Posts Tagged ‘bureaucracy’

From “Trotsky in Tijuana” to “Chernobyl”: Caution & Reason

July 22, 2022
“Chernobyl,” photographed by Jorge Fraganillo (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

Originally published on Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, 21 July 2022

The promise of historical and speculative fiction is the reconstruction of the past in the present, or of the present in the past, and the contemplation of what might have been, or of what might still be. As the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud wrote, creative writers furnish “world[s] of [their] own” by “rearrang[ing] the things of [their] world in a new way which pleases [them].”[1] Between Dan La Botz’s novel Trotsky in Tijuana (2020) and Craig Mazin and Johan Renck’s HBO miniseries Chernobyl (2019), we find two fictionalized accounts bookending the tragic history of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), from the Bolshevik centralization of power following the anti-Tsarist Revolution of 1917 to what Rohini Hensman terms the “democratic anti-imperialist revolution” of 1991.

Trotsky in Tijuana is an intriguing and well-written book of alternate (or counter-) history, in which La Botz imagines Lev Davidovich Trotsky (1879–1940) surviving his assassination in Mexico City by the Spanish Soviet agent Ramón Mercader. In La Botz’s vision, the famed Ukraine-born Jewish Marxist then continues to organize against social-democratic reformism and Stalin’s Communist International through his organization, the Fourth International. This book combines neo-Trotskyist critique of Stalinism with libertarian-socialist themes as an imaginative “second world” to our own, illuminating divisions on the left among anarchists, Trots, and “tankies” (who support “anti-imperialist” dictators). Yet, as we shall see, despite the novel’s beauty and insights, Trotskyism appears to overpower anarchism in La Botz’s historical retelling.

For its part, the Chernobyl miniseries dramatizes the explosion that took place on April 26, 1986, within the core of the Vladimir I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, located near the cities of Pripyat and Chernobyl in northern Ukraine. Chernobyl lays bare the dangers of nuclear energy specifically and technological hubris more broadly, while implicitly critiquing Soviet State capitalism and, perhaps by extension, private forms of capitalism—like those we confront in the United States. Chernobyl shows how the combination of workplace hierarchy, high technology, hyper-masculinity, and the performance principle threatens our collective self-destruction.

On February 24, 2022, Russian military forces invaded Ukraine as part of a brutal campaign announced by President Vladimir Putin to supposedly “demilitarize and de-Nazify” the country. However, this “denazification” campaign in reality represents yet another instance of white Russians carrying out genocide. Having penetrated Ukraine’s northern border, the Russian army quickly overran the Chernobyl site, where, for over three weeks, the facility’s workers were forced by the occupiers to work nonstop. The radiation spike seen at Chernobyl at the start of the Russian invasion—a twenty-fold increase—can be explained by the churning of irradiated soils through the movement of military hardware.

On March 3 and 4, 2022, Russian shelling on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southeastern Ukraine—Europe’s largest nuclear plant—set an administrative building on fire. Fortunately, the site’s six reactors (better protected than their now-deactivated counterparts at Chernobyl) remained undamaged, and as of early March, local levels of radioactivity were normal. Even so, we should bear in mind the warning of Professor Kate Brown, author of Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (2019), that “any […] nuclear even[t]” cannot be “isolated within sovereign borders,” owing to the physics involved. In this light, although Russian forces withdrew from the Chernobyl region in early April, Putin’s threats of nuclear blackmail following the invasion remain unsettling.

In this article, I will review Trotsky in Tijuana and Chernobyl from an anti-authoritarian perspective by exploring some of the overlap with, and divergences from, anarchism in these artistic works. I will also present an overall critique of nuclear energy, to contrast with the ideological support Chernobyl’s screenwriter, Mazin, provides to the industry—regardless of the scope of the disaster he portrays.

Front-5

Trotsky in Tijuana

In Trotsky in Tijuana, Natalia Ivanovna Sedova, Trotsky’s second wife, fatefully questions the man she knew as Frank Jacson’s choice to wear a heavy raincoat during a visit to their fortress-home in Coyoacán on August 20, 1940. However, in La Botz’s counternarrative, Sedova’s doubts do not go unheard. Historically, Mercader wore this same coat to cover up the ice ax he would use to fatally injure the exiled communist revolutionary, as the latter reviewed an essay with which his counterpart sought to distract him. Yet, in La Botz’s imagination, Ralph Bucek, a fictional US-American guard of the “Old Man,” enters his charge’s office and hits the Spaniard in the head with a baseball at the last moment, saving the day.

Rather than replay Trotsky’s murder—as John P. Davidson’s novel The Obedient Assassin (2014), Antonio Chavarrias’s film El Elegido (The Chosen, 2016), and the Russian TV miniseries on Trotsky (2017) do—La Botz’s book envisions the founder of the Red Army escaping this brush with death through exile to Baja California, where he continues to theorize about current events, especially World War II, and even find time for erotic love.

Not long after Trotsky, Sedova, and their retinue resettle in the so-called Cantú house in Tijuana, Trotsky’s own anarchistic secretary, Jan van Heijenoort, abandons Mexico for Europe, plotting a long-term mission to assassinate Stalin. La Botz imagines that Van’s plan dovetails with the “doctors’ plot” of 1953, when Soviet Jewish physicians had supposedly conspired with Western imperial powers to murder Stalin, his propagandist Andrei Zhdanov, and other party bosses. In retaliation for the discovery of this “plot,” Stalin ordered the arrests of hundreds of Soviet Jews and/or physicians, and planned to expand the Gulag to imprison more Jews, in a final homage to his “frenemy,” Adolf Hitler. Yet, just as a possible second Holocaust and nuclear war between the USSR and the West are threatened, La Botz’s depiction of Van’s assassination plot succeeds. The same day, the Soviet agent “Étienne” (Mark Zborowski)—who had murdered Trotsky and Sedova’s son, Lev Sedov, in Paris, and then boldly posed (in La Botz’s imagination) as Trotsky’s new secretary in Tijuana—kills Lev Davidovich by poisoning.[2]

While La Botz is sympathetic to his martyred subject, he is not uncritical toward the Bolshevik leader’s legacy. He surely does not shy away from depicting Trotsky’s narcissistic, delusional, and dogmatic tendencies. Rather, he insinuates the need for twenty-first-century updates to the brightest ideas of this “polymath,” who was “lost in time.” These ideas include class struggle, the united front, and the permanent revolution. Historically speaking, Trotsky adapted the last of these from the French anarchist Élisée Reclus, who asserted in 1899 that “[a]s long as iniquity endures, we, international anarcho-communists, will remain in a state of permanent revolution.”[3]

This dynamic only reinforces the anarchist hypothesis that Marxists aim to appropriate revolution for themselves and their bureaucratic franchises, rather than the liberation of the working classes and humanity—as Marx’s own expulsion of Mikhail Bakunin and James Guillaume from the First International in 1872, and Lenin and Trotsky’s crushing in 1921 of the Kronstadt Commune and of the peasant-anarchist Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine, prove. While the mutiny by Red sailors at Kronstadt demanded that the Russian Revolution advance without the dead weight of the Communist Party, the Revolutionary Insurgent Army was cofounded by the Ukrainian peasant guerrilla Nestor Makhno, who also organized with the Nabat (Tocsin) anarchist confederation after the fall of Tsar Nicholas I in 1917. Despite the Makhnovists’ proclamation of free soviets and their actions that arguably saved the Revolution through their fierce resistance to the reactionary White armies during the Civil War (1918–21), just as the Kronstadt sailors had previously served the cause at key points, forces loyal to Red Army commander Trotsky crushed both groups.

Notably, La Botz does not acknowledge that Lev Davidovich Bronstein adopted the surname Trotsky in 1898, after his jailer in Odessa. Psychoanalytically, this choice suggests identification with the aggressor, which is consistent with sociopolitical authoritarianism.[4] Arguably in this sense, there is a direct line from Lev’s adoption of his prison warden’s name to his own atrocities in the Revolution. Indeed, Trotsky in Tijuana’s coverage of the Russian Revolution conveys its author’s neo-Trotskyism. For instance, throughout the novel, the totality of the revolution is reduced to the Bolsheviks’ October 1917 seizure of power, with little to no mention of the “people’s epic” from February 1917, which in fact began the earthquake. This elision amounts to a minimization of the role played, specifically, by the proletarian women who lit the spark in Petrograd that overthrew the Romanov Tsars. La Botz even suggests that “revolution” emanated from Lenin’s persona, as though this were his superpower. Likewise, in a 2015 column in New Politics, the author writes that in both “February and October 1917,” the “Bolshevik[s] led the Russian working class to overthrow the Czarist autocracy.” The only problem with this claim is that all of the Bolshevik leaders were in exile during February 1917.[5]

In reality, the book glosses over its subject’s wickedness, in a move that functions to boost Trotsky’s radical credentials. Although La Botz acknowledges that the Bolsheviks “incorporated […] Tsarist officers” into the Red Army early on, the mass murder of the insurgent Kronstadt sailors—overseen by Trotsky in March 1921—is not mentioned until the second half of the book. At that point, La Botz describes the war commissar as merely “support[ing] the decision” to suppress the mutineers, rather than supervising the ex-Tsarist officer Mikhail Tukhachevsky’s use of overwhelming force toward this end.[6] Neither Makhno nor the Makhnovshchina is mentioned at all.

