El Lissitzky, About Two Squares (1922)

Spring 2008_HGD_Poster

This short book, intended for children of all ages, is perhaps the best-known work of El Lissitzky (1890-1941). Lissitzky was a Russian artist, architect, designer, typographer, and photographer who was active in the avant-garde movement that flourished in Soviet Russia and in Germany, until the dominance of Socialist Realism by 1930 put a stop to its revolutionary activity. He directly influenced the typographical and display advertising innovations of the Bauhaus and De Stijl. This book entirely integrates modern typographical effects, as Lissitzky intended, with his illustrations in the Suprematist style.

The original book About Two Squares was printed by letterpress, even the slanted text and illustrations. It was first produced (“constructed”) in 1920 at the Soviet art institute UNOVIS in Vitebsk, and around April 1922 printed by Sycthian Press, Berlin, by Haberland Printers, Leipzig, in paperback, with 50 hardbound copies autographed and numbered, as the copyright page states.

A Dutch edition, published as Suprematisch worden van twee kwadraten in 6 konstrukties, edited by Theo van Doesburg, was published in The Hague by De Stijl, 1922. In October/November of that year, it appeared as a regular edition of De Stijl, vol 5 no 10/11. Also, 50 hardbound copies of the Dutch edition were numbered and signed by the author.

  1. About 2 Squares
    El Lissitzky
  2. To all, to all children
  3. El Lissitzky
    A suprematist story — about two squares.
    In 6 constructions: Berlin, Skythen, 1922.
  4. Don’t read this book Take —
    paper…fold
    rods…color
    blocks of wood…build
  5. Here are two squares
  6. From far away, flying towards the Earth
  7. see black Chaos
  8. crash — all scattered
  9. and on the Black was established Red Clearly
  10. Thus it ends — further
  11. UNOVIS
    constructed 1920, vitebsk

CRI_227458 pro02 pro03pro04 pro05 pro07 pro09 pro11 pro13 pro15 pro17 pro18 Continue reading

Mossel’prom [Моссельпром], 1923-1925

Mosselprom

Mossel’prom [The Moscow Association of Enterprises Processing Agro-Industrial Products] was built by the architect David Kogan between 1923 and 1924.  A ten-storey commercial building, it was one of the tallest structures in Moscow built during this period.

It became notorious through Vladimir Mayakovsky’s advertising slogan: “Everything for everyone — at Mosselprom.” 1924 saw the release of the film The Cigarette Girl of Mossel’prom by Iurii Zhelyabuzhskii, which featured the building.

The façade was renovated in 1997.

alexander-rodchenko-mosselprom-building-webmosselprom 1923Мы думаем, что снимок сделан между 1925−1928 годами

silver Gelatin PrintДом Правления Моссельпрома уг.Калашного и Кисловского пер. Россия, Москва, ЦАО, Район Арбат Фото датировано- 20.10.1924a70b0ec9bc1f6e7ff86abb521d0000f3d (1) Мы думаем, что снимок сделан в 1931 году

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Political efficacy and the “right to resist”

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Jacobin
 published an article today by Tariq Dana titled “The Palestinian Resistance and Its Enemies.” It presents a rather sympathetic portrait of the origins of the group Hamas amidst the failed Oslo Accords and pervasive violence of the Second Intifada, mentioning some of the criticisms made of the Islamist group along the way. Dana doesn’t so much argue that Hamas deserves the support of the Left as he does resistance more broadly deserves its support. He alleges that Israel’s overt rhetoric against Hamas covertly attempts to delegitimate resistance as such. As Dana pithily puts it:

[Israel's] propaganda war against Hamas targets the legitimacy of Palestinian resistance itself.

Of course, this argument could be easily inverted by apologists for Israel’s assault on Gaza. Just as specific denunciation of resistance by Hamas supposedly undermines resistance in general, so support for resistance in general can by extension be considered specific support for resistance by Hamas. Needless to say, this is a bit shortsighted, and precludes a more nuanced or qualified approach to the matter.

