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The Anti-68 (La Pensée anti-68 amongst others)…

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Quarante ans de contre-révolution triomphante en Occident nous ont affligés de deux tares jumelles, également néfastes, mais qui forment ensemble un dispositif impitoyable: le pacifisme et le radicalisme.”

“Forty years of triumphant counterrevolution in the West has left us with twin defects, equally deadly, but which together form an implacable apparatus: non-violence and radicalism.”

À Nos amis. Le Comité Invisible. 2014.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, is now “well liked” in Germany and “loved” in France – part of the national DNA (1968: Power to the Imagination. NYRB). Our happiness at this recognition – perhaps one day to be extended to our national treasure, Tariq Ali – inspires us to reflections on the uprisings that made the Green leader’s fame.  The 50th anniversary of the événements has been, and will be, greeted in France with a flood of articles, books, radio, television programmes and, what one might call “teach-ins”. There is a lesser, but audible, interest in the English-speaking world and elsewhere. In homage, the tête de cortège on this year’s Paris May Day promised in a communiqué, in tribute to the enragés of the Mouvement du 22 Mars  a re-enactment of the May riots in the Quartier Latin. Those promoted by the friends of Le Comité Invisible ended up with a little smashing up of the nearest MacDonald’s and some bus shelters.

For some commentators on the legacy of 68, from the left, Cohn-Bendit stands out not just as a sign of middle-aged mellowing into the political mainstream, and a warning about the transience of elfin cuteness. The Franco-German politician represents the capture of its radical forces by Capital. Others, from more centrists position, state that what remains of the far-left has been “absorbed” by the French political system, the latest stage being Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France insoumise which pitches its objectives not at creating communism, or socialism, but a left populism aiming at a Sixth Republic.

A more thorough-going stand is to claim, in common with parts of the right, that 68 was a wrong turning in the first place. That it was the rise of the Me (too?) Generation in alliance with cosmopolitan capital which has sapped the sovereign rights of the People…or the Nation.

The “liberal-libertarianism” of the cherished contestataire and his ecological current already dominant in Die Grünen is in close communication with the “right and left” modernisers now assembled behind President Macron. Is this just their choice? For some Cohen-Bendit’s career is concomitant with post-Fordist culture, supple politics in the mould of the diversity of flexible production. In promoting, in his fashion, the politics of the right to be different and the cultural needs of identity, with liberal  economics, Danny le Rouge has assumed his role in “turning the entire social field into commodities. “

The many readers of Régis Debray’s repetitions of forty years will recognise this theme. Danny le rouge was one of the litter born in the “cradle of a new bourgeois society”. “Capital’s development strategy required the cultural revolution of May”. May 68, dubbed a “demand for identity” was a “marketable object”. He “communion of egos on the barricades becoming generalised egocentrism, the gift of self, the cult of me, the exaltation of liberties, the enshrinement of inequalities…” (1)

Debray has never abandoned this refrain, edging ever closer to nationalism as he ribs against the process of “Americanisation”, the global marketplace, and the vogue for “sans-frontiérisme” (Éloge de frontiers 2010). Perhaps he is haunted by the melancholy mercantile state, Orsenna, pictured by his favourite author, Julien Gracq in Le Rivage des Syrtes (1951). The encirclement never ends…..

Guy Debord, from the Situationists, celebrated post-facto in the 68 events, to whom the Tête de Cortege owe some debt, wrote of the victory of the “integrated spectacle”, and also of the “Americanisation of the world”. It is dominated by secret societies manipulated by nameless ‘elites” (Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. 1988)

More modestly, and accurately Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello in the New Spirit of Capitalism (1999), described how everything from managerial ‘science’ to cultural production has used themes of autonomy and choice in capturing a new post-68 public for companies and the market. There is equally,  no doubt something more still to say about ‘post-modernism’ and the post-68 development of capitalism.

La Pensée anti-68.

The theme that ‘68’ has been absorbed by capitalism, energised into forms of ‘liberalism’, is as well known, as it is coterminous with the events themselves. It is tackled in Audier’s indispensable La Pensée anti-68. (2009) Audier has little trouble pointing out that it was the most conservative section of the Parti Communiste français (PCF) which declared that the student revolutionaries were playing the bosses’ game.

The critique of individualism, Audier points out, appeared in France in a variety of forms. Many, from both right and left, were influenced by Christopher Lasch’s 1979 Culture of Narcissism (from a certain US left), and a host of overtly right-wing writers out to defend the Nation and a cohesive society against the egotism of marketisation. An ‘anti-68’ cast of thought has developed. This extends from the obvious targets on the right, pessimistic cultural commentators such as Alain Finkielkraut (the list of others in this vein is long, very long), to the ‘anti-liberal’ admirer of George Orwell’s ‘common decency” another critic of the ‘doublethink’ of the “society of the spectacle”, Jean-Claude Michéa (La double pensée. 2008).

He is less convincing when attacking the theorist of ‘menaces’ against collective identity, Pierre-André Taguieff, also a former Situationist. Subsequently Taguieff has attempted to explain populism and the appeal of the far-right, not to support it (La revanche du nationalisme. 2015). The treatment of other writers, such as Luc Ferry and Alain Renault, who constructed a ‘geology’ of 68 ideas, including well-known names such as Foucault, Bourdieu and Althusser, only retrospectively connected with the events is better framed. But Audier ignores some of their well-targeted shafts against the ‘research’ that went into Madness and Civilisation’s account of the incarceration of the insane, the banality and circulatory of Bourdieu’s concepts of ‘cultural capital’ in social reproduction, and Althusser’s ‘anti-humanism’ taken to ethical conclusions – above all his failure to begin to tackle the issue of Stalinism.

