Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 19, 2017

The Fencer

Filed under: Film,sports,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 8:49 pm

Opening at Lincoln Plaza Cinema on Friday, “The Fencer” is an Estonian-language film made in 2015 by Finns that tells the story of a fencing instructor named Endel Nelis who led an underdog team of children to victory in a competition held in Leningrad in the early 50s. In doing so, he took considerable risks since he had been drafted into the Estonian contingent of the Nazi army after Hitler invaded Estonia. Torn between self-preservation and dedication to his students, he chooses them. There was a real person named Endel Nelis who died in 1993 but the film’s plot takes liberties with his story. There is no evidence that he was wanted by the KGB even though Estonians paid dearly for being dragooned into Hitler’s killing machine. While the film has a fictional narrative, there is a larger truth about the USSR and Estonia that I will address after saying a few words about this altogether stirring film.

As a genre, “The Fencer” has a lot in common with both documentary and narrative films I have seen about kids from poverty-stricken circumstances winning chess tournaments, especially “Dark Horse” that came out the same year as “The Fencer”. “Dark Horse”, a New Zealand film, was about a troubled Maori man named Genesis Potini who trained Maori children to compete and win in chess tournaments against children from elite schools. “The Fencer” will also remind you of “The Karate Kid” since fencing and karate are both one-on-one combat sports.

However, the focus is mostly on Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi) who has arrived in the poor and rural village of Haapsalu, Estonia from Leningrad in order to avoid detection by the Soviet police. He interviews with the principal of the local school for a sports instructor position that he hardly looks forward to. The gym lacks equipment and the children are not very athletic. In an early scene, 1 out of 5 boys run around vaulting equipment rather than leap over it. When Nelis decides to take them out skiing, the principal informs him that the skis are currently being used at a military base for training.

Missing the fencing competition he excelled at in Leningrad, he begins working out with a fencing foil on his own in the school’s gym in his spare time only to be discovered by a pre-teen girl named Marta who becomes totally fixated on his balletic moves.

Can you teach me to do that, she asks. Finally discovering something that might motivate his students, Nelis begins a fencing class that starts out on the most elementary basis. The children are lined up like they were recruits in basic training and put through the abc’s of fencing—except without a weapon. Once he realizes that they are determined to become fencers, he takes them into a nearby forest where they cut down branches that are the length of a fencing foil and equips them with an ersatz handle.

The film includes a romance between Nelis and the school librarian who stands behind his work, even though that puts her at odds with the principal who regards fencing as “feudal”. In a PTA type meeting, he urges the parents to support his decision to drop the program using Stalinist rhetoric about the “needs of the proletariat”. The grandfather of Nelis’s star student stands up to remind him that Karl Marx was a fencer when young.

“The Fencer” is an old-fashioned film with a script that borders on the melodramatic. What makes it compelling is the performances by the leading characters and enough of the actual art of fencing to carry you along. In plucky underdog films such as this, you can surely expect a happy ending.

As someone who had just finished a survey on the films of Andrzej Wajda, I found myself wondering about the historical backdrop for the film. As I had mentioned in my review of “Katyn”, how was it possible for the USSR to organize the execution of 22,000 Polish officers for the crime of being officers? By the same token, what kind of justice is it to put men in concentration camps who had been forced to fight on the side of the Nazis? In a key scene between Nelis and his librarian lover, he tells her that he managed to flee from the army not long after being drafted without being caught. The other men in the unit, who were friends and neighbors from Estonia, were not so lucky. They were apprehended and killed.

According to Wikipedia, the majority of Estonian men volunteered to join the Nazi military and comprised a 70,000 strong force. An Estonian Legion was led by Franz Augsberger, a high-ranking German SS commander. In a key battle between Soviet and Nazi forces in the Battle of Narwa in January, 1944, Estonian soldiers were key to holding off the Red Army. Soviet scorched earth tactics helped to keep Estonia in the Nazi camp. Two months later, Soviet bombers attacked the capital city of Tallinn and left 40 percent of the homes burned to the ground.

If your knowledge of Estonia is based on these bare facts, you would tend to regard its citizens as a reactionary mob despite what is depicted in “The Fencer”. Indeed, whenever I heard about Estonia in the 1960s, it was always written off as hotbed of fascism in the same way as Ukraine, another Nazi ally supposedly. But like Ukraine, Estonia was not reflexively predisposed to anti-Communism. In some ways, writing Estonians off as “bad seeds” reminds me of Daniel Goldhagen’s argument that Germans were innately anti-Semitic.

Like Poland, Estonia was ceded to the Soviet Union as part of the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. After forcing the Estonian government to accept Soviet military bases and 25,000 soldiers on its soil, the country quickly came under total Soviet control when an additional 90,000 Soviet soldiers were sent in as reinforcements. A puppet government was installed and a Red flag replaced the Estonian flag over the nation’s capital. Shortly afterwards, tribunals were set up to try “enemies of the people” against a backdrop of demonstration elections that recorded a 92.8% preference for the Communist Party, the only one on the ballot of course. Economically, the country was transformed overnight. Everything, including small shops, was nationalized and trade with the West came to an end.

During the first year of Soviet occupation over 8,000 people, including most of the country’s leading politicians and military officers, were arrested and 2,200 of those arrested were executed on the spot in Estonia. The rest were sent to prison camps in the USSR, from which very few returned. 8,000 doesn’t sound like very much but in 1939 Estonia had a population of 1,122,000, just a bit larger than San Jose, California. Can you imagine the trauma suffered by such a city if 8,000 of its residents were killed for no other reasons than being “enemies of the people”? Or think of it this way, if Estonia had a population as large as that of the USA’s today, the proportionate number of victims would have been 2,400,000.

Considering the fact that the Nazis had never killed a single Estonian until it invaded the country on its way to the USSR, it is understandable why many young men who were politically naïve might have seen them as the lesser evil.

Last Thursday, RT.com published an article titled “‘Perversion of history’: Russian officials blast NATO film glorifying Nazi collaborators” that attacked an 8-minute film produced by NATO about the Forest Brothers, a Baltic-wide guerrilla movement that fought alongside the Nazis against the Red Army. Russian Foreign Minister Maria Zakharova wrote: “Don’t remain indifferent, this is a perversion of history that NATO knowingly spreads in order to undermine the outcome of the Nuremberg Tribunal and it must be cut short!” She also correctly stated that many of the Forest Brothers were former Nazi collaborators and members of the Baltic Waffen SS.

The problem with much of RT.com reporting is that it operates in a time-tunnel that begins with, for example, Nazi alliances with Estonian nationalists but not with the secret protocols that gave the USSR free rein to seize control of Estonia and murder tens of thousands of its citizens only because it saw that as necessary for securing a buffer against the West, which at that time did not include Adolf Hitler.

As difficult as it is for some people on the left to understand, the best defense of the USSR was working-class solidarity across borders, not the Metternichian foreign policy of Stalin in the past and of Putin’s Russia today. After WWII, Stalin retained control of the Baltic States with the full approval of the USA but as the Cold War began, they began to be courted by the CIA as possible allies. Instead of maintaining its domination of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, the Kremlin should have granted them the right to self-determination and offered them total political and economic support as independent states. That, in fact, was the original policy of the Soviet Union even though it is virtually unknown to people who rely on RT.com.

It is quite natural that in such circumstances the “freedom to secede from the union” by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great-Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is. There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and sovietised workers will drown in that tide of chauvinistic Great-Russian riffraff like a fly in milk.

–V.I. Lenin, The Question of Nationalities or “Autonomisation”

 

 

July 14, 2017

Saudi Arabia’s snitch pissed off at Jacobin

Filed under: humor,Saudi Arabia,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 11:56 pm

If I was Norton, I wouldn’t take this lying down. I’d get together with Molly Klein, Jacob Levich and John Steppling to organize a foursome workshop on “Jacobin delenda est” at the next Left Forum.

July 6, 2017

“Trotskyists” put down red carpet for obscure Stalinist blogger

Filed under: Stalinism,Syria — louisproyect @ 11:53 pm

Jeff Mackler

On Friday, July 14th at the Solidarity Center in NYC, Stephen Gowans will be speaking on “Washington’s Long War in Syria“, his new pro-Assad book. Solidarity Center is the HQ of the International Action Center, the antiwar front of the Workers World Party, a group that emerged out of the Trotskyist movement after the founder decided to back the Soviet tanks rather than the Hungarian workers in 1956. They are essentially Stalinists–much more so than the Communist Party.

Among the sponsors of the meeting is something called UNAC, the United Antiwar Coalition, that has a steering committee that is a mixture of WWP’er Sarah Flounders and independent Stalinists like Phil Wilayto.

But the largest party representation is from Socialist Action, a tiny sect led by Jeff Mackler. After splitting from the SWP, Mackler and other party veterans formed SA in the early 80s to rebuild a purified Trotskyist group. It has failed abjectly but like the group it split from, it soldiers on in the foolish notion that it is to the USA that Lenin’s party was to Russia. Mackler is on the steering committee as is Marilyn Levin and Christine Gavreau, who like Mackler are in their seventies. I can’t say for sure if they are still in SA but I strongly suspect that they are. This is definitely not a formation that is going to compete with the DSA for fresh young blood.

Gowans is a piece of work. With a straight face, he writes things like this:

The US Library of Congress country study on Syria refers to “the  socialist structure of the government and economy,” points out that  “the government continues to control strategic industries,” mentions that “many citizens have access to subsidized public housing and many basic commodities are heavily subsidized,” and that “senior regime members” have “hampered” the liberalization of the economy.

https://www.liberationnews.org/syrias-uprising-in-context-html/

Meanwhile, Bassam Haddad, no friend of the Syrian rebels, wrote this:

By the late 1990s, the business community that the Asads had created in their own image had transformed Syria from a semi-socialist state into a crony capitalist state par excellence. The economic liberalization that started in 1991 had redounded heavily to the benefit of tycoons who had ties to the state or those who partnered with state officials. The private sector outgrew the public sector, but the most affluent members of the private sector were state officials, politicians and their relatives. The economic growth registered in the mid-1990s was mostly a short-lived bump in consumption, as evidenced by the slump at the end of the century. Growth rates that had been 5-7 percent fell to 1-2 percent from 1997 to 2000 and beyond.

