which jumps from a critique of figures like MacFarlene and Stone/Parker to the conclusion that wealthy liberals in mainstream media based primarily on their income and social position cannot (almost absolutely but certainly for the most part) make positive political contributions. This is done concretely by linking Democracy Now with the likes of a MacFarlene under the category of the "liberal media establishment".

    In regards MacFarlene himself, you can judge that his art plays mainly a reactionary role, and you can build a strong argument for it. I certainly am not as familiar with his work as Curtis is. I would say though, that it is interesting to read Curtis's breakdown of the interview MacFarlene did with The Advocate magazine specifically to get a sense of the way MacFarlene views what he is doing.

    He maybe wrong, as Nas maybe wrong when he made a defense of the the use of the "N" word in his self titled album a few years ago. However he is, as Nas was, dealing with real world contradictions in attempts to use over the top humor to take the power out of the racism we see around us ( similar to how the use of the "N" word as a term of endearment to take the power out of its historical connotations).

    It's important to critique such attempts from a communist view, though I would argue it is incorrect to lump such artists into the ranks of the ruling class (establishment).

    Certainly a figure like TuPac has a created a body of work that is highly contradictory in terms of its content. Some of his work on a number of topics from women to gang violence was clearly reactionary. While alot of it was very beautiful and even revolutionary in content. Do we dismiss his positive contributions because that other side exists?

    The point is not to judge the overall role of a particular artist. It is that people are complex, they can't fit easy into categories and in the development of their experiences and the twist and turns of real life they can play roles that are positive sometimes and negative at other times.

    We should be able to encourage the positive and radical side of artists' contributions in their art and political stands. We should understand the different shades of progressive and radical sentiment that exist within the cultural superstructure. We should view most of these artists as either actual or potential allies.

  • Guest - Ghan Buri Ghan

    The point in this case IS to judge the overall role of a particular artist.

    Curtis' critique of Democracy Now was a correct (and mostly sympathetic) one, and actually fit overall into a (mostly) coherent critique of the "liberal media establishment". Democracy Now is a press outlet with a bourgeois class character; it is a generally progressive institution in the world of journalism and often gives voice to the struggles of the oppressed classes, however as a journalistic project with a bourgeois class character it also occasionally gives equal voice to the oppressing classes under the pretense of "civil discourse" and "balanced journalism". The same argument can be (and is, courtesy of Courtis) made with much more impunity against Maher who is a cynical liberal elitist.

    A trend I've noticed on Kasama is that whenever any criticism is made of liberal journalists, entertainers, or middle-class professionals, the source of that criticism is chastised as "dogmatic", "mechanical", etc. It's as if by asserting the need for the political leadership of the proletariat and making criticisms of the political orientations of other classes we are somehow being "dogmatic", "mechanical", "economist", part of the "old, uncreative left" etc. I agree that political struggles occur within the entertainment superstructure and that these struggles are reflections of the class-struggles at the base of society. There are hundreds of examples that can be cited; just looking at music, we have so many examples - Cash's "Ballad of Ira Hayes" being banned from US airwaves, the KKK burning Beatles albums, Hendrix supporting race riots in the US and military defection in Vietnam, efforts to censor NWA's "Fuck Tha Police" and Ice-T's "Cop Killer"...no one is denying this. Curtis' article doesn't even deny this. But does that mean that every pop idol is a potential revolutionary? What this article does (and what many other Kasama editorials also do) is jump to the equally absurd position that any criticism of the bourgeois-liberal journalistic or entertainment establishment is unhelpful and that all bourgeois journalists and entertainers to the left of Mel Gibson and Glenn Beck are potential revolutionaries grappling with internal contradictions in their hearts. This negates the materialist basis of class-struggle as motivated by objective material and class interests.

    The reason this particular article is tonedeaf is precisely because it fails to make distinctions between friends and enemies, it prejudices (false) unity over struggle; it fails to judge the overall role of particular artists. For example, in the sphere of young adult animation, there is a world of difference between Aaron McGruder and Seth McFarlene, and there are objective reasons for this as well as subjective. If we're going to sit around analyzing pop culture while the world burns, we can at least get it right.