La Pensée 68 is, above all, remarkable for its account of the complexities of liberal thought. This does not just include ‘neo-liberalism’ but a sceptical and democratic strain represented by Raymond Aron (he indicates – far from opposed to ‘68’ en bloc) to the various forms of American progressivism, such as John Dewey with which I suspect many of us in Europe are less than familiar with. He puts his finger on the real issues behind ‘neo-conservatism’ and neoliberalism. This is far from a far from a 68 ‘permissive;’ ideology. Stuart Hall, called Thatcherism ‘authoritarian populism’ and the first word has real weight. Cultural liberalism, against Michéa, and a host of others, is not reducible to the ‘market’. We should not lightly reject the liberal value of tolerance, as opposed to such authoritarianism as the libertarian left.

The principal argument of La Pensée anti-68, then, which has worn well since the publication of La Pensée a decade ago, is that the hatred of the symbolic moment of 68 should be understood as more than a reaction. It is denial of what he calls, citing Claude Lefort celebrated 1980 essay on human rights, the opening up of new terrains of social affirmation. (2) In this sense it was not the grass roots May comités d’action, documented in an accessible form in Loyer’s book, which were harbingers of the political future. Particular forms of struggle may change, but the expansion of the political terrain for humanist self-assertion which is the enduring legacy of May 68.

Gauchisme Culturel. 

The counter-culture, or, more broadly, the wish to live ‘differently’ without repression, affirming autonomy and creativity, might be seen as a the ground for longer-lasting changes To Jean-Pierre Le Goff in his Postscript to Mai 68, l’héritage impossible (2002), the counter-cultural “liberation of désir”, the critique of authority, a wish for self-development and sexual freedom, cultural leftism “gauchisme culturel”, is the most important legacy of the time. While political leftism, attempts to make a real revolution, failed, the diverse ‘social movements’, as they used to be known, for women’s rights, gay rights, green politics, and what is today called “intersectionality” did not only have a cultural impact.

Perhaps, regrettably, Le Goff has joined the ‘anti-68ers’. From the 1980s, onwards Le Goff argues in the essays collected in La gauche à l’agonie? they have served as a mask, or a radical substitute, for the governing French left’s adoption of neo-liberal economics. The final articles are denunciations of a further 68 inheritance, multi-culturalism, a Third Worldism that’s become, “islamogauchisme” and efforts to “understand” Jihadism by the French equivalents of Giles Fraser.

One would listen to Le Goff’s catchphrases if he managed to reaffirm internationalist universalism. Does he stand like a rock with the leftists, democrats and liberals fighting Islamism in Muslim countries? He does not. In place of such commitment Le Goff ruminates over the managerial use of the youthful creativity, in a pseudo-68 liberation, the debris of French republican nationalism, and the narcissism ( a word one wishes vaporisation in the next edition of Newspeak) of those who declare themselves citizens of the world.

In the absence of history’s ability to repeat its experiments it is hard to disprove the view that May 68 played a part in regenerating capitalism. More pressing, as Serge Audier states in Le Monde this March, is the persistence and radicalisation of the anti-68 reaction ( Le discours anti-68 s’est radicalisé ).

The importance that its alternative, whether disguised as the Republic or not, the Nation, or National Sovereignty, the ultimate Identity, has taken hold of political debate in France and most of the West cannot be underestimated.

In Britain as the editors of New Left Review giggled at the result, a number of leftists have joined in the ‘anti-68’ Carnival or Reaction that has followed Brexit, and found merit in les anglais de souche who supported the anti-European break (55 Arguments for Lexit). La France insoumise drapes itself in the Tricolor, and chants the Marseillaise. Give me the cosmopolitan sans-frontières with their universal human rights any day.

 

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(1) A Modest Contribution to the Rites and Ceremonies of the Tenth Anniversary. Régis Debray. New Left Review (First series). No 115. 1979.

(2) The Politics of Human Rights in. The Political Forms of Modern Society Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism Claude Lefort. Edited and Introduced by John B. Thompson. The Politics of Human Rights. MIT Press. See also Les droits de l’homme et l’Etat providence. Reprinted in Claude Lefort essays sur le politique. Seuil. 1986.

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L’événement 68. Emmanuelle Loyer. Champs histoire. 2008/2018.

La Pensée anti-68. Serge Audier. La Découverte/Poche. 2009.

La gauche à l’agonie? 1968 – 2017. Jean-Pierre Le Goff. Perrin 2017.

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Written by Andrew Coates

May 10, 2018 at 12:45 pm

Rethinking Democracy, Edited by Leo Panitch and Greg Albo. Socialist Register. 2018. Review.

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Review “Populism and Socialist Democracy” 

Rethinking Democracy, Edited by Leo Panitch and Greg Albo. Socialist Register. 2018. Merlin Press. 

(This appears in the latest issue of Chartist May/June 2018 no 292).

For Leo Panitch and Greg Albo “the social revolution of building capacities for self government” is more important than gaining state power. “Actually existing liberal democracy” is entangled with anti-democratic institutions. The 2018 edition of the Socialist Register explores the potential of “socialist democracy” against reactionary “populist appeals in the name of defending ‘our’ democracy’”. In doing so some contributors see merit in forms of ‘left-populism’. 

The electoral appeal of democratic socialist ideas – they cite Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders – inner-party democracy and social struggles have come to the fore. Ramon Ribera Fumaz and Greig Charnock offer a valuable account of the ‘citizens’ revolution’ attempted by Barcelona en comú (BeC). But, away from its ideology and programme, what of the political history of BeC’s ally, Spain’s national Podemos, from personalities to strategic difficulties? The electoral bloc that has enabled the Portuguese left to win power and govern successful, involves not just ‘new’ forces but some old ones, including the Socialists and the very old Portuguese Communist Party (PCP)

Do neoliberal elites ‘fear’ democracy? A number of contributors work with Jacques Rancière’s ‘anti-institutional’ picture of radical democracy. The French theorist claimed that Western elites, are believers in technocratic competence, and have a veritable hatred of the demos. James Foley and Pete Ramand detect this in a fear of referendums. Rancière claimed that the No vote in the 2005 French Referendum on a European Constitution was a major set back to those who wished their “science” to be acclaimed by the masses (La Haine de la démocratie. 2005).

