Fascism and the Left… how do left-wing individuals end up fascists?

I am republishing this from 1980 as it remains so pertinent.

Barely a week goes by without me receiving a post on facebook from individuals who were once good comrades but who now promote all manner of right-wing conspiratorial theory and who openly take the side of fascist, autocratic and theocratic regimes against the masses who are trying to overthrow them and establish basic democracy, or what Marxists call ‘bourgeois democracy’. The chest-beaters are the worst.

Anyhow, I feel that this analysis, originally from the Red Eureka Movement in Melbourne, explains a lot and offers a rare but exceptionally important, cogent, analysis. (I was not with the REM people back then but rather stayed with the Blue Eureka nationalists – and had stopped thinking quite a few years earlier).

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Written: November 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.


EROL Note: This was a document that was circulated within the Red Eureka Movement in late 1980.

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A major theme in left wing propaganda is opposition to fascism. Quite often relatively moderate opponents of the left are described as “fascists”.

Yet scratch a “Communist” and one quite often finds a fascist underneath.

The regime that began with the October Revolution is now a fascist dictatorship. In China too, since the defeat of the Cultural Revolution many revolutionaries have been executed and the right to speak out freely, hold great debates, put up big character posters and so on has been officially and formally repudiated.

The degeneration of Communist Parties in power is a separate problem calling for a separate analysis. But what about the degeneration of parties holding no power?

THE CPA (ML)

Our experiences with the “Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist)” were sufficiently frightening to require some deep analysis. Almost any split is accompanied by outraged cries of “unfair” or “undemocratic” from the losing side, so it seemed undesirable to distract attention from the fundamental issues at stake by going into details of who done what to who. But another reason why we never got around to it was probably embarrassment at ever having been involved with such a sick group.

The bankruptcy of Australian nationalism as an ideology for communists is now pretty apparent, while the question of whether China has gone revisionist has been settled by open proclamations from the Chinese leadership themselves. Although Vanguard keeps coming out each week, the people behind it seem pretty discredited and there is little need to discredit them further.

In Adelaide the “Worker Student Alliance for Australian Independence” has disintegrated, along with its newspaper People’s Voice. In Melbourne the entire editorial collective of Independence Voice quit some time ago, there was no “Independence platform” at Mayday, the “Australian Independence Movement” is virtually defunct and supporters of this line have been completely routed in “Community Radio” 3CR. The Australia China Society is unable to defend the new regime in China and little has been heard from the CPA(ML) in the trade union movement either.

As a complete expression of E.F. Hill’s bankruptcy we have the suggestion in “Australian Communist”, that they want unity with us (previously described as “Soviet agents”). Hill has even signed an article proposing reunification with the CPA in “one Communist Party” (presumably because the Chinese revisionists, having recently re-united with their Italian and Yugoslav colleagues, also wish to re-establish relations with the CPA, leaving Hill out in the cold).

The thuggish behaviour of the CPA(ML) supporters in attempting to intimidate their opponents is well known. Both intellectual and physical thuggery, in 3CR and elsewhere, has become so notorious that the only “broad united front” they have been able to create has been that directed against themselves. They have also become notorious for openly preferring to ally themselves with various Nazis and other fascists against the Soviet Union rather than trying to unite the people, and especially the left, against Soviet imperialism on the basis of progressive principles. Their main political theme these days is the united front they claim to have with Malcolm Fraser, who nevertheless remains quite unaware of their existence. As for China, they openly say they would rather not talk about it, even though China was, and is, central to their whole political outlook.

These facts are mentioned, not to kick a dead horse, but to emphasise that the horse really is dead and to confirm that the additional facts about it cited below are genuine observations and not just part of some ongoing sectarian faction fight.

OTHERS TOO

The more or less open fascism of the CPA (ML) has resulted in that group being simply dismissed as “crazies”. But in fact they are only a more extreme expression of problems that exist, less overtly, throughout the left. Indeed it has been noticeable in 3CR for example, that the excuse of “keeping out the crazies”, has been used to justify appallingly manipulative and undemocratic behaviour (e.g. elected listener sponsor representatives voting against explicit directives from a large general meeting of listener sponsors). People who would be shocked and indignant about that in other contexts have made excuses for it when their own friends are doing it. Really how far is it from making excuses to acting in the same way?  And how far from there to ending up just like the “crazies” themselves?

Also the fact that China and the Chinese parrots are anti-Soviet (and Reagan, Thatcher, Fraser etc) has become an excuse to actually apologise for Soviet actions that would be called “fascist” if American was doing it.  Indeed many quite non-crazy “left liberals” have been prepared to go through the most amazing mental contortions to justify the Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea or to minimise the significance of Soviet aggression elsewhere.  Rather than agree with “right-wingers” (like Churchill), they prefer to apologise for fascists (like Hitler).

