Early Soviet children’s books, 1924-1932

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The Young Polytechnician: Housing
(1931)

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Out with bourgeois crocodiles!
How the Soviets rewrote children’s books

Stuart Jeffries
The Guardian
May 4, 2016
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In 1925, Galina and Olga Chichagova il­lus­trated a two-pan­el poster that called for a re­volu­tion in chil­dren’s il­lus­tra­tion in the new So­viet Uni­on. The left pan­el fea­tured tra­di­tion­al char­ac­ters from Rus­si­an fairytales and folk­lore — kings, queens, the Fire­bird, the witch Baba Yaga and, my fa­vor­ite, a cro­codile in el­eg­ant night­cap and dress­ing gown. “Out,” read the cap­tion, “with mys­ti­cism and fantasy of chil­dren’s books!!” Continue reading

On Stalin and Stalinism today

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Editorial note
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Watson Ladd’s recent review of the latest issue of Crisis and Critique, in which a number of authors reflect on Stalin’s contemporary significance, appears below. It’s a huge issue, and the collection itself comes to almost five hundred pages. Some of the articles are probably worth checking out, especially the ones by Lars Lih, Evgeni Pavlov, and Paul LeBlanc. (LeBlanc is easily the most credible political and intellectual historian within the ISO, largely because he comes from a tradition outside Cliffism). You can download and read Crisis and Critique 3.1 further down for free.

On a few points a disagree with Ladd somewhat, though for the most part I agree. For example, here: “The name [Stalin] means nothing. It can be deployed for a hundred different political purposes.” Here, if one ignores his subsequent qualifications of this point, Ladd almost seems to come close to something Doug Enaa Greene wrote in a since-deleted thread on the Kasama Project website a year or so ago:

One of the most useless terms thrown around on the left is “Stalinism” (statist and totalitarianism are two others that rank up there). Stalinism is often utilized as a swear word by leftists against anything they disagree with. And this means that Stalinism is used to refer to such differing figures, ideologies, movements and governments that it loses all coherent meaning. For example, I’ve known leftists who refer to both Mao and Deng as “Stalinists.” Never mind that these two figures had opposite politics (Mao led a socialist revolution and Deng reversed one). Some other examples of “Stalinism” are the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Yet any commonality between these two parties disappears on closer inspection. The CPI (Marxist) is strictly parliamentary party which enforces neoliberalism and massacres workers and peasants, while the CPI (Maoist) is leading a revolutionary people’s war among the most oppressed masses, fighting the Indian state, including clashing with their “fellow Stalinists” in the CPI (Marxist), and establishing liberated zones of popular power. The list goes on and on…

As should be clear, when calling these wildly different figures, movements, and organizations “Stalinist,” deprives the word of all meaning (assuming it has one in the first place). What I am getting at here is that rather than looking at how these differing figures, movements, etc operate based on their own particular contexts, it is assumed that because they don’t fall under the label of the correct political line (whether Trotskyist, anarchist, etc) that they must be Stalinist. It is further assumed that by those using the label Stalinist that if you have the “correct” view on the nature of the inner-party debates of the Soviet Union in the 1920s or the class character of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, often derived from the work of Trotsky, that this can just be mechanically applied to completely different situation (the classic case is Maoism = Chinese Stalinism) without doing any investigation of that particular situation. Effectively this says that you don’t have to learn anything about one of the most important revolutions of the last century, set aside with a simple verdict. And the politics that comes out of this dismissal is bland and lifeless, unable to learn from any other experiences because all the verdicts are already settled.

Certainly, “Stalinism” refers to a group of sectarian traditions and theoretical bloodlines which are often at odds with one another. Sometimes seemingly opposite. But the same could easily be said for Trotskyism. Look at the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in the UK, which verges on Zionist apologetics, and the Socialist Workers’ Party, which waves placards at rallies which declare: “We are all Hezbollah!” Yet both stand within the Trotskyist lineage, even if the former is mediated by the Shachtmanite-Matgamnan moment and the latter by the Cliffite-Callinican moment.

