Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Walden Pond

While I was growing up I entertained a series of prospective careers. Many of my ideas centered around professional sports, but along the way I wanted to be an architect, an astronomer, and a politician. Once I realized the career in sports was absurd, I settled on economics. The only publication we subscribed to was Reader's Digest and under its influence I developed conservative inclinations. I supported Jack Kemp for President in 1988. Making money struck me as the ideal way to help bring down the Evil Empire. Somewhere along the way I got ahold of an issue of Money magazine which listed "money manager" as a particularly lucrative profession. I guess that was the equivalent of what we call a fund manager today. My favorite book was Lee Iaccoca's autobiography. I even wrote him a letter.

Henry Thoreau

Halfway through high school I started reading books, and a couple of them cast dents in my conservative-economist armour, but the decisive blow was landed by Thoreau's Walden. I don't think I ever made it all the way through the book, but I would credit Thoreau with inspiring my lifelong parsimony, my discomfort with consumption, and my inability to enjoy enjoyment. Probably he just confirmed instincts that were already there; I remember being seized with buyer's remorse after laying out 60 cents for a pack of baseball cards. At any rate, Walden began a long decline into the humanities, and after twenty years of book reading I find myself not very enlightened and without much of a career to speak of either.

Over the holidays I read a little of Walden for the first time in 20 years. I was surprised at his libertarianism. I had scoffed at conservatives who cited him approvingly, but Thoreau certainly wouldn't have much use for modern liberalism. He thinks the poor would be better off fending for themselves. I would also have classed Thoreau as an exponent of a nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic, but it turns out he's more interested in a sort of Puritan laziness. The necessities of life are not all that hard to obtain, he says. There is no reason to be poor unless you really want to. I was probably also influenced at that impressionable age by Thoreau's contempt for other people and his critique of enjoyment. None of this was very appealing on a second reading though.

I bring all of this up because Thoreau is probably the closest thing we have to a native radical writer, and yet his opinions are so far removed from socialism in theory or practice that they hardly occupy the same universe. Even his critique of consumerism is so firmly embedded in an ethic of individualism that no social theory could be coaxed from it. It makes you sense doubly the foreignness of the Soviet experiment, and while maybe that gives us grounds to hope our national character has rendered us immune to the lure of absolutism, it also raises the fear that we are condemned to eternally wander in the woods alone.

Monday, December 21, 2009

100 Years of Genius

Ballet School

Sololomon Volkov’s The Magical Chorus is a brilliant introduction to Russian high culture in the 20th century. It’s original, accessible, and relatively objective in terms of its treatment of revolutionary traditions in literature. The book covers Russian poetry, prose, theatre, dance, music, art, and film, with some forays into popular culture. It links Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn, and Block to Brodsky.

Pavlova And Chaliapin

Volkov’s own position as a Russian émigré, expert musicologist, and Voice of America cultural critic lends him special credibility on many of the topics he covers, especially the art and life of Russian and Soviet composers. The Magical Chorus stresses the close relationship between politics and culture throughout the twentieth century. Although some might fault Volkov for spending too much time on elite culture, and too little time on popular art forms, Volkov makes a very convincing case that elite art was incredibly influential on Soviet politics and Russian political culture. Strangely, but convincingly, Volkov’s study of high culture places Stalin squarely at the center of many if not most artistic trends of the twentieth century.

Volkov’s Stalin retains his place as one of the century’s most brutal dictators. However, Volkov’s Stalin is intelligent, well-read, sophisticated, and personally invested in the arts. Stalin’s impact on the humanities is manifested on many levels. Stalin took a direct interest in the leading authors of his day, patronized many leading figures in culture, selected Lenin and Stalin prize winners, met with literary leaders, and often intervened directly in their fates, for better or worse.

Stalin also maintained active correspondences with many authors—Gorky and Pasternak, most famously—and used culture as a political tool in terms of the propaganda war he was waging against the West during the 1930s. However, Volkov demonstrates that Stalin had a serious aesthetic philosophy (related to the general line of bringing high culture to the masses) and serious appreciation for some of the work itself, particularly opera, film, and literature. (In this context one should also recall that Stalin wrote good poetry as a young man).

Lunacharsky At Desk

In comparison with both Lenin, who preceded him, and Khrushchev, who succeeded him, Stalin was a connoisseur of the arts. Born into the intelligentsia, Lenin had almost no sense of wonder at even the most extreme forms of musical or literary talent. And Khrushchev, notwithstanding his early support for A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, let his belligerence, poor education, and insecurity get the best of him whenever he had the opportunity to engage with the arts.

To sum up, Volkov’s tour de horizon of modern Russian and Soviet culture leaves one breathless. What other country can boast so many first-rate authors and poets and muscicians? In fewer than 300 pages, Volkov discussed Tolstoy, Checkhov, Blok, Gumilev, Kandindsnky, Chagal, Diaghilev, Babel, Akhmatova, Berdyaev, Benois, Esenin, Ginzburg, Simonov, Horowitz, Mirsky, Ninjsnky, Stavinsky, Rachmaninoff, Shlovsky, Yevtushenko, Ehrenburg, Eistenstein, Mayakovsky, Nekrasov, Nureyev, Meyerhold,Sholokov,Bunin, Nabakov,Mandelstam, Bulgakov, Chukovsky, et cetera and so on. Despite the suffering and oppression, Russian genius asserted itself at every stage of modern history, but this genius was always produced as a result of a complex dialogue with the powerful and often terrifying Russian state.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Yes, but is it art or is it "parasitism," Eddie?

Joanna Lumley

My senior year of college I was accepted at The American University in Washington, D.C. Before moving to Washington, I went with a friend to Paris, France. While there, I read much more than I should have. Many of the books I brought with me were, appropriately, set in France. Somerset Maugham’s Razor’s Edge comes to mind. But I also took along a few books that The American University required almost all of its incoming freshmen to read. And, although I had taken the Advanced Placement Test that would allow me to skip college English composition courses, I wanted to share the common experience of other entering freshmen by reading all of the books that other students were reading. I was very democratic. One of the books was John McPhee’s book, the Pine Barrens.

I read the short book cover to cover and, twenty years later, I recall that it was a well-written and reasonably interesting description of a scenic part of New Jersey I had never heard about before. Why this book had been chosen by The American University’s English faculty over other more artistic or influential books I’ll never know. Perhaps people who actually took English composition found out when they went to class. In any event, I hadn’t heard from John McPhee since then, until a year or two ago my younger brother mentioned McPhee was one of his favorite authors. Luckily for me, McPhee has accommodated even those readers who, like me, are on strict literary diets of Russian history and literature. His book, The Ransom of Russian Art, is entirely engrossed in Soviet culture.

In the Ransom of Russian Art, McPhee briefly but intelligently tells the story of an odd, mysterious American art collecto--Norton Dodge--who gradually acquired the world’s largest collection of dissident Soviet art, some 9,000 pieces in all, now housed at Rutgers’s University. Like the Pine Barrens perhaps, McPhee tells a simple but fascinating nonfiction story with a strange blend of journalistic narrative and academic context. Interestingly, McPhee pays equal attention to the collector and the collected. One the one hand, the reader gets a glimpse into the mind of a bizarre but benign man who managed to turn something akin to a mild psychological problem—namely obsessive compulsive disorder or hoarding--into nothing short of a public service to humanity. On the other hand, McPhee helps readers to get to know the Russian dissident artists whose work ended up on the collector’s farm and, ultimately, at Rutgers.

As somebody who has begun to collect Russian history and literature books, I was as interested in Norton Dodge's collecting impulse as I was in the Russian art itself. Why are some of us compelled to collect things? What is the difference between collecting and hoarding? When is collecting an expression of individuality and when is it an expression of pyschological insecurity or inordinate materialism? What does one do with a collection? How does one set limits on the types of things that fit into a collection and the types of things that don't? I'm not sure that Norton Dodge has any particular self-knowledge in this area, but, from the outside looking in, it quickly becomes apparent that the right kind of collecting can serve a useful social function and be an expression of individuality. Dodge's obsession helped Soviet artists to survive a dismal regime, and grants modern viewers a window onto to an important period of artistic expression, especially insofar as Russian abstract art was relatively isolated from its Western counterpart.

One sees that dissident artists were brave, bohemian, creative (even for artists), and incessantly artistic even in the context of governmental oppression. Better yet, McPhee uses dissident art to illuminate the nature of the Soviet Union. As the lives of the Russian artists demonstrate, Soviet tyranny survived Stalinism. For example, Soviet artists were either certified by the state as official artists, or they were forced to seek other employment. Without a job, Soviet dissident artists could be found guilty of the crime of “parasitism.” Additionally, if they were not connected by personal bonds with official artists in some way, many dissident artists had no access to basic art materials, such as acrylic paint or canvas, and no separate studio space. They were forced to be creative about the materials upon which they relied. Abstract art in general was nearly criminalized, except in design work, and the Soviet regime sometimes put artists into labor camps or mental hospitals to punish ideological or artistic transgressions. In one memorable line, a former dissident artist said something to this effect: "You can't imagine the extent to which fear dominated our lives. It was similar to how modern Americans must feel with the perpetual fear of not exercising enough or taking enough vitamins." In a more terrifying line, one artist said: "There is no exaggeration in Orwell."

