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MEGA [Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe] on MEGA

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Back in the 1920s, the Russian revolutionary and Marxist scholar David Riazanov began to compile a new, more complete edition of the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. He was, unfortunately, purged during the 1930s for supposed involvement in an anti-Soviet conspiracy. Riazanov was thus unable to see this project through to the end. Nevertheless, he set the wheels in motion for future Marxologists and exegetes like Maximilien Rubel, Roman Rosdolski, and Michael Heinrich. Work on the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe [MEGA] continues today.

Anyway, I recently happened across a trove of full-text PDFs of the MEGA stored on the New Zealand cloud service known as MEGA, appropriately enough. You can download the files as a .zip file by clicking here. Quietly amused that this arrived to me indirectly via a certain oversharing Francophile lefty editor type. Makes me wonder what all his posturing over “pirate scab PDFs” was really about.

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Speaking of which, Budgen — Lars Ulrich of the online left — is apparently upset with me yet again. Class act that he is, Sebastian associated me with the disgusting rape advocate Roosh V. (an antisemitic conspiracy theorist and extreme misogynist) and the disgusting pharmaceutical CEO Martin Shrkeli (who jacked up the price of vital medicines once he’d secured exclusive rights over the drugs). If anyone resembles a douchebag who sells stuff he didn’t develop himself for obscenely inflated prices while monopolizing said product… you would think it was Budgen. Especially considering the company he keeps: people who make fun of others with physical deformities or who have a darker complexion on account of their ethnic background. Roosh V. and Simon Weston are reactionaries, to be sure, but that should hardly be seen as giving one license to make racist or ableist comments about them. Continue reading

Jacobin Robespierre Festival of the Supreme Being

Albert Mathiez on Robespierre and the cult of the Supreme Being

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Jacobin
recently published an article by Harrison Fluss about the Robespierrist Cult of the Supreme Being, instituted 1794. An okay article, overall, useful for sharing an obscure bit of revolutionary history (if for no other reason). The piece is marred by several historical inaccuracies and theoretical assumptions, which I address in a piece that is forthcoming on a couple of websites. Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin, informed me that Fluss’ essay was a bit of a departure from the stuff they usually publish, so they weren’t planning on running a response.

In any case, one of the main historiographical controversies I touch on toward the end of my response is the dispute between François-Alphonse Aulard and his former pupil Albert Mathiez. Both men were partisans of the French Revolution, defenders of its legacy, but where the former was more of an historian of the popular movement (an historian “from below,” as they say) the latter was more an historian of the revolutionary government (an historian “from above”). Mathiez is a bit blinded, at times, by his unwavering devotion to Robespierre, but he is right that Aulard unfairly adopts some of the Thermidorian rhetoric regarding the Incorruptible’s private ambitions to dictatorship, etc. He never provides an adequate response to Aulard’s central contention, however, that Robespierre counterposed his own Cult of the Supreme Being to the Cult of Reason proposed by Hébert. Nevertheless Mathiez raises a number of pertinent points here, in his usual lively polemical style.

Evaluations, overviews, and synopses of this crucial conflict of interpretations between Mathiez and Aulard are almost ubiquitous in the literature on this subject. Ferenc Fehér, Arno Mayer, R.R. Palmer, and Albert Soboul all dedicate several pages to an assessment of the debate. So I was somewhat flabbergasted to see it wasn’t mentioned at all by Fluss in his article. It is not a minor omission, especially if it concerns Robespierre and the Hébertists. The scholars Fluss cites instead are Lewis Feuer and Nick Nesbitt. While Feuer’s book on Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism is an otherwise excellent text, he’s mistaken to see a Spinozist influence in Robespierre’s doctrine of the Supreme Being. Robespierre insisted on the immortality of the soul, something Spinoza explicitly denied. Feuer admits as much: “Spinoza…held to a view which was tantamount to a denial of personal immortality.” Indeed, this was ostensibly the reason he was excommunicated from Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter in 1656. Nesbitt, whose book Caribbean Critique I have read (despite Fluss’ allegations to the contrary) and whose name Fluss seems unable to spell (“Nisbett”), nowhere argues that Spinoza was a source of the civic religion proposed by Rousseau and actualized, albeit briefly, by Robespierre. Paul Vernière is the classical source of this line of inquiry. Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy clearly would have been a more direct influence on Rousseau, who Robespierre took this idea from, particularly the chapters dealing with Roman religion. It surprises me that Fluss would be so enthusiastic about Robespierre’s Supreme Being, in any case, seeing as his philosophical master Hegel referred to it derisively in the Phenomenology (§586) as “the exhalation of a stale gas, of the vacuous l’Être Suprême.”

Anyway, Mathiez is an interesting character, a self-styled Jacobin and Robespierrist who, despite his chauvinist support of France during World War I, later sympathized with the Bolsheviks in Russia. There’s a lot of language praising the Jacobins’ patriotism, their love of Fatherland, etc. Below are some images of the Festival of the Supreme Being from the period, followed by the text. You can enlarge them and scroll through by clicking on them. Enjoy!

Robespierre and the cult
of the Supreme Being

Albert Mathiez
Annales révolutionnaires
April-June 1910
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The figure of Robespierre has been so misrepresented during the last twenty years, even by republican historians, that to talk of the Incorruptible’s religious ideas nowadays may seem a rash undertaking.

Robespierre, it is proclaimed, was a narrow intelligence, a man of the ancien régime, a coldly ambitious nature who desired to reign over France by imposing upon the country, through the Terror, a counterfeit Catholicism, a deism glorified into a religion of State.

I cannot hope to study here the whole religious policy of Robespierre backed up by the documents and proofs.

It must suffice to choose one example; to examine precisely what part was played by Robespierre in the establishment of the Cult of the Supreme Being: especially since this is the usual butt of all his detractors.

