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

Review of Stalin by Edvard Radzinsky

Stalin
By Edvard Radzinsky
Anchor/ Doubleday, New York
Pages 607, $15.95 1996

“All our principles were right, but our results were wrong. This is a diseased century. We diagnosed the disease and its causes with microscopic exactness, but whenever we applied the healing knife a new sore appeared…We brought you the truth, and in our mouth it sounded like a lie. We brought you freedom and it looks in our hands like a whip…we brought you the future, but our tongue stammered and barked”, thus mused Rubashov, the Bukharin like central character awaiting a certain death in a GPU prison in Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel Darkness at Noon. Rubashov’s prosecutor Gletkin says as he pronounces the sentence on him, “You were wrong, and you will pay, Comrade Rubashov. The Party promises only one thing: after the victory, one day when it can do no more harm, the material of the secret archives will be published.”

The archives today have been opened, though not after the promised victory of the Party. In the book under review, rather pompously subtitled as the “first in- depth biography based on explosive new documents from Russia’s secret archives”, Stalin, the dead dictator comes back to life.

Radzinsky is the most popular playwright in Russia after Anton Chekov. He trained as a historian and this is his second book on history, the first one having been published in 1991 as The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicolas II. The present one makes for a gripping reading, the author’s penchant for dramatization rising over and above the life of its protagonist, often, however to fall down as if with a damp squib.

Questions are posed with a theatrical flourish, like, “The official date of his birth is indeed fictitious. But when was it invented? And why?” Others: Did Stalin murder his wife Nadzezhda Alliluyeva? Did Stalin poison Lenin? Was Stalin himself a victim of his proteges when he died in 1953?

These are questions that have lingered on more in gossip rather than as questions of serious historical inquiry. To each of these questions, the author falls back on routine answers, more often than not basing himself on conversations and hearsays rather than on any “explosive” archives. One is often left wondering why he raised the question in the first place and then devoted tens of pages to finally greet the reader with the fallacy of the question itself.

In terms of tone and intent, the present work follows the pattern set earlier by Dmitri Volkogonov’s Stalin (1988). Its purpose seems to be to wreck vengeance on his subject rather than seeking to understand him in a wider historical context. The study is at either a descriptive level or at a psychological level, often creating the impression that the author is keen to read Stalin’s life selectively. For a much more serious study, one would without any hesitation still turn to Isaac Deutscher’s Stalin published in the 70th year of Stalin’s birth anniversary- 1948 (a newer edition was published after his death with an additional chapter).

And yet the book makes for a compulsive reading. For one, it brings out some very interesting archive material on people like Trotsky and notably on Bukharin. For another, it forces one to grapple and look again into the life of Stalin- and how a revolution can be taken over by a sheer mediocrity and how history gives a rich space to political shrewdness and chicanery at the expense of brilliance and eloquence.

Radzinsky points to the early influence of the anarchist Nechaev on both Lenin and Stalin as well as that of N. Chenesvesky, who urged: “Summon Russia to the Axe”. Nechaev had also said “poison, the knife and the noose are sanctified by the revolution”.

Early on in the Party, Stalin realized that being close to the God Lenin, a la Sancho Panza (though Lenin was no Don Quizote) was essential for a successful career. Radzinsky points to a number of incidents when Stalin hid or protected Lenin from arrest or physical danger. That was the reason Lenin preferred to keep the pock marked Georgian around him. In the dazzling company of Trotsky, Zinoviev and Bukharin, Stalin was the undoubtedly an anachronistic dwarf. This must have given him a bruised ego, as the author rightly suggests.

The author also conjectures rather provocatively that Stalin could have been a double agent for the Tsarist police. One of Lenin’s proteges Malinovsky had indeed turned out to be a double agent and despite Lenin’s soft corner for him, he was executed after the Revolution when his treacherous role had been clearly proved by the police records seized by the Bolsheviks. After Stalin’s death, when it was suggested that Stalin too might have been a double agent, N. Khrushchev is said to have thrown up his hands and declared: “Its impossible. It would mean that our country was ruled for 30 years by an agent of the Tsarist police”. Indeed, in the face of any incriminating evidence, it seems to be yet another speculation, a rather amusing one.