After Bashar al-Asad succeeded his father in 2000, the architects of Syria’s economic policy sought to reverse the downturn by liberalizing the economy further, for instance by reducing state subsidies. Private banks were permitted for the first time in nearly 40 years and a stock market was on the drawing board. After 2005, the state-business bonds were strengthened by the announcement of the Social Market Economy, a mixture of state and market approaches that ultimately privileged the market, but a market without robust institutions or accountability. Again, the regime had consolidated its alliance with big business at the expense of smaller businesses as well as the Syrian majority who depended on the state for services, subsidies and welfare. It had perpetuated cronyism, but dressed it in new garb. Families associated with the regime in one way or another came to dominate the private sector, in addition to exercising considerable control over public economic assets. These clans include the Asads and Makhloufs, but also the Shalish, al-Hassan, Najib, Hamsho, Hambouba, Shawkat and al-As‘ad families, to name a few. The reconstituted business community, which now included regime officials, close supporters and a thick sliver of the traditional bourgeoisie, effected a deeper (and, for the regime, more dangerous) polarization of Syrian society along lines of income and region.

http://www.merip.org/mer/mer262/syrian-regimes-business-backbone

None of this ever entered the ideological cocoon of the Marcyite wing of the American left that now includes Socialist Action. Indeed, nothing that took place within Syria held even the slightest interest for them. These are people who get their ideas from ZeroHedge, Moon of Alabama, Global Research, Information Clearing House and other bottom-feeding click-bait outlets of the lunatic left.

Sad, really.

May 31, 2017

Socialism in one country revivalism

Filed under: socialism,Stalinism,state capitalism — louisproyect @ 8:47 pm

From the blog of Roland Boer, who was awarded the Isaac Deutscher prize in 2014, a decision that made about as much sense as naming Jeff Sessions Attorney General

The subtitle of a Jacobin article by New Left Review editorial board member Daniel Finn probably speaks for many on the left: “The Bolivarian Revolution went too far for capitalism but not far enough for socialism.” Like doctors examining a critically ill patient, the latest issue of the Jacobin features a panel of experts offering various cures. Favoring radical surgery is Eva Maria, a Venezuelan member of the ISO who answers the question “how socialist was Venezuela’s ‘twenty-first century socialism’” thusly:

Chávez’s thinking was that he could take over a capitalist state through an electoral process. Then, he could help foster the social revolution by using the position he held in the state. But I think that presupposes a lot of things that are unstable and untrue.

Mike Gonzalez, a former member of the British SWP that spawned the ISO, has an article in the same issue that accuses the Pink Tide governments of having “left stranded and disoriented those millions who fought for a different world”.

The methodology of Finn, Maria and Gonzalez is the one followed by film critics. You go to a press screening and take notes on all the terrible things that Michael Bay did in his latest movie. There is little doubt that Bay’s movies are crap but are the criticisms going to help young screenwriters and directors make better films? As a film critic and someone who was deeply involved in the Sandinista revolution–another that received thumbs down from the pure at heart–this sort of sideline criticism strikes me as utterly sterile.

But on a deeper level, it poses the question whether the ideological assumptions at the heart of these critics effaces one of the major theoretical challenges the left has faced since 1917—namely, can socialism be built in one country. This is exactly the meaning of the criticisms–that all of these countries should have “gone socialist”. One imagines that they came to this conclusion since Saint Lenin said it was possible in the Soviet Union but the fallen saint Leon Trotsky refused to describe the USSR in those terms even after 19 years of “socialist development”. In chapter nine of “Revolution Betrayed”, he describes the character of the USSR as not yet decided by history:

To define the Soviet regime as transitional, or intermediate, means to abandon such finished social categories as capitalism (and therewith “state capitalism”) and also socialism. But besides being completely inadequate in itself, such a definition is capable of producing the mistaken idea that from the present Soviet regime only a transition to socialism is possible. In reality a backslide to capitalism is wholly possible. A more complete definition will of necessity be complicated and ponderous.

This was the only conceivable way to describe a country that despite the total absence of private property was indistinguishable politically and socially from fascism. For those who have been trained in Tony Cliff’s ideology, characterizing the USSR was much easier. It was “state capitalism”, a term that had little purchase outside of the ranks of the international movement he built except for individuals like CLR James who while believing in it never devoted much ink to defending it. The Cliffites never really answered the question adequately, however. If it was impossible to build socialism in one country in Russia, how in the world could Cuba, Venezuela or Nicaragua “go socialist”? The Sandinistas ruled over a country that had a population about the size of Brooklyn, one elevator in the entire country, and whose GDP was less than what Americans spent on blue jeans. Socialism? If the USSR with its vast resources, immense population and powerful army was not capable of building socialism, how could any of these fragile Latin and Central American nations satisfy the demanding critics?

Up until Lenin took that train ride back to Russia in 1917, he never considered Russia to be capable of building socialism. He was for a revolution against feudalism that could motivate workers in the West to overthrow capitalism. In other words, he was for a world revolution. In 1920, Lenin gave a speech on the 3rd anniversary of the revolution that categorically denied the possibility of building socialism without the USSR being linked to more advanced and liberated nations to the West:

Three years ago, when we were at Smolny, the Petrograd workers’ uprising showed us that it was more unanimous than we could have expected, but had we been told that night that, three years later, we would have what now exists, that we would have this victory of ours, nobody, not even the most incurable optimist, would have believed it. We knew at that time that our victory would be a lasting one only when our cause had triumphed the world over, and so when we began working for our cause we counted exclusively on the world revolution.

Just three years later, he adopted the same cautious tone in an article titled “On Cooperation” that defined socialism in the USSR as a network of peasant cooperatives similar to those that the Chavistas promoted. The big difference between the USSR and Venezuela is that the Bolsheviks “expropriated the expropriators”, a bold act that prompted a counter-revolutionary invasion that cost up to 12 million lives, most of them civilian, and $35 billion. If Chavez had followed “20th century socialism”, he would have expropriated the expropriators as well. That would have eliminated the internal threat but accelerated the external one. The USA would have wasted no time imposing crippling sanctions to make the country “cry uncle”. None of this ever enters the calculations of someone like Mike Gonzalez. It might have been thrilling to him to witness such a transformation in Venezuela even if it lasted briefly and left our movement feeling just as crushed as when Pinochet took power in 1973. We need a permanent revolution, not in the Trotskyist sense but in the sense of permanence. Capitalism achieved that kind of permanence beginning in the 15th century because it pitted a bourgeoisie that was accumulating social and economic power within the framework of medieval political institutions.

Nikolai Bukharin was very clear about the differences between the bourgeois revolution and proletarian revolutions. Marxists traditionally had believed that just as capitalism emerged out of the old feudal order, so would socialism emerge out of bourgeois society. However, as Bukharin pointed out, the bourgeoisie was not an exploited class and therefore was able to rule society long before its political revolution was effected. The workers are in a completely different position, however. They lack an independent economic base and suffer economic and cultural exploitation. Prior to its revolution, the working-class remains backward and therefore, unlike the bourgeoisie, is unable to prepare itself in advance for ruling all of society. It was only through the seizure of power and rule through a vanguard party that the workers could build socialism.

What did Karl Marx think about a revolution in Russia? Toward the end of his life, he became increasingly convinced that the country was ripe for revolution. So persuaded was he of this eventuality that he began to study Russian to keep up with the developments in the country. Just two years before his death, he began corresponding with Vera Zasulich, a one-time Narodnik who had become a Marxist. However, she had qualms about whether Russia had to go through a capitalist phase before socialism was possible, a view held by Georgi Plekhanov who was regarded as the most advanced Marxist thinker in the country.

Marx said it was not necessary and even anticipated what Lenin would state in 1923 about socialism resting on communal peasant farming: “My answer is that, thanks to the unique combination of circumstances in Russia, the rural commune, which is still established on a national scale, may gradually shake off its primitive characteristics and directly develop as an element of collective production on a national scale.”

A year after Marx wrote this letter to Zasulich, he and Engels co-wrote a preface to a new edition to Capital that fleshed out the relationship between Russia and advanced nations in the West:

The Communist Manifesto had, as its object, the proclamation of the inevitable impending dissolution of modern bourgeois property. But in Russia we find, face-to-face with the rapidly flowering capitalist swindle and bourgeois property, just beginning to develop, more than half the land owned in common by the peasants. Now the question is: can the Russian obshchina [commune], though greatly undermined, yet a form of primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of Communist common ownership? Or, on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution such as constitutes the historical evolution of the West?

The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.

In other words, in 1920 Lenin was simply repeating what Marx and Engels had written in 1882. If the Russian Revolution detonated revolutions in Germany, England, France et al, then a “communist development” would be possible. Marx never wrote much about what a socialist revolution would look like until 1871, when the Paris Commune became the first state ever governed by the workers themselves. Marx’s focus in his book on the Commune was not on “socialism” as much as it was about the proletariat in power. Clearly, the failure of the Commune to be replicated anywhere else in France, let alone the rest of Europe, sealed its fate. Its importance was an example of working people acting in their own interests without a ruling class. As such, it had to be destroyed. Marx ends “Civil War in France” with a judgement on its historical significance: “Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators history has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priest will not avail to redeem them.”

The key word is harbinger.

Yesterday, a graduate student in Tampa, Florida named Donald Parkinson replied to someone who identified Nikolai Bukharin as the inventor of the theory of socialism in one country even though it is usually attributed to Josef Stalin. Parkinson said that there were those who came before him including Karl Kautsky, something that was news to me.