What do the republican historians hostile to Robespierre say? They contrast the Cult of the Supreme Being with the Cult of Reason. The Cult of Reason, which they praise unreservedly, was, according to them, the Hébertist party’s own creation. It was, they say, a pantheistic or even atheistic cult, a means of intellectual emancipation. The Cult of the Supreme Being, on the contrary, they allege to have been invented by Robespierre, in all its details, for the satisfaction of his unbridled ambitions and mystical passions. It was, they say, an attempt at political enslavement and intellectual reaction.

Now, however generally accepted this contrast between the two revolutionary cults may be, it is nonetheless false. Far from having been the invention of a few men, Chaumette, Fouché, Hébert, and Cloots, or even of a party, the Cult of Reason was merely the culminating point in a series of civic festivals, the origin of which goes back to the great Feast of the Federation of July 14, 1790.1 The Festival of Reason resembled all the preceding ones. The same odes were sung, the same processions went through their evolutions, the same patriotic emotion stirred men’s hearts at the sight of the same republican symbols. The new feature of the 20th Brumaire, Year II, the day on which the Commune and the Convention glorified Reason in Notre-Dame de Paris, was not even the place chosen for the ceremony — a cathedral — for churches had already, witnessed similar scenes beneath their vaulted roofs. The new feature was this: that the fall of constitutional Catholicism, the secularization of the churches, and the abdication of the priests coincided with this festival.

But even the overthrow of the constitutional Church cannot be ascribed to the Hébertist party alone, for the Girondins themselves, such as Pierre Manuel, Guadet, and Vergniaud, had worked for it energetically since the days of the Legislative Assembly.

Nor was the solemn abdication of the Archbishop of Paris, Gobel, which gave an impulse to the dechristianizing movement, exclusively the work of the Hébertists; for it arose from the initiative of Pereira, Proli, and their friends, the party of the Enragés [extremists] which had its center in the people’s societies in the sections, and caused the Commune and Convention a moment’s alarm; and the initiative of the people’s societies was seconded by some notoriously moderate men, such as Thuriot, Basire, and Chabot,2 The truth is that the Hébertists, Chaumette, Cloots, and Hébert were merely falling into line with the obscure patriots of the sections, the nameless crowd of sans-culottes in the outlying parts of Paris. Continue reading

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Lenin and David Bowie

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David Bowie has died. In tribute, I’m posting some portions of the second chapter of Agata Pyzik’s excellent book Poor but Sexy, which I reviewed for the Los Angeles Review of Books about a year ago. You should definitely pick it up if you haven’t already. To complement it, I’m including some photos of Bowie in Moscow and around the Eastern Bloc.

A word about Bowie’s flirtation with fascist symbolism during the 1970s: Quite clearly it was a deliberate aesthetic provocation meant to shock the public, part of his Thin White Duke persona. Same goes with that Playboy interview: he was coked out of his mind, responding to decades of British postwar malaise. Bowie also made use of communist, East European, and avant-garde symbolism around this time. Not trying to make excuses for the guy, just pointing out that this part of rock’n’roll’s broader obsession with totalitarianism during this period.

Either way, don’t expect sound politics from celebrities. Lemmy also liked to collect fascoid paraphernalia, as many have pointed out. He was a great musician and artist all the same. Regarding Bowie’s sexual improprieties, allegedly sleeping with Lori Maddox when she was seventeen and he was in his early twenties (as part of a ménage à trois with another man), again I am not interested in his private life. Picasso slept with younger women in Paris, but this hardly makes him less of a painter. Caravaggio murdered a couple people in cold blood, and he is similarly undiminished.

Surely no one will fault us for mourning Bowie’s death simply because he did not make great contributions to Marxist theory.

Ashes and brocade

Berlinism, Bowie, post punk,
new romantics and pop culture
during the second Cold War
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Had to get the train
from Potsdamer Platz
You never knew that I could do that
Just walking the dead
a man lost in time
Twenty thousand people cross Bösebrücke
fingers are crossed just in case
where are we now?

— David Bowie, “Where
Are We Now?” (2013)

I could make a transformation
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Is there concrete all around or is it in my head?

— David Bowie, “All
the Young Dudes”

The 1970s were the era of defeat. As the sixties were extremely intense in terms of political and social change, from the early seventies the flux went steady. David Bowie, who debuted in the late sixties, marked this change when he invented Ziggy Stardust in 1972: no more real heroes, from now on the most desirable thing was to be fabricated. What is genuine, authentic, is boring. The only hero that really matters, is pure artifice, cut out from the comic books, movies and dressed in everything that’s glamorous. Bowie more than anyone contributed to the cherishing of artifice in pop music, realizing the idea of a “hero for a day,” only following the course mass culture had been taking for decades. Was he conscious of that? Some of his lyrics of the era mark the mourning of the depoliticization of his generation: in the lyrics to the song “Star,” he mentions “Bevan (who) tried to change the nation,” and posing himself instead as someone who “could make a transformation as a rock & roll star.” Facing the “growing nihilism of his generation, he still believes that as a star of artifice, he can carry on their political task. “All the Young Dudes,” a song he wrote for Mott the Hoople in ’72, reeks of the youth’s disappointment and disillusionment, forming a kind of “solidarity of the losers” anthem. Bowie, always too erratic to make any firm political commitment, was rather in love with various dubious figures, “cracked actors,” (the inspiration for Ziggy was a forgotten singer who was believed to be a combination of god and an alien), necromantics like Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Anger’s satanism, Fascist dictators. He was, nevertheless, obsessed with certain elements of modernity. He was driven to German culture, especially the Weimar period, expressionism, Neue Sachlichkeit, theater, Brecht. His first break-through hit concerned a man lost in space, after all, and the space age gets a strongly melancholic treatment from Bowie, as his character Major Tom is rather terrified by the silence of space. Another obsession, as we will see, was Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Bowie’s fixation with “totalitarianism” applied to both sides. At one point he planned to stage an adaptation of the Soviet-Czech comic book Octobriana, about a socialist she-devil super-heroine — a samizdat publication, that was circulated between creators only through the post. Bowie could only have learned about it from its 1971 American edition. On the other side, his dalliance with the far right was something more than just the famous Sieg Heil he made to fans in 1976 at Victoria Station. It’s not an accident pop bands are very rarely left-wing, and Bowie’s reaction to the economic crisis of the seventies was to imagine becoming a right wing politician who’ll “sort things out.” “I believe strongly in Fascism,” Bowie said; “the only way we can speed up the sort of liberalism that’s hanging foul in the air is to speed up the progress of a right wing tyranny. People have responded always more efficiently under a regimental leadership.” Bowie recognized, if only half-consciously, the appeal and meaning of the pop idol as a dictator. In Peter Watkins’ film from some years earlier, 1967’s Privilege, a young, cherubic, mega-popular singer is hired by the fascistic authorities, who use his popularity to ensure their control over the masses, in a truly Orwellesque, Big Brother-like take on the police state (which here has much more to do with Nazi Germany than communist states). Yet Watkins’ scared, weakened, traumatized singer, terrified of the masses, couldn’t have been further from Bowie, who relished in fame.

