Monday, March 4, 2013

General Strike

Somewhere around 1999 I recognized that my career in graduate school was quickly coming to an end.  After six years of intense reading, I didn't know what I wanted from my studies.  I remember sitting at a local cafe with fellow graduate students and voicing a depressive's belief that I had only about a twenty percent chance of finishing my doctorate.  Is it unusual, I thought to myself, for somebody in my situation to be so disinterested in my own academic prospects?   Down and out in Urbana, I felt poor, lonely, isolated, and infantilized by the whole graduate school experience.  In the words voiced by Mikhail Gorbachev about a decade previously:  I couldn't "go on like this."  Notwithstanding my gathering depression,  I made one last effort to get excited about graduate school.  I sought out one of the most dynamic history professors at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and asked to do  a research seminar with him.  My topic was the British General Strike of 1926, a national work stoppage that brought Britain closer to revolution that any other event since Chartism in in the middle of the nineteenth century.   Although struggling with failing motivation, I spent a good deal of time in the library gathering the necessary sources.  Sadly, my best efforts were undermined by sadness and anxiety, what my therapist called "unresolved grief" from the death of my mother many years previously.

Sitting at my computer, I found it difficult to churn out the necessary paragraphs.  My thinking was clouded.  Worse still, I felt too prickly to respond appropriately to the professor's criticisms of my effort to date.  The problem lay entirely with me:  I was working slowly, thinking muddily, and communicating poorly.  With an odd mixture of embarrassment and anger, I finally accepted a B plus on the paper (the graduate school equivalent of near-failure) rather than embrace the professor's reasonable suggestions for improvement.  After that, all that remained for me to do was take my preliminary exams and take a less-than--structurally sound doctoral proposal to a committee of skeptical but friendly professors who undoubtedly hoped for the best from a hard-working if misguided student.  After that, I knew that I would leave Urbana, and doctoral study in general.  And this is in fact what I did.  Over the next several years, I taught history (American, European, and world) at a variety of college and universities, and eventually launched into a career in academic administration.  I also edited children's history books and completed my second and third master's degrees, this time in nonprofit management and human resources management.

Although the future without a doctorate in history turned out to be relatively bright, and I never really doubted that my decision to leave graduate work in history had been a good one at the time, the General Strike paper always symbolized something deeply troubling about my past life.  This being the case, it's ironic that when I called a professor at my old graduate program to talk about potentially returning to graduate study after an absence of many years, I thought again about the strike, and not without a tinge of pleasure.  The work had ended badly, but I hadn't chosen it by accident.  The fact is that I was truly fascinated by this break in the ordinary life of a mature,  reasonable, and putatively evolutionary-minded people.  If the British could consider Revolution, didn't that mean that Revolution was always a possibility, a perpetual alternative which structured how and why people did what they did in politics and culture?

After explaining my previous interest in the General Strike, I was asked to read a pamphlet on the subject by an Indian living in Great Britain in the 1920s, R. Palme Dutt.  Without the easy ability to access arcane sources, I went ahead and purchased a copy of the pamphlet.  The cost was high, about $30 dollars for a treatise of no more than 36 pages.  I knew the cost was high, but I now wanted to make the purchase for two diametrically opposed reasons: first, if getting a copy of this piece of Communist propaganda allowed me to respond more quickly to this professor's questions about my proposed path of study, then $30 dollars would be a small price to pay;  and second, if my dream of returning to graduate study was about to meet up with a brick wall of graduate school policies and procedures, then perhaps this booklet could now be seen as something quasi-mystical, the physical embodiment of one of my life's leitmotifs.

When the package arrived, I found this booklet to be old, yellow, dirty, and fragile.  A true primary source, the document practically smelled of the Urbana "stacks" (main library shelves) I had lived among so long ago. Without a doubt, I will frame this document, for it represents two halves of my adult life, the tragedy of my late twenties, and the triumph of my early forties.  Surprisingly, I'm in love with Dutt's "The Meaning of the General Strike."  At this moment in time, it's a testimony to my own survival, my lucky escape from graduate school at a difficult time in my life, and the promise of graduate school on very different terms in the year 2013.  In the coming weeks, my life as a history graduate student may be reanimated or terminated, but in either event this document (soon to be framed of course) will be special to me.

Ah, but what of the document itself?  It's the standard communist take on modern British history.  There's criticism of liberalism, parliamentary democracy, reformism, and even soft-headed trade unionism.  There's a belief that British capitalism--symbolic home to global capitalism--was on the brink of collapse.  There's the argument that the British state was now directly invested in a class war with the rising tide of the proletarian dissatisfaction.  There's a paradoxical attempt to contextualize British labor unrest in the context of global revolution, while at the same time isolating the economic tension in Britain from the political tension that was gradually undermining the very fabric of Britain's global empire.  The paradox of Marxism is that on the one hand it's a profoundly historical as well as global doctrine.  But on the other hand it attempts to tell a mythological story (i.e., a story takes place in what Mircea Elida would call sacred or ahistorical time) that is rooted in a smaller corner of Europe.  Dutt's story references the age of Marx when he alludes to Chartism.  His story is also set against the very specific background of the Great War (the October Revolution, the Russian Civil War and Europe in 1919 more generally, being a subset of this cataclysmic event).  But even so, Dutt wants his readers to know that local events are leading inexorably to a preordained event.

Reading Dutt, and thinking back to my own attempt to link aesthetic and political varieties of modernism in my analysis of the General Strike, I think of Katerina Clark's book, Petersburg:  Crucible of Cultural Revolution.  For Clark, Marx,  Lenin, and even Stalin, are offering Europe a political solution that resembles the broader aesthetic formulation of modernism.  Clark focuses her attention on the "myth" of Petersburg, but her essential point is that the Bolsheviks were relying heavily on tropes they inherited for aesthetic innovators.  This makes a certain about of sense.  Reading Dutt today, or any Marxist, one is struck by how little relationship there is between events on the ground and the essential, unvarying, and quasi-religious revolutionary worldview.  Clark analyzes these similarities in more detail.  She talks about the faith of many or even most modern aesthetes and intellectuals who believed that the world had been thoroughly corrupted by capitalism.  She explores the extent to which these thinkers celebrated revolutionary reversals in which the "outside" suddenly becomes the "inside" or the "low" suddenly becomes the "high."  She discusses the way artists and poets called for radical innovation and purification.

 All of these aesthetic schemas resemble the political propaganda offered by Dutt and other political revolutionaries.  What's Dutt's prescription for Britain if not the iconoclastic reversal of society in which the "low" will finally become the "high"?  What does Dutt offer the British if not radical experimentation, a vague but exciting Utopia, and above all purity?  Dutt's purity entails a complete lack of compromise with modern capitalism.  If you accept the Communist viewpoint, you need not engaged with anything--not the parliament, not the governing political parties, not the bourgeois and aristocratic classes, not the military, not the empire, and certainly not capitalism.  There's a beauty about this prescription:  like any great modern writer or painter, the Communists were offering contemporaries the opportunity to escape everyday reality.  The key to political utopia was that the proletarian political "artist" needed only to exert his willpower by avoiding all forms of compromise in the search for a better future.  Clark suggests that there's not such a world of difference between Marx and Nietzsche.  The revolution would come about when at least a few fully conscious intellectuals or workers broke every tie they encountered, whether it be the British past, the empire, religion, the upper classes, the political parties, or even the false laborite labors.

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