Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 29, 2008

The Last Bolshevik

Filed under: Film,socialism,ussr — louisproyect @ 3:51 pm

Regular readers of my movie reviews must know by now that I can’t stand hype, particularly when it involves the latest Hollywood blockbuster. But I would be remiss not to describe the two DVD package released under the title “The Last Bolshevik” as the event of the decade, at least for the small sector of the universe that still takes the idea of socialism seriously. Who knows? With Wall Street’s continuing collapse, that sector might begin to experience some bullish growth.

Chris Marker directed the documentary “The Last Bolshevik” in 1993 as an introduction to the life and career of Soviet film-maker Alexander Medvedkin who lived from 1900 to 1989, but more generally it is a meditation on the problems of artists under Stalinism and the collapse of the USSR. The package also includes Medvekin’s 64 minute silent movie “Happiness” that was made in 1934, as well as a number of shorter documentaries that he made on behalf of the Soviet government’s usually misguided efforts to drag the country into the modern age. Marker’s interest in Medvekin is clearly as a symbol of the contradictions of the Soviet Union. The Russian director was passionately dedicated to the ideals of 1917, so much so that he could not bear to openly oppose the government that was crushing those ideals under foot in the name of defending them.

Khmyr and Anna

Their horse (climbing uphill)

“Happiness” is a socialist morality tale that features a poor, scrawny mujik (peasant) named Khmyr (Pyotr Zinovyev) and his wife Anna (Yelena Yegorova). The movie begins with the couple staring through a knot-hole in the wall surrounding a rich peasant’s estate. They look on enviously as he enjoys a sumptuous repast. So fortunate is the rich peasant that food literally sails from the plate to his mouth without him having to lift a knife and fork. This special effect is just one among hundreds that lends the film the kind of surreal comic touches found in Buster Keaton’s masterpieces.

One of the major characters in “Happiness” is Khmyr and Anna’s horse, a nag that is almost as emaciated as Khymr himself and which is adorned with painted on polka dots. In order to satisfy his hunger, the horse scales the thatched roof of their hut and begins to eat the hay after the fashion of a Chagall painting.

Just as their luck seems to have run out, Khmyr and Anna enjoy a bumper crop that attracts all the scum of Czarist society, including tax collectors and Russian Orthodox priests demanding a hand-out. Once they have picked Khmyr clean, he is just as poor and hungry as he was before. In despair he decides to build himself a coffin and end his life. Once again, the officials and priests upbraid him. Doesn’t he know that he needs a permit to die? Also, they worry “If the mujik dies, who will feed Russia?”

Without going into any detail about the revolution that made it possible, the next scene takes place on a kolkhoz or collective farm, the fruit of Stalin’s war on the kulaks that Medvedkin’s film was really meant to defend. The farm is depicted as a site of struggle between socialist-minded peasants who look forward to working together and enjoying the collective fruits of their labor and a kind of fifth column led by the aforementioned rich peasant who wants to return to the old way of doing things. Khmyr is somewhere in the middle as a tug of war takes place over his soul.

Despite its obvious sympathy for Stalin’s goals, “Happiness” was never shown in Soviet theaters since its satire collided with the literal-minded and pedestrian sensibilities of Stalin’s bureaucrats. It is one of the great undiscovered masterpieces of Soviet cinema that we should be grateful for. In contrast to the more sober-minded works of Sergei Eisenstein, “Happiness” demonstrates that comedy is a universal language.

Alexander Medvedkin’s run-in’s with Soviet censors is discussed at some length in Chris Marker’s “The Last Bolshevik”. If Medvedkin remained obscure in his home country because he refused to adapt to the hidebound dictates of a “socialist” art establishment, Chris Marker suffers a similar fate because he has refused to make conventional films.

Marker was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seine, Île-de-France, a suburb of Paris in 1921. A life-long leftist, he fought in the French resistance during World War II. His movies have frequently been sympathetic treatments of socialist countries, including the 1961 “Cuba Si!”

Although Marker refuses to grant interviews and will not even agree to be photographed, he clearly allows his deeply personal films to speak for him. “The Last Bolshevik” is structured as a series of letters to Alexander Medvedkin, a life-long friend who once complained that Marker never wrote.

The movie consists of interviews with Medvedkin before his death, and with his contemporaries who were still alive in 1993, when the film was made (including the widow of novelist Isaac Babel who died in a gulag in 1940), and finally young Russian film-makers or scholars who have become devotees of his work. Babel had worked closely with Sergei Eisenstein on “Bezhin Meadow”, a movie that like “Happiness” had run afoul of Soviet censors and even shares its concerns about a treacherous kulak. A wiki article on the movie reveals that “It tells the story of a young farm boy whose father attempts to betray the government for political reasons by sabotaging the year’s harvest, the son’s efforts to stop his own father to protect the Soviet state, and culminates in the boy’s murder and a social uprising.” The Communist Party banned the “inartistic and politically bankrupt” movie, claiming that Eisenstein “confused the class struggle with the struggle between good and evil”.

As it was made in 1993, just around the time that the Soviet Union was completing its return to the capitalist fold, “The Last Bolshevik” addresses the mind-set of all such hold-outs for socialism, including Medvedkin who remained an unrepentant Marxist until his dying day-or, for that matter, Chris Marker himself. Not to speak of the reviewer of the films under consideration or the good people who tend to agree with him, at least when he does not deviate too far from their own ideas about socialism.

The “Last Bolshevik” package is available from Netflix, but I would urge you to make it a permanent part of your collection. You can buy discounted DVDs of “The Last Bolshevik” and other Chris Marker titles from “Cineaste,” which is offering them at 25% off list price, at www.cineaste.com.


  1. “The Communist Party banned the “inartistic and politically bankrupt” movie, claiming that Eisenstein “confused the class struggle with the struggle between good and evil”.”

    Would you say this was due to an over-dogmatic interpretation of Marxism, or was it really just a method of controlling people?

    Comment by Austin — October 30, 2008 @ 7:17 am

  2. “With Wall Street’s continuing collapse, that sector might begin to experience some bullish growth.”

    That would be a great shame, since “that sector” is actually in no small part culpable for Wall Street’s expansion and subsequent collapse in the first place. By arrogating to itself the authority to represent the only real alternative to unfettered capitalism, the communist tyrannies of the 20th centuries actually CAUSED more people to gravitate rightward who otherwise wouldn’t have. By setting up a Manichean conflict between capitalism and communism, the “unrepentant Marxists” of this world, in their smug arrogance and solipsistic hubris, have inadvertently made it MORE, not LESS, difficult, to achieve any sort of healthy balance. Since communism failed horribly everywhere it was tried (because it is a flawed, utopian ideology – a product of “ressentiment” exactly as Nietzsche claimed – and a pseudo-science to begin with), this failure left the Left with no real bulwark against the Hobbesian “law of the market.”

    “As it was made in 1993, just around the time that the Soviet Union was completing its return to the capitalist fold, “The Last Bolshevik” addresses the mind-set of all such hold-outs for socialism, including Medvedkin who remained an unrepentant Marxist until his dying day-or, for that matter, Chris Marker himself.”

    If the Soviet Union returned so quickly back into the capitalist fold, back into a Friedmanesque/Hobbesian nightmare pitting each against all, it’d be logical to question how much of a true alternative to capitalism Bolshevism ever was in the first place. In my view, the differences were superficial. Lenin, after all, was just as much of a murderous tyrant as Stalin, despite the disgraceful attempts to whitewash the historical record on the part of “unrepentant Marxists”.

