Posts Tagged ‘Yugoslavia’

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.”

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Repudiating the Stalinist Legacy: Critique of “A Marxist-Leninist Perspective” on Stalin (Part III/III)

November 19, 2018

“In a totally fictitious world, failures need not be recorded, admitted, or remembered. […] Systematic lying to the whole world can be safely carried out only under the conditions of totalitarian rule.” – Hannah Arendt1

Lenin Stalin

Lenin and Stalin in 1922 (courtesy Keystone/Getty Images)

So far, in parts I and II of this response to “A Marxist-Leninist Perspective on Stalin,” we have seen how the “Proles of the Round Table” and their host Breht Ó Séaghdha have systematically lied on their infamous ‘Stalin podcast’ about the history of the Soviet Union, from covering up the Barcelona May Days (1937), the GULAG slave-labor camp system, the Hitler-Stalin Pact (1939), and the NKVD’s mass-deportation of Muslim and Buddhist minorities during World War II to declaring mass-death through Stalin’s forced collectivization of the peasantry to have been “extremely successful.” It is clear why Jeremy and Justin confidently present such a fraudulent version of history: were they even to mention any of these realities, it would become clear that their presence as Stalin apologists on a radio show ostensibly dedicated to an examination of “revolutionary left” history and theory would be immediately revealed as absurd. Yet here we are.

In this final third of my critique of this travesty, we will examine Jeremy and Justin’s genocide denial and their enthusiasm for the Moscow Show Trials. In contrast to the “Proles of the Round Table,” we will explore how anti-Semitism, ultra-nationalism, and sexism are essential aspects of the Stalinist legacy. We will then close with some comments about Soviet ecocide and a critical analysis of neo-Stalinist international relations today, which cover for pseudo-anti-imperialist executioners.

Holodomor Denial

While the breadth of Jeremy and Justin’s Stalin’s apologia on this interview is quite astounding, few aspects are as vile as their denial of the genocidal Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933. Justin is very clear about their view: “there was no mass-famine,” and the idea of Holodomor (the “Great Ukrainian Famine”) is a “myth.” Jeremy jumps in to claim that “Ukrainian nationalists” sought to undermine Stalin and “intentionally starv[e] the Soviet Union.” First, let’s note that, in making the latter claim, Jeremy unwittingly admits that the Soviet Union was imperialist, and should be that way: the implication is that Ukraine and other former colonies of the Tsarist Empire exist to serve Russia, or, in this case, Stalin’s regime. Beyond that, certainly there was famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933: the “Proles of the Round Table” are almost unique among neo-Stalinists, in that, rather than claim that the reported Holodomor death-toll has somehow been exaggerated for political purposes, they claim that it never happened. In so doing, they quite literally ape Stalin’s refusal to accept the reality of famine in Ukraine in spring 1932 upon receiving word of it from Vlas Chubar, Bolshevik leader of Ukraine, after which the General Secretary denied famine relief and banned the use of the word from all official correspondence.2 While climatic conditions played a part, it was arguably the unrealistic quotas for the extraction of grain from the Ukrainian peasantry following in the wake of the “extremely successful” experience of forced collectivization that tipped the peasants into the first famine (spring 1932); once Stalin doubled down on the confiscation of grain and cattle after hearing initial reports of the famine, adding reprisals against those villages that failed to meet production quotas by cutting them off, this exacerbated an already disastrous situation. The result was the death of nearly 4 million Ukrainians, more than 10% of the population, with an additional 1-2 million Caucasians, Russians, and Kazakhs succumbing as well.3 Unsurprisingly, Justin and Jeremy have nothing to say about these Central Asian and Caucasian Muslim victims of famine.

To advance their lies about Ukraine, the “Proles of the Round Table” rely on one Grover Furr, a Stalin propagandist who also denies the Holodomor by citing the work of Mark Tauger, a supposed historiographer who actually quite fraudulently argues against the idea that the British Empire or the Soviet Union were responsible for the Great Irish Famine or the Bengal Famine, in the former case, or Holodomor, in the latter. As Louis Proyect has shown, Tauger wants to exclusively blame “environmental conditions” for these devastating catastrophes, and thus hide the role of political economy, power relations, and imperialism. This is the kind of ideology that the “Proles of Round Table” hold up as legitimate historical investigation.

