Editor’s note: The latest installment in our Liberation School interview series focuses broadly on the relationship between culture and politics. PSL member Gabriel Rockhill and popular educator, community organizer, author, and theologian Claudia De La Cruz discuss the ways in which cultural work is part of the battlefield of the international class struggle: How capitalist culture reproduces oppression, how culture is transformed through socialism, and what we can do here and now to wage cultural class warfare to advance the interests of the working class and oppressed! The interview was conducted in early June over video and the transcription below has been edited for readability.
About Claudia De La Cruz
Claudia De La Cruz is a popular educator, community organizer, and theologian. She is a founding member and Co-Executive Director of The People’s Forum. Her political formation and organizing skills result from over 15 years of experience in the creation of political education and cultural spaces in the city of New York and across the country. Claudia is part of a long tradition of radical organizing in immigrant communities and solidarity work connected to Latin American and Caribbean popular movements. She is also a founding member of The Popular Education Project, a collective of organizers and educators committed to the political formation of organizers in the US.
Gabriel Rockhill: My name is Gabriel Rockhill. I’m an organizer with the Philadelphia Liberation Center as well as with the Party for Socialism and Liberation. I’m thrilled to be joined today for a discussion regarding culture as a weapon of class warfare by Claudia De La Cruz.
Claudia is a popular educator, community organizer, and theologian. For over 20 years she has been committed to movement building and has actively participated in collective grassroots spaces, particularly in the communities of Washington Heights and the South Bronx.
She’s currently the Co-Executive Director of The People’s Forum, where she contributes her experiences and skills in the creation of cultural, educational space with organizers, educators, and cultural workers. In 2004, she co-founded Da Urban Butterflies Youth Leadership Development Project, and her experiences with this project informed her participation in the development of cultural and political education programming at the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective for almost five years. She also recently published an important edited collection entitled Viviremos: Venezuela Vs. Hybrid War. It’s my pleasure to introduce Claudia De La Cruz.
Claudia De La Cruz: Hi Gabriel, it’s good to be in conversation with you.
Gabriel Rockhill: Absolutely. As the director of The People’s Forum, you’ve been deeply involved in both cultural analysis and public pedagogy. The first question I’d like to ask you is why, in your opinion, is culture important to political education? What role does it play, and how can it contribute to people’s understanding and sense of the world?
Claudia De La Cruz: For us, culture is at the heart of our conception of and relationship to the world, and we are talking about culture in the broader sense. Sometimes we speak about culture and folks directly go into the arts, but we’re talking about culture as everything from: the way we cook to how and what we eat; to what we consider art or not; to what constitutes education or not; to how we are taught to understand ourselves and those around us; to the religion we practice or how our faith is shaped. This is our broad understanding of what culture is. Even the relationship of human beings and systems to the cultivation of land, all of this is part of culture, and so culture is all of the mechanisms that have been created to shape our understanding, behaviors, and relationships.
All these relations have an economic base that dominates the creation of these mechanisms and institutions and that dominates how these have impacted our organizations and our struggles as part of the working class. Looking at that definition in relationship to political education is really important because, when we talk about political education, it’s not simply educating or being educated for the sake of accumulating knowledge. That’s not what we understand political education to be. Instead, political education raises our people’s confidence to effectively have a political intervention in the world in order to advance our class struggle.
That’s our understanding of political education. Therefore, understanding our history of oppression and of liberation is important. Understanding culture as both the result of a people’s history and also as a determining factor of a people’s history is key for us and the organizations.
When we’re talking about culture, it’s not just an addendum or an accessory. We’re talking about something that needs to be at the center of what our work is, and it forces us to take on the task of unraveling and deconstructing the culture that has been imposed on us by the bourgeoisie that sustains and ensures the reproduction of capitalism. It challenges us to take on the task of reclaiming and reconstructing our lineage. We in Spanish, often talk about, “la memoria historia,” the historical memory, and how do we reconstruct that, how do we integrate what cultural resistance is in every aspect of our life, and our education and study. How do we go back to the authentic people’s culture?