    As for “hold-outs for socialism,” what exactly do you mean? Though Marxist-Leninists don’t often admit it, one can favor a socialist future without favoring a remotely Marxist future. A stage of human development beyond the capitalism, or rather mercantilism, of today, does not require anything like the Bolshevik revolution. It doesn’t require a leadership class at all. I too think the future will be one of “socialism,” but of a sort not dependent on either Bolshevik theory or Bolshevik practice, because there will be neither a nation-state nor centralization of power.

    As Noam Chomsky put it in 1986,

    “When the world’s two great propaganda systems agree on some doctrine, it requires some intellectual effort to escape its shackles. One such doctrine is that the society created by Lenin and Trotsky and molded further by Stalin and his successors has some relation to socialism in some meaningful or historically accurate sense of this concept. In fact, if there is a relation, it is the relation of contradiction.

    “It is clear enough why both major propaganda systems insist upon this fantasy. Since its origins, the Soviet State has attempted to harness the energies of its own population and oppressed people elsewhere in the service of the men who took advantage of the popular ferment in Russia in 1917 to seize State power. One major ideological weapon employed to this end has been the claim that the State managers are leading their own society and the world towards the socialist ideal; an impossibility, as any socialist — surely any serious Marxist — should have understood at once (many did), and a lie of mammoth proportions as history has revealed since the earliest days of the Bolshevik regime. The taskmasters have attempted to gain legitimacy and support by exploiting the aura of socialist ideals and the respect that is rightly accorded them, to conceal their own ritual practice as they destroyed every vestige of socialism.”

    When the day finally arrives that “the last Bolshevik” is no more, when nobody subscribes anymore to this delusional fantasy of progress, that will be a great day indeed. Only on that day will an authentic, humane, responsive socialism be with us.

    Comment by Chris — October 30, 2008 @ 8:20 pm

  3. A healthy balance between capitalism and communism? I have no idea what this means…

    Comment by louisproyect — October 30, 2008 @ 8:26 pm

  4. Nice way of passive-aggressively avoiding my point, which is that virtually any successful “socialism” anyone can name, any model of workers owning the fruit of their own labour, has not been along Leninist lines. Of course you have “no idea what this means,” because you have no idea what anything means outside your rigid schematism.

    A “healthy balance” between capitalism and socialism – between competition and cooperation – NOT a balance between capitalism and “communism” (i.e. totalitarianism). Since Chomsky is correct that “the claim that the State managers are leading their own society and the world towards the socialist idea” was and is “a lie of mammoth proportions,” the healthy balance I imagine wouldn’t require such “State management” at all – indeed, couldn’t come into being as long as we have self-appointed State managers along the lines of Lenin, Trotsky, or Stalin (who all should be grouped together as powermongers and tyrants, not Stalin alone as communist revisionism would have it).

    Comment by Chris — October 30, 2008 @ 10:14 pm

  5. Do you really believe that capitalism has anything to do with competition? The last 120 years at least have been marked by monopoly, trusts, combination, cartels, etc. I say this as somebody who has worked for Mobil Oil, Chase Manhattan Bank, Metropolitan Life, Goldman-Sachs and Salomon Brothers.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 30, 2008 @ 10:31 pm

  6. Capitalism” is a very ambiguous term. Different people use the word different ways. Obviously the world is not at all the way free market idealogues depict it. However, on an individual level, competition is everywhere. People compete with each other for “slots” in the larger economy. Public schools train people to fit into already existent job “slots,” rather than try to help them develop their minds and spirits to the fullest (because if the vast majority of people were as well-educated as ruling elites, you wouldn’t have ruling elites). The interlocking trusts/cartels macrocosm doesn’t negate the fact of ubiquitous competition on the micro-scale. The more corporate merging occurs on the planetary level, the more individuals feel an anxious need to compete with each other in a world of apparent scarcity.

    “I say this as somebody who has worked for Mobil Oil, Chase Manhattan Bank, Metropolitan Life, Goldman-Sachs and Salomon Brothers.”

    How long have you been a Marxist then? Did you actually openly preach the gospel of Marxism when you were with Goldman-Sachs? Or did you decide to line your pockets first? I suppose this is the sort of thing William Deresiewicz meant when he wrote of Terry Eagleton: “Eagleton wishes
    for capitalism’s demise, but as long as it’s here, he plans to do as well as he can out of it. Someone who owns three homes shouldn’t be
    preaching self-sacrifice…”

    It looks to me like your name could fit in that first sentence just as well as Eagleton’s, since it’s impossible to “fall into” all five of these companies just by accident, by some fluke.

    Comment by Chris — October 31, 2008 @ 3:51 am

  7. I have been a Marxist since 1967. And, yes, I did advocate socialism when I was at Goldman-Sachs. I also advocate socialism at Columbia University, where I now work. And, finally, where you work has nothing to do with advocating socialism.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 31, 2008 @ 1:14 pm

  8. You’re trying to disprove Marx with Nietzsche? thats rich. Revisionism, utopianism, please it cliches all you have? heaven forbid you actually try to prove some sameness between Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, of course once you lookedat the facts you’d see it wasn’t that simple. As far as Im concerned youre talk of a perfect blend of capitalism and socialism is utopianism grade A!

    Comment by SGuy — October 31, 2008 @ 5:25 pm

  9. I have the impression that Chris has read Nietzsche but not Marx. Or maybe I am giving him too much credit. Perhaps neither.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 31, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

  10. “And, finally, where you work has nothing to do with advocating socialism.”

    Yes it does. You didn’t have to work there. You had a choice. It wasn’t a choice between Goldmann Sachs and nothing.

    “I have the impression that Chris has read Nietzsche but not Marx. Or maybe I am giving him too much credit. Perhaps neither.”

    I’ve read both. Have you? It’s clear to me who the better writer of the two is: it’s Nietzsche by a country mile. Marx’s prose is turgid, because his thinking is too often foggy. Nietzsche’s prose is mostly supple and readable, because his thinking is much more lucid.

    “heaven forbid you actually try to prove some sameness between Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, of course once you lookedat the facts you’d see it wasn’t that simple”

    Try reading about the reasons behind the Kronstadt rebellion of 1921. Try reading about Lenin’s propensity to refer to his opponents as “insects” and “parasites” (not too dissimilar from the basic imagery Hitler used to describe Jews). Try reading about Lenin’s ardent admiration for the sweat labor system of Scientific Management designed by Frederick Winslow Taylor.

    “As far as Im concerned youre talk of a perfect blend of capitalism and socialism is utopianism grade A!”

    Try to grasp something, okay? “Top down” state-managed socialism is not socialism. If it’s command and control from above, it’s not socialism. Therefore Bolshevism was not socialism, no matter what Lenin claimed it was.

    There are NO examples of Bolshevist-style socialism working for long ANYWHERE. Therefore it is truly a utopian scheme, because it denies reality, which is that every such experiment has failed.

    There ARE very successful examples of worker-owned enterprise, however, such as the Mondragon Cooperative in Spain. It is a “corporation” of a sort, but very different from what that word normally conjures up in the mind. Therefore it is still capitalistic, because it is a business, but it belongs to the workers. Nothing “utopian” about it, SGuy.

    As this article put it:

    “It is a major step in the direction of true participatory economic democracy. Both corporate-capitalism and Soviet communism assume that when it comes to economics, people can’t (or shouldn’t) run their own lives. The important decisions must be made either by an industrial/financial elite or by government bureaucrats. Mondragón, by its very existence, proclaims all that to be nonsense.”

