Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 13, 2016

Is anything worth salvaging from the USSR’s legacy?

Filed under: Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

The other day I got a FB message from a comrade in Pakistan:

which reminds me, comrade, i wanted to ask you about Timothy Snyder’s work and some related issues

i read your critique very carefully (or at least i hope i did), and i do have his book – i haven’t read it in its entirety, but im familiar with his main framework

my question mainly is along these lines:

if we are to come to grips with the legacy of Stalinism, how do we do it?

where should we look for a damning indictment of stalinism that does not devolve into Nazi apologia?

and can we sustain such a damning indictment, as communists, while still salvaging ANY progressive/radical/revolutionary/virtuous/politically-worthwhile elements from the Bolshevik experience and the soviet union’s history?

or is it a mistake to look for anything worth salvaging from the USSR’s legacy?

i remember a discussion with xxx at one point, where he was basically saying (unless i got him wrong) that he agrees with Snyder’s framework broadly and that we cannot underestimate the brutality of soviet domination of the ‘eastern bloc’

can you point the way to some sort of way to approach all this?

To start off, I should mention that I launched a Yahoo listserv called The Soviet Legacy that was devoted to discussing exactly such questions. The list withered on the vine mostly for the right reason–namely that people got tired of trying to figure out when and why things went sour in the USSR. In fact I created the mailing list to shunt such conversations off of the Marxism list where I try to emphasize current events. It is not that I am averse to discussing Soviet history, only averse to hearing the usual litany from sect members bent on foisting their analysis on the rest of us.

For a different approach, I’d recommend Tony McKenna’s new book on Stalin titled “The Dictator, The Revolution, The Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin” that I reviewed on August 21, 2016 and that will be available later this year.

It benefits from a wide range of sources both left, center and right. For me, it was a real eye-opener since my understanding of Stalinism emerged out of a fairly narrow part of the political spectrum, namely Leon Trotsky and his biographer Isaac Deutscher who the American Trotskyist leader regarded as a kind of crypto-Stalinist despite his obvious Trotskyist sympathies.

In terms of Snyder, I have to confess that I have never read any of his books. Some people who I have a lot of respect for speak highly of “Bloodlands” but I doubt that I will ever find the time or motivation to read it even though it obviously has a lot of scholarly material on the Ukraine, a subject that like Syria is of interest to me. I make a point of reading everything that Snyder writes about Ukraine for the New York Review of Books, where he is a regular contributor, but tend to rely more on my own interpretation of the Euromaidan drawn from reporting in the bourgeois press and Marxists both inside and outside of Ukraine such as Chris Ford.

But let me hone in on your key question: “is it a mistake to look for anything worth salvaging from the USSR’s legacy?”

This is probably the most complex question of the 20th century and one that piles contradiction upon contradiction as you begin to study the effect that the USSR had on world politics. For example, in the late 80s I was involved with a project called Tecnica that sent programmers and other skilled professionals and tradespeople to Nicaragua and then expanded into a program for Africa focused on the ANC, which was then in exile.

In the 1980s the USSR was supplying Nicaragua with most of the military aid it needed to fend off the contras who relied in turn on Reagan’s “legal” and illegal support network. Without such aid it is likely that the Sandinistas would have been ousted from power a lot sooner than 1991. That military aid helped the government defend clinics and schools that were designed to eliminate poverty in the countryside.

When the USSR began implementing “perestroika”, the first thing to go was solidarity with Nicaragua as I pointed out in an article I wrote about 20 years ago:

Sandinista embrace of the marketplace does not take place in a political vacuum. It takes place within the context of Perestroika. In October 1988 Andrei Kozyrev, a Soviet Foreign Ministry official, wrote that the USSR no longer had any reason to be in “a state of class confrontation with the United States or any other country,” and, with respect to the Third World, “the myth that the class interests of socialist and developing countries coincide in resisting imperialism does not hold up to criticism at all, first of all because the majority of developing countries already adhere or tend toward the Western model of development, and second, because they suffer not so much from capitalism as from lack of it.” It is safe to assume that high-level Soviet officials must have been talking up these reactionary ideas to the Sandinista leadership long before Kozyrev’s article appeared. Roger Chamorro of Barricada undoubtedly was privy to these discussions..

These new ideas benefited US foreign policy needs in a dramatic way. In early 1989, a high- level meeting took place between Undersecretary of State Elliot Abrams and his Soviet counterpart, Yuri Pavlov. Abrams made the case that relations between the US and the USSR would improve if the Nicaragua problem somehow disappeared. Pavlov was noncommital but gave Abrams a copy of Kozyrev’s article. This telling gesture convinced the Reagan administration that the USSR would now be willing to sell out Nicaragua. (This meeting is described in Robert Kagan’s recently published “A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua 1977-1990.” Kagan was a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the Reagan years and helped to draft key foreign policy statements, including the document that contained what has become known as the “Reagan Doctrine”.)

Analogously, when I traveled to Zambia in 1991 to consult with the ANC over the feasibility of Tecnica expanding into Africa, I was struck by the evidence of Soviet assistance to the liberation struggle that was mostly manifested by young members relating to our team about the education that they had received in Soviet colleges.

But in addition to the engineering and medical training they got there, it was obvious that they also got an education in class collaboration that facilitated the neoliberal turn of the ANC. So you get a bundle of contradictions. Soviet aid made it possible for apartheid to be abolished and for Jonah Savimbi’s contras to be defeated in Angola while at the same time it helped to consolidate a state power in South Africa that dispatches mostly Black cops to kill unarmed workers.

In the early 90s, the wing of the left that was most committed to “socialism from below” formulae saw the end of Communism (or Stalinism, if you prefer) to be an unqualified good. Susan Weissman wrote an article for Against the Current titled “The Russian Revolution Revisited” that epitomized this outlook:

The working class has been locked between the experience of Stalinism and Social Democracy, believing both were reformable. Today the working class needs a new liberatory mechanism that is consonant with the ends it promotes. On the other side, the demise of Stalinism leaves the capitalist class without a mediating force. With the end of Stalinism, its capitalist counterpart, social democracy, is also on the wane.

Statist containment, whether Stalinist, social democratic or fascist is over, yet much of the left pines for its return. Have they forgotten that Stalin and Mao made Hitler look like a bourgeois humanist? Do they really miss the Ceaucescus and Pol Pots?

That the zombies can’t be revived should give heart to those on the left who are filled with historical pessimism. It is impossible to resurrect Djugashvili’s monster, so why join the Volkogonovs, Pipes, Figes and their chorus in trying to keep it alive?

It is in the interests of world capital to encourage the idea that the debacle of Stalinism represents the inherent character of Marxism, or of working class revolution. It’s discouraging to see much of the left agree, especially given that conditions today put the question of socialism on the agenda.

I do not agree first of all that Stalin and Mao made Hitler look like a bourgeois humanist and find such comparisons invidious whether they come from a Marxist like Weismann or a liberal like Timothy Snyder. The key criterion is mode of production. Nazi Germany operated on the basis of a capitalism that required forced labor and totalitarian rule. In the 1930s the USSR had some of the same features but once WWII came to an end, many of the worst features of Stalinism began to decline and deepen further after Stalin’s death. For example, Khrushchev was committed to eradicating the worst features of the system while maintaining its underlying distortions that were necessary to ensure bureaucratic privileges. Could anybody imagine a softer and kinder Nazism? I can’t.

Gorbachev hoped to go even further. He conceived of a Soviet state that would resemble the Scandinavian system even though he never really came to terms with how it was based on its integration into the world imperialist system as I tried to point out in a series of articles on Sweden.

Even though Perestroika was responsible for the sell-out of the Nicaraguan revolution, I can easily imagine Gorbachev being far more responsive to the just demands of the nationalities Snyder writes about in “Bloodlands”. It was American imperialism that helped to create the economic disaster under Yeltsin that sapped Russia’s morale and led to the rise of Putin. This is not to speak of the encroachments of NATO that despite my identification with the Ukrainian struggle were provocations that enabled Putin to portray himself as a defender of Russian sovereignty.

