Marx and Presley
Published in Isis (Oxford University), 1 May 1963.
In the Preface to the ‘Critique of Political Economy’, Marx speaks of ‘the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic – in short ideological forms in which men become conscious of the struggle and fight it out’. (‘Selected Works’, Moscow, I, 363). Although aesthetic manifestations are, in the last resort, a reflection of the economic struggle, they can be of value in determining the way in which the struggle is fought and won. As Trotsky said, we can no more live without art than we can shave without a mirror (‘Literature and Revolution’, chapter 4). This article will try, very sketchily, to relate the work of a contemporary, and distinctly non-political artist, to the Marxist concept of revolution, and some modern Marxist analyses of our society.
Under welfare capitalism, when many of the reformist demands of the proletariat have been conceded, the old forms of class consciousness have given way to new, but not less revolutionary ways of thinking. To quote one of the most perceptive contemporary Marxist thinkers, ‘Workers today are far more self-confident …. Even the assertion of many workers that they are no different from the middle class is not only a negative, damaging element from the standpoint of socialism. No, workers declare thereby that they are not inferior to other people. The idea of the “deserving poor” is gone; … and the idea that our “betters” are born to rule’. (Tony Cliff, ‘International Socialism’, No. 9) The revolutionary implications of affluence are shown by the statement of an Italian strike leader quoted in ‘L’Express’ (27/9/’62, p. 13) – ‘Far from getting less, working class militancy increases with economic progress. For, to quantitative claims are added qualitative demands’.
A clash of generations is, of course, involved, but not just in the normal sense, for the generations have different political and economic experiences. D. Mothé, in ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie, No 33’ writes of the young generation of proletarians in France: ‘They become cynical, superficial and critical …. Their systematic criticism becomes nihilism. They know that all the values of their elders are worthless, and they dare not put anything in their place. They don’t feel attracted by other values. All values seem inadequate to them. Their only common ground is total emptiness. They are content to criticise and demolish, and they do it in the name of common sense. They would be ashamed to replace these old values by other ones’. But Mothé underestimates the positive potentialities of this nihilism. To quote a young Italian striker – ‘We young ones didn’t know what unemployment and working-class defeats were. We said: we aren’t free citizens when we’re treated like slaves for fifty hours a week’. (‘L’Express’, 27/9/’62.)
This proletariat, which has established valuable reformist gains, and is now groping, though its movements are fragmented and often unconscious, towards a total transformation of capitalist society, provides the essential part of Presley’s audience. As a generalisation only, it can be said that it is the younger generation of the working class which consumes ‘popular’ music, and, more important, has little contact with other music (or poetry). The argument that buyers of such music are somehow ‘exploited’, or that such art is degenerated by being ‘commercial’ need hardly be considered. One need only listen to the panel on the B.V.C.’s ‘Easy Beat’ (a contrast to the buffoonery of ‘Juke Box Jury’), to see how articulately appreciative ordinary listeners are.
As for Presley’s art itself, the various styles and traditions on which he and his song-writers draw – jazz, rhythm and blues, country and western etc. – belong to folk or negro music, the art of suppressed or subordinated social groups. Many of the features I shall discuss in dealing with Presley can be traced back to early jazz, or the work of Gershwin and Porter; I have chosen Presley because he marks the culmination of a tradition, and because he is a great artist in his own right. And it is not, I think, altogether a coincidence that the Rock breakthrough of 1956 was contemporaneous with deStalinisation and the regeneration of the British left – a new generation, which had not known the ideologies, the leaderships and the defeats of the thirties and the early forties , was asserting itself.
In the ‘Communist Manifesto’, Marx defines the essential status of the proletariat thus: ‘These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market’. The modern European proletariat, after a long, bitter, trade union struggle is now able to sell itself for a better price than formerly. What it is now seeking, as I have shown in the examples from the Italian strike above, is a way of putting an end to its very status as a commodity, and to fully realise its humanity.
Simone de Beauvoir has shown in ‘The Second Sex’, that the emancipation of Woman is obstructed by a male culture which regards Woman as being by essence ‘other’, and that women accept this concept of their own ‘otherness’, and thereby do not full realise their humanity. Similarly, much earlier working-class culture accepts the ‘otherness’ of the proletariat. A simple example is such negro songs as ‘Old Man River’ or ‘Lucky Old Sun’, in which the oppression of a social group is fully accepted, and by the imagery of the songs assimilated to the very order of Nature. The claustrophobic culture of the older British proletariat, the culture of home, family, neighbourhood, ‘community’, looked back on with a degree of nostalgia by Hoggart and Williams – songs like Gracie Fields’ ‘Sally’, or a monologue like Stanley Holloway’s ‘Brown Boots’ (compare and contrast Presley’s ‘Blue Suede Shoes’!) – this culture too accepts otherness, perhaps with regret, but with ultimate resignation.