    That is why Mondragon had a lot of success, and made a lot of ordinary people healthier and happier, whereas Bolshevism was a disaster, because corporate-capitalism and Soviet communism were more alike than they pretended to be.


    So you see, the “masses” don’t NEED you, SGuy. Your and Mr. Proyect’s “leadership” isn’t remotely necessary for ordinary people to escape their shackles. All that is needed is better education (i.e. a REAL education, not the sham education offered by public schools), better libraries, better access to information, and the opportunity to observe successful examples of socialism in action, so they can recreate that success for themselves.

    Comment by Chris — October 31, 2008 @ 8:23 pm

  11. Poland: Mondragon Capitalists Repress Unionists and Exploit Workers
    Sunday, July 20 2008 @ 02:24 PM CDT

    Fagor is a large appliance manufacturer owned by the Mondragon “Cooperative” capitalist enterprise. In Poland it cooperatives FagorMastercook in Wroclaw. Currently there are serious labour problems in FagorMastercook. Members of the Warsaw group of Union of Syndicalists (ZSP) went Friday to a protest in front of the factory.

    full: http://news.infoshop.org/article.php?story=20080720142450401

    For the most thorough debunking of Mondragon, I recommend Sharryn Kasmir’s “The Myth of Mondragón: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-class Life in a Basque Town”

    It is in google/books:


    Comment by louisproyect — October 31, 2008 @ 9:48 pm

  12. I dutifully looked up the book in question, and this is what I found. Here’s some reader’s reviews available on the net:

    “I give a less than whole-hearted recommendation to read:

    The Myth of Mondragon: Cooperative, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town
    Sharryn Kasmir 1996

    “I say that not only because it is critical of the cooperatives, but because it clearly written by someone who makes her conclusions first then goes about trying to find the evidence. From a methodological standpoint this book is garbage. Ultimately, her attack on the coops is not based on very much or very solid evidence and is mostly the view of a naïve, utopian mind set. Kasmir was, it seems, disappointed to find out that Mondragon was not paradise, her conclusion then was that it must be really bad for workers, even worse then regular capitalist companies. The leap is rather self-righteous. However, it does include more about life beyond the coops than the other books and raises important issues about democracy in the coops.”

    This reviewer then went on to elaborate:

    “In the social sciences one cannot conduct qualitative research and then make quantitative assumptions. That is, Sharryn Kasmir did interviews and a case study in 2 or three factories and made assumptions about the ENTIRE MCC which is made up of more then 120 companies. That is not only methodologically unsound, it is disingenuous. She makes so very interesting and provocative points but ultimately they mostly have to do with the handful of companies she was at. She can make statements about them but not all coops.”

    Another reviewer writes:

    “More than any other known corporate business system in the world, the Mondragon leaders have gone to great lengths to design systems with democratic and fair relationships between all the participants. In “The Myth of Mondragon” (?) Kasimir has made the strongest criticism in branding the Mondragon system as plainly capitalistic. However, it is not likely that it would be possible to do any kind of large scale industrial protection and still meet her demands for complete participatory democracy. Cheney (2001) provides a much more reasonable type of criticism. He points out that size and complexity has caused much of the earlier type of leadership to be replaced by a technocratic system which seems almost inevitable in modern global business. Also there has been a gradual shift away from innovation as such towards the need to satisfy customers. In spite of the technocratic imperatives, Mondragon has maintained a strict adherence to the principles of both direct and indirect democracy. The worker members are conscious of the fact that they do have the final say.”

    So after considering the various discussions of Mondragon, the author of the article notes that Kashmir’s is the most negative of the lot. Note that he doesn’t consider her argument entirely convincing. Again, it seems to be only you who is whole-heartedly persuaded by her book. I found several respectful reviews, but none of them, except you, seem to consider it the last word on Mondragon or cooperatives in general.

    On amazon.com we find this:

    A two-star (out of five) review from F. Wilson:

    “There is no myth in Cooperative Mondragon if you have lived in Mondragon in 1960’s, if you grow thru an artificially induced process of 40% unemployment, and sharing day to strugle of been lucky to get minimum wage and abuses of dictatorship under industrialism of General Franco. The priests who funded the Cooperative (today with 60,000 employee owners) although not perfect found a better solution. Mondragon is perfect in front of the Enrons, MCIs, not a single person in the cooperative is yet to lose a pension or health coverage, or security of live, that beats 99% what Kasmir tries to compare Mondragon against other forms of ownership.”

    But there are also a few positive reviews. A four-star review by Thomas Fackler says:

    “While it is true that the cooperatives have provided job stability and health care – things that all folks ought to be guaranteed – Kasmir also points out that globalization has exacerbated class issues within the cooperatives as well as created an atmosphere in the cooperatives that is less distinct from the local private firms than it maybe once was.”

    So, in other words, this reviewer, who liked the book, DOES NOT describe it as a full-throttle debunking. In fact, none of the positive reviews do. Skeptical, yes, Kasmir found problems yes, but none of the reviewers who liked the book describe it the way you describe it. What appears to be the case is that problems have arisen over time that did not exist to anything like the same degree when the Cooperative began. And why is that? Precisely because the world economic system has not changed, except for the worse, since the 1950s. We have an island in the wilderness, but the idea did not take root elsewhere.

    Because what is this reviewer actually saying? He’s saying that GLOBALIZATION has started to dilute the health of the co-operative, making the companies that join these days less distinct from the private firms than they used to be in the early days. That is a far cry from an outright “debunking.” Quite obviously, if the Mondragon template was extremely widespread, something that took root among working people everywhere, in every nation, rather than the extreme rarity it is, the “globalization” threat would not be the massive danger it in fact is. Thus, your logic is a mess, because according to the review, the threat here is from globalization, more from without than within. This is like saying ending slavery and segregation in the U.S. was a failure, because blacks are still second-class citizens. And it’s true, they are. But that doesn’t make ending slavery a bad idea or a failed idea. It’s just that there has to be more to it than that, there has to be a societal change of attitudes as well, a very widespread ethical and philosophical shift. Otherwise, you will still have racist oppression. But the idea of ending slavery is not flawed or failed.

    Do you assume that feminism has been a failure, that feminism has been debunked, because from time to time, the likes of Margaret Thatcher or Sarah Palin have been able to assume power (or come very close to it)? Which could only happen in a post-feminist world. Do you assume a cooperative with 120 companies has been a failure because a handful of companies within it have not worked out as well as the vast majority? Yeah, some debunking. Compare that with Mao’s track record, or Lenin’s, or Stalin’s, or Pol Pot’s, in helping ordinary people.

    Face it, you are an ideologue. You read a bunch of books on Mondragon, and the one that was the most negative of the lot is the one you single out for acclamation. (And even then, you can’t describe it accurately.) Why? Solely because it links up with your prejudices, therefore it MUST be true! With you, the ideology comes first, then the facts are selected to conform to the ideology.

    Comment by Chris — November 1, 2008 @ 1:10 am

  13. You read a bunch of books on Mondragon…

    And what do you do? Read a bunch of reviews and make up your mind on the basis of the reviews.

    Let’s face it, Chris. You haven’t read Marx. You blather on about Mondragon without even being familiar with the critique. You don’t even bother to comment on the *anarchist* attack on Mondragon. If you were serious about your politics, you’d investigate the Fagor issue. Instead you just blissfully ignore it. You cite Chomsky, who is revered by the anarchist movement but pretend that the Infoshop complaint about Mondragon did not exist.


