Posts Tagged ‘authoritarianism’

On Syria, Fascism, Authoritarianism, and Hong Kong: Upcoming Panels and Film Screening at the 2019 International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference and Left Coast Forum

September 17, 2019

Please find below an announcement of upcoming panels and a film screening I am helping to organize and will be participating in at the 2019 International Herbert Marcuse Society conference and the Left Coast Forum. Hope to see you at either conference, or both!

At the eighth biennial International Herbert Marcuse Society conference, “Critical Theory in Dark Times: The Prospects for Liberation in the Shadow of the Radical Right,” to be held at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB):

Syria, the Eros Effect, and Pseudo-Anti-Imperialism (Saturday, October 12, 2019, 8:30-10am)

Lara El Kateb​, “Local Councils in Syria: Formations and Limitations”

Javier Sethness​, “Eros and Thanatos in the Syrian Revolution”

Rohini Hensman​, “Syria: Freedom and solidarity versus pseudo-anti-imperialism”

Terry Burke​, “Syria Disinformation Targeting the Left”

Wagner, Bakunin, and Antisemitic Propaganda: Then and Now (Saturday, October 12, 2019, 2:45-4:15pm)

María Castro​, “Feminism, Anti-Feminism, and Anti-Capitalism in Wagner’s ​Ring”

Javier Sethness​, “Wagner and Bakunin’s ‘Dangerous Minds’ Amid Fascist Resurgence Today”

Bill Weinberg​, “Ilhan Omar, Antisemitism and Propaganda”

Also, at the third annual Left Coast Forum, to be held at Occidental College in Los Angeles:

Sunday, 13 October 2019, 9:30 a.m.-12p.m. Film screening of No. 1 Chung Ying Street (2018).

This film compares the 1967 Hong Kong Leftist Riot with the ongoing the Mainland China-Hong Kong conflict. Discussion to follow with the director (to be confirmed)

And on Sunday, 13 October 2019, 1-2:15 p.m. Today’s Challenges for the Left: Stopping Fascism Globally and Standing against Authoritarian Regimes – Rocio Lopez and myself

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Call for Papers – 8th Biennial Conference of the International Herbert Marcuse Society: “Critical Theory in Dark Times: The Prospects for Liberation in the Shadow of the Radical Right”

April 15, 2019

Please see the following call for papers, panels, and presentations at the 8th biennial Herbert Marcuse International Society conference, entitled “Critical Theory in Dark Times: The Prospects for Liberation in the Shadow of the Radical Right,” to be hosted from October 10-13, 2019, at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

I’ve presented at three of these conferences and can highly recommend them. The deadline for proposals is May 1st. Abstracts of no more than 300 words should be sent to ihms2019@gmail.com by that date. Panel proposals and student abstracts are welcomed and encouraged.

A populism of the radical right is on the rise across the globe. What are the counter-strategies of the left? What role does critical theory play in the current context? Embedded in the critical theory of Herbert Marcuse is the promise that reason, with a proper critical orientation, can provide an emancipatory alternative to the deforming oppressions of a given order. But critical reason is occluded in a one-dimensional society, resulting in a society without meaningful alternatives.

Marcuse reminds us that a one-dimensional society with a “smooth, democratic unfreedom” is a society in which there is no fundamental opposition, or where opposition is absorbed and reified into the logic of the system itself. From openly nationalist/fascist/racist parties gaining power in governments across the globe, to institutions manipulated by elites to widen inequalities of wealth and power, to ecological degradation and climate change, to debt traps as a result of uneven development, to mass incarceration and refugee detention policies, freedom becomes an increasingly abstract illusion under the guise of the “normally” functioning global economic system.

We seek papers that address the concerns, challenges, commonalities, and spaces for opposition in the current political context of one-dimensional neoliberal authoritarianism, as well as papers that engage the continued relevance of Herbert Marcuse’s analyses/theoretical insights to critical theory. This includes, but is not limited to addressing questions such as:


  • What is Marcuse”s influence today toward a Critical Theory from the Americas? How might we draw on his theoretical perspectives to interpret structural violence, as well as relations among race, class, and gender and the rise of right-wing populism on both American continents?
  • As the crises and contradictions of neoliberalism expand, how does a Marcusean analysis sharpen the criticism or explain the rise of the radical right? What networks and/or apparatuses are sustaining authoritarianism(s)?
  • Since one-dimensional societies absorb oppositional movements, what steps can we take to move towards a more multi-dimensional consciousness? In what ways are the Black radical tradition, youth, LGBTQ, labor, workers, and indigenous peoples at the forefront of fundamental resistance?
  • What are the pathways for revolutionary and systemic change? What are the dialectics of resistance today?
  • What role can or should forms of education, including higher education, play as and in forms of resistance?
  • Can violence play a role as a means of support and resistance? For precipitating system change?
  • How might we theorize an alternative to the “democratic” unfreedom of today that engages human rights?
  • What are the implications for radical class or group consciousness in a time of rising right-wing populism? What role might it play? Is there potential for a populism of/on the left?
  • How might Marcuse”s vision of radical socialism, a new social order committed to economic, racial and gender equality, sexual liberation, liberation of labor, preservation and restoration of nature, leisure, abundance and peace, inspire organizing today? What is the role of Marcusean aesthetic theory/praxis today?
  • How do the culture industry and digital culture create new forms of propaganda and/or sites of resistance?
  • What is the relationship between movements or organizing ideas such as #BlackLivesMatter, #MariellePresente, #MeToo, #EnoughisEnough, #EleNão and Refugees Welcome, and the “new left”?
  • As basic liberal-democratic values and institutions break down or suffer crises of legitimacy, in what ways does a Marcusean critical theory reveal alternatives to the xenophobic nationalism of the radical right?

Call for the Formation of a Transnational Socialist-Humanist Solidarity Network

April 2, 2019

Dear Friends:

Critical developments around the globe compel the creation of a new type of transnational socialist and anti-authoritarian solidarity network.

Objectively, we are facing the growth of authoritarian capitalist governments, an increasing economic and military competition between the U.S. and China, and the ominous consequences of climate breakdown. In addition, we confront insurgent white-supremacist and other racist ethno-nationalist movements which, similar to ISIS in their extremist views, are willing to employ mass-violence against Muslims, Jews, and other marginalized people.

Subjectively, a new generation of youth is getting interested in socialism because capitalism’s inhumanity and exploitation does not offer it a better future. The Me Too movement challenging sexual abuse is growing among women around the globe and targeting the abuse of women in government, all fields of work, and the family. The Black Lives Matter movement which emerged in the U.S. in response to state-sanctioned police murder and abuse of Black people has struck a chord internationally. There is no lack of popular protests and strikes around the world, from Sudan, Algeria, Iran, and Palestine to Europe, and from China and India to Latin America, Haiti, and the U.S. However, some of these struggles are being crushed by various authoritarian and imperialist forces, and others face the danger of rightwing populism.

In response to these struggles, the international Left has been disappointing. The Syrian revolution was not only crushed by the Assad regime with the help of Russia and Iran. It was also abandoned or rejected by the majority of the international Left. The poor and starving masses in Iran and Venezuela are being told by supposed “socialists” and “peace and justice” advocates that their miseries are only caused by U.S. imperialism and that they have to live with authoritarian regimes like the Islamic Republic or Maduro’s state as the “lesser of the two evils.”

There is no doubt that U.S. imperialism and settler colonialism are the cause of much misery and death in the world both presently in the actions of the Trump administration and historically. Nonetheless, the U.S. is not the only capitalist-imperialist power exploiting and oppressing humanity. We live in a world of various imperialist and sub-imperialist power rivalries. In particular, Chinese and Russian imperialism are competing with U.S. imperialism for global dominance.

In the face of this reality, however, many leftists are rationalizing the actions of authoritarian regimes such as those of Putin in Russia, Assad in Syria, Khamenei in Iran, Ortega in Nicaragua, and Maduro in Venezuela—simply because these governments use the rhetoric of anti-U.S. imperialism. Some socialist observers have named this rationalization or support the “red-brown alliance” which follows the “campist” approach of dividing the world into competing military camps, and negating the role of the working class and oppressed peoples within those “camps.”

Given the evidently sordid and bloody history of U.S. imperialism, many Western leftists justifiably endorse Karl Liebknecht’s declaration, made in 1915 amid the depths of World War I, that “the main enemy is at home.” Liebknecht was expressing what he thought should be the position of socialists in an inter-imperialist war. His statement should not be used as an excuse to abandon working-class struggles around the world. Unfortunately, today, many on the Left have twisted this principle to minimize or deny well-documented chemical-weapons attacks by the Assad regime in Syria; murders of protesters in Russia, Venezuela, and Iran; mass-internment concentration camps such as those holding a million Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region; and other heinous attacks of state violence carried out by regimes that claim to be against U.S. imperialism. Such views greatly violate the core ethical principles of humanism, egalitarianism, and human solidarity with oppressed peoples, and confuse the struggles of workers and the oppressed against capital and the State with inter-imperialist intrigues.

We need a transnational socialist and anti-authoritarian solidarity network that breaks with such careless and undiscerning views of the world and instead sets human emancipation, not inter-imperialist rivalry, as its aim. We need to create a network that offers in-depth analyses, genuine grassroots socialist solidarity, and forums for working out real solutions—such as alternatives to capitalism, tackling climate breakdown, and overcoming patriarchy, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia.

We believe that the essence of socialism is humanism, the idea that human beings have the potential to use their reasoning capacity to move forward, establish intercommunication and relations free of domination and servitude.

The signatories of this call include a variety of socialist and Marxist humanists, anarchists, and anti-authoritarians. We reject the systems that existed in the former USSR and the People’s Republic of China as authoritarian. We oppose capitalism both in private and state form as well as racism, sexism, and heterosexism. We seek humanist, intersectional, and sustainable ecological alternatives to oppression and ecocide.

Please join us in an effort to create a transnational and anti-authoritarian socialist solidarity network with the initial aim of organizing speaking tours and building a speakers’ bureau with a related website aimed at the following:

  1. Concrete expressions of solidarity with ongoing progressive and revolutionary popular struggles on the basis of opposition to capitalism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, and xenophobia.
  2. Genuine dialogue and debate on humanist alternatives to capitalism, visions of a free and sustainable society, liberation of women, and LGBT persons, the right to self-determination, and a commitment to truth, reason, and human emancipation.

We propose a speakers’ bureau that would offer a resource list of speakers/topics and coordinate speaking tours which would bring together local, national, and international issues and struggles.

This is an international effort aimed at concrete solidarity work and dialogue on the burning questions of our day, and hopes to prove that the idea of emancipatory socialist solidarity can be credible in theory and practice.

If you agree with these ideas and would like to be part of this effort to form a Transnational Socialist-Humanist Solidarity Network, please contact us at transnationalsolidarity@protonmail.com

Original signatories:

Abou Jaoude, Elias, Software Developer, Lebanon

Al-Kateb, Lara, Syrian socialist feminist

Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists

Al-Saadi, Yazan, Syrian Canadian Writer

Amina, Syria solidarity activist, U.S.

Ayoub, Joey, Writer, editor and researcher, IFEX, Global Voices, Scotland

Botta, Emma Wilde, Independent Socialist Feminist, U.S.

Castro, María, Professor of Spanish and French Studies, U.S.

Chelliah, Lalitha, Maternal and Child Health Nurse – Socialist, Australia

Cuffy, Robert, Socialist Workers’ Alliance, Guyana

Dehkordi, Sara, Manjanigh Collective, Germany

Fareid Eltayeb, Amgad, Spokesperson of Sudan Change Now movement & producer of Sudan Seen blog

Fischer, Dan, Graduate worker, U.S.

Galyon, Shiyam, Syrian American feminist and campaigner

Hensman, Rohini, Writer, independent scholar and author of Indefensible, India

Hirsch, Michael, New Politics Editorial Board member, U.S.

Independent journalist and activist, Argentina

Kaylen, Student, U.S.

La Botz, Dan, Teacher, writer, co-editor of New Politics, U.S.

Language professor, U.S.

Lopez, Rocío, Mexican-American writer, U.S.

LeFage, Shanelle, Climate activist, U.S.

Leonard, Ralph, Writer and student, U.K.

Masjedi, Fatemeh, Iranian feminist and history scholar, Europe

Melcher, Thorne, transgender activist, writer and coder, U.S.

Munif, Yasser, Syrian Sociology Professor, U.S.

Noor, Yalda, Psychologist, U.S.

Petersen-Smith, Khury, Socialist and geographer, U.S.

Ram, Joshua, Writer, U.S.

Ramírez, Krys Méndez, Disability Justice organizer and Ethnic Studies scholar, U.S.

Reid Ross, Alexander, geography professor, and author of Against the Fascist Creep, U.S.

Reimann, John, Former Recording Secretary of Carpenters’ Local 713 and current producer of OaklandSocialist.com blog, U.S.

Rizzo, Mary, Editorial Staff of Le Vocci de la Liberta, Italian blog for the Syrian Revolution, Italy

Ruder, Eric, socialist and journalist, U.S.

Saravi, Jose, writer and translator, Argentina

Schulman, Jason, New York City Democratic Socialists of America

Sethness, Javier, Family Nurse Practitioner and author, U.S.

Shurmand, Azadeh, Iranian women’s studies scholar, Europe

Sloughter, Tristan, Denver Democratic Socialists of America, U.S.

Soeller, Peter, Anti-fascist activist and writer, U.S.

Smith, Ashley, Socialist writer and activist, U.S.

Weston, Matt, Social Worker, U.S.

Wind, Ella, Middle East Studies scholar and member of Democratic Socialists of America, U.S.

Zekavat, Sina, Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists, Germany

Zuur, Cheryl, former president, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 444, U.S.

Subsequent signatories:

American Studies Professor, Atlanta, U.S.

Bojcun, Marko, independent socialist, UK

Etzbach, Harald, Journalist and Translator, Germany

Grannies4Equality, Dublin, Ireland

Heimbach, Wayne, Member of Service Employees International Union (Retired), U.S.

Heller, Stanley, Host, “The Struggle” Video News, author, The Uprising We Need, U.S. 

Khan, Tulsi Das, India

LeftEast Editorial Collective, Europe

McDonald, David, activist, U.S. 

McBurney, Sandy, Glasgow, Ireland

Modiano, Richard, Executive Director Emeritus, Beyond Baroque Foundation, U.S.

Mola, Mark, Edinburgh, Scotland

Ongerth, Steve, co-founder, IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus*

PhD Student, Lancaster University, UK

Nachawati Rego, Leila, Spanish-Syrian writer and professor of communications, Madrid

Shalom, Stephen R., Editorial Board, New Politics, U.S.

Sutton, Edward, climate activist & member of Democratic Socialists of America, U.S.

Thomsen, Nicholas, anarchist activist, Australia

(*listed for ID purposes only)

John le Carré: A Radical Spy Novelist Playing with the System

March 2, 2019


“I am not a nihilist. I am a humanist. If it is given to us to play a part for the future, we must play it.” – Katya Orlova, The Russia House (1989)

Spanning five decades, from the Cold War to the present, John le Carré’s best-selling collection of spy novels are well-known for the way they immerse the reader in the world of international relations, espionage, and statecraft. The author’s aptitude for transporting his audiences in this way stems at least partly from the six years he worked in British Intelligence, both MI5 and MI6 (1958-1964). Yet, while le Carré—or David Cornwell, to use his given name—was a spy and focuses his literary output mostly on spying and the State intrigue, he shows himself in his fictional writings to also be highly critical of the hegemony of State and capitalism.

In a dialectical sense, le Carré “plays” with his novels to similarly “play” the system: while, at first glance, readers of le Carré are suffused with the ruthless worlds of statist power plays, militarism, and realpolitik, soon they are confronted with grand indictments of the domination of capitalism, imperialism, and the State over humanity. The novelist’s political perspective is generally anti-authoritarian, rationalist, and humanist—like that of Katya Orlova from The Russia House, who is an enthusiast of the anarchist Alexander Herzen, the “father of Russian socialism” and Populism—and it was opposed to both sides of the Cold War during its existence, just as the author has been critical of the persistence of capitalist hegemony that has followed during the past two-plus decades. In a sense, le Carré’s writings may be considered a sort of Trojan Horse within the capitalist citadel, but we can’t be sure exactly how much his subversive attitudes concretely influence or have influenced ongoing or future revolt against the system.

From Call for the Dead (1961) to The Mission Song (2006), le Carré weaves stories and conflicts that lay bare the dehumanization, instrumentalization, and super-exploitation underpinning capitalist society—accomplishing this precisely through gaming the system, by setting such critique within mass-, seemingly mainstream media. Absolute Friends (2003), a novel about two revolutionary anarchists, British and German, may come closest to le Carré’s own views—or if not, we can at least say that he is very sympathetic to such ideas.

To investigate how le Carré presents his social critique in discreet and then increasingly fervent fashion over the course of his career, this essay summarizes the pertinent details of the plots of 11 of the author’s novels, and then passes to a discussion and conclusion about the militant perspectives found therein, being like collectivities of free radicals joyously roaming to destabilize unjust structures.

Call for the Dead and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

The story of Call for the Dead (1961) revolves around one Samuel Fennan, a former Marxist and Communist Party member working in the British Foreign Office (FO), who unexpectedly dies in his home by gunshot, presumably due to suicide. Yet le Carré’s hero George Smiley, an MI6 officer who had just met with Fennan hours before his death, probes more deeply into the case, only to discover that he was in fact murdered by Hans-Dieter Mundt, a hitman working under Dieter Frey. Dieter is an operative of the Abteilung—the East German Security Service1—and a former radical student of Smiley’s whose father had been killed by the Nazis and who himself concretely resisted Fascism by bursting into the British consulate in Dresden during World War II, demanding that the Allies do more to protect the Jews. The cover-up of Samuel’s murder is assisted by his wife Elsa, who herself is Jewish.

