Category Archives: Age of Enlightenment

Popular Theatre as Cultural Resistance: Engaging Audiences Worldwide

Theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy. Mosaic, Roman artwork, 2nd century CE. Capitoline Museums, Rome

When the play ends, what begins?
Seeking conscientization: awareness leading to action.
— Sarah Thornton


The importance of theatre is demonstrated by the prevalence and variety of forms it takes both locally and globally in society today.  Indeed, over the centuries theatre has played an important sociological and ideological role. It has been used both by communities and elites to propagate and spread ideas for the consolidation of society (Morality plays), for social improvement (Neo-Classical plays) as well as instigating and promoting revolutionary ideas (Brechtian theatre).

In many places theatre is funded by states through state theatres — playing national repertoires as well as showing international plays translated and/or modernised.  However, it will be argued that as political and economic crises grow, so does the widening gap between two forms: community and state theatre. The global economic crisis has seen theatre once more developing into a useful community tool for highlighting important local issues (e.g. policing) and global issues (e.g. climate change) in many different ways (such as mass demonstrations and public squares). It will also be argued that, in general, the state deals with any upsurge in popular resistance by attempting to appropriate radical working class culture into preexisting structures to neutralise opposition. As with other art-forms, the influence of Enlightenment and Romantic ideas can still be felt today.

Village feast with theatre performance, artist from the circle of Pieter Bruegel the younger – central part of painting by unknown Flemish master

I will look at the development of general movements in theatre from the seventeenth century: beginning with neoclassical theatre as an Enlightenment reaction to Restoration bawdiness, the influence of Romanticism, the rise of Realism, political theatre of the 1930s leading to the Documentary theatre of recent decades, and the contrasting ideology of state and community theatres of contemporary society.

15-18th Centuries – Neo-Classicism v Medievalism

Medieval theatre was mainly religious and moral in its themes, staging and traditions, emerging around 1400 and developing until 1550. Theatre was an ideal way to solve the difficulties of spreading the faith to a largely illiterate population. Certain biblical events were dramatised for feast days and performed by priests. In England there were many mystery plays such as the York Mystery Plays, the Chester Mystery Plays and the Wakefield Mystery Plays.

Around the middle of the sixteenth century began English Renaissance theatre which was based on the rediscovery and imitation of classical works. Playhouses were established and became the sites for the production of plays by playwrights such as William Shakespeare (1564–1616), Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) and Ben Jonson (1572–1637). Genres of the period included the history play, tragedy and comedy, including satirical comedies. All a far cry from biblical stories and Christian morality: the classical influence bringing the subject matter down to earth.

Reconstruction of the theatre of Dionysus in Athens, in Roman times.

This period lasted until the ban on theatrical plays enacted by the English Parliament in 1642.

This ban, effected by the Puritans, lasted 18 years and ended in 1660 and the theatres were reopened. The strict moral codes of the Puritans were upended and comedies became the predominant mark of Restoration plays. These plays were a form of social commentary — recurring themes were cuckolding, shaming, seduction and the inversion of wealth, class and property. However, these themes also represented the upper class who tended to make up the typical audience (unlike the Morality plays) especially as most ordinary people could not afford the price of admission.

Restoration comedies were seen by many as bawdy, and neoclassical theatre was a reaction to the decadence of these Charles II era productions. Neoclassical writers advocated a return to the values and conventions of classical Greek drama. They believed that previous styles put far too much emphasis on emotions and the individual and looked to the classical style for inspiration on how to get people to see society in a more positive, collective manner by encouraging virtuous behavior. The Neo-Classical attitude could be seen in the humanism of the plot lines which encouraged the audience to empathise with the characters rather than laugh at them. The rise of sentimental comedy reflected the Enlightenment idea that without emotion, imagination and sympathy people would not be able to have the moral feelings that lead to our general ideas of justice and virtue.

The Neo-Classicists developed a set of guidelines for the theatre, for example, they:

included five basic rules: purity of form, five acts, verisimilitude or realism, decorum and purpose. Play houses generally rejected scripts or productions that did not meet these requirements. Playwrights and actors in the Neoclassical period officially recognized just two types of plays: comedy and tragedy. They never mixed these together, and the restriction led to use of the now well-known pair of happy and sad masks that symbolize the theatrical arts. […] Comedies, which were either satires or comedies of manners, tended to focus on the lower ranks of society, while tragedies portrayed the complex and fateful lives of the upper classes and royals.

19th Century – Romantic reaction and the rise of Realism

The growth of Romanticism in Germany and France eventually affected writing for the theatre as romantic nationalism and a growing interest in a return to medievalist faith in feeling and instinct as a guide to moral behavior. These two opposing philosophies of Neo-Classicism (Enlightenment ideas rooted in science and reason) and Romanticism (based on feeling and faith) eventually clashed in France where the Comédie Française maintained a strong Neo-classical hold over the repertory.

The tensions between the two opposing outlooks eventually resulted in conflict. On the night of the premiere of the drama Hernani by Victor Hugo (1802–1885) in 1830, riots erupted. They became known as the “battle of Hernani“, whereby:

The large crowd that attended the premiere was full of conservatives and censors who booed the show for disobeying the classical norms and who wanted to stop the performance from going forward. But Hugo organized a Romantic Army of bohemian and radical writers to ensure that the opening would have to go ahead. The resulting riot represented the rejection in France of the classical traditions and the triumph of Romanticism.

Hugo’s Romantic army of writers and artists attacked Classicist positions and called for “Down with theories and systems! Let us tear away the old lath-and-plaster hiding the face of art! There are neither rules nor models; or, rather, no rules but the general laws of Nature!”

Premiere of the drama Hernani by Victor Hugo in 1830

This triumph of Romanticism meant a move away from structure and realism and the rise of a more personalised, individualistic philosophy looking inwards to the self, not to mention an irrational rejection of progress and a return to medieval ideas of faith and hierarchy.

By the 1870s political events and social reforms led to the popularity of the Realist movement and a rejection of Romantic idealism. The Realist movement began in the mid-19th century as a reaction to the irrationalism of Romanticism. However, it was also a reaction to neoclassicism which had become elitist and aristocratic in its assumption of knowledge of Greek and Roman history and myth. The Realists returned to basic ideas of equality, influenced by the French revolution and the Utopian Socialists. Realist ideas had a profound affect on both the theatre and its audiences:

The achievement of realism in the theatre was to direct attention to the social and psychological problems of ordinary life. In its dramas, people emerge as victims of forces larger than themselves, as individuals confronted with a rapidly accelerating world.

Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906), the Norwegian playwright, is known as the “Father of Realism” and he wanted a theatre that was closer in style to real life on the stage. Ibsen attacked middle class society’s values and his plays were based on unconventional subjects, e.g., euthanasia, the role of women, war and business, and syphilis In A Doll’s House, Ibsen questions the roles of men (main provider of the family, public image) and women (limited education) in marriage and society, as well as showing poverty and failed relationships. Realism offered a new type of drama, one in which the public and society could relate to. Ibsen developed the form of the Well-Made play:

1. Soliloquies and asides were discarded
2. Exposition in the plays was motivated
3. Causally related scenes
4. Inner psychological motivation was emphasized
5. Recognition of environmental influences
6. Acknowledgement of socio-economic milieu

He encouraged a style of dialogue which would be more realistic and easier to understand. However, what Realism did have in common with Neo-Classicism was the desire to make theatre more useful in the progressive development of society:

The mainstream theatre from 1859 to 1900 was still bound up in melodramas, spectacle plays (disasters, etc.), comic operas, and vaudevilles.[…] Technological advances were also encouraged by industry and trade, leading to an increased belief that science could solve human problems. But the working classes still had to fight for every increase in rights: unionization and strikes became the principal weapons workers would use after the 1860s—but success came only from costly work stoppages and violence. In other words there seems to be rejection of Romantic idealism; pragmatism reigned instead. The common man seemed to feel that he needed to be recognized, and people asserted themselves through action.

Other writers in the Realistic form include George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) in England and Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) in Russia. Shaw made fun of society’s norms for the purpose of educating and changing society. He used witty humor to present contemporary views and then showed their consequences putting forward his own ideas. Chekhov’s plays concentrated on psychological reality showing people trapped in social situations and having hope in hopeless situations.

20th Century and Modernism

The influence of Realism continued into the twentieth century where it morphed into different forms such as Naturalism and Socialist realism. Meanwhile the Romantic influence on Modernism could be seen in the characteristic emphasis on an internal life of dreams and fantasies in Symbolist theatre and in the subjective perceptions of reality in Expressionist theatre in Germany.

Realism, on the other hand, flourished in Russia where Konstantin Stanislavski (1863–1938) and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko (1858–1943) founded the Moscow Art Theatre in 1897. Both were committed to the idea of a popular theatre. Stanislavski developed “psychological realism” which differed from his own Naturalistic early stagings:

Naturalism, for him, implied the indiscriminate reproduction of the surface of life. Realism, on the other hand, while taking its material from the real world and from direct observation, selected only those elements which revealed the relationships and tendencies under the surface. The rest was discarded.

Stanislavski and Olga Knipper as Rakitin and Natalya in Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country (1909).

The revolt against theatrical artifice with Realism and later Naturalism produced a new type of theatre which made Stanislavski famous and his theatre very successful. Later in the 1930s Stanislavski’s method would become an important element in the Socialist Realist ideology introduced by the USSR Union of Writers in the mid 1930s. The aim of Stanislavski’s method was ultimately to absorb the audience completely in the fictional world of the play.

The contemporary playwright, Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) in Germany, reacted to this method which he believed was ‘escapist’ as he felt that any radical content would be blunted, that catharsis would leave the audience complacent. However, Stanislavski believed the audience would observe and learn from the action on stage (using the dialectics of thesis/antithesis/synthesis) in an updated politicised Neo-Classicism. If action proceeded from awareness, then the audience would not be complacent but would achieve catharsis through political action instead.

Brecht, in the Modernist fashion, developed what he called Epic theatre which sought to historicize and address social and political issues. He used innovative techniques, one of which he called the Verfremdungseffekt (translated as ‘defamiliarization effect’, ‘distancing effect’, or ‘estrangement effect’). To do this, “Brecht employed techniques such as the actor’s direct address to the audience, harsh and bright stage lighting, the use of songs to interrupt the action, explanatory placards, the transposition of text to the third person or past tense in rehearsals, and speaking the stage directions out loud.”

The contrast between the Stanislaviski’s and Brecht’s methods show very differing attitudes to the audience capacity for understanding and assimilating the content of a play. Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977) used one of these  ‘distancing effects’ when speaking directly to the audience at the end of his film The Great Dictator, which some believe led to a decrease in his popularity. The audience may feel that the actors are speaking down to them, or insisting on radical action without first knowing and understanding all aspects of the issue being presented. It has to be questioned whether it is necessary to ‘knock people out of their complacency’ and to give an audience credit for their ability to understand the message solely from the action on stage. The Modernist experimentation with forms also led to elite forms of culture such as James Joyce’s (1882–1941) Finnegans Wake as the ultimate indigestible example.

Photograph of Mother Courage and the dead Kattrin (Internationalist Theatre)

As the century wore on other types of political theatre emerged such as the differing forms of Documentary theatre of the 1960s and 1970s. This style of theatre “uses pre-existing documentary material (such as newspapers, government reports, interviews, journals, and correspondences) as source material for stories about real events and people, frequently without altering the text in performance. The genre typically includes or is referred to as verbatim theatre, investigative theatre, theatre of fact, theatre of witness, autobiographical theatre, and ethnodrama.”

While the presentation of pre-existing material may seem dry and undramatic, it was the partisan interpretation and presentation of the material which gives it its artistic power. In other words, its Realist, rather than Naturalist, interpretation made all the difference to what may appear to be a Naturalist form (i.e. using material verbatim).

Another type of alternative theatre which emerged in the late twentieth century (though in some countries it has been around a lot longer) is Community theatre. It refers to a style of theatre which exists in the community itself and can be created entirely by the community, as a collaboration between the community and professionals or put on by professionals especially for that community. Ideologically it can have a very wide outreach and can be seen:

to contribute to the social capital of a community, insofar as it develops the skills, community spirit, and artistic sensibilities of those who participate, whether as producers or audience-members. It is used as a tool for social development, promoting ideas like gender equality, human rights, environment and democracy. Most of the community theatre practices have been developed based on the philosophy of education theorist Paulo Freire’s approach of critical pedagogy in theatre and implementation techniques built by Augusto Boal, known as Theatre of the Oppressed.

Paulo Freire’s (1921–1997) method was to promote social change by getting the audience to participate in critical thinking through dialogue, identifying concerns, solutions and examining different perspectives. The plays would be performed “on streets, public places, in traditional meeting spaces, schools, prisons, or other institutions, inviting an alternative and often spontaneous audience to watch.”

Augusto Boal’s (1931–2009) approach also breaks down the ‘invisible wall’ between actors and audience but the difference being that the audience determines the action on stage not the playwright. For example, Boal writes:

The spectators feel that they can intervene in the action. The action ceases to be presented in a deterministic manner, as something inevitable, as Fate. Man is Man’s fate. Thus Man-the-spectator is the creater of Man-the-character. Everything is subject to criticism, to rectification. All can be changed, and at a moment’s notice: the actors must always be ready to accept, without protest, any proposed action; they must simply act it out, to give a live view of its consequences and drawbacks. 1

Augusto Boal presenting his workshop on the Theatre of the Oppressed. Riverside Church, May 13, 2008.

21st Century – State Theatre v Community Theatre

In the twenty-first century State Theatre and Community Theatre exist side by side but as the global economic crisis deepens the traditional repertoire of the State theatre may seem to become out-dated and distant from social issues.

Community theatre is a form which, like the ballad form in music, is capable of tackling and analysing contemporary issues in a very short period of time.  However, the tendency of the state is to try to absorb all opposition into its own conservative narrative and ‘de-fang’ it. This tendency is discussed by the poet Fran Lock in detail:

This matters, because the people traditionally holding the purse strings, controlling the presses; the people responsible for funding us and publishing us, are the same power elites who decide what constitutes a valid working-class voice, and an acceptable working-class identity. Arts Council England, for example, has nothing to gain from supporting people and projects who challenge or threaten their traditional business model, and most major publishers are wary of a working-class poetics that openly and explicitly acknowledges the politics of its own oppression. To have your work “out there” in any meaningful sense, to secure the invaluable financial assistance by which a creative project lives or dies, is to accept that your work, and that you, as a person, will be mediated, filtered and enmeshed, by and in the machinery of a grossly unequal hierarchy. By this method we are compromised. We tailor and shape our voices and ourselves to fit their image of us, and our working-classness is depoliticised and de-fanged through an act of caricature. By this mechanism is the triumph of working-class representation transformed into the tool by which working-class participation in the arts is edited, eroded and policed.