In short, while La Botz’s historical counternarrative champions direct action and critiques bureaucratic authoritarianism, the author’s affection for the “Old Man” somewhat clouds the novel’s treatment of the period between 1917 and 1921. A more anarchist approach might have portrayed Lev Davidovich as haunted by the counterrevolutionary brutality he oversaw and carried out during that time. Although La Botz’s condemnation of Stalinism is most apt—especially in light of “tankie” support for Putin’s war crimes in Syria and Ukraine—and despite the author’s good-natured satire of the titular character, the story neither adequately questions the role of “revolutionary” authority nor proclaims that it is the workers and peasants, not the party, who drive revolutionary change.

ChNPP_Unit1control

“Control room of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant,” Carl A. Willis (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0)

What Happened at Chernobyl in 1986?

Like Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, Trotsky was an enthusiast of bourgeois principles of management, political centralism, and the domination of nature. When crystallized in high-risk technologies such as nuclear energy, it is unsurprising that such Promethean social ideologies, imaginaries, and institutional structures would result in disasters like the one experienced at the Vladimir I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, featured in Chernobyl.[7]

The basic idea of nuclear fission is this: uranium, after having been mined and enriched, is subjected to neutron bombardment in a nuclear plant’s reactor core. This leads to the fission, or splitting, of the nuclei of uranium, and the resulting production of intense heat, or radiation. This radiation is then combined with coolant to produce high-pressure steam, which in turn moves turbines, thus producing electricity.[8] The RBMK-type reactor used at Chernobyl, as in many other Soviet nuclear power plants, shared this basic function with the Western light-water reactors (LWRs) presently in use. One of the major differences between the two designs, however, is that RBMK reactors lacked the steel-reinforced containment shields surrounding the core found in LWRs.

On April 26, 1986, a safety test was scheduled to be performed within Chernobyl’s reactor number 4 during the day shift. However, to accommodate the needs of Soviet state capitalism, the test was delayed by ten hours, leaving it to the less-experienced night shift. As part of this experiment, the plant’s crew deactivated the automatic safety and warning systems, including the emergency cooling system. They also removed most of the control rods from the reactor core, lowering energy output far below normal. Accordingly, without adequate power to pump water into the reactor to either remove excess heat or produce electricity, the core became unstable.[9]

At this point, Chernobyl depicts several of the plant’s workers, all of whom present as cisgender men, as protesting the idea of proceeding with the safety test. Nevertheless, reflecting toxic masculinity and the phenomenon of abusive supervision, Anatoli Dyatlov, the plant’s chief engineer, orders the experiment to proceed. Linking megalomania and the performance principle (or the compulsion to keep the capitalist machine going) with the masculine derogation of femininity, Dyatlov bullies his subordinates, Aleksandr Akimov and Leonid Toptunov, into obedience. He does so by threatening their jobs, and specifically by associating Toptunov with his mother, due to his youthful and androgynous appearance.[10] Then, when the test goes haywire, Akimov engages the emergency shutdown system known as AZ-5, thus introducing graphite-tipped rods into the reactor core. This unexpectedly increases reactivity, leading to a chain reaction that causes a critical buildup of steam, a partial meltdown, and a core explosion that would irradiate much of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and the rest of Europe.

Chernobyl tells the dramatic tale of this experiment gone awry, together with some of the responses taken by the state, individuals, and collectives to this unprecedented catastrophe. Mazin and Renck portray desperate scenes of exploited labor, as firefighters and helicopter pilots struggle to douse the numerous fires set off by the explosion, miners are forced at gunpoint to build a tunnel beneath the reactor to accommodate a heat exchanger, and human “bio-robots” are used to clear radioactive debris from the facility’s roof. Notoriously, the firefighters who initially responded were neither warned of the risks of exposure, nor provided any sort of protective equipment. As a result, many of these working-class heroes died of acute radiation syndrome. Still, this grisly story foregrounds the state capitalist domination of (cis) men: with the exceptions of female nurses attending to irradiated patients and the fictional Soviet physicist Uma Khomyuk, who is an amalgam of the scientists investigating the incident, women are mostly absent from Chernobyl.

Èernobyl - památník požárníkù

“Monument to Those Who Saved the World,” photographed by Martin Cígler (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0)

Trotsky and Chernobyl’s Critiques of Party-Boss Despotism

In terms of understanding the destruction of the Russian Revolution, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, we might benefit from contemplating the close relationship between Leninism and Stalinism. In Trotsky in Tijuana, La Botz includes Trotsky’s insightful prediction that the Bolshevik Party would come to be dominated by Lenin, simply due to the pyramidal structure he proposed for it. The author portrays Stalin, as Lenin’s successor, being haunted by Trotsky’s accusation from 1927 that he was the “gravedigger of the Revolution!” Still, he entertains the idea that it was only Grigory “Zinoviev’s military Bolshevism,” a “Bolshevism characterized by authoritarianism and intolerance,” that had “created Stalinism”[11]—thus letting Lenin and Trotsky off the hook.

Even so, almost approaching Paul Mattick’s left-communist critique, La Botz explicitly acknowledges how wrong Trotsky was to consider the USSR a “workers’ state” of any kind.[12] As outlined in The Revolution Betrayed (1937) and other writings, the exiled theorist’s self-serving position about Stalin’s USSR being a “degenerated workers’ state” is perhaps understandable, but it is nonetheless delusional. Indeed, Trotsky’s own responsibility for the suppression of the Kronstadt Commune and the Makhnovist peasant-anarchist movement in Ukraine paved the way for his rival’s takeover. As the Bolshevik autocracy eliminated the most radical elements among workers, peasants, and fighters, it sealed the fate of the Revolution: namely, to give rise to a Communist hell.[13]

Along these lines, Chernobyl can be seen as a visual exploration of the horrors of bureaucracy, state capitalism, and high technology. To protect the reputation and power of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), the Politburo executives covered up and downplayed the news from Chernobyl from the start. Reflecting the lack of freedom of the press, free speech, or freedom of movement evident in the Soviet Union, authorities forced Western correspondents to remain in Moscow in the aftermath of the accident. Meanwhile, the KGB filtered information flows from the disaster site. In reality, the “two million residents of Kyiv,” located eighty miles from the plant, “were not informed despite the fallout danger, and the world learned of the disaster only after heightened radiation was detected in Sweden.” Mikhail Gorbachev, the CPSU’s last general secretary, did not publicly acknowledge the reality of the situation until May 14, well over two weeks after the explosion. In fact, despite Ukrainian appeals to the contrary, Gorbachev ordered the 1986 May Day march to proceed in Kyiv, so as to feign that the explosion posed no health risk to the public—this, despite the fact that the winds were then carrying fallout toward the city.[14]

The injustice of the situation is accentuated by Con O’Neill’s almost mafioso performance as Viktor Bryukhanov, Chernobyl’s manager. Shielded from the risks faced by workers, Bryukhanov keeps a lid on vital information as he sacrifices first responders. Echoing not only tsarist times, when St. Petersburg was constructed on wetlands using the mass conscription of serf labor, but also Stalin’s deportations, forcible collectivization, and the “Great Patriotic War” against the Germans, the CPSU mobilized over six hundred thousand so-called “liquidators” to deal with the fallout from Chernobyl. A 2005 report from the Irish Times finds that since 1986, twenty-five thousand liquidators had died, and that seventy-thousand had been permanently disabled.