Dieter orders Fennan’s murder out of suspicion that he had become Smiley’s agent after seeing the two together, afraid that the Abteilung’s operation in Britain had been compromised. While Fennan had been sharing intelligence with the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as a continuation of sorts of his former Marxism and anti-fascism, Smiley discovers that he had to some degree cooled in his fervor for sharing information in the months leading up to his death, possibly reflecting disillusionment with the USSR after its suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. This finding leads Smiley to realize that it was really Elsa who was spying for East Germany, and that Samuel had initiated contact with him precisely to raise the point. Although her performance sustaining the lie that Fennan had indeed killed himself does not in the end save her from being sacrificed by Dieter as he tries to escape a trap set by Smiley—one that ends with the East German agent dying at Smiley’s hands, drowned in London’s Thames River—the British spy concludes that her support for the GDR could not be divorced from her desire for world peace as well as her immediate horror at a resurgent, militaristic West Germany. Dieter and Mundt, on the other hand, come in for criticism for their established Lenino-Stalinist tendency to violate the means toward the end of realizing socialism, as seen in their disregard for the lives of Samuel and Elsa Fennan, among others.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963) continues depicting the struggle between MI6 and the Abteilung. It opens with the British protagonist, Alec Leamas, head of MI6 in Berlin, watching as an East German agent of his is shot dead while trying to escape the Eastern Sector. This is the fourth agent of Leamas’ murdered in succession by the GDR—precisely on the orders of Mundt, the new head of the Abteilung’s Counter-Espionage division, following his return after having escaped Britain. These killings lead Leamas to be declared useless to British Intelligence, and he falls into a downward spiral of alcoholism and illness. Yet this disregard for self is to some degree feigned, a ploy to attract the attention of the Abteilung within the larger goal of vengeance and the destruction of Mundt. In their conversation discussing this mission, Leamas and Control—MI6 chief—acknowledge the similarity in methods used by the Soviet and Western powers. Referring to Mundt, Control observes:

“‘He is a very distasteful man. Ex-Hitler Youth and all that kind of thing. Not at all the intellectual kind of Communist. A practitioner of the cold war.’

“’Like us,’ Leamas observed drily.”

After formally leaving MI6, Leamas briefly works at a library in London, there to meet the Communist Elizabeth Gold. The two become lovers. Yet Leamas cuts the relationship off to proceed with his mission, which sees him imprisoned for three months for having assaulted a grocer who denied him credit—with all of this being part of his cover. Just after his release, Leamas is recruited by the East Germans, who take him to the Netherlands and then to the GDR to be “debriefed” regarding the secrets he knows. After passing into the GDR, Leamas is interrogated by Fiedler, a prominent German-Jewish member of the Abteilung and the son of Marxist refugees from WWII, who explains to him the Stalinist view that human life is but a means toward the end of the construction of Party Socialism, thus delineating his theoretical differences with Christianity, which the Western authorities putatively follow but in reality utterly ignore.2 Leamas reveals to Fiedler that the latter’s superior, Mundt, is in fact a British agent, and that he was allowed to leave Britain following the various murders he committed after coming to an agreement with MI6, which has been sending him vast quantities of money in exchange for information from the East German State. Mundt becomes aware of this plot to oust him, and orders the arrest of both Leamas and Fiedler—with the latter receiving “special treatment” by Mundt the former Nazi for being Jewish—but not before Fiedler had applied to the State for a warrant to arrest Mundt as an imperialist agent.

Thereafter follows a dramatic tribunal at which Fiedler argues his case, detailing the ease with which Mundt turned to murder “in the name of the people to protect his fascist treachery and advanc[e] his own career,” whereas the defense accuses Fiedler in turn of collaborating with imperialism to undermine GDR security, claiming the prosecution’s evidence to be merely circumstantial. The counter-coup is completed, nonetheless, when Mundt’s counsel calls Liz Gold as a witness—Gold having been mysteriously and suddenly “invited” as a member of the British Communist Party to visit the GDR—to have her reveal how George Smiley in fact had supported her financially following Leamas’ disappearance. Smiley, it would seem, did so specifically to discredit the accusations against Mundt and so allow for the elimination of his subordinate Fiedler, who had been suspecting the British mole for some time. As the tables are turned and Fiedler comes to be the one to be immediately executed, MI6’s “filthy, lousy operation to save Mundt’s skin” is revealed. The saved Mundt then provides Leamas and Gold with the means to escape to the West. During this journey, Gold becomes le Carré’s voice, which critiques the authoritarian instrumentalization of life carried on by East and West alike: the supposed opposites are seen to converge in their grossly inhuman behavior, discarding Fiedler to uphold an ex-Nazi double agent. Ultimately, as Leamas and Gold arrive at the Berlin Wall and attempt to scale it, they are shot dead by GDR sentries.

The Karla Trilogy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) concerns the fall of Control and dismissal of Smiley following a botched mission in Czechoslovakia, the ascendancy to top MI6 positions of four officers suspected of being double-agents, and Smiley’s counter-mobilization to investigate and defeat these moles. The text introduces Karla, the Soviet intelligence chief, who is shown to have penetrated MI6 through the recruitment of Bill Haydon, head of London Station. Smiley continues to face off against his Soviet counterpart in the next two volumes of the so-called Karla trilogy.

In The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), le Carré portrays a shaken British Intelligence being resurrected by Smiley, as he focuses on the new MI6 chief’s machinations to avenge the “fall” engineered by Karla through his compromise of Haydon. In his study of Haydon’s treason, Smiley discovers a “gold seam” of half a million dollars run by Karla to a bank in Vientiane, Laos. The journalist Jerry Westerby, an aristocrat by origin and a Southeast Asia correspondent, is dispatched to begin investigating in British-occupied Hong Kong. There, amidst the raging U.S. war on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, Westerby discovers that the gold seam is being directed to Drake Ko, a prominent exiled Chinese capitalist and former Kuomintang (KMT) conscript, whose brother Nelson, having fought the KMT as a Communist in Shanghai and thereafter studied shipbuilding in the USSR, is a high-ranking insider within the Chinese Defense Ministry and an agent of Karla’s (that is, Soviet intelligence). The gold seam sent to Drake, then, represents the sum to be paid to Nelson if he can manage to escape China. Continuing his investigation, Westerby travels to a Phnom Penh besieged by the Khmer Rouge to learn that Drake had commissioned a Mexican pilot, Ricardo—himself a collaborator with the U.S. military in its wars on the region—to run opium into Red China in exchange for extracting his brother. Though this plan didn’t come to fruition, Westerby suggests to Ricardo that MI6 will use this information to blackmail Drake—and shortly thereafter his fellow journalist Luke is assassinated, having been mistaken for Westerby.

At the same time, MI6 and its CIA “Cousins” learn that Drake is imminently orchestrating a new operation to extract his brother, this time by sea. The Western spy agencies’ plans to instead capture Nelson for exploitative purposes, taken together with Luke’s murder, lead Westerby to rebel and warn Drake as Nelson’s fleet of fishing junks approach the rendezvous point on Po Toi Island, south of Hong Kong. Yet this intervention proves useless, for MI6 and the CIA launch a joint strike involving helicopters to interdict Nelson and kill Westerby just as the former’s sampans reach shore—with the hope of reuniting the brothers thus crushed. Once the honorable schoolboy is eliminated, the CIA proceeds to transfer Nelson to the U.S. for thorough interrogation, and the MI6 chief is awarded retirement for having secured a major agent of Karla’s.

Smiley’s People (1979) brings the titular character out of retirement following the murder in London of General Vladimir, a former Soviet general who had been Smiley’s agent. Vladimir, the Estonian believer in communism, is killed on Karla’s orders after having been written by the Soviet émigré Maria Andreyevna Ostrokova regarding contact she had had with a Soviet agent who suggested that she could soon be reunited with her daughter Alexandra if she would only apply for French citizenship on her behalf. Yet as Smiley discovers through his probe into Vladimir’s murder, this entreaty was made as an unprofessional attempt by Karla himself to secure treatment in Switzerland for his mentally ill daughter Tatiana, alias Alexandra, who was diagnosed politically in the USSR with schizophrenia. In parallel, Tatiana’s own mother and Karla’s mistress had been purged for holding that “history had taken the wrong course” in the Soviet Union, and for not being “obedient to history.” It was presumably to avoid a similar fate for his daughter as a psychical non-conformist that led Karla to smuggle her to a hospital abroad.

As Soviet agents relentlessly pursue Maria Ostrokova to silence her once and for all and so complete the cover-up of General Vladimir’s murder, Smiley mobilizes to counter Karla, ultimately presenting him with an ultimatum whereby he could defect to the West and save his daughter’s life or remain in the Soviet Union as MI6 released this information to the Soviet authorities, inexorably leading to Karla’s destruction and presumably Tatiana’s as well. How ironic that the top Soviet spy master would be compromised through love for his daughter! Smiley and le Carré alike recognize this gambit as representing the utter ruthlessness by which is secured relative superiority and hegemony in the Cold War in particular and international relations generally. This is commentary that clearly critiques the infamous “prisoners’ dilemma” of game theory, which has been used by the ‘experts in legitimation’ to excuse militarism and oppression.

The Little Drummer Girl

The Little Drummer Girl (1983) depicts a Mossad operation to use Charlie, a young radical British actress, to penetrate and disrupt a militant group called Palestine Agony, being comprised of two brothers, Salim and Khalil. The context is a series of deadly bombings against Israeli and Jewish targets in Europe ordered by Khalil in reprisal for the ongoing Occupation of Palestine and the intensifying bombardment of the positions of exiled Palestinian groups in Lebanon. Salim and Khalil’s family themselves had been displaced first from Palestine to Jordan, then to Syria, and lastly Lebanon.

Following a new Mossad directive to diversify the identity of its operatives beyond being exclusively Jewish, the Israeli agent Joseph kidnaps Charlie on vacation in Mykonos and transports her to his handlers, Martin Kurtz and Litvak, who exploitatively subject her to interrogation, psychologically manipulating her—an anti-apartheid activist, pacifist, nuclear marcher, anti-vivisectionist, anti-fascist, and critic of Israel—into becoming the very opposite of who she believes herself to be. After having thus been broken, Charlie is guided through her transition by her captor Joseph, who takes the protagonist on a journey of discovery of Palestine, whereby he becomes Salim and she plays the part of his lover.

Though this education is imparted by an Israeli oppressor rather than a Palestinian survivor, le Carré makes clear that the entire colonialist project of Israeli State-building is built on the dispossession of the Palestinian population, and that with each act of counter-violence taken by Palestinian militants, the Israeli military takes the lives of dozens times more Palestinians. Yet her first mission as an Israeli-Palestinian double agent is to drive a car laden with explosives from Greece through Yugoslavia to Austria. This same car explodes after arriving to its destination, while Salim is driving it to Munich with an accomplice.

Fleeing to the UK after this naked assassination, which is entirely consistent with established Israeli policy,3 Charlie learns that she is under investigation by the Home Office for being an Israeli agent—only that, while her house is ransacked by the police, she is allowed to leave the place unharmed. She then activates emergency channels with Khalil’s group, and clandestinely she is sent to Beirut, where she experiences Israeli siege first-hand and commits herself to the Anti-Imperialist Revolution, having become enamored by the beauty of the Palestinians’ sumoud, or steadfastness. Among other things, Charlie’s Commander Tayeh teaches her to distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism—echoing Salim and Khalil’s view that anti-Semitism is a Christian invention (as well as Hamad Dabashi’s emphasis on the common Judeo-Islamic philosophical tradition).

After being recalled from Beirut, Charlie finally meets Khalil, who convinces her to accept a mission to assassinate the Jewish Professor Minkel, a public advocate of Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories who does not agree with the Palestinian demand for a single, bi-national State. As he is a “moderate,” Minkel must be eliminated, according to Khalil, who believes in an extreme employment of counter-violence by Palestinians against both Israel and all Jews. Charlie ruthlessly delivers the suitcase-bomb to Minkel before he is scheduled to give a public address, presumably killing him and several others off-stage. Subsequently, Charlie presents Mossad with its coup, for she meets the delighted Khalil again and reveals his position, leading Joseph and company to burst in and kill him in cold blood. Charlie then returns to the UK, where the Mossad has once again made inquiries with the police to ensure that she need fear no prosecution, in addition to giving her access to the inheritance of a recently deceased friend, just as the Israeli war-machine assassinates Tayeh and invades Lebanona development that, as le Carré summarizes, “meant roughly that bulldozers were brought in to bury the bodies and complete what the tanks and artillery bombing raids had started.”

The book’s title is a reference to Bertolt Brecht’s depiction in Mother Courage and Her Children (1939) of Kattrina, one of Anna Fierling’s three children, all of whom perish over the course of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648): Kattrina most courageously by constantly drumming to inspire the peasants’ defense of the town of Halle from the Emperor’s troops, leading to her targeted assassination.

The Russia House

The Russia House (1989) tells the story of the publisher-spy B. Scott Blair, or Barley, and his intrigues in the USSR with Katya Orlova, a romantic revolutionary, and Yakov Savelyev, a dissident Soviet nuclear physicist known as “Goethe” to his friends. During the gradualist period of glasnost and perestroika overseen by Mikhail Gorbachev beginning in 1985, Savelyev/Goethe writes a manuscript detailing Soviet military secrets in order to precipitate the collapse of the arms race between the US/NATO and the USSR. Orlova acts as his go-between with Barley, specifying that the first-hand report Goethe has composed reveals Soviet research into the development of particularly atrocious weapons of mass destruction, makes public Soviet strategic nuclear-weapons policy, and explores various other vast ethical failures of the “Red Tsars” in the Cold War. Goethe, whose father was killed while participating in an uprising at the Vorkuta Gulag, is said to primarily be influenced by a certain nineteenth-century Russian known as Vladimir Pecherin, though this may well be a pseudonym for Mikhail Bakunin, for Pecherin “hates [his] native land and avidly await[s] its ruins,” and in the prospect of these “discern[s] the dawn of universal renaissance.”

In seeking to make public the nuclear secrets to which he has special access, Goethe aims at cutting short the Cold War, thus putting an end to the grave threat posed by nuclear weapons amidst highly militaristic competition between the superpowers.iv In this way, he expresses his belief in the revolutionary potential of science without borders—his “frantic dream of unleashing the forces of sanity.”

Barley, whose father was a Fabian socialist publisher who promoted Soviet literature, is a bit of a rogue himself. During his first meeting with Goethe, he tells his counterpart, presumably in good faith, that the Western States consciously accelerated the arms race to try to bankrupt the USSR, and that such imperial militarism in turn served as the pretext for the Soviets to continue “run[ning] a garrison state.” Barley scoffs at the hegemonic Western idea that the concept of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) through nuclear annihilation had “kept the peace” since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, pointing to the wars on Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. He expresses clearly his belief that all Westerners have a duty to “start the avalanche” that does away with militarism, imperialism, and the “elective dictatorship” of parliamentary capitalism. He thus finds a willing partner and co-conspirator in Orlova, as she wishes to “move together to destroy the destruction and castrate the monster we have created”—this, by facilitating the publication of Goethe’s manuscript. Indeed, when faced with Barley’s inquiries into Orlova’s national pride and love for her two children in light of her participation in this plot, the militant replies by saying that she and Goethe prefer the fall of the USSR to the destruction of the world, and that she must think of all the world’s children, not just her own, when considering her choices. Her courageous commitment is likely inspired to some degree by her uncle Matvey, a revolutionary follower of Lev Tolstoy.

The tragic hero Goethe is ultimately discovered by the Soviet authorities and summarily executed. Barley is similarly arrested and imprisoned as a political prisoner, but he escapes death and saves Katya and her family in exchange for divulging secrets of British intelligence to his tormentors.

Modern Trilogy

Le Carré’s Tailor of Panama (1996) is set in a Panama City marred by gross social inequality, with the “cocaine towers” of the financial district overlooking vast swathes of impoverished proletarian districts in this riverine environment. The action takes place after the U.S. invasion (1989-1990) to depose Manuel Noriega—a former CIA agent—in the run-up to the transfer of control of the Panama Canal from the U.S. military to local authorities that occurred in 1999.

Andy Osnard, a former MI6 agent assigned to the country by a revanchist conglomerate of private interests tasked with the mission of preventing the Canal from being sold off to any rivals of the West, coercively recruits Harry Pendel, a British expatriate tailor with a past history of imprisonment in the UK for insurance fraud, into being his source among the Panamanian elite he serves. Threatened by Osnard with having his criminal past revealed to his wife and children, Pendel learns from the Panamanian president of a Japanese plot to purchase the Canal and communicates this to his handler, setting in motion a joint mobilization by the British and U.S. military-security apparatuses to reinvade Panama and thus ensure continued neocolonial control.

Toward this end, Osnard exploits Pendel’s largely invented idea of a “Silent Opposition” to be led by personal friends who previously had organized against Noriega, including the tailor’s assistant Marta and his comrade Mickie. When Mickie in turn takes his life out of fear of returning to political imprisonment after the authorities, having become aware of the propagation of Pendel’s fantasies, increasingly harass him, the U.S. and British use the pretext of his execution for renewed military intervention. Osnard then appropriates for himself the $15 million destined emergently by the U.S. and Britain governments for the operations of the spectral oppositional group, fleeing in a private jet to Switzerland as U.S. attack helicopters initiate their assault on Panama City.

The Constant Gardener (2001) revolves around the partnership of Tessa Abbott, a British radical, and Justin Quayle, a British diplomat stationed in Kenya. The book opens with the announcement that Tessa has been found murdered with her medical colleague, Dr. Bloom, near Lake Turkana. Justin investigates the killings, ultimately discovering that the victims had co-authored a report exposing medical experimentation carried out by KDH, a Western pharmaceutical corporation, in the Kibera slum of Nairobi and submitted it to the British government—only to meet precisely this fate as a consequence. Fatally, Justin learns that, while Dr. Bloom sought to publish the findings directly, Tessa had insisted that they go through official channels first, in deference to her husband’s example. She did not consider the possibility that the State might be captured by these same corporate interests.

Quayle determines that dozens of Kenyans had died in the trials for Dypraxa, a tuberculosis drug, and that KDH covered up this “side effect” to press forward with the medication’s development, thus avoiding the costs of redesign and further delay. After all, KDH expected a considerable futures market for multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) in the twenty-first century. In the end, Quayle makes Tessa and Dr. Bloom’s findings known, exposing the scandal and State-corporate nexus, but meets the same fate they did on the very shores of Lake Turkana.

This work title alludes to Voltaire’s always-germane conclusion to Candide (1759), a parody of optimism à la Leibniz (and, by extension, contemporary conservatives and apologists): “We must cultivate our gardens.”