The problem with the Assadist/Putinite left, of course, is that it can’t see the conflict between the USA and Russia dialectically. Because Ukraine now seeks closer ties to NATO (in the years before Euromaidan all Ukrainian politicians opposed joining NATO), the “anti-imperialist” left justifies Russian troops operating in Luhansk and Donetsk. A more nuanced analysis is required.

Let me conclude with a passage from the conclusion to Tony McKenna’s book that I urge everybody to read:

The single, underlying motivation of this book has been the attempt to show that Stalinism was the product of the clash between the forms of an old world and the possibilities of a new one. The workers’ democracy carried the form of a new society latent within the womb of the old order, and for this reason, those classes whose social power was predicated on the exploitation of labour by capital, both nation- ally and internationally, recognized in it the germ of their own dissolution. Thus they hastened to perform the most bloody, back alley abortion; they sought to mutilate the developing democracy in utero so to speak, and like the titan Cronus hungrily devouring his son, they hoped to put off in perpetuity the historical moment of their own usurpation. It was a critical juncture indeed; the old world was, in a fundamental sense, dying – but the new one was not yet developed enough to fully force its way into the light. The “white” counterrevolution, aided and abetted by the powers of the capitalist West, was sufficiently strong such that it could drag the Soviet democracy into the mire, that it could drown it in blood – by decimating the proletarian masses who had provided its backbone in the fury and frenzy of civil war; but at the same time the revolutionary movement, the child of the new epoch, still had enough vim and vigour in its organism to kick out and push back its antagonists. Reaction was unable to restore the old regime, but revolution was unable to secure the new one. The Bolshevik Party had remained in power, had survived the civil war, but was now bereft of the living proletarian democracy which had breathed life into it; hence the party structures, bled dry of the social substance which once infused them, immediately began to ossify. A bureaucratic caste began to develop which was in some way able to raise itself up above the competing class interests of the revolutionary proletariat and bourgeois and feudal reaction – interests which had fought each other to a standstill.

This then, was the historical genesis of Stalinism; it was the effects of the counterrevolution channelled through what was left of the beleaguered structures and remnants of proletarian power which then, in a truly necrotic fashion, began to revive and assume new form; the sclerotic, remorseless, murderous aspect of a zombified bureaucracy. I have also hoped to demonstrate, in the course of this book, that Stalin’s political persona cannot be apprehended outside this context.


February 12, 2016

What is to be done

Filed under: ussr — louisproyect @ 1:18 pm

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 8.15.10 AM

Dr. Michael Welton,

In your long diatribe against Lenin on CounterPunch today, you turn “What is to be Done” into some kind of original sin:

In his educational treatise What is to be Done? (1903), Lenin formulates the pedagogical relationship between educator (socialist intellectual) and those to be educated (peasants and proletariat) in bluntly instrumental and directive terms.

This famous (or infamous) text can be situated in the years between 1872 and 1905 that were marked by the absence of revolution. The existing revolutionary parties held gradualist and economistic beliefs, and Lenin could not see any way forward without “vanguard” subordination of the working class to the Leninist educator.

You don’t seem to understand that Lenin’s ideas on the revolutionary party were a direct application of the model of the German Social Democracy. Lenin wrote:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

Lenin’s main point is that the Social Democrat should not aspire to be a trade union secretary, but instead the “tribune of the people.” This tribune will “react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum of people it affects; who is able to generalize all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”

Lenin’s example of one such tribune is the German Social Democratic leader Wilhelm Liebnecht. The German Social Democracy was Lenin’s model for what was needed in Russia. This type of party did not exist in Russia and it was his goal to build one.

You cite a number of enemies of Lenin in your diatribe including Maurice Brinton whose citation of Lenin’s 1918 article “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government” supposedly indicated that the fate of the Russian Revolution was sealed therein–thus making an amalgam of Lenin and Stalin: “Revolution demands, in the interests of socialism, that the masses unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders of the labour process.”

I am not sure what it is that you teach but history does not seem to be your forte. Lenin’s article was written during the civil war when the USSR was invaded by 8 imperialist armies, including the USA. This resulted in the death of 7 to 12 million people, mostly civilians, according to the Wikipedia article on the Russian civil war.

Once the civil war was over, the Soviets dropped war communism like a hot potato and moved toward the NEP which hardly maps to Maurice Brinton’s nightmare. Of course the NEP led to a series of other problems that arguably strengthened Stalin’s hand. In any case, the best way to understand what happened in the USSR is not by quoting libertarian communists like Maurice Brinton that sound great on paper. Rather it requires an engagement with the social and economic forces that acted mercilessly on Lenin and all attempts in the 20th and 21st century to build an alternative to capitalism. The lesson that can be drawn is that socialism requires a global framework if it is to succeed. Lenin’s writings and even the fitful attempts of the Comintern to provide such a framework are still useful for those of us who remain inspired by the 1917 revolution.

Although I am happy to see CounterPunch–a website that unfortunately gives far too much space for people who obviously admire Stalin and Stalin Jr. (Vladimir Putin)–publish your article, it is a disservice to socialism. My recommendation to you is to read Neil Harding’s “Lenin’s Political Thought” to get a handle on what Lenin believed as opposed to the funhouse mirror image of Lenin and the USSR by Maurice Brinton et al.

Have a nice day.

December 17, 2014

The Lenin Museum

Filed under: art,Gay,ussr — louisproyect @ 6:55 pm

Screen shot 2014-12-17 at 1.46.23 PM

 Representing a men’s room stall at the Lenin Museum, where gay men cruised

It would be hard to imagine any art show more topical than “The Lenin Museum” that opened at the James Gallery in the CUNY Graduate Center on 365 Fifth Avenue (at 34th Street) in New York on November 14th and runs through January 17th. As a statement on the troubled relationship between gay people and the state in Russia, it is not to be missed. The show is the latest in a series by conceptual artist extraordinaire Yevgeniy Fiks, a Russian émigré whose work I have been following with keen interest for the past two years.

In conceptual art, the ideas take precedence over traditional aesthetic and commercial considerations. Since much of it is one-time installation, it is hardly the sort of thing that you can take home and mount over a mantelpiece. While many of its adherents have taken it up as a challenge to the tyranny of the gallery, someone like Damien Hirst creates conceptual art that caters to the decadent-minded hedge fund speculator with a taste for the transgressive.

Fiks has created his own niche, one that is dedicated to the examination of the Soviet legacy. As someone left-of-center, he is intrigued by the experience of official Communism, both in the USSR and in the USA, the home of this 42-year old artist for the past twenty years.

Fiks is a mischievous sort who in some ways hearkens back to the glory days of Dadaism, when every work of art conveyed a bit of the spirit of Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. that depicted the Mona Lisa with a mustache. Nothing expresses that more than his “Lenin for your Library?”, a project that involved sending copies of Lenin’s “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism“ to 100 major transnational corporations including the Gap, Inc., Coca-Cola, General Electric, and IBM as donations to their corporate library. He received 35 response letters with 14 companies accepting the donation.

Fiks’s latest show is more somber. It deals with one of the most troubled legacies of the former Soviet Union that persists until this day, namely homophobia. In 1917 the young Soviet state decriminalized homosexuality. At the time the socialist movement was finally tackling this medieval prejudice, especially in the Weimar Republic where Magnus Hirschfield organized the First Congress for Sexual Reform in 1921. In a key article on socialism and homosexuality, Thomas Harrison wrote about the possibilities that were opening up at the time:

In 1923, the Commissar of Health, N.A. Semashko, on a visit to Hirschfeld’s Institute, assured the Germans that Soviet legalization was “a deliberately emancipatory measure, part of the sexual revolution.” Two years later, the Director of the Moscow Institute of Social Hygiene Grigorii Batkis, in a pamphlet, The Sexual Revolution in Russia, described Soviet policy as “the absolute non-interference of the state and society in sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured and no one’s interests are encroached upon. Concerning homosexuality, sodomy and various forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offenses against morality — Soviet legislation treats these exactly the same as so-called ‘natural’ intercourse.”