Where was the left wing outrage (as distinct from concern) when Polish workers were being denied the elementary right to form free trade unions?  Why do “militants” in “left-wing” unions take delight in the same bureaucratic manoeuvres their opponents use to stay in power?  Why are splits in left wing groups so common and so nasty?

In Australia many other groups supposedly on the left have exhibited a personal intolerance comparable to the Chinese parrots, and also a comparable willingness to apologise for reactionary regimes in other countries, provided those regimes pay lip service to “anti-imperialist” principles. (Vietnam, Cuba, Iran, Libya… name a country that is suppressing some other country or trying to impose some medieval religion on its people and you will find a “left” group wildly enthusiastic about it.)  Scanning overseas “left” newspapers one gets the impression that narrow minded religious bigotry is pretty common, and even where it is not taken to extremes, it is still present.  No wonder so many on the “left” thought a fellow zealot like Khomeiny would be progressive for Iran.

The undemocratic tendencies of “Leninists” is a common theme in anti-Communist propaganda – from open representatives of the bourgeoisie, from Social Democrats, from Anarchists, from “Left” or “Council” Communists and what have you.  Nevertheless, attacks from our opponents should be taken seriously, and indeed have been taken seriously by the classic exponents of Marxism.

CHINESE FASCISM

This question was especially taken seriously in China and some of the material from the Chinese Cultural Revolution is very valuable for understanding the emergence of fascist tendencies among alleged “Communists”.

For example Mao Tsetung’s unpublished works, and the material criticizing Lin Piao (the “successor” who turned out to be a fascist). The Cultural Revolution was after all a direct struggle between revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries who both purported to be part of the “left”. The concept of fighting bourgeois ideas disguised as “left” ideas was crucial to unleashing the 1960s upsurge and will be crucial again. It was necessary to challenge the “peace” ideas that were dominant in the left in the 1960s and it will be necessary to challenge the views that are dominant now – many of which are again crystallised in the eclectic mishmash of the “CPA”.

In the “gang of four’s” Peking University Journal of September 1, 1976 there is an important article on “The Bureaucrat Class and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”:

…We must further recognise the high concentration of political and economic powers under the dictatorship of the proletariat. If the bureaucrat class succeeded in usurping power and in its restorationist conspiracies throughout the country, then it would continue to flaunt the banner of socialism, take advantage of this high concentration of political and economic powers and turn the democratic centralism of the proletariat into the fascist centralism of the bureaucrat class.

In controlling and manipulating the means of production and the product of Labor, these bureaucrats will be far more powerful than any previous exploiting classes and their political representatives, than the slave owners and feudal rulers who claimed that “all land under the sun is my territory and all people on earth are my subjects”, and than the bureaucrats and financiers in capitalist countries…In a similar vein, the present day new tsars behave much worse than the old tsars… (Translation from Selections from People’s Republic of China Magazines No 895, American Consulate General, Hong Kong. Reprinted in Study Notes No 6, Red Eureka Movement, August 1978)

This article also goes into the question of the transformation of authority into capital and capital into authority, which is relevant to an understanding of imperialism in the West as well as in the Soviet Union and China.

Western bourgeois democratic society is heading towards an acute crisis and upheaval as another Great Depression and a Third World War develop. The outcome can be Communist Revolution or some form of fascism or social-fascism. We could face a new ruling class more powerful than the present one. It largely depends on how clear the left is on what we are fighting for and what we are fighting against and how sharply we can draw the line against perpetuating the old system of exploitation in our own practice. If the left continues to whinge about capitalism, and even oppose it from a reactionary perspective then it cannot hope to inspire people to fight for something fundamentally different.

Indeed, just as one would have to defend the national independence that Western and Third World countries have already achieved, from Soviet “socialist” imperialism, one would also have to defend the achievements already won by the bourgeois democratic revolution from attack by alleged “socialists” who want to go backwards to a more oppressive society.

DEMOCRATIC CENTRALISM

If the democratic centralism of the proletarian dictatorship can be easily transformed into the fascist centralism of the bureaucrat class in a developing socialist country, then what about democratic centralism in Leninist parties out of power? Is this an argument against democratic centralism and proletarian dictatorship, as anarchists and others insist?

The answer to this argument is that there never can be a guarantee against proletarian dictatorship turning into its opposite, and Communists in power must always be prepared for transition to underground life as Communists in opposition to capitalist roaders in power. Likewise in Communist Parties generally – one must be prepared to rebel and to be expelled for rebelling.