Sharing affinities with the previous two works, The Mission Song (2006) is centered around the plot of a shadowy international Syndicate nominally dedicated to providing agricultural equipment to African countries which conspires to finance an armed uprising in eastern Congo to plunder the region’s mineral resources: coltan, gold, and oil. Bruno Salvador, or Salvo, who is half-Congolese and a graduate of languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), interprets the planning meeting set up between the Syndicate and representatives of two militias and a trading family from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)—Dieudonné, Franco, and Haj, respectively—on a remote island in the North Sea. Naturally, the ruling Rwandan invaders, who have gravely exploited the eastern Congo since overrunning it two decades ago, having fled the coming to a power of a Tutsi-led government that put an end to the Rwandan genocide of 1994 by Hutus of Tutsis and “moderate” Hutus, were excluded from this meeting.

The Syndicate proposes to the Congolese warlords staging an insurgency that would disrupt the existing “peace” in order to create a crisis that would result in the installation of the Mwangaza, an aging semi-messianic figure who promises to unite all of Kivu, or eastern Congo, against the Rwandan militias and armies as well as central control from the capital city, Kinshasa. The Mwangaza speaks about installing an interim government that would expel the Rwandans and take control of the airport, mines, and cities of Kivu, though it is clear that, above all, he desires political power, and is willing to endorse the Syndicate’s proposal to amply supply arms, ammunition, and mercenaries toward this end. Indeed, part of the contract negotiated during these talks stipulates that the Syndicate would be granted special investment access after the coup’s success in exchange for its contributions up front to bringing the war about, while the Kinshasa government is to be bought off using the revenue extracted from Kivu’s mines that was supposed to be set aside as “The People’s Portion.”

Salvo does not take this plan lightly, however. He discreetly manages to appropriate seven cassettes of recordings of the meeting and keeps his own notes upon return to London. Then, unsure of whom to turn to, he first approaches Lord Brinkley, a distinguished “friend of Africa” in the British Parliament, with the idea of bringing the plans to light so as to prevent their execution—only to find Brinkley conspiring to have Salvo’s evidence destroyed or secured so that the coup can proceed. After taking leave of Brinkley, though, Salvo and his partner Hannah, a Congolese nurse, approach the Mwangaza’s London-based aide, Baptiste, who completely denies the possibility of the Mwangaza participating in such a plot. Salvo then meets with Mr. Anderson, his contact at MI6 who first assigned him to the clandestine meeting as interpreter, to express his concerns, only to find Anderson reacting much the same way as Brinkley—even going so far as to rationalize the plundering of Africa’s mineral wealth as based on the prerogatives of supposedly more highly civilized European peoples.

Upon escaping from Anderson, Salvo resorts to contacting his ex-wife’s colleague in the press about running the story before the coup is staged, yet he finds that the two most important cassettes have been taken by Hannah to be recorded and sent to Haj to disrupt the plans once and for all. This courageous effort that finally breaks with Salvo’s “misguided loyalty” to the system indeed saves Kivu from a new war, as the mercenaries’ conspiracy is foiled, but it leads Hannah immediately to be deported to Congo, while Salvo is stripped of his British citizenship and placed in a migrant camp similarly to await deportation to central Africa.

Absolute Friends

Absolute Friends (2003) is likely le Carré’s most openly subversive and radical spy novel. In this work, le Carré depicts the life-long friendship of the British subject Ted Mundy and Sasha, a German anarchist. Mundy, the son of a Scottish military officer and Irish maid born in British-occupied India, begins his “radical reappraisal” of Britain and the Raj in childhood due to the horrors of Partition (1947) and his sense, as suggested later by his father, that the British authorities were largely responsible for these atrocities, and specifically the deaths of the entirety of the family members of his beloved Muslim nurse, Ayah. In adolescence, the protagonist further develops his critical perspective in concert with Dr. Mandelbaum, his radical German-language and cello tutor, who suggests that, “as long as [humanity] is in chains, maybe all good people in the world are also refugees.” The development of Ted’s radical spirit continues precipitously at Oxford University, where he enrolls to deepen his knowledge of German and meets Ilse, his first partner and a militant anarchist. They participate in demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the junta of Greek colonels, and then decide to go study together at the Free University of Berlin. The only problem is that Ilse reneges at the last moment, but not before referring Ted to Sasha, a well-known revolutionary in Berlin. As Mundy departs by train from Waterloo Station in London, the narrator regards him and asks:

“Is he an anarchist? It will depend. To be an anarchist one must have a glimmer of hope.”

Certainly, both Mundy’s anarchism and radical hope are considerably nourished upon making the acquaintance of Sasha in Berlin. Listening to Mundy’s answer to the question of what the meaning of revolution is at their first meeting, Sasha at once tells Mundy that “[a]ll authority is irrational” and inquires into his knowledge of Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer’s writings. Their relationship of fraternal love is thus immediately forged, and they become roommates. Le Carré shows how Mundy’s participation in the radical youth movement in Berlin represents an epoch of self-realization for him, as he becomes “part of a brave new family determined to rebuild the world.” Such immersion leads Mundy to rejoice: “So many brothers and sisters everywhere! So many comrades who share the dream!” The author clearly acknowledges that this militant movement, impelled by the children of the Auschwitz generation, sought to purge from the world the “multiple diseases of fascism, capitalism, militarism, consumerism, Nazism, Coca-Colonization, imperialism, and pseudo-democracy.”

At the Free University, Sasha is depicted giving a speech at an action denouncing the Vietnam War, specifically demanding that the Nuremburg Tribunal be reconvened to prosecute the “fascist-imperialist American leadership […] on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.” Le Carré then shows the West German State brutally suppressing the demonstration, with Mundy valiantly rescuing Sasha from the riot police and becoming injured, hospitalized, and deported in the process.

After his formative time in Berlin, Mundy spends some years wandering: he briefly works at a journalist in the East Midlands, until he publishes an unauthorized exposé of labor conditions for Asian workers at a local cannery itself owned by the newspaper’s owner; he tries life as an artist in Taos, New Mexico; he gets married with Kate Andrews, a dedicated Labor Party member who wishes to rout the Trotskyists, Communists, and “closet anarchists” she sees as threatening the Party’s future, and fathers a son with her; and he himself secures employment with the British Council.

As part of this work, Mundy once again meets Sasha in East Germany, and the militant reveals to him intelligence vital to GDR security—a move that speaks to the anarchist’s integration into the State, yet also his continued dialectical commitment to destabilizing it. By sharing this information in turn with MI6 upon return to West Berlin, Mundy himself becomes an agent, and so begins a new phase in this “absolute friendship” whereby Mundy handles Sasha’s efforts to undermine what the latter considers to be the “Red Fascist” State. For Sasha, in so compromising the GDR and the USSR, it is not a matter of serving Western interests, but rather of fighting “tyranny wherever I have found it, with whatever weapons were available to me.”

The conclusion of Absolute Friends is contemporary, set in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Mundy mobilizes against this mad plot, encouraging his son to organize protests at his university, but can find no concrete way for himself to do so until Sasha approaches him with a proposal to join a mysterious billionaire known as Mr. Dimitri from the New Planet Foundation in his ploy to supposedly create a global “Counter-University” and advance the revolutionary cause through the creation of “intellectual guerrillas” who will resist the “insane [capitalist] concept of limitless expansion on a limited planet, with permanent conflict as its desired outcome” (orig. emphasis). Yet Dimitri is not all he seems: following 9/11, the CIA claims, he increasingly comes to insist on an “alliance” between European anarchists and Islamist terrorists—given the view imputed to him that “[t]hese Al Qaeda boys have brought off just about everything Mikhail Bakunin ever dreamed of [sic]”—and he uses Mundy to rent out a school in Heidelberg at which the Brit used to teach for the first “demonstration project” for the Counter-University.

Though Mundy increasingly suspects Dimitri, Sasha faithfully does not doubt the sincerity of the project. Ultimately, one evening, as Mundy is preparing the shipments that he understands to be filled with books for the Counter-University’s Heidelberg campus, he realizes that he and Sasha have been set up: he discovers boxes of grenades, bomb-making devices, and so on. Just then, a massive police-military operation descends on the school, and the friends are killed off as putative terrorists who had been planning to attack the U.S. airbase at Heidelberg.

Meanwhile, Dimitri is revealed as enjoying Witness Protection in Montana for having warned the authorities about the radical friends’ non-existent terrorist plot, and the heist is shown as amounting to a “second burning of the Reichstag,” whereby an ex-CIA operative representing a coalition of oil barons, arms dealers, and security executives framed Mundy and Sasha as extremists who were preparing to bomb the air-force base precisely in order to silence the opposition from the German and French States to the U.S. drive to war on Iraq and thus expanded profits for such corporate sectors. Le Carré depicts the Heidelberg siege as blunting the Germans’ criticisms of Bush and company, whereas Russia is seen as capitalizing on the terrorized Zeitgeist to clamp down on protests and intensify its terrible war on Chechnya.

Conclusion: Let’s Start the Avalanche

We can see, then, that le Carré is a very serious and astute thinker and commentator about a number of pressing socio-economic, political, and ethical issues of recent history and our day. Yet it is evident that le Carré wields his critique of Statism, authoritarianism, and exploitation in an ironic fashion: generally speaking, it is not from an external standpoint, such as that of a protester or victim of militarism, that such critique issues in le Carré’s novels, but rather through the operation of the internal dynamics governing the system. Le Carré’s writings are therefore unexpected or “playful” in the sense that, unlike an external critique of the system raised for example by anarchists who want to take down that system, they typically begin from inside the system and move outward, developing into condemnations of the same. Clearly, le Carré’s spy writings are quite apart from those by Ian Fleming or Tom Clancy, novelists who start from within the State-capitalist system and have no wish to critique or overthrow it. This is another reason why the author’s art-works are consciously ironic, for the genre of espionage generally connotes mainstream, statist perspectives, not critical ones.

While le Carré achieves his purposes of entertainment and enlightenment by “playing” in a certain way, the content of his art is clearly very serious. More often than not, the protagonists of his novels serve as martyrs who are sacrificed by the State or capital to ensure stability and expanded profitability in the Cold War and subsequent neoliberal period: there are Samuel and Elsa Fennan in Call for the Dead; Fiedler, Leamas, and Gold in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; Jerry, Luke, and Nelson in The Honourable Schoolboy; Salim and Khalil in The Little Drummer Girl; Savelyev in The Russia House; Mickie in The Tailor Panama; Tessa, Dr. Bloom, and Justin in The Constant Gardener; Salvo and Hannah in The Mission Song; and Mundy and Sasha in Absolute Friends. Within his earlier Cold War-era novels, le Carré advances a critique of the bureaucratic “grey men” on both sides, showing the way forward as developing through the courageous and tragic resistance of people like Savelyev and Katya Orlova, who dream of a better world as they labor to undermine the system; a very similar analysis could be made of Absolute Friends. The question which Katya poses to Barley about his intentions to publish Savelyev’s manuscript underpin much of le Carré’s subversive commentary throughout his oeuvre:

“Ask them which is more dangerous to [humanity]: to conform like a slave or resist like a [person]?”

As part of this dynamic of submission versus resistance, le Carré clearly acknowledges the extensive participation of former Nazi officers in the Western intelligence and security services after World War II, and he communicates the hegemonic Western concept that, once Hitler had been defeated, the rest of the West could get back to the “real war” against the Soviet Union and the “Red Menace.” Indeed, Absolute Friends opens with Mundy announcing to his tour group that Britain and the U.S. initially did not oppose Hitler, and indeed saw in him an attack-dog to be unleashed on the Reds. Moreover, our author does not shy from illustrating mainstream British anti-Semitic and bourgeois prejudices or depicting an MI6 officer making a Nazi salute. In The Little Drummer Girl, le Carré adopts the view of the Palestinian resistance that the Zionist State is fascist and genocidal, and in The Honourable Schoolboy, he has Ricardo’s fellow pilot express the thanotic imperative that drives individual capitalists and the system as a whole:

“hear me? They kill me, they kill Ricardo, they kill you, they kill the whole damn human race!”

In sum, then, le Carré, through his critical plots and his alter egos (Smiley, Gold, Barley, Mundy), examines the violence of despotism, brilliantly revealing the depths of nihilism and destruction for which the ruling class is responsible. In his more contemporary works, our author forthrightly points to the capitalist super-exploitation of the non-Western world, as Western firms and powers mobilize to extract evermore resources through militarism and genocide. The results are plain for all to see, or they should be; keeping these in full view, le Carré denounces the system as a whole. In parallel, he identifies the State’s established tendency to crush the possibilities of liberation, as seen in The Russia House, The Constant Gardener, Absolute Friends, and The Mission Song, and even the authorities’ willingness to exploit radicalism to promote reaction, as we see in The Little Drummer Girl.

Yet le Carré strongly endorses Barley’s view that all Westerners have a duty to “start the avalanche” that abolishes militarism, imperialism, and capitalism. The author even depicts this type of non-cooperation in a number of his works, especially in his illustration of State officials who defect, rebel, or otherwise sabotage their work. Nonetheless, the critique he raises against the State for instrumentalizing human life applies also to movements resisting oppression: that the Israelis, British, Soviets, or Americans cannot cease violating the means toward the ends they seek does not justify those who oppose them doing the same, even if the revolutionary end is superior to the end of maintaining the status quo. The Little Drummer Girl’s plot makes this clear. Like Lev Tolstoy and Albert Camus, then, le Carré is concerned about the replication of nihilism and authoritarianism within resistance movements, and he advises us—quite rightly, I think—to do all we can to harmonize means and ends. Quite like Tolstoy, le Carré declares through Barley that “[w]e must cut down the grey men inside ourselves, we must burn our grey suits and set our good hearts free, which is the dream of every decent soul, and even—believe it or not—of certain grey men too.”

Works Cited

1 Compare the East German Abteilung with the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Nazi brownshirts, followers of the Strasser brothers, who were purged by the Waffen SS on Hitler’s orders. Is this etymological similitarity between the names of the respective State agencies just coincidental, or actually reflective of red-brown cross-over?

2 Compare Lev Trotsky’s declaration in Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky (1920), published in response to Kautsky’s criticisms of Bolshevik repressiveness and the brutality of the Russian Civil War: “As for us, we were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the ‘sacredness of human life.’”

3 See Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (London: Verso, 2007), especially ch. 9, “Targeted Assassinations: The Airborne Occupation.”

Red and Black October: An Anarchist Perspective on the Russian Revolution for its 100th Anniversary

December 15, 2017

A hundred years [correction: 100 years and 37 days] from the day that the Winter Palace fell in PetrogradOctober 25 in the Julian calendar, November 7 in the Gregorian—we present an anarchist perspective on the Russian Revolution, which began in February 1917 with a mass-mobilization and mutinies that deposed Tsar Nicholas II. Though the Revolution contained an awesome amount of liberatory potential as reflected in workers’ self-management and peasant land-seizures, it took a fatal turn with the seizure of power by the authoritarian Bolshevik Party. #RussianRev100Years #1917LIVE #1917CROWD #1917UNDEAD

Table of Contents

What precipitated the crisis and revolutionary events of 1917?

What helped propel the Revolution?

What was the anarchist role in the Revolution?

How did the events beginning in 1917 present two opposing conceptions of social revolution?

How did the Revolution go wrong?

What was the role of the Bolshevik Party?

What was the Red Terror?

What was the Russian Civil War?

What about the imperialists?

What happened in Ukraine?

Were Makhno and his followers anti-Semitic?

What happened at Kronstadt in 1921?

How did Lenin contradict his supposed anti-imperialist principles while in power?

How did Red October, the Red Terror, and the Civil War lead to Stalin’s rule?

What lessons should we take from the Revolution?

Works Cited

Recommended Statements and Memoirs

Recommended Films

A map of the former Russian Empire using current borders, with important cities, sites, and regions for the Revolution indicated. The black star just west of St. Petersburg corresponds to Kronstadt. Key: red/maroon = Bolshevik control or influence; black = anarchist control or influence; green = Greens or Basmachi presence; pink = Menshevik control or influence

A map of western Russia and Eastern Europe using current borders indicating important cities and sites for the Revolution. The black star just west of St. Petersburg corresponds to Kronstadt.

What precipitated the crisis and revolutionary events of 1917?

Two factors were decisive in the emergence of the Russian Revolution of 1917: the Tsar’s forcible participation in the ongoing First World War, and widespread economic crisis, including near-famine conditions for urban workers. The disorganization of economic life during the war led to critical shortages for both the cities and the Army, thus making the continuation of the war-effort quite impossible. It was in the cities that the Revolution began in early 1917, spreading to the war-front by summer, provoking mass-desertions by conscripted soldiers who had experienced the utter pointlessness of the war firsthand. In fact, the Russian Revolution can in some ways be considered one of the greatest popular anti-militarist uprisings in history.

In February 1917 (March by the Gregorian calendar), starving masses rose up in Petrograd (previously and subsequently again known as St. Petersburg). On the first day of demonstrations, February 24 (Julian calendar), soldiers—perhaps in part with Bloody Sunday in mind—refused to fire on the striking workers and starving women, and the Petrograd garrison increasingly mutinied against the Tsar. Even the Imperial Guards turned on the tsarist police. The regiments in mutiny soon defeated all remaining tsarist forces in the capital, and railway workers defended the revolutionary city by refusing to transport loyalist forces to Petrograd. Finally acknowledging the reality of the situation, Nicholas II abdicated on March 2, ending three centuries of despotism by the Romanov dynasty. The Revolution had begun!

As Voline writes, the February Revolution, “the action of the masses[,] was spontaneous, logically climaxing a long period of concrete experience and moral preparation. This action was neither organized nor guided by any political party. Supported by the people in armsthe Army—it was victorious” (emphasis in original). He clarifies that this incredible historical progression was achieved by the people without leaders, for Yuli Martov (Menshevik) and Vladimir Lenin, Lev Trotsky, and Nikolai Bukharin (Bolsheviks) were all exiled at this time, only to return after February.

What helped propel the Revolution?

Though the February Revolution gave rise to a bourgeois Provisional Government led by Alexander Kerensky, a social-democratic member of the Socialist-Revolutionary (SR) Party, the emancipatory spirit of the Revolution was carried on by the insurgent peasantry and proletariat. The peasants, who made up 85% of Russia’s population at the time, immediately set about expropriating the land after the fall of the Tsar, and the Petrograd Soviet was resurrected from the 1905 Revolution, once again becoming a trusted voice of the working class and ever-greater segments of the Army. Nonetheless, the Provisional Government perpetuated Russia’s participation in the war, a decisive factor impelling the fall of the Romanov dynasty, and Kerensky even re-established the death penalty at the front. He also ordered a disastrous offensive on the Austro-German lines in June 1917.

