Thursday, September 24, 2020
Tuesday, September 22, 2020
As translated by Nina Kossman, Marina Tsvetaeva poems hold up relatively well in English. Below are a few favorite lines from them.
From on a Red Steed
No Muse, no Muse
Sang over my shabby
Cradle, or took me by the hand.
I snarl, I shoot sparks.
An alliance of winds
Sweeps the big roads.
Poem of the End
In the sky, rustier than tin,
Is a lamppost like a finger.
In every eyelash, a challenge.
Sky of bad omens.
Rust and tin.
This soundless kiss:
The stupor of the lips.
Thus--empresses' hands are kissed,
Thus--dead men's hands...
(The exaggeration of life,
In the final hour.)
What yesterday was waist-high,
Suddenly reaches the stars.
(Exaggerated, that is:
To its full height.)
This is where it led!
Like thunder on the head,
Or a naked blade,
My brother in sin,
My fever and fervor.
They dream of running away
The way you dream of home.
The water--a steely strip of it,
I stay with it like a singer
Sticks to the score; like a blend-man
Sticks to the edge of a wall.
The dead are faithful.
Yes, but not all in the same basket...
On my left side, death; on my right--
You. My right side seems dead.
Too much breaking, too much smoking,
But mainly too much conversation!
What's that smell? The smell of haste,
Of connivance and petty sins,
Of business secrets
And ballroom powder.
Too much laughing,
But mainly--too much calculation!
..The smell of business deals
And ballroom powder.
Too much stroking, too much groping
But mainly--too much squeezing.
But who minds the smell?)
The chain's too short?
At least it's platinum, not steel!
Their triple chins shaking,
Like calves they eat their
Love is flesh and blood, a flower
Steeped in its own blood.
Or did you think love was
A chat across the cafe table?
A quick hour, and then away?
Like all these gentlemen and ladies?
--Is it a temple?
Hardly, child; it's a scar upon
A scar. In full view of servants
And drunks. (Soundlessly, I say,
"Love is a stretched
Bowstring: a partying shot.")
"And love is, above all, a shared
"Or did you want to say:
Death--and no conditions!
--Life!--Like a Roman commander,
Surveying what's left of his
"Let's call it quit."
Wanting is what bodies do,
Now we are only souls.)
You hand your love
The bloodstained honor of parting
Like a bouquet.) Say it clearly: Syllable
By syllable. "Let's call it quits,"
You said? (Like a handkerchief
Dropped in a moment of sweet
Mischief...) In this battle you are
Caesar. (What an insolent thrust:
To hand back to the opponent
The sword he surrendered
As a trophy).
The shadow of money
In a shadow land. Soundless,
It burns... As if my soul were torn
Away with the skin. Like steam through a hole,
It vanished, that notorious silly heresy
Called the soul.
That Christian anemia!
Separation--it's not Russian talk.
Not women's, nor men's.
Nor God's. What are we, sheep,
Gaping at our dinner?
Separation--in what language?
There's no sense in it,
Not a sound.
Losing everything at once--
There's nothing neater.
Love is a seam.
A seam, not a sling; a stitch, not a shield.
Oh, don't ask to be shielded!
The stitch by which the dead are sewn to the earth,
By which I'm switched to you.
Better to rip than unravel.
It's there, but not for us!
A stepmother, not a mother!
Ahhh, the game's lost,
Ladies and gentlemen!
Where are the real cities?
Life is a place where no one can live:
The Jewish quarter...
Wouldn't it be a hundred times better
To become the Wandering Jew?
For anyone not scum
Life is a pogrom.
Expect no mercy
In this most Christian of worlds
All poets are yids.
Weep! With others you'll recover
The dignity you lost with me.
We are fish of one
Sea. An upward sweep!
..like a dead seashell,
Lips upon lips.
Attempts at a Room
I remember three walls,
I can't vouch for the fourth.
From everywhere and every when.
A portable chair of emptiness.)
The door--the threshold is sensitive to shoe soles!
The sheer wall of the Cheka,
A wall of dawns, of sunlit firing.
Squads of gestures more clear-cut than
In the shade--shot from behind, in the back.
What I can't understand: executions.
But leaving aide the torture-chamber theme,
The ceiling was definitely
All of us, in that other world,
Will learn to walk upon
A floor is for feet...
How embedded man is, how rooted!
So it won't leak: a ceiling.
Remember the ancient torture, one drop
Per hour? A floor: so that grass won't
Grow into the house, so earth won't enter---
Not a plasterer, nor a roofer
But a dream, a guard on wireless
Pathways: A He meeting a She
In chasms underneath eyelids.
Flood. A room? Mere surfaces.
After all, the desk is fed by
An elbow. Elbow out along its inclines--
That will be your desk's deskless.
Don't fret beforehand.
The chair will arise with the guest.
Gestures serve me
In psyche's hall.
In a child's stringed, inmost memory
Distance is hand luggage and a governance.
(Distance is stylish).
He who built (dug) the corridors
Knew where to curve them--
To give the blood time
To turn the corner
To give the brain time
To assign seats,
For a rendezvous is--a location,
A signature--a calculation--a draft--
Into time's farthest point:
Maybe the walls were go ne,
The ceiling definitely gave
a lurch. In our moths only the vocative
Blossomed. The floor was definitely a gap.
And seen through that gap--green as the Nile..
The ceiling was definitely adrift.
By a single dash is the poet held
New Year's Greetings
We have blood ties
With the beyond. Whoever had been to Russia
Has beheld that world in this.
Doubtless, I see poorly from my pit.
Doubtless, you see better from up there.