But if there was no democratic centralism and proletarian dictatorship then it would be quite impossible for the revolutionary ideas held only by a minority in capitalist and socialist society to be centralised and dominant and in that case the bourgeoisie holds power anyway. So weakening democratic centralism is not the answer. On the contrary, it needs to be strengthened to keep fascists out, on the same argument that the left cannot afford to be pacifist and must learn the use of arms if it doesn’t want warmongers to hold power.

Proletarian dictatorship means just that. It does not mean dictatorship over the proletariat by some bureaucrats. It means a political system in which the working class can really wield political power – something that can be achieved by workers councils led by a revolutionary party and cannot be achieved by parliamentary institutions or by milling around in confusion.

Democratic centralism also means just that. It does not mean the leadership imposing decisions on a reluctant membership. It means that the abstract “parliamentary” right which almost all organisations give their members to ultimately take decisions, is made real by conscious leadership of the decision making process to make it “from the masses, to the masses” and so make it actually work without manipulation or obstruction.

This article is not a plea for everybody to be more tolerant of everybody else. It is a call for sharper defence of our basic principles and less tolerance of attempts to undermine them. One cannot be a Communist if one is not first a democrat. The democratic revolutionaries of England, France and so on in earlier centuries had no hesitation about chopping off the heads of their aristocratic opponents and neither should we.

Fear of strengthening democratic centralism is really fear of struggle. Such fear is fully understandable in the present situation, and a lot better than blinkered complacency. But it must be overcome.

The quote from Orwell’s “Road to Wigan Pier” in “the Personal is Political” (Discussion Bulletin No 9) rang a few bells and is worth repeating:–

…..“Socialism” is pictured as a state of affairs in which our more vocal Socialists would feel thoroughly at home. This does great harm to the cause. The ordinary man may not flinch from a dictatorship of the proletariat, if you offer it tactfully; offer him a dictatorship of the prigs, and he gets ready to fight.

We should be ready to fight against the dictatorship of the prigs and to do this it is necessary to understand the transformation of Communists into prigs.

ARE WE DIFFERENT?

If we take Lin Piao for example, there is no doubt that he did make contributions to the Chinese revolution before emerging as an outright fascist. The superstitious Mao cult he built up in opposition to Mao had definite roots in China’s feudal past, but also struck a chord among Western “Maoists”.

Ted Hill now appears to be nothing more than a follower of Liu Shao-chi, then Lin Piao (as a major cult advocate) then Liu Shao-chi again, or whoever may hold power in China at any given moment. But some of his analyses of revisionism, parliamentarism and trade union politics in publications like “Looking Backward; Looking Forward” are still valuable and he once made a point of opposing sacred cows and stereotypes and supporting rebellion.

Things were drastically wrong with the CPA(ML) long before we parted company and people are entitled to ask how we got mixed up with them and why we should be regarded as any different. If we are to be any different then we must analyse the thin dividing line that appears to exist between being a Marxist-Leninist or “Maoist” on the one hand, and being a lunatic or a fascist on the other.

There is little need to “expose” the CPA(ML) leadership now in view of its obvious degeneration. But the roots of current fascist attitudes do need study, so the following facts are placed on the record for our own benefit rather than for the benefit of anyone still taken in by Hill.

SOME FACTS

1. There never was anything remotely resembling democracy within the CPA(ML). This became obvious when concrete disagreements made it necessary to have a proper discussion and take a decision. But it should have been obvious even when people thought they were in agreement.
2. As soon as a disagreement in principle was announced “through the proper channels” etcetera, the immediate response was to launch vituperative attacks on individuals – at first surreptitiously behind their backs and then openly in Vanguard.
3. The very idea of discussing the differences was repudiated and “security” was abused to tell people that there had been a full democratic discussion, which they just didn’t happen to be part of.
4. As a matter of fact it turned out that no Central Committee actually existed. One member of the Red Eureka Movement discovered that he was supposed to be a CC member after wanting to express his views to the CC. This must be some sort of record in the international communist movement!
5. Other members of the Red Eureka Movement who were both on the Central Committee and knew it, were able to expose the lie that there had been some kind of Central Committee discussion about China and that documents expressing opposition had been circulated to the Central Committee etc.
6. Individual party members had to go outside the “channels” to get any kind of discussion and then discovered that the “channels” didn’t really exist. Now others who accepted this are finding the same situation.
7. It was not a case of discussion being suppressed arbitrarily and decisions usurped, but of there being no provision whatever for seriously discussing and reversing a policy disagreed with.
8. This situation which existed long before it came to a head was put up with by people who would rebel strongly against similar fascist practices in any other social institution.
9. Many people on becoming aware of it, and seeing people branded as Soviet agents etcetera, took a cynical attitude that this was wrong but not a major question of principle requiring them to take a stand.
10. Our initial reaction to all this shit was not to launch a public struggle as in the Cultural Revolution or in accord with our own experiences in the 1960s. Instead we had great hangups about “the party” and organised semi-conspiratorially.
11. Despite being a very small group, since breaking with the CPA(ML) leadership we have not been able to resolve internal disagreements in a civilised, let alone comradely manner, but have had two further splits. While nowhere near as bad as Hill’s, these have also involved strange behaviour that would not be tolerated in most community organisations and should not be tolerated on the left. Moreover they have occurred in a situation where we are not leading any great revolutionary struggle and no pressing life or death decision was at stake.