That popular consultation witnessed a division on the French left, inside both radical and reformist camps. It was between those supporting national sovereignty and those who favoured European unity, however imperfect. (1) The rejection of the European Constitution only happened with the help of the votes of the far-right Front National, and conservative ‘Sovereigntists’. The result, many say, strengthened not democracy but appeals to France, the Nation, not just by the right but also by left-wing French politicians. After eventual French endorsement, the EU went ahead with its plans anyway.

Denis Pilon’s ‘Struggle over Actually Existing Democracy’ offers critique of ‘proceduralist’ democracy. Alex Demiorović considers Radical democracy, from Miguel Abensour (1939 – 2017) who was indebted to  council communism, Rancière, to the familiar figures of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Adepts of abstract theory will find much to mull over.

Do these theorists offer “innovative democratic strategies”? Should we consider one of the few concrete ideas offered by Rancière, who looked to Periclean Athens and found public office open to selection by lot? The French La France insoumise (LFI) led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon,  uses this procedure widely, including for selecting a majority of delegates to its Conferences. It means that there are no formal currents, organised differences of opinion, inside his movement. This is even less attractive than the “consensual” decision-making imposed in the Occupy! movement.

The ‘fear’ of populists of the left and the right fails to look into why socialists may oppose populism. It is not disdain of the great unwashed, but differences over the claim that there is left-wing potential in the present ways the “people” can be mobilised against the ‘elite’.

Donald Trump once declared, “The only important thing is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything.” Can the People become Sovereign on conditions that they are hurled against the ‘not-People’?

Foley and Ramand take on board Perry Anderson’s critique of the ‘vagueness’ of the term elite, and the idea that this is the Enemy. Three contributions on the media also register another side of his doubts, the way it neglects the way hegemonic ideas gain acceptance. They offer useful insights into the role of the media in constructing ruling class hegemony. The revelations about Cambridge Analytica indicate that grand ideas, from Laclau and Mouffe, about the Enemy, and the need for democratic dissensus, may be less attractive in the face of manipulated hatred. The benefits for the equally elusive People in this form of politics are less than evident.

This fear of Others perhaps sums up right-wing populism, and mass conservative ideas, too neatly. If liberals, or the very different European left, turn to Othering the rightwing Populists – and why not? – it is because their policies place them as Corporate ventriloquists. Martijn Konings brings us back to the importance of economic rationality. He indicates how a “commitment to the speculative logic of risk” continues to be attractive to some voters. It can, paradoxically, be worked into appeal to the People. While many during the Brexit Referendum claimed to defend our Home against the outside, the neo-liberal wing of the Brexit campaign offered to make Britain a free entrepreneur on the world stage. Trump embodies both at the same time: he is a free-marketer and determined opponent of open markets.

Rethinking Democracy is thought provoking rather than answer-offering. The accelerating crisis of most of European social democracy is now provoking reflection and soul-searching. Recent elections have left Italian socialists of all stripes voiceless, the Dutch Labour Party has been overtaken by the Greens, and, after the long-signalled melt down of the Parliamentary left, the anti-populist President Macron and his La République en marche (LRM) holding all the reins of power. There is much to think about.

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See (1) Pages 135 – 4. 68 et Après. Les heritages égarés. Benjamin Stora, Stock,. 2018.

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Leftist Trainspotting Fun from Labour Party Marxists, from “bewildered” LRC, “silent Corbyn”, to AWL Stasi “busybodies”.

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Labour Party Marxist in the Thick of the Class Struggle.

The Irish Socialist Workers Party has dissolved itself into a “network”. “The change in name to Socialist Workers Network reflects a decision to focus on building People Before Profit, and within that to win and educate as many members as possible in revolutionary socialist politics.” (SW Ireland)

Now while the SWN is honest about what it is doing, and has good reasons to do so given that People Before Profit has some, limited, political presence, we cannot say the same for Labour Party Marxists.

This is from its mission statement,

  1. The central aim of Labour Party Marxists is to transform the Labour Party into an instrument for working class advance and international socialism. Towards that end we will join with others and seek the closest unity of the left inside and outside the party.

No doubt about that  which it trumpets – if that’s the right word for declarations that practically nobody ever reads.

But  there’s nothing about LPM’s inks with the Weekly Worker and the Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee CPGB-PCC).

The Weekly Worker is a paper which produces some interesting material, some indeed very useful articles, but whose owners, said CPGB-PCC, have taste for political stunts not to mention an alliance with cascadeur  in chief, Tony ‘Monster Raving’ Greenstein Party. 

Not much closest possible unity with the rest of the left from that quarter!

They have just issued a spate of articles on the site of Labour Party Marxists  which may perhaps indicate this….

Cde Stan Keable (today, 15th of February)  sums up last week’s Labour Representation Committee Meeting, 

Labour Representation Committee: Reduced to a think tank?

Around 120 Labour Representation Committee members gathered in London’s Conway Hall on February 10 for yet another angst-ridden ‘special’ general meeting (SGM), in which a bewildered leadership shared with its rank and file its own failure – like most of the left – to draw into membership or engage with the ‘radicalised’ mass intake of Corbyn supporters into the Labour Party.

Perhaps they ought to have debated this  other 15th of February recent article?

Clause 4: Why revive a stinking corpse?

Jack Conrad (Chamberlain) questions the worth of the ‘Labour4Clause4’ campaign being promoted by Socialist Appeal. Instead of fostering illusions in Fabian socialism, surely the task of Marxists is to win the Labour Party to Marxist socialism.

But the prize must go to this chef d’oeuvre by Carla Roberts, also on the 15th of February (a busy day for LPM indeed!)