A street play (nukkad natak) in Dharavi slums in Mumbai.

Another important aspect which she alludes to is the problem of monolithism (‘shape[ing] our voices and ourselves to fit their image of us’) which is the way dissent can be silenced by portraying minority groups as being made up of similar people all sharing similar views. As Kenan Malik writes:

Multiculturalists tend to treat minority communities as if each was a distinct, singular, homogenous, authentic whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined primarily by a singular view of culture and faith. In so doing, they all too often ignore conflicts within those communities. All the dissent and diversity gets washed out. As a result, the most progressive voices often gets silenced as not being truly of that community or truly authentic, while the most conservative voices get celebrated as community leaders, the authentic voices of minority groups.

These are the kinds of difficulties community theatre faces, in particular, problems which are more accentuated where access is provided by a State theatre. However, in the streets, manipulation or outright censorship/rejection is much more difficult. And like the original Morality plays, the community theatre may have an ideological aspect which is equally difficult to moderate.

The Romantic/Modernist influence can still be seen in ‘mainstream’ [non-community theatre] in the emphasis on (formal) experimentation over (sociopolitical) content in projections of the future of theatre, for example, one critic writes:

We can see the seeds of theatre’s future coming from three directions. Firstly, in the experimental works in the new theatre groups and companies, which may we call; off the existing established theatres. Secondly, in the rise of theatrical movements originated from the experimental works were done in the last century. Thirdly, in the works of few established theatres – and here we stress the word ’few’ – these works mainly done by some daring directors.

However, not all writers are blind to the growing sociopolitical and economic crises developing globally, as another writer notes:

The future predictions of trends in theatres. Well, it is true that technology has really affected theatres in terms of audience attendance and also changes in the overall appearance of the live performances in order to attract more audiences but will there be changes in the 21st-century trends in the cinema industry? Well, experts project the following changes in future: Need for community and people interactions will lead more people to the theatres. The increase in smaller theatres located in all parts of the country to attract more people to the theatres. Younger directors and actors will ensure more performances in the smaller theatres and the main focus will be on issues, news, and concerns of the immediate community.

Thus, it can be seen there are mixed opinions on the future of ‘official’ theatre based in large and small theatres. It could be speculated that the ‘small theatre’ end and community-based theatre would be set for conflict as the professional and the amateur clash over what is to be portrayed and how, particularly if the issues raised and their resolution are perceived from widely differing ideological perspectives.


Throughout the last four centuries theatre has been pushed and pulled in many directions. It has been used by cliques for their own class entertainment. It has been forced many times in the direction of benefiting the greater good and dragged back again to serve elite agendas. However, the importance of theatre for examining social, political and more recently animal and climate issues, in an immediate and negotiable way, will ensure that theatre as a mirror of society will be a difficult form for the state to control.

  1. Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal (Pluto Press: London, 1998), p.134.

Poetry and Political Struggle: The Dialectics of Rhyme

Fist with pen illustration by CHema Skandal!

When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.

— John F. Kennedy, Remarks at Amherst College on the Arts, October 26, 1963


Poetry is often associated with genteel people and laid-back lifestyles, yet over the decades since the Enlightenment many poets have been actively involved in the most radical of political and art movements. Setting up a solid foundation for such attitudes was the poet extraordinaire, Alexander Pope. In this essay I shall look at the connection between poetry and socio-political struggles over the centuries. From Pope to the Chartists, and from the Irish revolutionary poets to the postcolonial writers of Africa, poetry has played an important part in social change. The recent explosion of global demonstrations and rallies has also been connected with radical poetry as will be seen in Chile, for example.

The New Augustans v Medievalism – ‘shall not Britain now reward his toils?’

Imagine being one of the generation of poets to follow Shakespeare. The Enlightenment poets response to Shakespeare was that they believed that Shakespeare was good but not perfect and so looked back to Roman times, to that of Augustus for a more political and satirical model for their poetry. Alexander Pope (1688–1744) was highly influenced by the poet Horace (65 BC–8 BC) whose work was created during a momentous time when Rome changed from a republic to an empire. Pope’s poem Epistle to Augustus (addressed to George II of Great Britain) initiated The New Augustans, as they were known, and they created new and bold political work in all genres as well as sharp and critical satires of contemporary events and people. Pope’s best known works The Rape of the Lock, The Dunciad, and An Essay on Criticism made him famous in his own time for their biting criticism and wit. Equally satirical but with more emphasis on prose than poetry was his contemporary, Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), the Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist, pamphleteer, poet and cleric whose A Tale of a Tub (1704), An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity (1712), Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and A Modest Proposal (1729) led to the creation of the term ‘Swiftian’ for such sharp satire.

The Augustan era was also known by other names such as the age of neoclassicism and the Age of Reason. It was a time of increased availability of books and a dramatic decrease in their cost. This in turn meant that education was less confined to the upper classes and that writers could hope to make more money through the sale of their works and therefore be less dependent on patrons.

The greatest patron of the arts throughout the Middle Ages was the Church. Patronage was also used by nobles, rulers, and very wealthy people to endorse their political ambitions, social positions, and prestige. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson all looked for and received the support of noble or ecclesiastical patrons.

Alexander Pope, painting attributed to English painter Jonathan Richardson, c.?1736, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The sales from Pope’s works allowed him to live a life less determined by other people’s wealth, and this independence is reflected in his lines from Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot:

Oh let me live my own! and die so too!
(‘To live and die is all I have to do:’)
Maintain a poet’s dignity and ease,
And see what friends, and read what books, I please.

While Pope read a lot of philosophy, his concerns were mainly poetic. As David Cody writes:

Like many of his contemporaries, Pope believed in the existence of a God who had created, and who presided over, a physical Universe which functioned like a vast clockwork mechanism. Important scientific discoveries by men like Sir Isaac Newton, who explained, in his Principia, the nature of the laws of gravitation which helped to govern that universe, were seen as corroborating that view. “Nature, and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night,” Pope wrote, in a famous couplet intended as Newton’s epitaph, but “God said, Let Newton be ! and All was Light.” This view of the universe as an ordered, structured place was an aspect of the Neoclassical emphasis on order and structure which also manifested itself in the arts, including poetry.

Pope was famous for his biting criticism which spoofed the mores of society or mocked his literary rivals. His critical political savvy was also on show in lines like:

T is George and Liberty that crowns the cup,
And zeal for that great House which eats him up.
The woods recede around the naked seat,
The sylvans groan—no matter—for the fleet;
Next goes his wool—to clothe our valiant bands;
Last, for his country’s love, he sells his lands.
To town he comes, completes the nation’s hope,
And heads the bold train-bands, and burns a pope.
And shall not Britain now reward his toils,
Britain, that pays her patriots with her spoils?
In vain at court the bankrupt pleads his cause;
His thankless country leaves him to her laws.

Pope’s poetry reflected the Enlightenment popularisation of science through scientific and literary journals, the development of the book industry, the promulgation of encyclopedias and dictionaries, and new ideas spread like wildfire through learned academies, universities, salons and coffeehouses. The Enlightenment period can be dated from the beginning of the reign of Louis XV (1715 ) until the turn of the 19th century but was soon followed by the Romantic period from about 1800 to 1860.

Chartism v Romanticism – ‘How comes it that ye toil and sweat?’

The Romantics preferred intuition and emotion to the rationalism of the Enlightenment and placed a high value on the achievements of “heroic” individualists and artists. They turned inwards, seeing art as an individual experience and emphasising such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and awe. Romanticism looked backwards to folk art, ancient customs and medievalism. As the bourgeoisie achieved their main aims of wresting control of land and power from the aristocracy, the responsibility for continuing the struggle for the principles of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ fell upon the organisations of the working classes.

In England, Chartism was a major working class movement called after the People’s Charter of 1838 and was a movement for political reform in Britain until 1857. The movement’s strategies were constitutional and they used petitions and mass meetings to put pressure on politicians to concede manhood suffrage. The Charter demanded: a vote for every man twenty-one years of age, secret ballots, payment of Members (so working people could attend without loss of income), equal constituencies, and annual Parliamentary elections. The Chartist movement was a reaction to the passing of the Reform Act 1832, which failed to extend the vote beyond those owning property. The political leaders of the working class felt that the middle class had betrayed them.

In conjunction with Chartist demonstrations and strikes, the Chartist press as the voice of radicalism existed in the form of The Poor Man’s Guardian in the 1830s and was succeeded by the Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser between 1837 and 1852. The press covered news, editorials, and reports on international developments while becoming the best-selling provincial newspaper in Britain with a circulation of 50,000 copies. It also became an organ for the publication of working class poets and poems.

Front page of The Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, 1837

With such a wide circulation, it was no wonder that so many sent their poems in for consideration. According to Mike Sanders:

The Northern Star’s poetry column was not an attempt to impose ‘culture’ from above, rather it was a response to a popular demand that poetry could and should speak to working-class desires and needs. From the start, literally hundreds of Chartists sent in their poems and quite a few appear to have pestered the editor with enquiries as to when their work would appear.

It is believed that up to 1,000 poems by up to 400 Chartist and working-class poets were published in the Northern Star between 1838 and 1852. Michael Sanders notes that:

Most have names, but a high percentage are published either under initials, under a pseudonym or anonymously, presumably by writers who would fear reprisals, such as dismissal or blacklisting, if they were known to be writing for the Northern Star. By and large, we know nothing of these people. They are permanently lost to history. But these poems show us that poetry was once central to the way working-class communities expressed themselves both politically and otherwise.

Ordinary people used poetry as a way of demonstrating their humanity in the face of grinding poverty and dehumanising industrial capitalism. By composing poetry they showed they could produce ‘beauty’ as well as surplus value.

An example of an anonymous poet’s endeavour is AW’s poem To The Sons Of Toil published in 1841:

How comes it that ye toil and sweat
And bear the oppressor’s rod
For cruel man who dare to change
The equal laws of God?
How come that man with tyrant heart
Is caused to rule another,
To rob, oppress and, leech-like, suck
The life’s blood of a brother?

We still don’t know anything about AW but he or she is an example of many men and women who turned to poetry to express their desires for social justice. However, several important poets did arise out of the Chartist movement such as Ernest Charles Jones (1819–1869) novelist and Chartist. In 1845, Jones ‘joined the Chartist agitation, quickly becoming its most prominent figure, and vigorously carrying on the party’s campaign on the platform and in the press. His speeches, in which he openly advocated physical force, led to his prosecution, and he was sentenced in 1848 to two years’ imprisonment for seditious speeches. While in prison he wrote, it is said in his own blood on leaves torn from a prayer-book, The Revolt of Hindostan, an epic poem.’; Thomas Cooper (1805–1892) poet, leading Chartist and known for his prison rhyme the Purgatory of Suicides (1845); Gerald Massey (1828–1907) was an English poet and only twenty-two when he published his first volume of poems, Voices of Freedom and Lyrics of Love (1850); George Binns (1815–1847) was a New Zealand Chartist leader and poet.

Photo of Ernest Charles Jones (1819–1869)

There was Ebenezer Elliott (1781–1849) who was an English poet, known as the Corn Law rhymer for his leading the fight to repeal the Corn Laws which were causing hardship and starvation among the poor. Though a factory owner himself, his single-minded devotion to the welfare of the labouring classes won him a sympathetic reputation long after his poetry ceased to be read; and John Bedford Leno (1826–1894) was a Chartist, radical, poet, and printer who acted as a “bridge” between Chartism and early Labour movements, he was called the “Burns of Labour” and “the poet of the poor” for his political songs and poems, which were sold widely in penny publications, and recited and sung by workers in Britain, Europe and America.

The Poets’ Revolution v Modernism – ‘Viewing human conflict from a social perspective’

The connection between the radical poets and the working class continued into the twentieth century even as Romanticist modernism took hold. Modernism rejected the ideology of realism, while promoting a break with the immediate past, technical innovation, and a philosophy of ‘making it new’. As such:

Modernist poetry in English is generally considered to have emerged in the early years of the 20th century with the appearance of the Imagist poets. In common with many other modernists, these poets were writing in reaction to what they saw as the excesses of Victorian poetry, with its emphasis on traditional formalism and overly flowery poetic diction. […] Additionally, Modernist poetry disavowed the traditional aesthetic claims of Romantic poetry’s later phase and no longer sought “beauty” as the highest achievement of verse. With this abandonment of the sublime came a turn away from pastoral poetry and an attempt to focus poetry on urban, mechanical, and industrial settings.

Despite the modern context and simpler language, Modernist poets moved further away from Realism as they developed literary techniques such as stream-of-consciousness, interior monologue, as well as the use of multiple points-of-view, undermining what is meant by realism. Thereby moving further away from the kind of narrative and descriptions of external reality that seekers of political change and social justice use as an art form to create and propagate awareness of their social conditions.

The Chartist tradition of radical politics associated with radical content in poetry was continued in Ireland whose revolutionary radicals perceived in the First World War an opportunity encapsulated in the slogan, “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”. The culmination of nationalist and radical politics of the previous centuries was demonstrated in the Easter Rising of 1916. Indeed it is often described as the The Poets’ Revolution as three of the men who signed the Proclamation in 1916, Pearse, MacDonagh, and Plunkett, were published poets, while many other participants were also writers of plays, songs and ballads. The leader of the Irish Citizens Army, James Connolly wrote:

Our masters all a godly crew,
Whose hearts throb for the poor,
Their sympathies assure us, too,
If our demands were fewer.
Most generous souls! But please observe,
What they enjoy from birth
Is all we ever had the nerve
To ask, that is, the earth.

The leaders of the Irish revolution were generally a young, artistic group of revolutionaries and their executions by the British colonists sent shock waves throughout Ireland leading to the War of Independence (1919-1921) and the Civil War (1922–1923).

