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Je suis Bezbozhnik

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Just over a week ago, I published a series of antireligious images from the early Bolshevik journal Bezbozhnik u stanka along with an article by Leon Trotsky from 1925 on the subject of atheistic propaganda. In it, he praised “the satirical journal Godless, where there are a great many cartoons, sometimes quite effective ones, by some of our best cartoonists…Issue after issue one finds in its pages an ongoing, tireless duel being conducted with Jehovah, Christ, and Allah, hand-to-hand combat between the talented artist [Dmitrii] Moor and God. Of course, we are to a man on Moor’s side completely.” Many of the images are every bit as offensive as the ones printed by the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo, the offices of which were recently the target of a brutal assault by reactionary Islamists. Eleven were killed that day, executioner-style. Several hostages at a printing house and a kosher market in Paris were murdered along with the gunmen in the standoff a few days later.

There was obviously no way of knowing this tragedy would take place when I uploaded the aforementioned post. Like everyone else, I followed the drama that unfolded and watched with dismay the flailing attempts by various leftists to spin the story to fit their own preexisting narratives. Richard Seymour’s article over at Jacobin, which largely framed subsequent debate, was exemplary in this respect. While he condemned violence against civilians, he nevertheless felt it necessary to add that “there’s a critical difference between solidarity with the journalists who were attacked, refusing to concede anything to the idea that [they] are somehow ‘legitimate targets,’ and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication.” Appended to this was the condescending suggestion: “If you need to be convinced of this, then I suggest you do your research, beginning with Edward Said’s Orientalism as well as some basic introductory texts on Islamophobia.”

Der Stürmer, Sonderausgabe 1934

Islamophobia has been Seymour’s main concern for some time now. Other issues occasionally show up, such as austerity and intersectionality, but these are few and far between. Wasn’t always so: back in 2004 you could still find him defending revolutionary universalism against the idiocy of left-liberal multiculturalism. Take this entry, “Jihad Chic,” from 2004 (back when Seymour was just a poor man’s Christopher Hitchens). Anyway, going from his description of Charlie Hebdo above — i.e., “frankly a racist publication” — one could easily get the mistaken impression that it’s some latter-day Der Stürmer. Surprisingly, Seymour seems totally oblivious to the context in which this imagery appears. His old buddy Sebastian Budgen, on whom he relies for most of his gossip about the French Left, came much closer to getting this right:

There is a silly debate about whether Charlie Hebdo is a “racist” publication or not. Clearly not, in the sense of its origins lying in a left-wing, post-′68, highly transgressive vulgarity and its opposition to the far Right. It is part of the mental furniture of much of the French Left, radical included (think of a mash-up between Private Eye, Viz, Oz, Ben Elton, and The Young Ones), and most people will have affectionate memories of it prior to the 2000s. Charb himself illustrated Daniel Bensaïd’s Marx for Beginners books not so long ago.

Not just that, either. Cabu, one of the staff cartoonists, got his start as a kind of avant la lettre Oliver North. He’d served as a colonial soldier in Algeria, but later publicly lampooned French militarism in numerous comic strips. Virtually everyone involved in the magazine had campaigned on behalf of immigrants and mocked right-wing nationalists like Marine Le Pen. (There is cruel irony in the fact that she’s now cynically using their memory for political gain). Regardless, Seymour’s brief characterization is highly misleading. Perhaps certain cartoons in the magazine could be construed as racist or antisemitic, and several clearly are, but to smear the entire project and those involved in it as virulent racists is grossly unfair. One comrade even went so far as to compare the victims of the attack to “Nazbols.”