    Well, look, if it helps you make it through the night by believing in Mondragon in the way that CP’ers believed in the USSR in the 1930s, who am I to stand in the way. Faith is a very powerful tool for survival in a heartless world.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 1, 2008 @ 1:21 am

  14. Oh one more thing. Nobody claimed Mondragon or any other cooperative is above criticism. Kasmir’s book got positive and negative reviews. But whether they liked or disliked her book, they all described it as finding problems, not finding it an outright failure or disaster.

    Note Noam Chomsky’s reaction to Mondragon in a letter:

    “You’re right to take this very seriously, in my opinion. It is a very substantial experiment in participant-owned economy, including production, finance, commerce and retail; and in terms of standard economic measures, it’s been quite successful. There have also been problems. To what extent these derive from implantation within a state capitalist economy of the standard kind (e.g., the pressure to shift production to low-wage high-repression areas where workers will not be owners, violating the original principle that kept this to below 10% of the workforce) or to inherent factors of institutional structure (such as separation of professional management from workforce) is not so easy to determine, and merits careful thought. There is a lot of literature on the topic. A couple of fairly recent books are David Ellerman, _The Democratic Worker-Owned Firm_, and William & Kathleen Whyte, _Making Mondragon_. There was a review a year or two ago by Mike Long in Libertarian Labor Review that I thought was quite well-informed, perceptive, and interesting (it was, incidentally, critical of my own criticism of Mondragon for hierarchic managerial structures); my understanding is that he might be a little less optimistic about the prospects himself, right now. Whatever one’s assessment, this is an extremely important endeavor, in my opinion, and should be carefully studied.”

    Note that Chomsky has a complex reaction to it, partly admiring but also critical: “merits careful thought…. should be carefully studied…. successful but there have also been problems….”
    If Chomsky’s view is more negative than mine, it is still a complex, full-bodied, intellectual response, not the knee-jerk reaction you displayed.
    He has very mixed feelings, but he has no such mixed feelings about Bolshevism, on which he is invariably scathing. Now, Chomsky isn’t the last word on anything, but you should note that while far from a starry-eyed worshipper of Mondragon, he finds it an experiment worthy of study, whereas he has nothing but scorn for Lenin’s experiment. I hope you take note of that, and consider why he might feel that way. Maybe, just maybe, he has good reasons for it.

    Comment by Chris — November 1, 2008 @ 1:36 am

  15. Chris, this is the last thing I will say in this thread. You really owe it to yourself to read Marxism. It is clear to me that you are unfamiliar with Marxist literature. You genuflect to Mondragon and rail against Lenin but anybody who has read their Lenin knows that his last word on the Soviet economy was to promote cooperatives as the way forward for socialism. My guess is that you are not familiar with Sandinista Nicaragua where cooperatives were the primary way that the government tried to promote its socialist agenda. As opposed to Mondragon, cooperatives in a post-capitalist society have a completely different function. Worker-owned enterprises in a capitalist society are not emancipatory. Weirton Steel and United Airlines were worker-owned. Big deal. Anyhow, go ahead and believe what you want. I am not really that interested in debating anarchists or whatever it is that you are. I don’t hang around anarchist blogs looking for arguments. I have better things to do with my time and surely your time would be better spent learning a bit more about Marxism than shooting off your mouth.


    Comment by louisproyect — November 1, 2008 @ 1:54 am

  16. “And what do you do? Read a bunch of reviews and make up your mind on the basis of the reviews.”

    No, I did not make up my mind. I will duly read the book eventually. But I am simply pointing out that NONE of the reviews, INCLUDING the positive & enthusiastic (of which there were several), portray it as a debunking. ONLY you do that. Now, it could be that you, Louis Proyect, are such a genius that only you see the truth, but it could also be that these other readers are less committed to debunking it, and are able to respond more accurately to the actual contents of the book. Like I said, there were plenty of positive reviews of Kasmir’s book, but their assessment of the contents was not exactly yours. I know it must be very difficult for you to grasp that there are other legitimate POVs than yours in this world. How very Leninist of you.

    “Let’s face it, Chris. You haven’t read Marx.”

    Sorry, but I have. No, I have not pored over every last word, but I have read him. Does one have to read every last sentence ever written by Thomas Aquinas or Immanuel Kant to understand the thrust of their work?

    Are YOU familiar with the various critiques of Marx’s work? Since we’re on the topic of Chomsky, let’s start with him:

    “Marxism in my view belongs in the history of organised religion. In fact, as a rule of thumb, any concept with a person’s name on it belongs to religion, not rational discourse… That means, if you identify yourself as a Marxist or a Freudian, or anything else, you’re worshipping at someone’s shrine.”

    Sounds about right to me. Of course, Marx wrote some interesting, profound things, but so did Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther. It’s still religious writing, not scientific writing.

    “Faith is a very powerful tool for survival in a heartless world.”

    You should know, since your blog contains little else but blind faith. That’s all that Marxism is, a religious faith. Of course, there are smart and good Marxists out there, but there are also smart, caring, and compassionate Christians, Muslims, Freudians, and Zoroastrian fire-worshippers. It’s still faith.

    “Well, look, if it helps you make it through the night by believing in Mondragon in the way that CP’ers believed in the USSR in the 1930s, who am I to stand in the way.”

    I don’t. I simply used that as an example of something with a far better track record than the countless abysmal failures of communist regimes throughout the 20th century. COMPARITIVELY SPEAKING, it is much more of a success. But then, anything short of genocide would be a success compared to Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot.

    Mondragon should be studied, not as the “last word” on anything, but because it has had some success, and can be improved upon, whereas your communist ideals have failed miserably, Gulag-style, everywhere they’ve been tried.

    Comment by Chris — November 1, 2008 @ 2:00 am

  17. “You genuflect to Mondragon and rail against Lenin but anybody who has read their Lenin knows that his last word on the Soviet economy was to promote cooperatives as the way forward for socialism.”

    Lenin has to be judged on his actions. Nobody involved with the initiation of Mondragon helped set up a GULAG-style system of concentration camps, nor had an obsession with extirminating “leeches” and “parasites.” Lenin’s problem was not his intellect (which was considerable) but his temperament (which was vicious, murderous, and authoritarian).

    “I don’t hang around anarchist blogs looking for arguments.”

    Yes, because you would lose those arguments.

    “Worker-owned enterprises in a capitalist society are not emancipatory.”

    Correction: worker-owned enterprises are not INEVITABLY and INVARIABLY nor ENTIRELY emancipatory. But there are reasons for that, and we need more than Marx (as good as he is on some subjects) to uncover those reasons and find answers to them.

    “As opposed to Mondragon, cooperatives in a post-capitalist society have a completely different function.”

    Since you have no workable plan for GETTING to a post-capitalist society, it’s a moot point. I didn’t claim Mondragon was paradise on earth, I claimed it worked better than either state socialism or the Friedmanesque “law of the market” so many neo-cons seem to be enamored with (at least till the market meltdown they were). You assumed I can’t imagine anything better than Mondragon. You assumed wrong. But that “better” will not come from “unrepentant Marxists,” since “unrepentant Marxists” are trapped in a timewarp, unable to process fresh and novel ideas. By all means, cling to your religious dogmas, but don’t deceive yourself as to what they are.

    “I have better things to do with my time and surely your time would be better spent learning a bit more about Marxism than shooting off your mouth.”

    Okay, grandpa, whatever you say. Should I wash my mouth out with soap now?