While it set the stage for the collapse of the Soviet Union, as Gorbachev later admitted, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster caused 350,000 people to be permanently resettled, and its radioactive emissions have coincided with a regional increase in childhood thyroid cancer rates. While Mazin conveys a death toll of between four thousand and ninety-three thousand owing to the accident, Kate Brown estimates that “[b]etween 35,000 and 150,000 people died from cancers, heart problems, [and] autoimmune disorders” resulting from the disaster. Plus, as the recent movements of Russian units have reminded us, the soils surrounding Chernobyl remain highly irradiated. Ominously, less than a month into the all-out war, forest fires began to erupt, sending airborne radiation levels skyrocketing.

Chernobyl, Eros, and Anarchism

Perhaps surprisingly for an HBO series, Chernobyl features themes sympathetic to queerness, anarchism, and their intersections. For instance, as Akimov confronts the moral distress of carrying out Dyatlov’s unreasonable orders to proceed with the safety test, he gently whispers to Toptunov: “I’m with you.” We can draw a parallel here to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), which proposes homoerotic union among the crew of the Pequod against the deranged Captain Ahab, who is leading them toward a watery grave. Tragically, in both cases, the crew do ultimately perish, in an allegory of the self-destructive tendencies of capitalism, the domination of nature, and toxic masculinity. In parallel, the miners from the Donbas region who are conscripted to build a tunnel under the stricken plant are shown as especially defiant to the authorities, in a way that may recall the Ukrainian peasant-anarchist movement led by Makhno. Though the miners agree to the CPSU’s terms, Mazin and Renck depict them as doing so proudly, in terms of laboring to save humanity. Furthermore, they are shown performing their communal work in the nude, and this verbal image suggests free love as a means to dissolving hierarchy, or what the late researcher Christopher Chitty refers to as “sexual anarchy.”[15]

On the one hand, Chernobyl celebrates the heroic labor and mutual aid performed during and after the disaster by workers, including engineers, first responders, nurses, miners, and scientists. On the other, it portrays party bosses, from Bryukhanov to Gorbachev, as parasites and autocrats. With this dichotomy in mind, in his review for the New York Times, Mike Hale complains about the miniseries’ “one-dimensional heroes and villains.” Perhaps Mazin and Renck exaggerate a bit, but then again, the bureaucratic authoritarianism exhibited by Dyatlov and his superiors follows from the Soviet context, established by “Red hangmen.”[16] After all, the Soviet political system was based on a combination of the Tsarist “administrative utopia” and the “revolutionary statism” preached by Marx and Lenin.[17] Though he ended up killing Trotsky, Stalin “copied and far surpassed” his rival’s plan for the militarization of labor.[18]

In this sense, despite Chernobyl’s production by HBO, the visual narrative may well be influenced by Mazin’s own apparent solidarity with the struggle against class society. In his review on Red Flag (Australia) of the miniseries as an “anti-capitalist nuclear horror story,” Daniel Taylor observes that “the disaster we’re seeing is transpiring in, and largely a product of, a bureaucratic, managerial society divided into rulers and ruled, bosses and workers.”[19] Therefore, “strip away the Stalinist veneer and it is easy to recognise the system we have today: a managerial society run by bosses and bureaucrats who lie and kill to maintain their social dominance, and who threaten the whole world as long as they remain in power.” Taylor is right, but let us radicalize the implications beyond the nostalgia he expresses for Lenin and Trotsky. By focusing on the intersection of the exploitation of labor and ecological disaster, Mazin may be conveying implicit and/or unconscious sympathies with green syndicalism and social ecology, beyond democratic concerns about political dictatorship.

In parallel, we can draw lines from Trotsky and his Stalinist assassin Étienne, in La Botz’s presentation, to Dyatlov. Both Trotsky and Étienne are portrayed as automatons incapable of friendship, who typically view others only as tools, to be treated as either subordinates or superiors within a military hierarchy.[20] Such depictions, when juxtaposed with Mazin and Renck’s illustration of Dyatlov’s megalomania, communicate the continuities between Marxism-Leninism and bourgeois society—thus questioning what progress the Russian Revolution really brought. Indeed, in a chilling echo from the past, the blatant lie perpetrated by Trotsky and Lenin that the Kronstadt revolutionaries were led by tsarist officers—which subsequently inspired Stalin during his show trials—is now being reproduced by Putin’s regime, when it claims absurdly that Ukrainians are neo-Nazis.

Conclusion

Proponents of nuclear energy are often quick to dismiss the Chernobyl disaster as an aberration that reflects the flaws of both the reactor’s design and the Soviet autocracy, rather than any problems with nuclear fission as such. While the reactors in use today may be safer than the earlier Soviet designs, the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, provoked by a tsunami, still tells us that the lessons of Chernobyl have been neither learned nor applied. Moreover, besides the immediate safety issues owing to the risk of core meltdown, most nuclear fission plants in operation today share Chernobyl’s problems of radioactive waste disposal, dependence upon mining, and proliferation of materials usable in a nuclear weapon.[21] Much of this would also be true for the much-hyped hypothetical form of energy production known as nuclear fusion. Like the region surrounding Chernobyl, Diné (Navajo) lands and water-sources in the southwestern United States have been made into sacrifice zones for uranium mining concessions, resulting in radiation sickness and unusually high cancer rates among the Diné. Moreover, it is clear that nuclear energy has no role to play in averting catastrophic climate change.

Such critical thoughts, taken together with reflections on Mazin and Renck’s miniseries, may reveal the systemic nature of our predicament, linking Chernobyl with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the Fukushima disaster, global warming, the current war by Russia on Ukraine, and ongoing nuclear brinkmanship. Both Chernobyl and Trotsky in Tijuana are cautionary tales and appeals to reason. While the former highlights “the dangers posed by Stalinism as a uniquely bureaucratic system of social organization,” the latter serves as a call for a united front among “all of us on the left who oppos[e] both Hitler and Stalin,” plus their contemporary followers.[22] While La Botz may not be as critical of Trotsky’s authoritarianism as I might like, his counter-history does recognize the importance of anarchism within revolutionary struggle. Looking to the future, the same mechanisms of social hierarchy, aggressive hyper-masculinity, and adherence to the performance principle that have driven catastrophes like Chernobyl and Russia’s war on Ukraine could be opposed and perhaps overcome by autonomous class struggle; internationalist, anti-militarist, and feminist resistance; and a global transition to wind, water, and solar energy.

Notes

[1] Sigmund Freud, “Creative Writers and Daydreaming,” Collected Papers, vol. 4, trans. Joan Riviere et al., ed. Ernest Jones (New York: Basic Books, 1953), 421.

[2] Dan La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana (St. Petersburg, FL: Serge Books / BookLocker, 2020), 82–85, 91–92, 185–91, 422–50.

[3] Ibid., 24, 62, 196–69, 242–44, 305, 324, 328–29, 347.

[4] Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, trans. Ulrike Kistner (London: Verso, 2016), 71–72.

[5] Ibid., 66, 308; Voline, The Unknown Revolution (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1975), 136–37.

[6] La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana, 57, 297.

[7] Irvin Sam Schonfeld and Chu-Hsiang Chang, Occupational Health Psychology: Work, Stress, and Health (New York: Springer, 2017), 9; Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 50–52; John P. Clark, The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 3.

[8] G. Tyler Miller, Living in the Environment: Principles, Connections, and Solutions, 12th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth / Thomson Learning, 2002), 345–46.

[9] Ibid., 350.

[10] Schonfeld and Chang, Occupational Health Psychology, 206–7; Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination (New York: Pantheon, 1988).

[11] La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana, 20, 289, 311.

[12] Paul Mattick, “Bolshevism and Stalinism,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017), 259–72.

[13] Stites, Revolutionary Dreams, 171–72.

[14] Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 310–11.

[15] Christopher Chitty, Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020). See the discussion on group marriage in Friedrich Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884).

[16] Alexandre Skirda, Nestor Makhno: Anarchy’s Cossack (Oakland: AK Press, 2004), 389.

[17] Stites, Revolutionary Dreams, 19.

[18] Mattick, “Bolshevism and Stalinism,” 259–60; Stites, Revolutionary Dreams, 242.

[19] Daniel Taylor, “Chernobyl: an anti-capitalist nuclear horror story,” RedFlag, June, 9, 2019. Available at: https://redflag.org.au/node/6814.

[20] La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana, 384.

[21] Miller, Living in the Environment, 349.

[22] La Botz, Trotsky in Tijuana, 317.

A Critical Theory of Authority

October 11, 2021

These are my comments, presented on October 9, 2021, at the Ninth Biennial International Herbert Marcuse conference, on the panel “Marcusean Politics Today.” My co-panelists were Shon Meckfessel and Rocío Lopez.