Bob from Brockley posted a response to Seymour written by Contested Terrain on his blog. The rest of Seymour’s argument is boilerplate; Contested Terrain parries its thrusts with relative ease. Seymour, he contends, “portrays the attacks in an extremely general way, as if they are somehow a natural (though too violent) response to anti-Muslim racism in France and Europe, rather than being the specific strategic actions taken by specific actors.” This weakness is compounded by an overall reticence to entertain that it might have origins in Islamist ideology. “In [Seymour’s] account, even pointing out the specific radical Islam linkages behind this amounts to supporting state repression against Muslims in general.” He’s since posted a rejoinder to the criticisms he’s received, which more or less states that he thought some things went without saying. Continue reading

Aleksandr Vesnin Proposal for a monument for the Third International1

Internationalism fails

Chris Cutrone

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This article is reposted from Platypus Review no. 60. Generally, I agree with its assertions about “anti-imperialist” politics in the present. Nevertheless, this should not be taken to mean that I support US military aggression overseas (not that I have any say in the matter). On Facebook, a heated exchange between James Heartfield, Chris Cutrone, Spencer Leonard, and Reid Kotlas followed. If they don’t mind, I might repost snippets of that argument as a supplement.

The “anti-imperialist Left” considers itself opposed to all U.S. government action as “imperialist” on principle. But, as Trotsky wrote to his followers in 1938, “Learn to think!” while one may oppose the government politically, to oppose the government putting out a fire, especially when there is no alternative agency for doing so, is nonsense. But the “Left” today is not the inheritor of Trotsky, but rather of what he pitilessly assailed, the policy of the Stalinist “Popular Front Against War and Fascism” of the 1930s, for which the shibboleth was, “Which side are you on?”

The idea is that the defeat of imperialist policy creates possibility for an alternative, and therefore one must always be against imperialism to be on the side of an alternative to it. Historically, Marxists have understood such a strategy in terms of either “revolutionary defeatism” or “revolutionary defensism.” Simply put, the defeat of an imperialist power is seen as providing the possibility for a political alternative to the government of the imperialist country; whereas the defense of a country against imperialist attack is seen as providing the possibility for a political alternative in the subaltern country. Importantly, these are not pacifist positions against war, but rather political military strategies in time of war, moreover with the aim of revolution.

Pivertistes, Mai 1938: Royan, Daniel Guérin

Pivertistes, Mai 1938: Royan, Daniel Guérin

Historically, there are two examples of success of these strategies of revolutionary defeatism and revolutionary defensism: the role of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution is regarded as a success of revolutionary defeatism, in which the defeat of the Tsarist Russian Empire undermined the government and gave rise to political and social revolution; and Mao’s Communists in the Chinese Revolution, in which the defense of China against Japanese imperialist attack undermined the nationalist Kuomintang and allowed for Communist-led revolution. Continue reading

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Nikolai Bukharin on the life of A.A. Bogdanov

Eulogy for a Bolshevik

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Image: Bogdanov plays chess with Lenin
at Capri, as Maksim Gorkii looks on (1909)

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What follows is an introduction to and translation of a eulogy Nikolai Bukharin delivered upon the death by Evgeni Pavlov originally published in the
Platypus Review. Evgeni had already translated the piece, but I solicited it for publication in the PR. As such, it represents one of my last contributions to the organization’s activities and publications, unless perhaps further transcriptions appear of events I helped put together.

Introduction

Evgeni V. Pavlov

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Nikolai Bukharin opens his “Personal Confession,” written on June 2, 1937, with a list of his “general theoretical anti-Leninist views.”[1] The first item on the list is his “lack of understanding of dialectics and substitution of Marxist dialectics with the so-called theory of equilibrium.” To explain this lack of understanding, Bukharin continues: “[I] was under the influence of A. Bogdanov, whom I wished to interpret only in a materialist way, which unavoidably led to a peculiar eclecticism — simply put, theoretical confusion — where mechanical materialism united with empty schemas and abstractions.”[2] This formulation is revealing in many ways. Bukharin’s renunciation of Bogdanov must be understood in light of the connection between the two. That Bogdanov’s ideas and his very person were influential in Bukharin’s intellectual development is difficult, even impossible, to deny. However, the level of this influence, the amount of alleged “borrowings” and the independence of Bukharin’s own theorizations are up for debate. An additional difficulty arises out of the use that the persecutors of Bukharin made of this relationship in order to discredit his ideas and political positions.