    Comment by Chris — November 1, 2008 @ 2:36 am

  18. No offense, Chris, but when you state in comment #4:

    “..“communism” (i.e. totalitarianism)..”

    you clearly don’t know what you’re talking about. There is such a thing as totalitarian capitalism, amigo.

    Comment by Paul — November 1, 2008 @ 8:48 pm

  19. No, I used the term correctly. There can be totalitarian capitalism or totalitarian communism.
    The term is validly used to refer to the Soviet Union. If you personally disapprove of that particular usage, fine, but that’s a personal bias & perspective, not an objective fact. If you mean totalitarianism isn’t LIMITED to communist regimes, who claimed otherwise? Not me. Haven’t you noticed I’m a Chomsky admirer? I’m hardly waving the “making the world safe for capitalism” flag.

    from Wikipedia: “Totalitarianism (or totalitarian rule) is a concept used to describe political systems where a state regulates nearly every aspect of public and private life.” Solzhenitsyn got sent to Siberia for writing a letter where he made a joke about Stalin. If that isn’t an example of the state regulating private life, what is?

    Comment by Chris — November 1, 2008 @ 10:24 pm

  20. Dear Chris: yawn.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — November 3, 2008 @ 8:58 pm

  21. I just noticed this thread touching on Mondragon and Sharryn Kasmir’s book. For those interested, below is a very positive review of the book by David Schweickart, a noted proponent of worker-controlled market socialism and an admirer of Mondragon. The review is informative; its only flaw being its refusal to admit that everything you need to know about Basque cooperatives was already written 130 years ago in the Critique of the Gotha Program.

    Science & Society, Winter 1998/99
    Review: The Myth of Mondragon: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town, by Sharryn Kasmir. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1996. $23.95. Pp. xiv, 243.

    This is an excellent book on an important subject. More than two decades ago British sociologist Robert Oakeshott brought the “Mondragon experiment” to international attention with a short but influential article about a network of Basque cooperatives that had come into existence in the late 1950s under the auspices of a Roman Catholic priest, and had grown explosively, employing by 1973 some 10,000 workers. Oakeshott was also featured in a 1981 BBC documentary on Mondragon that has been widely shown, reportedly even in the Reagan White House. Since Oakeshott’s introductory piece there have been scores of articles and several English-language books on the subject, some of them quite good. Among the best are Whyte and Whyte’s The Making of Mondragon and Morrison’s We Build the Road as We Travel.

    Kasmir, however, sets herself against the dominant view of Mondragon. Having spent 18 months in the Basque region doing field work, she wants to debunk the “myth” of Mondragon. What myth? First, let us be clear as to what is not mythical about Mondragon.

    Kasmir does not deny that the Mondragon cooperatives have been economically successful. The initial experiment, a worker-owned factory making kerosene cookers, has developed since 1956 into a network of some 71 industrial cooperatives making home appliances, agricultural equipment, automobile components, machine tools, generators, numerical control systems, thermoplastics, medical equipment, home and office equipment, and much more. In 1991 these cooperatives, always linked, combined to form MCC, the Mondragon Corporacion Cooperativa. MCC includes not only producer and construction cooperatives but a large bank (the Caja Laboral), a research center (Ikerlan), a social security service (Lagun Aro), a network of retail stores (Eroski), and a polytechnical and professional institute (Escuela Polytecnica).

    MCC has become the dominant economic power in the Basque region of Spain. MCC’s capital goods division is the market leader in metal cutting tools in Spain, as is its division that makes refrigerators, washing machines and dishwashers; MCC engineers have built “turnkey” factories in China, North Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Caja Laboral has been rated as among the 100 most efficient financial institutions in the world in terms of its profit/asset ratio; Ikerlan is the only Spanish research firm to have met the NASA technical specifications and hence to have been permitted a project on the Columbia space shuttle in 1993; Eroski has opened more “hypermarkets” than any other retailing group in Spain; the Escuela Polytecnica, enrolling 2,000 students, is considered the best technical institute in the country. All in all MCC now has a workforce of 27,000 and financial assets of $8 billion, making it the largest corporation in the Basque region, the tenth largest in Spain.

    The Mondragon cooperatives have succeeded in the face of severe regional economic difficulties. Between 1976 and 1986, for example, the Basque region lost 150,000 jobs, during which time the cooperatives increased employment by 4200 (34). The early 1990s saw another deep recession, official unemployment reaching 25% in the region. This time the industrial cooperatives were hit, employment falling from 17,000 in 1991 to 15,000 now. Still, overall employment in MCC did not decline. It remains rare for a cooperator to lose work altogether, since cutbacks are effected through reassignment to other cooperatives and non-replacement of retirees.

    So, what is mythical about Mondragon is not its economic success nor the employment security the cooperatives provide. It is not a myth, either, that Mondragon cooperatives are more egalitarian than their capitalist counterparts, or that Mondragon workers can exert some real control over conditions that affect them. Kasmir notes that highest-level engineers in Mondragon firms make 30% less than comparably skilled engineers employed by capitalist firms in the province (35). She observes that “class differences were not nearly as extreme” in the cooperative firm she selected for comparative study as in its capitalist counterpart (151). She points out that management attempts to widen the allowable pay differential between the lowest and highest paid (1:4.5 in most enterprises) have often been defeated by workers (35, 190). Workers also voted against (and hence defeated) a management proposal to cut their common four-week August vacation to two weeks (so as to be able to keep production going 50 weeks per year) with the other two weeks assigned at other times (183).

    Kasmir also acknowledges that the union movement associated with the radical nationalist ETA has been reluctant to criticize the cooperatives, since, in the words of one labor leader, “the ETA sees the cooperatives as valuable national resources, capital that is tied to Euskadi. Since the cooperators are owners, they have to vote to approve the movement of capital out of Euskadi. That would be a vote to lose their own jobs, to create unemployment. They wouldn’t do it.” (173.)

    On gender issues there is also a difference between the cooperatives and the capitalist firms in the region. Although not many, there are more women in management positions in cooperative firms than in their capitalist counterparts. Moreover, “in my experience, the issue of gender was debated and taken seriously in the cooperatives in a way that it was not in regular firms” (154).

    The reader may be wondering at this point: if Mondragon is as good as Kasmir herself describes, what’s wrong with it? What exactly is the myth? The most significant myth Kasmir wants to dispel is the image of a Mondragon cooperative as a workplace in which everyone regards one another as an equal, where workers are happy with their work, where workers actively participate in daily decision making. This is the image that comes to mind when one reads much of the literature on Mondragon. Mondragon is often portrayed as an *alternative* to class struggle, as an *alternative* to socialism. Kasmir objects – and she is right to object. One often hears, “we’re all workers here” – but only when talking to managers. In her comparative survey, in answer to the question, “Do you feel you are working as if the firm is yours?” nearly 80% of the cooperative manual workers said “No” – a slightly higher percentage than those at the private firm. (Interestingly, managers of cooperative firms identified with their firms far more than did their private– enterprise counterparts. Fully half of the private managers did not feel a part of the firm, whereas only 18% of the cooperative managers felt so alienated.)

    As Kasmir admits, her sample size was not large, so one must be careful about drawing sweeping conclusions. Lest one draw too quickly the conclusion that workers are indifferent to the cooperative nature of their firm: only 10% of the workers surveyed by Kasmir said they would prefer to work in a privately run enterprise. Still, Mondragon has not resolved the problem of alienated labor- nor (I would argue) can it be expected to do so, so long as it remains a cooperative island in a capitalist sea.

