July 28th, 2020 | 1 hr 10 mins
2016, activism, anarchism, bernie sanders, communism, democratic, hillary clinton, impeachment, lenin, leninism, masha gessen, paul manafort, poland, progressivism, putin, revolution, russia, russian revolution, socialism, socialist, solidarity, stalin, strategy, the russian revolution, timothy snyder, trotsky, trump, ukraine, victor serge, yanukovich
[Correction: I tried really hard to say "Ukraine" and not "The Ukraine" but I didn't get every instance. I'm very sorry. It's a hard habit to break. I mean no disrespect. ]
The fate of Ukraine is now intimately tied to American politics, and oddly American politics seems doomed now precisely because we have failed Ukraine in some important ways. Hopefully by the end of this podcast you’ll understand.
On January 9 2020 Jacobin published a piece by Christian Parenti entitled “Impeachment Without Class Politics: an Autopsy” reminding us that impeachment and Ukraine don’t matter (https://jacobinmag.com/2020/01/impeachment-class-politics-emolument-constitution). Here’s the first line: “The impeachment proceedings are boring and will result in nothing.” Great. Then they repeat the line that impeachment should have targeted something else: emoluments. This is a particularly strong version of this argument, specifically because it is conceivable legally that an impeachment case could have been mounted around emoluments. First of all, this is still whataboutery, according to which if you didn’t do anything about ‘x’ then you shouldn’t do anything about ‘y’ either. Someone got away with murder so we can never again convict murderers. Secondly, to the public impeachment really was about the whole Trump problem, which is why Republicans kept talking about it not being right to try and undo an election this way. They were obviously wrong about that: this is exactly how the founding fathers expected we could undo an election. But the bigger problem I have about this is that it is wrapped up with the idea that Ukraine doesn’t matter. It may not poll high as a concern to middle America, but part of why that is the case is because outlets like Jacobin are working to convince us it’s unimportant. 13,000 Ukrainians have died as of today, in mid February as I write. That matters. None of these people is mentioned in the article entitled “autopsy.” Their deaths merit no record, no investigation. The article does actually mention Ukraine, briefly, twice, once to mention possible Biden corruption, which demonstrably false and a Trumpian talking point. The article mentions Ukraine a second time at the very end calling the issue “sanctimonious, wrapped-in-the-flag, Kabuki theater about national security and Ukraine - a country few Americans know or care about.” When Parenti asks us why class politics weren’t involved in the impeachment articles he is erasing Russian oppression of Ukrainians, because that’s where the class war is located in this issue. As in all wars, it is the working class that fights this one. He’s somehow ignored or never tried to know about the way Putin and Paul Manafort both got rich exploiting Ukrainian labor. Then he aligns himself with Trump’s anti-Ukraine and anti-America line. That’s the tell: it’s more important to him to be anti-American than it is to reflect on the harm done to Ukrainians and to the idea of international working class, or even just human, solidarity. It’s shameful and dangerous that one of the leading left publications is making the argument that lives of people overseas don’t matter. There’s really no way to build a sense of international solidarity, to inspire Americans with a feeling that immigrants deserve rights, when the US left is committed to discounting the lives of Ukrainians. Let’s do better than this: let’s talk about Ukraine.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, in the west it was expected that free markets would allow the spontaneous development of democratic institutions. Instead in Russia the new wealth would create a kleptocracy that would coalesce around first Yeltsin and then Putin. In Ukraine a set of klans would jostle for power, which was formally exchanged through rigged elections. The European Union became for many a beacon of hope that Ukraine could soon become a full democracy where money couldn’t buy power to flaunt the law, and where elections were not negotiated by a corrupt group of oligarchs. But the mafia state in Russia was a constant roadblock on the way to mass democracy, and from the beginning Trump was there dipping his ladle into the trough of human misery. In 1986 and again in 1996 Trump tried and failed to get a deal to build a luxury hotel in Moscow (https://www.axios.com/trump-tower-russia-timeline-ae943d5c-215e-4cbd-b13d-b9693a8b1f33.html).
We now know a lot about Trump’s business dealings in Russia, stretching back decades. We learned a lot from Glenn Simpson’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on August 22 of 2017. Simpson investigated Trump for Fusion GPS, which is the company that produced the Steele Dossier. Trump is a failed businessman. His father earned money running brothels during the gold rush out west, and then buying up real estate in Brooklyn just before the bridge was built increasing the value of land there. Trump’s own enterprises, hotels and casinos kept losing money. He defaulted on many loans, and couldn’t get financing in western banks. So he starts looking for money to invest from Russia just as the market was being opened in the early 90s, and Russians were trying to find a way to get money out to western banks where it could be safe.
To understand the war in Ukraine today we have to talk about Putin’s rise to power in 1999. That is also where the story of Yanukovich’s rise in Ukrainian politics and later Trump’s rise in American politics begins. (Hensman 67,Gessen 21-42, Horvath p24). In 1999 Putin is still working as a leader in the FSB, and he starts having FSB agents set bombs in apartment buildings so that he can blame it on Chechen rebels to start a war with Chechnya. That’s how he makes himself a big hero and wins the election. It worked. Several hundred Russians were murdered, and over a thousand injured. Even though in one case where the local FSB had not been informed of the plot they actually responded to a report of the bomb and disarmed it, and then later had to change their story about it being a bomb to “oh, it was a training exercise and these were bags of sugar,” everyone in Russia at the time believed it was Chechnyans (Gessen The Man Without a Face, The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin [MWFURVP] pp23-29; Hensman, pp. 65-66). In 2002 an independent commission established by the Russian Duma (a parliament) found, partly based on the testimony of defected FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, that the FSB had been behind the bombings. Alexander Litvinenko was murdered by Russian agents using Polonium in quantities only manufacturable by state powers, with the poison being traced back to KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi who had tea with Litvinenko. Litvinenko was poisoned in London where he lived in exile. At the time Gordon Brown then refused to meet with Putin, though David Cameron later would in an attempt to reset relations with Russia. Note in passing that in part it was Jeremy Corbyn’s very pro-Russian reaction to news of a similar poisoning of Sergei Skripal that in part convinced Labor voters that he did not have their best interests in heart. His reaction to the murder of Litvinenko was the same. Corbyn either didn’t know or didn’t care that Litvinenko had been murdered to hide the FSB’s bombings of Russian citizens in 1999. Either way, what a horrible thing to contribute to the cover up of such a terrible crime. His reaction to Skripal’s murder is proof that he had not reflected on any of this, and he deserved to lose in 2019. The British working class deserved much better. Putin’s war in Chechnya in 2000 was the original “war on terror,” coming as it did a year before the attacks of 9/11. As a result of this manufactured crisis in March of 2000 Putin is elected President. This set the model for what is called “managed democracy,” where a state produces crises whenever there is an election in order to produce the desired outcome.
Putin had cut his teeth as an FSB agent in the 80s in Germany, and as he watched the Berlin wall torn down, and then later saw protest movements spread across Eastern Europe where former Soviet States were holding referendums where the majority voted to leave the USSR, something shifted into place for Putin. It’s from that time on that Putin saw the CIA in all such popular movements. His views are reflected in Russian propaganda through Russia Today and Sputnik and other sources. When pro-democracy protest movements erupted in Georgia in 2004, Putin and the Russian state media called it a CIA coup. Likewise with the Maidan protests that occured in 2013. Coup. Are there massive protests in Syria? It’s a coup. Srdja Popovic is the activist that led the student movement Otpor! who helped bring down Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic only escaped conviction for war crimes by dying before the trial could be concluded. Peter Pomerantsev recently interviewed Mr. Popovic: “Srdja Popovic is halfway through explaining to me how to bring down a dictator when he gets a call. It’s a warning about a piece coming out tomorrow claiming he’s connected to the CIA and is behind revolutions in the Middle East. The piece first appeared in an Istanbul daily and then reappeared on a minor Serbian-language website full of pro-Russian conspiracies. From there it moved to a site owned by Christian Orthodox patriots, and it would soon be featured on the front page of one of Serbia’s largest tabloids, which Srdja assumes, is publishing it because conspiracy theories sell rather than because the paper has it in for him personally. After all, he makes for a good story. Recently Russian state TV camera crews turned up at his office among the monolithic Communist concrete cubes of New Belgrade, where it sits between a hairdressing salon and a pastry shop. They tried to force their way in. If they had hoped to find dozens of CIA operatives, they must have been disappointed. Srdja runs a permanent staff of four Serbs, who sit in a neat grey office which would look like an accountant’s, were it not for the multiple posters of the clenched fist that is Srdja’s logo.” (Pomerantsev, This is Not Propaganda [TNP], p.59). The obsession with the CIA, seeing its secret hand behind every event we can’t or won’t explain, is a kind of structural anti-semitism, in that it doesn’t, at least not always with Putin, name Jews as the originators of the international conspiracy, but it labels all such popular protests as being instigated by a shadowy cabal, sometimes that’s just vaguely refered to as “the West,” “elites,” or “America” or “George Soros,” and in Putin’s version it is more often “the homosexual Western conspiracy.” There’s never any proof but that’s not the point. The point is to make people sitting at home doubt just enough so they don’t want to join the protests. It effectively robs the protestors of their agency, treating human beings like manipulable political objects, just the way some dogmatic Marxist might. This should sound familiar after our episodes on Syria. We’ll find more examples of structural anti-semitism as we continue.
Here is a quick list of tropes that are typical of Russian propaganda, identified by experts in the field Masha Gessen, Timothy Snyder and Peter Pomerantsev. As always, check out the transcript of this podcast for full sources.
The US is to blame for any attacks against it. (Gessen, p 232)
American intervention is going to cause World War 3. (Gessen, p. 234)
Humanism, cosmopolitanism, human rights are always bankrupt concepts and their use is cynical manipulation. (Gessen, p. 234).
Russia is not imperialist. When it invades its neighbors this is always in self defence. (Gessen, p. 275)
Pro-democracy revolutions only lead to chaos and civil war. (Pomerantsev, p. 140).
Because some nations have violated the law, law itself is bankrupt, and so when Russia breaks the law it does so from innocence because it does not pretend to honor the law. (Snyder, p. 143).
In 2003 Ukraine’s close neighbor Georgia had a revolution that overthrew Russian stooge Eduard Shevardnadze, and in 2004 the Adjara revolution restored Georgian independence from Russia. In 2008 Russia went to war in Georgia to try and restore Russian domination of them; we note this in passing to give an idea of how invested Russia is in keeping its privileged trade relations with its neighbors. This is important to Ukraine, because the Georgian example caused panic in Russia that Ukraine might want meaningful independence also. Also, we’re all good leftists here, so the plight of those oppressed by imperialism moves us. Right? The fate of a place like Georgia or Ukraine is still impacted by Russian internal politics today, and in late 2003 Russian liberals lost the Duma (Horvath p14). In May of 2004 Putin gives a speech blaming the Velvet revolutions on foreign NGOs and George Soros.
In 2004, as Putin’s man in Ukraine Yanukovich was losing an election to remain as Ukraine’s president, in Russia Putin won another election, going through a period where rhetorically he voiced approval of the EU and NATO. Putin won this election thanks to widespread fraud, which should surprise no one. What is interesting here is that, according to Masha Gessen, the fraud seemed to be committed by a grassroots network of supporters, and not to have been coordinated from above (Gessen, MWAFURVP, p184). She goes into some depth in The Future is History to try and explain the psychology of people who are willing to destroy democracy in exchange for kickbacks, talking about Homo Sovieticus.
Here is what they did. Over a million people were deleted from voting roles, which also happened in the US in 2016. Ballots arrived at hospitals pre-filled. People were paid to vote a certain way. The old soviet culture of corruption, of quid pro quo, led people to support Putin in this way in order to get kickbacks: in Stalin’s Russia this kind of corruption was a matter of life and death.
Masha Gessen’s great insight into Russian style fascism is that by increasing the pain people are going through, the regime is able to make them more desperate, more willing to believe the story that nothing could ever have been different, that they must attack their enemies, that they are great.
In the Summer of 2004 Russia began an aggressive intervention into the Ukrainian elections in an attempt to get Yanukovich elected over the EU friendly Viktor Yuschenko. When Putin calls some political movement a coup, or a conspiracy, it’s the ultimate pot calling the kettle black. Russia sets up a team of what they call “political technologists” in Kiev in 2004. During the months that followed they did extremely poorly manufactured polling designed to favor Yanukovich. They organized speeches by pro-Russian speakers and groups. They were trying to play down the idea that Yanukovich and Medvedev and the whole pro-Putin club were gangsters, kleptocrats. That was made harder when it came out that Yanukovich had a personal vendetta against Georgii Gongadze who was kidnapped and murdered in 2000, and even harder when it came out that Yanukovich had a criminal record that included a rape conviction (Horvath, p24). As Yanukovitch’s campaign proposed making Russian the official language of Ukraine, Putin himself came into Ukraine to campaign for him, appearing in a softball interview and presiding over a military parade where he invoked the USSR’s role in fighting Hitler in Ukraine in 1943. Remember how Stalin’s role fighting Hitler in WW2 was used to retroactively whitewash the terrible famine Stalin imposed on Ukrainian peasants in 1932, as punishment for “discrediting socialism”? Well, Russian politicians get a lot of mileage out of what they think ‘Stalin beating Hitler’ can let them justify doing. The other aspects of Stalin’s USSR’s involvement in WW2 get erased from this story, the abandonment of Poland in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the role of the comintern in organizing protests against US entry into WW2 in 1939, the purges and mass murder of Poles after Stalin divided up Eastern Europe with Hitler, the way the vast majority of soviet officials collaborated heavily with Hitler and helped initiate the holocaust to scapegoat Jews for the crimes of the NKVD, all of that is forgotten. Instead, “Stalin beats Hitler” gets trotted out in 2004 to justify Russian neo-liberal domination of the Ukrainian economy, to prevent Ukrainian independence and anti-corruption measures, to sabotage Ukrainian entry into the EU, and much later in 2014 “Stalin beats Hitler” will be used to justify Putin’s invasion of Crimea and the Donbas. Many Ukrainians, having an intimate knowledge of that history of Russia’s forcing famine on Ukraine, many of whom still suffer from bad health effects from Chernobyl, have decided that the lesson of history is that they need to shake off Russian domination. When the voting started in 2004 tracksuit wearing thugs attacked voters at polling stations to stop them from voting (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ukraine/1477722/Revealed-the-full-story-of-the-Ukrainian-election-fraud.html). Jesus, just saying that out loud I hear how that sounds like something from a Russian gangster movie, but you don’t have to take my word for it, there is a video of the attacks online, and I’ve linked it in the transcript (https://censor.net.ua/en/video_news/461036/local_elections_in_ukraine_police_show_attack_on_polling_station_in_dnipropetrovsk_region_video). There was widespread fraud in this election. Ballots were destroyed. Busloads of Yanukovich supporters went from polling station to polling station, with the same people voting at each station. In some places voters were given pens with disappearing ink! Managed democracy.
Massive protests broke out in Kiev in 2004 against this clear attack on democracy and the rule of law. This is what has become known as the “Orange Revolution.” The protests, sit-ins and a general strike all worked in the end and a second vote was held. International observers agreed this second election was fair, and the winner by a couple percentage points was Victor Yuschenko. But, you know the old saying: if at first you don’t succeed, poison your enemies. So, that’s what Russia did: they poisoned Yuschenko resulting in his disfigurement. The poisoning was discovered. Yushchenko got skin grafts and served as president of Ukraine until 2010 when Paul Manafort helped get Yanukovich elected.
In 2008 Putin couldn’t run for a third term legally, so he had his Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev become President while Putin became Prime Minister. By that point anyone could tell Putin was still in charge. Masha Gessen describes the system in place in 2008 to assure no candidates independent of the state party could get their names on the ballot: Here “Seryozha” sits in for the incredulous Russian public. “An independent candidate -- one who was not already a member of parliament - was required by new Putin era laws to submit two million voter signatures in order to be registered as a candidate, with no more than fifty thousand signatures coming from any one region of the country. This demanded either a lot of money or a large nationwide grassroots network of activists- preferably both. Many people had tried that year. Garry Kasparov could not even convene the required public meeting of an initial group of supporters, because no one would rent him space for such a meeting, for any amount of money. Boris Nemtsov had dropped out of the race to help another candidate, former prime minister Michail Kasyanov, but Kasyanov’s signatures were arbitrarily thrown out. But here was some guy named Bogdanov, whom no one had ever heard of, who was ostensibly representing a party that had in fact been dormant since the early 1990s, whose political experience consisted of being a part time member of a tiny powerless municipal council, and even this was probably fake - and Seryozha was supposed to pretend to believe that this clown had collected two million signatures?” (Gessen, The Future is History, p289).
A word about managed democracy. The Russian fascists that Putin gets his ideas from, including Ilyin, Dugin and the Izvestia group, believe that the best nation is one without the law and order of a regular state power. The people’s will is embodied in the person of the leader. Law is defined as his will. If he wants to shoot someone in broad daylight in the middle of the street there is nothing anyone can do. Elections are only held as a ritual whereby the people perform their role legitimizing the power of that leader. Managed Democracy. Putin’s last two decades in power fit this description to a T. Yale Historian Timothy Snyder has noted that the lack of a clear succession principle makes modern Russia unstable, makes the future beyond Putin permanently unimaginable. To justify his holding power in the absence a government authority that could survive him, Putin must tell a story about Russia’s eternal enemies. In Putin’s narrative, those eternal enemies are western and homosexual. The Russian ruling clique has decided that homophobia is the way they are going to mobilize people against Russia’s enemies. They believe this information war will go on forever. As a big middle finger to him, we’re going to talk about recent historical events, things that happen and then stop happening, that exist outside of eternity. We’re going to talk about what is actually happening, about what Russia tries to hide from view by vilifying homosexuals and the United States.
We know Paul Manafort now as the corrupt manager of Trump’s Presidential campaign starting officially in March of 2016. We all know that Mr. Manafort is currently serving a prison sentence for federal financial crimes. The official line from the Trump team is that the two men met in an elevator in 2015, though its established fact that they were introduced probably decades before by Trump’s mentor Roy Cohn. In 2004 Paul Manafort lived in Trump tower, and in 2006 Trump signed a one-year deal to start building a hotel in Moscow on the site of an old pencil factory, but again nothing was built (https://www.axios.com/trump-tower-russia-timeline-ae943d5c-215e-4cbd-b13d-b9693a8b1f33.html).
In 2010 Paul Manafort was hired to get the disgraced Yanukovich re-elected in Ukraine. Tellingly, part of how Manafort cleaned up Yanukovich in 2010 was convincing the latter to speak Ukrainian. He won reelection in part by promising to sign an association agreement with the European Union. After the election, Manafort continued to lobby for Yanukovich in Washington. Meanwhile Yanukovich stole billions of dollars from Ukraine. Protesters in 2014 found his financial records documenting this abuse in a palace that Yanukovich had built during this period with money stolen from the public. The palace had a 9 hole golf course, a helipad, a floating restaurant, a zoo (https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/trumpinc/episodes/trump-inc-ukraine). In August 2016 we found out in the NYT that Manafort was paid 27million dollars from Yanukovich under the table. In Moneyland: The Inside Story of the Crooks and Kleptocrats Who Rule the World, Oliver Bullough describes the real cost of this corruption in sapping hundreds of thousands of dollars from a cancer research center, forcing parents of children with cancer to pay bribes for treatment. The Health Minister had overpaid 300 per cent for HIV and TB drugs in 2012. In 2014 efforts to reform the system were abandoned after the Health ministry in seven months couldn’t find a single supplier that wasn’t corrupt (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v41/n04/vadim-nikitin/kleptocracy). That’s money the Ukrainian working class made being expropriated by an American politician with the result being poor people getting no health care, including children with cancer.