LIFE WASN’T MEANT TO BE EASY!

We did not fully realise it at the time, but there was little alternative to the apparent extremism of Hill’s stand because there really wasn’t any possibility of a discussion. If he had agreed to a discussion, what could he possibly have said? And if the CPA(ML) did not follow China religiously, what else could it do? We cannot blame Hill for our own naivety.

We only realised how difficult most people find it to rebel and think for themselves once we had broken with Hill and company. “Stalinists without a country” was the contemptuous Trotskyist label, and there is something in it. It really is enormously easier to at least think you know what you’re doing when there is some “socialist motherland” backing you up. (Or a “Fourth International”, a “great leader” or some other crutch).

For non-revolutionaries it’s fairly easy to maintain a political position sustained by one or other of the reformist currents in mainstream bourgeois society. But in a non-revolutionary society and with no back up from a revolutionary society, it requires real effort to develop a revolutionary program. How much easer it would have been if we could have forgotten that we didn’t have such a program by simply pretending to ourselves that China, or Albania or somewhere was revolutionary and that supporting them would somehow produce a revolution here. Or by pretending that if we were all more dedicated, we would figure out where we were going while getting there.

Its interesting to note how even people with no attachment to Russia, China or Albania have managed to persuade themselves that Vietnam is still worth supporting and feel a deep and personal threat to their whole ideology when this is questioned. Or how people leaving REM because it hasn’t been getting anywhere who know perfectly well what’s wrong with the political line of the Revolutionary Communist Party (USA), are nevertheless attracted by the reassuring certainty of that group’s proclamations.

Idealism and metaphysics are the easiest things in the world, because people can talk as much nonsense as they like without basing it on objective reality or having it tested against reality. Materialism and dialectics, on the other hand, need effort. They must be based on and tested by objective reality. Unless one makes the effort, one is liable to slip into idealism and metaphysics. (Mao Tsetung)

PRIESTS AND HORSES

Judging from overseas literature, the temptation of closed minded religious fanaticism is very strong in this situation. It provides a certainty that would otherwise be lacking and puts an end to all confusion, doubt, cynicism, liberalism and so on.

But this way out is the way out of the movement. It means joining the innumerable sects that are much better organised and disciplined than we are, and are able to get more done precisely because they do not have the “burden” of really having to think out a revolutionary line.

We did not hesitate to reject the “security” of blindly following China, Albania or anybody else so we should not regret the consequences.

One consequence is that we are in some respects more vulnerable to confusion, doubt, liberalism, cynicism and so on than other left groups that feel more confident about their (manifestly wrong!) lines. The reason horses are given blinkers is that it keeps them working away steadily without getting distracted by things they might see. Groups that have attached themselves to a foreign state, or that merely reflect a reformist current  in mainstream bourgeois ideology, have a secure basis for their activity and can work away at it for years after it has ceased to have any social relevance or has become purely reactionary.

The same can easily be true of “revolutionary” groups that feel secure, or pretend to feel secure in their “correct line”. They can whip up a great frenzy of activity, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing. Take a look at the Communist Workers Party or the Revolutionary Communist Party (USA). On many points we would be in full agreement. They have a similar analysis of China and Albania to ours and they certainly do make a clear distinction between communist revolution and the bourgeois reformism advocated by most “revolutionaries”.

On international questions of very great significance they appear to have a fundamentally wrong analysis, But even more important, their whole approach to “correct line” politics seems alien. They are certainly not paralysed by liberalism like we are – but so what?

While confusion, doubt, liberalism, cynicism and so on persist we will remain unable to accomplish very much, including theoretical work:

We must have faith in the masses and we must have faith in the Party. These are two cardinal principles. If we doubt these principles, we shall accomplish nothing. (Mao Tsetung)

But the only basis for faith in the Party is confidence in the soundness of its analysis and line. Once we have grounds for such faith we will be able to accomplish something, but not before. (And of course once we do, we will again have the problem of blind faith and the potential for people to continue following a leadership that has proved itself worthy of confidence, long after it has ceased to play a progressive or revolutionary role. But then it would be at a higher stage of the spiral).

