On the Venezuelan crisis

With the global fall in oil prices, Venezuela’s fifteen-year experiment in “petrol populism” seems to be winding to a close. Either the regime will collapse in short order, or it will maintain itself through increasingly bloody and repressive measures, as Maduro’s claim to represent the interests of the people grows even more tenuous. George Ciccariello-Maher, a seasoned apologist of Chavismo in the United States, writes in an article for Jacobin that the “enemies” are the ones who are out there “in the streets, burning and looting.” Socialists, he contends, should be supporting the recent state crackdown on the protestors, which has already left 130 or so dead.

Pavel Minorski, a Croatian left communist and trustworthy comrade, comments that “[Ciccariello-Maher’s latest piece] is basic leftism. There is good capitalism and bad capitalism. Good capitalism is run by The People, bad capitalism by (((the elite))). Eventually, of course, people will revolt against good capitalism. But don’t worry, those aren’t The People. They’re malicious, deluded, or both. Here’s how national developmentalism can still win!” For anyone interested, “Dialectics and Difference: Against the ‘Decolonial Turn’,” my polemic against Decolonizing Dialectics by Ciccariello-Maher just came out, and can be read over at the Insurgent Notes website.

Michael Roberts’ analysis of “The Venezuelan Tragedy” paints a much bleaker picture. The numbers are just brutal. “Income poverty,” observes Roberts, “increased from 48% in 2014 to 82% in 2016, according to a survey conducted by Venezuela’s three most prestigious universities.” Chávez, like every other leader who came before him, was content to rake in profits when times were good, i.e. when the price of oil was high, funding ambitious social programs with the profits as part of his wedge electoral strategy. He didn’t bother trying to diversify the country’s production, so when its sole export monocommodity plummeted in value, the whole country went tits up.

Sergio López of Kosmoprolet saw this coming as early as 2009. “21st-century socialism? Charitable kleptocracy! A kleptocracy, indeed, which is steering the country to its next economic and social crisis.” López noted then, at the pinnacle of Chavismo, the popularity of slogans such as “Chávez is the People!” and “President Chávez is a tool of God!” “Postmodern Bonapartism,” as Marco Torres dubbed Bolivarianism in a 2010 piece, is “a bricolage of thirties vintage pop-frontism together with nineties antiglobalization, molded upon sixties developmentalist Third Worldism.” Continue reading

The works of Henri Lefebvre

Henri Lefebvre’s work spans a variety of disciplines and fields, ranging from philosophy and sociology to architecture and urbanism. Obviously, this relates to a number of the themes discussed on this blog. A past entry featured Alfred Schmidt’s laudatory essay dedicated to Lefebvre, which I urge everyone to read. Roland Barthes, in his Mythologies, defended his contemporary against “criticism blind and dumb” in the press: “You don’t explain philosophers, but they explain you. You have no desire to understand that play by the Marxist Lefebvre, but you can be sure that the Marxist Lefebvre understands your incomprehension perfectly, and above all that he understands (for I myself suspect you to be more subtle than stupid) the delightfully ‘harmless’ confession you make of it.”

Lefebvre blazed a path, moreover, in the theoretical inquiry into “everyday life,” taking up a thread from the early Soviet discourse on the transformation of “everyday life” [быт] and Marx’s musings on “practical everyday life” [praktischen Werkeltagslebens]. Trotsky had authored a book on the subject in the 1920s, under the title Problems of Everyday Life, and the three-volume Critique of Everyday Life by Lefebvre, released over the course of four decades (1946, 1961, and 1981), can be seen as an elaboration of its themes. Eventually, inspired by this series, the Situationist upstar Raoul Vaneigem would publish The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967), while the Catholic theorist Michel de Certeau released two volumes of The Practice of Everyday Life (1976, 1980).

Russell Jacoby passingly remarked in his excellent Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism (1981) that “Lefebvre’s career in France recapitulates the general development of Western Marxism.” He continued: “Lefebvre left the French Communist party only after 1956, but his earlier activities and writings betrayed a commitment to unorthodox Marxism. He belonged to a group called ‘Philosophies,’ which briefly (1925-1926) formed an alliance with the surrealists. With Norbert Guterman he translated Hegel, Lenin’s Hegel notebooks, and early Marx. He also wrote with Guterman a book that represented a high point of French Western Marxism in this earlier period, La Conscience mystifiée. Published in 1936, the title itself hints of History and Class Consciousness… rewritten in the context of the struggle against fascism.” Continue reading

Red dwarf

My friend has started a weblog under the title Cold and Dark Stars. He actually treats it more like a blog than I do with The Charnel-House, which often just features reposted articles or else functions as an all-purpose image and long-form essay dump. The entries on Cold and Dark Stars are, by contrast, relatively short and easily digestible reflections on topics like love, science, and the indifference of global economy to local ventures like chicken farms and other small-scale projects.