As the United States was pursuing a reset of relations with Russia, events in Russia were propelling the country towards a war with Ukraine. The Russian economy in the early oughts did well because theirs was an economy based on the export of oil. After the financial crisis of 2008 the price of oil collapsed, and afterwards Russians were less tolerant of the tyranny they lived under. In 2011 Putin’s Russia faked a landslide victory in the lower house of the Rusian parliament. In response 80,000 people protested in Moscow through December. It’s worth quoting Snyder at length [TRU} I can’t help as I read this thinking about how the Czar claimed the Bolsheviks were German agents. “If the Kremlin’s first impulse was to associate democratic opposition with global sodomy, its second was to claim that protestors worked for a foreign power, one whose chief diplomat was female: ‘she gave the signal.’ On December 15, he claimed that the demonstrators were paid. Evidence was not provided and was not the point. If, as Ilyin maintained, voting was just an opening to foreign influence, then Putin’s job was to make up a story about foreign influence and use it to alter domestic politics...But President Barack Obama had cancelled an American plan to build a missile defense system in eastern Europe in 2009, and in 2010 Russia was allowing American forces in Afghanistan. No Russian leader feared a NATO invasion in 2011 or 2012, or even pretended to. In 2012, American leaders believed that they were pursuing a ‘reset’ of relations with Russia. When Mitt Romney referred to Russia as America’s ‘number one geopolitical foe’ in March 2012, he was ridiculed. Almost no one in the American public media was paying attention to Moscow...The association between opposition and treason was axiomatic, the only question that of the appropriate punishment. In March, Russian television released a film, described as a ‘documentary,’ which claimed that Russian citizens who took to the streets were paid by devious foreigners. Precisely because Putin had made the Russian state vulnerable, he had to claim that it was his opponents who had done so. Since Putin believed that ‘it would be inadmissible to allow the destruction of the state to satisfy this thirst for change,’ he reserved for himself the right to define views that he did not like as a threat to Russia. From 2012, there was no sense in imagining a worse Russia in the past and a better Russia in the future, mediated by a reforming government in the present. The enmity of the United States and the European Union had to become the premise of Russian politics. Putin had reduced Russian statehood to his oligarchical clan and its moment. The only way to head off a vision of future collapse was to describe democracy as an immediate and permanent threat. Having transformed the future into an abyss, Putin had to make flailing at its edge look like judo.” (Snyder TRU, p 56).
Putin won another rigged election in 2012. What seems to be significant about this election was that by this point the fraudulent nature of the election was taken for granted, an avowed and established part of the procedure. From Masha Gessen: “On September 25, the preschool mothers were outraged. The previous afternoon, Putin and Medvedev had made a joint announcement: at the next election, scheduled for March 2012, Medvedev would hand the presidency back to Putin and return to his post as prime minister. ‘Can you believe this?’ the mothers asked one another. ‘They don’t even try to keep up appearances anymore.’ They meant the appearance of an election.” (p. 325).
In the US, not experiencing Occupy Wall Street, events in Russia barely pierced the foggy media bubble. I remember around this time joining protests in solidarity with the Egyptians, Tunisians, Bahrainis, Yemenis and that’s it. I don’t remember once hearing a word of solidarity uttered for Russia. US politicians seemed even more clueless. Remember how in the West people thought that opening “free markets” would spontaneously generate democratic governments? Well, that was never true, but people believed it, so to the extent that anyone was paying serious attention to Russia, it was to protect the ability of people to invest money in Russia. But Russians were in the habit of taking whatever they wanted and killing people who got in the way. The result of all this was that to protect commerce, Congress passes the Magnitsky Act in the summer of 2012 (https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/07/magnitsky-act-kremlin/535044/). The Magnitsky of the act was an accountant and lawyer who represented William Browder, who invested millions in Russia and was fleeced of his investments by the Russian government mafia. For exposing this corruption, Magnitsky was thrown in jail where he was found dead in 2009. The act freezes the bank accounts of several important Russian oligarchs. This disrupts their efforts to steal money from people investing in Russia, because without western banks as havens into which to launder the money, there’s no way for them to protect their stolen wealth. Now whenever someone tells you there’s no way to stop wealthy people from hiding their money overseas, just remember the Magnitsky Act. Unsurprisingly, Trump has worked to undermine the Magnitsky act, lifting sanctions against Russian oligarchs whenever possible (https://themoscowproject.org/collusion/trump-administration-lifts-sanctions-on-firms-tied-to-deripaska/). By now it should be clear that the Magnitsky Act is going to make it hard for Trump to launder money for Russian oligarchs. In 2013 Trump visits Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant and tweets: “TRUMP TOWER MOSCOW is next.” (https://www.axios.com/trump-tower-russia-timeline-ae943d5c-215e-4cbd-b13d-b9693a8b1f33.html).
2013 was a big year for Ukraine. In 2013 Yanukovich reneges on his promise to sign an association agreement with the European Union, and protests erupt centered on the Maidan in Kiev. When police used violence to disperse the student protestors, masses of people joined the protests in december of 2013. These were protests on the same scale as Berlin 1848, Paris 1871, Cairo 2011, or Hama in 2012, and they had much the same goals of democracy and human rights. To get a real feeling for how and why the protests happened, you could do worse than to watch Winter On Fire, an excellent documentary about these events. Here’s how Timothy Snyder describes the protests: “Kyiv is a bilingual capital, something unusual in Europe and unthinkable in Russia and the United States. Europeans, Russians, and Americans rarely considered that everyday bilingualism might bespeak political maturity, and imagined instead that a Ukraine that spoke two languages must be divided into two groups and two halves. “Ethnic Ukrainians” must be a group that acts in one way, and “ethnic Russians” in another. This is about as true as to say that “ethnic Americans” vote Republican. It is more a summary of a politics that defines people by ethnicity, proposing to them an eternity of grievance rather than a politics of the future. In Ukraine, language is a spectrum rather than a line…. Ukrainian citizens on the Maidan spoke as they did in everyday life, using Ukrainian and Russian as it suited them. The revolution was begun by a journalist who used Russian to tell people where to put the camera, and Ukrainian when he spoke in front of it. His famous Facebook post (“Likes don’t count”) was in Russian. On the Maidan, the question of who spoke what language was irrelevant… The politics of this nation [the one forged on the Maidan] were about the rule of law: first the hope that an association agreement with the European Union could reduce corruption, then the determination to prevent the rule of law from disappearing entirely under the waves of state violence. In surveys, protestors most often selected “the defense of the rule of law” as their major goal. The political theory was simple: the state needed civil society to lead it toward Europe, and the state needed Europe to lead it away from corruption. Once the violence began, this political theory expressed itself in more poetic forms. The philosopher Volodymyr Yermolensko wrote, “Europe is also a light at the end of a tunnel. When do you need a light like that? When it is pitch dark all around.” In the meantime, civil society had to work in darkness. Ukrainians did so by forming horizontal networks with no relationship to political parties. As the protestor Ihor Bihun recalled: “There was no fixed membership. There was no hierarchy either.” The political and social activity of the Maidan from December 2013 through February 2014 arose from temporary associations based upon will and skill. The essential idea was that freedom was responsibility. There was thus pedagogy (libraries and schools), security (Samoobrona, or self-defense), external affairs (the council of the Maidan), aid for victims of violence and people seeking missing loved ones (Euromaidan SOS), and anti-propaganda (InfoResist). As the protestor Andrij Bondar remembered, self-organization was a challenge to the dysfunctional Ukrainian state: ‘On the Maidan a Ukrainian civil society of incredible self-organization and solidarity is thriving. On the one hand, this society is internally differentiated: by ideology, language, culture, religion and class, but on the other hand it is united by certain elementary sentiments. We do not need your permission! We are not going to ask you for something! We are not afraid of you! We will do everything ourselves!”’ (Snyder [TRU] pp128-129). Recall that Marx defined the dictatorship of the proletariat as the domination of the state by civil society leading to the dissolution of class differences. We have seldom caught glimpses of that possibility, the possibility of people directly and democratically organizing their own lives, but in the Maidan we got a clear vision of it on the same level as the Paris Commune.
On the 20th of February, 2014 snipers massacred hundreds of protestors on the Maidan. A few days later Russia prepared its own population for war with Ukraine by broadcasting false reports of Ukrainian atrocities in the Crimea. They made up a story about Ukrainians crucifying a Russian boy (Snyder p.178). The shelled Ukrainian civilian areas, and broadcast news stories about how Ukraine was shelling its own towns (Snyder, p. 172). Russian forces invaded without Russian insignia, then pretended to be local separatist guerillas (Snyder, p. 165).. Russians were bussed in to pretend to be protesters storming county government buildings in order to stage the popular overthrow of local government (Snyder, p 144). When Malaysian flight MH17 was shot down on June 23, 2014, Russia claimed that the plane had fallen because of a Ukrainian missile aimed at the president of Russia, that Ukrainian Jewish air traffic controllers told the plane to fly at a low altitude, or that the CIA had prefilled the plane with corpses in order to slander Russia. None of these things was true, of course. As forensic evidence later showed, MH17 had been shot down by the Russian 53rd Air Defense Brigade. The plane was flying on an authorized route at a normal altitude (Snyder, pp. 174-175). No wonder Pomerantsev has said that the war existed to create the media phenomenon. Snyder explains that the point of this misinformation war is to destroy the possibility of public sympathy for the victims of Russia’s invasion, which Russian state media called Nazis. “One can record that these people were not fascists or Nazis or members of a gay international conspiracy or Jewish international conspiracy or a gay Nazi Jewish international conspiracy, as Russian propaganda suggested to various target audiences. One can mark the fictions and contradictions. This is not enough. These utterances were not logical arguments or factual assessments, but a calculated effort to undo logic and factuality. Once the intellectuals moorings were loosed, it was easy for Russians (and Europeans, and Americans) to latch on to well-funded narratives provided by television, but it was impossible to work one’s way towards an understanding of people in their own setting: to grasp where they were coming from, what they thought they were doing, what sort of future they imagined for themselves. Ukrainians who began by defending a European future found themselves, once the propaganda and the violence began, fighting for a sense that there could be a past, a present, and a future. The Maidan began as Ukrainian citizens sought to find a solution for Ukrainian problems. It ended with Ukrainians trying to remind Europeans and Americans that moments of high emotion require sober thought. Distant observers jumped at the shadows of the story, only to tumble into a void darker than ignorance.” (Snyder, p. 151).
The Internet Research Agency, which later worked to sell England on Brexit, and later worked to sell the US on Trump, was working hard on social media to convince the world that Russia had to invade Ukraine to defend the Russian minority there, all while Russian officials denied that any such invasion had happened. Russian propaganda, built on structural antisemitism, almost always involves an element of bashing of LGBTQ and invocation of an epic struggle against the US. Although Obama’s February 28th statement of concern about “military movements” in Ukraine was the first time during the crisis that Obama had said anything, and though he was still not doing anything, Russians invoked a war against the west and once again the nobility of “Stalin beats Hitler.” In the light of this history, Russia bombing Syria in 2015, the story of Lisa F., it’s campaigns for Brexit and Trump take on their proper significance: a fascist war waged partly in cyberspace by a Russia spinning out of control, throwing a tantrum because it has possibly losing its colonies.
The protest movement in Ukraine in the Spring of 2014 succeeded in forcing Yanukovich to resign and in calling for new elections. The new democratically elected government of Ukraine signed an association agreement with the European Union, though full EU membership is still an uncertain prospect. The European Union itself is an imperfect institution, and deserves a full discussion on its own. I hope it’s obvious from the discussion here and from the previous podcast that the European Union, whatever its role in the Greek debt crisis, is clearly a lifeline for Ukrainian democracy. If the choice is between the EU and being owned by a group of Russian Oligarchs, as is the case in Ukraine, choosing the Oligarchs is clearly the wrong call.
Probably you have noticed by now that talking about Ukraine inevitably forces us to talk about Trump. In February of 2014, as Ukrainian protestors are dying under sniper fire for wanting a better world, we find Trump on Fox news praising Putin and bragging about his relationship with the Russian oligarch. That very same month that the Izborsk Club put out a memorandum abandoning Yanukovich whom they presumed was to be deposed and declaring that Russia should invade Ukraine, which they did two months later. Trump is the first anti-American president, the first president who is the friend of foreign tyrants. The Izborsk Club is a Russian think tank founded by fascist novelist Alexander Prokhanov, friend of Putin’s. Another member of Izborsk is Tikhon Shevkunov who’s big idea is that Putin is the reincarnation of Volodymr of Rus who first signed the agreement with the Cossacks to back them in their fight for independence from Poland, an agreement that supposedly constitutes Russia’s right to dominate Ukraine. Trump is a big fan.
During Trump’s presidential campaign he attacked NATO and US sanctions against Russia after the latter invaded Ukraine, all the while pursuing, you guessed it, a deal to build Trump Tower Moscow, something Trump lied about later. In June of 2016 Manafort and Jared Kushner met with a Russian lawyers to discuss dirt the Russians had on Hillary Clinton. (https://www.axios.com/trump-tower-russia-timeline-ae943d5c-215e-4cbd-b13d-b9693a8b1f33.html).
Because the Mueller report never found a smoking gun on the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign, some may have lost sight of the indisputable facts that (1) Trump is a huge Putin stan with clear business interests in Russia, and (2) Russia used enormous military assets in 2016 to help Trump get elected. The resistance to admitting this evidence is one of the greatest threats to our beating Trump in 2020. To admit that Russians influenced our election is to recognize the weaknesses in our society, state, and movement, that led to our democracy being successfully attacked. Facing those weaknesses could strengthen our process and keep Trump from getting a second term. Let’s talk about the Russian hacking of the 2016 election briefly, so that we can better understand why Trump targeted military aid to Ukraine specifically in 2018.
Sarah Kendzior was writing about the connections between Trump and Putin back in 2015, and she describes the media reaction to her as gaslighting. Gaslighting is when you manipulate someone by telling them they are crazy. Abusers use it against their victims so that the latter will blame themselves for the abuse, or to deny that it is happening. Maybe the media wasn’t so much abusing Kendzior, but they were pretending she was crazy to be drawing out these parallels. You should listen to her podcast “gaslit nation.” (https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/andrea-chalupa/gaslit-nation) There’s a kind of American exceptionalism that says we couldn’t possibly have had an election meaningfully tampered with. I rely on the work of Kathlene Jamieson, who is a professor of communications and the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She has been covering electoral messaging for several decades. Her book Cyberwar is essential to understanding the 2016 election: go out and read it. We have to discuss that book’s main point here just to understand how the Russian misinformation campaign worked in the US.
Two important things to note: (1) that the email scandals were orchestrated by Russia to provide the framing of the election that made it possible for Trump to win, and (2) the left amplified this propaganda to suppress the vote for Hillary Clinton. There were two email scandals that get conflated. People think that because Clinton used her private computer Russians got DNC emails, but that’s not what happened. No useful intelligence was gathered outside the US from Clinton using her private devices for official business, and she was cleared of all wrong doing in 2019, to very little media attention. That story gets mixed up with the Russian hack of the DNC server that we all found out about in June of 2016, though little attention was paid to it at the time. Again, Americans really did think it far fetched that such a thing could happen. In September 2016, Trump joked that it was probably some 400 lbs. guy sitting on their beds in New Jersey. The fact Trump was making a fat phobic joke didn’t stop the left from laughing along. Then campaign manager of the Clinton campaign Donna Brazile describes what she was told by CrowdStrike, the company who took over their data security after the breach: “The hackers… were sophisticated teams, codenamed Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear by CrowdStrike. The two bears, Crowdstrike said, came from competing Russian intelligence agencies that had teams working twenty-four hours a day to break into foreign computer systems...Shawn Henry of Crowdstrike said in the Post article: ‘This is a sophisticated foreign intelligence service with a lot of time, a lot of resources, and is interested in targeting the U.S. political system” (Brazile, p28). Russian military officers stole emails from the DNC, and then carefully misquoted them at key moments to frame the electoral race to benefit Trump by suppressing the potential democrat vote.
On October 7th, 2016 as early voting had started, the Obama administration put out a memorandum about the Russian operation and that Wikileaks was likely a tool alongside DCleaks and Guccifer 2.0 Russia was using to leak stolen material from DNC emails. Half an hour later the Access Hollywood tape featuring Trump bragging about being a serial molester of women was released by The Washington Post. Half an hour after that wikileaks dumped a cache of emails stolen from once Clinton campaign manager John Podesta: and these emails formed the basis of the pizzagate conspiracy theory. Social media accounts connected to Russian IP addresses that day were digging up old stories of Hillary Clinton working as a defence attorney in a rape case. The story about the Russian misinformation was completely obscured from the media horizon by Russian misinformation. The framing of the race as between two equally flawed candidates dominated the media throughout the entire month when voting happened in 2016, with the media regularly conflating the hack of the DNC with Clinton’s use of her private computers. In the final debate between Clinton and Trump the mediators repeatedly asked Hillary Clinton about lying and duplicity. Raddatz asked Hillary Clinton: “This question involves WikiLeaks release of purported excerpts of Secretary Clinton’s paid speeches, which she has refused to release, and one line in particular, in which you, Secretary Clinton, purportedly say you need both a public and private position on certain issues. So, Tu(ph), from Virginia asks, is it OK for politicians to be two-faced? Is it acceptable for a politician to have a private stance on issues? Secretary Clinton, your two minutes.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/10/us/politics/transcript-second-debate.html). The speech in question finds Clinton praising Lincoln, who is shown in a movie explaining a policy in true but different terms to two different constituencies. As Clinton tries to explain this, Trump quips: “now she’s blaming Lincoln.” The audience laughed at that.
The false equivalence of Clinton and Trump is driving many today to say that if Bernie Sanders isn’t the democratic candidate in the general election, they will not vote for the democrat. That and the idea that the primary was rigged. If you listen carefully to far left pundits you will notice that according to them the Democratic Party is too weak to win an election but strong enough to rig one, too incompetent to beat Trump, but clever enough to rig the primaries against Sanders. The main problem with this story is that Sanders lost not because the process was rigged, but because fewer people voted for him in the primary. The second problem is that the rules for that convention were set before Sanders entered the primary, and he knew that because he had not been officially a part of the Democratic Party up to then he would be at a disadvantage. When Vox covers this supposed rigging in May of 2016 they are constrained by the facts to say it didn’t happen (https://www.vox.com/2016/5/24/11745232/bernie-sanders-rigged), and then point out that if you count Democrats campaigning against Sanders as rigging a primary then yes it was rigged. Except that is the definition of a system that is not rigged, where everyone can campaign and the rules are agreed upon ahead of time. The left has a serious weakness here that we will get into next podcast as we discuss the 2020 election. Giving specific criticisms of the system is helpful to democracy. Saying the system is hopelessly rigged helped to suppress the vote in a very close election. 70,000 votes in three states go the other way and Trump doesn’t become president. We can and should criticize the Democratic Party, but not without reason. When we fall back on the wrong lessons of the 20th century that we have absolute enemies, in this case the Dems, we then cannot discern who our real enemies are: Donald Trump. In a context where 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US face ethnic cleansing at the hands of a fascist in the White House, we should put aside the purety of our politics and stand up for something greater: basic human solidarity. And all we have to do is admit the truth: the election isn’t rigged (yet) and if we don’t vote for the Democrat we risk losing the basic freedoms that allow us to fight back, free speech and the right to assemble.