In August, the White General Kornilov attempted to crush the Revolution in the name of the Provisional Government, but the workers of Petrograd once again mobilized as they had in February to defend the city with arms and by rerouting forces sent via rail to support Kornilov’s putsch attempt. Subsequently, the Bolsheviks won majorities in the soviets, factory committees, and soldiers’ committees, and in light of the Left-Socialist Revolutionaries’ decision to affiliate with them, the Party gained much sympathy among workers and peasants alike. Thanks to its heroic past, the SR Party, which represented the cause of agrarian socialism, had become the strongest party after February 1917, taking the majority of the seats in the Constituent Assembly, and enjoying the support of the majority of the population due to its “solid backing in the villages as a result of its pre-revolutionary activity and its work in promoting peasant cooperatives” (Maximov 50). This arrangement between the Bolsheviks and Left-SR’s would continue until July 1918, when the latter attempted to overthrow the Red State. Following the Provisional Government’s release of an arrest warrant against Lenin on July 6, 1917, the Red leader went underground to plan an insurrection against Kerensky.

For further reading

What was the anarchist role in the Revolution?

Numerically, self-described anarchists in Russia at the time of the February Revolution were not particularly strong, as the movement was just beginning, while revolutionary syndicalism was similarly germinating, and the most radical element of party politics, the Left-SR’s, was relatively weak in comparison to the Bolsheviks. Besides that, the Left-SR’s were actually in coalition with the ruling Bolshevik Party from Red October until July 1918, when they attempted to overthrow their erstwhile allies. Voline emphasizes that, had the anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists had more time than they were given before the Bolshevik assault of April 1918, they could likely have influenced the masses to boldly carry on with the project of free initiative and self-organization made possible by the Revolution. Yet he remarks with disappointment upon his return to Petrograd from exile in July 1917 that, “[i]n the fifth month of a great revolution, no Anarchist newspaper, no Anarchist voice was making itself heard in the capital of the country. And this in the face of the almost unlimited activity of the Bolsheviki!” (emphasis in original).

Between May and October 1917, some anarcho-syndicalists voted with the Reds in factory committees in favor of workers’ control, and the resurgent anti-authoritarianism of the Russian masses after February to some extent led the Bolsheviks to converge opportunistically with anti-statist and federalist critiques, thus misrepresenting their own politics (Goodwin 45-6). While the Bolsheviks did want to end Russian participation in World War I and have the land be returned to the peasantry, it is also true that the Bolsheviks ultimately crushed soviet-based democracythus contradicting their rhetorical commitment to have “all power” be devolved “to the sovietsand only retroactively acknowledged the peasantry’s expropriation of private property since February with their Land Decree, proclaimed on October 26, 1917, the day after the fall of the Winter Palace. Additionally, as shall be described more below, the Reds had a prejudiced, authoritarian view of the peasants in line with Marxist ideology which rationalized the commission of several atrocities against them.

Ironically, then, anarchist sailors from Kronstadt played an important role in the insurrection to capture the Winter Palace. The Dvintsi (from Dvinsk) regiment, both comprised of and commanded by anarchists, was similarly critical in the struggle against Kerensky’s forces. Their commander, Gratchov, distributed arms and ammunition to the workers shortly after the October seizure of power, anticipating the danger this posed to the Revolution, but was killed under mysterious circumstances soon after having reported to the Bolshevik authorities. Anatoli Jelezniakov, an anarchist Kronstadter, was the one who ordered the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918, announcing that the parliamentarians had “prattled long enough!” Anarchists also participated in the defense against General Kornilov’s coup attempt of August 1917 and organized libertarian-oriented partisan groups, such as the “M. A. Bakunin Partisan Detachment” of Yekaterinoslav or the Black Guards detachments commanded by Maria Nikiforova in Ukraine. Anarchists were moreover critical to the defense against Admiral Kolchak’s White forces in eastern Russia and Siberia.

Grimly, the Red authorities used the pretext of the Moscow Black Guards’ supposed plans for an “anarchist counter-revolution” to suppress the movement in April 1918, by which time the movement in Russia had numbered an estimated 10,000 individuals (Goodwin 48). In parallel, Nestor Makhno’s Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine was organized on anarchist principles, and the Makhnovists played a crucial role in defending the Revolution from the reactionary White Armies led by Generals Denikin and Wrangel during 1919-1920—before they, too, were suppressed by the Bolsheviks. The Greens, a powerful guerrilla movement spearheaded by deserting ex-conscripts, successfully defended the autonomous peasant revolution against Whites and Reds alike in the Civil War (1918-20) until their eventual defeat by the centralizing Bolshevik State.

The Union for Anarcho-Syndicalist Propaganda began publishing Golos Truda (“The Voice of Labor”) in Petrograd as a weekly in summer 1917, continuing until spring 1918 and then restarting later in Moscow. The Union also founded an Anarcho-Syndicalist publishing house, but both the press and the Union were shut down by the Reds in 1919. Meanwhile, the Federation of Anarchist Groups of Moscow published the daily Anarchy, with an anarcho-communist perspective, carrying on intensive propaganda work from 1917-18. Though Federation members participated with the Dvintsi in the struggle against Kerensky, the Reds repressed the Federation in April 1918, eliminating the last of its militants by 1921. In Ukraine, Nestor Makhno, Peter Arshinov, Voline, and others were involved in the founding in late 1918 of the Nabat (“Tocsin”) Confederation, which sought a unified anarchist movement, proclaimed the necessity of libertarian social revolution through its Nabat newspaper, and tried to organize a Pan-Russian Anarchist Confederation—a project that was directly stifled by Trotsky. Like the Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine, all these anarchist organizations “eventually met with the same fate: brutal suppression by the ‘Soviet’ authority.”

The editors of Golos Truda, who included Voline and Maximov, among others, denounced the ongoing war and called on Russian conscripts to desert the war-effort, thus providing the possibility of an example to the rest of the world’s soldiers, who in unison could ignite a world revolution. The editors considered it their “first duty, our most sacred task, to take up this work immediately in our own land […by ] open[ing] new horizons for the laboring masses, [and] help[ing] them in their quest.” In their initial issues, they emphasized the importance of continuing and deepening the Revolution:

We say to the Russian workers, peasants, soldiers, revolutionists: Above all, continue the Revolution. Continue to organize yourselves solidly and to unite your new organizations: your communes, your unions, your committees, your Soviets. Continue—with firmness and perseverance, always and everywhere—to participate more and more extensively and more and more effectively, in the economic activity of the country. Continue to take into your hands, that is, into the hands of your organizations, all the raw materials and all the instruments indispensable to your labor. Continue to eliminate private enterprises.

Continue the Revolution! Do not hesitate to face the solution of all the burning questions of the present. Create everywhere the necessary organizations to achieve those solutions. Peasants, take the land and put it at the disposal of your committees. Workers, proceed to put in the hands of and at the disposal of your own social organizations—everywhere on the spot—the mines and the subsoil, the enterprises and establishments of airports, the works and factories, the workshops, and the machines.

Golos Truda’s editors stress the need for workers and peasants to create autonomous class organizations in order to press forward with the reconstruction of the economy from below, and the need for intellectuals to focus their efforts in helping the masses prepare for the “real Revolution” of socializing production. By means of such class organizations could the economic system realistically transition into serving popular interests. Demarcating their position from all statists, the editors observe that political parties are required for the task of taking power, but,

To take over the economy, a political party is not indispensable. But indispensable to that action are the organizations of the masses, independent organizations remaining outside of all political parties. It is upon these organizations that falls, at the moment of the Revolution, the task of building the new social and economic system.

That is why the Anarchists do not form a political party. They agitate, either directly in the mass organizations or—as propagandists—in groups and ideological unions.

As an illustration of the same, consider the fate of the Nobel refinery in Petrograd: in late 1917, the refinery’s workers decided to manage the site collectively in the wake of its abandonment by the owners during the Revolution, yet the Red authorities completely ignored their will and shuttered it anyway, laying off all the workers. The situation was generally very similar throughout much of Russia and Ukraine, for the Bolshevik authorities prohibited the masses from independent action, maligning such initiative as a “breach of discipline,” and actively suppressed autonomous social movements like those of the anarchists, the Makhnovists, and the Greens, as well as cooperatives, workers on strike, and peasants in revolt.

Golos Truda’s editors summarize it well:

Anarchism is not only an idea, a goal; it is, before anything else, also a method, a means of struggling for the emancipation of [humanity] […]. One cannot achieve Anarchism in any way except by going straight to the goal, by the direct Anarchist road. Otherwise one never will arrive (emphasis in original).

For further reading:

How did the events beginning in 1917 present two opposing conceptions of social revolution?

Voline emphasizes that, in spite of the “victory” of Bolshevism in power, anarchism represented a real alternative that envisaged “a full and integral social revolution” after February 1917. In 1918, this liberatory alternative posed such a threat to the Red State that the Bolsheviks felt compelled to utterly crush it by means of terror. It was thus through force rather than via discussion or debate that the Reds suppressed the anarchist alternative, initially in April 1918 through outright repression of anarchist individuals and collectives and the shuttering of libertarian social centers and presses, and evermore so between 1919-1921, particularly in Ukraine, where the Makhnovists struggled against White reaction and subsequently against Red betrayal. Voline writes that the period between Red October and the end of 1918 was “significant and decisive, and that it “was in the course of those months that the fate of the Revolution was decided.” Still, it was not until they had suppressed the Kronstadt Commune and otherwise eliminated the libertarian movement by the end of 1921 that the Reds became masters of the political situation, although even then their authority had in reality been destroyed throughout vast swathes of rural regions, as peasants set off mass-rebellions against conscription and the  grain-requisition regimes imposed by the Reds.

Whereas the Bolsheviks implemented statist-authoritarian means as their revolutionary strategy, Russian and Ukrainian anarchists followed Proudhon and Bakunin’s vision of “direct and federative alliance[s]” among the associated workers and peasants with their unions, communes, and cooperatives organized non-hierarchically along local, regional, and international lines. In contrast to the Marxist view of centralization first, followed in theory by an eventual “withering away of the State,” the anarchists stressed the importance of an immediate rather than delayed socialization of the means of production by the working classes. It is therefore untrue that anarchists had no vision for social organization after the Revolution. On the contrary, we see two contrasting principles of organization: namely, the Bolsheviks’ centralist-authoritarian principles versus the anarchists’ libertarian and federative ones. In Voline’s words, “Naturally, the Anarchists say, it is necessary that society be organized. But this new organization should be done freely, socially, and, certainly, from the bottom [up].”

Like Bakunin, Voline sees a role for an “elite” to organize the libertarian social revolution, but such revolutionary organizers must be “true collaborators” with the people, who help them, “enlighten them, teach them, […] impel them to take the initiative, […] and support them in their action,” not “dictators” who hold power dominate, subjugate, or oppress them. This is another key difference with Bolshevism, which prescribes an elite that is to be aided by the masses and armed forces through blind obedience. In contrast, anarchism envisions that, through

The natural interplay of their economic, technical, and social organizations, [and] with the help of the “elite” and, in case of need, under the protection of their freely organized armed forces, the labouring masses should […] be able to carry the Revolution effectively forward and progressively arrive at the practical achievement of all of its tasks.

Against the Reds’ interest in the “organization of power,” anarchists counterposed the project of “organizing the Revolution.” For Voline, there exists “an explicit and irreconcilable contradiction” between the true libertarian social revolution and “the theory and practice” of statism and authoritarianism.

 

How did the Revolution go wrong?

“the forward march of the revolutionary masses toward real emancipation, toward the creation of new forms of social life, is incompatible with the very principle of State power” (Voline).

In contrast to Trotsky’s well-known hypothesis set forth in The Revolution Betrayed (1937), that the “degeneration” of the Russian Revolution came about only with the rise of Stalin in 1924, the Bolshevik seizure of power on October 25-26, 1917, arguably can be considered the beginning of its corruption. Voline describes the storming of the Winter Palace as amounting “virtually [to] a palace revolution” that gave the Reds a clear tactical advantage over the anarchists. That the Russian masses entrusted the fate of the Revolution to the Bolsheviks reflected both the hegemony of statism in the Russian popular imagination as well as the “insufficiency of the preliminary destruction” achieved in the February Revolution. Voline means to say that the people’s toleration of the continued existence of the State after the fall of Tsarism set the stage for the Bolshevik seizure of power and the subsequent deviation and destruction of the Revolution. Instead of the left-wing coalition government favored by the Menshevik Yuli Martov or any sense of direct democracy based on the soviets, the victorious Bolsheviks effectively instituted a one-party dictatorship which claimed baselessly to represent the interests of the proletariat. Subsequently adopting a perspective that in a way anticipated the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt’s distinction between “friends” and “enemies,” the Reds forcibly disarmed the workers and their organizations and suppressed all alternative factions through the use of terror. As the publisher of Gregori Maximov’s The Guillotine at Work explains, during the Russian Civil War (1918-1920):

all-non Bolshevik elements were dubbed ‘petty-bourgeois and counter-revolutionary elements.’ Right and Left Social-Revolutionists, Social-Democrat[s] of all Shades, Maximalists, Anarchists of every tendency—all were placed in the same category of ‘counter-revolutionists.’ Soon these elements began to crowd not only the Tzar’s empty prisons but the vast number of private buildings converted by the Bolsheviks into prisons. Newly built ‘concentration camps,’ which were unknown to the Tzar’s government, were quickly filled (5-6).

In this way, the Bolshevik regime effectively instituted state slavery to defend its hegemony—such was the conclusion reached by Karl Kautsky, “the most prominent leader of world Social-Democracy,” while Lenin still lived (Maximov 20).

It is therefore highly ironic yet also revealing to consider that Lenin’s popularity after the February Revolution followed in large part from the entirely misleading vision he sets forth in the “April Theses” (1917), which argue that the Bolsheviks seek a “second revolution” that would overthrow the Provisional Government; abolish the police, military, and bourgeois State apparatus; and champion soviet power in its place. Acutely aware of the strong libertarian-humanist element in Russian socialism, the former exile knew that openly presenting his political project as Marxian centralism would be a non-starter in the motherland (21-3). Instead, he would attract the masses by appealing to the liberatory memory of the 1871 Paris Commune (31). In fact, such rhetorical “deviations” led several more moderate Russian Social Democrats to criticize Lenin’s call for immediate revolution as a reversion from Marxism to “Bakuninism”: Georgii Plekhanov especially made this connection, judging Lenin’s advocacy of the overthrow of the Provisional Government as “an insane and extremely harmful attempt to sow anarchist turmoil on the Russian Earth” (emphasis in original). In parallel, the Menshevik Martov considered Lenin’s advocacy of bypassing the “objectively necessary” historical stage of bourgeois democracy as a dangerous reorientation of the struggle from Marx to Bakunin (Goodwin 45-7).

Nevertheless, this feigned affinity with anarchism was purely instrumental and opportunistic: while in opposition to the Provisional Government, Lenin had militated greatly against the reinstatement of the death penalty in the Army, immediately upon taking power in October, he took steps to ensure that the revolutionary announcement abolishing the death penalty made on October 26, 1917—the day after the Winter Palace had fallen—was a mere formality. Instead, Lenin greatly impressed the need for the persistence of capital punishment. The appeal to the Paris Commune, therefore, was mere “bait,” a “weapon clearing the road to power” (Maximov 28-34). As the Red leader himself put it, “Do you really believe we shall be able to come out triumphant without the most drastic revolutionary terror?” (29).

Like his lieutenant Trotsky, then, Lenin was a State Terrorist, the “initiator and ideologist of terror in the Russian Revolution modeled upon the terror of the French Revolution” (Maximov 30). By suppressing not only the capitalists but also the rest of the non-Bolshevik left after October, these two figures bear principal responsibility for the vast suffering and death brought about by the Civil War. In targeting socialist-democratic forces of the Revolution for destruction, the Reds similarly targeted the masses of workers and peasants who supported these forces. In contrast, Maximov speculates that, had the broad Russian left been united rather than dealing with a treacherous war launched on it by the Bolsheviks, the “resistance” of the landowners and reactionaries who would go on to comprise the White Armies would have been easily defeated, and the need to resort to terror quite baseless (32-3). Instead, a myriad of socialist and anarchist groups, trade unions, and cooperatives became the regime’s adversaries (37). In parallel, workers and peasants who resisted Bolshevik policies—such as in the case of the latter, vast grain requisitions taken indiscriminately by the Red Army from rich and poor peasants alike to feed the cities—were depicted as “enemies of the people” (39). For this reason, many were targeted for arrest or assassination by the CheKa, or the Extraordinary Committee, which Lenin established in December 1917 (54-6).

For Maximov, then, the Marxist-Leninist centralized State views virtually the entire population as its enemy, with its only “friend” being the minority of pro-Bolshevik workers. This political strategy of championing the dictatorship of the proletariat—or really, the Party over the proletariat and the peasantry—hence inevitably becomes “a slaveholders democracy, which, as distinguished from the one of the ancient world, has for its aim freedom, economic equality, freeing the entire population from slavery, and all this is to be realized… by enslaving the entire population! Could there be a more absurd theory?” (41). Maximov here echoes Bakunin’s prescient warnings about the the risks associated with a Red bureaucracy: “Take the fiercest revolutionary and put him on the All-Russian throne or give him dictatorial power, […] and he will become worse than Alexander Nikolaevich [Alexander II] himself in a year.”