  • Guest - Ghan Buri Ghan

    While we're on the subject, a piece of popular entertainment such as a film can have both reactionary and progressive qualities.

    Take for example the film "Fight Club" which not only criticizes capitalism in somewhat pseudo-marxist terms but actually advocates violent, organized rebellion against capitalism. At the same time the film is deeply misogynistic and portrays resistance as an exclusively male project and women as a negative social force responsible for the oppression of men.

    Or take the film "Avatar" - a film that sympathizes with Native resistance against imperialism but paints Natives as exotic, romantic, primitive, hopelessly spiritualist; in fact the film portrays Natives as a separate, alien species and imperialists as "humans". (As opposed to the much better film "Alien" where the victims of patriarchy and colonialism are humanized, and imperialism and sexual conquest are personified as an inhuman alien monster) The film is about a "human" white man joining the Native "alien" resistance but in order to do so he must become their leader and sleep with one of their women; thus reinforcing the "Native princess" mythology that colonialism has always employed to claim Native women as the sexual property of white men. (So much so that one of Virginia's many prisons is named after Pocahontas, who is also immortalized on the US dollar coin)

  • <blockquote>The reason this particular article is tonedeaf is precisely because it fails to make distinctions between friends and enemies...</blockquote>

    This is exactly the distinction I am trying to make. And our disagreement lies in that I hesitate to put artists (except those who are, or whose art and politics are, consciously reactionary) into an enemy camp. I understand the differences between McGruder and MacFarlene and (I would think) between Democracy Now and Bill Maher. That being said, I would not cast either MacFarlene or Maher in the enemy camp.

    My concern with Curtis's article is not the critique of MacFarlene which maybe correct as far as it goes. It is with the tendency to dichotimize artists into categories such as "real" and "false" progressives and thus to seriously burden the potential for non-antagonistic struggle with sections of artists whose faults basically reflect contradictions among the people, not with an enemy (to use Mao's terms).

    There is also a tendency in Curtis's article to disreagrd or view as a "problem" any piece of art or expression of journalistic ethos that is counter to our communist analysis and politics. I would argue as you do that "a piece of popular entertainment such as a film can have both reactionary and progressive qualities." This is as true for McGruder and TuPac as it is for those we would deem "less" progressive.

    And it is in that regard that I would argue that figures like MacFarlene or Paker/Stone for that matter do not tie themselves directly to a reactionary establishment in politcal terms. They are not say like a Barbara Streisand or a Ted Nugent, two folks that tie themselves directly to one section of the ruling class. On the contrary, to the best of my knowledge, there is sought of a populist "social" libertarianism reflected in their thinking that tends to be anti-establishment and does not fall neatly into a left/right binary.

    Further I think that Curtis is tying an idividual artist's class position too closely to his political potential and that the latter judgement should be based on the individual's ideas as expressed through their art and their political class and social stand. And again this is always in motion and will transform, for better or worse, with events and experiences.

  • Guest - thegodlessutopian

    It is good comrades are noticing the "tone deaf" nature of my paper because this is my primary point.When I set out to write this piece it was exactly my intention to show, though maybe not explicitly explain, how and why artists which ally themselves to the bourgeois superstructure are class enemies. Class enemies take many forms and some are obviously much more violent than others; some can be engaged in progressive conversation while others cannot. This comes to light in the forms I have previously mentioned-Seth would be hard, if not next to impossible, to engage in conversation while the individuals behind Democracy Now! would be more reasonable.

    This isn't to say neither are working class supporters.One could make the argument that they are sympathizers but certainly not supporters.In the case of Democracy Now this becomes apparent, in part, through their hypocrisy. How can anyone say they are friends of the working class when they give credence to reactionary views? This would be the equivalent of a Leftist sect propagating pro-capitalist views.Though the comparison is slightly hyperbolic it makes my point well.

    It is for these reasons that I wrote the paper with such a "one dimensional" outlook. According to how I see things one can divide liberals as I have done because they are all different shades of reactionary dogma.There could be the "lesser evil" but why should we, as revolutionaries, believe that this lesser evil is actually a friend when in material terms they are not? If one examines their ideas you will see that it is nothing but your average petite-bourgeois mindset framed as to lure in revolutionaries and radicals.

