Victor Serge

April 28, 2012

I put Victor Serge alongside of Vasily Grossman as an awe-inspiring Russian writer of whom I knew next to nothing, brought to my attention by the wonderful New York Review of Books Press (and also by my friend who recommended Kolyma Tales.)  Serge’s novels are not, in fact, well known at all; certainly not here in America.  He wrote in French, was published in French, and was saved from death in the Gulag because of the outcry of French literary intellectuals who were acquainted with his work.  Good thing he knew French!  His novels were only first published in English in the early 1970s.

Serge was born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, in 1890, the son of anti-Tsarist agitators living in exile in Belgium.  He grew up in the militant atmosphere of exiled socialist-communist revolutionaries, and only set foot in Russia in 1919, after years of agitation, prison, writing, various exiles, and a life of poverty.  He landed in Petrograd/Saint Petersburg/Petersburg/Leningrad in the midst of the terrifying five-year Russian Civil War, and threw himself into The Revolution.  He remained a committed revolutionary, but retained his fierce independent (was it anarchist?) bent, and was quick to recognize the ‘betrayal of The Revolution’ that Stalin represented.  From there, it was all downhill.

His writings are unique in their blend of intense sympathy for the revolutionary cause, their unflinching recognition of the crimes committed in its name, their profound disgust with the course of the Soviet revolution, their poetic style, and the modernistic techniques he absorbed from European literary developments.  No plain social realism, no bitter denunciations of the cause betrayed, no simple answers.  Most interesting to me:  he focuses like a laser on the questions of just how people can believe they are struggling for the better  future of humanity while committing acts they know to be outrageous crimes; and why did so many people simply carry on with their work, fatalistically expecting to be unjustly arrested, tried, and perhaps executed?

The shortest of these three novels here, Conquered City, was the first written, and takes place in Petrograd during the siege he witnessed beginning in 1919.  The physical privation of citizens is horrifying.  The novel is actually a series of vignettes, some of which take place out of the city on the various fronts of the civil war, and which introduce characters from all realms of the Russian Empire:  bandits, intellectuals, proletarian communists, proletarian White sympathizers, counter-revolutionaries, Party leaders, and on. Serge depicts them all with sympathy, yes, even the counter-revolutionaries!  Throughout, all are subject to terror:  the Red Terror, or the White Terror.

One episode involves a dedicated young woman communist, hell-bent on “getting a case [investigation of a counter-revolutionary cell] moving.”  She is enthusiastic, relentless, and totally committed to the cause, with little thought for…well, anything. She cracks the case.  It turns out that a well planted worker is actually an enemy agent, and the lover of a formerly middle-class young woman.  Turns out that this woman was friendly with a well-respected, energetic, young communist agent, Arkady.  The woman’s brother was ‘suspected’ of something – wasn’t everyone? – and was hauled in for questioning.  Arkady knew immediately it was all garbage, and got the fellow released.  Now the man’s sister is known to be the lover of a man who is known to be an enemy of the people, and Arkady released his brother!  He’s done for, and he knows it.  Osipov, his friend, arrests him.  “What have you done, my poor old friend, what have you done!”  They shake hands.

Later, another mutual friend visits Osipov and challenges him on the arrest of Arkady:  “You know brother, we’re committing a crime.

“A crime?”  Osipov tossed back at him.  “Because one of us got hit this time around?  Don’t you understand that one must pay with one’s blood for the right to be pitiless?  Do you by any chance imagine that we won’t all end up like that?”

Class war is a dirty business, but “it must be done.”  These views recur again and again through the books.  With views like that, people will do anything.

The Case of Comrade Tulayev may be Serge’s best known novel, and I found it to be the most extraordinary of the three.  It takes place at the height of the Great Purge of the late 1930s triggered by the assassination of Kirov.  A young man gets hold of a revolver, determined to kill Stalin.  On his nightly walks, he actually sees him occasionally, stepping into a limousine at a Kremlin gate.  With the revolver in hand, he approaches the gate again, and Stalin is there!  But he totally looses his nerve, and walks on.  A little later, he sees another Party boss – it’s Tulayev, yes, certainly it’s that murderous scum!  He’s being dropped at the door of his mistress’ apartment.  He walks up to him, shoots him, and runs.  The ripples of terror immediately spread far and wide.

