Sunday, August 21, 2011

Lion Feuchtwanger and the Festival of Revenge

"There can be no question that in the great majority of cases this exaggerated veneration is genuine. The people feel the need to express their gratitude, their infinite admiration. They do in truth believe that they owe to Stalin all they are and have, and however incongruous and at times distasteful this idolatry may seem to us of the West, no where have I found anything to indicate that is in the least artificial or ready-made."

"The future lies before them like a well-defined and carefully tended path through a beautiful landscape."

"They are unable to repress the happiness which fills them."

"[Moscow is a] city built from its foundations in accordance with the dictates of sound sense, and the first of its kind since man wrote history."

"Everything is from the first an essential part of an intelligently conceived plan."

"In itself there is nothing remarkable in the unanimous optimism of the Soviet people."

"Stalin laughed a little at those who demanded many written documents before they could bring themselves to believe in a conspiracy; practiced conspirators, he said, were not in the habit of leaving their documents lying around for all to see."

"Many of my friends, who are otherwise intelligent people, find these [the Show Trials], from beginning to end, in substance and in form, tragic-comical, barbaric, incredible, and appalling."

"But when I attended the second trial in Moscow, when I saw Pyatakov, Radek, and his friends, and heard what they said and how they said it, I was forced to accept the evidence of my own senses, and my doubts melted away."

"It at once becomes as clear as daylight that this modest, impersonal man cannot possibly have committed the colossal indiscretion of producing with the assistance of countless performers so coarse a comedy, merely for the purpose of holding a sort of festival of revenge with Bengal lights to celebrate the humiliation of his opponents."

"There is one eternally true legend," [Stalin] said, "that of Judas."

Lion Feuchtwanger, author of Moscow, 1937: My Visit Described for My Friends, was one of Stalin's chief international apologists. To apologize for the apologist, one should remember that the Jewish-German theater critic, novelist, and playwright was one of NAZI German's earliest and most vociferous enemies. With intimate knowledge of Hitler's monstrous villainy, Feuchtwanger is at pains to explain the Soviet Union's antidemocratic shortcomings as a natural outcome of its struggle against fascist Germany and Italy.

Feuchtwanger's description of his ten week visit to the "Union"--his pet name for the U.S.S.R.--is an aggressive, comprehensive defense of the world's first experiment in socialism. Feuchtwanger's apologia makes extensive use of economic and social statistics to tell the story of the revolutionary regime. Although the author admits that Russia suffers from a deplorable lack of adequate housing, he praises Russia for its alleged progress in public transportation, education, new housing construction, electrification, food production, water usage, good reserves, wage levels, and access to consumer goods.

Russia's superiority over its fascist and capitalist competitors is manifested in countless ways. Most importantly, Feuchtwanger believes that Soviet citizens appreciate their place in a fair, secure, rational, and planned society. While even wealthy Westerners suffer from the knowledge of their neighbors' poverty and joblessness, Soviet citizens understand that their modest prosperity is not purchased at the expense of the less fortunate. They know, or at least Feuchtwanger says they know, that they are organically connected to the whole of society, and that Party decisions are made on their behalf, and not on behalf of wealthy individuals. According to Feuchtwanger's vision, capitalist planning--if we overlook the oxymoron inherent in the term--is disorganized, unfair, irrational, and inefficient. But most importantly, capitalist planning is soulless and cruel.

For Feuchtwanger, the 1930s were an exciting time for Russians. Led by leaders of genius such as Stalin, Soviet citizens had just received one of the most progressive constitutions in the world in 1935. While the German writer admits that the 1935 Constitution is not yet fully implemented--a spectacular understatement to say the least--he admires the extent to which the Soviet legal framework asserts broad civil rights and demonstrates the way in which they will be guaranteed. If the Russian people had the right to freedom of expression, the Soviet government ensured that this right was tangible by maintaining public ownership over the press organs. It's a strange logic, but Feuchtwanger is generally content that the Soviet state is at least acting in the interest of its citizens.

Of course, the German playwright is impressed most of all by Stalin. Although claiming to be dissatisfied with crude Stalin-worship, Feuchtwanger argues that Soviet citizens merely seek to praise their country's accomplishments by heaping honor upon honor upon a concrete symbol of their good fortune. Stalin is allegedly a steady man and a builder, in touch with both the peasants and the proletarians. Feuchtwanger claims Stalin is Augustus to Lenin's Caesar, responsible for the defense of Tsaritsyn in the Civil War, and several brilliant socialist theories, such as Socialism in One Country, and the reconciliation of nationalism with socialist internationalism.

Most bizarrely, the author also credits Stalin with magnanimity. In the contest with Trotsky, Stalin claims that Stalin ordered that Trotsky be included in the official, Gorky-edited History of the Civil War, while pointing out that Trotsky spitefully uses all of his writings to defame the great Stalin. We know of course that Stalin erased Trotsky from the history books, and was ultimately responsible for Trotsky's death, as well as his children's deaths, but Feuchtwanger's test belies Stalin's pretensions to goodwill. In this same chapter on Stalin and Trotsky, Feuchtwanger allows that Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rydek and others were executed. And yet, he's not ashamed to write: "[Stalin] is supposed to be ruthless, but for many years he has been striving to win over competent Trotskyists rather than destroy them, and it is in a way affecting to see how doggedly he is endeavoring to use them for his work."

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