Witch-hunts: When chickens come home…

Roberts begins by citing the case of  “Jeremy Newmark, until recently chair of the Jewish Labour Movement” now embroiled in a corruption case after his swindles came to light. A particular gripe is that the Jewish Chronicle reported the affair in depth, “The enthusiasm with which the pro-Zionist Jewish Chronicle has attacked Newmark is quite breathtaking”.

That over we get attacks on the real enemies.

Jeremy Corbyn, “Corbyn has silently stood by, allowing pretty much any criticism of the actions of the state of Israel to be branded as evidence of anti-Semitism.”

 Jon Lansman ” who literally owns Momentum”. Selecting candidates for the Momentum list for Labour’s NEC, “Jon Lansman did what he does best: went nuclear.”

And,

Hope Not Hate, while not playing an active part in the witch-hunt, is a rightwing version of the Socialist Workers Party’s ‘Stand Up To Racism’.

At the conclusion there is the inevitable: The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, (AWL),

the AWL lacks the numbers and finance for that type of campaign. It represents more the type of busybody who would report their neighbour to the East German Stasi for watching West German TV.

Oddly some people in the Labour Party, including the left, are not fond of Labour Party Marxists or their antics.

But their drive to make the Labour Party into a Marxist Party, guided by their own interpretation of Lenin, proceeds apace.

Spiked-on-Line and Stephen Potter: The Praxis of Lifemanship.

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Spiked-on-Line’s Manual.

“Soros does not believe in the legitimacy of borders nor in the authority of national electorates. Consequently he feels entitled to influence and if possible direct the political destiny of societies all over the world. “

The Telegraph  Living Marxism (LM).

They claim that the headline of the Telegraph piece is an anti-Semitic trope: it says Soros is ‘backing secret plot to thwart Brexit.’ That’s anti-Semitic? That would be a more convincing argument if the Telegraph and others hadn’t also regularly written about other plots – of which there are many! – to overthrow the democratic vote for Brexit, including those that do not involve donations from billionaires who happen to be Jewish.

Brendan O’Neill. Spiked on Line.

Nick Timothy liked the story so much he re-tweeted it.

 Retweeted

 

The role of Spiked-on-Line in the hate campaign against Soros has received attention on the left for the simple reason that this group, with origins on the far-left, is now popping up all over the right wing (not to say far-right)  British press.

They are above all celebrated as “contrarians”.

Brendan O’Neill in particular.

Having left behind Marxism, Socialism and indeed any form of the left, the crew have found a new ‘look me up to’ in the works of Stephen Potter.

Potter (whose books, it goes without saying are on all serious leftists’ shelves) is best known for this,

It was the first of his series of books purporting to teach ploys for manipulating one’s associates, making them feel inferior and thus gaining the status of being one-up on them. From this book, the term “Gamesmanship” entered the English language. Potter said that he was introduced to the technique by C. E. M. Joad during a game of tennis in which Joad and Potter were struggling against two fit young students. Joad politely requested the students to state clearly whether a ball had landed in or out (when in truth it was so obviously out that they had not thought it necessary to say so). This nonplussed the students, who wondered if their sportsmanship was in question; they became so edgy that they lost the match.

But that is not the end of the method.

Sport is only one case of always being “one up” on your opponents.

The Master defined the objective, “How to be one up – how to make the other man feel that something has gone wrong, however slightly.” Or, if you “are not one up, you are one down”.

Rosie Bell once outlined a key aspect of  the Potter praxis:

In his series Lifemanship (1950)  Stephen Potter invented a reviewer called Hope-Tipping who, in order to make a splash, would take a writer to task for not doing something he was famous for,  e.g. accuse D H Lawrence of showing  a neglect of “the consciousness of sexual relationship, the male and female element in life”.   So Hope-Tipping would be severely disappointed with Irving Welsh’s lack of interest in Edinburgh’s low life and he would castigate Dick Francis for not drawing on his knowledge of horses and horse-racing

The advice for what Potter called “Newstatesmaning”, that is reviewing, is at the centre of Spiked on Line’s approach. Sitting down with a dog-eared copy of the book and its sequel, One-Upmanship: Being Some Account of the Activities and Teachings of the Lifemanship Correspondence College of One-Upness and Games Lifemastery (1952) the team can write any number of articles.

The New Statesman writer Jonn Elledge recently found a few, or rescued them from the waste bin,

The campaign against the so-called “Black Death” has exposed the liberals’ true agenda.

The misogyny of the Suffragettes.

The witch-hunting of Jack the Ripper

There is are tired and trusted techniques. A master stroke is “Yes, but not in the South”, which “with slight adjustments, will do for any argument about any place, if not about any person and render any of your opponents’ assertions suspect.

There has been much justified celebration this week of that historic enfranchisement of around 8.4million mainly middle-class women. Far less attention has been paid to the other victory for democracy in the 1918 Act – the granting of the vote to virtually all males aged over 21, which enfranchised some 5.6million working-class men for the first time.

That side of the Act does not fit the fashionable script, which depicts the democratic victory of February 1918 as a triumph for modern feminism.

Mick Hume Spiked on Line 7th of February 2018

Or to imply that you are somehow in the highest realm of intellectual debate, but that you are also in touch with the common taste – lowbrowmanship.

2018 heralds the 80th anniversary of the longest running comic book in history – the Beano. For generations, working-class kids have grown up with the characters in the Beano. And supreme among them is the eternally naughty 10-year-old, Dennis the Menace, who first appeared on 12 March 1951.

Denis Hayes. Spiked on Line.  4th of January 2018.

Unfortunately if we thought that the professional contrarians were a joke they have their admirers, from Sky News, to here:

 

Here.

 

Stalin. Waiting for Hitler. 1928 – 1941. Stephen Kotkin. A Democratic Socialist Review.

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Stalin. Waiting for Hitler. 1928 – 1941. Stephen Kotkin. Allen Lane. 2017.