There are a number of common features that immediately stand out with regard to Stalinism: 1. first, and most obviously, the principle of социализм в одной стране [socialism in one country]; 2. second, and no less fundamentally, the elevation of the State to a semi-permanent Lassallean role as the guarantor that capitalism will never reemerge; and 3. the schizophrenic logic that brands parliamentary socialists as “social fascists” in one moment and welcomes alliances with bourgeois parties or outright reactionaries as part of anti-fascist or anti-imperialist popular fronts in the next.

Any Maoists who took issue with Loren Goldner’s perfunctory remark that “Maoism is a variant of Stalinism” can take it up with the following image.

b-but-maoism-isnt-a-variant-of-stalin

Methodologically, and as a matter of course, Stalinism stood for the perversion of dialectic from an immanent logic used to critically grasp alternating and emergent conditions into an ex post facto rationalization of defeat. “Zigzags,” as Lenin called them:

The great Hegelian dialectics which Marxism made its own, having first been turned right side up, must never be confused with the vulgar trick of justifying the zigzags of politicians who swing over from the revolutionary to the opportunist wing of the Party, the vulgar habit of lumping together particular statements and developmental factors belonging to different stages of a single process. Genuine dialectics does not justify the errors of individuals, but studies the inevitable turns.

At any rate, I don’t think that Marxists can simply disown Stalinism, as if it had nothing to do with the political precepts laid down by Marx. Those who take their inspiration from Lenin and the Bolsheviks can still less absolutely dissociate themselves from Stalin as an historical figure and Stalinism as a world-historic phenomenon. Dzugashvili had been a dedicated cadre and party operative for almost a quarter century, after all, by the time his faction assumed the reigns of power. However vulgar and buffoonish he was as a theorist, it is not as if he was simply an inexperienced interloper.

Obviously, I consider Stalinism monstrous. While Hitler was incomparably worse in terms of his crimes, Stalin murdered more dyed-in-the-wool Marxist revolutionaries than Hitler ever did. In that sense, the Gulag system should disturb us more than Nazi barbarism. Nazism was transparently right-wing, chauvinist, and genocidal in its intent. Communism was meant to herald the liberation of mankind — i.e., not a grim, self-perpetuating authoritarian interlude on the way to capitalist restoration. In a way, it would be a relief if the demise of the USSR wiped Stalin’s legacy clean off the record books.

Stalinism lives on. Just barely, though, eking out a miserable existence in “critical support” for rackets like the FARC, the Naxalites, or the PFLP. (This position the Trots and tankies have in common, but it is more a museum-piece of Cold War natlib than anything having to do with Lenin’s line, or even Zinoviev’s narrow interpretation of it as a prerequisite for entry into the Comintern). Ladd is right, however, that if Stalin’s name stands for nothing today, it’s “not because Stalin stood for nothing, but because what he stood for has been forgotten. As a period of politics on the Left, globally, the history of Stalinism has all but faded from view.”

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Seventeen ways of looking at Stalin

Watson Ladd
Platypus Review
№ 90,
10.1.2016

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Journal Review:

Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza, editors
“Stalin: What Does the Name Stand for?”
Crisis and Critique 3, no. 1 (3.29.2016)1

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Stalinism’s impact is difficult to see in the world today. North Korea and Cuba limp along, sponsored by a capitalist China and caudillo-ist Venezuela, respectively. The official Stalinist parties in the Western world remain, at least on paper, but tend to throw support behind Hillary Clinton or the local equivalent. In one way or another, any examination of Stalin is thus historical — not a critique of a living political movement, but of a movement situated in a time remote from our own. The object of investigation is a legacy whose practical effect in the present is deeply obscure.

The journal Crisis and Critique has recently published a compilation of such examinations. In the introduction, editors Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza emphasize their desire to examine the politics that led to Stalin and shaped the period during which he lived, neither damning nor defending, and hoping to avoid the reduction of complex questions to the status of a single individual.

