- Category: Revolutionary Strategy
- Created on Saturday, 24 March 2012 07:55
- Written by Mike Ely
This continues a discussion of symbolic language and rituals of transition that we have engaged in two threads:
- Radiating: How revolutionary movements represent
- Liberation: Beyond revenge and hatred of relatively privileged
by Mike Ely
Let me start here:
This whole primitive, initial discussion of symbols, rituals and belonging is not in opposition to having programmatic unity, written beliefs, a basis of unity etc. No one thinks that in these threads.
No one is arguing for a movement that is not articulate, verbal and rational.
I'm merely saying it can't be on just a "head trip." Our communist movement needs to be accessible and inclusive -- and for that it also needs potent symbolism and visual language that is current and in some important ways universal (i.e. not confined to specific cultural/historical references or identity).
A movement for liberation can't be one-sidedly intellectualized and seemingly "bloodless" (and culturally alien or somehow unrooted from its audiences and base).
Or (we can learn from many experiences) it will only attract those cadre inclined toward the world of position papers, while it excludes the many people who read politics at the level of symbols. (And here we are talking about symbols literally -- as in movement logos -- but also symbolic language of dress, culture, subculture, tone, rhetorical style, openness to debate, treatment of opponents, forms of solidarity within the movement, etc.)
Someone close to me once did a reading level study for me of our Revolutionary Worker newspaper in the 1980s. Most articles (she explained) were at a college level, and many were at a graduate school level.
Now, I believe that a communist movement must do serious analysis at a high level -- just in order to understand the world and guide its work. (And in some ways our analyses then were rarely at a high enough level -- there was a significant amount of dilettantism and superficial work).
But our future movement also needs a parallel popularization of that high level analysis (a popularization done in words, graphics, and other means -- including genuinely artistic works).
Part of the contradiction (for us right now) is that at this moment in our development (today), the communist movement especially needs to emphasize a level of theory and political analysis that is not generally accessible -- and that involves specific kinds of work. And we are only in the initial stages of identifying advanced forces (among the people) with whom we can develop our popularization of common ideas.
The work of communist reconception and its output is often not immediately widely understandable (even to some of our initial audiences) -- and there is a further process of taking theoretical verdicts (on strategy, philosophy, method, political economy, socialist historical summation) and translating them into language that the advanced can hear and engage, and that they (in turn) can help transform and also take out broadly to the intermediate.
As a result, we are (for example) having a somewhat theoretical discussion of symbols -- which is not conducted (here) at the level of symbols -- but in the language of political analytical discourse.
Potent graphic language (just like new rhetorical languages) is something we develop in common with our audiences. And its emergence enriches the work and power of popularization, one that requires specific creative attention. We can use it to capture and project something essential about what we are and what we want. And (if we do tis well) it will "captures" all this in the way that conveys those things to our diverse potential audiences.
Developing (then wielding) such graphic and rhetorical languages requires understanding deeply: what we are, what we want, and who we are trying to speak to.
Mao (in his Yenan forum on art) describes the central importance of understanding the people well (which requires going deeply among the people and learning from them). And he offered a bit of a challenge and criticism to those revolutionaries (in his time) who were making art and literature for those base areas and audiences being drawn into the ongoing revolution:
"Since the audience for our literature and art consists of workers, peasants and soldiers and of their cadres, the problem arises of understanding them and knowing them well. A great deal of work has to be done in order to understand them and know them well, to understand and know well all the different kinds of people and phenomena in the Party and government organizations, in the villages and factories and in the Eighth Route and New Fourth Armies.
"Our writers and artists have their literary and art work to do, but their primary task is to understand people and know them well. In this regard, how have matters stood with our writers and artists? I would say they have been lacking in knowledge and understanding; they have been like 'a hero with no place to display his prowess.' What does lacking in knowledge mean? Not knowing people well."
The life span of symbolic language
Once we adopt a symbolic language, it further gets associated with our cause -- and so it comes to mean something new and more specific. The beret and leather jacket suddenly meant the Panthers. Long hair initially meant alienation from "the system" and rat-race in America.
The first time someone raised "the hammer and sickle" it simply meant "workers and farmers together" -- a simple statement of identity and alliance. Sixty years later, its meaning had evolved -- and in most places in the world, it had often become associated with the Soviet Union and all the many things the USSR had come to represent over time.)
At the same time, we have a practice (as Kasama). We decided early not to adopt old iconography from historical communism -- not because those symbols weren't potent (in their time), and not because they don't have meaning for (some) people today (especially in countries with powerful historic communist movements, like Greece or India etc.).
But because they are unlikely to develop a fresh potency now, and will have an air of backward-looking and nostalgia.
So we have tried to develop a new symbolism and visual language on the Kasama site (in a very beginning way). First we used the red palm print, and then the "walk the road, ride the tiger" paper cut of a tiger that we are now using. We used the "hammer and sickle" as illustration mainly when we are talking about previous movements (for whom those symbols connected) -- since we live in a place and time where a sickle has little symbolic meaning with the exception (perhaps) of Central American immigrants who know what peasant field work looks like.
Example: of how symbols age: Historically, the pick is a key symbol for coal miners everywhere. But I worked in a modern coal mine for many years and never, once, saw any picks used. Increasingly the symbolism of miners has added the modern hardhat and light -- so that the symbol captures the working class nature of the work and the specific underground mine -- but in a way that better connects today.
Symbols change. Old symbols can lose their ability to capture, even as they sometimes linger.
We have started, in the Kasama network, some still-primitive discussion of "what might the symbolism of a future communist movement look like" -- which includes a discussion of what is the point of symbols, and what is the key element we want to convey. And it involves a sense of the difference between symbols and logos (symbols are abstracted -- like the dollar sign, or the hammer and sickle, or the star, or the circle-A, or the swastika -- i.e. any teenager with a spraycan could put it on the wall. Logos are more complex and designed, and incorporate symbolism in a designed and especially effective way.)
I think we should develop or adopt a distinctive symbol (and larger symbolic and visual language) for the new revolutionary movement in the U.S., eventually -- as it develops. We should be on the lookout. For now have to be happy with a more transitional logo (for Kasama specifically, which is itself a transitional form of network building toward that future movement).