Social Realism was the only game in town, and even the reformer Khrushchev told avant-garde artists that their work was worthless and represented a betrayal of the investment the state had made in them. Khrushchev openly threatened avant-garde artists with labor camps and declared war against them. Artists also suffered from police persecution, KGB surveillance, physical harassment (and perhaps an occasional murder), and the regular travel restrictions that were imposed on Soviet citizens. In fact, Soviet dissident art suffered from a lack of contact with foreign sources (though there obviously was some), an almost non-existent private or public art market, and Soviet restrictions against travelling to see Russians who happened to live in other cities.

The Ransom of Russian Art also tells the story of how Russian artists did manage to subvert the system and survive. Clearly, some form of public sphere or intelligentsia did spring up after Stalin died. And one of the most interesting things about this history of dissident art, is the way in which McPhee uncovers the layers of international intrigue and spying that enveloped Soviet art. With some prompting, the collector himself, while denying any specific ties to the CIA, admits that the CIA was everywhere at the time, and prevalent in most American organizations or associations that had anything to do with the study of Slavic culture or language. Clearly, McPhee is not convinced that much of the collector’s dissident art collection cannot be traced to CIA funding sources.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tragedy and Farce in 1852

Self-Styled Emperor

An analysis of the Revolution of 1917 necessarily involves retrospective treatment of other European revolutions. 1789 is the obvious point of departure, but 1848 shouldn’t be neglected since this revolutionary conflagration touched almost every corner of Europe and was therefore more universal than either 1789 or 1917, despite the glaring irony of its failure to gain even a foothold in autocratic Russia.

Portrait of Napoleon III

1848 was also an event that Karl Marx came to know first-hand and his 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte deals brilliantly with its closing chapter, the triumph of the popular dictator and nephew to the original Bonaparte. Marx’s short treatise on contemporary France succeeds as political commentary as well as historical analysis. Its witty and sardonic treatment of Louis Bonaparte would make John Stewart and the Daily Show proud if it were written today. But the work has something important to say about the nature of revolution in the modern world, even apart from its careful depiction of class struggle, economic transformation, and the process of ideological mystification.

Brumaire Revolution

According to Marx, revolutions were becoming increasingly serious in the 19th century. “Early revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to drug themselves concerning their own content…. There the phrase went beyond the content. Here the content goes beyond the phrase.” For Marx, bourgeois revolutions were shallow, effervescent, ecstatic, but short-lived, while proletarian revolutions “criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts,” and so on, until society has been so utterly transformed by the experience that there is, quite simply, no turning back.

The deep nature of modern or proletarian revolution is contrasted with the superficial nature of bourgeois revolution. For instance, the bourgeois republic, even when it is ostensibly bound to a written constitution, recognizes only citizen rights and privileges that are effectively undermined and checked by the rights of the body politic.

The proletarian revolution, Marx rightly predicts, will recognize no checks on its own authority or prerogatives. It will, moreover, be decisive, passionate, and heroic. Most importantly, the modern revolution will not be cowardly. It will face down its critics and disregard “pretentiously paraded exertions and philistine terror” that the change it brings will represent the “end of the world.”

One can almost hear a communion between Marx and Lenin in lines like these. Wasn’t Marx telling his followers to embrace the future, at whatever the costs? What of the opponents of the modern revolution? In Marx’s disturbingly comic description, these were nothing more than “vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, procurers, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders, rag pickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars—in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French term La Boheme…”

Clearly, in a modern revolution, opponents could, in the words of Leon Trotsky half a century later, be safely “swept into the trash bin of history.”

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Soviet Symphony

One of the great paradoxes of Soviet history is that this most unmusical of regimes could have produced so many great musicians. Russians dominate 20th century music like Germans did the 19th. Many of them drew sustenance, as Orlando Figes showed in Natasha's Dance, from peasant traditions and much of the beauty of the music stems from the tension between rural tradition and the lure of the modern.

Modernism in all the arts was an attack against the decadence and complacency of the West and its deep-rooted hypocricies. The Soviet composers were primed to exploit these opportunities because they could hook their cultural-aesthetic critique to the regime's socio-political critique. Or in many cases it was hooked on for them. Shostakovich's bitter, gray-hued memoir, Testimony mostly communicates the long-suppressed fury of an artist who survived terror, but was permanently crippled by it. He never misses a chance, though, to emphasize his Russianess and to ridicule artists as great as Stravinsky and Prokofiev for betraying their patrimony. American productions of his work were deemed superficial, and his visits abroad were invariably uncomfortable. Yet in 1942 there was Shostakovich on the cover of Time magazine, wearing an absurd fireman's helmet, leading, in American eyes, the united socialist-capitalist charge against fascism. Throngs of admirers greeted him in New York and elsewhere and he grudgingly put up with their adulation.

I think it did us a lot of good, during the Cold War, to listen to Shostakovich, to read Solzhenitsyn, and to sense the double negation of our own culture. First as Russians, then as modernists, they had little use for what they saw as a depthless, self-regarding, atrophied civilization. Today such a negation does not exist. Sure there are radical Muslims who renounce everything western. But they don't embody that renunciation in shared artistic, musical, or literary forms; their scorn, unlike that of the Soviets, descends to those forms themselves. As a result there can be no dialogue and no self-criticism. Maybe that is why we feel so adrift in the war on terror.

Grace Boyd, Liberal, RIP

Margaret Mead On Stage

December 7—Pearl Harbor Day--was the 25th anniversary of my mother’s death. That’s right; it’s been a quarter of a century since I last saw or hugged the woman. In many ways, this blog was created as an homage to Grace Boyd, my mother. Grace wasn’t a socialist or even a Russophile, but she inherited a moderately left-of-center political disposition from her father, who was a self-professed “Christian-Socialist” who never missed a chance to evangelize about agrarian populism and the advantages of “the cooperative” alternative to capitalism. As my mother told us, she grew up in an intellectual atmosphere of unremitting opposition to the deleterious effects of consumerism and capitalism. Her father, an editor of a tiny newspaper, wrote minor treatises on socialism and collectivism in almost every edition of his paper, ignoring the opinions of his manifestly uninspired readership.

Kon Tiki Raft

After 25 years, my connection to my mother is necessarily tenuous, but writing about my mother’s intellectual world is one way to revive this connection. My mother’s cultural heroes were not, of course, Lenin and Trotsky. While Grace must have been interested in the Soviet Union’s putative attempt to implement social equality, feminism, internationalism, and anti-colonialism, the influence of these dead men was very remote from the microscopically small Midwestern town where she grew up, namely Capron, Illinois.

Louis Leakey

Rather, my mother celebrated the work of Liberal, Democratic, and feminist icons of the post-war era, including Margaret Meade, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Caesar Chavez, Jean Paul Sartre, John F. Kennedy, J.R., Paul Tillich, Enrich Fromm, Joseph Campbell, Thor Heyerdahl, Gloria Steinem, Jane Goodall, and Luis Leakey. (Note the decidedly non-revolutionary nature of this strange cast of characters—Malcolm X and Mao Tse Tung never made the list). And, truth be told, a liberalized, post-War Jesus Christ also made her list. (I remember that for many years she had a picture of a white, smiling, hippie Jesus hanging over her bed, making the classic peace sign with his fingers.)

ERA Supporters With Sign In Park

In the era of African independence, Grace studied African history in college and once lived for a brief time in Southern Rhodesia, Africa. The country, now called Zimbabwe, was dominated by a white, apartheid regime, which ultimately declared independence from Great Britain in order to set up a locally controlled racist regime. The enemies of that regime, led by Robert Mugabe and others, were African freedom fighters who were inspired by the twin ideologies of nationalism and socialism. To Grace, the choice seemed clear: socialism was preferable to racism, and might even be an antidote to it. (How sad to think about Robert Mugabe in the present).

Tribal Chiefs

I don’t know when the idea first hit me, but not long ago I decided that it was important to look at cultural heroes who were no longer in fashion. Think, for instance, of the whole system of Esparanto, an invented language that, once upon a time, seemed destined to become a neutral and therefore unifying force in diplomatic and inter-cultural relations. Remember the Equal Rights Amendment, which seemed ready to take us to another epoch in gender relations but narrowly failed to pass and then quickly vanished into obscurity for modern women?

