The mind and face of Bolshevism (1926)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover of New Masses, November 1927

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

Upton Sinclair
The New Masses
November 1927
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There comes in my mail a large and costly volume from England, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism, by René Fülöp-Miller. Inside I find a card, informing me that the book is sent with the author’s compliments, and giving me his address in Vienna — which I understand to mean that he wishes me to tell him what I think of his book. So I send him what as children we used to call “my private opinion publicly expressed.”

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

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

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

Continue reading

Tatlin’s tower

Nico Israel has a book out that looks fairly interesting, Spirals: The Whirled Image in Twentieth Century Art and Literature. In it he discusses Wyndham Lewis’ vorticism, Vladimir Tatlin’s monument to the Third International, land Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (among other things). He also relates a few famous lines by Lenin about the spiraling course of the dialectic in history, from his 1915 Granat Encyclopedia entry on Karl Marx:

In our times, the idea of development, of evolution, has almost completely penetrated social consciousness, only in other ways, and not through Hegelian philosophy. Still, this idea, as formulated by Marx and Engels on the basis of Hegel’s philosophy, is far more comprehensive and far richer in content than the current idea of evolution is. A development that repeats, as it were, stages that have already been passed, but repeats them in a different way, on a higher basis (“the negation of the negation”), a development, so to speak, that proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes, and revolutions; “breaks in continuity”; the transformation of quantity into quality; inner impulses towards development, imparted by the contradiction and conflict of the various forces and tendencies acting on a given body, or within a given phenomenon, or within a given society; the interdependence and the closest and indissoluble connection between all aspects of any phenomenon (history constantly revealing ever new aspects), a connection that provides a uniform, and universal process of motion, one that follows definite laws — these are some of the features of dialectics as a doctrine of development that is richer than the conventional one.

Marx and Engels were not the the first to put dialectical development in the shape of a spiral. As Lenin indicates, Hegel before him visualized it as such. There’s another source of the “whirled image” in Marx’s theory: Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi. Fredric Jameson pointed out in his recent book, Representing Capital, that “repetition — the selling of labor power week after week, its productive consumption by the capitalist in a cycle Sismondi rightly recharacterized as a spiral — never knew a first time in the first place.”

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For Marx, the spiral motion first appears as circulating capital:

Exchange-value posited as the unity of commodity and money is capital, and this positing itself appears as the circulation of capital. (Which is, however, a spiral, an expanding curve, not a simple circle)…As the subject predominant [übergreifend] over the different phases of this movement, as value sustaining and multiplying itself in it, as the subject of these metamorphoses proceeding in a circular course — as a spiral, as an expanding circle — capital is circulating capital. Circulating capital is therefore initially not a particular form of capital, but is rather capital itself, in a further developed aspect, as subject of the movement just described, which it, itself, is as its own realization process.

In Capital, Marx explicitly acknowledged his debt to Sismondi in this respect: “Looked at concretely, accumulation can be resolved into the production of capital on a progressively increasing scale. The cycle of simple reproduction alters its form and, to use Sismondi’s expression, changes into a spiral.” Put another way, capital comes to ground this expansive outward movement, in which all sorts of violent jolts, fits, and spasms take place. Capital in history establishes a sort of treadmill pattern of transformation and reconstitution, as the sociologist Moishe Postone put it. Yet without its integral antithesis, class conscious wage-laborers mobilized in opposition to it, capital’s inherent dynamism is itself diminished. Adorno thus astutely observed in his 1965 lectures on History and Freedom: “Without wasting time on the overworked notion of a spiral development in history, it can be said that a direct progress towards freedom cannot be discerned.” (Rodney Livingstone suspected Adorno might have had Toynbee in mind, but I think he was commenting on the old Leninist dictum).

When Tatlin built his monument to the Third Revolution, progress did not seem such an impossibility. Though Europe lay in ruins, a new world seemed to open up. A hundred years on, this possibility seems by now closed. In our present moment, the key to the future resides in the past. Below are a few period pieces reflecting on Tatlin’s tower that express this bygone sensibility. Enjoy.

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The monument to the Third International

Nikolai Punin
Iskusstvo kommuny
September 1920

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In 1919 the Department of Fine Arts within the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment commissioned the artist V. E. Tatlin to develop a design for a monument to the Third International. The artist Tatlin immediately set to work and produced a design. The artists I.A. Meerzon, M.P. Vinogradov, and T.M. Shapiro formed a “Creative Collective,” then developed the design in detail and constructed a model.

The main idea of the monument is based on an organic synthesis of the principles of architecture, sculpture and painting and was intended to produce a new type of monumental structure, uniting in itself a purely creative form with a utilitarian form. In accordance with this idea, the design of the monument consists of three large glass structures, erected by means of a complex system of vertical struts and spirals. These structures are arranged one above the other and are contained within different, harmoniously related forms. A special type of mechanism would enable them to move at different speeds. The lower structure (A), in the form of a cube, moves on its axis at the speed of one revolution a year and is intended for legislative purposes. Here may be held conferences of the International, meetings of international congresses and other broadly legislative meetings… The next structure (B), in the form of a pyramid, rotates on its axis at the speed of one full revolution a month and is intended for executive functions (the Executive Committee of the International, the secretariat and other administrative and executive  bodies). Finally, the upper cylinder (C), rotating at a speed of one revolution a day, is intended to be a resource center for the following facilities: an information office; a newspaper; the publication of proclamations, brochures and manifestos — in a word, all the various means of broadly informing the international proletariat, and in particular a telegraph, projectors for a large screen located on the axes of a spherical segment (a1-b3), and a radio station, the masts of which rise above the monument. There is no need to point out the enormous possibilities for equipping and organizing these structures. The details of the design have not yet been specified, they can be discussed and worked out (luring subsequent elaboration of the monument’s interior.

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It is necessary to explain that according to the artist Tatlin”s conception, the glass structures should have vacuum walls (a thermos) which will make it easy to maintain a constant temperature within the edifice. The separate parts of the monument will be connected to one another and to the ground by means exclusively of complexly structured electrical elevators, adjusted to the differing rotation speeds of the structures. Such are the technical bases of the project. Continue reading

Verdun 1918

The charnel-house

Literary & historical extracts

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Image: Human skull at Verdun (1918)
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Hegel, The Spirit of Christianity. Pg. 232:

The pricks of conscience have become blunt, since the deed’s evil spirit has been chased away; there is no longer anything hostile in the man, and the deed remains at most as a soulless carcass lying in the charnel-house of actualities, in memories.

Karl Marx, “English-French Mediation in Italy.” Pg. 480:

The death’s head of diplomacy grins after every revolution and particularly after the reactions which follow every revolution. Diplomacy hides itself in its perfumed charnel-house as often as the thunder of a new revolution rumbles.

Georg Lukács, Theory of the Novel. Pg. 64:

[S]econd nature is not dumb, sensuous and yet senseless like the first: it is a complex of senses — meanings — which has become rigid and strange, and which no longer awaken interiority; it is a charnel-house of long-dead interiorities. Continue reading