In 1934, Stalin recriminalized homosexuality, a measure that was consistent with the Bonpartist retreat from the early 20s when the heavens were being stormed. Even under the threat of repression, gay men and women were determined to hold on to the gains of 1917. In May 1934, Harry Whyte, the editor of Moscow’s English newspaper, The Moscow News, sent an open letter to Stalin titled “Can a Homosexual be a Member of the Communist Party?” that is part of the installation. Whyte stated:

Since I have a personal stake in this question insofar as I am a homosexual myself, I addressed this question to a number of comrades from the OGPU and the People’s Commissariat for Justice, to psychiatrists, and to Comrade Borodin, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper where I work.

All that I managed to extract from them was a number of contradictory opinions which show that amongst these comrades there is no clear theoretical understanding of what might have served as the basis for passage of the given law. The first psychiatrist from whom I sought help with this question twice assured me (after verifying this with the People’s Commissariat for Justice) that if they are honest citizens or good communists, his patients may order their personal lives as they see fit. Comrade Borodin, who said that he personally took a negative view of homosexuality, at the same time declared that he regarded me as a fairly good communist, that I could be trusted, and that I could lead my personal life as I liked.

The title of the show “The Lenin Museum” is a reference to a favorite cruising spot, the men’s room of an institution that housed Lenin memorabilia of the sort that Fiks keeps returning to in his remarkable career. An article on “Sex in the Soviet closet: a history of gay cruising in Moscow” in the Moscow News (the only reliable newspaper in Putin’s Russia) will give you a sense of what will await you at this stunning show:

One day in 1955, a railway stoker named Klimov entered the GUM department store, looking for a bite to eat. While inside, Klimov, 27, stopped by the bathroom.

“In the toilet a young lad came up to me, shook my hand and said, ‘Let’s get acquainted,'” Klimov later recalled. The man’s name was Volodya. He invited Klimov to the Lenin Museum.

“He bought the tickets with his money, and we went straight to the men’s toilet.”

An intimate encounter began, but they were interrupted by a pair of strangers.

Several weeks later, the men happened to meet in the GUM toilet again. This time, they opted for the secluded woods of Sokolniki Park.

From 1933 to 1993, homosexuality was officially outlawed in Russia under Article 121 of the Soviet Criminal Code. But all the while, the Communist capital’s most famous landmarks served as pick-up spots for gay men.

In a new photo book, titled “Moscow” and published by Ugly Duckling Presse, Russian-American photographer Yevgeniy Fiks captures the city’s Soviet cruising grounds as they look today. They are familiar to any resident of the city: the square in front of the Bolshoi Theater, Alexandrovsky Sad, Okhotny Ryad metro station.

Most of the spots are usually crowded. But in Fiks’ photos, they stand empty.

“This book is a type of kaddish [mourning prayer] for the lost and repressed generations of Soviet-era gays,” Fiks said.

October 5, 2014

Monument to Cold War Victory

Filed under: art,ussr — louisproyect @ 4:13 pm

Cold War Exhibit Release-1

Cold War Exhibit Release-2

September 19, 2014

A Gift to Birobidzhan

Filed under: art,Jewish question,Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 7:05 pm

fiks receptionOpening night reception for A Gift to Birobidzhan

fiks photoYevgeniy Fiks

For people who have been following the Unrepentant Marxist for the past few years, you are probably aware that I am a big fan of Yevgeniy Fiks, a post-Soviet Conceptual Artist I interviewed in 2012 and whose last show on the USSR’s mixed encounter on Black people I wrote about earlier this year.

Although Fiks is decidedly left-of-center, his art is not in the socialist realist tradition to say the least. His strategy is much more subversive. By “flanking” his subject, he defies pat interpretations of sexuality, race, imperialism, the former Soviet Union, and other topics that could inspire boring and didactic treatments.

Although I love everything that he does, my favorite “work” by Fiks was his “Lenin for your library”, a sly assault on corporate stupidity and humorlessness that was described on the Winkelman Gallery, where he has exhibited in the past, as follows:

100 copies of “Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism” by V.I. Lenin were sent out to the addresses of World’s major corporations, including Gap, Coca-Cola, General Electric, and IBM among many others. In an enclosed letter, it was stated that the book was a donation to the corporate library. Out of 100 copies, 14 were accepted and “thank you” letters were received. 20 copies were returned together with letters stating various reasons for rejection, including a particular focus of the library or their policy not to accept any gifts or donations from private individuals. The fate of the remaining 66 copies remains unknown.

It was the same spirit of playfulness, which might be described as a David Letterman gag geared to those who have read Tristan Tzara, Fiks conceived of A Gift to Birobidzhan, described in the initial publicity as follows:

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.

For those outside of New York City, you will be able to take a “virtual tour” of the exhibit here. Here’s a work that I kept coming back to:

VyDaVy, “JEWISH LUCK” (еврейское счастье), two 25”x32” laminated prints. Ink on paper, gold leaf, 2009

Jewish luck is Jewish luck. It is black or white. It comes and goes. But there is always something inside that stays forever

(If you would like to take a “real tour” of the exhibit, contact me at lnp3@panix.com and I will put you in touch with Yevgeniy.)

Finally, I should state that the show had a particular resonance for me as a Jew and as someone who has become particularly inflamed over ancillary questions. As a firm believer that Ukraine was to Russia as Ireland was to England—as Lenin once put it—I found the Kremlin demagogy about the existential threat to Jews posed by EuroMaidan obscene. Almost as obscene as the increasingly rabid defense of Israel’s war on Gaza and the McCarthyite attacks on pro-Palestinian professors, all in the name of defending “the Jewish homeland”. As I told Yevgeniy at the show, the Jews would have been much better off in the sparsely populated Birobidzhan than in Palestine, where carried out a wholesale expulsion of the indigenous population.

Eleven years ago I reviewed a documentary titled “L’Chayim Comrade Stalin”, long before blogs had been invented. I reproduce my article below along with a trailer for the film that can unfortunately not be seen online in all the usual places like Netflix. My advice is to track down a DVD from a research library. They don’t even have one in the Columbia University library. Good luck!

L’Chayim Comrade Stalin

posted to http://www.marxmail.org on February 3, 2003

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 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.

It was not only Russian Jews who came to this remote, mosquito-infested region that was closer to Korea than to Moscow. IKOR, an international organization of Jewish Communists, actively recruited people in more or less the same manner as people were recruited to construction brigades in Nicaragua in the 1980s. A widow of an US electrician recounts the arduous journey that brought them to the desolate outpost with nothing but their clothes and a generator that her husband intended to bring on-line for the settlement. Like a 1930s version of martyred engineer Ben Linder who died from contra bullets, he understood that in the cold, rainy Siberian wilderness, electricity could dramatically improve the quality of life.

At its peak, Birobidzhan only included about 45,000 Jewish settlers. Most were poorer Jews from rural Byelorussia or the Ukraine, who were trained to cobble shoes (like my mother’s father) or make hats. The Soviet film shows a bearded Jew struggling and finally succeeding to yoke two oxen to a plow. This image evokes a long standing theme that falls under the general rubric of the “Jewish Question”. There is a tendency among early Zionist theorists and Marxists alike to explain Jewish weakness and isolation as a failure to develop the full range of skills and occupations found in society as a whole.

The absence of Jewish farming in particular spurred not only the agrarian colonizing efforts in Birobidzhan, it also led to similar efforts in my own Sullivan County in the 1800s. Farming experiments were an expression of the “Enlightenment” tendency in Judaism that also produced colonies in Argentina, New Jersey and Palestine. The very earliest farmers who settled in Palestine were not Zionists as much as they were agrarian socialists.

