What Is to Be Done?

November 28, 2011

What are we to think of What Is to Be Done?  I posted about it earlier, when I was partway through, commenting on its stilted dialog, its place in Russian history, and its lack of literary worth.  Having finished it, I can say that it is a weird book, a fascinating book, and yes, a novel without literary merit.  None at all – zilch.  But since it is such an incredibly important book in the history of Russian literature, ideas, and revolutionary politics, it is nevertheless a fascinating read! If  its only claims on our attention were that it stimulated Dostoyevsky to respond with his great anti-nihilist novel, Demons and his short novel, Notes from Underground, wouldn’t that be enough to make it worth our time?  And add to that the inspiration it gave to generations of radical revolutionaries, who finally overthrew the Russian old order, and you have a book that is hard to resist.  Why did I wait until now to read it!

Nikolai Chernyshevsky published the novel in 1863, and wrote it while in the Peter-Paul fortress, where he had been imprisoned on trumped-up charges.  The rest of his life, nearly twenty years, were spent in unproductive exile in Siberia. He was a revolutionary, although not one who actively involved himself in plots.  His appeal to the radical intellectuals of his day and afterwards was in his thorough rejection of the existing social order, his advocacy of complete and radical revolution, his scorn for reformist politics, and the mixture of traditional Russian cultural and religious themes with utopian socialist ideas from the West which form the material of What Is to Be Done?

Why did he ask that question?  Why were all the intelligentsy asking it? Because they were a vanishingly small class of educated and modern people living in a society that was more or less a holdover from the feudal age.  A society dominated by church, the Tsar, and landowners with serfs, who were more or less slaves.  The situation must have driven a thinking, secular, progressive person around the bend!  Not for nothing does Chernyshevsky reference Uncle Tom’s Cabin at several points in the narrative:  That book, a far superior literary work, also grew out of a maddeningly unjust social order against which it argued.

What Chernyshevsky’s novel offered to the radicals of his day, if not a literary model, was an inspiring character model:  the ‘New Ones,’ who would lead Russia into a revolutionary new social order.  The men and women, free, independent, liberated from oppressive social mores, feminists and atheistic materialists all, who, with a noble dedication to bringing about the greatest good for all, would steadfastedly direct their efforts, guided by Reason, to The Revolution.  They would educate and lead the masses to take what is theirs by right.

If it sounds a tad too good to be true, we need only look at the history of the USSR to see what came of it, and say, “Yes, too good to be true.”  The New Ones can easily become a vanguard of the masses that oppresses the masses.  And these characters, who all speak like disciples of Ayn Rand (I would love to know what she thought of it!) even when they are discussing love and marriage, seem a wee bit on the nutty side.  They are guided by a philosophy of Rational Egoism (not all that different from Rand’s ideas), but are convinced that pursuing their own interests will invariably benefit all the most.  Ah, but the rub is defining one’s interests properly, and that’s not as simply logical as they would have it.

Reading this book, and keeping in mind the insanity that passes for Reason in revolutionary politics at its worst, makes some things very clear.  The weird, incestuous and fanatical nature of the Bolsheviks, so well described by Sebag-Montefiore and Nadezhda MandelshtamThe incredible and ruthless violence against civilians, political opponents, and their own cadres of which they were capable…once the arguments had conclusively demonstrated the necessity of liquidating them.  The style of argument, again Ayn Rand comes to mind, that uses Reason and Logic as a brick with which to hit you in the face.  The characters in this book all speak with gentle affection, or controlled disdain, but…this is a novel.  People inspired by it are apt to take with it the parts that appeal to their own personalities, and then…who knows?

There really isn’t too much discussion of politics in this book:  the Tsar’s censors would not permit it.  There is a lengthy discussion of a sewing cooperative that goes swimmingly, of course, and is presented as a model of socialistic, un-alienated work, but much is presented only allegorically, or hinted at very obliquely.  There are several long dream narratives presented as set pieces, introduced by the author-narrator, that comment on the plot or present utopian futures.  In one of them, The Crystal Palace appears as the symbol of the utopian order to come.