I’ve heard the argument that if we get a President Biden that leaves the system that made Trump in place and then four years later we just get another Trump but worse. First off, if Biden wins the presidency that doesn’t mean that a Trump will win the next election: each election is its own contest. Second, we begin dismantling the fascist movement by denying it the White House. Our failure to see the importance of having a not fascist in the White House in 2016 made us complicit in Trump’s crimes.
On November 7, 2016 Jacobin Magazine published an article by Harrison Fluss and Sam Miller. It’s a hit piece on Hillary Clinton that framed her evolution on issues such as LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter, war and social welfare as her being two-faced (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/11/hillary-clinton-is-running-for-president). This was precisely the same framing Russia had planted with the emails it leaked to wikileaks, and considering we got Trump as a result, this behavior is completely reckless of the wellbeing of immigrants and poor people who would have clearly suffered less under Clinton. We are seeing all of these same rhetorical devices today, where Bernie Sanders is said to have evolved after his vocal support of and actually voting for the crime bill in 1994, but Warren, after having shifted so radically and decisively around bankruptcy law, is treated like a Republican Manchurian candidate. If the people who don’t think the way we do can’t be trusted to ever genuinely change, then we will never ever convincingly win other people over, and for them there’s no payoff for changing their mind. If you think that pointing out Sanders’ past errors is “unfair” or some kind of an “attack,” then you need to reflect on why you think your favorite person should be beyond criticism. I am not suggesting that we should give any politician a pass, but I am suggesting that in 2016 the left followed the rest of the media in unfairly putting Clinton, a career politician who was wrong in all the same ways society at large was wrong in the last few decades, on the same moral standing as a racist who had bragged about molesting women. That moral equivalence is only possible because the standard we held Clinton to is impossibly higher than the one we held Trump to, and that’s the definition of misogyny. Then we wrongly accused the Democratic Party of rigging the primary, just as we began doing during the primary whenever Sanders lost a state, but never when he won them. Each time we echo Trump’s talking points about a rigged election we are working to suppress the vote and hasten our own doom. This is a strategic disaster, one that may have been understandable in 2016 as a mistake of a still young and isolated socialist movement, but then to repeat that error in 2020 because we haven’t reflected on it would be nearly unforgivable considering the stakes.
In 2016 the vote for Clinton was suppressed in the key swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania where Clinton lost by margins of 10 or 20 thousand votes (Jamieson, pp 112-114). All of these are states that Obama won in 2012. Nationwide Clinton got 3 million more votes than Trump and barely 70,000 fewer votes than Obama had. (https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2016/12/29/2016-vs-2012-how-trumps-win-and-clintons-votes-stack-up-to-obama-and-romney/#5e1fcc291661) In other words, Trump didn’t so much win as Clinton lost the election, and she lost because the vote was suppressed by a media climate that was artificially hostile to her.
This is the point where almost any leftist will chime in with criticisms of Clinton. Whatever those criticisms are that you have in mind, those are not the reasons she lost. Clinton didn’t lose because of her “super predator” comments in 1994 when she wasn’t in any public office but Bernie Sanders voted for the crime bill. Clinton didn’t lose because she promoted workfare. She lost because leftists agreed with Trump supporters that she was two-faced, and if a politician is going to lie that is unforgivable unless that politician is a white man and then it is expected. One of the more ridiculous claims is the so-called Pied-Piper scandal. This is the one where Clinton supposedly helped Trump win the primary. There is absolutely no evidence that the Clinton campaign did anything more than recognize in a leaked (!) email that they should talk about Trump in the media, something that was impossible to avoid given the sensational and racist comments the media was full of from the Trump campaign, which built off of his career in reality TV. Despite all this Clinton won the popular vote. Despite that, people blame her for losing, which is rich coming from people who worked hard to depress the progressive vote in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. But it’s a way for people to deflect blame away themselves and from Trump and put it on Clinton.
Given Trump’s clear pro-Russia politics, given that Russian interference in 2016 helped him win the election by exploiting Americans’ susceptibility to illiberal and misogynist politics, given that the Republican part of the Senate refused to impeach him for having clearly usurped the power of the purse from the congress, given Trump’s refusal to enforce the Magnitisky Act, ignorance of Ukrainian and Russian history seems like a real political liability. The history of Europe turned into a nightmare of cascading mass murder in the early 40s in a conflict that turned mainly around Ukraine. Instead of cheering the democratic movement of the Maidan, many on the US left responded with very dogmatic thinking that said the EU is bad and the enemy of my enemy, Putin, must be good. On July 25, 2019 in a phone call we have all seen in a so-called transcript, Trump tried to shake down the Ukrainian president to coerce the latter into working to effect the election of 2020. We ignored evidence of Russian hacking that came out in the summer of 2016 and lost that election to Trump. Maybe we should pay more attention to Russian disinformation this time, instead of taking the opportunity to own the libs as Doug Henwood has done in our favorite publication Jacobin magazine (https://jacobinmag.com/2019/12/impeachment-donald-trump-nancy-pelosi-democratic-party). If, as Doug Henwood is doing here, your reaction to impeachment is to think that Democrats are trying to distract us from how awful they are, then you’re part of why Trump is going to win in 2020. To focus our criticism on the Democrats in the context of a fascist abuse of executive power is to minimize the threat of Trump and to undermine the only party that can beat him. A better left strategy is to rally to the democratic struggle of the Ukrainians and urge Republicans to support our ally against Russian tyranny. If any of these terrible things Paul Manafort and Trump have helped along in Ukraine mattered to us, if oppressed colonized people or the working class or even just LGBTQ rights really mattered to us, we might have been able to break Republicans away from Trump on grounds of National Security. Republicans have repeatedly, explicitly, used as a defense against impeachment the proposition that people just don’t care about Ukraine. If we understood Ukraine, if we cared, we could have resisted Russian manipulation of our media context. The consequences go far beyond Ukraine and the United States.
In October of 2019 Trump withdrew US troops from Northeast Syria in a move that threatened Christian minorities and the Kurdish project in Rojava. Even Noam Chomsky was calling this withdrawal of US military forces a disaster. We should have been hammering on this contradiction hard to try and break conservatives away from Trump, and we should have had large protests to demand US troop presence be maintained. But we couldn’t. We have a left today that is constitutionally incapable of such a realistic and humaine politics of solidarity. Instead we have a left that sides with Putin against Clinton and amplifies weaponized Russian misinformation against Ukrainian democracy advocates.
Brazile, Donna. Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House. Hachette Books, 2017.
Bullough, Oliver. Moneyland: why thieves and crooks now rule the world and how to take it back. Profile Books, 2018.
Gessen, Masha. The man without a face: The unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin. Riverhead Books, 2013.
Gessen, Masha. The future is history: How totalitarianism reclaimed Russia. Granta Books, 2017.
Horvath, Robert. Putin's Preventive Counter-Revolution: Post-Soviet Authoritarianism and the Spectre of Velvet Revolution. Routledge, 2013.
Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. Cyberwar: how Russian hackers and trolls helped elect a president: what we don't, can't, and do know. Oxford University Press, 2020.
Pomerantsev, Peter. Nothing is true and everything is possible: The surreal heart of the new Russia. Public Affairs, 2014.
Pomerantsev, Peter. This is NOT propaganda: Adventures in the war against reality. Hachette UK, 2019.
Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. Tim Duggan Books, 2018.
Music: Nysno by Sandra Marteleur, else Harry
June 30th, 2020 | 1 hr 5 mins
activism, anarchism, berniesanders, communism, democratic, lenin, leninism, poland, progressivism, revolution, russia, russian revolution, socialism, socialist, stalin, strategy, the russian revolution, trotsky, ukraine, victor serge
Correction: I cannot find anywhere Stalin uses the phrase "internal colonization."
What Stalin did was colonization, and forcible starvation of millions of people, a world historic moral crime. There are no factual errors in the account presented here, other than this mistake about a phrase. Stalin called his crimes "collectivization," a disgusting euphemism designed to cover over his evil deed. My understanding of Stalin's thinking in this period relies on the work of Timothy Snyder, who discusses this point here at hour 1 minute 12:30 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXrqGlgufCA
There is a particular historical subject that Marxists should think through, and that subject is Poland. Poland was historically carved up between Russia in the East and Prussia in the West. It was the bellwether issue of its time, with all true progressives supporting Polish independence from autocratic Russia. Consider this passage from Marx’s inaugural address to the 1st international. The issue of Poland here is considered on equal footing with the injustice of chattel slavery in North America: ““It was not the wisdom of the ruling classes, but the heroic resistance to their criminal folly by the working classes of England that saved the West of Europe from plunging headlong into an infamous crusade for the perpetuation and propagation of slavery on the other side of the Atlantic. The shameless approval, mock sympathy, or idiotic indifference, with which the upper classes of Europe have witnessed the mountain fortress of the Caucasus falling a prey to, and heroic Poland being assassinated by, Russia; the immense and unresisted encroachments of that barbarous power, whose head is in St. Petersburg, and whose hands are in every Cabinet of Europe, have taught the working classes the duty to master themselves the mysteries of international politics… The fight for such a foreign policy forms part of the general struggle for the emancipation of the working classes” - “Inaugural Address” of the First International, 1864 [Anderson, p67] We’ve spoken about the abolition movement and Marx’s place in it, but we haven’t talked about Poland, and its importance to Marx. Our left movement has spent nearly half a century in the wilderness. If anyone reads Marx they do Capital once or twice and that’s it. They don’t know his abolitionism, and they know even less about the history of Marxist ideology and practice in Eastern Europe, in the area between Germany and Russia. This episode is an attempt to remedy this lapse somewhat and to encourage you the listener to take an active interest in this region that has more to do with history than most think. I’m going to discuss the Polish Commonwealth, some of the political consequences of its dissolution which still impact us today and then tell the story of the Russian Revolution from the point of view of one of its satellites: Ukraine.
Let’s start far enough back that we get a good idea for the circumstances that made a thing like Ukraine possible.
The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, later known as the Polish Commonwealth, was a republic that dominated Eastern Europe from the late middle ages to the early modern period. It was a republic of landed nobles with an agrarian feudal economy. The nobles voted for a parliament and a king and enjoyed certain rights and protections. The commonwealth was international: among its nobles were Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Poles and Slavs, and a large diversity of religions was tolerated. Various ethnic minorities settled in and contributed to the wealth of Poland including the Cossacks, the Tartars and the Jews. In 1772 the Commonwealth was partitioned by Austria, Prussia and Russia, with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania destined to be progressively annexed by Tsaritsa Catherine II, and Polish territory stretching as far east as Warsaw falling under Prussian administration. I’ve never quite understood why anti-colonialist studies never include Eastern Europe: it just seems to be excluded from the history altogether. The story of Poland and Ukraine is where landlocked states like Prussia, the Russians and the Austrians had their colonies, and the holocaust is the culmination of that history.
In the early days of the Commonwealth, the Ukraine had been divided between the Lithuanian lords around Kiev in the East and the Polish nobility around Galicia in the West, but in 1569 the Lithuanian areas in the south, today’s eastern Ukraine around Bratslav, Kyiv and Volyn’ were ceded to Poland. The Ukrainian territories then at the cusp of modernity were a mix of Orthodox Christianity, Slavic languages and culturally Lithuanian lords now under Polish domination. The Ukraine became a melting pot in early modern Europe, where Polish became the language of high culture, where becoming Catholic was a route into high society and where the older ways of Eastern Orthodox religion and Slavic language became the mark of a newly impoverished lower class. The best book to read on this topic is Timothy Snyder’s The Reconstruction of National. Quote Snyder: “As Germany was divided among Lutheran and Catholic princes, as France massacred its Huguenots, as the Holy Roman Emperor paid tribute to the Ottoman Sultan, and as even Spain’s formidable power was challenged in the Netherlands and undermined by the Inquisition, Poland-Lithuania alone combined religious toleration, institutional reform, and territorial expansion” (Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations [TRN], p115).
But the Commonwealth was also still a feudal domain, and Cossacks were refused recognition as lords with voting rights. So, in 1654 they joined forces with Muscovy to wage war on the Polish Commonwealth. So it always is, a nation’s sovereignty and security are always weakened by the inequalities it tolerates among its peoples. The alliance between the Cossacks and the Muscovites gave birth to the myth that Eastern Ukraine belongs to Russia. The war between the Commonwealth and Russia ended with the Treaty of Andrusovo where Russia absorbed much of Eastern Ukraine. To Ukrainians this war was the rising up of the Cossacks to defend their rights and Orthodox religion. From the Russian point of view this was the foundation of a Russian empire. The Cossacks understood their alliance with Muscovy as temporary: Muscovy saw it as a permanent establishment of a divine order. This is important because this historical alliance became the founding myth justifying the Czar’s domination of Ukraine and Crimea: it also became the justification of Putin’s meddling in Ukrainian elections and subsequent invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Because Ukrainians opposed this Russian domination, Putin needed to cast the west as his enemy and try to influence our election in 2016. For Putin all of this is necessary because of this treaty long ago in 1654.
Snyder explains to us how back in the 17th century Muscovy was changed by this encounter with the Cossacks of Kiev: “Thus the transfer of part of Ukraine exposed Muscovy to new ideas. Muscovy inherited, along with Kyiv, Orthodox churchmen formed by the controversies of the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and Union… In the second half of the seventeenth century, not before, books were translated in Moscow in large numbers. The source languages were Greek, Latin, and Polish, and the translators were churchmen from the Commonwealth… Having adapted to the cultural attraction of western Christianity in the age of Reform, Ukrainian churchmen confronted in Muscovy a state and a church with limited cultural connections to the Byzantium they claimed to embody. Although Kyivan churchmen had never before regarded Moscow as a center of Orthodoxy, they adapted quickly to the new political situation of the second half of the seventeenth century… After Andrusovo, Ukrainian churchmen sought to draw the support of their new sovereign by recasting the history of Muscovy in a way that linked church and state, and dignified their position. Their cooperation with the Muscovite dynasty involved the invention of Russian history. One Ukrainian churchman invented the idea of the ‘transfer’ of the Kyivan princely seat to Moscow, an idea which came to organize Russian national myth and historiography” (Snyder, TRN, p118). Does all of that sound very remote and unrelatable? Well, yes it is remote, but that just goes to show how dumb it is to claim Russia has a right to dominate the Ukraine based on it, but that’s the claim underlying Putin’s current war in the Ukraine.
After the partitions of Poland of 1772 and 1795 Galicia, a southern part of the Polish Commonwealth, became a part of the Habsburg Monarchy, Austria. In 1783 the Habsburg monarch Joseph II founded a seminary and a university for Greek Catholics, and in the 1830s several seminary students produced a dictionary in the local peasant dialect spoken by Ukrainians there. The Greek Catholic peasants helped suppress the revolution of 1848 in Austria, and in return they were given a limited franchise and formal legal equality. In reality, the Polish aristocracy still dominated local power politics. The Greek Catholic Church became the site of Ukrainian political longing, first for reunification with Russia and a reconnection with Russian dominated Kiev, but more and more for a united Ukrainian nation state. The 19th century saw the unification of Germany and Italy, and a dozen national minorities in Eastern Europe began to develop their own dreams of national sovereignty. At the same time, Austria actively promoted the Ukrainian national aspiration over the Russophilia many Galicians felt. Any such national movement requires a dictionary and a founding set of literary texts. Because Czarist Russia forbade the printing of any such material, the Ukrainian cause was saved by half of it’s imagined geographical area being subject to Austrian rule. Similar literary projects were happening in Polish Prussia around Lithuanian identity, but the Belorussians, who had a distinct language, were not able to produce such a tradition because their entire geography was dominated by Russia. In 1898 the founding literary work of the Ukrainian nation was published: Hrushevs’kyi’s History of Ukraine-Rus’. This book told the story of a people, and was part of a general trend towards mass politics. After the French revolution the dream of democracy, the rumor of popular participation in politics, meant that aspiring leaders of political movements had to find ways to appeal to the masses. It was no longer possible to rule for very long by divine right. The foreign rule of the Polish over the Ukrainians, like that of the Russians over the Belorussians, or the British over the enslaved and native peoples, was often justified by the notion that these peoples had no written history. The History of Ukraine-Rus’ laid out the history of the Ukrainian people. As with so many such projects, a group of intellectuals systematized the language of local people, created literary works from it and then had to try and popularize their productions all in an effort to reveal to people their supposedly innate national identities. The first generation of Ukrainian nationalists were satisfied to promote their interests by agitating for greater minority rights, but frustration with corruption in the Habsburg institutions of power led the next generation to more radical demands. The rise of nationalist ideas accompanied the arrival of socialist politics. In 1890 Ivan Franko, the son of a German blacksmith and a Polish noblewoman “cofounded a peasant Radical Party oriented toward the socialist transformation of Galicia… In 1897 he broke loudly with Polish politics (writing in German) and with Ukrainian politics (writing in Polish). Already a friend of Hrushevs’kyi, Franko now became his protege. On Christmas Eve, 1899, the two men and the other leaders of a new National Democratic party published an appeal to all classes of Ukrainian society for the general endeavor of national sovereignty… By 1900, Franko was an advocate of Ukrainian independence with what he and others of his generation called ‘ethnographic’ borders. Like Franko, many of the leading Galician Ukrainian national activists in 1900 had been socialists ten years before. This was exceedingly common in the Europe of the day, not least in Poland...The general connection between the seemingly contradictory ideas of socialism and nationalism is that the idealistic faith in the yet untried people; the particular impulse that pushed Ukrainian activists from socialism to nationalism was real competition with the Poles. Ukrainians influenced by Drahomanov believed that Ukrainian socialism would arise from the Ukrainian people, Polish socialism from the Polish people, and so on.” (Snyder TRN, pp130-131).
The Ukraine was a contested battlefield throughout WWI and the Russian Civil War. After the Russian Revolution, Ukrainians felt optimistic enough to declare the existence of an independent state, but such was not their fate. After Lenin’s failed military adventure in Poland, during which the Ukrainians fought with Poland, Poland and Russia signed the treaty of Riga, whereby the Ukraine was divided much as it had been before the war, except whereas before it was divided between Czarist Russia and the Habsburgs, it was now divided between Soviet Russia and Poland. In the middle 20s Stalin brought direction of Ukraine’s economy under the control of the central soviet. All property became state property, and all state property was managed from Moscow. As we pointed out whilst discussing the Russian Revolution as a democratic movement, Stalin was able to exploit the situation of the early 20s to consolidate absolute power. Although the left opposition represented a large part of the Russian population, it lost the contest for power, with disastrous consequences for the Ukraine. But how do we know that the Ukraine’s fate would have been any different if Lenin had lived to see the 30s, or if Trotsky of Rakovsky had gotten the upper hand in 1927? We know what difference it would have made because of Lenin’s final testament.
1921 in the USSR saw the ban on parties, but it was also the beginning of a long physical decline for Lenin. While he did not seem to comment on the need to revive democratic traditions in the party and in the soviets, Lenin was clearly repulsed by the Russian chauvinism he perceived in Stalin towards the smaller nations that had historically been part of the Russian empire, specifically in Georgia and the Ukraine (Hensman 52-63).
