Joanna Macy Talk

•December 2, 2017 • 8 Comments

[Joanna Macy is one of my inspirations, this grandmother in her 80s. Perhaps one of her most powerful speeches, a long riff also on the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Positive disintegration. Towards One People in One World. The bell of darkness. This one is for Kristi and Nick.]

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The Universe Within

•November 28, 2017 • 9 Comments

[Draft extract from my work-in-progress, You Are Here. A Travelogue, a Big History since the big bang. This section is the bridge from bio-cosmic evolution to human history. The image is that of a starling swarm.]

The Universe Within

In the meantime, perhaps saddened by such cosmic future vistas, let us pause to remind ourselves of the sheer wonder of all that has gone before in cosmic and planetary evolution, all that makes up our home in the universe, all that makes up us.

Were it not for algae and moving continents, the cellular machinery for legs – or for any of our organs for that matter – would not even exist. That change built on billions of years of history: from the imbalance of matter over antimatter after the big bang to the workings of the solar system to the recycling of Earth’s crust that made our species possible. Our antecedents on Earth are as much our long lineage of animal forebears as they are the planetary and cosmic events that have been intertwined with us, and our history, since the beginning.

The American philosopher William James often said that religious experience emanates from ‘feeling at home in the universe.’ With bodies composed of particles derived from the birth of stellar bodies and containing organs shaped by the workings of planets, eroding rock, and the action of the seas, it is hard not to see home everywhere. [Shubin, The Universe Within, pp. 184-185]

Our biological inner ecologies, the core of our physical functioning and health, are living expressions of the external macro-ecologies we derive from and continue to exist within. As without, so within. Atoms, stars, rocks, oceans, bacteria, plants animals: our great cosmic and planetary ancestors, our origins, our Dreaming, are still within us. You can read the first two volumes of your travelogue, that of Matter and of Life, within the very text and fabric of your being. Peekaboo. You Are It.

For where to draw the firm line between cosmic matter and life, between inanimate and animate? What is ‘you’ where all is change and interchange? If you cannot step into the same river twice, can ‘you’ in fact even step into the same river once? Of the seven billion billion billion cosmic atoms that may be in your body, almost all (98%) are replaced every year. Within these transient atoms every electron in your body knows about the state of every other electron in the universe. Are they not ‘you’?

Where are ‘your’ boundaries? Every meeting of living beings is a con-spiracy, a breathing-together. Within minutes of entering a room our bodies have taken up atoms, molecules, bacteria of everyone else in that room. When we drink water, we drink molecules that have passed through dinosaurs and dodos. We are like protean crustaceans: in an average lifetime we may shed our skin nine hundred times. When inanimate matter and energy cross into our body boundary as food, air or water do they in some sense suddenly become ‘alive’, and, vice versa, does a molecule of carbon dioxide suddenly ‘die’ when we breathe it out? Is not, rather, as physicist David Bohm suggests, life itself ‘enfolded in the totality’ of the universe and ‘even when it is not manifest, it is somehow ‘implicit’ in what we generally call a situation in which there is no life’? [Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, p.194]

And is not the unfolding of that enfolded potentiality what we call e-volution? Are we not mobile, fluid and transient concentrations of stardust, all the elements that make our skin and flesh, brains and bones forged in the chaotic crucibles of exploding stars? Where two atoms of the original one, the very first atom after the big bang and not forged in stars, hydrogen, combine with one atom of oxygen forged in the first stars we get that wondrous triadic molecule and already somehow alive matrix of life we call water. We get oceans, that dark Hadean abyss where we all started. We are still 70% water, the salt we can taste when we cut our finger an echo of our oceanic origins, as are the gills every foetus develops on its way to mammalian ear and jaw and lungs.

Our body may have about a trillion cells, each a ten thousandth the size of a pinhead but containing enough DNA instructions to fill a thousand 600-page books. The first cellular life forms, protist bacteria, and later eukaryote bacteria, still populate and define our gut health and immune systems, still influence our moods, our intuitions, our important ‘gut feelings’ and thoughts via the enteric nervous system. There are a thousand times more bacteria in our gut than there are stars in the Milky Way. Biologically ‘we’ are in fact 90% bacterial cells and genes, and only 10% human.

We are walking symbionts, and like the planet we are also superorganisms of hyper-complex networks of cooperating organisms. Our bodies are metabolisms-within-metabolisms-within-metabolisms as we feed on the sun’s cosmic-nuclear energy by eating its plant photo-synthesizers, its animal metabolisers and embodiments and returning them all back to the soil to feed another cycle of life powered by the sun, breathed by the skies and winds, watered by the oceans. We cannot exist without plants, and each day plants convert sunlight into energy equivalent to six times the entire power consumption of human civilisation. The primeval energies of the sun, cosmic bombardment and atmosphere are still there in our very cells and bones: the electrical energy that powers each cell in our body is the equivalent voltage of a lightning bolt, c. thirty million volts per metre.

We share the basic mouth-to-anus tube structure and central nervous system first developed by worms, we have the brainstems of reptiles, the limbic brains of mammals, the neocortex, binocular colour vision and sensitive, grasping hands of the primates. Our basic instinctual behaviours and emotions are still those of monkeys and apes, those close ancestors already sharing the first elementary forms of culture and Mind which we shall leap into hominids and humans, move from evolution into history.

Being all this, You Are Here, and the overwhelming feeling arising when we realise all these gifts from the universe is surely one of sheer wonder and infinite gratitude, and, moreover, the deep responsibilities that can be seen to flow from this at this critical tipping point in evolution. In Brian Swimme’s words:

When I say that the universe is the principal moral authority, I mean by this the manner in which we are taught the value of the Earth. The elements were bestowed on us by the stars, the complex compounds given to us by the young Earth, the informed sequences of the genes by the microorganisms, our limbs and organs by advanced life forms, and the linguistic symbols carrying our thoughts and feelings by the human venture. We could not see without the work of those who shaped the eye, could not hear without the work of those who shaped the ear. The universe created these gifts, lavishing them upon us; our first and deepest response is infinite gratitude.