I have a shelf of Leon Trotsky biographies so I was not in a hurry to read Irving Howe's small, yellowing, and seemingly dated biography. However, Howe's book is a brilliant overview of Trotsky's life and theoretical contributions to Bolshevism and Marxist theory and practice. In fact, this short book goes a long way toward explaining many of the fundamental mistakes of the Soviet experiment. Perhaps Howe's greatest strength as an historian of the Soviet Union is his balanced approach to his subject matter. He is deeply sympathetic to socialist project, and yet willing to critique almost every mistake Trotsky and other Bolshevik (and Menshevik) leader made.
According to Howe, Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution was a genuinely important contribution to socialist thinking. It essentially predicated the course of events in post-revolutionary Russia by pointing out that a fragile working class would necessarily depend on ongoing, global revolution to avoid counterrevolution or degeneration. On the other hand, Trotsky flipped sides on this question after the February Revolution, arguing that the Bolsheviks had every reason to overthrow the Provisional Government and even socialist democracy in the service of the working class. Thus, Trotsky (who was of course not alone in this) ironically came to be responsible for working against the very theory he had once proposed, and would propose again once he had left power.
Howe's Trotsky was a deeply ambivalent figure. He was in a sense a deeply divided thinker. On the one hand, he produced relatively sensitive works that advocated for some level of social and intellectual plurality. Literature and Revolution is a case in point. Trotsky admitted here that Proletarian culture was not yet rich enough to afford Russia or the world with a rich literary culture. In fact, Trotsky believed that the Russian Revolution would eventually mean that the Proletariat, qua class, should wither away. When workers created enough wealth, they would have ample opportunity to stop behaving as workers. They would have enough leisure time to produce worthy literary and artistic creations. Until then, Russian workers should appreciate the great bourgeois works of the previous century. On the other hand, Trotsky's Terrorism and Communism celebrates authoritarianism, and defends the Bolshevik's rather outrageous claim that the Party could fully represent Russia's workers.
In the end, Howe agrees with the Menshevik position that Russia was not yet ready for a socialist revolution. Like the Mensheviks who seemingly abandoned the field of combat, Howe thinks Stalinism was the almost inevitable result of the Bolsheviks' decision to prematurely eliminate both the bourgeois parties and competing socialist parties from political life. Indeed, Howe believes that once Lenin and Trotsky convinced their reluctant comrades to take power, the Party was doomed to rely on ever increasing levels of compulsion and terror to maintain their fragile grip on power.
Thursday, September 17, 2020
Thursday, September 3, 2020
Friday, August 28, 2020
It's difficult to discover or "contract trace" the origins of an obsession. So it's hard to really know how or why I became interested in Russian history or the history of the Russian Revolution. But I sometimes suspect that my interest in revolutionary Russia can be traced back to my interest in my grandfather's politics. Although I never knew my grandfather, I grew up hearing about grandfather's single minded pursuit of Leftist economic and social upheaval. Be this as it may, my grandfather wasn't a communist, and he never preached overt revolution. Rather, he was a collectivist or devotee of cooperatism. He might also fit under the broad category of Christian Socialist. In any event, I believe my grandfather learned about collectivism in the shadow of the First World War at Harvard University around 1915. In any event, he never let go of the idea after leaving Harvard. Although experiencing several farming failures, my grandfather served as a postmaster general and small town newspaper editor for about 40 years. He also helped to found a couple of small cooperative ventures.
Knowing that my grandfather talked about nothing else, I have often wanted to know more about collectivism, and especially how it relates, if it did relate at all, to communism. For this reason, I was especially happy to find a novel by Upton Sinclair entitled, Co-op: A Novel of Living Together. Of course, the idea of turning a dry economic or political idea into a novel seemed odd, but as it turns out, the novel reads relatively well, and gives one a wonderful picture of the "romance" of cooperatism, such as it was.
In general, the novel suggests that cooperatism was a response to the economic dislocation that followed World War I and eventually reasserted itself in the Great Depression. According to Sinclair, cooperatism was an extremely rational response to poverty, unemployment, overabundance, and currency scarcity. In his novel, the unemployed gather together to barter outside of the cash economy. The coop was a nexus or alternative market for workers who lacked both cash and commercial employment. Its internal politics were fundamentally democratic, and many of its adherents professed to believe in some form of Socialism or communism. However, the coop movement sidestepped traditional politics in order to avoid being quashed by the U.S. government and Big Business.
Sinclair's novel is a paen to the virtues of cooperative living, which he suggests are a perfect mixture of realism and idealism. To the modern eye, the economic system seems inherently unproductive, with coops avoiding monetary incentives and sharing bartered tools and goods whenever possible. However, one can readily imagine how many Americans were ready to try something midway between Capitalism and Bolshevism in the 1930s.
And what was the relationship between the American cooperative movement and the Russian Revolution? According to Sinclair, the American bourgeoisie was always terrified by the prospect of Bolshevik Revolution, Civil War, expropriations, and economic chaos. One of his wealthy characters does business with the coop precisely because he wants to make friends with Leftists in the event that there is a Russian-style revolution. Better to do business with the coop than to be "shot in the cellar" later on.
Upton Sinclair claims in his novel that California had over 200 coops in the 1930s, and that thousands of people worked for one of these coops in one way or the other. Politically, coops were propped up by former Wobblies, radicals, liberals, syndicalists, reform-minded Christians, socialists, and communists. Economically, they were fueled by people who found themselves excluded from the cash economy.
Tuesday, June 23, 2020
Everlastingly short of cash, and everlastingly in raptures over something, Rostislav Bambaev wandered, aimless but exclamatory, over the face of our long-suffering mother-earth.
"What is his work about?" inquired Litvinov.
"About everything, my dear boy, after the style of Buckle, you know...but more profound..more profound...Everything will be made clear."
"I never read novels now," was Madame Suhantchikov's dry and sharp reply.
"Because I have not the time now; I have no thoughts now but for one thing, sewing-machines."