  • <blockquote>How can anyone say they are friends of the working class when they give credence to reactionary views?</blockquote>

    In communist theory it is often said that middle class forces or "friends of the working class" often vacillate between support for the bourgoisie (in the form reformism, fear of revolution) and general support for the interests of the oppressed (when these interests interconnect with their own middle class interests).

    This is what I feel you are observing Curtis, in the realm of art, journalism and entertainment.

    The question is not if people can change per say (of course they can), but that people are constantly changing, transforming, arriving at lofty conclusions and falling back on reliance on the rulers when there are sharp questions over how to resolve intense situations (or inversely staying on an essentially revolutionary road and uniting with the people).

    That's how reality works, and this vacillation is a general characterisitic of petty-bourgeois thinking as you describe it.

    You could look at all types of figures in art and media, who "ally themselves to the bourgeois superstructure" as you put it, espeically in times like right now (elections!) but who at other times take strong anti-war stances or stances for Black or Queer liberation, etc. They take the side of Democrats because they don't see a viable alterantive at the time. But this can change in the face of real world-changing conjunctures.

    And this kind of "petty-bourgeois" mentality does not exist only within the middle class but exists among the oppressed themselves.

    Talking about the experience of the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin observed how the working class would constantly "strive to come under the wing of bourgeoisie." This expressed itself in a tendency to want to trust in the possibility of consolidating the revolution through the constituent assembly. Today in the United States many people see the best chances at getting some of kind of progressive change through the Democrats. If this exist broadly through the ranks of the oppressed, why should we expect it to be so much different amongst a "non-revolutionary class" such as artists? Should we write off the oppressed for "allying with a wing of the bourgeoisie"?

    And this is also relatable to how to look at Seth. He sees himself as a progressive, though he has some ideas about how to address questions of race, sexuality, and gender which are wrong headed to say the least.

    Isn't this true however, with the vast majority of the oppressed, including among the most oppressed sections, those sections that would be the core (in the future) of a revolutionary fighting force?

    How is determined that Seth or artists like him are enemies? I would argue that they essentially part of the petty-bourgeoisie. I would argue that we work win to win such sections representing people like Seth to a position of friendly neutrality or to our side if possible.

    Class is not determined mainly by wealth. It is determined mainly by social role including, how much labor does one expolit and how much politcal power does one possess. I would consider most artists to fall mainly under the class catetgory of petty-bourgeoisie.

    In terms of regarding who our enemies are, one way to start is to evaluate how the interests of different sections of people run up against the repression of the rulers. This is not always manifested economically. For instance artists can face this type of repression in their ability to express themselves freely through their art (for instance when an artist wants to create a work damning to a war that is being waged or exposing the role of toture, etc.).

    Artists, and most people generally will vacillate between more radical ideas and between falling under the wing of bourgeoisie. This will sort itself out through events and through real world struggle and experience.

    If we are too quick to cast people into the catetgory of enemey, we alienate potential allies or winning people to friendly nuetrality (at worst). This goes far beyond how we view a particular artist (Seth). It has to do with how we understand the difference between contradictions with the enemy and contradictions among the people. And it has to do with how we handle incorrect and, yes, even reactionary thinking among the latter.

  • One thing i would like to see is more precision in the distinction between communist, socialist and working class. I have <a href="/http://kasamaproject.org/2009/02/03/wheres-the-proletariat-in-maos-long-march-or-nepals-revolution/" rel="nofollow">written about this before</a>, but mainly in connection with peasant countries.

    In some discussions they are seen as the same thing. For example, some people equate "the working class movement" with the communist movement (which, if you think about it, requires a disregard for reality). In our lifetimes, the communist movements have been quite distant from working class movements (with a very few exceptions).

    In some ways, working class is used as a kind of "marker" for communist or socialist -- as if they are the same.

    And this means that we don't have a common language. For example: "Proletarian leadership" actually means communist leadership to some who use it. Meanwhile, even sometimes in the <em>same</em> discussion, there are other people who literally mean that <em>workers</em> must lead when they use "proletarian leadership" (and <em>don't</em> necessarily mean communists). So confusion is built in.