The Yugoslavian communist, A. Ciliga, a sincere man and an unimpeachable witness, one of the few who has escaped alive from the Soviet convict gangs, has written in his book, Au pays du grand mensonge: “Those who have not lived in the Soviet prisons, concentration camps and places of exile in which are shut up more than five million convicts, those who are not familiar with the greatest jail history has ever seen, where men die like flies, where they are beaten like dogs, where they are made to work like slaves, can have no idea what Soviet Russia is, what Stalin’s ‘classless society’ means.”

Boris Souvarine. Postscript to Stalin: a critical survey of Bolshevism. 1935

The first volume of Kotkin’s study of Stalin, Paradoxes of Power, 1878 – 1928. (2014) portrayed the dictator as the product of “immense structural forces”, the legacy of Tsarism, the mode of government he took over from Lenin and the Bolsheviks “castle in the air” version of socialism. But the author could not neglect the character of his subject, whose “cold calculation and the flights of absurd delusion were products of a single mind, he was shrewd enough to see right through people, but not enough to spare him a litany of nonsensical beliefs.” (1)

That these “closely mirrored the Bolshevik revolution in-built structural paranoia” is only one of the many elements that contributed to the harrowing themes of the present book. This begins with the mass murders, starvation and famine of agricultural Collectivisation, followed by the mid-1930s Great Terror, and concludes with Stalin’s’ miscalculations faced with the threat of Hitler’s Germany

There are few grimmer tasks for the left than facing up to the reality of Stalin’s Russia. What enthusiasm can be mustered for the October Revolution has to face the totalitarianism that followed. This is not a new dilemma. That Stalin was, in his own and Kotkin’s opinion, a “communist and revolutionary” and that he developed within “the moral universe of Marxism-Leninism” was galling – and contestable – to radical left critics of the first hour, like Boris Souvarine.

This cosmos was bleak. The collectivisation and war against the Kulaks, the first Five Year Plan, took place against the background of famine and epidemics which “probably killed between 5 and 7 million people between 1931-33. Perhaps 10 million more starved nearly to death ” (Page 127) In response Stalin accused peasants of “not wanting to work.” (Page 128) Yet industrialisation began, investment quadrupled to 44 % of GDP in 1932. At the time well-wishers of the burgeoning New Civilisation were enthusiastic But, Kotkin observes, “unrelenting optimism spread alongside famine, arrests, deportations, execution, camps, censorship, sealed borders. (P 305) “Stalin’s anti capitalist experiment resembled a vast camp of deliberately deprived workers, indentured farmers and slave labourers toiling of the benefit of an unacknowledged elite.” (Ibid)

The Great Terror.

Stalin. Waiting for Hitler tackles the Great Terror. There is a lengthy account of the assassination of Kirov by Nikolayev, the pretext for the mass killings and imprisonments that followed. The hysteria reached its peak in the Great Trials of the middle of the decade. At its height, “just for two years, 1937 and 1938, the political police, the NKVD, would report 1,575,259 arrests, 87% of them for political offences, and 681,692 executions.”(Page 305)

It is hard to get a measure of the suffering of so many victims. Vsevolod Meyerhold, one of the country’s top theatre directors was one of the countless to fall into the hands of the butchers. In 1939 he was tortured and made to confess to spying for Britain and Japan. After systematic beatings, “Meyerhold’s interrogators had urinated into his mouth and smashed his right (writing) hand to bits” (Page 649) A footnote adds that while this was happening NKVD chief Beria awarded the larger part of his flat to one of his mistresses (Page 1029). He was executed by firing Squad in February 1940. 

Kotkin is not engaged in the history of the Gulag, only the contours of the Archipelago are sketched, and there are no Kolyma Tales Nor are there accounts of how Communist self-criticism ended in denunciations, or the whispers by a population-turned-delators to the NKVD. We are brought instead to the party machine and to Stalin’s Little Corner in the Moscow Kremlin, where he scanned lists of those caught in the lights of the hunt. “At least 383 execution lists signed by him have survived, containing the names of more than 43,000 ‘enemies of the people’, mostly the highest-level officials and officers (P 490). What kind of man performed filled his days with this never-ending work? Faced with a flood of letters of those appealing for those caught up in the murders, he “showed no sign that he was in the least tormented by the slaughter” (Ibid).

This was a war that hit the masses and the elite, clearing the way, Kotkin suggests for an intentional renewal of the bureaucracy. The new cadres, who took the posts of those found out as ‘wreckers’ ‘spies’ of anti-Soviet elements’, were described as “healthy young representatives of a healthy young people”. With rising salaries they were rewarded as such (Page 603) Stalin engineered human souls reinforced an already privileged caste, “The terror that murdered officials en masse accentuated the ascendancy of the functionary class.”(Page 604)

Over half of Stalin. Waiting for Hitler is occupied, as its title indicates, with Soviet foreign policy and, above all, with the build up to the war with Hitler’s Germany. From the Spanish Civil, an occasion to further Stalin’s obsession with Trotsky through attacks on the ‘Trotskyist’ (anti-Stalinist Marxist) POUM, Trotsky’s 1940 assassination, the ill-judged war with Finland (met with mass resistance by the Finns), the division of Poland with little perceivable long-term gain, to his wavering dealings with Mao in China, there were few signs of strategic genius.

Above all Stalin failed to prepare properly for the confrontation with the German army. This was not just the result of the purges of competent military and intelligence personnel. His tactical abilities were flawed. “Instead of acting cunningly, Stalin fooled himself. He clung to the belief that Germany could not attack before defeating the UK….”(Page 897)

A landmark.

Kotkin’s achievement as a historian of Stalin should not be overshadowed by the often hard to digest text. Key developments risk being submerged by lengthy day-to-day accounts. The plodding style, and turns of phrase such as the “wee hours” are not a help to the reader. But nobody can fail to recognise that the work is a landmark.

