Long Live Leninism!

Je reste un soixante-huitard. In both senses of “sixty-eighter”.

Next May will be the half-centennial of the defining month of the “sixties”.

Marx and Engels were “forty-eighters”. A much more significant generation/cohort that took part in the defeated European revolutions of 1848. Two decades later some 200,000 German forty-eighters fought in the second American revolution, making up about 10% of Lincoln’s armed forces, with greater success. The sixty-eighters had no such defeats and no such successes. But we did do something. Half a century is far too long between rounds. But I don’t think it will be as long again before, once more,

the times, they are a-changin’

Last year, 2017,  was part of a rather dreary few decades with the left moribund. But it had several anniversaries that deserve many books each. Not just to commemorate the past but for their lessons for the future, and hopefully the immediate future.

It was 150 years since publication of Karl Marx’s Capital Volume 1 in a first edition of 1000 copies (September 14, 1867). That was two decades after the “Communist Manifesto” of the “forty-eighters”. Itself following “scarce two hundred years” of bourgeois rule since the English revolution.

Two centuries earlier, in 1817, Europe was just emerging from the Napoleonic wars. The French and American revolutions were recent and what is now the modern world was not yet fully visible. Most of the world – Asia, Africa and Latin America had not emerged into modern history.

November was the centennial of the “October Revolution” (November 7, 1917).

It was 60 years since the Sputnik was launched (October 4, 1957).

That was a decade before the half-centennial of “Red October”.

I remember celebrating that half-centennial in 1967 with half a bottle of vodka, despite the Red Flag having already gone down by the time the Sputnik went up. I got literally blind drunk (on the floor and unable to see). I did not make that mistake again  in November, indeed it put me off alcohol for life.

It is also about half a century since Mao launched the Chinese Cultural Revolution and about 40 years since his death and defeat of the Chinese revolution. It has been a very long temporary setback!

It is difficult to claim that communism is still “the mind, the heart, the conscience of our era”.

The social-fascists and lemmingist sects seem to have long ago completely obliterated Leninism, Maoism and communism.

As Marx said:

 “ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste” (“what is certain is that I myself am not a Marxist”). [5]

Indeed the very concept of a “left” in its broadest sense seems to have been displaced by the pseudoleft so that the generally accepted meaning of “left”, as understood by both supporters and opponents, is more or less identical with “reactionary”. That is the tendency fundamentally hostile to modernity and progress that “stands athwart history, yelling Stop”. This allows the conservative right to parade as rebels.

All the more reason to raise the Red flag and the banner of Red October and Lenin!

Do the traditions of “Leninist vanguard parties” have much relevance today? No, and they never did. Lenin thought the Comintern resolutions on organization were “too Russian”. The Bolshevik party was a mass party based on the organizational principles of the German workers party that led the second international before its collapse, as necessarily adapted to cope with the Tsarist secret police. There never was a mass revolutionary workers party in the West.

Does Lenin’s work “Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism” have much relevance today? No, there have certainly turned out to be a few more higher rungs on the ladder since that was written. Lenin’s claim that the period of the first world war was the final rung before victory of proletarian revolution, looked plausible enough then, but it makes no sense a century later! It was only a pamphlet dealing with the specific circumstances leading up to that imperialist world war, published under Tsarist censorhip. Lenin was right about the times he lived in but wrong about the future. He certainly cannot be blamed for the “anti-imperialist” pseudoleft whose “anti-globalist”, “anti-capitalist” and “anti-elite” politics and solidarity with putrid third world kleptocrat regimes has recently been “Trumped”.

According to Stalin:

“Developing capitalism,” says Lenin, “knows two historical tendencies in the national question. First: the awakening of national life and national movements, struggle against all national oppression, creation of national states. Second: development and acceleration of all kinds of intercourse between nations, breakdown of national barriers, creation of the international unity of capital, of economic life in general, of politics, science, etc.

“Both tendencies are a world-wide law of capitalism. The first predominates at the beginning of its development, the second characterises mature capitalism that is moving towards its transformation into socialist society” (see Vol. XVII, pp. 139-40).

For imperialism these two tendencies represent irreconcilable contradictions; because imperialism cannot exist without exploiting colonies and forcibly retaining them within the framework of the “integral whole”; because imperialism can bring nations together only by means of annexations and colonial conquest, without which imperialism is, generally speaking, inconceivable.