Following the argument of the Jewish Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, originator of the concept of genocide, historian Norman Naimark holds Stalin responsible for genocide, if we consider the term’s original definition, which meant to include social and political groups. In targeting the “kulaks” for elimination and thus provoking the Holodomor, Stalin certainly was genocidal. This conclusion becomes even clearer when we review Stalin’s imperialist policies, his regime’s concurrent purging of most of the Ukrainian Communist Party leadership for their putative “nationalism,” and his August 1932 letter to fellow Politburo member Lazar Kaganovich, in which the General Secretary “set [forth] the goal of turning Ukraine into a real fortress of the USSR, a truly model republic.”4

Apologism for the Moscow Show Trials and Terror

“The insane mass manufacture of corpses is preceded by the historically and politically intelligible preparation of living corpses.” – Hannah Arendt5

While we have examined the Purges in parts I and II, let us now focus specifically on Justin and Jeremy’s apologism for the infamous Moscow Trials of the “Old Bolsheviks” (1936-1938), which were clearly nothing more than show trials. Justin begins by mistaking the Bolshevik leader Gregory Zinoviev for “Alexander Zinoviev,” a Soviet philosopher, and then mentions Trotsky’s analysis of “Soviet Thermidor” without in any way clarifying its application to Stalinism in power: that is, with reference to its historical antecedent—the French Revolution—whereby the bourgeois Directory seized power after overthrowing the Jacobin leaders Maximilien Robespierre and Louis de Saint-Just. To be clear, Stalin’s counter-revolution is highly suggestive of the legacy of the Directory—which is not to suggest that either Lenin or Robespierre were revolutionaries. In parallel, the “Proles of the Round Table” will mention Trotsky’s analysis of Stalin’s guilt over Hitler’s rise—written years after his expulsion from the party—and somehow consider this as retroactive criminal evidence for Trotsky’s supposed conspiracy against the General-Secretary-to be (as in the Left and United Opposition). Yet tellingly, they will not present the actual content of Trotsky’s argument: namely, that Stalin’s Comintern policy on “social fascism” facilitated the Nazi takeover of Germany.

Continuing on, Justin states that Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev “recanted” following their joining with Trotsky in the United Opposition to Stalin—but no reason is given as to why. Certainly, as in the case of Nikolai Bukharin, Zinoviev and Kamenev feared for their lives and that of their loved ones, particularly after seeing the example made of Trotsky, who was expelled ignominiously first from the Communist Party, and then the Soviet Union altogether (in 1928). Instead of contemplating such factors, the “Proles of the Round Table” begin to attempt to explain “why […] the Purge [is] beginning to become a necessity [sic].” Attempting to insert a victim-blaming narrative, Justin and Jeremy suggest that not all the “Old Bolsheviks” were “Communists”—meaning Stalinists—and therefore imply the necessity of their liquidation—and, in many cases, that of their families, who were also murdered so as to prevent revenge attacks against the Party emanating from the “clan” of those executed.6

This is a positively ghoulish illogic—one that is reproduced in Jeremy and Justin’s distortions about Bukharin, another victim of the Terror, whom they portray as a “social democrat.” In the first place, Bukharin was not a social democrat. Social democracy is incompatible with dictatorship: as Karl Kautsky, the preeminent theoretician of orthodox Marxism and German Social Democracy, insisted, there can be “no Socialism without democracy.”7 As a “believer in party dictatorship, Bukharin was no democrat”: though he disagreed with Trotsky and Stalin in desiring a continuation of the New Economic Policy (NEP) and “peace with the villages” in place of rapid “super-industrialization,” he and his supporters, known as the ‘Right Opposition,’ had no plan to institute a participatory form of government in the Soviet Union.8 Therefore, it would appear that Justin and Jeremy are being rather dishonest about Bukharin’s ideology, claiming that he’s been “waging a counter-revolution for years,” in an attempt to prepare their rationalization of his execution following the Moscow Show Trials of 1938. They make much of Bukharin’s confession to the charges of being an agent of foreign, imperialist powers—but they do not admit the reality that Bukharin confronted credible threats against the lives of his young wife and baby if he failed to confess. As Catherine Evtuhov observes,

“The question of why the falsely accused confessed to the fantastic crimes is not really an intellectual puzzle: Some feared for the lives of loved ones […]. Others were subjected to unbearable torture. A few many may have been convinced of the rightness of false confession for a higher good: the future of communism.”9

Once again, then, we find the “Proles of the Round Table” lying to their audience: referring to Bukharin, they suggest, “it’s not like he had a gun at his head […].” Actually, he most certainly did. Yet such spurious ‘analysis’ of historical events is one with their expressed faith in the official transcripts of Bukharin’s trial, which, in being “thorough,” are somehow to be considered legitimate evidence against him. They mention how the U.S. ambassador to Moscow endorsed the Moscow Show Trials, but fail to note that the U.S. philosopher John Dewey wrote the report Not Guilty in defense of those falsely charged by Stalin.10