Cesar Chavez

Celebrating the importance of the unimportant, I decided that it would best to go to the source of discredited ideology: The Russian Revolution of 1917. While it’s true that both Liberals and Conservatives formed a united opposition to Soviet aggrandizement, and my mother never even participated in systematic opposition to the Vietnam War, I believe that most Liberal ideology was ultimately grounded in some form of limited engagement with Bolshevik ideals. I can’t speak for my mother, but I suspect that she and I share this grudging respect for the “workers’ paradise.” If it meant nothing else, she feared the Right (whether that meant the Nazis or the followers of Ronald Reagan) more than she feared the Left. If Fidel Castro wasn’t admired in our household, neither was he a bogeyman.

Erich Fromm

I’ll close these random ruminations about my mother by quoting from her own college notes on Marxism, taken from a class she attended on 21 February 1957. How strange to be separated from Mom by half a century: the notes still feel fresh, as if they had just been written, and some of the historical judgments haven’t been affected all that much by 50 years of scholarship. They suggest a rather critical attitude to Lenin’s interpretation of Marxism. According to the Radcliff/Harvard lecturer of Humanities 125 (named Buttrick—and easily identified via Google), the Soviet Union was an attempt to overcome “man’s” inevitable anxiety about death; the Soviet citizen might die, but the state would live on. The Soviet critique of bourgeois pride made sense, the lecturer goes on to say, but Communism reinstated this divisiveness by creating administrative rather than social ranks. Ironically, the Soviet elites even had property now, including limousines.

Jane's Baboons

Mom’s notes leave off on a decidedly un-Communist note: “We are free whether or not we understand.” Rest in peace.

A Blackberry Fetish

Katie Holmes takes pictures of her daughter Suri while having lunch at Balthazar in Soho

The simplest way to explain the lasting appeal of the Soviet experiment is to say that it has offered the only serious critique of, or alternative to, capitalist modernity. Nick is on to something when he discusses the Soviet Union’s theoretical (in both senses of the word) attempt to glorify work as opposed to consumption in terms of how human beings should go about making their lives meaningful, or go about making meaning in general.

U.S. Launch Party for The BlackBerry Tour Smartphone from Sprint

To celebrate the proletariat was to celebrate production at the expense of consumption. But to propose a successful alternative to capitalist modernity involves Marx’s theory of the commodity fetish. And while this writer is not equipped to analyze this theory in depth, it may be enough to say that anybody who has been to Best Buy recently may have some idea about the strength of America’s commodity fetish. As you stroll around this massive marketplace of electronics, you can’t help but be impressed by your own insignificance in comparison with what the Russians might call, a technological “field of wonders.”

Bai Ling attends the Madame Chocolate Valentine Day Mixer on Canon in Beverly HIlls

Once upon a time, the washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and stereos might have awed the consumer into reverent silence. Today, the gadgets and technological marvels are proliferating at unprecedented speed, with something new and unprecedented appearing each time you visit the store. The result, as we all know, is a consumer paradise. We all want many things at Best Buy: a bigger television, a thinner television, a new game system, a more advanced phone, a faster computer, etc. I was impressed most recently by a pen that could record dozens of hours of lecture and was equipped with a camera and computer chip that allows the writer to transfer his or her scribbles directly on to a computer in the same form in which the scribbles appeared on paper.

Paris Hilton leaves the Mayfair Hotel in London and heads out for a night on the town

The consumer’s paradise (see the French novel Ladies Paradise for a nineteenth century diagnosis of the same problems) is ultimately linked in profound ways to human identity under capitalism. Why do we care so much about owning a bigger television if not to reinforce our own identity as a powerful earner-consumer? The sophistication of the new video games tells the story without even resorting to metaphor. Our identities are clearly wrapped up in the alternative selves or avatars we create on Nintendo, Play station, Wii, or X-Box worlds.

Marx was of course concerned with the mystification process involved in the capitalist commodity. And while it’s true that nobody thinks twice about the “labor value” or “surplus value of labor” that went into each of these consumer products, this isn’t really the primary effect of the capitalist commodity fetish. As Christina Kiaer writes in Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism, Marx pointed to the issue when he said something to this effect: material relations were becoming persons, and personal relations were becoming things.

Now it may be unfair to say that your new Blackberry has become one of your closest friends, but surely if your Blackberry actually required a seat at your coming wedding, you’d make room for it at the expense of an annoying high school friend or distant relative. Whether your Blackberry would be allowed to bring a date is a different and more delicate question.

Amy Poehler falls head over heels on the set of her new televison show!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Consumer Ethos

There is an wonderful moment in Solzhenitsyn's The Cancer Ward when Kostoglotov is released from the hospital on a gorgeous green spring day. After months of sickness and disease, the ordinary world is suddenly coming to life again. It's like he's been reborn. He buys a skewer of meat (shashlik), a cup of wine, and stumbles into a department store. Initially he's astonished at the new consumer goods on hand. TV, 'photo-telegrams', cameras and accessories--technology seems just as fecund as nature. Then, standing at the silk shirt counter, he hears a man ask for a size twenty-five shirt with a size fifteen collar. "It staggered Oleg like an electric shock." After years of war, imprisonment, exile, and finally cancer, he is finally brought low by consumerism. A world in which you can stipulate collar sizes is entirely foreign to his sensibility.

We usually think that the Soviet system failed in part because it could not satisfy its citizens' desire for worldly goods. But people have survived for centuries without grumbling at their lack of electronic toys. It's equally possible that it was the collision between a Soviet culture that lionized production and creation with the sweeping global expansion of passive consumption. At this oversated moment in our history it's strange that we don't hear more about the importance of work. Obama emphasizes responsibility, education, and other core values, but he says little about work as a tonic for overconsumption. No one wants to slow the economy any further. But somehow we have to figure out how to balance our accumulative desires with our need for creative outlets, and in this era of a persistent degradation of the work experience, that is quite a challenge.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Original Gangstas

RUS: Khodorkovsky Returns To Moscow Courtroom

Although already overtaken by events since its publication in the early 1990s, Stephen Handelman’s Comrade Criminal: Russia’s New Mafiya is an important book. Its central thesis, while not entirely original, involves the claim that the Communist Party was a form of criminal conspiracy, and inevitably gave birth to the new mafia (spelled mafiya in Russian) that dominate large parts of the Soviet economy today.

We know of course that the Old Bolsheviks were fascinated by crime, and perhaps rightly so: in an era when almost all forms of oppositional politics were outlawed, there wasn’t much of a difference between social revolutionaries and criminals. As Montefiore’s biography, Young Stalin, reminds us: key Bolsheviks led armed groups that functioned both as mafia clans and Communist agitators, with Stalin going so far as to pull off hugely successful bank heists in order to finance Lenin’s political platform. Handelman also points out that most leading Bolsheviks spent a lot of time in the gulag, where they would have become intimately familiar with ordinary criminal circles. And many, like Stalin, openly expressed admiration for the ethos of the tough, ruthless criminal underworld.

When the Bolsheviks took power, it was in some respects inevitable that they would carry some of their criminal tendencies (if that’s not too strong a word) to the Kremlin. And indeed the Central Committee and Politburo did begin to resemble a meeting of dons to settle larger disputes about the state’s wealth would be distributed. Like the Mafia, the Party was always extremely centralized and hierarchical. Decisions were always made at the very top, and nowhere else. More importantly, over time the Communist Party became a kind of cosa nostra. Its members formed a relatively small subset of the overall population, isolated themselves from that population through specific socialization rites and rituals of loyalty, intermarried, and enjoyed a large set of special privileges which they endeavored to pass on to family and friends. (The author recalls that this brand of nepotism existed at every level of the Party, with Brezhnev famously giving his son-in-law a key post in his government. )

In fact, to become a Communist Party member, one required Communist Party personal sponsors, not unlike a traditional rite of entry into the Russia mafia. To be a Party member meant access to special schools, stores, jobs, cars, retirement packages, the possibility of travelling across and national borders, state-sponsored dachas, and vacations in the Crimea. It also meant you had a chance to become a political official or government bureaucrat. If one sets aside the criminal class, the Communist political and bureaucratic class—called the nomenklatura-- became, notoriously, the only class that mattered in Russia and the Soviet State in general.

To get things done, you had to work through the Party elite. They, aside from the mafia, who continued to operate throughout the Soviet experiment notwithstanding Stalin’s repressions, were the only “fixers” in town: they decided who received housing, who got permission to move to other regions, what jobs became available, what justice would look like, and everything else that affected ordinary people.
The reality of the situation was only fully revealed with the collapse of communism.

Although it seems ironic to some, Handelman believes it was inevitable that former Communist officials would collaborate with the mafia (now dangerously split into dozens if not hundreds of groups or factions) in the vacuum on a broad spectrum of outrageously successful criminal ventures that robbed the Russian people of most of their patrimony. If there must be an irony about the rise of Comrade Criminal, the ex-Communist gangster, it is that Communist ideology had always denied the very existence of criminality in Russia. According to official Communist doctrine, organized crime was a byproduct of decadent, immoral capitalism, but could not exist in a socialist state.