For communism, on the contrary, these tendencies are but two sides of a single cause-the cause of the emancipation of the oppressed people from the yoke of imperialism; because communism knows that the union of peoples in a single world economic system is possible only in the basis of mutual confidence and voluntary agreement, and that road to the formation of a voluntary union of peoples lies through the separation of the colonies from the “integral” imperialist “whole,” through the transformation of the colonies into independent states.

Thanks in large part to the movement led by Lenin and Stalin, the second tendency has largely prevailed and annexations and colonial conquest have become, generally speaking, inconceivable. If another world war did break out it would certainly be ended by world revolution. That makes it rather unlikely for any imperialist power to try their luck.

Were the Mensheviks right that Russia was too backward for the workers to hold power? Yes, and so it turns out were the more advanced countries of the West. But Lenin was right that 50,000 bolsheviks could do a better job of modernizing Russia than 5,000 Tsarist landlords. They did their duty.

They not only fought, but fought well. Under the leadership of Lenin and then Stalin they defeated both feudalism and fascism and dragged not only Russia but the whole of Eastern Europe into modernity (kicking and screaming). Russia went from the sick man of Europe to a superpower. Even after internal defeat the momentum still resulted in the Sputnik which forced the imperialist bourgeoise to join in unleashing science and technology in a way that has transformed the world to the despair of reactionaries. The revolution spread to Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Chinese revolution led by Mao inspired the defeat of US imperialism in Vietnam and its retreat worldwide. The Chinese Cultural Revolution and the revolts in Eastern Europe merged with the sixties in the West.

The “years of stagnation” under social-facism leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union, with subsequent oligarchical rule, the absurd plutocracy in China, even more ridiculous hereditary monarchy in North Korea and deeply corrupt crony capitalism in Vietnam have been successfully used to discredit those historic victories. But they actually illustrate how huge an achievement those Leninist revolutions were, given the backwardness of those societies.

The English, French and American revolutions were not discredited by British, French and American imperialism. No revolution ends history. There is always a need for another revolution.

Was Rosa Luxemburg right that the party dictatorship in Russia would demobilize the workers and end up a dictatorship against them? Yes, but Lenin was right that the only alternative to Bolshevik dictatorship at the time was not bourgeois democracy, or even the oligarchic kleptocracy that rules today, but semi-feudal Whiteguard reaction. (Even Putin is a vast improvement compared with both Brezhnev and the Tsarist generals that would have replaced Kerensky if the Leninists had not).

Did Leninism lead to Stalinism and Maoism and end up with Brezhnev and Teng Hsiao-ping? Yes, and of course the social democrats are quite correct in pointing out that there is continuity between Lenin and Stalin and Mao. They were indeed on the same side and as the anarchists point out there was also continuity with Marx and Engels who were likewise on the same side. But it was the opposite side to the regimes that have held power in Russia and China for many decades.

Are we still living in the “era of imperialism and proletarian revolution”?

I’m really not sure. That era was only coming into being with the first world war and it has been passing away since the second world war. If we are still in the same era, we certainly lack a good theoretical summary of the phase of that era which we are now in. If we are in a different era there are certainly a lot of historical tasks still uncompleted, including democratic revolution in much of the world and proletarian revolution in all of it and we have not developed any clear idea of where we are or where we are going or even a minimal sketch of the nature of our era.

In working out the theory and tasks of our age we have a great heritage from Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao with much to learn from both their sucesses and failures but a very long way to go.

The half century from the “forty-eighters” to the Bolsheviks meant that communists could not just defend and apply the theories of Marx and Engels but had to develop them further to “Marxism-Leninism” as was done under the leadership of Lenin. Lenin died in early 1924, less than 7 years after the revolution he led. His legacy of “Leninism” was most authoritatively described by Stalin in “Foundations of Leninism” very shortly after Lenin’s death. That work is well worth close study today.

