Tony Cliff/Lenin Vol. 2 – Building the Party

Dear reader of this occasionally updated blog: I apologize for the inconsistency, but with another round of intense labour in my life, there simply hasn’t been sufficient time to read and (more importantly) analyze the width and breadth of radical publishing. Furthermore, as the world continues its atavistic backslide into law-of-the-jungle primitivism, with the sheer amount of bodies piling up in the US, with the anarchy in the UK regarding Brexit, with Ramadan murders becoming part of the religious ritual, the idea of maintaining a book review site isn’t very inspirational.

On the other hand, this is a radical journal of writing, and as such it will aid and prop up radical, progressive sentiment, especially at the cultural level. This may not be as important as mass strikes and hardcore demos, but it’s a part of that picture.

Now we can flash back a century or more.

Tony Cliff was one of a myriad of dissenters within the official Marxist universe, a universe that had undergone Stalinism and his particular bloody regime in Cliff’s recent past. Cliff was a Trotskyist deviant in the eyes of orthodox Marxism, and not only was he not welcome amongst various Moscow-run parties throughout the world, he was also expelled from the official inheritors of Trotsky, namely the Fourth International. He helped found the Socialist Workers Party in the UK, and continued his heterogeneous, off-beat Marxism until the day he died.

Cliff was as much a furious writer as he was an organizer (and we’ll see some similarities below), and he produced a wide range of work that covered the now-reactionary Russian state, workers rights on a global scale, and most importantly, history. Cliff wrote mammoth, multi volume tomes that dealt with the lives of Lenin, Trotsky and other early Bolsheviks, as well as savage attacks of the recently passed Stalinist era.

Lenin was intended to cover every trace of a revolutionary mastermind over the course of 3-4 volumes, but interestingly the volumes delved deep into the thought process of Lenin as much as it dealt with elements of his actual life. This is an intellectual history, a history which needless to say deals with concrete elements of existence and how they affected Lenin’s thought process, as well as the manner in which Lenin and the Bolsheviks tactically responded to wild changes in circumstance. The emphasis remains focused on Lenin’s thoughts, tactics, philosophy and actions which he utilized at various points.

Vol. 2 deals with building the Bolshevik party, from roughly the late 1800s until 1914 (further discussion of the war, the 1917 revolutions and Lenin’s place in the latter’s landscape are saved for future volumes). This was the formative period of not only Bolshevism, but radical mass movements in Russia altogether. The events that marked this 14 year period included the emergence of the nascent proletariat, the beginning of the shift in attitudes amongst the peasantry; as Lenin was shaped by concrete events on the ground (rather than abstract theory), all of these events influenced Lenin’s tactics and mindset.

The writing follows Little Lenin from association with a small handful of socialists at the turn of the century, through the aborted 1905 revolution, and finally his organizational skills into transforming the Bolshevik into a mass organization that happened to be linked to rest of the workers in the last dying days of Tsardom.

Recently, there has been talk amongst activists of reviving Leninism as a method that remains highly applicable in our current period; Lenin Vol.2 was one of the works mentioned and recommended by a fairly wide variety of Marxists, who are keen on rescuing Lenin from not only the garbage can of history, but from sterile hero worship or even worse, retrograde communism. This is understandable, and Cliff certainly attempts to provide the contextual nature of Lenin’s tactical attitude, as well as offering a wide range of ideas that remain applicable today, in the modern progressive movements of our own age.

The problem, however, is that Cliff follows suit and once again created a fairly fawning, uncritical presentation of the Father of the Revolution. Lenin can do no wrong in these pages, and every single instance in which missteps were made are explained away, creating an almost mythic figure of unassailable abilities.

This runs counter to one of the basic tactical elements of Lenin himself; he was able to self-correct and bend one or another to deal with actual pressing concerns in a wide range of contexts. History and human behavior are fluid, accidents can happen, and Lenin was not a fortune teller. Lenin was able to learn from his mistakes, and learn from the present, current context and act accordingly. However, Cliff’s treatment of the man made him almost inhuman and almost incapable of making bad choices.