As one reads the gory account of the terror that Stalin launched after his trusted lieutenant and heir- apparent Kirov’s murder under suspicious circumstances in 1934, one gets transported to the most tragic period of the revolution. It was Stalin the paranoid in action as he systematically went about physically eliminating the Bolshevik old guard. Among them was Lenin’s “son”, the “darling of the Party”, as Lenin had once termed the young Nikolai Bukharin.

As this century draws to a close the Russian Revolution for all practical purposes has passed into history as yet another “could have been” the long prophesied socialist revolution. One may finally conclude and recognize for what it truly was. A product of the late 19th century secret revolutionary groups that happened to be intellectually well prepared and organizationally well oiled to fill the power vacuum that marked the collapse of the absolutist Tsarist ancien regime, the Bolsheviks just happened to be in the right place. Trotsky was to correctly remark later: “Revolution was lying in the streets of St. Petersburg for us to pick it up”.

The Bolsheviks did just that and under Lenin and Stalin went about turning Dostoyevsky’s grim prophecies in the novel The Possessed into reality.

November 25, 1998
Published: The Tribune, Chandigarh 20 Dec 1998

Review of Autopsy of an Empire: The Seven Leaders who Built the Soviet Empire by Dmitri Volkagonov

Autopsy for an Empire
The Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Empire
Dmitri Volkogonov
The Free Press, New York 1998 Pages 556. Price $32.95

Before his death in 1995, Dmitri Volkogonov published three biographies in quick succession, those of Stalin (1988), Trotsky (1991) and Lenin (1994). The present book is the last one to be written by him, and gives an account of all the seven general secretaries of the Soviet regime.

A former Colonel- General in the Soviet Army, during the last years of his life, Volkogonov had unequalled access to all the archives of the Soviet state in his capacity as the director of the Institute for Military Studies and then as Defence Advisor to President Yeltsin. His works represented an iconoclastic break of the writer’s own previously held positions, indeed each of his books are a break, if not a contradiction of the previous one. While this reflects a growing realization about the true nature of the Soviet regime as more and more archives were opened, critics have attributed this meandering in no less measure to Volkogonov’s changing loyalties, from Marxism- Leninism to Gorbachev’s liberal socialism (Stalin, 1998), to Yeltsin’s populist democracy (Trotsky, 1991) to Christian Russian nationalism (Lenin, 1994). The present work falls in the last phase of the writer’s changing convictions.

Right- wing historians have acclaimed Volkogonov’s works since his numerous references to Soviet archives support what these historians have been proclaiming all the while. Others, especially on the Left, have pointed not only to the contradictions referred above, but have also accused him of mutilating facts. Trotskyite writers have termed him a court- historian and of representing the post- Stalinist school of falsification. Within Russia, however, Volkogonov has emerged as the first historian to write on Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky, barring the eulogistic panegyrics of the Soviet school, or vilification in the case of Trotsky.

Most of the criticism of Volkogonov’s works seems to be justified as one reads the book under review. The flow is disjointed and facts seem to have been collected with the sole purpose of driving home the writer’s “convictions” at the time of writing. This is not surprising since Volkogonov held an exalted position in the Soviet hierarchy, which rewarded those who toed the current Party line, appreciated mediocrity and encouraged servility. Volkogonov was the product of such a bureaucratic system.

Yet, just as for all its lies, Soviet propaganda did carry a few grains of truth, the present book too brings out some revealing facts. It is a collage of the leaders’ misdeeds. Only for Khrushchev writer has genuine praise and for Gorbachev, who too earns a few hesitant good words.

Lenin emerges as an unscrupulous power hungry politician, Stalin as the devil incarnate, Khrushchev as the who tried to undo the wrongs of the Leninist- Stalinist system, Breznev as a lazy, slothful mediocrity who was happy to let events take their own course, Andropov as the most intelligent of all the seven leaders but unable to break out of the system’s mould, Chernenko as the least worthy of all- “a head clerk promoted to the topmost post” and Gorbachev as the last communist who brought about the fall of communism.

