Why We Need Working-Class Cultural Institutions

Creating a vibrant left ecosystem doesn’t just mean building stronger labor and tenant unions — it means building cultural institutions that prize democracy over privatization and embed themselves in everyday working-class life.

Mark Nowak’s Worker Writers School at Governor's Island. (WWS)

There’s one thing we all know: the Left needs stronger institutions. That this means expanded and emboldened labor and tenant unions — flexible and democratic and able to extend solidarity to popular left uprisings in whatever form they take — might be obvious enough. But a vibrant world of left institutions has historically meant much more.

You could write a cultural history of the Left that looks not only at strikes, movements, and revolutions, but the cultural institutions flowing into these processes. You might include the jazz collective Underground Musicians Association, the artist-activist organization Studio Watts Workshop, and the education-based Watts Towers Arts Center, all of which, as historian Robin D. G. Kelley argues, contributed to the “dynamic civil society” undergirding Los Angeles’s 1965 Watts Rebellion. You might tell the story of the festivals, cycling clubs, and grocery stores of early German Social Democracy; the underground workers’ film screenings keeping alive Marxist debate in late 1960s junta-controlled Argentina; or the People’s Parks and People’s Houses of early Swedish Social Democracy, cultural spaces that, to quote a recent article in Places Journal, “turned the often tedious and slow-grinding business of political organizing into a more communal venture where new solidarities could be explored and strengthened.”

What might this mean for today’s Left? Culture, like so much of our social fabric, has moved increasingly toward enclosure, from the atomized streaming world of the culture industry to the privatizations and slashed budgets of our museums, universities, and community centers. But there remain glimmers of another cultural sphere, one that answers privatization with democracy and integrates itself into working-class life.

Poetry Workshop, as in Working Class

One of the best examples of this actually existing socialist cultural sphere is the Worker Writers School (WWS), founded in 2005 and directed by the poet Mark Nowak, and now chronicled in Nowak’s new book Social Poetics. The WWS emerged during a time of twinned crisis — the collapse of the labor movement and the neoliberal privatization of cultural opportunity. In addition to charting the school’s efforts to launch a radical response to this impasse, Social Poetics shines a light on a fraught and inspiring history of radical participatory cultural experiments that may be of use to socialist culture in the present.

The fate of the word “workshop,” Nowak argues, tells much of the story. Originally associated with modest working-class spaces of labor, the term began losing its “links to working-class life and the workshop’s potential as a site of political action” in twentieth-century America, connoting instead an elite process of cultural refinement. The more familiar workshops of today, Nowak writes, pair “astronomically expensive creative writing ‘workshops’ for students (and the attendant massive increase in student debt) with grossly underpaid adjunct labor — all to the benefit of the corporatizing colleges and universities.” (To quote Francis Mulhern’s summary of the MFA-industrial complex, “the traffic in dreams is lucrative.”)

But around the same time as the rise of university-based, CIA-funded creative writing programs, a more radical, democratic culture also sprung up. Writers and poets began “entering schools, prisons, community centers, factories, trade union halls, juvenile detention centers, eldercare facilities, hospitals, and other public spaces” to try to build from below a new participatory working-class culture.

In the United States, these cultural experiments included poet June Jordan’s 1960s creative writing workshops for black and Puerto Rican youth in New York City, poet Sonia Sanchez’s 1970s workshops in Harlem, poet Adrienne Rich’s radical pedagogical work at the Elizabeth Cleaners Street School in Manhattan, the post-Attica rebellion spread of creative writing courses in prisons nationwide, and poet Raúl Salinas’s Chicanos Organizados de Rebeldes de Aztlán, “a study group at Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas that published a journal, El Aztlán de Leavenworth, in 1970 and 1971.” Explicitly but not reductively political, these workshops sought to take seriously the imaginations of prisoners and black and brown working-class youth, offering them the educational space to develop their creative worlds.

These US-based workshops were crucial models to Nowak as he began to dream up the WWS. They opened up a counter-history from which he could imagine a new left workshop movement in the present. But even more important were three international influences: in Kenya, Nicaragua, and South Africa.

“PhDs From the University of the Factory and the Plantation”

In 1976, the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, celebrated for his two early novels Weep Not, Child and A Grain of Wheat, lived thirty kilometers outside Nairobi near a village named Kamĩrĩĩthũ, where he would commute to his job chairing the literature department at the University of Nairobi. One morning a woman from the village knocked on his door. As Ngũgĩ would later relate, “she went straight to the point.”

“We hear you have a lot of education and that you write books. Why don’t you and others of your kind give some of that education to the village? We don’t want the whole amount; just a little of it, and a little of your time.” There was a youth centre in the village, she went on, and it was falling apart. Would I be willing to help? . . . That was how I went on to join others in what was later to be called the Kamĩrĩĩthũ Community Education and Cultural Centre.

An experiment in Marxist village theater followed. The Centre’s participants, mostly peasants and workers — many for the multinational shoe manufacturer Bata — built an open-air theater. Ngũgĩ drafted a play, Ngaahika Ndeenda, about Kenya’s colonial and neocolonial history, and in community workshops the Centre’s participants revised the script, adding in telling details about neocolonial proletarian life. They ultimately performed it for a packed house of locals and people taking “buses and taxis from afar to attend the performances.”

