Writers and Social Progression

Back in 2012, Owen Jones provided a guest editorial for Open Pen. Here it is in full, as relevant as ever on Election Day.

This editorial first featured in Issue Five of Open Pen Magazine, May 2012. 

An editorial by Owen Jones

Writers do not change the world. Social change happens through collective action from below, not because of the scribblings of the well-intentioned individual. Nobody votes for writers: in that sense, they are not accountable, and cannot claim to be a voice for anybody but themselves. Attempting to turn themselves into mouthpieces for movements is fraught with problems, too, because outside of the ranks of the already converted, out-and-out propagandists convince few.

But writers do have a role in the struggle against the status quo. They can provide a platform for voices and ideas that are otherwise ignored or intentionally marginalised. They represent a threat to a media that is institutionally hostile to those who challenge the current order of things. They are able to put struggles in a historical framework, and help fuel a debate about their direction. In that sense, writers allied to progressive movements have a role to play.

Radical writers cannot be separated from what is going on around them. Marx and Engels should be understood against a backdrop of struggles unleashed by the rise of industrial capitalism: whether that be the European revolutions of 1848, or working-class movements like the Chartists. There was a wave of radical writers in the US in the 1930s, such as John Steinbeck – partly a product of the Great Depression, and the great labour upheavals that took place. In the 1950s and 1960s, British Marxist historians such as E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill flourished – at a time when the labour movement was at its strongest.

But, following the rise of the New Right and the neo-liberal triumphalism that followed the end of the Cold War, left writers went into retreat. Only with the rise of the anti-globalisation movement at the end of the 21st century did a new breed of progressive writers – such as Naomi Klein – become prominent once more.

We are in the midst of one of the greatest crises of capitalism. A movement that really poses a threat to the ruling class has yet to emerge. If it does, radical writers will surely emerge, too. They have a role to play – but one that is secondary to the struggles of those they write about.

Owen Jones
Author of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class and The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It.
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