Posts Tagged ‘soviet union’

“What about the politics of the hippie movement? It seemed to me like they were in many ways rebelling against the same kind of conservative attitudes and social norms as in the Western context, albeit under a different socioeconomic system and political institutions. Whereas many young American rebels in the 1960s idealized, for example, Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China, a lot of the subjects in your film seem to lionize anything and everything American. Yet, as your film admits, most of the early hippies were actually children of the Soviet elite. What were the issues and factors pushing this estrangement from Soviet society?

There were definitely some similar aspects between the East and West, but also some differences. In the USSR, pacifism was not purely political — it also had implications on the everyday, mundane level. Soviet society at that time was deeply authoritarian and highly militaristic. Most of the hippies rejected these attitudes and tried to model their daily lives around values like “peace” and “love.”

That said, the hippie scene began where people had access to Western music and journals, and that of course could only happen among the elite — the only people in the Soviet Union who had access to Western goods. High-ranking officials — Communist Party members, KGB agents, etc. — could get permission to travel to Western countries, often bringing back all kinds of exotic foreign presents for their kids. The children of the elite also had more money to buy bootleg LPs, which were quite expensive. Oftentimes people formed clubs of four or five music fans who would pool their funds to buy a record, and then take turns making reel-to-reel tape copies.

So in that sense it certainly contained an aspect of social dissent, but it was also a status thing. If you had a good record collection, you had many friends. And so at least in the beginning, the hippies were often the children of powerful Soviet families. Ideologically speaking, there was certainly this idealization of the West as the “free world,” and to a lesser degree, an idealization of the free market.

So there was a kind of a pro-free market coloring to the whole thing?

Yes, because they associated the market with good music and good jeans. It wasn’t that they were in favor of capitalism per se, they just had an idealized notion of freedom of consumption. This was more or less true of the broader Soviet population: consumption was the repressed, and consequently, idealized. People wanted to wear jeans as an expression of that desire for freedom. It’s difficult to judge them for that in retrospect — in a society where consumer goods are difficult to acquire, it’s understandable how consumption could take on such a meaning.

One thing that doesn’t come up in your movie at all is the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Did the war in Afghanistan have any effect on the hippie movement? Did it grow, was there any relation to anti-war sentiment?

Well, Afghanistan doesn’t play a role in my film because the documentary concentrates on the emergence of the hippie movement, which really became a visible social entity in 1971 when the hippies gathered to protest the Vietnam War in Moscow. This occasion was chosen because it aligned with both the foreign policy stance of the Soviet government, as well as the pacifism prevalent among the hippie community. It was also a major event for the hippie movement, mostly because they were all arrested and had their names taken down by the police, suddenly making it very dangerous to be a hippie in the USSR.

In this way, the authorities killed the political element of the movement — it became much more underground, more inward-looking, and perhaps more spiritual, but also more drug- and alcohol-related. The social and political aspects receded. When I ask old hippies if they were political, they usually say that they saw politics as stagnant. They felt there was no way they could change anything in Soviet society, and that they would just end up in jail if they tried. In some ways, I think their inward-looking rejection of politics was in itself a form of protest.”

– Loren Balhorn interviews 

TERJE TOOMISTU, “The Soviet Hippies.” Jacobin. November 17, 2017.

Read Full Post »

Young Russia Is In These Faces At The Djerzynsky Tractor Plant from “A Report on Russia’s Strength: The Soviet Union Is Building A Great Machine For War,” LIFE Magazine. August 9, 1948. Page 37.

Read Full Post »

“Tanks Rumble Through Poznan Streets,” Montreal Gazette. June 30, 1956. Page 01.

“A Polish army tank disperses crowds in the industrial city of Poznan, Poland, where workers staged a riot Thursday for bread and life. Gunfire was reported to have broken out again today despite martial law clamped on the city. The revolt may have taken more than 100 lives.”

Read Full Post »

““Immortality” was commissioned from Platonov under the auspices of a large project called “People of the Railway Empire,” initiated by the Union of Soviet Writers and the railway newspaper Gudok (Horn) in late 1935. In line with the new Stakhanovite movement, which showcased particularly productive individual workers in each major industry, on July 30, 1935 Stalin gathered the most illustrious railway workers for an awards ceremony at the Kremlin. By August 17, working at a Stakhanovite pace, the publishing arm of the rail industry prepared and published a commemorative volume, Liudi velikoi chesti (People of Great Honor), which featured brief biographies of the sixty-seven award-winning railway workers. Sometime that autumn a decision was made to commission literary works about them. Platonov was assigned two Stakhanovites of the rails: pointsman Ivan Alekseevich Fyodorov of Medvezh’ia gora station, and stationmaster Emmanuil Grigor’evich Tseitlin of Krasnyi (Red) Liman station. Fyodorov became the protagonist of “Among Animals and Plants,” in which he is maimed while trying to stop a runaway train, is honored at a ceremony in Moscow, and promoted to the position of coupler. Tseitlin was fictionalized in “Immortality” as Emmanuil Semyonovich Levin, the indefatigably caring chief of Red Peregon station.

Platonov (1899–1951) was a natural choice for the project. Born in the family of a railway engineer, he had frequently set his stories in and around rail yards. He explained his railway obsession in a text later published by his widow Mariia:

Before the revolution I was a boy, but after it happened there was no time to be young, no time to grow; I immediately had to put on a frown and start fighting [i.e., in the Civil War] … Without finishing technical college I was hurriedly put on a locomotive to help the engineer. For me the saying that the revolution was the locomotive of history turned into a strange and good feeling: recalling it, I worked assiduously on the locomotive … Later the words about the revolution as a locomotive turned the locomotive for me into a sense [oshchushchenie] of the revolution.