In terms of the blog’s style, what I appreciate the most about it is its directness and lack of any pretense. Politically, I find its commitment to internationalism admirable. You can check out a few representative posts linked below, along with some choice quotes:

  1. Global economy doesn’t care about your local chicken farm: “If capitalists have global political projects, such as the ones dictated by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, why can’t leftists have their own global political programs? Why is it so hard to imagine a global movement, for example, that lays the foundations for a world, socialist republic?”
  2. White supremacy can only be fought through internationalism: “Today, a shock in the housing market of the United States is felt in the value of tortillas in Mexico. The development of new technology to extract oil from shale trickles down to the price of a tractor bought by a farmer in Zimbabwe. Yet the Left does not have a vision of emancipation through a global, political structure that can mold the course of the global economy. For a long time, activists, militants and theorists thought that the first step for the liberation of people of color was through the increase of legal sovereignty within a specific geographic zone — from the autonomy in first nation reserves in Canada, to the sovereignty of the former colonies in Africa.”
  3. The productive human cannot love: “Interpersonal relations are eroded by the imperatives of optimization; there is nothing more infernal than the dating market of thirty-something professionals. Future partners are judged for their potential as mortgage companions, where the tension between how interesting their personality is versus the respectability of their career plays out. Everyone wants to date the good-looking engineer who’s also a musician. Yet optimized society selects some traits against the others — a person that spent all their bandwidth grinding through the math homework, job searching, and acquiring the right work experience for a fruitful career, will have no energy left to cultivate a deep taste in music, art, or literature.”

Enjoy.

Theories of the young Marx

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Wer die Ju­gend hat, hat die Zukun­ft.

— Karl Lieb­knecht

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In a civil­iz­a­tion that’s grown old, ours is a cul­ture that prizes youth. No longer as pres­age to a ra­di­ant fu­ture, but part of a per­man­ent present. Philo­sophy paints its gray on gray onto the pages of Teen Vogue, the Ar­ab Spring fol­lowed by an Is­lam­ist Winter. From Young Thug to la jeune-fille — to the fa­mil­i­ar re­frain of “I like their early stuff bet­ter” — all beauty is fleet­ing, as the pro­verb goes. A sea­son or so later, it loses its luster. Ef­forts at re­in­ven­tion or renov­a­tion more of­ten than not end up a laugh­ing stock. Worse yet: ig­nored. Mod­ern­ity thrives off the eph­em­er­al, Baudelaire no­ticed long ago, to the point that an en­tire style took youth as its theme. “Ju­gend­stil is a de­clar­a­tion of per­man­ent pu­berty,” ob­served Ad­orno, “a uto­pia that barters off its own un­real­iz­ab­il­ity… Hatred of the new ori­gin­ates in a con­cealed ten­et of bour­geois on­to­logy: that the tran­si­ent should be tran­si­ent, that death should have the last word.”

Raoul Peck’s film Der junge Karl Marx premiered last month in Ber­lin. It’s his second ma­jor re­lease already this year, the first be­ing I am Not Your Negro, a doc­u­ment­ary based on the life of the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an writer James Bald­win. Though it was nom­in­ated for an academy award, the Haitian film­maker’s ef­fort ul­ti­mately lost out to the five-part ES­PN epic OJ Simpson: Made in Amer­ica. Most of the Marx biop­ic was shot in Bel­gi­um back in 2015. While I’m al­ways wary of sil­ver screen por­tray­als of great his­tor­ic­al fig­ures, I per­son­ally can’t wait to see it. As a way of cel­eb­rat­ing its de­but, then, I’m post­ing sev­er­al ma­jor art­icles and es­says on the theme of the “young” Marx. Usu­ally, the young­er Marx is con­tras­ted with or coun­ter­posed to the older Marx, al­though the dates as­signed to each phase is a mat­ter of some con­tro­versy among schol­ars. If you don’t be­lieve me, just glance at the fol­low­ing pieces to get a sense of the wide range of opin­ions:

  1. Erich Fromm, “The Con­tinu­ity in Marx’s Thought” (1961)
  2. Gajo Petrović, “The ‘Young’ and the ‘Old’ Marx” (1964)
  3. Louis Althusser, “On The Young Marx (1960) and “The Evol­u­tion of the ‘Young’ Marx” (1974)
  4. Ir­ing Fetscher, “The Young and the Old Marx” (1970)
  5. István Mészáros, “The Con­tro­versy about Marx” (1970)
  6. Paul Mat­tick, “Re­view of Marx Be­fore Marx­ism (1971)
  7. Lu­cio Col­letti, In­tro­duc­tion to The Early Writ­ings of Karl Marx (1973)
  8. Michel Henry, “The Hu­man­ism of the Young Marx” (1976)

Continue reading

Jan Tschichold and the new typography

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Like many of his con­tem­por­ar­ies, Jan Tschich­old ad­hered to a kind of “apolit­ic­al so­cial­ism” dur­ing the 1920s. Wal­ter Gropi­us, Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe, and nu­mer­ous oth­ers shared this out­look. He helped design books for the left-wing “Book Circle” series from 1924 to 1926. Tschich­old quoted Trot­sky’s Lit­er­at­ure and Re­volu­tion (1924) with ap­prov­al in the in­aug­ur­al is­sue of Ty­po­graph­is­che Mit­teilun­gen, pub­lished that same year:

The wall di­vid­ing art and in­dustry will come down. The great style of the fu­ture will not dec­or­ate, it will or­gan­ize. It would be wrong to think this means the de­struc­tion of art, as giv­ing way to tech­no­logy.

Dav­id Crow­ley and Paul Job­ling sug­gest that “Tschich­old had been so en­am­ored of the So­viet Uni­on that he had signed his works ‘Iwan [Ivan] Tschich­old’ for a peri­od in the 1920s, and worked for Ger­man trade uni­ons.” Some of this en­thu­si­asm was doubt­less the res­ult of his con­tact with El Lis­sitzky and his Hun­gari­an dis­ciple László Mo­holy-Nagy, a le­gend in his own right.

In 1927, a pen man­u­fac­turer ac­cused Tschich­old of be­ing a com­mun­ist, which promp­ted fel­low ty­po­graph­er Stan­ley Mor­is­on to rise to his de­fense. From that point for­ward, his work be­came even less overtly polit­ic­al.

jan-tschichold-sonderheft-typographische-mitteilungen-1925

Yet he re­mained cog­niz­ant of the re­volu­tion­ary ori­gins of mod­ern or­tho­graphy. “At the same time that he was pro­mul­gat­ing the de­pol­it­i­cized func­tion­al­ism of the New Ty­po­graphy,” writes Steph­en Eskilson. “Tschich­old still re­cog­nized his debt to Con­struct­iv­ism’s Rus­si­an, com­mun­ist roots.” Chris­toph­er Burke thus also writes in his study of Act­ive Lit­er­at­ure: Jan Tschich­old and the New Ty­po­graphy that

Tschich­old’s com­pil­a­tion con­tains the Con­struct­iv­ists’ Pro­gram in an ed­ited and abridged — one might even say adul­ter­ated — Ger­man ver­sion ad­ap­ted by Tschich­old him­self. The Marx­ist-Len­in­ist rhet­or­ic of the ori­gin­al is sig­ni­fic­antly toned down: for ex­ample, the pro­clam­a­tion in the ori­gin­al that reads “Our sole ideo­logy is sci­entif­ic com­mun­ism based on the the­ory of his­tor­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism: loses its ref­er­ence to sci­entif­ic com­mun­ism in Tschich­old’s ver­sion. He was ob­vi­ously tail­or­ing the text for his read­er­ship in Ger­many, where the Novem­ber Re­volu­tion im­me­di­ately after the First World War had been ruth­lessly sup­pressed. The Ger­man Com­mun­ist Party lead­ers, Karl Lieb­knecht and Rosa Lux­em­burg, were murdered in cold blood on 15 Janu­ary 1919 by right-wing, coun­ter­re­volu­tion­ary troops with the ta­cit ac­cept­ance of the So­cial Demo­crat gov­ern­ment of the Wei­mar Re­pub­lic it­self.

