Tag Archives: Socialism

Free Markets: “Never Again!”

The BBC has an interview with Eric Hobsbawm, who is best described as the pitamah of Marxist historians. He draws parallels from the 1930s and concludes that the biggest collapse of the financial system may lead to a revival of the Right as it did in the aftermath of the great depression.

He does have a point- even though at that time there was a choice- socialism, the political climate lurched towards fascism In Rosa Luxemburg’s apt warning cry: it’s  a question of ‘Socialism or Barbarism’. In the absence of socialism, barbarism is a very real possibility (of course, it is also very much possible that we will see some kind of a revival of neo- Keynes- ism rather than barbarism or socialism).

Hobsbawm attributes the revival of Marx to businessmen in context of globalization and underlines that the level of collective consciousness  is not ripe to replace capitalism in the near future.
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From One Wall to Another: Marx’s Spectre Looms Large

First a look at some headlines past few days:

Twenty million jobs will disappear by the end of next year as a result of the impact of the financial crisis on the global economy, a United Nations agency said on Monday. (source)

With capitalism in crisis, Karl Marx has become fashionable again in the West. Das Kapital, his seminal work, is set to become a best-seller in Europe.
(source)

An even more curious bit of evidence: a recent poll of East Germans by a major magazine found that 52 percent had lost all confidence in the free market economy while 43 percent would support a return to a socialist economy. (source)

Capitalism as we used to know it is on its deathbed. And those who predicted that the old brand, the unfettered, American-promoted system, was a danger to the world, are being vindicated.They include Karl Marx, whose thinking on banks seems oddly contemporary these days. (source)

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It was in the aftermath of the fall of ‘existing socialism’ symbolized by the fall of the Berlin wall, that the French philosopher Derrida wrote his book Specters of Marx. This was his manner of acknowledging the great power of the German who was written off as his statues and pictures were dismantled all over Eastern Europe and former Soviet Union.

Such positions were rare, however, and there has been a great diminishing of those who have continued to acknowledge the influence of Karl Marx and his theories. One of the early forebodings was the dramatic lack of interest in the thoughts of Marx and in Left politics in general among students. In some countries like China and India, a new generation that had witnessed only the fall of socialism and were enamored of the immense possibilities that a new wave of capitalism had opened up for them, swerved to the right. Those left out of the limited progress turned towards identity politics, which, carried to its logical extreme, is self- defeating.
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Capitalism: A system built to fail

Professor, Richard Wolff of the University of Massachusetts explains in this superb lecture, why the financial crisis is the biggest crisis of capitalism in his, and our, lifetime. Listen till the end, because that is where the symphony’s crescendo is.

Click here to watch the video (38mins). Link via Lenin’s Tomb

[and WordPress- I hate you, for once, because I can’t embed a google video in the post].

Read also Prof Wolff’s recent articles in MR.

Capitalism happens.  When and where it does, capitalism casts its own special shadow: a self-critique of capitalism’s basic flaws that says modern society can do better by establishing very different, post-capitalist economic systems.  This critical shadow rises up to terrify capitalism when — in crisis periods such as now — capitalism hits the fan.  Karl Marx poetically called that shadow the specter that haunts capitalism.

This one is on the so- called distinction between the main street and wall Street, or regulated and un- regulated capitalism. Capitalism is capitalism, in whatever form in comes. The main street leads to the Wall Street.

Capitalism has everywhere oscillated between private and public phases.  Private capitalism minimized government interventions and mostly kept state officials off boards of directors.  In capitalism’s public phases, governments intervened and sometimes replaced private with public members of boards of directors.  Crises of one phase often provoked transition to the other.

The Autumn after the Prague Spring

The Prague Spring was probably the last opportunity for bureaucratic ‘socialism’ to reform. To be fair to him, it is also true that Brezhnev hesitated to use any force against the ‘uprising from within’ when the Czeck Communist Party’s First Secretary Alexander Dubchek and his associates started moving towards ‘socialism with a human face’.