Demands that people pull themselves together, combat liberalism or what have you, will not solve the problem of lack of faith. This is an atheistic age and real communists are atheistic people. Our only God is the masses and the only basis for our faith is scientific analysis of reality.

The situation we are in calls urgently for working out where we are and where we are going. Without that, calls to press on more resolutely and with greater vigour will only result in people getting more lost.

CHIN UP, BACK STRAIGHT, EYES SHUT!

It is conservative, not revolutionary to promote “leadership”, “organisation”, “doing things”, “collective life” and so on without a clear perspective for liberating people from oppression. Defenders of the status quo habitually make such appeals and every organisation, revolutionary or not, naturally wants to be as effectively organised as possible (and most sewing circles and amateur theatrical societies are probably a lot better organised than REM). But it is quite wrong to see the organisational reflection of our confusion as the central problem instead of dealing with the confusion itself. (As for any who are not confused, they would have an even greater problem. Take off the blinkers!)

Communism is not the only ideology opposed to liberalism. Fascism opposes liberalism too. It is one thing to want to widen and deepen and ultimately transcend democracy by going beyond such mere forms as majority voting. It is quite another thing to declare that ones policies have proved their own correctness and deliberately exclude others from even a vote, let alone a real say, on the matter. Yet we have repeatedly experienced this kind of behaviour not just from enemies, but from comrades who probably really do want to be revolutionaries.

The fact that people like Lin Piao or Ted Hill could turn out to be fascists and that we could go along with a load of shit for a long time should alert us to the dangers. When people on the left start acting like people on the extreme right they must be pulled up sharply and told “You’re Ill” before the disease becomes incurable and before it spreads.

To Topple or not to Topple? … That is the question…

Contradictions lead forward. Statues and other symbolic representations need to expose contradictions, not ignore them – or worse, be made unaware of them. We need to ask questions.

220px-SaddamStatue

(by Tom Griffiths)

A few weeks ago I posted on Facebook a ‘shooting from the hip’ response, reproduced in part at the foot of this post, to the then new wave of statue toppling and attempted statue toppling occurring in the States and the UK, events that were riding the wave generated by the BLM movement and the murder of George Floyd. Not for the first time my guiding spirit in this response was Bertlot Brecht and his poem Questions From A Worker Who Reads, a poem that ‘accompanied’ me on a visit to Toronto Museum.

My gripe then, as it is now, is not so much the fate of individual statues – some ask to go, others to be daubed, scribbled upon or otherwise improved, while others ask for company to have their story told more honestly or completely. My gripe is how the story, events and processes of history remain distorted and misunderstood. And by misunderstood I not only mean in effect, through ignorance, but also through deliberate misrepresentation. This is not simply about who gets wiped from the account, but is about those not even considered important enough to be a part of the account in the first place – Brecht’s builders and masons responsible for the Chinese wall, for Babylon, the Seven Gate of Thebes …And if you are feeling bridled at women not making the account here, this too is another part of the missing story.

Churchill once wrote that history is written by the victor. Aside from the fact that he would and could say that, his individual history and his inherited history of being a ‘card carrying’ member of the British ruling class giving him what I could term bragging rights, he could also have added: and by those who rule or do the ruler’s bidding. Because ‘victor’ not only applies militarily, to interpretive cum ideological spoils of war, but more pervasively to the interpretive and ideological spoils of class warfare, the internal social dramas characteristic of all written history.

There is nothing to be gained in condemning these omissions – what’s happened has happened and the water we once poured into the wine cannot be drained off again, as Brecht once put it – but we need to understand them (to ask questions) to understand the social and economic forces that enabled, or forced, the great majority of people to be pushed off stage, or not even invited on it in anything other than the most servile and ‘meaningless’ of roles. I say ‘meaningless’ with a sense of irony because without them, without Caesar’s cook, Lima’s mason’s, the builders of the Chinese wall etc there would have been no stage for the ruling classes and associated flunkies to perform and preen themselves on in the first place. In saying this I do not intend to gloss over or deny the role or capabilities of particular individuals in history. I do suggest however that they and their achievements need to be seen in context and the context I am focussing on is the enabling, and in this sense the central role of the ignored, the hindmost.

One of the things about modernity is that it allows/enables these formerly ignored players to stick their heads above the parapet and begin to be noticed, both in terms of their emerging individuality and their contributions in all spheres of life. Do we condemn their wiping from the historical record in times past? No, we seek to understand history, the forces at play, what was possible and what needed to be fought for and achieved by future generations. Do we condemn their being ignored, downplayed or written out of recent history or of current events? Yes we do.

