A week ago, the centenary of the October Revolution came and went. For this week’s post, I thought I’d share the works of one of its most important witnesses and participants. Victor Serge was a Belgian-Russian anarchist who repatriated to Russia shortly after the Bolshevik seizure of power, joining Lenin and Trotsky in their historic effort to overthrow capitalism. You can download PDFs of Serge’s major works by clicking on the following links:
- Anarchists Never Surrender: Essays, Polemics, and Correspondence on Anarchism, 1908-1938
- Revolution in Danger: Writings from Russia, 1919-1921
- Witness to the German Revolution: Writings from Germany, 1923
- “Is a Proletarian Literature Possible?” (1925)
- Men in Prison (1929)
- Year One of the Russian Revolution (1930)
- Conquered City (1930-1931)
- Birth of Our Power (1931)
- Midnight in the Century (1936-1938)
- From Lenin to Stalin (1937)
- Russia Twenty Years After and Thirty Years After the Russian Revolution (1937, 1947)
- The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1940-1942)
- Mexican Notebooks, 1940-1947
- Unforgiving Years (1946)
- Life and Death of Leon Trotsky (with Natalia Sedova, 1946)
- Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1947)
- A Blaze in the Desert: Selected Poems
Most of the secondary literature on Serge is comprised of rather short essays, articles, and reviews. The only book-length studies in English are Suzi Weissman’s Victor Serge: The Course is Set on Hope (2001) and Paul Gordon’s Vagabond Witness: Victor Serge and the Politics of Hope (2013). Hopefully a more Bolshevik book on Serge will appear at some point. Back in 1994, the Trotskyist scholarly journal Revolutionary History dedicated an issue to Serge under the title Century of the Unexpected, which is probably worth checking out.
One of Susan Sontag’s last works, “Unextinguished: The Case for Victor Serge,” is roughly thirty pages long and appears as the foreword to The Case of Comrade Tulayev, above. Andras Gyorgy’s “But Who, After All, was Victor Serge?” (2008) offers a nice corrective to the aforementioned writings of Sontag and Weissman, both of whom are far more liberal in their politics than Serge ever was. Something similar could be said of Richard Greeman, to be honest, though his translations of Serge redeem him somewhat.
Doug Enaa Greene, an incel Trot historian who hates my guts for some reason, wrote a piece for Red Wedge “Victor Serge: On the Borders of Victory and Defeat” in 2015. Rather pedestrian, on the whole, but nevertheless a serviceable introduction to Serge’s work. Finally, my former teacher Sheila Fitzpatrick wrote a nice review of Serge’s memoirs for The Guardian a few years back. Weissman and others exchanged some critical remarks on Serge in the US socialist magazine Against the Current, which were subsequently compiled and published over at Links.
Philippe Bourrinet’s 2002 essay on Serge, which traces the evolution of his thought vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and relates it concurrent left communist views, is reproduced below. A couple words on this piece: Bourrinet seems to be unfamiliar with Evgenii Preobrazhensky’s concept of “socialist primitive accumulation,” doubtless the source of Serge’s own conception. Obviously, criticisms can and should be made of this notion, but it is not as if it was an original coinage by Serge or an insight into the bloodiness of forced collectivization.
I’ve recently been reading Paresh Chattopadhyay’s book on The Marxian Concept of Capital and the Soviet Experience (1991), which compellingly argues that only the juridical existence of capital was suspended in the USSR while its economic existence remained intact. Serge recognized this fact, Bourrinet alleges, in writing that “where there are wage workers, there is capital.” While I plan to reread the works of Hillel Ticktin to finally determine where I come down on the whole “state capitalism” debate, I must confess I’m more open to this category than previously.
Totalitarianism and state capitalism
January 1, 2002
Night heralds the advent of a morning so radiant and so full of promise we cannot even conceive of it.
Let us not be discouraged.
— Victor Serge
Russia’s transition towards a relative democratization, based on a private capitalist sector, poses three questions: how did so-called “Soviet totalitarianism” take power and endure for such a long time, only to finally collapse; how was it that the transition from state capitalism, which some have called “collectivist planned economy,” to a private capitalist sector was so easily accomplished; and also how can a socialist alternative for the twenty-first century1 be realized that responds to the needs of a new autonomous social movement whose goal is to free man from his economic and political chains.
Victor Serge’s testimony is of unique value for the new social movement for the purpose of addressing these crucial questions in the wake of the disappearance of Stalinism. Victor Serge has bequeathed a valuable legacy to succeeding generations. His works, both political and literary, and his talents, constitute a rich mine for understanding the origin of totalitarianism in Russia as well as how its economic infrastructure functioned for almost seventy years.