    I'm going to break down some comments by my good friend Nat Winn (because I know he won't misunderstand the nitpicking and because he knows that we have general agreement on the main issues discussed here).
    * * * * *

    thegoddlessutopian writes above:

    <blockquote>"This isn’t to say neither (of the two examples of left liberal voices) are working class supporters. One could make the argument that they are sympathizers but certainly not supporters.In the case of Democracy Now this becomes apparent, in part, through their hypocrisy."</blockquote>

    Is that how we measure progressive and radical content, by whether it "supports" the working class?

    Which working class? Which part? Which movement? And how is that measured at a time where (for all practical purposes) there is no radical movement within the working class (and really not even much of a meat-and-potatoes trade union movement)?

    What meaning does that even have?

    When<a href="/http://kasamaproject.org/2011/04/03/riding-the-tiger-how-to-light-the-sky-survive-the-repression/" rel="nofollow"> Marlon Brando</a> courageously went on late night TV to defend the Black Panther Party (and denounce the police murder of <a href="/http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobby_Hutton" rel="nofollow">Lil Bobby Hutton</a>), did that somehow make him a "working class supporter"? Wasn't he really a supporter of the revolutionary movement (of that m oment), and the Black liberation struggle (which at the time were completely bound up together with the revolutionary movement)? Why would a non-existant working class movement enter into that discussion?

    When someone makes a controversial film (say Cameron's Avatar, or the recent Hunger Games), do we judge the film by how it portrays (or "supports") the working class? Cameron's film portrays corporate ecocide, and military desertion, and the treatment of indigenous people. Can't its content be judged on those levels -- and also on artistic standards? Why would our standard be "working class support"? And how would we measure that (in regard to those movies)?

    in other words, I don't think there is some litmus test for radical artists about whether they support this or that explicitly political movement, whether they support this or that currently existing action among workers.

    I think the main question around radical artists is whether their art undermines the system, and helps generate ideas that undermine the system, and help gather forces (and audiences) that undermine this system. Whether they support currently existing movements is rather secondary in most cases. And whether their support focuses on "working class movements" is even more secondary (especially when there are none.) I am very in favor of actors and artists using their pubic access to promote radical causes. It is wonderful. But i think we (meaning we communists) should not focus on that (in a narrow way) -- to the exclusion of appreciating the impact of radical art (including radical art that appears in the main arenas -- rock concerts, movie theaters, top TV shows, etc.)

    <strong>One problem worth exploring in this thread: </strong>The overfocus on artists-being--generic-activists is really related to the overfocus on communists-being-generic-activists. It is movementism (major rightist problem among lefties), and doesn't appreciate the role of actual art in preparing an actual revolution.


    <b>Back to class and politics.</b>

    Thegodlessutopian said

    <blockquote>"How can anyone say they are friends of the working class when they give credence to reactionary views."</blockquote>

    What is this category called "friends of the working class"?

    I have been a worker (in a shoe factory, steel forge, a couple of coal mines, and other capacities.) And I have been a communist revolutionary.

    But I am unfamiliar with this category called "friends of the working class."

    Who are these people? Are there people who actually say "I'm a friend of the working class." And if so, what does that mean to them? And what/who precisely are they a "friend" of? And what does such "friendship" entail (politically)?

    Does this designation assume that the kernel of the coming communist revolution is (somehow) within the existing trade union movements (so that "friends" of current trade union struggles are somehow assumed to be inherently friends of a <em>future</em> communist revolution)? Are either of those assumptions valid?

    Also don't lots of people play a progressive role (overall and in specific ways) while "giving credence to reactionary views" in other places? Isn't that something inherent in still-religious people who become revolutionaries or radicals?

    Some of the most militant antiwar forces (anti-nuclear people who went to prison, the Berrigan brothers, Eighth Day Center in Chicago, Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker followers) did so under the "seamless garment" doctrine (which opposed abortion and war on the same basis).

    Are such people not possible allies of a revolution because in one area they "give credence to reactionary views"?

    And what does a revolution look like if it only accepts "friends" from people who never give any credence to any "reactionary views"?