That which created all this now desires our creativity, commitment, and labour, our delight in entering with full awareness the cosmic story. [Swimme, The Universe is a Green Dragon, p. 172]

Here is another attempt at a ‘summary’, in the dialogic form of speaking to a lover, by Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh:

The Old Mendicant

Being rock, being gas, being mist, being Mind,
Being the mesons travelling among galaxies with the speed of light,
You have come here my beloved one, your eyes shine,
so beautiful and deep.
You have taken the path traced for you by both
the non-beginning and the never-ending.
On your way here you have gone
through millions of births and deaths,
Innumerable times you have been transformed
into fire-storms in outer space,
You have used your own body to measure the age
of the mountains and rivers,
You have manifested yourself as trees, as grass,
as butterflies, as single-celled beings, as chrysanthemums…
Your smile invites me into the game whose beginning
no one knows, the game of hide-and-seek.

I have also tried my hand at a poetic, albeit less romantic, evolutionary ‘summary’, culminating in the Anthropocene:

You can’t keep a good meme down

Take those bacteria beneath the ocean floor. The ones
deep down in the sediment that chew on rotten egg gas
for a living, need some or two to keep those jaws
moving. So they send up their electrons to their pals

at the top of the mud on their protein nanowire phones.
These oblige by receiving, then dumping them onto
that good gas in water we need to breathe. Everybody’s
a happy chappie in their strange bacterial way, one

great humming body electric pulsing quietly through
seabed continents courtesy of their sludge-wide web.
Or take your trip to the supermarket, or the supermarket
for that matter. Press the pedal, load the trolley & some

7.6 on the Richter buries a few thousand across the Pacific.
You’ve bought oil-drenched goodies, farted oil gas
along oil-built roads. It’s hit the supernal über-sky, melted
a mountain or two of unhappy ice & that weight shift’s

been along a fault. Presto, the earth shrugs & buildings
sigh into their collapse. So now we’re giants. Part of
the earth moving equipment Gaia uses to play see-saw
& Organism Scrabble. Just like bottom-dwelling rotten egg

bacteria or swallows no longer shaping up spring. Surprising
move for a depilated ape who left an African valley a few
geological blinks ago with nothing but a water skin, a few
flints & a grapefruit-sized brain brimming with juicy memes.

Anthem

•November 21, 2017 • 5 Comments

[Poem from this morning. Should really let it lie for a week or two, but what the heck…and no doubt it will change over time. Image is of superclusters of galaxies and voids nearest the Earth. Stars form into galaxies which form into clusters which form into clusters-of-clusters or superclusters which…They are the currently largest known structures of the universe, hundreds of millions or billions of light years across. Between the superclusters are super voids, all arranged in filaments, sheets, walls. And you are Here, you are It…]

Anthem

We are stardust primates
seeking the stars
We are the universe
seeking itself
We are journeying pilgrims
of shadows and light
We are the Way
we are on

We are Here
We are It

We are Eichmann
We are Einstein
We are Shakespeare
And Stalin
We are Pericles
And Pol Pot
We are the slave,
The trader and the whip

We are Here
We are It

We are me
We are you
He, she, it
We are drowning
In the Mediterranean
Starving in Syria
Making bombs
And gardens
Poems and prisons

We are Here
We are It

We are the wind inside leaves
The skies in birds
Sculptors inside stones
The intimacy in oceans
We are toey dancers
Towards enlightenment
(Two steps forward
One step back)

We are Here
We are It

The Rules video

•November 18, 2017 • 4 Comments

Great video on our global situation from the New York/Africa-based The Rules group.

Stalinism: The Inner Truth of Bolshevism 1924-91

•November 17, 2017 • 4 Comments

[This essay on Stalinism in the Soviet Union follows on from the previous one on the Bolshevik Russian Revolution of 1917. The image shows the process of photoshopping undergone by a photo of Stalin with comrades after they fell out of favour of the great dictator or were successively eliminated.]

The Inner Truth of Bolshevism: Stalinism 1924-1991

A defining part of the Old Left from 1917 onwards was its Manichean attitude ‘for or against’ Bolshevism and the Soviet Union, and, later during the Cold War, Maoist China. Against all self-serving Lenin-hagiography, Stalinism and its developed Gulag system, in both the Soviet Union and Maoist China, are simply the revealed truth of Lenin (and über-Bolshevik Trotsky) under later and differing historical conditions. (1)

Lenin’s testament may have belatedly warned against electing Stalin to party leadership, but Bolshevik policies of brutal counter-revolution and Red Terror from the ‘great’ October coup onwards were already nothing but the so-called ‘heroic’ phase of what would later become known as ‘Stalinism’. Industrializing by force and terror between 1929 and his death in 1953, Stalin simply extended and bureaucratically perfected the initial Bolshevik system of terror and repression at a ‘higher’, i.e. more organized, paranoid and explicitly totalitarian, level.

Stalin greatly expanded Lenin and Trotsky’s original kontslager (concentration camps) and penal colonies under his first industrialization and ‘collectivisation’ campaign during the first five-year plan of 1929-34. From a sociological and Marxist viewpoint, this campaign mainly intended to crush the last peasant resistance to the regime by violently proletarianizing (‘collectivizing’) them. Within a very short period of time, state commissars forced millions of peasants off lands they had worked for centuries and into state collective farms. This was simply the Soviet state-capitalist version of the usual enclosures and other forms of violence which nascent industrial capitalism has used and continues to use in most countries to deprive peasants of their land and force them into factories and wage labour.