So Bowie’s fascination with Germany and Berlin was only partly expressionism – much of it was also quite simply, fascism. He became a chief Schwarzkarakter for Rock against Racism, whose magazine pictured him next to Enoch Powell and Hitler. The press deemed his Thin White Duke look “more Nazi than Futurist (sic)’. He also caught the attention and sympathy of the National Front, who in an article called “White European Dance Music,” said that “Perhaps the anticommunist backlash and the aspirations towards heroism by the futurist movement, has much to do with the imagery employed by the big daddy of futurism, David Bowie. After all, it was Bowie who horrified the establishment in mid seventies with his favorable comments on the NF, and Bowie who might have started an “anti-communist” music tradition which we now see flourishing amidst the New Wave of futurist bands. Who might the NF’s publicist have meant as the “futurist movement”? It was the growing synthpop and New Romanticism that was emerging from the post-punk bands. Punk by itself might have evoked a resistance towards the establishment, but by then it was dissolving. Although we are used to seeing industrial/synthpop/postpunk as ruthless modernists, the bands were actually rarely openly left wing. The political message, if any, was rather vague. Bands dwelling on the space age came often from dispossessed areas, which they then made topics for their music, but the result didn’t have to be politically sound. It was this later, new romantic period that brought Bowie to the left, with the stern words about “fascists” on Scary Monsters.

But even if we treat those remarks as just the drugged out delirium of a coked-up degenerate, which they were, it can’t be denied they had an influence on popular music. If you take the whole fascination with the Germanic in post punk bands, like Siouxsie and the Banshees or, omen omen, Joy Division, the twisted outpourings of their leaders weren’t just simply teasing their parents. They were flirting with the outrageous (Siouxsie), against the war generation, or they were openly right wing, like Ian Curtis. They had little to do with the struggles of Baader-Meinhof that ended tragically few years back. Curtis was confusing his obsession with Hitlerism with another obsession with a concentration camp prisoners (Stephen Morris has said in an interview that Joy Division were supposed to look like Nazi camp victims) or wider, the idea of the underdog, which tapped into their Bowieesque Eastern Bloc fantasies, like that of “Warszawa,” an eternally concrete, sinister city. Yet Bowie’s image of contemporary Berlin must’ve been seriously twisted, if he thought he could find shelter there with another drug addict, Iggy Pop, in a place that had already become one of the most narcotics-dependent places on earth. West Germany and West Berlin had for years been a territory of political dysphoria. The New Left’s legacy was melting. In a context of pseudo-denazification, militancy reached its peak around 1968 and the police shooting of Benno Ohnesorg. By 1976, when Bowie moved to Berlin, it had become the armed terrorism of RAF, the Red Army Faction. Continue reading

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Open-source Marxism 2016: Fresh batch of “pirate scab” PDFs

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Happy New Year from the Charnel-House.

2015 was a fairly shit year. Lemmy died, and yet another Star Wars movie came out, so right off the bat you know it’s awful. Add to that the terror attacks in Paris, Beirut, Colorado, California, throughout Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the list goes on and on. Plus rising xenophobia and outright racism in Europe and the United States, where cops seem to be shooting unarmed black kids on a weekly basis.

I guess Stephen Curry’s MVP season, culminating in a Finals victory over Lebron, mitigated things somewhat, made the year a little more worthwhile. Only somewhat, though.

We are insufficiently gripped by the terror of existence.

Regardless, start the year off right with some high-quality “pirate scab versions” of commie e-books and PDFs. First of all, more or less all of the books published in the Historical Materialism series. But also 365 different author folders, one for each day of 2016. It seems that butthurt from one of the prime movers at Verso and HM has already commenced, and so he’s issued a middle school “him or me” ultimatum.

Budgen butthurt

Of course, I don’t begrudge anyone who would defriend me or badmouth me for careerist reasons, because the sacred principles of #getpaid and #mansgottaeat override everything. You can’t be blamed the guy acts like a teenager, or that he can only tolerate suck-ups and sycophants. Just enjoy the free books. Anyway, most of these are in English, but the Hero of Labor who uploaded these tells me other languages could be provided as well. Also included are some worthwhile reactionaries like Michels, Pareto, and de Maistre, and some liberal thinkers from the era of bourgeois revolutions.

Note: If you’re not familiar with MEGA, the way downloads work can be kind of confusing. When you click on a given file, it goes to “transfers,” which then usually saves to your desktop. But there should be a gear in the lower left hand side which allows you to specify where everything is saved. Continue reading

Untit

Dialectics and porn: Two parables

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Real dialectics is like porn: you know it when you see it. And talking about it too much just shows a profound sickness of the mind. It should seldom be brought up in polite conversation.