We’re currently experiencing a deep crisis that is economic, social, and political, that is environmental at a global scale. We understand that this crisis is a product of capitalism and there’s an ideological piece to it, there has been ideological warfare. When we’re talking about resistance, we want to also engage in the battle of ideas, we want to be able to be equipped to understand how we have been oppressed, and how have nations–through cultural imperialism–been and continue to be oppressed and exploited. We’re talking about political education in relationship to cultural resistance, and it’s an integral part of the struggle and organizing.
Gabriel Rockhill: Great. Why is it important to reflect on and understand the expansiveness of culture beyond just the restricted category of art?
Claudia De La Cruz: I think it’s important, and we think about it a lot in The People’s Forum and the work that we do. We understand that, again, we need to look at the questions of how do we combat a culture that promotes hyper-individualism, consumerism, ignorance? How do we, as organizers and educators, not only challenge those values but also model and provide a radical imagination for future efforts to build a new society? How do we inspire people? How do we move the hearts and minds of people? How do we think about culture in relationship to political organization and the culture of our organizations? How do we think about people’s resistance?
These are all questions that we are struggling through, moving through, and trying to explore collectively. Again, we are experiencing a crisis of values and ideological warfare from the capitalists. How we equip ourselves to effectively be part of the class struggle is dependent on the clarity of our understanding of the mechanisms and processes that the elite have built to wage war against?
When we talk about occupations, we don’t often talk about the mental terrain as an occupied space. The mental terrain of the masses has been occupied, and it’s very important for us to understand how that’s happened and how that continues to happen. If not, we often find ourselves blaming our people for not understanding what we’re trying to talk about. We need to know that there’s been hundreds of years, many generations, of imposed cultural understandings and practices and attitudes by the capitalist. So again, in order for us to effectively intervene and move people’s hearts and minds towards our class interests, we need to be able to know where the mental terrain of our people is. And need to be able to study the mechanisms that have been utilized by the ruling class for that purpose.
For us, it is impossible to gain a depth or breadth of the importance of art and culture as a weapon if we do not refer to history, to the economy, to the way in which we have been taught by the elite to perceive reality. And, equally important, is the task of taking the time to study and learn and reclaim the ways in which we—our people—have also utilized working-class culture as a defense mechanism, for the preservation, imagination, and construction of our own reality of liberation. Amilcar Cabral and Chavez knew exactly how to do that, Claudia Jones, and so many others that have engaged in national liberation struggles, they have understood the importance of culture, of the study and analysis of culture, and the reclaiming of cultural resistance. It is critical for us to be able to engage in that way and give it that much importance if we’re going to move our struggles forward.
We can think about the ways in which capitalists–the corporations, the government—have historically taken the language of the people, the struggles of the people, whitewashed them, and then sold them to us to advance their interests. This is Pride month, and people often refer to Pride in relationship to a parade but not in relationship to the riot, not in relationship to the LGBTQ community that came forth, the trans women that came forth, and actually linked the riots to capitalism and the struggle for liberation. People don’t often think about that because the system has a way of taking these spaces of struggle, again, and appropriating them and selling them back to us. They make these struggles a commodity–like Memorial Day and its relationship to the Black community that was actually celebrating their martyrs–it’s taken, whitewashed, and sold back to us as a day of celebration in which the capitalists actually “give” us, what, 30 percent discounts at stores? And everybody needs to go shopping, right? We could go on and on, these all have roots in struggle, these are old products of a opposition to social, economic, and political exclusion and exploitation.
But somehow, they have been appropriated, wiped of their radical roots, and made into empty radical declarations and symbolic acts.
After a long and heated summer last year of anti-racist rebellions, all sorts of capitalist corporations pronounced themselves to be sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter struggle. Yet they continue to extract and exploit Black and Brown labor in and out of the states. These are all contradictions that we need to be able to identify and use in our education efforts within our community so that people understand that capitalism is not being nice to us. Capitalism doesn’t really like us; on the contrary, it feeds on our blood and sweat. The way in which capital gains consent is not only through like physical force; it’s through the occupation of our mental terrain.
