Aleksandr Deineka, The Red Army (1929)

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Problems of the Red Army

Leon Trotskii
The Communist
November 1919

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

Towards a theory of the development of the world market and the world economy

Isaak Dashkovskii
Under the Banner of
(№ 1, 1927)

Translated by Noa Rodman with light edits by Ross Wolfe. Still waiting on a full copy of the Russian to go over some of the rougher sections. English is not Noa’s first language, to my knowledge. He’s a mysterious figure in general, who sometimes comments on my blog and occasionally Chris Cutrone’s, while also haunting the LibCom forums. Anyway, I’ve done what I can to clean it up.

First of three articles. Under the Banner of Marxism, 1927, № 1 , 86-117. See part two and three.1

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The most fundamental and dominant facts of modern economic life are the world market and the world economy. This is observed in countless written works, devoted to recent history of the economy and its modern situation. Even those authors, who, like [Werner] Sombart, tend to defend the paradoxical idea, that “the single national economy increasingly is becoming a completed microcosmos, and the internal market gradually outweighs for all industries the significance of the foreign market,”2 nevertheless have to recognize, that an essential condition for the growth of the domestic market is a “permanent and continuous extensive expansion of world economic relations.”

The development of international economic relations is a kind of dialectical process. As is known, exchange and trade historically occur “on the margins of social organisms.” International, intertribal trade is the starting point of the development of exchange, with which the capitalist economy also develops. 3 Later on capitalism gradually clears for itself a required “field of exploitation” inside the country, disintegrating the remnants of the natural order, paving the way of commodity economy throughout and transforming the latter into capitalist economy. During this period there occurs an intensive “formation of the internal market” for capitalism. When this work is done in enough depth and breadth, there comes the turn again of international exchange, on no longer primitive foundations, but on the basis of large-scale production and manufacture technology. Capitalism “pulls” all nations one after the other into the world economic orbit. The epoch of world economy arrives.

As troubadours of this international exchange act always the economists of those countries, which occupy a dominant position in the world market. Since the era of development of bourgeois political economy coincided with the dominance of England in the world market, it is only natural that the theory of the classics became the fighting banner of bourgeois “cosmopolitanism,” which essentially was the only adequate form of expression of the national interests of British capital. In the development of the “cosmopolitan” theory one can mention two stages: the first period associated with the names of Smith and Ricardo, characterizing the predominance of the interests of international trade in the strict sense, i.e., in terms of export of goods. Praising the benefits of international exchange both Smith and Ricardo refer negatively to the tendency to transfer capital and entrepreneurship abroad.

But in relation to this already Mill takes a step forward, pointing out that the export of capital is a powerful force for expanding the field of employment of remaining capital. It is quite fair to say that the more, to a certain extent, we will send capital out, the more we will have it and the greater the amount of it we will be able to keep in the fatherland.4 This evolution of the classical theory was closely related to changes in the economic environment. From export of goods British capital turned, after the Napoleonic Wars, to the export of capital. The pursuit of higher profits got the better over “attachment to the fatherland,” and Mill only registered a fait accompli. True, he has not yet completely done away with the old ideology and proves the benefits of export of capital by the consideration that the export contributes to increasing the amount of capital remaining in the fatherland. But this was already a simple tribute to prejudices, from which the later generation of economists managed to entirely escape.

In the theory of international economic relations as well as in all other matters of political economy, the classics remained true to their main method — to issue the specific laws of bourgeois economy to a natural order of things, to a pre-established harmony. The moving force of the development of world trade they saw in physical conditions of production, and not in the social form, which they take under capitalism. International trade spreads the frame of the division of labor, increasing its productivity. Growth of productivity is a simple consequence of technical factors — the division of labor, which therefore is the most natural order of things. Natural laws inevitably must forge a way through the artificial barriers created by the wrong policies of social organizations — the state, etc. Therefore the development of international trade is inevitable.

From the natural order of things proceeded, incidentally, also a prominent opponent of the classical school on the continent of Europe — Friedrich List. But he, in contrast to the classics, argued that the greatest economic benefits are obtained not from the division of labor between countries, but from the conjunction of labor within the same country, in particular from the conjunction of industrial and agricultural production. A clear case of how the meaning of “natural laws” is modified when they need to express opposing interests of different groups of bourgeoisie, in this case the bourgeoisie of England and Germany in the first half of the 19th century. True, also List did not depart from “cosmopolitanism” in relation to more or less distant future, when circumstances permit “universal” struggle. He also considered it necessary to flirt with “universal” considerations. “That the civilization of all nations, the culture of the whole globe is the mission of mankind, is a consequence of those immutable laws of nature, according to which civilized nations are driven by irresistible power to carry over their productive forces to the less civilized countries.”5

“Natural laws” unconsciously for their interpreters spoke in the purest language of bourgeois categories in those cases, for example, when the benefits of the international exchange strengthened arguments on the profit rate or wages. But since these categories in the representation of bourgeois economy had “antediluvian existence,” these same forces of development of the world market appeared independent of any form of social organization. They were rooted in the “immutable laws of nature.”

In his comments on Ricardo Diehl correctly notes that “​​Ricardo’s idea about foreign trade policy is closely connected with his theory of distribution of national income; he is in favor of free trade because it has the most favorable influence upon the distribution of wealth within the national economy” (K. Diehl, Erläuterungen, Bd. III, II Theil, 326 p.).