Tschich­old him­self called for an ob­ject­ive, im­per­son­al, col­lect­ive work destined for all, es­pous­ing a vaguely left-wing but not overtly com­mun­ist point of view com­mon to many state­ments from this peri­od of In­ter­na­tion­al Con­struct­iv­ism in Ger­many. Des­pite quot­ing Trot­sky in Ele­ment­are Ty­po­graph­ie, Tschich­old did not be­long to the Ger­man Com­mun­ist Party, nor was he as­so­ci­ated with any par­tic­u­lar “-ism” or group, apart from the Ring neue Wer­begestal­ter later in the 1920s and 1930s, which had no polit­ic­al di­men­sion.

Re­gard­less, the Nazis sus­pec­ted Tschich­old of har­bor­ing com­mun­ist sym­path­ies. Continue reading

Meaningless gibberish and decoloniality

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“Radical universal decolonial

anticapitalist diversality,”
and other adventures in
academic mumbo-jumbo
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Been reading various exponents of so-called “decolonial” theory of late — Enrique Dussel, Walter Mignolo, Anibal Quijano, and Ramón Grosfoguel, etc. So-called because its parameters are somewhat unclear. As far as I can tell, it didn’t really crystallize as a distinct discourse until the 1970s or 1980s. Even then, it wasn’t named as such. Only in the late 1990s and early 2000s did this designation emerge, promoted principally by scholars of Latin America. It was then retroactively applied to figures like Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, who are today treated almost as decolonial theorists avant la lettre. Personally, this seems a rather sneaky operation. Césaire and Fanon weren’t academics, to begin with, and understood their own work as part of a project to literally decolonize the remaining colonies of European empires. That is to say, in other words, the removal of all colonial administration and oversight, withdrawal of colonial armies, usually within some sort of national liberation and self-determination framework.

Here a few distinctions might help to clear up the confusion. First of all, the distinction between “decoloniality” and “decolonization.” Decoloniality doesn’t refer to colonialism per se, but to a peculiar postcolonial condition dubbed “coloniality.” Quijano has theorized this in terms of “the coloniality of power”: “Coloniality of power is thus based upon ‘racial’ social classification of the world population under Eurocentered world power. Eurocentric coloniality of power has proved longer lasting than Eurocentric colonialism. Without it, the history of capitalism in Latin America and other related places in the world can hardly be explained…” Nelson Maldonado-Torres also riffs on this theme, only he ontologizes it, invoking Heidegger even as he criticizes the Nazi philosopher’s “forgetfulness” of “the coloniality of being”:

Coloniality is different from colonialism. While colonialism denotes a political and economic relation in which the sovereignty of a people rests on the power of another nation, making such nation an empire, coloniality instead refers to longstanding patterns of power which emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labor, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations. Thus does coloniality survive colonialism. It is maintained alive in books, in criteria for academic performance, in cultural patterns, common sense, the self-image of peoples, aspirations of self, and so many other aspects of our modern experience. As modern subjects we breath coloniality all the time and everyday.

Coloniality is not simply the aftermath or the residual form of any given form of colonial relation. Coloniality emerges in a particular sociohistorical setting, that of the discovery and conquest of the Americas. For it was in the context of this massive colonial enterprise — the most widespread and ambitious yet in the history of humankind — that capitalism, i.e., an already existing form of economic relation, became tied to forms of domination and subordination that would be central to maintaining colonial control first in the Americas, and then elsewhere. Coloniality refers, first and foremost, to the two axes of power that became operative and defined the spatiotemporal matrix of what was called at the time America.

This rhetorical sleight of hand solves a number of tricky problems for decolonial theorists. Latin America was already decolonized, by the end of the nineteenth century at the latest. Spain underwent a series of revolutions during that time that made it far too unstable to maintain substantial overseas holdings. Mexico enjoyed several decades of autonomy, losing a bit of territory to the United States before being invaded by Louis Napeolon’s France. But that lasted only six years, between 1861 and 1867. A few Antillean islands changed hands with the Spanish-American War, and Europe along with the US have consistently meddled in the domestic affairs of Central and South American countries since then (e.g., Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile, the Falklands War in 1982), but that’s more or less been the situation. Continue reading

Anti-Bolshevik propaganda posters: Metal as fvkk

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Recently, I was contacted by a fellow named Harry K. Wärts via The Charnel-House’s Facebook page. Admittedly, I don’t check the messages I receive there too often. Nevertheless, this caught me a bit off-guard:

Hey, I’m in the Swedish death metal band Gravebomb. We’re great, and also eager for exposure. I really like your blog, so I think it’d be great if we could do a share-for-share thingy. Both as a way to turn on death metal fans to communist theory (as it is the musical equivalent or expression of a “ruthless criticism of everything existing” [Marx]) and as a way to get revolutionary communists into death metal and our band in particular. Don’t know if you like the idea, but I think it would be pretty edgy.