Beginning in the 1930s, Serge would make frequent use of the term “totalitarian” in his writings.
The term originated among the Italian antifascists, although the fascists also used it. In 1925 Mussolini proclaimed the “fierce totalitarian will” of his regime. Totalitarianism was above all the total absorption of civil society by the state, which, of course, the fascists defined as no longer capitalist. According to Mussolini himself, “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”2 Hitler’s accession to power, which installed a racist totalitarianism where the state was the embodiment of the will of the Leader (Führer) lastingly impressed the notion of totalitarianism on antifascist literature. Continue reading
Marxism and the challenge of
Often Marxism is caricatured as a rigidly deterministic worldview, whose stress on the inevitability of social change allows no room for individual agency. Determinism needs to be carefully differentiated from fatalism, though, “which would leave us as passive spectators of phenomena in which no direct intervention is felt possible.” Voluntarism, or “the fond hope that one can speed up processes through the force of example and self-sacrifice,” lies across from it on the political spectrum. In fatalistic doctrines of history, events transpire as a result of objective factors following with mechanical necessity, whereas in voluntaristic doctrines of history, events transpire as a result of subjective factors brought about “by a gigantic effort of heroism and will.” Yet “Marxian determinism does not seek a compromise halfway in between,” the Italian communist Amadeo Bordiga maintained, “but dialectically and historically rises above them both.”1 His Hungarian colleague Georg Lukács put it succinctly: “Fatalism and voluntarism only appear contradictory to an undialectical and unhistorical mind.”2
Still, the charge of determinism — in the narrow sense, as a synonym for fatalism — has proven difficult to shake. Counterfactual narratives would thus seem a good test for Marxist theory, to see whether it grants that the past might have been otherwise: What if such and such had occurred, instead of this or that? Ex post facto reasoning of this sort does not carry much weight in historical research, to be sure. Necessity is a tricky enough concept even for philosophers, let alone historians, who are taught not to speculate if other possibilities were latent in a given set of facts. “One can always play a parlor game with the might-have-beens of history,” the British chronicler of the Bolshevik Revolution, Edmund Hallett Carr, opined, “but this has nothing to do with determinism, since the determinist will simply reply that the causes had to be different for things to have been different.”3 The source of Carr’s annoyance here was more specific, however, than any general objection to counterfactuals, and concerned the example often chosen as the basis for such conjectures: namely, what the world would be like if October 1917 never took place. As Carr saw it, the conservative motive behind this choice of topic was obvious, indicating a wish to reverse the results of the Russian Revolution.4
Lately, the Slovenian critic Slavoj Žižek has also explored this theme of counterfactuality. Reviewing the essay collection What Might Have Been: Imaginary History from Twelve Leading Historians back in 2005, he underscored “the conservative sympathies of ‘what if?’ volumes.” Does this mean that, in order to avoid being labeled a conservative, one has to subscribe to a crudely deterministic vision of the past? In such a vision, whatever ends up happening is all that ever could have happened. Žižek rejects this premise emphatically, however, associating it with the vulgar Marxism of Georgii Plekhanov, Lenin’s onetime mentor. Plekhanov argued that there was a “deeper historical necessity” at work in the transition from Jacobin Republic to Napoleonic Empire in France, beyond the individual traits of Napoleon. Yet this raises the issue of whether something similar was going on in the shift from Bolshevism to Stalinism in post-1917 Russia:
For many, the rise of Stalinism was necessary… such that without Stalin, or in the case of his premature death, another leader would have played the role: maybe even Trotsky, his great rival. But for Trotskyists, as for others (e.g., Kotkin), the role of Stalin’s contingent person was crucial: no Stalinism without Stalin. Had he suddenly disappeared from the scene in the early 1920s, things like the forced collectivization of agriculture and “the construction of socialism in one country” would never have taken place. Was the rise of Stalinism simply an accident, then? In other words, the actualization of just one of the historical possibilities lying dormant after the Bolsheviks’ victory?5
One could extend this argument further, however, pointing out that a political phenomenon like Stalinism perhaps resulted from the fact that revolution failed to spread westward, which left Russia isolated and hence vulnerable to capitalist encirclement. Minor details might have been different if someone else succeeded Lenin, but the overall effect largely the same. This begs the question of whether the fate of the Russian Revolution ultimately depended on the success or failure of the German Revolution in 1919. Adorno later mused that “[h]ad things gone otherwise here in 1919, the potential existed to influence developments in Russia and with great probability prevent Stalinism.”6 Such hypotheticals may seem an idle exercise, or an attempt to save face after the fact, but with the centenary of October 1917 approaching it is opportune to reflect. Žižek, for his part, suggests that “a properly dialectical relationship between necessity and contingency… cannot change the past causally, retroactively undoing what happened at the level of facts, yet it can do so counterfactually, retrospectively altering what happened at the level of meaning.”7