For a more honest perspective, consider that Jean-Paul Sartre had by 1947 in Les Temps Modernes identified Stalin’s Soviet Union as a class society based on a “concentration-camp system.”11 According to Hannah Arendt, within totalitarian regimes, “th[e] place of positive laws is taken by total terror.”12 Indeed, the Comintern’s efforts to propagate its top-down vision for “revolution” were greatly hindered by the disillusionment of many Western sympathizers in light of the Terror of the 1930s and, ironically, the execution of many foreign communist leaders who had previously taken refuge in the Soviet Union.13 Alongside killing an astonishing 90% of Soviet trade-union leaders, Stalin ordered the following far-reaching executions:

“The entire leadership of the Polish Communist Party fell victim, as did the many other foreign Communists and those who had served in Spain and China. Comintern activists were recalled to Moscow from all over the world and shot. Non-Russian nationalities were assailed; a large segment of the party leadership in Ukraine was annihilated.”14

Imagine framing these sweeping atrocities, as Jeremy does, as the “defense of the Revolution,” and denying that they served the ends of Stalin’s consolidation of power. Imagine unironically claiming that “Stalin was a critic of Stalin: he was able to self-criticize.” Such naked apologism represents nothing more than the regurgitation of Soviet State propaganda and the worship of power.

To accommodate fetishizing the Stalinist cult of personality in 2018—harkening back to a 1930’s view which sees the General Secretary as both “hero and father-protector”—Jeremy and Justin are fully prepared to falsify history and deny Stalin’s world-historical crimes.15

Repression of Tolstoyan Peasants

To demonstrate how terribly mistaken this view is, let us briefly consider the testimony of three Tolstoyan peasants who lived and worked in the “Life and Labor Commune,” which was founded in 1921 just outside Moscow and then relocated to Western Siberia in 1931. As Tolstoyans, these peasants followed the Christian anarchist Lev Tolstoy, who had proclaimed altruism, humanism, internationalism, anti-militarism, and vegetarianism in his late novels and essays.16 Yet in 1936, Stalin’s regime retaliated against the Commune for what might be termed excessive ‘idealism’: “You are building communism too soon [sic]; it is too early for you to refuse to support violence and murder,” declared the judge passing sentence on these pacifist stateless communists.17

Life and Labor

Courtesy William Edgerton

Boris Mazurin, a Tolstoyan leader of the “Life and Labor Commune,” writes in his memoirs that NKVD agents arrested several comrades from the Commune on the arbitrary basis of Article 58 of the Soviet criminal code, which was utilized by the State to suppress anyone considered to be a threat. Between 1936 and 1940, sixty-five Tolstoyans detained by the NKVD for being “counter-revolutionaries” never returned; the loss of so many members destabilized the ability of the Commune to continue operating. In addition, more than a hundred male Tolstoyan communards were executed by the Soviet power for refusing military service in World War II.18 Ivan Dragunovsky, another communard whose father Yakov was executed by the State in 1938, elicits the frightful night in October 1937 when NKVD agents came to arrest him and several of his young comrades, most of them never to be seen again, simply because they were Tolstoyans.19

Dimitry Morgachëv, a peasant-intellectual from the “Life and Labor Commune,” recalls his experiences in the Cheremoshniki transfer prison:

“There was terrible despotism in that camp, the kind you might think would be inadmissible in a land of workers and peasants […]. More than thirty years have gone by, and it still makes my flesh crawl when I remember how we lived, not for hours or days but for whole years, in that savage, inhuman life where people died like flies in autumn from the hard labor, from starvation, from the smarting consciousness of our innocence and our undeserved infamy and punishment […]. Could this be done by the representatives of Communist power, whose ideal—the withering away of the state, and a society without violence—was dear to them and to me alike? Could all this be perpetrated by the same people who had grown so indignant about the savagery and arbitrary rule of the tsarist authorities over the common people?20

Defending an Anti-Semitic, Ultra-Nationalist, and Sexist Legacy

By interview’s end, Jeremy, Justin, and Ó Séaghdha all sound quite pleased with themselves. The host praises his guests’ uncritical take on the Soviet Union, which he claims to have represented “a socialist [sic] f*cking powerhouse” that was “so successful at so many things.” Right. That’s just as ideological as Jeremy and Justin’s denial of the charges of anti-Semitism and Russian chauvinism raised against Stalin which Ó Séaghdha meekly poses before the triumphant conclusion. In this section, we will examine Stalin’s anti-Semitism, ultra-nationalism, and misogyny—the latter being a category that goes virtually unmentioned by the “Proles of the Round Table” and Ó Séaghdha.

Stalinist Anti-Semitism

Responding to Ó Séaghdha’s question about Stalin’s anti-Semitism, these “Proles of the Round Table” say that they “don’t know where you get the idea that he was anti-Semitic.” No? Let us count the ways.