Leninism is itself a strange concept in that Lenin was able to move with the times, and while he had a definite end goal, he was also capable of bending in different situations in order to better drive his goals forward, no matter what (with the primary consisting of a successful Marxist revolution) . The idea of creating some kind of unchanging, platonic model of LENINISM that is not prone to change (and in which Lenin’s theory becomes absolute) is the last thing that Lenin would do. The very idea of having static, unwavering ideals that are not willing/able to change with the times is anathema to what Lenin actually did and said during his lifetime.

If nothing else, Vol. 2 presents aspects of Lenin that should draw readers’ attention; these include Lenin’s ability to have a “standpoint” and long term goals to meet, while also being flexible enough to change focus is one of those elements. Further, Lenin’s decisiveness is also quite noteworthy; after gathering information and attempting bring mass actions to the fore, Lenin would act without hesitation. If something unforeseen occurs, it will be dealt with as it comes up, as it pertains to mass action. But the resolve to make bold decisions is a clearly positive element of “Leninism” that can be applied in other instances, and is worth examination.

Lenin Vol 2: Building the Party remains a sought after object, and rightfully so. The volume is almost a handbook of how to deal with the real problems that come with building a party; it also acts as one of the better interpretations of Lenin’s thought process which also bear investigation and reading. Intellectual history, the history of thought itself, is a fascinating subject, and should be explored more often (although I can hear Lenin doing cartwheels in his grave at the mention of he word “intellectual”). A little less hero worship would be greatly appreciated however. Masses make the revolution, not Big Men, and Lenin was keenly aware of that fact.

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Althusser/Macciocchi/Letters from the Italian Communist Party

Sometimes you trip over a dusty corner and find gold. Sometimes the best writing, the most insightful, the most beautiful and haunting, are found in forgotten volumes long since out of print. And the truth that is revealed within these hidden texts remains; you do not necessarily need something that was published 12 months ago to find relevant info, sharp theoretics, and a reflection of the long term conditions of humanity. Letters from the Italian Communist Party to Louis Althusser is one such text. From the turbulent late sixties to the turbulent 21st century.

Maria Macciocchi wrote Daily Life in Revolutionary China shortly after writing Letters, and that former book changed my life (for the better) a few years ago. Daily Life blew my mind at the time, during an already turbulent year; Macciocchi thrived during such periods of upheaval, and it was fitting that reading her account of China during the Cultural Revolution would fit neatly at the perfect time in my life.

Macciocchi herself led an unbelievable life that sounds insane on paper. She joined the Italian Resistance to fight against Mussolini in the late thirties, and shortly thereafter joined the Communist Party of Italy (PCI). The PCI was the most progressive and radical of Western Europe’s Communist parties, and the largest, at one point commanding the support of two million members. It was also the leading party in the so-called “Eurocommunism Heresy”, in which many official Communist parties began to distance themselves from the Soviet Union, for obvious reasons.

Louis Althusser was also a member of the Resistance against fascism during WWII, though in his case, France was the battleground and the Communist Party of France (PCF, still existent to this day) was the organization. More importantly, Althusser was the leading theorist of the PCF after the war, and he blasted down fossilized forms of thought and helped create the bedrock, the underlying philosophy of Modern Neo-Marxism. Althusser was another massive influence for me, and more than any other theorist save Badiou and Marx himself, Althusser drew me into Marxism.

In the late 60s, the PCI asked Macciocchi to come on down to southern Italy, to Naples, to run in the national elections which were taking place in the spring. Macciocchi had been living in Paris and writing for the PCI publication, L’Unita, but she jumped at this opportunity. She and Althusser wished to work together in a fashion, with Althusser providing the underlying theory and Macciocchi handling the footwork and agitation. The two agreed to establish correspondence during the election period, and this epistolary narrative makes up the bulk of this volume. The theorist, the militant and the situation; this combination was intended to generate new insight in a general manner as well as concrete observations of one of the poorest regions in Europe.

