Monthly Archives: August 2014

Alexander Solzhenitsyn/One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

“A man who is warm cannot understand a man who is cold”.

Survival is hard enough. It gets harder in a gulag. Someone once said to me that I have to live one day at a time, with little future plans and a forgetful attitude towards the bad elements in my past. I can’t help but think that the person in question served a little time.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the story of a single day of surviving the brutal, unrelenting conditions of a gulag work camp, where work is only stopped if the temperature drops below minus 20 Celsius. For those of you living in temperate climes, minus 20 feels like someone is throwing handfuls of nails in your face, particularly when it’s windy. It is physically painful to endure.

Ivan Denisovich spends the day trying desperately to get sick leave, and failing to do so, is forced to engage in the kind of nonsensical make-work projects that were the hallmark of the labour camps. In this case, it’s building a new jail in the middle of the tundra.

There is very little in the way of the American-styled prison experience. There are no gangs. No rape. There’s a vague sense of camaraderie, as everyone is on the same horrible boat, but basically the prisoners are simply fighting to survive, one day at a time. It shapes them of course; aside from a few fresh fish that have just arrived and maintain some semblance to their former selves, the prisoners are twisted into the human equivalent of starving donkeys.
Meals consist of the absolute bare minimum to keep people alive. Denisovich is delighted when he finds extra meat in his bowl of watery soup. That’s a key element of the novel itself: taking pleasure in minutiae which would otherwise be meaningless in civilian life. As grim as the surroundings are, as unforgiving as the elements are, this book is essentially a celebration of life, as taken one day at a time.

The Brits attempted to make a film based on this book, which was definitely hit and miss. The fact that every “Russian” had a midlands British accent didn’t help matters. And these are actors – naturally photogenic people with a bit of dirt on their faces. They lack the terrible physical effects of working in the perpetual cold, day after day, year after year, on what amounts to starvation rations.

Every character in the book suffers from some ongoing disease, ranging from low-level TB, gout, pneumonia, and of course frost bite. Those lucky, lucky prisoners who are assigned indoor jobs don’t have to deal with any of that, and there’s a clear dichotomy between the indoor and outdoor slaves, but for the most part none of these men will be the same, assuming they live long enough to serve their time.

However, with all of that taken into consideration, the book is galvanizing and ultimately positive, a tribute to humanity’s ability to survive and even achieve happiness in the worst possible conditions. This was a literary sensation Russia, particularly during the thaw following Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s not so secret denunciation of Stalin and the “cult of personality”. Voices like Solzhenitsyn can and must be heard – that’s the importance of prison books, regardless of how rote they may seem. Guantanamo Bay is still open for business, and there are currently one million people behind bars in America alone (with an 80% black population). Voices need to be given to the voiceless, no matter how deep the system has buried them.

A wee dispatch

My apologies for the infrequent posts. There is a reason; this author will be moving to Shanghai in a matter of days, and needless to say that things are a tad chaotic. I will attempt to create a new blog devoted to my experiences – it will be very interesting to leftists to see what life is like in a pseudo-communist locale. In the meantime I’ll still try to remain to update the site, but considering circumstances, posts will not be posted on a weekly basis.

Solidarity forever and ever.

Iain M. Banks/Use of Weapons

In the recent past, author/socialist extraordinaire China Mieville compiled a list of sci-fi/fantasy novels that are of keen interest to socialists. Like any other list ever compiled, Mieville highlights some works which should be fundamental reading, and a number of those books have been reviewed at this site. There are some duds however, and Iain M. Banks (the sci-fi pseudonym of the now deceased Iain Banks) novel Use of Weapons sadly falls into this category. If you’ve ever cringed at the phrase “Sci-fi/Fantasy/Comic Books aren’t just for kids anymore”, Use of Weapons will provide ample evidence why this phrase deserves to be scorned.

Iain Banks’ foremost identity was concerned with unbelievably messed up “mainstream” novels, including the controversial The Wasp Factory and the somewhat less deranged Complicity. There has always been a sense of the fantastic in Banks’ work, an aura of tenuous reality that was also grounded within the context of Banks’ real environment, Scotland. Exploring and expanding this flirting with fantasy, Banks began in the late eighties to produce sci-fi novels under the assumed (and not entirely opaque) Iain M. Banks moniker. Use of Weapons is the noted subversive sci-fi novel, ascribed by Mieville as essential reading. Why Mieville chose to include this potboiler is a mystery.

