Another important lesson that was conveyed both to people close to C.L.R. James, and also in his writing, was to take our own ideas seriously, something that those of us who are oppressed often must struggle within ourselves to do. C.L.R. James focused his leadership not on telling people of color, the colonized, women, and so forth how to liberate themselves, but in constantly prodding them to let their own voices be heard and to be intransigent in their ideas, unless otherwise convinced. One story that Selma James relates in the new Sex, Race and Class: The Perspective of Winning anthology is that, when she was young, she was the only one who held a certain viewpoint in a discussion group in the Johnson-Forest Tendency, and just let the matter drop. C.L.R. James, without passing any judgement one way or another on Selma's idea, told her that the workers in Russia had guns pointed at their heads, and asked what her excuse was. I sometimes think that when I and others get so shy about expressing ourselves - worried that we'll be ridiculed for caring about things others perceive as unimportant - what excuse do we have, to fear being dismissed or ridiculed, when others risk everything to be heard in any way at all!
Rather than post a list of links to various works by C.L.R. James that I think are valuable, or attempt to summarize his work further, I'm going to try to write a little about my personal experiences with music, and how it's given me strength and hope, as well as providing a vision of a world that is both coming into being and worth fighting for, even in supposedly "apolitical" music. I'm going to do this both in the spirit of finding the new socialist society in our own, including our culture, and in the spirit of refusing to be silent due to being afraid of what I have to say being irrelevant or wrong. Besides, if a substantial subset of academia is engaged in analyzing pop culture, so can I.
It's not exactly a secret that music explicitly being written out of a revolutionary tradition has a lot of duds. For every Gang of Four, we get treated to a lot of music written by revolutionaries, that while earnest, isn't all that good. Sometimes it's just the limitations of a small scene, other times it's that a position paper doesn't make particularly good song lyrics, nor does putting perfect politics ahead of musicianship often end up with very effective messaging or particularly good music. Even more importantly, while art can lead us to examine our lives and the world differently, hammering people over the head with a political point tends to cause them to pay less attention to your art, not more.
We, of course, often perceive radical content in more mainstream musicians. Perhaps most famously, Bruce Springsteen's commitment to honestly showing both the decomposition of large portions of the US working class and working class visions of hope and escape make us look at our own lives and communities in a far more radical way than Springsteen's continual endorsement of the Democratic Party would lead us. However, Springsteen is still an explicitly political artist - we can find pieces of a new world even in art that does not consciously intend to be political.
Someone far more versed in Parsi culture and history could probably write a Frantz Fanon-inspired book about Freddie Mercury, and the contradiction between both his seeming identification with the culture of the colonizer, sometimes being more English than the English, and the detourning of the colonizer's culture we can see him engage in. In some ways, Queen's music was full of British pomp; in other ways, by refusing to be confined to one style, or even the music of one region of the world, it spoke of a post-colonial, cosmopolitan future. Freddie Mercury himself was almost consciously apolitical - while famously stating that he was "as gay as a daffodil", he never would explain his identity. This apoliticalness certainly led to passing up opportunities (such as how close to his death Freddie waited to be public about his HIV status; on the other hand, that action shows someone valuing their privacy and refusing to be turned into a symbol), and flat out bad decisions (Queen broke the boycott of Sun City, which ties into the earlier statement about identification with the colonizer).
However, for a queer kid growing up in a working class outer Boston suburb, drowning in homophobia, hating the messages about what women are supposed to be that I was getting and fearing much of what I saw about masculinity, Freddie's playfulness, his glitz and glamor, his effortless combination of masculinity and camp, was a revelation. For someone who vocally rejected binary gender in 1995 at the tender age of 14 and wouldn't even encounter any relevant language for about eight years after that, seeing someone who had been so bold, so flamboyant, so out there, so true to who they were but finding putting words to it so irrelevant was inspiring - the body of work he left behind was a literal lifeline, through the years, for me. Even more than that, if a queer Parsi could take in all he did and turn it into a huge show - something so put on that it is more than real - what couldn't anyone become? Later, I got over my fear of ever being the center of attention with a little help from his music. I had done theater in high school many years before, but had always been in the wings playing character parts, never the center of attention, and could never dream of ever getting in front of people and giving a speech, or really speaking up at stressful meetings and giving my opinion. Then, I started singing karaoke, and Queen was one of my favorite choices - beyond the beautifulness of the music, it was well suited for my low alto/high tenor voice, and they were songs everyone loved no matter who sang them. One of the wonderful things about singing Queen's songs is that no one's going to match up to Freddie Mercury, so you don't have to worry about coming up short.
On the level of Queen's music, a frequent focus is love: romantic, friendly, and undefined. I say that anyone who speaks truly of love speaks against capitalism, and I think there's a truth to that. We can see this in the search for love powerfully sung about in "Somebody to Love":
I work hard every day of my life (He works hard)The song speaks from the everyday experience of going off to work, and the alienation that the capitalist organization of work puts between us and both the product of our labor - Freddie doesn't sing what he does, just that he works "till I ache my bones" and takes "home my hard earned pay"- and from other people - the song, despite the gospel style with massive choir backing - is profoundly lonely. The only mentions of other people, are for anybody to find the narrator someone he can love, that he can have a genuine human connection with. The narrator also sings about how the isolation of his life is leading everyone to think he's going crazy, and he states, "I got nobody left to believe". One of the features of our modern world is that all would-be saviors have been shown to be frauds, not worth our belief. We only have our connections with each other to turn to, and when those are gone, perhaps people would say of us that we've "got a lot of water in [our] brain[s.]" We must save ourselves before this society destroys us.
I work till I ache my bones
At the end I take home my hard earned pay all on my own -
I get down on my knees
And I start to pray
Till the tears run down from my eyes
Lord - somebody - somebody
Can anybody find me - somebody to love?
Everyday - I try and I try and I try -
But everybody wants to put me down
They say I'm goin' crazy
They say I got a lot of water in my brain
Got no common sense
I got nobody left to believe
Yeah - yeah yeah yeah
However, the song closes on a hopeful note:
Got no feel, I got no rhythmWhile the religious note is echoed, fitting the gospel style, the liberation the narrator promises is a self-liberation. The very conditions that grind him down not only give him the determination to continue on, but they also expose his alienation as a prison cell that self-activity can free him from.
I just keep losing my beat
I'm ok, I'm alright
Ain't gonna face no defeat
I just gotta get out of this prison cell
Someday I'm gonna be free, Lord!
"Heaven for Everyone" can be read as addressing what we Marxists would call the central contradiction of capitalism: the contradiction between the forces of production and the social relations of production. In the chorus, Freddie sings:
This could be heaven for everyoneHe looks at the world and sees that we live in a world of plenty, that everyone could eat, and have enjoyable lives, that people could be unified and live freedom. We live in a world where the forces of production (including us, the working class) have been developed both through capitalism and our struggle within it to the point where there is more than enough to meet everyone's needs.
This world could be fed, this world can be fun
This could be heaven for everyone
This world could be free, this world can be one
He goes on to sing:
Listen - what people do to other soulsHe sees the number of people who have their lives taken, either literally, or stolen by the society we are in, none of their goals reachable, and that, most importantly, it doesn't have to be this way. He correctly identifies the reason this world is not "heaven for everyone" as the set of social relations we have in place. Our task, as intellectuals, is to see the understanding that people have of a world of plenty all around them where so many have so little, and suffer so much oppression, and help give them theoretical skills to look at the contradictions around them and analyze them. Then they, themselves can take them to their root, understanding the contradictions between workers and capitalists, and the contradictions of race, gender, sexuality, and so forth within the working class itself.
They take their lives - destroy their goals
Their basic pride and dignity
Is stripped and torn and shown no pity
When this should be heaven for everyone
Queen's music is of course exceptional in the artistry and talent of the band, and the many different genres it touched. It is not singular, however, in the way seemingly apolitical music, in its desire to sing about daily life and what it means to be human in our society, often touches on deeply political points. Furthermore, our own experiences of identifying with art that speaks to us can be both an experience that helps us make sense of our lives, and, through the appeal of popular art, can help us reach out and build bonds with each other. When an artist or their work speaks to the particularities of our condition, their work also speaks to the particularities of those whom we share some commonalities in our experiences of oppression and exploitation. Oppressed groups not only build their own culture, they also interpret and appropriate messages built into the culture around them, whether those messages are specifically intended for them or not.
And while of course much popular culture is produced from a bourgeois perspective, hoping to maintain the status quo, there is other popular culture produced from the experiences and perspectives of the oppressed, or, more generally, a proletarian perspective, and, when that popular culture depicts our daily lives, or the world as it could be, it will, on some level, tend to communicate quite revolutionary ideas in some way. We should enjoy popular culture on its own merits, recognize those revolutionary ideas, and also encourage others to recognize them for themselves. There is no art that is truly apolitical.