I must now go and read again Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, a book that many see as a parodistic response to Chernyshevsky’s story.  We have the Crystal Palace to throw stones at, and passages like this one exhorting us to follow in the footsteps of the Noble Ones:

Superior natures, which you, my pitiful friends, and I cannot keep up with, aren’t like this at all.  I showed you a faint outline of the profile of one of them:  there you see very different features.  But you can become an equal to the people described here in full, if only you wish to work a bit on your own development.  Anyone who is beneath them is very low indeed.  Come up out of your godforsaken underworld, my friends, come up.  It’s not so difficult.  Come out into the light of day…

To which Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man answers:

I am a sick man.  I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.

And I am with you, Fyodor!

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Mao & Political purges: theory and practice

May 19, 2010

The Long March is over, but I am only half through Phillip Short’s engrossing biography of Mao Zedong.  To escape encirclement by Chiang kai-shek’s GDP armies, vastly outnumbering the communists, Mao led the Red forces on a trek thousands of miles long to the northern desert wastes where they were able to establish a base and rebuild their strength.  The march was an incredible feat of stamina, daring, brilliant strategy, and a bit of luck.  It was in their secure retreat at the end of it that Edgar Snow interviewed Mao for his book, Red Star Over China.

As I try to fathom the last member of the the 20th century’s triple crown of evil, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, I am struck by Mao’s differences from Stalin as portrayed respectively by Short and Montefiore (The Court of the Red Tsar, Young Stalin).  Mao was not a paranoid mental case as Stalin appears to have been.  Like Stalin, he had a classical education.  Unlike Stalin, he was not enthusiastic about violence right from the start.  Joe seems to have relished the chaotic and violent life of a revolutionary outlaw bandit ‘expropriating’ bank funds for the Bolsheviks and organizing terrorist attacks; Mao, at first, was drawn to anarchism and communitarianism, and was repelled by ‘needless’ violence.  Mao was incredibly self-confident about his abilities as a military commander and politician, apparently with good reason.  Stalin was a bumbler as generalissimo, and always felt insecure around intellectuals.

A major difference between Russia’s revolution and China’s was that the Soviet state was founded by a military coup that was followed by a brutal civil war lasting a few years.  China’s ‘revolution’ was, in fact, a twenty-year civil war that ranged across the nation, and was fought with terrifying brutality, including frequent use of scorched-earth tactics by Chiang.  Mao rose to prominence, with frequent setbacks and dismissals by the central administration, while Stalin quietly and steadily homed in on supreme power.  Mao was so outspoken about his views, often directly in conflict with the center and with the USSR, that he was often reprimanded, accused of various political heresies, e.g. ‘right opportunism,’ ‘flightism,’ and ‘high flown-ism.’  He was adept at retiring from the fray at the right moment and waiting, sometimes in desparation, until the Party begged him to return and save their butts from disaster.

Eventually, his military strategy, and his insistence that the Chinese peasants must be at the heart of the revolution, despite the orthodox communist view that industrial workers and tradesmen must lead it, was accepted.    There’s no question:  his astute views, rooted in his deep knowledge of China – he produced several landmark studies of the peasantry, remarkable for their detail and understanding – were behind his role as the unifier and liberator of China.

One could take him for an Abe Lincoln or George Washington figure, which is the criticism made of Snow’s book.  Before the Long March, the dark side of Mao’s future was also apparent.  In Futian, during one of the GDP’s encirclement campaigns, the first big purges broke out among the communists.  They were massive, bloody, and indescriminate.  Short attributes them to the insanity-producing conditions of living in fear of the GDP, soldiers fearing destruction of their families by the GDP, the meddling Stalinist influence of the Soviet advisors, and the fact that most of the men were uneducated and illiterate.  Not to mention that Chinese history is filled with bloody and manic purges, so there was a tradition to uphold.

Just as in Russia, the purges were self-destructive, carrying off many needed, capable, and loyal party members, but these purges were before those of Stalin!  They seem to have risen from the grass roots upwards, rather than being concocted completely at the top and forced downward on everybody.  According to Short, Mao at first believed them to be justified, and then felt they had gone too far.  After that, he took a pragmatic and self-serving view.  Such ‘excesses’ were inevitable in brutal class war.  They helped enforce party discipline.  The cost of opposing them might be too high.  The man who had urged Red Army recruits to pay peasants for their food, always be polite, never strike a civilian, and who had urged good treatment of prisoners, including freeing them with the offer to join up with the cause, became comfortable with mass murder as a political tool.  The origin of the purges in the mind-numbing horror of the flight from the GDP foretells the insanity of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, barely remaining human under the onslaught of bombing by American B-52s at the tail end of the Vietnam War.