About Lenin, he says, “he did not appeal to the higher instincts, to patriotism and civic mindedness, but rather to hatred, fatigue and unfulfilled expectations….thanks to Lenin, mankind has learnt that Communism is a road to nowhere”. He quotes Lenin justifying the terror: “The dictatorship- and take this into account once and for all, means unrestricted power based on force, not on law”.

Volkogonov’s account of Stalin does not add anything new on Stalin, except the quotations from numerous archival material. One new fact that he does reveal, though, is the paranoia Stalin had of flying. In his entire life, he made just one air trip!

In 1939, the seventh biography of Stalin was printed in an edition of 18 million copies. Stalin himself edited this edition, shamelessly adding words like “Lenin’s outstanding pupil” in his own hand. At the end of the book, he added: “Stalin is the worthy continuer of Lenin’s cause, or as we say in the Party, Stalin is the Lenin of today”.

There is one reference, a rather unflattering one, to the Indian communists.

He writes: “A conversation between Comrade Stalin and comrades Rao, Dange, Ghosh and Punnaya, in fact it was a long monologue by Stalin. Sitting at the long table and turning their heads in unison as Stalin padded around the huge room, pipe in hand, the Indians absorbed his words of wisdom: Individual terror achieves nothing,….Partisan warfare can be started wherever the people want it. Don’t try to be too clever, just take the land from the landlords and if you take away too much, you can always sort out things later….you can make a fine regime in your country. The important thing is to renounce your personal interests”.

There are numerous accounts of large amounts of money being sent to the other communist parties, notably those of Italy and Spain. As more studies on the archives come out, it may not be too long before the Indian communists too are in the dock. They may have much to answer for.

Khrushchev was a typical leader to emerge from the Stalinist system, uneducated (“two winters of schooling”), energetic, expeditious, never doubting the correctness of Party instruction. He was quick to understand that to survive, he had first to distance himself, and finally discredit his predecessor. The problems accumulated during Stalin’s years could not be reined without drastically reforming the structures of Soviet power. This, however, was not carried to its logical end- indeed it would have been precarious for him to do so- the opposition even to his rather mild reforms within the Central Committee remained strong.

On his part, Khrushchev was not exactly above board for his role in the Stalinist terror. He, too, had played his part in whipping up hysteria, suggesting in 1936 that: “We have to shoot not only this scum (the son of a purged party leader), but Trotsky should also be shot!”. He was voluble and a rather unpredictable character, famous for his quotes as: “My job is chairman of the council of ministers, so I can manage without any brains”. His anti- American rhetoric came to be parodied as: “The USA is standing on the edge of an abyss. We are going to overtake the USA”.

He was not only unceremoniously dismissed by his own prodigy, the rather unassuming Brezenev, making him the sole general secretary not to die in the saddle, his too death was dismissed in a brief and inconspicuous report in Pravada.

Brezenev was the perfect appartchik, his personality the least complex of all. He was a man of one dimension, with the psychology of a middle level part functionary, vain, wary and conventional. He was afraid of sharp turns in policies, and convinced that Communism was on its way at its own leisurely pace like the numerous files that came in and went out from his office. The chapter on Brezenev is exceeded in its dreariness only by the one on Chernenko, the supreme personification of the Party clerk.

Meanwhile, as the Party organization continued to sink in bureaucratic marshlands, the power of the KGB to guide events inside as well as outside the USSR continued to grow. Andropov, then the head of the KGB, prepared the following document: The KGB residency in India has the opportunity (after the explosion in a Jerusalem mosque in 1969), to organize a protest demonstration of upto 20,000 Muslims in front of the US embassy in India. The cost of the demonstration will be 5,000 rupees and would be covered in the 1969- 71 budget allocated by the Central Committee for special tasks in India”. Brezenev wrote on the document: Agreed.

The chapter on Gorbachev is a little out of the place in a book on the “leaders who built the Soviet regime”, for Gorbachev was the man who brought an end this dinosaur like monolith.