So, within this brief contextual framework let me first look at what we should/could do with statues that carry symbolic weight before ending by looking at a late C20th example of how history can be brought to life, enabling the complexities and emergent currents of class related struggle to be displayed in statue form, a form that not only remembers the hindmost, but honors them. And it is worth remembering here that this is not simply about the past, be that distant or recent, because in one hundred, three hundred, a thousand years hence, we will be history and the same questions will not only apply to us then, but, knowing that, apply to us now.

Let’s Topple…?

Above I suggested that some deserve and need to go and I will nominate a few to demonstrate the point. That being said it is not whether they need to go so much as the manner in which they go, a distinction I think is important.. Allow me to demonstrate the point with several examples, including one of a figure I admire. I will start with the most current and work my way back.

John Colston

From being an obscurity outside of Bristol to being catapulted to international infamy in the space of a topple and a dispatch into the river, the British 18thC slave trader’s statue is now where campaigners have long wanted it to be – gone. But not entirely gone. Retrieved from the river the statue’s destiny is now likely to lie as a museum exhibit where curators will have the opportunity of letting viewers know why and how the statue ended up before them. For inspiration on how to make this opportunity transformative they would be hard pressed to go past an exhibit I saw in Toronto Museum (see link above) of three century old native American figures in traditional garb (representatives of a bye gone and defeated past) radically transformed by the addition of a power drill, a camera and tripod and an ipod and the following caption,

We do not want to be depicted in the way we were when we were first discovered in our homeland in North America. We do not want museums to continue to present us as something from the past. We believe we are very, very much here now and we are going to be very important in the future.”

Let us hope the Bristol curators are up to the task; if not, another campaign beckons.

While this is probably where Colston will end up, another option exists. Following Colston’s long overdue demise a resin statue of a black protester was put in his place and then removed by local authorities. It depicted a young black protester, her clenched fist raised. See Spiked article Who Would Black Lives Matter Erect a Statue To. This figure, or something like it, represents a big improvement on both Colston and on nothing at all. But it is incomplete. The irony here – and it’s a big one – is that what is needed to complete this public square statement is Colston’s statue, toppled and at the feet of the protester. This would tell a much more compelling and accurate story and would be a far more powerful statement.

The Arab Spring and the Toppling of Tyrants

While the Arab Spring has been stalled, remaining very much unfinished business, the statues of three former dictators, two of whom, Saadam Hussein and Gadaffi had been deposed, the other, al-Assad, sadly, dying in office before he could be overthrown, were toppled. Good riddance to bad rubbish we can say. But, so far as the statues are concerned, is that all there is to it? Or, rather, should that be all there is to it? Should they just be melted down or reduced to rubble and consigned to landfill or can they, as fallen idols, be used for progressive purposes (in dialectical jargon, be turned into their opposite)? My inclination would be to use them in an ongoing, symbolic and educative way. Left where they fell (bespattered, disfigured, pissed on….) they would send two clear messages, one to other tyrants, or those so inclined – “This is what awaits you” – the other a message of hope to the oppressed or to those who may become so, and that that hope is to be realized through resistance and rebellion – “It is right to rebel”.

Lenin Falls

In May 1991, following the overthrow of Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Miriam, a large statue of Lenin, the leader of the Russian Revolution, was toppled with enthusiastic crowd support. Lenin is a historical figure I admire, but his revolutionary spirit and acumen has long since been ignored and his figure, actual in the case of statues, ‘expropriated’ or used to prop up fake revolutionary regimes. The statue had to go and had Lenin been around at the time he would have been urging the crowd on.

The Lincolns, the Douglas’, the Churchills, the…

The above examples belong to the obvious/easy to justify category, blatant examples of political propaganda in the service of tyranny. The Confederacy lauding statues belong in the same category – reactionary propaganda pieces erected to support the Jim Crow segregationist laws in the formerly Confederate States, after the Civil War. Politically they are low hanging fruit and if existing authorities in the UK and the US are too laggard to act they effectively invite others to act in their place. But these are not the ones that stir my interest that much precisely because of their being low hanging. It is the ire, the rage (fey or genuine) aroused by statues of Lincoln, Ulysses S Grant et al in the US, Churchill in the UK (or their equivalents anywhere) that is really interesting and which open up possibilities that Brecht’s questioning worker would have approved of.