A revolutionary fact gives rise to a feeling and organizes labor, but then returns to a metaphor that rapidly accelerates out of control. This literal belief in metaphor animated socialist realism, the official aesthetic system of the Soviet Union beginning in 1932, and Stalin relied heavily upon the mobilizing power of metaphor when, in 1935, he placed the rail industry at the center of public discourse, as seen in railway commissar Lazar Kaganovich’s speech at the celebration of July 30, 1935:

In The Class Struggle in France Marx wrote that “revolutions are the locomotives of history.” On Marx’s timetable Lenin and Stalin have set the locomotive of history onto its track and led it forward. The enemies of revolution prophesied crashes for our locomotive, trying to frighten us with the difficulty of its path, its steep inclines and hard hills. But we have managed to lead the locomotive of history through all inclines and hills, through all turns and bends, because we have had great train engineers, capable of driving the locomotive of history. We have conquered because our locomotive has been steered by the dual brigade of the great Lenin and Stalin.

Tropes unexpectedly spawn real imperatives. Though Platonov had been marginalized since his stories attracted Stalin’s personal ire in 1929 and 1931, the railway commission promised a way back into print.

“Among Animals and Plants” was accepted by the journals Oktiabr’ (October) and Novyi mir (The New World), but Platonov refused to make the changes they demanded. Both “Among Animals and Plants” and “Immortality” were then rejected by the prestigious almanac God Deviatnadtsatyi (The Nineteenth Year), before being accepted by the journal Kolkhoznye rebiata (Kolkhoz Kids), where they appeared in abbreviated adaptation for children. The decision by the editors of Literaturnyi kritik to publish Platonov’s stories as the first and last ever works of fiction ever included in the journal demonstrates both their high regard for Platonov and their determination, despite his difficulty in finding outlets for his work, to see him in print.

Given the political tenor of the moment—August 1936 also witnessed the first Moscow show trial of Stalin’s rivals—it was an act of no little boldness. In an extended but unsigned preface, the editors explained their decision as dictated by the timidity of literary journals’ editorial boards, which prefer safe “routine” and “cliché” to a realism that reveals contradictions and incites reflection:

We categorically reject the formula “talented, but politically false.” A truly talented work reflects reality with maximum objectivity, and an objective reflection of reality cannot be hostile to the working class and its cause. In Soviet conditions a work that is false in its ideas cannot be genuinely talented.

What sounds like pure casuistry reflects the journal’s consistent position that literary narrative possesses a degree of autonomy, i.e., means of efficacy that cannot be mapped directly onto ideology: “Vigilance is necessary. In order that it be real, actual, Bolshevik vigilance, however, and not just a bureaucrat’s fear of ‘unpleasantness,’ it is necessary first of all to know literature.”

Georg Lukács was a leading light of the journal, and the unnamed editors’ opposition between “literature” and “bureaucracy” calls to mind Lukács’s 1939 essay “Tribune or Bureaucrat?” In fact the entire project “People of the Railway Empire” had been conceived along roughly Lukácsian lines, considering his opposition to pure factography in the 1932 essay “Reportage or Portrayal?” The project was to be rooted in close study of Soviet life, specifically through an archive of transcripts of worker interviews that were commissioned especially for the occasion. As its organizer Vladimir Ermilov stressed, writers would travel to the home locations of their subjects “for personal impressions, so that this figure really comes to life in the hands of this writer when he is writing, working.” The result will be that “this literary work will not be isolated from the specific nature of the railway … in order that these works show people in the genuine, specific surroundings in which they live, work and fight.” Unlike previous collective documentary projects (e.g., on the heroic Cheliuskin expedition to the Arctic Sea or on the construction of the Moscow Metro), authors were urged “to provide stories, highly artistic documentary sketches and literary portraits, written by authors themselves over their personal signature; not reworked transcripts but genuine, self-sufficient artistic works about the person.” In addition to prose works written on the basis of the transcripts, Ermilov encouraged the creation of plays and also a “railway Chapaev,” modeled on the popular 1934 sound film about a Civil War-era commander.

Platonov fulfilled his commission with admirable conscientiousness, completing his two stories by the deadline of February 10, 1936. For “Immortality,” in addition to renaming his protagonist and the location, Platonov appears to have used the (unknown and possibly lost) transcript of Tseitlin’s interview with great license, deriving from it only the basic picture of a railway station chief working tirelessly to keep trains on schedule despite the incompetence and truculence of less conscientious coworkers. In Platonov’s story the logistics specialist Polutorny is preoccupied with finding a Plymouth Rock cockerel for his hens. Another logistics specialist, Zakharchenko, spends most of his time at his pottery wheel producing wares that he sells at great personal profit. Night supervisor Pirogov is depressed, needy, and incompetent, while Levin’s assistant, Yedvak (based on the word for “hardly,” yedva), is simply lazy. Protected only by his loyal but limited cook Galya, Levin sacrifices sleep and nourishment to keep a watchful eye over the entire operation.

In his story Platonov observes a delicate oscillation between documentary source and fictional invention. Traveling to Krasnyi Liman only after finishing the story, Platonov found Tseitlin “intelligent (true, I’ve only spoken to him for ten minutes so far) and very similar to his image in my story.”11 Publishing the story in Literaturnyi kritik, Platonov attached an enigmatic note: “In this story there are no facts that fail to correspond to reality at least in a small degree, and there are no facts copying reality.” Platonov strives for realism, but realism excludes the “copying” of reality. So what, for Platonov, was realism?”

– Robert Bird, “Articulations of (Socialist) Realism: Lukács, Platonov, Shklovsky.E-Flux Journal, #91, May 2018.

Read Full Post »

“The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.