If Germany was an ideological blindspot for Lenin, his final writings, the so-called Testament that was largely unpublished before 1956, show a Lenin that clearly understood two things: (1) that the socialist revolution would have to spread to Asia, and (2) that the new socialist project would succeed or fail based on how it managed a transition away from Russian Empire. Later, we will discuss American attempts in the 20th century to transition away from Empire. The whole 20th century is the story of unraveling Empire. Lenin urged that Russia should protect the autonomy of Russia’s former possessions. As he declined, Stalin ascended by a series of cunning political maneuvres. As General Secretary, Stalin led a diplomatic effort to force Georgia into economic unification with Russia. In one meeting, Stalin’s envoy Ordzhonikidze, whom I assume history has forgotten bc his name is so difficult to pronounce, physically assaulted his Georgian counterpart. Rohini Hensman writes: “Alarmed by a letter from an old Georgian communist accusing Ordzhonikidze of threatening them, Lenin sent Alexei Rykov to Georgia to investigate. Rykov returned and reported back to Lenin in early December 1922, and Lenin was deeply upset by the ‘image of a Communist governor behaving like a satrap in a conquered country” (Hensman, p55). Lenin stated in no uncertain terms that Russian nationalist chauvinism was the gravest threat to the Communist effort, equal only to the threat posed by Western aggression: “We, nationals of a big nation, have nearly always been guilty, in historic practice, of an infinite number of cases of violence… That is why internationalism on the part of oppressors or ‘great’ nations, as they are called (though they are great only in their violence, only great as bullies), must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality of the oppressor nations, the great nation, that must make up for the inequality which obtains in actual practice. Anybody who does not understand this has not grasped the real proletarian attitude to the national question… The need to rally against the imperialists of the West, who are defending the capitalist world, is one thing. There can be no doubt about that and it would be superfluous for me to speak about my unconditional approval of it. It is another thing when we ourselves lapse, even if only in trifles, into imperialist attitudes towards oppressed nationalities, thus undermining all our principled sincerity, all our principled defence of the struggle against imperialism. “ (Lenin, Letter to the Party Conference, Dec. 30-31 1923, Hensman, p58)
Instead, Stalin set out in 1928 on a process of forced collectivization in the Ukraine, a decision that would ultimately lead to the deaths by starvation of around 6 million Ukrainians. By 1924 it was clear that the Bolshevik revolution was not going to spread into western Europe. The original Bolshevik line that the revolution would have to spread internationally to succeed seemed to have been decided, and as Stalin got rid of people like Trotsky who wanted greater democracy in the USSR, he began pursuing what was euphemistically called “Socialism in one country.” Behind closed doors Stalin called this policy “internal colonization,” because it was thought that in order for a nation to enter the industrial age it would need to exploit colonies. Because Stalin imagined the Ukraine was internal to the Soviet Union, internal colonization just meant actually colonizing the Ukraine, which of course is just regular imperialism exactly the way that Czarist Russia had occupied the Ukraine since 1772. Collectivization is the name he gave for the process of state seizure of farmland, forcing peasants to work it and then taking the crops as state property. During the Russian Civil War days, from 1918 through 1921, the Bolsheviks had fought against peasant uprisings in an attempt to secure enough food to keep starvation from killing first the factories and then the workers. Peasants who hoarded grain while the peoples of the USSR starved to death were called Kulaks, a word meaning tight fisted. The kulaks were people whose greed exacerbated the generalized starvation engulfing the Slavic world since the Czar had plunged all of Europe into WW1, and Lenin was right to fight against them on a case by case basis. Things had changed by 1930 when Stalin announced his intention of completely liquidating the Kulak class. What he meant by that was mass murder in order to impose state ownership on the whole of the agricultural output. It’s worth dwelling a moment on the nature and scope of Stalin’s crimes, because people often shrug and admit that it was bad without having any idea of how bad it was. Timothy Snyder describes what the policy meant in practice in his excellent book Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin [BL]: “The troika, composed of a member of the state police, a local party leader, and a state procurator, had the authority to issue rapid and severe verdicts (death, exile) without the right to appeal. Local party members would often make recommendations: ‘At the plenums of the village soviet,” one local party leader said, ‘we create kulaks as we see fit.’ Although the Soviet Union had laws and courts, these were now ignored in favor of the simple decision of three individuals. Some thirty thousand Soviet citizens would be executed after sentencing by troikas. In the first four months of 1930, 113,637 people were forcibly transported from Soviet Ukraine as kulaks. Such an action meant about thirty thousand peasant huts emptied one after another, their surprised inhabitants given little or no time to prepare for the unknown. It meant thousands of freezing freight cars, filled with terrified and sick human cargo, bound for destinations in northern European Russia, the Urals, Siberia, or Kazakhstan. It meant gunshots and cries of terror at the last dawn peasants would see at home; it meant frostbite and humiliation on trains, and anguish and resignation as peasants disembarked as slave laborers on the taiga or the steppe… All in all, some three hundred thousand Ukrainians were among the 1.7 million kulaks deported to special settlements in Siberia, European Russia, and Kazakhstan.” (Snyder, BL, pp26-27). Like Robespierre, Stalin was imposing state power on society: this was the culmination and natural outcome of a socialist movement that in the early 20s had given up on democratic organizing and given free reign to its desires to impose “utopia” on humanity from above. Party activists communicated to peasants that Stalin had a 1st Commandment: the grain belongs first of all to the state and after that can be given to the peasants. The peasants knew the 1st commandment was “thou shalt have no God before me,” and they understood the new regime as a reimposition of feudalism by the State. Other examples where the state takes over as the boss in an older labor form include the Italian Republic in southern Italy and the 13th Amendment whereby slavery was outlawed in the US unless someone went to prison. The peasants of Ukraine rose up against the new system of peonage, but the rebellion was crushed. The worst of the repression happened in 1930 after the crop had been planted, and that year’s crop was particularly bountiful. Bad weather and the mass deportation of Ukraine's best farmers assured the next year’s crop yield would be much worse. Stanislaw Kosior reported in August of 1931 that yields would be low, but his superior Lazar Kaganovich told him the problem was theft, so Kosior intensified repression. The peasants, having no choice, met their quota by handing over their seed grain: at that point they were sabotaging the next year’s yield under threat from the state. By July of 1932 party leaders in the Ukraine had successfully communicated to Stalin that a famine had begun there and that Soviet policies were going to make it worse. The documentation of these facts is now indisputable, thanks to the empirical data and private letters made available after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Stalin decided that if collectivization was failing it was the fault of the peasants, that they should be starved in collective punishment and that above all the problem should be hidden from view of the world lest the reputation of socialism should be tarnished. What a sick joke. Local party leaders in the Ukraine who complained were sacked and deported, and their calls for Red Cross intervention were ignored. Unlike Lenin, who in 1921 asked for and received international aid for famine victims in the USSR, Stalin didn’t see the people’s wellbeing as the source of his right to rule. His right to rule was his power over the truth and over life and death. “Stalin had developed an interesting new theory: that resistance to socialism increases as its successes mount, because its foes resist with greater desperation as they contemplate their final defeat. Thus any problem in the Soviet Union could be defined as an example of enemy action, and enemy action could be defined as evidence of success. Resistance to his policies in the Soviet Ukraine, Stalin argued, was of a special sort, perhaps not visible to the imperceptive observer. Opposition was no longer open, for the enemies of socialism were now ‘quiet’ and even ‘holy.’ [here Snyder quotes Stalin] The ‘kulaks of today,’ he said, were ‘gentle people, kind, almost saintly.’ [unquote] People who appeared to be innocent were to be seen as guilty. A peasant slowly dying of hunger was, despite appearances, a saboteur working for the capitalist powers in their campaign to discredit the Soviet Union. Starvation was resistance, and resistance was a sign that the victory of socialism was just around the corner. These were not merely Stalin’s musings in Moscow; this was the ideological line enforced by Molotov and Kaganovich as they traveled through regions of mass death in late 1932.” (Snyder, BL, p41). Such terribly distorted reasoning was only possible in 1932 because over the course of the previous decade the ban on factions had become a permanent institution, because public and even private debate was radically precluded, and everyone who disagreed with Stalin had been sent into exile, including nearly all of the original Bolshevik revolutionaries: Kamenev, Rykov, Rakovsky, Zinoviev and Trotsky. All of these men had opposed Stalin’s plan of forced collectivization. All of them had been labeled enemies. We are far indeed from Marx’s tenure in the garden of Epicurus where events in the heavens have a multitude of explanations, and where this whole plurality of voices is needed to reach an understanding of the world. Stalin isn’t in the same category as the socialists of the Paris Commune who demanded complete freedom of the press.
In politics we often find we have enemies, but having an enemy shouldn’t become the foundation of our politics. When we replace the foundation of love for the people with the foundation of hatred for our enemies, we end up in this place where Stalin is, we end up justifying any sacrifice, even the people we supposedly love, and we lose our most important ability: to change our mind when confronted with new evidence. What’s more, when we are absolutely set on defeating an enemy rather than on gaining for our loved ones, the logic of the absolute enemy takes over our enemies as well, making compromise impossible. The mass starvation of the Ukraine became a talking point in Hitler’s political campaigns, and fed his rise to power. Stalin would later use the fact that the USSR was invaded by Hitler, and had beaten Hitler back, to retroactively justify the famine in the Ukraine.
At this point the historical ties between Ukraine and Poland become important. Many Ukrainians began to flee the Ukraine to Poland where they pleaded with Polish authorities to get the word out to the rest of the world and to do something. 85,000 ethnic Poles were murdered in the Soviet Union between 1937 and 1938, under suspicion of plotting against socialism. Foreign nations were considered to exist on the other side of a class line: if someone had a connection to Poland they were thought to have a loyalty to global capitalism as such. This may sound outlandish, but later when we dig into the politics of the Party for Socialist Liberation, the PSL, we will find this same kind of reasoning involving proletariat and bourgeois nations. Though Stalin imagined Poland was plotting against him and against the socialist revolution, Poland was actually trying to find a politics that would let them live side by side with the USSR in peace. Poland didn’t sound the alarm about the Ukrainian famine because they had just signed a nonaggression pact with Stalin, who in 1939 repaid them by splitting Poland down the middle, taking the eastern half and letting Hitler take the western half in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In order to cover up the world historical crime of causing the starvation of 6 million Ukrainians, Stalin then tried to liquidate the Polish intelligentsia. In Poland, Hitler and Stalin pursued the same policy on different sides of the border: they murdered anyone who could take part in Polish state building: doctors, lawyers, politicians, professors, writers, scientists. They were fighting a war against reason itself in the name of political projects based not on political compromise but on zero sum thinking where success could only mean the annihilation of one’s enemy. The most well known, since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, of these massacres was at Katyn, where 22,000 Poles were systematically slaughtered by an NKVD that had been forged in the forced starvation of Ukraine.
It’s easy when one talks of millions of deaths to lose all sense of the loss involved. Some half a million Poles were murdered by Stalin in the latter half of the 1930s, and each one of them was a human being with a life and a place in the world. We should tell the story of at least one of them to communicate a little what a catastrophe this was. One of the Poles who was arrested and sent to Stalin’s camps was Jozef Czapski. Czapski was taken because he was an artist and from an aristocratic family. He had the remarkable good luck in his youth to discover Proust as an aspiring artist in Paris starting in 1924. There he encountered and befriended many of the people who had inspired the characters in Proust’s novel “In Search of Lost Time.” In the camp where Czapski was taken the inmates, who were mostly scholars of one sort or another, taught each other classes. Czapski taught a class on Proust’s Search for Lost Time. These class notes were later collected, and an English translation was published in 2018. In them Czapski tells the story of the death of Bergotte, a character in Proust’s novel. Bergotte was a writer of popular trash fiction. One day as Bergotte is wandering through an art exhibit he is struck by a painting by the then unknown Vermeer. It is a landscape of several houses on a beach, and Bergotte is particularly taken back by the exquisite attention the artist paid to a certain patch of yellow roofing. The artistic perfection on display, produced in utter isolation and a lack of recognition, confronts Bergotte with the rude realization that the novelist sacrificed the quality of his own art in order to have public appeal. He feels he has cheated himself and his art, and then he dies. The image of Vermeer, the artist committed to creating something of high value in the context of utter isolation closely parallels Czapski’s own experience there in the camps. Czapski would survive the camps and live to a ripe old age. Many other brilliant people did not.
Hitler’s political project, which we explore in detail elsewhere, involved using the German state to destroy the states of Eastern Europe so that his German people could colonize those lands. He explicitly referenced the history of America’s genocide of native peoples as an example to the Germans of how a great people acts, and he specifically identified the Ukraine as the key to the success of his political enterprise. Ukraine was to become the breadbasket of the new German empire, and it’s people were to be for Germany what Black enslaved people were to the United States. When Hitler’s forces arrived at the furthest East places they could conquer, Lithuania, Belorussia and the Ukraine, they found lands that had already suffered Stalin’s so called “internal '' colonization. The people in those nations who had collaborated with Stalin then very actively collaborated with the Nazis, by a vast majority. The crimes of the NKVD were in everyone’s very recent memory, and the Jews were an easy scapegoat. Communists and Nazis both agreed the Jews were to blame, and the former commisar’s in Stalin’s bureaucracy almost every last one of them participated in and often initiated the mass shootings that started the Holocaust. In 1942 Hitler became aware that he would not be able to take Moscow, and he also became aware of the mass shootings of Jews that was being organized by Lithuanian nationalists. It was at that moment when he gives up the idea of sending all the Jews to Siberia or to Mauritania, which had been his idea up to that moment, and settles upon the “final solution.” The image we have of the holocaust, of the death camps, touches on a reality, there really were death execution sites, though typically they did not include barracks or “camps.” The story we get from Hollywood is falsely comforting. The story in popular culture is of death camps and of heros who save Jews from those camps. Half of the people who died in the holocaust were shot, then dumped in mass graves, and the majority of people who had an opportunity to save Jews did not because doing so would put their own lives at risk. It’s crucial that we understand that ordinary people, people like you and me, allowed the holocaust to happen and participated in it because of decisions made that created the situation of the holocaust. Hitler set up camps for his political enemies and for diabled people as part of a eugenicist project in 1933, nearly a whole decade before the holocaust begins. If we think that camps of immigrants in the US are harmless, it is because we have forgotten or never knew this history.
The Ukraine is the center of WW2, though we remember it being a secondary character or an extra in the drama. More Ukrainians died fighting German fascism than did Americans. Timothy Snyder in this excellent speech (
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTJwCCAF2lA ) from 2017 about Germany’s historical responsibility points out that 3.5 million Ukrainian civilians were murdered by German forces in WW2. Three million Ukrainians died fighting in the Red Army. The Ukraine was the center of Hitler’s colonial project. With the subjugation of the Ukraine under Russia and the mass famine of 1932 fresh in their personal memories, Ukrainian nationalists volunteered to join Fascist gangs in committing the holocaust in order to get the arms to fight later for a Ukrainian nation state. That is not to excuse their crimes, but to understand them. Much of this history was not understood in the West until the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, but Ukrainians would have remembered them as lived experience following WW2. We rarely ever understand the cold war, or the founding of NATO in this context, as world changing events that ended the destructive Russian domination of Poland that had gone on for several centuries. Instead, the left thinks of NATO as western imperialism embodied. Again, this is not to provide apologetics for the hamfisted antics of the CIA in Eastern Europe, but to understand them. Stalin was objectively an evil man doing evil things, and it was easy to justify illegal actions to fight him. It wasn’t easy to tell that the habit of illegal CIA operations could only undermine America’s claims to legitimacy as a world power and claims to being a democratic society. If time allows, a whole series of podcasts should be done about the history of US interventions in the 20th century. For now, we note these issues in passing, finish briefly telling the history of Ukraine to date, and discuss why it’s important today that the international community defend Ukrainian sovereignty. Considering this long history of Russian and German colonization of the Ukraine, and its terrible consequences, it is stunning to witness the current indifference to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that started in 2014! Yeah, I’m calling you out Michael Moore. How dare you belittle the impeachment of Trump, talk about it as though it had no importance, without even mentioning Ukraine, when Ukrainian lives were on the line, when the entire postwar peace in Europe is on the line. We’ll come back around to that.
Inevitably, a discussion of Ukraine has brought us to the question of what to do in the aftermath of the empire? Hitler and Stalin both sought to found an empire by first dominating the Ukraine. Now Putin is attempting the same thing. After WW2 the Soviet Union annexed large parts of Poland, Eastern Germany, all of Lithuania, Czechoslovakia and Romania. In the early 1950s Stalin began gearing up a purge of Jewish people, but to do so parts of the bureaucracy had to be turned against each other in a cycle of mutual recrimination where each party hopes to save themselves by throwing their fellow bureaucrats under the bus. This was the precise mechanism that had led to the Polish purges of the late thirties. By the early 1950s the bureaucrats in the soviet system understood this game, that it meant their doom, and they wisely declined to play it. This does not mean the danger wasn’t real, or that things couldn’t have gone another way. We’ll speak at some length in a later podcast of the shameful role French intellectuals in particular played in providing rhetorical cover for the purges and show trials. Suffice it to say that chief among these traitors was Sartre, who had some idea that a Jewish purge was developing just as he was beginning a strong turn towards support of the Communist cause around 1952. Sartre’s hypocritical silence on this issue is all the more striking because of his previous attention to the problem of European anti-semitism (Judt, Past Imperfect, p184). Timothy Snyder’s account of the rise of fascist ideology we face today, the excellent book The Road to Unfreedom [TRU], includes a vital condensed telling of Ukrainian history under Soviet rule. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians resisted Stalin, it must be admitted with the help of the CIA, throughout the 40s and 50s and were then sent to the gulags. Most of those who survived to see Khrushchev take power in 1953 were released. The Ukraine became a populous center of Soviet industrial production. In the seventies Brezhnev declared that Russia had “really existing socialism” implying that all national differences within the Soviet Union had been transcended, and Ukrainians who resisted cultural erasure in the 70s often were sent to mental hospitals. In 1986 one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters occured in the Ukraine because of the culture of the suppression of the truth that reigned in the Soviet System. If you haven’t watched the HBO miniseries on Chernobyl, you should go and do that after this podcast episode. In order to save the USSR from humiliation Gorbachev needlessly exposed millions of Ukrainians to dangerously high doses of radiation. The discussion of this crime among Ukrainians led to a national discussion of the mass starvation of a generation prior, which very similarly had been forced on them to “save the reputation of socialism.” When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted for independence from the Soviet Union. And this is where we begin to encounter associates of Donald Trump in the story about Ukraine.
In earlier podcasts I spent a great deal of time discussing the Russian Revolution, and I did that because in Russia socialists came to power and in wielding power found themselves directly in contradictions that we in the USA have not faced. Wielding power as Marxists, as Socialists and as Communists posed the question of what we are willing to sacrifice to our ideals, because sitting in power always demands trade offs and sacrifices. Even if the Russian revolution because of when and where it happened could only have ended in tragedy, especially so, we must learn from it. In tending to these historical issues we can gradually redeem our movement and the socialist project as such. The inability to come to terms with this past has left us vulnerable in the present moment in ways I want to discuss later in this podcast once I’ve developed the background some. We have to reflect on the crimes of Stalin, because we should know our faults better than our opponents do and because those crimes are a part of socialism that we cannot simply disown. I hope that much has been made clear in previous podcasts. The worst crimes were committed from what Tony Judt has called “retroactive necessitarianism,” which is the idea that because we know how history ends, any sacrifice is justified in accelerating our trip there. In conversation with Timothy Snyder, Tony Judt describes the embrace of such ideas in the 20th century as the infinite breaking of eggs in the making of an impossible omelette.