After the USSR allowed Jews to emigrate, most of Birobidzhan’s citizens flooded into Israel. Now there are only 17,000 left. Strom’s interviews with those who stayed behind are among the film’s most poignant moments. One elderly woman named Rivkele explains that she only speaks Russian nowadays and has almost forgotten her Yiddish, the official language of the Jewish Autonomous Region. She is also married to a Russian, as are her children. One gets the impression that such Jews are rapidly become assimilated in the same fashion as Jews elsewhere in the world, including the USA. Rather than having to worry about the secret police arresting a man for toasting a baby at a circumcision ritual for coming into the world as a Jew (an event that the documentary details), they have to worry more about the inexorable process of unfavorable demographics and the natural tendency of a secular society to erode particularistic customs and religious beliefs.

Although the economic changes in the post-Communist USSR have been largely negative (one interviewee spits out that “you can’t eat freedom”), they do include a cultural latitude that allows the remaining Jews in Birobidzhan to study their customs, re-familiarize themselves with Judaism and–most intriguingly–to learn Yiddish. Just as I studied Hebrew at the age of 11 and 12, these young Jews now study Yiddish, a dying language. During a Q&A session after the film, Strom hinted at the class/cultural divide between Hebrew and Yiddish. His own father had become an activist of the Hashomer Hatzoir, a left-leaning Zionist group that favored Hebrew, a language that presumably would sever all ties to the ghetto where Yiddish first arose. Meanwhile the Jewish Bund, a socialist organization that disavowed Zionism and linked Jewish emancipation with the emancipation of the working class in general, adopted Yiddish as its official language. They saw this language, with all its underdog associations, as the appropriate medium for a people seeking to abolish the underdog status once and for all.

I would only add that I regret not having learned Yiddish instead of Hebrew growing up. Not only is that language infinitely more expressive, it is rooted in the lived experience of the Jewish people rather than an artificial construct to recreate a Biblical state that some scholars, including many in Israel, believe never existed.

Yiddish, a mongrel language, perhaps expresses best the true cultural legacy of the Jewish people. As a people without their own distinct territory, they mix with and absorb local influences as well as influencing the gentile population that surrounds them. This has always seemed much more attractive to me than the idea of separating oneself from the unbeliever and erecting fences to maintain that purity.

Russian Jews have always embodied this kind of rich dialectical interpenetration. Recently I discovered that despite many flaws in Arthur Koestler’s “The Thirteenth Tribe,” there is still ongoing research that partially confirms his original thesis, namely that the Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia descended from the ancient Khazar kingdom in Turkey. Today, the evidence seems to point in the direction of a link not between all Jews in this area but a subgroup called the “Mountain Jews”, about whom I had knew nothing beforehand.

From www.khazaria.com, we learn about the cultural aspects of the Mountain Jews:

Occupations. According to historian Ken Blady, the Mountain Jews used to be agriculturalists and grew such crops as grapes, rice, tobacco, grains, and marena (madder). In later years most of the Mountain Jews were forced to get involved in business, so they became traders, tanners, jewelers, rug-weavers, leather-workers, and weapon-makers. A small number of Mountain Jews remained farmers as late as the 20th century.

Cuisine. The foods of the Mountain Jews are outstanding. I have personally eaten the Mountain Jewish versions of chicken shashlik (shish-kebab) and dolma (stuffed grape leaves), and I liked the way the food was prepared and the vegetables and sauces that were used with the meats. There are many very good Mountain Jewish and Persian restaurants in New York City and one of the Persian restaurants is called “Khazar” after the Persian name of the Caspian Sea.

Hospitality. The Mountain Jews were generous to guests, just like their Caucasian neighbors. Ken Blady says that this hospitality probably originated with the Jews themselves: “As one of the oldest inhabitants in the region and the people who brought monotheism to Caucasian soil, it may well have been the Jews who wove the biblical patriarch Abraham’s practice of hachnosat orchim (welcoming guests) into the fabric of Daghestani culture. Every guest was treated as if he were personally sent by God. In every Jewish home a special room or hut covered with the finest carpets was set aside for guests. Every host would… lavish on them the finest foods and spirits….” (p. 165-166)

Music and dance. Instruments used by Mountain Jews included the tar (plucked string instrument) and saz (long-necked fretted flute) (Blady, p. 166). Saz is a Turkic word. Blady also says that there were “many talented musicians and wonderful storytellers among the Mountain Jews” (p. 167). Furthermore: “The Mountain Jews were graceful in their movements, and were excellent dancers…” (p. 168).

Courage and independence. Like the Khazars, the Mountain Jews were “skilled horsemen and expert marksmen” (Blady, p. 166). They loved horses and nature. Mountain Jews knew the value of self-defense and carried and owned many weapons (especially daggers).

Dress. Mountain Jews wore clothing like that of their neighbors in the Caucasus.

Charity. Blady explains that all Mountain Jewish towns had a “house of kindness and charity” which helped poor and sick people.


This kind of cross-culturalism is truly inspiring. It is tragic that the holocaust not only destroyed the lives of millions of Jews, who lived in a similar kind of cultural gumbo, it also unleashed an experiment in ethnic purity that has brought nothing but misery to the people it displaced and an embrace of militarism and chauvinism that were alien to traditional Jewish society, either secular or fundamentalist.

These, at least, are my reactions to Yale Strom’s first-rate documentary. What others are stirred to think will largely be a function of the beliefs that they bring with them when they see the film. At the very least, his film will act as a catalyst on the mind and on the heart. Highly recommended.

Swarthmore website on the Jewish Autonomous Region: http://birobidzhan.swarthmore.edu/

January 20, 2014

The Wayland Rudd Collection: the Red and the Black

Filed under: african-american,art,ussr — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

Wayland Rudd

For a number of years now, Russian émigré artist Yevgeniy Fiks has been examining the cultural legacy of the USSR, both within its borders and in the U.S. Although politically to the left, Fiks is no simple dispenser of Soviet nostalgia as is prominently on display in the Back to USSR restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. (But if you ever find yourself there, don’t miss the Red Snapper. It is to die for.)

No, Fiks’s interest is in revealing the contradictions of being a Communist, if I might be indulged in using a bit of Marxist/Hegelian jargon. In his last show at the Winkleman Gallery on far West 27th Street, an area that was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, he focused in on the Red/Gay hysteria of the 1950s when being a Commie and a “fag” was deemed inimical to American values. As anybody familiar with the Soviet Union can attest, gays had it just as bad. Despite the early Soviet Union’s openness to different forms of sexual identity, Stalin’s counter-revolution included a law enacted in 1933 that made homosexuality punishable by a 5-year prison term.

In November 2012, I conducted an interview with Fiks that my readers would find most interesting, I’m sure. He covers his various projects, including portraits of CP’ers in the USA as well as his rather witty experiment in donating copies of Lenin’s essay on imperialism to major American corporation’s libraries.

I also invite you to check out Fiks’s website where he describes his esthetic in these terms:

My work is inspired by the collapse of the Soviet bloc, which led me to the realization of the necessity to reexamine the Soviet experience in the context of the history of the Left, including that of the international Communist movement. My work is a reaction to the collective amnesia within the post-Soviet space over the last decade, on the one hand, and the repression of the histories of the American Left in the US, on the other.

I’ve been interested in discovering and reflecting on repressed micro-historical narratives that highlight the complex relationships between social histories of the West and Russia in the 20th century. Having grown up and having been educated in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, my work is about coming to terms with the Soviet experience by carving out a space for critique both without and within the Soviet experience. Having lived in New York since 1994, I’m particularly interested in the history of the American Communist movement and the way it manifests itself in the present-day United States.

My work has been influenced by the writings of Susan Buck-Morss about discovering sites of the “post-Soviet condition” in today’s US and the effects of the Cold War on present-day American society and culture, and I am interested in the activist use of that legacy.

His latest installment in this ongoing project that I had the good fortune to attend on Friday evening–once again at the Winkleman Gallery–is devoted to the experience of African-Americans in the former Soviet Union. The key figure that unites the visual art on display is émigré Black actor Wayland Rudd, who moved to Russia in 1932 to escape American racism. He became an icon in the USSR, with a fame that rivaled Paul Robeson’s. On display in the gallery are a number of works that might not have an obvious relationship to Rudd but that invite meditation on the underlying tensions between Black identity and official Communism.

