Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 17, 2015

The hazards of success, especially for Marxists

Filed under: celebrity — louisproyect @ 6:56 pm

For Boris Kargalitsky, socialist writer and activist who founded the Popular Front for Perestroika in Moscow
Boris Yeltsin a leading member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, whose political courage has made him a leading symbol throughout the country.

The dedication found in this book:

In bourgeois society, the artist is often undermined by his or her own success. You become too big for your britches. After Woody Allen became the NY Times’s darling, they refrained from telling him that his movies were becoming crap. The same thing with Saul Bellow. After the success of “Herzog”, his editors would not dare tell him that a novel like “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” was racist tripe.

It would seem that Marxist celebrities have the same problem. Slavoj Zizek, the Elvis superstar of Marxism, writes an article for the New Statesman that is based almost exclusively on a website that has about much credibility as Infowars or Global Research. The magazine issues a retraction stating that the paragraphs drawn from the website were being deleted because they made false claims.

Tariq Ali gives a speech to an antiwar rally in London that proves England had plans to invade Syria with a “rebel army”. How does he know? Because a doddering old fool named Roland Dumas who had zero connection to the French state said so in a TV interview.

Don’t celebrities like Tariq Ali and Slavoj Zizek understand that they look like idiots when they make such outrageous claims? Don’t they care? I guess once you have reached such a hallowed status on the left, you can get away with anything—except on this blog.

Below are the concluding paragraphs of chapter two of Tariq Ali’s “Revolution from Above” that obviously reflect the dedication cited above. Trying to map the trajectory of Ali and Kagarlitsky into apologists for Putin’s wars in Syria and Ukraine respectively is much easier when you consider how they found it so easy to hoist Yeltsin on their shoulders in 1988. Perhaps if they had been more self-critical or better yet more in touch with the grass roots, Ali might have not written a book that had reached such ludicrous conclusions. The chapter ends with Ali gazing fondly on a member of Kagarlistky’s (aptly named?) Popular Front who was wearing badges of Che Guevara and “All Power to the Soviets”,  enough to close the deal for the street-fighting man.

In the year that this book came out, I was developing a different perspective on what was happening in the USSR, mostly as a result of what I was seeing in Nicaragua: a clear abandonment of the Sandinista revolution as the Kremlin pursued a new foreign policy in line with perestroika, one that saw Nicaragua as a bargaining chip. When Tecnica executive director Michael Urmann returned from a trip to the USSR to feel out the Russians over support for our initiatives in Africa, he was stunned by the response. All the economists he met with were only interested in discussing Adam Smith and Milton Friedman. Counter-revolution was in the air. In 1993, five short years after the publication of “Revolution from Above”, the call for “All Power to the Soviets” would ring hollow as Yeltsin’s tanks shelled the Russian parliament.

In 2000 Ali must have written off all that Che Guevara stuff as a youthful indiscretion since he clearly had no objection to fellow NLR editor Perry Anderson writing that “Socialism has ceased to be a widespread ideal” and that “Marxism is no longer a dominant in the culture of the Left. “ He was dismayed that the left had failed to come up with a “fluent vision of where the world is going” that could compare to the scribblings of Francis Fukuyama, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Samuel Huntington, Daniel Yergin, Edward Luttwak, and Friedman (we can’t be sure whether he was tipping his hat to Thomas or Milton since the article omitted the first names.)

Fast-forward another 12 years. It is 2012 and Marxism and socialism are on the agenda again, while Fukuyama has become so repentant about his “end of history” thesis that he writes an article in FT stating that American democracy has nothing to teach China.

If the pendulum has swung away from the 2000 defeatist mood that infected the NLR, it has not swung far enough apparently for our NLR gurus to realign with the revolutionary socialism of their youth. The enthusiasm is less over the hammer-and-sickle (or whatever icon is more appropriate for the 21st century) and much more for the Cross of St. George that Russian paramilitaries and Spetznaz wear in Ukraine and Syria.

From chapter two of “Revolution from Above”:

Yuri Karyakin, a well-known Soviet writer, who together with Yegor Yakovlev and Lev Karpinsky served on the Central Committee apparatus during the Khrushchev era and was sent into exile, expressed his anger at the apparatus. He had started off by denouncing the way in which Stalinism and the Western Left had transformed the thought of Marx and Lenin into a religion. I expressed agreement, although it soon became clear that the dogmas of the Brezhnev period had made Karyakin deeply cynical about socialism. He spoke angrily about the corrupt apparatchiks, but nonetheless like many others his hopes were rekindled by Gorbachev. His judgement on the Conference was clearcut: ‘It was Yeltsin who fought Ligachev all the way. He’s totally honest and he has polarised politics. For me he’s worth more than almost all of them put together.’

The resolutions passed at the Conference represented an important advance, but unless there are some concrete results the rise in political consciousness could begin to falter. The spectre which haunts the party masses who back the reforms is of their leader as a prisoner of the apparatus. A number of people referred to this possibility, of political consciousness starting to fall back, although it is far more likely that if the obstruction continues Gorbachev will indeed either appeal over the heads of the bureaucracy and win, or lose and resign. The verdict on the Nineteenth Party conference, perhaps, could be expressed in a simple formula: one step forward, two steps sideways.

This was the view of many participants, as well as the mood of many workers listening to report-backs from the Conference. At the Slava Factory in Moscow, which has a workforce of over 12,000, the factory delegate was cheered as he reported Yeltsin’s speech. The delegate from Sverdlovsk, Volkov, had been reprimanded by the Party Secretary for his speech defending Yeltsin. When Volkov returned to Sverdlovsk he was treated as a local hero, and given a prime time half-hour slot on the local television station where he further elaborated on his speech. When he reported back to his factory he was greeted by a standing ovation. The workers were extremely angry at the action of the local party secretary who reprimanded him, and that same night dozens of them went to the offices of the Party secretary: in thick black paint on the road outside they left behind an extremely rude message. The next morning the slogan was the talk of the town. Since the workers had used a very special paint it was not possible to remove it by normal methods. At mid-day the patch of road outside the Secretary’s office was given a fresh coating of tar and re-surfaced to the great amusement of the passers by. The secretary in question was subsequently transferred to the Diplomatic Service!

The unofficial groups immediately began a signature campaign on the streets in support of Yeltsin and demanding his return to the Politburo. In Sverdlovsk, Sakhalin, Omsk, thousands of signatures were collected. In Moscow, Andrei Babushkin, a young student from Moscow University and an activist of the Popular. Front went out into the streets. He was beginning to collect hundreds of signatures when the militia arrested him. He was kept in prison for five days. When I met him at a Popular front press conference in July 1988 he was totally unrepentant. He had not been mistreated at all. The food in prison was just like that in the Young Pioneer camps and `in the prison van I talked to the militia members about Yeltsin. They saw the petition and most of them said they agreed with me. They, too, were on the side of Boris Nicolaevich.’ Babushkin and his young Komsomol friends were planning on returning to the streets again. His shirt was adorned with two badges: one was an image of Che Guevara, the other was a badge in Russian which bore the inscription: ‘ALL POWER TO THE SOVIETS!’



  1. Tariq Ali has made a career out of being wrong. What I really can’t understand is what happened to Boris Kagarlitsky.

    Comment by Jason Schulman (@PartyOfANewType) — December 17, 2015 @ 7:04 pm

  2. Yeltsin’s manipulation of the working class to bring about the neoliberal dismantlement of the Soviet economy was a remarkably grotesque achievement.

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 18, 2015 @ 5:18 am

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