Jan Puhl revisits the survivors of the Prague Spring and concludes that the legacy of the year of when both the East and the West faced revolts was diametrically opposite. Brezhnev’s hesitation gave away finally to a decisive crushing of the Prague Spring, but it also spelled an eventual autumn for the Soviet brand of socialism. It was otherwise in the West.
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European Left, Blogging Soviet life, Borges, Savi Savarkar, Discount Books

Former left wing dissident, Boris Kagarlitsky, assesses the changes in the European Left over the last two decades.
A decade ago, the triumph of liberalism in Europe was so overwhelming that even parties that traced their political lineage to the early 20th-century revolutionary working class movement did not to speak openly about the radical transformation of society. Communist parties closed down or hastily reinvented themselves as Social Democrats, while Social Democratic parties became liberal parties.

In the same newspaper, Victor Sonkin, writes on the nostalgic blogging of the Soviet years.

The sub genre of literature blogs seem especially interesting. One blog consists of short memoirs of not very distant times, which are now becoming increasingly “retro.” Before reading the website I thought that most mundane details of everyday life escaped attention, were forgotten and eventually lost. How, for example, did one pay the fare for a Moscow streetcar in 1979?

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A biographical sketch of Luis Jorge Borges at The Garden of Forking Paths.
“Through the years, a man peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, tools, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his own face.”

As a bonus, the article also gives the correct pronunciation of Borges’ name!

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On a dark winter night, as mists slowly swirled around us, a bearded man and I got talking in the dhaba where we were having a late night dinner. The man turned out to be a painter and took me to see his paintings in his studio in the nearby Sukhrali village, now engulfed within Gurgaon. His paintings were full of angst and we had a long discussion on Hinduism, Dalits, Ambedkar and Marxism. Over a decade after that it makes me very happy to see that Savi Savarkar is getting his due as the most eminent Dalit artist of our age. His paintings were exhibited last week at Ravindra Bhavan, Lalit Kala Academy in New Delhi.
A repeated use of red, blue, yellow and black is a striking feature of Sawarkar’s work. Colour activates the surface of the piece, as if there was a fierce struggle between the figure and the surface grounding it. To borrow a phrase from Mikhail Bakhtin, you might even call Sawarkar’s art a “carnival of the grotesque”. He keeps returning to the fact that what we often recognise as normal — whether it is the human body or human ways of thinking — must take into account the grotesquerie that is an everyday experience for many people.(link)

Check out the gallery at his site. The paintings that I saw in his studio were very scathing, the ones at his site look relatively more tempered. One that is etched in my mind specifically is where a dalit man is carrying the village waste (night soil) on two pots hanging at the two ends of a stick, and is spitting into one of them.

The pot that he is spitting into is marked with the swastika and below it reads the word: “Om”.

Link via Subaltern Studies

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A lot of books at a discount sale from Columbia University Press. Most books are at 50% discount, some at even 80%. Quite a few books on Asian (mainly Chinese and Indian) history and literature. Nothing, alas, on Latin American literature, though.
(via email from Philip Leventhal of the Columbia University Press)

20 Years Later: A Requiem for Perestroika

Dateline: Jan. 27, 1987

At a Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party plenum, Gorbachev announces his perestroika program, aimed at “restructuring” Soviet economic and political policies. “We need democracy just like we need air to breathe,” he said.

As a young student, while wading through the eerily desolate aisles of the University library and the dusty thick volumes on the deliberations of the CPSU Congresses of the 1950s and 60s, I was bemused that the Party resolutions from those years that confidently spoke about achieving communism in the next 20 years. I was, of course, wiser and knew, in that tumultuous decade of the 1980s that it was a wrong analysis. Communism would be a long haul.

I was very confident that this long haul would still be achievable in my lifetime, it was just a matter of another decade or two, maybe three, but then, all of us are allowed the illusions of our youth.

While I was walking up and down the aisles of the library that City that is both meticulous and drab in its imitation of European sensibilities of city architecture, that the CPSU General Secretary Gorbachev was ushering in Glasnost and Perestroika in the Soviet Union. Today(27January ) marks the 20th anniversary of the two words that brought down the superpower, the flag bearer of ‘existing socialism.’

But in those years, Perestroika and Glasnost was music to my ears, and I believe, to many of my generation. It brought the shine back to those glorious names as it invoked the trinity of Lenin, Bukharin and Trotsky. It also brought into the tradition of the Old Left, questions of what in those years was termed as the Scientific and Technological Revolution and Environment.