I had never associated Kautsky with the theory but a brief search turned up an article titled ‘Socialism in one country’ before Stalin: German origins that is worth reading. It was written by Erik Van Ree for the June 2010 Journal of Political Ideologies that includes a sharp analysis of Kautsky, who ironically attacked Lenin for trying to build socialism in a country that was not economically advanced enough. Van Ree writes:

After Engels’s death in 1895, the editor of Die Neue Zeit, Kautsky, was widely seen as the main theoretical spokesman of ‘orthodox Marxism’. In contrast to the revisionists, he rejected German colonial and imperial ambitions. In his view, the most effective way of strengthening the country would be to expedite the transition to socialism. In a remarkable March 1897 editorial of Die Neue Zeit discussing admiral Friedrich von Hollmann’s naval programme, it was concluded that Germany was too late to become a winner in the imperialist rivalry:

If Germany wants to get ahead of richer nations, only one road is available to her, the road of a ‘social revolution, which … makes possible the creation of new productive forces that cancel out the disadvantages of the geographical situation’. Marx expressed this thought already fifty years ago … and later Lassalle gave it the formulation that the world market will belong to that nation whose working class first manages to emancipate itself. … The Weltpolitik of the big industrialists must be confronted with the proletarian Weltpolitik.

This editorial suggested not only that Germany could establish socialism on her own, but that this would even represent the desirable state of affairs; for the spread of socialism to other nations would have undone the lead socialism would have given Germany, which was the whole point of the editorial. That was however not likely the real drift of Kautsky’s thinking. More likely, he only intended to show that the socialist economic system was a solution for countries that were insufficiently able to get ahead. Nonetheless, the editorial shows that even the ‘orthodox’ Kautsky was not insensitive to the patriotic attractions of socialism in one country.

Kautsky was influenced by the spirit of the times. From the 1870s onward capitalist states had been retreating from free trade to nationalization of their economies and protectionism. Correspondingly, in the work of German social-democrats, including even of free-trade advocate Kautsky, the concept of autarky became steadily more important. In his 1892 Das Erfurter Program, Kautsky defined the socialist state as a ‘self-sufficient association [Genossenschaft]’ that must produce ‘everything it needs for its existence’, something he said all socialists agreed on. He explained that the expansion of international trade had more to do with capitalism than with real needs, and that under socialism international trade ‘will be strongly reduced’.32 To be sure, Kautsky was probably not referring to an isolated socialist state but to an international community of socialist states, each of which would be organizing its own autarkic economy.33 Nonetheless, this was a programme of socialist autarky. The book was probably the single most authoritative compendium of the SPD’s ideology for the next 25 years, so the weight of these passages should not be underestimated.

Unlike Lars Lih who has devoted so many words to rehabilitating Kautsky’s reputation, this passage reminds me why I have always seen him a bit more critically. I would go so far as to advise all my readers to see all of the classic Marxist thinkers with “warts and all”, including a patzer like me.

 

March 30, 2017

Another Stasi film? No thanks

Filed under: Cold War,Germany,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 12:32 am

Goodbye, Lenin is available on Amazon.com

When it comes to films, there are two subject matters that have zero interest for me. One is the Holocaust and the other is the Stasi—the East German secret police. Both lend themselves to predictability both in plot and message. We know that the Jews will be killed and families scattered. We also can be sure that the Stasi will come off as fiendish enemies of freedom and human rights. So, when it comes to stick figures, nothing works better than making films about fending off Nazi Commandants or Stalinist secret police—both with lines like “Ve haf ways of making you talk.”

This afternoon I was listening to an NPR interview on the Leonard Lopate show with the husband-and-wife team that made the documentary “Karl Marx City” that is described in the heading of A.O. Scott’s NY Times review as revisiting the “Everyday Terror of Dictatorship”. The wife is the daughter of a man who after being accused of being a Stasi agent after the fall of the Wall killed himself.

Just for the heck of it I Googled “Stasi” and “film” and discovered that this is a well-trodden theme going back to 2006’s “The Lives of Others”. It is all about people living in fear of informants in a society with an abnormally high suicide rate. Although I never saw the film, it sounded like a fictional version of “Karl Marx City”.

2012 was a banner year for East German Stasi films with “The Tower” and “Barbara” getting rave reviews. Stephen Holden’s review of “The Tower” mentions that an overweight East German soldier is forced to eat feces in boot camp as a punishment. Thank goodness, East Germany is now liberated but who will now liberate the USA where a Marine drill sergeant forced a Muslim enlistee into a laundry dryer, where he suffered second degree burns?

In a NY Times profile of Christian Petzold, the director of “Barbara”, he states that he did not want Stasi operatives to be “depicted as mustache-twirling villains”. The eponymous lead character is a doctor who has been banished to the countryside for some unspecified offense, where she is snooped on by Stasi operatives. We learn from a review of the film that Petzold was influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, evidence of which is “the prickles of unease that creep into his work, creating a cold climate of paranoia and an oft-justified fear of an imminent threat.” I haven’t seen this film but when it comes to prickles of unease, you can’t help but think of Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain”, where mustache-twirling villains abound.

In the Lopate interview, the subject of “Ostalgie” came up. Since East Germany has become pretty well integrated into the smoothly running German capitalist machine, there’s not much concern about “Ostalgie”, which is a neologism based on East (Ost) and Nostalgia. The couple briefly referred to its feeling among some East Germans that there were some good things about Communism, like workers not having to worry about unemployment.

I wonder if that meant much to NPR listeners, who strike me as a mixture of Upper West Side psychotherapists, liberal college students and cabinet makers. Funny how that can matter to people—the right to a job. I was only on unemployment once in my life, back in 1990 before going to work for Columbia and it was really hell on wheels. I say that as someone without a family and debts at the time. What is it like for a coal miner in West Virginia who hadn’t worked in five years, had no health insurance before Obamacare and was suffering from some debilitating illness? Would he trade his situation for that of a coal miner in East Germany who was guaranteed a job for life even if the Stasi was snooping on him?

The Wikipedia article on “The Lives of Others” mentions a film that made quite an impression on me when it first came out in 2003. It describes “Goodbye, Lenin” as a comedy, which doesn’t do it justice. Suffice it to say that is a film that honors “Ostalgie” and puts East German Communists in a light that struck me as sensitive to why many Germans became Communists, even if the project involved compromises with the revolutionary impulses that made them to join the party.

Good Bye, Lenin

posted to http://www.marxmail.org on January 14, 2004

It is 1989 and Communism is crumbling everywhere except in the heart and mind of Christiane Kerner (Katrin Sass), a middle-aged Berlin resident who has a picture of Che Guevara on her bedroom wall and is fiercely loyal to party leader Erich Honecker.

Her son Alex (Daniel Brühl, who played the schizophrenic youth in the powerful “White Sound”) and daughter Ariane (Maria Simon) are typical young Berliners. They have little use for ideology and yearn for the material goods and personal liberty of the West. Despite their differences with their mother, they love her deeply and would do anything to make her happy.

One night as Christiane is heading toward a party celebration, she happens upon a police crackdown on anti-Communist protestors, including her son who is being thrown into the back of a truck in handcuffs. This sight causes her to collapse on the street with a heart attack. She is brought to a hospital in a coma.

When Alex visits the hospital, the doctor tells him that there is no guarantee that she will ever awake from the coma. If she does, the important thing is to prevent any shocks to her psyche since another heart attack would prove fatal. For the next eight months, as Christiane lays motionless in her hospital bed, everything changes around her. The Berlin Wall collapses, the two Germanys are reunited and the East is flooded by Western companies.

Finally Christiane regains consciousness but in a weakened state. In a ploy that constitutes the dramatic tension of the film and its underlying political and social theme, Alex resolves to create an artificial environment in her bedroom back at home that is faithful to the Communist past. After elaborately preparing the bedroom with the clunky furniture and Stalinoid photos they had discarded, they spirit her from the hospital making sure that the ambulance attendants stay mum about the political sea change.

Alex, who has befriended a co-worker and aspiring video artist at a Western satellite-dish company (his former employer has gone bankrupt, like almost all “Ostie” firms), relies on him to assemble archival news programs from the Communist past that they play for Christiane on a concealed VCR. The joke is that it really doesn’t matter, since the “news” consists mainly of reports about dissatisfaction in the West with unemployment, drug addiction and other social problems.

This joke is part of an ensemble of comic situations as Alex goes to greater and greater lengths to sustain the illusion that Communism is still in power. He searches desperately for consumer goods from the past that apparently not only appeal to his mother, but to other elderly East Berliners who feel swamped by Western products that are alien to their culture. Although the word “globalization” is not mentioned once in the film, an astute member of the audience might think of the French farmer José Bové who vandalized a Macdonalds for its encroachments on native cuisine and values.

As Alex ventures out into the brave new world of capitalism, he begins to question the changes. For example, when he brings his mother’s East Germany currency to a bank to be converted into Deutschemarks, he is told that the deadline was two days earlier and that they are worthless. When he raises his voice in protest, bank guards throw him out. He calls them assholes.

In the final scene of the film, as his mother is approaching death, he stages one last ruse that summarizes the sensibility of Wolfgang Becker, the film’s director and co-author (written with Bernd Lichtenberg). After she has discovered traces of the West during an unsupervised stroll in her neighborhood (Coca-Cola signs, BMW’s, etc.), they convince her that immigrants from West Germany have recently begin flooding into the East, seeking refuge from unemployment and crime. The film’s coda consists of a televised speech by East Germany’s “new” head of state, a renowned former cosmonaut (a cab-driver recruited by Alex), who addresses the profound changes in Germany as it is reunited under socialism.

However, the speech does not consist of Stalinist jargon. Instead it is a heartfelt plea for an egalitarian society that is based on human need rather than private profit. Obviously written by Alex, it is a sign of his final reconciliation with his mother on both familial and philosophical grounds.