Only Marx put the question of the world market on a real scientific ground. He showed that the creation of the world market was not a function of “laws of nature” as such, but a function of capital, and moved, in this way, study on the ground of social laws, peculiar to a determined era. “What is free trade under the present condition of society?” Marx asks. “Freedom of capital. When you have overthrown the few national barriers which still restrict the progress of capital, you will merely have given it complete freedom of action.”6

And further, revealing the essence of protectionism, Marx finds it in a strong growth, despite the apparent contrast, with the system of free trade:

The protectionist system is nothing but a means of establishing large-scale industry in any given country, that is to say, of making it dependent upon the world market, and from the moment that dependence upon the world market is established, there is already more or less dependence upon free trade.

In this way, both seemingly mutually exclusive, systems of economic policy, lead, according to Marx, to the same result: the expansion of the scope of capital’s activity, the expansion of world economic relations.

A theory of the world market had no fortune in Marxist literature. Marx himself assumed to devote a significant part of his research to the analysis of foreign trade, international market and international economy. He mentions this in the first lines of his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “I examine the system of bourgeois economy in the following order: capital, landed property, wage-labor; the State, foreign trade, world market.” The incompleteness of Capital is reflected precisely in the last three parts of Marx’s plan. In particular the theory of international economic relations is represented there only in the form of passing remarks, which, however, are themselves of an enormous scientific worth and allow in general outlines to build a system of Marx’s views on this question.

Regarding post-Marxian economic literature, although questions of world economy also were and are paid a lot of attention, a general theory of international exchange remained poorly developed. The dispute about the importance of foreign markets for capitalism between Marxists and populists, renewed in our days around the theory of Rose Luxemburg, revolves mainly around the problem of realization, or the complication of specific questions of modern imperialism, involving the highly advanced monopolization of important sectors of the world economy, the strong influence of “supra-economic” factors , etc., conditions interfering with the economic laws of capitalism “in its pure form.” Meanwhile, without a “pure theory” of the global market one cannot understand the real binding of global economic phenomena, just as without a “pure theory” of commodity and capitalist economy one cannot understand the general course of economic life, relations, classes, etc. The theory of “realization” is only a part of this pure theory. The question about realization of surplus value cannot be separated from the question about prices, for it is only through prices that potential surplus value is converted into real profit. The formation of price in international exchange is impossible to understand, without having a general theory of international exchange, and international exchange is part of a wider field of international economic relations (including the migration of capitals, the so-called “exchange of services,” the movement of labor forces, etc.). In short, here is an untouched region of theoretical research, in which Marxist science has made only first steps. Continue reading

Il’ia Chashnik, revolutionary suprematist (1902-1929)

Il’ia Grigorievich Chashnik was born to an unremarkable Jewish family in Lyucite, Latvia on June 20, 1902. He spent most of his childhood in Vitebsk, leaving school at the age of eleven to work in a small watchmaking workshop.

From 1917 to 1919, Chashnik studied art with the local artist Iurii (Yehuda) Pen before moving to Moscow in 1919 to attend the newly-opened VKhUTEMAS [Higher State Art and Technical Studios]. Just a few months later, however, he transferred to the Vitebsk Art Institute in order to study under the Russian-Jewish folk painter and avant-gardist Marc Chagall. Soon he became enamored of the work of Kazimir Malevich, the mastermind of Suprematism. Malevich also happened to teach at the Institute, before receiving a promotion and taking it over during the winter of 1919-1920. El Lissitzky also mentored Chashnik briefly before departing to Western Europe.

Once his apprenticeship under Malevich began, Chashnik’s paintings underwent a radical change. Chashnik cultivated his own distinctive style within the Suprematist idiom, developing Malevich’s ideas of abstraction and non-figuration to produce floating geometric shapes with crossing planes. While Malevich composed white-on-white paintings wrapped in fragile stillness and simplicity, Chashnik moved toward more dynamic pieces where black was the predominant element.

David Walsh of the World Socialist Website described the young painter’s unique talents with considerable eloquence in a review he wrote of The Great Utopia exhibition of 1993, which featured some of Chashnik’s work. Walsh wrote:

Chashnik’s The Seventh Dimension: Suprematist and his Color Lines in Vertical Motion demonstrate an enormous talent. His Cosmos — Red Circle on Black Surface (1925), for example, is an extraordinary work. A giant red circle (sun, planet) hovers in blackness (sky, atmosphere). Under it on the painting’s surface floats a Suprematist-like structure (space station), lines and rectangles arranged horizontally across a central bar. The Suprematist craft — delicate, outweighed, pale in color — is seemingly directed toward the gigantic, perfect red sphere. The enormity of the task, the terrifying emptiness of the universe, the flimsiness of the vessel, are clear to the viewer.

Along with some other talented students of Malevich’s class — Nikolai Suetin, Vera Ermolaeva, and Lev Iudin — Chashnik participated in the organization of the group POSNOVIS [Followers of the New Art], later renamed UNOVIS [Affirmers of the New Art], contributing to all of its exhibitions. He became particularly close with Suetin, a friendship and creative partnership that would endure until the former’s untimely passing in 1929.