— Art V. Cabrera

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The distinction between “socialism from above” and “socialism from below” has always struck me as unhelpful. Anarcho-populist weasel words, in my opinion. Socialism does it every which way: on top, underneath, from the side, reverse cowgirl. Not to mention on the kitchen counter. (“Every cook should govern,” as Lenin said).

Councilists do it spontaneous. I guess 69ing would be mutualism, but dual power is difficult to sustain.

— Ross Wolfe

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Margaret Bourke-White in the USSR, 1931

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Margaret Bourke-White was one of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century, and certainly one of my personal favorites. Early in her career she was granted access to the rooftop of the Chrysler Building, where another photojournalist captured her image atop one of the metallic eagles jutting out the side. This iconic photographic can be seen below, along with some other early photos she took of various buildings.

Bourke-White On The Chrysler Building

Bourke-White was born in New York City in 1904. She became interested in photography while studying at Cornell University. After studying under Clarence White at Columbia University, she opened a studio in Cleveland where she specialized in architectural photography. In 1929 Bourke-White was recruited as staff photographer for Fortune, and made several trips to the Soviet Union. Eyes on Russia, a firsthand account of her experiences in the USSR, was published in 1931.

Her impressions of the USSR in the early 1930s were varied, but generally positive. “When Fortune was in its infancy during the thirties, the land of tantalizing mystery was Russia,” Bourke-White later recalled. She dubbed the Soviet Union “the land of the day after tomorrow.” The title was ironic, apparently. For not only did this indicate the country’s futuristic bent; it also hinted at deeply-rooted confusion:

During my trips in the early thirties — and I made three brief ones — Russia was always the land of the Day After Tomorrow. I suppose the underlying cause for the many bureaucratic delays was fear of taking responsibility. The confusion was deepened by a novel experiment designed to get rid of bourgeois Sunday. People took their “day of rest” every five days, not on the same day but staggered. The purpose was to make work continuous. The result was highly discontinuous. It seemed a puzzle ingeniously designed so that the man you wanted to see on any particular day was away enjoying his day of rest. I have never known anything since to compare in sheer difficulty with my assignments in Russia: the baffling postponements, the mysterious absence of reasons. It was a valuable experience, and I am glad to have had it so early in my work. Russia was a lesson in patience.

Le Corbusier, the famous modern architect, likewise noted this experiment in reformatting the work week in his postscript “Moscow Atmosphere” in Precisions (1930). But the title also suggested communism’s headlong dive into the future. Making her way through the Soviet Republic of Georgia, Bourke-White also stumbled across Stalin’s closest relations. She photographed the communist leader’s mother, great-aunt, and several others. A few decades later, she recorded a few snippets about their meeting. Aside from Stalin’s family and relatives, Bourke-White also photographed a number of other eminent personages in the Soviet Union: Karl Radek, Sergei Eisenstein, Hugh Cooper, etc. Ten years later she would portray Stalin himself. In addition to these figures, however, she also took many portraits of ordinary people from everyday life in the USSR.

Deeply influenced by her experience of the Great Depression, she became increasingly interested in politics, joining Life in 1936.  Her photograph of the Fort Peck Dam appeared on its first front cover. In 1937 Bourke-White worked with the best-selling novelist Erskine Caldwell on the book You Have Seen Their Faces (1937). The book was later criticized for supposed “left-wing bias,” upsetting whites in the deep South with its passionate attack on Jim Crow. Bourke-White was a member of the American Artists’ Congress. The group supported state-funding of the arts, fought discrimination against African American artists, and supported artists fighting against fascism in Europe. She also subscribed to the Daily Worker and was a member of several Communist Party front organizations.

Margaret Bourke-White, 92 canvas

Bourke-White married Caldwell in 1939. They were the only foreign journalists in the Soviet Union when the German Army invaded in 1941. When Bourke-White and Caldwell returned to the United States in 1942, they collaborated to produce another attack on social inequality, Say Is This the USA? During the Second World War, Bourke-White served as a war correspondent, working for both Life and the US Air Force. Having survived a torpedo attack en route to North Africa, she was with United States troops when they reached the Buchenwald concentration camp. After the war Bourke-White continued her interest in racial inequality by documenting Gandhi’s non-violent campaign in India and apartheid in South Africa. She also captured a grisly photo of a South Korean soldier smiling after decapitating of North Korean communist guerilla. During the Korean Civil War, the US backed the South Korean army and even directly supported it with marines.

The FBI had been collecting information on Bourke-White’s political activities since the 1930s and in the 1950s became a target for Joe McCarthy and the Unamerican Activities Committee. However, a statement reaffirming her belief in democracy and her opposition to dictatorship of the left or of the right, enabled her to avoid being cross-examined by the committee. In 1952 Bourke-White was discovered to be suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. Unable to take photographs, she spent eight years writing her autobiography, Portrait of Myself (1963). Margaret Bourke-White died at Darien, Connecticut, in 1971.

Below is posted an excerpt from her autobiography that goes over her first round of visits to Russia in the early 1930s.

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Land of the day after tomorrow

Margaret Bourke-White
Portrait of Myself
September 1963

 

In the early thirties, when Fortune was in its infancy, the land of tantalizing mystery was Russia. No foreign photographers had been allowed across Russian borders to take a direct look at what was going on under the Soviet Five-Year Plan. Foreign engineering consultants — mostly Americans — came and went with comparative freedom. But for the professional photographer from the outside world, it was a closed country. Nothing attracts me like a closed door. I cannot let my camera rest until I have pried it open, and I wanted to be first.

With my enthusiasm for the machine as an object of beauty, I felt the story of a nation trying to industrialize almost overnight was just cut out for me. Peasants who had been taken from the plow and put on the punch press — how did they manage this jump of centuries? Although my approach was nontechnical, I had been in factories enough to appreciate that industry has a history-machines are developed and men grow along with them. Here was a unique opportunity to see a country in transition between a medieval past and an industrialized future.