Endnotes, a communist theoretical journal located in Britain and the United States, does not indulge such second-guessing when it comes to the history of failed revolutions. “When we address the question of these failures, we cannot resort to ‘what if’ counterfactuals,” the authors indicate in their inaugural issue, “blaming the defeat of revolutionary movements on everything (bad leaders, inadequate organization, wrong ideas, unripe conditions) other than the movements themselves in their determinate content.”8 But if their defeat was somehow preordained — written in the stars or the historic constellation of forces, as it were — then it is futile to do more than just report the facts. These movements failed because they were bound to fail. Nothing could have been different, so it is impossible to assign responsibility to anyone involved. Interpretations which see failure as the consequence of “betrayal,” “loss of nerve,” or even “miscalculation” are no doubt dissatisfying. Precisely because revolutionaries aspire to historical agency, however, seeking to make history rather than simply be made by history, they must be held accountable for their failings. For this very reason, moreover, one finds them preoccupied with the judgment of posterity, which leads to one of Žižek’s more ingenious reversals:
Seeing as the non-occurrence of the Bolshevik Revolution is a favorite topic for all the “what if?” historians, it is worth looking at how Lenin himself related to counterfactuality. He was as far as could be from any reliance on “historical necessity.” Quite the contrary, his Menshevik opponents were the ones who emphasized the impossibility of omitting one of the “stages” prescribed by historical determinism: first bourgeois-democratic, then proletarian revolution. And so when Lenin claimed this was the Augenblick in his “April Theses” of 1917 — i.e., the unique opportunity to start a revolution — his proposal was at first met with contempt and stupefaction from a large majority of his colleagues. Yet he understood that this chance had been made possible by a variety of circumstances, and that the propitious moment might be forfeited if it was not seized, perhaps for decades. Lenin entertained the alternative scenario: What if we do not act now? It was his acute awareness of the catastrophic consequences of not acting which impelled him to act.9
Žižek forgets, though, that the negative impulsion to act in this example is just another form of historical necessity, what Marx referred to as “absolutely imperative need — the practical expression of theoretical necessity.”10 This counterfactual injunction is likely what Lukács had in mind when he claimed in 1919: “Lenin and Trotsky, as truly orthodox, dialectical Marxists, paid little attention to so-called ‘facts,’ blind to the ‘fact’ the Germans had won, and secured for themselves the military means to march into Petrograd at any time, occupy Ukraine, and so on. Because they grasped the necessary materialization of world revolution, they adjusted their actions to this reality, not the ‘facts’.”11 Marxists regard freedom as insight [Einsicht] into necessity, following Hegel and Spinoza, an accurate appraisal of what must be done in order to liberate mankind.
Gregor Baszak’s short review of the 2017 alternative history Lenin Lives!, by Philip Cuncliffe, follows the notes to this introduction. I am told that Cuncliffe thanks me in the acknowledgments, which is rather unexpected and frankly humbling. Either way, I hope to pick up a copy soon.
1 Amadeo Bordiga. “The Lyons Theses: Draft Theses for the Third Congress of the Communist Party of Italy.” L’Unità. (January 1926). Translator not listed.
2 Georg Lukács. “What is Orthodox Marxism?” (second version). Translated by Rodney Livingstone. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. (MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1973). Pg. 4.
3 E.H. Carr. What is History? (Penguin Books. New York, NY: 1990). Pg. 97.
4 “Last term here in Cambridge I saw a talk advertised under the title ‘Was the Russian Revolution Inevitable?’ If I had seen a talk advertised on ‘Were the Wars of the Roses Inevitable?’, though, I’d at once have suspected some joke. Historians write of the Norman Conquest or American War of Independence as if what happened was in fact bound to happen. Nobody accuses them of being determinists or of failing to discuss the possibility that William the Conqueror or the American patriots might have been defeated. Whenever I write about the Russian Revolution of 1917 in precisely this way, however — the only proper way, for the historian — I come under attack for depicting what happened as something bound to happen, and for failing to examine the other things which might have happened. Suppose Stolypin had time to finish his agrarian reforms, it is said, or Russia had not gone to war. Perhaps the revolution would not have occurred. Or suppose the Kerensky government had made good, and leadership of the revolution assumed by the Mensheviks or Social Revolutionaries instead of the Bolsheviks… The point here is that today no one seriously wishes to reverse the results of the Norman Conquest or American Independence, so nobody objects whenever historians treat them as a closed chapter. But plenty of people who have suffered, directly or vicariously, from the results of the Bolshevik victory, or still fear its remoter consequences, desire to register their protest against it.” Ibid., pgs. 96-97.