Even further, while still in Vitebsk, Chashnik helped Malevich draft the syllabus for the Department of Architecture and Technology at Vitebsk in 1921. There he explained:

The constructions of Suprematism are blueprints for the building and assembling of forms of utilitarian organisms.Consequently, any Suprematist project is Suprematism extended into functionality. The Department of Architecture and Technology is the builder of new forms of utilitarian Suprematism; as it develops, it is changing into a huge workshop-laboratory, not with the pathetic little workbenches and paints in departments of painting, but with electric machines for casting, with all kinds of apparatuses, with the technological wealth of magnetic forces. [This department works] in concert with astronomers, engineers, and mechanics to attain a single Suprematism, to build organisms of Suprematism — a new form of economics in the utilitarian system of modernity.

When local authorities forced UNOVIS out of Vitebsk in 1922, Chashnik, Suetin, Ermolaeva, and Iudin followed Malevich to join the GINKhUK in Petrograd. Throughout the Petrograd/Leningrad period, Chashnik spent his days exploring possible applications of Suprematist art to everyday life.

Creative product photography, catalog and web-site photography Creative product photography, catalog and web-site photography Architektonisches Projekt, 1926-1927. Bewegung der Farbe, 1921-1922. Suprematistische Komposition, 1922-1923 Continue reading

Ernst Friedrich, War against war (1924)

Susan Sontag
The New Yorker
Dec. 9, 2002

WARNING: Extremely graphic violence.

For a long time some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war. Fourteen years before [Virginia] Woolf published Three Guineas — in 1924, on the tenth anniversary of the national mobilization in Germany for the First World War — the conscientious objector Ernst Friedrich published his Krieg dem Kriege! [War Against War!].

This is photography as shock therapy: an album of more than one hundred and eighty photographs mostly drawn from German military and medical archives, many of which were deemed unpunishable by government censors while the war was on. The book starts with pictures of toy soldiers, toy cannons, and other delights of male children everywhere, and concludes with pictures taken in military cemeteries. Between the toys and the graves, the reader has an excruciating photo-tour of four years of ruin, slaughter, and degradation: pages of wrecked and plundered churches and castles, obliterated villages, ravaged forests, torpedoed passenger steamers, shattered vehicles, hanged conscientious objectors, half-naked prostitutes in military brothels, soldiers in death agonies after a poison-gas attack, skeletal Armenian children.

Almost all the sequences in War Against War! are difficult to look at, notably the pictures of dead soldiers belonging to the various armies putrefying in heaps on fields and roads and in the front-line trenches. But surely the most unbearable pages in this book, the whole of which was designed to horrify and demoralize, are in the section titled “The Face of War,” twenty-four close-ups of soldiers with huge facial wounds. Continue reading

The concept of the Left and the Right

A moderated panel
Platypus Review 68
July 4th, 2014

Chris Cutrone|Nikos Malliaris|Samir Gandesha

We are the 99%!

— Occupy Wall Street
(September 2011)

The Left must define itself on the level of ideas, conceding that in many instances it will find itself in the minority.

— Leszek Kolakowski
“The concept of the Left”
(November 1958)

The distinction of the Left and the Right was never clear. But following the failure of the Old Left, the relevance of these categories has increasingly ceased to be self-evident. In its place there has been a recurring declaration of the “end of ideology”; by 1960s intellectuals like Daniel Bell, 1980s postmodernists, and 1990s post-Left anarchism.

Yet in spite of the recurring death of ideology, the terms “Left” and “Right” seem to persist, albeit in a spectral manner. With the politics that attended the uprisings of 2011 — from the Arab Spring to Occupy — there seemed a sense that the left ideology has simultaneously become irrelevant and inescapable. While the call for democracy by the “99%” has its roots in the historical demands of the Left, these movements were notable to the extent that they were not led by left organizations. To many who participated in these movements, left politics seemed “purely ideological” and not a viable avenue to advance discontents. Now that this moment has passed there is a sense that the Right has prevailed, and even a sense of resignation, a sense that the Left was not really expected to be competitive.

This ambiance seems in contrast to the past. At the height of the New Left’s struggle to overcome the Old Left, the Polish Marxist Leszek Kolakowski declared that the concept of the Left “remained unclear.” In contrast to the ambivalence of the present, the act of clarifying the ambiguity of the Left seemed to have political stakes. The Left, he declared, could not be asserted by sociological divisions in society, but only by defining itself ever more precisely at the level of ideas. He was aware that the ideas generated by the Left, such as “freedom” and “equality,” could readily be appropriated by the Right, but they would only do so if they failed to be ruthlessly clarified. For Kolakowski the Old Communist Left had ceased to be Left and had become the Right precisely on the basis of its ideological inertia.

What does it mean today when the challenges to the status quo are no longer clearly identifiable as originating from the Left? While it seems implausible that Left ideology has been transcended because people still explain social currents in terms of Left and Right, there is a sense in the present that to end exploitation will demand a measure of realpolitik — a better tactical response — rather than ideological clarification. One has the uneasy feeling that existence of the Left and the right only persist by virtue of the fact the concept of the Left has somehow become settled, static, and trapped in history. But wouldn’t this be antithetical to any concept of the Left?