All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system. This is the political formula for the situation. The technological formula may be stated as follows: Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system. It goes without saying that the Fascist apotheosis of war does not employ such arguments. Still, Marinetti says in his manifesto on the Ethiopian colonial war:

“For twenty-seven years we Futurists have rebelled against the branding of war as anti-aesthetic … Accordingly we state:… War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages, and many others … Poets and artists of Futurism! … remember these principles of an aesthetics of war so that your struggle for a new literature and a new graphic art … may be illumined by them!”

This manifesto has the virtue of clarity. Its formulations deserve to be accepted by dialecticians. To the latter, the aesthetics of today’s war appears as follows: If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war. The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society. The horrible features of imperialistic warfare are attributable to the discrepancy between the tremendous means of production and their inadequate utilization in the process of production – in other words, to unemployment and the lack of markets. Imperialistic war is a rebellion of technology which collects, in the form of “human material,” the claims to which society has denied its natural materrial. Instead of draining rivers, society directs a human stream into a bed of trenches; instead of dropping seeds from airplanes, it drops incendiary bombs over cities; and through gas warfare the aura is abolished in a new way.

“Fiat ars – pereat mundus”, says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of “l’art pour l’art.” Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.”

– Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,“ 1936

Read Full Post »


Park Kultury, a Moscow Metro station (1952-54).

Read Full Post »

From revolution to World War Two
The Russian revolution and the formation of the Comintern cemented the political split between reformism and revolutionary socialism. The way in which the revolution unfolded concretely demonstrated the correctness of rejecting social chauvinism. However, as the Russian revolution was ravaged by the civil war, its working class decimated, and the revolution became isolated as revolutionary wave in Europe retreated, the Russian Communist Party shifted its political line away from international revolution towards ‘socialism in one country.’ This mirrored the outlook of the rising bureaucracy in the Soviet state. As Duncan Hallas notes:

“‘Socialism in one country’ fitted well with the needs and aspirations of the newly-emerging bureaucracy. It meant focussing on a national arena which they could aspire to control, rather than on an international class struggle which they could not. At the same time it was a banner around which they could group. As Trotsky put it, socialism in one country ‘expressed unmistakably the mood of the bureaucracy. When speaking of the victory of socialism, they meant their own victory.’”

The logic of this change of position meant that other communist parties were subordinated to the survival of the USSR. The Comintern, which was an instrument for world-wide revolution, was slowly dispensed with, meeting infrequently and eventually abolished. The international class struggle was subsumed into the interests and outlook of the Soviet state.

Between the reformist wing of the socialist movement and the communist movement adopting a ‘socialism in one country’ perspective stood a very small layer of socialists around Leon Trotsky, who had split from communist parties after its abandonment international revolution. This International Left Opposition became known as Trotskyism. Trotskyists saw themselves as standing in the best traditions of international socialism, as James Cannon a prominent American follower of Trotsky stated:

“Trotskyism is not a new movement, a new doctrine, but the restoration, the revival, of genuine Marxism as it was expounded and practised in the Russian revolution and in the early days of the Communist International.”

This tiny movement faced its first real test about how to apply its political perspective of international socialism to actual current events with Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia. The Independent Labour Party in Great Britain, which split from the main Labour Party in 1932, was divided over the issue, with one faction of the party seeing this as just a quarrel between two dictators. Trotsky correctly saw that in the context of rising fascism and imperialism the invasion of Abyssinia should be resisted no matter what one thought of its ruler Haile Selassie. As Trotsky stated at the time:

“If Mussolini triumphs, it means the reinforcement of fascism, the strengthening of imperialism, and the discouragement of the colonial peoples in Africa and elsewhere. The victory of the Negus, however, would mean a mighty blow not only at Italian imperialism but at imperialism as a whole, and would lend a powerful impulsion to the rebellious forces of the oppressed peoples. One must really be completely blind not to see this.”

C.L.R James, then a member of the ILP and a follower of Trotsky opposed the use of sanctions by the British against Italy for fear disorienting class struggle politics by subsuming it under the banner of the British state:

“Let us fight against not only Italian imperialism, but the other robbers and oppressors, French and British imperialism. Do not let them drag you in. To come within the orbit of imperialist politics is to be debilitated by the stench, to be drowned in the morass of lies and hypocrisy.  

Workers of Britain, peasants and workers of Africa, get closer together for this and for other fights. But keep far from the imperialists and their Leagues and covenants and sanctions. Do not play the fly to their spider.

Now, as always, let us stand for independent organisation and independent action. We have to break our own chains. Who is the fool that expects our gaolers to break them?”

The young Trotskyist movement was able to put forward a political position that rejected growing imperialism and fascism in a way that aimed to build the class struggle at home while also maintaining the centrality of an independent working class politics internationally. Trotsky was repeatedly clear that Selassie should not be romanticized, but that a defeat of Mussolini was a set back for not only Italian fascism. but for British and French imperialism as well. This was a concrete application of the politics of international socialism. The only problem was that Trotskyist movement was too marginal for this to be impactful.

World War Two: The development of Neither Washington nor Moscow
The outbreak of World War Two put the young Trotskyist movement to its greatest test. The zigzags of the Comintern and Soviet state policy from the late 1920s through the 1930s meant communist parties around the globe went from rejecting united activity with socialist parties and working within established trade unions at the at beginning of the 1930s to forging alliances with liberal parties and trade union bureaucrats by the end of the decade. Most notably the Soviet state signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany. This non-aggression pact carved up Poland, saw the Soviets send resources to Nazi Germany and abandon the European working class in its fight against fascism.