The chapters of the novel tell the story of Party members caught in the net of the pseudo-investigation into the murder.  There must be a conspiracy of course:  how could it be otherwise?  Most of them end up dead, shot for their invented complicity in the international plot against the Socialist state.  Among the victims: a long-exiled party member brought in from his Siberian house-arrest for interrogation; a young woman studying textile production in Paris on a plush-assignment (her father is a bigwig in the police organs – he is arrested too) who reads of the arrest of a former teacher and makes the fatal mistake of sending a telegram to papa demanding that he help the man; a commissar working in Spain – just what was Stalin’s aim in the Spanish Civil War? – who intercedes to help a young American communist arrested as a Trotskyite [He actually confronts Stalin in the Kremlin, and is let off with a posting to Siberia to work in forestry.]

One victim, in prison, is visited by another old Bolshevik who has been broken.  He urges the resister to give in, confess to whatever is asked:

Better men than you and I have done it before us.  Others will do it after us.  No one can resist the machine.  No one has the right, no one can resist the Party without going over to the enemy.  Neither you nor I will ever go over to the enemy…And if you consider yourself innocent, you are absolutely wrong?  We innocent?  Who do you think you’re fooling?  Have you forgotten about our trade?  Can Comrade High Commissar for Security be innocent?  Can the Grand Inquisitor be as pure as a lamb?  Can he be the only person in the world who doesn’t deserve the bullet in the neck which he distributed like a rubber-stamp signature at the rate of seven hundred per month on the average?  Official figures – way off, of course.  None will ever know the real figures…”

As someone wrote of Kruschev, commenting on his secret speech denouncing Stalin’s crimes, he too was up to his elbows in blood.  They all knew the score.  They had quotas for arrests, imprisonment, execution…  Amazing that through all this, Serge still manages to convey why these people got into this in the first place:  their intense thirst for justice, fairness, an end to the crushing tyrannical poverty of the old regime, and a deeply felt desire for a society in which human equality is prized.  To note this as an irony is so obvious as to be ridiculous.

Unforgiving Years is the last of the three that I read, and the strangest in many ways.  In this book, Serge adopts a style that is at times elliptical, modernistic, and sometimes seems hallucinatory.  It is the tale of a communist agent who has had enough – he can’t go on, and he decides to escape to Mexico.  He knows the machinations of the security apparatus and how hard they are to evade, and he knows that his knowledge only gives him a little head start over his inevitable pursuers.  There’s also the business of his lover:  he wants to take her too, and that makes it harder.

The novel seems like a screenplay for a political film noir, but the level of tension, paranoia, and sheer horror exceeds anything from that genre.  At times, I felt that Thomas Pynchon had cribbed the entirety of Gravity’s Rainbow, from Serge:

In every war there is a rear that holds better than the front, a rear fat with noble sentiments, creature comforts, and lucrative deals:  this rear, which balances the front, makes the insanity total…The beaches of California still exhibit, in season, a full complement of pretty women with smiling thighs:  such is the natural order of things.  After all, there’s philosophical solace to be found in the fact that some still live while others die, an obvious improvement on everyone dying…But it  is no longer possible to embark upon a  coherent line of reasoning without falling into absurdity.

This novel was published in English in 1970, about the time Gravity’s Rainbow came out, but who knows?  Maybe Pynchon read it in French?

The ending of the story takes place in a paradisaical Mexican mountain setting but has all the weirdness and menace of the finale of Jim Thompson’s The Getaway.  Knowing as we do the end which Trotsky met in hiding, it is no surprise what happens, but just how the long arm of the Party reaches out to crush those who stray is terrifying nevertheless.

Not exactly happy reading these three books, but Victor Serge is a novelist for the ages – brilliant!


The Foundation Pit

March 24, 2011
 
“We must smash the kulaks, eliminate them as a class.”  Joseph Stalin
 
The Foundation Pit, by Andrey Platonov is a short novel writen around 1930, but not published in Russian until the 1950s.  Platonov was an enthusiastic supporter of the Revolution, but came to understand firsthand its horrific consequences for the rural peasantry.  Unlike a lot of Soviet intellectuals who had their doubts about Comrade Stalin’s methods, and who were only at home in the cities, Platonov travelled and saw by himself what was going on during the period of forced collectivization and de-kulakization.
The kulaks (from the Russian for tight fist) were so-called rich peasants who would naturally tend to resist being forced to relinquish their property and livestock to join a collective.  In fact, any peasant who had any property at all could be deemed a kulak, and they were deported en masse to various parts of the USSR, with large percentages of them dying on the way.  The master plan was to force the rural masses to supply grain to the cities, where Stalin’s breakneck industrialization program was centered, and to supply the grain on demand, as called for by the central bureaucracy, regardless of what a fair price would be or what the rural nutritional needs were.  As a result, millions starved.  The incredible brutality of this policy caused a split in the Party, with horrific consequences. 