Preliminary remarks

Chris Cutrone:
 “The Concept of the Left” was published in English translation in 1968. Actually, the essay dates from the late fifties, and it was a response to the crackdown that came with the Khrushchev revelations. Most famously, there was an uprising in Hungary in 1956 after Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin, but in fact there were attempts at liberalization in other parts of Eastern Europe, including Poland. Kolakowski participated in that, but also suffered the consequences of the reaction against it, and that’s what prompted him to write the essay. Much later, Kolakowski became a very virulent anti-Marxist. But in the late fifties, he’s still writing within the tradition of Marxism and drawing from the history of its controversies, specifically the revisionist dispute and the split with the Second International into the Third International.

Kolakowski wrote that the Left needs to be defined at the level of ideas rather than at the level of sociological groups. In other words, Left and Right don’t correspond to “workers” and “capitalists.” Rather, the Left is defined by its vision of the future, its utopianism, whereas the Right is defined by the absence of that, by opportunism. Very succinctly, Kolakowski said, “The Right doesn’t need ideas, it only needs tactics.” So what is the status of the ideas that would define the Left?

He says that the Left is characterized by an obscure and mysterious consciousness of history. The Left is concerned with the opening and furthering of possibilities, whereas the Right is about the foreclosure of those possibilities. The consciousness of those possibilities would be the ideology of the Left. Kolakowski’s use of the term “utopia,” when he says the Left is defined by utopia, is a rather peculiar and eccentric use of the term. It’s not a definite image of the future; it’s rather a sense of possibility — a consciousness of change. This might involve certain images of the future, but it’s not defined, for Kolakowski, by those images of the future. Left and Right are relative; there’s a spectrum that goes from a sense of possibility for change and ranges off to the Right with a foreclosure of those possibilities, which is what justifies opportunism and politics of pure tactics.

Another useful category that Kolakowski introduced is “crime.” He says politics cannot be fully extricated from crime, but the Left should be willing to call crime “crime,” whereas the Right needs to pretend that crimes are exigent necessities. In other words, the Left is concerned with distinguishing between true necessities and failures to meet those necessities, which is what political crime amounts to. So Kolakowski says that the Left cannot avoid committing crimes, but it can avoid failure to recognize them as crimes. In this respect, crimes would be compromises that foreclose possibilities — political failure is a crime. This is important, again, because the context in which he was writing was Stalinism, and Khrushchev’s revelation of Stalin’s crimes. In other words, Khrushchev’s concern was, “Okay, Stalin is dead and there’s been a struggle for power in his wake. How are we going to make sense of the past twenty or thirty years of history. What were the crimes that were committed?” The crimes that were committed in this respect were crimes against the revolution — crimes against freedom, crimes against the possibility of opening further possibilities for change. In this respect, the Left is concerned with freedom, and the Right is concerned with the disenchantment of freedom — the foreclosing of possibilities for freedom. Whereas the Left must believe in freedom, the Right does not. Hannah Arendt in the 1960s in On Revolution points out how remarkable it was that the language of freedom had dropped out of the Left already at that point.

Today, one of the reasons why Platypus says, “The Left is dead! Long live the Left!” is that the concept of freedom, and therefore the concept of the Left itself, has given way rather to concerns with social justice. Social justice can’t be about freedom because justice is about restoring the status quo ante, not advancing further possibilities. While we might say there can be no freedom without justice, we can say that there can be justice without freedom. When the avowed Left concerns itself not with freedom but with justice, it ceases to be a Left. That’s because pursuing a politics of justice would stand on different justifications than pursuing a politics of freedom — in the name of justice, crimes against freedom can be committed. Continue reading

Radical chic: Avant-garde fashion design in the Soviet 1920s

In part, a response to Alana Massey

Alana Massey recently guest-wrote a short article for The New Inquiry’s beauty blog “The Beheld,” which is usually run by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano. Its title is rather excruciating: “The Party’s girls and party girls: Negotiating beauty in the Soviet Union.” Parts of it are okay, however, the insufferable puns notwithstanding.

What follows is a brief reflection on her piece and some thoughts of my own, concerning one of its major lacunae.

defrag- Varvara Stepanova's sport uniform. defrag- Varvara Stepanova's sport uniform Varvara Stepanova. Students in sports clothing designed by Stepanova. in performance of An Evening of the Book,. 1924. spelling out “intermission” 1 Varvara Stepanova. Students in sports clothing designed by Stepanova. in performance of An Evening of the Book,. 1924. spelling out “intermission”

Let’s get a few other minor quibbles out of the way before proceeding to the stronger points Massey makes, though:

  1. First, there’s this tone of casual familiarity to the whole piece that really grates on me, and I could’ve done without the self-indulgent anecdote about getting a bikini wax at Spa Jolie. Could be that I’m just old-fashioned, even slightly prudish. Don’t think so, though.
  2. Beyond that, the Tiqqunesque typologies — the Soviet woman, the post-Soviet woman — also bothered me a bit, especially considering how Slavophilic the whole story is. Massey seems not to realize that there are post-Soviet women who aren’t from Russia or Ukraine. Women from Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan often don’t have the “razor cheekbones and the permanent pout of downward-slanting lips” she describes (i.e., what Anna Khachiyan has termed “Russian cunt face,” a variant of “bitchy resting face”).

