While many see ideology and culture as detached fields, during the Cold War the two would converge as the political direction of the juxtaposing opponents forged out cultures and then used modern mediums to project these to each other as proxy weapons. An understanding of the parameters of what is termed “culture” can be found in Marwick’s definition that it can be viewed as two concepts: the traditional view is that culture relates to expressions of art and forms of tradition and the second concept of culture, that it is “the network, or totality, of attitudes, values and practices of a particular group of human beings.”
While culture and ideology are looked upon as two distinct and separate entities, both can intertwine and in certain cases, ideological restructuring can take place and a new culture can emerge or surpass the old. This has led some to conclude that “Ideology is the intellectual dimension of culture.” This restructuring or manufacturing of a culture, to suit ideological beliefs, can be observed in a dramatic form within Germany of the 1930s. It is also found within Soviet states. Culture and ideology also morphed and became a weapon of the cultural Cold War. Professor Gienow-Hecht states that by 1947 the enmity between the West and the Soviet Union had moved “cultural life” and “cultural institutions” from “the sidelines to the centre of political confrontation.”
The use of culture as a weapon in the developing Cold War could be seen as competing ideologies constructing aspects of culture to suit each other’s emerging political programmes. While cultural and ideology are often seen as two very separate spheres, the two would merge in the Cold War. Shibusawa would conclude the follow on the intertwined nature of both:
Dominant ideologies, then, are a subset of culture, or a discursive system. This culture or discursive system shifts as a small number of counter-hegemonic narratives succeed in challenging the veracity and “common sense” of dominant ideologies.
Vladimir Baranovsky observes that Russia has been on a cultural journey of “self-identification” for the last millennia and, as such, there are those who argue that Russia is European and descended from the Western Christian tradition. This is countered by those who believe Russia is in essence Asian in its cultural outlook, having split with the Western Christian tradition in the 11th Century with Byzantium, forming a distinct cultural form of its own that would develop in parallel to the West. These cultural differences would be made more profound by Russia’s stunted growth compared to the West, both politically and economically. The failure to modernise facilitated, first revolution, then dictatorship. This, Branovsky states, gave “…a strong link between Russia’s culture, mentality, and historical legacy.” The Soviet State from its foundation used culture as a form of external projectionism. In this, culture became the expression of ideology. Rossen Djagalov would write:
From very early on in this state’s existence, it projected in its dealings with foreign countries a belief in literature’s capacity to change society; thus, it tried to organize ‘the progressive forces’ of world literature through international writers’ organizations, writers’ congresses, frequent bilateral visits, multilingual literary magazines and massive translation initiatives.
This view: that the state could use culture as a form of weapon in the transition of outside cultures, which in the Soviets’ view was interchangeable with ideology, was to transcend from written format to transmitted media. Thus, the main culture expression of Cold War Russia was formulated as a manifestation of ideology, this would be given its own genre: socialist realism, which would cover architecture, literature, and art. The linking of ideology and culture in such a fashion and its subsequent export to the rest of the Eastern bloc mimicked the cultural imperialism of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.
Most culture, in what we term the West, is less than 150 years old and most nationalities formulated a structure at about the same time. Some ancient traditions have survived and embedded themselves in popular culture: Puck, Halloween, Morris dance, Step dancing, Wassailing, Mummers, and fire celebrations. These remnants are intermixed with the greater Anglo-American culture that dominates the British Isles. Except for a few regional variants, the people of these islands are culturally indistinguishable: they follow the same sports, most of the time, they watch and read the same material; soaps, papers, and films. Yet there are elements that cause extreme views to overshadow some of the oldest cultural expressions on these islands. Expressions that are mirrored in in each community. Historical and religious orders, marching bands, and bonfires are all present in the divergent communities, nor are they exclusive to Ireland or the United Kingdom. However, every year bonfires become an issue.