Althusser unfortunately does not contribute as much content as Macciocchi, but the input that he did produce was profound; they reflected the vantage point of a PCF member, an academic, and a Marxist theorist in the midst of the upheaval in France, May ’68. But more important is the biographical and theoretical writings of Macciocchi, as she devotes herself to aiding and working with the comrades of Naples (some of whom are not especially happy to see her – surprise surprise, all of those bitter people are men).

The “Southern Problem” of Italy had remained as intact as it ever was since Italian unification in the 1800s, and endemic poverty and lethal “living” conditions were still the order of the day. As was the case everywhere else in the south of Italy, chronic unemployment had created a slave labor pool of desperate people who were willing to do and endure anything in order to pay for the basics of survival. And as is the case elsewhere in the world, capitalists neatly pitted possible comrades against each other; the proletariat hated the unemployed, and the unemployed thought that the proles were a bunch of snobs.

Of keen interest to the reader of 2016, this collection falls into the classic category due to the essential truths that ring loud throughout the book. The insights of the theoretical writing, combined with the very real, concrete experiences of Macciocchi who attempted to facilitate dialogue amongst potential Communists, create trenchant, immortal observations. 1968 bears more than a passing resemblance to 2016. Why is that? How is that possible? Because endgame zombie capitalism still dominates us, perhaps even moreso as we get neo-liberalism crammed down our throats. And of course, the State still prioritizes good business over every other human concern.

Macciocchi’s rich storytelling, plainly evident here as it was in Daily Life in Revolutionary Chinacaptures the reader, and her own dry sense of humor sidesteps outright despair when confronted by an ugly situation. Nevertheless, the face of crushing urban poverty is familiar and is terrifying to us – we’re quite familiar with it, and it certainly hasn’t disappeared since Macciocchi’s time. The situation has merely shifted locales, from Southern Italy to the Southern hemisphere.

Really, if you want to see evidence that communists really can be dynamic, flexible, and ready for a range of troubles/situations, give Letters from the Italian Communist Party a chance. I know that principles should come before personalities (do you see what I’m inferring, Bernie Sanders?), and I do sincerely believe that the masses make history, not a handful of godlike MEN, but Althusser and Macciocchi have been incredibly important to me. If you want to see what I mean, pick this up if/when you see it at your local used bookstore or at Amazon.

Just FYI: If you think labor problems have just gone away in Europe, google “France, News, 2016”. It is anarchy in Paris and all of the major cities in France right now, even if the media would rather focus on some goddamn Trump Tweets rather than total chaos on the streets of a major Western country. As the Greek protesters said a few years ago, “We are you in the future”. Start forming groups.

Where lightning strikes

Yes, I am still plowing through the stories of the Paris Commune, about two weeks after everyone has promptly forgotten May Day. Yes, I know this is obsessive. On the other hand, this  is a critical unforgettable moment that is formed by mashing together by context, mass action, and the waves of history

Presently I am studying Civil War in France, written by Karl “Marxism” Marx; I am already THOROUGHLY familiar with the events of the Commune, but that is not the point behind reading canonical texts. The statements made in the canon, the philosophies that lurk behind the ostensible focus of the work, are eternal. The text could deal with a tiny, very specific topic, but you’ll know when a text rises above simplistic categorization and makes statements that are relevant now, relevant in the future, as much as they were relevant in the past.

The enormity of the Commune, the sheer amount of focus that is drawn to this singularity, means that there are LOTS of information, points of view, and lessons to be learned when studying those three months in detail. But the canon is not by any means set in stone. nor are they formed on book lists written by academic super-Marxists. The canon is malleable; it depends wholly upon the worth of the lessons taught in the text, the relevance that the text holds for the reader, and as is what happens to any reader, a compelling mixture of time and place.