  • Vis-à-vis Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Trotsky’s United Opposition (1926), Stalin at the least took advantage of the anti-Semitic hatred among Party members directed against these men as Jews to outmaneuver and disarm them and expel Trotsky from the country in 1928;21
  • The matter of conspiring to assassinate Trotsky (1940), exiled in Mexico;
  • The Molotov-Ribbentrop, or Nazi-Soviet Pact, of August 1939, which partitioned Poland, home to Europe’s largest Jewish community before World War II, between the two totalitarian regimes: with the Hitler-Stalin Pact in mind, it’s simply untenable to pretend that Stalin bore no responsibility for the deaths of millions of Polish Jews at the hands of the Nazis, the question of the Comintern’s facilitation of Hitler’s coup to the side for the moment;
  • Tellingly, Hitler clarified that the only man for whom he had “unqualified respect” was “Stalin the genius [sic],” in an echo perhaps of his earlier view (from the 1920’s) that “in our movement the two extremes come together: the Communists from the Left and the officers and the students from the Right,” and reflected as well in his May 1943 declaration that, “in this war bourgeois and revolutionary states are facing each other,” with ‘bourgeois’ meaning ‘Western’ and ‘revolutionary’ [sic] referring to Nazi Germany and the USSR;22
  • The murder of Shlomo (Solomon) Mikhoels in January 1948, as mentioned in part I, and the liquidation of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC) he had led later that year, resulting in at least twenty death sentences and nearly a hundred others being sent to the GULAG—as the historian Bożena Szaynok confirms, “Stalin personally supervised all activities directed against [the] JAC”;23
  • Gripped by fear and paranoia in the post-war environment regarding the possibility of a third world war, Stalin became increasingly suspicious of all elements considered “disloyal,” and, within the context of Politburo member Andrei Zhdanov’s triumphalist demand for the fetishization of nationalism in culture, his regime launched an anti-Semitic campaign that was first announced in Pravda in January 1949 against the “emissaries of rootless cosmopolitanism,” meaning Soviet Jewish artists and intellectuals, for their supposed Zionism and attendant lack of pride in the Soviet Union, leading often to their being replaced in the State sector by non-Jews, expelled from the Party and their professional organizations, and having their works censored;24
  • Stalinist repression against Yiddish-language newspapers and institutions in the Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) located in Birobijan in the Soviet Far East, together with prison and death sentences for JAR leaders, accused of “anti-State activity, espionage, and attempts to create a Jewish state in the USSR”;25
  • In parallel to the shuttering of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, the Jewish Labor Bund was dissolved in Soviet-occupied Poland in 1949;26
  • Whereas Stalin’s regime was the first country to recognize Israel in May 1948—in an attempt to undermine British imperial power—Soviet authorities regarded the Rosh Hashanah celebrations in Moscow in August 1948 which coincided with the visit of Israeli envoy Golda Meyerson (later Meir), who was received enthusiastically, as highly disloyal;27
  • The announcement in January 1953 in Pravda of the “discovery” of the supposed “Kremlin doctors’ plot,” whereby dozens of physicians, many of them Jewish, were accused of having conspired with Britain and the U.S. to murder Zhdanov by medical malpractice, and of planning to similarly murder Stalin.28

Thankfully, Stalin died before this vile campaign could escalate into another Purge, this one exclusively targeting Jews. There is ominous evidence of orders for the construction of new concentration camps in the Soviet Far East from early 1953, confirming that Soviet authorities were preparing for a large influx of new political prisoners at a time when few remained after World War II.” For Arendt, this shift from accusing Soviet Jews of Zionism to implicating them in a putative Jewish world conspiracy ultimately signals the true affinities between Hitler and Stalin:

“The open, unashamed adoption of what had become to the whole world the most prominent sign of Nazism was the last compliment Stalin paid to his late colleague and rival in total domination with whom, much to his chagrin, he had not been able to come to a lasting agreement.”29

Stalinist Ultra-Nationalism

We have just seen how, toward the end of his life, Stalin contemptibly promoted open anti-Semitism and may well have been preparing another Holocaust. Yet even before this, as examined in parts I and II, Stalin combined Great Russian chauvinism, authoritarian high modernism, and a continuation of Tsarist imperialism from the beginning of his rule to “stabilize” his control over the Soviet Union and pursue its becoming a superpower. As such, “Stalinism was a deeply conservative structure of privilege for a ruling class that rejected many of the utopian ideals of the [Russian] revolution.”30 The emergence of “national Bolshevism” as Stalinist ideology in the 1930’s owes much to nationalism within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the revision of Marxist principles—as reflected in the catastrophic Comintern policies not only to facilitate Hitler’s rise but also, in seeking to protect the Soviet Union by destabilizing imperialism, to order the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to ally with the nationalist-feudalist Guo Min Dang (GMD), led by Chiang Kai-Shek, who promptly and murderously suppressed the Shanghai and Canton workers’ communes upon taking power with the CCP’s aid in 1927.31 Mao bitterly noted Stalin’s refusal to seriously assist the CCP during the Civil War against the GMD.32

