Marxists rise up against the masses

Media

This weekend a sinister event is being staged in Hammersmith. "Culture Wars: Dumbing Down, Wising Up?" is a conference to "discuss standards in the arts, education and the media".

It looks innocuous enough. It has been promoted under the names of well-meaning media and cultural celebrities. Kate Adie, George Alagiah, Melvyn Bragg, John Humphrys, John Simpson and Paul Watson head the broadcasters. Anne Fine, Zaha Hadid, John Mortimer, Sadie Plant and the RSC come in from the arts. There are 150 speakers in all including academics, scientists, arts administrators, publishers and regulators. Waterstone's is sponsoring the event and there is much talk of science, truth and a liberal education.

"Culture Wars" is organised by LM magazine, but nowhere does the publicity mention that "LM" stands for "Living Marxism".

Nowadays, it seems, Marxism is the love that dare not speak its name. But its devotees retain some skills from the good old days. They know how to work under the cover of more democratic organisations, using them as unwitting agents for their real strategy. And one thing the comrades can still do well is to organise a show trial.

This is the sinister bit. Standing in the dock this weekend is democracy itself. Most of the 35 sessions use the same tactic. Each is presented with a gesture towards democratisation, which is then used as the very evidence of guilt.

My own favourite is "Have we lost our nerve? . . . We live in the age of the child-centred home and the student-centred school, when politicians ask focus groups what they should believe in and TV executives ask the public what to broadcast . . .What happens to culture when those with authority and expertise bow to those without?"

This is Iolanthe upside-down: bow, bow, to the lower- middle classes! Bow to the tradesmen, bow to the masses! Tan-tan-ta-ra, pity the poor doomed peers and their Marxist sympathisers! Tzing Boom!

The prosecution is not amused, however. Accusations are relentlessly to be pursued throughout the weekend. In the media, for instance, "victim TV", obsessed with "touching the emotions of 'ordinary people' ", is condemned as "a licence to lower broadcasting standards".

In education, public enemy No 1 is my discipline: cultural studies. The stern inquisitor wants to know: "Have the methods of cultural studies democratised the curriculum or emasculated it?" Yes! I confess! We're under your beds! Emasculating away like mad.

Science is being overwhelmed by Diana-style love: "What standard of treatment can we expect from tomorrow's doctors if the emphasis is on caring rather than curing?" And those nasty greenies have stolen the hearts of the young: "It cannot be easy for young people to love science while at the same time being taught to fear it."

In education, "our children are spending too much time empathising" and too little learning "facts". Universities have let in too many people: "Ever greater numbers go to university and degree courses range from philosophy to golf studies. Does this call into question the concept of higher education as the site of knowledge?"

LM organisers Claire Fox and Mark Ryan sum up: "In our schools there is much talk of standards, but little sign of excellence. In our universities accessibility seems to be taking precedence over the values of a liberal education."

Apparently "the people" can safely be ignored. They are endowed only with the "native wisdom of the ignorant", the very thing that has "dragged down" everything considered "noble" by those who adhere to "the most cherished values of our civilisation". This may be "Living" but it is not Marxism. It is a straightforward conservative agenda, perpetuating the punitive public culture that flourished under the Tories.

LM 's nostalgia for class-based politics dovetails neatly with a conservative desire for class-based culture. In both cases, "ordinary people" are handled only within quotes, regarded as cultural dopes and political dupes. They are incapable of doing anything for themselves. More always means worse.

Like right-wingers, these Marxists are comfortable with elites. The two extremes of the political spectrum see eye to eye: "What's wrong with cultural elitism?" they chorus. Both are terrified of being "dumbed down" by the people.

LM 's sectarian hardliners want to infiltrate the knowledge class and be its militant tendency. They'd like to get democrats to bad-mouth democracy. They need a respectable public platform to sing their own lament for the lost politics of revolution. For them, democracy is a defeat; democratisation of culture, education, science and the arts is a disaster.

If LM can ventriloquise its fears into the mouths of well-placed cultural pessimists, then British public culture can continue to be punitive and adversarial. The gulf between "ordinary people" and those who seek power in their name can widen. The crisis of legitimacy experienced by political, media, educational and cultural institutions can deepen.

The verdict of this show trial is a foregone conclusion. Wise up! Convict the criminals responsible for dumbing down! Declare culture war! Undermine new Labour!

Pantomime politics perhaps, but just look how many of the great and the good are ready to call out "Boo! Hiss!" on LM 's cue.

John Hartley is professor and head of the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University. His book "Uses of Television" was published by Routledge in January