– ICPC Opening speech


Norman Bethune, medecin du people Norman Bethune, doctor of the people
Cherchait la cause de la maladie Was searching for the roots of disease
Il l’a trouvé And he found it
C’est le Capitalisme The problem was Capitalism
Et Bethune est devenu Communiste! So Bethune became a Communist!
Camarades, suivons son example Comrades, follow his example
Donnons-nous à la révolution Give our lives to the revolution
Au service des peuples du monde entier In the service of peoples everywhere
Bätissons un monde communiste! Let’s build a Communist world!


Apologies for the lack of singing ability! When I sat down to write this paper I remembered this song. That’s because we were filming in the mountains of the Philippines with the New People’s Army, the revolutionary armed force of some 15,000 strong that is fighting for a new socialist society in this, your, country.

The NPA is made up primarily of young peasant soldiers, both men and women, who are willing to risk their lives for the revolution they have joined. Many of them are members of the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of the Philippines. For security reasons we had not been allowed to bring any papers with us into the guerrilla zone.

Because of previous experience in the Philippines, we knew that culture, and especially music and songs, were a large part of life of the people for the countryside. So we had prepared photocopies of song lyrics to bring with us so we could share a selection of songs when we would inevitably be invited to tell a story and share a song or two.

But, for security reasons, our photocopied lyrics were left behind when we entered the guerrilla zone. Luckily we remembered the lyrics to this song from our time spent in a communist group in Canada in the 70s. It would come in very useful over the next few weeks.

While in the guerrilla zone we learned just how deeply culture and fundamental social and political change were very closely intertwined. Popular theatre was used to make political and economic questions accessible to the peasants. Songs were sung and poetry was recited every spare moment, and there was always a guitar near when people got together. It provided an incredible strength and grounding for the guerrilla fighters… and the local peasants. The guerrilla fighters on guard duty often spent their long hours alone watching for enemy troop movements writing and preparing new songs and poems.

We soon lost count of how many times we sang that Norman Bethune song. And people loved our off-key but enthusiastic rendition, because it was about a Canadian revolutionary, a doctor who had given up his privileges to join the Chinese revolution, eventually giving his life for the cause. He was the embodiment of internationalism for the guerrilla fighters and their peasant supporters, and the only Canadian that almost everyone in the guerrilla zone knew, besides Justin Bieber and Céline Dion.

I raise this story because it embodies some of the elements that led members of Commission 14 of the ILPS, made up of progressive artists and cultural workers like myself, to decide to plan and hold the International Conference of Progressive Culture that is taking place over the next two days.

Some artists have chosen armed resistance, like the NPA fighters I mentioned. But there are many other forms of struggle and resistance by artists around the globe from the mountains and jungles of the Philippines, India or Nepal, to the gritty streets of Rio De Janeiro, Lagos, Athens, New York, or even my home town, Montréal, Québec. Recently we saw the role artists played in the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and across that region.

Living in a developed imperialist country like Canada, progressive cultural work takes on a particular importance for me because of the use of ideological control in our society. It is true that the ruling capitalist class in Canada uses coercive force to maintain its control and domination whenever necessary (and its police, army and justice and prison system never lets us forget that). But at this stage its class domination in Canada is primarily exerted through ideological control.

According to Philippine progressive academic, Alice G Guillermo, ideology can be broadly defined as a “system of political, legal, ethical, aesthetic, religious and philosophical ideas and values that ultimately serve the interest of some group or class. It belongs to the superstructure and is determined in the last instance by the economic – that is, the relations of production — at the same time that it acts reciprocally on the material base by hindering, retarding or hastening social change — it is through ideology that a class can exercise hegemony in society.”

The artists place is in the struggle

As initiators of this conference, we were driven by a desire to bring progressive artists, cultural workers and media practitioners together to discuss our role and place in the ongoing struggle for social, economic and political justice and true freedom. To bring artists back from the periphery to the centre stage of the ongoing struggles. After all, we believe that the artists place is in the struggle, and we believe that without a “cultural revolution,” a revolution in the field of ideology and ideas, there will be no truly successful social and political revolution.