Photo of James Connolly, c. 1900

Later in the 1920s and 1930s a more politically conscious working class poetry developed. In the United States the combination of influences from the Soviet Union and the Great Depression led to the growth of many new leftist political and social discourses. Milton Cohen summarised the aesthetic, stylistic, and political concerns being debated at the time. He noted that poets were expected to:

(1) View human conflict from a social perspective (as opposed to personal, psychological, or universal) and see society in terms of economic classes.
(2) Portray these classes in conflict (as Marx described them): workers versus bosses, sharecroppers versus landowners, tenants versus landlords, have-nots versus haves.
(3) Develop a “working-class consciousness,” that is, identify with the oppressed class in these conflicts, rather than maintaining objective detachment.
(4) Present a hopeful outcome to encourage working-class readers. Other outcomes are defeatist, pessimistic, or “confused.”
(5) Write simply and straightforwardly, without the aesthetic complexities of formalism.
(6) Above all, politicize the reader. Revolutionary literature is a weapon in the class struggle and should consciously incite its readers if not to direct action then to a new attitude toward life, ‘to recognize his role in the class struggle.’

These ‘proscriptions’ ran straight in the face of every tenet of Modernist poetry which emphasised the personal imagination, culture, emotions, and memories of the poet. Major poets of the radical movement in the United States include Langston Hughes (1902–1967), Kenneth Fearing (1902–1961), Edwin Rolfe (1925-1954), Horace Gregory (1898–1982), and Mike Gold (1894–1967).

Post colonial poetry v postmodernism – ‘The bitter taste of liberty’

As the United States suffered under the heightened political repression of McCarthyism in the 1950s the mantle of radical culture moved to the countries who wrestled themselves out of British colonial stranglehold in the form of postcolonial literature. The English language was imposed in many colonised countries yet came to be the language of radical anti-colonial poets during the liberation struggles and afterwards in the independence era. African poets, for example, were able to use poetry to communicate to the world not only their “despairs and hopes, the enthusiasm and empathy, the thrill of joy and the stab of pain … but also a nation’s history as it moved from ‘freedom to slavery, from slavery to revolution, from revolution to independence and from independence to tasks of reconstruction which further involve situations of failure and disillusion’.”

David Diop’s poem Africa weighs up past and present political complexities:

Africa, my Africa
Africa of proud warriors in ancestral savannahs ….
Is this you, this back that is bent
This back that breaks under the weight of humiliation
This back trembling with red scars
And saying yes to the whip under the midday sun…..
That is Africa your Africa
That grows again patiently obstinately
And its fruit gradually acquires
The bitter taste of liberty.

The development of the postcolonial in the South paralleled the development of the postmodern in the West. However, the philosophical bases of postmodernism would not sit easily with the practical contingencies of newly achieved nationhood. Postmodernism rejected the grand narratives and ideologies of modernism, and like modernism, called into question Enlightenment rationality itself. The tendencies of postmodernism towards self-referentiality, epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, and irreverence would make it an uncomfortable bedfellow with the socialist and revolutionary nationalist exigencies of the newly decolonised. As the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o notes:

Literature does not grow or develop in a vacuum; it is given impetus, shape, direction and even area of concern by the social, political and economic forces in a particular society. The relationship between creative literature and other forces cannot be ignored especially in Africa, where modern literature has grown against the gory background of European imperialism and its changing manifestations: slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism. Our culture over the last hundred years has developed against the same stunting, dwarfing background.

In a way the radical political changes wrought by anti-colonial struggles kept the culture tied down and anchored to the values and aspirations of the masses. Postcolonial ideology was relevant to society in a way that postmodernism was not. It could be argued that postmodernism actively sought to remove itself from political relevance by decrying grand narratives and elevating relativism.

Radical poetry today? – ‘only injustice and no resistance?’

Until relatively recently it seemed that the sentiments of Bertolt Brecht’s (1898-1956) poem To Posterity had become almost universally true in the 21st century:

For we went, changing our country more often than our shoes.
In the class war, despairing
When there was only injustice and no resistance.

However, there has been a sea change in attitude with people demonstrating on the streets in many cities globally in only one year: the Yellow Vests in France (October/November, 2018), Sudanese Revolution (19 December, 2018), Haiti Mass Protests (7 February, 2018), Algeria: Revolution of Smiles (6 February, 2019),  Gaza economic protests (since Mar, 2019), Iraq: Tishreen Revolution (1 October, 2019), Puerto Rico: Telegramgate (8 July 2019), Ecuador Protests (3 October, 2019), Bolivian protests (since Oct, 2019), Chile Protests (14 October, 2019), Lebanon Protests (7-18 October, 2019).

Protests in Plaza Baquedano, downtown Santiago

The eruption of protest and violence in Chile started with students demonstrating against the proposal to raise the subway fares. This was unexpected as Sofía del Valle noted:

Economists have long called Chile’s economy “the miracle” of Latin America, where GDP per capita has noticeably grown from $2,500 in 1990 to $15,346 in 2017. However, these numbers hide a fundamental problem: they do not account for inequality. Chile’s late poet Nicanor Parra said it best: “There are two pieces of bread. You eat two. I eat none. Average consumption: one bread per person.

She also states that the people themselves are starting to participate in political activity with the “proliferation of “cabildos ciudadanos,” or self-organized participatory meetings of citizens that have gathered to discuss problems and solutions for the country we dream to be.”

This has led to the connection between the masses and poetry, similar to Chartist times, being restored to Chile. According to Vera Polycarpou, the people on the streets are “singing the songs of Victor Jara, listening to symphonic music in the squares, making street theatre and reciting the poems of Pablo Neruda, declaring that it will not tolerate military rule, repression and injustice again.”

Pablo Neruda (1904–1973) was a Nobel Prize winning Chilean poet-diplomat who wrote in a variety of styles, including surrealist poems, historical epics, overtly political manifestos, a prose autobiography, and passionate love poems from a very young age. Neruda was living in Madrid at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939) and with some friends had formed the Alliance of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals bringing popular theater to the people, plays from Cervantes to Lorca. The assassination of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (1898–1936), a friend of his, a month into the war had a profound affect on Neruda. According to Mark Eisner:

Beyond the horror of a friend’s assassination, Lorca’s death represented something more: Lorca was the embodiment of poetry; it was as if the Fascists had assassinated poetry itself. Neruda had reached a moment from which there was no turning back. His poetry had to shift outwardly; it had to act. No more melancholic verse, love poems dotted with red poppies, or metaphysical writing, all of which ignored the realities of rising Fascism. Bold, repeated words and clear, vivid images now served his purpose: to convey his pounding heart and to communicate the realities he was experiencing in a way that could be understood immediately by a wide audience.

This shift away from Romanticism can be seen clearly in Neruda’s poem I Explain Some Things:

You will ask why his poetry
doesn’t speak to us of dreams, of the leaves,
of the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets,
come and see
the blood in the streets,
come and see the blood
in the streets!

The demonstrations in Chile have also seen the return of the ‘cacerolazo’ or ‘casserole’ a form of popular protest used globally consisting of people making noise by banging pots, pans, and other utensils at demonstrations. The Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux brought out a song about this form of protest, called ‘Cacerolazo’ (on YouTube) where she raps about cacerolazos as a form of massive protest in defiance of police and military violence describing them as “[w]ooden spoons against your shooting”:

Vivita, guachita, Chile despierta
Cuchara de palo frente a tus balazos
Y al toque de queda, ¡cacerolazo!
No somos alienígenas ni extraterrestres
No cachai na’, es el pueblo rebelde
Sacamos las ollas y nos mataron
A los asesinos ¡cacerolazo!

(Vivita, guachita, Chile wake up
Wooden spoon in front of your bullets
And at the curfew, cacerolazo!
We are not aliens or extraterrestrials
Don’t shit, it’s the rebel people
We took out the pots and they killed us
To the killers cacerolazo!)


The Chartists may not have had the access to the internet or video production of Ana Tijoux but their newspapers achieved large distributions and sales, spreading a similar culture of revolt and opposition. Since the time of Alexander Pope, poetry has played an important part in the struggle for change and social justice and the potential for poetry to consolidate people’s feelings, aspirations and desires has remained strong. The decision by poets, themselves, to participate and apply their art to the issues at hand has reinforced and inspired people the world over.

• All images in this article are from Wikimedia Commons

Opera in Crisis: Can it be made relevant again?


Opera productions depend on much state support, which is in decline, as states themselves go further and further into debt. To try and overcome these problems there have been many attempts at changes in form and content and even transmission in recent years. But these changes do not solve cost or accessibility issues especially in an era where it is difficult to get people to go out to the much cheaper cinema house, let alone a phenomenally expensive opera production. Although nowadays one is more likely to experience opera as cinema than theatre. Can such an expensive medium become popular again? What makes an opera popular? Can opera be relevant to people’s struggles today?

Here I will look at the origins and history of opera from the late 1590s until today. Like other forms of culture, opera was initially influenced by Enlightenment ideas in its Baroque (1590-1750) and Classical periods (1750-1820), while the Romantic (1800-1914) reaction predominated in the early nineteenth century up to the early twentieth century. Enlightenment and Romantic influences could still be seen throughout the twentieth century with Verismo (c1890-1920) and Modernism respectively. The twenty-first century has brought interesting changes in form and content and a global appreciation of opera but it remains an essentially elite form of entertainment in terms of cost and audiences.

Early opera – ‘did not normally furnish half the expense’

Jacopo Peri is credited with developing the first operas. His earliest surviving opera Dafne exists mainly as a libretto and fragments of music. The earliest surviving full opera is Peri’s Euridice which was first performed in 1600. Peri worked with Jacopo Corsi, also a composer of the time, both of whom were influenced by classical Greek and Roman works. They worked with the poet Ottavio Rinuccini, a member of the Florentine Camerata, who wrote the texts. The Camerata were a group of humanists, poets and musicians in late Renaissance Florence who sought to produce new works more in keeping with the spirit of humanism in the form and style of the ancient Greeks.

Renaissance humanism was a revival in the study of classical antiquity, at first in Italy and then spreading across Western Europe from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Their aim was to educate people and create a participatory citizenry through the study of the studia humanitatis, today known as the humanities: grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy. The Renaissance contributed heavily to the spread of Enlightenment ideas which was a much broader movement.

In France, the Enlightenment is traditionally dated from 1715 to 1789; i.e., from the beginning of the reign of Louis XV until the French Revolution. Enlightenment ideas focused on reason as the main source of knowledge and propagated ideals of liberty, progress, toleration, constitutional government, and separation of church and state in opposition to absolute monarchy and the dogmas of the Catholic church.

The intellectuals of the Enlightenment believed that “humanity progressed through the rational acquisition and organization of knowledge, and that real knowledge resulted from observation and logic rather than tradition, speculation, or divine inspiration.”

Enlightenment ideas also had a profound affect on different forms of culture, particularly in the creation of opera.

The Florentine Camerata were influenced by the historian and humanist Girolamo Mei who believed that ancient Greek drama was mainly sung rather than spoken as the Greek Aristoxenus had written that speech should set the pattern for song. The Camerata were also critical of contemporary polyphony which was felt to be overused and obscured the words and their meanings. Therefore:

Intrigued by ancient descriptions of the emotional and moral effect of ancient Greek tragedy and comedy, which they presumed to be sung as a single line to a simple instrumental accompaniment, the Camerata proposed creating a new kind of music. Instead of trying to make the clearest polyphony they could, the Camerata voiced an opinion recorded by a contemporary Florentine, ‘means must be found in the attempt to bring music closer to that of classical times.’

These musical experiments were called monody and Peri’s operas had the entire drama sung in monodic style with gambas, lutes, and harpsichord or organ for continuo as the main instruments. Thus we see a radical development in musical form along with content coming from Greek mythology. This new ‘music drama’ was called ‘opera’ (work). Over time other composers took up these new ideas and eventually synthesised monody and polyphony.

Orpheus, the hero of the opera, with a violin, by Cesare Gennar

Peri’s opera Euridice tells the story of Orpheus (Orfeo), a great musician, who journeyed to the underworld to plead with the gods to revive his wife Euridice after she had been fatally injured. Orpheus uses his legendary voice to convince Pluto, the god of the underworld, to return Euridice to life. He is successful and they return from the underworld and rejoice. The use of this particular story from Greek mythology in 1600 showed the growing divide between the humanist intellectuals and the church. This was at a time when “the persecution of witches was the official policy of both the Catholic and Protestant Churches.” According to Helen Ellerbe in The Dark Side of Christian History:

Around 1600 a man wrote: Germany is almost entirely occupied with building fires for the witches… Switzerland has been compelled to wipe out many of her villages on their account. Travelers in Lorraine may see thousands and thousands of the stakes to which witches are bound.1

The fear of the devil and hell had reached terrible proportions and any reasonable call for mercy or reconsideration, like the theme of Euridice, most likely would have been dangerous at that time, except in allegorical forms. Not long after, the Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi (with a libretto by Alessandro Striggio) brought out an opera based on the same story in 1607 entitled L’Orfeo, an opera which is still regularly performed.

Monteverdi constructed the opera score out of a daring use of many different existing forms – the aria, the strophic song, recitative, choruses, dances, dramatic musical interludes. While there was an actual written score, instrumentalists were allowed freedom to elaborate musically and singers to embellish their arias. While the work was admired up to the 1650s it was soon forgotten until the 19th century due to changing styles and tastes. When first performed it was in front of a a courtly audience of nobility and intellectual aristocrats. However, with the spread of interest in opera throughout Europe, public opera houses were built to hold larger and larger audiences by the end of the seventeenth century. Yet the expense of producing opera was becoming apparent as a French commentator noted in 1683:

The nobility of Venice patronized the great opera theatres more for their divertissement particular that for any financial profit that might accrue, since income from opera did not normally furnish half of the expense’.2

Thus we can see that opera was born in a time of church hierarchy and power, determined to wipe out dissent resulting in widespread fear and danger while Renaissance humanists were focusing on ancient Greek ideas of democratic society, and values like mercy.

Classical – ‘divesting the music entirely of abuses’

It was the German classical composer, Christoph Willibald Gluck who reformed opera in the 1700s as the freedom allowed to musicians and singers to extrapolate was seen to have gotten out of hand. His first reform opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, was premiered in Venice in 1762 and then in Paris, in a revised French-version, in 1774. In his own words, Gluck sets out his reasons:

When I undertook to set this poem, it was my design to divest the music entirely of all those abuses with which the vanity of singers, or the too great complacency of composers, has so long disfigured the Italian opera, and rendered the most beautiful and magnificent of all public exhibitions, the most tiresome and ridiculous. It was my intention to confine music to its true dramatic province, of assisting poetical expression, and of augmenting the interest of the fable; without interrupting the action, or chilling it with useless and superfluous ornaments; for the office of music, when joined to poetry, seemed to me, to resemble that of colouring in a correct and well disposed design, where the lights and shades only seem to animate the figures, without altering the out-line.