The book is rather difficult to read despite its brevity.  It begins and ends at the site of an enormous excavation for a housing project’s foundation, although it isn’t all that clear if the work is being carried forward in any rational manner, and in between there is a long section that takes place in an agricultural village where a party functionary, known as The Activist, is pushing along the collectivization program.   The story is structured like a fable, almost a fairy tale, but the landscape is bleak, and people speak only in political sloganese.  In fact, the language of the text is what is most difficult, for every sentence seems to contain within it many allusions, parodies, sarcasms, and deep ironies.   Readers who are not familiar with early Soviet culture and its controversies are likely to be mystified, or bored.

The weird language that Platonov creates seems to be mirror of the weird, irrational, tortured state to which Soviet society was reduced during the era of the purges and collectivization.  It seems to mock its speakers with its haywire intellectual pretensions, and sometimes notes of intense tragedy break through, in spite of it. 
 A sample – The activist is making a raft on which to float away the deported kulaks, perhaps an allusion to the practice of filling barges with anti-revolutionaries and sinking them that occurred during the French Terror – a kulak challenges the authorities:

“Show me your papers then, if you’re truly an authorized body.”
“What kind of a body am I to you?” said Chiklin [an engineer at the pit].  “I’m a nobody.  The only body around here is the Party.”
“Show me the Party then.  I want to take a close look at it.”
Chiklin gave scant smile.
“You wouldn’t recognize it – not if it were staring you in the face – I can barely sense it myself! Report to the raft at once, you capitalism, you bastard!”
“Let him sail the seas.  Here today, and gone tomorrow, isn’t that right?”  pronounced Nastya [a very youg girl].  “Bastards like him make life boring.”
Chiklin and the hammerer [a bear that acts like a human – often found in Russian folklore] further liberated another six huts that had been built with the flesh of poor laborers, and then returned to the OrgYard where the masses, now purged of kulaks, were standing in expectation of something.
The activist checked the newly arrived kulak class against his own social stratification register, found complete precision, and rejoiced in the action of Chiklin and the forge hammerer.  In return, Chiklin showed his approval of the activist:  Now that’s what I call consciousness!  Your sense of the classes is just like an animal’s!”

Zhachev, a legless veteran of the “imperialist war” watches the kulaks float away.

By then, the kulak river transport had begun to disappear around a bend, behind the bushes on the bank, and Zhachev was loosing the appearance of the class enemy.
“Fa-are we-ell parasites!” Zhachev shouted down the river.
“Fa-are we-ell! responded the kulaks floating off to te sea.

Does he loose site of the kulaks, or does he cease to see them as class enemies once they are reduced to their helpless state?  Does he know which?  Later, the activist is made frantic by a directive from on high that states that many people like him have gone too far, undermined socialist progress, maybe even been wreckers!  Such forward and backward leaps of policy, leaving the fanatical and the opportunistically faithful vulnerable to purges were common, and completely planned by Stalin.

After a while, the activist descended an inventory down onto the floor so that the child could leave a mark confirming receipt in full of all the property acquired in life by the landless laborers who had died without kin and stating that she would put this to good future use.  Nastya [who dies at the novel’s end] slowly drew a hammer and sickle on the paper and handed the inventory back.

A symbolic exchange.  Note the weird verb cases – “descended an inventory down onto the floor…”  This is not a poor translation, it’s a deliberately odd use of the passive voice, mocking, I think, the pseudo-scientific, objective prose to be found in so much communistic hack work.

Somehow Platonov survived to die in 1951 from the TB he caught from his son who was sent to the Gulag at age fifteen.

… And now, for some comic relief:

Amiel

18 February 2009
Bankers are the new kulaks, rails Lady Black
As credit-crunched citizens of the world unite to scream “Off with their heads!” at bankers, who will protect the money-spinning classes from the howling mob? Step forward Barbara “My extravagance knows no bounds” Amiel.

In an extraordinary article for the current issue of the Canadian magazine, Macleans, Lady Black compares the treatment of bankers to that meted out to the intelligentsia in Mao’s China and the kulaks in Stalinist Russia.

