(Note: Stuff highlighted in bold was done by me, not Revolution newspaper)
MS: I want to roll on with this. Before I get into the question of actually pursuing more of this question of intellectual and artistic freedom and dissent as a necessity in the future society, I wanted to get into a couple of things about the role of artists in particular. You know, it’s interesting because, 10 years ago, Haile Gerima—I interviewed Haile Gerima, the filmmaker who made Sankofa, Bush Mama. He’s an Ethiopian filmmaker, but he’s been here a long time. He’s kind of been steeped, he’s very schooled in revolutionary theory around the world. And he was influenced a lot by the Cultural Revolution. And one of the things he had, he advanced this idea that the role of the artist in socialist society is to constantly—I’m trying to remember how he actually put it, but it’s to always be opposing the ruling apparatus. He looked at it: the Cultural Revolution went so far but not far enough because this didn’t actually break out that way—that the artists, they stopped short of that.
And then more recently I had the opportunity to interview and spend some time with Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Kenyan writer, and he has a couple of things that he advances around the nature of art and the relationship between the artist and the state in any society. And one of the things that he talks about is that there’s a conservative part of the state, in that it’s always trying to save itself and preserve its rule and preserve itself, and then that art actually—he says that art, on the other hand, is something that’s always changing. You know, it’s always that—art differs from that, in that it’s always trying to grasp things in their changingness. It’s based on how things are developing, how things are moving and what’s essential and not always what exactly is. And so he sees these two things as being in contradiction to one another, and he says that the artist actually should always be a constant questioner of the state. The artist has a role—his view of the artist in society is that the artist has the role of asking more questions than they do of providing answers, and that’s something that he feels should be enshrined in any society. And I was wondering how that would fit in with your view of socialism and the role of art and the question of artistic freedom and dissent.
BA: Well, I think from what you’re describing and characterizing, briefly quoting, I think there’s an aspect of truth to that, but it’s one-sided, it’s only one side of the picture. About 15 years ago I gave a talk called “The End of a Stage, the Beginning of a New Stage,” basically summing up, with the restoration of capitalism in China following the same unfortunate outcome as the Soviet Union, that we had come to the end of a certain stage beginning with the Paris Commune, more or less, and ending with the Chinese Revolution being reversed and capitalism being restored there. And now we had to regroup and sum up deeply the lessons, positive and negative, of that and go forward in a new set of circumstances where there were no more socialist countries temporarily. And, at the end of that [talk], one of the things that I tried to set forth was certain principles that I thought should be applied by a Party in leading a socialist society. And one of those was that it should be a Party in power and a vanguard of struggle against those parts of power that are standing in the way of the continuation of the revolution. And I actually think that’s a more correct way, a more correct context, or analogy, for how to evaluate the role of art in particular in a socialist society. In other words, by analogy, I think art should not just criticize that [socialist] state, it should criticize those things in the society—including in the state, including in the Party, including in the leadership—that actually represent what’s old and needs to be moved beyond. Not necessarily what is classically capitalist but what has turned from being an advance into an obstacle—because everything, including socialism, does advance through stages and by digging more deeply into the soil the old is rooted in and uprooting it more fully. So things that were advances at one point can turn into obstacles or even things that would take things back, if persisted in.
So I think art needs to criticize all those things. But I think it also needs to uphold—and even, yes, to extol and to popularize—those things that do represent the way forward, including those things about the state. The state in socialist society is not the same as the state in capitalist society. It’s the state that, in its main aspects—so long as it’s really a socialist society—represents the interests of the masses of people, makes it possible for them, provides the framework within which, they can continue the revolution and be defended against enemies, both within the country and the imperialists and other forces who would attack and try to drown that new society in blood from the outside. So the state has a different character, and as long as its main aspect is doing those things—is actually representing rule by the proletariat in which the proletariat and broad masses of people are increasingly themselves consciously involved in the decision-making process and in developing policies for continuing the revolution—wherever that remains the main aspect, those things should be supported and even extolled. But even within that, even where that is the case, there will be many ways in which there will be not only mistakes made but things which have come to be obstacles, ways in which in the policies of the government, and the policies of the Party, and the actions of the state, [there are] things that actually go against the interests of the masses of people—not just in a narrow sense, but in the most fundamental sense even, in terms of advancing to communism—and that actually pose obstacles. And those things should be criticized.
And I do think there is a truth to the idea that artists tend to bring forward new things—although that’s not uniformly true. Some artists—the same old thing over and over, you know, very formulaic—and especially those whose content seeks to reinforce or restore the old, it often isn’t that innovative. Sometimes even that is good [artistically]; often it isn’t. But I do think there is some truth that there is a character of a lot of art that it’s very innovative and it tends to shake things up and come at things from new angles and pose problems in a different way or actually bring to light problems that haven’t been recognized in other spheres or by people who are more directly responsible for things, or by people who are more directly involved in the politics of a society. And I think there should be a lot of freedom for the artists to do that. But I also think part of their responsibility, and part of what they should take on, is to look to those things that are—that do embody the interests of people—including the state. And they should popularize and uphold that, because there are going to be plenty of people wanting to drag down and destroy that state. But I think there’s not a clear enough understanding of the fundamental distinction—even with all the contradictions involved that I’ve been trying to speak to—the fundamental distinction between a proletarian state, a state in socialist society, and a bourgeois state which is there for the oppression of the masses and to reinforce the conditions in which they’re exploited, as the whole foundation of this society, and [which] viciously attacks any attempt to rebel against, let alone to overthrow, that whole system.
So I think there is importance to drawing a distinction—and then, once you recognize that fundamental distinction, then once again, as we say, divide the socialist state into two. What parts of it are power that embodies and represents the interests of the masses in making revolution and continuing toward communism, and what parts have grown old or stand in the way of that continuation? Extol the one, popularize the one; and criticize and mobilize people, encourage people to struggle against the other.
That was just one of the questions from the interview that covers a wide number of topics, but specifically tries to dig into China's Cultural Revolution, under the leadership of Mao Tsetung; its advances in Socialism, its shortcomings, and the correct lessons that revolutionaries should be learning from that stage in Socialism. The entire interview is definitely worth reading--especially if you've ever wondered about the role of art in a non-capitalist society.