    There is much more in this book than a brief review can encompass. Kasmir succeeds admirably in placing the “Mondragon experiment” in its historical and political context. She asks incisive questions about the international appeal of the Mondragon cooperatives and about the effect of the cooperatives on Basque working-class politics. She effectively demolishes the notion that this cooperative movement is somehow apolitical, somehow beyond politics.

    One of the great strengths of this book is its scrupulous honesty. Kasmir does not hesitate to provide information that seems to cut against her often critical assessments. The quality and quantity of information are also impressive. She states carefully what she has learned, how she has learned it, and which pieces of the data seem most significant to her. The reader is free to draw different conclusions. For anyone interested in Mondragon (and anyone interested in alternatives to capitalism should be, for there is much to learn from this experiment), this is an indispensable book.

    Comment by SA — December 27, 2008 @ 5:20 am

  22. […] that he was a victim of Stalin’s ham-fisted interventions in the excellent documentary “The Last Bolshevik” that dealt with another great Soviet film-maker Alexander […]

    Pingback by Man With a Movie Camera « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 30, 2008 @ 9:35 pm

  23. Since the film reviewed here is entitled “The Last Bolshevik” and since the interloper Chris has brought up the alleged crimes of Lenin in general (in the middle of a Civil War no less!) and Kronstadt in particular – like any educated Anarchist on a Marxist blog may be expected to do — how about actually reading what happened there from an authority on the subject.

    As Trotsky pointed out 17 years after Kronstadt when anarchists were collaborating with the Spanish government just before World War II:

    “How can the Kronstadt uprising cause such heartburn to Anarchists, Mensheviks, and “liberal” counter-revolutionists, all at the same time?…Why in particular has this variegated fraternity seized precisely upon Kronstadt? During the years of the revolution we clashed not a few times with the Cossacks, the peasants, even with certain layers of workers (certain groups of workers from the Urals organized a volunteer regiment in the army of Kolchak!). The antagonism between the workers as consumers and the peasants as producers and sellers of bread lay, in the main, at the root of these conflicts. Under the pressure of need and deprivation, the workers themselves were episodically divided into hostile camps, depending upon stronger or weaker ties with the village. The Red Army also found itself under the influence of the countryside. During the years of the civil war it was necessary more than once to disarm discontented regiments. The introduction of the “New Economic Policy” (NEP) attenuated the friction but far from eliminated it. On the contrary, it paved the way for the rebirth of kulaks [wealthy peasants] and led, at the beginning of this decade, to the renewal of civil war in the village. The Kronstadt uprising was only an episode in the history of the relations between the proletarian city and the petty-bourgeois village. It is possible to understand this episode only in connection with the general course of the development of the class struggle during the revolution.”

    “Kronstadt differed from a long series of other petty-bourgeois movements and uprisings only by its greater external effect. The problem here involved a maritime fortress under Petrograd itself. During the uprising proclamations were issued and radio broadcasts were made. The Social Revolutionaries and the Anarchists, hurrying from Petrograd, adorned the uprising with “noble” phrases and gestures. All this left traces in print. With the aid of these “documentary” materials (i.e., false labels), it is not hard to construct a legend about Kronstadt, all the more exalted since in 1917 the name Kronstadt was surrounded by a revolutionary halo….”

    “The play upon the revolutionary authority of Kronstadt is one of the distinguishing features of this truly charlatan campaign. Anarchists, Mensheviks, liberals, reactionaries try to present the matter as if at the beginning of 1921 the Bolsheviks turned their weapons on those very Kronstadt sailors who guaranteed the victory of the October insurrection. Here is the point of departure for all the subsequent falsehoods. Whoever wishes to unravel these lies should first of all read the article by Comrade J.G. Wright in the New International (February 1938). My problem is another one: I wish to describe the character of the Kronstadt uprising from a more general point of view.”

    Social and Political Groupings in Kronstadt

    “A revolution is ‘made’ directly by a minority. The success of a revolution is possible, however, only where this minority finds more or less support, or at least friendly neutrality, on the part of the majority. The shift in different stages of the revolution, like the transition from revolution to counterrevolution, is directly determined by changing political relations between the minority and the majority, between the vanguard and the class.”

    “Among the Kronstadt sailors there were three political layers: the proletarian revolutionists, some with a serious past and training; the intermediate majority, mainly peasant in origin; and finally, the reactionaries, sons of kulaks, shopkeepers, and priests. In czarist times, order on battleships and in the fortress could be maintained only so long as the officers, acting through the reactionary sections of the petty officers and sailors, subjected the broad intermediate layer to their influence or terror, thus isolating the revolutionists, mainly the machinists, the gunners, and the electricians, i.e., predominantly the city workers.”

    “The course of the uprising on the battleship Potemkin in 1905 was based entirely on the relations among these three layers, i.e., on the struggle between proletarian and petty-bourgeois reactionary extremes for influence upon the more numerous middle peasant layer. Whoever has not understood this problem, which runs through the whole revolutionary movement in the fleet, had best be silent about the problems of the Russian revolution in general. For it was entirely, and to a great degree still is, a struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie for influence upon the peasantry. During the Soviet period the bourgeoisie has appeared principally in the guise of kulaks (i.e., the top stratum of the petty bourgeoisie), the “socialist” intelligentsia, and now in the form of the “Communist” bureaucracy. Such is the basic mechanism of the revolution in all its stages. In the fleet it assumed a more centralized, and therefore more dramatic expression.”

    “The political composition of the Kronstadt Soviet reflected the composition of the garrison and the crews. The leadership of the soviets as early as the summer of 1917 belonged to the Bolshevik Party, which rested on the better sections of the sailors and included in its ranks many revolutionists from the underground movement who had been liberated from the hard-labor prisons. But I seem to recall that even in the days of the October insurrection the Bolsheviks constituted less than one-half of the Kronstadt Soviet. The majority consisted of SRs and Anarchists. There were no Mensheviks at all in Kronstadt. The Menshevik Party hated Kronstadt. The official SRs, incidentally, had no better attitude toward it. The Kronstadt SRs quickly went over into opposition to Kerensky and formed one of the shock brigades of the so-called “left” SRs. They based themselves on the peasant part of the fleet and of the shore garrison. As for the Anarchists, they were the most motley group. Among them were real revolutionists, like Zhuk and Zhelezniakov, but these were the elements most closely linked to the Bolsheviks. Most of the Kronstadt “Anarchists” represented the city petty bourgeoisie and stood upon a lower revolutionary level than the SRs. The president of the soviet was a non-party man, “sympathetic to the Anarchists,” and in essence a peaceful petty clerk who had been formerly subservient to the czarist authorities and was now subservient … to the revolution. The complete absence of Mensheviks, the “left” character of the SRs, and the Anarchist hue of the petty bourgeois were due to the sharpness of the revolutionary struggle in the fleet and the dominating influence of the proletarian sections of the sailors.”

    Changes During the Years of Civil War

    “This social and political characterization of Kronstadt which, if desired, could be substantiated and illustrated by many facts and documents, is already sufficient to illuminate the upheavals which occurred in Kronstadt during the years of the civil war and as a result of which its physiognomy changed beyond recognition. Precisely about this important aspect of the question, the belated accusers say not one word, partly out of ignorance, partly out of malevolence.”