This policy of state terror in fact permanently weakened Soviet agriculture and created the conditions for devastating famines in the Ukraine and southern Russia in 1932 and 1934 that killed, in Anne Applebaum’s estimation, between six and seven million people. (2) 100,000 of those in any way resisting and those, often arbitrarily, designated kulaks (wealthy peasants) were arrested and sent to the forced labour camps; reviving the old Tsarist tradition of the ‘administrative deportation order’, over 2 million were deported to permanent ‘special exile’ in Siberia, Kazakhstan and other underpopulated, barren regions of the Soviet Union.(3) In many ways mirroring the early (state terror) phases of British industrialization and its distant penal settlements like Botany Bay and van Diemen’s Land, peasant women gleaners were incarcerated who had picked up leftover grain to survive or hungry people received ten year sentences for stealing a pound of potatoes or a handful of apples. (4)

As the camps expanded from 1929 onwards, the kontslager, now cosmetically renamed ‘corrective labour camps’ under the Main Camp Administration (Russian acronym: Gulag), were placed under the complete management of the secret police (now re-named OGPU) and explicitly harnessed to the Stalinist industrialization and economic development effort.

By the middle of 1930, the Gulag system had become a huge ‘camp-industrial complex’ with 300,000 inmates working at its disposal in many industries and infrastructure projects. By 1934 OGPU had become one of the most important economic actors in the Soviet Union, and, under its new name of NKVD, now controlled the fate of more than one million prisoners working under slave labour conditions.

Stalin’s so-called ‘socialist’ industrialization was thus based on state terror and convict slave labour. In Stalin’s ‘Great Terror’ of 1937-38 the terror was simply internally extended to the purging of the Bolshevik Party itself. Stalin eliminated his party opponents and sent unmotivated regional arrest quotas to local NKVD bosses, the camps for a time even changing

from indifferently run prisons in which people died by accident, into genuinely deadly camps where prisoners were deliberately worked to death, or actually murdered, in far larger numbers than they had been in the past. (5)

Reviving a bourgeois Jacobin term first tellingly used by Lenin in 1917, all political prisoners were now officially labelled ‘enemies of the people’ (vragi naroda) and, completing the de-humanizing process begun in the concentration camps themselves, Stalin began publicly referring to them in the revealing disease metaphors also favoured by brown fascists like Hitler: namely as ‘vermin’, ‘pollution’, ‘filth’ and ‘weeds’ which needed to be ‘uprooted’. (6) Conditions in the camps were improved again in 1939 for economic rather than humanitarian reasons: the new Gulag boss Beria realized that the higher death rates and levels of sickness among the ‘production units’ (prisoners) were actually preventing the NKVD from fulfilling its production plans. (7)

Poles and Balts incarcerated after the Soviet occupations of their countries in 1939 courtesy of the infamous Hitler-Stalin Pact, substantial ethnic minorities, German POWs and even, unbelievably, perhaps 1.8 million returning Russian POWs after the war ‒ all further added to the Gulag population.

The total number incarcerated has never been officially disclosed but, in Bullock’ and Labedz’ view, may have peaked in 1950 at 12-15 million in 200 forced labour camps scattered around the endless freezing wastes of Siberia, the Arctic and Far East. (8) Anne Applebaum estimates that a total of some 28.7 million people suffered under forced labour in the Soviet Union: of those some 18-22 million people passed through the Gulag system of concentration camps between 1929 and 1953 and another six million were sent into the permanent exile of a forced labour without barbed wire in Kazakh deserts or Siberian forests. (9)

As for total death estimates with regard to Soviet Stalinism, Bullock and Labedz estimate the total of those arrested between 1930-37 who died in forced labour camps at 3.5 million; in addition they estimate that 11 million peasants died in the countryside of politically occasioned famine. (10) Stressing the still very imprecise nature of the estimates, Applebaum quotes a figure of 786,098 official victims of Stalin’s political executions between 1934 to 1953, ‘reluctantly cites’ 2.7 million as the number of prisoners who may have died in the Gulag camps and exile villages between 1929 and 1953, and 10-20 million as the total number of victims of the Civil War, the Bolshevik Red Terror, the collectivization famines, mass deportations, mass executions and the Gulag concentration camps themselves between 1918 and 1987, the year President Gorbachev finally dismantled the remaining camps. (11)

For Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, ‘socialism’ was simply, sometimes even officially, state capitalism, i.e. the dictatorship of party commissars and bureaucrats (‘apparatchiki’) over nationalised production and distribution which left all capitalist oppression and exploitation intact. Such an erroneous identification had been already prepared, albeit in more traditionally bourgeois democratic forms, within the official Marxist (Kautskyean) ideology of the European Social Democratic parties of the Second International.

This ‘socialist/communist’ ideology of a new, nascent ruling class (nomenklatura) in an industrialising country was, despite all the evidence to the contrary, fervently believed by millions of communists, authoritarian socialists and liberal-progressive ‘fellow travellers’ throughout the world for decades and considerably facilitated the final demise of the original emancipatory socialist ideal of worker self-management. Both militant communists and reformist socialists – interpreting Marx, in part no doubt correctly, in the very same materialistic and economistic categories that define capitalism ‒ thus in fact conceived of ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ in the very spirit of capitalism itself.

‘Marxism’, specifically in its emasculated positivist and Stalinist form of ‘Marxism-Leninism’, thus became the primitive legitimising ideology of a new and underdeveloped type of ruling class – often as upwardly mobile workers and petty-bourgeois ‒ within a totalitarian, state-terrorist system of state capitalism that itself reflected economic underdevelopment. ‘The hierarchical, statist framework of this cheap remake of the capitalist ruling class was supplied by the party of the workers organised on the bourgeois model of separation.’(Guy Debord) (12)

Even if the Soviet ruling elites were now made up of ordinary Russians, Bolshevik and Stalinist Russia was, in historian Orlando Figes’ words:

a mirror-image of the tsarist state. Lenin (later Stalin) occupied the place of the Tsar-God; his commissars and Cheka henchmen played the same roles as the provincial governors, the oprichniki, and the Tsar’s other plenipotentiaries; while his party’s comrades had the same power and privileged position as the aristocracy under the old regime. (13)

Given ‘brown’ fascism’s many original borrowings from Lenin’s authoritarian Bolshevism and Stalin’s totalitarian regime of secret police and forced labour camps, one could go one step further: libertarian socialist Otto Rühle’s early characterisation of ‘socialist’ state capitalism as ‘red fascism’ seems quite apposite. (14)

