Sunday, May 8, 2011

Tunisian Deserter

The Russian Revolution was of course a unique historical event but all revolutions have something in common, if only a certain demonic energy or a natural rhythm or etiology of revolt. Recently a North African friend told me about her indirect experience with contemporary revolution. She said that the Tunisian Revolution signified the overthrow of boredom as much as it signified the triumph of a new type of politics or economics. Under a dictator who rules for decades, one no longer expects that one day will be different than the next. The experience, I imagine, is like living in Phoenix, Arizona: you may well be comfortable with sun and heat, but you can't be anything other than bored when you wake up on a Saturday morning and stroll outside to see a perfectly blue sky. For better or worse, one day is exactly like the next.

So, among other things, revolution represents an end to boredom. Of course, when my Tunisian friend expresses her confidence in the future, and joy about the birth of a new, democratic order in her homeland, I cannot help but to think about how happy almost everybody seemed to be when the Provisional Government first took power in Russia, or indeed how happy almost all Iranians were when the Shah first fled the country. The point, it would seem, is that revolutions are unpredictable, or worse than that: they inevitably degenerate into violence and radicalism. Or do they? We do well to remember that we were all revolutionaries at some point. The British, the French, the Americans, the Latin Americans---what people doesn't owe its allegiance to a revolutionary moment of some sort?

Today I thought about the Tunisian Revolution when watching the 1933 sound film, Deserter. Deserter, set in Hamburg amidst one of the worst strikes in Wiemar Germany's tragic history, attempts to document just how truly international the Bolshevik Revolution was meant to be. In its early sequences we see a poor German worker attempting to steal a prime cut of meat from a bourgeois restaurant table. Caught in the act, he flees the scene, hounded by angry bourgeois citizens and policemen. Faced with either the crowd's justice, or his own bleak plight as a proletarian, he chooses to commit suicide by throwing himself into a busy street. Soon he's nothing more than a bloody stain on the street, an inconvenience to the rich who are forced to pause momentarily in their open-air cars to allow for the clean-up.

The man's act of desperation symbolizes the revolutionary moment in Germany, just as a poor Tunisian man's self-immolation in the face of adversity and corruption symbolized the revolutionary moment there just a few months ago. Like Gladwell's immensely overrated work, The Tipping Point, one struggles to understand just what it is that turns the slings and arrows of everyday dictatorship into something so intolerable that self-immolation begins to seem like a rational act as opposed to the bizarre act of a madman.

Deserter, originally designed to be a product of collaboration between Bolshevik Russia and Social Democrats in Germany, is about a long and grueling German strike at the shipyards. It's the usual story of strike breakers, fat capitalists, and brutal policemen engaged in a conspiracy to keep hard-working proletarians from enjoying the fruit of their own labor. Opposed to the forces of reaction are the customary heroes of labor, including a feisty and beautiful woman who passes out copies of the Red Courier in spite of police harassment. The twist is that one man, the film's hero, "deserts" the cause of the strikers. Underwhelmed by the logic of class struggle or unconvinced that he bears personal responsibility for the victory of the strikers, one man, Karl Renn, abandons the strikers to their fate at the hands of armed police and at least one tank. Ashamed of his failure to do his duty, the strike council decides to send him (as three other workers who are unable to physically help the cause) on a journey to the Soviet Union to accompany a ship the German workers have constructed.

Once in the Soviet Union, Karl quickly realizes that he hasn't fully understand the world in which he lives. In Russia, Karl and the other German workers see an enthusiastic, healthy, and happy Russian citizenry celebrating a Red Army parade and welcoming them to the country. Scenes of Russian industrial power and mechanized processes imply that Karl is caught up with the romance of Russian economic dynamism. In any case, Karl begins to take note of the international nature of the class struggle. Sensing that he has much to learn from the one nation on earth where the proletariat have taken charge of the mechanisms of power, Karl volunteers his technical expertise to work in a Russian factory. Once there, he makes a name for himself by working hard to help his comrades to achieve their difficult production quotas.

It's unnerving to see just how accurately the film propaganda mirrors what actually took place in the Stalin era. Although Karl is ultimately successful in helping his Russian colleagues to increase production by a factor of 350 percent in 30 days, the film seems to suggest just how insane this production goal or similar goals must have been. The diesel factory montage shows pistons moving feverishly, workers scuttling from one section of the factory to another sweat pouring down their faces, and pressure gauge arrows moving excitedly.

The film also features workers who engaged in self-criticism over the pace of work. Capitalist bosses are not necessary in Communist Russia: when the fate of a proletarian nation is at stake, the production quota simply must be met. We know from history, the five year plans were a recipe for industrial confusion and human disaster. If one looks closely at the factory scenes in this film, one can almost sense the tragedy of industrialization under Stalin. In Communist Russia, work was the equivalent of warfare. It mattered not how many people suffered or died to meet the nation's industrial objectives. And if failure occurred--and how could it not in such a frenetic rush?--then saboteurs must be to blame.

Notwithstanding the madness of Russian-style industrialization, Karl is impressed by what he sees. A portrait of Lenin watches over his deliberations about his future and he ultimately returns to Germany as an enthusiastic supporter of the international class struggle with few doubts about the righteousness of his cause or the inevitability of ultimate victory. Karl has seen the future--the Soviet Union--and it works.

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