    And (dare I ask) who decides exactly what views are reactionary and which ones are not? (Look at our revealing discussion of sexuality: Is support for pornography a reactionary view, or is opposition to pornography reactionary? And where will that be settled? Is anyone who votes for Obama reactionary? Or, to go even farther, are farmers (who generally vote republican!) not capable of becoming allies of a radical movement?

    Nat Winn gives an answer to some of this. And he makes his main point: that we can't treat people like enemies simply because at this-or-that moment they disagree with us. And we shouldn't.

    <blockquote>"In communist theory it is often said that middle class forces or “friends of the working class” often vacillate between support for the bourgoisie (in the form reformism, fear of revolution) and general support for the interests of the oppressed (when these interests interconnect with their own middle class interests)."</blockquote>

    But I'd like to break this down a bit.... in the interest of an argument for more precision, and for not accepting uncritically some inherited views.

    Is it really an assumption of communist theory that "middle class forces" only oscillate between support for the bourgeoisie and support for the oppressed? Really? Are they like a microchip that can only register a "0" or a "1."

    For example: Aren't there times when <em>some</em> middle class forces initiate struggles against the system, and help catapult more oppressed strata into motion? Aren't students and sometimes academic intellectuals sometimes in the lead? (Think of Sartre in the Algerian war, or SDS in the anti-war movement, or SNCC entering Mississippi, or the wonderful heaven-storming May 4th movement in 1919 that triggered the great (and ultimately successful) wave of the Chinese revolution.

    Are the middle classes <em>only</em> wobbling between two other poles -- or can they at times generate something distinctive for themselves (in ways that are not particularly wobbly)?

    <strong>Further, while i'm breaking it down: </strong>Do middle class forces only support the "interests of the oppressed" (as Nat writes) when "these interests <em>interconnect with their own</em> middle class interests."

    It that how materialist analysis works -- by a theory of intersectionality -- radical alliances become possible where (and presumably ONLY when) interests somehow <em>overlap</em>?

    This seems to assume that people act in ways very tightly connected to their "own class interests" (and, somewhat separate, on their perception of their own class interests). Is that really true?

    That implies a politics where our work can <em>only</em> focus on training people in their <em>own</em> interests, and then possible winning them (from that basis) to broader alliances because of moments of <em>overlap</em> with <em>their</em> own interests.

    Is that how our revolutionary alliance will work? Like some cynical urban city council coalition of mutual "scratch my back, I scratch yours." By aggregated self interests of otherwise disparate identity groups? Are there no exiting political movements that sweep people along? No explodingly charismatic ideas that convert and transform people from old ways? Are there no universal ideas that grip people in revolutionary times? Only "interests" that diverge or overlap?

    Is this communist theory? Or some other theory?

    Did the growing and soon widespread white middle class support for the civil rights movement (say after the 1955 birmingham bus boycott) of African American people happen because somehow the "interests of the oppressed" literally "intersected with peoples own middle class interest"?

    And if so, how did that intersection suddenly happen? did the interests of the oppressed change to <em>cause</em> the growing intersection? Or did the interests of the middle classes <em>move</em> in the mid-fifties? Or was something else going on <em>not</em> narrowly related to the interests of each?

    Can't people support things that are not in their own interests? Or (as identity politics insists) are the ideas, politics, and minute-by-minute actions of whole strata and nationalities chained (by ankle and wrist) to the pettiest of privilege and short term interest?

    Or are there universal interests for humanity and the communist cause (and are people capable of grasping them as universals)? Don't people (even in large numbers) have the ability of supporting things that are not in their immediate interests?

    Isn't it the rightwing that says "taxes and the payment of social benefits aren't in your immediate interests" -- while progressive forces answer with "we should help our brothers and sisters, and not only think of narrow self, we should have community and sharing, not approach things from the petty self-interests posed under dog-eat-dog capitalism"?

    I'm saying that I don't agree with this view of the middle classes and their nature (and their potential).

    And separately I do not agree with the view implied here of how interests and alliances operate. Some of this mechanical view of class appears occasionally in various orthodox forms of Marxism -- but I think it is against the revolutionary spirit and practice of communist revolution (and the more sophisticated Marxist thinking of, say, Marx and Mao).