Gluck, like other classical period composers, sought to simplify music emphasizing:

Light elegance in place of the Baroque’s dignified seriousness and impressive grandeur. […] Composers from this period sought dramatic effects, striking melodies, and clearer textures. One of the big textural changes was a shift away from the complex, dense polyphonic style of the Baroque, in which multiple interweaving melodic lines were played simultaneously, and towards homophony, a lighter texture which uses a clear single melody line accompanied by chords.

Gluck, Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were all major composers of the classical style. These composers were on the cusp of a major change in society with burgeoning capitalism changing the balance of power in the feudal aristocratic societies of Europe.

In the past the role of music was to entertain the wealthy and powerful in their mansions and castles while praising the glory of God in the churches. Composers, if they were lucky, had the job of Kapellmeister, or church composer, who worked as artisans producing mainly hymns and oratorios or in-house for a noble patron.

Mozart sought to move away from this life to compose for a more bourgeois audience and become an independent contributor to intellectual life. This was a developing attitude of the intellectuals of Enlightenment Europe who believed in the improvement of humanity and civil society through increased secular knowledge.

Portrait of Francisco D’Andrade in the title role of Don Giovanni by Max Slevogt, 1912

Mozart’s Don Giovanni was written in 1787, two years before the French Revolution, when there was an antipathy to the aristocracy and a growing perception of them as a parasitic class. Don Giovanni, as James Donelan notes, gives audiences an exaggerated version of ‘an aristocrat who does nothing but consume, and does so almost joylessly’. He writes:

As the curtain opens, we see Figaro and Susanna; Figaro is counting off the measurements necessary for fitting a bed in his new room, and Susanna is admiring how she looks in the new hat she made for herself. You can already notice several things that indicate that something different from standard opera buffa is going on: this scene of domestic tranquility emphasizes Figaro’s and Susanna’s capabilities as the makers and doers of this world. You can assume he will build his own bed; Susanna has made her own hat, and this opera, based, as you know, on a subversive play, appeared at precisely the time in history when a new bourgeois class of traders, bankers, craftsmen, and merchants were gaining power and significance in European society, and the necessity of having a noble class was being questioned very seriously for the first time. The workers of the world and the bourgeois created wealth, and got things done; the sovereign provided them with a stable government, but what did the aristocracy do any more except hoard valuable resources and put on airs?

The world of the aristocracy was in decline and a new world led by the bourgeoisie was in the ascent with its emphasis on emotion and individualism. The Romantic reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the scientific rationalization of nature produced a new culture that opposed the aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment.

Romanticism – ‘mysticism and turbid emotionalism’

This change in attitude was noted by Arnold Hauser in The Social History of Art. He writes:

Since the advent of romanticism all cheerfulness seems to have a superficial, frivolous character. The combination of carefree light-heartedness with the most profound seriousness, of playful exuberance with the highest, purest ethos transfiguring the whole of life, which was still present in Mozart, breaks up; from now on everything serious and sublime takes on a gloomy and careworn look. It is sufficient to compare the serene, clear and calm humanity of Mozart, its freedom from all mysticism and turbid emotionalism, with the violence of romantic music, to realize what had been lost with the eighteenth century.3

The Romantics’ attitude to modernity was one of outright rejection. They were radical and individualistic enough to lead bourgeois revolutions but soon saw the abyss and the potential for their own loss of power and dissolution as a class. So, the Romantics looked backwards to medievalism instead of forward to proletarian revolution. Rather than questioning the organisation of society and who should own and control the new means of production in the ‘dark, satanic mills’ they chose to revere an ideal that society could return to peasant culture.

In Germany, Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz (1821) started the style which became known as Romantische Oper along with other composers like Albert Lortzing (e.g. Undine, described as a romantische Zauberoper ‘romantic magic opera’), Heinrich Marschner (e.g. Der Vampyr and Hans Heiling) and Louis Spohr (e.g. Faust). These composers based their operas on typical Romantic themes such as nature, the supernatural, the Middle Ages and popular culture, specifically folklore, culminating in Wagner’s ‘romantic operas’, Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman, 1843), followed by Tannhäuser (1845) and Lohengrin (1850).

Wagner’s operas grew in scale with more nationalist overtones but focused on myths, legends and nature, such as Der Ring des Nibelungen (the Ring or “Ring cycle“), a set of four operas based loosely on figures and elements from Germanic mythology. As his fame and influence spread throughout Europe other composers took on board some elements of his style and rejected others.

As nationalists moved away from universalist enlightenment ideas such as equality of all before the law, opera became a powerful tool to promote the idea of ethnic groups as the true basis of the nation state. Folk songs and folk dances as well as nationalist subjects formed the new content of the new operas. In Italy, Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Nabucco contains the lyrics, “Oh mia Patria sì bella e perduta (Oh my Fatherland so beautiful and lost!)! In Russia Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar (1836) tells the story of the Russian peasant and patriotic hero Ivan Susanin who sacrifices his life for the Tsar by leading astray a group of marauding Poles who were hunting him. In Brazil, Carlos Gomes’ (1836–1896) opera Il Guarany (1870) used references from the country’s folk music and traditional themes while the Czech composer Antonín Leopold Dvorák used the Czech language for his librettos to convey the Czech national spirit.

Verismo – ‘focusing on the hard-knock lives’

In Italy, the growth of Realism in art and literature was making itself felt among opera composers such as Pietro Mascagni (Cavalleria Rusticana, 1890), Ruggero Leoncavallo (Pagliacci, 1892), Umberto Giordano (Mala vita, 1892), Francesco Cilea (L’arlesiana, 1897) and Giacomo Puccini (La bohème, 1896) and they developed their own style called verismo (Italian for “realism”, from vero, meaning “true”). Realism opposed Romantic idealisation or dramatisation and focused more on working class people instead. The popularity of Wagner’s work with its social and political mythologising had had its effects. As Adam Parker notes:

The Italians took notice and, coping with their own political, economic and social upheavals, began to embrace a more realistic operatic style that strived to show aspects of everyday life and convey basic truths about human struggles. The music, too, changed. Standard arias — pauses in the action that showcased the talents of singers — gave way to a more unified structure and constant musical flow. Italian composers cast aside romantic fairy tales and stopped short of embracing Wagner’s mythical realms, preferring to focus on the hard-knock lives of characters who often were simple village-dwellers, impoverished, lovelorn and prone to make mistakes.

Giacomo Puccini, one of the composers most closely associated with verismo.

The Italian Verismo composers were highly influenced by the realistic literary works of Émile Zola, Honoré de Balzac and Henrik Ibsen and sought to bring opera down to earth by examining the lives of ordinary people, the lives of the poor, with themes such as infidelity, revenge, and violence.

The Verismo singing style brought in big changes from the elegant bel canto style of the 19th century. Verismo singers adopted a more declamatory singing style with a vociferous, passionate element to increase the emotional content of the opera.

20th Century – ‘losing much of its narrative power’

The twentieth century led to many changes as Modernism and Postmodernism, descendants of Romanticism, settled into Western culture while Realism and Social Realism, descendants of the universalist ideas of the Enlightenment, became state styles in the East. The Modernist composers rejected traditions such as classical ideas of form in art (harmony, symmetry, and order). As in literature and art, Modernist emphasis on new forms had their effect on opera as atonal, and then twelve-tone techniques were developed by Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, while later in the century Philip Glass and John Adams became known for a pared-down style of composing called Minimalism.

Atonality, which describes music that lacks a key, became became used from the early twentieth-century onwards and began a breakdown of the forms of classical European music which had existed from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries.

The knock-on effects were profound, as Andrew Clements writes:

With the collapse of tonality, music had lost much of its narrative power, they reasoned, and so storytelling need no longer be a prerequisite of opera either. The music would still contain, support and reinforce the onstage drama, but that drama didn’t need to be linear: scenes could proceed simultaneously (as in Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten, 1965), present different versions of the same story (Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus), tell no story at all (Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach) or dispense with a text altogether (Wolfgang Rihm’s Séraphin, 1995).

Meanwhile, in Russia there were many successful composers. Mikhail Glinka’s (1804–1857) A Life for the Tsar was followed by Alexander Dargomyzhsky (1813–1869) and his opera Rusalka (1856) and revolutionary The Stone Guest (1872), Modest Mussorgsky’s (1839–1881) Boris Godunov, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s (1840–1893) Eugene Onegin (Yevgeny Onegin), (1877–1878) and The Queen of Spades (Pikovaya dama) (1890) and the prolific Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908) who completed fifteen operas.

The Soviet state encouraged opera and many new operas were produced by a new generation of composers. While the early operas were influenced by Modernism, things started to change as the 1934 Soviet Writers Congress instigated a policy of Socialist Realism and by 1946 the Zhdanov Doctrine was proposed which opposed  “cosmopolitanism” (which meant native Russian accomplishments were to be emphasised more than foreign models) and the “anti-formalism campaign” (which saw “formalism” as art for art’s sake and did not serve a larger social purpose).

Most famously Dmitri Shostakovich’s (1906–1975) Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (performed in 1934) was criticised by Pravda in an article entitled Chaos Instead of Music in 1936. The story centres around a lonely woman in 19th-century Russia who falls in love with one of her husband’s workers and is driven to murder. While there doesn’t seem to have been any problem with the content, however, one can see the reaction to Western Modernism playing out in the description of the opera:

From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sound. Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this “music” is most difficult; to remember it, impossible. Thus it goes, practically throughout the entire opera. The singing on the stage is replaced by shrieks. If the composer chances to come upon the path of a clear and simple melody, he throws himself back into a wilderness of musical chaos – in places becoming cacophony. The expression which the listener expects is supplanted by wild rhythm. Passion is here supposed to be expressed by noise. All this is not due to lack of talent, or lack of ability to depict strong and simple emotions in music. Here is music turned deliberately inside out in order that nothing will be reminiscent of classical opera, or have anything in common with symphonic music or with simple and popular musical language accessible to all.

When an editor of Pravda was asked why Shostakovich was targeted, he replied:

We had to begin with somebody. Shostakovich was the most famous, and a blow against him would create immediate repercussions and would make his imitators in music and elsewhere sit up and take notice. Furthermore, Shostakovich is a real artist, there is a touch of genius in him. A man like that is worth fighting for, is worth saving … We had faith in his essential wholesomeness. We knew that he could stand the shock … Shostakovich knows and everyone else knows that there is no malice in our attack. He knows and everyone else knows that there is no desire to destroy him.4

Indeed, Shostakovich was awarded the USSR State Prize in 1941 (Piano Quintet), 1942 (Symphony No. 7), 1950 (Song of the Forests – The Fall of Berlin for chorus) and 1952 (Ten Poems for Chorus opus 88).

The first time the USSR State Prize was awarded for opera was to Uzeyir Hajibeyov for the opera Keroghlu in 1941. It was the first opera in the Muslim East. Koroghlu was based on a regional legend about a young man who organized a rebellion against the khan (king), who had blinded his father out of spite. Hajibayov uses the rhythms of Azerbaijan’s Yalli dance in the choir’s singing to reflect the strength of the people and their yearning for freedom. The large choir conveys the unity of the people and glorifies their rebellion.

Koroglu is a “classical opera complete with arias, choruses and ballet, but like so much of Hajibayov’s work it also includes traditional rhythms and melodies. […] Hajibayov included folk instruments such as the tar, zurna (pipe) and nagara (drum) in the orchestra to heighten the sense of place. […] The opera quickly gained popular acclaim and was performed widely.”

Thus we can see the huge gap that opened up between modernist opera in the West, its influence in the East, and the kind of opera that was promoted in the Soviet Union.

Twenty-First Century – ‘no use pretending something’s not broken’

A couple of years ago asked leading opera singers to list their top operas. Five were composed in this century: Jake Heggie, Dead Man Walking (2000), Mark-Anthony Turnage, The Silver Tassie (2002), George Benjamin, Written on Skin (2012), Thomas Adès, The Exterminating Angel (2016). Despite the variety of themes and historical periods – showing that opera composition and production is alive and well, in the words of Graham Vick ( “we need to bend – there’s no use pretending something’s not broken.”

Recent writers on opera are well aware of the issues involved and have come at the problem from differing perspectives. For Vick, issues of form were uppermost in his thoughts. In an article entitled Opera needs radical overhaul to survive, he writes:

We must stop believing that, if we work really hard, we might be almost as good as the legitimate theatre. Our agonising nostalgia for class (Downton Abbey only the most recent example) perpetuates philistine values. Crippled with self-doubt and privilege, the art form can hardly be heard in the wider society. A charge often levelled against it is that it is ‘owned by the few’. It is this sense of possession and superiority that is its greatest enemy.

He suggests different ways that opera companies can overcome these problems such as having touring versions and lowering seat prices by lowering performance costs.

For writers like Richard Morrison (chief music critic of the Times) content is a determining factor for future survival. In a recent article he discusses Anthony Bolton’s The Life and Death of Alexander Litivinenko (spy killed by polonium), John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer (hijacking of a cruise ship), and Tansy Davies’s Between Worlds (about five people trapped in the World Trade Centre on 9/11). He questions the subject matter of recent operas which seems to be almost a strategy of using shock tactics to get punters back into the opera house:

Can anything and everything be turned into art? Is the entire human condition fair game for a writer, painter or composer? Or are some real-life subjects so horrific or still so fresh that they should be off limits, at least until those caught up in them are no longer around to be offended?

Both of these are valid and important perspectives on the ongoing problems of the opera business. However, like cinema, the more expensive a cultural medium is, the more its ideology is tightly controlled by those who hold the purse strings. The mass media corporations control how everything is seen and understood, saturating the media with ideologies that favour the world outlook of the neoliberal elites. This allows them to promote conflicts that suit their agenda (e.g. the bombing of Libya) and neutralise the ones that are not going their way (e.g. the attacks on Syria).


For culture in general to inspire future interest and support it must move away from the narratives and objectives of the elites. Working class struggles have shaped the world and any improvements in living conditions have been won after years of often violent conflict and sacrifice. These stories, histories and even allegories of these stories have formed the basis of culture in the past. Ordinary people do not own their own mass communications media or opera houses but know art made in solidarity with their plight (whether it be local or abroad) when they see it. Therefore, yes, anything and everything be turned into art, that is, if it is made in such a way that empathy, solidarity and progress is the result of the work and not just a distant spectacle as a vehicle for shock-horror or laughs. For opera to have distinctive, compelling, and meaningful engagements with people in the future it must first invest in its most important component: its audiences.

  1. Helen Ellerbe, The Dark Side of Christian History (Morningstar and Lark, 1995), p. 136/7.
  2. Daniel Snowman, The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera (Atlantic Books, London, 2010), p. 36.
  3. Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, Vol. 3 (Vintage Books: New York, 1958), p. 225.
  4. Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Harper Perennial: London, 2009), p. 249.

How to find a Tiger in Africa

Agostinho Neto declaring independence of Angola 11 November 1975

What I want to do here is something very simple. I want to explain how I began to search for Agostinho Neto. I also want to explain the perspective that shapes this search.1

When I was told about the plans for a colloquium I was asked if I would give a paper.2 I almost always say yes to such requests because for me a paper is the product of learning something new. So I went to the local bookstores to buy a biography of Dr Neto. The only thing I found available was a two-volume book by a man named Carlos Pacheco called Agostinho Neto O Perfil de um Ditador, published in 2016. The subtitle of the book is “A história do MPLA em Carne Viva”. When I went to the university library I found another book, a collection of essays by Mr Pacheco and a book by Mr Cosme, no longer in print.3

Obviously the sheer size of Mr Pacheco’s book suggested that this was a serious study. Since these two ominous tomes were the only biography I could find in print in a serious bookstore, it seemed to me that the weight of the books was also designed as part of Mr Pacheco’s argument. The two volumes, in fact, comprise digests of PIDE4 reports and Mr Pacheco’s philosophical musings about politics, culture, psychology etc. There is barely anything of substance about the poet, physician, liberation leader and first president of Angola, Agostinho Neto, in nearly 1,500 pages.

As I said, I knew little about Dr Neto, but I knew something about Angola and the US regime’s war against the MPLA.5 I was also very familiar with the scholarship and research about US regime activities in Africa since 1945—both overt and covert. I also knew that dictators were not rare in Africa. However, in the title of Mr Pacheco’s book was the first time I had ever heard Dr Neto called a dictator. What struck me was that Dr Neto was president of Angola from the time of independence until his death in 1979—a total of four years. In contrast his successor remained president for almost 40 years. So my intuition told me if Agostinho Neto was a dictator he could not have been a very significant one. However, I wanted to know what the basis of this charge was. Certainly he was not a dictator on the scale of his neighbour, Joseph Mobutu.6 I reasoned that Agostinho Neto was called a dictator for the same reason all heads of state are called “dictators” in the West—because he held office by virtue of processes not approved in London, Paris or Washington. In the jargon of the “West”—a euphemism for the post-WWII US Empire—anyone called a communist who becomes a head of state must be a dictator, since no one in their right mind could elect a communist and no communist would submit to an election.

However, there was apparently more to this accusation than the allegation that Dr Neto must be a communist and therefore a dictator. Agostinho Neto had good relations with the Cuban “dictator” Fidel Castro and he enjoyed the support of the Soviet Union. When there still was a Soviet Union, anyone enjoying its support, no matter how minimal or ambivalent, could be considered at least a “potential dictator”. Then I read about a brief but serious incident in 1977, an attempted military coup against the Neto government on 27 May, led by Nito Alves and José Van Dunen. The coup was defeated and all sources agree there was a purge of the MPLA and many were arrested and killed. Writers like Mr Pacheco argue that Dr Neto directed a blood bath in which as many as 20-30,000 people died over the course of two years. There appears to be agreement that many people were arrested and killed but the exact figures vary.7

However, I still wondered whether this incident and its apparent consequences were enough to justify calling Dr Agostinho Neto, dictator of Angola.

While researching for this paper, while searching for Agostinho Neto, I found many people who had an opinion about him but very few who actually knew anything about Neto, and often they knew very little about Angola.

First I would like to deal with the coup attempt and the aftermath because that is the most immediate justification for this epithet. I am unable to introduce any data that might decide the questions I feel must be raised, but that does not make them less relevant to an accurate appraisal of Dr Neto’s four years in office.

  1. How, in the midst of a civil war, and military operations to defend the country, including the capital from a foreign invader—the Republic of South Africa—are the casualties and deaths to be distinguished between police actions and military actions? What reasonably objective apparatus existed to produce the statistics upon which the count could be based?
  2. What was the specific chain of command and operational structure in place to direct the purge on the scale alleged by Dr Neto’s detractors? What was the composition of the forces operating under government direction during this period? What was the composition of the command at local level?

Without claiming to answer these questions—they would have to be answered by research in Angola—there are some points that make the bald assertions of those like Mr Pacheco, who claim Dr Neto is responsible for the violent aftermath, for the thousands of victims, far from proven.

Casualty reporting during war is highly unreliable even in sophisticated military bureaucracies like those of the US or Britain. There were rarely bodies to count after saturation bombing or days of artillery barrage. To add a sense of proportion Sir Douglas Haig, commanding the British Expeditionary Force at the Somme during World War I, ordered the slaughter of nearly 20,000 British soldiers in one day with total casualties of some 50,000—the excuse for this was war.8 One’s own casualties are usually a source of embarrassment. But in Angola, like in other African countries, the presence of a stable and professional bureaucracy capable of generating any kind of statistics was certainly sparse. Whether those statistics can be deemed objective is another issue.

The absence of written orders or minutes is not by itself proof that no orders were given. In fact, as has been established in the research on the whole sphere of covert action, written orders can be issued “for the file” while operational orders are transmitted—deniably—by word of mouth.9 Then the question has to be answered in reverse: how did the actual enforcement officers receive their instructions and from whom? Here it is particularly important to note that the MPLA could not have replaced all police and other security force rank and file with personnel whose loyalty to the new Angolan government was certain. This means that many police or other security personnel had been performing under orders of the New State officers until independence and were still on duty.10 The actual relationships these personnel had to the people in the districts where they were deployed would have been known, if not notorious. It is not unreasonable to infer that a general purge would give opportunities to people at all levels to solve “problems” arising from the fall of the Portuguese regime.

Then there is one other factor—a question raised by the fact that Mr Pacheco’s book relies almost entirely on PIDE reports about the MPLA. One can, in fact, read in several accounts of the independence struggle that the MPLA was thoroughly infiltrated by PIDE operatives. So do we know if the orders which rank and file personnel took were issued by bona fide MPLA cadre acting on instructions from the president or issued by PIDE operatives within the MPLA command structure? In fact, it is a highly practiced routine of covert operations, also by the PIDE during the independence war, to appear and act as if they were the MPLA while committing acts intended to discredit it.11 While it is true that the Salazar/ Caetano regime had collapsed the people who had maintained the regime—especially in covert operations—did not simply disappear. Moreover, the world’s premier covert action agency, the CIA, was an active supporter of all MPLA opposition and certainly of factions within the MPLA itself. We know about IA Feature because of the revelations of its operational manager, John Stockwell.12 We also know that the PIDE and the CIA worked together and we know that the US ambassador to Portugal during the period (1975 to 1979) was a senior CIA officer.13 We also know many details about the various ways in which covert operations were run then.14 What we do not know is the extent to which it may have been involved in the coup against Dr Neto. But there is room for educated guessing.

I do not believe it is possible to reconstruct the events of the purge with evidence that can provide reasonable assurance of what responsibility Agostinho Neto bears for the deaths and casualties attributed to that period—beyond the vague responsibility which any head of state may have for actions of the government apparatus over which he presides. There, are however, grounds for a reasonable doubt—for a verdict at least of “not proven”.

Which brings me to my second argument: from what perspective should the brief term of Agostinho Neto as president of the Angola be examined.

First of all we must recognise that Angola prior to 1975 was a criminal enterprise.

It began with the Atlantic slave trade, which really only ended in the 1880s (although slavery did not end). Then, like in all other colonies created by Europeans, a kind of licensed banditry was practiced, euphemistically called “trade”. By the end of the 19th century most of this organised crime was controlled by cartels organised in Europe and North America.15

Why do I call this organised crime and not commerce? First of all if one uses force to compel a transaction; e.g., a gun to make someone give you something, this is generally considered a crime and in Europe and North America usually subject to punishment as such. To travel to a foreign land with a gun and compel transactions, or induce them using drugs or other fraudulent means, does not change the criminal character—only the punitive consequences.

Angola’s economy was based on stolen land, forced labour, unequal/ fraudulent trading conditions, and armed force, the colour of law not withstanding. Neither Portuguese law (nor that of any other European state) would have permitted inhabitants of Angola to come to Portugal, kidnap its youth or force its inhabitants to accept the same conditions to which all African colonies and “protectorates” were submitted.

In other words, Agostinho Neto was the first president of an Angolan state. He, together with his supporters in the MPLA, created a republic out of what was essentially a gangster economy protected by the Portuguese dictatorship in Lisbon. Does this mean that all European inhabitants of Angola were gangsters? Certainly it does not. However, it can be argued that many Europeans or children of Europeans who were born in Angola recognised this when they began to demand independence, too. Some demanded independence to run their own gangs free of interference from abroad and some certainly wanted an end to gangsterism and the establishment of a government for the benefit of the inhabitants.

The performance of Dr Neto as president of Angola has to be measured by the challenges of creating a beneficial government from a system of organised crime and defending this effort against foreign and domestic armies supported by foreigners, specifically the agents of the gangsters who had been running the country until then.

But stepping back from the conditions of Angola and its plunder by cartels under protection of the New State, it is necessary to see Dr Neto’s struggle and the struggle for independence in Angola within the greater context of African independence. Like Nkrumah, Lumumba, Toure, Nasser, Qaddafi, Kenyatta, Nyerere and Cabral, what I would call the African liberation generation, Neto was convinced that Angola could not be independent without the independence of all Africa.16  In other words, he was aware that the independence from Portugal was necessarily only partial independence. Like the others of this generation Neto rejected race as a basis for African independence.

The position of African liberation leaders who rigorously rejected racialised politics has often been criticised, even mocked as naïve. It has often been pointed out—accurately—that the African states were created by Europeans and hence the ethnic conflicts that have laid waste to African development are proof that these liberation leaders were wrong: that either Africa could not transcend “tribalism” or that the states created could not manage the inherited territories in a modern way.

On the contrary, the African liberation generation was well aware of the problems inherited from European gangster regimes. Moreover they understood quite well that race was created by Europeans to control them, that there was no “white man” in Africa before the European coloniser created him. The “white man” was an invention of the late 17th century. First it was a legal construct—the granting of privileges to Europeans in the colonies to distinguish and separate them from African slave labourers. Then it was elaborated into an ideology, an Enlightenment ideology—white supremacy. By uniting the colonisers, who in their respective homelands had spent the previous thirty odd years slaughtering each other for reasons of religion, ethnicity, language, and greed, the Enlightenment ideals of ethnic and religious tolerance or even liberty bound Europeans together against slave majorities. By endowing these European servants with the pedigree of “whiteness” the owners of the plantation islands could prevent them from siding with other servants—the Africans—and overthrowing the gangsters and their Caribbean drug industry. The white “identity” was fabricated to prevent class alliances against the new capitalists.17

It is not clear if the African liberation generation understood the impact of African slavery in North America. Many post-war liberation leaders have admired the US and seen in it a model for independence from colonialism. Perhaps this is because in the preparations for entering WWI, the US regime undertook a massive propaganda campaign of unparalleled success in which the history of the US was virtually re-written—or better said invented. There are numerous stories about photographs being changed in the Soviet Union under Stalin to remove people who had fallen from favour or been executed. There is relatively little attention devoted to the impact of the Creel Committee, a group of US advertising executives commissioned by President Woodrow Wilson to write the history people now know as “the American Dream” and to sell it throughout the world.18 This story turns a planter-mercantile slaveholder state into an “imperfect democracy” based on fine Enlightenment principles of human liberty. In fact, the contemporaries of the American UDI saw the actions in Philadelphia and the insurgency that followed in the same terms that people in the 1970s saw Ian Smith and his Rhodesian National Front. It is very clear from the record that the US regime established by the richest colonials in North America was initiated to avert Britain’s abolition of slavery in its colonies. It was not an accident that African slaves and Native Americans were omitted from the protections of the new charter. On the contrary the new charter was intended to preserve their exclusion.

Which brings me to my concluding argument. I believe there are two widely misused terms in the history of the post-WWII era, especially in the histories of the national liberation struggles and so-called Third World: “Cold War” and “anti-communism”. Since the end of the Soviet Union it is even very rare that these terms are explained. The reintroduction of the term “Cold War” to designate US regime policies toward Russia is anachronistic and misleading.

To understand this we have to return to 1945. In San Francisco, California, shortly before the end of formal hostilities representatives of the Allies met and adopted what would be called the Charter of the United Nations. Among the provisions of this charter were some ideas retained from the League of Nations Covenant (which the US never ratified) and some new ideas about the future of what were called non-self-governing territories (i.e. colonies, protectorates etc.) The principle of self-determination, a legacy of the League used to carve up Austria-Hungary, Germany and the Ottoman Empire, was to be extended to all empires. After the propaganda war by which colonial troops (natives) were deployed in masses against Germany, Italy and Japan, to defend freedom and independence, it became clear that the exhausted and even more heavily indebted European colonial powers could not return to the status quo ante. Britain was incapable of controlling India and with the independence of India it would become increasingly difficult to justify or sustain rule of the rest of the empire. The Commonwealth idea basically kept the “white” dominions loyal.19 But how were the “non-whites” to be kept in line? The US regime made it clear that there would be no support for European empires of the pre-war type. So the stated policy of the Charter was that independence was inevitable—meaning that all those who wanted it had a license to get it.

At the same time, however, an unstated policy was being formulated—penned largely by George Kennan—that would form the basis for the expansion of the US Empire in the wake of European surrender. That unstated policy, summarised in the US National Security Council document0 – NSC 68 – was based on some fundamental conclusions by the regime’s policy elite that reveal the essential problem with which all liberation movements and new independent states would be faced but could not debate. NSC 68 was promulgated in 1947 but remained secret until about 1978.

Kennan who had worked in the US mission to the Soviet Union reported confidentially that the Soviet Union, although it had won the war against Germany, was totally exhausted and would be incapable of doing anything besides rebuilding domestically, at least for another 20 years! In another assessment he pointed out that the US economy had only recovered by virtue of the enormous tax expenditure for weapons and waging WWII. It would be devastating to the US economy—in short, a massive depression would return—if the war industry did not continue to receive the same level of funding (and profit rates) it received during the war.

Furthermore, it was very clear that the US economy consumed about 60 per cent of the world’s resources for only 20 per cent of the population. Kennan argued the obvious, that this condition could not continue without the use of force by the US regime.

Although the US appears as (and certainly is) a violent society in love with its military, in fact, foreign wars have never enjoyed great popularity. It has always been necessary for the US regime to apply extreme measures—marketing—to generate support for wars abroad. The war in Korea was initially just a continuation of US Asia-Pacific expansion (aka Manifest Destiny).20 When US forces were virtually kicked off the Korean peninsula, the machinery that had sold WWI to the masses was put in motion and the elite’s hatred of the Soviet Union was relit in what became known as the McCarthy purges. The McCarthy purges were necessary to turn the Soviet Union—an ally against Hitler—into an enemy even worse than Hitler (who, in fact, never was an enemy of the US elite, some of whom counted the Führer as a personal friend.21  It was at this point that anti-communism became part of the arsenal for the unstated policy of the US regime. Anti-communism was enhanced as a term applicable to any kind of disloyalty—meaning failure to support the US regime in Korea or elsewhere. It also became the justification for what appeared to be contradictions between US stated anti-colonial policy and its unstated neo-colonialism.

The term “Cold War” has been attributed to US banker and diplomat Bernard Baruch and propagandist Walter Lippman. It has become accepted as the historical framework for the period from 1945 until 1989.  However, this is history as propaganda. The facts are that as George Kennan and other high officials knew in 1947, the Soviet Union posed absolutely no threat to the US. On the contrary the secret (unstated) policy of the US—declassified in the 1990s—was to manufacture enough atomic weaponry to attack the Soviet Union twice. Generals like MacArthur and Le May were not extremists. They simply discussed US strategy openly.22 The point of the “Cold War” was to create a vision, which would explain the non-existent Soviet threat as a cover for the unstated policy of US imperial expansion—against national liberation movements—while officially supporting national liberation.

Together with anti-communism, the Cold War was a propaganda/ marketing strategy for undermining what every member of the African liberation generation knew intuitively, that the liberation of Africa depends not only on the liberation of every African country on the continent but on the liberation of the African diaspora. Anti-communism and the Cold War myth successfully isolated African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans from the international struggles for liberation and human dignity and an end to racist regimes.23 In that sense anti-communism is a direct descendant of white supremacy and served the same purpose. It is particularly telling that Malcolm X, who had matured in a sectarian version of black consciousness- the Nation of Islam—was assassinated after he returned from Mecca and an extensive tour of Africa and began to argue not only that African-Americans must demand civil rights, but that they must demand human rights and that these are ultimately achieved when humans everywhere are liberated.24 Malcolm was murdered not just for opposing white supremacy but also for being an internationalist.

If we look at the fate of the African liberation generation we will find that those who were committed internationalists and non-racialists were also socialists and not did not confuse possessive individualism with human liberty. We will also find that all the leaders of newly independent African states who were most vilified, deposed or murdered were those who did not surrender those ideals or the practices needed to attain them. They were not Enlightenment leaders building on European hypocrisy. They were Romantic revolutionaries who knew that there was no salvation—only honest struggle for liberation.25 I believe that Agostinho Neto was one of those Romantic revolutionaries. And the honest struggle is not over.

Neto’s Funeral in September 1979

• Photos courtesy of Fundação Antonio Agostinho Neto

  1. Monty Python’s Meaning of Life (1983) includes an episode set in South Africa as a parody of the film Zulu (1964). The upshot is that an army medical officer suggests that a tiger could have bitten off the leg of a fellow officer in the night. To which all respond, “a tiger in Africa?!”. Of course, tigers are indigenous to Asia but not Africa. Salazar was also to have attributed the indigenous opposition to Portuguese rule in Africa as “coming from Asia”. See also Felipe Ribeiro de Meneses, Salazar A Political Biography (2016).
  2. Presented at the colloquium “Agostinho Neto and the African Camões Prize Laureates” at the University of Porto, Portugal, on the 40th anniversary of Agostinho Neto’s death.
  3. Leonel Cosme, Agostinho Neto e o sua tempo (2004).
  4. PIDE, Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado, Salazar secret political police, also trained in part by the Nazi regime’s Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo).
  5. MPLA, Movimento popular de libertação de Angola: Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola.
  6. (Joseph) Mobutu Sese Seko, (1930 – 1997) dictator of Republic of the Congo (Zaire), today Democratic Republic of the Congo, aka Congo-Kinshasa to distinguish it from the French Congo/ Congo Brazzaville, previously Congo Free State and Belgian Congo. Mobutu seized power in the wake of the overthrow and murder of Patrice Lumumba and ruled from 1965 until 1997. See Georges Zongola-Talaja, The Congo from Leopold to Kabila (2002).
  7. Alberto Oliveira Pinto, História de Angola (2015); Adrien Fontaellaz, War of Intervention in Angola (2019),
  8. Jacques R. Pauwels, The Great Class War 1914-1918 (2018).
  9. Ludo De Witte, The Assassination of Lumumba (2001) originally De Moord op Lumumba (1999). The Belgian foreign minister during the “Congo Crisis” wrote several memoranda in which the government’s position was that no harm should come to Patrice Lumumba while the Belgian secret services were actively plotting his kidnapping and assassination. Historical research generally privileges documents and they survive eyewitnesses.
  10. Estado Novo, the term used to designate the Portuguese regime under the dictatorial president of the council of ministers (prime minister) Antonio Salazar Oliveira from 1932 until 1968 and then under Marcelo Caetano until April 1974.
  11. This is also discussed in Fernando Cavaleiro Ângelo, Os Flêchas: A Tropa Secreta da PIDE/DGS na Guerra de Angola 1969 – 1974 (2016) history of the PIDE’s Angolan counter-insurgency force. Since the concept and organisation of the Flêchas bears considerable resemblance to the PRU formed by the CIA in Vietnam under the Phoenix Program, it would not be surprising ifCIA cooperation with the PIDE extended to “Phoenix” advice (see Valentine, 1990 p. 159 et seq.).
  12. John Stockwell, In Search of Enemies (1978) Stockwell had left the agency before the extensive covert support for UNITA was enhanced under Ronald Reagan, despite the Clark Amendment. However, Stockwell noted that when he had returned from Vietnam duty and before getting the paramilitary assignment for IA Feature, he noticed that the busiest desk at headquarters was the Portugal desk.
  13. Frank Carlucci (1930 – 2018), US ambassador to Portugal (1975 – 1978), Deputy Director of the CIA (1978 – 1981).
  14. Philip Agee, CIA Diary (1975), and Douglas Valentine, The Phoenix Program (1990) and The CIA as Organized Crime (2017) Douglas Valentine uses the terms “stated policy” and “unstated policy” to show the importance of overt and covert language in the conduct of political and psychological warfare.
  15. See Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (1944) and Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1982).
  16. Ghana, Congo-Kinshasa, Guinea-Conakry, Egypt, Libya, Kenya, Tanzania and Guinea Bissau, Mozambique: Nkrumah was overthrown by a military coup and forced into exile. Lumumba was deposed and murdered by a Belgian managed corporate conspiracy with US/ UN support. Cabral was assassinated. Both Mondlane and Machel were murdered. Years later Qaddafi would be overthrown after massive armed attacks, tortured and murdered by US agents. The general attitude rejecting “race” and “racialism” can be found in the speeches and writings of these leaders, esp. those delivered on the occasion of independence. See also CLR James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (1977) and A History of Negro Revolt (1985) See also Jean-Paul Sartre Kolonialismus und Neokolonialismus (1968) in particular “Der Kolonialismus ist ein System” and “Das politische Denken Patrice Lumumbas” originally published in Situations V Colonialisme et Neocolonialisme.
  17. For a thorough elaboration of this see Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776 (2014) and The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism (2018).
  18. George Creel, How We Advertised America (1920) also discussed in Stuart Ewen, PR: A Social History of Spin (1996).
  19. “Dominion” status was granted under the Statute of Westminster 1931 to the “white colonies”: Canada, Irish Free State, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. This gave these colonies so-called responsible government based on local franchise, largely eliminating the jurisdiction of the British parliament in London.
  20. US war against Korea, combined with a Korean civil war, began in June 1950. A ceasefire was agreed on 27 July 1953. However, the war has not officially ended and the US regime maintains at least 23,000 personnel in the country—not counting other force projection (e.g. regular manoeuvres, atomic weapons and naval power, etc.).
  21. Prescott Bush, father/grandfather of two US Presidents Bush, was nearly prosecuted for “trading with the enemy” due to his dealings with the Nazi regime. Henry Ford had even been awarded a decoration by the regime. These were the most notorious cases in the US. There were many other forms of less visible support to the Hitler regime from US corporations before, during and after the war. The fact is that the US did not declare war against Hitler’s Germany. Hitler declared war on the US in the vain hope of bringing Japan into the war against the Soviet Union. See Jacques R. Pauwels, The Myth of the Good War (2002) The US war against Japan was a continuation of its standing objectives for expansion into China—see also Cummings (2009).
  22. This argument has been made and documented in the work of Bruce Cummings, The Origins of the Korean War (1981, 1990) and Dominion from Sea to Sea (2009).
  23. Gerald Horne, White Supremacy Confronted (2019).
  24. Also formulated very clearly in his Oxford Union speech, 3 December 1964. Malcolm X was assassinated on 21 February 1965.
  25. For an elaboration of the term “Romantic revolutionaries” see the work of Morse Peckham, especially a collection of essays, Romantic Revolutionaries (1970).

From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment: Romanticism as a Tool for Elite Agendas

We have seen […] that nationalism, that magnificent song that made the people rise against their oppressors, stops short, falters and dies away on the day that independence is proclaimed. Nationalism is not a political doctrine, nor a programme. If you really want your country to avoid regression, or at best halts and uncertainties, a rapid step must be taken from national consciousness to political and social consciousness.
— Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1961


Romanticism is an eighteenth century artistic, literary, musical and intellectual movement which emerged as a reaction to Enlightenment ideas of science, reason and human progress. Its effect on politics has been to reassert conservative ideas about society based on hierarchy and individualism as the Romantics looked back to medieval times and monarchism for inspiration. Enlightenment ideas focused on the laws as a counter to monarchical privilege and looked to concepts of citizenship and republicanism as the way forward, ideas which were taken up by workers’ movements the world over. However, Romantic ideas of the exclusivist nation are coming to the fore again in a world altered by the positive and negative effects of international worker mobility, immigration and desperate refugees.

The Enlightenment and politics – ‘You were, crucially, a citizen, not a subject’

In the early 18c in Europe the power of the monarchical system began to wane and enlightenment ideas about the running and ruling of society began to take hold. Those ideas focused on the idea of the ‘patrie’. Like many enlightenment ideas, patria was a word derived from pater [father] from ancient Rome and would later be equated with republicanism. Louis chevalier de Jancourt (the biographer of Leibniz) wrote in the Encyclopédie that patrie “represents a father and children, and consequently that it expresses the meaning we attach to that of family, of society, of a free state, of which we are members, and whose laws assure our liberties and our well-being.”1 This new emphasis was based on equality of all before the law rather than on the narrow definitions of ethnicity used in definitions of the nation.

In the pre-modern polity, society was made up of separate feudal sovereignties that were at the same time local power centres. Different ethnic groups lived in insular, heterogeneous communities with local and agrarian independent economies. The economy developed as kingdoms expanded into other ethnic areas. The transition from ethnicity to nationhood happened when the members of different ethnic groups developed a common culture making them into a ‘nation’.

However as Anthony Pagden writes:

Unlike the nation, the patria was a community, a group. You owed it your love and your life, but you were also a part of it. You were, crucially, a citizen, not a subject.2

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689–1755), generally referred to as simply Montesquieu, was a French judge, man of letters, and political philosopher.

The patria was loosely connected to the concept of a republican government where the citizen, as Montesquieu wrote, would be asked to love the laws and the homeland (patrie) and that this love would require “continuing preference of the public interest over one’s own.”3

These ideas about the patrie have “come to be called modern civic patriotism. It was benign, generous, outward-looking, and in principle at least excluded no one”.4 They can be seen as universal in that they described a form of politics, republicanism, that was not concerned with language, religion or ethnicity but with the idea that all were citizens and equal before the law.

Equality before the law is the principle that each person must be treated equally by the law (principle of isonomy) and that all are subject to the same laws of justice (due process). This principle arose out of the discontent that prevailed under monarchical rule whereby the king or queen was above the law, so that equality guaranteed that no one or group of individuals could be privileged or discriminated against by the rulers.

This principle was enshrined in Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which states that: “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”.

Photograph of the Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common, London in 1848

Equality before the law is a basic principle of legal documents like the Irish Constitution, for example:

All citizens shall be held equal before the law (Article 40 of the Constitution). This means that the State cannot unjustly, unreasonably or arbitrarily discriminate between citizens. You cannot be treated as inferior or superior to any other person in society simply because of your human attributes or your ethnic, racial, social or religious background.

The universal aspect of such principles is an important aspect in that universalism accepts universal principles of most religions and is inclusive of others regardless of other persons ethnic, religious or racial background.

As an approach to ethnic difference in society, universalism is similar to instrumentalist approaches which accepts a minimal set of qualifications for membership of a community, unlike the primordialism of conservative nationalism which tries to fix exclusivist kinship, historical traditions and homeland of the ‘nation’.

The Romantic reaction – ‘from patriotism to tribalism’

It was in Germany that nationalism came to emphasise the ethnic basis of the nation with the ancient origins of the German language symbolising the German Volk stretching back into pre-history. In his essay On the Origin of Language [1772], Johann Herder argued for the national origin of language. He wrote, “[i]t [the urge to express] is alive in all unpolished languages, though, to be sure, according to the degree of each nation’s culture and the specific character of its way of thinking.”5

La République universelle démocratique et sociale, painted by Frédéric Sorrieu in 1848. Top left: Le Pacte, Top right: Le Prologue, Bottom left: Le Triomphe, Bottom right: Le Marché. He was notable for his works testifying the liberal and nationalist revolutions in France and in Europe.

Herder’s influence could be seen in the widespread cultural and linguistic movements that swept Europe from the 1780s to the 1840s. Influenced by the Romantic Movement, the cultural nationalists emphasised the volksgeist of the peasantry as the true basis of the nation. Language became the target and the site for conflicting political ideologies as definitions of the nation were formed on ethno-linguistic grounds.

However, the early nineteenth century also saw the rise of workers movements such as the Saint-Simonians and Fourierists in France and the Chartists and Owenites in the United Kingdom. The industrial revolution had caused a profound change in the social and economic make-up of society internally which resulted in the creation of self-conscious classes and heightened class antagonism.

Thus the workers movements took Enlightenment ideas of equality to their logical conclusion in the form of class struggle and social revolution while the Romantics looked to the peasantry for their ideal, reasserting the primacy of the older vertical structure of society (containing all classes).

The rise of nationalism saw the growth of exceptionalism as ethnic exclusivity became the norm. Under the influence of Romanticism and ideas of ethnic purity, and in parallel with the rise of the centralised nation state, the ethnic homogenisation of the populace meant the (near) destruction of indigenous local languages and local foreign language communities.

For example, there existed in France about thirty patois or popular Romance languages. In A Cultural History of the French Revolution, Emmet Kennedy describes a report to the Convention on 16 prairial Year II (4 June 1794) where the abbé Grégoire lists the extensive range of patois, dialects and languages in France as “Bas-Breton, Bourguinon, Bressan, Lyonnais, Dauphinois, Auvergnat, Poitevin, Limousin, Picard, Provençal, Languedocien, Velayen, Catalan, Béarnais, Basque, Rouergat, and Gascon.” According to Kennedy, “[o]nly about a sixth (fifteen) of the departments around Paris spoke French exclusively. Elsewhere bilingualism was common.”6

Yet, in another report to the Convention in 1794, Barère links the areas where “foreign” languages are to be found, such as Basque, German, Flamand and Breton, with the areas of insurrection and counterrevolution. Barère writes, “[f]ederalism and superstition speak Bas-Breton; emigration and hatred of the Republic speak German; counterrevolution speaks Italian, and fanaticism speaks Basque. Let us break these harmful instruments of terror.”7 In post-revolutionary France linguistic redefinition took on serious political overtones as the question of self/other was redrawn along linguistic lines. Already the interests of the state were taking precedence over the rhetoric of the democratic nation.

Nur für Deutsche (Eng. “Only for Germans”) on the tram number 8 in occupied Kraków.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762 – 1814) took exceptionalist and chauvinist ideas of the nation even further. He wrote:

The German, if only he makes use of all his advantages, can always be superior to the foreigner and understand him fully, even better than the foreigner understands himself, and can translate the foreigner to the fullest extent. On the other hand, the foreigner can never understand the true German without a thorough and extremely laborious study of the German language, and there is no doubt that he will leave what is genuinely German untranslated.8

Fichte, like Herder, shifted cultural value from the elites to the common people (volk). According to Tim Blanning in The Romantic Revolution:

Folk art, folk dancing and folk songs were not to be despised for their roughness but treasured for their authenticity. They were the ‘archives of a nationality’, the ‘national soul’ and ‘the living voice of the nationalities, even of humanity itself’.9

The Romantics promoted popular ballads which had been seen as “the dregs of fairy-tales, superstitions, songs, and crude speech”.10 Of particular note was the Ossian cycle of epic poems published by the Scottish poet James Macpherson from 1760. The work was an international success and was translated into all the literary languages of Europe. Even though Ossian was soon realised to be a creation of its author and not from ancient sources it was highly influential both in the development of the Romantic movement and the Gaelic revival.

As in other forms of culture the Romantics emphasised all that was backward-looking and medieval in opposition to Enlightenment figures who had tried to create a new culture based on reason and science. Moreover, Romantic folk culture was very different from working class culture which developed during the Industrial Revolution. With the influence of socialist ideas and movements over the following decades, working class authors and poets produced many fine poems, ballads and novels about the struggles of ordinary people.

It is interesting to note that in the late seventeenth century and the early eighteenth century, the cultural elites of Europe were more interested in French than their own languages and went on the Grand Tour of Europe to broaden their horizons and learn about language, architecture, geography, and culture.

Also, it is ironic that the thrill of romanticism often came from the safety of modernity (in the form of enlightenment science) as the development of steamboats and railway systems allowed the new middle classes to experience the sublime in the beauty of dramatic landscapes like the Alps.

Nationalism – ‘countering the worst excesses of neoliberalism’

The influence of Romanticism on politics shifted revolutionary thinking from burgeoning socialist movements to nationalism instead. Nationalism is the perfect class conciliatory ideology in that it retained the full social order/hierarchy (i.e. it includes the elites) and homogenised the people by excluding other national languages and foreign communities while putting the elites into positions of leadership and control.

Using divide and rule tactics and stirring up xenophobic attitudes and fears, the elites ran the new homogenised nations and used them for their old purposes: war. Modern global power struggles of the twentieth century started with nation set against nation in the First World War.

A postcard from 1916 showing national personifications of some of the Allies of World War I, each holding a national flag

Throughout the twentieth century the rise of globalism and neoliberalism led to a breakdown in nationalist ideology as the world became more and more economically interconnected leading some to believe that we had moved on to an era of postnationalism. However, postnationalism is an internationalistic processs whereby power is partially transferred from national authorities to supernational entities like the European Union. Power is transferred from local elites to the super elite of the European Commission.

However, nationalist sentiments are still used to allow elites to consolidate power and new nationalist movements have risen in many parts of the world as people turn to local elites to try and counter the worst excesses of neoliberalism. This has led to Hindu nationalism in India, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and “America First” campaigns, the United Kingdom’s Brexit, anti-immigration rhetoric in Hungary, Germany’s Pegida, France’s National Front, and the UK Independence Party.

Douaumont French military cemetery seen from Douaumont ossuary, which contains remains of French and German soldiers who died during the Battle of Verdun in 1916


Romanticist sentiments are still used and manipulated to keep the masses on board with the agendas of the elites thereby diverting people away from questioning the social and political systems under which they live and work. As the global economic and financial crises deepen there is the worrying possibility that more and more people will be dragged into the national and international power struggles of elites rather than examining and fighting for their own social, economic and political interests; i.e., a revival of political and social consciousness.

  1. The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters by Anthony Pagden (Oxford Uni Press, 2015), p. 259.
  2. The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters by Anthony Pagden (Oxford Uni Press, 2015), p. 259.
  3. The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters by Anthony Pagden (Oxford Uni Press, 2015), p. 260.
  4. The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters by Anthony Pagden (Oxford Uni Press, 2015), p. 261.
  5. On the Origin of Language: Two Essays by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Gottfried Herder (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p.149.
  6. A Cultural History of the French Revolution by Emmet Kennedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), pp. 325-6. See also Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 by Eugen Weber (London, Chatto & Windus, 1979), p. 326.
  7. A Cultural History of the French Revolution by Emmet Kennedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), pp. 325-6. See also Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 by Eugen Weber (London, Chatto & Windus,1979), p. 326.
  8. Addresses to the German Nation [1808] by Johann Gottlieb Fichte, trans. R.F. Jones and G.H. Turnbull (Chicago and London: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1922), p. 130.
  9. The Romantic Revolution by Tim Blanning (Phoenix, Great Britain, 2010), p. 119.
  10. The Romantic Revolution by Tim Blanning (Phoenix, Great Britain, 2010), p.120.

Reclaiming Autonomy = Rejecting Bureaucracy

In the 20th century, several radical thinkers of considerable stature aimed to rethink, and possibly transcend, the premises of State-oriented, progressive-political ideology.  Pioneering sociologist Max Weber critiqued the massively-encroaching “bureaucratization” of all aspects of everyday life — the diminishment of the unique individual into a “calculable person” (to use Foucault’s phrase).  Like Weber, Michel Foucault valued the rational/scientific legacy of the Enlightenment, but deplored the “management” of “employees/citizens” that came in its wake.  Similarly, Lewis Mumford — another major, post-Marxist revisionist now (almost) entirely forgotten — offered a “libertarian” and de-centralized vision of vibrant social communities, as an alternative to the bureaucratized “total society” (which he termed “the Megamachine”).

In this essay, I’m turning to a brief re-examination of the unorthodox ideas of Ivan Illich, whose best writings — notably Deschooling Society and Medical Nemesis — aimed to question the entire edifice of the “managed society.”  Certainly, we’re well aware that, with the imposition of colonialism, a vast and varied multitude of localized folk-knowledge and ways of living were destroyed. In the aftermath — and this historical process is still ongoing! — individuals were deprived of their land and modes of adapting, and forcibly transformed into subjects of State and Capital.  Reciprocal sharing and learning of traditional life-skills were replaced by “managers” and “experts,” who dictated new definitions of “needs” — now to be fulfilled primarily through market-based consumption of their goods-and-services.  Informal learning was replaced by “education,” subsistence techniques by mechanized/chemical “agriculture.”  Traditional practical knowledge, as well as folk-wisdom, were soon lost as was “the pleasure derived from personal autonomous action.”  Formerly self-regulating individuals became “consumers” of newly-imposed “commodities,” such as seeds, tractors, “infant formula,” and so forth.  Moreover, the expanded definition of “needs” — consumption of which now required imposed wage-labor and acquisition of debt — transformed formerly independent, adaptive persons into bondage to the State and its corporate masters.  In short, as Illich put it, people were “dis-abled” from their former competences, becoming “clients” of varied “experts” and “managers.”

Like Mumford, Illich condemned the crushing of individual creative adaptation, and with it the person’s “confidence in his own unaided capacities.”  Instead of enhancing the self-awareness and habits of good health, people — as we see all around us today! — were soon rushing to “the doctor” at the first sign of an ailment (usually self-correcting).  The burgeoning medical industry, imposing a monopoly on the definition of “health,” claimed the exclusive power to define “sickness” and its appropriate “treatment” (all at substantial cost, of course, to the hapless “patient”!).  (Parenthetically, one might insert a word of skepticism regarding proposed U.S. “Medicare-for-All” — given this well-documented study by James Leiber: Killer Care: How Medical Errors Have Become the Third Leading Cause of Death.)  As the individual felt increasingly unable to cope with the difficulties of family and social life, he increasingly turned to “family counselors,” “financial advisors,” “personal coaches” — even “sex therapists” (cf. Thomas Szasz, Sex by Prescription).

Thus, the inexorable historic shift, from prideful autonomy (and dignity) to what Illich termed “heteronomy” — i.e., total dependence on, and control by, “managerial-elites” and the commodities they now insist are “needs.”  Certainly, given the labyrinthine web of “services” in which most of us find ourselves enmeshed, Illich’s ideas today, if anything, constitute an increasingly urgent wake-up call.  Totally rejecting the dependence imposed in consumer-society, Illich to the end celebrated “the advantages of self-chosen joyful austerity!”

Romanticism and Music

Narcotic: drug that produces analgesia (pain relief), narcosis (state of stupor or sleep), and addiction (physical dependence on the drug). In some people narcotics also produce euphoria (a feeling of great elation).”


Romanticism is a philosophical movement of the nineteenth century which had a profound influence on music which can still be seen right up to today. Its main characteristics in music are the emphasis on the personal, dramatic contrasts, emotional excess, a focus on the nocturnal, the ghostly and the frightful, spontaneity, and extreme subjectivism. Romanticism in culture implied a turning inward and encouraged introspection. As Hegel wrote: “The entire content [of romantic art] is therefore concentrated on the inner life of the spirit”.

Romanticist-influenced music increased its audience dramatically from the early theatres of the nineteenth century to the mass pop concerts of the modern era. Romanticism changed music from being a progressive force in society to being a narcotic and self indulgent individualist experience. In modern times it has been industrialised and commercialised and sells individualism and political impotence to the very people who turn to it for solace from desperation in a highly alienated society.

The most regrettable aspect of this alienation is that music has become more and more distant from people’s movements for progressive change. In the past, progressive music; i.e., music which was in tune with the history of people’s political struggles, tended to come from the people themselves, in the form of ballads or music from progressive composers and lyricists. With the commercialising of the pop music industry in the twentieth century, music moved from something to be consumed on a mass basis rather than produced by people on a local basis – by writing, playing or singing, as it was in the past with balladeers, choirs and progressive composers.

Here we will look at the influence of Romanticism on music from the Classical period in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through to the development of the pop music industry in the twentieth century. Also examined will be composers and singers who resisted the pressure of the Romantic influence and wrote and played music that was rooted in hardship and struggle and an awareness of international issues and crises as they affected the ordinary people of those countries.

Classical Music – ‘structures should be well-founded’

While classical music in general has a broad meaning the Classical period was an era of classical music between roughly 1730 and 1820. Enlightenment respect for the politics, aesthetics and philosophy of classical antiquity (Classicism) combined with the development of ‘natural philosophy’ – the precursor of the natural sciences – had a profound effect on music: “Newton’s physics was taken as a paradigm: structures should be well-founded in axioms and be both well-articulated and orderly.” The effect of Enlightenment ideas on Classical music was to mark a change to a lighter, clearer texture compared with the Baroque music that came before it.

Thus the findings in science broadly affected or influenced culture in general. At the same time technical developments in musical instruments and the increase in size and standardisation of orchestras changed the way music was played. The major composers of this time were Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Joseph Haydn, Christoph Willibald Gluck, Johann Christian Bach, Luigi Boccherini, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Muzio Clementi, Antonio Salieri, and Johann Nepomuk Hummel.

Joseph Haydn Playing Quartets

Romantic Music – ‘more explicitly expressive and programmatic’

Romanticism originated at the end to the 18th century mainly as a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution which were perceived to be using science to destroy nature and man’s traditional way of life. The Romantic emphasis on feeling was in direct contrast with Enlightenment ideas of progress with reason and science being the primary source of knowledge. The philosophers and scientists of the Enlightenment had desired to move away from the Feudalism and Scholasticism of the religiously dominated Middle Ages. Unfortunately, the Romantic artists, composers and poets took a new interest in aspects of medievalism that the Enlightenment philosophers had tried to defeat. Enlightenment ideas were also taken up by the new elites who used science in the exploitative ways so hated by the Romantics.