5 See the section “Counterfactuals,” in Slavoj Žižek. Disparities. (Bloomsbury Academic Publishers. New York, NY: 2016). Pgs. 277-281.
6 Theodor W. Adorno. “Those Twenties.” Critical Models: Interventions and Catchphrases. Translated by Henry W. Pickford. (Columbia University Press. New York, NY: 1998). Pg. 43.
7 Žižek, Disparities. Pg. 278. This is a better formulation than appears elsewhere in the book, where he tries to describe this relationship as “a contingent choice which retroactively becomes necessary,” coming dangerously close Lenin’s warning against dialectical “zigzags” or retroactive justifications.
8 Endnotes. “Bring Out Your Dead.” Volume 1: Preliminary Materials for a Balance Sheet of the Twentieth Century. (London, England: 2008). Pg. 4.
9 Slavoj Žižek. “Lenin Shot at Finland Station! Review of What Might Have Been: Imaginary History from Twelve Leading Historians.” London Review of Books. (Volume 27, № 16: August 2005). Pg. 23.
10 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism: Against Bruno Bauer. Translated by Clemens Dutt and Richard Dixon. Collected Works, Volume 4: August 1844-late Autumn 1845. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1975). Pg. 37.
11 Georg Lukács. “What is Orthodox Marxism?” (first version). Translated by Michael McColgan, in Tactics and Ethics: The Question of Parliamentarism and Other Essays. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2014). Pg. 26.
Philip Cunliffe, Lenin Lives! Reimagining
the Russian Revolution, 1917-2017.
Alresford, UK: Zero Books, 2017.
When President Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord on June 1, 2017, for many liberals it meant that doom was upon us, that the earth was surely soon to be uninhabitable. Yet, if the Paris Accord was the best shot that our civilization had at survival, we were perhaps doomed from the start. NASA scientist James Hansen, at least, one of the earliest voices to raise the alarms about the effects of climate change, had deemed the Accord to be thoroughly inadequate to begin with.1
Here’s an alternative way in which the year 2017 might have unfolded:
It is an unseasonably warm November 2017 in Leningrad, although within planned temperature ranges. There is discussion among atmospheric engineers and climate planners whether to make minor adjustments to the cloud systems they are responsible for in order to reflect more sunlight away from the northern hemisphere, or whether to accelerate the construction of orbiting Lagrange space mirrors intended for longer term climate control.2
In this scenario, climate change is understood to be an administrative problem, albeit one that is administered by “climate planners” who consciously choose to set earth’s thermometer at a specific temperature range.
In the real world of today, Leningrad is St. Petersburg, Russia is governed by a neoliberal autocrat, and earth’s climate is out of control. The counterfactual history envisioned above was penned by Philip Cunliffe, author of the new book Lenin Lives! Reimagining the Russian Revolution 1917-2017, published by Zero Books. As the title suggests, the book imagines an alternative history of the twentieth century, one in which the October Revolution was soon followed by successful revolutions in the capitalist centers of the West, in England, France, Germany, and — the big prize — the United States.
Writing counterfactual history, Cunliffe notes, has so far been the domain of conservative revisionists. In one such infamous counterfactual, for example, Winston Churchill envisioned his dream scenario — the glorious ascendancy of a racialized Anglo-Saxon global empire, had Robert E. Lee only won the battle of Gettysburg (85). Yet, as Cunliffe usefully points out, the notion of “what if” appears to have been inscribed into the very project of Bolshevism itself, a project “self-consciously predicated on counterfactuals” (20; italics in the original). What, in other words, if Lenin’s plan that a revolution in Russia would provide the spark that would light the flames of revolution in Germany and elsewhere had actually succeeded? Lenin didn’t know quite what would happen in the wake of the October Revolution, but it was a gamble worth making. Human freedom required it.