Life-changing books are innumerable, and the best break open some kind of code, some set of horizons that were previously unknown to the reader. These are essential texts, and they truly are suspect devices. They are little bombs waiting to be set off. Naturally the combo of real lived-in situations AND the texts that are connected somehow (either via philosophy or context) constitute the best scenario for the canonical.

As much as punk rock saved my life when I was a teenager, there was one specific text that I read later in life, which I felt represented me and produced a philosophy that I felt spoke for and to me. A text that could be contextualized and re-contextualized to fit different scenarios in life: that book was The Fountainhead.

I’M KIDDING. The book that I speak of is Daily Life in Revolutionary China, a text written by an Italian Communist woman named Maria Theresa Macciocci in 1970, one of the quieter moments in the Cultural Revolution. But the canon is virtually indefinite – this will be shaped by the events that we speak of, and if they maintain any kind of viewpoints that address scenarios that routinely get repeated through history. More on that later – I want to address the new Marxist wave which has saved Spain yet again. Some situations are all too familiar for some of us.

Anyway, let the living and breathing canon continue to grow, as the continuum of radicalism shapes the world, as more people find an articulation that they feel sums up not only the topic at hand, but also the bare basics of human life trapped in late period Capitalism.

 

 

 

 

An Appeal to the Better Angels of America

So it finally happened. Against logic, against the best wishes of the Republican Party itself, against the will of the majority of Americans, Trump is now the heir apparent and presumptive nominee of the GOP. A man without a single quality, a man who really is that stupid, could have his fingers on the big red nuclear button.
This is as much a media narrative problem as it is a definite possibility. The media has basked this utter incompetent with attention, making him seem like a juggernaut in the primaries when really Trump won because of a terribly crowded field. Stupidity has always been a genuine selling point for the mass media, and now the US is facing the reality that it may have its first fascist president.
I am once again pleading with Americans to STOP TRUMP BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY. Beyond the simple (but apparently amoral) act of voting, make it VERY EVIDENT that the majority of Americans are not represented by a baboon. Show up for Trump rallies and cause a ruckus. Flood the internet with anti-Trump sentiments. Drive home the media message that the most despised man in American politics will not nonsensically become president.
As for those who think that sitting this one out is like taking some moral high ground – you are utter cowards. A abstained vote is a vote for Trump The enemy is aided and abetted by your silence.
I am a socialist and lifelong NDP supporter. However, when the chance arose to finally throw Stephen Harper’s evil little crew aside, I sighed deeply and voted Liberal for the first time in my life. The Liberal Party was a surefire method of getting rid of the enemy, so I grew up and voted for the sure bet. Clinton sucks, as does Trudeau, but all the better to keep reactionary (or outright fascist, such as Trump’s team) ideologues out of the public sphere.
I may be exhorting the US too early – there are real markers that the Republican party is ready to self-implode, and all power to them. But PLEASE, utilize whatever methods that are at hand. Otherwise, domestic and geopolitics will be worse than the George W administration.

May Day: Victor Hugo + Louise Michel 4ever

Anyone who has perused this blog should know who Louise Michel is by now. Feminist. Radical. Communard. A genuine egalitarian who believed that all women had a place in the revolution, moving beyond bourgeoisie Republicanism and welcoming the lowest orders of women, who really were the most justifiable recipients of a socialist revolution. Frontline soldier, defending the barricades of the Paris Commune until the last minute, when she was struck unconscious and left for dead.

And then, Victor Hugo. World champion litterateur. Author of the monumental Les Miserables (the original volume, not the musical nor the verdammt American movie). A massive influence on modernist fiction, and considered the mother of all French novelists. And incidentally, a fierce proponent of the Paris Commune, committed socialist, and more or less utterly disdainful of the bourgeoisie that may have bought his books, but hated his sociopolitical stance.