In light of the constellation of forces after Red October, it is quite unsurprising that freedom and equality came to be associated under Lenin with bourgeois delusions, and the critical victories over Tsarism represented by the securing of the freedom of the press, association, and organization in February thus easily rolled back (Maximov 42-3). Voline observes with reason that this suppression of freedom of speech, press, organization, and action “is fatal to true revolution.” Indeed, the Bolshevik regime revealed its autocratic character through its mass-violation of the formal abolition of capital punishment that had been decreed the day of the fall of the Winter Palace in October 1917 (55). The regime even wantonly executed followers of Tolstoy for observing their religious beliefs regarding non-cooperation with war in refusing conscription for the Red Army (10, 195). Ultimately, Lenin’s terroristic employment of the CheKa was in no way accountable to the soviets but rather a consciously elitist effort to “direct” the Revolution toward the Reds’ consolidation of power by means of the suppression of various rivals on left and right (57-8). In specifically targeting the libertarian movement, the Bolsheviks suppressed the Revolution itself. As Voline recounts:

Thus, inch by inch, the rulers become the absolute masters of the country. They create privileged classes on which they base themselves. They organize forces capable of sustaining them, and defend themselves fiercely against all opposition, all contradiction, all independent initiative. Monopolizing everything, they take over the whole life and activity of the country. And having no other way of acting, they oppress, subjugate, enslave, exploit. They repress all resistance. They persecute and wipe out, in the name of the Revolution, everyone who will not bend to their will.

To justify themselves, they lie, deceive, slander.

To stifle the truth, they are brutal. They fill the prisons and places of exile; they torture, kill, execute, assassinate.

That is what happened, exactly and inevitably, to the Russian Revolution.

For further reading:

 

What was the role of the Bolshevik Party?

The Bolsheviks, the supposed “majority” faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party, agitated and organized against the Provisional Government and Russia’s ongoing participation in World War I following the February 1917 Revolution. Yet as Voline observes, the Reds’ most popular slogansLong live the Revolution! Down with the war! The land to the peasants! The factories to the workers!were in fact appropriated from the anarchists. As discussed above, moreover, Lenin’s public program, as based on the April theses, invoked the liberatory model of the Paris Commune, thus gravely deceiving the Russian masses as to the Reds’ actual political project: the imposition of State capitalism in the name of communism. Consider Lenin’s comments from “The Tax in Kind” (1921), that,

[w]hile the revolution in Germany still tarries, our task should be to learn from the Germans how to run state capitalism, by all means to copy it from them and not to spare dictatorial methods in order to accelerate this process of taking over from the Germans, doing it at an even more rapid pace than the one followed by Peter the First in Westernizing barbarous Russia […] (emphasis added).

Wrongly considered the “leaders” of the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks in fact usurped power from the soviets and thus from the people through their October 1917 seizure of power, completely deviating the course of the Revolution. Even in November 1917, the editors of Golos Truda had anticipated that the soviets could well become merely executive organs of the nascent Red State; this is unfortunately what happened rather soon after Red October. Besides this, the Bolsheviks’ first major imposition on the masses came with the new authorities’ signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany (negotiations for which began in November 1917, with its ratification coming in March 1918), an accord that exchanged control over the Baltic States, Ukraine, and Belarus to the Central Powers for Russia’s withdrawal from the conflict. This deal, the invention of Lenin and Trotsky, greatly contradicted the wishes of the Russian masses, the Left SR’s, the Maximalists, the anarchists, and even the majority of the members of the Bolshevik Party’s Central Committee, who preferred to continue a revolutionary war against the Austro-Hungarian and German imperialists. Lenin’s self-assertion here presages the ruthless centralism that would govern the Reds’ consolidation of power through the terroristic elimination of political rivals and enemies, and it would serve as the grounds for the Left-SR’s attempt at their overthrow (July 1918).

The Bolshevik Party carried out one of the most disastrous examples of substitutionism in history: that is, the substitution of the autonomous, independent action of the people by the centralized rule of dictatorship. While they claimed to represent the interests of the workers and peasants, the Reds, “a government [comprised] of intellectuals, of Marxist doctrinaires,” in fact greatly oppressed them by means of their imposition of State capitalism over them. Through the Red Terror and during the Civil War, the Bolsheviks practiced self-preservation at the expense of millions of lives of workers and peasants and the very Revolution itself (Maximov 149, 185). The “bourgeois statist-reformers” Lenin and Trotsky essentially employed instrumental thinking and oppression in their own supposed struggle against oppression, which in effect was quite enslaving, and demonstrated clearly for all “how not to wage a revolution.”

The reactionary meaning of Bolshevik rule is illuminated well by the proletarian Communist Party member Gavril Miasnikov, who was expelled from the Party in 1922, effectively for thoughtcrime. Reflecting on the meaning of the Russian Revolution to date, Miasnikov addresses Lenin directly, observing, “To break the jaws of the international bourgeoisie is all very well, but the trouble is that you lift your hand against the bourgeoisie and you strike at the worker. Which class now supplies the greatest number of people arrested on charges of counter-revolution? Peasants and workers, to be sure” (Maximov 271, emphasis added).

For further reading:

What was the Red Terror?

“Lenin’s mind, like the mind of any partisan of dictatorship, of any dictatorship, works only along a single trackthe police” (Maximov 150).

The infamous Red Terror launched by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in April 1918 sought to resolve the contradiction between the profoundly libertarian progress seen since February with the Bolsheviks’ authoritarian vision for the region. The Terror is outlined in Lenin’s address on April 29, 1918, “The Immediate Tasks of Soviet Power,” which stresses the putative necessity of “halting the offensive upon capital” waged by striking workers and those engaged in self-management and industrial democracy (Maximov 59-62). Acknowledging the “great deal of elemental Anarchism” evident throughout the former Empire, Lenin insists in parallel on the need for an “iron power” to keep the anarchic peasantry under control (63-66). According to Voline, the Bolsheviks saw clearly that allowing anarchists freedom would be equivalent to political suicide. Soon after publishing “The Immediate Tasks,” Lenin reiterated the necessity of an “iron order” and announced a “great crusade” to be comprised of urban workers’ brigades against “grain speculators, Kulaks, village usurers, disorganizers, grafters [… and all] those who violate the strict order established by the State” in the countryside (Maximov 68). The plundering and murders engaged in by Red grain-requisitioners provoked a vast uprising of the peasantry throughout much of Russia and Ukraine—yet rather than lament such a turn of events, Lenin considered it a “merit” that “we [had] brought civil war to the village” (69-71).

The second stage of the Terror, an intensification of the same, began after the Left-SR and ex-anarchist Dora Kaplan’s attempt on Lenin’s life in August 1918. By means of these two stages, by the end of 1918, the Reds had suppressed civil liberties and banned all non-Communist publications, broken up anarchist collectives and murdered individual anarchists, outlawed the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks, suppressed the Left-SR’s, executed a countless number, and incarcerated tens of thousands (Maximov 84). In parallel, the peasantry was used as a target for exploitation and regimentation. Consider this testimony by a Left-SR about the scorched-earth tactics employed by the Reds against the peasants of Tambov:

I was arrested not in January 1921, but in September 1920. There was no wide insurrectionary movement in the government of Tambov, although there were detached cases of armed resistance on the part of the peasants to the requisitioning detachments who were shamelessly looting the villages. On the day of my arrival in Tambov the Central Executive Committee of Tambov Soviets hung out the following announcement, declaring that ‘because of their attempt to disrupt the campaign of grain collecting, the villages Verkhne-Spasskoye (ten thousand population), Koziri (six thousand), and four other villages were burnt, hundreds of peasants were shot, and their property was looted.’ During my six months of confinement in the prisons of the Tambov CheKa I had a chance to see for myself the nightmarish picture of mass-annihilation and ruination of the toiling peasants of the government of Tambov which was carried on by the Communist authorities: hundreds of peasants were shot by the Revolutionary Circuit Courts and the Tambov CheKa; thousands of unarmed peasants were mowed down by the machine guns of the students of military schools and Communists, and tens of thousands were exiled to the far away North, while their property was burned or looted. The same picture, according to the data which the party of Left-Social-Revolutionaries has at its disposal, can be drawn for a number of other provinces: the government of Samara, Kazan, Saratov, in Ukraine, Siberia, etc. (Maximov 87-8).

Official statistics show that there were at least 245 peasant uprisings in 1918, and 99 in the first half of 1919 (Maximov 91). These were cruelly suppressed by the Reds, and such suppression in turn catalyzed further rebellions. Indeed, echoing the Left-SR’s testimony cited above, the CheKa gave explicit orders for the utilization of “mass terror” against villages considered to be supportive of the Green guerrillas, who defended the local peasant revolution (122-3). Additionally, the Reds in 1919-1920 destroyed the Russian cooperative movement due to its ties to non-Bolshevik socialists; as Maximov writes, “the cooperatives furnished an abundant and ever-renewed supply of inmates for the prisons and concentration camps” (132-3). By thus “ruthlessly persecuting all those who differed with them in opinion,” Lenin and Trotsky are clearly responsible for the vast crimes of the Terror, as for preparing the conditions for the 1921 famine, which took the lives of over 5 million people, in accordance with official statistics (96, 185). While 1921 did see drought and a resulting poor harvest, that the peasantry lacked accumulated stock due to the Reds’ grain-requisition regime can explain the breadth and depth of the famine (183-4).

Yet, by this time, Lenin would rationalize such State Terror by saying that the alternative of equality and democracy advocated by Left-SR’s, anarchists, and other democratic critics would necessarily allow the White reaction victory in the Civil War, such that, according to this thought process, Left-SR’s, anarchists, and democrats effectively became imperialist stooges and agents for the “restoration of capitalism.” Lenin explicitly says as much, calling those who “continue to struggle for the ‘equality of labor democracy’ […] partisans of Kolchak,” the leader of the Whites (Maximov 94). In this way, the emergence of the Civil War and the White reaction was utilized as a new and retroactive rationalization of the pre-existing Terror, and grounds for its expansion, as in Petrograd and Astrakhan, where the CheKa in 1919 forcibly suppressed striking workers (99-103). Maximov estimates that in 1919 alone, the Chekist terror took the lives of 25,000, with some 44,000 imprisoned and subjected to starvation, forced labor, torture, and rampant disease (111-2). In the provinces ruled by Trotsky, workers were often shot for “violating labor discipline” (136). This follows from the demand he made at the Third All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions (1920) for the “militarization of labor,” and his deluded sense that, the Soviet Union supposedly having become a “Workers’ State,” labor no longer had any need to organize independently of the State.

In February 1920, the CheKa announced the formal abolition of the death penalty in Russia with the exception of the war front, yet in May it was re-established by official decree. Just before the ban came into effect in February, however, CheKa head Felix Dzherzhinsky ordered the mass-execution of those sentenced to death, with the Left-SR A. Izmaylovich recalling the shooting of 150 prisoners in Moscow on the eve of the decree’s proclamation (Maximov 119-20). Red authoritarianism only burgeoned more: in “The Party Crisis” (January 1921), Lenin defended labor’s militarization, dismissed talk of industrial democracy, and identified the heresy of “syndicalist deviation” as something to be extirpated (Maximov 144-5). Whereas the policies of forcible grain requisitions in large part had triggered the 1921-1922 famine, Lenin in no way relieved the peasantry of this yoke but instead continued to demand further extraction, wielding terror against peasants who resisted and restricting the movement of starving peasants to other provinces in search of food by means of military cordons (149-50).

Thus, in contrast to the political opening expected by many leftists, workers, and peasants following the victory over the Whites in the Civil War—the hopes of getting on with the project of instituting a new Paris Commune in Russia, as falsely projected by Lenin in 1917 and 1918—the Reds showed that they were fully prepared to continue using State Terror to hold on to power. Alongside the fate of the Makhnovists, the suppression of the Kronstadt Commune is the best evidence for this sad reality, accounting for a quarter of the estimated 70,000 lives taken by the Red Terror in the year 1921 (Maximov 199).

Altogether, from 1917 to 1924, Maximov estimates that 200,000 lives were taken directly by the Red Terror, and that the Bolshevik experiment overall cost between 8 and 10 million lives, if we factor in victims of the Civil War and the 1921 famine, or between 10 and 13 million, if we incorporate the deaths attributable to the White Terror and reaction as well as the 1924 famine (Maximov 240-1).

For further reading:

What was the Russian Civil War?

The Russian Civil War, launched by the top-heavy White Army against the Revolution in 1918 with the forces of international reaction behind it, centrally pitted Reds against Whites but also saw important liberatory roles played by the Greens, the Left-SR’s, and the Makhnovists, all of whom opposed Whites and Reds alike. White Armies led variously by Generals Denikin and Wrangel as well as Admiral Kolchak were defeated by the joint action of the people in the revolt, the Makhnovists, the Greens, and the Red Army by 1920. Voline points out that some of this counter-revolutionary militarism was actually supported by Right-SR’s and Mensheviks. Yet by the end of 1919, with “Kolchak and Denikin […] defeated and the movements headed by them […] virtually liquidated,” much of Russia and Ukraine had been “cleared of white guardist bands” (Maximov 113). According to Maximov, irregular libertarian partisans of Russia’s Far East were decisive in the defeat of the Whites in that region (236).

The Greens, so named thanks to their forest and marshland hideouts, united many “deserter comrades” with disaffected peasants impelled by hatred of State exploitation into rural partisan armies that defended the Revolution from Red and White alike in Ukraine, the Volga and Urals regions, Siberia, and some central Russian provinces (Posadskii 8, 11). Makhno, himself a peasant, led the Insurgent Army through Ukraine, inflicting devastating losses on Whites as his liberatory forces went. Influenced by anarchism, Makhno hoped to create a peasant utopia on the land; unlike many Greens, who opposed both Reds and Whites, Makhno engaged in tactical alliances with the Reds until 1920, when the latter betrayed the Makhnovists following their vital services rendered to the defense of the Revolution. Whereas Makhno and his followers together with the Siberian Greens favored free soviets and free federations, the Greens met with a similar fate at the hands of the victorious Bolsheviks: the Red Army engaged in scorched-earth tactics against peasant communities considered to be supportive of the guerrilla movement, specifically targeting family members of known Greens for reprisal in Caucasia, Crimea, and the Don basin (Posadskii 4-14; Maximov 176-7, 194-5).

In response to their perception of the Bolsheviks’ capitulation to imperialism with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Left-SR’s assassinated the German ambassador and a high-ranking German officer in July 1918, and they spearheaded a short-lived uprising against the Bolsheviks in Moscow. Later, from 1920-1921, the Left-SR Alexander Antonov led a major Green uprising in the Tambov region, one so menacing Lenin would consider it the single greatest threat to his rule. Yet the Tambov Rebellion, too, was put down using overwhelming force, as detailed above.

The flag of the Green Armies of the Russian Revolution

What about the imperialists?

There is no doubt that the capitalist powers intervened on the side of the Whites against the Revolution in the Russian Civil War. The infamous Czech Legion, for example, seized control of the Trans-Siberian Railroad (completed under Nicholas II) during part of the Civil War, and imperialist governments supplied the Whites heavily with arms and ammunition. The “North Russia” campaign by U.S., British, French, and Polish forces captured the key port city of Arkhangelsk from the Reds in 1918. Nonetheless, such imperialist intervention cannot explain or rationalize the depravity of Bolshevik rule. As Lenin and company often blamed the shortcomings of the Revolution on “capitalist encirclement” and the “inaction” of the global proletariat, they assumed that the success of the Russian Revolution depended on the spread of social revolution to other countries, yet did not stop to think that the very opposite might be true: that the “extension of the Revolution depended upon the results of the revolution in Russia.” In this sense, the lack of an expanding global Bolshevik upheaval perhaps reflected workers’ ambiguities about the meaning of the Russian Revolution after its deviation by the Reds. In July 1918, the Bolsheviks would see the repercussions of their negotiating a peace with the German and Austro-Hungarian imperialists, when the Left-SR’s attempted an abortive uprising to overthrow Lenin and his colleagues due to their desire to defend the Revolution by continuing the war against imperialism.

Soldiers from the counter-revolutionary Czech Legion

What happened in Ukraine?

In Ukraine, Makhno, Arshinov, and Voline worked with the syndicalist Nabat (“Alarm”) confederation once the Revolution broke out. The Makhnovists proclaimed “Land and Liberty,” expropriated the land, and promoted soviet-based democracy in the regions they liberated. In 1919, the Insurrectionary Army led by Makhno hailed the Third Revolution against the Bolsheviks and called for land to be transferred from the Red State directly to the peasantry itself.

In 1919, the Reds conspired to crush the Makhnovists, even as the Insurrectionary Army was holding the line against the White General Denikin’s forces invading from the south. The Bolsheviks’ calculus was that Denikin would annihilate Makhno’s forces, thus eliminating a major rival to their rule, and then the Ukrainian peasantry would rebel against the occupying Whites and so weaken it before a victorious Red Army counter-offensive. Toward this end, in June Trotsky declared illegal the Fourth Extraordinary Convention being organized by the Makhnovists and ordered the arrest and execution of a number of commanders, though Makhno escaped unharmed.

Thereafter, the Insurrectionary Army regrouped and rallied to the defense of the Revolution, wreaking havoc in the rear of Denikin’s forces, which were thereafter easily defeated en route to Moscow by the Red Army (Maximov 108-111). The Reds then re-entered into a tactical military alliance with the Makhnovists to rout the White General Wrangel’s forces in Crimea. Importantly, the text of this pact stipulates that those regions in which the Makhnovists have presence are to be governed by the principles of “autonomy, federalism, and free agreement” in their relations with the Reds (126). Yet once Wrangel too had been defeated, Red Army commanders ordered the Insurrectionary Army to incorporate itself into the Red Army (127-8); when they refused to do so, they were criminalized as “bandits,” and the Reds banned their planned 1920 pan-Russian anarchist congress in Kharkov, ordering Makhno’s arrest as a “counter-revolutionary.” The militants were crushed, and the leadership driven into exile (Avrich 60).

The fate of the Makhnovists followed from the Reds’ premeditated policy of physically destroying popular insurgent movements, both “those that were hostile to them as well as those that fought together with them against Kolchak and Denikin” (173-4). How ironic that the anarchists’ heroic defense of the Southern line against the Whites only facilitated the Reds’ repression of the libertarian movement throughout Russia!

A similar story is seen in Russia’s Far East, where the Reds suppressed anarchists, Maximalists, and Left-SR’s after their critical contributions to the defeat of the White reaction in the region (Maximov 237-8).

For further reading:

Were Makhno and his followers anti-Semitic?

No, though Red apologists such as Trotsky like to claim that the Makhnovists hated Jews. Against such slanderous charges, Voline cites the example of Grigoriev, an ex-tsarist officer who led a reactionary peasant movement in Ukraine in 1919 that did engage in pogroms: “One of the reasons for the execution of Grigoriev by the Makhnovists was his anti-semitism and the immense pogrom he organised at Elizabethgrad, which cost the lives of nearly three thousand persons.”

