…and no, I never use the term “Troubles”, which is such a cutesy underestimation of what actually occurred – a civil war that lasted for a solid 30 years. With that in mind:
…and no, I never use the term “Troubles”, which is such a cutesy underestimation of what actually occurred – a civil war that lasted for a solid 30 years. With that in mind:
This week saw the rapid rise and fall of a seemingly baffling phenomenon, namely the grassroots construction of a giant Mao statue in central China, followed by its quick destruction. According to The Guardian, spontaneous acts of “Mao-worship” are taking place all over the country – even Henan, where one of the worst Mao blunders took place, as millions died from the incredibly incompetent Great Leap Forward initiative in the 50s.
The Chinese authorities are not pleased with a native Maoist revival, which may seem strange considering the fact that China is still ruled by a nominally Communist party.
Nevertheless, the authorities are understandably alarmed; the last thing that the police state wants is a revival of genuinely revolutionary fervor. It drives home the fact that the CCP is nothing other than a name – the new rulers of China can call themselves Scientologists, or the Vegetarian Party, or IRA Far East Chapter. The reality is that China is state-driven and controlled hyper- capitalism. Marxists need not apply.
This self-directed Maoism amongst the Chinese civilian populace also reveals an interesting, subjective take on Mao himself. Mao is a symbol, not a historical figure. And that symbol represents justice and fairness in an increasingly unfair, unjust China.
I don’t have a Mao badge on my bag because I’m into Mao-the-man; Mao himself made some catastrophic decisions which resulted in the deaths of unthinkable numbers of Chinese. But Mao, the symbol, represents something entirely different from the man, at least for myself and any other Westerner who is still willing to take on the sketchy legacy and the real potential of Maoism.
This is also the case with these outbursts of Mao fans in China; what Mao (or even the image of Mao) represents is not identical to blind hero worship. There is a growing level of discontent in China, as the masses struggle with the harsh, unfeeling realities of a manic form of capitalism. Mao is a symbol of a counter-active force, and this is what is usually missing or misunderstood by Western observers of the Cultural Revolution; while there was blind hero worship on display, I do not believe Mao was actually worshiped as a Judaeo-Christian God.
The situation in China is getting desperate for the vast majority of this equally vast country. While the instances of Maoism might seem to be inexplicable, I can’t say that I’m entirely surprised.
A common remark made by American and British Francophobes is that France would be speaking German if it had not been for American and British activity during WWII. The fact remains, however, that those same Francophobes might be sprechen a little Deutsch had it been for the massive efforts of the USSR to bleed Nazi Germany dry during the intervening years. Normandy was not the turning point – Stalingrad was.
History is written via modern context; in this case, it is the context of a new Cold War that is rewriting the past. Putin and his clique, none of whom have a socialist bone in their bodies, have decided to take on the West, using the Ukraine as a proxy war in a new era of East/West tension. For the West’s part, antagonism of Russia is at an all-time high, with sanctions against Russia and military aid being sent to the globally insignificant Ukrainian battleground. This antagonism has taken the form of symbolic gestures as well, with Canada erecting a “Victims of Communism” memorial statue, and more gallingly, a straight-forward snub of Russia at VE-Days around Europe and North America.
The Allies wouldn’t have been able to set foot in France in 1944 if it was not for the enormous bloodletting on the Eastern Front. 80% of all German casualties took place in the East; for their part, the Soviet Union lost 24 million people in the span of four years. Even Winston Churchill, a firm anti-Communist and the man who coined the phrase “Iron Curtain”, admitted that the war in Europe would not have ended had not the Soviets “ripped the guts out of the Wehrmacht” in the East (his own words, not mine).
There will be some critics that have decided that the Hitler-Stalin Non-Aggression Pact that predated the war indicates that the two regimes were ideologically simpatico, that Communists were no better or different than the cartoonishly evil Nazis. It should not be forgotten that a) this iron clad pact between “political bedfellows” lasted less than 24 months, and b) Nazi Germany was delighted to take the first opportunity to kill as many Communists as they could lay their hands on in their search for Lebensraum (living space) for the new Nazi Empire, following their runaway success in Western Europe
The Pact, such as it was, was pure power politics, as both countries sought out a buffer zone between the two nations. It was also the result of decisions made by Stalin’s clique – the Russian masses were not asked for their opinion, and it was the Russian masses that suffered the brunt of the Eastern Front. Stalin was not only morally culpable; he was also a terrible strategist, and it took the sheer force of the entire Soviet Union to fight back and win the war against Nazi Germany.