There is something lyrical about French heroines, as they have pushed against injustice and particularly against the casual misogyny of European culture. The women thrash valiantly, tearing apart the reactionary impulse (and the very real, physical defenders of such regressive politics). Women such as Louise Michel leave indelible marks, marks and foundations that cannot be erased by anything including death. Foundations are laid for future generations of fighters, and Michel set the hallmark for revolutionary women apres 1871. Hugo was eventually captured by the reactionaries, and rather than be let off the hook and betray her comrades, Michel actually bragged about a series of fictional offenses during her trial: the latter poem deals with this event.

Hugo produced the following writing in praise of the indomitable Michel and the warriors of the Commune who did so much in such little time. Michel was as indestructible as Hugo describes, and to the best of his efforts Hugo elevates Michel into something that will last forever.

Viro Major

Having seen the vast massacre, the combat

the people on their cross, Paris on its pallet bed:

Tremendous pity was in your words.

You did what the great mad souls do.

And wearying of fighting, dreaming, suffering,

You said “I killed!” because you wanted to die.

 

You lied against yourself, terrible and superhuman.

Judith the sombre Jewess, Aria the Roman

Would have clapped their hands while you spoke.

You said to the lofts, “I burnt the palaces!”

You glorified those who are crushed and downtrodden.

You cried “I killed! Let them kill me!” – And the crowd

Listened to this haughty woman accuse herself.

You seemed to blow a kiss from the sepulchre;

Your steady eyes weighed on the livid judges:

And you dreamed, like the great Euminedes.

 

Pale death stood behind you.

The vast hall was full of terror.

Because the bleeding people detest civil war.

Outside could be heard the sound of the town.

This woman listened to the noisy life

From above, in an austere attitude of refusal.

She did not understand anything other than

A pillory erected for finale:

And finding affront noble and agony beautiful,

Sinister, she hastened her steps toward the tomb.

The judges murmured “Let her die! It is fair

She is vile – at least she is not majestic,”

Said their conscience. And the judges, pensive

Facing yes, facing no, as between two reefs

Hesitated, watching the severe culprit.

 

And those who, like me, know you to be incapable

Of all that is not heroism and virtue,

Who know if they asked you “Where are you from?”

That you would reply “I come from the night where there is

Suffering;

Yes, I come from the duty which you have made an abyss!”

Those who know your mysterious and sweet verses,

Your days, your nights, your cares, your tears given to all.

Your forgetting yourself to aid others

Your words which resemble the flame of the apostles;

Those who know the roof without fire, without air, without

Bread

The bed of webbing with the fir table

Your goodness, your pride as a woman of the people.

The acrid emotion which sleeps beneath your anger.

 

Your long look of hate at all the inhuman people

And the feet of the children warmed by your hands:

Those people, woman, facing your timid majesty

Meditated, and despite the bitter fold of your mouth

Despite the one who cursed you and hounded you

Who hurled at you the undignified cries of the law

Despite your high, fata voice with which you accused yourself

They saw the angel’s splendor beneath the medusa.

 

You were tall, and seemed strange in these debates;

For, puny like those who live down there,

Nothing bothers them more than two conflicting souls,

Than the divine chaos of starry things

Seen at the depths of a great inclement heart,

Than the radiation seen in a blaze.

                                                                              

 

 

 

Our revenge will be the laughter of our children – May Day 2016

It seems like I resurrect the same dead horse to whip every May, every year. On the other hand, something astonishing happened in Paris in 1871, an eruption that arguably was greater than any other rebellion or revolution to follow. That’s a bold statement, and I make it not to denigrate any of the other revolutionary foundation stones; rather, the Paris Commune produced an incredible experiment in genuinely equitable society, one that was honestly built on equity, camaraderie, and real justice, not the bourgeois deformation of all three.