Nikolai "Piggy Foxy" Bukharin and Co.

German Proletarian art exhibition at Hermitage Museum

The Russian Archives of Social and Political History hold extraordinary secrets. Foxy Piggy and the Sword of Revolution reveals some of them. The book is a collection of informal political caricatures produced by and for elite Russian government and party officials during the 1920s and 1930s. Of varying degrees of artistic fluency, they reveal a great deal about the nature of power in the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the Revolution.

The cartoons, some incredibly funny, others merely malicious, show how Soviet leaders jockeyed for power with one another and intermingled personal feeling with public policy disputes. As the editors Vatlin and Maleshenko tell us, these cartoons were created in the midst of political activity, at Central Committee plenums, Party Congresses, and Politburo meetings. They suggest that Soviet leaders were creative if also crude students of human nature. While they do track the growing dominance of Stalin within the Party, they show that uniformity of expression was not established until the Great Purges of 1937-8. For while the editors point out that few cartoonists created portraits of Stalin that ridiculed him—as they surely did for most other leaders—Central Committee and Politburo politicians were busily, and often collaboratively, producing works that poked fun at one another, both on a personal basis and with respect to political opinion or error.

One cartoonist that stands out both for artistic talent and a humane subject matter is Bukharin. One can’t help but believe that this sensitive artist was proclaiming a more urbane view of politics than his peers, who frequently used their cartoons to do little more than attack and discredit their subjects. However, one can’t help but remember that Mao Tse Tung was an excellent poet and this didn’t do much for Chinese peasants or intellectuals.

It’s important not to generalize too much about Soviet politics based on this treasure trove of cartoon art. However, the editors rightly point out that the content of the artwork is largely devoid of attacks against colonialism or capitalism (common themes in public Soviet propaganda), suggesting that Soviet officials were more concerned with building Russian socialism than with exporting it during this time period. They also note that the work becomes darker and darker as the years go by, reflecting the end of any pretence to pluralism within the Politburo or Central Committee.

In truth, it’s hard to imagine how diversity of opinion lasted as long as it did in the upper echelons of the Communist Party. As the editors remind us, Hitler never even pretended to have equal debating partners. As a theme, economics looms largest. The editors note that the Soviet Union was attempting to create a brand new form of economics, and largely failing. They were producing economic plans, building factories, electrifying the countryside, balancing supply and demand, creating canals and dams, transforming agriculture, and eliminating any form of private trade or free enterprise. In this situation, officials fought with one another for scarce resources as well as the authority to exert influence over key economic activities. With the politburo making all decisions—and often doing so in an information vacuum—government officials were caught in a dilemma. Lacking all authority to make independent decisions, they took their concerns to powerful Party patrons, who ultimately resolved even conflicts which arose out of tiny practical concerns.

The cartoons reveal the darker side of this competition, and hint at the cost of losing this competition: being branded a saboteur or ideological opponent of socialism. As the editors suggest, the leaders who were producing this art with wrestling with their own incompetence and lack of insight into economic reality. They—and increasingly Stalin alone--made every decision, and yet key elements of the Soviet economy were in disarray. The trains collided, agriculture was collapsing, consumers had too little, and slave labor was needed to complete some of the massive industrialization and mining projects. Somebody deserved blame, and since it couldn’t be the Party elite, it had to be kulaks, Trotskyites, “wreckers,” and capitalist spies. The cartoons, which begin with some levity, end with the darker search for scapegoats.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Milovan Djilas

Milovan Djilas

One of the richer literary genres related to communism is that produced by disillusioned practitioners. Milovan Djilas has produced at least one masterpiece of theoretical critique, but his Conversations with Stalin is a more human and therefore literary account of the problems inherent in Russian communism. The title of the book is somewhat misleading, for although Milovan’s personal reflections about Stalin are central to the book’s thesis, Djilas met with Stalin fewer than a handful of times. The book by a highly educated, highly influential Yugoslav patriot (imprisoned by two regimes for his principled stands) does provide readers with a wonderful analysis of Stalin the man, and historians have paid careful attention to his observations about the decision-making style of Stalin and his inner circle near the end of his thirty year political tenure. As importantly, Djilas describes his personal transformation from a stalwart believer in communism to a man with serious reservations about Russian leadership in the socialist world, if not about socialism itself.

Djilas’ personal growth takes place against the backdrop of the incredibly complex, pivotal, and fluid world that emerged during the final months of the Second World War and last until the Soviet Union had solidified its hold over most of Eastern Europe, excluding Yugoslavia. Although Soviet power soon answered most (but, significantly, not all) questions by the application of power or the threat of force, every chapter of the book testifies to the confusion that faced Eastern Europeans as the Germans withdrew from one country after another. Should the Western powers be placated or confronted? Where should German treasure go? What should happen to railroad stock that had originally been looted in Yugoslavia? What treaties were appropriate between socialist countries? Was nationalism compatible with communism, and, if so, in what circumstances? What prerogatives belonged to Russia, home of the original revolution? Did multiple sites of revolution make the October Revolution somehow less significant? Did Stalin alone speak for Lenin? Did Eastern Europe owe the Russian economy anything in return for liberation?

Conversations with Stalin opens with Djilas’ depiction of the heroic, communist-led Yugoslav revolt against Nazi occupation. Djilas reminds readers that this Yugoslav revolt reminds readers that no other country in Europe made such a significant and successful attack against its occupiers. He also points out that this revolt involved a social transformation as well as a political one. As the war against the brutal, genocidal Nazi occupiers proceeded, communists were busying overhauling the very structure of pre-war society in favor of the poorer classes. Yugoslav partisans grounded in bourgeois or princely political ideals were rendered irrelevant by the success of communist resistance and the devastation that resulted from German atrocities. In the midst of the war, Djilas, like many other socialists throughout occupied Europe, looked to Stalin’s Soviet Union as the embodiment of forward-thinking politics, economic progress, human equality, and social justice.

As Djilas now admits, he and most other socialists in Eastern Europe forgave Stalin, or accepted official Soviet rationalizations, for everything, including the invasion of Finland, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the occupation of the Baltic States, and the Purges. Slavic nationalism coupled with the heroic successes of the Red Army reinforced Djilas’ enormous respect for the U.S.S.R. After all, Yugoslavs and Russians were the only forces at war with Hitler’s Empire on the continent of Europe for a long stretch of the war.

Both before and after the war, Djilas met with Stalin on behalf of Tito and the communist movement in Yugoslavia. By and large, Djilas remained in awe of Stalin, who had directed the forces of socialism for so long. But the Stalin that emerges from Djilas’ recollections was complex. His intelligence and benevolent authority were matched by his craftiness, ribald sense of humor, and crude sense of power politics. Djilas’ reflections are of course highly colored by his nationalism, which was slowly but steadily developing in opposition to Soviet hegemony in the rest of Eastern Europe. Overall, the book argues that Stalin and the Soviet Union were more concerned about power than about socialist theory, communist brotherhood, or the equality of nations. With some prudishness in the arena of alcohol, Djilas also became disappointed that following the war Stalin demonstrated a penchant for cynicism, drunkenness, crude humor, gluttony, game-playing, anti-Semitism, and self-serving flattery.

In one vignette, Stalin says he supports Yugoslavia’s interest in “swallowing” Albania, and puts his fingers to his mouth to illustrate the destructive aspect of the proposed aspect of the event. Elsewhere, Stalin defends his army against charges of rape and pillage in Yugoslavia saying that soldiers were human and needed some kind of emotional release. (With malevolent brilliance, Stalin follows up the comment on another instance by kissing Djilas’ wife and saying that he did so despite the fact that he might later be accused of rape.)

Notwithstanding Stalin’s personal foibles, Djilas presents his conversations has he heard them, and these conversations show off some of Stalin’s unique talents, including a sense of realism in international relations, a capacity for accepting at least limited disagreement within the socialist bloc, a sense of humor, and an ability to understand what motivates people. In one vivid scene, Djilas, a gifted intellectual, is able to discuss Russian literature with Stalin in some depth. Although Stalin’s crimes are unpardonable, one can’t but admire any ideology that regards literature as worthy of discussion in the midst of global war and reconstruction.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Immoralist in Moscow

Andre Gide

It seems self-evident that gay men produce the best European and American fiction. Witness the literary supremacy of Proust, Burroughs, Capote, Baldwin, Wilde, Vidal, Mann, James, and Gide. And who can forget the first time one read Gide’s best book, The Immoralist? But Gide prostituted his literary talent and became an apologist for Stalinist Russia.