In Character and Social Structure: The Psychology of Social Institutions (1954), the sociologists Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills observe that, “from a psychological point of view, the crux of the problem of power rests in understanding the origin, constitution, and maintenance of voluntary obedience.” They add that “Authority, or legitimated power, involves voluntary obedience based on some idea which the obedient holds of the powerful or of his position” (Gerth and Mills 194-5). Indeed, in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (1577), Étienne de la Boetie came to much the same conclusion: namely, that authority persists because we allow it to. Although the reproduction of hierarchy under capitalism is not so simple as that, considering the threats of unemployment, imprisonment, starvation, and assassination for those who rebel, there is something to Jean-Paul Sartre’s comment about a kind of “complicity between the oppressor and the oppressed” (Sartre 338).

In turn, the models of sexual sadomasochism and socio-political authoritarianism developed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Jessica Benjamin, and Lynn Chancer highlight the psychodynamic dimensions of erotic frustration and gender and class oppression. In other words, under generalized relations of dependence on capital and male authority, the power of the boss, man, sadist, and/or ‘top’ is ultimately derived from the psychological self-subordination of the worker, woman, masochist, and/or ‘bottom.’ In this sense, the specter of revolt can function as a destituent power that reverberates throughout society, as we have seen on many occasions in history, up to and including the present.

At the same time, not all revolt is emancipatory, and “there is no theory of subversion that cannot also serve the cause of oppression” (Rancière xvii). In Reason and Revolution (1941), Marcuse controversially defends G. W. F. Hegel’s criticism of the “pseudo-democratic” opponents of the post-Napoleonic Restoration régime, likening them—in their xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and German nationalism—to precursors of the Nazis (Marcuse 1999: 179-81).1 Along similar lines, Ze’ev Sternhell sees the fascist cultural and political revolt against Enlightenment values like humanism and rationalism not as anomalous to European history, but rather, as integral to it (Sternhell 3, 250-1). The anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker likewise saw in fascism a “reaction to progress […] rooted in German history but concerning the whole of Europe” (Bernardini 9). Unfortunately, as was confirmed not only by the descent of the Russian Revolution into a Stalinist nightmare, but also by the collaboration of revolutionary syndicalists in the birth of national socialism, the phenomenon of the “leftist right,” or what Jürgen Habermas termed a “left fascism,” certainly exists (Rancière 72; Gandesha). Both in the past, as in the present, we see “discourse[s] of order composed in the vocabulary of subversion” (Rancière 116). In this sense, the Russian Marxist Georgii Plekhanov was right to accuse Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the “Father of Anarchy,” of having combined “extreme Radicalism of mind with extreme Conservatism of mind” (Plechanoff 57, 63). Along similar lines, the neo-Stalinism of the GrayZone bloggers and the Trumpists’ coup attempt at the Capitol in January 2021 are arguably just two sides of the same coin.

Thus, in this presentation, I will analyze the ‘reactionary rebellion’ of the revolutionary French syndicalist Georges Sorel (1847-1922), follower of Proudhon and mentor to Benito Mussolini, the first Fascist leader, whose 1922 March on Rome animated Adolf Hitler’s failed “beer hall putsch” (1923). I will also explore the bureaucratic anti-humanism of Louis Althusser (1918-1990), who sided with his Party (the French Communist, or PCF) in rejecting the May 1968 uprising. I will then conclude with an analysis of national-socialist currents among ‘anti-imperialists’ today, and offer some reconstructive, anti-authoritarian ideas for anarcho-syndicalists and critical theorists going forward.

Georges Sorel’s National Revolution

Perhaps ironically, George Sorel—who infamously synthesized revolutionary syndicalism with ultra-nationalism to inspire Fascism—shared some concerns with the anti-fascist Marxists of the Institute for Social Research, otherwise known as the Frankfurt School theorists. They commonly focused on symbols, emotions, and socio-political psychology in their respective intellectual projects, although admittedly, for vastly different reasons: Sorel sought to “mobilize the masses and to change the world” by annihilating bourgeois society while upholding the authority principle and the place of “revolutionary ‘élites,’” whereas the critical theorists aimed at a non-repressive, anti-authoritarian transformation of global society (Marcuse 2008: 105; Sternhell 59). Across different generations, both the Frankfurters and the Sorelians worried that the working classes of advanced-industrial societies had been integrated into capitalism. Sorel despaired that the French Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) was more interested in reform than revolution, and Marcuse wrote One-Dimensional Man (1964) under the impression that workers in the U.S. would not rise up against capitalism (Sternhell 96). In the prologue to Negative Dialectics (1970), Theodor W. Adorno laments that “Philosophy […] remains alive, because the moment of its realization was missed,” given that “the transformation of the world failed.” Along similar lines, Sorel and Walter Benjamin shared a belief in the heroic potential of pessimism.

Of course, neither Adorno nor Marcuse (much less Benjamin) turned, as Sorel and Martin Heidegger did, to national socialism as a “new revolutionary path” (Sternhell 25, 123). Rather, as German-Jewish Marxists, they were forced to flee Nazi Germany and relocate to New York as refugees. After scaling the Pyrenees Mountains in late September 1940, Benjamin poignantly lost his life in the Spanish border town of Portbou, where he overdosed on morphine rather than be deported by Franco’s guards to the Nazi-collaborating Vichy régime. In the U.S., their newfound home, the surviving Frankfurt School theorists continued their principled anti-authoritarian analysis of society, rather than betray the cause, as Sorel so egregiously did.

According to Sternhell’s account in The Birth of Fascist Ideology (1989), fascism can be interpreted as a revolt against the principles of the Enlightenment (3). Certainly, this thesis can explain Heidegger’s own attraction to, and promotion of, Nazism. Like his intellectual mentor Friedrich Nietzsche, Heidegger sought to demolish the “post-1789 moral-political dispensation [and] replace it with a new radically illiberal and anti-egalitarian dispensation” (Beiner). In Reason and Revolution, Marcuse analyzes the Counter-Enlightenment philosophers who rejected German Idealism and inspired Nazism. In this sense, he highlights F. J. Stahl (1802-1861), who affirmed anti-rationalism, repudiated natural law, and sought to replace the category of reason with obedience (Marcuse 1999: 360-74). Likewise Sorel: “a horror of the Enlightenment [was] basic to his thinking” (Sternhell 69). Indeed, this devout Catholic had no truck with the anti-clerical cause. As a white supremacist, Sorel condemned what he saw as the Jacobins’ “recklessness” for “abruptly abolishing slavery in the colonies’”—particularly, in Haiti (Abromeit 396). Many of his followers encouraged Italy’s invasions of Libya (1911) and Ethiopia (1936) as “labor imperialist” projects. Like his protégé and fellow revolutionary syndicalist Mussolini, Sorel found Nietzsche’s ideas attractive, especially the philosopher’s contempt for “English ideas,” liberalism, and bourgeois society—and presumably, as well, the Nietzschean affirmation of slavery (Beiner; Sternhell 101, 110, 126, 196, 200). Sorel attacked the idealist tradition while hailing “proletarian ‘violence’” as a new form of authority (Marcuse 2008: 104).

Like Stahl, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, Sorel rejected rationalism, humanism, and natural law. His infamous “revision” of Marxism involved advocacy of the destruction of liberal democracy and parliamentary socialism through class struggle. Paradoxically, like Proudhon, Sorel “refused to touch private property and […] believed neither in equality nor in social justice […].” In reality, this “antidemocratic socialis[t]” envisioned the creation of a “producers’ civilization,” which would effectively function as a “revolutionary capitalism—[or] a capitalism of producers.” In this vein, the Sorelians “had nothing to put in place of capitalism and they did not conceive of a postcapitalist era.” As such, it is not hard to see how such a vision of stripping away liberal norms while retaining the capitalist mode of production could morph into Mussolini’s class-collaborationist, corporatist strategy (Sternhell 22, 28-9, 33, 37, 46-50, 69, 75, 80-2, 91, 117).