Gabriel Rockhill: I take it, then, that for you culture is really central site of class struggle and you’ve given some excellent examples of how the capitalist ruling class and their henchpeople within the culture industries recuperate radical events. What about the other side of class struggle, meaning class struggle from below, on the part of the working in toiling masses to define their own culture to manifest their own forms of cultural belonging and popular education, etc.? How would you see the kind of opposite end of the spectrum? Are there particular examples of reclaiming culture that is people’s culture that you’d want to point to in this regard?
Claudia De la Cruz: That’s an excellent question, thinking about ways of in which cultural resistance lives. We can think about the Palestinian struggle, which is something that is constant but that right now there’s mass mobilizations around the U.S. and the world. We see kaffeyiahs, and these are cultural expressions of resistance. We might see them and we in the movement and struggle have normalized them, and it must be normal and continue to be normalized. And yet these are forms of cultural expression, they all have some sort of cultural relation to the land of Palestine, to the people of Palestine.
When we are out about and protesting, there are chants, and I think often about the the slaves and the the songs that they were singing in the plantation, or that that they were singing in the churches, where that was kind of a safe space for a lot of the slaves, right?
These are part of our cultural resistance. We create spaces, we reclaim history through, for example, our food. I’m Dominican and in Dominican Republic people actually had to go to church because they were forced to by the colonizers. But when they came back home, in the privacy of their home, they had altars who connected them spiritually to their source of strength. We often talk about mística in Latin America and the Caribbean, and that mística is the spirit of struggle—and we find the mística everywhere we come together as a community and we reclaim our history, we reclaim our lineage. This happens in meetings, visits, etc. Everywhere you look there’s cultural expressions of the resistance of our people.
I think that, more than anything, there is a certain significance to acknowledging that because that’s also how we learn not to just normalize these expressions but to understand why they’re there.
Gabriel Rockhill: That’s really fascinating because it juxtaposes so well to what you were saying earlier about the kind of atomizing forces of cultural production under capital. It strikes me that one of the things that you’re highlighting with popular culture is its ability to create both communities and then historical legacies of people’s. It’s not just about individual experiences, it’s actually about forging a people, and potentially forging them in new and creative ways. I don’t know if this interpellates you, but I’d love to hear a little bit more about culture as a force of community building and historical anchoring that allows people to move from being isolated individual consumers to actually being part of a movement, being part of a people, being part of liberation struggles more generally.
Claudia De la Cruz: Part of the liberation struggle is the task not only of creating a new society, but also have the task of creating new human beings with new politics, new ideas, new values, new principles. In order for us to be able to do that, we need to be in touch with that history, with that lineage, with that building of community, with that process of deconstructing and reconstructing. And it’s a very tough task to do, but we have historically been taught that it can be done. This aspect of building community and building the new human being is not a mechanical movement; it’s an organic process that has a lot of political intention.
There’s a lot of political intentionality in why we do what we do and how we do it, because we also understand that capitalism has been very intentional in the way in which it has attacked us, in the way in which it has dropped its ideas and values to serve its purpose. And so, again, in the process of building our community, in the process of building our political organizations–the type of culture, the type of structure, the processes, the systems–are what will ultimately show our community that there is a possibility of building something new.
You know, it will attract folks, ordinary folks, into the space, which will have problems and will be challenged by that new way of operating. Our capacity to be able to understand that and to struggle through that with our community as they adjust is also very telling about how we act when we actually gain political and economic power.
If we take the moment in which we are in as a test of how to develop the systems, the mechanisms, the processes, this new culture, these new human beings, then we will be more ready to advance towards getting economic and political power, which should always be the aim of class struggle. Because that’s another difference in the United States and the Global South in that we often fight against capitalism, but we don’t say what we are fighting for and what we want to establish. And it’s an economic and political and social fight that we’re in, right? And so, again, I think the aspect of culture as we organize, as we educate, as we build organizations is important for us to keep as a very intentional part of our work.
We need to think about it not as an accessory but as something that to take really seriously as part of our political practice and part of our developing political theory.