The thing about any work of art – statues in this case – that either depicts a figure or an event, is what it intends to communicate to the observer. This includes whatever the artist or commissioning body wants to portray or whatever is portrayed in addition to (or in spite of) this. And this can become more clouded, or lost entirely, as time passes, a point not lost on Brecht’s worker. In my ‘farcebook’ post I cited a statue of Winston Churchill as an example. A heroic figure in the war against Fascism, (“… we will fight them on the beaches…we will never surrender.”) certainly. And this is the figure portrayed. The problem with this is not that this aspect is untrue, but that it is one dimensional, it does not portray anything like the “whole truth”, as former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it, in relation to the Lincoln statue. It is not without reason that the coal miners of Wales and England remembered Churchill with hatred. How does history remember them, or more to the point how does history remember and portray his relationship with the miners specifically and workers generally? Varied answers can be found in libraries and online if one searches, but what about in the public square where he now stands? “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it”, he wrote. And while others have written with a different bent (there has been some very good British historiography written) it is his depiction in the public square that interests me, and in that place Churchill needs the bronzed company of coal miners, of the Welsh Tonypandy ‘rioters’, of the 1926 strikers, of those who had no confidence in Churchill to ‘manage the peace’ after WW2. To treat their histories as separate is to grant Churchill the privilege of writing history and to dismiss and demean the Welsh and English workers by so doing. This is a contemporary example of workers, the ‘not the right kind of chaps’, being written out of history as this relates to the statue’s narrative.

 

The situation in the States is just as, if not more interesting, for there not only are statues valorizing the Confederacy coming down (and about time too) but the Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park, Washington is now fenced off from attempts to pull it down. This statue, depicting Lincoln standing beside a former slave, kneeling and with chains broken, was dedicated in 1876 by Frederick Douglass, former slave and abolitionist. Douglass’ view of the statue was extraordinarily astute and prescient. The statue failed to expose what Douglass termed the “whole truth”,  that enslaved men and women had resisted and rebelled, enlisted and taken up arms to fight for their own freedom. A few decades down the track, as revolutions swept through Russia, and  later China, we would call this a failure to identify and focus upon the developing aspect of the contradiction. .

His solution, nearly 150 years ago, was not that the statue needed removing, but that a partially true story needed completion. Archer Alexander, the freed slave who was the model beside Lincoln, needed to be seen having finished what he’d begun, standing as Lincoln’s equal. Nor need he be alone. The depiction in the statue is a moment of synthesis and being such it heralds the opening up of new and higher levels of struggle. Former slaves and activists like Douglass and Charlotte Scott, the woman whose idea it was and whose philanthropy began the campaign for the statue in the first place, are figures who straddle both sides of the emancipatory divide and should be seen standing with Alexander. But so could others who inherited the baton they passed on. Those who immediately come to my mind include Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Rosa Parks, Mohammed Ali, Martin Luther King …. activists and fighters all. All are linked to the Emancipation Memorial and all have thrown into the ring invaluable contributions to an ongoing, emergent “whole truth”.

The “whole truth” involves a mighty big cast  many of whom are lost to us as individuals and who require symbolic representation.and I am aware that, in a numerical sense a single public square or park will have its limits with choices needing to be made no matter one’s political inclinations. But that should be a challenge that excites, not inhibits. …

Truth that aspires to the “Whole Truth”

Frederick Douglass had remarked, in his constructive criticism of the Emancipation Memorial, that no single statue could portray the “whole truth”. The sculptors, participants and supporters of Wrath of the Serfs, a series of 106 life size clay sculptures, completed in 1975, of serf life in Tibet – repression through to rebellion – were clearly reading from the same page when it came to portraying the “whole truth” through sculpture. The works were done by sculptors from the College of Fine Arts of the Central May Seventh Academy of Arts in Peking, a teacher from the Lu Hsun Art College of Shenyang and art workers of Tibet. Their ‘brief’ was to expose the evil of the old Tibetan regime and acclaim the serfs’ heroic struggle. There is a striking parallel here between this acclamation, the focus on the serf’s own role in struggling for liberation and Douglass’ astute criticism of the Liberation Memorial were the role played by slaves in their own liberation is not focussed upon and remains ambiguous (the former slave’s chains are broken, but by whom?).

The figures portrayed in Wrath of the Serfs,  are striking in their dynamism and their fidelity to lived experience. Aside from the skill level of the sculptors the main reason for this can be found in the preparation undertaken prior to the work being done. This “included more than 5,000 kilometres of travel inside Tibet for the purpose of study and investigation. The artists listened to the angy condemnation of past sufferings by a hundred liberated serfs, asked for suggestions from former poor and lower-middle peasants and herdsmen and improved their works on this basis.” There are two things we should note about this. The first is its unremarkableness – of course one would conduct research and were possible speak to those who not only represent the subject matter, but actually were the subject matter, Tibetan serfdom only being formally abolished in 1959. The second is its remarkableness, the fact that for the first time Tibetan serfs were considered important enough to be empathised with, to be listened to, to have their experiences valued and for them to be elevated to play the leading role in the drama of their former lives. Brecht’s hindmost were now the foremost.

Concluding remarks

I have gone to the bother of writing this because there is something simultaneously impressive and disturbing about the current spate of statue toppling. The concluding comments of my facebook post in late June summed this up and I will end this post with remarks I made following Brecht’s Questions From A Worker Who Reads.