And we are thrilled that so many of you from around the world and across the Philippines have answered the call, often at great sacrifice because of the expense of travel, to be here with us for the next few days.

We see this as a small but important step in building a global movement of progressive and even revolutionary artists, cultural workers and media practitioners. More on that later.

At this point I want to raise a couple of issues that I hope we can discuss and deepen over the next two days and beyond. I particularly wanted to look at what is art, where does it come from, and who does it serve?

I’ll start right here in the Asia, where there are powerful powerful people’s movements in India, Nepal and right here in the Philippines and where an historical socialist revolution took place in China in 1948, which unfortunately has now been betrayed.

As a filmmaker I have been inspired by the work of your filmmakers, artists, cultural workers and writers here in the Philippines, including the revolutionary organizer and writer, poet (and renowned “karaoke” singer), Prof. Jose Maria Sison, who we heard from earlier, and will again have the chance share with again later in this conference.

In the 60s, the new revolutionary movement that went on to form the Communist Party of the Philippines put forward the need for a revolution in the cultural sphere. A founding member of the Communist Party of the Philippines, Prof. Jose Maria Sison, or Joma for short, wrote: “Culture is a superstructure that rests upon a material basis… Just as revolution is inevitable in politico-economic relations — revolution is inevitable in culture.”

He continued: “In the history of humankind it can easily be seen that before the development of political-economic power on an ascendant social class, a cultural revolution provides it with the thoughts and motives that serve as the effective guide to action and further action. A ruling class achieves what we call its class consciousness before it actually establishes its own state power and replaces the old state power and its vestiges.”

Sison put forward the need to build the 2nd Propaganda movement. The 1st Propaganda movement took place at the end of the 19th Century under the class leaders of the ilustrados or the liberal bourgeoisie that surrounded Emilio Aguinaldo, Jose Rizal, writer Marcelo H. de Pilar, orator Graciano Lopez Jaena and painter Juan Luna. They exposed the exploitation and brutalization of the people, paving the way for a clear call for separation from colonial Spain by the Katipunan movement. This movement integrated democratic concepts with the indigenous conditions in the Philippines.

But the Filipino people’s aspirations for national democracy and for a modern pro-people culture were unfortunately frustrated by the coming of US imperialism, which took advantage of the naiveté and compromising character of the liberal bourgeois leaders and took control of the Philippines.

Over the past 100 years of US imperialist control and political, economic and ideological hegemony, the Filipino people have been deprived of the memory of this first national democratic struggle. In concert with the local elite, US control of cultural development has worked along with the force of arms and coercive means to ensure state power and dominance of imperialism in the semi-feudal, semi-colonial Philippine context.

A first step of the US colonial government was to impose the English language as the medium of instruction and as the official language. The effects have been that the education system and the professions are not accessible to the majority of people and only serve the ruling elite. The Filipino people are actually cut off from other peoples of the world and have become victims of imperialist propaganda.

Today, five generation of children have been “colonially tutored”. Philippine progressives have proposed the Filipinization of the schools, radio and other media which are decisive in the conditioning of minds.

As part of this “cultural revolution”, Prof Sison called on the Filipino people in the urban areas to go to the countryside to learn from the people and arouse them for the national democratic revolution. Just as in China Mao Zedong and the Chinese revolutionaries enjoined all artists, writers and cultural workers to immerse themselves among the toiling people and peasants, working among them, and learning from them.

That quick survey helps to answer in part the question where does art come from and who should it serve. But how about the question of what is art?

Philippine academic Alice G. Guillermo points out that in a capitalist society, Kant’s principle of “disinterestedness” has given rise to the theory of “art for art’s sake”.

Guillermo points out that art is never devoid of ideological content since it is interest-linked because of the social origins or institutions of its creators.

Politics exerts a strong influence on art, but art in turn can have a significant effect on politics. Art is not only a weapon or instrument in the struggle for true justice and democracy but is has an important role in building the new people’s culture in anticipation or in the process of social reconstruction.