18 June 1998
Published: The Tribune 1998

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Review of A People’s Tragedy : A History of the Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes

A People’s Tragedy : A History of the Russian Revolution
by Orlando Figes
Hardcover, 912 pages $39.95, Paperback $19.95
Published by Viking Pr
Publication date: March 1997
ISBN: 0670859168

Since the archives of the Soviet Union were opened in 1990 and the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist in 1991, there has been a plethora of literature on the October Revolution and the role of Lenin himself. Whether it was a revolution at all, and whether Lenin was really so humane as he has been made out to be later, these are the questions that are being raised. The October Revolution is being termed as no more than a coup and Lenin as a precursor of Stalin- the roots of Stalinism are increasingly been seen to be inherent in Leninism.

None of the above views are in themselves very new. Right wing historians have indeed, maintained these for a long time. The newly opened archives- at least the studies based on them- have tended to be more strident in reiterating these opinions, but more than that it is the collapse of the Soviet Union itself that has made these historians sound more credible. Many of them have felt vindicated- Adam Ulam and Richard Pipes, for example. The book under review, however, is by a historian who is still in his thirties and therefore cannot be said to belong to the tribe of old Soviet bashers. That the thrust of his arguments tends to be more critical of the Russian Revolution needs to be taken seriously, though cautiously.

Orlando Figes is a Cambridge lecturer and brings his acumen forcefully to the front in this monumental work. His style is narrative and reminds one more of Tolstoys’s War and Peace rather than a historical treatise. It is definitely a work of social history, but it also allows a peek into the life of about half a dozen individuals whose fate was intertwined with the Russian Revolution. They are Prince Lvov, Kerensky, a peasant Semyenov, Gorky and Oskin- a peasant soldier turned Socialist Revolutionary- turned Bolshevik. Gorky as we all know, was the great Russian writer, but he was also a severe critic of the Bolsheviks both before and after the Revolution. Prince Lvov, an aristocrat and a patriot, was the Prime Minister in the first Provisional government. Figes’ traces their lives along with his basic theme, some times with insightful observations, for example, about Prince Lvov he observes: His (Prince Lvov’s) hair turned white in the four months that he was the Prime Minister. That one statement says a lot about the tension that engulfed the times. Similarly Kerensky emerges as a hesitant, self styled Napolean of the Revolution, increasingly isolated from the course of events underway.

Figes contends that the revolution by the Bolsheviks was theirs for the asking- the old monarchist order had completely collapsed- Tsar Nicolas fiddled while the Russian army was slaughtered in the World War, a war in which the ordinary Russian had no stake. The soldiers- recruited from the large mass of peasants, fled from the army in millions. They were fighting, unlike their German enemies, not for the Russian nation, but for ‘God’ and his representative on earth- the Tsar. The concept of Russian nationhood was alien to them. That is the reason, Figes avers, that as the revolution progressed the peasant- soldiers were drawn to the Bolsheviks call for hands off the war and their “internationalism”, though their understanding was far different from the Bolsheviks concept of proletarian internationalism, rather than towards the Mensheviks or the monarchists, both of whom stood for the continuation of the war. The Russsian villages were Asiatic- almost self- contained units and the peasant outlook quite narrow. As one peasant- soldier asked: “Why are we fighting the Germans ? My village has no quarrel with them.”

This, combined with their call for all power to the Soviets- analogous to the traditional village committees, made the Bolsheviks the sole contenders for power. The Mensheviks did not realize that Russia was not in the situation where it could follow the gradual evolution from feudalism to capitalism and then to socialism. Their incapacity to make a decisive shift in their politics after the fall of the Tsar and go all out and seize the initiative proved to be their Waterloo. The Socialist Revolutionaries, on the other hand, placed too much faith in the abstract “power of the masses” and failed to take on the mantle of leadership. It was only the Bolsheviks, rather Lenin alone, who was capable of realizing that Russia was the center of all major contradictions at that time- between imperialism and people, between autocracy and liberty and simultaneously between capitalism and the working class. Armed not only with this theoretical understanding, ‘the man who lived politics all 24 hours of the day’, proved to be the rallying point for the Bolsheviks to seize power, despite the reluctance of the rest of the leadership. Trotsky was later to remark, famously, that without Lenin, there would have been no Russian Revolution.