On January 13, 2004, the New York Times reported on the phenomenon of “Ostalgie”, a neologism that indicates nostalgia for the “East” or the Communist past, which is epitomized in a small museum in the town of Eisenhüttenstadt near the Polish border and that has gotten a boost from the popularity of “Good Bye, Lenin”. It evokes Christiane’s bedroom:

“The museum is just a few rooms, mostly on the second floor of a former day-care center, but it holds 70,000 to 80,000 objects from the former East Germany. About 10,000 people a year come to look at Mikki transistor radios, jars of Bulgarian plums, schoolbooks, plastic water glasses that never seemed to come in the right colors. Seeing these familiar objects clearly stirs warm feelings about the vanished and unrecapturable past.”

This is not just about nostalgia for chintzy objects that might be regarded as a German version of “camp”. It is also about a growing disenchantment with the new capitalist world that they had assumed would be a kind of utopia:

“Ostalgie is complicated, made up of various ingredients. One is clearly the disillusionment felt by many former Easterners over German reunification, which took place 13 years ago. Unemployment these days is commonly 25 percent in regions like Eisenhüttenstadt. Rents are no longer subsidized. Doctor visits cost money. People can be fired. In addition, as Andreas Ludwig, the West German scholar of urban history who started the museum a few years ago, noted, even capitalist products break down or are shabby and schlocky.”

It would be too much to expect the New York Times to acknowledge what is truly driving “Ostalgie”. It is the memory of Easterners that the old system guaranteed cheap rents, a job, medical care and low crime. With “globalization” turning most of the planet into an ever more ruthless competition for disappearing jobs, such a past might retain some appeal. Indeed, a Lexis-Nexis search on “East Germany” and “nostalgia” returned 529 articles, many with headlines like “Wealth and freedom? No thanks, we’d rather have a Trabant” (referring to a defunct automobile).

The true story of East Germany’s birth and death could never be conveyed in a film such as this, but there are realities that never surfaced in conventional cold-war narratives. In Carolyn Eisenberg’s “Drawing the Line: The American Decision to Divide Germany, 1944-1949”, we learn that FDR intended that Germany be deindustrialized, demilitarized and–most importantly–denazified after the war, a goal shared by his partner Joseph Stalin. Then along came Harry Truman, who saw Communism as just another impediment to American hegemony. In violation of the Potsdam and Yalta agreements, Truman pushed for reindustrialization of West Germany under the Marshall Plan and the creation of a formal West German state.

Washington then abruptly ended denazification, leaving 640,000 war criminals unprosecuted, and canceled steps to break up the cartels that had provided much of Hitler’s economic and social base. Defying conventional notions of Stalin’s intractability, Ambassador Walter Bedell Smith confessed that “we really do not want nor intend to accept German unification in any terms that the Russians might agree to, even though they seemed to meet most of our requirements.”

And what did the Soviets seek? Nothing but what had already been hammered out at Yalta and Potsdam, namely $10 billion in reparations, four-power control of the Ruhr Valley and vigorous denazification and permanent demilitarization. In exchange, they would accept free elections throughout Germany modeled along the lines of the old Weimar Republic–hardly the stuff of Communist subversion.

When the West reneged on all this, the Soviets began to crack down in the East. The rest is history.

(Good Bye, Lenin is scheduled to open in NY theaters at the end of February. It was the winner of the Best European Film at the Berlin Film Festival.)

 

December 26, 2016

Ben Norton completes his Stalinist turn

Filed under: conservatism,Fascism,Spain,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

Ben Norton

When someone posted a link to Ben Norton’s attack on George Orwell, my first reaction was to shrug it off. Ever since the lad got fired from Salon for what some speculate as violating their rules against writing for other publications, he has lost his bully pulpit for spreading Assadist lies. (Who really knows if he was canned for writing an article for Intercept? I doubt it was incompetence since Salon’s bar is set rather low in that regard.) Although I have my own problems with Orwell, I was more interested in Norton’s rather crude and reactionary take on Trotskyism that amounts to a defense of Stalin’s betrayal of the Spanish revolution. It has been quite some time since I have had to bother with writing about the Spanish Civil War. To kill two birds with one stone, I hope to demonstrate how Norton has capitulated to Stalinism as well as to make some points about how Franco achieved his victory. Considering the fact that Bashar al-Assad is today’s Generalissimo Franco, it is not surprising that Norton can get Spain so wrong.

Norton writes:

Apologists insist Orwell simply “sold out” later in life and became a cranky conservative, yet the story is more complex. Orwell had a consistent political thread throughout his life. This explains how he could go from fighting alongside a Spanish Trostkyist militia in a multi-tendency war against fascism to demonizing the Soviet Union as The Real Enemy — before returning home to imperial Britain, where he became a social democratic traitor who castigated capitalism while collaborating with the capitalist state against revolutionaries trying to create socialism.

If you take the trouble to clink the link for “a social democratic traitor”, you’ll discover an article written by Norton in 2014 that has not a word about betrayal. In fact, it is the sort of Dr. Jekyll politics he adhered to as a member of the ISO until he turned into Mr. Hyde at Salon. The article, titled “George Orwell, the Socialist” makes useful points, among them:

Schools prefer propagating binary ideological thinking: “Orwell was opposed to Soviet ‘totalitarianism,’ therefore he was not a ‘socialist,’ therefore he was a capitalist, therefore he supported the capitalist West,” the unspoken logic habitually goes. Orwell’s opposition to capitalism is almost never presented, nor is his advocacy of (democratic) socialism.

It is not only schools that prefer propagating binary ideological thinking. It is also the neo-Stalinist left that has rallied around Bashar al-Assad, including Norton, Max Blumenthal, Rania Khalek, Yoshie Furuhashi, the Socialist Action sect, John Rees et al. By reducing the war in Syria to a geopolitical chess game in which the USA is responsible for everything that has gone wrong, they let Putin and Assad off the hook.

Most of Norton’s article refers to “Animal Farm”, a work that was widely viewed as Cold War propaganda but that was primarily about the Stalinist counter-revolution seen in metaphorical terms. There are some on the left who view it this way, including John Newsinger who defended Orwell’s politics in a 1994 book. Norton characterizes the Orwell who wrote a “snitch” letter to British censors as “the first in a long line of Trots-turned-neocons”, including Christopher Hitchens, yet there is little evidence that either Orwell or even Hitchens had much in common ideologically with men like Paul Wolfowitz or Robert Kagan who were ferociously neoliberal.

For the most part, it was ex-Communists rather than ex-Trotskyists who helped to shape Cold War ideology, such as the six men whose “confessions” can be found in “The God that Failed”: Louis Fischer, André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, and Richard Wright. By comparison, Orwell never wrote anything like this in his later years unless you believe that “1984” and “Animal Farm” were ringing endorsements of Washington and London. In “1984”, the world was divided into hostile camps with London just as culpable of totalitarian control as Moscow. With respect to “Animal Farm”, let’s not forget that the farmers invaded their former realm in exactly the same manner as the 21 invading armies sought to destroy Soviet power.

I have my own problems with Orwell, especially his snitching, but he has much to offer the left. Just read “Homage to Catalonia”, a work far more useful than the Daily Worker articles from 1936 that Norton is channeling. I can say the same thing about Alexander Cockburn, who Norton cites in his article as an authority on this tarnished hero of “the non-Communist left”. I have learned a lot from Cockburn just I have learned a lot from Orwell. I can forgive Orwell for his snitching just as I can forgive Cockburn for allowing CounterPunch to turn into a haven for Islamophobes like Mike Whitney, Andre Vltchek and Pepe Escobar.

As for Hitchens, despite Cockburn’s deep animus for him, the two had something in common with each other when it came to “jihadists”. The difference between them on Iraq in 2003 and Syria after 2011 is paper-thin, after all. Both of these journalists were all too ready to back outside intervention when it came to defeating “al Qaeda” even if it was being administered by a MIG rather than an F-16. In 1980, Cockburn wrote a Village Voice column that stated: “I yield to none in my sympathy to those prostrate beneath the Russian jackboot, but if ever a country deserved rape it’s Afghanistan. Nothing but mountains filled with barbarous ethnics with views as medieval as their muskets. and unspeakably cruel too.”

Nobody’s perfect, not even Ben Norton whose musings on Syria—and worse his ghoulish tweets—are informed by the same Orientalism as Cockburn’s Voice article. I can say this, however. If Norton lived for a thousand years, he never would be capable of writing a single sentence that would rank with Orwell or Cockburn.

There are three paragraphs in Norton’s article that really stick out like a sore thumb, combining his more recent turn toward the Assad/Putin/Iran reactionary bloc with more traditional Stalinist ideology:

Sure, the USSR did a lot of objectionable things, but it was also the only large country in the entire world that supported the Spanish Republicans in their fight against fascism (excluding a bit of extra support from Mexico). The Soviet Union understood that one cannot have a revolution if one cannot even defeat the fascist counterrevolution first — a lesson many on the left still have not learned today.

Yet leftists like Orwell and his devoted followers continue to lament Kronstadt and revel in their ideological purity — while conveniently living relatively comfortable lives in Western imperialist countries that commit much more heinous crimes throughout the world every day.

Orwell’s politics are social chauvinist in the rawest sense. It is no coincidence that many of his avowed admirers today lionize and whitewash “revolutionary” extremist militias in Syria and Libya, while at the same moment violently condemning progressive revolutions in Cuba, Vietnam, and beyond as mere “Stalinist bureaucracies.”

Let’s start with the rather stupid observation: “The Soviet Union understood that one cannot have a revolution if one cannot even defeat the fascist counterrevolution first — a lesson many on the left still have not learned today.”

I have no idea whether Norton understood what happened in Spain when he was a properly educated ISO member and now rejects it or simply was too intellectually challenged to ever understand the material available to him from state capitalist sources. Or maybe he was just too shallow to ever bother reading something like Tony Cliff’s “Trotsky: The darker the night the brighter the star”.

As it happens, Norton’s business about defeating the fascist counterrevolution before making the revolution is virtually word for word the same as Spanish Popular Front Prime Minister Largo Caballero’s “First we must win the war and afterwards we can talk of revolution.”