According to Mao and the Chinese revolutionaries, the source of all literature and art is the life of the people. “Life is reflected in works of literature and art can and ought to be on a higher plane, more intense, more concentrated, more typical, nearer the ideal, and therefore more universal than actual everyday life.”

In other words, while art reflects society, it does not consist of a simple mirror image, but rather its intense crystallization. The progressive artist does not only observe the people, but also, and especially, interacts with them and learns from them even as she or he is engaged in cultural work.

Mao Zedong, a noted poet in his own right, also pointed out that the Chinese people must on no account reject the legacies of the ancients and the foreigners or refuse to learn from them even though they are the works of the feudal or bourgeois classes. He put forward the call to “let a hundred flowers bloom, a hundred schools of thought contend.” In other words, artists should be free to develop their own styles, and the contending schools would in the process reveal their strengths and weaknesses.

This brings me to a final issue, at least for this short speech, of the link between form and content.

Despite what many may think, Mao Zedong and the Chinese revolutionaries opposed not only works of art with the wrong political viewpoint, but what they called the “poster and slogan” style, which may be politically correct in a particular occasion but deficient in artistic power.

They rightly pointed out that progressive evolutionary artists should strive ”for the unity of politics and art, the unity of content and form, the unity of progressive or revolutionary political content and the highest possible perfection of artistic form”.

Philippine revolutionary leader and poet, Jose Maria Sison, agrees: “The wall poster is as sharp and as powerful as the slogan the wordsmith mints. But this is not the only form available to you. … Our guiding revolutionary ideology impels us to seize so many other art forms from the class enemy and even to create new forms suitable to the furtherance of the revolutionary struggle.”

In other words, artists need to develop the ability to create material form that embodies political meaning in its nuanced richness and resonance. Related to this is the need to study and investigate the people’s indigenous aesthetics, their artistic vocabularies and visual literacy.

Experimentation in mediums and techniques is an important part of artistic activity, but, in the revolutionary context, it is not pursued for the mere sake of novelty, but in order to gain a new richness of expression.

Set up coordinating committees

I hope you will consider a proposal that this People’s Art conference lay the basis for a global movement of progressive artists, cultural workers and media practitioners. We think it will be important to leave this conference with a coordinating committee made up of at least two people from as many global regions as possible, such as North America, Latin America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South and South East Asia, and East Asia and Oceania.

We hope that this coordinating committee could organize activities among local and regional artists back home to echo and build upon our conference here. And if all goes well could set up in two years regional networks of progressive and anti-imperialist artists. Then in four years, if we have done our ground work well, we could meet again to formally set up a Global Movement of Progressive Artists and Cultural Workers.

Over the next period we should make full use of the internet and social media tools in our organizing and sharing. The struggle for control of the internet is presently underway.

A recent article in the progressive review, Monthly Review, points out that Google holds 70 percent of the search engine market, and its share is increasing. As such it is on pace to challenge the market share that John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil had at its peak. Microsoft, Intel, Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Cisco, and a handful of other giants enjoy considerable monopolistic power as well. Apple, via iTunes, controls an estimated 87 percent market share in digital music downloads and 70 percent of the MP3 player market.

The authors conclude: “It is supremely ironic that the Internet, the long-ballyhooed champion of increased consumer power and cutthroat competition, seems, in the end, to be more a force for monopoly.”

We have to ensure that we maintain a place for the world’s working people on the web, along with a strong internet presence of progressive media and cultural workers. We can even organize our next conference of progressive artists with a strong multimedia component, hopefully ending with a global concert of artists from around the world sharing and playing together via the web.

To conclude, I think it is important to include a special place for progressive indigenous artists, like our friends Odaya, a women’s drumming and singing groups from Canada. The indigenous peoples are on the front lines of combatting imperialist aggression and their mining and logging companies.

Have a wonderful two days at the People’s Art conference. I ask my friends Odaya to come and join me on the stage now to end my presentation.

Thank you for your kind attention. Progressive artists of the world, unite!

Malcolm Guy, Quezon City, Philippines, July 5, 2011

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an initiative of the International Conference of Progressive Culture (ICPC)