In this sense, the birthplace of fascism was neither Italy nor Germany, but rather, France. Though Mussolini would not seize power until 1922, on Sternhell’s account, all the requisite conditions for the propagation of the fascist ideal were in place before the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918). In the years after the publication of his Reflections on Violence (1908), a volume that exhorted the proletariat to wield violence to annihilate the bourgeoisie, Sorel abandoned socialism in favor of ultra-nationalism and the “conservative revolution.” In turn, Sorel inspired the founding of the national-syndicalist Cercle Proudhon in late 1911 as a clearing house for “nationalists and leftist anti-democrats.” The futurists and Sorelians in this Cercle highlighted Proudhon’s defense of private property, militarism, traditionalism, sexism, and anti-Semitism. As champions of anti-rationalism, anti-humanism, pessimism, a “revolutionary” hatred of democracy, and fidelity to Sorel’s masculinist cult of violence, these left-right syncretists proclaimed their ideal “the nonproletarian revolution, the national revolution” (Sternhell 4, 7, 27-9, 69, 75, 78, 80, 86, 90, 124, 130). As Marcuse might say, the Sorelians failed to question, much less overcome, technical reason; instead, they inspired Mussolini and Hitler to build on Sorel’s vision of a future wherein the “cult of energy” and “authority would emerge victorious all along the line” (Sternhell 24-7, 129, 168, 236-7).

Crucially, Sternhell distinguishes between the theoreticians of revolutionary syndicalism and anarchists. For Sorel and his followers, “the principle of authority was never in question.” In fact, “Sorelism detested anarchism,” and the master’s right-hand man, Édouard Berth, “wrote that ‘a real abyss’ divided the ideas of the syndicalists from those of the anarchists.” Paradoxically, the Sorelians opposed the concept of self-management, whether individual or collective; effectively, they proposed a hierarchical and productivist society run by syndicates (Sternhell 31, 103-104, 127, 218-223). Ultimately, these revolutionary unionists were just used by the Fascists to seize power. After all, conceptually speaking, national syndicalism and corporatism utterly contradict the cause of worker autonomy. As we know from Franz Neumann’s Behemoth (1942), the Nazi regime was run in the interests of the industrialists, the bureaucracy, the military leaders, and the National Socialist Party (Neumann). Accordingly, Sternhell is right to conclude that fascists’ use of leftist discourse always has “’rightist’ results” (211), just as Rocker is right to denounce Stalinism and Fascism as totalitarian ideologies that “both grew on the same tree” (Bernardini 7).

Even so, the case of Sorel is a disturbing one, considering how it illuminates the overlap between left and right, which are categories that are often considered to be mutually exclusive. How can it be that Jacques Rancière describes Sorel (perhaps unfairly) as an anarcho-syndicalist, that Mussolini and the Sorelian George Valois had had anarchist sympathies before embracing national socialism, and that so many Italian revolutionary syndicalists became Fascists? (Rancière 61; Sternhell 96, 143) In reality, many leftists and fascists commonly emphasize direct action, energy, violence, heroism, and sacrifice, while championing the will to power and conquest and critiquing “moralism” (Sternhell 29, 176-9). Mussolini and the Nazis admired Bolshevik authoritarianism, and Stalin trusted and allied with Hitler—rather irrationally, it turns out (Arendt 308-9; Bernardini). Part of the appeal of Sorelianism to syndicalists and nationalists alike was (and remains) its claim that both groups share(d) common enemies in liberalism and parliamentarism. Especially in the wake of postmodernism, many self-proclaimed leftists share a reactionary commitment to anti-universalism (Sternhell 163, 250-1). Whether a century ago or now, it is apparent that Sorelians, neo-Stalinists, and national socialists merely seek the worst of all possible worlds: that is, capitalism without any rights at all (Hensman).

Althusser’s Lesson

In Althusser’s Lesson (1974), the French philosopher Jacques Rancière takes his former professor to task for siding with the Communist Party of France (PCF), which opposed the revolutionary student movement of May 1968 as “petit bourgeois.” In regurgitating the Party line, Althusser effectively defended the division between mental and manual labor, privileging the former over the latter, while affirming the “very model prescribed by the philosophy of educators: enlightened despotism.” (In contrast, Sartre supported May 1968.) Besides Althusser’s disgrace, Rancière’s volume is focused “on the much broader logic by which subversive thoughts are recuperated for the service of order” (Rancière xvi, 11, 19, 54).

In this vein, Rancière identifies Althusserianism as a discourse of order wrapped up “in the language of leftism.” He traces its origin to “the desire to combat the revisionist tendencies that had seeped into philosophy following the Twentieth Congress” of 1956, when Nikita Khrushchëv denounced the crimes of Stalin, his then-deceased predecessor. In other words, Althusser followed Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party in their questionable defense of Stalin, announced during the Sino-Soviet split in the post-1956 context. Broadly speaking, for Rancière, Althusser’s career amounted to the “fight of a ‘communist philosopher’ against that which threatens both the authority of his Party and of his philosophy: [namely,] Cultural Revolution on a global scale.” Both Althusser and the PCF leadership were anxious about the discovery of Marx’s Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, which so moved Fromm, Marcuse, Raya Dunayevskaya, and others, because they feared the creation of a “political authority other than the Party.” Accordingly, Althusser maligned these pieces as having been written during Marx’s “petit bourgeois” as opposed to “proletarian” communist phase—despite the fact that this distinction is entirely arbitrary. In terms of theory, Althusser insisted that “Marxism is a[n] anti-humanism,” proposing instead that humanism is “bourgeois idealism,” while championing Marxist-Leninist orthodoxies through his promotion of “an unofficial version of Stalinism” (Rancière xx, 9, 21, 23, 33, 72, 78-9, 83, 113, 116).

Indeed, by the time the May 1968 uprising began with student revolt, Althusser had long given up on any ideas he may have had about questioning and dissolving State power, factory despotism, or wage labor. His attacks on the syndicalist left, and his disgrace over May 1968, speak for themselves. Some of the reconstructive proposals that Rancière considers in closing are ideas about proletarian humanism, self-management, and the independence of labor leading to the autonomy of producers and “a world [re]made for and by the labour community.” At its best, society would operate as a network of cooperatives “which impos[e their] own rhythm on the work [through] non-hierarchical organization” and the democratic recognition of human equality (Rancière 37, 89-90, 93, 108, 117; May).

Conclusion: National Socialism, ‘Anti-Imperialism,’ and Anarcho-Syndicalism

Returning to the attempted Capitol putsch of 2021, we see that this disturbing neo-fascist moment united hyper-masculinity, white-male rage, anddirect action with anti-parliamentarian and anti-democratic politics. As Eric Alterman describes, “Trumpism’s release of suppressed sexual and aggressive drives is a far cry from [what Marcuse termed Eros]. Rather, it represents what Marcuse called the ‘political utilization of sex’ and aggression to reinforce social domination” (Alterman). That being said, this moribund marriage of opportunism with authoritarianism has not been limited in recent years to the far right. In the wake of the rise of self-described ‘leftist’ streamers and ‘anti-imperialist’ bloggers who claim independence from mainstream media while reproducing their brand competitiveness and associated ‘spins’ on reality, many neophyte ‘socialist celebrities’ have profited from “preach[ing] a contempt for democracy and parliamentarism,” as revolutionary syndicalists and ultra-nationalists did a century ago (Sternhell 108, 153).

Along these very same lines, the political comedian Jimmy Dore bases his appeal in a call for the left and the right to “join forces” against “the Establishment.” Likewise, the GrayZone conspiracy theorists deny the existence of concentration camps for Uyghurs and other ethno-religious minorities that are maintained by the Chinese Communist Party in Xinjiang. Appallingly, one of GrayZone’s main shticks is to deny Bashar al-Assad’s responsibility for hundreds of chemical-weapons attacks carried out against insurgents and civilian communities alike in Syria over the past decade. We shouldn’t, therefore, be surprised that Dore and GrayZone have now switched to promoting disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, and agitating in favor of the use of ivermectin to treat COVID.

Rancière mentions the case of Pierre Daix (1922-2014), a journalist who first “denied the existence of labour camps in the Soviet Union [in 1949]; he never convinced anybody,” and then he resigned from the PCF in 1974, after having engaged with Solzhenitsyn’s GULAG Archipelago (1973) (Rancière 107). Given the profit and self-promotion involved, we cannot expect the GrayZone editors to argue in good faith about history or current events, much less renounce their absurd positions. The problem is that they do seem to convince their audiences, who admittedly may already be predisposed to aggressive, delusional, and sadistic thought-patterns and behaviors. Like Althusser over May 1968, ‘anti-imperialist’ authoritarians—ostensibly on the left—have built up their brands by denying the existence of the Syrian Revolution over the past decade on the one hand, and covering up the egregious atrocities carried out by the counter-revolutionary axis on the other: that is, Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies. With nearly a million Syrians murdered, and millions more displaced internally and across borders, the “line” of GrayZone and its sympathizers—of allying with the executioners—is a fundamental violation of leftist and Enlightenment principles around internationalism, humanism, and egalitarianism. In short, this ‘anti-imperialist’ discourse is merely another discourse of order and a “consecration of the [status quo] in the language of revolution” (Rancière 124).