So many questions indeed. Statue toppling/defacing on the one hand, and confused cum paralysed responses by authorities on the other. It’s also a reflection of serious historical ignorance, crap politics and an inability to deal with, let alone be aware of contradiction. (BTW, statues of contemporary creeps like Saddam Hussein deserved to be toppled). Churchill was right to say that history is written by the victors and Brecht more right (utterly right, actually) to draw our attention to those ignored, forgotten or deemed unworthy of attention (those he elsewhere referred to as the hindmost).

Spitting the dummy and demanding obliteration is actually the worst option, Talibanesque in fact. It not only removes or wipes clean the historical slate – and whatever else history is, it is never a clean slate – it out does the Churchillian ‘line’ by the proverbial country mile. It does this because every statue or other symbolic representation contains its opposite.

This is the truth that Brecht was getting at. Removal, wiping the slate clean, actually succeeds in doing what even the punciest, most egocentric or reactionary statue fails to do – it totally removes the unacknowledged, the exploited etc. along with the figure being revered. So a better solution needs to be found than ditching everything. I actually like the idea of – using statues as an example – bringing the hidden figures into the open in direct ‘communication’ with, for example, Churchill. The coal miners hated Churchill so their irate and critical presence would help onlookers ask questions. But he was also an important figure in the fight against Fascism and this aspect also needs open acknowledgement, not separately, but together.

Contradictions lead forward. Statues and other symbolic representations need to expose contradictions, not ignore them – or worse, be made unaware of them. We need to ask questions.

 

Where do correct ideas come from?

“Where do correct ideas come from? Do they drop from the skies? No. Are they innate in the mind? No. They come from social practice, and from it alone; they come from three kinds of social practice, the struggle for production, the class struggle and scientific experiment. It is man’s social being that determines his thinking”.

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(Cartoon from ‘Rabelais’, La Trobe University SRC newspaper, 1970)

“Once the correct ideas characteristic of the advanced class are grasped by the masses, these ideas turn into a material force which changes society and changes the world. In their social practice, men engage in various kinds of struggle and gain rich experience, both from their successes and from their failures. Countless phenomena of the objective external world are reflected in a man’s brain through his five sense organs  —  the organs of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch.

“At first, knowledge is perceptual. The leap to conceptual knowledge, i.e., to ideas, occurs when sufficient perceptual knowledge is accumulated. This is one process in cognition. It is the first stage in the whole process of cognition, the stage leading from objective matter to subjective consciousness from existence to ideas. Whether or not one’s consciousness or ideas (including theories, policies, plans or measures) do correctly reflect the laws of the objective external world is not yet proved at this stage, in which it is not yet possible to ascertain whether they are correct or not.

“Then comes the second stage in the process of cognition, the stage leading from consciousness back to matter, from ideas back to existence, in which the knowledge gained in the first stage is applied in social practice to ascertain whether the theories, policies, plans or measures meet with the anticipated success. Generally speaking, those that succeed are correct and those that fail are incorrect, and this is especially true of man’s struggle with nature. In social struggle, the forces representing the advanced class sometimes suffer defeat not because their ideas are incorrect ! but because, in the balance of forces engaged in struggle, they are not as powerful for the time being as the forces of reaction; they are therefore temporarily defeated, but they are bound to triumph sooner or later.

“Man’s knowledge makes another leap through the test of practice. This leap is more important than the previous one. For it is this leap alone that can prove the correctness or incorrectness of the first leap in cognition, i.e., of the ideas, theories, policies, plans or measures formulated in the course of reflecting the objective external world. There is no other way of testing truth. Furthermore, the one and only purpose of the proletariat in knowing the world is to change it. Often, correct knowledge can be arrived at only after many repetitions of the process leading from matter to consciousness and then back to matter, that is, leading from practice to knowledge and then back to practice. Such is the Marxist theory of knowledge, the dialectical materialist theory of knowledge.

“Among our comrades there are many who do not yet understand this theory of knowledge. When asked the sources of their ideas, opinions, policies, methods, plans and conclusions, eloquent speeches and long articles they consider the questions strange and cannot answer it. Nor do they comprehend that matter, can be transformed into consciousness and consciousness into matter, although such leaps are phenomena of everyday life. It is therefore necessary to educate our comrades in the dialectical materialist theory of knowledge, so that they can orientate their thinking correctly, become good at investigation and study and at summing up experience, overcome difficulties, commit fewer mistakes, do their work better, and struggle hard so as to build China into a great and powerful socialist country and help the broad masses of the oppressed and exploited throughout the world in fulfillment of our great internationalist duty”.

–   Mao Zedong

May 1963