The exhibition is crowned by Fiks’s 200 plus collection of Soviet posters, etc. that deal in one way or another with the image of Black people. They range from the heroic to at least one piece of advertising that evokes the Aunt Jemima picture of old.

To be sure, whatever racial stereotyping existed during the worst days of Stalinism, there was nothing to match the naked bigotry on display in a post-Soviet world:

Financial Times (London,England)
June 14, 2003 Saturday

Black in the USSR Xenophobia is on the increase in Russia, propelled by groups of violent extremists. Their victims, says Hugh Barnes, range from embassy elite to a few hundred black students, marooned when the collapse of the Soviet system cut off their financial support

Vladimir Putin raises a glass to a packed hall of distinguished guests and foreign academics, mostly from developing countries, nearly all black. They are graduates of Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University, now renamed Friendship University. Founded in 1970 at the height of the cold war to educate students from Africa and Asia, the university was named in honour of the Congolese leader assassinated by the CIA, and it was designed to inculcate its graduates with the values of Soviet socialism. The Russian President makes a toast to higher education – “a great tradition always open to talented young people, independent of class, wealth, religion or ethnic origin”. There is applause. “I want to repeat: in Russia, dear friends, you are always the most welcome guests.” More, rapturous, applause.

Outside the hall, in the main plaza of the university, a gang of 20 skinheads attempts to mount the latest in a series of racist attacks. Similar attacks have, in the past, resulted in murders. On this occasion, only the presence of a reinforced security cordon to protect the visiting dignitaries (rather than the university’s remaining black students) foils the attempt to wreak havoc. Inside the Friendship University all is official friendship. The incidents outside are not commented on, now or afterwards.

Yet Russia is suffering from a rise in xenophobia. The Russian leader has warned of “inflammatory slogans and fascist and nationalist symbols, which threaten human rights and lead to pogroms and people being beaten up and killed”. Most of those who are being beaten up and killed are the students at Friendship University and elsewhere, marooned when the collapse of the Soviet system cut off their financial support. But others are the kind of people who applauded the president in the hall: visiting dignitaries and diplomats.

By targeting the embassy elite, the swastika-emblazoned thugs have spread concern through the ranks of foreign envoys living in Moscow. A Madagascan, a Kenyan and a Malian diplomat were set upon by racists last year, and skinheads attacked the wife of South Africa’s ambassador as she was shopping in an upscale neighbourhood, burning her with cigarettes.

Wayland Rudd’s decision to move to the USSR was completely understandable given the terrible oppression Black people faced in Jim Crow days. You can read Black autoworker Robert Robinson’s “Black on Red: My 44 Years Inside the Soviet Union” to get another glimpse into the émigré experience. The Wikipedia article on Robinson refers to others who made the journey:

He described acquaintances in the Soviet Union: Henry Smith, a journalist; Wayland Rudd, an actor; Robert Ross, a Soviet propagandist from Montana; Henry Scott, a dancer from New York City; Coretta Arle-Titz, actress and music professor; John Sutton, an agronomist; George Tynes, also an agronomist; and Lovett Whiteman, an English teacher. He noted meeting in the 1930s the American writers Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson, who had traveled to the Soviet Union.

One of the works on display in the gallery was a book by artist Suzanne Broughel that collected the statements of participating artists in the show, including Yevgeniy Fiks who commented on his own experience as an émigré. In Russia, he was a Jew but in the U.S. he was a Russian.

In a brief chat with Yevgeniy at the show, I mentioned to him that I saw all sorts of contradictions involving Jews, Communists and Blacks growing up in Woodridge, New York—a village that the leftist newspaper PM described as a working-class Utopia in 1947. In the late 1950s there was a thriving group of leftists that included both Communists and American Labor Party activists that was spearheading an organizing drive of mostly Black workers in Woodridge’s plantation-like commercial steam laundry that served local hotels. So popular was the left in my village that even my father held a brief membership in the American Labor Party. But whatever messages the party was propagating on Black-white equality were lost on my father who was always sure to unload spotted fruit to the “schvartzes”, as he put it.

I am not sure of the status of this documentary-in-progress but it will surely add to the body of knowledge about the Red-Black connection once it is completed:

November 26, 2012

A conversation with Yevgeniy Fiks, a Post-Soviet Conceptual Artist

Filed under: art,ussr — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

July 13, 2012

Family Portrait in Black and White

Filed under: Film,racism,ussr — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

“Family Portrait in Black and White” opens today at the AMC 25 Theater on West 42nd St., a typical Cineplex featuring “Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection” and other such junk. My recommendation to New Yorkers is to not hold its venue against it since this oddly compelling film has many interesting things to say about racism in a dysfunctional Ukraine and the efforts of a foster mother of 23 children, all but 7 of whom are biracial and tend to have male African exchange students and Ukrainian women as birth parents.

They are being raised by Olga Nenya in Sumy, a farming town. She is loved by all of her foster children even if she runs the ramshackle house without steam heat and indoor toilets as a tyrant. Kiril, a sixteen year old studying music and wise beyond his years, likens Olga to the old Soviet Union and the children—he especially—as repressed but cared for citizens.

The film eschews facile political commentary but one thing it is very clear about. Ukraine is infested by neo-Nazi skinheads who are interviewed throughout the film. They brag about beating up or killing their victims, who tend to be immigrants. Nenya’s children were all born and raised in Ukraine but that does not prevent them from being bullied in school as “niggers” or “black asses”.

One of the benefits of living with Olga Nenya, despite her heavy-handedness, is that having 16 brothers and sisters with a similar background creates a bond of solidarity that makes the racial animosity of Sumy easier to put up with. Oddly enough, there are signs that the children have absorbed some of the same prejudices shared by backward Ukrainians. When we see two of the brood walking down the main street of Sumy, they begin railing against Arabs who have no business living among “us Ukrainians” and trying to take “our women”. A mischievous grin on one of the boy’s faces suggests, however, that he is trying more to be outrageous for the benefit of the film-makers than anything else.

The main tension in the film, and what gives its dramatic drive, is between Olga Nenya’s determination to rule the roost and the children’s struggle to define themselves as independent human beings, reflected most of all by their efforts to be adopted by the wealthier Western European families that take them in over Christmas and the summer vacation. In many respects, the struggle is not that much different than what other “more normal” families experience.

Oddly enough, the film makes no effort to find out what makes Olga Nenya tick. The interviews are mostly with the children who are very comfortable speaking on camera and to maximum effect. Perhaps this was a bid to keep her as something of a mystery. Is she sympathetic to the former Soviet Union in ostalgie fashion? What made her decide to take in so many foster children to begin with?

Perhaps the fact that these questions linger in my mind three days after watching this poignant drama is what the film-makers intended.


April 22, 2012

Red Plenty

Filed under: computers,Red Plenty,Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

The NY Times was not content to give Francis Spufford’s mixture of fact and fiction about the USSR (faction—really) “Red Plenty” one rave review. At least two were necessary. On February 14th this year, Dwight Garner wrote this valentine:

Any reader with a pencil has a dozen ways to express negative sentiment in the margins of a book — I am partial to ick, ack, awk, ugh and the occasional wha? — but a writer’s great sentences, in their bid for posterity, mostly just get underlined. At the end of the first chapter of Francis Spufford’s “Red Plenty,” however, I printed a nerdy but heartfelt word: “Bravo.” I felt like giving the author a little bow, or maybe a one-man standing O.

For what it is worth, Garner also went head over heels for Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “When Skateboards Will Be Free”, a callow memoir about growing up an SWP red diaper baby. I guess that even if there was no longer a single Marxist alive anywhere in the world, reviewers will still be singing the praises of such books. That is to be expected when the contradictions of capitalism create the objective conditions for a renewed interest in Marxism, as is the case today.

On March 2nd, Andrew Meier was just as effusive, concluding his review thusly:

Yes, “Red Plenty” is a literary/historical seesaw, a work sure to have even the most bilious Kindle-haters tapping for hyperlinks. But it is a work, by turns learned and lyrical, that grows by degree, accreting into something lasting: a replica in miniature of a world of ideas never visible to most, and now gone.