Aleksandr Bogdanov photographed in 1904, while still a close collaborator with Lenin

Aleksandr Bogdanov photographed in 1904, while still a close collaborator with Lenin

The year of Bogdanov’s death — 1928 — was an eventful year in Bukharin’s political life. The fifteenth Party Congress finished its work in December 1927, and the discussions about industrialization and collectivization were heated and fraught with factional conflicts. The grain shortage and the failures in foreign policy greatly contributed to the combative nature of the discussions. On the domestic front, the infamous Shakhty “conspiracy” went from the initial preparatory stages, characterized by intense internal discussions in the Party leadership, to the frenzy of the media’s coverage of the disastrous show trial that took place between May 18 and July 6. In July Bukharin negotiated with Kamenev about a possible opposition against Stalinist hard-liners.[3] In September he penned “Notes of an Economist” for Pravda in which he denounced plans for accelerated industrialization, emphasizing the need to “balance” various aspects of a complex economic system.[4] The political maneuvers by Bukharin and his supporters, attempting to use the Moscow Party Committee in their struggle, ended in defeat with the Central Committee’s condemnation in October 1928. The next month, Bukharin’s views were attacked at the Plenum of the Central Committee, and again in December 1928 at the eighth Congress of Professional Unions. At the joint meeting of the Politburo of the Central Committee and the Presidium of the Central Control Committee in January 1929, Stalin delivered his infamous speech — “Bukharin’s Group and the Rightist Deviation in Our Party.” Continue reading

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Early Soviet antireligious propaganda

Goodbye, Cardinal Ratzinger, we hardly knew ye.

To celebrate the papal vacancy, here are a ton of images from Soviet antireligious propaganda. And some thoughts about the question of religion’s compatibility or incompatibility with Marxism, etc.

Cover to Bezbozhnik, Godless (1923)

Cover to Bezbozhnik, Godless (1923)

Some reflections on the recent exchanges regarding Marxism, atheism, and 18th-century materialism. Not that the positions outlined here should necessarily be adopted today. Perhaps we’re no longer in any sort of position to be as radical as Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky were. Nevertheless, while they were perhaps written in response to the prevailing idiocy of the New Atheist neoconservatives, I found many of the arguments that represented these revolutionary Marxists as somehow conciliatory toward religious ideologies, even those of minority religions, to be deliberate distortions of historical reality. There is all too often an attempt to “update” various Marxist positions so as to accommodate fashionable tendencies in the present, even under regressed political conditions. This has been undertaken by leftists as diverse as Deepa Kumar, Alessandro Tinonga, Enaemaehkiw Túpac Keshena, Ben Fowkes and Bülent Gökay, etc. There’s the temptation to reason that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” To argue that the leading Bolsheviks’ attitude toward religion was not that of crushing it mercilessly is deluded.

What’s strange is that this conciliatory move on the part of many leftists comes alongside the ongoing disenchantment of the world, including the progressive secularization of society and the disintegration of traditional religious forms. Brief religious revivals, which tend to produce the most virulently reactionary forms of religious politics (born-again Evangelical Christianity, Islamism, Jewish and Hindu terrorist groups), have usually resulted in nothing more than a brief blip in the overall pattern of decline in religiosity. The paradox is that the world is far less religious today on the whole than it was in, say, 1848 or 1917. Nevertheless, leftists during this earlier time continued to push an uncompromisingly atheistic line in their struggle to overturn the existing bourgeois social order, of which religion is a central component.

The commonplace notion that the Bolsheviks or Marxism in general has been unsuccessful because they offend the religious sensibilities of their “target demographic,” the proletariat, is simply untrue and has no basis in historical reality. Quite the contrary: the masses largely followed the Marxists’ lead in smashing and seizing religious property, looking to eradicate religion both directly (by direct expropriation) and indirectly (by removing the antagonistic social conditions that give rise to religion in the first place). They aimed to render it completely obsolete by obliterating the conditions that create it.