As Lars Lih points out in the first contribution, Soviet artists celebrated Stalin as a mythical figure, an ersatz czar who defended the Russian people. Indeed, Stalin invites a series of historical comparisons. By turns he is Robespierre,2 by turns a brute responsible for the failure of a revolution.3 For Domenico Losurdo, he is the Soviet Gandhi, fighting against colonialism with methods no more dictatorial than the global crisis of the 1930s demanded.4 Enver Hoxha’s essay, which closes out the volume, does not need to mention Stalin by name to argue that he enabled the people to “write their own history,” and that we must stay to the course he laid out, if we wish to defend the revolution and achieve the political empowerment of the masses.

Elsewhere Stalin curiously recedes into the background. He becomes the pretext for a discussion about the metaphysics of language,5 or for an analysis of how his early seminarian experiences influenced the creation of the new communist man.6 Or the topic shifts to the philosophical school of dialectical materialism,7 analyzed without really taking stock of Stalin, who hovers quietly in the background. And there is the experience of those who lived under Stalinism,8 and the memory of the political struggles over revisionism and orthodoxy.9

saint-stalin

With all these views (and more) of Stalin represented in this volume, one might think that the subject, if not exhausted, had at least been opened up for inquiry. Unfortunately this is not the case, unless we want to understand the long shadow of Stalinism as only the latest in a line of tragedies. However, whatever else we may think of him, Stalin is far more than merely a Tamerlane or an Alexander Nevsky.

Continue reading

Under the banner of Marxism [«Под знаменем марксизма»], 1923-1931

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So it seems some glorious madman has taken it upon himself to scan and upload the entire run of the early Soviet theoretical journal, named Under the Banner of Marxism [«Под знаменем марксизма»]. A stupendous Stakhanovite feat. Needless to say, whoever did this is a bona fide герой труда.

Using a comically outdated online platform, no less. It was posted somewhere in the ultradank universe of Russian Livejournal, which has more or less become a medium for blogging. On one such blog, evidently belonging to a Baconian Bolshevik — entitled Знание власть, or “knowledge is power” — I found it.

Predictably, the quality of the articles began to sharply decline by the end of the 1920s. Wilhelm Reich’s Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis was published on its pages as late as 1929, however. You can download all of them, excepting the post-1931 issues (which can be found here), by clicking below.

Following those links, you can read the open letter Trotsky sent the editors of the first issue. Lenin himself singled out this letter in his own note, which was included in the double issue published next, while expressing the hope this venture would take the shape of a “society of materialist friends of Hegelian dialectics.” Abram Deborin, the stuffy Hegelian Menshevik and prominent critic of Lukács, edited the journal from 1926 through 1930, before being purged later in that decade.

Trotsky himself underscored the importance of the letter in The Stalin School of Falsification (1937), which, in pointing to the difference between the changed conditions of education of the younger members of the party from that of their older comrades, outlined the necessity of a new theoretical approach in order to safeguard the political experience accumulated within the party.

Despite the importance attributed to the letter by Lenin and Trotsky, Leszek Kolakowski, in his Main Currents of Marxism, considered the letter to be unexceptional. So much the worse for him.

1923
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1924
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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

Анатолий Луначарский, Религия и социализм, том II (1911)

ГЛАВА I.

Иудейская почва. Иисус.

Подготовленные явления Христа–Мессии.

В главах, посвященных иудейской религиозности, мы указывали уже на то, как созрела идея мессианизма с одной стороны, религия справедливости с другой. Для Вторачивай и Мессия — не кто иной, как символическое лицо, идеально представляющее собою страдальческую и праведную часть страдальческого народа. Это — бедняки и святые Израиля, заслуги которых спасут не только народ Божий, но и все народы земли. Заслуги эти сводятся к добродетелям истинного демократа тех времен: чувству справедливости и любви к ближнему, смирению, преданности судьбе, в которой все признается божественным, отвращению к власти, к роскоши и соединенным с ними порокам и преступлениям. Дух пророческий не умирал в Израиле, хотя ему приходилось трудно в борьбе с официальной церковностью и сухими книжниками, сумевшими извратить чисто демократическое «писание» и сделать из него базис для личной и надменной теократии. Религия иудеев имела, таким образом, два лица, которые выразились в двух школах или манерах толкования писания. Агада — была свободным толкованием, творческой манерой проповедовать, Галаха мертвым историческим комментированием. Агада жила интенсивной жизнью в северных провинциях, в Галилее, ко времени начала нашей эры, Галаха господствовала в Иерусалиме, вокруг храма. Не только народные проповедники, но и многие фарисеи (Гиллель и его школа, напр.) были агадистами.