Thus, whatever their original theoretical contents, previously radical, emancipatory terms like ‘socialism’, ‘communism’ and ‘Marxism’ for increasing numbers of people in fact came to be identified with the ultra-oppressive, totalitarian, impoverished, drab and boring so-called ‘real existing socialism’ of the Soviet empire and, later, the equally, if not more, genocidal Maoist China. (15)

This was, of course, an erroneous identification of great ideological and stabilising benefit not only psychologically to communist true-believers but, more importantly, to the liberal capitalist system itself. Aided by many socialists’ own intellectual and ethical confusions, voluntary blindness and double standards about the real nature of the Soviet empire, so-called ‘real existing socialism’, any anti-capitalist or socialist dissent within capitalism could immediately be linked to the threat of ‘communist’ totalitarianism. Most workers also understood that such a so-called ‘workers’ state’ of terroristic state capitalism meant – despite some of its social welfare achievements ‒ not more, but considerably less liberty, no freedom of association, movement, unionization or speech, more workplace exploitation and infinitely lower living standards than they had gained through hard struggles under liberal capitalism.

Thus it could be argued that the victory of slave-labour Gulag ‘socialism’ in the Soviet Union and its satellites, and later in China, actually helped socialism lose. On the basis of her own disillusioning experiences in the Bolshevik Russia of 1919-21, anarchist Emma Goldman was already keenly, and prophetically, already aware of these ramifications in 1931:

‘the Bolsheviks’ experiment upon Russia must retard social changes abroad for a long period. What better excuse needs the European bourgeoisie for its reactionary methods than the ferocious dictatorship in Russia?’ (Living My Life, Vol 2, p. 822).

That ‘long period’ has continued to the present day, even after the final collapse of ‘Communism’ and the Soviet empire which had the people and anarchists, and should have had all freedom-loving socialists, dancing on the streets.

Coda on the Numbers

So who was the bloodiest tyrant of the 20th century in terms of death tolls: was it fascist Hitler, or communists Stalin and Mao? And where would Lenin lie on this scale? As Matthew White (Historical Atlas of the Twentieth Century at http://necrometrics.com/20c5m.htm), who has studied ALL available sources on the numbers, notes: the answer to that question depends on what victims you count, on your criteria. Here is White:

“There are so many candidates for the award of top monster that we can’t decide between them. Whether it’s Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong or Joseph Stalin is, quite frankly, anybody’s guess.

For now, let’s just skip over the whole margin of error thing — reasonable people have studied the evidence and come up with wildly differing numbers. You’re free to check my sources, but for now, trust me. I’ve studied the matter at great length and decided that the most likely death toll for these three are:

TYRANT DEATHS
Mao 40Million
Hitler 34M
Stalin 20M

Well, that certainly looks like Mao is our man, but wait. Mao’s largest crime is the Great Leap Forward, a bungled attempt to restructure the economy of China which created a famine that killed some 30M. If we confine our indictment to deliberate killings, we get this:

TYRANT KILLINGS
Hitler 34M
Stalin 20M
Mao 10M

So it’s Hitler, right? Except that most of the deaths on his head were caused by the Second World War. Sure, he started it, but our society does not blanketly condemn the starting of wars (after all, we reserve the right to do it ourselves in a just cause), and we certainly don’t consider killing armed enemy soldiers in a fair fight to be a crime against humanity. If we therefore confine ourselves to the cold-blooded murder of unarmed non-combatants, our table rearranges itself again:

TYRANT MURDERS
Stalin 20M
Hitler 15M
Mao 10M

This brings Stalin floating to the top. So it look like once you reduce their crimes to the unjustifiably lowest common denominator, then Stalin is worst; however, you might want to argue that dead is dead so it really doesn’t matter if you give your victims a chance to fight back. Fighting an unjust or reckless war is certainly a crime against humanity, so our numbers should go back to:

TYRANT KILLINGS
Hitler 34M
Stalin 20M
Mao 10M

… and these are just the problems we’ll encounter if we accept my numbers without debate. If we want to use the estimates of other scholars, we can pin up to 50 million murders on Stalin, enough to push him to the top of the list regardless of definition. Or we can whittle him down to 10 million murders if we use the low end of the margin of error, and scrounge several more tens of millions for Mao, or away from him.

So, the answer to the question of “Who is roasting on the hottest fires in Hell?” is “Well, that depends…”

As for Lenin, White’s list of next fourteen bloodiest tyrants of the 20th century after Hitler, Stalin and Mao includes him. Here is the list in chronological order:

Leopold II (Belgium: 1865-1909), Nicholas II (Russia: 1894-1917), Wilhelm II (Germany: 1888-1918), Enver Pasha (Turkey: 1913-18), Lenin (USSR: 1917-24), Chiang Kai-shek (China: 1928-49), Hirota Koki (Japan: 1936-37), Tojo Hideki (Japan: 1941-44), Hirohito (Japan: 1926-89), Ho Chi Minh (North Vietnam: 1945-69), Kim Il Sung (North Korea: 1948-94), Pol Pot (Cambodia: 1975-79), Saddam Hussein (Iraq: 1969-2003), Yahya Khan (Pakistan: 1969-71).

Endnotes

1.‘Stalinism is the name for mature Bolshevism. It was the means, under emergency conditions, of dispelling feudal property relations and establishing factory labour within a still-peasant-dominated society, specifically because this society had pioneered a workers’ revolution in its cities due to the existence of an external capitalist world from which factories had already been imported.’ (A. Peacock, Two Hundred Pharaohs Five Billion Slaves, p. 77).
2. A. Applebaum, Gulag, p. 64.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., p. 104.
6. Ibid., pp. 111-112.
7. Ibid., p. 119.
8. Ibid., p. 64.
9. Ibid., p. 518.
10. Taken from the ‘forced labour’ entry in A. Bullock & S. Trombley (eds.), The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, p. 329.
11. Ibid., pp. 520-521.
12. G. Debord, La Societé du Spectacle, 104 (own translation, P.L-N).
13. O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, p. 813
14. O. Rühle, ‘Brauner und roter Faschismus’, in G. Mergner (ed.), Otto Rühle, Schriften.
15. At the extreme end of estimates, Jung Chang and John Holloway estimate Mao’s total victims to be around 70 million people (Mao. The Unknown Story).