Were war crimes committed by Russian soldiers? Yes, of course – as war crimes were committed by every other combatant nation on the planet during the war, including the US (Hiroshima Mon Amour, anyone?). Even supposedly neutral countries have some blood on their hands – Switzerland happily accepted Nazi gold.
Stalin and his friends in the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB) does not represent the sacrifices made by his people, no more than Putin represents anybody but himself and his ruling clique. There must always be a differentiation between the masses and a non-representative party, and while the Soviet Union was a terrifying machine when the tides began to turn, it was not without reason. The masses wanted payback for an asinine non-aggression pact and a virtual holocaust of 24 million dead Russians.
Sanctions against Russia in this present era do nothing but strengthen Putin’s position, as he is more and more seen as the savior of Russia against a belligerent group of Western powers; the top echelon do not feel the hits taken against the economy (North Korea is a perfect example this powerless sanction system), but normal Russians, like the North Koreans are feeling the squeeze, and therefore a nationalist, right-wing megalomaniac like Putin can exploit the situation. Symbolic middle fingers like revisionist history and “tough talk” from a non-entity like Stephen Harper and his neoconservative friends do not constitute good diplomacy either.
The West has hated/misunderstood Russia since at least 1917. And while the imperial ambitions of both Stalin and Putin are indefensible, it is as always the masses that matter, the same masses that have squared off against Nazi Germany and won, and which suffered and endured the long Cold War days. A new Cold War has arrived, and along with historical revisionism, Russian citizens can look forward to their ruling clique ruining it for everyone. Russians can fight back, as evidenced by WWII, but it will take a lot more skill than “tough talk” to finally rid the world of the Stalins and Putins that keep popping up in Mother Russia.
Let’s get the party started by stating that I don’t like Mao. I think his policies were woefully without foresight; his unassailable position gave him an ego without compare; and he was an icon, not an iconoclast – he ranked with other mystical individuals from Scripture (Moses, Abraham, Jesus Christ), and I don’t believe in deifying mortal humans.
However, I do like the way that radicals outside the country took elements from Red China (especially the Cultural Revolution – more on that below) and ran with them. Like rock n roll, punk and hip hop, the quintessential features of Maoism were mutated and made to fit the sociopolitical contexts of various movements, particularly during the high water mark of the late sixties. The Black Panther movement adopted the principles of Maoism and applied them to their largely anti-colonial outlook. And the wave of protests that shook France during ’68 was indebted to the Cultural Revolution which was occurring during the same time frame – Maoism was the hallmark of the new French left, and it informed the gradual break away from Mother Russia and the worldwide bureaucracy which followed the lead of the Soviet Union.
It was the model of the Chinese Cultural Revolution that created these hybrids. As Red Guards were formed to confront the very organization and state which made their existence popular, the key differences between the party state and the masses were made clear. We can start with the rejection of privileged party bosses who represented the party and who theoretically represented the masses that they lived off of. And the questioning continued, for good and ill.
Cleaning out the ossified party machine was the beginning of the new consciousness of radicals, and it was repeated concurrently in France. The mass strike of ’68 in France was actually opposed by the Parti Communiste de France, as the new left stopped paying attention to their double talk and criticized the sluggish inertia of the PCF. The PCF rode on the laurels of their contribution to the French Resistance of WWII, and hadn’t done much to impress anyone by the sixties. I’m reminded of the film Tout Va Bien, a classic revolutionary tribute to the rebels of 1968. In the movie, the PCF members are portrayed as a group of exclusively older male workers, reciting statistics that were meaningless, completely without context, and largely ignored by the young militants.
The Cultural Revolution was the embodiment of criticism, a total understanding that the party wasn’t always right, that the party members were not sacrosanct, and a new revolution had to take place amongst the masses – a new revolution that was indebted to the Paris Commune more than the Bolshevik revolution. It was a period of upheaval (bordering on civil war at points), messy, and it entailed not only the break between party state and mass movement, but the introduction of a new way of viewing the world. “Smash the old, build the new” was a catchphrase from this period, and it was taken up by the French left, a mass movement which did not take anything for granted. In a sense, it represented the old Trotskyite notion of “permanent revolution”, but this was a reality, not just a concept that could never find root in Stalinist Russia.
It was the formation of an alternative space for politics, above and beyond the bickering for power which is usually found within party states. in the wonderful analysis, Historical Actuality of the Socialist Offensive, Istvan Meszaros argues that genuine revolutionary movements must take place outside of formal parliamentary power, and that a new environment is possible, a new environment that is not bound down by the formal trappings and narrow confines of “legal” political activity He may well have been talking of the New Left of the late sixties.