I think the central concepts of Leninism are expressed in this quotation:

“The dictatorship of the proletariat,” says Lenin, “is a stubborn struggle-bloody and bloodless, violent and peaceful, military and economic, educational and administrative-against the forces and traditions of the old society. The force of habit of millions and tens of millions is a most terrible force. Without an iron party tempered in the struggle, without a party enjoying the confidence of all that is honest in the given class without a party capable of watching and influencing the mood of the masses, it is impossible to conduct such a strategy successfully”

The world has changed a lot since then. But I cannot imagine a a transition from capitalism with bourgeois rule via anything other than a  protracted stubborn struggle for working class rule, as described. Nor can I imagine success in that struggle without a party as described.

Plainly these conditions do not currently exist. “Party building is bullshit!” was the correct, Leninist, response to lemmingists pretending that such conditions existed four decades ago. A different response will be necessary when the times are again a-changing’.

Meanwhile the other main lesson I would draw from Leninism is the central importance of “theory”, as mentioned in Chapter 3 of Stalin’s “Foundations”.

“Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.”

Stalin led the Soviet Union, and the world revolution, for some three decades, including victory in the war against fascism. But even a casual reading of “Foundations of Leninism” shows he got a lot wrong. The dangers to the revolution that he described were successfully defeated as Stalin said they would be. But the main danger was, as always, the one not prepared against – the “unknown unknowns”. We now know the enemy was right inside the party, with a social base in the “forces and traditions of the old society” that was indeed a “most terrible force”.

Mao took the struggle much further, and in a far more backward society. He correctly analysed many of Stalin’s errors, again  developing Marxism-Leninism to a new and higher stage.

That too was defeated and the decades of collapse have been a lot longer than I ever expected. Capitalism did remarkably well in continuing to develop the productive forces.

I think we may be heading into another period of turbulent upheaval soon. It would be astonishing if no revolutionary theory suited to the times emerges in such conditions. When it does, it cannot resuscitate the theories of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin or Mao but it will develop them further based on lessons learned.

 

William Hinton – China’s great reversal

William Hinton was born in Chicago in 1919. He first visited China in 1937 and then in 1945 returned as a staff member with the US Office of War Information. During an eight year period, he also worked as an English teacher at a university in Shanxi and as a tractor-technician for the United Nations. He and his wife lived mostly in the village of Long Bow.

His best known book, Fanshen, documents in detail, from an on-the-ground perspective, the revolutionary process, especially land reform, in the area, based on his experiences of it. As a Marxist, he opposed the ‘capitalist roaders’ in China’s Communist Party and in 1990 wrote his critique, The Great Reversal, which is available below on-line in full. He died in the US in 2004.

From the Preface:

“June 4, 1989, stands as a stark watershed in China’s modern history. The slaughter of unarmed civilians by units of the Peoples Liberation Army as they blasted their way to Tiananmen Square illuminated the “reform” era as nothing else could. It lit up, like a bolt of cosmic lightning, the reactionary essence of China’s current leading group.

“This essence was known to many in China and to some abroad long before the lightning struck in June 1989, but most members of the Western media and academic world were too mesmerized by China’s reform rhetoric and market progress to apprehend the reality of the events unfolding before their eyes. Since privatization matched their prejudices and a consumption boom confirmed its validity, they preferred not to look too closely at the underlying currents of economic dislocation, infrastructural decay, environmental degradation, social disintegration, cultural malaise, and rising class antagonisms that threatened to unravel the fabric of Chinese society.

“Mao Zedong was far more astute. More than twenty years ago during the Cultural Revolution, he exposed Deng Xiaoping, Yang Shangkun, and most of their “hard line” colleagues as capitalist roaders. He accurately predicted that if such persons ever came to power they would transform the Communist Party into a revisionist party and finally into a fascist party and then the whole of China would change color.

“The surprising thing is not how accurate Mao’s prediction turned out to be, but rather how quickly it materialized in history.

William Hinton, 1990

The Contents are:

Preface

Introduction: China’s Rural Reforms

A Small Town in China: Long Bow 1978

A Trip to Fengyang Country, 1983

Reform in Stride, Rural Change 1984

The Situation in the Grasslands, 1985

Reform Unravels: Rural Change 1986

Bypassed by Reform: Agricultural Mechanization 1986

Dazhai Revisited: 1987

Mao’s Rural Policies Revisited

Why not the Capitalist Road?

Tiananmen Massacre 1989

The book is available here.