This wasn’t unusual during the 1930s. In France, the ideological alternatives, of course, included Catholic anti-modernist movements that seemed to sympathize with German and Italian fascism. In the mid-1930s, Gide spoke up publicly in support of Stalinist Russia. Three years later, he visited the country on the occasion of Gorky’s funeral and published his assessment of the country in a widely read little book entitled, Return from the U.S.S.R.

Gide’s observations are somewhat mixed, but his eagerness to be enthusiastic about the possibilities of Soviet Russia had not yet dimmed. Communist Russia remained an “unprecedented experiment” about the future of the whole of humanity. If Europe seemed awash in economic and political turmoil, if the German NAZI party seemed particularly odious, a glorious future was struggling to be born in socialist Russia. In 1937, Gide spoke without irony or sarcasm about a “chosen land,” a new society “for all people,” and a society in which “utopia was becoming a reality.”

Having recently written about the evils of European colonialism, Gide was not entirely unaware of his host’s attempts to showcase what was best about Soviet society for their esteemed visitor. However, Gide believed he had cracked the code of the Russian state and could report back on the essence of the Russian experience as it was lived by ordinary people. And what did Soviet Russia look like? It was filled with sincere efforts to improve society and “engineer men’s souls” for the better. Even in a relatively poor country, the Russian Government had created rest homes for the elderly, camps for children, and culture parks where ordinary people played games, danced, sang, played chess, participated in sports, watched movies, listened to edifying lectures, and even went to the theatre. The state was all pervasive, but in an avuncular rather than overtly repressive sense. It organized the people into pioneer clubs for children, komsomol organizations for earnest young men and women, and other associations for adults.

More than anything, Gide was curious to know what this state “could do with man.” And, this being the case, it was natural that Soviet officials should show up a model kolkholz. In one, he saw fruit trees, flower gardens, and other scenic amenities. According to these officials, the kolkolz was so efficient that its workers were able to double their salaries, since they all allegedly shared in the success of the experiment in communal work. Gide was ambivalent about the impersonal dormitory atmosphere of the sleeping quarters, and slightly saddened to note that everybody had the same portraits of Stalin on the walls, as well as the same ugly furniture. For these people, their home was—to quote the modernist architect LeCourbousier—“a machine for living” and nothing more. More radically, these kolkholz workers had almost no personal effects. Having overthrown the tyranny of capitalism individualism, they apparently had no need for trinkets and baubles.

During his visit, Gide came to believe that the U.S.S.R. had made some trade-offs in its quest to do great things for its citizens. It had built ugly buildings, created some consumer shortages, and deemphasized creativity and individuality. It had also produced a gauche attitude toward foreign and a culture of superiority: Russians seemed anxious only to tell the world how superior their way of life had become, but were extremely ill-informed about the outside world. Gide even recognized that conformism and an authoritarian spirit had undermined the original spark of revolutionary liberty and fraternity.

On the other hand, Gide believed Russians were experiencing a precious moment in human history: a classless society, where nobody was any richer or poorer than his or her neighbor and everybody worked for the greater good of society as opposed to the prosperity of the individual. Gide’s real concern was that revolutionary momentum might decrease rather than increase. While recognizing that Russia was trying to consolidate the gains of the revolution in order to shore up its ability to defend itself against the growing power of Germany, Gide claimed to be disappointed that Russia was giving some ground and reestablishing the authority of the family, suppressing any hint of Trotskyism, and dampening criticism wherever it appeared. It’s interesting to speculate further along those lines. It’s customary to say that Russia would have been better off without the Revolution, but perhaps Russia would also have been better with more Revolution?

Friday, November 20, 2009

When You're 99.9 % Sure

Head Of Cheka

To pick up where I left off, the letters that make up Christopher Cerf and Marina Albee’s book, Small Fires: Letters from the Soviet People to Ogonyok, 1987- 1990, measure the impact of Communist politics on ordinary people. When it came to politics, glasnost called into question the longstanding principle—in operation since 1918--that political parties as well as factions were a threat to the country. From 1987 to 1990, many Soviets had had enough: they now asked for personal rights, competition in elections, political pluralism, governmental checks and balances, decentralization, equality in political processes, and popular participation in politics.

Soviet elections were one area of concern for Soviets in the age of glasnost. As anybody of my generation will recall, Soviet politicians frequently won elections with 99.9 percent of the vote, or some similar crushing margin of victory. In Small Fires, we get a glimpse of one participant’s views on the subject. According to a voter, people brought passports to the voting booth in order to verify who they were while they performed their civic duty and, much more importantly, lived up to the expectations of local Communist Party officials. However, voters routinely brought the passports of other family members to register their votes as well. Party bureaucrats didn’t care what individual voters actually thought, they just wanted to report high levels of political participation to their superiors.

Of course, elections did not entail choice. Before Perestroika, Soviet voters had only one choice for any given election. The Party selected candidates, and voters endorsed the decision. Soviet politicians were one layer of the Soviet nomenklatura, the privileged caste in Russian society. Members of the nomenklatura often drove in black sedans, shopped in special government stores, avoided long lines at the doctor’s office, and had access to state-supported dachas.

In theory, the U.S.S.R. worked accordingly: local soviets reported up to regional executive committees who reported up the chain to the Supreme Soviet, which concentrated power in the hands of a small Central Committee. The units of government were districts, oblasts, and then, largest of all, republics. In this context, many ordinary people felt that Lenin’s idea that all power belong to the soviets had long since been betrayed. In the Soviet Union, power was thoroughly centralized, with all power residing in the hands of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

The irony of glasnost and perestroika is that Gorbachev’s reform efforts were made possible as a result of this extreme centralization. Although his proposals threatened to undermine the authority of Party officials at many different levels, these officials were not accustomed to questioning central authority or resisting authority. Many of these officials had risen to power under Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev as a result of one factor—their personal loyalty to the Party Leader.

Since most Russians had never participated in politics, Gorbachev’s reforms—Gorbachev became General Secretary of the CPSU in 1985--were shocking. In 1989, The Congress of People’s Deputies was televised for the first time. Yet once the floodgates of Glasnost and Perestroika were unleashed, there was no turning back. Letter writers in Ogonyok repeatedly criticized their government. They were shocked that leading dissidents such as Andre Sakharov were routinely vilified by the government. They were angered that the Congress of People’s Deputies didn’t even have current electronic voting technologies, and that members often voted for one another when one member decided not to show up for an official vote.

Ordinary Russians disliked the political system, but state repression operated on many different levels. The very concept of freedom was circumscribed in Soviet society. It existed, in theory, in the Soviet Constitution, but in practice it was a meaningless concept. The Soviet army was not accountable to anyone, and officers could bump civilians off of trains or force junior recruits into personal service. Experienced soldiers physically abused new recruits—the practice was called “the rule of the grandfathers”—and the army establishment did nothing. Courts could operate at night, away from prying eyes, without benefit of defense witnesses or juries. Citizens carried passports that assigned nationality status to all citizens and requested permission from local officials to move into a new jurisdiction. Some young men died from the abuse.

Worse than the army, was the K.G.B., a vast, silent, well-financed internal security service that opened people’s mail, enforced prohibitions against contact with foreigners (which had not been explicitly endorsed by a person’s supervisor), shut down protests, hassled Russians who illegally attempted to photograph bridges or train stations or anything else that had was allegedly related to state security, and guarded its secrets even in the midst of glasnost. Even in 1991, Russians hesitated to speak up about the dreaded K.G.B., symbol of everything wrong with Soviet life.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Toad Work

Recently I have become aware that Blackberry commercials are the most annoying thing I encounter on a daily basis. Before their recent ad campaign my impression of Blackberry was mostly positive. I'm a little suspicious of Apple and the iPhone, which are far too eager to corner the market on cool. Buying a Blackberry would be a vote for the classic and a way to resist the stampede toward the new. Plus Obama loves his, or did before the secret service took it away. My affinity for the Blackberry is a sign that, whatever its excesses, there is still something alluring about American business culture. Even socialists have to admit it.

But then appeared this ad campaign, featuring young gyrating arty-types, rock musicians, dancers--a whole menagerie of unpromising wealth-enhancement strategies, all offering obeisance to that counterculture businessman's koan "Love what you do". This is offensive because I find it impossible to believe that people who work, especially people whose work requires a Blackberry, love it. Even painters and musicians hate to work; why else do so many big rock bands split up after 10 years? I'll resist the urge to quote another Philip Larkin poem. But even when work is fundamental to a person's identity, as it should be, it is impossible to ignore the futility interwoven into every human pursuit. Artists realize this as well as anyone. The only people who don't realize it are those who are so narrowly focused on short-term gain that they lack the ability to generate a narrative that would explain to themselves their actions in the world.