Trotsky and his followers predicted that a period of revolutions and rising class struggle would follow the war and they stridently opposed the imperial war while aiming to stoke class tensions at home. For Trotsky, the USSR and its socialized property relations, though not its ruling bureaucracy, were to be defended. For states invaded by the USSR – the Baltic states and Poland – the Stalinist regime could be criticized but those invasions laid a foundation upon which socialism could be built. As Trotsky argued:

“First, the defeat of the USSR would supply imperialism with new colossal resources and could prolong for many years the death agony of capitalist society. Secondly, the social foundations of the USSR, cleansed of the parasitic bureaucracy are capable of assuring unbounded economic and cultural progress, while the capitalist foundations disclose no possibilities except further decay…

Our tasks in the occupied territories remain basically the same as in the USSR itself…

We must not lose sight for a single moment of the fact that the question of overthrowing the Soviet bureaucracy is for us subordinate to the question of preserving state property in the means of production of the USSR: that the question of preserving state property in the means of production in the USSR is subordinate for us to the question of the world proletarian revolution.”

This position was critiqued inside the Trotskyist movement, most notably by Max Shachtman and those who would go on to form the Workers Party in the United States (splitting from the Socialist Workers Party). The split was over the question of the nature of the USSR and a perspective of class struggle from below. In his reply to Trotsky Shachtman critiqued Trotsky’s unconditional defence of the USSR and the notion that it could have a positive revolutionary influence into states it had conquered:

“I cannot leave unmentioned your references to the “revolutionary” role of Stalinism in its recent invasions.

“In the first case (Spain), the bureaucracy through hangman’s methods strangled a socialist revolution. In the second case (Poland) it gave an impulse to the socialist revolution through bureaucratic methods.”

Here again, I find myself compelled to disagree with you. The bureaucratic bourgeois revolution – that I know of. I know of Napoleon’s “revolution from above” in Poland over a hundred years ago. I know of Alexander’s emancipation of the serfs “from above” – out of fear of peasant uprisings. I know of Bismarck’s “revolution from above.” I know that Hitler and Mussolini play with the idea of an Arab “national revolution” in Palestine out of purely imperialist and military reasons – directed against their rival, England. But the bureaucratic proletarian revolution – that I do not know of and I do not believe in it. I do not believe that it took place in Poland even for a day – or that it is taking place or is about to take place in Finland.”

Shachtman and his followers in the Trotskyist movement would frame this perspective as “third campism”, stating during World War Two, that they we were for “neither London-Paris or Berlin-Moscow but for the third camp of international socialism”.

“We say there is in this war a third camp independent of either of the two warring imperialist camps, the camp of the world working class, cut off from all political control, inarticulate, brutally repressed when it raises its head, but ceaselessly in ferment, pushing up from below, breaking through the surface to assert its human rights and needs. This is our camp, the camp of the hundreds of millions of men and women with black and white and yellow and brown skins who have no say about whether “their” country sends them to death. To accept any of the two-camp alternatives, however good and noble one’s intentions may be, is to give aid to the war-makers, since all three slogans are essentially more or less well disguised devices to enlist the masses under one military banner or another. The policy of the third camp, the camp which fights under the banner of world revolution to overthrow all the existing governments of the two imperialist camps, this is the only realistic anti-war policy.”

The development of third campism was in response to a series of on-going crises within the international socialist movement about how to resist imperialism and how to build the independent capacities and politics of the working class to shape its own destiny. The proponents of third campism, like the Trotskyist movement before it, saw their position not as an original insight, rather as the correct application of international socialist politics in their current context.

Reorienting in the Cold War context
When the war ended instead of confronting an internal crisis as predicted the USSR expanded its sphere of influence. A brief upsurge in working class militancy in the West in the immediate aftermath of the war was followed by the Cold War and stabilization and expansion of world capitalism. These event caused a series of debates and splits on the Trotskyist left over questions of the nature of the Soviet Union that underpinned the assumptions that world revolution was around the corner. Was the Soviet state a workers state, albeit degenerated, because of its property form? If so what were the territories conquered by the USSR? Were they capitalist, or a deformed workers’ states due to their property form, or something else entirely? These questions created all sorts of confusion and debate within the Trotskyist movement.

While these debates may seem abstract and even comical in retrospect, socialists were wrestling with difficult and unprecedented questions in a very new context. The emerging Cold War between two, but unequal, blocs meant the left had to have clarity with how to position itself in this conflict both at home and abroad. Those in the CP’s orbit who believed the USSR was the torchbearer for international socialism, seeing its actions as bringing socialism to newly conquered nations, concluded the USSR must be defended. The tactical and strategic orientations of CP activists around the globe flowed from this perspective. Often in many countries this saw the CP aim to make progressive blocs with the liberal left or “progressive” capital. Those on the social democratic or liberal left who saw in the USSR an unspeakable authoritarian and anti-democratic tendencies concluded that they must align their own ruling class’ anti-communist worldview against the USSR’s totalitarianism.

Socialist taking a third camp position aimed to develop an alternative analysis and theory of the Soviet bloc and the new capitalist global order. Some like Shachtman and Bruno Rizzi viewed the USSR no longer as a workers’ state, but as a bureaucratic collectivist society or bureaucratic state socialism. The logic of this position, with its sole focus on the authoritarian nature of the state bureaucracy, rather than the political economy of the system, lead some like Shachtman to increasingly see the USSR as the greatest imperial danger. Others like Tony Cliff, Raya Dunayevskaya, and C.L.R. James developed an analysis that the USSR was state capitalist (there were very notable differences within this perspective and it should be remembered that various socialists, anarchists and social-democrats had used this terminology to describe Russia in the 1920s and 1930s, though most did little to develop the theory). While the bureaucratic state socialist position saw the USSR as a new form of class society, the state capitalist analysis tried to grapple with the mode of production and the position and alienation of workers in society and the workplace.