“This, in my view, is the intellectual sin of the century: passing judgement on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it, a future in which you may have no investment, but concerning which you claim exclusive and perfect information...All the same, for much of the past century many social democrats who would have been horrified to think of themselves as anything other than Marxist - much less as ‘liberal’ - were unable to make the ultimate move into retroactive necessitarianism. In most cases, they had the good fortune to avoid the choice. In Scandinavia, accession to power was open to social democrats without any need to overthrow or repress existing authorities. In Germany, those who were not willing to compromise with constitutional moral constraints took themselves out of the social democratic consensus. In France, the question was irrelevant thanks to the compromises imposed by republican politics and in England it was redundant thanks to the marginality of the radical left. Paradoxically, in all these countries, self-styled Marxists could continue t o tell themselves stories: they could persist in the belief that the Marxist historical narrative informed their actions, without facing the implications of taking that claim seriously. But in other places - of which Russia was the first and exemplary instance - access to power was indeed open to Marxists precisely because of their uncompromising claims upon history and other people. And so, following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, there was a sharp and enduring schism between those who would not digest the human consequences of their own theories, and those for whom these same consequences were nasty in just the way that had thought they would be, and all the more convincing for that reason: it’s really hard; we’ve really got to make the difficult choices; we have no choice but to do bad things; this is a revolution; if we are in the omelette making business, this is not the moment to coddle the eggs… The kind of truth that a believer was seeking was not testable by reference to contemporary evidence but only to future outcomes. It was always about believing in a future omelet that would justify an infinite number of broken eggs in the present. If you ceased to believe, then you were not simply abandoning a piece of social data which you had apparently misread hitherto; you were abandoning a story that could alone justify any data one wished so long as the future payoff was guaranteed. (Thinking the Twentieth Century. pp. 91,94,97).
Here at the end of a long meditation on the outcome of a very specific type of socialism, Bolshevism, in a very specific context, Ukraine in the 20th century, right here, this is where I want to situate a discussion of Capital.
As Tony Judt explained, there’s a version of Capital that reads like a holy text. According to this reading it lays out an inevitable series of events. The story goes something like this. Capitalists are greedy: they need more and more profit. To get more profit they will improve the means of production, automate as much as possible and drive down the value of labor. As labor gets devalued, the wage will fall and living standards will become unsurvivable. The workers will choose to defend their lives, and they will rise up. When the workers rise up they will form a council government that will organize production democratically. The moral of this story is that we should sacrifice everything to accelerate the arrival of these events. What’s even better, since we personally only have one life to live, is that we force as many other people as possible, through persuasion or violence, to sacrifice themselves to accelerate the coming of these events. I have been developing a stronger version of Marx than this: the Marx who wrote Capital to reject the commodification of humanity, but we have to deal with this other Marxism, for which humans are just fodder for the engine of history.
Finally, let me lift up Victor Serge again. Victor Serge spent his youth as an anarchist in Paris, the son of exiled Russian revolutionaries. Anarchism in Paris at that time was taken by the idea of propaganda of the deed. That meant individual acts of terrorism and/or assassinations of political figures. Several of Serge’s friends received the death penalty for conspiracies, and he was sentenced to 5 years of solitary confinement, though it seems he was guilty of nothing more than having guilty friends. He served 3 years of his sentence and then as German forces threatened France in WW1 he was released. He moved to Spain immediately to take part in the attempted revolution there. In 1919 he moved to Russia to help build the Soviet Union. In the 20s he joined the Left Opposition, and in 1933 he was arrested by the NKVD, an organization he had served in. He spent two years in a gulag in Orenburg, plenty of time to ponder the dark timeline that he had been swept into, plenty of time to ponder the failure of the Bolshevik project. Copyrighted in French in 1939, first appearing in translation in 1981, and then reprinted in 2015 by the New York Review of Books, Midnight in the Century is a stream of consciousness novel about the experience of the left opposition in the gulags. In this book we find the Bolsheviks waxing nostalgic for the days “when there was still freedom in the revolution.” (102). It’s a beautifully written book of historical fiction, full of sadness and hope, and in it the Russian Siberian wilderness plays an important role. Victor Serge is essential reading for understanding how that generation of Bolsheviks who made the revolution, then survived Lenin and were betrayed by Stalin, how they understood their own defeat and what it meant for Europe.
The book is a personal document about Serge’s experience in the gulag, but it is also a political polemic, explicitly echoing Trotsky’s jeremiads warning Europe about Hitler. For instance, he speaks directly to the idea he knows is pushing the German KPD to boost the German Nazi party against the Social Democrats: the idea that if Nazis get into power then the communists can ride the pendulum back to replace them. As I read this passage I imagine that instead of the Social Democrats he’s describing making a common front with the Democratic Party to kick out Trump. “The only chance for salvation is a common front with Social Democracy and the Reformist trade-unions. It’s madness to expect to win the masses away from their leaders, cough Joe Biden cough when the proletarian spirit has become stabilized within the old parties. And when you yourselves are hardly much better than the people you’re denouncing! Bernie Sanders ... There are still some imbeciles who say that Hitler should be allowed to take power, for he’ll use himself up rapidly, go bankrupt, dissatisfy everybody, open the way for us… The time to fight to the death is before he takes over. Once Hitler has power, he will keep it… Stalin gave Hitler his strength by driving the middle classes away from Communism with the nightmare of forced collectivization, famine, and terror against the technicians. Hitler, by making Europe abandon the hope of socialism, will strengthen Stalin. These grave-diggers were born to understand each other. Enemies and brothers. In Germany, one is burying an aborted democracy, the child of an aborted revolution. In Russia, the other is burying a victorious revolution born of a weak proletariat and left on its own by the rest of the world. Both of them are leading those they serve - the bourgeoisie in Germany, the bureaucracy here at home - toward a catastrophe.” (p. 76).
In everything I’ve read about the oppositionists, even when they were in the Gulag, is that they never gave up on the power of collective organization and collective thought, aka free expression, to transform the world. And if they were to be buried in Siberia, they were certain that they were the seeds of trees a future generation would shelter under. Before Stalin’s determination to destroy even the memory of them, they remained defiant. Here is one telling bit of dialogue between oppositionists that must surely be based on a real or on several real conversations: “‘We’re right, comrades. Right, like stones are right to be hard, like the grass is right to grow, for the Revolution doesn’t want to die out. Without us, there would be nothing left of it but reinforced concrete, turbines, loudspeakers, uniforms, victims of exploitation, humbugs adn informers. Now you see it, now you don’t! But we’re here - like the ocean floor, and the trick is spoiled!... Let’s rest in the sunshine for a while. Maybe tonight they’ll lock us up int eh cellar of the Security building. Keep that in mind and you’ll savour this sunshine all the more. I’m teaching you wisdom! One day you’ll die down on a cot ina disheartening darkness. Then remember the sunshine of this moment. The greatest joy on earth, love apart, is sunshine in your veins.’ ‘And thought?’ asked Rodion. ‘Thought? Ah! Right now it’s something of a midnight sun piercing the skull. Glacial. What’s to be done if it’s midnight in the century?’ ‘Midnight’s where we have to live then,’ said Rodion with an odd elation.” (pp. 117,118)
It’s hard to imagine, but I’m telling you, Victor Serge wrote a stream of consciousness novel about men and women doomed to die unremembered who were convinced their cause would win in the end, and he convinces us in the telling that history will vindicate them. Under the Siberian sky, in a kind of enormous garden, Serge’s writing invokes not despair but the infinite potential in nature, the fact that no matter how dark the path may be the natural world holds up for us the image and example of absolute freedom. There is an infinite series of events of which we make up a finite part. Serge writes about the sky as though he were intentionally orienting us towards infinity. One of the novel’s oppositionists is Ryzhik, and I want to end this episode with a passage where Ryzhik describes the Siberian countryside: “‘On the Yenisey,’ said Ryzhik, ‘it was even more beautiful than here. The earth seemed to light up from within. Even before the snows had melted the grasses came to life and light filtered into the tiniest twig, the tiniest streamlet. You walked on light. The flowers have cool, light colours. Only the stars resemble them. You leave the house one morning, you go out onto the plains, straight ahead, for there’s nothing anywhere, nothing but the horizon and the same horizon beyond the horizon. You’re alone, alone like… Ah! I can’t really say like whom, like what. Well, like a stone at the bottom of a well, and you don’t know what’s happening to you. You want to sing, you feel the earth is on a spree. It’s something marvellous, unique; anything might happen. That’s it, you’re going to turn around, just like that, and there right in front of you, in the emptiness, will be a great happiness. What kind? You have no idea, but it's possible, that’s sure. And you do turn around and you see birds arriving. They’re coming through the sky in clouds. They’re coming with great flapping wings, and the light is climbing, the stones have a luminous polish, there are flowers, the steppe is singing in silence. Nothing happens to you, of course, but everything is possible.” (p. 70).
Anderson, Kevin B. Marx at the margins: on nationalism, ethnicity, and non-western societies. University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Czapski, Józef. Lost time : lectures on Proust in a Soviet prison camp. New York Review of Books, 2018.
Hensman, Rohini. Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism. Haymarket Books, 2018.
Serge, Victor. Midnight in the Century. New York Review of Books, 2014.
Snyder, Timothy, and Tony Judt. Thinking the twentieth century. Random House, 2013.
Snyder, Timothy. Black earth: The Holocaust as history and warning. Seal Books, 2015.
Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. Random House, 2011.
Snyder, Timothy. On tyranny: Twenty lessons from the twentieth century. Tim Duggan Books, 2017.
Snyder, Timothy. The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999. Yale University Press, 2002.
The front page of the Chicago American 1935
Space Noise by Martin Klem
Calculating Catastrophe by John Barzetti
Theme by Harry Koniditsiotis
June 25th, 2020 | 1 hr 10 mins
activism, anarchism, cnt-fai, communism, democratic, fascism, germany, hitler, karl leibknecht, lenin, leninism, national socialism, progressivism, putin, red brown, revolution, rosa luxembourg, russia, socialism, socialist, spain, stalin, strategy, the russian revolution, the spanish civil war, trotsky, victor serge
I have a lot of sympathy for the view that the Spanish Civil War was a terrible tragedy. The attempts people make to impose on events a spin that supports their ideological priors are all less convincing the more one knows about the conflict. Nevertheless, imperfect knowledge is not complete ignorance, and there’s a lot to learn from the sad story of the Spanish Republic.
The Spanish Civil War is an important event in world history, and it deserves the attention it receives and more. It is also a very complex item, so I’m posting a timeline and a list of the cast of characters towards the bottom of the transcripts. I’m going to start by discussing the broader historical context and then stepping through the history itself. Then I’m going to talk a little about the various positions people take about the events in question before rapping up with some general considerations. I won’t have time to discuss the internal politics of the right wing coup or the final days of the Republic. These are also important things to consider, so you should read all the books. I’m going to focus on the socialist and related anarchist movements in Spain and what they meant for socialists in the anglophone world. One excellent politically neutral book that focuses on the military side of the Civil War is Antony Beevor’s 1982 “The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939,” and I lean on it a great deal in the discussion that follows, but if you could only read one book about the Spanish Civil War, to understand the ideas that drove the Republicans, there is no better book than Helen Graham’s 2002 “The Spanish Republic at War 1936-1939.” It’s long, but after you’ve read it you actually know something. Helen Graham has done for the Spanish Civil War what Soma Marik did for the Russian Revolution. Most people, when they talk about the Spanish Civil War label all the main groups and figures some ideology or other and use that to explain their behavior, but Helen Graham does the Spanish justice by giving us a deep dive not just into the political identities involved, as we understand them, but into the ideas, innovations, experiences and motivations of groups and individuals. She treats them as living agents making their own history.
So, from the beginning...
The defining event in the formation of the Spanish monarchical state was the reconquista, a struggle to reclaim the Iberrian peninsula from the Umayyad Caliphate who took power there in 711 AD. The reconquista required from the Spanish nobles that they orient the economy towards wool production for export in order to get the necessary money to conduct the war. The claiming of peasant land for sheep grazing led to soil erosion and the emisseration of the farming peasantry (Beefor, p4). Catholic ideology, which proscribed usury, prevented the development of a capitalist class in the early modern period, and the discovery of the new world instead of undermining the authority of the Spanish crown reinforced it with a steady stream of silver and gold wealth from the colonies, at least at first. It is said that enough silver was mined from Potosi, in present day Bolivia, to build a bridge from where it was mined in South America to Spain (Galeano). Unlike the wealth that San Domingan Slaves provided to France, the precious metals flowing into Spain didn’t take the form of commodities, so they spurred inflation in Europe which inspired more mercantile activity. All of that wealth that flooded into the mercantile interests of England and France leading to the end of monarchical rule in Europe and the rise of capitalist economies over the old feudal ones, that wealth came from Spanish colonialism and the dispossession of the peasants in support of a war of conquest against the ethnically and religiously othered Muslims. Furthermore, the resulting social hierarchy justified itself with religious zeal, and instead of being undermined by the protestant reformation the Catholic faith in Spain was radicalized and mobilized for an inquisition so terrible it is now known as “the” inquisition. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella forced the Jewish people living in Spain at the time, some 800,000 people to either convert or leave. Among those who left was the grandfather of Baruch Spinoza who was famously one of a very few people in the 17th century, and one of the first in the modern era, to say that there are no persons destined by god to rule over everyone else. Today that idea is paradigmatic, believed by almost everyone, so I guess the Spinoza family got their revenge somewhat. There’s a good name for a punk band: Spinoza’s Revenge. Please someone make that happen and then I’ll interview you on the podcast maybe if you’re cool.
Spain had a short lived liberal republic in the early 19th century, with wars flaring up for political freedom every decade or so leading to a managed democracy that favored the nobles, the landlords and a rising class of political bosses (caciques). The Republic that was founded in 1873 was very weak and found it very difficult to resolve any of the tensions in society. There was a steadily growing localist and libertarian movement, accompanied by strong separatist movements in Catalonia and in Basque country. The deep oppression and communal lifestyle of the Spanish peasants made Spain fertile ground for the Anarchist philosophies of Bakunin and Kropotkin. Kropotkin believed that the communal peasant way of life he witnessed in the distant, isolated, rural parts of Russia, represented an evolutionary advance that was superior to modern mass culture (McLaughlin, p. 99-108). It’s no wonder that this ideology was popular in rural areas of Spain and Italy, nor is it any wonder why the more industrialized northern Europe was where Marxism and socialism had more of a following. Incidentally, by the time of the Spanish Civil War a lot of these rural Kropotkinists ended up internally displaced and having to move into the cities to find work in factories. Kropotkin overestimated local social bonds, and underestimated how national and international communities are important in peoples’ lives. Indeed, international solidarity was an important part of how Republican Spain defended itself. The importance of the Spanish Civil War for Anarchists is clear: it’s an example of Anarchists in state power, with all the apparent contradictions that includes. The peasant Anarchist ideology, with its millennial faith in the coming collapse of all state power, didn’t stop Catalonians from improving agricultural output in Aragon or from organizing factories and supply chains. If they had started these experiments in peacetime they may have overcome the inefficiency of the new system, but they were only possible because of the war. Their main problem was securing capital investments and trade deals: how would they replace old equipment if they couldn’t borrow money from the banks? For that they needed the Republican state. And slowly through the course of the Spanish Civil War the anarchist leadership began more and more to participate in that state. Unfortunately, because of the lack of hierarchy in the anarchist unions there was no mechanism of accountability when Catalonian anarchists began making compromises with the republic for the sake of the war. In the absence of mediating institutions, elections, recalls and so forth, anarchists who felt betrayed could only take to the barricades, which as we shall see they did eventually.
Spain at the dawn of the 20th century was 64% illiterate, and 66% of people worked the land in a primitive, labor intensive way (Beevor, p.9). Poverty was so great that half a million people emigrated between 1900 and 1910. They had a king, “lucky” Alfonso 13. Labor relations of the peasants must be understood as nearly feudal, with laborers essentially stuck on the land that was devoted to monocultures for export. Local bosses could demand the local peasants vote according to the interests of the great landlords. This socio-political hierarchy was by and large reinforced by the church, which maintained the idea of a divine order that put the peasants at the bottom. This is why there was such widespread anticlerical feeling. Local communal bonds meant a great deal more than did the Spanish nation to many living in the rural parts of Spain, and this broader social force constrained the Anarchism of the rural peasant, focusing it on the local dimension, and served therefore as a hindrance, though not in all places an insurmountable obstacle, to solidarity actions across regions. The geographical isolation of the peasant villages made it easier for landlords to suppress unrest (Graham, pp. 3-5).
Spain stayed out of WW1, and made lots of money expanding its industrial productivity to provide for the rest of Europe, which was busy fighting. But production could not keep up with demand and the resulting inflation fell hard on the laboring masses. High unemployment caused mass migration to the cities. In 1923 a military coup lifted Miguel Primo de Rivera into power putting an end to constitutional government. General de Rivera led some important military disasters in Morocco, then a Spanish colony, and pushed forward with costly modernization efforts, the building of highways and hydro-electric dams. The earlier loss of colonies in Cuba and in the Philippines lent to Spanish nationalism all of the resentment of a lost greatness that we find in Germany regarding the loss of WW1, or in France today regarding the loss of Algeria, or in the Southern United States regarding the loss of the Civil War. There was an explosion in the deficit and runaway inflation. Primo enlisted the UGT, basically the socialists’ union, into a system of labor arbitration where state functionaries would arbitrate labor disputes, and this experience may explain some of the aversion to revolution, some of the faith in gradual political reform, that many in the UGT old guard demonstrated throughout the 30s as well as the aversion the anarchist union, the CNT, had to the state formed by the collaboration of socialists and liberals (Graham, p. 13). In 1930 a wave of protests and a general strike swept Primo de Rivera from power. The king fled. A republic was declared with a land-owning lawyer Alcala-Zamora serving as Prime Minister. The fledgling democracy was led by a numerically slight liberal group which depended on the numerically superior Spanish Socialist Party, the PSOE, for its legitimacy (Graham, p. 23). International banks withdrew their money from Spain. In power, the liberals were ineffective at mobilizing mass support and at reforming the old monarchical institutions. The Republic of 1931 was reform minded and decisions were made at the top, and they left implementation to the existing feudal establishment, which promptly sabotaged it.
Starting in the 1930s alongside big state agricultural developments, peasants rapidly joined trade unions in massive numbers: the two largest of these being the anarchist CNT and the socialist UGT(Graham, p. 6). The two unions roughly represented a strain that rejected participation in state power, the CNT, and one that sought it out, the UGT, but the two parties both held a debate around the issue of participation in the state, and the real differences between the two are to be found in the conditions of their constituencies. The CNT was prevalent on the Eastern coast, while the UGT was more influential in the North, in Asturia and Catalonia, though even these categories are generalizations that only approximate who the people supporting these organizations were. Though the left had achieved the dream of several centuries, a democratic Republic, the right successfully obstructed reform legislation in parliament, with the result that working and poor people felt little relief. Boy does that sound familiar! The impasse impacted the left, and the competing identifications, of communal autonomy versus industrial centralization, created serious divides that would weaken the movement. In the Summer of 1931 the Republic put down a rent strike in Barcelona, convincing many there that the new form of government was much the same as the former oppressive one. The labor arbitration system that the Republic set up did not cover unskilled workers, who were left to be organized by Anarchists of the brave direct action type, people like Buenaventura Durruti and Garcia Oliver in their Los Solidarios who with others led the FAI, the Iberian Anarchist Federation which was a hard Anarchist block within the CNT. Los Solidarios were a kind of “three musketeers” or Robin Hood of Spanish labor struggle through the 20s and 30s. Where’s their feature films, cartoons and comic books. Seriously, if that’s a thing hook me up!