In 1934, Stalin, Kaganovich, and Zhdanov mandated nationalist revisions to the Soviet history curricula which would do away with what the General Secretary and his colleagues saw as an excessively “sociological” understanding of history that had, in promoting internationalism since 1917, supposedly failed to promote a unified sense of Soviet identity. Stalin and co. demanded a narrative emphasis on the “progressive interpretation” of centralizing and “state-building” Tsarist heroes such as Ivan IV (“the Terrible”), and an attendant de-emphasis on historically insurgent rebels such as Yemelyan Pugachëv and Stenka Razin; a focus on medieval Rus’ while excluding consideration of medieval Western Europe; and the communication of the ‘lesser evil theory’ to explain Russia’s colonization of Ukraine and Georgia, among other questions.33 According to this rationale, Stalin essentially appealed to a continuity between his regime and the Tsarist Empire for legitimation: as such, Stalinist historiography “virtually ignored the history of Ukrainians and Belorussians, not to mention other, non-Slav peoples of the USSR.”34 This was the age of ‘socialist realism,’ when Soviet novels were written without any conflict, and it was understood that music should be melodious, optimistic, exuberant, and nationalist: hence Zhdanov’s attacks on the composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev for their putative “formalism,” which was supposedly related to an imitation of Western modernist styles.35 Indeed, Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky, which depicts the medieval war in the Baltic region between Nevsky’s forces and the German Teutonic Knights, incorporates classic Stalinist tropes regarding the “urgency of strong leadership, the courage of the Russian people, and the purported sadistic impulses of the German invader.”36 As the historian Sheila Fitzpatrick observes, this ideological transformation from a discourse of internationalism to national-Bolshevism reflected Stalinism’s “shift in emphasis from the workers as the vanguard class of the Soviet experiment to the Russian people as its vanguard nation.37

In addition to the invasion and occupation of Georgia; forced collectivization, “dekulakization,” and Holodomor in Ukraine; and counter-insurgency, famine, and the imposition of ethno-linguistic divisions in Central Asia, Stalin was also responsible for occupying and then subordinating the ill-named Eastern European “People’s Democracies” following the Yalta Conference of February 1945. Though these countries remained formally independent of the USSR, they essentially were (with the exception of Yugoslavia) “Sovietized” after WWII, such that Purges and dictatorship rather than self-determination and democratic self-rule followed the end of the war for millions of Eastern Europeans.38 Stalin’s end-of-life anti-Semitic campaign, then, noxiously spread to several of these “People’s Democracies,” particularly Poland and Czechoslovakia.39

Stalinist Patriarchy

Ó Séaghdha begins this interview on an actually promising note: he emphasizes that he wants to get away from the “Great Man of History” narrative when discussing Stalin. As with his parallel introductory comment about combating anti-Semitism, however, this is a purely opportunistic assertion, given that he provides the “Proles of the Round Table” nearly three hours to espouse historical lies that are framed within this very same narrative about the singular importance of the General Secretary.

As a putative “Great Man of History,” it should not therefore be surprising that Stalin was quite a sexist and a traditionalist on the woman’s question: he was after all responsible for advancing an “authoritarian and patriarchal political culture that […] pervaded social relations.”40 In 1930, the Zhenotdel, the women’s section of the Soviet Communist Party, which had been established by Alexandra Kollontai and others to promote female literacy and knowledge about marriage and property rights, was shuttered, and the perspectives of Communist feminists marginalized; in 1936, Stalin’s regime restricted divorce and abortion. Whereas the regime publicly recognized “Heroines of Motherhood” for bearing several children to serve the State, his officials engaged in rape campaigns in the GULAG camps and detention centers as a means of torture and humilation.41 When the Red Army entered Germany, moreover, toward the end of World War II, Soviet troops engaged in mass-rape of “thousands of females of all ages.”42 Additionally, in the wake of M. I. Ryutin’s appeal to depose Stalin in 1932, and following the General Secretary’s reprisals against Ryutin, Kamenev, and Zinoviev, his second wife, Nadezhda Allilueva, reportedly became very disillusioned with him; when Stalin rudely insulted her one evening at a dinner party, she was found dead the next morning, the result of an apparent suicide.43

central asian harvest mural

A Soviet mosaic in the Uzbek city of Bukhara (Courtesy The Guardian)

