How does the radical left speak to wider numbers of people and win an audience for itself?
Joe Strummer gave us a masterclass in how to use music and culture to convey radical ideas to masses of people.
To most, the left has a bit of an image problem so that it has difficulties relating to a wider audience. Of old, the perceived image – the stereotype – consisted of socialist activists attending countless boring evening meetings during the week and then selling socialist newspapers on a Saturday morning on the high street or outside union meetings. Of new, the stereotype consists of middle-class university-types that become full-time political advisers and policy wonks without ever having had ‘proper’ jobs. Either way, the feeling is that these lefties are too far removed from the interests – and lives – of the ordinary working people they profess to advance and defend. They are a breed apart from most people and it seems never the twain shall meet.
For stereotypes to have any traction, they have to have a kernel of truth to them. And so, it is with these two aforementioned stereotypes. What they both have at their core is a belief that politics is pretty much a full-time business in mind if not body; that it has to be an intense, all-encompassing pursuit; and that the way into politics has few avenues other than for those that are already geeks and anoraks.
However, fortunately, this is not the full picture. For the left, politics does not have to be about being able to read all three volumes of Marx’s Das Kapital, attending innumerable meetings or understanding the theory of uneven and combined development. I’m not one for moment poo pooing the importance of reading and getting to grips with challenging ideas.
But, until we live in a socialist society where workers’ consciousness is much higher and workers have the time and energy to pursue such intellectual undertakings, we must contend with the following manifest reality.
Most people come to an interest in left-wing politics through life experiences and the influence of others – not a result of locking themselves away in libraries to read Das Kapital.
And this is where the likes of Joe Strummer come into play. Best known for his writing most of the lyrics for The Clash, fronting the band and singing most of the songs, Strummer was able to use music as a cultural form to convey radical and progressive ideas. And, he went further and called upon people not only to have such ideas but also to do something about them.
He understood that the mass of youth at the time were not interested in the likes of painting, poetry or sculpture and film and television mattered not much more. He understood that most are into music – and its association with clothes and style – so that it is a key battleground for the left to contest if it wants to not just relate to but also win over youth and wider layers of people. His perspective is as true today as it was back then in the 1970s and 1980s.
This meant he believed music could neither be left to the meaningless platitudes about love, loss, yearning and broken hearts nor espousals of crass individualism, materialism and hedonism. Directly or indirectly, these both meant that the status quo and then Thatcherism were not challenged or were even supported.
Instead, Strummer wrote lyrics about the experiences of unemployment and poor housing before moving on to tackle racism, de-industrialisation, militarism, imperialism and sometimes capitalism itself.
His lyrics were not just about reflecting and representing the issues. So, while he reminded people of certain ‘home truths’ and empathised with the poor and downtrodden, he also went further and discharged both barrels to the rich and powerful, showing them up for the pursuit of their own vested interests at the expense of the many.
Critically, he understood that the lyrics of a song could not only quickly and effectively convey big ideas but could do so with powerful, heartfelt emotion – especially when the music was also compelling.
His songs helped open up the eyes of many by lifting their gaze from their immediate surroundings and experiences to broader issues in the wider world, allowing people to educate themselves in order to make the necessary connections. Songs are a softer, easier and more inviting way into developing a critical and radical worldview than reading a heavy and dusty tome – even if it did lead to them searching out books about the Sandinistas or Victor Jara.
My new book, The punk rock politics of Joe Strummer provides ample evidence that Strummer from The Clash through to The Mescarelos inspired and sustained not just many on the left in their beliefs but also in their associated activism.
A guest blog by Gregor Gall, who is a Visiting Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Glasgow and the University of Leeds. He is a regular contributor to various publications, including The Guardian, Huffington Post and Tribune.
His new book, The punk rock politics of Joe Strummer, is available to pre-order now (£16.99 RRP).
Please not: for reproduction only with permission.