    “Yes, Kronstadt wrote a heroic page in the history of the revolution. But the civil war began a systematic depopulation of Kronstadt and of the whole Baltic fleet. As early as the days of the October uprising, detachments of Kronstadt sailors were being sent to help Moscow. Other detachments were then sent to the Don, to the Ukraine, to requisition bread and organize the local power. It seemed at first as if Kronstadt were inexhaustible. From different fronts I sent dozens of telegrams about the mobilization of new “reliable” detachments from among the Petersburg workers and the Baltic sailors. But beginning as early as 1918, and in any case not later than 1919, the fronts began to complain that the new contingents of “Kronstadters” were unsatisfactory, exacting, undisciplined, unreliable in battle, and doing more harm than good. After the liquidation of Yudenich (in the winter of 1919), the Baltic fleet and the Kronstadt garrison were denuded of all revolutionary forces. All the elements among them that were of any use at all were thrown against Denikin in the south. If in 1917-18 the Kronstadt sailor stood considerably higher than the average level of the Red Army and formed the framework of its first detachments as well as the framework of the Soviet regime in many districts, those sailors who remained in “peaceful” Kronstadt until the beginning of 1921, not fitting in on any of the fronts of the civil war, stood by this time on a level considerably lower, in general, than the average level of the Red Army, and included a great percentage of completely demoralized elements, wearing showy bell-bottom pants and sporty haircuts.”

    Demoralization based on hunger and speculation had in general greatly increased by the end of the civil war. The so-called “sack-carriers” (petty speculators) had become a social blight, threatening to stifle the revolution. Precisely in Kronstadt where the garrison did nothing and had everything it needed, the demoralization assumed particularly great dimensions. When conditions became very critical in hungry Petrograd the Political Bureau more than once discussed the possibility of securing an “internal loan” from Kronstadt, where a quantity of old provisions still remained. But delegates of the Petrograd workers answered: “You will get nothing from them by kindness. They speculate in cloth, coal, and bread. At present in Kronstadt every kind of riffraff has raised its head.” That was the real situation. It was not like the sugar-sweet idealizations after the event.

    It must further be added that former sailors from Latvia and Estonia who feared they would be sent to the front and were preparing to cross into their new bourgeois fatherlands, Latvia and Estonia, had joined the Baltic fleet as “volunteers.” These elements were in essence hostile to the Soviet authority and displayed this hostility fully in the days of the Kronstadt uprising … Besides these there were many thousands of Latvian workers, mainly former farm laborers, who showed unexampled heroism on all fronts of the civil war. We must not, therefore, tar the Latvian workers and the “Kronstadters” with the same brush. We must recognize social and political differences.”

    The Social Roots of the Uprising

    “The problem of a serious student consists in defining, on the basis of the objective circumstances, the social and political character of the Kronstadt mutiny and its place in the development of the revolution. Without this, “criticism” is reduced to sentimental lamentation of the pacifist kind in the spirit of Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, and their latest imitators. These gentlefolk do not have the slightest understanding of the criteria and methods of scientific research. They quote the proclamations of the insurgents like pious preachers quoting Holy Scriptures. They complain, moreover, that I do not take into consideration the “documents,” i.e., the gospel of Makhno and the other apostles. To take documents “into consideration” does not mean to take them at their face value. Marx has said that it is impossible to judge either parties or peoples by what they say about themselves. The characteristics of a party are determined considerably more by its social composition, its past, its relation to different classes and strata, than by its oral and written declarations, especially during a critical moment of civil war. If, for example, we began to take as pure gold the innumerable proclamations of Negrin, Companys, Garcia Oliver, and Company, we would have to recognize these gentlemen as fervent friends of socialism. But in reality they are its perfidious enemies.”

    “In 1917-18 the revolutionary workers led the peasant masses, not only of the fleet but of the entire country. The peasants seized and divided the land most often under the leadership of the soldiers and sailors arriving in their home districts. Requisitions of bread had only begun and were mainly from the landlords and kulaks at that. The peasants reconciled themselves to requisitions as a temporary evil. But the civil war dragged on for three years. The city gave practically nothing to the village and took almost everything from it, chiefly for the needs of war. The peasants approved of the “Bolsheviks” but became increasingly hostile to the “Communists.” If in the preceding period the workers had led the peasants forward, the peasants now dragged the workers back. Only because of this change in mood could the Whites partially attract the peasants, and even the half-peasants-half-workers, of the Urals to their side. This mood, i.e., hostility to the city, nourished the movement of Makhno, who seized and looted trains marked for the factories, the plants, and the Red Army, tore up railroad tracks, shot Communists, etc. Of course, Makhno called this the Anarchist struggle with the “state.” In reality, this was a struggle of the infuriated petty property owner against the proletarian dictatorship. A similar movement arose in a number of other districts, especially in Tambovsky, under the banner of “Social Revolutionaries.” Finally, in different parts of the country so-called “Green” peasant detachments were active. They did not want to recognize either the Reds or the Whites and shunned the city parties. The “Greens” sometimes met the Whites and received severe blows from them, but they did not, of course, get any mercy from the Reds. Just as the petty bourgeoisie is ground economically between the millstones of big capital and the proletariat, so the peasant partisan detachments were pulverized between the Red Army and the White.”

    “Only an entirely superficial person can see in Makhno’s bands or in the Kronstadt revolt a struggle between the abstract principles of Anarchism and “state socialism.” Actually these movements were convulsions of the peasant petty bourgeoisie which desired, of course, to liberate itself from capital but which at the same time did not consent to subordinate itself to the dictatorship of the proletariat. The petty bourgeoisie does not know concretely what it wants, and by virtue of its position cannot know. That is why it so readily covered the confusion of its demands and hopes, now with the Anarchist banner, now with the populist, now simply with the “Green.” Counterposing itself to the proletariat, it tried, flying all these banners, to turn the wheel of the revolution backwards.

    The Counter-revolutionary Character of the Kronstadt Mutiny

    There were, of course, no impassable bulkheads dividing the different social and political layers of Kronstadt. There were still at Kronstadt a certain number of qualified workers and technicians to take care of the machinery. But even they were identified by a method of negative selection as politically unreliable and of little use for the civil war. Some “leaders” of the uprising came from among these elements. However, this completely natural and inevitable circumstance, to which some accusers triumphantly point, does not change by one iota the anti-proletarian character of the revolt. Unless we are to deceive ourselves with pretentious slogans, false labels, etc., we shall see that the Kronstadt uprising was nothing but an armed reaction of the petty bourgeoisie against the hardships of social revolution and the severity of the proletarian dictatorship.”

    “That was exactly the significance of the Kronstadt slogan, “Soviets without Communists,” which was immediately seized upon, not only by the SRs but by the bourgeois liberals as well. As a rather far-sighted representative of capital, Professor Miliukov understood that to free the soviets from the leadership of the Bolsheviks would have meant within a short time to demolish the soviets themselves. The experience of the Russian soviets during the period of Menshevik and SR domination and, even more clearly, the experience of the German and Austrian soviets under the domination of the Social Democrats, proved this. Social Revolutionary-Anarchist soviets could serve only as a bridge from the proletarian dictatorship to capitalist restoration. They could play no other role, regardless of the “ideas” of their participants. The Kronstadt uprising thus had a counter-revolutionary character.”

    “From the class point of view, which – without offense to the honorable eclectics – remains the basic criterion not only for politics but for history, it is extremely important to contrast the behavior of Kronstadt to that of Petrograd in those critical days. The whole leading stratum of the workers had also been drawn out of Petrograd. Hunger and cold reigned in the deserted capital, perhaps even more fiercely than in Moscow. A heroic and tragic period! All were hungry and irritable. All were dissatisfied. In the factories there was dull discontent. Underground organizers sent by the SRs and the White officers tried to link the military uprising with the movement of the discontented workers.”