With such a protagonist in his sights Waiting for Hitler raises deep issues about the nature of the USSR under Stalin. One commanding thread lies in an effort to come to terms with the basis of the tyranny of the ‘vozhd’, the Leader, as Stalin came to be called. The author’s observation that he operated within a “near permanent state of emergency” could be said to cast light on the nature of Stalin’s rule. Lenin has used exceptional measures – a monopoly of political power, imprisonment of opponents, execution of ‘counter-revolutionaries’, censorship – in ‘defence’ of the revolution. These were indefinitely prolonged. That alone gave the Lenin appointed General Secretary scope for his efforts to impose his brand of ‘Marxism Leninism’ on his most “precious resource”, the people of the USSR.

Could both the original disregard for law and independent justice in the name of higher interests, the need to fight the Enemy, be compared to the pro-Nazi political theorist, Carl Schmitt’s speculation on the foundations of politics? Does the justification of the “state of exception” as a “transcendence” of normal politics cast light on the arguments of those who try to justify the “exceptional” circumstances of the Bolshevik Revolution to treat its opponents with contempt? In Stalin’s career, there is little doubt that the division of the world into friends and foes, with no-holds barred in the fight, “gave free rein to his savagery”. To those who seek psychological explanations for his behaviour Kotkin states, “Stalin’s sociopathology was to a degree the outgrowth of dictatorial rule”. (Page 5)

“Marx had never advocated mass murder but freedom” (Page 302). This may be scant consolation for those crushed by Stalin, his successors and emulators. But it important for those of us who are democratic socialists to make sure that the real history of Stalin’s rule is as familiar inside our own camp as that of those whom we venerate. We look forward to reading Kotkin’s Death of Stalin.

******

(1) Page 736. Stalin. Paradoxes of Power. 1878 – 1928. Stephen Kotkin. Allen Lane. 2014.

Written by Andrew Coates

November 26, 2017 at 2:07 pm

Russian Revolution: when workers took power. Paul Vernadsky. Review: ‘1917 and problems of democracy’.

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1917 and problems of democracy.  Solidarity. 6th of September. Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

The historian of the French Revolution, François Furet, wrote in 1995 wrote that that after the fall of the USSR, the October Revolution had ended its journey. Unlike the first French Republic, Soviet power, and Lenin, “left no heritage”. Over 800 pages later the critic of the Jacobins concluded that while it was hard to “think” of another kind of society, democracy manufactured the need for a world beyond “Capital and the Bourgeoisie”. If the figure of the Bolshevik party had disappeared, the “idea of communism” could be reborn in new forms.1

Twenty-two years later, on the anniversary of the October Revolution, much debate on the left remains about how to assess the legacy of the Bolsheviks. Many reject Lenin’s party, arguing that movements for socialism or communism should seek novel constituencies, structures and objectives. In contrast to these judgements, Paul Vernadsky begins The Russian Revolution by asserting, “The Russian revolution of 1917 was the greatest event in political history so far. It was the first occasion that working class people took political power and held it for a significant period.”

He states, “In October 1917 the Russian working class, led by the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP, Bolshevik party), took power through their mass, democratic soviets (councils).” The lessons of the revolution remain relevant to working class politics today.2 Vernadsky tells the story of 1917, from the slaughter of the First World War, initial protests and strikes, to the February Revolution and October.

The Bolshevik resurgence faced with a Kerensky-led government determined to continue the war, the July Days when the state was on the brink of a hard-right clampdown, to the dissolution of the elected Constituent Assembly in January 1918 and its replacement by Soviet Power. Celebrating the Carnival of the Oppressed, the “creative transformations” unleashed by the workers “ruling their own state”, he outlines the progressive decrees issued by the new Soviet government, beginning with the delivery of the slogan: “all land to the peasants”. “Without the RSDLP, the Russian Revolution would not have occurred.”3

The Russian Revolution is not just a history of events.

Vernadsky offers a valuable introduction to debates about this party, the Bolsheviks, much of which was stimulated by Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be done in context. Other writers covered include Lenin enthusiast Paul le Blanc, and Tom Twiss’s measured account of Trotsky’s evolving, contradictory, views of the development of bureaucracy in the wake of revolution. There is a strong section on the Women’s Revolution, paying special attention to the “futuristic vision of Aleksandra Kollontai, as illuminated by studies of “Bolshevik feminists”.

Other areas in which members of Workers’ Liberty have contributed important debate figure in this context. Of particular interest are the critical sections on Lenin’s theory of imperialism in the chapter ‘War and the Myth of Defeatism’, inspired by Hal Draper’s studies. Unlike knee-jerk ‘anti-imperialists’ the author cites Trotsky: “working-class policy on war is not “automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only he opposite sign…”4 One imagines that same quarters will reject the passages on nationalities, including the Jewish Question. In his conclusion Vernadsky is clear that “Israeli Jews are a nation and they should have the right to self determination today like any other nation.”5

Lih argued that the Bolsheviks were a lot more than, as the party leader Zinoviev put it in his lectures in 1923, a “hierarchical, closely knit organisation”, run from the top-down to enlighten the workers. It was not a “party of a new type”, but in the mould of democratic Marxist based organisations of the Second International, above all the German Social Democrats (SPD). Although it had its own stamp by operating in autocratic conditions, Lenin was, in key works such as What is to be Done? “directly inspired” by the German “model”. In more detail Lenin’s strategy was designed to bring together the “purposive worker” and the social democratic worldview conveyed by practical-minded activists, by the “power of a genuinely sound explanation.”

The Bolsheviks, if this account stands, were very far from political outriders, a messianic party-sect, but part of the mainstream of European socialism.6 Lih saw this as the basis for “fighting for democracy to the end” as a precondition for workers’ power, and socialism. For Lih this “old Bolshevik” stand guided Lenin right up to October and the overthrow of the Provisional government, “to carry out a thorough-going democratic transformation”. Vernadsky enters into the — lengthy — debate on this claim. He states that Lenin’s assessment of the growth of the soviets and soldiers’ committees meant that his call for the overthrow of the Provisional government meant that Lenin took “steps towards permanent revolution”.