“Those 1960s and 70s marches, complete with stops at which foul intellectuals would kneel and allocate [sic] to the mobs, are not so different from the modern American perp walk. These days it’s the pointy-head intellectuals and the media class that are the Red Guard, and Wall Streeters the accused. Every night, some TV station posts photos of the day’s addition to the Top 10 Business Villains and another fund manager is added to the list of foul CEOs…We are living through a collective madness, all part of the mob, finger pointing, judging, some driven by fear of economic chaos, others enjoying the schadenfreude express.”

This, of course, would strike a chord with Amiel, whose husband is currently serving a 6 ½ year jail sentence in Florida for defrauding Hollinger shareholders.

“I suspect current economic criminals resemble past ones in that they come in two varieties: the ones who really commit economic crimes and the ones who are elevated by political fashion to the status of criminals. Stalin’s taste made economic criminals of the entire kulak class; kulaks in today’s America would include CEOs and Tom Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe. Certain titles such as ‘hedge fund manager’ have become terms of disapproval that trip off the tongues of people, at least half of whom I suspect have utterly no idea what a hedge fund is,” Amiel rails.

Amiel concludes, “Driven by old fears and left-wing hates, we are moving to notions, à la Bertolt Brecht, that all wealth is suspect. If, as I suspect, the economy is a psychodrama, anti-market hysteria is unlikely to restore equilibrium.


At the Met

August 3, 2010

Assyrian_Relief__North-West_Palace_of_Nimrud__room_B__panel_18____865___860_BC__British_Museum   7328123454_fedbaa7c40_m

Dipped into the Metropolitan today to see some of my old favorites.  Why do I love these reliefs so?  The inscriptions relate the insufferable and ceaseless bragging of the Great King.  “I fought, I killed, I conquered, I slew…etc. etc.”  Perhaps it has something to do with a different sort of Magic Kingdom, the one to which I was occasionally vouchafed a visit in my southern Californian childhood, the original Disneyland.  On the freeway ride there my eyes were always diverted by this outlandish structure shown below:  It’s the Samson Tire Factory, built in the late 1920’s.

Whenever I am at the Met, I always make it a point to take a few minutes to pay my respects to the founder of modern chemistry, painted with his wife by Jacques-Louis David.

DT1992

Antoine Lavoisier was a minor noble, and a very great scientist.  He was among the most liberal of the pre-revolutionary elite, and he was guillotined in The Terror for his pains.  (He had held the post of chief tax farmer for the king.)   I was thinking today that this picture shows only one of the couple having their portrait painted.  Madame is posing, looking out at us, but he is busy working at his desk.  You can just hear her, “Dear, Monsieur David is here to paint our picture.  Please stop your work a moment, as important as it is.”  He hears something, looks up, over his shoulder, “Ah yes, my dear.  So sorry, I forgot all about it…Now where was I..?”  He is busy with his intellectual business, she performs the crucial domestic support function of a loyal and loving wife, the perfect pair.

In fact, Madame was an accomplished if unacknowledged researcher on her own, and her contribution to Monsieur’s work is now recognized as having been very important.  She, however, escaped death during the revolution.  Madison Smartt Bell has written a very nice short biography – Lavoisier in the Year One – the title of which nicely captures that good old apocalyptic spirit of revolution that I love so well.  He does a better job of explaining the unravelling of the weird and complicated pre-modern theories of chemistry demolished by Lavoisier than a mere novelist has a right to do, although he confided to me in an email that he did commit an error that no one but a chemist friend had noticed.


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…


Zola’s La terre & the USSR

April 20, 2010

I am closing in on the conclusion of Zola’s epic of peasant life in the 1860’s, La terre.  Mother Earth is the Good Earth, but everything else is pretty much shit.  Well, even shit ain’t so bad.

The plot recalls King Lear in that Old Fouan, the farmer who makes a gift of his land to his children in return for a pension when he can’t work it anymore ends up homeless, impoverished, and scorned by family and neighbors.  He recalls that he couldn’t wait for his own father to die either, so it’s only natural that his children want him to “peg out” as they call it.  His own sister, La Grande, a demonic crone in her eighties who at the end of life lives only for thinking up ways to make her relatives miserable, takes pleasure in slamming her door on Fouan as a sort of final “I told you so!”  But then she disowned her daughter for marrying for love, watched her granddaughter work herself to death to support her physically and mentally crippled brother, and then took the grandson in as her personal slave.  Zola is not sentimental about peasants, in case you were wondering.