It proved too much of a success. A month after the play’s opening night, the Kenyan government banned its performance; two months later, police locked up Ngũgĩ in Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison. When he was released, the Centre planned performances of a new anti-imperialist play at the Kenya National Theatre and the University of Nairobi — only to have the doors padlocked and, eventually, the Centre’s open-air theater razed.

The government had demolished the project. But for a time, the Centre fostered a new type of democratic culture, bringing together, as Ngũgĩ writes, “PhDs from the University of Nairobi: PhDs from the university of the factory and the plantation: PhDs from Gorki’s ‘university of the streets.’”

Similar left cultural workshops were underway in Nicaragua and, soon after, South Africa. In late 1960s Nicaragua, poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal practiced a radical pedagogy rooted in liberation theology, holding workshop-like dialogues where he read and discussed the Gospels with campesinos in the islands of Solentiname. When he traveled to postrevolutionary Cuba, he discovered literary workshops in every province.

Inspired, Cardenal adapted the idea in Nicaragua following the 1979 Sandinista Revolution and broadened the participants from professional poets to workers and peasants. For a time, the workshops democratized culture. The revolutionary government established over seventy national workshops and published “countless local publications,” enlivening campesino life and wresting “control of the cultural means of production” from the bourgeoisie.

But even in postrevolutionary Nicaragua, this diffusion of culture ruffled the feathers of the poetry establishment, who dismissed Cardenal’s talleres de poesía (“poetry workshops”) as propagandistic, unrefined, and derivative. Emanating from the left literary intelligentsia, these criticisms ultimately doomed the program. As Cardenal writes, paraphrasing the Cuban writer Fina García Marruz, it was the very success of the workshops that produced so much resentment.

The working people of Nicaragua have begun to appropriate the heritage of “cultured” poetry to better express their own past and present as a people, when [before] the reverse had always been the case: “cultured” poets had appropriated the people’s language and poetry to better express their own individuality.

Nowak’s favorite instance of radical left cultural workshop occurred amid South Africa’s 1980s anti-apartheid struggle. The Durban Workers Cultural Local (DWCL) blossomed at a time of radical democratization and politicization within South Africa’s labor unions. Workers were self-organizing and determining the course of their struggle, and participatory cultural projects played a vital role in the popular upsurge.

Various small experiments — a prominent Durban union, for example, collaborated with a local theater troupe to stage a collective worker-produced play — led the Congress of South African Trade Unions to encourage union-centered cultural spaces nationwide. Union events incorporated poetry readings about the lives of migrant workers “stacked in shelves / like goods in a human supermarket,” or women night-shift workers “left with a double load” of caring for children during the day and cleaning “vast buildings” at night.

The Durban Workers Cultural Local introduced “organic” poets, collectively made plays and worker poetry anthologies to “thousands of workers in Natal,” creating a parallel world of self-made culture that deepened the bonds and self-organization of apartheid-era South Africa’s working class.

Prospectus for the Present

These three international projects flourished in climates of political upheaval — Kenya’s early postcolonial days, Nicaragua’s Sandinista Revolution, and South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. Nowak’s attempt to revive left cultural workshops in 2005 wasn’t so fortunate; the Worker Writers School began during a time of modest, enfeebled left reorganization.

Starting with a poetry workshop with the Teamsters and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 134 in Chicago, Nowak’s project immersed itself in what remained of the Left’s institutional landscape, reaching alongside the anti-globalization movement to embrace the spirit of internationalism. He held workshops at a shuttering Ford plant in St. Paul, Minnesota and two still-operating Ford plants in South Africa. He wanted to teach poetry workshops to union workers, “to open new spaces in which workers can create new solidarities, new poetries, and new images of a future beyond those in which capitalism crushes our lives and our dreams.” But few unions returned his emails.

In the following years, as the Left slowly grew, so too did the WWS. The Occupy movement gave it new life, and Nowak put on workshops in Panama, Puerto Rico, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, working alongside refugee organizations, migrant worker groups, homeless-led organizations, and various unions, from domestic workers’ unions to taxi and teachers’ unions.

The school’s goal has stayed the same: to renew a left culture of internationalism, to foster the self-activity of the global working class, to inject culture into “the resurgent social and workers’ movements of today,” and to fashion lasting solidarities between workshop participants and their comrades around the world — to help the working class not just “organize itself politically and economically,” as Antonio Gramsci once wrote, but also “culturally.”

If this remains a daunting task, Nowak’s WWS, and the participatory left cultural history it sees itself through, offers visionary steps for a way forward. The path ahead faces any number of material obstacles. Flourishing democratic culture depends on the popular luxury of free time; yet in an age of skyrocketing rents and never-off-the-clock precarity, time is what’s denied us. “We need to build houses,” Nowak writes, quoting Amiri Baraka — institutions both outside and within capitalist daily life from which we can practice socialist world-making. These houses depend on other houses — labor and tenant unions, say, fighting to remove us from precarity and give us back free time — that in turn, as Social Poetics shows, depend upon the creative solidarities of cultural organizing.

We need more than socialist institutions — in other words, we need a socialist ecosystem, from which we can start building whole new ways of life.