Around Syria, the Trump regime, and COVID-19, we have seen a clear convergence between Stalinists and fascists who seek to marry revolution with tradition by advancing anti-rationalism, anti-humanism, and a hatred of democracy (Stites 250; Sternhell 240-1). The risk is that contrarian bloggers and streamers in touch with these currents are implicitly and paradoxically promoting neo-Nazism by espousing “an authoritarian and corporatist national revolution based on an ‘anticapitalist’ alliance” (Sternhell 248). Though this risk may seem exaggerated, the experience of four years of Trump, plus the resentment that persists over his electoral loss, show us just how much support the Counter-Enlightenment continues to enjoy.

Within this struggle, in the hopes of avoiding contributing to a reinvigorated fascism in our time, anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists should restate our opposition to private property, and our universal support for worker and community self-control of the economy and polity. Plus, we should revisit implicit or explicit futurism, anti-rationalism, and anti-humanism in the movement, and in our history, plus reconsider to what extent sharing a Nietzschean, Heideggerian, or Sorelian critique of liberal democracy is helpful. Furthermore, the cause of worker autonomy, which is realistically the only means of ensuring the preconditions for collective liberation and protection of the Earth from climate destruction, might greatly be assisted by integrating the insights from Critical Theory about the psychological dimensions of overcoming hierarchy, which ultimately is based on voluntary obedience, into labor organizing. Therefore, I conclude: anarcho-syndicalists and critical theorists, unite!

Works Cited

Abromeit, John. “Transformations of Producerist Populism in Western Europe.” Transformations of Populism in Europe, the United States and Latin America: History, Theories and Recent Tendencies. Ed. John Abromeit. Unpublished manuscript. 367-413.

Alterman, Eric 2021. “Altercation: Authoritarians Amok.” The American Prospect. Available online: https://prospect.org/politics/altercation-authoritarians-amok. Accessed 25 September 2021.

Arendt, Hannah 1968. The Origins of Totalitarianism. San Diego: Harcourt.

Beiner, Ronald 2021. “Dangerous Minds in Dangerous Times.” Thesis Eleven, vol. 163, no. 1. 29-42. doi:10.1177/07255136211005989.

Bernardini, David 2021. “A different antifascism. An analysis of the Rise of Nazism as seen by anarchists during the Weimar period.” History of European Ideas. DOI: 10.1080/01916599.2021.1963629.

Gandesha, Samir 2019. “The “Authoritarian Personality” Reconsidered: the Phantom of ‘Left Fascism.’” American Journal of Psychoanalysis. 79(4): 601-624. doi: 10.1057/s11231-019-09227-w. PMID: 31745203.

Hensman, Rohini 2018. Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Marcuse, Herbert 1999. Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.

— 2008. A Study on Authority. Trans. Joris de Bres. London: Verso.

May, Todd 2008. The Political Thought of Jacques Rancière: Creating Equality. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press.

Neumann, Franz 1942. Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism. London: Victor Gollancz.

Plechanoff, George 2014. Anarchism and Socialism. Trans. Eleanor Marx. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace.

Rancière, Jacques 2017. Althusser’s Lesson. Trans. Emiliano Battista. London: Bloomsbury.

Sartre, Jean-Paul 1983. Cahiers pour une morale. Paris: Gallimard.

Sternhell, Ze’ev 1994. The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution. Trans. David Maisel. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

1Marcuse comments: “Hegel wrote his Philosophy of Right as a defense of the state against this pseudo-democratic ideology, in which he saw a more serious threat to freedom than in the continued rule of the vested authorities” (1999: 180).

“A Marxist-Leninist Perspective” on Stalin: Totalitarian Propaganda that Fails in Rationalizing his World-Historical Crimes (Part I/III)

November 14, 2018

“Today [in 1958], everyone knows Russian Communism as the greatest barbarism on earth. Stalin is the name which symbolizes this.”

– Raya Dunayevskaya1

Chagall

Marc (Moishe) Zakharovich Chagall, “Festive Design” (1918-9)

Breht Ó Séaghdha’s much-anticipated, “big,” and supposedly “spicy” interview on “Revolutionary Left Radio” with Justin and Jeremy from the “Proles of the Round Table” about Josef Stalin and the historical record is a sustained, nearly three-hour long fraud that above all insults the memory of Stalin’s millions of victims. Unfortunately for the host Ó Séaghdha, who misleadingly presents his guests Justin and Jeremy as following an “empirical and statistical approach” to the history of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the reality is that he platformed neo-Stalinist propagandists on this episode, and either could not or would not challenge them on their myriad lies covering for what the Marxist-Humanist Raya Dunayevskaya rightly terms “the greatest counter-revolution in all history.”2 Given the friendly tone between Ó Séaghdha and his guests during this interview, as reflected in his admission at the outset of his “love and respect” for his “comrades and friends” Justin and Jeremy, his identification of the “Proles of the Round Table” as being “one of [his] go-to podcasts” represents a dangerous concession which reveals that he is following his guests’ lead when it comes to historical events.

Before analyzing and correcting the numerous distortions presented by Justin and Jeremy on this particular episode of “Revolutionary Left Radio,” I must express a very fundamental concern for Ó Séaghdha’s profession in the introduction of the need for leftists “always to show solidarity with our Jewish comrades,” given that not once in this three-hour interview does either the host or the guests discuss or even mention the Molotov-Ribbentrop, or Nazi-Soviet, Pact signed on August 23, 1939. Following in the wake of Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia and the Anschluss with Austria, the terms of this non-aggression treaty, agreed initially to ten years, represented a ‘honeymoon’ for the two totalitarian dictators Hitler and Stalin, setting forth the terms by which Poland, Finland, and Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were to be divided after the Nazi invasion a week later.

In Tinísima, Elena Poniatowska depicts even so hardened a Stalinist as Tina Modotti, a nurse who worked in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) with Red Aid International, affiliated with the Third International (Stalin’s Communist International, or Comintern), as reacting to the news of the Nazi-Soviet Pact by refusing food, desiring death, and considering this “the betrayal of everything for which we’ve fought.” Arguing with her partner Vittorio Vidali, himself a high-ranking Comintern agent responsible for numerous assassinations of non-Stalinist supporters of the Spanish Republic, Modotti asks:

“And the dead? And the relatives of the dead—who will calm them down? You know how much I love and admire the Soviet Union; you know how I revere Stalin. Everything you say is fine, Toio [Vittorio], but an alliance with Hitler—never!”3

Indeed, as historian Catherine Evtuhov relates,

“The agreement stunned leftist intellectuals and workers, who had believed that Moscow was the vital center of international revolution and anti-Nazism. As Arthur Koestler recalled, the sight of the swastika flying at the Moscow Airport [to mark Ribbentrop’s visit] destroyed his allegiance to communism.”4

The Hitler-Stalin Pact not only carved up Poland and much of the rest of Eastern Europe, but also involved the NKVD and Gestapo exchanging political prisoners, including Communists, and Polish prisoners of war; trade in oil, wheat, and weaponry between the two hegemons; and Stalin publicly praising Nazi victories.5 Furthermore, between 1939 and 1941, Stalin’s regime deported a million and a half Poles, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Jews, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians to the Far North, Siberia, and Central Asia; approximately one-fifth of those deported perished. Stalin’s forces were also responsible for executing at least 17,000 captive Polish officers in 1940.6

Rendezvous

Cartoon in The Evening Standard (20 September 1939) depicting the partition of Poland between Hitler and Stalin at the dawn of World War II. Notice the Orientalist depiction of Stalin’s face.