In Central Asia, otherwise known as Turkestan, Stalinist high modernism coupled with a paradoxical mix of Soviet feminism, imperialism, and Orientalism led authorities to attempt to promote sexual equality in the region beginning in the late 1920’s. This campaign “threatened a total abrogation of the primordial status system,” and in promoting it, Soviet officials “meant to pose a fundamental challenge to the structure and life style of local communities.”44 Soviet family legislation in Turkestan sought to outlaw polygamy, allow women to divorce their husbands, establish a minimum age for marriage, and prevent arranged marriages, among other things; yet in response, many Muslim men divorced their wives, forcing them onto the streets. When some women employed the new rights afforded them by divorcing their husbands and publicly unveiling themselves, many Muslim men “responded with an explosion of hostility and violence apparently unequaled in scope and intensity until then on any other grounds.”45 Prompted by clerics, many men began persecuting, assaulting, and murdering unveiled women, female activists and their families, and those related to these figures. This conservative backlash resulted not only in the reveiling of unveiled women but also the spread of veiling among women who had not previously been veiled. Even some men who had benefited from Soviet land redistribution turned against the regime after this imposition of sexual equality. Soviet authorities then doubled down against the emergence of such male-supremacist resistance, reconstituting crimes against women as counter-revolutionary, carrying the obligatory penalty of execution; outlawing not only the Islamic veil but all other forms of traditional dress; and beginning to exclude veiled women from Soviet programs. The result of such intensification proved to be rather counter-productive, as many men tended to become more resistant to efforts to emancipate women, more violent, and less cooperative with overall Soviet policy. Ultimately, Soviet officials realized that deeply embedded cultural norms could not be eradicated merely by decree, such that this policy of “feminism from above” was promptly reversed, with accommodation and stability coming to replace the pursuit of fundamental social changes in gender relations.46

CA women

Courtesy Catherine Evtuhov et al.

Stalinist Ecocide

Though this critique of a “Marxist-Leninist Perspective” on Stalin is focused primarily on history and politics, I would be remiss not to at least mention some of the environmental depredations resulting from Stalinist industrialization and the USSR’s self-assertion as a superpower. Against Ó Séaghdha’s characterization of Soviet mass-industrialization as representing “proletarian beauty,” these ecological ill-effects range from persistent radioactivity resulting from Soviet nuclear tests, particularly in Kazakhstan, to the near-collapse of the Aral Sea as a viable ecosystem and natural-resource provider secondary to the industrial-scale expansion of cotton production in the USSR, which was based on the mass-diversion of water for irrigation from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers that supply the Aral Sea, together with the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe and the legacy of mass-chemical pollution.47 These lamentable realities provide a stark reminder that “[s]ocieties that have abolished or statized private profit have not escaped the most brutal dimensions of the ecological crisis.”48 Furthermore, a landmark 2013 study regarding historical responsibility for global warming which blames a sum total of 90 companies for fossil-fuel extraction holds investor-owned capitalist energy firms responsible for about one-fifth (21%) of carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution, and Soviet State-owned oil, gas, and coal corporations responsible for just under 9% of total emissions.

tank prod

Soviet women working on wartime production of tanks (courtesy David Goldfrank)

Neo-Stalinist International Relations: Siding with Executioners Globally

“The Nazis were well aware of the protective wall of incredulity which surrounded their enterprise.” – Hannah Arendt49

Besides peddling historical lies to rehabilitate genocidal totalitarians of the past, neo-Stalinists notoriously run interference for authoritarian, neo-fascist, and (sub)imperialist States of today, if they judge them to be sufficiently “anti-imperialist”—by which these opportunists do not mean opposed to imperialism as such , but rather U.S. imperialism. Instead of internalizing Hensman’s critical points that “anti-imperialists [must] oppose all oppression by one country of another” and “understand that socialist internationalism demands solidarity with democratic revolutions, not with the counterrevolutions trying to crush them,” contemporary neo-Stalinists very typically adhere to a “campist” analysis, following Stalin’s identification of “the two camps” at the Potsdam conference of July 1945: the British and U.S. vs. the USSR.50 Overlaying the various complexities of international relations with a manichean worldview, Western neo-Stalinists prioritize Karl Liebknecht’s identification of the main enemy [being] at home”: whereas U.S. imperialism certainly must be opposed, their excessive attachment to this principle leads them often to the fallacious conclusion that popular uprisings against putative enemies of the U.S.—such as the Syrian Revolution, the Iranian revolt of late 2017 and early 2018, or the Ahwazi struggle for justice and self-determination—must be “CIA,” “Gulf,” or “Zionist” conspiracies. Given this framing, which is ideological rather than empirical or materialist, neo-Stalinists will implicitly—and evermore so recently, overtly—provide passive and/or active support for despots such as Bashar al-Assad, (the overthrown and now-defunct) Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. As such, they side with executioners, hence violating the basic responsibility Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky assigned to intellectuals—however much Chomsky himself appears to have violated this principle when it comes to the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of thousands of Muslim Bosniak men and boys by Serbian ultra-nationalists.51 In light of Stalin’s mass-deportation of Muslims during World War II, and considering also the vile, potentially genocidal anti-Semitic campaign launched by the General Secretary toward life’s end, it should be clear how much of a continuity the neo-Stalinist “analysis” of popular uprisings against reactionary, pseudo-anti-imperialist regimes represents relative to Stalin’s own attitude toward “fifth columns” and putatively “disloyal elements.”