Because Marxism addresses itself principally to history, its adherents often traffic in historical predictions. This was true of Marx and Engels no less than their followers, and more often than not their predictions turned out to be inaccurate or mistaken. Proletarian revolution — which Marx sometimes called “the revolution of the nineteenth century” — did not ultimately win out or carry the day. Capitalism has not yet collapsed, and despite the periodic pronouncements of Marxist professors every time the stock market dips, none of the crises it’s endured has proved terminal.
Karl Popper, Raymond Aron, and other opponents of Marxian theory often raise the failure of such forecasts as proof that its doctrine is “unfalsifiable.” Opponents of Marxism are not the only ones who rejoice at Marxism’s frustrated prognostications; opportunistic revisionists have also taken comfort whenever things don’t quite pan out. Georg Lukács observed almost a hundred years ago that “the opportunist interpretation of Marxism immediately fastens on to the so-called errors of Marx’s individual predictions in order to eliminate revolution root and branch from Marxism as a whole.”
Some of this is rather unavoidable. Debates about whether the capitalist breakdown is inevitable, the vagaries of Zusammenbruchstheorie, necessarily involve speculation about the future results of present dynamics — whether self-annihilation is a built-in feature of capitalism, whether the entire mode of production is a ticking time-bomb. Yet there have been concrete instances in which the foresight of certain Marxists seems almost prophetic in hindsight. Not just in broad strokes, either, as for example the eventual triumph of bourgeois economics across the globe.
Engels’ very detailed prediction, originally made in 1887, came true almost to the letter:
The only war left for Prussia-Germany to wage will be a world war, a world war, moreover, of an extent and violence hitherto unimagined. Eight to ten million soldiers will be at each other’s throats and in the process they will strip Europe barer than a swarm of locusts.
The depredations of the Thirty Years’ War compressed into three to four years and extended over the entire continent; famine, disease, the universal lapse into barbarism, both of the armies and the people, in the wake of acute misery; irretrievable dislocation of our artificial system of trade, industry, and credit, ending in universal bankruptcy; collapse of the old states and their conventional political wisdom to the point where crowns will roll into the gutters by the dozen, and no one will be around to pick them up; the absolute impossibility of foreseeing how it will all end and who will emerge as victor from the battle.
Only one consequence is absolutely certain: universal exhaustion and the creation of the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class.
Regarding this last line, “the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class” undoubtedly were created by the world war between great capitalist powers. Whether these conditions were acted upon is another, sadder story. Counterfactuals aside, the fact remains that things could have been otherwise. Historic circumstances conspired to open up a definite field of potential outcomes, in which international proletarian revolution seemed not just abstractly possible but concretely probable.
Four months back, the Museum of Modern Art opened an exhibit entitled A Revolutionary Impulse: Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde. The show received mostly favorable write-ups in liberal outlets like New York Times and New Yorker as well as art/culture mags like Studio International, Seca Art, and Hedonist. Marxist and leftish publications such as World Socialist Website (organ of the Socialist Equality Party) and Brooklyn Rail also ran appreciative reviews of the exhibition.
Perhaps my favorite critical reflection on the show came from Caesura, an offshoot from the Platypus Affiliated Society exclusively focused on art, music, and literature. It featured a fairly characteristic but nevertheless poignant observation:
Of the staggering number of objects on display, most striking was filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s 1925 collaboration with Rodchenko, Kino-Pravda no.21, a propaganda film (the title translates to cinema-truth) tracking the failing health, death and funeral of Lenin. Black and white graphics contributed by Rodchenko depicting, without comment, the medical statistics of the ailing revolutionary leader created a palpable sense of worry as they edge, at an excruciatingly slow pace, towards the result we all know already: Lenin’s death in 1924. The film showed the massive long-faced procession of mourners at his funeral, dedicating portrait shots and name plates to party leaders: a hunched over, tear stricken Clara Zetkin, a somber Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin steadfastly looking ahead. The latter was utterly chilling — a glimpse of a future yet unknown to the filmmakers but known all too well today. Standing, in 2017, in the American Museum of Modern Art in a moment of utter political confusion, the tragedy of this moment was cutting. Could the mourners have possibly known that they had witnessed both the beginning and the end of a moment of tremendous historical potential? Did Vertov and Rodchenko realize that in their montage of party leaders it would be Stalin who would take power? Did they know that, after the crippling defeat of the German Left the year prior, 1924 would mark a closing and not an opening of history?