No one could have known less about Russia politically than I knew — or cared less. To me, politics was colorless beside the drama of the machine. It was only much later that I discovered that politics could be an absorbing subject, with a profound effect on human destiny.

The person most helpful in giving me background on Russia was Cleveland’s live-wire city manager, Dan Morgan. From him I got some conception of the tremendous range of heavy industry being built with the technical assistance of American firms. There was virtually a little Cleveland within Soviet borders. Warner & Swasey and Foote-Burt were tooling up Stalingrad. Two of Cleveland’s leading construction companies, McKee and Austin, built some of the biggest installations in the Soviet Union — from steel mills in Siberia to oil refineries on the Black Sea. Detroit, too, was prominently represented by Ford; Schenectady by General Electric. Ford’s industrial architect, Albert Kahn, was laying out the entire group of factory buildings for Stalingrad, now Volgograd. The Newport News Shipbuilding Company was furnishing what were then the world’s largest hydroturbines for Dnieprostroi, and the huge Dnieper Dam was erected under the experienced direction of Col. Hugh L. Cooper, builder of America’s Muscle Shoals.

These great American builders and their staffs of engineers and planners were not, of course, dangerous Reds, or even fellow travelers. They were not working for ideological or propaganda purposes, but strictly for business reasons or — as the Marxists might have said — “the profit motive.” The role played by American industrialists in building up the Soviet giant cannot be overestimated.

Margaret Bourke-White, American engineer Col. Hugh Cooper, the chief conslultant for the construction of Russia's Dnieper Dam, holdling pipe as he poses before the dam's spillway (1931)

The idea of running photographs of the sprouting industries of the USSR intrigued Fortune’s editors, but they had grave doubts whether I could get anything done. They were sending me to Germany to take pictures of industry, and I decided to push on from there. I had applied for a Russian visa six months earlier at Intourist, the Soviet travel agency in New York. In Berlin, I was puzzled when I discovered my visa was not waiting for me, because the Intourist official had been so enthusiastic about my industrial photographs. “Your pictures will be your passport,” he kept repeating.

Not only was there no visa at the Soviet Embassy in Berlin, but the officials there had never heard of my grand plan to chronicle Soviet industry, or of me either. I opened up the ever-present portfolio of my industrial work and was told again my pictures would be my passport. The Embassy officials dismissed me courteously with instructions to return the day after tomorrow. I returned the day after tomorrow and continued to do so for five and a half weeks.

I woke up before dawn one morning and restlessly started walking from the Hotel Adlon past the Brandenburg Gate and up Unter den Linden. As I passed under the window of the Soviet Embassy, I heard a whistle over my head. I looked up, and there, at the window, stood the Soviet consul. He was waving a piece of paper. It was the telegram granting my visa. I bought a cheap trunk and filled it with canned food. I had been warned that if I traveled off the beaten path, I would find near famine conditions. That night I left for Moscow.

During my trips in the early thirties — and I made three brief ones — Russia was always the land of the Day After Tomorrow. I suppose the underlying cause for the many bureaucratic delays was fear of taking responsibility. The confusion was deepened by a novel experiment designed to get rid of bourgeois Sunday. People took their “day of rest” every five days, not on the same day but staggered. The purpose was to make work continuous. The result was highly discontinuous. It seemed a puzzle ingeniously designed so that the man you wanted to see on any particular day was away enjoying his day of rest. I have never known anything since to compare in sheer difficulty with my assignments in Russia: the baffling postponements, the mysterious absence of reasons. It was a valuable experience, and I am glad to have had it so early in my work. Russia was a lesson in patience.

Even getting to one of these evaporating appointments was a feat. Taxis were rare and apt to break down on the way. Next choice was a droshky, a carriage so worn it seemed a breath would blow it to pieces. You were at the mercy of the bearded driver who might dump you out halfway to your destination if he thought his horse was tired. The next possibility was to get on a streetcar if you could get the conductor to stop when it was literally dripping with human beings.

I remember a day when my interpreter and I squeezed into one of these bursting streetcars. The conductor held out her hand for our fare: “Ten kopecks.”
……“We do not have change,” said my interpreter. “But here’s a ruble.”
……“But I cannot take the ruble. I cannot take tips. It’s against the law.”
……“What shall we do? We have no kopecks.”
……“Get off the car.” The conductor stopped the car in the middle of the crowded street, and in true Russian fashion, the passengers discussed our dilemma.

While the debate raged, streetcars halted, traffic slowed to a standstill. Finally, the passengers rose unanimously to our support. We could stay on the car. We could keep our ruble. The car started and the blocked traffic rolled into motion again.

With all the absurdities, there was a quality about the people I can only call exasperating charm. On my visits to the various commissars, I was always received hospitably. Inevitably, I was told two things: one was to return the day after tomorrow; the other was that my pictures would be my passport. Yet I was fortunate in having something as tangible as my pictures of American steel mills, factories and refineries to show what I wanted to do photographically in the Soviet Union. I began getting very limited permission to take pictures in and around Moscow. On alternate days, I did what little work I could, and on the Days After Tomorrow, I visited the Commissariats of Heavy Industry and Railroads, pressing for a big tour with proper authority to travel and take pictures. During these visits, scores of admiring Russians crowded in to examine minutely my pictures of American factories, while I slipped in reminders that there were many beautiful pictures to be taken in Soviet factories. I had come for only a few weeks, and already half of my time had trickled uselessly away.

“Yes,” the officials would say. “The Amerikanka is right. The great Lenin said, ‘Time is our most precious possession’.” I don’t know whether it was the counsel of the deceased Lenin that took effect or my persistence, but finally the Day After Tomorrow really came, and I set out to tour the industrial centers with a highly competent young girl interpreter, my trunk of food, my bulky camera cases, a sheaf of permits and, most important, that portfolio of photographs that indeed was to be my passport. The pictures soon became dog-eared and battered, but they opened many doors.