Nevertheless, all the stuff about improvisation and beauty standards, the weird tricks and techniques by which Soviet women would compensate for scarce consumer goods, seems to me fairly accurate. There were analogous methods when it came to making do with shortages of food or amenities. Some of this bricoleuse mentality is probably even pre-Soviet, as far as I can tell. For example, Louise Bryant wrote about an interaction she had with the Bolshevik revolutionary leader Aleksandra Kollontai back in 1921 as follows:

Once I complimented her [Kollontai] on a smart little fur toque she was wearing. She laughed and said, “Yes, one must learn tricks in Russia, so I have made my hat out of the tail of my coat which is already five years old.”

Most of the narrative focuses on the later decades of the Soviet Union, understandable given the average age of the subjects she interviewed. Yulia Gradskova, professor of gender history at the University of Stockholm, and Anne Marie Skvarek, a master’s student at the University of Arizona, provide some historical depth, but on the whole the story moves from the 1960s up to the USSR’s dissolution in 1991.

Vera Mukhina

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Varvara Stepanova and Liubov Popova

Reference was made in passing to official “messages” about waist-to-hip ratios passed down from the 1930s, but it seemed just leap out of the blue. Not entirely sure what she’s talking about.

It would be interesting to know what she made of the really avant-garde fashion experiments of the 1920s, however, with Varvara Stepanova’s colorful textile patterns, Liubov Popova’s sportswear, Vladimir Tatlin’s work outfits, and Vera Mukhina’s general wardrobe advice. Continue reading

1776 — revolution or counterrevolution?

Recent challenges to
the classical narrative


Anti-revisionist revisionism

Predictably, with July 4th fast approaching, a flurry of interviews and articles attacking the revolutionary credentials of the American War of Independence have come out over the last couple days. First and foremost, there’s the interview Amy Goodman and Juan González conducted with the Stalinist historian Gerald Horne on his new book The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. (Horne’s politics are more or less identical to those held by the CP-USA, that grand old bastion of anti-revisionist orthodoxy. While he voiced a few tepid criticisms of Stalin’s “excesses” in his biography of W.E.B. Dubois, Horne still saw fit to draw a moral equivalence between the Soviet premier and the American revolutionaries in a letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Stalin was no worse than the Founding Fathers.” I’m no vulgar Stalinophobe. Still, I find the comparison ridiculous.)

One of the more choice quotes from this interview, though obviated by the title of his latest release, runs as follows:

July 4th, 1776, in many ways, represents a counterrevolution. That is to say that what helped to prompt July 4th, 1776, was the perception amongst European settlers on the North American mainland that London was moving rapidly towards abolition. This perception was prompted by Somerset’s case, a case decided in London in June 1772 which seemed to suggest that abolition, which not only was going to be ratified in London itself, was going to cross the Atlantic and basically sweep through the mainland, thereby jeopardizing numerous fortunes, not only based upon slavery, but the slave trade.

Nothing really too new about this, to be honest. Arguments of this sort have been presented before, even half-jokingly caricatured, by intellectuals like Richard Seymour, who once referred to the American Revolution as “a preemptive strike against liberty.” If so many seem to hold this view, though, and certain facts seem to support it, what’s wrong with their argument?

Well, for starters, the British didn’t end up abolishing slavery outside of the colonial metropole, permitting its continuation in the colonies well into the nineteenth century. Whether or not the main impetus behind the revolt of American patriotts against the crown was based on a (mis)perception that emancipation was just around the corner is immaterial. Jefferson, Hamilton, and Jay advanced a program of radical republicanism that not only did away with monarchical rule over the thirteen colonies, but helped to usher in the French Revolution across the Atlantic. Both materially and ideologically, it so happens: materially by bankrupting the Ancien Régime  over in France, and ideologically by providing Thomas Paine’s blueprint on The Rights of Man. France also vacillated on the question of hereditary rule, incidentally, much as the United States offered Washington the throne in the 1780s. Later, the Jacobins would draw upon another revolutionary tradition, that of the England of 1648, to find precedent for their own regicide.

Ever since the New Left began its “long march through the institutions” decades ago, such counter-narratives have become commonplace within contemporary historiography. Domenico Losurdo’s long and scathing Marxist critique of liberal thought in Liberalism: A Counter-History (2011), typifies this whole approach. In an interview I conducted with him a couple years ago, Losurdo stated that “the American Revolution was, in reality, a ‘counter-revolution’…” “[I]f we consider the case of the natives or the blacks,” he continued, “their conditions became worse after the American Revolution. Of course the condition of the white community became much better. But…numerous U.S. historians…consider the American Revolution…a counter-revolution.” Gerald Horne is certainly prominent among them.

Classical Marxism and the bourgeois revolutions

Such a dismissive attitude toward the bourgeois revolutions of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries will no doubt come as a surprise to those who have any acquaintance with Marx’s high opinion of the Dutch Revolt of 1572, the English Civil War of 1648, the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, the American War of Independence of 1776, and the Great French Revolution of 1789. As Marx himself wrote to Abraham Lincoln on behalf of the First International in 1864, “[t]he workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. “

Veen01 1647 Civil War painting  Basing House

This perspective was hardly limited to Marx, either. Classical Marxism in general smiled with admiration at the history of bourgeois revolutionary struggles. Lenin, for example, asserted in his “Letter to the American Workers” that “[t]he American people…set the world an example in waging a revolutionary war against feudal slavery.”