My skepticism toward contemporary natlib (national liberation) politics notwithstanding, the focus of Dana’s article seems a little off to me. Its mistake is twofold:

  1. First, in terms of the ideological composition of the forces resisting Israeli aggression. The issue is not, or should not be, whether “the right to resist” — a Lockean concept — is legitimate. Rather, it’s a question of what the political content of such a resistance amounts to. No doubt many in Gaza will feel that such resistance is justified so long as Israel continues to push a stateless population into increasingly cramped and unlivable conditions. But this does nothing to change the fact that the ideology of Hamas is fundamentally incompatible with Marxist politics.
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  2. Second, in terms of the practical efficacy of certain tactics of resistance and “resistance” as such. What is the actual effect of firing rockets into Israel, in response to airstrikes in civilian zones? Or, taking into account some of Hamas’ past tactics, suicide bombings? Considered simply as attrition, i.e. an attempt to “bleed” the enemy dry or break its will, this does not seem an effective or advisable strategy. If the significance of such actions is merely the gesture of defiance, symbolic but ultimately futile, then I’m unsure what their political payoff might be.

Broadly speaking, there is a confusion between means and ends in leftist politics today.

TOPSHOTS-ISRAEL-PALESTINIAN-GAZA-CONFLICT  MK2481

Here the goal should be an immediate halt to Israel’s military campaign and its broader interference in the economic and political life of the occupied territories, to be followed by land concessions and the normalization of relations between Palestine and Israel. Whether a one-state or two-state solution is tenable can only be determined on this more stable basis.

To summarize the main questions raised above: Should the Left lend “critical support” to Hamas, despite its avowedly right-wing (even explicitly antisemitic) politics? Moreover, is the line of “resistance” it’s been pursuing likely to achieve the desired political outcome?

In a future post, I intend to assess the viability of international solidarity movements such as Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions as well as occasional declarations by Trotskyist groups of “unconditional but critical support” for organizations such as Hamas or the Irish Republican Army.

Annenkov’s Potraits (1922) and Lunacharskii’s Silhouettes (1923)

Representations of the
Russian Revolution

event02_2 event02_4annenkov-trotsky



SothebysImage


portrait-of-zinoviev-1926 (1) Анненков Каменев


Ris_8

Revolutionary silhouettes

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The present book is made up of a series of articles written on various occasions about some of our comrades in the RCP.

I should begin with a warning that these are not biographies, not testimonials, not portraits, but merely profiles: it is their virtue and at the same time their limitation that they are entirely based on personal recollections.

In 1919 the publisher Grzhebin, whom I already knew and who had been recommended to me by Maxim Gorky, asked me to start writing my memoirs of the great revolution. I was soon able to deliver him the first — or more precisely the preliminary — volume, in which I attempted to acquaint the readers both with myself, as a point of reference in judging the rather more subjective aspects of my ‘chronicle’, and with the main dramatis personae of the revolution in so far as I knew them and in so far as a knowledge of their characters and the events of their pre-revolutionary lives seemed to me to merit further exposition.

That book, however, was overtaken by a strange fate. At a moment when circumstances precluded me from working on it and when I had become convinced that to write memoirs at a time when not a single event of the revolution had cooled down — we were still living in its very crucible — was simply impossible (Sukhanov’s multi-volume work on the revolution, among others, had already convinced me of this); at a time, as it seemed to me, when any premature description of those events without an adequate study of the documents would be too subjective and little more than essay-writing — it was then that Grzhebin, unknown to me, published the first volume of my proposed memoirs. He is apparently continuing to publish them abroad, entirely without my permission.

I think it essential to state these facts here, in order to avoid any misunderstanding about the nature of that book. Continue reading

Something better than the nation?

Blair Taylor
Platypus Review
July 14th, 2014
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Book Review:

Rob Ogman, Against the Nation:
Anti-National Politics in Germany
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(Porsgrunn, Norway: NCP, 2013).
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In the wake of the fall of the Wall and reunification the German left confronted a resurgent nationalism. One section of the Left’s response was an “anti-national” tendency whose answer to questions posed by historical developments challenged received political categories by rejecting not only nationalism but, ultimately, traditional left attitudes towards both the nation-state and “the people.” In Against the Nation, Rob Ogman charts the emergence of this “anti-national” tendency by examining two activist campaigns of the 1990s, “Never Again Germany” and “Something Better than the Nation,” to show how “the encounter with nationalism resulted in a fundamental reorientation of a broad set of political assumptions, and produced a deep restructuring in the content and contours of left politics and practice” (11). However, more than an interesting window into radical movements in Germany, the book’s real strength is that it uses these cases to reflect upon left discourse on nationalism and nation-states everywhere, but with particular emphasis on the post-9/11 United States.