    “The Kronstadt paper wrote about barricades in Petrograd, about thousands being killed. The press of the whole world proclaimed the same thing. Actually the precise opposite occurred. The Kronstadt uprising did not attract the Petrograd workers. It repelled them. The stratification proceeded along class lines. The workers immediately felt that the Kronstadt mutineers stood on the opposite side of the barricades – and they supported the Soviet power. The political isolation of Kronstadt was the cause of its internal uncertainty and its military defeat.”

    The NEP and the Kronstadt Uprising

    “Victor Serge, who, it would seem, is trying to manufacture a sort of synthesis of anarchism, POUMism, and Marxism, has intervened very unfortunately in the polemic about Kronstadt. In his opinion, the introduction of the NEP one year earlier could have averted the Kronstadt uprising. Let us admit that. But advice like this is very easy to give after the event. It is true, as Victor Serge remembers, that I had proposed the transition to the NEP as early as 1920. But I was not at all sure in advance of its success. It was no secret to me that the remedy could prove to be more dangerous than the malady itself. When I met opposition from the leaders of the party, I did not appeal to the ranks, in order to avoid mobilizing the petty bourgeoisie against the workers. The experience of the ensuing twelve months was required to convince the party of the need for the new course. But the remarkable thing is that it was precisely the Anarchists all over the world who looked upon the NEP as … a betrayal of communism. But now the advocates of the Anarchists denounce us for not having introduced the NEP a year earlier.”

    “In 1921 Lenin more than once openly acknowledged that the party’s obstinate defense of the methods of Military Communism had become a great mistake. But does this change matters? Whatever the immediate or remote causes of the Kronstadt rebellion, it was in its very essence a mortal danger to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Simply because it had been guilty of a political error, should the proletarian revolution really have committed suicide to punish itself?”

    “Or perhaps it would have been sufficient to inform the Kronstadt sailors of the NEP decrees to pacify them? Illusion! The insurgents did not have a conscious program and they could not have had one because of the very nature of the petty bourgeoisie. They themselves did not clearly understand that what their fathers and brothers needed first of all was free trade. They were discontented and confused but they saw no way out. The more conscious, i.e., the rightist elements, acting behind the scenes, wanted the restoration of the bourgeois regime. But they did not say so out loud. The “left” wing wanted the liquidation of discipline, “free soviets,” and better rations. The regime of the NEP could only gradually pacify the peasant, and, after him, the discontented sections of the army and the fleet. But for this time and experience were needed.”

    “Most puerile of all is the argument that there was no uprising, that the sailors had made no threats, that they “only” seized the fortress and the battleships. It would seem that the Bolsheviks marched with bared chests across the ice against the fortress only because of their evil characters, their inclination to provoke conflicts artificially, their hatred of the Kronstadt sailors, or their hatred of the Anarchist doctrine (about which absolutely no one, we may say in passing, bothered in those days). Is this not childish prattle? Bound neither to time nor place, the dilettante critics try (seventeen years later!) to suggest that everything would have ended in general satisfaction if only the revolution had left the insurgent sailors alone. Unfortunately, the world counterrevolution would in no case have left them alone. The logic of the struggle would have given predominance in the fortress to the extremists, that is, to the most counterrevolutionary elements. The need for supplies would have made the fortress directly dependent upon the foreign bourgeoisie and their agents, the White emigres. All the necessary preparations toward this end were already being made. Under similar circumstances only people like the Spanish Anarchists or POUMists would have waited passively, hoping for a happy outcome. The Bolsheviks, fortunately, belonged to a different school. They considered it their duty to extinguish the fire as soon as it started, thereby reducing to a minimum the number of victims.”

    The “Kronstadters” without a Fortress

    “In essence, the venerable critics are opponents of the dictatorship of the proletariat and by that token are opponents of the revolution. In this lies the whole secret. It is true that some of them recognize the revolution and the dictatorship – in words. But this does not help matters. They wish for a revolution which will not lead to dictatorship or for a dictatorship which will get along without the use of force. Of course, this would be a very “pleasant” dictatorship. It requires, however, a few trifles: an equal and, moreover, an extremely high, development of the toiling masses. But in such conditions the dictatorship would in general be unnecessary. Some Anarchists, who are really liberal pedagogues, hope that in a hundred or a thousand years the toilers will have attained so high a level of development that coercion will prove unnecessary. Naturally, if capitalism could lead to such a development, there would be no reason for overthrowing capitalism. There would be no need either for violent revolution or for the dictatorship which is an inevitable consequence of revolutionary victory. However, the decaying capitalism of our day leaves little room for humanitarian-pacifist illusions.”

    “The working class, not to speak of the semiproletarian masses, is not homogeneous, either socially or politically. The class struggle produces a vanguard that absorbs the best elements of the class. A revolution is possible when the vanguard is able to lead the majority of the proletariat. But this does not at all mean that the internal contradictions among the toilers disappear. At the moment of the highest peak of the revolution they are of course attenuated, but only to appear later at a new stage in all their sharpness. Such is the course of the revolution as a whole. Such was the course of Kronstadt. When parlor pinks try to mark out a different route for the October Revolution, after the event, we can only respectfully ask them to show us exactly where and when their great principles were confirmed in practice, at least partially, at least in tendency? Where are the signs that lead us to expect the triumph of these principles in the future? We shall of course never get an answer.”

    “A revolution has its own laws. Long ago we formulated those “lessons of October” which have not only a Russian but an international significance. No one else has even tried to suggest any other “lessons.” The Spanish revolution is negative confirmation of the “lessons of October.” And the severe critics are silent or equivocal. The Spanish government of the “People’s Front” stifles the socialist revolution and shoots revolutionists. The Anarchists participate in this government, or, when they are driven out, continue to support the executioners. And their foreign allies and lawyers occupy themselves meanwhile with a defense … of the Kronstadt mutiny against the harsh Bolsheviks. A shameful travesty!”

    “The present disputes around Kronstadt revolve around the same class axis as the Kronstadt uprising itself, in which the reactionary sections of the sailors tried to overthrow the proletarian dictatorship. Conscious of their impotence on the arena of present-day revolutionary politics, the petty-bourgeois blunderers and eclectics try to use the old Kronstadt episode for the struggle against the Fourth International, that is, against the party of the proletarian revolution. These latter-day “Kronstadters” will also be crushed – true, without the use of arms since, fortunately, they do not have a fortress.”

    Written by Leon Trotsky January 15, 1938 in an article entitled: Hue and Cry Over Kronstadt

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 14, 2009 @ 5:47 am

  24. […] Netflix. Marker’s last film also spoke to these concerns as might be indicated by its title The Last Bolshevik, a study of Russian director Soviet film-maker Alexander Medvedkin who lived from 1900 to 1989. […]

    Pingback by A Grin without a Cat « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — June 18, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

  25. In essence, the venerable critics are opponents of the dictatorship of the proletariat and by that token are opponents of the revolution. In this lies the whole secret.

    Comment by SDFireSystems — August 6, 2010 @ 8:52 am

  26. […] artist and the Stalinist system and makes a perfect companion piece to Chris Marker’s “The Last Bolshevik“, which described the plight of film directors such as Alexander Medvedkin, who sought to […]

    Pingback by The Desert of Forbidden Art « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — March 9, 2011 @ 6:20 pm

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