Largo Caballero, who was supported by both the Communists and anarchists, sought to restore bourgeois normalcy in Spain as the first step in defeating Franco. This meant first and foremost eradicating all forms of “dual power” in Spain that were substantial.

Workers and peasant committees had to give way to the rule of the central government as Cliff reports:

IN THE WEEKS after 19 July 1936 struggle continued between proletarian power – in the form of factory and militia committees on the one hand, and the Republican government on the other. The latter won.

One further step to consolidating the power of the bourgeois state was taken on 27 October – a decree disarming the workers.

Steps were also taken to restore the bourgeois police.

In the first months after July 19, police duties were almost entirely in the hands of the workers’ patrols in Catalonia and the ‘militias of the rearguard’ in Madrid and Valencia … The most extraordinary step in reviving the bourgeois police was the mushroom growth of the hitherto small customs force, the Carabineros, under Finance Minister Negrín, into a heavily armed pretorian guard of 40,000.

On 28 February [1937] the Carabineros were forbidden to belong to a political party or a trade union or to attend their mass meetings. The same decree was extended to the Civil and Assault Guards thereafter. That meant quarantining the police against the working class …

By April the militias were finally pushed out of all police duties in Madrid and Valencia.

A comparison Franz Borkenau made of an impression of life in Spain between a first visit in August 1936 and a second in January-February 1937 is very instructive:

The troops were entirely different from the militia I had known in August. There was a clear distinction between officers and men, the former wearing better uniforms and stripes. The pre-revolutionary police force, asaltos and Guardia Civil (now ‘Guardia Nacional Republicana’), were very much in evidence … neither guardia nor asaltos made the least attempt to appear proletarian.

A further vivid description of life in Barcelona at the end of April 1937 comes from the pen of George Orwell:

Now things were returning to normal. The smart restaurants and hotels were full of rich people wolfing expensive meals, while for the working-class population food prices had jumped enormously without any corresponding rise in wages. Apart from the expensiveness of everything, there were recurrent shortages of this and that, which, of course, always hit the poor rather than the rich. The restaurants and hotels seemed to have little difficulty in getting whatever they wanted, but in the working-class quarters the queues for bread, olive oil, and other necessaries were hundreds of yards long. Previously in Barcelona I had been struck by the absence of beggars; now there were quantities of them. Outside the delicatessen shops at the top of the Ramblas gangs of bare-footed children were always waiting to swarm round anyone who came out and clamour for scraps of food. The ‘revolutionary’ forms of speech were dropping out of use. Strangers seldom addressed you as  and camarada nowadays; it was usually señor and UstedBuenos días was beginning to replace salud. The waiters were back in their boiled shirts and the shop workers were cringing in their familiar manner … In a furtive indirect way the practice of tipping was coming back … cabaret shows and high-class brothels, many of which had been closed by the workers’ patrols, had promptly reopened.

I strongly recommend reading Cliff’s entire chapter on Trotsky and the Spanish Revolution to get the whole story on how Franco achieved victory over a self-destructive Spanish Republic leadership as well as reviewing the Marxism Internet Archive’s very fine resource page  on the Spanish Civil War that include articles by Leon Trotsky and Felix Morrow whose “Revolution and Counterrevolution in Spain” can be read in its entirety there as well.

I am struck by Orwell’s description of how things were returning to normal. “The smart restaurants and hotels were full of rich people wolfing expensive meals, while for the working-class population food prices had jumped enormously without any corresponding rise in wages.”

Isn’t this exactly how some reporters describe life in Damascus except for those like Vanessa Beeley or Eva Bartlett for whom the working-class does not exist? As outright supporters of Syria’s Franco, this is understandable but what is more difficult to understand is how people like Norton, who at least demonstrates an affinity for the Popular Front’s desire for bourgeois democratic normalcy, would end up as a kind of fascist apologist.

What accounts for someone educated in Marxist politics (speaking charitably) such as Norton ending up adopting the anti-Marxist sentiments of Largo Caballero, whose opposition to socialist revolution was primarily responsible for Franco’s victory?

I would say that the left is dealing with neo-Stalinist tendencies today that share many of the same impulses as those demonstrated by the original. Norton writes:

Yet leftists like Orwell and his devoted followers continue to lament Kronstadt and revel in their ideological purity — while conveniently living relatively comfortable lives in Western imperialist countries that commit much more heinous crimes throughout the world every day.

This business about living comfortable lives in imperialist countries is pure demagogy as if Norton, who apparently comes from wealth himself, ever had to duck barrel bombs in hipster Brooklyn. With respect to “ideological purity”, this is a very telling complaint. What Norton is trying to say is that Marxism does not serve his goals. When class politics interfere with a career in journalism, why remain committed to them? The journals that he aspires to write for have little use for the sort of class rigor found in Leon Trotsky, whose ideas would only appeal to those who have made up their mind that socialism is the only alternative to barbarism, not the renewed Democratic Party called for in countless Salon, Huffington Post, Alternet, CommonDreams and Nation Magazine articles

Norton finally connects the dots between his Assadism and Popular Front Stalinism in the third paragraph cited above, issuing questionable statements such as this:

It is no coincidence that many of his avowed admirers today lionize and whitewash “revolutionary” extremist militias in Syria and Libya, while at the same moment violently condemning progressive revolutions in Cuba, Vietnam, and beyond as mere “Stalinist bureaucracies.”

One assumes that he is referring to the ISO here since it is the only group on the left of any significance that has opposed both Assad and the late Fidel Castro. But what evidence is there that the ISO admires Orwell? The only reference to Orwell in the entire ISO website is this: “As George Orwell said in Why I Write, good prose is like a window pane. He meant good writing doesn’t draw attention to itself, but to the ideas, facts and events that the writing is about.”

I believe that this makes perfect sense, even if the man who wrote the words was capable of exercising poor judgement in “naming names”. I only wish that Norton would have stumbled across this during the time he spent in the ISO since he is so flawed when it comes to drawing attention to ideas, facts and events in his sad attempt at professional journalism.

November 16, 2016

Where was Roosevelt?

Filed under: Stalinism,two-party system,workers — louisproyect @ 8:08 pm

Staughton Lynd

Radical America, July-August 1974
The United Front in America: a Note
by Staughton Lynd

Between the harsh and isolating politics of 1929-1933 and the bland and self-abasing politics of later years there thus came about an intermediate episode, full of interest for the present. Roughly it may be dated from the coming to power of Hitler and Roosevelt early in 1933 to the formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization in November 1935 and Roosevelt’s second campaign in 1936. The strategy of the Left in that time was, as Richmond rightly emphasizes, experimental and localized. It was not mechanically adopted after some overseas initiative. The best summary phrase for what was attempted then had it not acquired other, sectarian meanings would be the “united front from below”.

Minimally, this meant that rank-and-file workers associated with different Left tendencies should seek ways to act together against their common enemies. David Montgomery and Jeremy Brecher speak of the 1911-1922 upsurge when “the old lines dividing revolutionary groupings tended to break down, and their once-competing local members threw themselves into actual class struggle without regard to their former ideological and organizational hostilities”. (6) Something like this also happened in 1933-1935. In contrast to the later 1930s there were no union bureaucrats with whom one could hope to ally. Rather the felt need was for people active at the grass roots to join forces in collective struggle. This was the spirit responsible for the local general strikes in Minneapolis, Toledo, and San Francisco in 1934.

It is important to recall that despite Roosevelt’s great popularity when first inaugurated and again after the “second New Deal” of 1935-1937, in 1934 and 1935 there was much disillusionment with New Deal labor policy. The National Recovery Administration to which working people had enthusiastically responded in 1933 was renamed the “National Run Around”.

There is no way that the working-class mood of those years can be considered anti-fascist. What was to the fore was a growing disenchantment with liberalism and with Roosevelt. Those who, like myself, did not experience that time can, I think, get a sense of it by recalling the mood of SNCC activists and the northern black community in 1962-1964. Just as Kennedy was then criticized for rhetorically espousing civil rights, yet standing by while those who acted on his rhetoric were jailed, beaten, and killed, so on the bloody picket lines of 1933-1935 men wonderingly asked themselves: Where was Roosevelt ?

What one observes in the general strikes of 1934 is a happy fusion of the intransigence of the Third Period and the ability to widen an action beyond its initial protagonists. The typical scenario was for one group of striking workers to be beaten on the picket line, and then for the entire working class of the locality to walk off their jobs in sup-port. Trotskyists in Minneapolis, Socialists and Musteites in Toledo, Communists in San Francisco all appear to have acted in a manner that avoided the sectarianism of the years preceding and the opportunism of the years that followed.

Electorally, the thrust of the Left in 1933-1935 was to-ward a labor party (not a people’s party). Throughout 1935 Communists and Socialists advanced this objective, Earl Browder and Norman Thomas appearing together at a Madison Square rally in the fall. The Central Committee of the Communist Party called for ‘a Labor Party built up from below on a trade-union basis but in conflict with the bureaucracy, putting forward a program of demands closely connected with mass struggles, strikes, etc., with the leading role played by the militant elements, including the Communists”. The Party, its Central Committee stated, “should declare its support for the movement for a Labor Party and fight in this movement for the policy of the class struggle, resisting all attempts to bring the movement under the control of social-reformism”. (7) As I have written elsewhere, the formation of local labor parties was endorsed by labor conventions and councils in Connecticut, Wisconsin, Oregon, Toledo, and Paterson, New Jersey; local labor party tickets were formed in San Francisco, Chicago, and Springfield, Massachusetts; and in October 1935, strong support for a labor party was voiced at the annual AF of L convention.