The book’s opening chapter, “The Left and the Nation,” begins by tracing the evolution of left positions on nation-states and nationalism in the U.S. since the 1990s, examining discursive continuities and breaks between the alter-globalization movement, the anti-war and anti-imperialist movements of the Bush years, up to Occupy Wall Street in the recent past. This overview describes how a “binary worldview” in the alter-globalization movement often pitted presumably benign nation-states and cultures against the ravages of global capital, which later during the War on Terror morphed easily into a similarly uncritical understanding of “oppressed nations” dominated by imperialist states, the latter primarily represented by the United States and Israel. The result was a simplistic and flawed conceptualization of both global capitalism and state power which demonized foreign capital and imperialist states while ignoring or downplaying domestic forms of exploitation and oppression. Valorizing the people, nation, or “culture” as sources of resistance, the discourse of anti-imperialism turned a blind eye to local state and capitalist elites, as well as popular forms of domination in traditional societies. It also made for strange political bedfellows, translating into tolerance and support for reactionary movements and parties, especially Islamist ones like Hamas and Hezbollah, in some cases even defending oppressive theocratic regimes like Iran. Ogman describes how this political frame obscured a more complicated political reality shaped by the deeper structural logic of state and capitalist power relations, one that undermines simple inside/outside distinctions. It also reinforced the nation-state and “the people” as the logical alternatives and unproblematic bases of resistance to the ills of capitalism and empire. By tracing “the failure of the Left to develop an emancipatory perspective opposed to nationalism, the nation, and the nation-state” (33) within the U.S. Left, Ogman provides a political context for understanding the German case that follows.

The following chapter, “German Nationalism after Reunification,” lays out the specific historical context the anti-national left emerged from. Primarily, this meant German reunification, a process that saw an immediate spike in nationalist sentiment as postwar Germany’s discourse of postnational citizenship was eroded by a revived ethno-nationalist one, accompanied by a wave of right-wing extremism that often received tacit popular and governmental support. The Left was not immune to this nationalist turn. Even the main East German opposition group subtly shifted their previously democratic slogan, “we are the people,” into the nationalist articulation, “we are one people” (40). German identity was increasingly being defined in opposition to outsiders. At precisely the moment the German state was reconstituting itself, “foreigners” became the number one stated concern in opinion polls. As Ogman notes, “as soon as the division separating East and West Germany came down, new boundaries were drawn” (44). Reunification exposed the brutal underbelly of nation-state formation, with chilling historical continuities. It was followed by an explosive rise in violent racist attacks, culminating in what the anti-nationalists did not shrink from terming “pogroms” in Rostock and Hoyerswerda in 1991 and 1992. In what became watershed events for the anti-national left, neo-Nazis in these East German towns violently evicted local guest workers and asylum seekers, setting fire to their residence house and running them out of town. The neo-Nazis had been unhindered by police and local officials, and were cheered on by crowds of locals.

Contesting nationalism:
“Never again Deutschland!” and
“something better than the nation”

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These developments prompted the formation of an oppositional coalition called The Radical Left, which organized the “Never again Germany!” mobilization to protest reunification and draw attention to its negative effects, such as the “Aliens Act” that restricted immigration and asylum. Aware that political reunification was basically inescapable, they mounted a principled symbolic opposition that sought to problematize and disrupt tendencies toward consensus and integration through “the power of negation.” This included militant protests and interventions into both public and left debates, developing and pushing an anti-national position. After reunification, the “Never again Germany” coalition was superseded by the campaign “Something better than the nation.” This network of musicians, artists, and intellectuals organized concerts, public fora, and blockades aimed at hindering the spread of both right-wing and centrist forms of nationalism. Their major campaign was a traveling caravan through the country, especially the East where neo-Nazism had taken root most virulently. The campaign aimed at fighting extreme right and nationalist sentiment by articulating an anti-racist and anti-national alternative culture embedded in music and youth subculture.