He continued:

The history of modern, civilized America opened with one of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars of which there have been so few compared to the vast number of wars of conquest which, like the present imperialist war, were caused by squabbles among kings, landowners, or capitalists over the division of usurped lands or ill-gotten gains. That was the war the American people waged against the British robbers who oppressed America and held her in colonial slavery, in the same way as these “civilized” bloodsuckers are still oppressing and holding in colonial slavery hundreds of millions of people in India, Egypt, and all parts of the world.

Today, however, accounts like this are regularly written off as teleological, irrevocably tainted by “Whiggish optimism.” Late Stalinists and Maoist Third-Worldists Against such petty iconoclasm, James Vaughn explains:

While classical Marxism readily assumed and asserted the epochal significance of 1776, it has become necessary in the postmodern wasteland of the present to painstakingly reconstruct the historical and social imagination from which such statements sprung.

Vaughn’s outstanding essay on “1776 in World History: The American War of Independence as a Bourgeois Revolution,” provides a much-needed antidote to the debilitating disease of “history from below.” I urge everyone reading this to take a look at it.

Petty iconoclasm

Anyway, Thomas Jefferson is one of the more significant casualties of this tabloid-style exposé. Pointing out liberal hypocrisies, especially those that are several centuries old, is an exercise that’s become such a hackneyed routine by now that I’m not sure why anyone even bothers with it anymore. Everyone knows that Jefferson was a slaveholder, and that he would do business Napoleon and try to suppress the Haitian Revolution during his presidency is common knowledge also. Though the contradiction between liberty and slavery tormented him in his youth, and despite his naïve belief (shared with the other Founding Fathers) that the peculiar institution would wither away within the space of a couple generations, he clearly changed his tune later on and became an apologist for the status quo. What gives, then? Surely there’s no point defending such an obvious hypocrite.


In anticipation of Independence Day, however, and looking further down the road to Bastille Day, it behooves us to consider more carefully Jefferson’s place within the revolutionary pantheon of his time. For Jefferson not only instigated the American Revolution, after all; he was a participant in the French Revolution as well, though in the role of a diplomat and observer. And his sympathies lay with the Jacobins, which is something he makes clear in several of his letters. Continue reading

Cruising past: Moscow’s forgotten gay history

Agata Pyzik
Calvert Journal
July 17, 2013

In honor of Pride Week, which just passed here in New York, I thought I’d repost this excellent article by Agata Pyzik. Agata is a journalist who writes for the Guardian and author of the recently released Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes between East and West, which I cannot recommend highly enough. (My review of it should be published shortly; until then, check out Sebastian Truskolaski’s piece over at Review 31, which gives a great overview of the work). Though Pyzik’s article here takes the form of a review of Yevgeniy Fiks’ photo collection Moscow, it clearly is part of a broader reflection on sexual politics and the Left.

Lately, you see, I’ve been somewhat dismayed by the number of LGBT activists online who’ve expressed admiration for communist leaders like Stalin and Mao. Meanwhile, they explicitly rejecting “revisionist” or anti-Stalinist currents such as Trotskyism, revolutionary strains of anarchism, and left communism. Despite being solidly part of the leftist tradition, perhaps even its most historically significant iteration, Stalin and Mao were both cultural conservatives who passed legislation banning abortion and criminalizing homosexual intercourse. Stalin appended the law to the 1934 Soviet Criminal Code under Article 121, which stated that

…sexual relations between men are punishable by prison terms of up to five years hard labor…

Officially, homosexuality was associated with “bourgeois decadence” and immorality, and pathologized as a mental disease harmful to social morality. How any of this squares with their LGBT activism is beyond me. The RCP-USA, I know, held a similar stance until just the last decade, when it apparently underwent an “internal cultural revolution” (whatever that means). For the most part, though, I don’t even see this issue being addressed.

By contrast, the entry on homosexuality in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia just three years earlier was extremely liberal in its tolerance given the standards of the time. While its author, M. Sereinski, did consider it an “unnatural” form of attraction, he was largely sympathetic to the plight of gay men and women who were persecuted in other countries for supposed immorality. Sereinski appealed to the authority of the prominent sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, two early advocates for decriminalization. He asserted that many of history’s greatest geniuses — he names Socrates, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci — exhibited homosexual tendencies, and further lamented the fact that many attempted suicide due to the social stigma attached to it. “Soviet law does not recognize so-called crimes against morality,” he explained. “Our legislation, based on the principle of social defense, punishes only those cases in which the object of the homosexual’s sexual interest is under age.”  


Homophobia has never been in a “better” state in Russia than it is today. The horrific murder of 23-year-old Vladislav Tornovoy in Volgograd this May — he was raped with a bottle, castrated, and stoned — shook the public. But not enough, it seems: little has been done to prevent a repeat. One of the murderers admitted the reason for the killing was the “provocative” dress of the victim and his sexual orientation, which, apparently, “hurts patriotic feelings.” The authorities did have to admit it was a hate crime and to acknowledge Russia’s homophobia problem; but this is a problem that the government themselves have exacerbated with the recent introduction of a new nationwide law “against the propaganda of homosexuality.”