It brought an immediate sense of urgency for ending the nuclear arms race. It raised questions on the limitations of class analysis and issues that transcended class-these had been the themes of the New Left in Europe in the 1960s, but ignored by the most organized global political movement of the 20th century.

Perestroika and Glasnost meant hope.

The Gorbachev of those years,confident, smiling, youthful if not cherubic remains the face of that last, and grossly failed, attempt of socialism with a human face.

Inside his own country, Gorbachev had opened a Pandora’s box with its myriad of seemingly unsolvable problems.

In August 1987, a minister reported that there were still 1.3 million people in prison in the Soviet Union — almost three times as many as in the United States — and that 10,000 crimes were being committed each year in the prison camps alone. “Our prisons,” an agitated Gorbachev commented, “are producing hundreds of thousands of thugs and furious opponents of Soviet power. Millions of people have passed through the camps — the best sort of school for turning them into hopeless criminals.”

At that point his perestroika had been going for almost two and a half years. And virtually nothing had changed. It was like tilting at windmills — in a country that was being plagued with a new disaster on an almost weekly basis. link

Increasingly sidelined in the face of opposition from his own Party (which he called, at one time, “mangy, rabid dog”) and the liberals under the leadership of Yeltsin, Gorbachev was, fighting losing battle and his outbursts against the Yeltsin ultra liberals came too late.

Yeltsin, the then speaker of the Russian parliament, who had left the Communist Party three months earlier and had since emerged as the shining light of the great Soviet republic, had given the Kremlin an ultimatum the night before: His republic would no longer consider itself subservient to the Soviet leadership. Yeltsin was threatening Gorbachev with secession…

Gorbachev was at the meeting and, as Chernyayev wrote, he “listened, depressed and moved at the same time.” But he was mostly silent. Only as he was leaving did he angrily strike out at Yeltsin and his supporters: “They ought to be punched in the face.” But it was a moment in which he probably sensed that perestroika, his great historic project, was coming to an end. link

Russia, the primary successor nation to the Soviet Union, has since then borne brunt the neo- liberal onslaught which has resulted in a human catastrophe. The dominant media continues to portray as a legacy of the socialist state, rather than locating it in the disastrous recipes churned out by the West for the former superpower. Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out:

“The scale of the human catastrophe that has struck Russia is something we simply don’t understand in the West. It is the complete reversal of historical trends: the life expectancy of men has dropped by ten years over the last decade and a large part of the economy has been reduced to subsistence agriculture. I don’t believe there has been anything comparable in the twentieth century… I believe it is (entirely due to the application of free market rules)if for no other reason than that free market rules, even if adapted, require a certain kind of society. If that kind of society does not exist, the result is disaster”. link

Alongside the wholesale destruction of Russian society in the last decade and half, it has also played havoc with the Russian intelligentsia, a phenomenon to which Perry Anderson has drawn attention to in his recent sweeping article in LRB:

Fifteen years later, what has become of this intelligentsia?Economically speaking, much of it has fallen victim to what it took to be the foundation of the freedom to come, as the market has scythed through its institutional supports. In the Soviet system, universities and academies were decently financed; publishing houses, film studios, orchestras all received substantial state funding. These privileges came at the cost of censorship and a good deal of padding. But the tension bred by ideological controls also kept alive the spirit of opposition that had defined the Russian intelligentsia since the 19th century – and for long periods been its virtual raison d’ être. link

This decimation of the intelligentsia is also on a world scale which drew much from the unique position that the Russian intelligentsia has occupied since Napolean’s armies left a burnt down Moscow. Its ambivalent position as part of the Western world found an echo in those who too were placed in an ambivalent situation with respect to the West, especially in the former colonial world.

But above all, the failure of Perestroika and Glasnost robbed socialists of dreaming- of dreaming big, of dreaming of carrying out world shaking events leaving that to neo- liberal globalizers. Socialists now need to be content with incremental changes, tweaking here and there, sometimes looking at the liberal heaven in Sweden, and sometimes to the Chavezistas in Venezuela for inspiration.

Gorbachev is now memorable for little more than the advertisement for Pizza Hut.

Not altogether uncharacteristic for a man who, whatever may have been his intentions, who ended up as a pizza deliveryman for capitalism.