The development of theories like state capitalism were not merely an exercise in an abstract political debate, rather they aimed to clarify and rearticulate the Marxist principle of the self-emancipation of the working class. In most western countries in the post-war era working class politics was split between liberal/social democratic parties and unions hewing close to the Cold War logic of their respective ruling class and communist parties and unions aligning themselves with Moscow. State capitalism was an attempt at reasserting the importance and centrality of the working class in the struggle for socialism.

State capitalism posited that the USSR could and did engage in imperial adventures. This was not simply a function of policy choices made by a ruling bureaucracy, but more fundamentally they were the expression of the political economy of the USSR, where the logic of accumulation and expansion, were thrust on the state via external global military competition.

The Socialist Review Group, a third campist split from the Fourth International in Great Britain, adopted the slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow” and argued the Cold War had defanged working class socialist politics stating, “the present power of the two world camps is largely based on the dragooning by force and trickery of the many by the few. Let us set up our standard against all such methods and lead the way to working for a genuine international socialism–not for Washington, nor for Moscow.”

Applying the Third Campist perspective
The slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow” was outlining a political outlook that was challenging the twin ideological influences of Moscow and Washington (via communist parties and social democratic parties) on the working class. The slogan was never developed or intended to specifically guide concrete political action in a given circumstance, rather it was about placing class struggle from below back at the centre of socialism.

For instance the Socialist Review Group’s position on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was to support the push for unilateral disarmament of Great Britain, while also noting that both sides of the Iron Curtain’s game of nuclear brinksmanship stem not simply from misguided or bad politicians but from the logic of imperial rivalry and capitalist competition. In articles and editorials in International Socialism in the late 1950s through the early 1960s, the SRG/IS position was not simply that both sides should disarm or that the USSR and United States and it allies are equally to blame. Rather that the CND should push to transform the call for unilateral disarmament into a heightened class struggle, as numerous International Socialist articles and editorials in 1960 argued:

“It (the CND) should broaden its propaganda to take in all aspects of the struggle against the Powers that Be. Strikers should hear that the Campaign believes a blow against the Boss is a blow against the Bomb, Workers should know and see that CND will mobilize support for them not only as marchers but as workers. In this way working class action against individual bosses might be united and directed against the bosses as a whole, might indeed become a political struggle against the entire system and its monstrous issue – the Bomb…

‘Our strongest weapon would be to link the issue of defence with the stuff of ordinary life … It is obvious that progress for the Left lies in breaking down the high stakes of nuclear diplomacy into the small chips of class struggle.”

The critique of the CND presented in the journal was that right-wing had well understood the unstated implications of the unilateralist position, withdrawal from NATO and the dissolution of the American alliance, while the Left had largely shirked these implications. As an editorial in the journal stated “we must clarify the implications of unilateralism: the fight against the Bomb is a fight against the Boss.”

The SRG third campist position was not a simply  “Neither Washington nor Moscow” but the application of a class struggle line to a concrete campaign under a specific set of historical conditions.

The western left’s position on the Vietnam war also follows a similar trajectory. The initial liberal left opposition to the war in the United States, which was supported by the CP, was framed around the call for “negotiations” between the North Vietnamese and the United States. A small minority of radical pacificists and socialist took the position of immediate withdrawal. The British International Socialists’ (formerly the SRG ) position on the conflict was that of immediate withdrawal. The organization had major political differences with the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, and did not think their program or perspective were the path to socialism, but they supported their victory nonetheless, stating:

“Thus there is no contradiction between support and realistic appraisal. We must oppose the terrorism of US intervention in Vietnam, and we must defend unconditionally the right of Vietnamese to be left free of outside intervention – to do so, in the circumstances, is to offer unconditional support to the NLF. But Ho Chi Minh is not thereby made some genial uncle, nor the NLF merely the Vietnamese YMCA – the fog of cosy sentimentality with which Communists seek to cloud the issue must not mislead anyone. Of course, when the issue of American power is settled we know what kind of regime and policies the NLF will choose – and be forced to choose by the logic of their situation. But that is, for the moment, another fight, the real fight for socialism. Socialists must support every genuine struggle against imperialism and capitalist oppression – whether it be by workers of the advanced countries or by all classes in the backward.”

While a rigid an unthinking application of the line of “Neither Washington Nor Moscow” could lead to the adoption of a position of neutrality in direct and proxy struggles between the Cold War superpowers, it would completely miss the context of a rising political movement in the West against war and imperialism as a 1966 International Socialist editorial stated:

“Those that choose solely to oppose the Vietnam war as a moral gesture or in isolation from the domestic policies of the Government, not only misunderstand the significance of Vietnam, but also disarm themselves: for only working-class action can ultimately check Wilson and begin to end the war.”

The politics of third campism captured the zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s as protests, rebellions, and upsurges from below swept across the globe. The emergence of Eurocommunism, and the growth of Maoist and some Trotskyists organizations on the far-left signalled a modest ideological shift in left politics from the beginning of the Cold War. The dominance of Moscow on working class politics in the West was on the decline. The death of Stalin in 1953 and the invasion of Hungary in 1956 initiated a crisis in western communist parties that was only exacerbated by the waxing and waning of class struggle in the 1970s. Communist parties in places like France and Italy shifted to the right. The ebbing of class struggle in the West in the late 1970s meant the radical left had to contend with a new right-wing offensive against workers and new Cold War tensions.

This was the context of the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. The USSR sought to support its ally the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan and ensure the country remained in its orbit of influence. The United States funded and supplied the insurgency with arms and intelligence in order to deal the Soviets a military and geopolitical defeat. The response of third campists in the West was not to say USSR hands of Afghanistan, rather it was to understand the political context in which they were actually situated in the West. As Chris Harman explained:

“If we were in Russia, that would mean vigorously arguing against the takeover of Afghanistan and welcoming every defeat of the army of occupation. But we are in Britain, where the slogan ‘Russians out of Afghanistan’ is being used to justify increased arms spending, the movement of the US Fleet to the Gulf, the British base in Diego Garcia, the British officers in Oman, the supply of guns to the hangman in Pakistan. We have to oppose these move-and the ideology behind them.

