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AS BEFITS the centenary of the murders of German revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, this month’s annual Rosa Luxemburg Conference in Berlin was the biggest yet.
The 24th such conference organised by the Morning Star’s German sister paper Junge Welt, it has become the largest arena for discussing socialist politics on the German left and attracts leftwingers of every stripe, from the most progressive members of the Social Democratic Party, through Die Linke and the German Communist Party (DKP) to a whole range of smaller organisations.
Sessions took place on anti-imperialism, the changing nature of war, the next capitalist crisis, the increasing severity of repression in Turkey and much more, interspersed with theatrical pieces and song about Rosa and Karl.
At previous conferences political discussion has dominated the day while music and the arts have taken place in the evening, but Junge Welt’s managing director Dietmar Koschmieder explained that this year the centrality of culture to the revolutionary struggle would be recognised by its presence throughout the day.
And the importance of building a revolutionary culture was the theme of the afternoon’s most jam-packed session, one held in honour of another anniversary — “60 Years of Revolution — Counterculture in Cuba.”
Cuba’s Culture Minister Abel Prieto spoke about his field — art, literature, film. He began with a quote from Fidel Castro: “Without culture there is no revolution. Each revolution is the product of a culture and its ideas.” And he was at pains to stress that this was no optional extra, but that Cuba’s attention to building a revolutionary culture had been instrumental in defending its revolution in a hostile international environment.
“For Fidel, for Raul, for the Communist Party of Cuba and the government, it is clear that the material conditions of life can be changed, lives improved, land given to farmers — but unless a new culture is built, a new awareness based on solidarity, your revolution can be reversed.
“The resistance of the Cubans against the blockade, against the lies, our survival after 1989 [when the collapse of European socialism deprived the country of its principal allies and trading partners] — this can be explained only through the fact that a new kind of awareness has been created in Cuba.
“We see the setbacks in Latin America,” he argued, pointing to the counterrevolutionary governments now busy unpicking revolutionary gains in Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador and the destabilisation of remaining progressive governments in Venezuela and Nicaragua by an armed and violent right-wing opposition.
“One reason is the lack of this awareness. People enjoy the benefits of socialist government and some may then consider themselves middle class. Then they might look to defend that status, and you see poor people vote against their own interests.”
Supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela to the left of its own government — such as the country’s Communist Party — have placed emphasis on the importance of engaging the entire working class in the struggle to build socialism and actively confronting capitalist economic power in a way Caracas was able to avoid in the era of high oil prices.
Cuba’s socialist society, unlike Venezuela, has left capitalism far behind, but even where that has happened history shows us sudden dramatic reversals are possible, as in the Soviet Union, if people are not politically engaged enough to defend their revolution when it comes under attack.
Seven decades of Soviet power didn’t guarantee that engagement. How has Cuba looked to tackle things differently?
“The Cuban example has shown that artistic and literary work can be created if you work together with your audience,” Prieto says. He cites programmes with mass appeal like the TV show University for All, which first aired in 2000, introducing people to great artists and writers. “We looked at literature, culture, ways of expression. We have created a culture of readers.”
Empowerment rather than instruction is the secret: “Fidel said: ‘We don’t tell people to believe. We ask them to read.’
“We ran off huge quantities of cheap classics, books at 24 centavos apiece. Everyone could read Don Quixote. I don’t know if everyone did read it,” he concedes, but returns to Fidel: “We don’t want to turn people into fanatics, we want to turn them into people who are literate, people who are free.”
As always in Cuba the approach was internationalist: Prieto explains how the Books Institute scoured the world for new classics to translate into Spanish, publishing over 50 authors from 15 countries.
In the case of many African authors these were their first translations into the language. “One of those was Wole Soyinka,” the Nigerian poet and playwright who was later to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. “So we were the first publicisers in Spanish of one of the most important African authors.”
Strengthening Cuba’s traditions and honouring its heritage was important because “in the 1930s and 1940s our heritage had been neglected, especially our African heritage. The popular culture of Cuba is rich, diverse and deep, but before the 1959 revolution the rich simply aped the culture of the United States. Cuba must resist that hegemonic culture by supporting its own.”
Partly that can be done via the tourist industry: “Tourism is an important source of income, but it can also be a way of promoting our culture. But how do you avoid that culture being turned into a kind of folklore for tourist consumption?”
The answer was to promote real, lived culture as created by Cuban children and the young: “We looked to train more art teachers, so school art could be promoted. We focused on teacher training in the care of traditional culture. We try to get close to the youth movements, to support interesting things we noticed happening at the fringes.
“By encouraging that diversity, we resist that hegemonic industrial-scale entertainment [exemplified by the US film and music industries] that doesn’t leave space for other kinds of art.”
He sees the huge success of the Festival of Latin American Cinema, with record numbers last year, as a sign that this approach is paying off.
Cuba would always be open to bringing in ideas from abroad, he noted, but pointed to the US government’s funding of web and social media activity aimed at creating circles of anti-socialism in the country. “We observe espionage, we see meddling in election campaigns with social media. We see attempts to import values of neoliberalism and competition, of the overemphasis on money, and these can come into conflict with our own values of socialism and solidarity.”
But Cuba’s strength was that its culture was universally accessible. “There is no child in Cuba who lacks teachers. They might lack computers. But we have TV, radio, instruments of promoting culture, and these will never be privatised,” he declared to thunderous applause.
Prieto may have delivered the keynote address, but the Cuba session didn’t end there. A Q&A on the looming referendum on Cuba’s new constitution saw former Junge Welt editor Arnold Schoelzel ask Iliana Hernandez of the Cuban Communist Party central committee about one detail that had received widespread coverage in Germany.
The draft constitution that went out for consultation had replaced the phrase “communist society” as an objective of the country’s constitution with “socialist society.” But after the document was submitted to amendment in local meetings the length and breadth of Cuba — and over a million separate suggestions were fed back to the drafters — the term “communist society” had come back.
Hernandez doesn’t want to overstate the significance of a difference in phrasing. “But we have a well educated people. A revolutionary people. And they proposed that we put ‘communism’ back in. That’s the culture of our people.”
Junge Welt and the Morning Star
THE Rosa Luxemburg conference is organised each year by the socialist daily newspaper Junge Welt.
Newspapers everywhere face challenges with shrinking print readership and the growth of online and social media readerships who are less inclined to pay to read and usually show less “brand loyalty,” reading pieces from a large number of titles rather than buying a regular paper. This has had some positive consequences in undermining monopoly media control; but it also creates challenges for sustaining professional journalism and has led to a massacre of local titles with grave ramifications for local democracy.
Socialist papers, denied most commercial advertising and often boycotted, have an even harder time and Junge Welt held a session in which managing director Dietmar Koschmieder and colleagues addressed these.
Some, such as rising paper and distribution costs, are all too familiar to Morning Star management. We too are ignored by most of the media. Koschmieder noted that Junge Welt suffers a ban from advertising on Deutsche Bahn and has also had radio stations refuse to air its adverts.
But when “we are slipping back into barbarism, to which socialism is the only alternative,” it could not be a good thing to see former daily outlets of alternative media become weeklies or web-only platforms, he argued.
“We have to fight for the cultural asset that is a left-wing daily. A daily socialist paper is desperately needed and has to be preserved,” he told the audience.
A colleague finished: “When your children ask: ‘Daddy, Mummy, what did you do in the terrible days of the capitalist crisis?’ don’t you want to be able to answer: ‘I subscribed to Junge Welt’?”
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Ben Chacko is editor of the Morning Star.
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