Russian history does not, however, present an uninterrupted line of hellish homophobia. The Bolsheviks legalized homosexuality soon after seizing power in 1917, at the same time establishing equal rights for women. And, although homosexuality was banned in the Thirties as part of Stalinist retrenchment, the Soviet landscape did accommodate spaces of social dissent and revolution in which gay men could express their sexuality together.


These spaces — the city’s hidden topography of gay life — have recently been brought to light in the work of New York-based Russian photographer Yevgeniy Fiks. A self-proclaimed “post-Soviet artist,” Fiks sees it as his duty to react against the collective amnesia surrounding the Cold War period; previously he commemorated the overlooked history of communism in New York. At first glance, Fiks’ plainly titled new book, Moscow, could be just an ordinary photo album of public places in the Russian capital: we see parks, squares, boulevards, riverside embankments and public toilets. We admire the splendid architecture of the capital, its greenery and its striking constructivist-classicist constructions and we are impressed by the care taken by the Soviet authorities to make even toilets look beautiful. The pictures emanate a sense of peace and silence. But the way in which we see the locations depicted in these photographs is transformed when we learn that each and every one of them was a Soviet cruising ground.

What we suddenly perceive in these pictures is the eye of the original viewer. Yes, there are a lot of public toilets, but we now see these facilities in a different way, as sites that enable spontaneous relations between adults. These prohibited actions had to take place in hiding, away from prying eyes; paradoxically, this was only possible in public. Fiks has ordered the photos chronologically according to the period in which certain haunts were popular, from the Twenties to the Eighties, which means here we’re looking at the complete history of Moscow cruising. But the timescale seems to leave one question unanswered, quite deliberately: what about the years after the transition from communism? Fiks’ photographs seem to distance the author from Soviet, and specifically, Stalinist, times, and to reclaim the public space for a different version of history (not one much promoted in official versions of the Soviet past) and to reclaim homosexuality from today’s horrifically homophobic climate.

As well as a sui generis chronicle, Moscow is also a specific “work of mourning,” in which pleshki — the Russian name for cottaging sites — become unorthodox repositories of collective memory, what Pierre Nora called “lieux de memoire.” Nora’s idea has been influential in Holocaust studies as a term to describe places of extermination and it is striking that the places photographed by Fiks feel completely empty and abandoned, reinforcing the sense of the disappearance and silencing of the victims of homophobia. And these places were dear to many: they acquired a private slang terminology in which the statues of Lenin and Marx that were present in every Russian city were affectionately referred to as “Auntie Lena” and “Director of the Pleshka,” both out of familiarity and as a way of queering them. To use Situationist terminology, gay men were carrying out a détournement of these areas and symbols of revolution — a sort of satirical, subversive reappropriation that demonstrated that there was no real conflict between communist ideology and alternative sexual orientations.

The current spread of far-right, homophobic sentiments cannot be overlooked and marked down as just another effect of the years of communism; instead it must be seen as part of the failed transition to capitalism. The persecution of people with alternative sexual identities must be a serious PR blow to Russian liberals who’d like to see Russia as a potential market, free from the “eastern barbarism” that this part of the world is still often associated with. If homosexuality had been banned in Soviet Russia, anti-communist liberals would have a perfect argument, linking homophobia and the Soviet past; but it wasn’t, or at least not initially. In the Bolsheviks’ original conception of communism, sexuality wasn’t there to be policed by the state; it was there to revolutionize the citizen, with love seen as a public good. Continue reading

World War I: The SPD left’s dirty secret

Benjamin Lewis
Weekly Worker 1016
June 26, 2014

The following article by Ben Lewis provides a fairly neat overview of “left” renegacy within the SPD in the run-up to, and aftermath of, Germany’s declaration of war on August 4, 1914. He challenges some of the predominant narratives of this history, especially those which trace the origins of German Social Democracy’s capitulation to the vulgar Marxism of the SPD center led by Karl Kautsky. In this respect, Lewis’ intervention may be seen as motivated by the rehabilitation of Kautsky and Kautskyism by the Canadian academic Lars Lih and the Communist Party of Great Britain. Some of the more orthodox Trotskyist sects, such as the Spartacists, have polemicized against the so-called “neo-Kautskyites” as merely recycling the Second International. For a more balanced article that is still critical of Lih and the CPGB, please see Chris Cutrone’s article on “1914 in the History of Marxism.”

Nevertheless, Lewis et al.‘s rigor in reconstructing the sequence of events and the personalities involved is to be welcomed. While Kautsky himself did not vote for war credits, as a mere consultant to the SPD delegation (he recommended abstention in this matter), he did still view the war as “German ‘self-defense’ against the Russian bear,” as Lewis put it. Only later did he and others come out in opposition to the war.