This raised a question in my mind about that other dictator/mass murder, Hitler.  Holocaust scholars debate the nature and ‘function’ of his campaign against the Jews, but did he have purges?  Other than the famous Night of the Long Knives, admired by Stalin, which was a calculated move to consolidate power over the Nazi party, I haven’t heard of any.  Perhaps the attempt to exterminate the Jews, despite the diversion of resources and the other practical problems it raised, was simply one long and very successful purge.  And it performed the same salutory function for the state:  maintenance of a state of terror and abject discipline.  Without the Jews, the Nazis might have turned on themselves repeatedly.  If the Jews hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent them…


In the Court of the Red Tsar…

April 6, 2005

This incident from Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s book, In the Court of the Red Tsar:  In 1943, the German defeat already appears inevitable. The huge Soviet military is steadily pushing back the Nazi invaders after suffering horrific losses – millions of soldiers and civilians dead, wounded, or captured. Stalin, initially paralyzed with depression after the invasion, [He knew it was coming, but he thought it would be much later. He disregarded the voluminous intelligence, some of which actually stated the date of Hitler’s planned attack. Some spies, returning to the USSR to warn of the attack, were shot for spreading disinformation.] has regained his egomaniacal groove, and is now the great Supremo, devising military strategy for the operations, a profession about which he knows next to nothing.

At a staff meeting, Stalin and the generals are planning an operation against a city still held by the Germans, a significant target in the way of the Russian advance to Berlin. Stalin declares that a single-pronged attack is the way to take the city, but general Russokovsky, realizing that this plan will cause huge and needless casualties, suggests a two-pronged attack. Stalin tells him to “think again about his idea,” and continues his “planning,” drawing figures on a huge wall map of the area. Russokovsky interjects again with his assertion that a two-pronged attack is the superior option. Stalin tells him to leave the room for a few minutes to think over what he has said.

The general moves outside while the meeting continues. Russokovsky, who is half-Polish, and therefore subject to much suspicion from Stalin who, nevertheless, admired him as a military man, realizes that two others are standing over him as he sits and stews. Molotov and another party man rebuke him: “Don’t you understand who you’re talking to! You can’t contradict Stalin like that – change your position!!” The general, who before the war was arrested and tortured by the head of the secret police, Beria, returns to the room, and in answer to Stalin’s question replies, “Comarade Stalin, I believe a two-pronged approach is best.” Thousands, millions! of people had been imprisoned or shot for less direct defiance of the great Supremo. Stalin says, “Perhaps a two-part attack is the best plan.” The military operation proceeds with Russokovsky’s strategy.

To anyone who knows anything about Stalin, this is a remarkable and hair raising story. Montefiore cites several incidents in which Stalin evinced a grudging respect for people with a nervy defiance of him, and says that they often survived because of it. He was a murderous egomaniac, but not a fool. It is a stunning example of the intellectual corruption that comes with absolute power. And what of the general? Was he a man of incredible principle? Did he have superhuman courage? Or perhaps, since it was ’43, and millions of his countrymen had died, he reasoned: “I die on the battlefield doing my duty, or I die in a prison cellar, a bullet in my head, for having done my duty.”


One, two, three, four, can we kill some thousands more…

March 23, 2005


…five, six, seven eight, Die, you counter-revolutionary scum of the Zinoviev-Trotsky Left-Right Center conspiracy!!!!

Yezhov, Stalin’s executioner in the great purges, strangles, like Hercules in his crib, the snakes of anti-bolshevik agitation.

From The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore:

The principle of ordering murder like industrial quotas in the Five-Year Plan was …natural…The regions were to receive quotas for two categories: Category One – to be shot. Category Two – to be deported.

Murder by the numbers – many regions exceeded their quotas! Some ideas are so good, they get around, so we have Hitler remarking to his cronies, nervous about his proposed ‘final solution’ to the existence of the Jews, “Who remembers the Armenian genocide?” These guys studied history! And Stalin, after Hitler slaughters his enemies to take control of the Nazi party in the Night of the Long Knives remarks,

“Did you hear what happened in Germany? Some fellow that Hitler! Splendid! That’s a deed of some skill!”

Who says these monsters didn’t study their craft and take pride in their work? So, I wonder, did Hitler watch Stalin, and learn from him about industrialized murder? His version was more focused, but it had different aims, I guess.