dp269.15.m672_1936b_1

Ogman devotes a chapter to each of these early anti-national campaigns, drawing extensively on movement documents and media coverage to capture the aims and motivations of the mobilizations. In his narrative, their importance was less their direct impact on political events, which was marginal, but rather their articulation of a novel left approach to nationalism. Drawing on Frankfurt School critical theory, this milieu understood nationalism as structural rather than simply ideological. It was not an aberration derived from outmoded or irrational notions of communal identification, but was instead a radical expression of basic features of the dominant society: a competitive and hierarchical social order with clear winners and losers. Therefore solely attacking the extreme nationalism and explicit racism of neo-Nazis was insufficient: One had to address racism’s much deeper social roots. Indeed, the anti-national turn was in part a realization that traditional anti-fascist and anti-racist politics were too limited, and that nationalism must be fought on a broader scale. In particular, nationalism was another expression of the competitive logic of capitalism, wherein the winners and losers of class struggle within states are in turn reproduced between them in the international arena. The result of this recognition was a specifically anti-national critique that addressed an expanded range of concerns including Germany’s geopolitical normalization and return to the global stage; the complex relationship between capitalism, nationalism, and nation states; as well as racist and essentialist notions of identity and citizenship.

While also deploying more familiar concepts like “negative patriotism” that describe how “national unity” ideologically conceals underlying class cleavages and obscured the self-interest of workers, anti-national politics also understood nationalism as simultaneously an elite and a popular phenomenon. Unlike traditional left theories which primarily understand nationalism as an ideological ruse by elites to preserve their power by obscuring class interest, anti-national discourse viewed it as a populist impulse wherein the working class also appealed to “the nation” to gain material and symbolic benefits by excluding those at the bottom of national and international hierarchies. Thus nationalism was not simply a top-down project, but also an endeavor from below, part and parcel of an interlocking social totality. The result was a form of leftism deeply skeptical of its traditional target audience: “the people.”

By looking at the early historical emergence of a broad anti-national left in Germany, Against the Nation is a useful corrective to caricatures that reduce this milieu to its most visible and controversial tendency, the “anti-Germans” who only later emerge as a distinct and differentiated political tendency. Clustered around journals like Bahamas and Konkret, the anti-Germans are communists who espouse steadfast support of Israel and, in some cases, support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This is often the only form of anti-national critique known outside Germany, often causing bewildered leftists abroad to over-generalize and dismiss it as a case of extreme national guilt. Yet this pop-psychologization misses the concrete historical conditions that fostered the initial emergence of the anti-national left in Germany. Rather than a guilt-induced obsession with National Socialism, anti-Semitism, and Israel, Ogman shows how German anti-nationalism developed out of specific anti-racist and anti-fascist struggles against racial violence and its tacit popular support. Although later in the specifically anti-German milieu, fear of the potentially fascist nature of populism translated into distrust of social movements generally, the early anti-national movement was a strongly activist as well as theoretical endeavor addressing concrete political problems confronting the German left. As a rather small tendency, this manifested primarily in provocative texts and symbolic demonstrations. Yet rather than an abdication of politics, this intervention was, at least initially, an attempt to force a certain conversation within the Left and build an alternative political base. Continue reading

Lenin’s tomb

Мавзолей.Строительство-2 Мавзолей.Строительство-3 Мавзолей.Строительство-4

The cult of Lenin

Boris Groys
The Total Artwork
of Stalinism
(1986)

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The Lenin cult was very significant both in the political legitimization of Stalin and in the evolution of socialist realism, since even before Stalin came to power Lenin had been proclaimed the model of the “new man,” “the most human of all human beings.” Maiakovskii’s slogan “Lenin is more alive than the living” adorning the streets of Soviet cities does not contradict the cult of Lenin’s mummy in the mausoleum (perhaps one of the most mysterious in the history of world religion). Although I shall not attempt an exhaustive description of the cult here, it does deserve a few words. It has undeniably exerted a hidden formative influence on all subsequent Stalinist and post-Stalinist Soviet culture, if for no other reason than the central position it occupies in the invisible Soviet sacred hierarchy. Twice a year, “the entire Soviet land” submits its “report” in parades and demonstrations that pass by the mausoleum, and the leaders who accept this report stand on the roof of the structure, symbolically basing their power on the mummy of Lenin concealed within.

The construction of the mausoleum on Red Square and the founding of the Lenin cult were vigorously opposed by traditional Marxists and the representatives of left art [LEF]. The former spoke of “Asiatic barbarism” and “savage customs unworthy of Marxists. ” LEF also reacted to the first temporary variant of the mausoleum, which was later slightly simplified, describing it as “a verbatim translation from the ancient Persian” that resembled the grave of King Cyrus near Mugraba. Such criticism today, of course, is no longer possible — not only because the mausoleum was long ago pronounced “sacred to all Soviet citizens, ” but also because everyone got used to it long ago.

Мавзолей.Строительство-5Мавзолей.Строительство-6 Мавзолей.Строительство-7 Мавзолей.Строительство-8 Мавзолей.Строительство-10 Мавзолей.Строительство-11

The LEF critics, who perceived in Lenin’s mausoleum only an analogy with ancient Asian tombs, were as usual blind to the originality of the new Stalinist culture taking shape before their very eyes. The mummies of the pharaohs and other ancient rulers were walled up in pyramids and concealed from mortals — opening such graves was considered sacrilege. Lenin, in contrast, is on public display as a work of art, and his mausoleum, as is evident from the long lines that have formed before it every day for decades, is without a doubt the most frequented museum in the Soviet Union. If the “militant atheists” of the time exhumed the relics of saints and exhibited them in museum-like displays as antireligious propaganda, Lenin was from the outset simultaneously buried and displayed. The Lenin mausoleum is a synthesis between a pyramid and a museum that exhibits Lenin’s body, the mortal husk he shed to become the personification of the building of socialism, “inspiring the Soviet people to heroic deeds.” Continue reading

There is no criticism, only history

Manfredo Tafuri
Design Book Review
No. 9: Spring 1986

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Manfredo Tafuri is a prolific author on a wide variety of subjects ranging from 16th-century Venice (L’armonia e I conflitti, coauthored with Antonio Foscari) to more alien topics such as The American City (coauthored with Giorgio Ciucci and Francesco Dal Co). Each of his works serves as a platform for questioning the methods of architectural history, which, as he so emphatically states below, is not to be distinguished from criticism. In Theories and History of Architecture, he identified a major problem of “operative criticism,” endemic to architects who write about architecture. His suggestion to counteract this tendency to impose contemporary standards on the past was to shift the discourse away from the protagonists and individual monuments and consider architecture as an institution. His most widely read book in America, Architecture and Utopia, advanced this position, proposing an ideological analysis of architecture. His disconcerting message for those who had hopes of a “progressive” architecture was that there can be no class architecture which can revolutionize society, but only a class analysis of architecture. In his most recent theoretical work, La sfera e il labirinto, he has outlined a method of history called the progetto storico. This historical project, which is deeply indebted to Michel Foucault’s “archeologies of knowledge” and Carlo Ginzburg’s “micro-histories,” seeks to study the “totality” of a work, disassembling it in terms of iconology, political economy, philosophy, science, and folklore. His goal is to penetrate the language of architecture through non-linguistic means. At the core he still finds the problem of “the historic role of ideology.” The job of the Tafurian critic-historian is to “reconstruct lucidly the course followed by intellectual labor through modern history and in so doing to recognize the contingent tasks that call for a new organization of labor.” In November, 1985, we interviewed Professor Tafuri on the subject of criticism.

— Richard Ingersoll

%22On Theory%22 conference with Manfredo Tafuri, as part of the %22Practice, Theory and Politics in Architecture%22 lecture series organized by Diana Agrest, Spring 1974. Courtesy of Princeton School of Architecture Archives Round table at ETSAB with Manfredo Tafuri, José Muntañola, Pep Bonet and Josep Quetglas, February 1983. Manfredo Tafuri lecturing at ETSAB, February 1983

There is no such thing as criticism; there is only history. What usually is passed off as criticism, the things you find in architecture magazines, is produced by architects, who frankly are bad historians. As for your concern for what should be the subject of criticism, let me propose that history is not about objects, but instead is about men, about human civilization. What should interest the historian are the cycles of architectural activity and the problem of how a work of architecture fits in its own time. To do otherwise is to impose one’s own way of seeing on architectural history.

What is essential to understanding architecture is the mentality, the mental structure of any given period. The historian’s task is to recreate the cultural context of a work. Take for example a sanctuary dedicated to the cult of the Madonna, built sometimes in the Renaissance. What amazes us is how consistently these buildings have a central plan and an octagonal shape. The form cannot be explained without a knowledge of the religious attitudes of the period and a familiarity with the inheritance from antiquity — a reproposal of the temple form devoted to female divinities. Or take the case of Pope Alexander VII, whose interest in Gothic architecture at the cathedral of Siena [mid-17th century] compared to his patronage of Bernini in Rome can only be explained through a knowledge of the Sienese environment and traditions. The historian must evaluate all the elements that surround a work, all of its margins of involvement; only then can he start to discover the margins of freedom, or creativity, that were possible for either the architect or the sponsor.

The problem is the same for comprehending current work. You ask how the historian might gain the distance from a new work to apply historical methods. Distance is fundamental to history: the historian examining current work must create artificial  distance. This cannot be done without a profound knowledge of the times — through the differences we can better understand the present. I’ll give you a simple example: you can tell me with precision the day and year of your birth, and probably the hour. A man of the 16th century would only be able to tell you that he was born about 53 years ago. There is a fundamental difference in the conception of time in our own era: we have the products of mass media that give us instantaneous access to all the information surrounding our lives. Four centuries ago it took a month to learn of the outcome of a battle. An artist in the 15th century had a completely different reference to space-time; every time he moved to a new city (which was very rarely) he would make out his will. In earlier centuries, time was not calculated but was considered to be a gift from God. Knowledge was also considered to be God-given and thus teachers in the Middle Ages could not be paid; only later was their payment justified as a compensation for time. These factors belong to the mental web of another era. The way for us to gain distance from our own times, and thus perspective, is to confront its differences from the past.

One of the greatest problems of our day is dealing with the uncontrollable acceleration of time, a process that began with 19th-century industrializations; it keeps continually disposing of things in expectation of the future, of the next thing. All avant-garde movements were in fact based on the continual destruction of preceding works in order to go on to something new. Implicit in this is the murder of the future. The program of the “modern” artist was always to anticipate the next thing. It’s just like when you see a “coming attraction” ad for a film, essentially you have already consumed the film and the event of going to see the film is predictably disappointing and makes you anxious for something new. Continue reading

Iakov Chernikhov, Cycle of architectural landscapes and other fantasies (1930)

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Architectural fantasy stimulates the architect’s activity, it arouses creative thought not only for the artist but it also educates and arouses all those who come in contact with him; it produces new directions, new quests, and opens new horizons.

— Iakov Chernikhov, 1927

Chernikhov is a pioneer, a trail-blazer of new themes in graphic art, and also, in part, of new modes of graphic design.

— Erikh Gollerbakh, 1930

Regular readers of The Charnel-House will know that I’ve already written on the brilliant architect and designer Iakov Chernikhov (1889-1951). Or rather, I’ve posted the excellent introduction Erikh Gollerbakh wrote in 1930 introducing Chernikhov’s The Construction of Architectural and Machine Forms, as well as a broader overview of his significance and career by the more recent scholar Dmitrii Khmel’nitskii. Some of my own thoughts about his work as it can be found in a sketch I made relating it  to that of the American Hugh Ferriss, his contemporary. Moreover, Chernikhov receives a brief mention in my broader outline of Russian and Soviet architecture from 1900 to 1953.

I won’t reprise the same summary treatment here. For now, just enjoy these images from Chernikhov’s Cycle of Architectural Landscapes, as well as other assorted fantasies. Anyone who’s into these will likely also want to take a look at Theo van Doesburg’s themes for the Aubette Café in Strasbourg, Gerrit Rietveld’s Schröderhuis in Utrecht, JJP Oud’s Café de Unie in Rotterdam, and Frederick Kiesler’s “City of Space” model, Lazar Khidekel’s cosmist suprematism, Ivan Kudriashev’s dynamic abstractions, László Moholy-Nagy’s paintings and photographs, Charlotte Perriand’s purist furniture designs, and Il’ia Chashnik’s revolutionary suprematism.

Click on any of the pictures to see them in higher resolution, and check out any of the links above if you’re interested in learning more.

Iakov Chernikhov, Study for the Cycle of Architectural Landscapes, 3, 1930  Gouache, pen and ink on paper 4 × 4 in 10.2 × 10.2 cm Iakov Chernikhov, Study for the Cycle of Architectural Landscapes, 1, circa. 1930  Gouache, pen and ink on paper 4 × 5 1:2 in 10.2 × 14 cm Iakov Chernikhov, Study for the Cycle of Architectural Landscapes, 2, circa. 1930  Gouache, pen and ink on paper 4 × 4 in 10.2 × 10.2 cm Study for the Cycle of Architectural Landscapes, 1, circa. 1930image (1)Chernikhov architecture of industrial forms 1934aimage (3)image (5)image (11)image (23)image (25)image (2)image (14) Continue reading

Hands off we don’t even know anymore: On Israel/Palestine and the Left

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James Bloodworth has written an article for The Independent titled “The Israel/Palestine Debate has More to Do with Revolutionary Tourism than Real Politics.” It’s a pretty predictable piece, not without its problems. Bloodworth insists, for example, that “there’s really something to be said for both sides,” when in fact there’s really nothing to be said for either side. All the same, he asks an important question:

Why isn’t the same level of concern shown for the world’s many other seemingly intractable problems?

Of course, there are a number of reasons that readily account for this fact. As a putative “first world democracy,” Israel’s hypocrisies are more obvious. When it holds a subject population in indefinite captivity — lingering in stateless limbo along its borders — it’s bound to reflect badly on its liberal cosmopolitan image. Moreover, it regularly mistreats many of its own citizens, black Jews from North Africa in particular. Plus, the U.S. provides it with military and financial support, which shifts at least some of the onus  to its constituency stateside. Finally, there’s the sheer length of time the problem has endured with no real end in sight. Intermittent conflicts only serve to illuminate longstanding grievances.

Returning to Bloodworth’s question, however, I find the points listed above insufficient as an explanation. The amount of attention that Israel/Palestine receives is so disproportionate compared to other major issues of the day that additional factors must be sought. Jews Sans Frontières, a Jewish anti-Zionist website of some renown, has stated that “Palestine is the moral question of our time” (italics mine). Notwithstanding its rather dross appeal to morality, something I’ve never found too compelling, I disagree with the singularity of this statement. How can its magnitude possibly be so great that it overshadows every other injustice in the world? What makes it the cause du jour, rather than something else?

A couple of suggestions Bloodworth makes in his article, trying to answer the question he posed early on, are worthy of mention. These I found at least somewhat convincing, as far as the inordinate coverage of Israel/Palestine in leftist circles and the press goes:

1. “Because when Arabs are killing Arabs no one cares.”

Syria is the obvious example here in terms of sheer body count, with an estimated 110,000 to 180,000 deaths having occurred since the outbreak of civil war in 2011. Most major media outlets and human rights organizations place the death toll above 160,000 since May. In Iraq, the wretched legacy of the U.S. invasion lives on in sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia extremists — groups like ISIS and the Sadr militia. Meanwhile, in Egypt, an old-fashioned Bonapartist regime has been set up, with frequent government crackdowns on independent news agencies and other civil society organizations. The democratically elected government of Mohammed Morsi that the army overthrew was hardly much better, especially considering that the Muslim Brotherhood (which has since been outlawed) carried out similarly repressive measures right before it collapsed.

Ukraine naturally falls outside of Bloodworth’s narrow regional purview, though it was covered fairly extensively back in the West when it still seemed like Putin and Russian separatists were on the offensive. Casualties there have been heavier than what’s gone on in Gaza so far, though it’s been a bit more diffuse and has unfolded more gradually over time. Granted, it’s not been nearly as one-sided as Israel/Palestine, and leftists today tend to care less whenever they feels the sides are evenly matched.

None of this should be taken to imply that Zionism shouldn’t be opposed. As Lenin categorically put it, “Marxists resolutely oppose nationalism in all its forms.” But it does beg the question of why every other struggle seems to take a backseat whenever Israel-Palestine flares up.

2. Because “people are…inclined to project their desire for ‘struggle’ onto the seemingly exotic disputes of people in the developing world.”

I’m sure you’ve all seen the various “keffiyeh selfies” that Western leftists have posted in supposed solidarity with Palestine, LARPing intifada from afar. Separated by the safe distance of an ocean, of course, or at the very least thousands of miles. Leftists in the more advanced capitalist countries of the world refuse to reflect on the degraded political reality in which they live. The international, militant working-class movement that socialist parties in the 19th and 20th centuries took for granted no longer exists, or has long since entered into torpor. And so they prefer to transfer their hopes and ambitions onto remote parts of the globe, where the good fight is still being waged. Continue reading

Aleksandr Deineka, The Red Army (1929)

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Problems of the Red Army

Leon Trotskii
The Communist
November 1919
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Red divisions are over a front of vast length. Draw a line from Moscow in any direction, prolong it, and you will reach some part of the Red Army which is fighting for Soviet Russia so heroically. The organization of this army is a very good example of the efficiency of the revolution.

No wonder the war was called an examination to the people. Of course, war itself is a great barbarity, and all Socialists are bent upon its extermination. But it must be overcome; that is, circumstances must be changed so that war will become not only needless but impossible. The people cannot leap over war instantly, surrounded by the jackals of imperialism, until the mad teeth are jerked out of the mouths of these jackals. And if the people are forced to wage war, then in its capability of defense, battle and attack all the resources of the people are shown: its economic power, its strength of organization, the spiritual average of its masses, the amount of material for leadership, etc., etc.

And so, taking the question from this angle, we may say with assurance that in a land such as ours, worn out, despoiled and ruined to the last degree, no other regime could organize an army. We may now say with certainty that an army will not be successfully organized in Germany, neither by Ebert or Scheidemann. Only Communists, who have taken the power into their own hands and shown in a practical way that this power knows no interests, worries or problems other than those of the working class, will find it possible to organize an army which will become the dependable hedge of the Socialist Republic.

We commenced with the divisions of the Red Guards. Into these we accepted workers, not seldom those who took a gun into their hands for the first time. While the task was to overcome the fighting bourgeoisie, junkers, white guards, groups of students, etc., the Red Guards showed an incomparable excellence in their revolutionary spirit and determination. In a very short period Red Guard divisions spread the Soviet power to all parts of the country. But with the offensive of the Germans in February of last year the condition changed immediately. The enthusiasm of the untrained, badly armed people proved weak before the well-organized Hohenzollern divisions under junker leadership. The first battle showed this, and brought about a fall of spirits in our divisions and armies. This fall of spirits resulted in decomposition within the ranks.

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Think of that period. The old army turned into an armed beggary all of Russia, filled all stations, cars, made direct attacks upon the workers on the railroads, ruined railroad property, forcefully robbed the food supplies, etc. The enemy attacked us from the west, taking the Ukraine. The Cossacks rebelled on the Don: in the East, the Czecho-Slovaks, and in the north Archangel was taken from us. The ring was growing tighter and tighter. Then the Mensheviki wrote about the “dying corpse” of the Soviet power. Not only the direct enemies of the working class, but some of the friends of the workers thought that there is no way out, salvation is impossible.

It was this moment of deadly danger for the revolution which gave birth to the crisis of salvation. The watchword: “The Socialist Fatherland is in danger” awakened the best that is in the laboring masses. This was the test of one revolution. Now we may say with quiet assurance that the workers’ revolution has passed the test. Continue reading