He adds several other reasons showing the Makhnovists’ opposition to anti-Semitism, including the facts that a “fairly important part in the Makhnovist Army was played by revolutionists of Jewish origin,” that the Insurrectionary Army counted with several Jewish combatants and contained entirely Jewish fighting units, that Ukrainian Jewish communities provided many volunteers to the Army, and that “the Jewish population, which was very numerous in the Ukraine, took an active part in all the activities of the movement.”

Thus we see that the Makhnovist movement, though greatly inspired politically by the example of Mikhail Bakunin, progressed beyond this anarchist militant’s conspiratorial anti-Semitism to strictly punish chauvinistic acts inspired by such prejudice. For his part, Bakunin believed in the fantasy of universal Jewish power, and he conflates the power of finance capital with delusions about Jewish domination. See Statism and Anarchy.

What happened at Kronstadt in 1921?

The Kronstadt Commune of March 1921 was preceded by strike movements among workers in Petrograd and Moscow who demanded resolution to their starvation conditions as well as a halt to the terror and free soviet elections. The Reds met these striking workers with mass-arrests, lockouts, the declaration of martial law in Petrograd, and ultimately the armed suppression of workers in the city. As Maximov writes, whether ironically or not, “[t]the Petrograd scene strikingly resembled the last week of the Tzar’s absolutist regime” on the eve of the conflict (160). The sailors of Kronstadt echoed their fellow workers’ demands from across the bay, outlining in the Petropavlovsk resolution of February 28, 1921, fifteen demands, including the re-establishment of civil liberties, free elections to the soviets, the release of political prisoners, the review of all cases of those imprisoned and held in concentration camps, the right to organize labor unions, the immediate abolition of grain-requisitions, the liberation of the peasantry, and the abolition of Bolshevik commissars in the military and overseeing workplaces. While the resolution affirmed its demands within the parameters of the Soviet Constitution, Lenin and Trotsky found it profoundly threatening. They feared that its spirit could spread quickly within the armed forces—that the “petty-bourgeois [sic] Anarchist elemental forces [were] the most dangerous enemy, which might draw many sympathizers and partisans, which might obtain strong backing in the country and change the sentiments of the great masses of people” (Maximov 175). As such, they slandered the Kronstadt sailors, insulting them as being the dupes of Socialist Revolutionaries, a former tsarist general known as Kozlovsky, and the proto-fascist Black Hundreds.

The Bolsheviks then declared a state of emergency in Petrograd, clarifying that any crowds “congregating in the streets” were to be immediately shot, with any soldiers resisting such orders themselves to be summarily executed. The Reds also took several relatives of the sailors hostage (Maximov 165). In response, the Kronstadters took up arms to defend themselves and declared the abolition of the death penalty while themselves taking some 280 Reds hostage. Unfortunately, however, the weather was still cold enough to allow for the bay to be frozen over, thus facilitating a ground invasion of the island-fortress. Ultimately, after more than 10 days of artillery bombardment, Trotsky’s battalions, aided by ex-tsarist generals and supported by Chinese and Bashkir reinforcements, overwhelmed the Kronstadters and retook the island on March 17. An estimated 18,000 insurgents were killed in the fighting and executed shortly after their defeat (Maximov 164-8).

On March 18, the Reds held a public celebration in Petrograd marking fifty years since the beginning of the Paris Commune—this, as Kronstadt lay visibly in ruins. Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, who had attempted to intercede before the Bolsheviks to avert the Commune’s violent suppression, listened aghastly to Bolshevik military bands playing “The Internationale” in the streets. Goldman writes that “[i]ts strains, once jubilant to my ears, now sounded like a funeral dirge for humanity’s flaming hope,” while Berkman caustically observes that “Trotsky and Zinoviev denounce Thiers and Gallifet for the slaughter of the Paris rebels.”

How did Lenin contradict his supposed anti-imperialist principles while in power?

Lenin is known for his supposedly innovative characterization of imperialism as “the highest stage of capitalism,” and his view that capitalism will be taken down by the revolt of peoples oppressed by imperialism. Lenin expressed concern for the persistence of “Great Russian chauvinism” over the former Russian Empire’s numerous minorities and oppressed nationalities. So what was his relationship to such principles after he seized power over the Russian Empire?

Ukraine

See above. The Bolsheviks clearly did not favor Ukrainian self-determination.

Georgia

In February 1921, the Red Army invaded and occupied its southern neighbor Georgia from  Armenia, reproducing the Red Terror in the newly conquered country. This imperialistic venture followed from the general maxim of the Terror: As Georgian Mensheviks had declared independence in October 1917, this renegade province of the Russian Empire required a coercive corrective to its course. An appeal from Tiflis (Tbilisi) workers to the workers of Western Europe from August 1921 speaks to the repression imposed by the foreign Red rulers:

From the very first days Georgia was conquered, we were placed in the position of and treated as slaves. We were deprived of freedom of speech, of press, assembly, and the right of free association. A regime of military labor service has been imposed upon all the workers of Georgia, irrespective of their occupation. Everywhere Extraordinary Committees (CheKa) have been set up […]. The advanced workers of Georgia, irrespective of their party affiliation, are thrown into prison where they are being decimated by hunger and diseases. Human life has become of no value. Innocent people are shot, even those who never mixed into politics, who never took part in any political struggle. People were shot because they served the democratic government, the State; because in open war they defended their native country from the invasion of foreign troops (Maximov 171-2).

Alongside Mensheviks, then, Georgian national-liberation fighters were targeted for elimination by the occupying Reds (236).

Central Asia: Kirghiz-Kazakh Steppe and Turkestan

A map of Turkestan/Central Asia using current borders

Larger map situating Turkestan in relation to western Russia (using current borders)

In Central Asia, the Reds’ desire to maintain imperial hegemony over the region led it to support Tsarist-era settler-colonists against the indigenous populations, resulting in a popular resistance movement known as the Basmachi (Russian for “raiders”), and subsequently intensify the conflict and ultimately accommodate the resistance movement.

Both armed rebellion in the late Tsarist era and the emergence of the Basmachi movement in Soviet Turkestan had important bases in the colonization of the Central Asian steppe during the Tsarist period. This colonization, greatly enhanced by the onset of the Stolypin reforms (1901-3), which effectively targeted the rural commune for elimination, expelled the indigenous Kirghiz-Kazakh people from the best grazing lands and disrupted their traditional way of life, resulting in annual famines from 1910 to 1913 (Pipes 83; Rywkin 16). Increasingly greater stresses on the Kirghiz-Kazakh caused them to revolt in 1916 after they were targeted for conscription during World War I. One important factor that contributed to the popular resistance to this measure was that these Muslims would be conscripted to fight alongside non-Muslims against the Ottoman Caliph (Pipes 83; Olcott 353). Following repression of the revolt, many Kirghiz-Kazakh fled to Turkestan, and this together with the entirety of the travails experienced by the indigenous peoples during the late Tsarist period caused Kirghiz-Kazakh political leaders to seek the definitive termination of Russian settlement of the region (Rywkin 17). To this end, the Kirghiz-Kazakh had, before the 1917 Revolution, begun to demand territorial autonomy above all else, in the hope that self-rule would allow them to legislate in favor of indigenous peoples and reverse the excesses of Russian colonization (Pipes 85).

Following the Revolution and further armed conflict with Kirghiz-Kazakhs returning from exile, the Russian settler-colonists increasingly came to side with the Bolsheviks, hoping to use the rhetoric of proletarian dictatorship against the indigenous Muslims: Bolshevism, in this sense, was to mean the rule of workers, soldiers, and peasants, and since the Kirghiz-Kazakh supposedly had no such organized classes or groups, they were “not to rule but be ruled” (Pipes 86). Delegates to the 1917 Congress of Soviets, fearful of losing control over the empire’s many disparate nationalities and Central Asia’s lucrative cotton production, voted against any consideration of autonomy for Turkestan and the participation of Muslims in the Soviet administration in Central Asia (Pipes 91; Olcott 359-60).

Following up such rhetoric, the Reds, after their occupation of Turkestan in 1919, excluded local nationalists from political power. Even when the Kirghiz republic was allowed autonomy a few years later, Russian settler-colonists in the area refused to accept its sovereignty and worked to undermine it, and the Kirghiz-Kazakh nationalists, without an army, political organizations, or connections in Moscow, could do little to effectively liberate the region. The 1921 and 1922 famines that struck the Kirghiz-Kazakh steppe affected the indigenous populations significantly, as they had lost much of their livestock following the 1916 rebellion and disproportionately received less food from government distributions. The profound effects of this famine can explain the subsequent lack of indigenous popular resistance to the Soviet regime in the Kirghiz-Kazakh region, in contrast to the case of Turkestan (Pipes 174).

The Basmachi

Soviet rule in Turkestan met with greater challenges than that over the Kirghiz-Kazakh region. Though Soviet rule greatly discounted indigenous interests here as it did in the Kirghiz-Kazakh steppe, it met with opposition from an indigenous Muslim government based in Kokand and, following the breakdown of the Kokand regime, an emerging popular resistance movement known as the Basmachi (Russian for “raiders”). As in the Kirghiz-Kazakh region, Soviet power found support from settler-colonial elements, but here it met opposition from the autonomy-seeking Kokand government, supported by the politically-inclined segments of the indigenous populations and anti-Communist elements. The Tashkent Soviet, in an effort to extend control over rural Turkestan, supported persecutions, expulsions from the land, and looting of the indigenous Muslims, creating a situation which one contemporary Soviet official equated with the “feudal exploitation of the broad masses of the indigenous population by the Russian Red Army man, colonist, and official” (Pipes 177-8, emphasis added). Though the Tashkent Soviet firmly controlled urban areas, it had little authority over the countryside, where the populace had been alienated by Soviet cooperation in what it deemed a continued colonization. Tensions at this time between the two rival governments came to a head, and the Tashkent Soviet, fearful of the Kokand government’s emphasis on national self-determination, ordered the city of Kokand destroyed, its government overthrown (Pipes 174-8).

Following this brazen dismissal of indigenous interests, the Tashkent Soviet made little effort to win back the allegiance of its Muslims subjects and made little effort to relieve those affected by the winter famine of 1917-18, thus pushing more Muslims into supporting and joining the Basmachi movement (Rywkin 22-3). To some, the destruction of the Kokand Islamic government and its replacement with a secular, anti-religious State constituted blasphemy and can explain emergent cooperation with the developing Basmachi movement (Olcott 358). The Tashkent Soviet’s efforts at confiscating waqf, or clerical lands, for the benefit of the regime; the closing of religious schools; and the discontinuation of shari’at courts further contributed to popular opposition to the Soviet regime (Pipes 259).

The emergence of the popular resistance movement known as the Basmachi constituted a reaction to perceived Soviet abuses and excesses which, gathering support from the general populace, struggled violently against foreign occupation and resulted in an escalation and intensification of counter-insurgency efforts. In contrast to the later occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989), the Soviets eventually came to realize that brute force itself would not succeed in bringing an end to popular insurrection in Turkestan, and so they successfully co-opted the Basmachi movement from below by responding to the needs and desires of the populace supporting the movement.

Following the fall of Kokand, many indigenous individuals involved in the government, along with others suffering under the requisitions and looting attendant with the Soviet regime, joined the Basmachi, who previously had been feared by the population at large as bandits and common criminals. The group came to represent the struggle for liberation from Soviet rule (Pipes 178; Rywkin 33). The Basmachi soon grew to control the Turkestani countryside, generally enjoying the support of the population and, by violently punishing collaboration with the Soviet regime, coercing those who would think twice about backing them (Rywkin 35; Haugen 89). Though targeted at Bolshevik rule, the Basmachi resistance increasingly came to represent a Muslim struggle against Russians rather than an anti-communist campaign (Rywkin 38). The movement, plagued by lack of unity among its leaders, hoped to overcome these difficulties and approach victory with the defection of Enver Pasha, a former ruler of Turkey whom Lenin had sent to quell the insurgency, yet who ended up joining it himself. Enver’s integration into the Basmachi strengthened the movement, increasing its numbers to twenty thousand members who now could count a number of victories under their belts. Nonetheless, Enver failed to unify the resistance, having antagonized other Basmachi commanders with his vision of a pan-Turkic Muslim empire (Pipes 258; Rywkin 39). With his death in battle against the Reds in 1922, all hopes to consolidate the resistance movement ended (Pipes 259).

The Soviet regime coupled military escalation in response to Basmachi with political concessions. The combination of these two factors undermine popular support for the Basmachi and thus their effectiveness. Moscow saw in the emergence and perpetuation of the Basmachi movement the persistent refusal of the Tashkent Soviet to grant autonomy to indigenous peoples, such that, in 1918, Stalin ordered Turkestan autonomous. However, the non-cooperation of local communists with this directive caused it to be irrelevant until Lenin later intensified central pressure on the Tashkent communists (Pipes Ibid 179, 183). The result of heavy pressuring, the 1920 Seventh Congress of Soviets was the first to allow Muslim participation, but few would-be delegates attended for fear of reprisals from the then-raging Basmachi movement (Rywkin 26). The Eighth Congress, though, yielded an indigenous majority in the Tashkent government, thus arousing the hopes of Turkestani intellectuals for self-determination. Although Lenin, in contrast to the Russian settler-colonists in Turkestan, may have favored real autonomy for the Muslim peoples of the region in theory, he was not willing to countenance an autonomy that would threaten the unity of the Soviet regime and the centralized rule of the Communist Party (Rywkin 32).

Following these political concessions came a burgeoning Soviet military presence in Turkestan. Eventually, Soviet and local leaders increasingly came to realize that the coupling of military escalation with political half-measures would not bring order to the region. To this end, the administration overturned the most unpopular reforms: the waqf was returned, Koranic schools were legalized, shari’a courts were granted increased autonomy, taxes were cut by half, and food supplies to indigenous peoples were increased (Pipes 259; Rywkin 41; Olcott 360). Moreover, the introduction of the New Economic Policy permitted a return to private trade, and ended the forced requisitions of food and cotton, the origin of much resentment toward the Soviet regime (Pipes 259; Rywkin 41). Given these substantial concessions, much of the previous support for the Basmachi dissipated, and order was restored for the Communist Party in much of the region.

How did Red October, the Red Terror, and the Civil War lead to Stalin’s rule?

As we have seen, the Bolshevik seizure of power gave rise to the Red Terror and the Civil War. According to Maximov, the “entire country was turned into a prison” so that Bolshevik control of the State would persist (192, emphasis in original). The Reds never once tried to negotiate peaceful settlement of conflicts during the Civil War or thereafter, but simply resorted to intimidation as based on the real threat of physical annihilation by means of the Red Army and the CheKa plus its successor, the GPU (State Political Administration) (179, 207). In quashing all alternatives to Bolshevik hegemony, including striking workers and peasants in revolt, the Reds exhausted the sources of resistance that could have averted Stalin’s rise or reversed it shortly after its emergence. By 1922, the rate of State repression against socialists and anarchists lessened to some degree simply because most of them had by this time already been suppressed (213-223). In cultural terms, Lenin’s partner, N. K. Krupskaya, circulated a list of forbidden literature that included Kant, Plato, the Gospels, Schopenhauer, Kropotkin, Tolstoy, and Bakunin in 1923, demanding that libraries remove these authors and works from circulation immediately (221-2). Of course, the Nazis would publicly burn books by many of these same authors in the years to come.

As Paul Mattick argues, there is very little in Stalinism that did not also exist in Leninism or Trotskyism. Indeed, it is quite telling that a variation on the same boast Trotsky would make after the April 1918 raids against the anarchists—that “At last the Soviet government, with an iron broom, has rid Russia of Anarchism”would be used by Stalin’s hangmen to hail the purges against Trotskyists and Old Bolsheviks fifteen years later.

For further reading:

What lessons should we take from the Russian Revolution?

Metaphorically, the Russian Revolution illustrates “the resplendent rays of freedom” melting away an ossified despotism, thanks to the action of “the common people [who] swept over the land like spring floods and washed away the debris of the old regime” (Maximov 336). The heroic, libertarian mass-mobilizations of February 1917 opened the horizon of possibility, astonishing the rest of the world through the suddenness of their overthrow of the Tsar. In this Revolution, the peasantry retook the land and many workers engaged in cooperative self-management of production. Yet the historical burdens of Tsarism put the working classes at a disadvantage, in the sense that they could not self-organize openly as long as Nicholas II ruled. Following his abdication, the absence of workers’ class-organizations which could serve as “receiving sets” for the implementation of anarchism in Russia and throughout the former Empire greatly hampered the cause in the struggle between libertarian and authoritarian socialism that characterized the years 1917-1921. To a considerable extent, this lack can explain the defeat of the anarchists by the Reds in the Red Terror and Civil War.

The anarchist Revolution, of course, can only begin through the action of the masses in conjunction with specifically anarchist militants, who must not be allowed to hold coercive power over the people. The success of this Revolution depends ultimately on whether its emancipatory nature can win over the “neutral” mass through its positive results. A final essential element is working toward the ideological destruction of what Voline terms the “political principle”: statism and authoritarianism.

We close with the most hopeful interpretation of the tragedy of the Russian Revolution, one that is not specific to this event but rather to all other major historical setbacks: “Let Russia serve as a lesson to all other nations. Let the mountains of corpses and the oceans of blood shed by its people be a redeeming sacrifice for all nations, for the toilers of all countries” (Maximov 334).


Works Cited

Avrich, Paul. Kronstadt 1921 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970).

Bakunin, Mikhail. Statism and Anarchy, trans. and ed. Marshall Shatz (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counter-Revolution, ed. Friends of Aron Baron (Chico, California: AK Press, 2017).

Goodwin, James. Confronting Dostoevsky’s Demons (New York: Peter Lang, 2010).

Haugen, Arne. The Establishment of National Republics in Soviet Central Asia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

Maximov, G. P. The Guillotine at Work: Twenty Years of Terror in Russia (Chicago: Globus Printing, 1979 [1940]).

Olcott, Martha B. “The Basmachi or Freeman’s Revolt in Turkestan 1918-24.” Soviet Studies 33.3 (July 1981): 352-69.

Pipes, Richard. The Formation of the Soviet Union (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).

Posadskii, A. V. Девятнадцатый, зеленый… («Зеленое» движение в годы Гражданской войны в России) (Saratov: Publikatsiya RFFI, 2016).