With Stalin thus neutralized, Hitler received the green light with which he infamously launched World War II and, shortly thereafter, the Holocaust, or HaShoah, which accelerated in June 1941 when Hitler turned on his erstwhile ally by invading the Soviet Union. Alongside the estimated 25 million Soviet people who died in the war, at least 1 million Jews in Ukraine and five million other Jews were murdered in Poland, the Soviet Union, and other territories of Eastern Europe which were conquered by the German Wehrmacht for Hitler’s pathological, ultra-nationalist concept of Lebensraum (“living-space”).7 In fact, in January 1948, Solomon Mikhoels, chair of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, was executed on Stalin’s orders by the Soviet Belorussian State police before he could bring to light documentation of the Nazi genocide of over 1.5 million Soviet Jews in these same territories conquered by the Wehrmacht “from the retreating Soviets”—territories which previously had been occupied by the Red Army, following Hitler and Stalin’s mutual agreement.8

When it came to actual war with Hitler, Stalin’s myopic incredulousness about the reported 84 intelligence warnings he received about German preparations for invasion led to the immediate destruction of one-fourth of the Soviet air force, effectively granting the Nazi Luftwaffe aerial supremacy during the beginning of “Operation Barbarossa.”9 Whereas the Red Army had “approximately the same number of men on the Soviet western border as the Germans and significantly more tanks, guns, and aircraft,” the USSR’s security was endangered for two important reasons: the Red Army was comprised of peasants who were often demoralized by collectivization and famine, and it was led by inexperienced officers who had effectively been promoted through Stalin’s devastating Purge of an estimated 90 percent of “the highest army commanders, all the admirals, about 90 percent of corps commanders,” and several “divisional and brigadier generals” just a year to two years before the start of World War II.10 That the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had ordered his troops to occupy the new territory gained through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which lacked any defensive fortifications, was not helpful, either.11

Moreover, Stalin’s disagreement with and overriding of the “leading Soviet military strategist,” General Georgii Zhukov, led to multiple disasters. To name just a couple: first, in August 1941, when Stalin refused to withdraw Red Army divisions from Kyiv (Kiev), the Wehrmacht proceeded to encircle and imprison more than 3 million Soviet officers and troops by the end of the year;12 and second, when, following the successful December 1941 counter-attack to rescue Moscow, Stalin hubristically enjoined offensives across the entire western front that “exhausted his troops and exposed them to Germany’s new campaign, this time aimed at the Caucasus and its oil fields.” Once Kyiv fell, the Nazis systematically murdered its Jewish population—some thirty-thousand men, women, and children—in the massacre known as Babi Yar.13

Beyond this, Stalin’s refusal to sign the Geneva Conventions (1929) governing the treatment of prisoners of war (POW’s) arguably greatly harmed his officers and troops captured by the Nazis, who, in contrast to Western POW’s, were initially generally refused food and medical treatment, if they were not summarily executed. In point of fact, it was on Soviet POW’s that the Nazis first “tested” Zyklon-B gas in the Auschwitz death-camp (September 1941). An estimated three million Soviet POW’s died in Nazi captivity.14 Hitler’s regime did not think to exploit Soviet POW’s as forced labor until November 1941, alongside the millions of Ukrainian and Polish Ostarbeiter slave laborers, though it had no reservations leaving intact collectivized farms in occupied Ukraine, thus “taking advantage of the Soviet invention for extracting resources from the rural population.”15

In light of these incredible omissions about the nearly two-year period of collaboration between Hitler and Stalin, the Holocaust, and the General Secretary’s numerous strategic blunders during World War II itself—which Jeremy and Justin outright ignore, mischaracterizing Hitler’s military defeat in May 1945 as Stalin’s “accomplishment”—it becomes clear that no one on this show has any credibility discussing the historical record.

To put it lightly, it is extremely problematic for anyone appealing to history to uncritically champion the genocidal and imperialist state-capitalist monster known as Stalin in 2018. As Rohini Hensman rightly points out, and as we shall explore more in part II of this response, “Stalin […] in his time had rehabilitated tsarist imperialism.”16 In 1927, Alexander Berkman identified Stalin’s rule as being equivalent to “Tsarist Socialism,” perhaps following Nestor Makhno’s lead in denouncing the “Bolshevik tsars” the previous year.17 According to Hannah Arendt’s analysis, class struggle and internationalism were absent within the politics of Stalinist totalitarianism, beyond merely opportunistic use as legitimating ideologies.18 Dunayevskaya correctly identified the Stalinist bureaucracy as “the most deadly, the most insidious, [and] the most dangerous enemy because it springs from the proletariat and cloaks itself in Marxist terminology.” So why on Earth would revolutionary leftists want to promote the legacy and supposed continued relevance of such decidedly counter-revolutionary distortions of socialism?

There is clearly something rotten in the heart of the Western left, for both neo-fascism and the red-brown alliance are on the rise. Indeed, “[t]his alliance between neo-Stalinists […] and neo-fascists […] is a twenty-first century version of the Hitler-Stalin pact.”19 It should not be surprising, then, to contemplate that Ó Séaghdha uncritically interviewed the pro-Assad propagandist and Russia Today correspondent Rania Khalek six months ago. Amidst such stark realities, I concur with Hensman that we must pursue and tell the truth as well as seek to bring morality and humanity into politics, among other critical tasks,20 and it is in the spirit of these maxims that I respond critically to Ó Séaghdha’s “Stalin podcast.”

tanks

Vladimir Tambi (1906-1955), Tanks

What Did Stalin Do Wrong?

The struggle for total domination of the total population of the earth, the elimination of every competing nontotalitarian reality, is inherent in the totalitarian regimes themselves; if they do not pursue global rule as their ultimate goal, they are only too likely to lose whatever power they have already seized.”

– Hannah Arendt 21

As if the host and his guests could be forgiven for covering up the Hitler-Stalin Pact—which they cannot—Jeremy and Justin’s ‘homage to Stalin’ comes through very clearly in their responses to Ó Séaghdha’s opening question, regarding which criticisms (if any) the “Proles of the Round Table” have of Stalin’s rule over the former Soviet Union. Still, even before responding here, Jeremy and Justin already have denied that Stalin was a dictator, instead suggesting that certain “people” could criticize him without fear of retaliation. Which people do they mean? Surely, they are not referring to M. I. Ryutin, the first Communist to openly denounce Stalin’s personal dictatorship and war on the peasantry in his 1932 appeal to the Central Committee, requesting Stalin’s deposition and an end to forced collectivization. Stalin responded by demanding Ryutin’s execution, yet, due to the objection of members of the Politburo (the highest-ranking body within the Communist Party), this renegade Communist was banished and only murdered five years later in the Purges. In addition, Stalin executed Ryutin’s sons, banished his wife to a prison camp, and temporarily exiled the Jewish Politburo members Lev Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev for their supposed complicity in the affair—thus foreshadowing their ultimate fate in the Purges.22

Evidently, the “Proles of the Round Table” rely on a misunderstanding of what dictatorship is—that is, centralized and effectively absolute power over the State and military apparatus. They miss Voline’s point that “dictatorship […] being universal and universally embraced, the way is open for fascist psychology, ideology and action.” With their comment on Stalin’s openness to criticism, they would consciously eliminate from history all the artists, intellectuals, dissidents, workers, and peasants who were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered in the Stalinist Terror, including the writer Isaac Babel, the renowned poet Anna Akhmatova’s son Lev Gumilyov (imprisoned in the GULAG slave-labor camps) and her husbands Nikolai Gumilyov, who was murdered by the CheKa (precursor to the NKVD, or Soviet Interior Ministry: Stalin’s secret police), and Nikolai Punin (who died in the GULAG), as well as the Russian Makhnovist Peter Arshinov, who was executed in the Terror in 1937 or 1938 on the charge of organizing to resurrect the anarchist movement in the Soviet Union—to say nothing of all the “Old Bolsheviks” killed in the Moscow Show Trials.

Jeremy and Justin therefore reject the historical reality that, following the expulsion in 1927 of his primary rival Lev Trotsky from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, “there is little doubt that Stalin and a narrow circle of aides made all the historical decisions of the period.”23 Kamenev and Zinoviev, who had joined with Trotsky (also Jewish) in 1926 to form a “United Opposition” to Stalin, quickly recanted following Trotsky’s forced exile in 1928. Lacking a base among either workers or peasants, these rivals of Stalin were outmaneuvered by the General Secretary’s construction of a vast bureaucracy.24 The “Proles of the Round Table” thus omit Stalin’s internal liquidation of factions, his utter subordination of foreign Communist Parties to his arbitrary rule, and his war on the remnants of intellectual freedom in the USSR.25 Like other authoritarian socialists, Justin and Jeremy misleadingly conflate the Communist Party bureaucracy with the proletariat and peasantry it exploited and dominated—a notion with which Ó Séaghdha concurs, insisting as he does that historical Stalinist bureaucracies have represented “mass-proletarian movements.” This is a classic exposition of “substitutionism,” whereby élites of intellectuals and/or bureaucrats rule over the working classes by proxy and in their supposed interests, though without any democratic participation on the part of workers and peasants. The ill-named concept of “democratic centralism” expresses the same dictatorial idea.