Caesura’s reviewer further speculates that “if the art of the Russian avant-garde has a timeless quality, it is because of its unique historical origin. Never before or since have artists operated under the thrall of three societies — crumbling czarist Russia, the dynamic bourgeois west, and the advancing specter of socialism — so different. It expresses all three but belongs to none.” A similar sentiment is captured by a line in the New Yorker: “History is not a constant march forward; it can stand still for decades and then, as it did in Russia a hundred years ago, explode in a flash.” This line itself merely paraphrases a quip attributed to Lenin, to the effect that “there are decades where nothing happens, but then there are weeks where decades happen.”
I myself attended the exhibit, and was impressed by what I saw. Some of the same pieces had appeared in special galleries across the city over the last few years, but the sheer wealth of material concentrated in one space was breathtaking. Furthermore, the way this material was organized and formally arranged was skillful. You can see a picture of me standing next to Lissitzky’s “new man of communism,” taken from his series for Victory over the Sun. Below you can read a fine meditation on the show written by Bloom Correo, a young ultraleft author who visited NYC just to see it.
Gustavs Klucis — also known as Gustav Klutsis, the Russian spelling of his name — was one of the pioneers of Soviet agitprop graphic design, particularly prominent for his revolutionary use of the medium of photomontage to create political posters, book designs, newspaper and magazine illustrations. He was born in the small village of Ruen in Latvia. He studied art in Riga from 1913 to 1915, and later in Petrograd from 1915 to 1917. He then continued his education at SVOMAS-VKhUTEMAS in Moscow. It was there that he met Valentina Kulagina, his future wife and a prominent poster/book designer herself.
As a student, Klucis worked with Tatlin, Malevich, Lissitzky, and other representatives of the new artistic order in the new state. In his early works he was particularly preoccupied with the problems of representation of three-dimensional space and spatial construction. In 1919 he created his first photocollage Dynamic City, where photography was used as an element of construction and illustration. In 1920 Klucis joined the Communist party; his works around this time sought to transform the logic of political thought and propaganda into Suprematist form, often using documentary images of Lenin, Trotsky, and eventually Stalin in his radical poster designs.
After graduating from VKhUTEMAS, Klucis started teaching and working in a variety of experimental media. He became an active member of INKhUK and a militant champion of Constructivism. Klucis advocated the rejection of painting and was actively involved in making production art [proizvodstvennoe iskusstvo], such as multimedia agitprop kiosks to be installed on the streets of Moscow, integrating radio-orators, film screens, and newsprint displays. Two such structures were constructed for the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in November 1922 and subsequently enjoyed great popularity as their plans were published and models exhibited. Through these constructions Klucis developed his own individual method of combining slogans and functional structures built around simple geometrical figures — this method would later lie at the core of his works on paper as well.
Klucis’ first photomontage designs for books and magazine covers were published in 1923, around the same time that Rodchenko was experimenting with the medium in the magazine LEF and the publication of Mayakovsky’s poem Pro Eto. Klucis recognized that the “fixed reality” of photography offered endless possibilities for a new form of propaganda art that was accessible and effective. He acquired his own camera in 1924 which enabled him to incorporate his own photographs in the collages. Thanks to Klucis, Rodchenko and Sergei Senkin, by late 1924, the use of photomontage in publication of books and illustrations had been consolidated.
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.
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.”
№ 90, 10.1.2016
Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza, editors
“Stalin: What Does the Name Stand for?”
Crisis and Critique 3, no. 1 (3.29.2016)1
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
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.
“Revisionism” — Revisionismus, révisionnisme, ревизионизм — is a word of relatively recent vintage. Most etymologies date its origin to around 1903, when the revisionist dispute befell German Social Democracy. Its meaning has remained more or less constant since then: the term denotes an effort to revise or otherwise reenvision some prior doctrine or established consensus. Already in its short career, however, revisionism has managed to amass a range of historical referents. Given this polysemic quality, a bit of disentanglement seems in order to sort out the different phenomena it signifies.
Ernst Nolte’s death late last week, at the age of 93, offers a unique opportunity for such reflection. The controversial historian rose to international prominence, or at least achieved a certain notoriety, during the mid-1980s as part of the “historians’ quarrel” [Historikerstreit]. Beginning with an address he delivered in Munich in June 1980, entitled “Between Historical Legend and Revisionism?”, Nolte sought to place the Nazi genocide within the context of a global civil war [Weltbürgerkrieg] that lasted from the October Revolution in 1917 to the fall of Berlin in May 1945. He framed it as an unfortunate (but understandable) response to the horrific violence unleashed by the Bolsheviks in Russia:
Auschwitz was not primarily a result of traditional antisemitism, and not just one more case of “genocide.” It was a fear-borne reaction to acts of annihilation that took place during the Russian Revolution. While the fact that it was more irrational, terrible, and repulsive than its precursor provides a foundation for the notion of singularity, none of this alters that the so-called [!!!] annihilation of the Jews by the Third Reich was a reaction or a distorted copy and not a first act or an original.