Neither Garner nor Meier are typical hardened anti-Communists. In fact, their political outlook is not that much different from that of Spufford, a liberal I have described as preferring the “devil you know” to the socialism some unrepentant types still uphold.

One thing is made abundantly clear from the introduction to Part Five of “Red Plenty”, the USSR was rotten from the beginning:

But the Soviet experiment had run into exactly the difficulty that Plato’s admirers encountered, back in the fifth century BC, when they attempted to mould philosophical monarchies for Syracuse and Macedonia. The recipe called for rule by heavily-armed virtue—or in the Leninist case, not exactly virtue, but a sort of intentionally post-ethical counterpart to it, self-righteously brutal. Wisdom was to be set where it could be ruthless. Once such a system existed, though, the qualities required to rise in it had much more to do with ruthlessness than wisdom. Lenin’s core of Bolsheviks, and the socialists like Trotsky who joined them, were many of them highly educated people, literate in multiple European languages, learned in the scholastic traditions of Marxism; and they preserved these attributes even as they murdered and lied and tortured and terrorized. They were social scientists who thought principle required them to behave like gangsters.

In other words, Lenin led to Stalin. This is the same formula that is at the heart of all Sovietology, whether of the liberal variety like Robert Tucker or the reactionary Robert Service. Spufford grudgingly admits that the USSR was proceeding along a viable path in the 1920s under the NEP, but concludes that Stalin’s war on the peasantry was practically necessary: “the farmers’ incomes made them dangerously independent, and food prices bounced disconcertingly up and down. Collectivisation saw to all these problems at once.”

One suspects that Spufford views the NEP as an outlier. For him, the main course of Soviet history is a blend of top-down economic planning and the police state. Even more disconcertingly, this historical narrative would appear to be in consonance with Marx’s writings rather than an assault on them.

The dead giveaway is the reference to Plato in the citation above. When Heinrich Blucher (Mr. Hannah Arendt) was indoctrinating me as an undergraduate at Bard College in the early 60s, he insisted that totalitarianism was the logical outcome of a German philosophical idealism rooted in Plato’s philosophy. The Soviet dictatorship was nothing else but the embodiment of the philosopher king. This obsession with ideology ran very deep in the 50s and early 60s. To some extent, it was a reflection of the existentialism of the day (Blucher and Arendt were part of Heidegger’s circle in the 1920s) but also Anglo-American sociology typified by Daniel Bell’s “End of Ideology”. Now that I am older and wiser (go ahead and laugh), I understand that American pragmatism–the official ideology of the ruling class–never received the same kind of critical scrutiny. After all, as Marx pointed out, the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas. Why should America be any different?

Although book reviewers are beside themselves with Spufford’s literary skills, I find them just as dubious as his political analysis. The brunt of this review will be about the latter, but a few words about style are necessary.

I counted 56 characters in “Red Plenty”—some fictional like Khrushchev and others made up like Galina, a college student who is a kind of hard-core Communist. Unlike a novel, there is little attempt to connect them. They pop up in one part and only reappear a decade or so later. It is almost as if Spufford had written a thousand page novel and about half of it got lost on the way to the printer. Not just the first half or the second half, but random pages perhaps strewn by the wind. In many ways, they remind me of the “interludes” in John Dos Passos’s “USA”, his brief profiles of people like Henry Ford, etc. But “Red Plenty” is all interludes with no connective plot tissue. This is certainly “novel” in the sense of being new, but no competition to the traditional novel of ideas that such a subject (the crisis of Soviet planning) deserves.

The other major problem is the rather clumsy attempt by Spufford to achieve verisimilitude by throwing in all sorts of reminders that this is happening in a very backward Russia and nowhere else. You can turn to practically any page and read something like this:

But the smell of vodka merged with the sweaty sourness of the workers a little further forward, whose factory had plainly lodged them in a barracks without a bathroom, and the fierce rosewater scent the short woman had on, into one, hot, composite human smell, just as all the corners and pieces of sleeve and collar he could see fused into one tight kaleidoscope of darned hand-me-downs, and worn leather, and too-big khaki.

Aaah! I can hear the Song of the Volga Boatmen in the background now.

From the very top of the hierarchy to the very bottom, Spufford’s characters are marked by a Quixotic belief that their system works, even if they disagree on how to make it work better. Unlike some of the classic anti-totalitarian literature of the 20th century, there is no Winston Smith to put forward a contrary analysis even though there is an implication throughout that a Grand Illusion is at work.

At its core, “Red Plenty” is a rehashing of issues that I first ran into nearly 20 years ago when “market socialism” was all the rage among certain elements of the left. On PEN-L, the Progressive Economists Network listserv, you had both Marxists and liberals similar to Spufford arguing that planning was futile. Some were even ready to agree with the Austrian school that markets were necessary for the proper allocation of resources.

There was always an assumption that planning existed in the USSR. Even with computers, planning was doomed to fail—a central thesis of “Red Plenty”. But how warranted was that assumption? While I admit to having only a skimpy knowledge of planning in the USSR in the 50s and 60s, I have to wonder how much it differed from what went on when its rulers were up-and-coming bureaucrats.

The Soviet government announced the first five-year plan in 1928. Stalin loyalists, like Krzhizanovksy and Strumlin, who headed Gosplan, the minister of planning, worried about the excess rigidity of this plan. They noted that the success of the plan was based on 4 factors: 1) five good consecutive crops, 2) more external trade and help than in 1928, 3) a “sharp improvement” in overall economic indicators, and 4) a smaller ration than before of military expenditures in the state’s total expenditures.

How could anybody predict five consecutive good crops in the USSR? The plan assumed the most optimistic conditions and nobody had a contingency plan to allow for failure of any of the necessary conditions.

Bazarov, another Stalin loyalist in Gosplan, pointed to another area of risk: the lack of political cadres. He warned the Gosplan presidium in 1929, “If you plan simultaneously a series of undertakings on such a gigantic scale without knowing in advance the organizational forms, without having cadres and without knowing what they should be taught, then you get a chaos guaranteed in advance; difficulties will arise which will not only slow down the execution of the five-year plan, which will take seven if not ten years to achieve, but results even worse may occur; here such a blatantly squandering of means could happen which would discredit the whole idea of industrialization.”

Strumlin admitted that the planners preferred to “stand for higher tempos rather than sit in prison for lower ones.” Strumlin and Krzhizanovksy had been expressing doubts about the plan for some time and Stalin removed these acolytes from Gosplan in 1930.

In order for the planners, who were operating under terrible political pressure, to make sense of the plan, they had to play all kinds of games. They had to falsify productivity and yield goals in order to allow the input and output portions of the plan to balance. V.V. Kuibyshev, another high-level planner and one of Stalin’s protégés, confessed in a letter to his wife how he had finessed the industrial plan he had developing. “Here is what worried me yesterday and today; I am unable to tie up the balance, and as I cannot go for contracting the capital outlays–contracting the tempo–there will be no other way but to take upon myself an almost unmanageable task in the realm of lowering costs.”

Eventually Kuibyshev swallowed any doubts he may have had and began cooking the books in such a way as to make the five-year plan, risky as it was, totally unrealizable.

Real life proved how senseless the plan was. Kuibyshev had recklessly predicted that costs would go down, meanwhile they went up: although the plan allocated 22 billion rubles for industry, transportation and building, the Soviets spent 41.6 billion. The money in circulation, which planners limited to a growth of only 1.25 billion rubles, consequently grew to 5.7 billion in 1933.

As madcap and as utopian as the original plan was, Stalin tossed it into the garbage can immediately after the planners submitted it to him. He commanded new goals in 1929-30 that disregarded any economic criteria. For example, instead of a goal of producing 10 million tons of pig iron in 1933, the Soviets now targeted 17 million. All this scientific “planning” was taking place when a bloody war against the Kulaks was turning the Russian countryside into chaos. Molotov declared that to talk about a 5-year plan during this period was “nonsense.”