In December of 1931 a strike in the village of Badajoz descended into a cycle of violence. The Civil Guards, a part of the military dominated by reactionary ideology, killed a local man when they opened fire on striking workers. The locals then lynched several members of the Civil Guard, who retaliated. The General in charge of the Civil Guard was Jose Sanjurjo, a veteran of the Moroccan wars. Sanjurjo was demoted by then Minister of War Manuel Azana, and that is when Sanjurjo began plotting the coup that erupted in 1936. This event occurred in the broader context of expanding public violence between right wing religion and a radicalized left wing movement: it was the era of church burnings. In a move reminiscent of the French National Assembly’s attacks on church power, the Republic suppressed the church subsidy, and just as in France the Catholic church began to advocate disobedience. To be sure, the Catholic church was much more conservative in Spain than it had been in France, but the point remains that people who identified as Catholic did not feel openly hostile to the Republic until the state attacked and demeaned their religion. Laws barring religion in education were propounded from Madrid, but the Republic itself didn’t last long enough to implement them such was the violent reaction they produced. Catholic reaction became an organizing principle attracting small landowners in central Spain in reaction to Republican anticlericalism, and in 1933 CEDA, the Spanish Federation of Right Wing Groups, was formed with a self declared membership of 700,000. Though Catalonia negotiated a limited autonomy from the Madrid government in 1932, negotiations with the more conservative and religious Basque country for a similar arrangement were slowed by mutual mistrust (Graham, pp. 32-33). The Basques eventually supported the Republic, sort of, in 1936 after the experience of having independence completely blocked by the right wing in power.
The slowness of land reform and inability of the Republican government, which was broke, to respond quickly to the demands of striking workers, who had to be pacified with arms for lack of anything else to give them, eventually led to the Socialist Party splitting from the liberals. The government was premised on ruling coalitions, and the liberals only other potential partner was the conservative CEDA. From this period on, a debate raged within the CNT and the UGT about whether or not to engage in electoral politics at all. Rank and file workers typically did not see a contradiction between direct action and electoral work, but the leadership was split because any time they got close to power, the tradeoffs they had to make made them unpopular. As in Germany, Socialists had participated in a weak government and were blamed for its failures. In response a good number of Anarchists rejected the idea of working with the state power altogether. On top of these problems the socialist party PSOE split over Catalan independence. Catalan socialists split officially from the PSOE and formed the USC, or Catalan Socialist Union. Communists committed to Catalan independence formed the BOC, or Workers and Peasants Bloc. In 1935 the BOC joined with the left oppositionist Trotskyist Izquierda Communista to form the POUM, or Workers Party of Marxist Unification. Leon Trotsky opposed the joining of the left opposition with a nationalist group, so when Stalinists said the POUM was Trotskyist they were wrong and either didn’t investigate the matter or didn’t care. Anyone they disagreed with could be called a Trotskyist, and being a Trotskyist was enough to get you shot. During the period before the Civil War, socialists were in office but their ability to govern was successfully sabotaged by the right wing, and this largely explains why during the civil war it was so difficult to rally to the Republican cause. Broad sectors of society, especially in anarchist Catalonia, did not believe much in the Republic, and even when faced with the immediate threat of Franco it was hard to defend her at times from criticisms from the left some justified and some not. The Republic would be plagued with indiscipline in the ranks of its militias, and that indiscipline no doubt comes in part with the ideological education the liberal failure of the recent past had provided. Attempts to unify left organizations in a single institution, the Workers’ Alliance, failed everywhere except in one place, Asturia. In Asturia, in the North of Spain, because of the massive industry and nearness to ports, the two trade unions’ leaderships in the CNT and the UGT had been forced to work together and this familiarity bred trust.
In October of 1934 somewhere between 15 and 30,000 workers in Asturia rose up. They occupied government buildings, shot important notables and circulated their own currency (Beevor, p. 31). General Franco was ordered to put down the rebellion. 1000 or so people died, and 30,000 were jailed. The accompanying mass strike was led by Largo Caballero and his Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), though Caballero later denied in court having helped with the uprising. Having left the government the year before, and causing a split in the PSOE, Caballero’s group declared that a Bolshevik revolution was necessary. Unlike the Russians, the Spanish Bolsheviks did not have a mass democratic movement that they could ride into power. Anarchist councils already existed in the Unions, and they were disinclined to wanting to take state power. Caballero has been called the Spanish Lenin, but it is doubtful that Lenin would have been so foolish as to broadcast an intention to seize power while leading a small tendency in a larger political party that preferred to defend private property. Not only that, but disastrously the PSOE did not prepare for a revolution, and as much as anyone were completely unprepared to face the officers coup in 1936. Largo Caballero was all talk (Graham, pp. 45-46). The Stalinist Spanish Communist Party took credit for the Asturia uprising to aid their recruitment, and astonishingly claiming responsibility for the disaster in Asturia did attract recruits. The times were desperate, and people were desperate to try anything. The broader progressive movement correctly saw that the far left revolutionaries were bellicose faineants, that is lazy and irresponsible, and so the idea of a Bolshevik style revolution was itself broadly rejected. Aside from that, the next two years saw a widespread movement to unite the left to beat the conservatives. Personally, I think people in Asturia got tired of all the left infighting and decided to take initiative, believing that Caballero would be able to rally the rest of the coalition to their cause. They were tragically mistaken.
Though it stirred the passions of revolutionary minded Spaniards, the rebellion in Asturia was a disaster. The conservative government took advantage of the opportunity to suppress the measure of local autonomy Catalonia had. After this uprising, the political right wing, including conservatives, right liberals and fascists, came to identify the socialist cause with top down socialism, with the domination of a small clique, and part of the far left truly seemed to identify with such a project. Another part of the far left rejected top down socialism without envisioning a democratic state. Racist ideology began to mix with the natural revulsion to left wing authoritarianism in the context of a collapse of confidence in democratic institutions. Do you want fascism? Because that’s how you get fascism. More promisingly, in the aftermath of the failed leftwing revolution, the socialist party was able to rally the masses to a new left electoral front. Manuel Azana became a political superstar touring the country in open air mass rallies. Largo Caballero could see that he was discredited, and before he would agree to the organization of a united left electoral strategy he insisted that the Stalinist Communist Party be included, so that he could blame them later when reform didn’t work. I am sure he regretted this decision later when the communists successfully isolated him from the movement through 1937 (Graham,p.64, Beevor, pp. 258). In any event, had the Republic lasted long enough to be reproached for too slow reforms, Caballero would have shared their discredit.
In February of 1936 Spain had its last free elections for 40 years. The left popular front very narrowly won the elections. With a precarious mandate, the fledgeling democracy was besieged by competing claims. The right wing wanted justice for church burnings, and the left wanted land redistribution. 60,000 Peasants in Badajoz seized land and started working it in the context of a general inability of the market to finance agricultural activity (Beevor, p. 44). Deadly clashes erupted between the Civil Guard, a militarized police force, and peasant groups. Social conditions were reaching a fever pitch of violence, and the Republic didn’t seem capable of playing the role of referee. Looking back it seems clear that the country was on the edge of civil war, but the Republican state found itself unprepared when the ax fell.
Everywhere around Spain the left was rallying to the idea of unity. Rank and file Spanish laborers and socialists saw no contradiction between electoral work and direct action. And yet, the left leadership remained divided at the top. The socialist party was split between people who wanted a strong central government in Madrid and those who wanted an autonomous Catalan zone. The Stalinists aligned themselves with Catalan Nationalism and Largo Caballero’s revolutionary wing of the PSOE, all while recruiting from young urban and middle class groups. The allure of the Soviet Union came from the image it presented as modern and futuristic. I’m posting a link in the transcripts to some contemporary Soviet art of the period (https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/art-and-the-russian-revolution). Think full luxury space communism, or what people in the 70s thought future space travel would be like. In the Spring of 1936 the Socialist Youth Federation joined the Stalinist Spanish Communist Party (PCE), and they followed Caballero’s political line, which was this: the revolutionaries would block socialists from participating in the government as far as possible so as not to have to take the blame for what that government would do. With no money and no real control over the economy, the Republic was stuck much the same way it was in 1931; for lack of a carrot all it could really offer the masses was the stick. The government thus formed was more afraid of the masses than it was of the right wing in the military, and so they never demilitarized public order. The army was in charge of policing the country, and in not challenging this arrangement, and not having a government that had strong relationships with the democratic masses, it was assured that when the right wing coup came the Republic would be defenseless, or almost. In the first 48 hours after the right wing coup was launched, each little region was dependent on the spontaneous self defense of the workers to fight back the reactionary rebellion.
In July of 1936 a group of Spanish army officers launched a military coup throughout Spain. The coup should have been easily foiled, but the incompetence of the Spanish Republican state allowed the right wing military coup to gain a foothold. The workers sensed that this was a life or death moment, having seen for themselves in Asturias in 1934 what the right wing generals had in mind for them. The army was in control of public order, and so the coup played out within much of the organized domestic police apparatus. The liberal prime minister Santiago Quiroga refused to arm the workers, which meant that workers were armed in a limited and clandestine manner in a few places. The crucial first few hours were thus wasted by Quiroga who decided to pretend the coup was not so bad instead of arming the workers whom he feared. The earlier failure of the liberal party to organize the lower middle class, the petty bourgeois shopkeepers and so on, meant that these layers of the population had found conservative and Catholic ideology, and in occupied Spain they submitted to the right wing coup. In a military coup soldiers will typically pause before they begin to murder each other, weighing carefully which side is likely to win, and so to succeed would-be coup plotters must create the impression that their victory is a certainty. The coup began on Friday the 17th of July under the command of General Mola in Morocco. In Morocco officers and soldiers were hardened in battle against an insurgent Moroccan population and were easily won over to the cause of the right wing generals. A full 48 hours later the Republican government finally faced the fact that the Army could not be considered loyal, and Jose Giral, having just been pushed into the position of Prime Minister over Quiroga, dissolved the army by decree and finally ordered the Republic’s arsenals should be distributed to the workers. In the meantime all throughout Spain spontaneous clashes occurred as each army unit waivered regarding its loyalties. It’s a good moment to open a map as you listen along, and I’ll link to one in the transcripts (https://www.lonelyplanet.com/maps/europe/spain/). In places where armed workers arrived first, garrisons were easily won over to the side of the Republic, as was the case in Barcelona and Madrid. In places where determined reactionary officers could call their men to order, or seize radio stations, entire units joined the military coup, as happened in otherwise Republican Seville, Zaragoza and Oviedo in Asturias (Graham, p. 94). In Valencia the military garrison was split, and so the fighting went on for a full week until the CNT finally got the upper hand (Graham, p.95). More than a third of Spain’s territory passed into the hands of the rebels, in traditional conservative strongholds such as Navarre and Alava, all of Old Castile, and after intense fighting also Galicia (Graham, p. 95). On more than one occasion civilian authorities who assumed they had the army’s loyalty declared their allegiance to the Republic and then were arrested by the rebellion and jailed or more likely shot. The rising failed to capture the Navy. The armies of the right wing coup massacred civilian populations, even in places where there was no resistance to them at all, so as to collectively punish the laboring classes as such for having dreamed of equality (Graham, p. 116). In Navarre 2,789 were executed (Beevor, p. 90). In Badajoz the right wing Lieutenant Yague had the local population collected in the bull rings and shot in batches, killing somewhere between 6 and 12 thousand people over the course of a few days (p. 91). In Seville the rebels murdered 8,000, another 10,000 in Cordoba, and 7,000 in Malaga (pp. 91, 93). An estimated 200,000 people in all were murdered by the right wing armies, compared to some 38,000 victims of the red terror that came after and in response to the right wing’s attacks. Victims of the red terror fell mainly in Madrid and Catalonia during the first few months after the coup (Beevor, p. 87). The nationalists continue to purge society in the decades that followed the fall of the Republic in 1939. Quoted in the Graham, the right wing General Mola explained why: “we have to terrorize, we have to show we are in control by rapidly and ruthlessly eliminating all those who do not think as we do.” (p. 117). As in Russia, white terror expressed itself as arbitrary and total, punishing entire populations, while red terror was by and large retaliatory and focused on the agents of Spain's ongoing millennial brutality against the poor, and oftentimes these agents were priests (Graham, p.85; Beevor, pp. 81-101). We shouldn’t excuse any of these acts of violence, but we owe the victims a good faith effort to objectively understand what happened. The violence of the right was directed from the top, and the violence of the left was resisted by left institutions and leadership. The anarchist union, the CNT for instance over the course of the war increased centralized control of its chapters in part to curb such violence, though it must be admitted their ideological prejudice against institutional authority most likely slowed their hand (Graham, p. 88). Graham comments: “But not only had the military coup fragmented the army. By inducing the collapse of Republican government at every level it also massively facilitated the upsurge in popular political violence which followed that collapse. This sudden explosion was primed by rage at what was seen as the rebels’ attempt to put the clock back to old-regime order by force, after their failure by electoral means. Although the intensity of this post-coup popular political violence varied across Republican territory, it was everywhere instigated by urban workers and landless labourers, who directed it overwhelmingly at the sources and bearers of the ‘old power’- whether material (by destroying property records and land registries) or human (the assassination or brutalisation of priests, Civil Guards, police, estate bailifs, and shopkeepers associated with speculative pricing and other exploitative practices). There is a clear link between post-coup popular violence and per-war conflicts” (Graham, p. 85). In the end, the red terror was a key reason that the Republic fell to the fascists, because it inspired a spontaneous grass roots effort among Catholics in the United States to stop America from intervening to aid the Republic (Beevor, pp. 240-242). By the time clear battle lines were drawn a couple weeks after the beginning of the coup, the Republic had a regular military force of maybe 90,000 men, while the rebellion held a force of 130,000 including 40,000 Army of Africa veterans (Beevor, p. 79).
Republican Spain at this point was governed as an uncoordinated federation, with most government functions being carried out by local committees, except in Madrid. Though collectivization did occur in some places, it was by no means uniform. In many places property rights were protected. Even if you don’t read any of the excellent books I’m talking about you should watch Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom: about halfway into the movie there is a scene following a republican victory in a small village the local notables debate land collectivization, and that discussion distills so much of the political debate of the time and the century. Across all left organizations, the proximity of Madrid to the rebel armies focused everyone in that region on the need for centralization of government in defense of the free Republic. Across Catalonia the liberation of local peoples from centuries of despotism inspired resistance to the movement in Madrid for centralization. At the same time, Catalonia and Aragon could have declared their independence right then and there, but they didn’t for the sake of facing the common foe (Beevor, p. 106). The war exacerbated the already existing political divisions, but there was a real tension in the coalescing priorities of the Republicans between their immediate situation and their ideological priors. In Catalonia Anarchists became the police. They became the police. The anarchists. In Madrid the socialists patrolled to prevent the spilling of reactionaries’ blood. The world seemed to be tilted on its head. The difficulty of coordinating the local committees and rallying them to the defense of the Republic was a key factor in how the Republic was lost, and without the Republic all of these local initiatives were to be crushed by the reactionaries.
The Republic had to attempt to form a government that its radical base could believe in, and that is why the complete buffoon Largo Caballero was appointed prime minister on September 4 of 1936 . The loss of Seville, Zaragoza and Oviedo cut off a large region in Northern Asturias that would have supported revolutionary change (Graham, p. 129). The red terror had failed to liquidate the ruling class, but had succeeded in alienating it from the Republic and scaring away potential foreign aid. The Stalinist Spanish Communist Party, the PCE took the lead in state building: people who say they were dominated by the comintern are just wrong (Graham, pp.174-181). It was the PCE that welcomed in the Spanish Army Officers who had not supported Franco, giving them a way to acquire some kind of social acceptance in the Republic. They organized the Fifth Regiment which was to be the core of the Republican Army. They set up medical services, nurseries, literacy drives and film showings (Graham, p. 180). They were trying to accomplish what the left liberals and socialists had failed to do in the early 30s: to unite society in a democratic project of reform (Graham, p. 214) . The rivalry between the PCE and the PSOE, that is communists and socialists, has been exaggerated in order to give fodder to an ideological battle in the US and Great Britain, but more on that later. Unfortunately for the most part these PCE initiatives didn’t do much outside of Madrid until later in the war. Look, I’m not a Stalinist, and ultimately I have strong criticisms for what the Stalinist Comintern and the PCE did in Spain. I think you already know I’m not a fan of Stalin if you’ve listened to the other episodes of this podcast. Wait until we tell the story of Ukraine. Seriously just thinking about it right now pisses me off, but the PCE did a lot of good and was somehow allowed to show initiative (not a common thing amongst Stalinists of the period). Criticism is better if it has a legitimate claim to objectivity, and the PCE as a political project was correctly focused on doing whatever it took to beat Franco, not so much taking orders from Moscow as accommodating the comintern where necessary. When in November of 1936 Stalin’s agents in Madrid asked that the Trotsky associated POUM be excluded from the government, the Spaniards accepted the decision without a fight because none of those present were particularly invested in sticking up for a very small party with a base that was Catalan nationalist. In other words the Spanish were not dominated by the comintern: they had their own reasons for abandoning the POUM (Graham, p. 198). Apart from the PCE, the ruling parties in Catalonia and Madrid were still divided over local autonomy and the centralized state, still held a lot of grudges from the bitter decades in the wilderness they had all just passed through. These social divisions would contribute to the doom of the Republic.
To equip and feed an army requires economics, and economics requires international support typically. The rebellion did not start out with a pre-arranged guarantee of aid from the fascist powers, Mussolini and Hitler, but these figures soon rallied to the side of the Spanish rebellion. Because the Spanish Navy stayed true to the Republic, the insurgent officers had to ask, and promptly received, help from Hitler to transport the Army of Africa into Spain by air. It wasn’t until the summer of 1937 that Franco became the leader of the right wing movement, but long before then he was Hitler’s favorite. Mussolini supplied the rebellion troops and supplies. Hitler supplied airplanes and pilots, who received in this way the training that made them such a powerful force in WW2. Americans were not supposed to aid either side of the conflict, but we now know that Texaco supplied oil to Franco nearly free of charge throughout the war (Hochschild). Despite everything, the rebels could not have won without support from Hitler, Mussolini and Texaco. For nearly a decade in the early 20th century, fascists regularly bombed civilian population centers throughout Europe, beginning in Madrid in August of 1936, nearly 3 years before England and France could find the political will to intervene.
The European masses were split politically, just as the masses were in Spain. The ruling parties in England and France decided not to help defend Republican Spain, in part because they didn’t want to support a polity they saw as dominated by murderous left wing revolutionaries, and in part because their respective domestic politics favored disengagement from possible foreign interventions. In England there was strong public support for pacifism, and the wounds of WW1 were fresh. France’s government, led by the socialist Leon Blum, supplied some minor material aid to the Republic at first and then stopped. Blum was concerned that supporting Republican Spain might inspire a conservative backlash that could jeopardize his domestic reform program (Graham, p. 125). France at any rate was politically split as always, between reactionaries and radicals who all agreed that the problem was the liberal governments of Europe, with perhaps the Spanish Republic included. Instead of buying weapons through a central authority, the Republic ended up relying on purchasing of weapons piecemeal through representatives of the multiple committees that governed Spain at the time, who were bidding against each other and driving the prices up. Presenting a united authority for purchasing military equipment was part of what drove Madrid in the direction of greater centralization of government functions. The Republic had to grant autonomy to Basque country in order to win their cooperation in the war, but that cooperation only went so far. The Republic had to purchase Basque steel on the open market with cash in hand, and production was not centrally oriented to wartime production until very late, the summer of 1937. Add to all of this the fact that while middling and lower class Basques were won over to fighting a defensive war for the Republic, the large industrialists in Basque country were on Franco’s side and they sabotaged industrial production (Graham, pp. 248-250). The only great power left to help the Spanish Republic was the Soviet Union.