Also, I’ve been bothered by this weird neologism “theophobia.” It doesn’t even make sense etymologically. Most monotheistic faiths are actually all in favor of “theophobia.” “Theo” = God. “Phobia” = fear. “Fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” says some ancient Jewish text written in praise of their desert god. For a Marxist, however, the fear of nonexistant entities would be the very height of infantile irrationality. Continue reading

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Dynamite or détournement?

One year after Pussy Riot’s “punk rock prayer”

Figure 1: Pussy Riot performs in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow (February 21st, 2012)

I. Détournement

When members of the Russian femme-punk outfit Pussy Riot ascended the altar inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior around this time last year, few seemed to notice the physical space in which their performance was taking place.  This is perhaps understandable, after all, given the spectacle unfolding before their eyes.  Less than a minute into their gig, the band was unceremoniously carted “offstage” by officers of the Moscow militsiia.  It was an absurd scene: the frenetic punching motions of the five musicians, colorfully clad in their trademark balaclavas, clashed sharply with the sterile, Neoplatonic immobility of the gilded iconostasis and paneled Carrara marble chapel behind them.  The sole video documenting the event, which went viral almost immediately thereafter, featured a tiny Orthodox nun herding the crowd of bewildered onlookers away from the nave with far greater success than the burly cop who meanwhile attempted to assail the band.  After eluding his clutches several more times — one member even managed to kneel and cross herself before being arrested — all five were jailed and made to stand trial for “blasphemy” and “hooliganism” (an oldie-but-goodie harkening back to the days of Stalin, and before him, the tsars), of which they were eventually convicted.  A few months later, on August 17th, 2012, they were sentenced to two years in prison.

Outside Russia, news of the verdict was met with widespread uproar and scathing criticisms, roundly condemning the Putin government’s callous disregard for the most basic democratic freedoms.  These were for the most part justified, if a little poorly expressed at times.  Slavoj Žižek’s contention that “the true blasphemy [in the blasphemy allegations] is the state accusation itself” is one of his clumsier dialectical inversions to date — a category mistake, even if it’s a nice sentiment.  The few dissenting voices that warned against lending uncritical support to Pussy Riot’s shenanigans, such as Vadim Nikitin in The New York Times, may have been right in parts (especially about the hypocrisy of Western observers’ puffed-up indignation at the fact that such things “still happen”) but generally had their emphasis all wrong (Nikitin’s shocked moral and aesthetic sensibilities at some of the band’s past stunts).  These complaints were by and large drowned out, and rightly so.  Still, one year on, two of the women from Pussy Riot remain locked up, their sentences increased in both extension and duration, relocated to “far-flung prison colonies” in the Urals with a few extra months tacked onto their terms.  Little, if anything, seems to have changed in the country.  Putin’s judo death-grip on Russian political life has been decisively reasserted.  No major challenges present themselves to his continued administration.

Figure 2: Pussy Riot frontwoman Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, surrounded by police, raises her fist

Figure 2: Pussy Riot frontwoman Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, surrounded by police, raises her fist

Pussy Riot’s sad fate should call into question the prevailing political imagination of the Left, both in Russia and abroad, however.  This may seem an odd claim to make, as the general public still largely considers the band’s defiance of Putin a courageous, if not heroic, act.  As such, their high-profile performances have even been regarded in some circles as a success, despite (although precisely because of) their subsequent imprisonment.  In the final analysis, this is a consequence of decades of impotent protest politics.  For many activists today, the assurance that “action will be taken” is enough to allay any anxieties they may have that nothing can be done.  The experience of mobilization and coordinated demonstrations is a virtue unto itself, and arrest only grants false legitimacy to the idea that such pseudo-activity poses a threat to existing structures of power.  Whether or not an action contributes in a meaningful way toward its purported goal — e.g., if an anti-war march actually helps bring an end to war — the sheer fact of mass participation is (mis)taken as a sign of its success.  The experience of defeat has become so naturalized for the Left that it no longer even recognizes its defeats as such.  The most miserable failures are held up as the most shining triumphs, and no one is better off for it. Continue reading