The Cultural Revolution was interrupted in China – that’s what happens when any movement starts to attack the army, which is the very backbone of the state. But the importance of the new views began to set in, in China and the rest of the world. The party state is not infallible; leftists everywhere must ask the question, Whom do I serve? If the answer is either yourself or your shortlist of fellow bureaucrats, you’re wrong. Masses must come first -otherwise the party is a false representative of the people. The French knew it, the rest of the left throughout Europe knew it (which set the ground base of Eurocommunism and the gradual move away from Soviet domination), and we know it too.
NB: This is as much an attempt to sort out certain ideas that have emerged upon reading Engels’ Origins of the Family as it is an invitation to debate.Think of this article as a process piece. It should also be noted that the text in question was written in the late 19th Century, and anthropological studies have advanced considerably since that time.
I am without question the last socialist on earth to read Engels thoroughly, particularly his work on materialism and its effects on the very reproduction of life itself. With the renewed interest in Marxist-feminism (as opposed to the great “personal is political” mainstay of the nineties), The Origins of the Family likewise needs re-reading. The following text is my own skewed interpretation of Engels’ historical materialism – the special emphasis is on the dialogue between male and female power relations, from antiquity onwards.
Thus spake Engels:
At the dawn of civilization, humanity was organized into loose tribes, with equally loose attitudes towards sexual freedom and parental duties towards offspring. During the tribal period, sexual relations were based on “pairing”, i.e. serial monogamy. Men and women would come together and break apart like the seasons. As paternity was difficult to trace, the children borne by these relations were considered a part of the female side of things, what Engels called the gens. Children were part of the gens, the female lineage, rather than the male line. Taboos against incest meant that no child or blood relation could get busy with each other – the males of the tribe would have sexual relations outside of their gens, children would be borne, and the original gens would continue.
Work was divided but equal between the genders. As this tribal period predated agriculture, the livelihood of the gens was tasked to the males, while females ran the household. Commodity relations did not exist during this period – possessions were commonly shared, and besides which the property of this or that form was fairly limited, and whatever products were passed on to the mother side.
Group decisions were made by the group, before the development of power relations and the false value placed upon individuals. Executive decisions were made by the tribal chief, who would be elected by consensus rather than by lineage. The gens and the greater tribe constituted a collection of equals – commodities had yet to differentiate individuals.
Then came technology.
With the advent of tools came the advent of agriculture, and the subsistence level of earning a livelihood in the great outdoors also shifted. Animals were domesticated, specifically but not limited to cattle, and the development of pasture lands for those cattle. Excess product began to appear which would then be exchanged for other commodities. It was the beginning of surplus labour, which would eventually lead to the beginning of commerce.
This process created a massive shift away from tribal, gens-based existence. The males were in charge of the livelihood brought in to the house, and excess labor was also in the hands of the male. Gradually, men began to shun the idea of female primogeniture; males decided to a)keep the new-found wealth in their own hands, and b) pass it along to whomever they designated as their children.
This marked a decisive blow against communal existence and the inception of the atomic, individual family. It also marked the beginning of locked down monogamy, and the assertion of paternal rather than maternal right. While women continued to produce and care for children, they became dependent on male resources and the external production of wealth which revolved around men and their abilities garner surplus labor and the attendant privilege of exchanging the fruits of that labor.
If women valued the their livelihood and that of their now paternalized children, the entrance into rock solid paternal monogamy replaced traditional gens-orientated “mother right”. The atomized, single unit paternal family replaced maternal tribal association. The tribe itself began to disintegrate with the increase in population, the migration of tribal members, and the dawn of the commercial towns which hosted a number of commodity traders.
Engels used the civilizations of antiquity (specifically the Mediterranean cultures) to break down this development, but one can discern its form in North American tribes and their subsequent demolition at the hands of European “settlers”. The move away from the communal existence and the enforced break-up of native bands had disastrous consequences, as tribes were rudely introduced to white commercial culture and the subsequent integration into the Euro culture. Residential schools in Canada are one example, as are the displacement of tribal members into the commercial hubs of the brave new world as established by commodity-obsessed Europeans.
To sum up: strapped down monogamous, atomic and individualized families (and all of the paternalism that that entails) is a direct correspondent with the advent of commodity exchange. It is not coincidental – it is the break up of the commune and the rise of the traditional family which is primarily concerned about its own livelihood, rather than the greater tribe.