Everywhere I traveled, I heard about the Amerikanskoe tempo. It was the watchword of the hour, the ultimate in praise. In Stalingrad, particularly where the factories were modeled after Ford in Detroit, the workers adored the conveyor belt as a symbol of the Amerikanskoe tempo. The workers who gathered in crowds made suggestions, smoked cigarettes, eulogized the conveyor, broke into oratory at the very sight of it, did everything but run it.

At Dnieprostroi, during the first month, half of the locomotive cranes were busy picking up the other half that had broken down on the job. The workmen were like children playing with new toys. In the power installations, they acted as though throwing on a new generator was like turning on an electric fan. The endless meetings to decide whether or not to use a new tool exasperated the American technicians; tools were hard to get. The tractor was the object of special reverence, but still the tractor operators ran them up and down the fields like racing cars until they broke down.

Machine worship was everywhere; it permeated even the classic Russian ballet. Little girls with gear wheels in gold or silver painted on their chests danced Machine Dances. The people were worshiping at new shrines with the fervor of religious zealots. It was as though they needed to replace their religion — which was being taken away from them step by step. They looked on the coming of the machine as their Savior; it was the instrument of their deliverance.

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Walter Benjamin’s writings in German and in English

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Besides studying Soviet history, reading Walter Benjamin was what got me hooked on all this commie crap. It was probably “On the Concept of History” that first did it. Enigmatic, baffling, simple yet sophisticated — these were my initial impressions of it. The rest is history, or a storm blowing in from the Absolute.

Of course, I was fortunate to be introduced to Benjamin the way I did. Following a few of his texts in Illuminations, I started in on Adorno and read Gershom Scholem’s Story of a Friendship. At least to some extent this immunized me to the different “readings” offered over the years by postmodernists, poststructuralists, hermeneuticists, and beyond. No one can pretend to be surprised that the secondary literature on Benjamin has become so voluminous, or all the uses to which his thought has been put. Because the Marxist component of his writing is muted, or methodologically opaque, theorists have been able to sidestep or otherwise evade critical engagement with Benjamin’s Marxism.

He was not a political writer. And many of his references are esoteric or willfully obscure. From this derives the denseness of so many of his texts. Jewish mysticism certainly figures into Benjamin’s conceptual and theoretical apparatus, largely nourished by his friendship with Scholem. Still, I despise nothing more than interpretations which seek to make Benjamin into some sort of communist rabbi, à la Moses Hess (Marx used to disparagingly refer to the proto-Zionist Hegelian in this manner, before Engels cuckolded the man’s wife). Reading his notes and correspondence it is clear that the allusions to Jewish mysticism in his writings are metaphorical or allegorical, and possess no religious content.

You can download all of Benjamin’s work in German and in English below, along with some biographies and introductions to his work. Beneath the picture gallery I’ve reposted an article Michael Löwy wrote for the Platypus Review ages ago. Enjoy.

German
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  1. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften I
  2. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften II
  3. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften III
  4. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften IV
  5. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften V
  6. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften VI
  7. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften VII
  8. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Briefe, 6 Bände

English
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  1. Walter Benjamin, Early Writings, 1910-1917
  2. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926
  3. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 2: Part 1, 1927-1930
  4. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 2: Part 2, 1931-1934
  5. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935-1938
  6. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938-1940
  7. Walter Benjamin, Correspondence, 1910-1940
  8. Walter Benjamin, Correspondence with Gershom Scholem, 1932-1940
  9. Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht
  10. Walter Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire
  11. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media
  12. Walter Benjamin, Radio Benjamin
  13. Walter Benjamin, Moscow Diary
  14. Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings
  15. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

Secondary sources
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  1. Esther Leslie, Walter Benjamin
  2. Howard Eiland, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life
  3. Esther Leslie, Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism
  4. Uwe Steiner, Walter Benjamin: An Introduction to His Work
  5. György Markus, “Walter Benjamin, or, The Commodity as Phantasmagoria”
  6. Fredric Jameson, “Walter Benjamin, or Nostalgia”
  7. Georg Lukács, “On Walter Benjamin”
  8. Eli Friedlander, Walter Benjamin: A Philosophical Portrait
  9. Ferenc Feher, “Lukács and Benjamin: Parallels and Contrasts”
  10. Howard Caygill, Walter Benjamin: The Color of Experience
  11. Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project

Walter Benjamin

Michael Löwy

Platypus Review 5
May-July 2008

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Walter Benjamin occupies a unique place in the history of modern revolutionary thought: he is the first Marxist to break radically with the ideology of progress. His thinking has therefore a distinct critical quality, which sets him apart from the dominant and “official” forms of historical materialism, and gives him a formidable methodological superiority.

This peculiarity has to do with his ability to incorporate into the body of Marxist revolutionary theory insights from the Romantic critique of civilization and from the Jewish messianic tradition. Both elements are present in his early writings, particularly in “The Life of the Students” (1915), where he already rejects “a conception of history, whose confidence in the infinity of time only distinguishes the speed by which men and epochs roll, quicker or slower, along the track of progress” — a conception characterized by the “inconsistency, the lack of precision and force of the demands it addresses at the present” — opposing it to utopian images such as the messianic kingdom or the French Revolution.

Benjamin’s first reference to communism appears in 1921, in his “Critique of Violence,” where he celebrates the “devastating and on the whole justified” critique of the Parliament by the Bolsheviks and the anarcho-syndicalists. This link between communism and anarchism will be an important aspect of his political evolution: his Marxism will to a large extent take a libertarian color.