The Disaster of the Bolshevik October Revolution

•November 10, 2017 • 9 Comments


[Older essay of mine. A topic on which there is much confusion, including on the left. Last Tuesday was the 100th anniversary of the Russian October Revolution, an anniversary which interestingly went almost unnoticed. The graphic is from the London libertarian Solidarity group of the 1960s with whom I had brief contact.]

The Disaster of the Russian October Revolution 1917 and Civil War

Take, for example, the famous incident in the Moscow Circus. The humourless Chekists had taken exception to the anti-Soviet jokes of the clown Bim-Bom and burst into the middle of his act in order to arrest him. At first the audience thought it was all part of the act; but Bim-Bom fled and the Chekists shot him in the back. People began to scream and panic ensued. News of the shooting spread, giving rise to public condemnations of the Cheka Terror. Hundreds turned out for the clown’s funeral, which became in effect a demonstration.
– Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy, p. 631

After the collapse of the Second International in the various nationalist fervours of August 1914, the second key event in the many deaths of socialism in the twentieth century is the 1917 Bolshevik October Coup in Russia. This has resulted in the long lasting confusion of ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ with the horrors of state-capitalist counter-revolution and totalitarian dictatorship, a confusion from which it has arguably never really recovered.

Despite Communist and much socialist mythology, October 1917 was in fact a counter-revolution. Having taken over the state by populist, cleverly opportunist demagogy (‘Peace, land and soviets!’, ‘All power to the soviets!’) and a coup d’état via a minor but strategic military intervention, Lenin and his Bolshevik subordinates quickly proceeded to successfully liquidate the actual spontaneous revolutionary process at the grass roots that was the supportive social context of their own successful coup.

This officially much under-emphasized social process (by both socialist and bourgeois historians) was one that found its quintessential expression in the autonomous, non-party dominated soviets and factory committees of self-organising peasants and factory workers that ‒ in the tradition of the first Russian Revolution of 1905 ‒ had been developing since the March revolution of 1917. This true, emerging social revolution at the grassroots had also produced a political revolution that had, almost bloodlessly, overthrown the Tsarist autocracy. (1)

From this libertarian perspective, the term ‘Russian Revolution’ should thus actually be restricted to the spontaneous process of mass self-organisation in both cities and countryside between February/March and November/December 1917. The latter was a real, i.e. social, revolution, i.e. one potentially changing the relationships of social production and distribution and thus class relationships. In contrast, the Bolshevik October ‘revolution’ was merely political, i.e. a military coup at state level that simply replaced one form of government and ruling class with another while in fact greatly increasing class oppression in production, distribution and general life for the benefit of this new ruling class running the new authoritarian state.

Diplomatically cementing a veritable militarist counter-revolution, the new Bolshevik government made peace with the German monarchist imperialists at Brest-Litovsk by simply handing over the Ukrainian and Byelorussian peasants to their occupied fate. Against the long dominant Lenin- and Trotsky-hagiographers of the Left, it is necessary to underline that it was not Stalin but Lenin and Trotsky themselves who then instituted the Red Terror, the Cheka secret police, the brutal crushing of worker and peasant soviets and the bloody massacres of peasants and revolutionaries, the terroristic militarisation of labour and the outright slavery of the forced labour/concentration camps.

As early as June 1918, Trotsky had called for the setting up of ‘concentration camps’ i.e. kontslager: a term that had first appeared in Russian as a translation from the Boer-English, probably thanks to Trotsky’s familiarity with the history of the Boer War where the institution was first extensively practised by British imperialists on Boer civilians.(2) In August of the same year, Lenin also used the term as a recommended policy for dealing with ‘the unreliable’ in a telegram to Bolshevik commissars attempting to quell an anti-Bolshevik insurgency in Penza (town of my father’s maternal ancestors).(3)

After an assassination attempt on Lenin’s life by the Social-Revolutionary Fanny Kaplan in September 1918, the secret police organisation Cheka (acronym for the ‘Extraordinary Commission’ of the Bolshevik Party itself outside all state jurisdictions) was directed to implement Lenin’s policy of ‘Red Terror’. The organ of the Trotsky-led Red Army Krasnaya Gazeta described its revenge in the dulcet berserker tones of the blood-crazed warrior caste known since Sumer and Jehovah:

Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands, let them drown themselves in their own blood. For the blood of Lenin … let there be floods of blood of the bourgeoisie ‒ more blood, as much as possible… (4)

Concentration camps, the so-called ‘special camps’, were central to the Red Terror and explicitly mentioned in its very first decree. One year later, by the end of 1919, there were 21 registered camps and by the end of 1920 there were already 107. (5) Although the purpose of the camps still remained ambiguous at this early stage of their development, Cheka boss Dzerzhinsky was already defining them as ‘labour re-education camps’, not just for designated ‘class enemies’ but also for those ‘who demonstrate unconscientious attitudes to work, tardiness, etc…. In this way we will create schools of labour.’ (6)

In the civil war period of so-called ‘war communism’ (1918-21), the Red Terror of Lenin and Trotsky was applied not only to the reactionary White forces and designated ‘class enemies’, but also to peasants, workers and all political opponents right and left. ‘Bourgeois hostages’ were arrested without charge, often randomly or as a result of denunciations and personal vendettas, and held in readiness for summary execution when needed. Conditions in Cheka prisons were very much worse than in tsarist jails. Torture was widely used to extract confessions or denunciations. ‘Tens of thousands of summary executions were carried out in courtyards and cellars, or prisons would be ‘emptied’ by the Cheka before a town was abandoned to the Whites. At night cities tried to sleep to the sound of people being shot.’(7)

Peasants’ crops were simply stolen at the point of a gun, resisting peasants killed, their villages burnt to the ground. Workers were forced into slave labour in state-owned factories managed by authoritarian top-down decree and run along the oppressive Taylorist lines (piece work, ‘time and management’ terror) that Lenin so admired in the Hitler-fan Henry Ford. The workers’ own representative organs ‒ factory committees, soviets, unions ‒ were locally emasculated, bureaucratically centralised and totally absorbed into the Bolshevik state apparatus, their strikes crushed, their strike leaders imprisoned, exiled or shot by the omnipresent Cheka.