We should remember the Commune for what it achieved, rather than grousing about its fall or swearing blood grudges against the descendants of the Versailles bourgeoisie. This society was as much about joy as it was equal distribution of food or new parliamentary systems. This is the joy, the sheer happiness of becoming united with each other, with the birth of a new society, overthrowing a useless, tyrannical system. And it has to be remembered as a moment, a singularity in time that exists by itself via a recognition of the circumstances of that moment. It was the Moment of recognition that created the moment of joy. And it did not correspond to any historical norms, therefore making the Moment unpredictable.

It almost goes without saying that this moment was quashed by ruthless, barbaric, right-wing thugs who operated in the open and revealed the true nature of the bourgeoisie – a nature built on greed, spite, and blind hatred of anything that wasn’t/isn’t them. However, certain changes had been installed that were irreversible, changes and demands which would become givens throughout world society and all of the mass movements to come. Revolutions don’t necessarily fail – frequently they create new, greater bedrock for future generations to stand on and demand their freedom. In that sense, May Day should always pay its respects to the sacrifices made in one of the world’s greatest experiments in democracy.

For the next ten days, I will be throwing up as much Commune material that my fingers can produce. Besides commentary, quotes, articles and declarations, there will be reviews of two books and a bonkers play from the typically bonkers Bertolt Brecht. Let’s open the shrine and make it better by contribution; let’s commemorate the fallen and celebrate the victories they achieved and which they still achieve through our own contemporary actions .

Vive la Commune!

 

Rebel Lives: Louise Michel/Edited by Nic Maclellan

IT’S NOT WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH IF YOU STUDY FEMINIST HISTORY EVERY DAY.

Ahem. On with the show.

There are truly few books written in English about the Paris Commune, the world’s first (and short lived) radical democracy. I’ve written a few reviews that dealt with the Commune, but sadly I believe I have missed the human element, the actual face of the Commune. I intend to redress that fact with a bizarre “biography”(?) of Louise Michel, one of the firebrands of the Commune, dedicated feminist, and anarchist.

Michel has been declared a heroine for (and therefore property of) socialists, anarchists, and even liberal democrats; the same process has unfortunately been shared by other radicals such as Rosa Luxembourg, Victor Serge, and Bertolt Brecht. It shouldn’t be that difficult to understand that some people are just good people, above and beyond political schematics. Rebel Lives‘ strange bio reflects that basic truth.

When I say “strange”, it is because this bio is actually a handful of printed material either written by Michel herself, or more general commentary of the Paris Commune. And this polyglot works – the reader gets the sense of who Michel might have been from this kaleidoscope of differing writings.

Michel was largely responsible for setting up women’s committees during the siege of Paris by Versailles’s reactionary army. Michel made sure that women shared the work, and physically defend the city, as much as their male counterparts. Michel raised the consciousness of every woman she met, due to her egalitarian values and the belief that men (capitalists etc) were largely responsible for the evils that plagued women. She wanted equality in the Commune, and she was largely successful at this.

It should be noted that as Michel was a loud and proud anarchist, some of the commentary in this bio unfortunately emanate from armchair anarchists. The latter really don’t care for Marxists, or socialists, or anybody that’s not them, and this vanguard sensibility comes across in the articles; jabs are continually made against those gosh-darned Reds, despite the complete lack of spite generated towards said anarchists. It’s a little petty, and it does take away from the sheer amount of work and progressive politics that Michel represented.

A word should be made about the period after the fall of the Commune: Michel demanded to be tried in court, out of camaraderie with her fellow fighters.. She spent 8 years in external deportation, and upon returning to Paris, she continued rabble-rousing and raising hell. Michel stood stock-still in the court rooms of France, willing to die (and become a martyr) for the left. She remained stalwart until her death.

This is a volume for feminists, in case they were curious about what kind of hell-raising has to take place for the ancien regime to fall into oblivion. This latter topic should be interesting for similarly violent, chaotic anarchists (the majority of whom are still men, who should take a look at feminism before hurtling into the whirlwind). But this also an ode to egalitarianism, and the fact that the aims of the Paris Commune still resonate today.

In solidarity, Louise Michel.