Связь христианской морали и христианского мессианизма с Агадой и пророками не оспаривается никем. Даже Гарнак, — некритический поклонник довольно фантастического «первобытного христианства», самый правый бога слов из тех, с которыми можно еще считаться, как с людьми науки, — признает еврейско-пророческую сущность христианства Иисуса в самой широкой степени:

«Вместе с Вельгаузеном», говорит он, «я должен признать, что все то, о чем благовествовал Иисус, что до него высказывал в своей проповеди Иоанн, все это можно найти у пророков и в иудейских преданиях их времени».

Но мировоззрение Иисуса и его непосредственных учеников не есть еще христианство; это не только не наше православно-католическое, но даже не реформатское, не «евангелическое» христианство, это даже не то «первоначальное христианство», сомнительную традицию которого почтенный пр. Гарнак старается поддерживать всею своею тяжеловесной ученостью.

Христианство возникло из множества отдельных культурных потоков, слившихся, в конце концов, в две реки: иудейское учение, связанное с именем Иисуса, как центрального выразителя, и греко-азиатское, связанное с именем Павла и других. Позднее на нем сказалось еще могучее влияние Запада, Рима и Африки, с Тертулианом и Августином.

Впрочем, уже с самого начала христианство есть сочетание иудейских и греко-азиатских элементов. Христианство Иисуса, вероятно, уже включило до некоторой степени этот второй элемент. Continue reading

Trotsky’s Italian connection: Gramsci or Bordiga?

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Since the rediscovery of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks after World War II, there have been a number of attempts to adapt their heavily-coded theoretical content to various political projects. Particularly during the period of the New Left, Gramsci was interpreted and reinterpreted ad nauseam. Gradualists of a social-democratic stripe tried to fit the (allegedly anti-Leninist) “war of position” to their own frameworks. Figures like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe deploy the ubiquitous Gramscian buzzword of “hegemony” for their postmodernist, post-Marxist populism. Finally, theorists such as Christine Buci-Glucksmann and Peter D. Thomas have sought to reconcile Gramsci with a more classically Leninist program in light of critiques by Louis Althusser in France and Perry Anderson in England.

Gramsci = Trotsky?

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Trotskyists during the 1960s down to the present have followed suit. Even the Spartacist League, known for their strict orthodoxy, nodded approvingly toward a document by Cliff Slaughter from 1960 in which he relied heavily on Gramsci’s The Modern Prince. Just how compatible are Trotsky’s politics with those of Gramsci, though? Certainly during their political careers, they found themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum within international communism. Not only did Gramsci support Trotsky’s expulsion from the Russian party in 1925 and 1926, but he continued to lambaste Bronshtein during the period of his imprisonment. Paolo Casciola, an Italian Trotskyist, explains the continued differences between Gramsci and Trotsky from 1926 up through the 1930s in his rebuttal to the “turncoat” Alfonso Leonetti:

Gramsci or Trotsky?

[I]t would be useful to pause for a while on the fable of the “identity of views” between Trotsky and Gramsci. Such a fable is based on the fact that Gramsci “broke” with Stalinism during his prison years, after the “turn of 1930” — a turn which Leonetti had continuously championed. This is a question with which we shall deal in future. What we want to emphasize here is that Leonetti used such an ostensible “identity” as a voucher to justify politically his adherence to Gramscism and Togliattism. It was a rather dubious historico-political operation which was made easier by the cooperation of a series of “Trotskyist” intellectuals and unscrupulous “historians of the workers’ movement.” As a matter of fact, Gramsci’s “moral break” with Stalinism was only a temporary disagreement with the “Third Period” policy, and he was reabsorbed after the Popular Front counter-turn of 1935. If this be the case, then certain things said in the article which Tresso wrote after Gramsci’s death seem somewhat rash. But whereas Tresso could not know anything about Gramsci’s evolution during the 11 years of his imprisonment, Leonetti was able to read several testimonies on that period. But he used them in his own unfortunate way.