Coat recently wrote that socialism's aim was to exhalt use over exchange values, to return us to a precapitalist intimacy with things. I think at its essence socialism was a critique of work and an attempt at its rehabilitation. The Soviet Union tried to create a world in which work would be awesome. Steelworkers became celebrities. Poets wrote 5 lines a year and got a dacha in the country. Functionaries and bureaucrats were granted absolute local power. It didn't turn out that way of course. If anything work was more unpleasant in that drab system. And there wasn't even anything to buy with whatever you earned. But as the planet fills up with bodies and overheats, as industry disappears and the number of indispensible individuals shrinks, we might consider grappling with this toad while we still have a chance. And buying a Blackberry won't help at all.

It's Hard Out Here for a Communist

Long Live The Soviets

One of the best ways to understand the Soviet Union is to look at the country through the lenses of ordinary citizens. But since the Soviet Union was a police state, it only became possible to learn the views of ordinary citizens during the period of Glasnost and Perestroika. The moment when citizens began to write letters of complaint, protest, and accusation to liberal journals such as Ogonyok (Small Fire) was extraordinary.

Until 1988, the public sphere in Russia had been small and fragile. But when the process of liberalization began, the floodgates of suffering opened wide, and people began sending thousands upon thousands of angry, plaintive letters to the editors of liberal journals, who printed a wide variety of them in each issue. It’s difficult to summarize the hundred or so letters that appear in Small Fires: Letters from the Soviet People to Ogonyok Magazine, 1987- 1990, Edited by Christopher Cerf and Marina Albee. They touch on every aspect of Soviet life, and leave no doubt that modern Russian history and experience had little in common with that of America or Western Europe. As the 20th century drew to a close, a large portion of the Russian people understood that the Communist experiment—at least in the form it had taken in Russia up until that point—had failed the Russian people. Agriculture was underdeveloped, the state couldn’t properly regulate supply and demand, shortages and queues and rationing abounded, corruption was endemic, the political process didn’t cater to the will of the people, and so on.

Below are just a few of the letter-writers complaints:

The kolkozes (collective farms which, in theory, belonged to the workers who ran them) and sovkhozes (state farms—not so different in practice from the collective farms) were collapsing. The discrepancy between their optimistic names and reality had become increasingly jarring to Russians who knew they absorbed huge amounts of targeted investment but produced very little agricultural produce. Most were called things such as “Will of the Proletariat” or “Lenin’s path,” but, as one embittered jester pointed out in his letter, they ought to be renamed “40 years without a harvest” or “30 years of padded figures.”

The economy was in ruin. Railroads were in disrepair. People were waiting line for everything. Wait lists for cars were 15 to 20 years, and spare parts were so rare that existing cars were often off the streets one half of the time. There was no sugar for cakes and cookies. Women couldn’t get perfume or skin crème. Stores were closed and then remodeled when foreign dignitaries came to down, but these same stores stocked nothing when foreigners weren’t in town. People were on rations for basic necessities, and forced to make 100 milligrams of soap, for instance, last three months for an entire family.

Corruption permeated every corner of the Soviet economy. The retailers were collecting scare goods and selling them at a huge markup to select customers and keeping the profits. Telephone operators sold calls to friends and acquaintances.
Technology was outdated. The state apparatus bragged about Soviet production levels, but often the country was producing obsolete products like typewriters even after the West had long since switched to computers. One letter writer seemed in awe of the idea of a personal computer and a personal printer.. He also wondered why copying machines were considered to b e sacred machinery in Russia, when Americans seemed to be able to make copies whenever they wanted to. Russians were still using carbon paper when the West didn’t even stock this obsolete office supply anymore. The reader noted that the Soviet government might still be hoping to combat the spread of pornography and bourgeois ideas by restricting copy machines—so the scarcity of new technology might be due to Soviet ideology as much as to Soviet economic backwardness.

Censorship was still being practiced as evidenced by the publication of Dostoyevsky’s complete works, minus his political novel, The Possessed. Indeed, one letter-writer also called attention to the irony that he couldn’t get a copy of Gorbachev’s new book, Perestroika, although it was readily available in the West. Whether the problem was related to the paper shortage in Russia, or a form of indirect censorship, he did not say.

The people had little access to information. The most informative state news show was deliberately aired when older people had gone to bed. The dangerous situation in Armenia was ignored altogether in the press. For decades, state propaganda had been blaming the Pentagon for everything that went wrong in the world. The Soviet press was severely restricted in its access to the news makers. The history books were tainted by official propaganda. One dictionary that was published in 1988 proclaimed that only the West used racist stereotypes, that Western philanthropy was a tool of its spy services, that Soviet anti-Semitism did not exist, and that the U.S.S.R. had solved its nationalities problem once and for all. Trotsky and the Bible were only now becoming available to readers. Soviet geography was only slowly becoming a declassified subject, even in the age of satellites.

The Soviet Union was spending far too much money on its military budget. Moreover, the Soviet Army was a closed institution and provided the public with little or no information about how it operated, or how much money it drained from the Soviet economy each year. The Afghan invasion was, of course, a disaster with disastrous and far-reaching consequences.

One man’s wait for a new automobile sums up the desperation of the citizenry. As a veteran, he was entitled to “jump” to the head of a wait for a new car. When he went to find out about that car, he was told that many other veterans were already in this line and that it would be 62 years before he would be eligible for the car. In other words, the man could expect the car in the year 1051. With grim humor, the man wrote to the magazine to say that he thought that he would like to visit his heirs in the new car. At 130 years of age, he would make quite an impression on them all.

Cash Money

Adam Smith

Without being an expert in Communism, I can imagine the general desire to somehow transcend capitalism. There is something jarring about an economic system that persistently transforms, undermines, and changes the way we live our lives. The vocabulary of capitalism is so thoroughly integrated into our speech patterns that we hardly notice it anymore. But think for a moment about the way the discourse of capitalism structures the way we think about almost everything we (pun attended) value. We talk about money, debt, class, socioeconomic status, financial transactions, markets, prices, commodities, sales, discounts, interest, wealth, poverty, merchandise, monetary policy, fiscal policy, deficits, economic growth, economic decline, economic well-being, change, currency, cash, money, Benjamins, credit, payments, dividends, annuities, salaries, bonuses, savings, deals, trades, loans, dollars, etc.

Socialism was a well-intentioned effort to turn back the clock (or to advance the clock) to a time where human beings were not subject to competition and the caprice of supply and demand. As bad as the Middles Ages were, they did demonstrate that men and women are indeed capable of attributing meaning to things other than money. In the Dark Ages, people sometimes did without trade. Hell, they sometimes did without money. Although the Dark Ages may never have been as dark as they are sometimes made out to be—or were they worse—people were often forced to grow their own food in a state of near total autarchy. People valued Christian ideals (or didn’t) and military prowess, which gradually evolved in a decidedly non-capitalist set of values, to wit, chivalry. The bourgeoisie, as a class, didn’t even exist. People worked for protection (or because they had become quasi-slaves, or serfs) rather than for monetary remuneration.

If socialism failed to create a viable alternative to capitalism, it seems impossible to believe that human beings will accept this decision as final. Is the language of trade the only language we’re capable of using? Does everything really have a price? Hunter-gatherers seem to have gotten along for many thousands of years without capitalism (or capitalist accumulation). Can we do it again?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

E.H. Carr

Dynasty Ends

Is a blogger who deals with the Russian Revolution obligated to read E.H. Carr’s massive treatment of the 1920s? As Carr doesn’t actually cover the Revolution or the Civil War, I have a plausible if not persuasive case for amnesty. However, Carr has dealt with this period of the consolidation of revolutionary energies in more detail than any other author, and by a wide margin. Carr has in fact written over 4000 pages on the subject, and this count doesn’t include any of his other smaller studies of men like Bakunin or Herzen. He’s covered NEP, Socialism in One Country, and many other key Russian events with patience and diligence. (For Carr, Stalin’s approach to the challenge of Trotsky and others was extremely practical: could Communists be expected to wait for the global revolution rather than advance Russia’s national interests in the meantime?)

I’m not about to take on this monumental task of reading a large portion of Carr anytime soon, so I’m thankful for Laqueur’s short overview of the work, written over two decades ago. Back then, the jury was still out on E.H. Carr. Carr has a lot to recommend him. He had a rich diplomatic past and excellent command of the primary sources available in the West. He is also relatively objective, if such a thing is possible, and knows how to write, as evidenced by his wonderfully comic treatment of Bakunin’s strange career for instance. He also appreciated the gravity of what was happened in the Soviet Union. This really was an experiment without parallel in modern history. However, E.H. Carr’s heroic attempt to turn his long series of books the post-revolutionary era doesn’t quite measure up to Macaulay’s treatment of Rome, which remains as a profound work of literature even if its historical explanation are often out of favor with professional historians.