The novel is loosely the story of Zakalwe, a mercenary who does dirty, generally violent work of an officially peaceful inter-galactic organization, the Culture. Having reached some form of technological transcendence, the Culture has been “motivating” different civilizations to follow their ostensibly progressive (and determinist) path. It is interference, laid out by a seemingly superior and all-knowing body that wants to provide encouragement rather than coercion.Unfortunately. occasionally the path of civilization needs to be orchestrated by violence, which is where Zakalwe comes in.

Use of Weapons follows a chock-full of tropes which will be immediately spotted by any casual consumer of the genre, which simply underlines the enigma of why this book can rightfully be considered subversive. There is the lone wolf protagonist who runs around killing people with a degree of cynicism; there is the hyper-sexualized Sma, the sole female character who alone has any kind of agency; there is the typically mysterious background of Zakalwe himself. And then there is repetition.

Virtually every chapter has Zakalwe working for or against a chosen civilization, and nearly every conflict ends with Zakalwe nearly dying. As he is the chosen weapon of the Culture, he is invariably rescued, and put back together by the seemingly unlimited technology of Zakalwe’s employers. This kills any sense of suspense or character investment – as the reader knows, everything will inevitably result in Zakalwe’s rehabilitation. Even his mysterious past does not render any reason why the reader will start giving a damn about Zakalwe. Everything is pre-ordained by the indomitable Culture.

It is this very technology that renders plot crescendo meaningless. The Culture’s drones, computer systems, transportation devices, etc have all gained self-awareness, which begs the question of why humanity even matters. Immortality has likewise been discovered, which further denigrates any sense of a meaningful plot. Without any sense of character growth (to say nothing of the actual physical circumstances of the characters), the novel falls back on plot; and the plot is almost stereotypically retrogressive. Women are either weak and in need of saving. or they are basic sex machines, likewise, manly, heterosexual men run around boldly and inadvertently interfering with the destinies of others.

There is the question of why any socialist/leftist would find anything of special interest in this run-of-the-mill action/adventure. Other than briefly and explicitly protesting the omnipotence of the almighty Culture, there is nothing especially subversive of Use of Weapons. It could be argued that the very concept of the Culture is one worthy of analyzing, but the book makes no space or option of criticism. The Culture is background, and with that in mind, only the plot trajectory of Zakalwe can muster up the subversion and questioning that must be primary in a quote unquote radical book. Iain M. Banks fails to do so.

There is a somewhat trick ending to the novel, but that twist doesn’t justify reading the book in its entirety. Use of Weapons falls back on the male juvenalia of virtually every other mainstream sci-fi novel, and as such it is only recommendable to early teenaged boys. Iain Banks has written some of the best Scottish fiction of these latter years (and along with the aforementioned Wasp Factory and Complicity, there is a wealth of other classics that bear exploring), but this is not a hallmark. There many other genre books that successfully navigate through radicalism and the limits of the genre itself, and they often appear on China Mieville’s holy list. Unfortunately, the term “socialist” has been bended to meet works that don’t deserve to be ranked along with The Dispossessed, and they should be rejected as such.

 

The tragedy of radicalism and the desire for hope

I have just finished watching An Injury to one, a beautiful and damning documentary about the lynching of IWW agitator Frank Little in the now unlivable cesspit of Butte, Montana. I’ve also been reading Rebel Cities, an equally damning economic analysis of the capitalist expropriation of urban space. I can’t help but feel a tad exhausted.

Radicalism is an alternative to the status quo, and in the Western world, it is a violent reaction against an artificially created structure of power that has existed for at least 400 years, beginning with mercantilism, the slave trade, etc. These are the politics of confrontation, not conciliation. If the reader/activist gets angry, that’s entirely the point – even the most basic agitprop is meant to get indifferent asses off of the couch and into the public arena.

However, burying oneself whole-hardheartedly into the fray does not equate happiness. It does not give up dividends right away. At times, it feels like the problems are insurmountable. The fact remains that the world is malleable, and a better world is possible, provided that there is enough grunt force moving society forward. However, that “better world” appears to be out of reach at times, that the systemic power structure is too deeply embedded for necessary changes to be made.

One has to bear in mind that this is a long fight, and it also bears mentioning that “radicalism” is as much a constant personal identifier as it is a set of goals. We bear the shape of the world within us, by our observation, consumption, and end use of the reality that faces us. We have to accept that small victories are still incremental steps towards a greater systemic movement; even documentaries like An injury to one that record actual history and give faces to the heroes/heroines are worthwhile acts of justice. It’s not about big men and big battles – it’s about the shifting of the power structure mentioned above, in all of its’ aspects. Even the mere existence of rebellious thoughts is a step in the right direction.