To Leonetti, the “identity of views” of Gramsci and Trotsky lies above all in their ostensibly identical assessment of the “period of transition” from Fascism to Communism, as well as in the fact that they both raised the slogan of a constituent assembly for Italy. But this is a superficial and utterly false equation. As a matter of fact, whereas Trotsky emphasized that the “democratic transition” was only one possible variant of the post-Fascist development — linked to and dependent upon the revolutionary awakening of the working class — Gramsci saw such an event as “the most likely one,” and, on this basis, put forward the slogan of a constituent assembly within the framework of a gradualist, Menshevik, Popular Front perspective. It is not by chance that, a few days before his death, Gramsci let the PCd’I know that “the Popular Front in Italy is the constituent assembly.” The Stalinist continuity between Gramsci and Togliatti was thus re-established, after the interlude of the “Third Period.” On the other hand, the lack of identity between the views of Trotsky and Gramsci is shown by several other bits of evidence. According to the testimony of Bruno Tosin, whilst opposing the “turn of 1930” not only did Gramsci hold that the party had been right to expel the Trotskyist oppositionists, but in his Prison Notebooks he criticizes Trotsky every time he mentions him, ever inclined to legitimize the continuity from Lenin to Stalin.

I don’t irrationally hate Gramsci. For the most part I prefer his “liberal” Marxist phase from 1916-1920, when he was closer to Gobetti, and then his early Leninism in alliance with Bordiga. After 1923, Gramsci basically took his orders from Moscow, following all the zigzags coming out of the Kremlin. Had he not been imprisoned, I suspect he would have eventually become a more theoretically sophisticated version of Togliatti. Some of his historical and philosophical reflections are interesting, but politically he’s the pits.

Personally, it’s my opinion that the effort to sanitize Gramsci’s Dmitrovian popfrontism, in order to render them compatible with Trotsky’s views, owes to the intellectual celebrity of the former after World War II. And this celebrity is in turn largely a product of the PCI’s nonstop promotion of Gramsci since 1945. The definitive study of this historiographical shift is John Chiaradia’s “Amadeo Bordiga and the Myth of Antonio Gramsci.” Chiaradia contends that many of the same tactics that were used to oust Trotsky from the Russian party were used to oust Bordiga from the Italian party.

This seems to be borne out by the documentary evidence. If you read anything written by communists about the Italian party before 1945, Gramsci’s name barely even appears. By contrast, Bordiga’s name appears repeatedly. In Franz Borkenau’s World Communism, Trotsky’s writings, Arthur Rosenberg’s books, Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Ignazio Silone’s section of The God that Failed, Bordiga is mentioned over and over. Like I said, after WWII he was mostly just known as Gramsci’s justly vanquished opponent.

Trotsky on Bordiga

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In all his published works and correspondence, the only reference Trotsky made to Gramsci came in Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight it, published in 1931. He explained that Italian comrades informed him that “with the sole exception of Gramsci, the Communist Party would not even allow for the possibility of the fascists’ seizing power.” Appreciative enough, I suppose. The source of this information, the “Italian comrades” to which Trotsky alluded, can be easily guessed, however. Leonetti, the erstwhile Left Oppositionist who later defected to Stalinism — dealt with above by Casciola — corresponded with Bronshtein about Italian fascism frequently during those years. He remained a loyal Gramscian throughout every phase of his career, and was one of the few prior to 1945 who recalled Gramsci’s name. Deeply resentful toward Bordiga, Leonetti even wrote an article trying to convince Trotsky that the source of Stalin’s Third Period doctrine of “social fascism” was the communist left. From the reply Trotsky sent to Souzo (pen name of Leonetti), it would seem the former was briefly swayed:

February 14, 1932

Dear Comrade Souzo:

I have received your article on the Bordigists, which I find very good and extremely useful, especially the paragraph that shows Bordiga to be the father of the theory of social fascism.