In November sweeping Socialist victories were recorded in Bridgeport, Connecticut and Reading, Pennsylvania. In Detroit, Attorney Maurice Sugar, running for alderman on a Labor Party ticket, just missed election, polling 55,574. Speaking to an audience of 1500 in New York City, Farmer-Labor Governor Floyd Olson of Minnesota predicted that a national farmer-labor party would make a bid for power in 1936 or 1940. As 1935 came to an end the Seattle Central Labor Council endorsed and affiliated with the Washington Commonwealth Federation; a Farmer-Labor Federation was formed in Wisconsin; the founding conference of the South Dakota Farmer-Labor Party was held; and Vice-president Francis Gorman of the United Textile Workers announced that forces working for a national farmer-labor party would open an office in the near future. (8)

The popular-front strategy which replaced that of the united front from below produced a qualitative change. The change did not happen all at once. Although the Communist Party hoped for a Roosevelt victory in 1936, it did not formally support him, and indeed declared publicly : “Roosevelt stands for capitalism, not socialism.” (9) As late as 1938 the Communist Party criticized “the inconsistencies and vacillations of the Roosevelt administration” and called for a ‘progressive realignment” based on beginnings such as the Farmer-Labor and Progressive parties of Minnesota and Wisconsin, the American Labor Party in New York, the Commonwealth Federations of the Pacific, and Labor’s Non-Partisan League. (10) Nevertheless the direction of change was clear. In 1935 the Party’s center of gravity was rank-and-file working people. By 1938 it was an amorphous coalition of so-called progressive forces. The united front was based on the rank and file, not on a “left-center” coalition with union bureaucrats. The united front was improvised on the basis of American needs, ra-ther than following an international line. The united front attacked the Democratic Party, instead of supporting it as after 1936. The united front was a response to the promises and failures of liberalism, whereas the popular front was directed at fascism overseas. It may be, for reasons indicated at the outset, that there was no real possibility of a mass radical movement in this country in the 1930s. If there was such a possibility, the hope for it lay in pursuing to the end the strategy of the united front from below.

 

November 8, 2016

Birobidzhan

Filed under: art,Film,Jewish question,Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 10:54 pm

Thirteen years ago I had the good fortune to review a documentary titled “L’Chayim, Comrade Stalin” by Klezmer musician Yale Strom that served as an introduction to the Jewish Autonomous Region of the USSR that Stalin declared in 1934. My review began:

When he was a young boy, Yale Strom noticed two “sidukah” (charity) boxes in his father’s shop. One was the omnipresent blue Jewish National Fund box intended for Israel that my own father kept in his fruit store. The other was targeted for Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region that Stalin decreed in 1932. His curiosity about the lesser-known Jewish homeland became the seed for his documentary “L’Chayim Comrade Stalin,” now showing at the Quad Cinema in NYC.

 Based on interviews with current and past residents and archival material, including a altogether charming Soviet feature film of the period promoting settlement, the film not only sheds light on an under-documented aspect of Stalinist rule, it also inspires a variety of reactions to the “Jewish Question.” (Strom utilizes a graphic of these two words writ large in red repeatedly through the film as a kind of leitmotif.)

 Most of the older veterans of Birobidzhan make clear that the project tapped into youthful idealism. Combining a belief in communism with a desire to create a cultural homeland for the Jews, they came to the Siberian hinterland with great hopes. Despite the fact that anti-Semitism prompted Stalin to create the settlement in a geographically remote area, the settlers did not necessarily view this as a kind of internal exile. Stephen F. Cohen points out eloquently in his biography of Bukharin that Stalin’s despotic “revolution from above” did not preclude a kind of egalitarian zeal from bubbling to the surface. Despite repression, many people felt that they were on a great adventure to build a new society, including the Jews who came to Birobidzhan.

Clearly, Birobidzhan continues to grip the imagination of filmmakers, artists and scholars based on recent works I have had a chance to examine.

A few days after I reviewed “Finding Babel”, the film distribution company Seventh Art Releasing got in touch with me and asked if I would be interested in watching “Birobidzhan”, a film made by Belgian director Guy-Marc Hinant in 2015. Hinant is also a poet and music producer specializing in the avant-garde. As such, it is clear that he approaches the material from a different angle than Yale Strom whose film was much more conventional despite sharing the same passionate engagement with the subject. Much of “Birobidzhan” consists of evocative images of the region that are not directly related to the history such as the blurred images of a speeding freight train or an ominous and unexplained burning field. As is the case with most art films, and this certainly qualifies as one, such devices are evaluated on the basis of whether they help to lend emotional weight to the film and Hinant succeeds on this basis.

Like Strom’s film, we see the efforts of the dwindling number of Jews still living in Birobidzhan today trying to reconstruct a Jewish identity both culturally and religiously. Unlike the Hebrew-speaking Zionist entity, the Jews of Birobidzhan are devoted to Yiddish, the language that was blessed by Stalin with official status. Watching young kids in a classroom learning to read and write Yiddish is a moving experience as is seeing a somewhat older group rehearsing a musical play in the local theater that looks like a production from Second Avenue in the 1920s, and finally a chorus of septuagenarian women singing “Hava Negila”, a song that we sang in Hebrew school in the late 1950s. It is worth noting that the song has an iconic status in Israel as it is the first modern folk song to use Hebrew lyrics and is as almost as well-known as the Israeli national anthem. Somehow it seems less threatening in this context.

In some ways, it would have been better for the Jews to have made Birobidzhan their homeland rather thn Israel since it truly was a land without people that could accommodate a people without land. The film notes that long before 1934, Jews were settling in the remote and desolate territory in Siberia simply to escape the anti-Semitism that persisted in the USSR after the October revolution. Unlike Israel, where Yiddish was practically banned as a language linked to the ghetto and victimhood, Birobidzhan was devoted to Yiddish culture and even created the Sholem Aleichem library that contained more than 35,000 Yiddish titles. During his campaign against “bourgeois nationalism”, Stalin had all but 4,000 of them burned.

When Stalin launched the great repression of the 1930s, Birobidzhan was swept into the bloody whirlpool. Like Isaac Babel, some of the leading intellectuals and journalists who had migrated to Birobidzhan were charged with supporting Leon Trotsky and executed, including Joseph Liberberg—the first chair of the Jewish Region’s Council of People’s Deputies. An article on Liberberg shows the promise of the early USSR:

The mid-1920s were an exciting time to be involved in Jewish culture in the fledgling Soviet Union, where—for the first time in history—Yiddish culture and scholarship received state support. Liberberg left his university to post to head a new Jewish culture department at the All-Ukrainian Ukrainian Academy of Science.

Liberberg along with Nokhem Shtif organized the Jewish division, a scholarly institution specializing in Jewish studies. The initiative for its creation came from high party circles who supported the work of scholarly institutions in minority cultures throughout the Soviet Union.

The department evolved into the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture in 1929. This became the leading Jewish cultural institution in Ukraine and attracted scholars and cultural activists from around the Soviet Union and throughout the world. A charismatic and ambitious director, Liberberg was not afraid to employ people who had previously held non-communist political positions.

As director of Ukraine’s most elite Jewish cultural institution — the republic with more than 60% of the Soviet Union’s Jews — Liberberg found little time for his academic work. He did get around to publish An Economic and Social History of England in 1927, co-edit October Days: Materials on the History of the October Revolution, also in 1927, A Dictionary of Political Terminology and Foreign Words, in 1929, The Bibliological Miscellany, in 1930, and a later addendum to that volume.

When I think about the murder of people like Liberberg and Babel, I never regret my decision to have become a Trotskyist in 1967 no matter the sectarian baggage this entailed. “Birobidzhan” is a glimpse into a what truly might have been described as “A different world is possible”. With all of the terrible things that took place in the USSR, we should never forget that in its youth it was a symbol of freedom, social justice and the possibility of a life lived outside of capitalist exploitation.

Seventh Art has told me that the film should be available on home video in January 2017. My advice is to check http://www.7thart.com/films/Birobidzhan in a couple of months to see if it has become available.

The one thing that always struck me about those Whitney Biennial Exhibitions is that the conceptual art that dominated the show was missing a key ingredient: a concept. That has never been the case with my friend Yevgeniy Fiks who I regard as America’s most accomplished conceptual artist. As someone who tackles the big topics of our day–the persecution of gay people, Jewish identity, the legacy of the Soviet Union and the power of big corporations among them—Fiks has the eye and the hand that can render the concepts into memorable art.

Last Saturday I attended the opening for his show Pleshka-Birobidzhan, 2016 that imagines Stalin having created a Homosexual Autonomous Region after the fashion of Birobidzhan. (Pleshka is the word for an area where gays “cruised” in Russia. The Bolshoi pleshka was the most renowned.)

Fiks explains his goals on his website:

The exhibition Pleshka-Birobidzhan engages the relationship between identity, fiction, and history by recreating an oral story about a group of Soviet gay men who travelled from Moscow to Birobidzhan in 1934 into an art installation. The oral story is set in 1934 soon after homosexuality was recriminalized in the Soviet Union and after the Soviet Jewish Autonomous Region, of which Birobidzhan became the capital, was established.

The exhibition reenacts this Soviet gay oral story in a series of artworks that comprises the exhibition. This includes a series of 17 collages titled Pleshka-Birobidzhan which starts the narration. The collages depict gay men at several gay cruising sites a.k.a. pleshkas in 1934 discussing the recriminalization of homosexuality under Stalin as a failure of the October Revolution, the creation of the Jewish Autonomous Region in the Soviet Far East, and a dream of a gay Soviet utopia. The collages also depict the journey of a group of disillusioned gay men in fear of persecution to Birobidzhan, where upon their arrival found themselves in the middle of the Gay and Lesbian Autonomous Region — which appeared to exist alongside and at times overlapped with of the Soviet Jewish Utopia there.

This is a brilliant concept that 30 seconds after entering the Station Independent Projects gallery at 138 Eldridge Street, Suite 2F had my head spinning over the connections between being gay and being Jewish. As the ultimate outsiders in Soviet society in its Stalinist phase, all the two groups sought was to live in peace and freedom in urban settings where tolerance was the norm. Even if the Jews made the best they could out of life in Birobidzhan, most certainly would have preferred to enjoy the life of “rootless cosmopolitans” as Stalin referred to them in the post-WWII purges.