We have to insist: All imperialist hands-off Asia; No arms for the hangman who rules Pakistan or the slave owners who rule the Gulf states; End the American threat to Iran: the US Fleet out of the Gulf: British mercenary officers out of Oman; the Russians out of Afghanistan.”

Likewise, the crisis in the Balkans, specifically the outbreak of the Kosovo War in 1998 and NATO led, bombing caused some confusion on the Left about how to respond to supposed humanitarian interventions by the U.S. led NATO coalition in “defence” of self-determination against Serbian aggression. Rather than simply backing the Kosovo Liberation Army in its bids for immediate self-determination, Harman situated the struggle in a wider context:

“Under such circumstances, there can be no excuse for any genuine socialist backing the KLA’s nationalism. To do so would be to line up with an ally of imperialism and a proponent of ethnic cleansing, even if on a smaller scale at the moment than Milosovic’s. Socialists certainly see a place for Kosovan self determination in a final, peaceful outcome for the region. It is difficult to see how Serbs and Albanians can ever live together peacefully unless they accept each other’s rights, and this means Serbs accepting the right of Albanians to establish a state of their own in Kosovo if they so desire. But it also means the Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia guaranteeing to other ethnic groups, including the Serbs, their rights. Otherwise Kosovan self determination would simply mean the old Balkan game of one national group establishing a state, denying minority ethnic groups their rights, and leading to still more ethnic strife.

When early meetings of the Communist International discussed the Balkan question they concluded that the only way to satisfy the different demands for national rights was in the context of a socialist federation of the whole region and not through the further proliferation of rival capitalist states, each entrapping embittered national minorities within them. But all these arguments are purely hypothetical while the Nato war against Yugoslavia continues, for it is reducing Kosovo and much of Serbia to one great bomb site, where national rights for anyone are a sick joke. Only if the war leads to revolutionary developments in countries like Greece will things be otherwise. Meanwhile, the responsibility of socialists in the bombing states is to do our utmost to bring the war to an end.”

Harman’s supple application of third campism never devolved into an abstentionist position. To wash one’s hands of the messiness of regional, proxy or direct imperial conflicts through a wooden declaration of an abstract slogan would be the opposite of trying intervening with concrete socialist politics in order to heighten the class struggle – it is blackboard socialism.


Art is from the cover to April 1940 bulletin of “The New International, A Monthly Organ of Revolutionary Marxism”

Read Full Post »

“This is not a thesis. Because a thesis should be written not only with sang-froid and all the usual literary precautions, but also requires an accumulation of references and general statistical data to which I am loathe to sacrifice the reaction of disgust and fury that dictates this text to me. On top of which, the former audience for theses, now deserting all prolonged reflection, wallows in the reading of the many copies of “Digests” in circulation and the stories of intrigue, whether sentimental, diplomatic or criminal, that the press, worn-out by all sorts of ignominy, serves it each morning with breakfast.

This is not a thesis and will not be satisfied with being simply a protest. This is ambitious. This needs to provoke men asleep in lies; to give a sense, a target and a lasting impact to the disgust of an hour, the nausea of an instant. The values that presided over our idea of life and which looked after for us, here and there, those small islands of hope and intervals of dignity, are being methodically wrecked by events at which, to make matters worse, we are invited to watch our victory, to salute the eternal destruction of a dragon eternally reborn. But as the scene is repeated are you not struck by the change that is taking place in the features of our heroes? Even when it’s easy for you to see that, with each new tournament, St. George appears unceasingly more and more to look like the dragon? Soon St. George will be nothing more than a hideous variation of the dragon itself. And then, he will be a camouflaged dragon, an expert in making us believe, that – with a strike of his lance – he will strike the Evil Empire down! August 8, 1945, will remain for some an unbearable date. One of greatest dates of infamy established by History. Newspapers pass on with delight the effects of the atomic bomb – this future instrument of polemic – from people to people. Evening radio shows announce the entry of the Soviet Union into the war against the ashes and the ruins of Japan. Two events, probably of unequal scale, but which both participate in the same horror.

Ten years ago, world opinion was trained into a state of excitement to protest against the use of mustard gas, dropped on Ethiopia by fascist aviators. The bombing of the village of Guernica, razed to the ground by German squadrons in Spain, was enough to mobilize – in a world still proud of its freedom – millions of just consciences. When London was in turn mutilated by fascist bombs, we knew on which side of the fires the values to be defended were to be found. Then when Hamburg burned with the same fire as London, we were taught of the beneficial effects of a new bombing technique called “saturation bombing” under cover of which immense urban areas were destined to be inevitably levelled. These perfected practices, these supreme refinements in murder possessed nothing that could enhance the cause of freedom, the family of man. We were more than a few, here, in Great Britain, in America, to believe them as detestable as the diverse forms of torment perfected by the Nazis. One day, it was an entire city “cleaned” by a terror raid; the next day, a railway station, into which thousands of refugees were packed, was, thanks to a scientific supervisor, riddled to death. These inhuman games appear suddenly derisory now that the atomic bomb has entered service and democratic bombers have tested its benefits on the Japanese people! In effect, what does the premeditated assassination of ten thousand, a few hundred thousand Japanese civilians matter? Everyone knows that the Japanese are yellow, and with extra impudence, evil yellow people (the Chinese represent the “kind” yellow people). Did not a character who is far from being a “war criminal” but rather Admiral William Halsey declare: “We are drowning and burning the bestial apes all over the Pacific, and it is just as much pleasure to burn them as to drown them”? These words so exultant and reassuring about the idea that military chiefs would like to do to human dignity, these words were pronounced in front of a news reporter… St. George exaggerates. He is beginning to seem to us as more repugnant than the dragon.