Gabriel Rockhill: What role do you see artists, writers, and cultural producers playing in this process? In other words, how are their contributions maybe similar to but also different from other activists who are also struggling for socialism and liberation? And maybe even more specifically, what do you see in the current context of the 21st century in the United States as the real possibilities for developing power for revolutionary artists to really be able to contribute more directly to these types of struggles?
Claudia De la Cruz: I think we’re in a very hopeful space. I mean, we’re in a crisis, but we’re also in a very hopeful space because the contradictions of capitalism are way more visible. They’re more out in our face, and that gives an opportunity for those folks that are the producers of culture, the creative forces to be able to highlight what those contradictions are, but also put forth what the radical imagination for the future looks like.
When we’re in a moment of crisis it is not difficult for people to be able to be moved by those who are highlighting what those contradictions are, because we are feeling what the economic crisis looks like, what the social, political crisis looks like. Basically, it’s a mass expression or a mass sentiment expressed by these artists and cultural workers in a way that we cannot say in other ways. There is an opportunity now right, and there have been opportunities like these historically.
The role of an artist is very challenging because it challenges the idea of an individual practice. I think Erykah Badu was really key when she said, you know “artists are sensitive about their ish.” They are sensitive, and at the same time, their task is, if they have a commitment to social change to economic change, to transform the world, by working with organizations.
And we see that in the life of Paul Robeson, we see that in the life of Claudia Jones. She was a journalist, she was a communist, and she organized festivals. We see this in the life of Nina Simone. We see it in the life of Frida Kahlo. A lot of people love Frida, but they forget she was a communist. These folks have been connected to or been part of political organizations, they were the militant artist arm of organizations. Some, who obviously I haven’t named, we’re connected in some part/form to organizations. Harry Belafonte, for example, and so you have a folks that have committed themselves, and have committed their art beyond their individual interest.
So the role of the artist is to do precisely that: it’s to be able to interpret the world in a way that that expresses what reality is and what reality can be. I had a good friend that talked about hieroglyphics and spoke to drawings in caves, and how they remained as a part of the history of what was happening at that particular time. And the question is: what will be left for future generations to refer to this moment? That’s part of the role of the artist, the intellectual.
The contributions are different for everyone. Everyone has a different role to play: intellectuals, artists, frontline organizers—everybody has a role to play. And everybody has something that they’ve developed their expertise in. Even those who aren’t properly cultural produces can produce and, at the same time, honor the fact that there are people who do that and that’s their craft, and that’s the way in which they contribute.
There’s a level of respect that we also need to have for the craft and the expertise of each other. But understanding these different contributions as part of a larger struggle is important. The current moment, is a hopeful time, and what we do with this particular moment, this particular conjecture, will determine the decades to come. If we lose this moment, we’ll be moving backwards, that’s not even a joke,. It’s real, and so there’s a level of urgency for artists to understand that one of the reasons why there has been a level of suffering in this particular economic crisis and the pandemic, and why folks have had lost spaces and gains, that’s also part of the way which capitalism has structured itself. It’s time for artists and cultural workers to see themselves as part of the working class. it’s time that we actually connect to, are in conversation with, and are producing and creating in relationship to movements, in relationship to organizations, in relationship with the collective, in order to advance class struggle.
Gabriel Rockhill: That’s an important point, Claudia, because within consumer society there is such a high premium that’s placed on individualism, competition, and the creation, ultimately, of a kind of artistic elite in which to even call oneself an artist or an intellectual one needs to be recognized by the extant institutions, have exhibitions in certain spaces, and other such things. It really creates what can be quite pernicious hierarchies where other thinking, working people who are doing creative acts are consigned to a kind of amateurish status or cannot refer to themselves as intellectuals because, for example, they’re activists and they don’t have a certain pedigree from universities and other such things.
I was wondering if you could address this other aspect of the atomizing forces of capitalism that identify only select individuals, as “true” cultural producers or “real” artists or “prominent” intellectuals and that makes the creative labor of the masses secondary to that. I think you’re absolutely right to point out the importance of recognizing specialization in craft and an ability to do certain things, but what do you make of this kind of hierarchy of creative labor power where the very label of artist or intellectual is restricted to only a select elite group?
Claudia De la Cruz: I think it’s important in our work also… yes. There is a importance in facilitation and craft, and there’s also important in allowing our people, the working class, to understand that we’re part of cultural production every day. We do it every day. Again, if we think about culture in the broader sense of the word, our people are definitely also creating artistic expressions every. I think part of our task is pointing out how we do that, is pointing out how, in an organization, we do that, even if we’re not claiming to be cultural producers. How are we coming together, how are we eating together, what foods are we eating together, what chants are we building together, how do we get together to do art builds for protests? These are all part of the production of art and culture. And again, we don’t necessarily think about it in that way because we’ve been taught to think about that hierarchy. Our people are producing intellectual knowledge every day, and yet a lot of the times when we when we talk to organizers, they’re like, “oh no I’m not into theory, I’m not into studying theory, like this is an old white people thing.” That is the kind of a response that a lot of folks have, and it’s the product of the misconceptions of what we have been taught. Aslong as we are detached from the role of production and we’re simply consumers, capitalism has the upper hand because we have no value. When in reality, as workers, whether or not we’re labeled as cultural workers or workers in transit, or wherever we are, we are producing. That’s what gives capitalism what it has. And therefore, we have value.
So this concept of confidence that has been stripped away from us is very key in organizing. How do we build up our people’s confidence, grounded in history? The more that we’re able to do that, the more we’re able to fight against the statuses that have been created by capitalism only to keep us detached from what we are capable of doing, only to take away our possibility and our power to build a revolution, to build liberation, to build community, even. And so first it’s important to understand that there is a hierarchy in that way.
And again, the political intentionality of deconstructing that hierarchy in our day-to-day, in the work that do with our people is important–not assuming the capitalist principles and values so that, if we see someone who’s homeless, we think that person has no value. It might be that this person who’s homeless—that capitalism has made homeless—has expertise that could contribute in building political organization, but we haven’t taken the time to have that conversation. It’s highly important for us to know our people, know the mechanisms that have been used against us, and start deconstructing that in our day-to-day, not as a theoretical exercise, but as a practical exercise that then becomes theory.
Gabriel Rockhill: Let’s talk a little bit more explicitly about the power structures that are in place and why it is sometimes difficult to do some of the things that you’re encouraging us to do. More specifically, I’d like to invoke the work of Bertolt Brecht, who refers to what he calls the cultural apparatus, which encompasses the entire means of cultural production, cultural circulation, and the reception of cultural products. That cultural apparatus, at least within a country like the United States, is currently in the hands of the capitalist ruling class, so they have an awesome power to be able to produce and distribute the culture that they decide on. And you mentioned this earlier, this is not simply a cultural apparatus within the United States but it’s an imperialist cultural apparatus.
I’d be curious to hear you more on what the stakes of this struggle really are and why it’s important not simply to look in our immediate communities, but also have an awareness of these systems of power and to really to think through the possibility of seizing the means of cultural production, circulation, and reception. I know that you’ve done a lot of work on socialist countries that have done precisely that, and so I’d be curious to hear what you think about the need to critically reflect on this capitalist cultural apparatus and its imperial elements.
Claudia De la Cruz: I think is important, and I’m so happy you brought in Brecht a little bit, because he, along with folks like Gramsci and others, really thought a lot about the question of the cultural apparatus in relationship to capitalism, and the way which, systemically and institutionally, these are meant to be able to advance capitalist interests.
It’s important to understand that, when we’re talking about culture, we’re not talking about the development of something in a vacuum; it has an economic base and context.
When we look at revolutionary process, whether it be Cuba, Venezuela, Vietnam, or China, there was a reclaiming of their indigenous cultural traditions and practices. In Cuba, you have Jose Martí, a figure that was known to the masses because of the struggle against Spaniards and towards the independence of Cuba. In Venezuela, you have Simón Bolivar as a figure that was known not only in Venezuela, again, but worldwide and in the continent of the Americas. There’s this tapping into the memory of people, right?
But that’s not done by itself. It’s connected to the social, economic program, social, economic, and political program. That’s highly important to say, because one of the things that, for example, Fidel often spoke about in relationship to the battle of ideas was that ideas on their own don’t really mean much. Ideas have to be tied to and part of a social, economic project that is able to move the masses, and the masses need to get behind that idea in order for us to be able to win.
It’s challenging and difficult when we’re discussing cultural production, circulation, and reception, and we don’t have economic and political power. That means we need to be able to build it. That means we need to be able to build the conditions that will allow us, as the working class, to have a higher level of cultural dominance you know. Again, it fights the idea that we’re creating just for creation’s sake, or that we’re creating to be in struggle of all the time. No: we are creating to win. Therefore, whatever we create needs to be connected to a social, economic, and political proposal of what we will do and how we will move towards and beyond victory, and so it needs to be connected to a program. To be able to shift the power relations and build, for lack of words, a cultural apparatus for the working class or with the working class, we need to build the revolution.
Pending that revolution, we need to figure out how to do that in a way that is not only nationally done but is also in relationship and conversation with those who’ve done it.
This means we have to be in conversation with and study the Cuban Revolution and it’s cultural development, it’s revolutionary cultural development. We have to do the same thing with Venezuela. We must do the same thing with Vietnam. We need to make sure that we understand very well the Chinese Revolution.
I’ll refer back to Amílcar Cabral again. It’s difficult to penetrate a nation that’s very strained in its culture. Cultural imperialism has been key to a lot of what’s come after formal colonialism. McDonald’s, Starbucks, all these corporations have integrated or imposed themselves in nations in a way that has diminished the value of what’s nationally produced. It’s the same thing in our communities. When we think about the local coffee shop and a Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts. All these franchises come in, and even though they’re more expensive, there’s a certain level of status that comes from walking around with a cup that has Starbucks on it. These are part of that culture apparatus that is working in a local, national, and international way. Wee need to understand how that works in relationship to the economy and create and imagine what alternatives could be. That’s not to say that we “play socialist” in this capitalist society, but that we’re experimenting.
I think that’s the key part of it: we’re experimenting, and we can’t be afraid of experimenting. When I think about different spaces in which I’ve been a part of and worked in, and when I think about The People’s Forum, these are all experiments in the midst of a capitalist system. They’re experiments in attempting to build a new culture, a new way of relating, of building community. Thinking about creating a revolutionary cultural apparatus is like, “man, this is huge.” And it is, it’s so huge. And not one organization and not one person can actually do that.
But we need to be, again, more creative, more intentional, more willing to experiment in conversation with the local, in conversation with the national, and in conversation with international, to be able to find what is it that is going to move this struggle forward. Again, it cannot be done isolated from the social, economic, and political program; it has to be part of organization.
Gabriel Rockhill: To take just two examples where the working class was able to seize the means of production—the Soviet Union and 1917 and, of course, the Cuban Revolution—it’s interesting that in both cases, of course, and we could point to others, there was an intense focus on culture and cultural transformation and the kind of making of the new human being that you are alluding to earlier. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on some of the debates, really important debates, that emerged at these times around the relationship between a kind of emerging socialist cultural apparatus, on the one hand, but then a deep history of art that was being made under either feudal social relations or under capitalism, on the other hand.
In particular, in the Soviet Union and in Cuba right there were debates about what should we done with the bourgeois art that they inherited, the art that was made under capitalism, paid for by capitalists, etc. Should we just delete it and abolish it and start afresh? Are there things to be tapped into and learned from? What’s your sense of the relationship between these emerging socialist countries and the kind of deep cultural patterns that are dominant under capitalism, or even under feudalism?
Claudia De la Cruz: I love to go to Gramsci, and I often refer to him in order to reassert his place in the tradition of Marxism and Leninism. Gramsci talked about the good sense and the common sense and how, when creating new ways, we always have to take into consideration what the common sense is, where people are at, in order to be able to tap into what they know and shift that to what is good sense, to what is our interest as the working class.
Going back to the USSR and the Bolshevik Revolution and their understanding of art and just culture generally, it’s important to say that the main consignia, the main saying, was “art for the people, art for life.” It was the understanding that art was no longer for the bourgeoisie, no longer for the aristocrats. Art would now be for the people. The art market was to be abolished, museums were to be nationalized, and the workers, they became art’s patrons. It’s for the people. Because ultimately, the producers of art are workers. Those who are accumulating it, those that are making the galleries and setting the boundaries in museums around what is and isn’t art, are the capitalists. It brings in the question of nationalizing it, socializing it, making it accessible for the people. That brings forth massive amounts of opportunities for people to understand themselves as cultural producers and artists, and to engage in learning artistic traits, and to understand it as part of their labor as well. That’s what happened in Cuba, that’s what happened in Venezuela.
They have what we don’t have in the United States, which are Ministries of Art and Culture, which the USSR also had. And although we in the United States don’t have a Ministry of Arts and Culture, we do have a policy, and that policy is art for the wealthy and life for the wealthy.
And you can see it, again, in the way in which certain arts are valued and when they’re valued. When you think about graffiti in the United States in the 1980s, for example, it was considered vandalism. Yet it shifted into “street art,” and now everybody wants to have murals! When we’re thinking about the USSR and about Cuba and about Venezuela, it’s an understanding that art needs to be socialized.
It’s about more than getting rid of bourgeois art. It’s about getting rid of bourgeois institutions and getting rid of the bourgeois systems that allow for capitalists to accumulate art and profit from the art that is produced by cultural workers. There is more of an opening to be able to express yourself artistically by mirroring realities, by putting forth your imagination about the future in relationship to the masses. That’s what happened in these revolutions.
There have been a lot of protests here in the [New York] city around MOMA [Museum of Modern Art] and other museums. The organizers are doing really well in connecting both the imperialist acts of folks who are in their boards and their connection to cultural imperialism, the extraction of wealth for the gains of the capitalists in the United States, and the connection to cultural workers that are basically pushed out of opportunities to be in these spaces. We need to do more of that, again, because it’s not something that is simply based on this cultural worker that produces this piece of art; it’s systemic, it’s institutional. It’s part of the capitalist structure that is global, that is not simply local or national. When we’re thinking about socialist states and the history of art, we need to look at the ways in which they were nationalized, they were socialized, and they became accessible to the most ordinary worker. By doing that, we’re able to elevate our understanding of culture and our capacity to be engaged with it and create it.
Gabriel Rockhill: That’s such an important point. You know, Claudia, there are so many writers and artists and intellectuals who are involved in the movement but who are also looking for examples to learn from. Given who most of the artists, musicians, and writers that are readily available within that kind of capitalist apparatus of art production, most people will know, for example, Beyoncé or others, but they won’t necessarily be aware of those artists who have been either marginalized or structurally excluded from this system of artistic promotion by the bourgeoisie. Are there particular artists, movements, and platforms for sharing artwork that you would recommend to cultural producers involved in the movement if they want to learn more about what revolutionary art making really looks like?
Claudia De la Cruz: Sure. I’m really invested in learning more about cultural workers and artists who have meant a lot to our lineage and our radical tradition. There’s this book, The Cultural Front that I really like, and it speaks to the CPUSA front of cultural workers that were anti-fascist, that were anti-capitalist, that were socialists, and were attempting to build something new in the United States. That’s a great book. There’s book on the Cold War that’s also good, The Cultural Cold War. That book also speaks to the way in which the CIA and different surveillance institutions have operated in funding, financing the art and culture world. I think that’s important also for us to understand: the role of think-tanks, the role of Wall street, and again, different intelligence agencies.
I love Paul Robeson, deeply, Paul Robeson’s story is really great. There’s a book on Paul Robeson and his relationship to W.E.B. DuBois that’s really great, that’s called The Professor and the People.
In terms of platforms, we at The People’s Forum have actually created a platform that is for political education, and it has space for buiding cultural hegemony and cultural resistance in the battle of ideas.
Amílcar Cabral also speaks to national liberation and culture. There are speeches from Fidel, particularly Fidel’s speech to the intellectuals, which is really great to help think about the role of the artists in the process of building revolution. I mean, there’s so there’s so many resources out there, the problem again is the accessibility and actually being able to identify what they are.
There, there are a lot of artists collectives in the U.S. that are now questioning their role in this moment. And that’s a good place to be in. I think that they are objectively doing the work of cultural workers that are moving towards socialism and in moving socialism forward in the country. But they might not be claiming to be socialist, and that’s another thing that we have to be clear about as organizers: that folks may not claim it.
But we need to see what their objective work looks like and if it’s aligned with our politics. Most likely, they will get there, they will get to the point of self-proclaiming that their socialists. But it takes a little bit longer, especially in the in the art world and in the cultural work spaces. There’s just a lot to draw from historically in terms of folks who have attempted to build cultural fronts, collectives, to organize themselves more politically as cultural workers and I’d be more than happy to share some, although I know you might have a lot of that Gabriel as well.
Gabriel Rockhill: Maybe we can add a further reading section to the interview. In the interest of time, I might just ask a final question to kind of bring some of the threads of this really rich and rewarding conversation that we’ve had thus far. And it’s a question on cultural revolution. It strikes me that this is kind of lingering in the background of a lot of what you’ve said.
If put it very simplistically, there are those who have argued that art is a liberatory force unto itself, and then there are others who have claimed that, no, we have to seize the means of production, and then we can revolutionize our post-revolution. It strikes me that what you’ve been saying is something a bit more dialectical: that the material struggles for building power as cultural producers goes hand-in-hand with the ideological struggles of expanding our understanding of culture and then working as cultural producers in various ways. I don’t want to answer the question for you in the way that I put it together, but I’m really curious to hear you on the logics of cultural revolution and how the material aspects of the socio-economic relate to the ideological aspects of struggle. Based on what you’ve said thus far, how do you understand cultural revolution?
Claudia De la Cruz: Some of what I’ve shared has to do with redefining, reclaiming reactivating, and understanding art as an action that is a political action, understanding it as a pedagogical instrument for the construction of the new consciousness that we’re trying to build, a new society that we’re trying to build… of the development of political strategy even. Sometimes we think about art and culture as an emancipatory tools of the working class, as tools of communication, as spaces for human development. All of these things are important to take into consideration.
To think about cultural revolution, we must also think about some key elements. When we’re talking about culture, we’re talking about art, it needs to be from, by, and to the people. It has to have the concerns of the masses, the expression of working-class interests. It has to have elements of the day-to-day, and it has to also push forward the route toward a socialist future.
This is what I’ve learned from studying, engaging, being with socialist revolutions that have won: culture is at the heart–the music, the dance, the food, the sports, the faith, traditions, and the respect for those. When we’re talking about cultural revolution like you mentioned, it’s a dialectic. It’s not something that comes afterwards; it’s something that is part of a political strategy. It has to be,.
There’s the ways of communicating, the ways of relating, the tonalities, food, the things that just make our day-to-day life, all that is very hard to penetrate when it’s who you are, when it’s your identity. Part of the process of any cultural revolution is affirming that identity.
To think about Cuba is to think about a country that is very firm and its Cuban identity. And it’s very knowledgeable of imperialism. Cuba understands that it doesn’t want to go back to being a slave to imperialism because they’re firm about their cultural identity. So to think about cultural revolution is to think about social, economic, and political revolution.
It’s not in addition to, it’s part of it. What happens within the revolution is that we then go into deepening that revolution. We’ve won! Now we’re going deepen revolution.
And there are other aspects of culture that come into play there. Now there’s the production of knowledge from a socialist perspective, now there’s the production of TV shows that bring forth what we understand is the preoccupation and the interests of the working class. But as we’re working towards getting to a victory, we have to, we must, not leave it aside, but put culture at the center and have it be part of the work that we’re doing, so it becomes an organic piece to what we understand revolution to be.
Gabriel Rockhill: That’s an excellent place to wrap up. Thank you so much, Claudia, for taking the time to speak to us today about culture as a weapon of class warfare.
Claudia De la Cruz: Well, thank you for inviting me and allowing me to talk about one of my favorite topics in the world.