At the same time the US capitalist Armand Hammer was given asbestos mining concessions under Lenin’s patronage and military protection for his assets by Trotsky; according to Hammer, the latter succinctly clarified the Bolsheviks’ capitalist and counter-revolutionary role in telling him that not only did the mineral-rich Ural region offer ‘great possibilities to American capital’ but that US finance capital ought to regard all of Russia as a desirable field of investment ‘because as Russia had had its Revolution, capital was really safer there than anywhere else.’ (8)

All this Bolshevik state terror against peasants, workers, political opponents and others was, of course, officially legitimised as being in the national interests of the Bolshevik ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in its ‘revolutionary life and death struggle’ with the allied intervention, the White counter-revolution and its parallel vicious White Terror. Most socialists, and at first even many anarchists, both within Russia and internationally, generally accepted this rationalisation at the time (given the general lack of verifiable information flowing from civil war Russia, perhaps, for a short period at least, understandably). (9)

However, even after this struggle ended with the defeat of the last White general, Wrangel, in 1920, the Red Terror and Bolshevik state violence of course did not cease. The final tragic denouement was the attempt at a radically democratic and now necessarily anti-Bolshevik (‘third’) revolution at Petrograd’s port of Kronstadt in 1921. (10)

The Kronstadt sailors and revolutionaries did not mince their words when analysing what they were fighting against in the new Bolshevik system of oppression:

In place of the old régime, a new régime of despotism, insolence, favouritism, theft and speculation has been established, a terrible régime in which one must hold out his hand to the authorities for every piece of bread, for every button, a régime in which one does not belong to himself, where one cannot dispose of his own labour, a régime of slavery and degradation. (11)

This valiant attempt at a new, third, revolution was drowned in a sea of blood (12) by Bolshevik state loyalist troops and, indeed, the Bolshevik Party’s own members who were attending the 10th Party Congress in nearby Petrograd, all under the direct orders of Lenin and the military command of civil war victor Trotsky. (13) The Petrograd striking workers ‒ with whom the radical sailors in Kronstadt had declared their solidarity and on whom they based their revolutionary hopes ‒ had been weakened and demoralised by a powerful combination of slow starvation, Cheka repression and brutality, the bribe of extra food rations and sustained Bolshevik slander about Kronstadt’s ‘counter-revolution’. They thus, perhaps crucially in terms of Russia’s further development, did not come to the aid of the Kronstadt insurrection. (14)

The words of the Kronstadt revolutionary sailors and workers ‒ the previous revolutionary avant-garde of the 1905 and both 1917 revolutions ‒ explaining their heroic attempt at a third revolution, now against the Bolshevik ‘commisarocracy’, against ‘a new serfdom calling itself communist’, still resonate with potential future meaning when we attempt to understand the defeat of ‘socialism’ as an expression of popular hope in the 20th century:

The workers’ patience is at an end. (…) The workers have gone on strike. (…) Here in Kronstadt the foundation for the third revolution has been laid which will open a wide path for the socialist cause. This revolution will convince the masses of workers in east and west that what has arisen here up to now has had nothing at all to do with socialism. (…)
This revolution gives workers the opportunity to elect their soviets freely without having to fear the pressure of any party; it also enables the bureaucratised unions to transform themselves into free associations of manual and mental workers. (…)
The Communist Party has grabbed power by pushing aside the peasants and workers in whose name it acted… A new serfdom that calls itself ‘communist’ has seen the light of day. The peasant has been transformed into a day labourer and the worker into a wage slave of the state, the mental worker into a nothing. …Now the time has come to topple the commissarocracy. (…) The autocracy has fallen. The Constituant Assembly is a thing of the past. The commissarocracy will also fall. The time has come for real worker power, for the power of the soviets!
(15)

Having brutally crushed the last popular armed resistance to their rule in Kronstadt, the last workers’ strikes as well as Nestor Makhno’s anarchist peasant army in the Ukraine, and under the banner of ‘socialism’, the new Bolshevik ruling class were then unhindered in erecting a totalitarian system of bureaucratic state capitalism. From a wider and eminently Marxist perspective, the historical function of this system and its Bolshevik ruling class was to enforce the terroristic process of modernisation (rapid industrialisation, urbanisation and proletarianisation) of a predominantly rural peasant society.

In again classical Marxist terms, this was the ‘primary accumulation of capital’ which the Russian bourgeoisie had not been historically strong enough, or the Tsarist monarchy liberal enough, to fully accomplish itself. The new Red bourgeoisie obliged. This process, following its own inherent historical and ideological logic, then culminated in Stalinism and its state-terrorist extension and intensification of Trotsky and Lenin’s concentration camps into the infamous extensive network of slave labour concentration camps, the Gulag.

From such a Marxist historical perspective, the ‘communist’ mindsets of Leninism, Trotskyism and Stalinism were, in Adrian Peacock’s summary, nothing but oppressive ideologies, ‘grandiose terms for the inevitable phases the Bolsheviks’ bourgeois revolution had to go through if it was to modernise Russia and defeat her small but precociously revolutionary working class for the eventual benefit of international capitalism.’(16)

This eventual benefit was then explicitly realised in the seamless seguing of the old Stalinist state elite (nomenclatura, apparatchiki) into the new rulers and oligarchs of a privatised gangster capitalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.(17) Mutatis mutandis, the ghosts of 1917 are still with us.