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Salvator-Rosa-Scene-with-Witches -Morning-1645-1649-painting-artwork-print

Federici versus Marx

Gilles Dauvé
Troploin
Fall 2015
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Note: Dauvé’s piece is not without its problems. Some lines are simply offensive — e.g., “Federici feminizes Marxism; that’s probably what has made her popular,” “the ‘reproductive labor’ theme is not a woman’s theory, only a housewife’s theory.” Others are beside the point, like the superfluous aside on Carla Lonzi, which I feel is grossly unfair to her body of work. But the point about the incompatibility of Federici’s account of primitive accumulation and Marx’s in Capital is extremely important, as is the point about the different priorities that these differing accounts reveal. He even lets her off somewhat light regarding the more outrageous claims of Caliban & the Witch. For example, the completely unsubstantiated figure of “five to six million” women killed during the witch-hunts in Europe during the period she covers. Anyway, many of the criticisms are perfectly valid and lay bare the practical poverty and theoretical misunderstandings that underwrite autonomist Marxism in general, as well as the “wages for housework” movement (which insisted on attaching a moral dimension to the purely economic category of “productive labor”).

One criticism I would raise that Dauvé does not regards the parallels between her presentation of the post-feudal transition and that of world “systems” theory. Federici’s account of primitive accumulation owes a lot to dependency theory, especially as articulated by Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin, and Immanuel Wallerstein. These theorists analyzed the emerging economic world system in terms of core-periphery relations, whereby the overdeveloped core is sustains its development at the expense of the underdeveloped periphery in an ongoing process of “unequal exchange.” In Caliban & the Witch, Federici makes an analogous argument regarding the reproductive sphere and the productive sphere, with the latter profiting at the expense of the former. She openly admits to the ismorphism between her argument and that of the world systems theorists. As a moderate Brennerite, I find this interpretation of the historic transition to capitalism untenable. Her focus on extra-economic forms of compulsion not only during the formation of capitalism, but down through to the present, has a lot to do with this.Moreover, many of Federici’s political positions seem to approximate a kind of Third Worldist narrative, which falls into all the communitarian traps that theorists of “the commons” often do.
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…rough magic I here abjure…

William Shakespeare
The Tempest (1610)

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Caliban & the Witch
is of undeniable interest for our understanding of social movements at the critical juncture between medieval and modern times, of the advent of capitalism, its sexual dimension, the treatment of women and the conversion of female and male bodies into a work-machine, among other things. But the book also sets forth a vision of past and present which is as questionable as the political perspective that this vision entails.1

Primitive accumulation according to Silvia Federici

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Federici claims to be writing “against Marxist orthodoxy” (p. 6), and Caliban & the Witch is commonly read as a complement (or for some readers, as an alternative) to Marx’s Capital, especially Part VIII. Federici writes:

…my description of primitive accumulation includes a set of historical phenomena that are absent in Marx, and yet have been extremely important for capitalist accumulation. They include: 1) the development of a new sexual division of labor subjugating women’s labor and women’s reproductive function to the reproduction of the work-force; 2) the construction of a new patriarchal order, based upon the exclusion of women from waged-work and their subordination to men; 3) the mechanization of the proletarian body and its transformation, in the case of women, into a machine for the production of new workers.” (p. 11)

So we expect to read what was missing in the accepted master narrative, especially as history suffers from a long tradition of writing women off. The question is, where does a counter-hegemonic history lead us? In Federici’s case, the author is not merely filling in gaps: her analysis of primitive accumulation amounts to nothing less than a conception of capitalism not just different from Marx’s but indeed opposed to it.

In order to understand the birth of capitalism, she emphasizes the specific oppression that social groups, women in particular, were subjected to. That is what she is targeting, and her approach prioritizes certain factors and downplays others.

The question is, what tipped the historical scales? Continue reading

Maxime Rodinson, Philosopher in France in October, 1993 - Maxime Rodinson (October 01, 1993)

Maxime Rodinson: Marxist, Orientalist, anti-Zionist, anti-Islamist

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The French Marxist scholar Maxime Rodinson, whose Polish parents died in Auschwitz while he was serving in the French Institute in Damascus, was born on May 22, 1915. Some sources say Paris; others say Marseilles. A true iconoclast, he resigned from the French Communist Party in 1958 in the name of anti-authoritarianism. He opposed Zionism as imposing a false nationalism upon all Jews while forcing the displacement of Palestinians from their homeland, though he learned both Hebrew and Arabic. Yet he urged peaceful negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and continually urged the Palestine Liberation Organization to renounce violence, terrorism, and their hope of a military victory over Israel. Rodinson was the first commentator to call Israel “a settler-colonial state,” and also coined the phrase “Islamic fascism” [le fascisme islamique] to describe the Iranian Revolution in 1979, taking Foucault to task for his uncritical enthusiasm and support of Khomeini. In 1961 he wrote Muhammad, a biography of the prophet of Islam that is still banned in parts of the Muslim world.

On political Islam’s potential duration, Rodinson wrote:

Islamic fundamentalism is a temporary, transitory movement, but it can last another thirty or fifty years — I don’t know how long. Where fundamentalism isn’t in power it will continue to be an ideal, as long as the basic frustration and discontent persist that lead people to take extreme positions. You need long experience with clericalism to finally get fed up with it — look how much time it took in Europe! Islamic fundamentalists will continue to dominate the period for a long time to come.

On Zionism as a form of nationalism, he wrote:

I am well aware that the designation “nationalist” for the Zionist movement often gives rise to protest on the part of Arab intellectuals. I have already come up against it. This is because in the Arab world, for reasons which are evident, the term “nationalism” has acquired a positive connotation, a sacred aureole. For the Arabs, nationalism is by definition a feeling, a passion, a duty, a praiseworthy (even admirable) movement. Zionism, being in their view something which is in its very essence bad, a perverse undertaking, cannot be nationalistic. It is a project of pure banditry, an operation planned by Satanic manipulators which sweeps along the deceived masses or individuals essentially just as evil.