That is, an acceleration of revolutionary “stages” towards, he contentiously asserts, a position where the victories of the Bolsheviks, “deconstructed capitalist relations of production and put in place an economic system where the imperative was social need, not private profit.” It is undeniable that this prospect inspired millions inside and outside Russia, with the hope that socialism was on the agenda. For many of us that wish still burns.7 Yet, many unresolved issues remain to be discussed from this thought-provoking book.

Two could be signalled; questions about the body that “led” the Russian working class, and the direction it began to take them in the aftermath of October. If we accept the view that the Bolsheviks were a democratic party with open debate and a real base in the working class and popular masses, what kind of template had Lenin and his tendency adopted? A critical description of the pre-1914 SPD “oligarchy” by Robert Michels developed themes already circulating on the left in Germany itself, and internationally by “revolutionary syndicalists” like the French writer George Sorel. In light of the monstrous oligarchy of Stalinist bureaucracy these limits inside Lenin’s “model” apparatus might inspire further reflection.

Only Lenin’s most uncritical admirers would deny problems about the practices of “committee people”, however small in number they may have been initially, brought into the “smashed” state machine.8

The next is that even supporters do not argue that in power the Bolsheviks were always democratic. Many would also question as to how far they respected the workers’ democracy they contrasted to “formal” Parliamentary pluralism. The well-documented cases of human rights abuses, which began with October, and were accelerated by the creation of the Cheka, cannot be explained away by “external conditions”, the civil war, and the need for Red Terror to stave off the very real threat of a far-right regime that would have drowned the revolution in blood.

The need for independent law, in however difficult circumstances, respect for the people’s rights, was denied during the dictatorship of the proletariat. What kind of political instrument can introduce non-capitalist relations of production with these limits on democratic decision-making? Socialism was, and is, far from a self-evident thing. How can a transitional mode of production to communism be formed without free debate about what kind of economy, what kind of production, what social goals people are working towards?

Outlawing opposition papers, bourgeois, then all non-Bolshevik parties, ignoring the voices of “non-party” workers, stifled not just conflicting views but fostered the belief that those doing the outlawing knew better than anybody else. It was under Lenin that Soviet democracy was finished off. It was in the early 1920s that the acceptance of a military and political police entered into what would become the established doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat — the first, far from “temporary”, stage to socialism. This is a very negative lesson from the Russian revolution.9

Notes

1. Pages 8 and 809. Le passé d’une illusion. François Furet. Éditions Robert Laffont. 1995.

2. Pages 9 and 19. The Russian Revolution. When the workers took power. Paul Vernadsky.

3. Page 114. Paul Vernadsky Op cit.

4. Page 197. Paul Vernadsky Op cit

5. Page 346. Paul Vernadsky Op cit

6. Page 398. Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be done in context. Brill. 2005.

7. On Lih Pages 163-9. Next quote, Page 19. Paul Vernadsky Op cit. Political Parties. Robert Michels. Transaction Publishers. 2009 (originally published, 1911.) Georges Sorel in 1902 had already written of the SPD’s “spirit of authoritarianism and bureaucracy in a New Church run like an huge civil service (“administration”) page 188. L’illusion du politique. Georges Sorel et le debate intellectuel 1900. Schlmo Sand. La Découverte, 1984.

8. “La démocratie soviétique a été définitivement étouffée au moment de l’interdiction des partis soviétiques, après la guerre civile, et non pas lorsque l’alternative était soit capituler devant les Blancs, soit défendre la révolution par tous les moyens. Elle fut donc étouffée après la victoire, alors qu’aucune armée blanche n’était plus présente sur le territoire de la Russie des soviets. Ernest Mandel. Octobre 1917 : Coup d’Etat ou révolution sociale ? La légitimité de la révolution russe. Cahiers d’Etudes et de Recherches, n°17/18, 1992.

9. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat from Marx to Lenin, Hal Draper. Monthly Review Press. 1987.

Extract from Paul Vernadsky’s book: The opening days of the Russian Revolution.

 

Written by Andrew Coates

September 7, 2017 at 11:26 am

October. The Story of the October Revolution, China Miéville. Critical Left Reflections.

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October. The Story of the October Revolution, China Miéville. Verso. 2017.

Autumn and the 100th Anniversary of the October Revolution are drawing closer. The harvest of books on the new Soviet Power is still being gathered. It is, no doubt somebody has written, the duty of socialists to study, and this crop comes, for many, at the top of the left’s reading list. Should we begin with Lenin and the debates that have arisen after the publication of Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What is to Be Done’ in Context (2008)? The 17th century Jansenist theologian, Saint-Cyran, claimed to have gone through Saint Augustine’s writings, 22 volumes, ten times, and his writings against the Pelagian heretics thirty. (1) There are Leninists whose familiarity with the Collected Works of Lenin  exceeds that modest accomplishment. Far better, if we are to grasp what was a stake in Russia in 1917, to start first with accounts of events: the contending politics and theories, Bolsheviks and their opponents, are embodied in the acts of the revolution.

China Miéville’s contribution is, as he announces, “a short introduction for those curious about an astonishing story, eager to be caught up in the revolution’s rhythms. (Page 2). If it is more than as a “story” that he tells the tale, Miéville, from the radical left, and the accomplished author of the BasLag weird fiction trilogy, brings a freshness and enthusiasm to the narrative, which begins in the 19th century Tsarist Russian opposition, the 1905 Revolution, and above, all the immense tragedy of the Great War which overshadowed the events that unfolded. October leaves little doubt that the immediate alternative to All Power to the Soviets was not a coalition of the left, but the threat of a successful far-right coup that would have accomplished what General Kornilov had failed impose. Miéville has both charmed and irritated those already familiar with the plot, and, one hopes, instilled both interest and caution in those not.