* * * *

Art for art’s sake…? Some thoughts inspired by a visit to China’s Changchung sculpture park

Thanks to TomG for this contribution. More about the World Sculpture Park in Changchung can be read here. “Achieving Harmony takes effort and the Chinese authorities have certainly put their collective shoulders to the wheel and in their prosecution of the ‘for’ case they have discovered an old ally in Confucius, not to mention the courts. Those wishing to prosecute the ‘against’ case are likely to be prosecuted”.

* * * *

While in China several years ago visiting friends we had the opportunity of visiting a sculpture park in Changchung, a city in north- eastern China. The park itself was huge, similar in size perhaps to Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens and too big to ‘do’ in one day. The exhibits were international and the invited theme to contributors was ‘friendship and cooperation’, themes that dovetail neatly with the Chinese regimes need for Harmony (read suppression of dissent). Revisionists do have a thing about insisting that contradictions must be either ignored or, when  that doesn’t work, suppressed.

What follows are selections of the notes I took that day with some minor editing. Thoughts of Brecht’s poem The Doubter and Mao’s Yenan Talks began to accompany me as I moved around the park. Art for art’s sake? I think not. Art for the advancement of an ignoble political/social agenda? We’re on the right trac; so let’s have a look at the relationship between the art and the politics as reflected in this park.

The park was simultaneously very impressive and disappointing. Covering a huge area it may have up to a thousand exhibits. The concept of the park was impressive and on entering I was duely impressed. The more I  walked around, however, the more I came of the view that a fine concept had been nobbled (undermined) by the paltry world view of the new Chinese ruling class. It was not that the numerous artists lacked skill – it was there in abundance – but that the works lacked vision. This criticism may be attributed to the artists to some degree, the works were after all theirs, but much more, and fundamentally, to the brief they were given. The themes depicted in the works were safe – mother and child (who could possibly take offence?); friendship (ditto, I suppose); peace (let’s not upset the apple cart, the owners might get shitty); origin myths, spring, new growth (these contained too often unrealised possibilities) and some tribal representations from the developing world I found ambiguous in their value.

What was missing was conflict, representations that symbolically or directly depicted  contradiction, tension or development. Below are my thoughts on several pieces that, for good or bad, impressed themselves upon me. Let’s start with the bad, move onto some good before ending with more bad.

The North Korean piece – (yes, it’s low hanging fruit, but everyone deserves the odd freebie)

This piece, of a girl offering flowers, took top marks for DREARY. The girl’s expression was slightly goofy and forced – a vacant, gormless smile projecting a happiness that feels either stage managed or deranged (OK, I’ll accept both) – as she moves forward offering her flowers to the unknown and universal recipient. For all of the indication that she is moving forward, she is lifeless, a set piece of social realism that fails abysmally to convey anything dynamic or living. It therefore fails as a piece of social realism, being, rather a parody of it. It says a lot about the society it purports to represent and just as much about the society that chose to display it.

The Fijian piece

This was just as bad in its own way as the North Korean offering but without the moral pretentiousness.

Here was a representation of a Fijian noble warrior, a strong, muscled figure ready for battle and/or ceremony. Tribal kitch glorifying something whose time had past. Why would one want to glorify this example of a moribund tribal society, a society doggedly refusing to accept the need for transformation, standing in the path of development? And this is seen as a suitable contribution to international peace and cooperation? As a historical depiction the work stands up, but its place as a piece representing an idealised tribal image is problematic.

The plethora of Mother/Child and Creation/Myth pieces.

It is difficult to take offence at mother/child representations – and there were many – and that turned out to be my problem with it all. There were, indeed, some excellent pieces which bucked the trend, a couple of which were exceptional. But mostly it was all so predictable and safe that it became boring. Viewed individually, in isolation from each other each piece could be seen as OK, if not culturally familiar and somewhat cliched. But en masse, so to speak, the concepts shortcomings, at least as we are familiar with it in the west, became difficult to ignore. Why, I asked myself rhetorically the further we went, the need to play it so safe? Offend me, please!

There were, however, two mother child pieces that I really liked and which, as mentioned, broke through the stultifying nature of the park’s brief and really pushed boundaries. One, semi abstract, was creative in its use of form, the other, realist, in its use of content.