The otherwise unattractive Lenin was a dominating figure among the Russian intellectuals as well as the politicians- both of these groups tended to overlap in the late 19th and early 20th century Russia. In his own personal relations with comrades, he was even affectionate and lovable. Yet, one émigré writer called him an “evil genius”. Plekhanov was respected, and Martov was loved, but it was only Lenin that the people followed. On his part, within the Boshevik party, Lenin cajoled, got angry, screamed and threatened his colleagues specially when he stood in minority with the other leading Bolsheviks opposing him. He, like Gandhi, generally had his way.

Orlando Figes uses a great deal of choice phrases to describe Lenin. For example, he writes, “When it came to putting himself at physical risk, Lenin had always been something of a coward.” He promptly forgets to follow this up with any convincing proof. There is definite evidence, though, that Lenin did have a streak of violence in him, and not only ordered executions but personally vilified and chased away his opponents from Russia after he came to power.

Figes has not cited many such incidents, but one “oversight” which he narrates is particularly frightening. He writes:

“In 1919, during a session of the Sovnarkom, Lenin wrote a note and passed it to Dzerzhinsky: ‘How many counter- revolutionaries do we have in prison?’ Dzerzhinsky scribbled: ‘about 1500’, and returned the note. Lenin looked at it, placed a cross by the figure and gave it back to the Cheka boss. That night 1500 Moscow prisoners were shot dead by Dzerzhinsky’s orders. This turned out to be a dreadful mistake, Lenin had not ordered the executions at all: he always placed a cross by anything that had read to signify that he had done so and taken it into account. As a result of Dzerzhinsky’s simple error, 1500 people lost their lives.”

There is increasing evidence, however, and which the author presents, indicating that Lenin was instrumental in creating the Cheka, the precursor of the NKVD and the KGB, as ‘a state within a state’. It is still debatable whether what might have been a temporary tool in the hands of a genius would have brought about the devastation that it later did in the hands of a sheer mediocrity like Stalin.

Figes devotes considerable space to the terror, killings and murders that took place during the and specially after the Bolshevik “seizure” of power. The accounts are gory enough to make future revolutionaries shudder from the thoughts of attempting a revolution at all. Figes is brutal, and one might say at the expense of being a termed a sadist, that he is at his very best in describing the mass violence- medieval in form and content, thinly veiled then as the offensive against the counter- revolutionaries. The author’s thrust on the violence justifies the title of the book.

He recounts a number of incidents which were quite bizarre when they happened. For example, there were widespread anti- Semitic feelings and violence among the people and inevitably a number of anti- Jew pogroms took place during and after 1917. Some Bolshevik supporters wrote on the walls: “Down with Kerensky, the Jew, Long Live Trotsky.” In reality, Trotsky was a Jew, and Kerensky was not. One can only wonder what Trotsky must have felt.

In another case, one enthusiastic Uzbek paper translated the Bolshevik slogan of “Workers of the World, Unite!” to “Tramps of the world, Unite !”. The slogan appeared on top of the daily’s title head.

The book is too vast in scope as well as detail that a review like the present one cannot even claim to touch the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of difficulties too in a text like this where the extremely well read author has quoted profusely from hundreds of sources. The brashness of his youth shows clearly in the rather eclectic treatment of the subject throughout the text. But the sheer volume of the information makes up for any slackness in analysis.

There cannot be any doubt that Figes’ book marks the start of a brilliant career for the author and is central to the debate that he has brought into sharp focus. If 1991 marked the fall and defeat of the socialist experiment, it also marked the start of a new debate on its genesis and the viability of socialism. For all those who still dare to dream of a better future for humanity, this book is a call to critically examine their beliefs. For those whom events and age have made turn cynically to their socialist and communist youth, it is a call to come to terms with their past.

26 May 1998
The Tribune 7 June 1998