However, despite the impression one might get from the Romantics’ emphasis on emotion, Enlightenment ideas were not devoid of feeling. Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671 – 1713) believed that all human beings had a ‘natural affection’ or natural sociability which bound them together. Francis Hutcheson (1694 – 1746) wrote that “All Men have the same Affections and Senses”  while David Hume (1711 – 1776) believed that human beings extend their “imaginative identification with the feelings of others” when it is required. Similarly, Adam Smith (1723 – 1790), the writer of Wealth of Nations, believed in the power of the imagination to inform us and help us understand the suffering of others.1

The Romantic reaction towards Classical music and the ideals of the Enlightenment in one sense was not surprising given the failure of those ideas ultimately in the French Revolution. As Friedrich Engels wrote in Anti-Dühring in 1877:

The French philosophers of the eighteenth century, the forerunners of the Revolution, appealed to reason as the sole judge of all that is. A rational government, rational society, were to be founded; everything that ran counter to eternal reason was to be remorselessly done away with. We saw also that this eternal reason was in reality nothing but the idealised understanding of the eighteenth century citizen, just then evolving into the bourgeois. The French Revolution had realised this rational society and government. But, the new order of things, rational enough as compared with earlier conditions, turned out to be by no means absolutely rational. The state based upon reason completely collapsed.

As Engels notes this resulted in the Reign of Terror and then Napoleonic despotism. The ideals of the Enlightenment philosophers were destroyed by an intensification of competition. He writes:

The promised eternal peace was turned into an endless war of conquest. The society based upon reason had fared no better. The antagonism between rich and poor, instead of dissolving into general prosperity, had become intensified by the removal of the guild and other privileges, which had to some extent bridged it over, and by the removal of the charitable institutions of the Church. The development of industry upon a capitalistic basis made poverty and misery of the working masses conditions of existence of society.

How is it then that it is the Romantics that are more associated with the revolutionary ideas of the time? Why were they seen by critics and historians as reactionary or politically irrelevant? According to Max Blechman in Revolutionary Romanticism:

The early romantics were revolutionaries: not because they believed in a political insurrection in their homeland […] but because through public expression they hoped to redefine the meaning of progress and revolutionize the values of modern civilisation.” […] Romanticism in Germany (as in France and England) was a protean [ever changing] movement, and the writings of formative romantics were contradicted by those of late romantics, some of whom broke with the early romantics’ idealism for various forms of conservatism.2

The Romantics, instead of questioning the class basis of society, which was becoming more and more sharply delineated, reached back to the simpler life, religiosity and culture of the Middle Ages. The idea of chivalrous heroes, the mystic and supernatural, untouched nature and the security of spiritual beliefs formed the basis of a new culture of individuals and heroes battling against crass modernity. Romantic composers put much more emphasis on showing their innermost thoughts and feelings about love, hate and death through powerful expressions of emotion. Romantic music developed “the use of new or previously not so common musical structures like the song cycle, nocturne, concert etude, arabesque and rhapsody, alongside the traditional classical genres.”

In general, Romantic music was “more explicitly expressive and programmatic” and public concerts were held for the urban middle class compared to earlier periods when they were mainly the domain of aristocrats. The string section was enlarged and the piano took over from the harpsichord as an accompaniment to songs (lieder) such as Schubert’s Winter Journey. The main composers in the Romantic style were Schubert, Brahms, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Chopin, Grieg, Schumann, Rimsky-Korsakov, Liszt, Elgar and Wagner.

Many of these composers were also associated with that great combination of Romanticism and politics – Nationalism – and composed music using folk tunes, dance rhythms and local legends for this purpose. As nationalist leaders developed ideas of race and a unified nation (often based on territories containing many different ethnic and cultural groups) composers created the musical soundtrack to the burgeoning centralisation and homogenisation of modern states. One of the most negative aspects of nationalist political structures was the First World War, where the peoples of these relatively new states were set against each other in the style of the earlier feudal monarchies: in the interests solely of their leaders.

Hanns Eisler – ‘One cannot always write optimistic songs’

While Romanticism reached its peak during the period of 1800 to 1850, its influence continued on throughout the twentieth century. Hanns Eisler (1898-1962), an Austrian composer who fought in a Hungarian regiment during the First World War, resisted the debilitating effects of Romanticism in his music. After the war he became more and more radicalised and threw himself into the class politics of the day. Eisler had a long artistic association with Bertolt Brecht:

Eisler wrote music for several Brecht plays, including The Decision (Die Maßnahme) (1930), The Mother (1932) and Schweik in the Second World War (1957). They also collaborated on protest songs that celebrated, and contributed to, the political turmoil of Weimar Germany in the early 1930s. Their Solidarity Song became a popular militant anthem sung in street protests and public meetings throughout Europe, and their Ballad of Paragraph 218 was the world’s first song protesting laws against abortion. Brecht-Eisler songs of this period tended to look at life from “below” — from the perspective of prostitutes, hustlers, the unemployed and the working poor. In 1931–32 he collaborated with Brecht and director Slatan Dudow on the working-class film Kuhle Wampe.

Hanns Eisler (left) and Bertolt Brecht, his close friend and collaborator, East Berlin, 1950

Eisler’s connection with the class politics and struggles of the people is demonstrated in his awareness of the problems of composing in difficult times. He stated:  “It is: consciousness-reflection-depression-revival-and again consciousness … It must be done that way, otherwise it is not good. One cannot always write optimistic songs … one must describe the up and down of actual situations, sing about it and comment on it.”3  The dialectics of the process of consciousness and reflection helped him to work with ideas that are sorrowful without falling into a state of resignation. In one of his song series ‘Ernste Gesänge’ for baritone solo and string orchestra, Albrecht Betz notes:

The third song, ‘Verweiflung’ [Despair], is a fragment from Leopardi’s famous poem ‘A se stesso’; Eisler has condensed it and freed it of all its features of Romantic discontent. Sorrow, as well as occasional anger, is sublimated in the composition’.4

Similarly, in music practice, Eisler also avoided the Romantic element: “I am always horrified to hear a group of union workers, toughened by many class struggles singing, “La, la, la, la, la, la, laaaa, aaaa,” or “I am so lonesome when I remember you.”5    Eisler and Brecht had a lot in common. Both had “an anti-romantic attitude” and “a rejection of the psychological and the autobiographical”. Betz writes:

Both had in view the ‘avoidance of the narcotic effects’ of art, the aim to conduct experiments so as to bring it to the height of rationality which would correspond to the scientific age in which they lived, and above all to arm it with a theory which would rationalize the functions of this art.6

Woody Guthrie – ‘This Machine Kills Fascists’

Another singer songwriter who would also avoid the ‘narcotic effects’ of music was Woody Guthrie (1912 – 1967). Brought up in Oklahoma, USA, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was an American singer-songwriter, one of the most significant figures in American folk music. Guthrie wrote hundreds of political, folk, and children’s songs, along with ballads and improvised works. One of his most famous songs “This Land Is Your Land” was inspired by his reaction to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” on the radio.

Guthrie with guitar labeled “This machine kills fascists” in 1943.

Guthrie experienced hardship at first hand when he joined the thousands of migrants going to California to look for work during the Dust Bowl period. He became concerned by the conditions of life endured by working-class people and started writing songs about unemployment, migration, trade unions, labour struggles, and anti-fascist songs. All his life he believed in the power of music to change society and people’s attitudes. He performed regularly and wrote thousands of songs, poems and prose reflecting the life of working class people, neatly summing it up in the terse statement: “All you can write is what you see.”

Nueva Canción – ‘oppositional in every respect’

By the 1960s, a counterculture movement was making inroads into popular culture with movements like Nueva Canción (New Song) in Argentina, Chile and Spain, the General Strike centered in Paris in May 1968 in France as well as the Civil Rights Movement in the USA. The Nueva Canción (NC) movement started in Chile and soon spread all over Latin America. It went through three main phases in Chile: “The first was one of protest, the second of direct political engagement and the third moved away from direct political engagement to focus on glorifying and documenting the life of working people.” On a formal level Nueva Canción used “non-mainstream musical devices in their compositions such as traditional styles, and their rhythmic patterns, harmonic progressions and scales associated with folkloric music as well as Andean instruments in their arrangements. The songs were thus oppositional in every respect to the new ‘invading’ culture and embodied in sound and content something fresh but at the same time familiar which seemed to appeal to a mass of Chileans.”

Violeta Parra in the 1960s

Composers like Violeta Parra (1917 – 1967) [also songwriter, folklorist, ethnomusicologist and visual artist] and Argentine singer, songwriter, guitarist, and writer, Atahualpa Yupanqui (1908 – 1992) were two of the most important and influential figures in the Nueva Canción popular musical movement which “was anti-imperial in its stance against commercialised American and European music while its content covered many issues associated with the peoples of the region such as “poverty, empowerment, imperialism, democracy, human rights, religion, and the Latin American identity”.”

They led a movement which was anti-Romantic in that they fought back against the narcotic effects of individualist, self-absorbed, introspective music and instead they encouraged a turning outward, an openness and interest in society and their position in that society, a positive attitude towards how society could be changed for the better.

Jazz, Pop and Rock – ‘part of the entertainment industry’

Earlier in the twentieth century jazz had been a popular form of music among the oppressed but it to fell victim to commercialisation. As Tim Blanning says:

From the time it emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century, jazz fit very well with the Romantic aesthetic, for it was nothing if not spontaneous, improvisatory and individual. Its African-American origins also made it the potential ally of liberation movements. During much of the twentieth century, however, for all of jazz’s ability to express the suffering and aspirations of an oppressed community, the genre was very much part of the entertainment industry.”7

However, by the 1970s commercialised pop music had regained the upper hand again, starting in the late 1960s as the Beatles opened up the way for some of the most self indulgent, narcotic music ever composed, often described as ‘progressive’ rock.

During the early 1960s the Beatles continued a rock and roll lively, dancing style developed by singers like Bill Haley and Elvis Presley. However, by the late 1960s, under the influence of the burgeoning drug culture, the tone changed and Romanticism gained the upper hand. Their music became “a music of introspective self-absorption, a medium fit for communicating autobiographical intimacies, political discontents, spiritual elevation, inviting an audience, not to dance, but to listen-quietly, attentively, thoughtfully’.”8

While the Vietnam war was the basis of many radical outpourings during the late 1960s and had even influenced the pop music industry charts, by the 1970s the entertainment industry had recovered to produce some of the most ‘tune in and drop out’ music ever produced by prog rock bands such as Pink Floyd, Genesis, Led Zeppelin etc. During the 1970s, artists like David Bowie and Eric Clapton overreached, when Bowie gave a ‘Nazi salute’ in London and Clapton stated that Britain was becoming a ‘black colony’ at a concert in Birmingham, both in 1976.

Indeed, in relation to Clapton, Blanning writes:

Arguably the greatest living master of the electric guitar, Clapton personified the Romantic aesthetic: ‘The classic Clapton pose-back to the crowd, head bowed over his instrument, alone with the agony of the blues-suggests a supplicant communing with something inward: a muse or a demon … his entire career can be seen as a search for a form in which he could express the staple blues emotions-fear, loneliness, anger and humour- in a personally valid way’.9

Fear, loneliness and anger became mainstays of Romanticism in the pop music of the 1970s and 1980s music with Punk (‘anger is an energy’), Morrissey (‘the pope of mope’) and U2 (‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’), not to mention the New Romantics and Heavy Metal. In more recent years, U2’s albums Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience directly reference William Blake’s illustrated collection of poems of the same name. Blake was an English poet, painter, and printmaker who is considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. Blake held visionary religious beliefs and opposed the Newtonian view of the universe.10

Blake’s Newton (1795) demonstrates his opposition to the “single-vision” of scientific materialism: Newton fixes his eye on a compass (recalling Proverbs 8:27, an important passage for Milton) to write upon a scroll that seems to project from his own head.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – ‘Classicism is health, romanticism is sickness’

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832), the German writer famous for the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) is considered to have been one of the originators of the Romantic movement but in later life he described Romanticism as a ‘disease’.11  The effect of the Romantic ‘disease’ on music has been to turn it inward and convert its listeners into modern lotus eaters.

Mendelssohn plays to Goethe, 1830: painting by Moritz Oppenheim, 1864

In The Odyssey, Book IX, Odysseus is blown off course but reaches a land inhabited by people who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. He sends a few men to investigate but upon tasting the lotus they fall into a peaceful apathy and lose interest in going home until Odysseus drags them out and leaves at once. Similarly much modern music has a narcotic effect on mass audiences who are overwhelmed by emotion while at the same time attain personal catharsis.12

Odysseus removing his men from the company of the lotus-eaters


The current geopolitical crises involving Venezuela, Syria, Yemen, Iran, Palestine and China are in need of mass political campaigns to bring about awareness and pressure against the drumbeats of a third world war. Building collectivist movements with a radical collectivist culture and moving away from the individualism and irrationalism of Romantic culture of the nineteenth and twentieth century is a necessary step towards real political change. Music, of all the arts, can be a powerful force in the creation of a collective consciousness. Composers of music and song highlighting the various issues affecting people today are necessary. Therefore, examining the issues around the form and content of music in society is an urgent requirement if music is to have an important cultural role in the future.

  1. The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters, Anthony Pagden (Oxford Uni Press, 2015) pp. 72/3.
  2. Revolutionary Romanticism: A Drunken Boat Anthology, Max Blechman (City Lights Books, 1999), p. 5.
  3. Hanns Eisler Vokalsinfonik – Vocal Symphonic Music Berlin Classics CD, Sleeve notes, p. 24.
  4. Hanns Eisler Political Musician, Albrecht Betz [Trans Bill Hopkins] (Cambridge Uni Press: Cambridge, 1982) pp. 235/7.
  5. Hanns Eisler: A Rebel in Music: Selected Writings, Hanns Eisler (Author), M. Grabs (Editor) (Kahn and Averill, London, 1999) p. 143.
  6. Hanns Eisler Political Musician, Albrecht Betz [Trans Bill Hopkins] (Cambridge Uni Press: Cambridge, 1982) p. 92.
  7. The Triumph of Music: Composers, Musicians and Their Audiences, 1700 to the Present, Tim Blanning (Penguin Modern Classics, 2008) p. 114.
  8. The Triumph of Music: Composers, Musicians and Their Audiences, 1700 to the Present, Tim Blanning (Penguin Modern Classics, 2008) p. 121.
  9. The Triumph of Music: Composers, Musicians and Their Audiences, 1700 to the Present, Tim Blanning (Penguin Modern Classics, 2008) p. 118/9.
  10. The Romantic Rebellion: Romantic Versus Classic Art Illustrated, Sir Kenneth Clark (John Murray Pub., 1973) p. 167.
  11. The Roots of Romanticism by Isaiah Berlin (Princeton Uni Press, 1999) p.130.
  12. Homer The Odyssey (Penguin Classics, 1988) p. 141.