Writer and musician Anthony (Tony) Green lends his expertise to examine the possible place of Socialism within Steampunk. Take it away, Tony!
The Steampunk Socialist is an invented persona that I intend to use as a multi-media creative vehicle during 2018, and perhaps beyond. It will involve a certain fashion style, an album of new songs, various videos created and uploaded to YouTube; and hopefully live performances too. Firstly though, I need to say something about why I believe in such a thing as a ‘Steampunk Socialist’, and the factors that led me personally to create such a persona.
My interest in Socialism far predates my interest in Steampunk. I was vaguely interested in politics even in my twelfth year, the year of 1974 when two General Elections took place. My interest then laid more in the statistical minutiae of the results than in ideology. I began to define myself as a Socialist from the age of eighteen, and began a near decade-long engagement as an activist in the Militant Tendency from the end of 1981.
Finding my Way to Steampunk
I can’t remember when my interest in Steampunk began, but it is certainly within the last five years. From the beginning, I liked the strangeness of the fashion. And the fact that it was an all-encompassing scene involving literature, art, music, and film. I immediately immersed myself, primarily by purchasing and devouring the anthologized collections of the old Steampunk Magazine (1-9). My interest was deepened by my being a fan of the proto-Steampunk writing of H.G. Wells, and at least the film adaptations of the works of Jules Verne.
I also have a general interest in the Victorian period, particularly in the radical movements of the epoch. I further consolidated this interest in the course of my own research into my Family Ancestry. (We were basically a family of agricultural laborers who hailed from a tiny Lincolnshire village called Legbourne. Sections of which migrated to the urban fishing town of Grimsby in the 1870’s.)
We are talking about perhaps five years ago here. During the years that followed, I have been very busy. Not only have I acted as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities and raised a young family as an older dad. I’ve also self-published novels under the name of Anthony C. Green and released self-produced albums under the name the “Tony Green Band” or “Tony Green and his New Machine.”
But until recently, Steampunk has not featured at all within my own creative endeavors.
Why the Delay Combining Steampunk and Socialism?
The main reason is that despite my love of the style and the idea of Steampunk, the actual output has tended to disappoint me. This particularly true of the literary aspects of the genre. I’m a big SF fan, both of the old stuff like Wells, and of more modern philosophical writers like Philip K. Dick. I also very much enjoyed Ken Macloud’s socialistic series of novels, mostly because he shares my geeky knowledge of the arcane differences between British Trotskyist groups. (A knowledge he somehow managed to incorporate into his storytelling to brilliant effect!)
But I’ve tried and tried with the books that are regarded as forming the Steampunk canon, and enjoyed none of them. The Difference Engine manages to turn a brilliant idea into probably the dullest novels I have ever read. (I’m actually reading the graphic novel Babbage and Lovelace…at the moment, an infinitely more engaging treatment of the same idea.) For me, the great Steampunk novel is yet to be written.
I have enjoyed the occasional film, such as Steamboy, and liked the way that the Steampunk style has crept into my beloved Doctor Who series in recent years. (The Steampunk TARDIS was the highlight of the otherwise very poor 1997 T.V. movie.) I’ve also discovered some new and interesting music. I particularly like the Dark Cabaret style of Frenchy and the Punk and the Clockwork Dolls, as well as the comedic melodrama of The Men Who Won’t Be Blamed for Nothing. But so far, none of this has been enough for me to fully identify myself with the Steampunk genre.
The Question of Class
Too much of the Steampunk genre seems obsessed with the glories of the British Empire, with too much of the style aping that, in fantastical form, of those amongst the upper echelons of Victorian society. The heroes of Steampunk tend to be the inventor and the Entrepreneur, and mostly male at that. (I actually did quite enjoy the novel Soulless by Gail Carriger, though not enough to persist with the rest of the series). There is also the Gentleman (and it nearly always is a man) Adventurer. Where are the working people who built these incredible machines, both real and imagined?
Let us not forget it was only glorious for some. For the majority of British people, the Victorian era was one of grinding poverty, dangerous and badly paid work, and living in poor unsanitary housing. Whole communities were being uprooted from a rural lifestyle which, although hard, was in many ways much healthier and happy.
It was also a time of mass political movements like Chartism, which fought for working class votes and representation.
It was the lamentable ‘Conditions of the Working Class in England’, to quote Engels, which led to the growth of the Trade Union Movement, and eventually to the Labour Party. These movements would massively transform the lives of the majority for the better.
Surely a starting point for a Socialist Steampunk would be in the lives and struggles of the working people of the Victorian era.
The End of Fun?
This should not necessarily mean that one would need to fully abandon the Fantasy elements of Steampunk in favour of a puritanical Socialist Realism. Marx and Engels distinguished their brand of Scientific Socialism from the more backward-looking Utopian Socialist tradition. They believed a future Socialist Society would begin from the highest point of capitalist innovation. Then when freed from the fetter of the profit motive, a rationally Planned Economy would lead to a liberation of the productive forces. These would then lead to ever greater technological advances, the fruits of which would then be shared by all. (Something that we Marxists still believe, of course).
Couldn’t a great Steampunk story perhaps start from the premise that the amazing machinery which routinely populates Steampunk literature was made possible precisely by the triumph of socialism, perhaps in Britain or initially elsewhere? I personally favour a triumphant and victorious Paris Commune spreading outwards to encompass the whole of Europe. Couldn’t we imagine the automation of the Means of Production in the nineteenth century freed working men and women to work for the joy of it? They could produce artefacts of both beauty and utility, much as Morris envisaged in his brilliant novel, News From Nowhere. This could create an environment fit for conscious and engaged human beings, rather than for down-beaten wage-slaves.
This vision still drives my politics today. Let us strive for a technological Ancient Athens, where fantastical machines replaces the slaves and liberate us all to become Platonic Philosopher Kings. By projecting this vision of the future into the age of steam, we may perhaps play a small part in bringing about the future we all deserve.
So there you go, that is my brief sketch of what a Socialist Steampunk may involve. I’m sure that others shall have their own ideas, and rightly so. My contribution will probably be little more than I mentioned at the start of this article: an album-worth of songs, a few videos, the odd gig, and a cobbled together pseudo-Victorian working man look. But I’d love to be the catalyst for something much, much bigger.
Tony Green, January 2018.
Tony Green joined Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party when it was founded in the mid-nineties. He stood as a candidate for them in Manchester in the local elections of 1997. His political activity has been more sporadic since, though he now happily has a political home within the Communist Party of Britain. (The successor party to the old CPGB, associated with the daily Morning Star newspaper.)
You can find out more about Tony and his foray into Steampunk and Socialism on his website.
What do our readers think? Do you have more ideas for a catalyst in history that could lead to a Socialist Steampunk setting? Do you have recommendations for finding working class people in books? Please leave us a comment!