Apart from this, Trotsky was overwhelmingly positive regarding Bordiga’s role within the Italian party. In 1929, he wrote a letter to the editorial board of the journal Prometeo, in which he praised “the living, muscular, and full-blooded revolutionary thought of Amadeo Bordiga.” He underscored his longstanding respect for and personal acquaintance with the man who had inspired their movement: “I have become acquainted with the pamphlet ‘Platform of the Left,’ which you issued back in 1926 but which has only just now reached me. Similarly, I have read the letter you addressed to me in issue number 20 of Prometeo and some of the leading articles in your paper, which enabled me to renew, after a long interruption, my fairly good knowledge of the Italian language. These documents, along with my acquaintance with the articles and speeches of Comrade Bordiga — not to mention my personal acquaintance with him — permit me to judge to a certain extent your basic views as well as the degree of agreement there is between us.” Continue reading

Nikolai Bukharin on the criterion of practice in epistemology

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Below appears an excellent chapter from Nikolai Bukharin’s book, unpublished in his lifetime, Philosophical Arabesques (1937-1938). The whole collection is really quite good, but this portion on epistemology is particularly superlative. Lately I’ve been reading up on Marxism and the problem of truth: the way it involves the relation of subject to object, as well as theory to practice. I have to admit, Bukharin’s competence in treating difficult questions of philosophy surprised me a little. Not just because I’d read his short 1921 textbook on Historical Materialism — which, while insightful at times, is on the whole very mediocre — but because of Lenin’s low estimation of Bukharin as a philosopher. Shortly before his death, the Bolshevik leader recorded in his “Testament” that

Bukharin is not only a most valuable and major theorist of the Party; he is also rightly considered the favorite of the whole Party. His theoretical views can be classified as fully Marxist only with great reserve, however, for there is something scholastic about him (he has never made a study of dialectics and, I think, never fully understood it).

Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács, whose studies of the philosophical legacy in Marx’s thought remain unparalleled, took Bukharin to task for this theoretical deficit. “For one faction (typified by Bukharin’s book The Theory of Historical Materialism),” wrote the former, “the whole of ‘philosophy’ has fundamentally already reached a point that in reality it was to reach only in the second phase of Communist society after the full victory of the pro­letarian revolution, viz. the transcended standpoint of an unenlightened past.” Lukács wrote that “Bukharin attributes to technology a far too determinant position, which completely misses the spirit of dialectical materialism.”

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At first, Bukharin sided with the “mechanist” faction of communist interpreters of Marx. Other notable adherents included Abram Deborin and László Rudas, bêtes noires of both Korsch and Lukács, who admonished them for their Hegelianism. This sensibility was rather in line with Bukharin’s training as an economist and his enthusiasm for the natural sciences. During the 1930s, though, he made a renewed study of German classical philosophy. Following his imprisonment in 1937 at the hand of his onetime ally Stalin, Bukharin finally got around to writing a treatise on philosophy. He was adamant that it be published, whatever his fate:

The most important thing is that the philosophical work not be lost. I worked on it for a long time and put a great deal into it; it is a very mature work in comparison to my earlier writings, and, in contrast to them, dialectical from beginning to end.

Unsurprisingly, his wishes were not honored. These manuscripts only surfaced after the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991. You can download the translation by clicking on the link above or read the chapter on practice below the photographs underneath. Additional works by Bukharin are available here as well:

Practice in general and the place of practice in the theory of knowledge

Nikolai Bukharin
Philosophical Arabesques
September 1937
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Earlier, we dealt with the naïve claim of the agnostics to be reasoning on the basis of their sense perceptions alone, and thus to be able to demonstrate the unreality or incognizability of the external world.

This claim proved to be baseless and comic. From this we may conclude that any philosophical reasoning, since it operates with concepts, which are a social product, the product of thousands of years of mental work, must because of this very fact operate on the broad basis of all the achievements of science, leaving behind all the fuss and bother of foolish subjectivists.