    <b>Allies of what?</b>

    I assume by "friends of the working class" the godlessutopian is implying possible allies within some workerist vision of social change (where some "workers movement" is assumed to be the core of socialist change).

    But really are the allies we want really <em>only</em> people who (in some mechanical and direct way) support "the working class" and some (currently nonexistent) "working class movement"? Do we assume some automatic identity between socialism and "working class interests" (as they express themselves in real politics)? Do we assume automatic identity between working class interests and the workingclass movements of any moment?

    Are we seeking allies <em>of the working class (and its characteristic movements)</em>, or of the <em>communist</em> revolution and the future socialist society -- supporters of egalitarianism, internationalism, sustainable socialist economics, destruction of the state and the abolition of classes? Is there a difference?

    Can't people be active and eager supporters of socialist revolution <em>without</em> being particularly supportive of working class movements within the U.S.? (In the U.S., we fought to win over revolutionaries, in the late 60s and 70s, to the importance of working class people as a component of revolution -- it was not obvious or assumed at all. It was certainly not the prerequisite for being progressive or revolutionary.)

    For example can you (in the U.S.) be a strong supporter of socialist revolution because you want an end to the empire, or borders, or because you hope for the independence of Puerto Rico, or because you want a different kind of culture? Or because you think that capitalism imposes a particularly repressive framework for sexuality and intimacy?

    Why would "friends of the working class" be the generic name we give allies in the cause of socialist revolution? Why wouldn't we call them "supporters of socialist revolution"?

    And while we are talking: are working class people the only revolutionaries, and are all middle class people inherently resigned to being "allies"? Aren't some among middle class people likely to be firm and reliable revolutionaries, while some working class people more vacillatory, and more on-again-off-again "allies" of the revolution? Why would the categories of core/cadre and ally be so rigidly operate by class? How likely is that?

    There were times, like Germany in 1930, where revolutionary politics was really anchored in the working class (and bohemia), and where extreme reactionary politics dominated whole spheres of the middle classes (rural farmers, students, lawyers, etc.) But aren't there times when it is not as clear cut -- where sometimes sudden and powerful radical movements among students <em>precede</em> revolutionary influences on the working class (May 1968 France)?


    Also Revolution in the U.S. will not be the act of some metaphysically united working class. Almost certainly the emergence of a revolutionary people in the U.S. will <em>cause</em> new and sharper splits within the working class (as emerging radical ideas and organization were <em>finally</em> able to challenge the conservative or reformist views that basically have hegemony today).


    I assume that in the U.S. (as was true in Russia) that some sections of working people will support a socialist revolution, but also that (in any specific moment) quite a few working class people will <em>oppose</em> such a socialist revolution. (One of the first acts of the October Revolution was to break a strike of railroad workers who, under anti-Bolshevik trade union leadership, tried to cut off revolutionary Petrograd from Moscow.)

    <strong>And while we are talking: </strong>I don't assume that some magical numerical majority is a prerequisite for a successful revolution. I think revolutions often happen without ever being able to literally win a formal, stable voting majority before their victory. Sometimes revolutions win because their extreme core have a powerful minority force of millions, while everyone else is discredited or weak in the midst of crisis.

    I think that you can't have a radical movement of revolutionary change <em>without</em> a solid partisan base among broad strata of the oppressed. "Those with nothing to lose but their change" are indispensable for a movement that "pushes all the way through" -- both because of their social power and because of their inclination toward non-compromise and radicalism.

    This consciously raises the question of the relationship between

    1) a particular class of people ("the working class") and
    2) a particular set of movements (a broadly popular revolutionary movement emerging with a self-consciously communist movement within it), and
    3) a particular possible event (the socialist revolution -- inevitably existing in unique and unprecedented forms of presentation).

    I am arguing for not mechanically or sloppily confusing these three things.

  • Guest - Miles Ahead

    I interpreted a lot of what Nat said, in his overall comment—both necessary and important, as an attempt to delve into some of the contradictions among the people.

    I apologize for further nit-picking, but these two paragraphs caught me up a little short.