What does this all mean for contemporary existence? We can already note the shift towards serial monogamy, with the easing of paternalist family relations, increased women’s rights, the introduction of birth control and paternity tests, and greater economic opportunities for women.
However, whomever is the breadwinner (i.e. he/she that brings in the means for commodity exchange) remains the primary decision maker for any given family unit, and that family unit is based inextricably on that original, paternalist atomization. The first division of labour, and the resulting class relations thereof, began with this breakdown and movement away from gens-oriented communalism. And it is that division that continues until today
That sums up an interpretation of whatever Engels was trying to say, 125 years ago. It may be hopelessly outdated, but the experience and horrors of aboriginal conquest in Canada seems to support at least part of what Engels was talking about. The breakup of communalism, particularly at the rate of “integration” into a commodity based culture, has had a death toll on the First Nations, one that they are only recently beginning to recover from.
Still, nagging questions remain. Does serial monogamy preclude genuinely romantic feelings? Is jealousy a materialist construct, leftover from the good ol’ days? Is polygamy true freedom?
Anyway, I’m going to shut up for the time being. There is a lot of room for argument here, ranging from the concept of monogamy and whether or not it’s materialist, the modern condition of anomie, non-traditional forms of pairing, etc. Let’s open the floor.
I could waste everyone’s time by being topical and of the moment. I could be discussing the Ukraine (aka Yugoslavia 2.0). Or missing airplanes. Or the current living hell that is Syria (and Israel/Palestine for that matter). Being topical simply dates oneself however, and I’d rather stick to more structural issues. Like the intersection between radical socialism and feminism, for instance.
It’s a tad difficult for a boring straight square such as myself to make a big deal about feminism, or make some condescending remarks about being a “male feminist” (meminist? feminale?). The equality between genders has always been hardwired for me, and at an early age I discovered radical feminism via riot grrl and the punk scene.
What draws me back to feminism, time and again, is that collision between radical feminism (which has thankfully begun to abandon self-centered identity politics, which was the hallmark of the nineties) and radical socialism. It is a basic recognition of the gendered nature of class relations, the manner in which gender roles are manipulated to further the cause of empty neo-liberal hegemony, or everyone’s favorite monster, the patriarchy. At its root, the patriarchal system is a hierarchal one, with any challenge to gender norms (or female equality, at a base level) stamped down in order to keep the superstructure running smoothly.
If you read this blog, none of this is particularly foreign or groundbreaking information. And naturally gender relations extend far beyond simplistic hetero norms between “men” and “women”. On the other hand, there remains some basic identifications even in this modernist First World hemisphere, roles that need re-assessment and challenges from the left hand of the dial.
To support this, I’ll be posting reviews of radical feminist/socialist works until Mother’s Day. If you don’t care or if you think that I’m a blathering idiot for even yammering my way through this intro post, don’t check back for a few weeks.
Genders of the world unite! We have nothing to lose but our roles!
Time to wade into the blog morass. We might as well start with the obligatory quote from Marx – this is a commie column after all.
Marx said that hitherto, philosophy was used to view the world, but the point was to change that world. He forgot to mention the fact that the very act of viewing the world changes it – our perspectives shape our interpretation of objective reality. I don’t want to take the naive mentality that “everything is subjective”, but as human beings, we are subjective. Our subjectivity and opinion is ingrained in us – it allows us to differentiate between danger and safety. It offers us the freedom to reject dominant ideologies. It permits us to choose sides.
This blog is dedicated to the writers and revolutionaries who view the world through this radical lens. It is a review of books of interest to the left-wing, written by leftists themselves. It is intended to shed light on works of literature, history, and philosophy, works that might have been unfairly passed by, and it’s aimed at an audience that’s curious about what’s to the left of the dial in written form.
The column is not intended to be academic. It is not intended to be a diatribe, or unreadably opaque. It is intended to stir interest in READING, which is strangely making a comeback thanks to pads and e-readers. I hope to open a dialogue with people who may not even be self-identified as “left” – I’m going to try to explore and bring to light tendencies within the scope of radical literature, to find strands of interest to the general reader who may be curious about the opinions and undercurrents they find in the books that they read.
Most importantly, it’s meant to move the audience to turn off the TV, shut the computer down for an hour or so a night, and READ. I don’t do hatchet jobs, and I try to keep the snark attacks to a minimum. This blog might be pro-radical, but it’s also pro-literacy.
New reviews will be splashed on the screen once a week, every week. I would be delighted to have some interaction – you can post your judgement calls on twitter, addressed to @glentruax.
Enough blather. All power to the readers of the world. Let the dialogue begin.