During one of the less tragic episodes, there is a political election roiling the community.  There is an impromptu debate between a well-heeled factory owner and a local farmer:  the industrialist wants free trade, cheap imported grain to lower prices, make it easier for his workers to eat on low wages, and assure his profits.  The farmer wants protection to keep prices high on his grain brought to market:

The two of them, the farmer and the industrialist, the protectionist and the free-trader, stared each other in the face, one with a sly, good-humoured chuckle, the other with blunt hostility.  This was the modern form of warfare, the confrontation which faces us today, in the economic struggle for existence.

“We’ll force the peasant to feed the workers,” said Monsier Rochefontaine.

“But first of all,” insisted Hourdequin, “you must make sure that the peasant has enough to eat.”

We’ll force the peasant to feed the workers.   There’s an irony for you.  The bourgeois industrialist is looking out for the welfare of his workers, and threatening the peasant.  Flash forward sixty years to the USSR under Joe Stalin.  What do we see?  The vozhd, the great strongman, leader of the industrial workers state going to war against the peasant, the kulak. Why?  To feed the workers in the cities.  The tangled historical logic of it all!  The result was the great famine in the Ukraine, as bolshevik instruments of terror requisitioned grain at riflepoint and left the peasants to starve.  And starve they did, by the millions.

Meanwhile, back on the plain of Beauce, France, the peasants shovel their steaming piles of manure onto the fields – from filth comes life, a theme that appears in the strangest places in Zola – and marvel that in Paris, this valuable nutrient is totally wasted in the sewers!  Hugo began a chapter-long discussion of the Paris sewers in his novel Les miserables with the declaration:

Paris throws five millions a year into the sea. And this without metaphor. How, and in what manner? day and night. With what object? without any object. With what thought? without thinking of it. For what return? for nothing. By means of what organ? by means of its intestine. What is its intestine? its sewer . . . Science, after long experiment, now knows that the most fertilizing and the most effective of manures is that of man . . . A sewer is a mistake.

The peasants move on, as their parents did, and their parents did, and theirs, back for centuries.  No need to move too quickly.

And as I was waiting at the corner to cross the street next to the World Trade Center site, right where the giant trucks move in and out of a sliding gate, a husky woman in construction worker’s clothes announced that a dump truck was ready to come out – the pedestrians would all have to wait.  “I’ve got another one coming out!” she shouted at the top of her loud voice.  I thought, that’s not the voice of a peasant.  Why would a peasant yell with such energy just to announce something she announces several times a day, day in, day out, year in, year out?  Something that’s such a routine part of the job.  Why waste the energy?  No, that’s the voice of an American worker, filled with comittment to her job, maybe with optimism and pride in her role.  I thought, “I’m with the peasant!”  Maybe I’m just reading too damn much…


Anti-Jacobin!

April 16, 2010

One of the themes that swirls around my empty head endlessly is the French Revolution and The Terror.  Not really surprising that I should be transfixed by it – it held men and women in thrall in its day and long after.  And, of course, it seems to embody that political/moral question of the place of violence so well.  And then, there’s Gillray.

The image above is from a bound collection of the Anti-Jacobin Review that I just purchased.  James Gillray was commissioned to illustrate it, but after the first few  months, his cartoons were dropped.  The Jacobins were the radical element among the revolutionaries, named after their clubhouse on the Rue St. Jacques.  The allegory depicted, “A peep into the Cave of Jacobinism,” shows Truth scaring the bejeezus out of Sedition, whose human mask drops away to reveal a monstrous creep, while the light of Truth’s lamp sets his anarchistic, murderous tracts aflame.  For a version with original coloring, visit this post.

Like many Englishmen, Gillray sympathized with the French Revolution at first, but then turned against it as it grew more radical.  Being a genius, even when he is at his most partisan and propagandistic, he is powerful, often hilarious, and just plain fascinating.  I can’t wait to read the articles and poems in this volume!  Will they rise to the level of Burke’s Reflections or will they comprise the reactionary froth of intellects at the level of Rush Limbaugh?