The Presley-myth, as we can trace it through his films, is a total rejection of otherness. Presley refuses limiting regional associations characteristic of earlier proletarian culture, wandering through the world (‘G.I. Blues’, ‘Blue Hawaii’), making total demands on the world, and obtaining them despite the Law (‘Jailhouse Rock’), and if necessary through sheer physical force (‘Kid Galahad’). The optimistic self-confidence of songs like ‘King of the Whole Wide World’ or ‘What a Wonderful Life’ is one that is unwilling to accept any limitations of the singer’s human status.
At times Presley such a conventional disregard for money as ‘The man who can sing when he hasn’t got a thing is the king of the whole wide world’, but more characteristic of the spirit he embodies is a glorying in material possessions, shown in such lines as:
‘Knock me down, spit in my face,
Slander my name all over the place,
But don’t step on my blue suede shoes.’
To transpose into Marxist terms, the worker uses successful economic demands as a basis for his fight to end his own alienation. And it must be recalled that it was an extension of affluence, making gramophones and transistor radios available to many workers, which was the economic precondition for the revolution in popular music in the mid-fifties.
But material possessions are only the beginning of the fight, and the Marxist view of history takes the terms ‘fight’ and ‘war’ literally. The spirit embodied by Presley contains plenty of latent aggressiveness, although there is no coherent direction of this towards the destruction of established power. The very basis of the Rock and Roll rhythm is aggressive virility, often directed into sexual forms – e.g.:
‘You say that you love me, and you swear it to be true,
But if you care to come over here and make me know it too’ –
Sometimes, however, it takes the form of pure invective – ‘You ain’t nothing but a hound dog’ – or even has a vaguely anti-social sense, as in ‘Jailhouse Rock’.
The lyrics of Presley’s songs also reveal the cynicism discussed by Mothé in the article quoted above, a distrust for the superstructural values of existing society. The incisive humour of the lyrics of ‘Jailhouse Rock’ or ‘Dixieland Rock’, develops into a disabused view of life, and especially sex, in ‘Didja Ever’, ‘Frankfurt Special’ or ‘Little Sister’. In ‘I’m not the Marrying Kind’, Presley beats Mike Sarne (a new manifestation of British urban cynicism) at his own game.
But, unlike the youths whom Mothé describes, Presley also affirms some positive values. Presley not only reflects the condition of the contemporary proletariat, but helps to give a vision of the future it can realise. In ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’, Engels says ‘What we can conjecture at present about the regulation of sex relationships after the impending effacement of capitalist production is, in the main, of a negative character, limited mostly to what will vanish. But what will be added?’. Presley can help to give us a glimpse of this new world of human relationships.
In the first place, his art liberates emotion from inhibition. If we study the bourgeoisie before the French Revolution, for example Diderot, we see that they could cry totally uninhibitedly. But when they gained political and economic power and responsibility, such freedom of emotion was no longer possible (it is the tragedy of Heine’s poetry that he can no longer cry). Presley, drawing on folk and proletarian roots, regains this shameless emotion, which in a classless society will never be lost again.
‘Whoops, there goes a tear-drop
Rolling down my face;
If you cry when you’re in love,
Sure it’s no disgrace’ (Mess of Blues).
Thus Presley’s art can include sentimentality without being offensive (‘Old Shep’), draw on older traditions of sincerity (‘Can’t Help Falling in Love with you’), and go on to explore more subtle emotions (‘Girl of My Best Friend’, ‘His Latest Flame’, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’).
Secondly, Presley’s art foreshadows a new relation of equality between the sexes. In the ‘Second Sex’, Simone de Beauvoir shows that the writer who most truly recognises woman’s equality is not a Breton or a Claudel who idealises femininity, but a Stendhal who treats women as existent beings, and approaches them with open sensuality. Presley’s approach is comparable in line such as:
‘You know it makes me sore if you don’t treat me right,
So don’t you ever kiss me once, kiss me twice –
Treat me nice.’
And the validity of this idea is shown by the growth, during the Rock Age, of a new tradition of cynically and aggressively self-confident female singers – Brenda Lee, Helen Shapiro, Billie Davis.
Revolution is not imminent. What I have tried to suggest in this article is that Marxist theory, social developments and aesthetic phenomena are all groping, hesitantly and blindly, towards the final liberation of Humanity. An interplay between the traditions can only enrich them all.