Like Hitler, Stalin had an atavistic hatred of Jews and homosexuals that was part of the Great Russian backwardness that swept across the USSR in the late 1920s as the dictator was pushing for social norms having more to do with Czarism than the socialist dreams of the earlier period.

If you are based in NYC, I strongly urge you to visit the gallery since there is no substitute for seeing the works rather than images on the Internet. If you can’t do so, check out http://yevgeniyfiks.com/section/441807-Pleshka-Birobidzhan-2016.html for a sample of the work including this stunning collage that mixes what I assume to be idealized portraits of Jewish workers or farmers in Birobidzhan with a dancer I surmise to be Vaslav Nijinsky.

birobidzhan

This is not Fiks’s first engagement with Birobidzhan. Two years ago he had an exhibition titled “A Gift to Birobidzhan” that I wrote about here. An excerpt from the press release explains the concept:

In 2009, artist Yevgeniy Fiks originated a project called A Gift to Birobidzhan. Established in the Soviet Union in 1934 as the Autonomous Jewish Region of the USSR, Birobidzhan was for a time considered a rival to Israel. Although located in a remote area near China, Birobidzhan caught the world’s imagination. In 1936, two hundred works of art was collected in the United States by activists as the foundation for the Birobidzhan Art Museum. The collection included works by Stuart Davis, Adolf Dehn, Hugo Gellert, Harry Gottlieb, and William Gropper among others. The collection was first exhibited in New York and Boston, and in late 1936, it was shipped to the Soviet Union. The collection never reached its final destination in Birobidzhan. By late 1937, Stalin had purged the leadership from Birobidzhan at which time the collection vanished into government or private hands.

Taking this microhistorical narrative as his starting point, Fiks invited 25 contemporary international artists to donate works of their choosing to the existing museum of Birobidzhan. After initially agreeing to exhibit and accept the works into its collection, the museum in Birobidzhan conditionally retracted the offer, in part to avoid confrontation with a conflicted past and the fact that Birobidzhan now consist of a small Jewish population. Granting Fiks the role of steward, the artists agreed to let Fiks store the collection until it could reach its intended destination.

A Gift to Birobidzhan of 2009 was an attempt to repeat and complete — seventy years later — the gesture of “a gift to Birobidzhan” in 1936. As of 2014, it remains still a rejected gift and a “state-less collection,” packed in boxes in Fiks’ apartment in the Lower East Side. A Gift to Birobidzhan evokes the utopian promise of Birobidzhan — a Socialist alternative to a Jewish state — as a point of departure for discussions on broad 20th century’s impossible territorial politics, identity, national self-determination, and a common “seeking of happiness.” At present, we find that many of the same questions from the early 20th century have resurfaced again.

You can take a virtual tour of “A Gift to Birobidzhan” here.

Finally, I should refer you to Masha Gessen’s newly published “Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region”. Gessen, a lesbian, is the sister of Keith Gessen, an n+1 editor who along with Fiks was introduced to me by Thomas Campbell, an activist based in Russia close to the radical art movement.

Gessen, like Fiks and her brother, is an astute analyst of Russian society and politics as well as an emigre. This is an excerpt from the book that will once again remind you of why Stalin was one of the 20th century’s greatest criminals. Although Hitler killed far more people,  the overthrow of Soviet democracy made it all the more difficult for those of us trying to make a better world and consequently led to the deaths of millions in the Third World who could not count on true solidarity from a Kremlin far more interested in short-term deals with imperialism. If Russia has continued to live up to the ideals that Birobidzhan writer David Bergelson held dear, the world would look a lot more different today and a lot better.

The man who made Birobidzhan famous had the gift of knowing when to run. That he lived into his late sixties is testament to his outstanding survival instincts. On his sixty-eighth birthday, he was shot to death, a final victim of the century’s most productive executioner. He had been a writer who preferred to leave his stories ragged and open-ended, but his own life, which ended on what became known as the Night of the Murdered Poets, had a sinister rhyme and roundness to it.

David Bergelson was born on August 12, 1884, in the village of Okhrimovo, a Ukrainian shtetl so small there might be no record of it now if it were not for Bergelson’s association with it. Three and a half years before his birth, Czar Alexander II was assassinated by a group of young revolutionaries that counted one Jew, a woman, among them. Five persons were hanged for the crime, but it was the Jews of Russia who bore the brunt of the national rage. After some years of acquiring greater rights and freedoms, as well as hope, the Jews found the law closing in on them, herding them back into the shtetlach. Pogroms swept through the Pale, brutalizing the enlightened modern Russian-speaking Jews along with their traditional parents. Into this bleak, dangerous world came the surprise ninth child of an older couple.

The parents were rich and pious. Bergelson’s father, a grain and timber merchant, spoke no Russian; he belonged to the last generation of Jews who could achieve wealth, success, and prominence entirely within the confines of the Yiddish-speaking world. His wife was younger and of a different sphere: a cultured woman, a reader. David Bergelson’s education was an unsuccessful attempt to merge his parents’ worlds. He was tutored by a maskil—a product of the Jewish enlightenment movement—who taught him to speak and write in Russian and Hebrew, in addition to his native Yiddish, but not, as the young Bergelson found out later, well enough to enable him to be admitted to an institution of higher learning. His father died when David was a little boy, his mother when he was fourteen, and David’s wanderings commenced. Losing one’s anchors—and any sense of home—is essential for developing an instinct for knowing when it’s time to run.

The teenager left the shtetl and stayed, by turns, with older siblings in the big cities of Kyiv, Warsaw, and Odessa, subsidizing their hospitality out of his share of the family inheritance. He had a home, and a family, only so long as he could pay for them. This is another good lesson. One always has to pay to belong, and to have a roof over one’s head.

One thing Bergelson seems to have always known about himself was that he was a writer. Any young writer must find his language, but rarely is the choice as literal—and as difficult—as it was for Jews writing in the Russian Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the cities between which Bergelson was moving, he was surrounded by Yiddish, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, and Lithuanian speech. His command of these languages ranged from poor to limited. Then there was Hebrew, the language of his father’s prayers and a new movement’s dreams; as a teenager, Bergelson went through a period of fascination with the work of Nachman Syrkin, the founder of Labor Zionism. (Syrkin himself wrote in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, German, and English.) Bergelson tried writing in Hebrew and failed—it may be that his command of it was insufficient for writing, or it could be that the language, in his hands, did not lend itself to the modernism he was attempting. He switched to Russian, but this expansive language failed him, too, perhaps because he wanted to write stark, sparse prose and Russian demanded flowery vagueness. He finally found his voice in his long-dead father’s living language, Yiddish.

Full: http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/59374/where-the-jews-arent-by-masha-gessen/9780805242461/

October 28, 2016

Finding Babel

Filed under: Film,literature,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 3:04 pm

The Outsider-Insider: Isaac Babel’s Big Mistake

Responding to an aggrieved muzhik (peasant), Dyakov, the eponymous Reserve Cavalry Commander who was a former circus rider described by Babel as “red-faced with a gray mustache, a black cape, and wide red Tatar trousers with silver stripes”, promised that he could make this “lively little mare spring to her feet again”. The idea that the horse splayed out on the ground could be described as “lively” was almost an insult. The muzhik cried out, “Lord in Heaven and Mother of God. How is this poor thing supposed to get up? It’s on its last legs!”:

Dyakov’s ability to bring the horse back on its feet was like Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead but all the more miraculous since it likely occurred. Most of Babel’s short stories were based on his experience as a war correspondent. He wrote:

“You are insulting this horse, my dear fellow!” Dyakov answered with fierce conviction. “Pure blasphemy, my dear fellow!” And he deftly swung his athlete’s body out of his saddle. Splendid and deft as if in the circus ring, he stretched his magnificent legs, his trousers girded by cords around the knees, and walked up to the dying animal. She peered at him dolefully with a severe, penetrating eye, licked some invisible command from his crimson palm, and immediately the feeble mare felt bracing power flow from this sprightly, gray, blossoming Romeo. Her muzzle lolling, her legs skidding under her, feeling the whip tickling her stomach with imperious impatience, the mare slowly and deliberate1y rose onto her legs. And then we all saw Dyakov’s slender hand with its fluttering sleeve run through her dirty mane, and his whining whip swatting her bleeding ranks. Her whole body shivering, the mare stood on four legs without moving her timid, doglike, lovestruck eyes from Dyakov.

“So you see-this is a horse,” Dyakov said to the muzhik, and added softly, “and you were complaining, my dearest of friends!”

Throwing his reins to his orderly, the commander of the Reserve Cavalry jumped the four stairs in a single leap and, swirling off his operatic cloak, disappeared into the headquarters.

Today, reading this story once again for the first time in fifty-four years, I am reminded of how important Babel was to me at the time. Like Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Thomas Mann, he was a portal into the world of modernist literature that still had an immense attraction for young bohemians in the early 60s. I never thought once about who Babel was or anything about the social reality he was trying to depict. All that mattered to me was Babel’s prose that could evoke the mysterious power of a Cossack resurrecting a dying horse.

read full article

October 26, 2016

Millennials and “unnatural” deaths under Stalin

Filed under: Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

I received this communication yesterday:

This almost comically red-baiting story seems to be making the rounds on the Internet:

screen-shot-2016-10-26-at-3-19-26-pm

Without in any way wishing to absolve Stalin of anything, it seems to me the framing here needs rebutting — viz., the article’s implicit assumption that the deaths for which Stalin was directly and indirectly responsible are more attributable to “the idea of communism” as such, than they are to “a disastrous and abortive attempt at realizing the idea of communism, by a monstrous lunatic, in a world dominated by other monstrous lunatics who will do absolutely everything in their power to fucking take you down if you even *think* about realizing the idea of communism in their fucking playground, you motherfucking pinko commie bastard.” Or words to that effect.