Science, however, tells us that in historical terms, the starting point was the active, practical relationship between humanity and nature. Not contemplation, and not theory, but practice; not passive perception, but action. In this sense Goethe’s dictum “In the beginning was the deed,” when counterposed to the evangelical-Platonic-Gnostic dictum “In the beginning was the word” — that is, logos, or reason — furnishes us with a precise expression of historical reality. Marx noted this repeatedly: in his notes on the book by Adolf Wagner, in which he heaps scorn on the closeted professorial view according to which objects are passively “given” to humanity; in his Holy Family; in his Theses on Feuerbach; throughout the whole text of Capital; and together with Engels, in the brilliant pages of The German Ideology.

Contrary to the ravings of idealist philosophy to the effect that thought makes worlds, and that even matter is the creation of spirit (for example, the world-positing “I” of Fichte), it is human practice that creates a new world, actually transforming the “substance of nature” in line with human wishes. Historically, it was social humanity, the social-historical human being, and not an abstraction of the intellectual side of humanity, personified by philosophers as the subject, that above all produced, ate, and drank. It was only later, through the division of labor, that theoretical activity became separated off and isolated as an independent (or relatively independent) function, becoming restricted to particular categories of people, “mental workers,” with the various social and class modifications of this category. Theoretical cognition arose out of practice as well. The active, practical relationship to the external world, the process of material production, which, as Marx put it, conditions the “exchange of substances” between humanity and nature, is the basis for the reproduction of the entire life of social humanity. The chattering of the high priests of the so-called philosophy of life [Lebensphilosophie], including Nietzsche and a series of present-day biological-mystical hysterics, bypasses this fundamental fact, just as numerous representatives of classical idealist philosophy also bypassed it. Of course! After all, from the point of view of Kant the simple acts of sawing wood, smelting iron, or making liquid oxygen constitute a breakthrough into the “transcendental,” that fearful transgression which is “impossible”! What a mess the “practical” bull creates in this china shop full of unknowably subtle statuettes!

In fairness to Hegel, that “colossal old fellow,” as Engels affectionately called him, it should be acknowledged that although Marx and Engels had to wage a desperate, impassioned, and ultimately victorious struggle against the “drunken speculation” of Hegelian idealism, Hegel did have an understanding of practice, of labor and its tools. Moreover, the embryo of historical materialism, in the form of brilliant conceptions, was present in his works. We shall have cause to be convinced of this subsequently… Continue reading

Small is Beautiful, but Big is Sublime

Kant, Le Corbusier, Koolhaas
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Analytic of the Sublime

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The beautiful in nature concerns the form of the object, which consists in limitation; the sublime, by contrast, is to be found in a formless object insofar as limitlessness is represented in it, or at its instance, and yet it is also thought as a totality.

— Immanuel Kant, 1793
Critique of Judgment

Bolshevism means big

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“Bolshoi!”

It is a word (a magnificent one) and not a mere matter of party membership.

In 1928, I was called to Moscow to discuss the construction of the Tsentrosoiuz there. I was taken to the office of Mr. Lubinov (now the People’s Commissar, once mayor of Moscow, before that a peasant, and at this particular time President of the Tsentrosoiuz). There was an interpreter there. The President delivered himself of a long speech in which the word ‘bolshoi,’ always delivered with great force, recurred again and again. The interpreter passed on the substance of this speech to me as follows:

The construction of this palace [The Palace of the Soviets] must prove itself an outstanding event in Russian architectural history, a history that only began with the Revolution itself. It is essential that there should be a visible quality of bigness in all the aspects of its design, a bigness achieved not simply by means of physical dimensions, nor by emphasis, but by a judicious regard to proportions. It is essential that this non-military building, the biggest that has so far been envisaged by our regime, should constitute a model: strict expression of function and dignity. All our projects must come into the world under this sign: BIG, bolshoi…

I questioned the interpreter: “That word, ‘bolshoi,’ which Mr. Lubinov kept hammering out, what does it mean?”

“Big!”

“So, Bolshevism…?”

“Bolshevism means: everything as big as possible, the biggest theory, the biggest projects. Maximum. Going to the heart of any question. Examining it in depth. Envisaging the whole. Breadth and size.”