Rywkin, Michael. Moscow’s Muslim Challenge: Soviet Central Asia (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1990).

Skirda, Alexandre. Nestor Makhno: Anarchy’s Cossack, trans. Paul Sharkey (Oakland: AK Press, 2004).

Voline, The Unknown Revolution (Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1975 [1947]).

Recommended Statements and Memoirs

Recommended Films

  • October, dir. Sergei Eisenstein (1928)
  • From Tsar to Lenin, dir. Herman Axelbank (1937)
  • Doctor Zhivago, dir. David Lean (1965)
  • Reds, dir. Warren Beatty (1981)
  • Red in Blue, dir. Thibout Bertrand (2017)

Review: The Anarchist Roots of Geography

March 29, 2017

Springer cover

Originally published on Marx and Philosophy, 28 March 2017

In The Anarchist Roots of Geography, a “proverbial call to nonviolent arms,” Simon Springer discusses some of the past, present, and future relationships between anarchism and geography. He mobilizes the thought of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Peter Kropotkin, Elisée Reclus, and Lev Tolstoy to denounce global capitalism and oppression—declaring, with Kropotkin, that anarchism is “what geography ought to be”—while also affirming the more contemporary approaches of Saul Newman and Todd May, who have advanced the idea of “post-structuralist anarchism” in opposition to classical approaches through a turn to thinkers like Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Jacques Derrida, and Judith Butler, among others. Springer therefore presents his own perspective as amounting variably to “anarchism without adjectives” or “post-anarchism,” neither of which is the same. The former refers to the synthesist approach favored by Voline and others in opposition to the anarcho-communist Platformism advanced by Nestor Makhno, Peter Arshinov, and other exiled militants following the defeat of the Russian Revolution. Post-anarchism, a more recent development, integrates the nihilism, irrationalism, and defeatism of postmodern analyses in expressing opposition to social revolution and universalism as “totalizing narratives.” In this way, while The Anarchist Roots of Geography provides many compelling insights, it itself presents a synthesis of a number of anarchist or anarchistic approaches that cannot so readily be melded together.

Springer’s main project in this volume is to bring geography back to its radical anarchist roots, thus issuing a course correction of sorts beyond those set by the hegemonic presence of Marxists within academic geography departments starting in the late 1960s. The author presents the works of Kropotkin and Reclus as luminous alternatives to the ethnocentrism and state-centricity that has plagued the discipline since its origins. Springer wishes to wield anarchism, defined as the practice of mutual aid with the concern for universal geography in mind, to undermine statism, capitalism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, imperialism, and speciesism (or anthroparchy). For him, anarchism is the “only meaningful form of postcolonialism” (38), as the State-form effectively continues colonization even after formal independence, and—following Reclus—it must centrally express concern for the integrity of the planetary system by means of nature conservation, vegetarianism, and opposition to animal cruelty. Springer here traces the philosophical arc linking Reclus with social ecology and the animal-rights and animal-liberation movements. The author holds that direct action, cooperation, and prefigurative politics can allow humanity to affiliate by free federation, reestablish equality among humans, rebuild the commons, and overturn the domination of nature. Taking after Proudhon (1840), who analyzed property as originating in the Roman concept of sovereignty, or patriarchal despotism, Springer defines property as violence and calls for insurrection—but not revolution—against oppression. Echoing Reclus, he emphasizes the place of beauty in the struggle, citing Albert Einstein’s view that “[o]ur task” must be to “wide[n] our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty” (137), and he declares the importance of unity for anarchy, in parallel to the teachings of Taoism, Buddhism, and Baruch de Spinoza.

Some of the specific suggestions Springer makes for future research into the intersection of anarchism with geography include the following topics:

  • State theory and sovereignty
  • Capital accumulation and flows, land rights, property relations
  • Gentrification, homelessness, housing, environmental justice
  • Labor, logistics, policing, and incarceration geographies
  • Critical geopolitics, geographies of debt and economic crisis, geographies of war and peace, etc.

In advocating an anarchist understanding of geography, Springer seeks to depose the dominance of Marxian and Marxist approaches within the discipline, holding these responsible for the perpetuation of State-centric analyses in place of a geographical exploration of alternatives to the State altogether. Springer argues against Marx’s statism and “dialectical” enthusiasm for colonialism, defending instead the anarchist emphasis on the need for consistency between means and ends. Stating openly that “[f]lirtation with authority has always been a central problem with Marxism” (158), he discusses how anarchists do not share Marx’s positivistic-utilitarian enthusiasm for the centralizing and despotic features of capitalism. In the anarchist view, capitalist exploitation and imperial domination are not considered necessary parts of the Geist. “The means of capitalism and its violences do not justify the eventual end state of communism, nor does this end justify such means” (52). For Springer, then, anarchism is a more integral approach than Marxism, as the former recognizes the multiple dimensions of oppression in opposition to the latter, which is said to focus almost exclusively on class, while misrepresenting anarchism as being opposed only to the State. Springer believes that Marxism allows no space for addressing oppressions outside of exploitation. Moreover, anarchists prescribe action in the here and now, rather than advocating a dialectical waiting period until the “objective conditions” are supposedly ripe.

Indeed, Springer shows how Proudhon’s analyses of property, the State, wage labor, exploitation, and religion were highly influential for Marx, despite the fact that the German Communist was reticent to acknowledge as much. As Proudhon wrote after Marx’s diatribe against him in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847): “The true meaning of Marx’s work is that he regrets that I have thought like him everywhere and that I was the first to say it.”

Springer also communicates the anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker’s view that it was Proudhon who first expressed the labor theory of value, and he hypothesizes that it was Kropotkin’s years spent in Siberia which led this anarcho-communist to emphasize a naturalist, decentralized, agrarian, and cooperative vision for the future, in contrast to Marx’s centralist and industrialist-positivist views. For the present and future, the author calls for the creation of radical democracy, which arises when la part sans-part (“the part without part”) intervenes to disturb the established sovereign order, rebuilding the commons where now prevail exclusive spaces, whether they be private or public. Springer particularly endorses Murray Bookchin’s concept of the “Commune of communes” as a restatement of the “continua[l] unfolding” of organization by free federation, and affirms Giorgio Agamben’s conceptualization of struggle to be a means without end, or infinitely demanding (Simon Critchley).

Springer certainly presents several critical contributions to a revolutionary analysis and understanding of geography. Yet as stated before, there are philosophical and political tensions among the variegated sources he calls on to develop his argument. To take one example, he initially affirms the views of several classical anarchist revolutionists but then challenges Neil Smith’s call for a “revival of the revolutionary imperative” against capitalism and the State, preferring instead insurrection—defined as prefiguration, spontaneity, and a Stirnerist sense of disregarding oppressive structures rather than overthrowing them—because revolution is putatively governed by a “totalizing logic” and somehow “ageographical” (68). This questionable understanding of revolution to the side for the moment, it bears clarifying that Max Stirner was a reactionary individualist whose views are incompatible with those of the anarcho-communists. Yet this lapse on Springer’s part is one with his general approach of blurring distinct anarchist philosophies with ones that may seem anarchistic—most prominently, post-structuralism. To return to the question of revolution, the author favorably reproduces Newman’s dismissal of social revolution as a rationalist, Promethean, and authoritarian project, noting that “not everything needs to be remade” and that revolution is inseparable from tyranny (88). This attitude fundamentally contradicts the thought of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Reclus, and other anarchist militants. Indeed, absent a commitment to revolutionism, it becomes difficult to claim that “post-structuralist anarchism” is anarchist. The same is true for “post-anarchism,” a category that Springer embraces on multiple occasions in the text. To weld “post-anarchism” together with classical anarchism would require more than passing references to the supposed superiority of more contemporary anti-essentialist perspectives informed by Foucault, Butler, and company. Amidst the Sixth Mass Extinction, the accelerating destabilization of the climate, and Donald Trump’s war on the scientific method, why should we accept post-anarchism’s rejection of science, truth, and ethics? In point of fact, classical anarchism shows itself more appropriate to the times.

In distinction to the author’s endorsement of post-anarchism, Springer’s Tolstoyan advocacy of a peaceful uprising is intriguing but not entirely clear. The author argues that anarchism typically had a pacifist orientation to social change before Errico Malatesta, Alexander Berkman, and other militants came to publicly endorse tactics of assassination. Springer fails to mention that Kropotkin did so as well, and he misrepresents Emma Goldman’s trajectory as initially being supportive of counter-violence but then coming to pacifism by her life’s end—for the geographer overlooks Goldman’s support for armed struggle in the Spanish Revolution. Like Goldman, Springer is not a strict pacifist in that he allows for violent self-defense and endorses insurrection as forms of “permanent resistance.” Still, he is not very precise in the parameters of violence, nonviolence, and self-defense he discusses. What is clear is that the very possibilities for peace and emancipation require a different society. In this sense, Springer’s citation of Edward Said is poignantly apt: the “stability of the victors and rulers” must be “consider[ed] […] a state of emergency threatening the less fortunate with the danger of complete extinction.” Under the prevailing conditions in which capitalism and militarism indeed threaten human survival and planetary integrity, Springer is correct to emphasize the importance of “perpetual contestation” and “[e]xperimentation in and through space” (3). We must become the horizon!

Kurdish Communities Union (KCK) Issues Statement on Coup Attempt in Turkey

July 17, 2016

KCK

The following is a translation of a statement released by the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK) about the recent attempt at a coup against the ruling AKP in Turkey.

There has been a coup attempt by persons whose identity and purpose is yet not clear. This attempt comes just before the military council meeting, where Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was reportedly going to assign generals close to himself to the army’s top tier. Another striking dimension of the coup attempt is that it comes at a time when discussions about the fascist AKP government’s foreign policy, were taking place.

Coup attempt is proof of lack of democracy

No matter within which internal and external political factors and focuses, and for what reasons a power struggle is waged, this case is not a matter of defending or being against democracy. On the contrary, this situation is the proof of lack of democracy in Turkey. Such power struggles and attempts to seize power are witnessed in undemocratic countries where an authoritarian power makes coup attempts to overthrow another authoritarian power when conditions are appropriate. This is what has happened in Turkey.

A coup was staged on 7 June

A year ago, Erdoğan and the Palace Gladio (Erdoğan’s secret force), alongside the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), all fascist circles, nationalist military powers (Ergenekon) and a part of the army, staged a coup. This was a palace (Erdoğan) coup against the democratic will of the people [which voted in the HDP and left the AKP short of a majority]. AKP fascism allied itself with all the fascist powers and a part of the army including the Chief of Staff in order to suppress the Kurdish Freedom Movement and democratic forces. The AKP’s fascism drove the army into Kurdish cities and towns, made them burn cities to the ground and massacre hundreds of civilians. Recently it has passed new laws that have give immunity to state forces, preventing trial for the crimes they have committed. In this way the AKP has become a government that has legitimised and made legal the military’s tutelage over democratic politics and society.

Coup attempt from one military faction against another

There was already military tutelage in Turkey before yesterday’s coup attempt; which makes the attempt a coup by one military faction against the existing one. This is why a section of the military has taken sides with Erdoğan, because there is already military tutelage in Turkey.

The fact that the MHP and chauvinistic nationalist circles took sides with the Palace Gladio (Erdogan) and its fascist allies reveals quite clearly that this is not an incident of struggle between those siding with democracy and those standing against it.

Portraying Erdoğan democratic is dangerous

Portraying Erdoğan and the fascist AKP dictatorship as if they were democratic after this coup attempt is an approach even more dangerous than the coup attempt itself. Portraying the fight for power among authoritarian, despotic and anti-democratic forces as a fight between the supporters and enemies of democracy will only serve to legitimise the existing fascist and despotic government.

Democracy forces do not side with either camp

Turkey does not have a civilian group in power, nor is this a struggle between democracy forces and putschists. The current fight is about who should lead the current political system, which is the enemy of democracy and the Kurdish people. Therefore, democracy forces do not side with either camp during these clashes.

The coup against democracy is the one carried out by the fascist AKP

If there is a coup against democracy, it is the one carried out by the fascist AKP government. The political power’s control over the judiciary, the implementation of fascist laws and policies through a parliamentarian majority, the removal of parliamentarians’ immunities, the arrest of co-mayors, the removal of co-mayors from their positions, and the imprisonment of thousands of politicians from the HDP and DBP constitute more of an actual coup. Kurdish people are under unprecedented genocidal, fascist, and colonialist attacks in Kurdistan.

AKP dragging Turkey into clashes

What has brought Turkey to this stage is the AKP government, which has transformed into a government of war against Kurdish people and the forces of democracy. With its monistic, hegemonic and anti-democratic character, it has kept Turkey in chaos and conflict. With its war against the Kurdish people and the forces of democracy, it has kept Turkey in a state of civil war. The latest coup attempt shows that Turkey needs to get rid of the fascist AKP government and have a democratic government. The recent developments make it urgent for Turkey to democratise and get rid of its monist, hegemonic and fascist government.

To sum up, the forces of democracy should confront the legitimisation of the fascist AKP government’s policies under the disguise of democracy, and create a democratic alliance that truly would democratise Turkey. This coup attempt makes it necessary for us to not slow down the struggle against the AKP’s fascism but to enhance it so that chaos and clashes in Turkey come to an end and a new and democratic Turkey emerges.”

Review of Robert Lanning’s In the Hotel Abyss, by Ignacio Guerrero

June 29, 2015

hotel abyss

Published by Ignacio Guerrero on Heathwood Press, 25 June 2015

,
“What is negative is ne
gative until it has passed.”

– Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics

In his newly published In the Hotel Abyss, Robert Lanning presents an Hegelian-Marxist critique of Theodor W. Adorno, the famous twentieth-century critical theorist, aesthetician, and musicologist. In the work’s title and content, Lanning reiterates and expands György Lukács’ charge that Adorno and other like-minded contemporary German philosophers had effectively followed the pessimistic example of Arthur Schopenhauer and metaphorically taken up residence in the “Grand Hotel Abyss,” which affords its guests “the daily sight of the abyss between the leisurely enjoyment of meals or works of art,” thus “enhanc[ing their] pleasure in this elegant comfort.”1 With his colleague Max Horkheimer, Adorno’s predecessor as director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt (also known as the Frankfurt School) and his writing partner for Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947), “Teddy” shares a common theoretical inspiration emanating from Marxism, as reflected in the profound critique he advances of bourgeois social relations, yet he largely rejects the “positive” moment of historical materialism, which foresees the birth of communism through global proletarian uprisings, the “parliamentary road to socialism,” or some combination of the two.

In this sense, Adorno almost merits the accusation of having advanced the paradoxical concept of a “Marxism without the proletariat.” The very opening of his last work, Negative Dialectics (1966), is illustrative in this sense: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” For Adorno the leftist German Jew, the “attempt to change the world miscarried.” If one reflects even for a moment on the vast atrocities and historical errors that marred the twentieth century, the latter claim here cited would certainly be justified—but then one asks, what next? Why the sense that history has ended—that the chance for social revolution or even relative improvement has been “missed,” never to return? Can there be no rebirth of rebellion? Lanning is right to stress that Adorno’s politics are not especially helpful as regards reconstructive anti-systemic action, or praxis. Hence, a palpable conflict can be seen between the constant demand Adorno’s political philosophy makes for negation, following Hegel’s example, and his practical suggestion that corrective action is useless and revolution inconceivable, amidst the putatively “absolute power of capitalism.”2

Lanning argues that Adorno’s political philosophy, though highly critical of capitalism and authority, is excessively negative: his view is that it can be summarized as amounting to “unfettered negativity” (172). Lanning denounces Adorno’s seemingly wholesale rejection of the actuality or even potentiality of proletarian resistance and the development of anti-capitalist and anti-systemic alternatives, in light of the established power of monopoly capitalism and its culture industries. In Adorno’s presentation, as is known, the working-class majorities of capitalist societies are reduced to thoughtless “masses,” both colonized by and integrated into capitalism—supposedly willingly, on this account. Lanning posits that such a point of view leads Adorno inexorably to adopt an “essentially […] defeatist perspective”: “to him the class struggle was already lost” (18, 25). Having repudiated the positive and practical aspects of historical materialism, Adorno concerned himself with specializing in high art and writing in an exceedingly inaccessible style—as in the image of the Grand Hotel Abyss, indeed—and his few forays into social studies suffer from significant methodological problems, in Lanning’s view. Above all, as Lanning emphasizes, Adorno’s theory of social change is basically non-existent, and the sparse work he focuses on this question rather problematic. Overall, the author of In the Hotel Abyss is concerned that Adorno’s readers are left dialectically disempowered, even subject to despair, as they contemplate the vast depravity of capitalism and the lack of resistance to the system that Adorno observes, and upon which he concentrates.

This new volume certainly presents many compelling criticisms of Adorno’s lifework, particularly with regard to the philosopher’s elitism and political aloofness—manifestations, to be sure, of his disregard for the unification of theory and praxis, or his doubts even about the possibility of such—and for this reason merits a great deal of consideration, discussion, and debate. Adorno’s philosophical system had many shortcomings, and Lanning helpfully illuminates a number of the most important ones. Yet some of the critique presented In The Hotel Abyss of the philosopher also reproduces Adorno’s own penchant for exaggeration, overlooking the real contributions he made and continues to make to anti-capitalist struggle.

In the Hotel Abyss: Challenging Adorno

Lanning’s critique of Adorno is at its most incisive in terms of the challenge it presents to those who may hold the critical theorist actually to have been left-wing or revolutionary. The evident disconnect between theory and practice highlighted by Lanning in Adorno’s case is notorious. Like Horkheimer, Adorno favored the total overcoming of bourgeois society—its
determinate negation, taking from Hegel’s dialectical method. Yet he dedicated exceedingly little of his intellectual life-work to theorizing about political action or change, and even less to concretely organizing against the system. While he is well-known for his radical critique of capital, as elaborated perhaps most systematically in Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (1951), Adorno doubtlessly errs in holding dialectical contradiction to come to be effectively arrested within the Iron Cage of monopoly capitalism. Speculatively, Lanning hypothesizes that the theorist’s self-assuredness on this point serves precisely as a means of ignoring the very “working class outside Adorno’s door” (11). Admittedly, the absence of discussion about class struggle or revolutionary political action of any sort in Adorno’s oeuvre is evident, and glaring. Lanning suggests that Adorno would do well to reconsider Hegel, who defined the dialectic fundamentally as movement and development, as in the image of the seed and the blossoming flower or fruit. “Where Adorno sees the acquiescence of the masses to the immediate environment he should also see […] the possibilities for developing the individual’s relation to such powers [of capital] and the possible alternatives in the face of it” (36).