You can check out our album Rot in Putrid Filth on Spotify to see if it’s for you.

Since I didn’t get back to Wärts in a timely fashion, he wrote me another note: “Why will you not respond to our calls for solidarity in propaganda?”

Obviously this was something I needed to do. Can’t just leave a comrade hanging.

Initially I was skeptical. Most of the metal coming out of Europe, especially the Nordic countries, is intensely reactionary — fascist, even. Plus, I’m not even much of a metal fan these days, though I was back in high school.

Acquaintances on social media urged me to do so, however, “for the love of all that’s unholy.” Fuck it, I thought to myself. Hence the present post.

Glancing at the track list, we find song titles like “Killing Apex,” “Hack the Heads off the Preachers,” “Funeralizer, and “Parasite Spawn.” Sound revolutionary to me. Regardless, I’m not going to listen through their entire catalogue and scrutinize their lyrics to make sure they convey a communist message or ruthless critique. Not like communists censor music, after all… Oh wait

To accompany this music, I’m posting a series of anti-Bolshevik artwork that can only be described as “metal as fvkk.” Early anti-Bolshevik agitprop posters — from roughly 1905 up through the end of the 1940s, but especially 1917-1939 — make up some of the best adverts for Bolshevism. Despite their explicit intention to frighten people with the specter of communism, or dissuade them from joining it, these posters fucking rule. Who wouldn’t want to be an undead skeleton commie killing fascists?

Kvltvrbolschewismvs? Underground black metal enthusiasts should at least appreciate the images of communists burning churches.

Bloody Sunday 1905 GvjdoTA Die Gefahr des Bolschewismus [The Danger of Bolshevism] com_8_MGzoom e545a3d724c179b4624cb41755e6a8d7 focus-400-grande1 - frame2Art.IWM PST 13079 plakat_antisov23 plakat_antisov24 Die Heimat ist in Gefahr 2 Schließt Euch fest zusammen gegen Spartacus (…) Continue reading

Brexit stage Left? Or maybe better not at all

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The amount of leftist posturing around the issue of Brexit exists in inverse proportion to the actual potential of the situation, which as everyone knows is zilch. It reflects the flailing impotence of the contemporary Left and the total absence of a viable proletarian or internationalist alternative. Neither the vote to leave nor the vote to remain is radical in the least.

Several months ago, in their official statement on the matter, the Communist Party of Great Britain therefore observed: “Cameron’s referendum is a cynical maneuver that pits reactionaries against other reactionaries… Likewise, the ‘out’ campaign is dominated by noxious chauvinism, [aiming to replace] ‘Fortress Europe’ with the stronger ‘Fortress Britain’.” From Cardiff a voice justly proclaims a pox upon both Britannia and Europa, advising abstention from this plebiscitary farce.

Yet even the call for communists to abstain feels like something of an empty gesture given the current context. Mike Macnair, one of the authors of the aforementioned statement, has basically said as much. “Boycotting the vote is what I am arguing for,” explained Macnair at a panel organized by Platypus in London. “Had we more forces, I’d argue not merely for a boycott but to disrupt this vote as a sham, a fraud, and an anti-democratic initiative.”

Amidst the cacophony and confusion a quote from Lev Trotsky has resurfaced, which echoes uncannily across the ages and seems to speak to the present dilemma. While the constellation of forces is no doubt quite different, and Marxists should refrain from drawing hasty historic parallels, the quote is nevertheless well suited to the task of trolling left Brexiteers — for example the Swappers (slang for members of the British Socialist Workers Party), as well as the independent Trot septuagenarian Tariq Ali:

If the capitalist states of Europe succeeded in merging into an imperialist trust, this would be a step forward as compared with the existing situation, for it would first of all create a unified, all-European material base for the working class movement. The proletariat would in this case have to fight not for the return to “autonomous” national states, but for the conversion of the imperialist state trust into a European Republican Federation.

Meanwhile, Sp!ked has been running a public campaign in support of the Brexit. The whole thing has been an embarrassment, painful to watch, with Neil Davenport holding fast to a naïve majoritarian model of democracy. “Particular people seem not to trust ordinary people to vote the right way in an election. So how would they feel about them taking over the means of production?” As if this were not simply repeating the same populist platitudes always inimical to revolutionary Marxism. Continue reading

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.

Riazanov.jpg

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

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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