Indeed, substituting formulaic scripts for actual investigation, many neo-Stalinists of today completely fail on an analytical level to understand U.S. policy toward Syria. They ignore clear collaboration between the U.S. and the Assad Regime, from Hafez al-Assad’s deployment of 1500 Syrian troops to fight in Desert Storm against Saddam Hussein’s forces to Bashar al-Assad’s torture of ‘terror suspects’ detained by the U.S. in the ‘War on Terror.’52 Since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in March 2011, the U.S. has not been committed to overthrowing Assad and does not appear ever to have supported the democratic opposition against him. Yet prominent “tankies” in the media, including Ó Séaghdha himself, continue to hold that the U.S. empire seeks Assad’s downfall and his replacement with “Salafi-jihadists.” Yet this is the opposite of what the U.S. or Israel want. The “tank” zeal to blame the Syrian catastrophe on Western imperialism quite clearly overlooks the very obvious imperialist role played there by Russia, especially since September 2015, when Putin intervened decisively to save Assad’s Regime. Neo-Stalinists have nothing to say about the estimated 18,000 Syrian victims of Russian aerial bombardment, or the destruction of entire cities by the Russian air force. To accord with their campist perspective—and, indeed, continuing in their denialist pedigree regarding Stalin’s world-historical crimes—they deny Assad’s vast atrocities, from the extermination of detainees to the numerous occasions on which the Regime has resorted to using chemical weapons.

As such, they lend their support to neo-fascist and genocidal ruling classes, such as the Assad Regime, or as the neo-Stalinist propagandist and “Revolutionary Left Radio” veteran Ajit Singh does with regard to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): in August 2018, he co-authored with Ben Norton an infamous article on the campist disinformation site Grayzone which denies the well-documented mass-internment of indigenous Muslim Uighurs. It is simply a non-sensical piece, given that the official Chinese State newspaper, The Global Times, had already defended the suppression of the Uighurs two weeks before the Grayzone article was published by alluding to the supposed need to prevent the Xinjiang province from becoming “China’s Syria” or “China’s Libya.” Moreover, in early October, the Xinjiang government legalized the camps. To date, the Grayzone article’s fraudulent title continues to be “No, the UN Did Not Report China Has ‘Massive Internment Camps’ for Uighur Muslims,” and it does not appear that either Singh or Norton has published an update or a correction; indeed, the article is still live. How telling that these Stalinist ‘journalists’ are comfortable with legitimizing the neo-fascist war on truth, as reflected in Donald Trump’s belittling of “fake news.”

Whereas for most neo-Stalinists, support for Palestinian self-determination against Israeli settler-colonialism is a matter of principle, Hensman clearly identifies their opportunism when she asks:

“How can anyone who feels anguish when Palestinian children are targeted and killed in Gaza not feel anguish when Syrian children are targeted and killed in Aleppo?”53

This pointed question is implicitly raised in the new film A Private War (2018), which shows the American journalist Marie Colvin interviewing a Syrian mother with her young infant daughter in a bomb shelter in Homs in early 2012—sheltering, of course, from the Assad Regime’s indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas. While we would consider it very difficult to deny human solidarity to this oppressed Syrian mother, just the same as an oppressed Palestinian woman, neo-Stalinists are “quite prepared to sacrifice everybody’s vital immediate interests to the execution of what [they] assum[e] to be the law of History.”54 Everything else, from mass-death in Assad’s dungeons to mass-imprisonment of Uighurs in Chinese concentration camps, are details to them, whether historical or contemporary. Decisively, the CCP’s rationalization of its mass-internment of Muslim Uighurs very closely echoes Stalinist propaganda about and policy toward the supposedly “backward” Muslim peoples of Central Asia and the Caucasus Mountains: note that Uighur Muslims have been cut off from the Ummah, just as Soviet Muslims were in Stalin’s era, and that the CCP, in seeking to forcibly divorce the Uighur youth from Islam, has consciously sought to suppress Uighur nationalism and the related possibility of independence for Eastern Turkestan, as Xinjiang is also known.