And of whom do we think when we are thinking about The Terror?  Robespierre, of course.  I am reading some of his works right now, in a book named after his most famous phrase, Virtue and Terror, presented by Slavoj Zizek, a radical celebrity, I have now learned.  In his intro, Zizek recalls the oft repeated circumstances of Robespierre’s death.  He was captured in a raid on his club, and his jaw was broken.  At the guillotine, the bandages around his head that kept his jaw in place interfered with his getting properly seated in the apparatus, so the executioner ripped it off of him.  His horrible piercing scream sounds through history, and is mentioned by Simon Schama (Citizens) among others.  Zizek comments that many – all bourgeois, of course – seek to interpret this scream as the release of Robespierre’s horrible inner spirit, the revelation of his true nature in extremis.  I thought of it that way.

Now that I’ve read a few of his speeches, I think better of Maximilian.  His speech on granting voting rights to actors and Jews is a well reasoned attack on prejudice and humbug.  He tirade against the war party in the National Assembly – he was a committed pacifist – is a fine analysis of the terrible costs of war, costs that he felt were justified only as a means of national defense.  Still, there is that Terror, and those speeches equating terror and virtue, the guillotine as a sort of social tough love.

Zizek realizes that Robespierre is a problem for the radical left, and he rightly states that the Left must deal with him, or suffer the attacks of bourgeois critics who will use him as a way to beat the entire radical program into the ground.  After all, nobodywants to be seen as the party of Robespierre!  His lengthy essay on this problem is frequently incomprehensible and ranges widely.  I was tickled to see that he endorses something that I have often posited as a potential consequence of current trends in radical green-thought, known as deep ecology, a science fiction type dictatorship of the ecologists.

He says – Terror is one of the four moments (Alain Badiou) of revolutionary-democratic terror that opposes itself to the excesses of egalitarian democracy.  These moments are the only way to counter the threat of ecological catastrophe that looms over our horizon.  (I’m sure he’s devoted a lot of thought to the scientific issues involved here…)  And what is terror but the ruthless punishment of all who violate the imposed protective measures.

This seems to be a common way for these radical thinkers to elide the serious moral stain of terror and its bloodshed.  They always associate it with something we take for granted – punishment of law breakers, for example.  And in that future eco-world, having three children, burning some coal, breathing too much? maybe will be a capital offense.  After all, mustn’t the community protect and police itself?  Recall, Robespierre was the head of the Committee for Public Safety!  And so, one of my favorite books in college that entranced me with its over-the-top rhetoric was Henri Lefevre’s Everyday Life in the Modern World, in which he labels our society a terroristic society of controlled and enforced consumption.  Terror is nothing but the radical and sudden restructuring of the rules of life in line with a new program, and isn’t that what every advertiser would like?  All life directed towards the buying of his or her products?  I think the inmates at the Lubyanka prison would not have agreed.


Play the odds

January 4, 2010

David Brooks, the columnist I love to hate, wrote on New Years Day about the failed bomb attack on the Northwest Air jet:

…we seem to expect perfection from government and then throw temper tantrums when it is not achieved. We seem to be in the position of young adolescents — who believe mommy and daddy can take care of everything, and then grow angry and cynical when it becomes clear they can’t.

…  But, of course, the system is bound to fail sometimes. Reality is unpredictable, and no amount of computer technology is going to change that. Bureaucracies are always blind because they convert the rich flow of personalities and events into crude notations that can be filed and collated. Human institutions are always going to miss crucial clues because the information in the universe is infinite and events do not conform to algorithmic regularity. [link]

I happen to agree with him on this, and I think our social conceptions of risk are way off.  I don’t think, however, that this case is a good example of that.  A decent system should have caught that guy.  Oh well, easy for me to say in hindsight, right?  Absolutely. 

I think Brooks’ column is barking up the wrong tree.  It is so hard to make a large organization function well, and to allow the full power of individual human intelligence to be brought to bear on problems.  Organizations that handle information, quickly become, as you move up the chain, detached and mechanical in their procedures.  How can they not?  There’s all that paper, all those calls, all those lists to go through!!  Has it always been so?  Did Assyrian bureaucrats miss vital clues on food supply and impending invasions?  Did they loose their heads because of it, literally that is?

But Brooks is wrong because he doesn’t say why it is so hard to do right.  He just seems to accept it as a fact of nature – the odds are stacked against the system.  It’s hard because it goes against such entrenched political interests.  Turf wars, egos, prestige, the usual culprits.  He seems to have the attitude that, in principal, the systems are being reformed correctly, and that that their failure is an inevitable “wastage” that we must expect.  I doubt that the efforts have even scratched the surface of what should be done, and I haven’t the foggiest notion of what should be done to change it.  So maybe we agree after all?