So, do either of you know of good pieces contextualizing deaths under Stalin with respect to “exogenous / non-voluntary factors” (my phrase; trying to figure this out as I go)? In other words, anything that makes a good-faith attempt at understanding and accounting for the various contextual factors (e.g., foreign subversion; natural calamity; etc.) that contributed to the dreadful actual legacy of the Soviet Union, especially under Stalin — without whitewashing?

Again, just to be clear, I have no interest in absolving Stalin of anything whatsoever. Only in a sober rebuttal to those who would scapegoat “socialism as such” on the basis of Stalin’s crimes (or Mao’s for that matter), while feigning to pretend that “capitalism as such” remains untainted by those of the Rockefellers, Kroks, Bushes and Ramaphosas. Not to mention Hitler. (Oops.)


My reply:

The article appears in PJ Media, a website that I haven’t looked at in over a decade. It used to be called Pajamas Media and was a primary outlet for neoconservative ideology and support for the Bush administration, especially his invasion of Iraq.

The purpose of the article is to paint millennials as a bunch of idiots because they believe that George W. Bush was responsible for more deaths than Stalin:

Under Stalin, the Soviet Union suffered an estimated 56 to 62 million “unnatural deaths,” with 34 to 49 million directly linked to the dictator. Under Bush, 6,648 U.S. service members died, and the number of Iraqis who died has been variously estimated at 112,114, 122,644, 151,000, and even 655,000. Even the highest number for Bush is roughly 700,000, while the lowest for Stalin would be 34 million.

Obviously to answer the PJ article properly would require a book but let me take a shot at brief reply, including some resources that might help.

To start with, while Stalin was a mass murderer, the numbers PJ cites are problematic. While there are no citations in the article, it is likely that the reference for 56 to 62 million “unnatural deaths” comes from a book titled “Unnatural Deaths in the U.S.S.R.: 1928-1954” written in 1983 by a Soviet geophysicist named Iosif G. Dyadkin who had no training as a demographer. To start with, he counts 30 million deaths during WWII at Nazi hands as “unnatural” as they surely were. Just ask any survivor of the siege of Leningrad who can tell you that it was Hitler rather than Stalin who bombed Leningrad and other Russian cities.

It is very difficult to come to an accurate count of those “unnatural” deaths that can be clearly attributed to Stalin. Most of the people working in this field are diehard anti-Communists who wouldn’t think twice about exaggerating the numbers just as neo-Nazi ideologues like David Irving had a vested interest in minimizing Hitler’s concentration camp deaths.

In 1996 Chris Harman of the British SWP wrote an article titled “Thinking it Through” that dealt with mass killings by dictatorships. Since this group emerged out of the Trotskyist movement, you can be sure that Harman would be the last person to minimize the number of people killed by Stalin. He writes:

Some right wing historians have carried the argument a stage further. Robert Conquest, for instance, has claimed that Stalin actually killed more people than Hitler (a figure mistakenly accepted by Roy Medvedev). It is only a short step from this to some German nationalist historians who argue that Nazism was a lesser evil than Stalinism. The century’s horrors originate then, not in capitalism, but in misguided attempts to overthrow it. It is an argument many socialists find hard to answer, as they recoil from the way much of the left used to apologise for Stalinism. Yet the argument is fundamentally wrong. The collapse of the USSR has opened up secret police files in Moscow for the first time. This has enabled historians like R.W. Davies (who co-authored some of the later volumes in E.H. Carr’s magnificent A History of Soviet Russia) and the late Alec Nove to initiate the first factually based discussion on exactly what was the death toll in Stalin’s Russia. Their conclusions point to Stalin’s regime being bloody in the extreme. There were 353,000 executions in 1937 and 239,000 in 1938. Over 140,000 people died during the deportation of minority nationalities between 1944 and 1948.

On top of this, the numbers of people in the ‘gulag’ of prisons and labour camps rose from 2.5 million in 1933 to 5.5 million in 1953, with a death rate in the camps of five to nine times that among the free population – implying perhaps two million deaths caused by ill-treatment and neglect over a 25 year period. Finally, the famine that was a result of collectivisation in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan led to up to 5 million further deaths. But the discussion also leads to two other conclusions.

Such numbers strike me as much more plausible but that hardly lets Stalin off the hook. I am reminded of how horrific his Great Terror was from a documentary film I saw yesterday about Isaac Babel, arguably the finest novelist to have emerged out of the Russian Revolution. He wrote “Red Cavalry” that was based on his attachment to a Cossacks brigade fighting against the counter-revolution in the early 20s as well as “Odessa Tales” about Jewish life in the Ukraine. In 1939 he was charged with treason and executed, just one of millions in the 1930s.

For an unstinting analysis of the criminality of Stalin’s dictatorship, I strongly recommend Tony McKenna’s “The Dictator, The Revolution, The Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin” that will be available in a month or so. It is very useful in analyzing the underlying forces that led to millions being killed. I found the comparison with the Aztecs revealing:

One can discern, I think, a certain parity with the Stalinist phenomenon and the manner in which its bureaucracy was compelled to enact its own blood sacrifices. The difference lies only in this. If the Aztecs had failed to observe the ritualistic blood- letting, we are safe in assuming that the processes of nuclear fission which take place at the core of the sun would have remained indifferent to their lapse in religious piety, while the planets too would have been untroubled in their interminable, rolling motions. Not so with Stalinism however. If Stalinism had not launched an intermittent, cyclical series of purges, each one deeper and more far reaching than the last, then the Stalinist universe itself would have ground to a halt, col- lapsed under the weight of its own accumulated contradictions. The purges were as necessary to the internal dynamic of the political bureaucracy, as much as the mass repressions and the creation of the gu- lags were necessary to redefine the economic pattern of the country in and through a vast network of forced and slave labour. The two processes were in fact organically interlinked. Individual bureaucrats were able to fortify their positions by acquiring an increasing control over the means of repression which the Stalinist system used against the population in order to drive through its economic reforms and se- cure and bolster its own power. And yet, this very process generated a fundamental friction and destabilization of the bureaucracy itself – as its different elements were thrown into collision with one another in and through the marshalling of their own discrete powers and privileges. What we have here is what the greatest of all the classical German philosophers Hegel referred to as a “bad” or “spurious” infinite – that is, a contradiction whose solution simultaneously produces it anew at another level.

Finally, I believe that the real cause of such “unnatural” deaths under Stalin was the invasion of the USSR in 1918. To start with, there are estimates of between 7 to 12 million casualties, most of them civilian. And among these casualties were the most committed revolutionaries of the working class who saw the preservation of the socialist government as in their class interests. When they died on the battlefield, the heart of the revolution was effectively removed, thus leaving a vacuum that former bureaucrats of the Czarist regime could fill because they had experience as functionaries. These people provided the social base of the Stalinist machine.

Wikipedia provides details on the economic costs of the civil war:

The Russian economy was devastated by the war, with factories and bridges destroyed, cattle and raw materials pillaged, mines flooded and machines damaged. The industrial production value descended to one-seventh of the value of 1913 and agriculture to one-third. According to Pravda, “The workers of the towns and some of the villages choke in the throes of hunger. The railways barely crawl. The houses are crumbling. The towns are full of refuse. Epidemics spread and death strikes—industry is ruined.” It is estimated that the total output of mines and factories in 1921 had fallen to 20% of the pre-World War level, and many crucial items experienced an even more drastic decline. For example, cotton production fell to 5%, and iron to 2%, of pre-war levels.

With such a devastating economic collapse, the Soviets were forced to make concessions to the peasantry that was growing frustrated with a lack of manufactured goods. With 20 percent of the factories destroyed, there was an urgent need to get production going again even on a market basis incorporated in the NEP. The NEP provided a temporary amelioration but at some costs.

From the very beginning, the so-called “scissors” phenomenon characterized the NEP. Trotsky first drew attention to this phenomenon of rising industrial prices and declining agricultural prices, which appeared graphically as an opened scissor, in the first few years of the NEP. It was attributable to the discrepancy between a shattered state-owned industrial infrastructure and a relatively thriving capitalist agricultural economy. The effect of the “scissors” was to cause the kulak to hoard farm products in an attempt to blackmail the state into cutting the prices of consumer goods. When the kulak hoarded crops, the workers went hungry and misery increased in the towns. This, in brief, was the pattern that would repeat itself until Stalin declared war on the kulaks.

The peasants had discovered that holding grain was more prudent than holding money. The state authorities could not make the peasants budge. At Rostov in the Ukraine the authorities issued an order to have the peasants deliver 25% of all flour delivered to state mills at a fixed price in 1924. The state was able to collect only 1/3 of the grain. The peasants withheld the rest.

In addition to the growing tensions between private growers and public authorities, tensions also arose in the countryside between the wealthy peasant and the overwhelming majority of poor peasants. The 1917 revolution distributed millions of small lots to the tiller, but their prospects were uncertain. In these mini-farms, horses were often nonexistent let alone tractors. Peasants used their own muscles to plow the land. Many of these mini-farms failed and the peasants became wage laborers on the kulak’s farms.

Were there any easy solutions to these contradictions? It is impossible to say since by the time they had mounted to the boiling point, the Marxists in the USSR had been silence or forced into exile. People like those at PJ Media believe that Russia would have been better off with capitalism. It was a lot easier to make such an argument in the 1950s and early 60s when the post-WWII recovery was still going strong.

That is not the case today when young people (the millennials) can’t find a job and are confronted by capitalist failure rather than what took place in the USSR in the 1930s. The rightwing is worried about the growing popularity of socialism, even if that only means the words used by Bernie Sanders that has little to do with what the Bolsheviks were trying to do in 1917. There will come a point when a new paradigmatic revolution takes place not in the periphery but in the heart of the advanced capitalist countries. As difficult the road we must travel to help such a revolution take place, we can at least be reassured that the task of overthrowing it will not be an easy task especially if the USA is where it takes place.

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