If Laqueur was critical of Carr he was not yet prepared to past judgment on Carr’s project. It was, he thought, too early for that. By now, Carr’s mistakes loom larger and his enormous oeuvre is only sometimes seen as useful let alone authoritative by the present giants of Russian history. Laqueur naturally found fault in Carr’s decision to omit the Revolution and Civil War, since the policies and structures of the 1920s only make sense if one understands how and why they were first created. Laqueur also finds fault in Carr’s claim to impartiality, which admittedly waxes and wanes which each book, according to the shifts in modern European experience. For Laqueur, objectivity can be a mask for insensitivity to human suffering, or a mask for one’s hidden but also present viewpoint and prejudice.

The fascinating thing about Carr is that he wrote a history that left out most personalities and focused instead on legal, political, and economic structures. This approach helps Carr to overlook dramatic stories that didn’t really make a difference in the bigger life of the Soviet state. However, Laqueur says Carr often overlooks the reality behind formal structures. The Soviet Constitution, for instance, is really not very important. It reads surprisingly well, but since it was never implemented, the real story of Soviet jurisprudence is that it never evolved to protect the most fundamental rights of Soviet citizens.

Carr’s major response to his critics was that he was attempting to do a kind of history that made few moral judgments. As he said on some occasions, it would be inappropriate for historians to judge the morality of players in the English or French Revolutions, so why do so now with the Soviet one? Moreover, what’s true of France and England may not be true of the Soviet Union. If the Soviet government would look brutal if it appeared in the West, it’s not quite so unusual in terms of Russian experience. As the facts are now known, this seems to be a woefully insensitive to the millions of Russians whose lives were ruined or ended by Stalin’s police state.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Rule Number One: "Take Power When It's Given to You"

Marching Women

Walter Laqueur’s 1917 is a wonderful overview of both the year 1917 and the historiography surrounding it. Let me just hit on a few of his more interesting points about the year and its place in history.

Unlike the French Revolution, historians were largely unable to analyze new primary sources related to the Russian Revolution as a result of the closed society that guarded these documents. So the debate over the Russian Revolution was largely been confined to the meaning of events right up until 1991, as opposed to debating what actually happened. One crucial question about meaning is whether to accept the Marxist contention that 1917 was a deep, structural transformation of society rather than an accident or conspiracy.

The counter-revolution saw things differently: the Bolsheviks defeated their enemies because they exploited a series of bizarre and tragic circumstances that led to an unprecedented power vacuum. There was nothing inevitable about the triumph of the Bolsheviks—once a tiny minority even within the greater socialist movement--in Russia. In light of subsequent events in Russia, which really did transform society in fundamental ways, this argument is unconvincing. But Laqueur also points out one weakness in the Marxist argument that the year 1917 was really the inevitable result of historical processes and irresistible social pressures. If the first revolution of 1917, the one that resulted in the Provincial Government, represented the victory of the bourgeoisie, is it possible that real socialists actually replaced the bourgeoisie less than one year later, in the October Revolution of 1917?

Laqueur also looks at the victory of the Bolsheviks over their socialist rivals. It’s one thing to look at why the Tsar lost credibility and the Kadet party failed to make a commitment to the kind of radical reform the country needed. It’s even possible to understand that Kerensky’s Provincial Government was too attached to the war effort to survive failed military offensives against the Germans. But why did the Bolsheviks prevail against the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, who were each much larger socialist parties? Laqueur thinks that most historians have accepted the premise that the Mensheviks weren’t equipped to compete with the Bolsheviks. Although they were much larger, they accepted the traditional Marxist theory that socialist revolution was not appropriate in backward Russia, which lagged far behind the West in terms of economic development as well as political maturity. The Mensheviks were, at first, more numerous than the Bolsheviks, but they had no will to power, and were even committed to a measure of democracy.

The Social Revolutionaries were more complicated. Were they or were they not capable of competing for power with the Bolsheviks? The Social Revolutionaries were by far the largest socialist party in Russia. But they were seriously divided into left-wing and right-wing faction—to say nothing of the Chernov center--and the left-wing faction was closer to the Bolsheviks than they were to their own center. They were rooted in the countryside, and almost by definition bereft of strong communication networks and mobilization strategies.

It’s true that the Bolsheviks had some significant advantages over their rivals. The Bolsheviks were well-organized, fervent, and willing to take power. They had no scruples about democracy. Moreover, the Bolsheviks were ideologically versatile. Lenin had scrapped large portions of Marxist theory by moving to seize power in Russia, but he had also thrown over Marxist theory by conveniently adopting the peasant-friendly land confiscation platform of his Social Revolutionary rivals. Indeed, Lenin at first also favored the liberation of the subject nationalities, which clearly conflicted to any notion of the solidarity of the working classes across national loyalties.

For Laqueur, one of the strange ironies of 1917 is that the Bolsheviks defeated their rivals and won Russia precisely because they had such a poor political position. That is to say, the Bolsheviks won because nobody else took them seriously and, more importantly, nobody else was willing to make a serious play for power at a time when power seemed to be so elusive and ephemeral. Laqueur sites that famous worker exclamation to the Social Revolutionary leader, Chernov: “Take power, you son of a bitch, when it’s given to you.”

Since Chernov had just witnessed the execution of the tsar followed by the gradual dissolution of the authority of the Provincial Government (which shared power with the Soviets even at the height of its authority), it’s no wonder that he wasn’t eager to “take power.” But once the Bolsheviks did take power, they became instantly locked in Civil War with reactionary opponents. And this being so, large portions of the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary Party were obviously unlikely to support the White Guards against any form of socialism.

Laqueur’s concluding remarks on the year 1917 and its place in history are notable, notwithstanding the fact that they undermine the premise of this blog. Laqueur says that 1917 was at first seen to be one of the central turning points in modern history. However, in retrospect, he feels that historians will see 1917 as only an early sign that the focus of world history was moving eastward toward China, India, and other countries. In hindsight, he thinks decolonization will loom much larger than anything that happened in Russia.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Wandering Spector of the Revolution

The Nabokovs

When I was 21 I moved from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles, California. Upon arrival, I entered a totally alien world. Los Angeles felt like a foreign country, more foreign than many of the real foreign countries I had previously visited. In some ways it felt like another planet. Greater Los Angeles had exotic plant life like palm trees, exotic homes (all homes occupied a single level, no matter how grand), and exotic weather (winter—a staple of life up until that moment--somehow disappeared altogether and I ended up going hiking on Christmas Eve). In California one ran into magnificent beaches, washed up movie stars delivering Chinese food, mountains, and deserts. Still ostensibly in America, I was now a few hours from surreal locales like Tijuana, Barstow, Santa Monica, and Las Vegas.

I lived first in Santa Monica and then in Westwood, but I worked in Hollywood, which seemed to be the epicenter of the bizarre universe I had unwittingly entered. I was here on a fluke—my girlfriend had moved and I had followed her on a whim—and that made everything more interesting, more jarring. Each day I drove to work on Sunset Avenue, scene of so many movies and television shows that had, up until now, seemed to be located in a fantasy landscape. I started my drive in Beverly Hills—the show was in full swing at the time and defined the place for me—and drove past enormous landscapes on a winding road, past the Beverly Hills Hotel, past the enormous billboards featured on Entourage, and into Hollywood. My job was located at Sunset and LaBrea, at a post-production studio, something I had never heard of until I landed the interview through a friend of a friend. The place was directly across from the Seventh Veil, a strip joint, and crack addicts regularly strolled the alley behind it.

I left Los Angeles abruptly, dramatically--moving back across the length of the country to Washington, D.C. My departure from alien Los Angeles was so abrupt that, for many years (and sometimes even now), I vividly imagined that my old life in L.A. was continuing, even as one part of me set up shop again thousands of miles away on the East Coast. Years later, I sometimes still wonder how my Los Angeles persona is getting on. I figure he has gotten a few promotions, and is no longer working for $9 dollars an hour. I am in sales now, no doubt, living in a cheaper suburb, enjoying the weather, etc. As I write this, I figure Californian Derek is probably on Facebook, and I should certainly attempt to “friend” him. He’s out there somewhere—unless he too has moved by now. Or perhaps he has already died. And come to think of it, doesn't death work according to the same principle of doubleness: what are ghosts if not evidence of rupture and the multiplicity of plot lines that emanate from the same point of origin?

I think all history is like that. I think ruptures (especially traumatic ones) don’t really end lives, they just multiply them. In Russia, these ruptures were commonplace, and severe. The Revolution of 1917 was the ultimate break in continuity. Thus it is that many Russians continued to believe for decades that the Old Russia was still alive and well, living its life quietly and uneventfully. If the tsar and his family were brutally murdered in a basement, many believed for a very long time that at least one or two of the children had managed to escape and had escaped abroad, waiting to return to Russia to reestablish the old way of life. It’s seems quite probably that there is a Romanov somewhere still hoping to return to the thrown—and who can say with certainty that he won’t?