Take heart and heed. This is a continual, renewing process; it was there before we were born, and it will still be contested after we die. One has to take a very long look at history, and be patient. A better world is possible, and our actions will make it materialize, even if it’s just a glimpse to us at the time.

 

Ulrike Meinhof/Everyone talks about the weather – we don’t

A little background:
Ulrike Meinhof was a radical West German journalist before she discovered the joys of direct action. She produced thoughtful, insightful essays which attacked the hypocrisy of a nation that still had ex-Nazis in positions of power, a nation seemingly hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, despite the clear stupidity of having said nuclear weapons right across the street from their Communist brethren.

Ulrike got angrier and angrier, as her powers of observation and argument did not seem to have a meaningful effect on the growing “warm and friendly” German police state that had developed after ten years of youth rebellion. Meinhof made a decision at the end of the sixties, abandoning observation for practice, and aided Andreas Baader (in jail for bombing a department store) escape from his police handlers, and formed the Baader-Meinhof group, aka the Red Army Faction. There was no turning back.

Baader was an idiot. He was pure id, a born terrorist. He had no ties to any particular ideological camp; Baader seemingly existed to burn the world down in the hopes that a newer, better one would replace it. He treated women like scum, posed in gay pornography, ate sandwiches secretly while the rest of the unit was on hunger strike, etc.

Meinhof was the heart and soul of the operation. She had a gift for analysis and propaganda, inspiring the West German population to agree with the RAF’s actions. It should be noted that she never killed anyone; she kidnapped, she bombed, she obtained phony passports, she established a series of hideouts for RAF members. But she was, perhaps inevitably, caught.

Meinhof spent two years in isolation for unspecified crimes against West Germany (and by the way, two years in solitary conflict is enough to drive anyone insane). She was finally allowed to join her cohorts in 1974. However, instead of rallying together and fighting the power, the RAF simply spent their time engaging in vicious petty feuds, accusing each other of police complicity, for being bourgeois, for being reformist, for being elitist, and all the other petty epithets that should be familiar to anyone with a background in leftism. It got to Meinhof, and she finally hung herself on Mother’s Day, 1976. The rest of the crew followed suit, and killed themselves en masse following a failed sky-jacking that was supposed to free them all.

On with the show

Everybody talks about the Weather…is a marvelous depiction of a transformation, as a highly intelligent radical experienced growth and eventual frustration with simplistic slogans and peaceful means of acquiring what one wants. Meinhof had gone from John Lennon to Che, if I could make a stupid analogy. The columns are mostly concerned with West Germany’s serfdom to the US in the sixties, as the bulwark against those evil, godless Commies. Meinhof also pointed out the clearly preferential treatment of out and out Nazi war criminals who “were just doing their job”, or which they forgot about in their middle age. Said former Nazis were allowed to exist fancy-free in the new West Germany, as they were considered by the Americans that the ex-Nazis were vital to the economic restructuring of the West German state. It’s remarkable that the Israelis were able to hang Eichmann around this period, whereas Karl Wolf, the man closest to Himmler, got away with a 15 year sentence (for which he served five years).

This is a righteous voice articulately shouting into the wind, and while total radicalization may not have been the right choice, it was an understandable one. Abbie Hoffman suffered less. These essays (and the masterful introduction by Karin Bauer) prove that one can call bullshit when one sees it, that one need not belong to either of the opposing camps (bourgeois capitalist vs Soviet bloc “communism”) in order to be oppositional.

Finally, the aesthetics of the book bear mentioning. This probably the most handsome, aesthetically pleasing volume that I have yet to review, something that sticks out in my mind as I produce propaganda for my own collective. You’ll feel very radical chic as you page through it at the local café. Highly recommended.

Smarty-pants Vol 2 – The Revenge

Here is a rare display of lucidity from Herbert Marcuse, a French intellectual who I had earlier slammed for being too opaque. As the following is taken from a public speech at a radical forum, Marcuse had no choice – the speech would have to be clear and concise. This segment inspired the previous rant; I hope that this is even more illustrative.