The point to which we have been carried by the latest developments in politics and war means it is indispensable that the legitimacy of a cause be judged, essentially and before anything else, on the means that it puts into action. In aid of causes that still risk calling on the best of man, it is indispensable to establish an inventory of means that are unlikely to obfuscate the stated aim. The recourse to denunciation when faced with a passing need is quickly translated into a bureaucracy of denunciation. In one section of the population, this quickly forms into a habit of denunciation; in another section, a shame of denunciation. Direct the debate towards the ultimate aims for which people are calling, then we will stand up, check the pillars and appearance of the staircase, before double-locking the door and expressing ourselves only in measured terms and according to a suddenly academic type of thinking. The middle-of-the-road has become an institution – and it cuts the life of a nation, the life of each man, in two. And the same is true of other means that were stolen from the enemy to better dominate and destroy it, but which we discover – at the moment of victory – have been promoted to the rank of national deformities, intellectual defects carefully protected against possible revolts of reason. This is how the cult of the leader’s infallibility, the ecstatic reinforcement of false hierarchies, the seizure of all sources of information and all the instruments of distribution, the frenetic organization of lies by the State at all times of day, growing police terror towards citizens who still wish to remain relatively lucid, have become the generally accepted forms of political and social progress! And it is precisely against such a powerful show of aberrations that we must repeat, without respite, the following obvious truth:

That the proletariat would not consider rising up by recourse to the means by which its enemies debase themselves. That a type of socialism that owes its advent to the marvels of intrigue, denunciation, political blackmail and ideological fraud would be contaminated at its source by the very instruments of its victory and that man and peoples would sin through an excess of candour if they expected anything else from it but a change of the shadows.

August 8, 1945. While the gaping wound of Hiroshima still smokes – that martyr city chosen for the test of the first atomic bomb – Stalin’s Russia strikes a blow to Japan with the famous stab-in-the-back trademarked by Mussolini. Nevertheless he would be wrong to turn in his grave while dreaming of his copyright fees. Because we were not just happy to plagiarize his beaux gestes; we wanted to add to his historical contribution. Indeed, the text of the Soviet declaration of war informs us that the USSR’s entry into the war has no other aim than “to shorten the war” and “save human lives”! A ceasefire of small means – there it is, an end in itself, an end that, none will contest, is difficult to equal in nobility. And during the centuries to come, the troubadours of Outer Mongolia will have the time to provide the epilogue on the pacifist and humanist character of the Master’s decision. August 8, 1945, is one of the lowest dates in the career of humanity.

Many years before the world hurried into a war against fascism, bitter discussions were rife in the movements of the left between total pacifists and militants of the fight to the death against tyranny. One of the themes that returned again and again in this long exchange of ideas and arguments was that of “just wars.” With a still imperfect skill, total pacifists set about proving that no just wars existed; that to pretend to fight tyranny through war was to deliver oneself to the tyranny of a military machine without brakes, to pitiless exceptional laws, and politicians invested with the most arbitrary powers of which they were more or less freed of having to justify. War alone, in and of itself, constituted a tyranny that yielded nothing to the one you propose to defeat – or so said, without convincing us, the theoreticians of total pacifism. They were wrong. Just wars do exist. But the peculiar of just wars is not making them last long. 

Do not forget that “just” wars, if they produce a Hoche or a Marceau, also produce a Bonaparte, which is a particularly diabolical way for them to cease being just. On the other hand – and with the absence of any Bonapartes on the horizon – a “just” war differs from ordinary expeditions of theft in what it imposes on those who lead it, a rhythm and a set of demands that are difficult for them to tolerate. To keep alive an undertaking based on popular fervour, those responsible for running the war must have the clear-minded boldness to let the moving forces on which they draw their strength retain their character of masses on fire – the mass in full progress and conscious of the direction of its élan. But the persistent rule with the leaders of peoples – often even those who appear to have returned directly from the firing line or the factory-floor meeting – is to erode their hierarchical weight by driving the motivating forces entrusted to them into the traditional frameworks of a country at war. And when I say “traditional frameworks” I mean the rationing of truth, the rationing of enthusiasm, the rationing of the ideal. I mean the arbitrary tightening of the moving forces of a nation, on the order of those who fear, in the “movement” of today, the “upheaval” of tomorrow. These traditional frameworks – simple masks placed on the face of whichever war so as to erase the expression of its originality and render it similar to all the others – can sometimes be borrowed from the archives of the War Museum, sometimes from the enemy’s practice. For the former, this is called “being inspired by the lessons of the past”; for the latter, “profiting from what your enemy teaches you.” 

