‘Those who want to supersede the old established order in all its aspects cannot cling to the disorder of the present, even in the sphere of culture. In culture as in other areas, it is necessary to struggle without waiting any longer for some concrete appearance of the moving order of the future.’ Thus Guy Debord, in his 1958 ‘Theses on Cultural Revolution’.footnote1 In appropriating a term Lenin used in 1923 to signal the need for a true socialist culture in the ussr, Debord affirmed his belief in a full-blown remodelling of the social life of the senses, rather than a mere takeover of the state. Seeking to re-excavate the original aesthetic promise of communism, the avant-gardes of the 1960s likewise took up the term, which would have a significant career during and following the upheavals of 1967 and 1968. By then it had acquired Maoist connotations that were hard to avoid—and which tainted the concept for some, while only increasing its allure for others.

In certain obvious ways, the notion of cultural revolution appears to be all too much of its time—inextricably entangled with hopes that were soon dashed. Yet it is as a problematic and therefore potentially productive concept that I want to re-examine it. As such, it has the potential to dislocate dominant theories and histories of ‘political’ art practice, which roughly fall into genealogies of institutional critique on the one hand, and extra-institutional aesthetic activism on the other. At a historical moment when cultural practice is locked between Fordist forms of distribution and post-Fordist forms of production—between filesharing and paywalls, between activist-artistic networks and the construction of McGuggenheims for massive stainless steel sculptures—can the notion of cultural revolution help us to comprehend the antinomies that make up our present? My contention is that it is indeed useful far beyond the heyday of its use, from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, and that it can be employed to probe the historical logic and contradictions of radical practice in the intervening period. First, though, it may be helpful to unpack some of the understandings of cultural revolution that emerged during the 1960s.

Raymond Williams, who did much to elucidate the history of the notion of culture, proposed in 1961 that a ‘cultural revolution’, which he defined in terms of an ‘extension of communications’, was one of the main manifestations of what he termed the Long Revolution—alongside the industrial revolution and the ‘democratic revolution’.footnote2 At this comparatively early moment, Williams was already pursuing a critique of the base/superstructure model and its tendency to reduce culture to mere ideological reflection—whose appearance of relative autonomy is itself pure ideology. By the late 1960s, Williams was far from alone in this. Theorists such as Hans-Jürgen Krahl and the Italian workerists would revive Marx’s understanding of the growth of scientific power and the ensuing establishment of a ‘general intellect’, arguing that the ‘wissenschaftliche Intelligenz’ was now integrated in the productive forces.footnote3 The fact that intellectual labour was as stunted and specialized as manual labour in fact formed part of the conditions for revolutionary action. Krahl, who collaborated with Rudi Dutschke on the famous ‘Organisationsreferat’ of 1967, developed the fullest theoretical formulations, drawing on Marx’s notions of the general intellect and real subsumption to argue that the contemporary revolution could no longer be based exclusively on the traditional working class, the industrial proletariat.footnote4

An important impulse was provided by the Dutch Provos, who in 1966–67 used the term ‘provotariat’—referring to a heterogeneous combination of students, intellectuals, artists, bohemians and layabouts—to denote a new class basis for revolutionary action. The concept of cultural revolution was eagerly adopted by those who wanted either to propel or analyse radical social change—or to do both. In 1969 the Kursbuch, edited by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, used the notion as a theoretical lever in its analysis of the ongoing revolt.footnote5

In around 1970, Herbert Marcuse drafted an essay—it would remain unpublished in his lifetime—on the topic of cultural revolution. He noted that, even though for the time being the movement was a rebellion rather than a full-blown revolution, ‘this cultural revolution not only precedes and prepares the soil for the political revolution (including the economic changes) . . . it has, at the present stage, absorbed the political revolution.’footnote6 Marcuse noted that in contemporary capitalism, the working class has been extended to ‘include (as sources of surplus value and therefore as “productive labour”) a very large part of the “middle classes”: white-collar workers, salaried employees, technicians, specialists of all sorts, even in the mere “service industries”, publicity, etc. This means the extension of exploitation as an objective condition among an increasingly large part of the population.’footnote7 Thus Marcuse recorded the increasing integration of the superstructure in the productive sphere. A revolution in the cultural sphere would run the risk of remaining superstructural or ideological if it were simply a case of artists and intellectuals proclaiming their solidarity with the great proletarian revolution; things take on a different quality if the sphere of cultural production is itself seen as a site rife with antagonism; if class conflict is no longer located exclusively elsewhere. At the same time, however, this shift makes antagonism much more amorphous, and it is far from evident how diffuse conflict can become articulated struggle. This dual problem—imbrication of culture in production, blurring of agency—was in some ways the defining framework in which counter-cultural and critical movements had to operate in the 1970s and 80s.