The Russian Diaspora (perhaps all exile communities work this way) lived a rich double life, setting up show in alien worlds—Prague, Berlin, Paris, New York—even as they enjoyed making contact with ongoing pre-revolutionary life of their alternative personas. Bunin and Nabokov expressed this feeling of temporal bifurcation in two totally different literary styles, but the mood was the same: the Old Life still existed. When Nabokov’s protagonist enters a Russian food shop, it’s a “kind of wax museum of the old country’s cuisine.” Most poignantly, Nabokov—like all those who allow themselves to acknowledge the existence of double (or a multiplicity of) lives, imagines a homecoming to Russia, where his childhood goes on, unencumbered by political reality, economic transformation, violence, or indeed his present life as an exile. He imagines walking around his family’s old estate, noticing the changes that have occurred to the place over time. The idea of re-capturing the past (however frustrating or illusive) is, he says, the thing that makes “the business of exile worth cultivating.”

It’s childhood, above all, that continues to live for Nabokov. The Revolution came during his childhood with unexpected fury and violence, and thus that childhood can’t evolve or disappear. It lives on. Nabokov sometimes says that he recognizes that it’s futile to recapture that which has disappeared, but his whole work testifies to the contrary. His childhood is more vivid in his books than it must have been when it occurred. As Nabokov writes in the Gift: “Thus a former impression keeps living within harmony’s ice.”

Oprah, Streisand, and Gramsci

Barbra Streisand's "Love Is The Answer" After Party

If it seems remarkable that Russians overthrew their government and installed a radical new one in 1917, it sometimes seems more incredible that America doesn’t have a revolution today. Who could have guessed that the exploiting class—the superrich—would publicly flaunt their privileged status to every corner of the country?

If you say that people in Russia always knew about aristocratic privilege and tsarist palaces, note that America’s have turned the lives of the morbidly wealthy into entertainment. See the show, Cribs, for example, where ordinary viewers get tours of insanely ornate mansions, filled with basketball courts, swimming pools, ten car garages, and the like. It’s as if you were daring viewers to seize power in order to eliminate the disparities. Antonio Gramsci, Italian Communist, made the argument that the upper classes achieved dominance over the lower classes through cultural and ideological stratagems. The working classes would revolt, he said, if they hadn’t become complicit in their own degradation.

As we watch Cribs, we seem to be doing just that, admiring our cultural heroes and their privilege more than we love ourselves, our class, our country, or justice itself. Now I know I sound rather smug, mocking people who are in love with those refrigerators that are stuffed to the rim with 40 bottles of Cherry Coke and 22 jars of Nutella. Not so. I find myself enjoying Kathy Griffin’s journey to ever-expanding heights of wealth and power. And I’m in ecstasy when I get a glimpse of Oprah and Streisand just kicking back, sipping tea, and keeping it real by discussing the daily aggravations of the superrich, including the difficulty of finding five star hotel rooms for dogs displaced by Santa Barbara fires, the challenge of maintaining multiple homes and island retreats, and the bother of having to keep yacht staff at peak performance on both coasts at once—or words to that effect. Clearly, the revolution will not be televised.

Friday, November 13, 2009


HBO Premiere Of "The Sopranos" - Arrivals

The most compelling aspect of the show, the Sopranos—aside from Edie Falco's perfect acting—is Tony Soprano’s relationship to power. Tony Soprano is a walking explanation of how power works in any context. Power has mysterious origins. In Tony’s case, it’s partly inherited--a product of the unique history of Italian immigration in New Jersey, an underground milieu, and the violent personal successes of his father and uncle. And it’s partly contextual: Tony’s strength wouldn’t be operational in many different contexts but is perfectly suited to the work of cosa nostra. Tony’s power is also the result of a variety of personal traits, including physical strength, cunning intelligence, charisma, sensitivity, machismo, savage humor, and brutality.

As the show proceeds, it’s often hard to know which facet of Tony’s personality is most important to his success. He’s a good negotiator. He knows the rules of the game, both in terms of receiving respect from others in the criminal underworld, and in knowing how city councils and labor unions and gambling consortiums work. He also knows other people. For a sociopath, he maintains the ability to empathize with other people, at least to the extent of knowing what motivates them. Tony sometimes makes mistakes. He’s out of his element when dealing with elite society, and can’t quite control his own wife, Carmella, or his children.

By and large, however, Tony’s recipe for controlling others works well. He’s tender enough with his crew—his cousin for example—to give them each hope that he may well have their best interests at heart. He’s cruel enough to keep them fearful of his ire. He also possesses a wicked sense of humor, mostly geared toward ridiculing, mocking, and degrading those around him. (The scene where Tony realizes that those around him are laughing hysterically at his jokes only because they realize the need to flatter the boss is priceless).

The fact that Tony seeks therapy in the attempt to overcome panic attacks hints at a fatal weakness in Tony’s armor. However, Tony’s developing capacity for introspection is in many ways a testament to his leadership potential. As the therapist’s mentor tells her, research shows that psychopaths don’t gain anything from therapy. Rather, they use therapy to gratify their own egos or, more frighteningly, to overcome barriers to an even more efficient savagery. And this of course is how Tony’s therapy works. He doesn’t really become more humane. He’s unkind to his son, and analyzes his own dreams (at least this is my interpretation of the episode) to uncover—and murder--a government mole in his organization.

One thinks of Woody Allen, who remained in therapy his whole life, but somehow managed to justify the fact that he seduced a young woman who was, effectively, his own step-daughter. As the ultimate television personification of the successful pursuit of power, the Russophile naturally thinks of Joseph Stalin. Although all of Russia was his stage, Stalin had the Soprano touch. He was intelligent, cunning, and brave. Like Tony, Stalin understood people. He knew how to flatter them, persuade them, humor them, belittle them, and scare them. He made friends easily. He spoke persuasively. He was patient in the application of his power, and could wait months or even years to exact revenge.

In the end, Stalin was an effective political leader because he, like Tony Soprano, possessed self-discipline and good, old-fashioned people skills, while maintaining a sociopath’s ability to use force and terror without compunction whenever necessary. Of course, Stalin also used terror when it wasn’t necessary, killing people who posed no threat to his regime. He was paranoid, but probably also executed people for a variety of other reasons, believing that his will was synonymous with raison d’etat as well as communist philosophical principles. Tony Soprano would probably have needed a philosophy to have risen to the level of Stalin as a mass murderer

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Giving Atheism a Bad Name

Charles Bradlaugh

How do you know you’ve had a Revolution with a capital “R?” I’d say when your new government overturns 800 years of Christianity or so and makes a cult of atheism. Worse than that, you know you've had a serious cultural event when you've turned atheism into a sort of mirror image of the very theology it hopes to elude. (For analogous American trends, See James Wood's recent article in the 31 August 2009 New Yorker: "God In the Quad: A Done Defends the Supreme Being from the New Atheists").

How atheism established itself—even in the context of political and economic upheaval—is a mystery to me. Apparently Russian revolutionaries took their Marxism seriously. Religion was the opiate of the masses, a symptom of the false consciousness that covered over class oppression and obscured the true economic and political interests of the working classes. Even so, a political party has to have a very low regard for the notion of democracy to dethrone a common religion. (It was actually illegal for an atheist to sit in the British Parliament right up through most of the nineteenth century--See Walter Arnstein’s excellent monograph on the subject, the Bradlaugh Case--and few if any self-professed atheists could win any significant election in America today.

Evidently Russia’s official religion, Orthodoxy, was so corrupted by its contact with autocracy and aristocracy that it had lost much of its charm even for Russian peasants. Perhaps Russian peasant cared more about occupying church lands than they did about following church doctrine. Part of the issue is that the Russian peasants were never as Christian as they were sometimes made out to be. Although Christianity has reemerged in the wreckage of communism, historians such as Bruce Lincoln have argued that Russian peasants were as polytheistic or pagan or superstitious as they were Christian. Without literacy, and without educated priests in their midst, peasant understanding of Christian dogma was extremely fragile.

In any event, Soviet atheism quickly became an oppressive force. The religious were scorned and marginalized if not harassed. Were Soviet atheists as intolerant and oppressive as Western Christians continue to be in countries like America? It seems hard to imagine that this could be possible. It’s a tragedy really, since the novel phenomena of overt agnosticism, deism, and atheism had traditionally been allied to the Enlightenment principles like toleration, openness, free inquiry, skepticism, and equality. In fact, the word “freethinker” was a synonym for agnosticism throughout the nineteenth century. And atheism had no history—except perhaps in the French Revolution—of torture, anti-Semitism, bigotry, and warfare, as Christianity and theism in general had.

Yet somehow the Soviet Union managed to do the impossible by giving atheism a bad name. The great experiment in mental freedom was, alas, a failure. Perhaps the problem was that communism became a religion itself. Perhaps people are doomed to some form of religion—the real Original Sin--regardless of their aspirations.