I want to frame Russian involvement in the Spanish Civil War by discussing briefly the broader picture of Stalin’s geostrategy. Stalin’s main motivation in this period which culminated in the show trials was fear of his enemies. He was afraid the Poles would tell the world about his forced starvation of the Ukraine starting in 1932. He was afraid that Trotsky’s left opposition would challenge his standing as the leader of the communist movement. He was afraid that Germany or Japan were going to invade Russia. He thought that Japan was angling to begin an imperialist project in Ethiopia, and so Stalin helped arm Mussolini as he invaded Ethiopia. In 2017 we were blessed when a great novel of the Harlem Renaissance, a lost masterpiece, was finally published for the first time. Claude McKay’s Amiable with Big Teeth is a fictional story resulting from a synthesis of real events. In this book, which you should all go read, McKay tells the story of how in the mid 1930s Harlem was the site of a movement to raise money to aid the Ethiopian war effort against Italian imperialism, and how Stalin’s Communist Party worked to co-opt and then sabotage that movement. It’s a novel, but the story it tells is based on real events. There really was an Ethiopian envoy who spoke to churches in Harlem in a good faith effort to raise money for the defense of Ethiopia. The white dominated CPUSA in New York City really did work to co-opt and undermine those efforts. This gives you a good idea of how the international solidarity networks built off of the prestige of the Russian Revolution became tools in Stalin’s chauvinistic geopolitics. Radicals today are fond of saying that the “so-called” democracies of the world should have resisted fascism in Spain to avoid WW2 (they are right), but they don’t as often say the world should have defended Ethiopia. I don’t know why that is, but it’s remarkable. Stalin saw Spain as an opportunity to potentially gain another soviet satellite, a way to tie down Nazi Germany and Mussollini whom he feared and a way to bleed the rival tendencies in the international communist movement. Though ultimately Russians did end up fighting, Stalin’s policy in Spain was to provide advisors, to organize international brigades recruited from around the world, and to supply weapons, the worst of which were reserved for the anarchists and the independent socialists in the POUM. The political line was that in Spain private property rights had to be protected to win over the Spanish middle class to a defense of the republic. That was not a bad tactic for winning support, and the Spanish Communist Party membership ballooned in this period.
In October of 1936, just as the first shipments of weapons and tanks from Russia were arriving in Spain, Franco was poised to attack Madrid. Ideological splits on the left had real consequences for the Republic. In the Fall of 1936 Antonio Mije from the Stalinist Spanish Communist Party, PCE, urged Largo Caballero of the Socialist Party to have the militias begin digging trenches. Caballero told Mije that Spaniards were too proud to hide in the ground. And that is part of why the Republic lost Toledo (Graham, p. 140). Caballero continued to reject common sense advice if it came from his political rivals. In other instances, events pushed political action. Negrin as Treasurer and President Azana pushed for a greater centralization of authority (a) to slow down and halt the red terror that was ruining any possibility of lifting the practical trade embargo that British and French neutrality effectively imposed on Spain, and (b) to muster a sufficient defense against the far right which was committing genocide in rebel held Spain (Graham, pp. 159-161). Negrin was also pushing to nationalize industry in response to the looming shortages caused by the embargo imposed on Spain via European “neutrality.” In the chaos that followed the coup many locals set up their own police patrols, but these completely informal patrols were soon imitated by opportunists, bandits and fifth column fascist saboteurs. When the Republic forced all such patrols into a formal government institution it was a correct move in the direction of stamping out abuses and affirming democratic accountability by police forces (Graham, p. 162). During the siege of Madrid, with widespread and well founded fears of a fifth column of right wing nationalists ready to murder the Republic, Republican officials tasked with transporting military prisoners massacred 1200 of them at Paracuellos. It doesn’t seem as though they were ordered to do it, but the officials in charge turned a blind eye after first hearing about it (Graham, p.193). The drive to centralize the security apparatus and impose discipline came in response to events like this. These were strong enough reasons for someone like Largo Caballero, the Spanish Lenin, to support the professionalization of the Army, the re-establishment of municipal authorities and the imposition of legal limits on, though not outright abolition of collectivization, and further convinced the anarchist trades union, the CNT, to enter the coalition government taking four cabinet positions (Graham, pp. 163, 164). Juan Negrin, a leader in the Socialist Party, wanted to end land expropriation altogether, but could not for the moment. The rapid gains of the libertarians in August had to be curbed but not ended in November to secure the support of the middle class as the new Republic tried to lead society into a life or death conflict, and at any rate these policies were barely implemented at first.
In early November the Madrid government made the mistake of relocating from Madrid to Valencia. They assumed that Madrid would fall, and it showed. The move communicated to the world that they didn’t expect to hold Madrid, and if they didn’t hold Madrid they might have lost international recognition. As the ministers of industry and trade, both of them from the anarchist CNT, and one General Asensio, the chief of the general staff (remember that name - General Asensio) were leaving Madrid they were stopped at a checkpoint by the del Rosal column, the largest of the anarchist militias (Alpert, p. 50). The guards at the checkpoint ordered the ministers to return to Madrid or be shot as cowards. The group backtracked and found another route to Valencia.
In the Battle of Madrid an amateurish force composed of civilian militia, armed workers and foreign volunteers successfully fought back the far superior forces of Franco. General Miaja was put in charge of defense as the government fled, and his briefing had detailed instructions on how to retreat but said nothing of the defense of the city (Graham, p.168). It’s not clear why Miaja didn’t side with the rebels; four years prior he had told Azana that the socialists should all be shot. But the flight of the government had an odd effect on the population, who rallied to the defense of the city with renewed enthusiasm. Miaja was caught up in the general high emotion, and pleased to be so important all of a sudden. He accepted a membership card from the Communist Party, remarking at some point that maybe he could be for the Republic what Franco was for the rebellion. It must be nice to be oblivious in that way. He ended up on the Republican side by chance, but after Madrid his loyalty to the Republican cause was unwavering.
Buenaventura Durruti began his rebellion at the age of 21 when he joined in a railway workers strike in 1917 (Paz). Durruti was the kind of anarchist who organized assassinations, and he had traveled widely throughout latin America including Cuba. In 1936 he led 3,000 armed men to Madrid in order to defend the city. He died in a senseless gun accident, and the Republic claimed him as a martyr. To bolster the war effort the CNT ascribed to him the slogan, which he never actually said, “We will renounce everything except victory.” (Graham, p. 179).
In 2016 Houghton Mifflin published Adam Hochschild’s “Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.” It’s fine. If you want to read about Hemmingway engaging in war tourism and hitting on actresses while he acts tough, then you could read the Hochschild. If you want to actually gain some kind of knowledge about the Spanish Civil War you should skip it and read the Graham. But Hochshild does have all these pleasant little anecdotes to tell, like the time that Paul Robeson sang for soldiers at the front in the frozen battle of Teruel, or the quote from Camus that the title of the book is from. I’ll tell you that quote at the end of the podcast, and then one or two more things from Hochschild and then you can ignore the book entirely and not miss much. In the Battle for Madrid Franco focused his forces on the University City and the Model Prison. Hochschild writes about British volunteers setting up sniping positions in the lecture hall of the Philosophy department and using “the thickest books they could find: metaphysics texts, nineteenth-century German philosophy, and the Encyclopedia Britanica. (In another building, French volunteers were sheltering behind parapets of Kant, Goethe, Voltaire and Pascal).” (Hochschild, p. 84-85). I guess metaphysics is good for something after all!
It would be wrong to say that Stalin was not invested in a Republican victory, and given the very real threat Hitler posed to the Soviet Union the amount of military aid given to Spain was substantial. Half of Soviet military aircraft production in 1936 went to Spain (Graham, p. 153). People make a big deal of the Soviet Union taking the Spanish gold reserves and then manipulating the exchange rate to double their profits, but at the same time they extended credit to Spain even much later in the war when it was clear Spain was not going to be able to pay them back (ibid). People talk about the communist party’s commissars in the military, but there’s not much actually scandalous about that. The commissars in the Spanish militias predate the special relationship between the comintern and the Republic, because the anarchist peasants in those militias didn’t trust the few Army officers who hadn’t joined Franco’s rebellion (Graham, p. 146). Although Stalin saw Spain as an important place to defeat or stall fascism, which he understood as a threat to his interests, he was obsessed with winning the PR battle to attract help from or at least to not irritate Great Britain and France. If he could draw the great powers into an outright fight against Hitler, then it would help him to better secure his own western border.
Stalin’s obsession over how he was perceived by the world made him prioritize public relations over real victories. The military advice his agents gave the Republic certainly turned events in this direction. Real battles were waged so as to create real experiences that could more or less fit into exaggerated versions of what really happened. Failures were explained by fictitious conspiracies to sabotage that were often corroborated by testimonies extracted via torture (Beevor, p. 306). The loss of one of the victims of the show trials in particular was an enormous blow to the Republican cause. When Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky was purged so were his ideas about military strategy (Beevor, p. 196). It just so happened that Tukhachevsky was a pioneer of what is known as the pincer attack, which was the best strategy given the tank technology of the time. This strategy was the tactic that allies used in WW2 to drive back Hitler. In a pincer attack a concentrated line of tanks rapidly pierces the enemies line and then encircles the enemy. Time and time again the Republican forces would execute a rapid advance and then hunker down instead of completing the encirclement, precisely because Russian officers did not wish to be found guilty of ideological aberration and then die in a show trial. This happened at the battles of Brunette in July of 1937 (Beevor, p.282), Saragossa in August and September of 1937 (Beevor, p. 298), Teruel in December of 1937 (Beevor, p. 316). In the Battle of the Ebro, the Republic rushed troops to the other side of an enormous river where they could not be easily provisioned late in the war when the Nazis clearly had air superiority. The plan was audacious and ruinous and suicidal. In choosing offensives in these places, Russian advisors were trying to win the Public Relations battle to show that the Republic could win. That PR battle was already lost. Americans and Brits were too pacifist, and too ready to believe exaggerated stories about red terror. The French were too divided. Stalin was content to sacrifice the best of the international movement in pointless and doomed engagements to improve his image. Confidence men like Ernest Hemmingway were on board with this agenda, until years later when For Whom the Bell Tolls revealed the terrible truth. Hemmingway lied about the men fighting the Civil War while they died, and by feeding this machine of illusions he bears some responsibility for its consequences, and then “honored” their memory with criticisms after their deaths. Unlike Hemmingway, George Orwell actually fought as an infantryman for the Spanish Republic, was shot in the neck and then returned home to tell the complicated truth, that Spain’s only friend Russia was exploiting the conflict to bleed Stalin’s enemies in the left movement, the anarchists and independent communists. No wonder that discipline was a problem, or that soldiers on the Republican side mutinied when given orders to suicide missions. The Stalinists in Republican Spain soon set up camps for deserters and other political subversives, one of which was called Camp Lukacs, but it wasn’t named after the famous Hungarian Marxist thinker by that name. The purges and show trials followed them to Spain. One of the Russian advisors sent to help the Spanish Republic was Antonov Ovseyenko. Ovseyenko stormed the Winter Palace in 1917. He opposed attempts to break up the anarchist communes in Catalonia, and for his bravery he was recalled to Moscow and executed (Beevor, p. 156). This was around the same time that Stalin’s agents sabotaged an effort to grant Morocco independence in exchange for Moroccan fighters withdrawing from combat against the Republic (Beevor, p. 155). Antony Beevor cites Russian State Archives which show Antonov-Ovseenko was working with the Catalan government and the national committee of Morocco to exchange financial support and independence for Moroccans starting an uprising against Franco. To his discredit, Largo Caballero was cool to the idea. Moroccans were fighting on the side of Franco because he had promised them independence, while the Republic had not wanted to lose its colony. The Moroccans were some of the most feared and skillful soldiers on the field, and Franco encouraged them to commit acts of mass rape as punishment for areas that were sympathetic to the Republic. Stalin didn’t want Moroccan independence because he thought it would upset England and France, whom he was trying to be friendly with. I sympathize with those who say that the Republic needed a revolution against the bourgeoisie, especially when the bourgeoisie were such easy partners with Stalinists who violated every civil right except the property rights of the big landowners.
Working against the centralizing tendencies was the blossoming of an anarchist project centered in Catalonia.
The government in Madrid saw these initiatives as a liability. In January of 1937 the Socialist Party and the Communist Party made an alliance so as to better unify and coordinate the defense against Franco (Graham, p. 201). Victorio Codovilla was an Italian who had represented Argentina in the comintern in 1924, and then served as liaison for the comintern in Spain during this period (Drachkovitch, Payne). Codovilla was pushing to unite the PCE and the PSOE against Stalin’s wishes (Graham, p. 205). Stalin didn’t want to exacerbate tensions between the two historically opposed groups. Was the PCE plotting against Caballero as Beevor seems to suggest? Maybe, but Stalin was not. Caballero was playing Stalin’s tune, wooing the great powers with all the right kind of pro-private property talk and policy. Caballero was undermined by his own incompetence, already displayed in his handling of the Asturia crisis in 1934 and confirmed in the poor to negligible defense of Malaga which fell in February of 1937 with a resulting massacre of at least 4,000 civilians at the hands of the reactionaries. Caballero was blamed for appointing Carlos Asensio Cabanillas as chief of the General Staff. Asensio had had 30 militiamen shot for desertion despite them being untrained, and in case you didn’t remember his name he was one of the ministers stopped by a CNT roadblock as they fled Madrid. The anarchists had threatened to shoot Asensio for cowardice if he didn’t return to Madrid. The Malaga disaster plus all the rest of this in Asensio’s past led to popular pressure to have him removed, which happened in February of 1937. Of course Caballero claimed that all of this, including the fall of Malaga, was part of a treasonous plot by the communists, the anarchists, the POUM and so on (Beevor, p. 202): it provides ready material for people of any ideological tendency to find proof that whoever they oppose is wrong about Spain. The common one I’ve seen is that the Stalinists were manipulating the PCE in order to take over the Spanish Republican government. Now, had the Republic won the war Stalin would likely have tried something like that, but if you compare the history of Soviet Ukraine to that of Soviet Poland you will see how important geography and time can be to relative degrees of Stalinist domination (Snyder, p. 369). In the early 50s the Polish communists were able to stop a purge, the so-called Doctor’s purge, that was going on in Moscow from spreading to Poland. It doesn’t seem likely to me that Spain would have been another Ukraine. I could be wrong, but we’ll never know because we cannot replay history with one or two variables changed. Contrary to Beevor, Graham doesn’t see any communist plot against Caballero, and I tend to agree with her. At any rate, she had a lot more resources to draw on for her story in 2002 than Beevor did in 1984, and people who just read what Caballero’s supporters were writing probably got the impression there was a conspiracy against him.
Catalonia, the region of Spain around Barcelona, was the site of the most audacious social and political experiments. Hochschild gives a pretty good overview of what was happening, complete with the impressions the scene made on Charles and Lois Orr, two Socialists from Kentucky on their honeymoon: “Barcelona’s Ramblas was dazzling,” she wrote... ‘Red, yellow, green and pink handbills and manifestos floated about our feet. Bright lights on… cafes, restaurants, hotels and theaters lit up red or red and black banners saying Confiscated, Collectivized, CNT-FAI or Union of Public Performances.’ Throughout Republican Spain, more than a million urban laborers and some 750,000 peasants were now in businesses or on farms newly controlled by their workers. In towns and cities the 2,000 enterprises involved included not just factories but ranged from warehouses to flower shops. Thousands of big landowners and urban businessmen fled to France. Nowhere had the old order been overturned more thoroughly than in Catalonia, where workers had taken over more than 70 percent of all places of employment. There was still a Catalan regional government, but real power lay in the hands of thousands of workers’ collectives. It seemed to Charles Orr that these collectives ran everything: ‘They opened clinics and hospitals in lush private villas… Every automobile in the street was decorated with the initials and colors of one or another workers’ organization. There were no more private cars.’” (p. 53). The collapse of the state that followed the officers’ coup led in July of 1936 in Catalonia, as it did everywhere in Spain, to a contest for power fought out in the streets. The elites of Catalonia were generally in favor of Catalan independence, and so they supported the workers’ militias in their fight against the ultra centralist rebels. Once the fighting was over, the anarchists found that there was no state authority. What now? Just the previous May the anarchists had held a conference where they “affirmed that each political philosophy should be allowed to develop the form of social coexistence which best suited it” (Beevor, p. 106). In practical terms this seems to have meant developing anarcho-syndicalism where they could and not challenging the liberal government. The President of Catalonia at the time was Lluis Companys, and he publicly declared that the anarchists had all authority in Catalonia, but that if they would still accept his assistance, he would help them fight the reactionaries. In order to unite in the fight against the military rising and to defend themselves from the Marxists in government, CNT leadership acquiesced to sharing power, and on the 21 of July they took up the departments of defence, transport and public order on the Central Anti-fascist Militia Committee, the CAMC (Graham, p.218). Though the threat of Franco was real, it’s meaning was slow to change the libertarian predispositions of Catalans. By September they had agreed to dissolve the Militia Committee and join the Generalitat, and by October they had joined the Madrid government. In the moment after July 1936, with the CNT’s armed forces in control of the physical space, they felt confident that as they partnered with the Generalitat that they would be the senior partners (Graham, p.220). This nonresistance to liberal governance was an explicit rejection of the Leninist idea of creating a dual power and then on Lenin’s version of Leninism riding a democratic upsurge into state power. The system of collectivized production had certain inefficiencies, maybe in better times they could have been worked out. Collectivization certainly got blamed for certain failings that were actually just caused by the war, but the need for centralized planning was felt everywhere and it gave the liberals the advantage of speaking to felt needs as an opposition. What could not be made to happen in a few months in the Fall of 1936 was the establishment of workers councils over and above the organizations that already existed. When Felix Morrow blames the anarchists for selling out the revolution, he is repeating the error of Liebknecht and of the original Blanquists: imagining a small group with nothing more than a correct idea can freeze the waterfall of history and command society. It’s easy to see the political failure of the POUM, their political isolation from the movement, in the wider context of the tragedy of the fall of the Republic, as signifying a path not taken. But the POUM embodied all of these contradictions even in its internal politics. They were right to denounce the show trials, but that hardly helped anyone in the fight against Franco. They did call for revolution, but they also publicly declared that the POUM would “uphold [the middle classes’] economic claims… within the framework of the revolution” (Graham, p. 236) and then also tried to join the liberal Republic, for much the same reasons everyone else did. The mass of the POUM’s support was not loyal to the left opposition or to Andreu Nin, but to the Catalan nationalism of the BOC, the Workers and Peasants Bloc that had joined Nin’s much smaller group in 1935. The former BOC members were loyal to the POUM and BOC leader Joaquin Maurin, who from the beginning of the conflict was in a jail in rebel held territory (p. 236). In these circumstances the POUM could not expect anything beyond political isolation.
There was hardly any distinction between the Catalan liberal Generalitat and the PSUC, a Catalan nationalist and democratic socialist party headed by Joan Comorera, who saw a merger with the liberal Esquerra as an opportunity to get the upper hand over his rival party, the independent communist POUM. The PSUC experienced an influx of new members, attracting small tenant farmers and sharecroppers who were shocked by certain libertarian excesses, or criminal opportunism depending on your point of view. Peasants were indignant at the CNT’s grain requisitions, and small farmers were resistant to collectivization. This was the majority tendency in Valencia and Catalonia, where collectivization efforts focused on industry (Graham, p. 223). In nearby Aragon some 75% of land was collectivized, and single families were allowed to keep as much land as they could work without hiring labor (Beevor, p. 112). Production in Aragon went up by a fifth. Interestingly, the part of Aragon around Teruel in the west was where the CNT was strongest, and those areas had fallen to Franco. In the more rural Eastern part where there was not previously a strong CNT presence, anarchist militia, not locals, collectivized this land; notwithstanding, they didn’t meet with much opposition. The anarchists outlawed wage labor, and so people accepted collectivization as the new law of the land, until requisitioning began and then people resisted.
