Radical media, politics and culture.

Spencer Sunshine, "PLP Takes the Agit-Prop Challenge"

PLP Takes the Agit-Prop Challenge:

Three Music Albums from the Progressive Labor Party

Spencer Sunshine


"Power to the Working Class" — "A World to Win" — "Songs of the International Working Class"

I've always been a connoisseur of Leftist agit-prop bands. The thumpier, the better, as long as the political program is in their lyrics, and not just in the music (John Cage) or politics of the individual members (U2's Bono).

Mostly, I have been drawn to punk bands, including the Dead Kennedys, Crass, Chumbawamba, Bikini Kill (and later Le Tigre), D.O.A., the Ex, Gang of Four, D.I.R.T., the Subhumans (both the Canadian and UK bands, and Citizen Fish as well), Zounds, Reagan Youth, Tribe 8, Nausea, and the Dils (and the list could go on and on.). And while there's occasionally good political rock (Steve Earle, MC5, John Lennon, Stereolab), it's much easier to find a worthy reggae group (Linton Kwesi Johnson, Mad Professor, Sister Carol and the 'conscious reggae' genre — and, of course, Bob himself).

I also like the occasional industrial or hip-hop act, in particular Tchkung!, Consolidated, Public Enemy and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (pre-Spearhead), as well as Afrobeat bands like Fela Kuti and Antibalas. I'm aware of the "Red Folk" tradition, as well as the feminist (Roches, Ani Difranco) and environmental (David Rovics, Casey Neill) folkies, but neither ever particularly moved me. Nor did the "alternative rock" of Rage Against the Machine (an ex once quipped: "I lean towards their politics and away from their music") or their progeny, System of A Down.

Since seeing the Infernal Noise Brigade (INB) in Seattle in 1999, I have been an active groupie of the "anarchist" marching bands, especially NYC's own Hungry March Band (HMB) and Rude Mechanical Orchestra (RMO). You can dance your booty off and, more importantly, refer to them by their acronyms! But their non-linguistic ontology makes them non-agit-prop almost by definition.

Politically, the punk bands almost all leaned towards, or were activists in, the anarchist tradition. Crass are the best example; they even forged their own unique ideological brand of ethical pacifist (but militantly atheist), individualist, feminist, pro-animal rights anarchism. Gerry Hannah, the original bassist of the Canadian Subhumans, was jailed in the early '80s for his participation in Direct Action, the group that bombed a Canadian company that made weapons components for cruise missiles. The hip-hop and reggae bands tend towards a Lefty Black nationalism or pan-Africanism. The marching bands are "anarchist" in an aesthetic more than a political sense; nonetheless many are active anarchists or sympathisers, and they frequently participate in the contemporary mass protest scene (both the RMO and INB were arrested en masse at Union Square during the protests against the Republican National Convention).

But the question that presents itself is this: can the Communists hold their own in the field of agit-prop music?In the past, the US Communists had extensive cultural engagements, and in many different fields, mostly via the Popular Front in the '30s. That influence continued to reverberate in American popular culture until McCarthy and HUAC burned it out of the culture industries through their Spanish Inquisition methodologies (unfortunately, not an option on your social science exams). There were also the "Fellow Traveler" (Communist sympathisers) folk bands of the '50s and '60s, who followed in the tradition of both Woody Gutherie and the strong musical tradition of the earlier Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), who collected many of their political songs in the Little Red Songbook. The "Red Folk" bands — the best known of which was the Weavers (featuring Pete Seeger) — kept the Lefty folk tradition alive as "protest music," which was then picked up by Beat Generation musicians in the early '60s, including Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. This was also one of the many traditions that fed into the '60s countercultural explosion later in that decade.

In the '70s and '80s, despite being the main Leftist faction, the various Communist groups were not on the forefront of Left musical culture. A few bands that come to mind, mostly Europeans like Billy Bragg (a founding member of the cultural-political organization Red Wedge, who were aligned with the UK Labour Party), the Redskins (two-tone skinheads affiliated with a Trotskyist party, the UK ISO), and the hardcore band ManLiftingBanner. The Clash were populist Leftists (and named their albums things like "Sandinista!") but they were unaligned with any faction and in the end were far more into the rebel pose then serious politics (even while they made smashing records — Joe Strummer RIP).

Stateside, several bands have affiliated with the Maoist outfit, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), including the '70s rock band Prairie Fire, and hip-hop groups like 2 Black 2 Strong and Ozomatli. But none of them ever moved me. So we ask the question: can the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) do better?

