Listening to Billy Bragg talking about the revolutionary possibilities seemingly opened up to “John Lennon‘s generation” by Rock ´n Roll on the brilliant Novara radio programme on resonance fm reminded me of something I wrote a while ago on Rock ´n Roll, race and authenticity. So here it is:
Helen Macfarlane was a writer for the “red” wing of the Chartist movement and the first translator of Capital into English. As David Black shows in this highly readable and informative book, she was also among the first, if not the first, British writer to engage critically with Hegel.
“I reflected that only yesterday we were nothing. Nothing: like the nameless men of the forgotten village which had vanished from these banks. Between that yesterday and the present centuries seemed to have passed, or between the times of those men and our own. Only yesterday countless lights were burning along these banks inside rooms where the power, the wealth, and the pleasure of others reigned. We put out those lights, brought back primordial night. That night is our work. That night is us. We have entered it in order to destroy it. Each of us has entered it, perhaps never to leave it. So many harsh, terrible tasks must be done; tasks which demand the disappearance of their performers. Let those who come after us forget us. Let them be different from us. Thus what is best in us will be reborn in them.”
Victor Serge, Conquered City
In A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Karl Marx spoke of “that revolutionary daring which flings at the adversary the defiant words: I am nothing but I must be everything”. In Conquered City, the third of his “Revolutionary Trilogy” – translated by Richard Greeman, Victor Serge writes about the men and women who had become everything through the October Revolution and who now wielded power within the shattered city streets of Bolshevik Petrograd. It is a tale of the Cheka, the Extraordinary Commission charged with defending the revolution against its internal enemies.
Respect by Otis Redding is a song that lyrically suggests a conservative, even chauvinist reading of the word respect, but by dint of Otis being a black man singing in the ’60s, Respect became a Civil Rights anthem, that really took off with Aretha Franklin’s version. When Aretha covered Respect the ambiguity of the meaning was eradicated. Regularly performing at Civil Rights concerts, with an afro hair-do and natty black power togs, after her version hit the charts it was sung by Black Panther Party activists and feminists alike. Otis admitted his version had been eclipsed at the Monterey Pop festival, introducing it with the words “a song that a girl took away from me.”
The majority of information available about Josep Rebull, who came to embody an immanent, “left” critique of the collaborationist policy of the POUM during the Civil War, is in Spanish. What follows is a translated version of the biographical sketch at the beginning of La izquierda del POUM en Mayo de 1937. Militancia y pensamiento político de Josep Rebull, by the foremost authority on the Spanish anti-collaborationist left, Agustín Guillamón. If you are Agustín Guillamón, or you know someone who is, and you have a problem with what follows, please let me know.
Guillamón is a hugely important, militant historian of the Spanish revolution and I will try to put untranslated articles of his on this blog as often as I have time, and as long as there are no objections. Here is a link to his moving and angry obituary of the anarchist historian Abel Paz, translated by Paul Sharkey: http://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/v41q3n
Growing up I assumed, following writers such as Steven Wells and Stewart Home, that authenticity, in its use with regard to music (and culture in general) was a mystification used to shore up hierarchical and racist approaches to culture. Later I thought it possible to arrive at a more sympathetic and democratic interpretation referencing Benjamin, the talk of “essence” and “species being” in the young Marx and the old one´s interest in Native Americans.
The post that follows, Authenticity 1, is an attempt I made in this vein to elucidate a dialectic of authenticity about 5 years ago.