Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 17, 2008

Forcing culture down peoples’ throats

Filed under: art — louisproyect @ 10:43 pm

Last Friday my Turkish professor showed us a Youtube video that is the rage now among Turkish students at Columbia. It deals with the “cultural revolution” of the young Turkish Republic that sought to erase all Ottoman and Islamic influences and replace them with a version of the French republic cooked up by Mustafa Kemal. It is no accident that both Turkey and France have been going through battles lately over the right of Muslim female students to wear headscarves to public school classes. This kind of overzealous secularism was at the core of constitutional thinking in both countries. Of course, in Turkey it was much more of a Western import.

In the image from the video below, you can see Turkish soldiers on orders to arrest anybody who was playing native Turkish music as was being done when the video begins. They then order the cowed villagers to “be happy” (mutlu ol). Just before the soldiers arrive, there are some Turkish words that provide a set-up. Loosely translated (which is all I am capable of at this point), they mean: “The Turkish government declared that Turkish music was to be banned from the radio. The goal was the widespread dissemination of Western music. It wanted to replace the Turkish musical style with French as part of forcing ‘Western culture’ on society.” The soldiers proceed to read off a list of acceptable Western composers, whose names they all butcher.

Although I think everybody understands the joke, let me spell it out. When the soldiers order them to play some Mozart and Beethoven, the saz player responds with an excerpt from Mozart’s Symphony Number 40, accentuating its affinities with native Turkish music. Mozart was very enthusiastic about Turkish music and wrote a famous “Rondo alla Turca” in his piano sonata number 11 as well as the finale to the “Turkish” violin concerto number five that incorporated the same types of harmonies. He follows up with the “Ode to Joy”, whose melody Beethoven lifted from Janissary marching bands.

The very day I saw this video, I read a wonderful story from Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” titled “Kim Wilde”. It revolved around the efforts of Marjane’s parents to smuggle in an Iron Maiden poster from Turkey into Iran in the early 1980s, when the Iranian “cultural revolution” was in its most virulent stage. Everything Western was banned, including rock music. As urbane and educated Iranians, the Satrapis resented this kind of forced acculturation just as much as the Anatolian villagers in the Youtube video.

Understandably, the Islamic Republic was seeking to overthrow the kind of vicious Western “modernization” norms of the Shah who made the 1934 Turkish assault on Turkish music look tame by comparison. But in making it a crime to bring Iron Maiden posters into the country, clearly it was just as mad in its own way as the Westernizers. The bottom line is that cultural change must not be enforced. That is the main lesson that is found in the Youtube video and in “Persepolis” and clearly one that socialists should embrace.


  1. “The bottom line is that cultural change must not be enforced.”
    This is a moral proposition we all ought to support. But there’s also a practical question. Can cultural change be effectively enforced? Yes and no. European authoritative regimes couldn’t stop being penetrated by jazz and afterwards by rock music. But the Kemalists managed to impose Western classical music on Turkey. This was mainly Ataturk’s doing. As military attache in Bulgaria he’d been overwhelmed by the glamor of the Sofia opera. In the plans for the new Ankara, 15 years later, there was a new modern opera house.

    It surprised me that the headscarf ban in Turkey was not decried only by religious people. The students I spoke to who were against it never invoked reasons of religion.For them it was a question of freedom to wear what they pleased.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — March 18, 2008 @ 11:17 am

  2. That was a very amusing video, especially the rousing renditions of Mozart and Beethoven. Although this post dealt with non-socialist revolutions, I think it is very important for Marxists, who recognize the importance of culture and its connection to possibly reactionary social forms, to avoid making the step to imposition of “revolutionary culture”, which is often Eurocentric (and idealistic) anyway. Real revolutionary culture will never be imposed by a commissar of culture. Although theoretically the imposition of some “revolutionary culture” is easy to decide against, in practice it comes up along with other abuses in “actually existing socialism.”

    I have yet to read the debates around “Proletkult” though, which would be helpful on this question. Although not necessarily the people’s culture, I know there is a poster from the Russian Revolution that says, “Preserve ancient buildings” or similar (don’t have the time to find it at work.

    It might be good to have examples of bottom-up “revolutionary culture” in history. I suspect you have some examples from Nicaragua, Louis, if you haven’t already made a post about such a topic.

    Comment by Nathaniel — March 18, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

  3. I agree with the direction of your post.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — March 18, 2008 @ 10:39 pm

  4. I was almost going ignore this article simply because of the title. An explanation: In this white-dominated society “culture” is often associated with anything non-white, as white culture/non-religion is considered neutral. I almost misunderstood the article because those associations are so strong in my experiences. I realize what you meant now.

    My comment: You must know that each extreme can not accurately be represented as equal sides of the same coin. It is a bit more complicated. To force American and European culture onto non-white people is considered “progress”. This example is not necessarily about traditional Turkish culture versus modern Americanism, but rather totalitarian religious rule versus capitalistic (pseudo-Christian/pseudo-European science) American rule. It is not about culture as much as control societies in different contexts. One is a backlash against Colonialism (with a big “C”), another is simply Colonialism. Either way I wouldn’t deny the history of Colonialism as a influence and power in manufacturing control societies.

    Comment by Silent — October 22, 2012 @ 7:56 am

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