The Saint-Cyrans amongst the left have not been slow to argue about the take on Lenin’s Letters from Afar (March 1917), which called for the Bolsheviks to take state power. For some this remains a “bombshell”, advocating an accelerated move towards a socialist regime, telescoping previous alliances and revolutionary ‘stages’ into an immediate drive towards something close to socialism. But Miéville claims (following Lars Lih) that, “His argument that the revolution must continue remained clear, as did his exhortation to worker, ‘you must perform miracles of proletarian and popular organisation to prepare for your victory in the second stage of the revolution’ – a stage not of socialism, he would soon clarify, but of taking political power, of winning over the Soviet, to ensure the victory of the (necessarily bourgeois, democratic) revolution (Page 98). It was “continuity Bolshevism, and yet contained the seeds of a distinct and more trenchant position”. (Page 99) Readers who wish to make their own judgement can follow debates on the relationship between socialism, the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry and other aspects of Bolshevik programme and doctrine.

Defending the Revolution.

Of far greater interest are Miéville’s defences of the Revolution. In a concluding chapter there is a series of reflections on its outcome, to put it simply, Stalinism. The state organised Red Terror was, in a manner familiar to anybody acquainted with Miéville’s former organisation the Socialist Workers Party, explained as a result of external circumstances. The Civil War was the cause, ““Under such unrelenting pressures, these are months and years of unspeakable barbarity and suffering, starvation, mass death, the near-total collapse of industry and culture, of banditry, pogroms, torture and cannibalism. The beleaguered regime unleashes the Red terror.”(Page 312). Yet, ““there is no doubt that its reach a depth expand beyond control; that some agents of the Cheka the political police, seduced by personal power, sadism or the degradation of the moment are thugs and murders unconstrained by political conviction and wielding new authority. There is no shortage of testimonials as to their dreadful acts.”(Ibid).

October does not examine the view that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” unconstrained by the rule of law is fertile ground for abuse, thugs and murders. One may disagree with Kautsky’s critique of Bolshevism. But if Lih is correct that Lenin accepted the view that the democratic republic was an important stage in the “ripening of the proletariat” it is not the view that this is a “stage” “the essential basis for building up a Socialist system if production” that favours the eventual conquest of political power, that strikes us most today. It is his opinion that “people’s rights” such as “the protection of minorities” are the bedrock of socialism. (2)

The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. 

Was Soviet Power, on the basis of interpreting Lenin’s reflections in State and Revolution (1917), made up of “working bodies, executive and legislative at the same time” a vehicle for these rights? Could take the state and politics back into the hands of the – restricted – electorate who controlled them? Lenin’s model was the barely over a couple of months long Paris Commune (8 Mar 1871 – 28 May 1871), a pluralist assembly, a heroic stand,  but which ended in a deep split between the patriotic majority of Blanquists who wished to fight by any means to the end, and an opposition of Proudhonists  and supporters of the First International (Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, Histoire de la Commune de 1871,  Published, 1876 and a standard source for Marxists for many years). Its own administrative achievements – contested – aside, this perhaps illustrates the difficulties of revolutionary democracy in war.

As Isaac Deutscher memorably commented, the Bolsheviks refused to allow the “famished and emotionally unhinged country to vote their party out of power and itself into a bloody chaos” are not hard to grasp. (3)

They had always tacitly assumed that the majority of the working class having backed them in the revolution, would go on to support them unswervingly until they had carried out the full programme of socialism. Naïve as the assumption was, it sprang from the notion that socialism was the proletarian idea par excellence that the proletariat, having once adhered to it would not abandon it. (Ibid)

The Russian Dictatorship of the Proletariat had immense ambitions. Soviet power was a lever to the transition towards socialism. But disagreements arose over the methods used to that aim. Those opposed to the militarisation of labour in War Communism, to the One Man Management that emerged, Taylorism, and what is called ‘bureaucracy’ indicated that the content, the social institutions, of ‘socialism’ were not something that was already there in the “programme”. No number of warnings about external threats can retrospectively annul the fact that the dissident voices within the left, the critics of Bolshevism whose views were far from the ‘formalism’ of Kautsky and the social democrats who rejected the revolution en bloc,

In a more open-minded fashion than many who wish to defend Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ state of grace,  Miéville says, Those who count themselves on the side of the revolution must engage with these failures and crimes. To do otherwise is to fall into apologia, special pleading, hagiography – and to run the risk of repeating such mistakes.”(Page 317) But without human rights, how can we judge such abuses? Without such standards – not trumped by the necessities of the moment – what do we have left? This is more fundamental than the ban on Bolshevik “factions” that took place at the  10th Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) 1921, that is –initially limited – clamp down on the freedom of inner-party debate. But even if the Party had reached agreements to tolerate loyal extra-party opposition, say with left Mensheviks and ‘non-party’ representatives in the Soviets – that is accepting disagreements in terms that they set, there was no prospect of accepting pluralism as such, that is the right of an opposition to say what they wish. As the twenties wore on this was no longer a matter of the external constraints of civil war, ‘temporary measures’, but became a matter of doctrine.

The Russian Revolution, it is customary to say, contained many potentials. Miéville points to the sense of popular power that it unleashed. Government decrees, on women’s rights, decriminalising homosexuality, and the recognition of national rights as the USSR was formed from different ‘republics’, and – within the limits of the censorship – artistic creatively briefly flourished. But the strategy of a ‘transitional dictatorship’ was the worm in the fruit.

******

(1) Page 293. Tome l. Port-Royal. Sainte-Beuve, Charles-Augustin. 3rd Edition. 1867.

(2) The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Karl Kautsky. Ann Arbor. 1964 (1919)

(3) Page 505, The Prophet Armed. Trotsky 1879 – 1921. Isaac Deutscher. Oxford University press. 1979.