The drabness of the living values of the present that we always seem ready to envelop in old sacramental formulae like a shroud, the transfer of the enemy’s methods and mental routines into the camp of justice, the way this war against fascism has gone, all offer us too many examples. I clearly remember the first Soviet war communiqué that finished by mentioning a German soldier, quoted by name, who went towards a Russian post declaring that he did not wish to take up arms against a proletarian State. The simple sentence of this communiqué gave off, in the face of history, a sound more striking than the motorized exploits that preceded and succeeded it. It bore witness, above the roar of battle, to the fact that the brotherhood of workers takes – and must continue to take – precedence over the division of men into ethnic and national groups. The good to be kept between us all was there – the virtue likely to crack open the worm-eaten framework of war between nations. And yet, once again, the workers were driven towards these traditional frameworks, and led astray. Instead of glorifying the Russian or German popular heroes of the past who had reached out in the cause of similar struggles for freedom, the Soviet propaganda services quickly indulged in a dreadful pathos, from which emerged some of the most sinister figures in Russian history. Prince Alexander Nevsky once again knew all the pomposity of glory because in 1242 he had the good luck to rout the Order of Teutonic Knights. Yet the memory of a Pugachev or a Stenka Razin – legendary champions of the peasant cause – was put on the backburner because they were judged to have been too badly mistreated by the authorities at the time. On November 7, 1941, addressing fighters of the Red Army, Stalin offered up to their courage some strange precursors: “Could you be,” he told them, “inspired by the courageous figures of your ancestors: Alexander Nevsky, Dimitri Donskov, Kuzma Minin, Dimitri Pozharsky, Alexander Suvorov, Mikhail Kutuzov?” 

…That such names of the heroic imagination could be twisted into defenders of the USSR provides enough to render senile a war that some expected to improve the world. What followed was equal to its beginning. The exhumation of Alexander Nevsky brought about a revision of eight centuries of European history. Borrowing not only from the past but the enemy, Stalin placed the Hitlerian theory of Europe’s mobilisation in opposition to an Asian assault, a return – pure and simple – to the most narrow-minded form of pan-Slavism. The debates in the different Pan-Slav Congresses that have been organized on Moscow’s initiative during this war have put back the intellect in the same way as Radio Berlin. The long development of Europe is no longer seen as anything but a pretext for racial divisions, a development prone to an endlessly reborn conflict between Slavs and Germans. The most recent Pan-Slav Congress (Sofia, February 1945) was devoted to the existence of a Slav bloc, the inheritor of a union forged through centuries of battles that date back to the victory of united Slav armies against the Germanic peoples at Grünewald (1410). Thus we end up fighting bloc against bloc, race against race, insanity against insanity! 

And so it is that “just” wars do not resist for long the slanderous contagion of ideas that they were asked to crush. I say that we are currently witnessing a penetration of Hitlerian political behaviour into the ranks of democracy. This penetration scandalizes next to nobody; too many people find in it material convenience and moral comfort. This penetration sprawls across all the newspapers, in all the news that reaches us about the fate being prepared for the world. For example, the annexation of territories without the prior consent of their populations was generally considered as an outrage against the law, part of Hitler’s imperialistic frenzy. Yet, today, look how things are presented in a completely different way, with the only justification being national usefulness. This port is perfectly useful to me and I would like it accorded to me, declares one power – and if it is pointed out that it has always been part of another national unit, the power replies that while that may well be possible it really needs it and anyway victory gives it the right to petty theft. So, from now on, will it get not simply a port or an isolated city, but vast sets of territories that have become perfectly mobile and able to change owner in the space of a night? The transfer of populations also used to pass as a cruel process to which only the regimes of force allowed themselves recourse. These transfers are nevertheless today envisaged on a scale not smaller than that of Nazism’s darkest round-ups. Here, I will allow Louis Clair, one of the principal contributors to American magazine Politics, whose capacity for indignation continues to help us breathe, to speak: 

The people are displaced like cattle; if you give me 500,000 Sudeten-Germans, I will work something out to hand over a certain number of Tyroliens; perhaps we could exchange a few Germans against some machine tools? Hitler, once again, has started up a mechanism that is beginning to take on worrying proportions… The speed with which the victorious powers are haggling over the only merchandise that, in spite of technical improvements, remains more in demand than ever – slave labour – is something truly obscene.

– Georges Henein, The Prestige of Terror. c. 1945. Source.

Read Full Post »


‘Cyber’ parade in support of cybernetics which was formerly banned in the USSR (Moscow, 6 May 1960)
– The X-I Komsomol (conference) holiday was held by student physicists,
the parade day was named ‘Archimedes Day’ referencing the god who
brought forth the torch of knowledge. (image via Moscow State University, Dept. of Physics

Read Full Post »

“A Red in the pink.” Toronto Star. April 18, 1933. Page 35.

“Indicating that Soviet Russians are interested in other things than political theories and five-year-plans – Shumin, swimming champ, sprints for the cameraman.”

Alexander Shumin was a champion swimmer and water polo and a famed coach in the Soviet Union.  He was the All-Union champion by the time his photo was taken.

Read Full Post »

“Attaque Par Les Gaz,” Le Petit Journal. March 19, 1933. Page 25.

Russian troops on

manoeuvre. These soldiers are charged with repulsing a gas attack, in a swampy region.  Russian soldiers are continously trained for the possibility of war.

Read Full Post »

“A few ‘tabloid’ months in the life of Mexico’s latest addition to its population,” Montreal Star. March 12, 1937. Page 10.

Editorial satirizing the many deaths of Leon Trotsky, according to the Soviet press.

Read Full Post »

“Déploiement en prévision d’une guerre future,” Photo-Journal. November 25, 1937. Page 09.

Photograph, clockwise from top left, showing Italian naval officers at the 1937 Nuremberg rally; second battalion of the Black Guards waiting deployment to Palestine; Russian women members of Burevestnik endurance training; English anti-air craft gun practice.

Read Full Post »

“Tea for Two,” Montreal Gazette, August 19, 1952.  Page 8, editorial. Cartoon by John Collins.  Stalin cheerfully reminds Mao to ‘keep the pot [that is, Asia] boiling” as cups marked Korea, Indo-China and Malaya sit on the table. 

Read Full Post »

“The Ultimate In Torture,” Montreal Gazette, August 8, 1952. Page 8 – editorials. Cartoon by John Collins.  The devil in hell calls deceased leaders of Axis ‘pikers’ – because I guess Russia lied about germ warfare in Korea? 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »