The mind and face of Bolshevism (1926)

You can download an illustrated full-tex
t PDF of The Mind and Face of Bolshevism by clicking on the embedded link. What follows is an introduction to it and some thoughts on an all-too-familiar claim that Marxism is merely a form of secular religion.

René Fülöp-Miller’s 1926 book, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism: An Examination of Cultural Life in the Soviet Union, offers a unique window into the profound transformations underwent during the first decade of communism in the USSR. Fülöp-Miller sets out to capture the psychology and physiognomy of the October Revolution, and largely succeeds in this task. The picture he paints of the period is unforgettable, covering a great deal of ground without boring his readers. He accomplishes this by including some of the more bizarre phenomena associated with the Bolshevik regime, its most eccentric and utopian elements. Notably, Fülöp-Miller goes over Aleksei Gastev’s Institute for Labor in Moscow, Platon Kerzhentsev’s League of Time, the militant godless movement, God-building [богостроительство], and the Commissariat of Enlightenment. But he also manages to fit in some of his own analysis, which is admittedly hit-or-miss. Upton Sinclair, whose 1927 review from New Masses follows below, is right to say that Fülöp-Miller is better at reading the surface features of Bolshevism’s “face” than he is at discerning the deeper aspects of its “mind.”

It should be stated from the outset that Fülöp-Miller was not a Bolshevik. As Bertrand Russell put it: “Fülöp-Miller is himself a socialist, but of the Western kind.” However, he was not unsympathetic to the Soviet project. Despite serious reservations about the fervor and rapidity with which the Bolsheviks were looking to implement reforms, and revolutionize everyday life, Fülöp-Miller endorsed their efforts insofar as they represented an extension of Enlightenment to the masses. Some tendentiousness can nevertheless be detected in his ham-handed dismissal of Bolshevism as a form of surrogate religion. Many have leveled this criticism, or some version of it, against Marxism as a whole. On this, a few thoughts: An overview of the major proponents of Marxism after Marx’s death in 1883 reveals that they understood themselves in terms of their “faithfulness” to the tradition first established by Marx. The various stances adopted toward this tradition were often couched in explicitly religious language: in terms like heresy, orthodoxy, schism, sectarianism, and dogmatism. Could it be that Marxism’s critics are right to say that it merely secularizes spiritual impulses?

My former mentor, Chris Cutrone, handles this charge in a characteristic manner. Rather than challenge its validity, he seeks to divest the criticism of its power by “owning it” — i.e., consciously admitting that it is in fact true. Supposedly this softens the blow, since it’s true of everyone and at least Cutrone is transparent about it. I would like to resist this gesture, as I consider it empty. He states in his otherwise brilliant critique of Badiou, “The Marxist Hypothesis”:

It is significant that they themselves sought to justify their own political thought and action in such terms — and were regarded for this by their political opponents as sectarian dogmatists, disciples of Marxism as a religion. But how did they think that they were following Marx? What are we to make of the most significant and profound political movement of the last two centuries, calling itself “Marxist,” and led by people who, in debate, never ceased to quote Marx at each other? What has been puzzled over in such disputes, and what were — and are still, potentially — the political consequences of such disagreement over the meaning of Marx?

Certainly, Marxism has been disparaged as a religion, and Marx as a prophet…Marxism cannot help today (after its failure) but become something like a religion, involving exegesis of “sacred texts,” etc.

Of course, this runs directly counter to some of the statements in the “sacred texts” Cutrone seeks to excavate. For example, Lukács in his article on “Orthodox Marxism”: “Orthodox Marxism…does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book.” A quandary, it would seem, which cannot be done away with simply by pointing to changed historical conditions. Even avowed opponents of Marxism and psychoanalysis such as Michel Foucault will these discourses against charges of crypto-religiosity: “It goes without saying that it would be completely wrong to identify [forms of knowledge like Marxism or psychoanalysis] with religion. This is meaningless and contributes nothing.” Religious analogies only go so far, anyway. Marxists today are forced to reflect on classic texts, to be sure — if they are to educate themselves at all — because there is no living practice worthy of the name that would allow theorists today to build upon the insights of the past. Without such a practice, the best Marxists can do is look back upon works written at a time when communism as a “real movement” had not yet ground to a halt.

Beyond superficial similarities, however, this has nothing in common with patristics. This does not prevent the charge from being periodically recycled. Chris Taylor of the blog Of CLR James has had occasion to mock my “hot combo of flat-materialist anti-clericalism and religiously inflected hermeneutical/exegetical approach to Marxist-Leninist holy writ.” My only reply would be that it is quite all right to disagree with Marx, Lenin, or any other figure from the history of Marxism. In doing so, though, one should be quite clear how and why one is departing from Marx’s (or Lenin’s, or anyone else’s) conclusions. None of them were infallible figures, but as Marxists and followers of Lenin or whoever they ought to be taken seriously. Such was Walter Benjamin’s attitude toward the claim made by Fülöp-Miller in The Mind and Face of Bolshevism, as expressed in a 1927 letter written to Kracauer. He recommended the book but disagreed sharply with its portrayal of Bolshevism as a form of religious sectarianism. Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge also rely heavily on the book in their own work on the Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere (1972).

Upton Sinclair’s review appears below. His points about Bolshevism being a positive outcome of Western civilization and about collective freedom being the key to unlock individual freedom are as relevant today as ever. Enjoy.

Cover of New Masses, November 1927

Review of The Mind and Face of Bolshevism, by René Fülöp-Miller

Upton Sinclair
The New Masses
November 1927

There comes in my mail a large and costly volume from England, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism, by René Fülöp-Miller. Inside I find a card, informing me that the book is sent with the author’s compliments, and giving me his address in Vienna — which I understand to mean that he wishes me to tell him what I think of his book. So I send him what as children we used to call “my private opinion publicly expressed.”

Mr. Fülöp-Miller has visited Soviet Russia for a long time, and collected a mass of information, and presented it accurately, with many illustrations, and not too much prejudice; so he gives us the face of Bolshevism very acceptably. But when he comes to interpret the mind of Bolshevism, his class prejudices inevitably get in the way, and he misses the point completely.

I, who have never been to Soviet Russia, but who have managed to free myself from class prejudices, venture to tell Mr. Fülöp-Miller a few things about the mind of Bolshevism, as follows:

  1. Bolshevism is neither incompatible with nor destructive of Western civilization. It is a product and evolution of Western civilization.
  2. Bolshevism’s setting up and glorifying of the masses is not a denial and destruction of individuality, but an effort to make individuality possible to those persons who have hitherto been denied it. Mr. Fülöp-Miller’s class prejudice is manifested in the fact that the beginnings of individuality in a hundred million peasants and workers mean so little to him, in comparison with the limitations of individuality in the case of a million or so aristocrats and intellectuals. Under Russian Tsarism all individuality was denied to the workers and peasants; and the gentlemen who wrote large and costly books were as a rule quite untroubled by this fact. The same condition prevails now to a great extent in Austria, where Mr. Fülöp-Miller’s book was written, and in England where it is published, and in America, where I am reviewing it; and for the most part the intellectual class remains quite untroubled.
  3. If the masses are to have individuality, they must first gain political and economic power; and to get that, and hold it, they must have solidarity and discipline. That means temporarily a certain amount of surrender of individuality — as when men enlist in an army to fight for a cause. In the late unhappy disagreement among the capitalist masters of the world, some twenty or thirty million men were forced to enter armies and risk agony and death; but this loss of individuality did not as a rule trouble the gentlemen who wrote large and costly books, whether in Russia, Austria, England, or America.
  4. It is quite true that Bolshevism represses its internal enemies. Mr. Fülöp-Miller tells us at some length how it does this, and he is much distressed thereby. But reading his book I found myself desiring to ask him this one simple question: what does he think would happen to Bolshevism if it let its internal enemies alone? What would happen to any state which suddenly declared complete freedom of conspiracy and assassination? Will Mr. Fülöp-Miller tell us in another volume what did happen to Bolshevism in Hungary, where it failed to be stern enough? Will he write a book telling us about the White Terror in Finland, and Poland, and Romania, and Hungary — yes, and Austria, and England, and Boston? Will he give us the best estimate he can make as to the number of lives taken by the “reds” in Finland, and then by the “whites” when they came back into power?
  5. In short, what I want Mr. Fülöp-Miller to do is to write me another volume, equally large and costly, entitled, The Mind and Face of Fascism. Now that I have been told about the “G.P.U.” in Russia, I surely ought to be told about Mannerheim and Petlura, and Denekin and Kolchak and Judenich and Horthy; yes, and about the Hakenkreutzler and their murders in Austria, and about the New Fascist organizations in England, and about the American Legion, and the Centralia massacre, and the “deportations of delirium” and the Sacco-Vanzetti case — If my Austrian confrere will prepare such a book, he won’t have to send it to me free — I will agree to pay the full retail price, and tell him of some other persons who will do the same. But I fear that, in spite of such inducements, the book will never be published by the patriotic Major Putnam!

Upton Sinclair

Further impressions of the book

I include these further impressions of Fülöp-Miller’s The Mind and Face of Bolshevism to give some idea of the book’s wide-ranging influence. Readers will see that a whole host of major thinkers across the political spectrum — from reactionaries like Oswald Spengler, Nikolai Berdiaev, or Desmond MacCarthy, to liberals like Benedetto Croce, Sigmund Freud, or Stefan Zweig, and finally to progressives like Thomas Mann, Bertrand Russell, or H.G. Wells — were impressed by its contents.

You can also download some short stories he wrote entitled The Silver Bacchanal (1960) and his comparative study of Lenin and Gandhi (1927).

Nikolai Berdiaev:
It is the best and most profound book on Bolshevism which has hitherto appeared outside of Russia. Fülöp-Miller’s examination is very objective and many-sided.

Benedetto Croce: …Whoever wishes to form a picture of the mechanization of life conjured up in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, should read this work by René Fülöp-Miller.

Rudolf Eucken: It is an extraordinary, important, and valuable work. The most significant thing is the tact with which a difficult task is approached; the reader is not forced to accept a ready-made opinion, but his judgment grows out of the immediate facts and therefore carries its own convincing weight. It is to be hoped that this magnificent work will find a widespread recognition and that in the name of the truth, it will do its good work.

Sigmund Freud: I read [Fülöp-Miller’s book] with the greatest pleasure and interest. The significance of its contents, the finish and clarity of its treatment, have brought it to pass that I have read it, as in the old days I used to do, almost in one breath.

Maximilian Harden: I have read your beautiful work, in its fine binding, from cover to cover, with the most intense interest, which never lagged. It is the sincere work of an uncommonly gifted man, who loves the truth and who knows how, in the white-heat of creation, to be guided by vision.

Sven Hedin: I admire the author who succeeded in creating this beautiful and magnificent work.

Hermann Hesse: …In my opinion, Fülöp-Miller’s book…is of chief value…and a great value that is…in the act of compilation itself, in placing before our eyes original material which has been unknown hitherto; and in the objective treatment which he has given it. The reader is not being suggested with a previously determined picture, but is given the opportunity to examine and judge for himself…

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: It is the first time, as far as I know, that this phenomenon has been appreciated from a mental and spiritual point of view as the adversary of the spirit. I hope and wish that your work may exercise a very widespread influence, and that for countless people, as for me, the Mind and Face of Bolshevism will be revealed to the inner vision.

John Haynes Holmes: It strikes me as a perfectly marvelous piece of work — a masterpiece of its kind. He has not only dealt with a great theme greatly, but has handled material which, so far as I know, is not otherwise available. He has gone a long way toward getting to the very heart of the greatest event of our time.

Dean Inge: The great work of Fülöp-Miller completes the picture drawn by Makeev and O’Hara, Osendovskii, Sarolea, and several others who know Russia from the inside. Fülöp-Miller’s book is the most instructive of all that have appeared, because he was really allowed to see all that he wished to see, and because he is not antirevolutionary…The author argues very convincingly that Bolshevism is religion, though a religion of Antichrist…Meanwhile, Fülöp-Miller’s book should be kept. It is a unique document for all who wish to study a neglected subject, the symptoms of collective mania, the fever of revolutionary epidemics.

Count Hermann Keyserling: This book is a monumental literary photograph of present-day Russia.

Selma Lagerlof: No book on Russian Bolshevism which I have read hitherto, has shown me so clearly how Bolshevism has endeavored to put its stamp on every aspect of social life. No book has explained so clearly what the pioneers of the new movement were fighting for. And therefor I owe the author true admiration and gratitude.

Emil Ludwig: It has long been necessary to attempt an unbiased interpretation of the New Russia, and Fülöp-Miller seems to me to have succeeded in this, although I am not always in agreement with his critical conclusions. After having stayed in Russia three months, however, I have recaptured much of that which stimulated and impressed me there, and have learned still more, from the reading and studying of this imposing work. It seems to me very well calculated to clarify European mistakes on this subject.

Desmond MacCarthy: From time to time a book gets written which, at any rate, seems to make contemporary events comprehensible. This may be said of…The Mind and Face of Bolshevism…It will make the Revolution more comprehensible, the effect will be to deepen the conviction that Bolshevism is the enemy of civilization…It is always good to understand one’s enemy: that is why I have chosen this book for comment.

Julius Maier-Graefe: The Mind and Face of Bolshevism is an absolutely phenomenal work.

Thomas Mann: Your work is an invaluable acquisition. It is the first great literary opportunity to make the acquaintance of Bolshevism in its whole material and spiritual implications, and to form an opinion of it.

Karin Michaelis: I should like to advise every workingman to save his pennies in order to buy this book. I consider it just as essential to the socially conscious and interested man, as the cook-book to the housewife…This book is true and clear and proud…Its shield is justice and its aim is truth…The love of human justice evidenced by the author makes the reading of this book a high and rare pleasure.

H.W. Nevinson: The wisest and fullest book I have read upon Russian thought and social conditions.

Eugen Rákosi: …Fülöp-Miller sees…with clear eyes, free of every prejudice, and recognizing the essential behind every appearance. He weighs and narrates in such interesting fashion, with such a wealth of knowledge, that we resign ourselves gladly to his guidance — Even with all the scientific works already produced on the subject, it would be impossible to really understand Russia without this contribution by René Fülöp-Miller.

Bertrand Russell: The peculiarity and at the same time the merit of this book is that it treats Bolshevism, not from the standpoint of politics or economics, but in its wider aspect, as a new way of life or a new religion. There is the most praiseworthy attempt at objectivity, and the information in the book is exceedingly interesting…There are remarkable quotations showing the intense admiration for America.
……Dr. Fülöp-Miller is himself a Socialist, but of the western kind. He expresses a view which is exactly that of the present reviewer when he says: “Once the Russians, with their religious fanaticism, had adopted the principle” of impersonality and mechanization, it followed naturally that they found religious ideas and dogmas in everything which, like organization and technique, was allied with collectivist evolution. For in Russia all this was received by the wrong organ of perception: not in the spirit of scientific conviction, but as the expression of religious feeling. Thus the elements of Marxism went astray, and landed in the wrong chamber of the Russian consciousness, in the ‘icon corner’ of his pious heart-brain…The ‘imitation of the machine’ was soon elevated to a religious need, like the ‘imitation of Christ’ of old.”
……The art of Bolshevism is more fully treated than in any other work I know of, and the material is set out so that the reader who disagrees with the author’s verdict can find the data for his disagreement…

Philip Scheidemann (former chancellor of the German Republic): One of the most valuable political books which has appeared in a long time. Quite apart from my personal opinion with regard to some details, I am perfectly willing to confess that here is a work which no one can pass by who truly wishes to study Bolshevik Russia.

Oswald Spengler: As far as my knowledge of the literature on present-day Russia goes, I know of no book which leaves such a convincing and devastating impression. I should be very happy to know that it has found a wide reception.

Wickham Steed: This is what has happened in Russia; and at this point Mr. Fülöp-Miller’s mighty volume comes in as a valuable analysis and record.

Jakob Wassermann: In its totality, it conveys an impression of stifling violence. In the midst of the general turmoil of opinions, judgments, hopes, fears, defeats, promises, political machinations and ideas of rejuvenation, for the undecided European there is scarcely any more instructive reading than this book. It opens up the view of an immensely strange and dangerous world, with implications which are certainly still in their beginnings.

H.G. Wells: This book is of the most extraordinary thoroughness and is to be considered among the most important products of recent German literature. I have read it with keen interest and find it illuminating and well done.

Franz Werfel: It has made a very powerful and soul-stirring impression on me. For several days I have been quite overcome by this sincere and painstaking interpretation, which is by far the most convincing and annihilating of anything which I have read about the New Russia. I must express my admiration of the author for his honest and vivid work.

Stefan Zweig: It is really an extraordinary achievement. For the first time, I have received a true insight into the spiritual organization of that world which has; been absolutely cut off from us In particular, its freedom from prejudice and its absolutely poised viewpoint, makes it a really instructive document for us all. I admire the energy which has understood so well how to reconstruct such an enormous material architectonically, and rejoice to see that such a work has turned out so successfully.

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