From these legitimate points, Lanning proceeds to take issue with Adorno’s concept of negative dialectics for being too radical, or too demanding: the charge is that Adorno’s critical negativism lends itself to an approach which overlooks the necessary intermediary steps between prevailing conformist resignation and the possible emancipated futures. Adorno “reject[s …] any behavior that appears to be positively oriented to the appearance of advancement, progress, partial resolution or sublation of contradictions” (46). Nothing “short of the complete negativity and annihilation of existing conditions” will do for Adorno. Lanning relates his complaint here about the theorist’s effective ultra-leftism to his claim that Adorno adheres metaphorically to the Jewish Bilderverbot, or the ban on images of the divine, as a negative theology which denies the possibility of something different. He further argues that Adorno’s employment of the Bilderverbot marks a distinct break from the Messianism of Judaism and the Jewish socialist tradition. However, it could be argued instead that Adorno’s use of the Bilderverbot illustrates the very revolutionism of his dialectical method, which must remain negative until global capitalist society is overthrown. On this point, in fact, it would seem more than a bit perplexing to accuse Adorno of being insufficiently messianic or utopian. One need only consult the finale to Minima Moralia:

Knowledge has no light but that that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.3

Violating this liberatory messianic sense, nonetheless, Adorno took a rather problematic view of jazz—one that is consistent with his analysis of the hegemonic culture industries, yet reflective of chauvinism and even racism as well. For Adorno, who first encountered the new musical style in Germany before the fall of the Weimar Republic to Nazism (1933) and his forced exile the next year, jazz was “perennial fashion”: supposedly standardized, commodified, and expressive of pseudo-individuality, jazz on Adorno’s account reproduces the subjectification of the masses through diversion, gratification, and integration. Clearly, Adorno did not associate the development of jazz with its African ethnomusical origins, or seem to have much of any familiarity with its relationship to the historical experiences of people of African descent in the U.S. For him, instead, it was an affirmative musical form that in practice served European fascism, particularly in Italy and Germany. Consideration of this viewpoint can help explain Adorno’s disturbing comments in “Farewell to Jazz,” an essay written in response to the ban imposed on jazz and all other expressions of “Negro culture” in Thuringia state following the Nazi accession to power there in 1930. In this piece, Adorno declares characteristically that, “no matter what one wishes to understand about white or Negro jazz, there is nothing to salvage.”4

Rather self-evidently, then, Adorno’s take on jazz is shocking: to portray it as an affirmation of subordination and alienation and thus ignore its historical and ethnographical context is at best to provide a very partial picture, or indeed to openly declare one’s distinct lack of sympathy with the struggles of Black people—that is to say, one’s racism. On this point, Adorno surely merits all the criticism he has received, and more. Furthermore, Lanning makes the important point that to merely dismiss jazz or any other musical style out of hand for the mere fact of its being commodified on the market is to overlook the very real dialectical possibilities that music can have as regards the emergence and expression of attitudes critical of existing power-relations. Lanning’s analysis is similar in terms of Adorno’s research on radio broadcasts in U.S. society, carried out at Princeton University following his emigration to the U.S. in 1938: the refugee intellectual either was not knowledgeable of the extensive contemporary use of the radio to promote the causes of labor and racial equality in his new host country, or did not believe such alternative programming to bear mentioning, in light of the dominance of the capitalist monster.

Additionally, in parallel, Lanning subjects Adorno’s research on authoritarianism and fascist propaganda to critical review. Overseen by Adorno, The Authority Personality (1950) in its methodology and design followed the first study from the Frankfurt School into the political attitudes of German workers during Weimar, as directed by Erich Fromm in 1931. This previous study was never published, due to its politically negative conclusions: it anticipated that the majority of German workers could be expected to go along with Nazism if it came to power, with small minorities being either strongly pro-Nazi or strongly anti-fascist.5 In a similar way, Adorno and company were motivated to examine the psychological potential for fascism in U.S. society, both by investigating it descriptively, as by theorizing its causes, with the activist end of inhibiting its advance. The resulting study, based on interviews with about 2000 formally educated, white, middle-class men and women mostly from northern California, was conducted by presenting participants with questionnaires such as the Anti-Semitism (A-S) Scale, the Ethnocentrism (E) Scale, the Politico-Economic Conservatism (PEC) Scale, and the Fascism (F) Scale. Dividing the results into a bimodal distribution of high-scoring or prejudiced persons and low-scoring or relatively unprejudiced individuals, the study’s authors take heart in their findings that the majority of participants did not betray extreme ethnocentrism. Yet Lanning calls into question the external validity of The Authoritarian Personality, or its statistical generalizability across society as a whole, by noting that Jews and trade-unionists were excluded from participation, to say nothing of people of color. Presumably, a more diverse study sample could have yielded even greater anti-authoritarian conclusions.

Lanning also shows how Adorno’s investigations into the radio broadcasts of U.S. fascist agitator Martin Luther Thomas—investigations that have been considered innovative, given the theorist’s social-psychological conclusion that fascism advances not just through elite manipulation of the people, but also (and perhaps moreso) through working-class or “mass” complicity—themselves converge with the projected situation Thomas praises: that is, that “large sectors of the population” are sympathetic to fascism due to their putative mindlessness and brutalization in labor (133). Lanning here identifies an unfortunate and revealing affinity between Adorno’s conclusions and the irrationalist hopes of pro-fascist agitators: the view that rationality is possible only for a small sector of the population. This insightful point notwithstanding, the author does not in good faith acknowledge that Adorno and his colleagues in The Authoritarian Personality expressly seek to promote reason as a counter-move to the fascist threat.

Lanning is nevertheless correct in identifying the principal methodological problem in Adorno’s account of fascism as being the theorist’s systematic exclusion from consideration of the proletarian, anti-fascist, and anti-racist movements actively raging around him, first in Germany and then in the U.S. Adorno does not discuss or ever seem to mention the hundreds of street-battles between the German Social Democrats’ self-defense group, the Reichsbanner, and the German Communist Party’s “Proletarian Hundreds” against the Nazi SA in the years before 1933,6 nor did he dedicate much of any attention to struggles for racial equality during his exile in the U.S. (1938-1945). One wonders how Adorno the radical could have overlooked the latter, having lived years in Harlem on Morningside Heights before his wartime move to Los Angeles. For Lanning, then, much of what Adorno claimed regarding authoritarianism was based on little more than “imagery” and self-serving “esotericism”; worst of all, it has functioned to “denigrate the legitimacy of working-class politics by ignoring [them], thus affirming the non-existence of an historical agent for socialism” (150). The author of In the Hotel Abyss identifies Adorno’s sometimes-colleague Ernst Bloch as a more insightful commentator on these matters, given the latter’s view that, however acquiescent the “masses” may be with capital and authority at any given time, this situation should not be taken as final, but rather should be interpreted as a process that can dialectically be “disrupted and redirected,” as reflected in the Blochian concept of the “Not-Yet.”

Lanning’s concluding chapter focuses specifically on Negative Dialectics, and scrutinizes Adorno’s seemingly circular sociological argumentation. In essence, Lanning’s claim is that Adorno holds history’s dialectical dynamic to have been effectively strangled under late capitalism—hence the view imputed to Adorno that culture and consciousness cannot be other than what they are, and that psychological and material subordination within bourgeois society themselves reproduce capitalist domination. Lanning concludes that Adorno broke from the Marxist tradition and “chose to freeze the relations he observed as real […]. His position is that […] these are insurmountable conditions” (191-2). Though the author of In the Hotel Abyss concedes in passing that parts of Adorno’s critique of reified consciousness have merit, he notes that such criticism itself only reflects the alienation resulting from bourgeois society, and he reiterates the charge that Adorno presents no alternative—thus in fact yielding a significant regression in comparison with Marx’s communist method. In closing, Lanning returns to his chastisement of the critical theorist for the latter’s supposedly boundless negativity as well as his undifferentiated critique of “the masses,” which papers over distinctions in class and the division of labor, and he charges Adorno with limiting resistance to the life of the mind and imagination, as in German Idealism, rather than advancing radical political struggle, as materialism does.

Discussion: Negative Dialectics and Anti-Capitalism

Lanning clearly presents a number of serious charges against Adorno’s critical theory. This reviewer concedes that the philosopher’s essentially theoretical orientation is of little use for the political question of how to displace and possibly overthrow capital and authoritarianism, and the contempt Adorno often expressed in life for workers and common people is profoundly lamentable. Both of these negative aspects can be said to reflect Adorno’s considerable privilege, as the male child of a Jewish wine merchant and a Franco-German artist for whom labor was an unknown experience in youth and early adulthood. It would seem that Lanning has something of a point in hypothesizing that Adorno’s elitism perpetuated itself as a “career-building” experiment in “abstruseness” (13)—though Lanning’s claim that Adorno can justly be portrayed as the forerunner of postmodernism is less tenable, as this academic trend lacks the German theorist’s anti-capitalism and anti-authoritarianism. In addition, Adorno’s highly insensitive and even implicitly racist comments on jazz speak for themselves, and may justly cause those encountering them to reject a thinker with whom they may share other affinities. Yet it would be wrong to hold Adorno to have been an ethnic chauvinist, as ethnocentrism is one of the main critical foci of The Authoritarian Personality. In Minima Moralia, Adorno identifies white supremacism as the basis not only of anti-Semitism and the Nazi death camps, but also the repression of people of color in the U.S.: “The outrage over atrocities decreases, the more that the ones affected are unlike normal readers […]. The ceaselessly recurrent expression that savages, blacks, Japanese resemble animals, or something like apes, already contains the key to the pogrom.”7 In this same work, as well, Adorno recalls a childhood memory which complicates the view that his critical theory is irredeemably anti-worker:

In early childhood I saw the first snow-shovellers in thin shabby clothes. Asking about them, I was told they were men without work who were given this job so that they could earn their bread. Serves them right, having to shovel snow, I cried out in rage, bursting uncontrollably into tears.8

Though this passage is ambiguous—it is unclear whether the young Adorno’s emotional reaction is directed against the workers themselves, the injustice they face, or the normalization of such oppression that is expected of him—it at the least shows sympathy for the cause of repudiating class inequality and the realm of necessity. In naturalistic and Freudian terms, moreover, it is significant that this experience took place early in Adorno’s personal development. Of course, the link between the sharing of this memory and a commitment to a concrete syndicalist program is tenuous in Adorno’s case. Similarly, to return to the question of race, one would be hard-pressed to find Adorno expressing support as a public intellectual for contemporary anti-racist and decolonization movements. While Adorno opposed the Vietnam War on a philosophical level, claiming it to carry on the genocidal specter of Auschwitz, he did little to concretely resist it, in contrast to radicals like Herbert Marcuse and Jean-Paul Sartre. Meanwhile, the militant German student movement of the 1960s had arisen largely in response to the Vietnam War and the Federal Republic of Germany’s collaboration with its prosecution, as seen in the U.S. military’s utilization of West German air-bases. The student radicals’ demand that Adorno and Horkheimer publicly come out against the war was one of many that resulted in the conflict which ultimately led to the Institute director’s death on vacations in Switzerland in 1969.

Reading In the Hotel Abyss, it becomes clear how much Lanning dislikes Adorno’s negative-dialectical approach. This disapproval toward the Adornian system may in fact mirror a dismissal of the anti-authoritarianism of Adorno’s seemingly intransigent negativity. In what sense might this be the case? We have seen how Lanning repeatedly rebukes Adorno for his ultra-leftism—his “position […] that capitalism must be completely defeated in all its aspects before the possibility of meaningful change can be considered” (208). One wonders if Lanning realizes he is chastising Adorno here for being faithful to the young Marx’s admonition to engage in the “ruthless criticism of all things existing.” Lanning’s argument against Adorno is thus more than a bit reminiscent of Lenin’s designation of “left-wing communism”—that is, anarchism or syndicalism—as an “infantile disorder”: consider the author’s rejection of Fromm’s designation of expressed political sympathy for Lenin as an historical figure as reflecting an “authoritarian” rather than “radical” attitude within the study on workers in Weimar Germany (144n12). The resort to Lukács for the title and spirit of the work is also telling, given that, while Adorno the unattached intellectual is subjected to critique—no doubt, to repeat, much of it merited—Lukács the advocate of Party Socialism is not.

A fundamental point within Lanning’s argument that bears reconsideration is the author’s very presentation of Adorno’s putatively unrelenting negativity. In his discussions of Bloch and Walter Benjamin, Lanning seeks to depict considerable differences between them and Adorno, when in fact all three held similar political and philosophical views, and greatly influenced one another. While it may be true that Adorno is overall more negative than these two, there certainly are a few positive moments in his oeuvre which anticipate the possibilities of a post-revolutionary society. In his final work, Adorno defines the “objective goal” of dialectics as being the task of “break[ing] out of the context from within.” Further, “[i]t lies in the definition of negative dialectics that it will not come to rest in itself, as if it were total. This is its form of hope.”9 Here, at the conclusion of Negative Dialectics, Adorno posits a vision that is heterotopic to Lanning’s account. Criticizing Schopenhauer’s fatalism and other Kafka-esque manifestations of the belief that the world is irrevocably absurd, Adorno makes the following observations:

However void every trace of otherness in it, however much all happiness is marred by irrevocability: in the breaks that belie identity, entity is still pervaded by the everbroken pledges of that otherness. All happiness is but a fragment of the entire happiness [humans] are denied, and are denied by themselves […].

What art, notably the art decried as nihilistic, says in refraining from judgments is that everything is not just nothing. If it were, whatever is would be pale, colorless, indifferent. No light falls on [humans] and things without reflecting transcendence. Indelible from the resistance to the fungible world of barter is the resistance of the eye that does not want the colors of the world to fade.10


This utopian underside of Adorno’s thought is similarly expressed in Minima Moralia, where the philosopher presents the following images as an alternative for the possible communist future: “Rien faire comme une bête [Doing nothing, like an animal], lying on the water and looking peacefully into the heavens—’being, nothing else, without any further determination and fulfillment’—might step in place of process, doing, fulfilling, and so truly deliver the promise of dialectical logic, of culminating in its origin. None of the abstract concepts comes closer to the fulfilled utopia than that of eternal peace.”11 Thus we see the selectivity of Lanning’s charge of Adorno’s “endless negativity” (208), and the inaccuracy of the claim that Adorno adhered entirely to the Bilderverbot. In this sense, it is unfortunate as well that Lanning ignores Adorno’s 1969 essay on “Resignation,” which was written in response to the criticisms raised precisely by Lukács and the radical student movement against Adorno and the Institute for Social Research. In this momentous intervention, Adorno defends autonomous thought as resistance and praxis: “the uncompromisingly critical thinker […] is in truth the one who does not give in. Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists anyway.” As the “universal tendency of oppression is opposed to thought as such,” the “happiness that dawns in the eye of the thinking person is the happiness of humanity,” and whoever has not let her thought atrophy “has not resigned.”12

Whether one accepts Adorno’s defense of the prioritization of theory over action here or not, consideration of this essay and the other positive dialectical images mentioned above problematizes Lanning’s characterization of Adorno’s thought as being entirely negative. Incidentally, Lanning himself almost unconsciously recognizes this at the outset of his discussion of Negative Dialectics, which he presents as demanding a “second” negation to follow the insufficiently radical “first” negation of capitalism—the Soviet Union, say, or social democracy. Lanning then proceeds to write that the Hegelian “negation of negation” amounts to a “positive moment” (174), but he chooses not to connect Adorno’s thought to this point. On this matter, in point of fact, Adorno’s finale to Minima Moralia bears revisiting: “consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror-image of its opposite.”13 From this perspective, the dialectical interplay between the fallenness of bourgeois society and its envisioned inversion in Adorno’s system comes to be seen as having subversive and even hopeful rather than quietistic implications.

The present review will end by raising an important problem in Adorno’s thought that Lanning points to but does not sufficiently develop: the problem of false consciousness and social determination, or who it is that determines social reality. Lanning argues that Adorno’s account of worker or “mass” acceptance of fascism and capitalism represents an exercise in victim-blaming. In Negative Dialectics and other works, Adorno does note that humanity is effectively imprisoned by the system which it reproduces and upholds—in an echo of Kant’s essay on Enlightenment, a concept the transcendental Idealist describes as being inhibited by humanity’s “self-imposed immaturity,” which results from “indecision and lack of courage.” Lanning picks up on this, claiming Adorno to have viewed proletarian conformism as willful. While this charge against Adorno is partly true, as far as it goes, it is also too quick, in that it offers no alternative means of thinking through the observed problem of proletarian integration into capitalist society, and how this might be resisted and overcome. Certainly, a great deal of coercion goes into the reproduction of class society, as Adorno recognizes: “Proletarian language is dictated by hunger.”14 Yet one should not simply hold the capitalist game to proceed through the duping of the workers—for such a view removes the personal and collective agency of the subordinated, and all practical possibility of achieving something different. The present discussion on this complicated matter will close here, though the reviewer firstly should like to mention that autonomous Marxism has tried to address these issues in creative ways, in an echo of Étienne de la Boétie’s innovative Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (1548), and lastly to emphasize that the interrelated problems of conformism and bourgeois destructiveness retain all of their acuity in the present day, nearly a half-century after Adorno’s passing.

1 György Lukács, The Destruction of Reason (London: Merlin Press, 1980), 243.

2 Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Continuum, 1982), 120.

3 Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. Edmund Jephcott (London: Verso, 2005 [1951]), §153 (emphasis added).

4 Theodor W. Adorno, “Farewell to Jazz,” in Essays on Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 496.

5 Erich Fromm and Michael Maccoby, Social Character in a Mexican Village (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970), 23-30.

6 M. Testa, Militant Anti-Fascism: 100 Years of Resistance (Oakland: AK Press, 2015), 53-84.

7 Adorno, Minima Moralia, §68.

8 Ibid §122.

9 Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (Routledge: London, 1973 [1966]), 406.

10 Ibid 403-5 (emphasis added).

11 Adorno, Minima Moralia §100.

12 Theodor W. Adorno, Critical Models (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 289-93.

13 Adorno, Minima Moralia §153.

14 Ibid §65.