Up to then, I had understood from our newspapers that Bolshevik meant a man with a red beard and a knife between his teeth.

— Le Corbusier, 1930
The Radiant City

Manhattan

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The skyscrapers here are much too small.

— Le Corbusier arriving
in Manhattan, 1935 Continue reading

Cruising past: Moscow’s forgotten gay history

Agata Pyzik
Calvert Journal
July 17, 2013
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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.”  

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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.

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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

Why read Lukács? The place of “philosophical” questions in Marxism

Chris Cutrone
The Last Marx­ist

A re­sponse to Mike Macnair
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Whatever one thinks of Chris Cutrone or Platy­pus, the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s con­tro­ver­sial rhet­or­ic, meth­ods, and antics, the fol­low­ing is an ex­cel­lent es­say and re­sponse in the (still on­go­ing) ex­change between Platy­pus and the CP­GB. This was first presen­ted at the School of the Art In­sti­tute of Chica­go, Janu­ary 11, 2014. A video re­cord­ing is avail­able here, an au­dio re­cord­ing avail­able here.

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Still read­ing Lukács? The role of “crit­ic­al the­ory”

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Why read Georg Lukács today? Es­pe­cially when his most fam­ous work, His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness, is so clearly an ex­pres­sion of its spe­cif­ic his­tor­ic­al mo­ment, the abor­ted world re­volu­tion of 1917-19 in which he par­ti­cip­ated, at­tempt­ing to fol­low Vladi­mir Len­in and Rosa Lux­em­burg. Are there “philo­soph­ic­al” les­sons to be learned or prin­ciples to be gleaned from Lukács’s work, or is there, rather, the danger, as the Com­mun­ist Party of Great Bri­tain’s Mike Macnair has put it, of “the­or­et­ic­al overkill,” sty­mie­ing of polit­ic­al pos­sib­il­it­ies, clos­ing up the struggle for so­cial­ism in tiny au­thor­it­ari­an and polit­ic­ally sterile sects foun­ded on “the­or­et­ic­al agree­ment?”

Mike Macnair’s art­icle “The philo­sophy trap” (2013) ar­gues about the is­sue of the re­la­tion between the­ory and prac­tice in the his­tory of os­tens­ible “Len­in­ism,” tak­ing is­sue in par­tic­u­lar with Lukács’s books His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness (1923) and Len­in (1924) as well as with Karl Korsch’s 1923 es­say “Marx­ism and philo­sophy.” The is­sue is what kind of the­or­et­ic­al gen­er­al­iz­a­tion of con­scious­ness could be de­rived from the ex­per­i­ence of Bolshev­ism from 1903-21. I agree with Macnair that “philo­soph­ic­al” agree­ment is not the prop­er basis for polit­ic­al agree­ment, but this is not the same as say­ing that polit­ic­al agree­ment has no the­or­et­ic­al im­plic­a­tions. Rather, the is­sue is wheth­er the­or­et­ic­al “po­s­i­tions” have ne­ces­sary polit­ic­al im­plic­a­tions. I think it is a tru­ism to say that there is no sure the­or­et­ic­al basis for ef­fect­ive polit­ic­al prac­tice. But Macnair seems to be say­ing noth­ing more than this. In sub­or­din­at­ing the­ory to prac­tice, Macnair loses sight of the po­ten­tial crit­ic­al role the­ory can play in polit­ic­al prac­tice, spe­cific­ally the task of con­scious­ness of his­tory in the struggle for trans­form­ing so­ci­ety in an eman­cip­at­ory dir­ec­tion.

A cer­tain re­la­tion of the­ory to prac­tice is a mat­ter spe­cif­ic to the mod­ern era, and moreover a prob­lem spe­cif­ic to the era of cap­it­al­ism, that is, after the In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion, the emer­gence of the mod­ern pro­let­ari­an­ized work­ing class and its struggle for so­cial­ism, and the crisis of bour­geois so­cial re­la­tions and thus of con­scious­ness of so­ci­ety this en­tails. Continue reading