Oxford historian Oscar Figes summarises:

Under Lenin’s regime – not Stalin’s – the Cheka was to become a vast police state. It had its own leviathan infrastructure, from the house committees to the concentration camps, employing more than a quarter of a million people. These were the Bolshevik oprichniki, the detested police of Ivan the Terrible. During the civil war it was they who would secure the regime’s survival on the so-called ‘internal front’. Terror became an integral element of the Bolshevik system in the civil war. Nobody will ever know the exact number of people repressed and killed by the Cheka in these years. But it was certainly several hundred thousand, if one includes all those in its camps and prisons as well as those were executed or killed by the Cheka’s troops in the suppression of strikes and revolts. Although no one knew the precise figures, it is possible that more people were murdered by the Cheka than died in the battles of the civil war. (18)

Figes puts the total deaths as a result of the civil war in Russia, the terror (on both sides), famine and disease as ‘something in the region of ten million people’. (This figure excludes the hugely reduced birth rate ‒ up to ten million additional lives ‒ and the reduced life expectancy of those who survived due to malnutrition and disease, with children of this cohort markedly smaller and 5% born with syphilis). (19)

ENDNOTES:

1.For a concise chronology of this Bolshevik counter-revolution from a libertarian Marxist perspective, cf. Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control 1917 to 1921. For a German scholarly account, cf. Oskar Anweiler, Die Rätebewegung in Russland 1905-1921, pp. 180-320. For the anarchist perspective of a Russian combatant with the peasant army of Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Mahkno, cf. the three volumes of Voline, La Révolution Inconnue. Despite temporary alliances with the Red Army, Mahkno’s anarchist peasant army in the end had to fight against not one but three enemy forces: Ukrainian nationalists and both Whites and Bolsheviks, the antagonistic and yet complementary forms of the counter-revolution against mass self-organization in the workers’ and peasants’ soviets and factory committees. Mahkno died in impoverished and depressed exile in Paris in the 1930s.
2.A. Applebaum, Gulag. A History of the Soviet Camps (2003), p. 19 and p. 31. Applebaum points out how the British probably built on the experience of their fellow imperialists the Spanish, who in 1895 in Cuba had begun to prepare a policy of ‘reconcentration’, a policy intended to move peasants to camps in order to deprive insurgents of food, shelter and support (p. 19). In 1904 German colonists in South-West Africa then adopted this British model, adding forced labour and even human medical experiments to the state terror recipe and the word Konzentrationslager to the German language in 1905 (p.19). Hitler and the Nazis obviously had quite an imperial tradition to build on.
3.Penza was the original hometown of my paternal grandmother Lydia Lach-Newinsky, née Poroshina, who was, with her husband Arkady and son Oleg, one of the two million who fled Russia in 1919.
4.Appelbaum, op.cit., p. 32.
5.Ibid.
6.Ibid.
7.O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, p. 647.
8.Quoted from Hammer’s memoirs (Hammer: Witness To History, 1987) in A. Peacock, Two Hundred Pharaohs Five Billion Slaves, p. 76.
9.It is fascinating to follow the slow process of disillusion and tortuous inner conflict in anarchists like Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman during their stay in Russia in the civil war period between 1919 and 1921. Despite their direct experience of Bolshevik terror and repression of workers, peasants, Mensheviks, Left Social-Revolutionaries and anarchists, Goldman and Berkman twice rejected fellow-anarchist Nestor Makhno’s offer to join him and his peasant army in combat against the Bolshevik Red Army in the Ukraine. Despite the sparse evidence available outside Russia in 1918, a very early perceptive critique of Bolshevik oppressive practice was achieved by Rosa Luxemburg six months before her murder by SPD-supported right-wing troops in Berlin in January 1919 (cf. her ‘Die russische Revolution’ in S. Hillmann (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg – Schriften, pp. 163-193).
10.The probably definitive history of the Kronstadt insurrection is Ida Mett’s La Commune de Cronstadt (1938), translated into German as Kommune von Kronstadt (Berlin 1971), from which I am quoting. Cf. also Emma Goldman’s autobiographical account in Living My Life, Vol. 2, pp. 875-886. The key immediate demands of the revolutionary Kronstadt sailors and citizens, unanimously accepted in a public meeting of 16,000 people, were: freedom of speech and assembly for all workers, peasants and leftists, free elections to the workers and peasant soviets, abolition of Communist party cells in the military and in factories, freedom for peasants to dispose of their crops and to own animals, release of all leftist, working and peasant class political prisoners, equal food rations for all workers. (Mett, pp. 32-33).
11.Quoted in M. Rosen & D. Widgery (eds.), The Vintage Book of Dissent, p. 86.
12.Emma Goldman, who was in Petrograd at the time, speaks of ‘tens of thousands slain – the city drenched in blood’ and of ‘Those not fortunate enough to die fighting had fallen into the hands of the enemy to be executed or sent to slow torture in the frozen regions of northernmost Russia.’ Goldman, op.cit., p. 886. Both Goldman (p. 884) and Mett (p. 50 and p. 57) record that during the 10 day siege the Bolsheviks also used aeroplanes to drop bombs onto Kronstadt, including onto non-combatants.
13.Trotsky’s ultimatum to Kronstadt included the notorious threat that he would ‘shoot like pheasants’ all those daring to ‘raise their hand against the Socialist fatherland’ (Goldman, p. 883).
14.Goldman, p. 884 and Mett, p. 47. Similar strike actions in Moscow, Nijni Novgorod and other cities ended for similar reasons.
15.Taken from two articles in the Kronstadt Isvestia newspaper in March 1921, cited in Rudolf Rocker (1921), Der Bankerott des russischen Staatskommunismus, p. 101 (own translation, PL-N).
16.A. Peacock, Two Hundred Pharaohs Five Billion Slaves, p. 75. Peacock further differentiates: ‘Leninism and Trotskyism were therefore the expansionist periods of Stalinism just as Stalinism was later to become the protectionist period of Trotskyism.’ (p. 77)
17.Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007) well documents the Russian experience (pp. 218-245). She summarises the shift in ruling class oligarchs after 1991 and the shock ‘market Bolshevism’ first implemented under Boris Yeltsin as follows: ‘[…] the Communist state was simply replaced with a corporatist one: the beneficiaries of the boom were confined to a small club of Russians, many of them former Communist apparatchiks, and a handful of Western mutual fund managers who made dizzying returns investing in newly privatized Russian companies. A clique of nouveaux billionaires, many of whom were to become part of the group universally known as ‘the oligarchs’ for their imperial levels of wealth and power, teamed up with Yeltsin’s Chicago Boys and stripped the country of nearly everything of value, moving enormous profits offshore at a rate of $2 billion a month. Before shock therapy, Russia had no millionaires; by 2003, the number of Russian billionaires had risen to seventeen…’ (p. 231). A similar development of Communist apparatchiks into outright capitalist billionaires – i.e. a modernisation of the ruling oligarchy ‒ is of course also under way in China.
18.O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, p. 649.
19.Ibid., p. 773.