Six years later, in the editorial that sparked the controversy, Nolte again posed the question: “Did the National Socialists or Hitler perhaps commit an ‘Asiatic’ deed merely because they considered themselves potential victims of an ‘Asiatic’ deed? Wasn’t the Gulag Archipelago primary to Auschwitz?” For Nolte, “the Bolsheviks’ murder of an entire class was the logical and factual prius of the ‘racial murder’ of National Socialism…” Yet, despite these supposed mitigating circumstances, Germany alone was trapped in “a past that will not pass.” Twisting the knife, he added, “talk about ‘the guilt of the Germans’ blithely overlooks the similarity to the talk about ‘the guilt of the Jews,’ which was a main argument of the National Socialists.” Predictably, Nolte’s provocations led to an uproar, as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung was flooded with angry letters.
Jürgen Habermas was among those who sent a reply the summer of 1986. Immediately, this added a great deal of weight to the debate. At the time, Habermas was at the height of his powers, by far the country’s best-known intellectual. Heir apparent to Theodor Adorno, he represented the “second generation” of Frankfurt School critical theory. Nolte had been a follower of Martin Heidegger, the (in)famous Nazi philosopher against whom Adorno had tirelessly polemicized, so the ghosts of the Doktorväter were close at hand. This was evident from the outset, as Habermas inveighed against the apologetic tendencies at work “in what Nolte, the student of Heidegger, calls his ‘philosophical writing of history’.” Even statements downplaying the relevance of these forebears tacitly invoked their authority, as for example when Habermas declared that “it is not a matter of Popper versus Adorno, nor of scholarly differences of opinion, nor about questions of freedom from value judgments [Wertfreiheit]. Rather, it is about the public use of history.” Driving this point home, a few pages down, he reiterated: “After 1945… we read [Martin] Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, and Hans Freyer, even Ernst Jünger, differently than before 1933.”
Looking back at this exchange now thirty years on, one wonders whether this is not the crux of the matter. Can an event be historicized without diminishing its singularity? Or does the very act of contextualization thereby render it mundane? Is it possible to simultaneously “comprehend and condemn,” as Christian Meier suggested in the title of his contribution to the debate? To compare two distinct objects is to relate them, if not relativize them as such. Hans Mommsen objected to claims made by Nolte and his attack dog, Joachim Fest, on the grounds that they surreptitiously aimed at “relativizing” Nazism through its comparison with Bolshevism. By insisting on their comparability, or “the permissibility of certain comparisons” (as Nolte put it), all talk of singularity swiftly goes out the window. François Furet, revisionist historian of the French Revolution and unabashed admirer of his German counterpart, one of Nolte’s greatest merits was to have “quickly gone beyond the prohibition against putting Bolshevism and Nazism in the same bag.” Paul Ricoeur noted in Memory, History, Forgetting, just a year before his death, “this massive use of comparison settles the fate of singularity or uniqueness, since this alone permits the identification of differences… As soon as the critical debate has been widened in this way, Nolte expects it will allow this past ‘to pass’ like any other and be appropriated.” Continue reading
Roland Boer has a new article out on Anatolii Lunacharskii’s controversial two-volume treatise, Religion and Socialism (1908, 1911). Lunacharskii was the first Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment, in charge of education initiatives throughout the fledgling socialist republic. His campaigns to fight illiteracy, making secular education available in the most distant reaches of the union, were highly effective. Moreover, Lunacharskii’s tolerant temperament toward independent cultural and artistic groups — i.e., not forcibly unionized or centrally run by the state — during his tenure throughout the 1920s stands in stark contrast to the Stalinist policies established in the mid-1930s, which put an end to such associations and civil society groupings. Also, he was fairly receptive to new literary and aesthetic styles and movements, especially compared to the prescriptions handed down by Zhdanov et al. at the Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1934. Sheila Fitzpatrick’s first book is a study of the Commissariat of Enlightenment under Lunacharskii, and it provides an excellent institutional survey, as well as a portrait of the “Russian Faust” (a title given him by Mikhail Lifshitz).