central asian imperial sport mural

A Soviet mosaic in Semey, Kazakhstan (Courtesy The Guardian)

In the U.S., it is the ill-named Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and the Workers’ World Party (WWP), together with their front-groups, such as the Act Now to End War and Stop Racism (ANSWER) Coalition and the International Action Center (IAC), that propagate neo-Stalinist and campist approaches to international relations, which inevitably end up translating into passive and/or active support for pseudo-anti-imperialist executioners. Yet it is not only the PSL, the WWP, ANSWER, or IAC which do so in the U.S.: just on Sunday, November 11, 2018, in Los Angeles, members of the similarly ill-named Peace and Freedom Party picketed a presentation about the Syrian Revolution and the occupation of Syria by Russia and Iran that was given by the Syrian pro-democratic activist Samir Twair, whose 39-year old brother was murdered by Assad’s forces in the notorious Sednaya prison, and hosted by LA Jews for Peace. While these “tank” trolls’ aggressive booing, hissing, and intimidation of the speaker during his presentation and the discussion which followed was lamentable enough, the sign one of them brought to the event (shown below) itself speaks volumes to the naked opportunism, ruthlessness, and atrocity-denial that today grips a part of the Western so-called left, reflecting the persistence of the shameful Stalinist legacy.

As Theodor W. Adorno observed correctly, “the past that one would like to evade is still very much alive.”

Screenshot_2018-11-18 Global Anarchy 🏴Ⓥ ( intlibecosoc) Twitter

Notes

1Arendt 388, 413.

2Plokhy 250-251.

3Ibid 253-254; Evtuhov 669.

4Evtuhov 675; Plokhy 252 (emphasis added).

5Arendt 447.

6Evtuhov 676.

7Lee 236.

8Evtuhov 642-644.

9Evtuhov 674.

10Ibid 674.

11Ian H. Birchall, Sartre against Stalinism (New York: Berghahn Books, 2004), 53.

12Arendt 464.

13Meyer 102.

14Evtuhov 675.

15Ibid 693.

16See for example Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1893), Resurrection (1899), or Hadji Murat (1912).

17Ivan Dragunovsky, “From the Book One of My Lives,” in Memoirs of Peasant Tolstoyans in Soviet Russia, trans. William Edgerton (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Univ. Press, 1993), 251.

18Boris Mazurin, “The Life and Labor Commune: A History and Some Reflections,” in Memoirs of Peasant Tolstoyans in Soviet Russia, trans. William Edgerton (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Univ. Press, 1993), 91-108; Dimitry Morgachëv, “My Life,” in Memoirs of Peasant Tolstoyans in Soviet Russia, trans. William Edgerton (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Univ. Press, 1993), 177.

19Dragunovsky 252-257.

20Morgachëv 166-167, 171 (emphasis added).

21Evtuhov 642.

22Arendt 309n12-13.

23Evtuhov 723; Boena Szaynok, “The Anti-Jewish Policy of the USSR in the Last Decade of Stalin’s Rule and Its Impact of the East European Countries with Special Reference to Poland,” Russian History, 29, nos. 2-4 (2002), 302.

24Evtuhov 722-723; Szaynok 302-303.

25Evtuhov 723; Szaynok 303.

26Szaynok 310.

27Evtuhov 723; Szaynok 304.

28Evtuhov 728-729; Syaznok 305.

29Arendt xxxix-xl.

30Evtuhov 729.

31D. L. Brandenberger and A. M. Dubrovsky, “’The People Need a Tsar’: The Emergence of National Bolshevism as Stalinist Ideology, 1931-1941,” Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 50, no. 5 (1998), 873; Liu 8-13.

32Evtuhov 721.

33Brandenberger and Dubrovsky 874-881.

34Ibid 879.

35Evtuhov 722-723.

36Ibid 693.

37Brandenberger and Dubrovsky 882 (emphasis in original).

38Evtuhov 716-720.

39Szaynok 305-315.

40Evtuhov 729.

41Ibid 686-687.

42Ibid 711.

43Ibid 671.

44Gregory J. Massell, The Surrogate Proletariat (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 250.

45Ibid 275

46Ibid 284, 316, 320-325, 351-354.

47Evtuhov 755.

48Jean-Paul Deléage, “Eco-Marxist Critique of Political Economy,” in Is Capitalism Sustainable: Political Economy and the Politics of Ecology, ed. Martin O’Connor (New York: Guilford, 1994), 45.

49Arendt 437n124.

50Hensman 15 (emphasis in original); Evtuhov 717.

51Hensman 283.

52Reese Ehrlich, Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect (Amherst, Massachusetts: Prometheus Books, 2014), 71, 146-149.

53Hensman 284.

54Arendt 461.