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•October 24, 2017 • Leave a Comment

[This is an extract from the Big History book I am working on, attempting to sketch some of my conscious biases and cognitive frameworks. The book is about evolution and history from the Big Bang to the present and what kind of future we want based on this trajectory…The painting is Magritte’s ‘Man in a Mirror’.]

As this is not an introspective memoir or psychoanalyst’s couch, the unconscious biases I must leave to readers and critics. As regards my conscious hopes, fears, cognitive and moral biases (as far as I am aware of them), I can here only briefly indicate a few central ones as related to my personal circumstances.

I happen to be an older white, middle class heterosexual male living in south-east Australia, the oldest continent, where my wife and I grow heritage apples, other fruit and nuts, vegetables, a few sheep and poultry on a small eight-hectare, non-commercial farm based on sustainable permaculture principles. I also grow poems and essays. Although my parents were not rich, I have had the great privilege of enjoying a virtually free public education to tertiary level in Australia and Germany. I feel a certain need to ‘repay’ this social debt by working in some way that may somehow be of collective benefit.

I worked as a teacher of English for many years with secondary school students, adult migrants to Australia (experiencing ‘One World’ with up to twelve nationalities in the class) and Asian students at the University of Western Sydney. I am of hybrid north and east European genetic and cultural heritage with German, Russian-Polish and French ancestors. I speak English and German and read French. I was born in Germany, grew up bilingually as an only child in Australia with Asian (Indian, Chinese-Malaysian, Indonesian) students living in our family and then studied English and German literature and critical theory in Germany where I lived from 1967-87. I feel myself neither as ‘German’ nor as ‘Australian’ and have always felt myself a little as an outsider in both countries. Although thoroughly within them, I think this also helps me step back and see these societies from the ‘outside’ as it were.

My conscious cognitive frameworks and biases have been strongly influenced by literatures, critical theories and sciences deriving from western humanism, the European Enlightenment and cosmopolitan modernity. In Frankfurt during the late sixties and early seventies I became politicised within the student anti-authoritarian movement (as it was known), my political predilections moving from a vague liberalism towards non-violent anarchism and participatory eco-socialism, my social and aesthetic philosophies strongly, but not dogmatically, influenced by the Hegel- and Marx-derived critical theory of the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Marcuse). Murray Bookchin’s libertarian social ecology also had a great influence on my thinking.

At Frankfurt university professor Hans-Joachim Heydorn, a non-Marxist socialist who had fought in the Spanish Civil War, opened my mind to the emancipatory elements in western mystical traditions. Since first being mesmerised by classical Indian dancers at the age of five, and never really relating to any notions of God or Christ, I have always also had a great interest in Eastern philosophies, especially in Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta, and in various radical forms of western mysticism (Meister Eckhart, Thomas Merton, Alan Watts) and the ‘awareness’ or mindfulness teachings of Indian sage Jiddu Krishnamurti. I have practised hatha yoga, tai chi and Zen meditation. I have a great love of Afro-American music and dance. In my thirties and forties I was engaged in improvisational free and experimental theatre, including street theatre. I have been an eco-activist since my twenties and initiated and led a ‘thinking-globally-acting-locally’ eco-group for about ten years here in our bioregion which attempted to raise public awareness of (un-)sustainability issues.

On this typically hybrid cultural basis (a fluid global hybridity which very many if not most now share), I share a ‘gut feeling’ or belief in an evolutionary trajectory not of optimism but of hope. Not of ‘hope’ in any naïve sense of wishful thinking denying despair but, as Ernst Bloch has shown , of hope in its potential to open up imaginary and real possibilities. (Conversely, with Georges Dumézil and Rebecca Solnit, I think in-principle despair is not only a self-fulfilling prophecy but a failure of imagination, a perverse kind of negative solace in a ‘know-all’ fatalism that denies all creative spontaneity and emergence; it is all Sisyphus and no Trickster).

This evolutionary trajectory from the Big Bang to the present I interpret, I believe rationally, as one towards greater ‘globalisation’ understood as a more inclusive humanity, towards ‘Here Comes Everybody’, towards One Humanity in One World. More specifically, this evolutionary hope is one of human emancipation from unnecessary suffering, of reducing inequitable misery, exploitation or oppression based on class, gender, religion or ethnicity. It is one of collectively moving towards increasing freedom from heteronomy, towards increasing equality, participation and self-agency or autonomy, towards a greater realisation of democracy and human dignity and rights. Most importantly, it is one of moving collectively towards the fundamental economic bedrock of greater ecological literacy, sensibility and sustainability, the realisation of ‘what we have always known at some level’, namely that we are not just humanly but ecologically One World, one Earth System. I share these hopes while always recognising the increasing vulnerability of industrial-capitalist civilization and deeply fearing its business-as-usual potential for run-away dysfunction, ecocide and total collapse.

To be clear. While I do think the trajectory of human history as increasing globalisation, self-consciousness and emancipation can be read as the previous self-organizing evolution of the universe and planet coming to an increasing consciousness of itself, and is an ‘ascent’ in that sense, I do not believe that history has any final goal or teleological purpose understood as some kind of endpoint, a utopian or heavenly ‘Omega Point’ in which all history and suffering cease. (Thus differing from Hegel, Marx or Teilhard de Chardin). Rather, I think it is ‘turtles all the way down, and up’. I think the ascent is not any linear Progress but rather non-linear, discontinuous, spiralling, and also encompasses descent, dark ages and despair. In western theological terms, neither Heaven or Hell but Purgatory, if you will.