Therefore, rather than reflect thoughtfully on the history of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union, Jeremy and Justin vigorously defend Stalin’s technocratic and genocidal legacy of authoritarian high modernism, whereby the centralized power of the totalitarian State is employed “scientifically” and expeditiously to transform society not in the interests of humanity or the working classes, but the Party bureaucracy and state-capitalism.26

According to the “Proles of the Round Table,” these were the three greatest mistakes or crimes for which Stalin is responsible during his three decades as General Secretary of the Soviet Union, from 1922-1952:

  1. Justin argues that Stalin should have supported the Spanish Revolution more, although Jeremy is quick to clarify that he did not “betray” it. The pair detail the extent to which Stalin supplied arms and ammunition to the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War—yet Jeremy suggests that, had Stalin provided greater assistance to the Republic, the Soviet Union might not have been able to resist Nazi and Japanese expansionism during World War II. Of course, he fails to mention the Hitler-Stalin Pact here; neither does he seem to consider that, had the Nationalist forces been defeated in Spain, Hitler may have been checked before even launching World War II. Jeremy and Justin contend that Stalin’s intervention in Spain was benign, and that it’s “patently false” that his Comintern agents “maliciously murdered anarchists […] in the streets.” Both claims are complete lies. Firstly, Stalin effectively looted the Republic’s gold reserves by vastly overcharging for the arms sold to it, as historian Gerald Howson has shown, and the Soviets would often send dysfunctional weapons that lacked ammunition. In addition, Stalin treated Spain as a colonial possession, dispatching NKVD and GRU (military-intelligence) agents there who reported to and acted under him, not the Republican government.27 Even so pro-Soviet an historian as E. H. Carr recognized that the Republic ultimately had become “the puppet of Moscow.”28 Secondly, the “Proles of the Round Table” appear willfully ignorant of the “Tragic Week” of May 1937, otherwise known as the “May Days,” when Stalinists from the Comintern-affiliated Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya (PSUC) in Barcelona struck out against the Confederación Nacional de Trabajo (CNT), the Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT), and the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM), in an effort to uphold “antifascist unity” while crushing the ongoing social revolution. In effect, the May Days “guaranteed the armed victory of the Stalinist-led counter-revolution,” which in turn allowed for the victory of Nationalist forces, following the rationale that “Stalin feared his leftist rivals in Spain more than he did Franco.”29
  2. The deportation to Irkutsk and Siberia of “10,000 Soviet citizens” from the Volga region who were ethnic Germans beginning in 1941, supposedly for fear of their being a “fifth column” vis-à-vis the invading Nazi military. For Jeremy, the error was that Stalin deported these Germans on an ethnic basis, though he definitely implies that the General Secretary would have been justified in deporting or exiling his opponents on a “class” or political basis—because, of course, for Jeremy and Justin, any political opposition to Stalin is “counter-revolutionary,” no matter its actual content, given their absurd view that the General Secretary represented the epitome of the Russian Revolution. In uttering such words, Jeremy unwittingly expresses his support for Stalin’s GULAG system of slave-labor camps on principle. He also underestimates the number of Volga Germans deported by Stalin’s regime by a factor of between 40 and 70.
  3. Stalin’s imposition of Article 121, which criminalized male homosexuality with hard labor, following the Bolsheviks’ earlier suspension of Tsarist-era penal codes against homosexuality after October 1917. Though they criticize Stalin for this reactionary move, Justin and Jeremy try to contextualize the reversal by pointing out the supposedly perceived affinities between homosexuality and fascism at that time, and between homosexuality and pederasty, or pedophilia—thus unironically recalling today’s criminalization of homosexuality under Vladimir Putin. Ó Séaghdha assists by claiming such criminalization to have been standard practice “all over the world” at the time. Yet a fact check shows this not remotely to have been the case.

What’s the problem, then, with these supposed criticisms? For one, they reveal that Jeremy and Justin are not remotely arguing in good faith. To begin with, the guests chuckle when discussing the “shady” actions of NKVD agents “murdering anti-Soviet communists in the background” in Barcelona after Ó Séaghdha questions them about this. They are, moreover, quite dishonest about the overall meaning of Stalin’s intervention in the Spanish Civil War.

Furthermore, regarding deportations, Jeremy completely overlooks Stalin’s far more extensive and systematic ethnic cleansing of over a million ethnic minorities, mostly Muslim, during World War II: Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks (Buddhists), Ingush, Balkars, Karachai, and Meskhetians. As there is no mention or discussion of these on the podcast, neither is there any discussion of precisely why Stalin and the Communist Party might have feared these minorities’ siding with the advancing Germans: namely, due to their oppression under the Soviet Union. Forcibly transferred by the NKVD to Central Asia, the Far North, and Siberia like the Cherokee people coerced onto the “Trail of Tears,” many of these oppressed peoples died either during the journey or in exile—leading to the logical conclusion that Stalin is guilty of genocide here beyond any reasonable doubt. Of course, these atrocious mass-deportations go unmentioned by Jeremy, who rather banally asserts that the Volga Germans “had it better” in exile in Russia’s Far North and Eastern Siberia than those Germans and German-Americans detained by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration in internment camps during World War II. For context, he will later add that he considers Lavrentiy Beria, the successor to the “Purged” Nikolai Yezhov as NKVD chief in 1939—a man responsible for the liquidation of Social Democrats in Georgia and Armenia, Old Bolsheviks in the Terror, and Polish officers captured after the Nazi-Soviet Pact—to have been a “liberal.”30

So beyond proclaiming elitism and substitutionism; arguing in bad faith; and denying atrocities such as the Stalinist dictatorship, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the May Days, Stalin’s mass-deportations of oppressed nationalities, and the GULAG slave-labor camp system (see part II of this response); Jeremy and Justin now present the classic argument of “whataboutism,” which seeks to distract from the issue at hand—Stalin’s totalitarian atrocities—by falsely claiming that that same issue is dwarfed by some similar issue that is ongoing elsewhere. A fact check shows just how dishonest this argument is: 11,000 Germans and German-Americans were interned in the U.S. during WWII, while Stalin’s regime deported at least 400,000 Volga Germans to Siberia and Irkutsk.31 (For reference, the U.S. interned about 120,000 Japanese-Americans during WWII.)

In sum, Jeremy is lying to his audience when he claims that Stalin wasn’t “just f*cking with people just to f*ck with them.”

deportations

Courtesy Asya Pereltsvaig

Notes

1Raya Dunayevskaya, Russia: From Proletarian Revolution to State-Capitalist Counter-Revolution, eds. Eugene Gogol and Franklin Dmitryev (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018), 317 (emphasis in original).

2Ibid.

3Elena Poniatowska, Tinísima (México, D.F.: Ediciones Era, 1992) 595-596 (my translation).

4Catherine Evtuhov et al., A History of Russia: Peoples, Legends, Events, Forces (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 700.

5Ibid 702.

6Ibid 710.

7Ibid 705; Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 269-274.

8Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (London: Vintage, 2010), 340-345; Plokhy 269.

9Evtuhov 702-703.

10Ibid 673.

11Plokhy 264.

12Ibid 264-265.

13Evtuhov 703.

14Ibid 704-705.

15Plokhy 267-274.

16Rohini Hensman, Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-Revolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018), 47.

17Alexander Berkman, “A Decade of Bolshevism,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chicago, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 122; Nestor Makhno, “The Idea of Equality and the Bolsheviks,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution, eds. Friends of Aron Baron (Chicago, Calif.: AK Press, 2017), 58.

18Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego: Harcourt, 1968), xv, 362.

19Hensman 52.

20Hensman adds the political goals of struggling for democracy, centering internationalism, and advocating for the promotion of human rights and democracy through global institutions (279-302). Beyond this, reorganizing society toward popular power through self-organization in the labor, educational, and territorial sectors (on the social level) is an equally pressing task.

21Arendt 392.

22Evtuhov 671.

23Plokhy 245.

24Evtuhov 641-644.

25Arendt 379; Evtuhov 663.

26James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999).

27Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, ed. Ronald Radosh (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), xvii-xviii.

28E. H. Carr, The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War (London: Pantheon, 1984), 31.

29Agustín Guillamón, Ready for Revolution: The CNT Defense Committees in Barcelona, 1933-38 (Oakland: AK Press, 2014), 189; Evtuhov 698.

30Evtuhov 692.

31Ulrich Merten, Voices from the Gulag (Lincoln, Nebraska: American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, 2015), 168-170.