The PLP was one of, if not the, largest Communist parties active in the American New Left of the '60s and '70s. They split from the Communist Party USA in 1961, and endorsed Maoist China (albeit with reservations), and in doing so received great credibility after domestic radicals (mistakenly) saw the Cultural Revolution as a parallel to the '60s cultural revolution happening in western industrialized nations.

The PLP was active in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the largest group of the student Left at the time, and the Party's attempt to take over the SDS was one of the main factors in its demise. The PLP had endorsed nationalist movements by minority ethnic groups as progressive, and when it reversed its stance in 1969, this caused a fall out with the Black Panther Party and other organizations. Nonetheless, the party survives to this day, promoting international revolution.

They distinguish themselves from the myriad of other Marxist-Leninist sects (like the Workers World Party, who founded A.N.S.W.E.R. as their front group) by refusing to endorse national liberation movements without criticism. They downplay Stalin's multi-million murders, and proclaim that a Communist revolution should proceed immediately from capitalism into communism, without an intervening socialist stage, as happened in China and the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, the PLP maintain an orientation towards issues affecting people of color and focus on recruiting from that demographic.

The PLP made three albums, all of which have been reissued as a double CD by the Party. By far the best is the first, "Power to the Working Class" (1970). At the height of their political influence, the musical references are completely contemporary. While many of the songs on all three albums are covers, "Power to the Working Class" contains several funk and soul songs based on the music of popular songs, but with lyrics inciting "students and workers" to "smash the bosses" and make a Communist revolution. They lie somewhere between parody, detournment and imitation, and I enjoyed singing along with much of it (and I'm pretty sure that I could get away with spinning some of these tracks at a Williamsburg dance party).

The other songs are mostly folk tunes, thereby creating the somewhat odd feeling of racial segregation on the album, the best of which is the banjo-driven "Challenge The Communist Paper." A sickeningly catchy song about selling the party paper, I woke up for three days straight with it in my head. Notably lacking are rock songs (the party line spurned the counterculture), even though bands like the MC5 were creating musically-powerful and politically charged proto-punk at the same time.

1977's "A World to Win," while not bad, is condemned by history. In 1977 (the prophetic year when "Two Sevens Clash") two rebel musics — punk rock and dub reggae — were in full bloom. But instead of embracing these new aesthetic forms (as the RCP band Prairie Fire at least tried to do by aping the Clash), "A World to Win" is already looking backwards. The first album had contained versions of both "Bella Ciao" and "The International" (indeed, the two songs appear on all three records), and at least one traditional Left folk song ("Smash the Banks of Marble"). But "A World To Win" spends even more time looking back to the Left folk traditions of the IWW, including two Joe Hill songs (the IWW member was executed in 1915) as well as Woody Gutherie and Bob Dylan numbers. "They Shall Rule the Earth" brought me back to being a child sitting in a post-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church, filled with acoustic guitars for musical accompaniment. And there are two medicore Spanish-language songs in the style of cantonuevo, a Latin American protest folk form. Nonetheless, there are still moments (such as "Kellogg Mine Disaster (Sunshine Mine)" and "Clifford Glover") which hold up well.

By "Songs of the International Working Class" (1987), the slow de-evolution continues. There are five Latin American derived numbers in here (sung in Spanish), only one of which moves me, and a couple cutesy socialist-feminist folk songs, originally by Peggy Seeger and Tom Paxton, about how women enjoy working in factories. "March on May Day," which is a period piece of VH1 acoustic music, causes cognitive dissidence by calling for armed, multi-racial revolution. Even "Bella Ciao" and "The International" are starting to sound flat this time around under Reagan, which is probably how many of the Party members who had joined at the height of the tumult were starting to feel. Still, "South Africa Means Fight Back" and the anti-war "Hymn #9" are catchy and can get a Leftist heart (or fist) pumping.

Overall, I'd give Progressive Labor a B for their attempt at agit-prop cultural intervention. The first album by itself would get a B+, while the last merely a C. The PLP clearly never found their own contemporary aesthetic form to express their politics, and after the first album they were reduced to simple photocopying of the past, or creating uninspired political chants. But maybe I shouldn't be too hard on them, though: Communists, at least in America, have rarely even made the attempt to engage in the cultural realm in the post-60s era. For that I give the Party an A.

[3 Albums of the Progressive Labor Party is $11ppd from: PLP Cultural Committee, GPO 808, Brooklyn NY 11202.]