Boer’s article with justice claims to be “first full engagement in English with Anatolii Lunacharskii’s near lost work, Religion and Socialism.” The reason the book is so obscure today is that it gave theoretical expression to the concept of god-building, an unusual tendency within prewar Bolshevism reviled by Lenin. Like many of the heresies that rocked the early Church in Roman Christianity, its contents are primarily known through texts written condemning it. Still, this point is easily exaggerated. It is not quite as rare as Boer makes it out to be. For example, in the gloss provided by his article:
Conditions: Lost and Found
Religion and Socialism is a work that has been lost and found. Its loss was hardly due to any lack of quality. The reason is, rather, its particular history. Lenin launched a spirited attack when it was published, persuading the editorial board of Proletarii to condemn it. Or rather, he lumped God-building in with the Left-Bolshevik interest in empiriocriticism and otzovism, as much for political as for theoretical reasons. Seeing the increasing appeal of these not necessarily connected positions among some younger and very articulate Bolsheviks, Lenin realized the need to quell the leftward push, thereby bringing philosophical questions to the fore. In hindsight, of course, he was probably correct, for a revolutionary push at the time would have generated an even fiercer reaction. But a side effect was the complete sidelining of Religion and Socialism. And given Lenin’s crucial role in the 1917 revolution and the subsequent establishment of communism in Russia, the few copies of the book were left to the dust and bookworms of forgotten archival corners.
The finding of such a work has thereby entailed a little sleuthing, for it has proved exceedingly difficult to find. The editors of the eight-volume Collected Works chose not to include Religion and Socialism in that collection. By contrast, the introduction to a separate volume, called Religion and Enlightenment, offers a statement concerning the waywardness of Religion and Socialism and cites Lunacharskii’s own somewhat halfhearted distancing from the work in his later statements. Religion and Enlightenment includes a wide range of material, including Vvedenie v istoriiu religii [Introduction to the History of Religion], lectures from 1918 which were reworked and published in 1923, and material that goes back to the early 1900s. Given this unfavorable early press and the subsequent Bolshevik victory, Religion and Socialism remained a work out of favor. A Yiddish translation of Religion and Socialism exists, but as far as the original work in Russian is concerned, only a few extant copies remain. The one in the National Library of St. Petersburg turned out to be too fragile to scan. Only after further inquiry (by my colleague, Sergey Kozin) was a copy found in the Lenin Library in Moscow. A high fee for scanning the two volumes resulted in a much-treasured copy being made, which is in our possession and is, to my knowledge, the only PDF version of it in the world. Since then, the text has been screened, converted into modern Cyrillic script (it was published before the 1917 language reform), and proofread. In addition to its republication in Russian, a translation is also planned.
An edifying tale, and evidence of his commitment. I do wish that Professor Boer had maybe approached me before sending his colleague on a wild goose chase to Saint Petersburg or shelling out a bunch of cash to the Lenin Library, however, because he might have saved himself some money. (The Lenin Library probably could use the funds, so it’s not too bad if viewed as a donation). Religion and Socialism has been available online for years now, free of charge, scanned by the University of Minnesota and Indiana University both. One page is missing from the second volume, but otherwise it’s all there. You can download them for free here, OCRed and everything:
Needless to say, I am less impressed by Lunacharskii’s god-building arguments than Boer. Lunacharskii has long been one of Boer’s favorites, alongside Ernst Bloch. His article does provide a very useful overview, though, even if the title is misleading. Misleading because it suggests that he deals with god-builders in the plural, whereas he really just deals with Lunacharskii in the singular (Maksim Gorkii and Vladimir Bazarov [Rudnev] are barely mentioned, if at all). Read it here.
- А.В. Луначарский, Религия и социализм, том I (1908)
- А.В. Луначарский, Религия и социализм, том II (1911)
Great to hear that a reissue in modern Russian is projected, as well as a translation into English. Boer brought up the 1921 Yiddish translation, published in New York, but forgot to mention the Italian translation prepared in 1973. In my next post, I’ll upload the full OCRed text of the document sans pre-reform orthography so that Russian readers can check it out. Though I should mention that the obsolete characters were removed in the copy/paste by a very crude find-and-replace method on Microsoft Office and not by painstakingly going through all 630 pages of the original in order to spell check.
For those who don’t know, Russian spelling was extensively reformed in 1917-1918 (by none other than Lunacharskii). The most important changes were
- the dropping of the hard sign “ъ” at the end of words, where it previously appeared in any word that otherwise would have ended in a consonant;
- the global replacement of “і” (the “dotted i” or “decimal i”) with “и” (i);
- the global replacement of “ѣ” (iat) with е (ie);
- a change in the genitive singular ending of adjectives, -аго becoming -ого, and -яго becoming -его.