As long as there is imperialism, there will be “social”-imperialism, with sections of the “left” seeking to apologize for, downplay, or cheerlead for the actions of its own state. This article — based on continuing research and translation work with Mike Macnair 1 — will briefly outline the formation of a rather peculiar “social-imperialist” outfit within German social democracy around the publication, Die Glocke (The Bell), founded in 1915. This article draws largely on Robert Sigel’s study, Die Lensch-Cunow-Haenisch-Gruppe: eine Studie zum rechten Flügel der SPD im Ersten Weltkrieg (Berlin 1976), as well as my translation work.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_147-0978,_Reichstag,_Plenarsitzungssaal seance-reichstag-4-aout-1914

The leadership of the Social Democratic Party, of course, fell behind the kaiser’s war effort, as symbolized by the SPD parliamentary deputies voting for war credits on August 4 1914. The peculiarity of Die Glocke, however, lies in the fact that it was made up of figures who before 1914 had overwhelmingly been on the hard, anti-imperialist left of the party. Regularly working alongside several anti-imperialist icons of the workers’ movement — not least Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring, and Karl Liebknecht — lefts like Parvus (Israel Lazarevich Gelfhand, 1867-1924), Konrad Haenisch (1876-1925), Heinrich Cunow (1862-1936) and Paul Lensch (1873-1926) rapidly transformed themselves into some of the most vociferous champions of a German victory.

The fact that a grouping of this nature emerged poses various theoretical and historical questions regarding both our conceptions of anti-imperialist strategy and the history of social democracy. Additionally, many of the theoretical traps fallen into by the group concerning political democracy, the nature of war-driven nationalisations and the need to choose a side at all costs in imperialist conflicts remain a persistent problem of many sections of the left to this day.

August 4634_Die_Sozialdemokratie_und_der_Krieg copy

The dominant account is that the SPD’s ignominious capitulation to German imperialism on August 4, 1914 can largely be traced back to the Marxist center around Karl Kautsky and the non-dialectical, evolutionist and fatalist outlook for which he and his political allies were responsible. By contrast, so the story goes, the consistent struggle of Lenin and the Bolsheviks against the imperialist war either reflected the fact that they were much closer to the left of the SPD (like Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek, and others) or that with the outbreak of war the scales suddenly fell from the eyes of Lenin and co, who abruptly broke with the center’s perspectives to chart new political territory.

In light of recent research, it is clear that this account is radically false, not only when it comes to Lenin,2 but because it overlooks the fact that some of the most important figures of the pre-1914 German left came out in support of the war and German victory — and did so more aggressively than the pro-war majority of the party.

Almost all historians agree that August 4 1914 was a milestone in the history of European socialism. But was the vote, and the consequent policy of Burgfrieden (social peace), a break with or a continuation of earlier perspectives? Was it a necessary outcome of the party’s development before 1914 — in particular its approval of the government’s Military Tax Bill to enlarge the German army (1913), on the basis that this bill introduced progressive property taxation?3

In his German Social Democracy 1905-1917, Carl E Schorske argues that “the vote for the war credits on August 4, 1914 is but the logical end of a clear line of development.”4 Susann Miller,5 by contrast, accepts that reformism had come to dominate the party, but states: “the question is merely whether a reformist policy necessarily had to the lead to the decision of August 3” (when the majority of the party’s Reichstag fraction agreed on the action to be taken the following day). Could another decision have been possible? For Georges Haupt, writing in 1970, “the fiasco of 1914…still always dominates judgements and views [in relation to the Second International]. One had emphasized the significance of this “capital offense,” yet neglected a clarification of the process that led to it, thereby arriving at the false conventional posing of the question: is [August 4] based on the lack of theoretical reflection or on the thoughtless repetition of the lessons of a Marxism that had been raised to…a dogma and isolated from practice?”6

The group around Die Glocke sheds some new light on the question of how, in the words of the Austro-Marxist Friedrich Adler, “it could come to pass that this revolutionary-socialist approach, something that was stressed over and again, burst like a bubble at the moment the war broke out.”7

Parvus63297027_parvus1 (2)

Parvus is a somewhat enigmatic figure, chiefly famous on the left for his influence on Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Yet there is nothing mysterious about his theoretical commitment to the struggle against imperialism and war before 1914. He wrote a range of different publications on the world market and the main states’ colonial division of the world. His classic was Colonial Policy and the Breakdown, published in 1907 in the wake of the SPD’s unexpected defeat at the hands of a pro-colonialist political bloc in the so-called “Hottentot elections.”8 Luxemburg, Kautsky, and others drew on his theoretical output for their polemics on questions of war and peace. But on August 4 1914 Parvus advocated a German victory, albeit from abroad, and, given his importance, it is quite likely that he provided the inspiration for others to rethink their anti-war politics.

Parvus gave an interview to the Istanbul daily, Tasvir-i Efkar, which was published on August 4 1914 — not only the day of the SPD Reichstag fraction’s vote, but of the British declaration of war. It came three days after the German declaration of war on Russia, and a week after the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia. Parvus was thus very quick to make up his mind in stating his opinion on what the war means for Turkey: “The hostilities in Europe laid bare all matters of conflict. Those nations who fail to get their demands will be the prey of others. The time for talk and reasoning has passed. Now action is needed! You should heed this well.” Parvus could not be more clear: now the war had started, it was impossible to stand aside from it. Before leaving Istanbul, he also wrote for Türk Yurdu two pamphlets with the same theme: Umumî Harb Neticelerinden: Almanya Galip Gelirse (The Outcome of the General War if Germany Wins), and Umumî Harb Neticelerinden: İngiltere Galip Gelirse (The outcome of the general war if England wins). Continue reading