We all know the fatal prejudice, practically from the beginning in the Labour movement against the intelligentsia as catalyst of historical change. It is time to ask whether this prejudice against the intellectuals, and the inferiority complex of the intellectuals resulting from it, was not an essential factor in the development of the capitalist and socialist societies; in the development and weakening of the opposition. The intellectuals usually went out to organize others, to organize in the communities. They certainly did not use the potentiality they had to organize themselves not only on a regional, not only on a national, but on an international level. That is, in my view, one of the most important tasks. Can we say that the intelligentsia is the agent of historical change? Can we say that the intelligentsia today is a revolutionary class? The answer I would give is: No we cannot say that. But we can say, and I think we must say, that the intelligentsia  has a decisive preparatory function, not more: and I suggest that this is plenty. By itself it is not and cannot be a revolutionary class, but it can become the catalyst – certainly not for the first time, that is in fact the way all revolutions start – but more , perhaps, today more than ever before. Because – and for this too we have a very material and very concrete basis – it is from this group that the holders of decisive positions in the productive process will be recruited, in the future even more than hitherto. I refer to what we may call the increasingly scientific character of the material process of production, by virtue of which the role of the intelligentsia changes.  It is the group from which the decisive holders of decisive positions will be recruited: scientists, researchers, technicians engineers, even psychologists – because psychology will continue to be a socially necessary  instrument, either of servitude or of liberation.

This class, this intelligentsia has been called the new working class. I believe this term is at best premature. They are – and we should not forget – today the pet beneficiaries of the established system. But they are also at the very source of the glaring contradictions between the liberating capacity of science and its repressive and enslaving use. To activate the repressed  and manipulated contradiction, to make it a catalyst of change, that is one of the main tasks of the opposition today. It remains and must remain a political task.

The educational system is political, so it is not we who want to politicize the educational system. What we want is a counter-policy against the established policy. And in this sense we must meet this society on its own ground of total mobilization. We must confront indoctrination in servitude with indoctrination in freedom. We must each of us generate in ourselves, and to try to generate in others, the instinctual need for a life without fear, without brutality, and without stupidity. And we must see that we can generate the instinctual and intellectual revulsion against the values of an affluence which spreads aggressiveness and suppression throughout the world.

Taken from the speech given in the Congress of the Dialectic of Liberation, 1967.

Smarty-pants

There is no such thing as the intellectual “class”. The so-called “intelligentsia” does not constitute a class, in and of itself. Intelligent people come from a variety of backgrounds; some are just lucky enough to get paid for their intellect alone.

There has always been an uneasy attitude between the proletariat (and that class definition is also elastic) and intellectuals, specifically those in positions which are traditionally white collar professions. This clash is as old as the antagonism between town and country. It’s a reciprocal elitism – the proletariat maintains a privileged position within the framework of orthodox Marxism, and yet still feels alienated, still feels snubbed, by their counterparts of the former professional classes. Even in countries such as the US, the refrain can be heard: “I work hard for my living at the screen door factory!”, which of course implies that unless someone works at a screen door factory, they’re not working hard. Even if the desk-bound worker spends 90 hours of a given week at their job, forgoing food and sleep, they are not genuine “workers”.

This contradiction is even more heightened when it comes to education.

Praxis is one of the key building blocks of Marxism, a combination of theory and practice. But this contradiction (if the two concepts are genuinely in antagonistic positions) has swung considerably towards the practice end of things. Radicals are meant to work like peasants or factory workers, at the expense of the time they spend teaching, writing, etc.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with learning by doing. Even the most conservative colleges offer internships, and one of the purposes of said internships is to gain concrete experience. Similarly, if one is writing/analyzing factory conditions or the rural situation, it would be enormously beneficial if one got into the field and experienced first-hand what it means to be involved in the basic building blocks of an socioeconomic process.

The Cultural Revolution in China went a long way in mixing these two elements. The concretely elitist, reactionary professors were shown the door, and the opportunity (rather than the enforcement) for teachers to go out into the country and the factory was offered. Best laid plans ran afoul, of course. Brutal labour was imposed on some teachers and artists, and it was in no way optional. This “proletarianization” from above is exactly what the Red Guards were fighting against in the beginning – a monarchical bureaucracy dictating the behavior of the masses indicates a splitting point between mass and party. Still, the manner in which universities became cultural factories was far in advance of the Stalinist system, where students and teachers alike could be shot or imprisoned at any time, for anything.

The notion that only the industrial proletariat are worth praising has long been dismantled – even Lenin recognized that in certain contexts, the overwhelming majority of workers in a given country have never set foot in a factory. There are Marxists out there who seemingly have the magical ability to determine exactly what Marx was thinking when he wrote what he wrote about the revolutionary determinism and destiny of certain classes, but those dogmatists are a dying breed. Changes have taken place during the course of 170 years, and a considerable amount of ink and blood has been spilled between then and now.

Proletariat means those who work, generally for someone else. They can call themselves intellectuals or not. By the same token, intellectuals (particularly teachers) can call themselves revolutionary or not. But to decry one radical profession in favor of another is just another form of factionalism, and this division is exactly what the ruling 1% wants.