In 1948, he became director of the Muslim section of the National Library in Paris. Edward Said in Orientalism (1978) praised Rodinson for his “extraordinary achievements” as well as his “methodological self-consciousness.” For Said, Rodinson was one of the exceptional few who proved “perfectly capable of freeing themselves from the old ideological straitjacket” of the Orientalist disciplines. In the endnotes of his book Europe and the Mystique of Islam (first published in French in 1980), he gave his opinion of Said’s Orientalism:

Edward Said’s Orientalism (New York, 1978) had a great and unexpected success. There are many valuable ideas in it. Its great merit, to my mind, was to shake the self-satisfaction of many Orientalists, to appeal to them (with questionable success) to consider the sources and the connections of their ideas, to cease to see them as a natural, unprejudiced conclusion of the facts, studied without any presupposition. But, as usual, his militant stand leads him repeatedly to make excessive statements. This problem is accentuated because as a specialist of English and comparative literature, he is inadequately versed in the practical work of the Orientalists. It is too easy to choose, as he does, only English and French Orientalists as a target. By doing so, he takes aim only at representatives of huge colonial empires. But there was an Orientalism before the empires, and the pioneers of Orientalism were often subjects of other European countries, some without colonies. Much too often, Said falls into the same traps that we old Communist intellectuals fell into some forty years ago, as I will explain below. The growth of Orientalism was linked to the colonial expansion of Europe in a much more subtle and intrinsic way than he imagines. Moreover, his nationalistic tendencies have prevented him from considering, among others, the studies of Chinese or Indian civilization, which are ordinarily regarded as part of the field of Orientalism. For him, the Orient is restricted to his East, that is, the Middle East. Muslim countries outside the Arab world (after all, four Muslims in five are not Arabs), and even Arab nations in the West receive less than their due in his interpretation.

His books, available for download here, include:

  1. Mohammad (1961)
  2. Islam and Capitalism (1966)
  3. Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? (1967)
  4. “On Zionism and the Palestine Problem Today” (1975)
  5. “Islam Resurgent?” (1979)
  6. “Khomeini and the ‘Primacy of the Spiritual'” (February 1979)
  7. The Arabs (1979)
  8. Europe and the Mystique of Islam (1980)
  9. Marxism and the Muslim World (1982)
  10. Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (1984)
  11. “Mythology of a Conqueror: On Saddam Hussein” (1991)
  12. “Critique of Foucault on Iran” (1993)
  13. “Why Palestine?”
  14. “On Islamic ‘Fundamentalism’: An Interview with Gilbert Achcar” (2003)

An interview from 1986 follows the picture gallery below. Enjoy.

 

Rodinson looks back

Joan Mandell & Joe Stork
Middle East Review 269
November 15, 1986

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Joan Mandell and Joe Stork spoke with Maxime Rodinson in April 1986, when he came to Washington for the celebration of MERIP’s fifteenth anniversary. We publish the interview here for the first time.
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You represent a unique combination of someone who has a militant left political background as an activist and is at the same time a renowned scholar. What circumstances account for this?

I was born in 1915. The milieu of my parents was one in which we had no doubt that this combination was absolutely essential. We had no doubt at the time there could be contradictions between scientific work and a commitment to action. I learned a great deal from my old master and professor, Marcel Cohen, a Greek linguist and communist. He had great ideas about Semitic linguistics and on the side he felt the duty to be committed. He was a member of the French Communist Party from the beginning. He used to say that people who never change are fools, and I have asked myself whether I was a fool because I had been in the Party since the 1930s. I remember that at one time I had some disagreements with the Party, but some months after that I understood that the Party was right and I came back to it. So I am not a fool!

You wrote in the preface to one of your books how even when you first joined the Party early in your life you were conscious of the problem. You didn’t join naively or blindly and you were aware of the constraints that it would represent.

I understand now that there is a process. I couldn’t have understood it without the experience…. Once you are in an organization you are restricted. I remember just before joining and committing myself by adhering formally and signing papers, I was buffeted between two trends.

On one side there was the French primary school where I learned to be tolerant, democratic and respectful. This trend was supported by a man among the Jews who emigrated from Poland and Eastern Europe.

Did your family also migrate from Eastern Europe?

Yes. My father was from Byelorussia. He was educated in college in Smolensk, wrote poetry in Russian, read English, French and German. He came to Paris in 1885 and my mother in 1900 or 1901. They were the kind of people who came to France to pursue their studies but were forced to work to survive. My mother was less educated; she spoke Yiddish and a bit of Russian. She was very fond of things Russian…Poland was at that time part of Russia.

Were your parents already in the Communist Party when they came to France?

There was no Communist Party at that time. They were more or less socialist-minded. My mother had disgust for all things religious, and I inherited that. She spoke with horror of rabbis. When my father first came to Paris he was a Marxist, a syndicalist, one of the founders of Jewish trade unions. In 1905, there was a process of unification of many socialist parties in France. My father entered this new socialist party. He had a job — unpaid — as a keeper of a library. Many new people like Trotsky and Lenin went there.

In France, at the time of the revolution, to what extend did the Jewish workers work as a group? To what extent was there consciousness as Jews, and how did that intersect with the broader trade union movement?

It was a process of transition. Many of them were just coming from Russia, and spoke only Yiddish. On the side, they were concentrated in certain sectors like the garment trade. So naturally the trade union of workers who made raincoats were almost all Jews. At the time of the Russian revolution many went to Russia. I was born in Paris and perhaps my mother and father found this a great excuse to stay in France. My father understood how things were in Russia, while my mother and I were enthusiastic to go back. So she prepared to go back without my father. But her friends advised her not to leave her husband, and she stayed.

I was dispirited at the time because I was in primary school and had no prospect to go to university. But one of the things that upset me was that I did not know foreign languages. I was without culture. Then I discovered a marvelous thing: Esperanto. I understood that it was replacing all the languages; it was easy to learn. At that time it was encouraged by the Soviet Union, by trade unions, by the Communist Party. I studied it in evening lessons at the houses of trade unionists. I was assigned a correspondent in the Soviet Union, in the town of my father. I wrote asking, “What is the problem with Trotsky and Stalin?” and so on.

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