Was the collapse of the might CPSU inevitable? Most opinion seems to favor this view, Manuel Castells in his celebrated three volume Rise of the Network Society provided gist to the idea that the Soviet Union had failed to catch up in the knowledge, network based economy and had collapsed under its dead weight. Roy Medvedev in Post-Soviet Russia, however has pointed out it has been was possible to reform the Soviet State- in a work that has been neglected.

Stephen Cohen, in a recent article in The Nation, too has argued on similar lines.

Political and economic alternatives still existed in Russia after 1991. Other fateful struggles and decisions lay ahead. And none of the factors contributing to the end of the Soviet Union were inexorable or deterministic. But even if authentic democratic and market aspirations were among them, so were cravings for power, political coups, elite avarice, extremist ideas and widespread perceptions of illegitimacy and betrayal. All of these factors continued to play a role after 1991, but it should already have been clear which would prevail. (link)

Altogether, the failure of Perestroika and Glasnost left behind them, a sea of uncertainty and a world that no longer has the option, in Rosa Luxemburg’s evocative phrase, the choice between barbarism and socialism. Barbarism rules. Anarchism, if at all it is an option, is still available for those who cannot do without one.

Perestroika and Glasnost left behind a world that is no longer safe for socialists.

Image Acknowledgement: No Road

Review of Lenin: A Biography by Robert Service

Lenin: A Biography
By Robert Service
Papermac (Macmillan), London £12 (Special Indian Price £7.20), Pages 494

One of the first actions that symbolically marked the demise of socialism in the former USSR was the bringing down of the statues and pictures of Lenin.

The irony, in the first place, was that the state that he more than anyone else was responsible for bringing into existence had iconized one of the most iconoclastic figures in the pantheon of human history. Lenin himself would have approved the demolition of his statues, though not of much else that accompanied it in 1991.

Robert Service, author of the book under review, is no Leninist, indeed, he has little sympathy for the kind of politics that Lenin espoused. Yet he has written a fairly readable biography though he does not entirely succeed in convincing the reader about why Lenin’s “extraordinary life and career prove the need for everyone to be vigilant”. Much of what is contained in the book indicates otherwise.

It must be said to the biographer’s credit that he places his subject to the scrutiny of facts and therefore avoids the extreme conclusions of other authors who have written about the Russian Revolution in general and Lenin in particular. In the last one-decade these include Dmitri Volkogonov, Edvard Radzinsky, Orlando Figes and Richard Pipes.That Service manages to do a doublethink (to borrow a phrase from Orwell’s otherwise flawed “1984”), is another matter.

To this reviewer whose early introduction was to the hagiographies on Lenin churned out by Soviet publishers, the recent researches have tended to be more in the nature of additions of some facts or in the de-mythologization of others.

The qualitatively new dimensions have been few: the impact of Russian agrarian extremists in addition to Marx on Lenin’s thought and his many edicts and decisions during and after the Civil War that can be considered to be the genesis of the later totalitarian state. In the book under review there is new light on Lenin’s exchange of letters with those close to him, particularly Nadya Krupuskaya and Inessa Armand.

Beyond these points, even Service has little to add and there is a reason that despite his attempts to highlight the negative aspects of Lenin, he inaugurates the book with the sentence: “Lenin was an extraordinary man”.

With the proverbial wisdom of hindsight, the first point need not really have surprised us. After all, there was substantial material to indicate the violent program of the agrarian socialists and their impact on Russian revolutionaries. Dostovesky’s “The Demons” and particularly Joseph Conrad’s near- prophetic “Under Western Eyes” had underlined these streams of Russian revolutionary thought much earlier.

Regarding Lenin’s role in setting up the later Stalinist State, it needs to be read cautiously. While it is hard to imagine that the Soviet State would have been fundamentally different if Lenin had lived longer or if the leadership had passed on to someone else other than Stalin, it is also incorrect to see Stalinism as being a direct and legitimate continuation of Leninism.

Lenin was, as Service rightly points out, capable of reversing his decisions in the light of new developments- he often took an isolationist position but then used all his force to carry the rest of the Bolsheviks along with him. This was not the case with Stalin, who preferred the somewhat more “convenient” option of physically eliminating his rivals.