    Nat said (w/my emphasis in italics):

    <blockquote>Class is not determined mainly by wealth. It is determined mainly by social role including, how much labor does one expolit and how much politcal power does one possess. <i>I would consider most artists to fall mainly under the class catetgory of petty-bourgeoisie</i>.

    In terms of regarding who our enemies are, one way to start is to evaluate how the interests of different sections of people run up against the repression of the rulers. This is not always manifested economically. For instance <i>artists can face this type of repression in their ability to express themselves freely through their art </i> (for instance when an artist wants to create a work damning to a war that is being waged or exposing the role of torture, etc.). </blockquote>

    By considering “most artists to fall mainly under the class category of petty bourgeoise,” IMO is to pigeon-hole many, many artists. It is a view that appears too mechanical -- doing not only many artists a disservice, but can be a disservice to the myriad of components that make up a revolutionary process and its forces.

    Thousands upon thousands of artists (writers, musicians, etc.) are from working class backgrounds or oppressed nationalities—but that doesn’t automatically make them radical/revolutionary artists. And just because some artist, through their work, isn’t overtly dotting every revolutionary “i” or crossing every supposed revolutionary/radical “t” doesn’t mean that they can’t (or don’t) play vital roles in the process of making revolution.

    IMO, some art (which I don’t think is necessarily that good or particularly powerful) hits you over the head; but more so, much art is more subtle or nuanced, an exposure that makes you think—not just about what is, but about other progressive possibilities.

    Here are a few examples of some less famous (to lots of people) contemporary visual artists who have contributed in no small measure to the world of revolutionary/radical ideas and politics—and <i>all are from </i>varied backgrounds and classes:

    Romare Bearden (1911-1988)—An African American whose roots were in the Harlem Renaissance, and via his art, made different commitments at different points in time, mainly to the struggle of the oppressed. Much of his art reflects the basic lives of his, as well as, the world community.

    Leon Golub (1922-2004)—(often in collaboration with artist Nancy Spero, his spouse) Culminating in his series—“Napalm &amp; Vietnam.” At the same time his portraits of not just Ho Chi Minh or Fidel, but Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Kissinger, Nixon, etc. were quite controversial. Golub purported that the artist had an observable connection to (and was part of) the external world and actual events.

    Rupert García—an extremely dynamic Chicano artist, whose work (emphasis jarring posters) was extremely powerful about the Vietnam war, as well as the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. More recently his work combines the religiosity of the mainly Latino community, but can be interpreted as tongue-in-cheek, paradoxical and satirical.

    Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)—a Harvard graduate, usually classified as an Abstract Expressionist/avant guardist/even Surrealist, who at different times put the most emphasis on social consciousness and against repression/oppression—at the same time his work was abstract, symbolic and representational. One of his most famous works (over 100 paintings) is his tribute “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” and to the Spanish Civil War.

    Then there’s Emory—who I “suppose” (not very scientific) some would put in a category of his own—the revered <i>artist</i> of the Black Panther Party who helped popularize and propel the Black liberation movement. Is he simply petit bourgeois because he’s an artist?

  • Guest - Nat W

    Mike and Miles Ahead,

    Thanks for nitpicking. I am reading and rereading what you both wrote and can understand the flaws and uncritical acceptance of inherited views (as Mike put it) in how I formulated some of this argument.

    For one I think you are right on point Mike, about the question of interests and alliances and the possibility for human beings to act outside of their "interests" for universal principles. And it is also true that (obviously!) sections in the middle class can act in ways that are no wobbly that generate important and even revolutionary struggle (you already provide the examples).

    I hear your points as well MilesAhead. I didn't mean to turn petty-bourgeois into a perjorative. I was mainly trying to make a distinction between rulers and ruled with the middle section constituting a force that falled within the latter category. I made the clasification based on my understanding of Lenin's breakdown of classes. Artists generally don't work for a wage (though this not always the case) and don't exploit labor (again generally, though that is changing), and they generally don't play a major decision making role in society as a whole (even while they play a role in creating public opinion).

    So I want to give your comment more thought, taking in consideration the distinction Mike makes between a class (in this case a section of the middle classes) as seperate from the role an artist may play through their art or otherwise in a revolutionary movement.

    Thanks again for ramping up the level of discussion.

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