Fire Festivals are present in every area and culture on the globe. They have been recorded as celebrations, sacrifices, and communal rites of passage. Bonfires in Northern Ireland fit two of the criteria, acting as celebrations and a rite of passage to those who participate. These fire festivals take many forms and are not without controversy. But to understand the significant cultural value to those who practice this form of celebration and to understand how we have got to this point they need to be explored.
Most Bonfires are small affairs, mostly made up of extended family and friends. They, in rural areas, consist of gathering that can be entertained by small groups of drummers and fifers. They are child-friendly and act as a cultural adhesive that bonds those taking part. Stories, mostly about family, music, and rural life permeate the air, along with the aroma of cut grass and smouldering wood. The music and patois swirl with the flames and embers into the night air. Nothing sinister, no gowns, just families under the stars, in front of a fire listening to music and sharing stories. The scene is timeless.
The mega bonfires or ones that have been looked upon as controversial, are urban and tend to take place in areas that acted as overflows from the sectarian violence and the redevelopment that drove tens of thousands from the streets of Belfast, to working-class suburbs of east Antrim and north Down. These mass pyres have resulted from a number of complex issues. They are not a traditional form of loyalist bonfire but are the result of external forces. Up until the 1980s, most loyalist areas had small street bonfires, similar in their nature to their rural counterparts. Redevelopment’s disruption of the century-old street structure brought new considerations. Belfast City Council took the decision that these small, but numerous, activities would be better contained as larger communal events. This attempt, at a form of regulation, had a number of effects: it brought in rivalry and took control away from parental scrutiny. Paramilitary structures replaced the community in a lot of occasions.
The difference between rural and urban bonfires can be understood in class. While urban bonfires are exclusively working-class their counterparts are made up of all sections on class. This, indeed, is indicative of loyalism. Urban loyalism's link with the middle-class has been broken; this has increased its sense of societal alienation. As such, it has become its own subculture, developing and responding to other cultures around it. It has taken on dance music and a festival that was, in preparation for a few weeks, has now become several months long. The process of preparation has also changed: it gives adherents a prolonged sense of comradery, community, connection, and belonging in a community that believes it has been abandoned. This hothousing forms groups and friendships that most in society today cannot understand. They have as little regard for those who tell them that they are “polluting and destroying the environment”, while driving 4x4 and taking four holidays a year, as the accusers have for them. This alienation can be seen in the tyre issue. Some see this as a rage against those who are seen as the, would be, destroyers of their culture. The burning of tyres by a handful is an act of rebellion against regulation, the same regulation that brought about the conditions that gave rise to giant structures that cry out “we are here and we won’t be forgotten”.
The ideological war on loyalist cultural is reminiscent of aspects of 20th Century European extremism. It is portrayed as having no value, in any of its manifestations. It is sneered upon as squalid by those who live a few postcodes away. Nationalism and republicanism have debased themselves by demonising and continually attacking parts of the oldest cultural manifestations in Europe, due to their ideological differences with those who cherish it. While there are those who would destroy loyalist cultural expression, many are fascinated with it. I have a friend, a French linguist, who spends every July in Northern Ireland. Last year I worked with a sociologist who believed loyalism is the biggest working-class structure in the UK. There are social anthropologists, studying urban loyalism and its traditions. Social documentary programs are chronicling loyalist communities. What do all these have in common? They are the work of outsiders. The Cold War against loyalist communities has left the area of culture that toxic, that no local study of the views, motives, or aspirations of these groups is viable. John Abbott said “Every man's ability may be strengthened or increased by culture” Whether that culture is of our taste is irrelevant, it is still upstream from the political ideologies which oppose it. A cultural war makes for a hard anvil, that will wear out many hammers.
* Anyone interested in the cultural aspects of loyalist bonfires should visit, Polish Photographer, Mariusz Smiejek’s South Belfast Bonnies 2019, Exhibition of documentary and portraits photography, Belfast South Community Resources Centre, 127-145 Sandy Row, Belfast, BT12 5ET. Which runs from 31 Jul at 09:00 – 1 Aug at 16:00.