If Lenin resorted to polemical pamphleteer- ism for the dissemination of his ideas, Stalin paved the way for simplistic sloganeer-ism masquerading as profound truths. This was carried to its logical culmination in the Red books in Maoist China that pioneered the “communism for dummies” trend, if you will.

Besides, by reversing the early 1920s economic policies, Stalin deviated grievously. Though it may be conjectural to state this, it is possible that the ex- USSR might have developed those policies at an earlier stage that China adopted in the 1970s. As Roy Medvedev has forcefully argued in his recent book “Post- Soviet Russia: A Journey through the Yeltsin years”, a pragmatic symbiosis of market features would have been a historically judicious choice compared to the barrack socialism that finally evolved.

The author recounts information about Lenin’s pedigree, including Mongol and Jewish ancestry. The family background of Lenin was generally ignored in the official biographies about Lenin and therefore the chapters on Lenin’s childhood and early upbringing make for interesting reading, if only for their novelty. Even Louis Fischer’s “Lenin: A Life” focused more on his later years.

The author also touches some of the important works like the “April Thesis” and “The State and Revolution”- attributing these generally to Lenin’s whims or wily scheming. Though one expects that he would have discussed these more seriously in his previously published 3-volume work on Lenin’s political thought, it is necessary not to underestimate his theoretical writings and to throw out the baby with the bath water.

A number of principles still carry a lot of weight, one of them being Lenin’s critique of Narodism. In India, for example Narodism in the form of Gandhism and neo- Narodism in the writings of third- world theorists like Ashish Nandy and Vandana Shiva has been a much stronger current than in the Russia. In this regard, one still needs to “go back to Lenin” to use a cliché popularized by Soviet writers. As the early 21st century comes to resemble more and more the early 20th century, this need may become all the more relevant as does a much more critical attitude.

Then there are certain aspects that Service either does not expend himself fully on, or does not touch at all.

For example, he points out that despite all his faults, Lenin was the acknowledged leader among both the Bolsheviks as well as his closest adversaries, the Mensheviks. If Plekanov was respected, Martov loved but still it was Lenin that the people followed, there must have been some reasons. Many of the other leading revolutionaries were extremely educated and forceful personalities in themselves. Despite that, why was there such universal agreement regarding Lenin? Service answers this with a thundering silence.

An aspect of Lenin’s personality that has recently been highlighted by Volkogonov and Radzinsky as well as Service needs attention. This is the supreme importance that Lenin attached to his personal security. While Volkogonov terms this “cowardice”, Service does not go so far, but even he does not attempt to provide an explanation.

The reason may be partly psychological and partly borne out of conviction on Lenin’s part. In his seminal work “What is to be Done?” Lenin had indicated that the working class cannot accomplish revolution by itself and there is need for an intelligentsia that grows outside the working class that develops theory and injects class- consciousness into the working class.

Tsarist Russia on the other hand was powerful enough to silence the rebellious intelligentsia. It must be remembered that Nikolai Chernesvesky’s literary and philosophical works were written only in his early years. Once he returned from his incarceration, he became completely silent. His mental faculties had been ruined. Lenin must have been fearful of a similar fate befalling him- his brother Alexander’s execution would have been a gory reminder too.

An aspect that needs attention from Lenin’s biographers and scholars of the Russian Revolution is a more judicious treatment of the personalities that he was associated with. In Service’s account, these personages appear and disappear like passing silhouettes except for Krupuskaya, Inessa Armand and Stalin. This leaves one not only with numerous loose ends but also does not help to adequately compare Lenin with some of the other leading figures in the Russian Social Democratic movement.

This is specially true of the important Menshevik theoreticians Yuli Martov, Pavel Axelrod and Alexander Bogdanov (whom Service considers to be Lenin’s intellectual superior and with whom Lenin engaged in polemics in “Empirio- Criticism and Materialism”), not to mention Trotsky , Stalin and Bukharin.

The last three at least have had their share of biographers (Isaac Deutscher for Trotsky and Stalin, Stephen Cohen for Bukharin). It is the leading Mensheviks who have been ignored by historians.

As for Lenin, the current biographer does not achieve what Deutscher accomplished for Trotsky. The need and the long wait for a definitive biography of Vladmir Illyich Lenin are not yet over.

19 December, 2001
Published: The Tribune, Chandigarh 13 Jan 2002