The first, a large, semi abstract mother child piece consisted of a simple arched figure, the mother, and an infant figure beneath her. The mother was nothing more than a downward gazing head atop two arched, elongated arms reaching to the ground. At the base of this arched gateway was the infant, enclosed, invited in, safe and yet separate. Gateways inherently contain exteriors and interiors, inners and outers and I was reminded when I saw this figure of Hegel’s point that as soon as a boundary has been recognised it has already been surpassed. The power of the piece lay in its ambiguity, containing within it not only attachment, but the threat of separation (and abandonment), of containment and safety and of growth and risk. This was more like it.

The second and in my opinion the standout piece of the half of the park we were able to see, was realist in form and consisted of a large – perhaps 6 times life size – beautifully proportioned woman lying on her side, naked, with babe at breast. There is nothing unusual about this, generally or in the park. What marked this piece as exceptional was the sight of her from behind, the direction I had originally approached her (a figure this size cannot be fully seen from one aspect alone). There, clearly showing at the top of her thighs, was her vulva, not hinted at, but fully and naturally displayed.

I found this interesting in two ways. Firstly, it reunites in art what has always been united in nature – the breast with suckling infant and the mother’s gaze and her vulva, her locus of sexual potency and desire. There is nothing neutral or neutered about this powerful piece and she deserved better company. I liked it.

This is not to suggest that she had  no company, perhaps in the parks other half, but those deserving of the description ‘peer’, were few.

A realist piece of a young woman, not a mother child work, was certainly deserving. Naked and perhaps twice life size she squatted by the path, her left leg outstretched and bent at the knee, her head upright and gazing into the distance. She projects strength and confidence, both physical and sexual. This is shown in the strength of her limbs and the openness of her stance. She makes no attempt to hide her sex, the pose being unaffected and natural. If she is aware of a stranger’s gaze, particularly a males or of censorious social ‘betters’, she is free of their power and not bothered by it. She too lifts the tone of the park.

Male/Female

Aside from the above figure male and female forms were common and many were naked – so penises got a showing – but none of the figures I saw showed naked men and women together. Safe, dull. The female form is given fuller treatment – breasts aplenty, some suckling babes, or available for this. Fecundity is thus implied. But with the exception of the pieces I refer to above, this treatment is limp, incomplete and in this sense untrue to itself. It is always after the act, never before and certainly not during. This is, well, a pity. Depicting sexual heat and copulation itself would throw the cat among the pigeons. It is not as if sex has never been depicted artistically – high Japanese art of ancient times, for example rose to the occasion, shall we say, without shame or being squeamish. I also have on my wall a work by a traditional and now deceased Arnhem land artist depicting a couple copulating. The fact that these have been historical or primitive renders them safe, though on the edgy side of safe and quaint. Pornography has stolen the march on high art – in spite of its motives – and art needs to respond for its own sake and for ours. But we mustn’t offend, must we?

Concrete/Abstract

The more concrete a depiction the more it tended to disappoint, the more it fell flat. The problem, as I saw it, is that the closer to the real (or the obvious) a work becomes the easier it is to see it’s failings, or conservatism (being trapped by the park’s ‘brief’). Two pieces dealing with ‘friendship’ illustrate the point.

The first was a sculpture of the ‘big feet’, two human figures with oversized feet, one sitting holding what is presumably an offering, the other kneeling, also holding an offering. Inoffensive thus described. But why is the woman kneeling, in supplicant pose? Why is she lower? This is not a snapshot of an individual couple and hence socially innocuous, but a representation of social relationships. Here it cannot help but reproduce an idealised depiction of patriarchal dominance. The friendship and harmony of the piece are idealised fictions, both depending on an acceptance of implicit, powerful assumptions that reproduce relations between the sexes (and by implication any human relationship founded on pre modern hierarchies) that wouldn’t be given shelf space in a Not Quite Right shop. They are, in Hegel’s sense of the term, unreal.

So too the other piece that got under my skin, five human heads atop five columns, one head of which was male. At this stage of the game no prizes for guessing which was the biggest and tallest. For the ‘socialist’ motherland this is simply not good enough. Nor is it good enough in contemporary bourgeois society where such representations would be met with stinging rebuke.