Stalin told Gosplan to forget about coming up with a new plan that made sense. The main driving force now was speed. The slogan “tempos decide everything” became policy. The overwhelming majority of Gosplan, hand-picked by Stalin, viewed the new policy with shock. Molotov said this was too bad, and cleaned house in the old Gosplan with “all of its old-fashioned planners” as he delicately put it.

Now the USSR was clearly a different place in 1960 than it was in 1930. But it was subject to the same distortions as it was earlier. Politics trumped science. No matter how cogent the strategies put forward by software engineers, they were likely to be superseded by the feudal-like social relations that existed under Stalinism, with a King at the top—the General Secretary of the CP—and all the fiefdoms underneath him run by factory managers. Socialism is not just about planning. It is about workers control. Without thoroughgoing democracy that is fed by initiatives by those who produce the wealth of society, it is very difficult to use scientific methods to create “plenty”. The implied message of “Red Plenty” is that since democratic socialism is impossible, you might as well live with market relations and all the shit that goes along with it, well on display in his own country and the rest of Europe today.

In the 1980s I was president of the board of Tecnica, a kind of radical Peace Corps that sent programmers and engineers to Nicaragua to volunteer their skills. While Nicaragua was not socialist, it was committed to planning on a large scale. Our organization reported to Carl Oquist who was Daniel Ortega’s chief economics adviser. But no matter how many volunteers we sent, including some very capable people from Bell Labs and other blue-chip American firms, and no matter how many Nicaraguans we trained in the use of spreadsheets and database management systems, it could never compensate for a contra war that was draining the country economically.

Missing from “Red Plenty” is any engagement with the costs of war on economic development in the USSR. Spufford has no use for Stalin but does not explain how the Soviet people ended up with him. A contra war that ensued after the Bolsheviks took power resulted in the deaths of many of the most democratically minded and politically educated worker cadres who made the revolution. A political vacuum and the country’s inherited backwardness made it all the more easy for a despot like Stalin to take power and build a “socialism” that had much more in common with the primitive accumulation stage of capitalism than the Marxist beliefs of those who were shot down by American and British rifles in 1919.

In an interview with the Browser, Spufford is asked whether he agrees with the thesis of Yuri Slezkine’s “The Jewish Century”, namely that “in the 1920s and 30s the Soviet Union was a brilliantly successful state for Jews.”

While admitting that some aspects of the book are “undeniable”, he repeats the catechism of the professional anti-Communist:

But communism is a bit embarrassing now. It is getting hard to get people to own up to the fact that once upon a time they thought it was sensible. It was part of the centre of gravity of the 20th century. What I agree with about it is that it brings an aspect of the 20th century into view. One of the hardest things for us to remember about Stalinism is that as well as being a system of horrors it also represented modernity and social mobility and opportunity for lots of people. In a horribly straightforward way the great purges opened up an incredible number of jobs, as we saw with Khrushchev, who is a fine example of Russia being a land of opportunity built on numerous graves.

In generational terms, I belong to the 60s—a time when many young people still believed that the Soviet Union was “progressive” but only in the most dialectical sense. Born in 1964 and nearly 20 years my junior, Spufford comes of age at a time when Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” and Austrian economics were becoming hegemonic.

Those born 20 years after Spufford are now in their late twenties and unlikely to be convinced that history is at an end or that markets and “plenty” go together. These are the young people with crappy jobs if they are lucky and/or with huge college debts. They are also the kinds of people in the vanguard of the Occupy movement and the democratic revolutions sweeping the Middle East.

No matter how many books get written about the evils of 20th century communism, I doubt that this will matter to them. They want a society that is based on economic justice and peace. Whatever name you call it, this is what they seek no matter how many glowing reviews that “Red Plenty” garners in the New York Times. As has been the case since Marx and Engels were the same age, capitalism creates socialism through its own contradictions. As long as there is capitalism, there will be a movement for socialism. It is our job in the 21st century to rebuild a movement that is the only hope for the future, starting now.

April 9, 2012

British liberals versus Karl Marx; Marx wins by a TKO

Filed under: economics,liberalism,Red Plenty,ussr — louisproyect @ 6:12 pm

Francis Spufford

John Lanchester

The heavyweight champ

For someone deemed so obsolete and irrelevant, Karl Marx has a way of getting under the skin of liberal intellectuals 193 years after his birth. For example, John Lanchester—a British novelist and nonfiction writer born in 1962—spends 6016 words (!) trying to drive a stake through the heart of Marx’s ideas in an essay titled Marx at 193 that appears in the left-leaning London Review of Books:

The most obvious mistake in his version of the world is to do with class. There is something like a classic Marxian proletariat dispersed through the world. But Marx foresaw that this proletariat would be an increasingly centralised and organised force: indeed, this was one of the reasons it would prove so dangerous to capitalism. By creating the conditions in which labour would be sure to organise and assemble collectively capitalism was arranging its own downfall. But there is no organised global conflict between the classes; there is no organised global proletariat.

About a month before this article appeared, Crooked Timber—a group blog hosted by liberal academics also obsessed with burying Karl Marx—advised its readers that Francis Spufford’s new mixture of fact and fiction (faction in more senses than one) titled “Red Plenty” is “a mosaic novel that simultaneously speaks intelligently to the Soviet calculation debate, and has engaging characters.” Like Lanchester, two years his senior, Spufford writes both novels and nonfiction and is British. Since both Lanchester and Spufford were too young to be part of the sixties radicalization when socialist revolution had more of a palpable reality than it does today, one suspects that there might be a generational thing going on. Or Oedipal, if you are into Freud.

Oddly enough, the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the general decline of a revolutionary movement are not enough to assuage them. Could it be possible that if there was only a single human being committed to socialism living on the planet Earth at some point in the distant future, outlets like the London Review of Books and Crooked Timber would still be writing broadsides against this “irrelevant” movement? What the liberal intelligentsia fails to understand is that Marxism will exist as long as there is capitalism. Capitalism generates its negative critique—Marxism—through the creation of class antagonisms born out of the brutal reality this unnatural social system generates. If Karl Marx had never been born, someone else would have come along to develop an analysis of the capitalist system and a program to eliminate it. That’s the dialectic the liberals cannot understand.

I am currently about 40 percent through with “Red Plenty” and will be posting a critique but in the meantime I want to direct you to the introduction of Part Three where Francis Spufford dispenses with his fictional examination of Soviet characters involved with attempts to modernize the economy through automation and lays out “what went wrong” with the USSR. I have scanned the introduction, which can be read here: http://www.marxmail.org/Red_Plenty_Intro.htm. I want to single out a couple of sections to give you a feel for his approach:

Spufford’s take on Lenin comes out of the Cold War Sovietology playbook:

With almost no industrial workers to represent, the Bolshevik (‘majority) faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party was a tiny, freakish cult, under the thumb of a charismatic minor aristocrat, V.I. Lenin, who had developed a doctrine of the party’s, and by extension his own, infallibility. The Bolsheviks had no chance of influencing events, and certainly no chance at getting anywhere near political power, until the First World War turned Russian society upside down. In the chaos and economic collapse following the overthrow of the Tsar by disorganised liberals, they were able to use the discipline of the cult’s membership to mount a coup d’etat — and then to finesse themselves into the leadership of all those in Russia who were resisting the armed return of the old regime. Suddenly, a small collection of fanatics and opportunists found themselves [sic, should be itself, since “a small collection” is singular, not plural] running the country that least resembled Marx’s description of a place ready for socialist revolution.

Robert Service could not have put it better.

After several decades of Stalin’s forced march, the USSR began to catch up to the industrialized West, so much so that it became possible to consider a stepped-up investment in consumer goods. The term ‘Red Plenty’ alludes to the hopes of its various Soviet characters that they would have just as much as the Americans et al. Spufford writes:

Yet somehow this economy had to grow, and go on growing, without a pause. It wasn’t just a question of overtaking the Americans. There were still people in the Soviet Union, at the beginning of the 1960s, who believed in Marx’s original idyll: and one of them was the First Secretary of the Party, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. Somehow, the economy had to carry the citizens of the Bolshevik corporation all the way up the steepening slope of growth to the point where the growing blended into indistinguishable plenty, where the work of capitalism and its surrogate were done at last, where history resumed its rightful course; where the hunting started, and the fishing, and the criticising after dinner, and the technology of abundance would purr in the background like a contented cat.

For Spufford, the USSR of the 1950s and 60s is kind of a funhouse mirror of the United States of the same period—in other words a country aspiring to look like the hit television show “Mad Men”. Socialism becomes more or less equated with a hankering for more, rather than for freedom. Since Spufford is a man of the left, it is not surprising that he is appalled by consumerism, whichever ideology fosters it. He told the Guardian in August 2010:

Our version isn’t costless either. The steel and concrete required to sustain it are created for us elsewhere, out of sight, leaving us free to stroll around our pastel pavilion, on the side of which glimmers the word “Tesco”. Inside are piled, just as Khrushchev hoped, riches to humble the kings of antiquity. But terms and conditions apply.

While I will be on the lookout for any clues that Spufford has entertained the possibility that 21st century socialism will proceed on utterly different foundations than what Henry Miller once called the Air-Conditioned Nightmare, the prognosis seems guarded. The general impression I get from what I have read so far, both in “Red Plenty” and his musings elsewhere, is that of a jaded intellectual who believes that it is better to deal with the devil you know—an understandable stance if you are a college professor in London instead of a Greek pensioner.

Turning now to John Lanchester’s essay, you can at least be grateful to him for providing so many examples of how not to read Marx. It is a kind of clinical study in liberal confusion, mixed with deliberate misrepresentation, starting with the nonsense about the disappearance of the working class as a “centralized” and “organized” force. Perhaps the only thing worth stating at this point is if nobody ever wrote a single word from a Marxist standpoint after Marx’s death, Lanchester’s comments would be valid. However, Marxism continued after Marx’s death—surprise, surprise. While Lanchester refers to David Harvey in his essay (see below), he does not seem to have grasped his key theoretical contribution, namely the ability of capital to decentralize the working class through geographical displacement of its internal contradictions. With respect to it being “organized”, we can only say that this is not Marx’s responsibility—it is ours.

His essay tries for the umpteenth time to refute some of the basic precepts of Capital, especially Marx’s concept of value:

There are obvious difficulties with Marx’s arguments. One of them is that so many of the contemporary world’s goods and commodities are now virtual (in the digital-oriented sense) that it’s not easy to see where the accumulated labour in them is. David Harvey’s lectures on Capital, for instance, the best beginning for anyone studying Marx’s most important book, are of immense value but they’re also available for free on the internet, so if you buy them as a book – you can take in information much more quickly by reading than by listening – the surplus value you’re adding to is mainly your own.


There is so much confusion packed into this brief paragraph that it would take a week to draw out and dissect it. To put it briefly (and this is all it deserves), the books, music and videos available for free on the Internet were either created originally through the process of surplus value creation (just ask the NY Times reporter if his work was originally “for free”) or by schnooks like me who want to win friends and influence people on a pro bono basis. If the writers, artists, and film-makers whose stuff gets circulated on Huffington Post never got paid, there never would have been anything to look at (except of course for the bloggers who got conned into writing for free.) How this invalidates Marx’s theory of value is anybody’s guess.

Lanchester also believes that when you carry your own bags at the airport for free, you are proving Marx wrong:

Online check-in is a process which should genuinely increase the efficiency of the airport experience, thereby costing you less time: time you can spend doing other things, some of them economically useful to you. But what the airlines do is employ so few people to supervise the bag drop-off that there’s no time-saving at all for the customer. When you look, you see that because airlines have to employ more people to supervise the non-online-checked-in customers – otherwise the planes wouldn’t leave on time – the non-checked-in queues move far more quickly.

The same thing is true for the CVS pharmacy across the street from me that replaced most of its sales clerks with scanning machines. I ring up my scanned goods and pack them myself. But this is not what CVS is about. Mostly it is about commodities stocked on the shelves that are the products of alienated labor. For example, the paper products Vanity Fair, Angel Soft, and Northern Quilted are all made by Georgia-Pacific, part of Koch Industries. In December 2010, the workers at Georgia-Pacific in Portland, Oregon rallied against their bosses’ greed:

On the cold afternoon of December 4th, fourth generation Georgia- Pacific (G-P) employee Travis McKinney raised his voice above the frigid wind as he stood with close to one hundred of his co-workers, union allies and community supporters in front of the office at the company’s largest distribution center for paper products in Portland, Oregon.

He described to an outraged crowd, management’s cold-blooded refusal to allow him to tend to his daughter’s health: “When I had to take my daughter to the hospital to be diagnosed, the company told me I had to stay and work overtime instead.” Travis was eventually able to get medical help for his daughter – despite G-P’s lack of support – and found that she was autistic.

Doug Stilwell, another G-P employee, spoke at the rally about management’s constant pressure to speed up forklift operations. “There is no safety… ever since they put this computer system in here [to automatically direct workers when to move loads], we’re all taking shortcuts trying to get this stuff down, pushing their paper out. It’s wrong,” said Stilwell.

This is the underlying reality of CVS or American Airlines, another labor-bashing outfit, not me scanning my toilet paper or doing online check-in’s of my suitcases.

Lanchester’s trump card is just as what one might have expected: the welfare state. The fact that we are no longer working 12 hours a day and one step away from the poorhouse makes Marx obsolete:

The contemporary welfare state – housing and educating and feeding and providing healthcare for its citizens, from birth to death – is a development which challenges the basis of Marx’s analysis of what capitalism is: I think he would have looked hard at the welfare state and wondered whether it fundamentally undermined his analysis, just because it is so different from the capitalism Marx saw operating in his day, and from which he extrapolated. Perhaps he would argue that what has happened is that British society in its entirety has become part of a global bourgeoisie, and the proletariat is now in other countries; that’s a possible argument, but not one that’s easy to sustain in the face of the inequalities which exist and are growing in our society. But Scandinavian welfare capitalism is very different from the state-controlled capitalism of China, which is in turn almost wholly different from the free-market, sauve-qui-peut capitalism of the United States, which is again different from the nationalistic and heavily socialised capitalism of France, which again is not at all like the curious hybrid we have in the UK, in which our governments are wholly devoted to the free market and yet we have areas of welfare and provision they haven’t dared address.

How odd to see someone pointing to the welfare states of Europe nowadays when all of them are on a forced march to resemble the United States, with Greece a prime example of the fate that befalls them all—Germany and the Scandinavian countries to follow suit. All of them are under pressure to compete in a global market that is putting immense pressure on the more prosperous countries to drive down the wages of their workers so as to compete with the less prosperous.

It should be understood, however, that the existence of these welfare states is predicated not on the tendency of the bourgeoisie to operate against its own class interests. Historically, they came into being only because they were seen as a way to preempt proletarian revolution. In some ways, German’s Bismarck paved the way for FDR, the Scandinavian and British welfare states and all the rest.

Under Bismarck, the following pieces of legislation were enacted:

  • Health Insurance Bill of 1883
  • Accident Insurance Bill of 1884
  • Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill of 1889

He sponsored such legislation only because the German socialists were building a counter-force to German capitalism that had the potential to eliminate it. Even when he was pushing through welfare-state legislation well ahead of his time, Bismarck made sure to enact anti-socialist laws that resulted in the closing of 45 newspapers.

FDR was not that different. Widely recognized for fighting against the capitalists in order to preserve their own system, he made sure that the only threat to the status quo—the Trotskyists—ended up in prison at the beginning of WWII.

Whatever nostalgia you confront in “Red Plenty” for a fat and happy consumerist America of the 1950s or in Lanchester’s welfare state disappearing before your eyes like a Cheshire cat, the reality we confront is much more like Marx’s 1860s than either liberal is willing to accept. That is their problem, not ours.

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