Within the government of Catalonia liberal and communist political power soon overcame the position of the anarchists. This has often been described as a communist and liberal plot backed up by the force of the increasingly powerful comintern backing the Madrid government. This version of events ignores what the Spanish masses were actually doing. There was a growing movement against anarchy because of the terrible war against Franco. The old liberal idea that the state’s purpose is to protect the lives of its citizens was pressing and urgent in the lived experience of the Spanish people, but also the loss of European imports and large parts of Spain’s agricultural potential increased internal displacement of refugees and compounded the food crisis over time. The harvest of 1936 was very good, but it only went so far. The crisis began to sharpen in the first months of 1937. The Stalinist PSUC and the liberal Esquerra, the Catalan counterparts of the PCE and the PSOE, felt the need to centralize food distribution. There was a clear need for rationing, identified by both the CNT and the POUM (Graham, p. 256). Barcelona was overwhelmed by refugees fleeing the horrors of Franco’s Spain. The liberal communist government disbanded the anarchist supply committees, not all of whom were double dealing. They thought that just as in Russia under the New Economic Policy, allowing the peasants to sell their grain on the market would discourage hoarding. There were a few problems with this. Catalonia was a net importer of grain in a market that was now largely cut off from foreign supply. Freeing the grain market hence did nothing to increase supply or reign in speculation, inflation and the expanding of a black market which were already a problem, but the Generalitat became identified with causing these problems. The Catalonian Generalitat finally replaced the supply committees with groups that did not understand local needs and supplied them instead of from product expropriated by anarchist committees, with what the government could afford on the market, which was less and less. When the government did crack down on the black market it sparked further resentment in the population because it meant clearing out street vendors and offending powerful and ancient smuggling interests. Locals in Barcelona might have family in the nearby countryside they could get farm products from, but the refugees from other parts of Spain did not. In order to make the food distribution work well enough to keep most people alive in a fair way, the security apparatus had to be centralized. In March the state consolidated security forces under a single command and outlawed the worker’s patrols, which continued anyway. Disarming the patrols was a slow and occasionally deadly process. To poor people living in Barcelona, these Republican policemen felt exactly the same as the policemen who had helped evict rent strikers before in 1931. The impression grew that the Republic was not worth defending. The split in the Republican forces was coming to a head.
A protest movement grew, led by the CNT, FAI and the POUM. The situation worsened throughout 1937 reaching a nadir with a large price hike on April 14th. The Catalan police, while investigating the murder of a UGT leader and PSUC member Roldan Cortada arrested several CNT leaders and ended up in a shoot out where they killed Antonio Martin. Martin was a longstanding anarchist, and had gone from being a smuggler to being a CNT customs agent. The increasing political isolation of the anarchists gave the liberal government a foothold to begin closing in on the factory committees. From Graham: “By April 1937 the Generalitat was refusing to certify factory councils’ ownership of exported goods tied up in foreign ports pending the resolution of legal suits lodged by former owners” (p. 264).
On May 3rd a group of Republican police seized the Telefonica in the Plaza de Cataluna. The Telefonica was the communications hub of the region and the anarchists had occupied it since the coup in July of 1936. Losing the telefonica effectively isolated the CNT from the union control committee and meant they could not directly listen in on conversations between the Catalan Generalitat and the government in Madrid (Beevor, p. 263). Up until that point the Republic had more or less tacitly allowed the Anarchist seizures of property in Catalonia. The Anarchist militias on the Aragon front had to choose between standing guard against Franco on a front that was quiet for the moment, or returning to Barcelona to fight the Republic. That is the Spanish Civil War in microcosm. Within 24 hours word of mouth had mobilized the entire city. Barricades went up all around the center of Barcelona with Catalans, refugees and international volunteers taking sides or ending up on sides almost at random. In reality, the Republic couldn’t stand on its own without the help of the Anarchists, wherever that led politically, but nor could they fight Franco without carefully managing scarce resources, a task made impossible by ongoing anarchy in Catalonia. The version of events according to which Stalin and the liberals crush the anarchists just to win the great powers over to supporting the Republic is only half true: the conflict in Barcelona was driven just as much by local needs and politics. Rather than describing the May days in Barcelona in terms of local pawns in the thrall of the soviet union, Graham describes the divide by its local dimensions: “The political temperature rose further as Roldan Cortada’s funeral turned into a demonstration of state power in the form of a long march past of armed police and troops. While this reflected middle-class fears that the recent violence might herald a return of the feared paseos [anarchist red terror], the blatant rehearsing of the state’s repressive capacity and moral panic inducing editorials in Barcelona’s liberal republican press (including Treball, the PSUC newspaper) were fatal components in the accumulation of social and political tensions… The assault on the Telefonica focused the resisters’ energies on the city centre where all the political and economic machinery of government was concentrated - in close proximity to the most volatile of popular neighborhoods, the Barri xines (literally, ‘Chinese Quarter’), which had long constituted the front line between ‘respectable’ and ‘outcast’ Barcelona. Indeed, the force of the initial May explosion is explicable only if one bears in mind the longstanding connection between the ‘outcast’ city and the CNT. While the appearance of the barricades constituted an act of conscious ‘political’ contestation, the CNT’s direct action was also mediating more amorphous, ‘pre-political’ forms of popular resistance. The CNT was, once again, functioning as a lightning conductor in inner-city Barcelona, transforming both a shared history of persecution and the perception among the city’s marginalised of the connection between state action (public order, food supply and so on) and the brutality of daily life into generalised support for street action as active protest ‘against the state’. This was what confronted liberal Catalonia and its police force in central Barcelona on 4 May.” (pp. 266, 268). What’s more, the CNT controlled anti-aircraft guns from nearby Monjuic Hill, from which they could have bombarded the government buildings in the city center (Graham, pp. 268-274). CNT leadership scrambled to end the crisis without bloodshed. Garcia Oliver, an important anarchist leader during the defense of Barcelona during the July coup and a close comrade of Durruti during the brutally violent labor struggles of the 1920s, gave an impassioned appeal over the radio for a ceasefire. In that speech he discusses arriving in Barcelona and kneeling to kiss the forehead of a fallen anarchist, and then further on kneeling to kiss the forehead of a cop. The speech was believed to be given under duress, or it was mocked as ‘the Legend of the Kiss,’ which was the title of a popular Opera, or it was denounced as a betrayal, but Oliver and his comrades in CNT leadership were working to avoid the very real possibility that Madrid would have to dispatch military units to put down an uprising in Catalonia, a region whose industrial production the Republic could not afford to lose especially as Franco’s forces began making progress in the northern Basque country. In the event, the CNT’s anti-aircraft guns remained silent, and the Republic was spared further mass internal bloodshed. The group in the Telefonica surrendered, and soon enough the city was pacified. The anarchists could not continue their rebellion, because with their leading figures on the other side of the barricades, they had no backup chain of command to direct their activities. On the Aragon front the anarchist line held, barely. CNT action in Barcelona remained defensive, despite the POUM leader Andreu Nin’s active agitation urging the anarchist leaders to side with their rank and file members on the barricades. When it became clear the CNT leaders would not join an open rebellion against Madrid, the POUM also agreed to a ceasefire. Concerning the political path taken by the anarchists during the Spanish Civil War Graham summarizes the process in this way: “Certainly for some the war had reinforced pre-existing views in favour of modifying anarcho-syndicalist practice to allow the incorporation of the CNT within parliamentary politics. But for many more -although they did not consciously moot it, still less articulate it in public - the war’s overwhelming practical imperatives had greatly problematised ideological resistance to centralised forms of organisation. Yet most of these resources remained in liberal hands. This, plus the limited capacity of CNT organisational forms to integrate and centralise, saw the force of attraction exerted by the liberal state over anarcho-syndicalist leaders increase as the war itself escalated. The very real needs of the war effort saw both CNT and FAI leaders increasingly incorporated into the governing machinery of the liberal state, leaving isolated and uncomprehending sectors of their own cadres and social base whose daily experience led them to continue to resist its encroachment.” (Graham, p. 278).
From early in this podcast, from as far back as the discussion over Louverture’s suppression of the Moise rebellion, I have tried to point out that there are always tradeoffs to be made when one wields power. Our left movement today has no real sense of that because it has not held power in our lifetimes, but there is a history where the left has held power that we can learn from. By studying that history we can better understand power: what it is and how to get it. But we can also learn humility: people in the past, people like Garcia Oliver and Karl Kautsky, were not absolutely free, they could not snap their fingers and create a world where the trade offs they made were entirely pure or free from any downside. But they could make the situation better. They refused to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. They are not saints, but they are also not devils. It is untenable and unrealistic to continue thinking about politics as if it were a comic book where there are good guys and bad guys. We have to think of the grey areas, and begin being helpers instead of would-be saviors.
The great powers were not going to come to assist the Republic. In the end the Republic won the battle for the telefonica. Maybe had the anarchists more energetically entered the Madrid government, unified their own police force, centralized production in Catalonia, maybe they could have held onto some of their gains at the expense of other things. Maybe they could have convinced Madrid to expand the guerrilla war against Franco. Maybe the Republic could have held out longer had they chosen a different path, had they chosen to affirm the Anarchist zones prerogatives, or given Morocco its independence, but if that’s the case probably Hitler doesn’t invade Czechoslovakia until Spain is settled anyway and events just get delayed. Or if the Stalinists had sent better or more weapons to Spain, but likely they couldn’t without compromising their own defense against Hitler later. Then they lose Spain and Russia to fascism. Or if French workers had organized a blockade of Hitler’s weapons, but that may have caused a civil war in France whose outcome was deeply uncertain. All of these possibilities seem very unlikely, but they are more likely than that the anarchists should stop being anarchists or that the liberals should stop being liberals in the span of just a few months. We shouldn’t understate the importance of international geopolitics in shaping the conditions the Spanish Civil War was waged under, but we should understand what happened in Spain as being driven by the actions, will and political calculations of Spaniards, who after all were not puppets of Stalin, Churchill, Satan or Trotsky.
The debate around the Spanish Civil War, and its meaning for the English speaking world is a topic worthy of a whole ‘nother podcast, but the issue basically functions as a Rorschach test. What people say about it usually says more about who they are than it does about real events. Very few commentators on the Spanish Civil War pay close attention to the political debates or ideas that drove the Spanish in the 1930s, and Helen Graham has offered us an antidote to the culturally chauvinistic attitude of left pundits that doesn’t center the Spanish in their own conflict. She rightly points out that centering our own politics, using Spain as an example of why we are right about whatever, without considering what the Spanish thought and did, is a kind of cultural imperialism. In the transcripts I’m linking to a brief talk she gave in 2010 along these lines (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3UcoZzWWQIk). The anarchists will say many contradictory things as usual, but mainly they will see in the Spanish events a firm rebuttal of top down socialism, its bankrupt capitulation to bourgeois liberalism. Stalinists will see the failure of anarchist indiscipline. Trotskyists will see a rebuttal of top down socialism, a failure of anarchist indiscipline and a missed opportunity to revive real proletarian revolution against Stalin. The success of the Catalonian communes and Aragon farming collectives, the socialization of the land and factories, really does vindicate the practicality of a certain kind of anarchism. Those communes could not continue to succeed without a connection to a world market, and those factories could not be best mobilized to the war effort without centralization. The Stalinist show trials really did sap the democratic legitimacy of the Republic: the overbearing way the PCE drove decision making, especially regarding where to fight and what to report, really did work to delegitimize the Republic. The Republic and it’s liberal champions lacked a support base both among the Spanish people and the international community. The Trotskyists and the POUM really didn’t have a strong social base, and weren’t going to be able to summon a revolutionary democratic upsurge beyond Catalonia out of thin air. At any rate Largo Caballero had already branded the Leninist idea as a lot of empty verbiage, which it often is. The explosion in the membership of the communist party during its propaganda campaign for bourgeois democracy and the protection of private property really did mobilize the middle class and the youth in support of the Republic. The bourgeois government really did fail to defend itself by arming the workers, who as individuals and small groups were the frontline resistance to the generals coup, especially in the crucial first 24 hours after the coup. The Republic and the left failed in the decades leading up to 1936 to attract key constituencies in the small landowners and shopkeepers, and exacerbated the alienation of Catholics to the Republican project. The Spanish Republic, and what was democratic in it, could have been defended with robust support from liberal England and France, the earlier the better, or even if these international powers had been serious about stopping foreign aid to Franco, but in staging military engagements to lure this aid from England and France the PCE dominated Republic was sabotaging the war effort for the sake of Soviet propaganda. Stalin’s agents did make unnecessary sacrifices of the Republic’s military and materiel for the sake of empty and useless propaganda. The POUM was right to denounce the show trials, which with the murder of Antonov-Ovseyenko, Tukhachevsky and so many others, highlighted the abandonment of civil rights by a communist movement in crisis. All of these things are true. All at the same time.
Helen Graham distills the problem down to the difficulty the Republic had in “how to instill war consciousness and, linked to that, an idea of the ‘necessary state’ in the differing social constituencies’ (p. 129). The anarchist communes, separatist and revolutionary movements placed competing claims on the Republic that it was ill equipped to mediate given the immediate crisis it was born into. In large part, it was this failure of the Spanish republic to own itself, to have trusted leadership and committed membership that led to its downfall. Those are the subjective conditions for what happened. There was much that the Republic couldn’t change on the international scene. On the world stage there was a collapse of international solidarity: it was not just the French, American and British governments that failed to respond to the Spanish struggle against fascism. The French, American and British people, aside from a tiny minority of brave volunteers who fought for the international brigades, were all split about what to do, if anything, about fascism and Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini and about Spain. They were split and polarized and neutralized by a prevailing loss of faith in democratic institutions, an overpowering illiberalism, a growing pessimism regarding democracy and human rights that cut across ideological lines of right and left, and a strong isolationist and pacifist mood. What happens in the world is the most just thing that can be. What the most just world possible is going to be is something we will continue to struggle over, maybe forever. What happens in the world is also a product of what everyone wants, or will put up with. In the 30s everyone wanted a great mass of contradictory things. They got a massive contradictory outcome, and it was not the greater community that benefitted, but rather those whose convictions were the strongest that overcame all the rest. There seem to have been enough people of good will to have been able to resist the fascists, perhaps well enough to prevent all of Europe from erupting into war, if a dozen or so decisions had been made a different way, but the divisions in the international progressive movement ultimately proved insurmountable. The fascists on the other hand demonstrated an unlimited and unwavering solidarity across national differences. The parallels with the present moment could not be more striking.
Whenever I approach this material I initially feel a little confused. The facts don’t seem to fit whatever narrative I bring to them. And then slowly as I progress a more unified theorem develops, and I feel I’ve learned something about my own politics. I encourage you to do the same: the material will reward whatever time and effort you give to it. Engage with this material, and let it change you. Then come back to it every few years. I leave you with the Camus quote from Hochschild I promised you: “Men of my generation have Spain in our hearts… It was there that they learned… that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, and that there are times when courage is not rewarded.” (Hochschild, p. xvii).
monarchy abdicates and military dictatorship ends
Asturian Commune defeated
through January 1936
defeat leads to the “two black years” of a
February--Popular Front wins national elections
March--Popular Front elected in France
July--Franco leads military uprising, seizing control of Morocco
February--major offensive against Madrid
May--uprising in Barcelona
June--key city of Bilboa captured by Franco
April--Franco splits Republic in two
February--Britain and France recognize Franco’s government
April--Republicans unconditionally surrender
CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo - National
Confederation of Labour)
main federation of anarcho-syndicalist trade unions, strongest on the Eastern coast, disinterested altogether in reform
FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation)
founded in 1927 as a faction within the CNT to promote a hard Anarchist line
PCE (Partido Comunista de España - Communist Party of
The Stalinist CP was very weak at outbreak of civil war, but
came to dominate popular front government
PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español - Spanish Socialist
A Democratic Socialist party which was split when Largo Caballero announced his support for a ‘Bolshevik’ takeover of power
PSUC (Partit Socialista Unifacat de Catalunya - Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia)
Split from the PSOE in favor of Catalonian independence, formed from the union of several smaller parties but mainly from the USC, or Catalan Socialist Union.
UGT (Unión General de Trabajadores - General Union of Workers)
PSOE’s union, strongest in the industrial North, split between an old guard that preferred gradual change after suffering a terrible defeat in 1917 and an energetic young leadership (Graham, 8).
POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista - Worker’s Party
of Marxist Unification)
Formed by a merger of the Trotskyist Left Opposition with a petty bourgeois Catalan nationalist party
Alpert, Michael. The Republican army in the Spanish civil war, 1936-1939. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Beevor, Antony. The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939. Hachette UK, 2012.
Drachkovitch, Milorad M. Biographical dictionary of the Comintern. Hoover Press, 1986.
Graham, Helen. The Spanish Republic at War 1936-1939. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Hochschild, Adam. Spain in our hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.
McLaughlin, Paul. Anarchism and authority: A philosophical introduction to classical anarchism. Routledge, 2016.
Payne, Stanley G., and Stanley G. Payne. The Spanish civil war. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Paz, Abel. Durruti in the Spanish revolution. AK Press, 2007.
Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. Random House, 2011.
Art: Spanish Civil War poster “Never” https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/collection/bb06157271
Cloud City by Andres Cantu
Else by Harry Koniditsiotis
June 23rd, 2020 | 59 mins 45 secs
activism, anarchism, assad, berniesanders, communism, democratic, fascism, germany, hitler, jacobin, jacobin magazine, karl leibknecht, katie halper, lenin, leninism, limonov, max blumenthal, national socialism, progressivism, putin, red brown, revolution, rosa luxembourg, russia, russian revolution, socialism, socialist, southern poverty law center, splc, stalin, strategy, the russian revolution, the spanish civil war, trotsky, useful idiots, victor serge
[extensive fact checking of Reid-Ross' Multi-Polar Spin article at the bottom]
On April 25th I was blessed to be able to interview Alexander Reid-Ross. Before our interview he was good enough to give written responses to my questions, and those are presented below.
How would you like to be introduced on the podcast?
Alexander Reid Ross, PhD candidate at Portland State University and doctoral fellow at Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right
How is your plague experience going?
Not bad, home schooling the kid and polishing up my dissertation at the moment.
How important is leg day?
It’s a significant factor in a healthy regimen. You don’t want to do leg day until you have confidence in your upper body, but leg day can really help you with some of those other exercises in unexpected ways. Also, you don’t want to give the impression that you’re only there to work on glamour muscles. The fact is that everyone respects leg day, but not everyone can get there, which is fine. It’s important for people to have the freedom in the gym to go at their own pace and live their own lives without trying to fill everyone’s expectations. It’s easy for a gym to fail by not being a good environment for people to grow and live up to their self-image of who they want to be. So the really important thing is that we have different hopes and wants, and we can help each other along the way.
How did you first get interested in radical politics?
I had a diverse group of friends in elementary school who helped me open my mind about a lot of things. I always looked up to MLK, and thought civil rights extended to LGQT people who made up the broader community of my friend groups back then. We made an AIDS quilt together, shoplifted from a local grocer, and dumpster dove in back allies because we didn’t have much else to do and no money to spend. When I got the chicken pox in 5th grade, I stayed at home for two weeks listening to Nirvana, Madonna, and Weird Al, and decided that school was a cog in a factory system that churns out stereotypes ill befitting of the complexity of human relationships. So I decided at that young age to try to “be myself,” whatever that meant. I was a sort of mischievous anarchist puck until I got out of college. I read a ton of philosophy and Marxist literature, doing odd jobs until the economic recession put me on the street. I squatted and took up dumpster diving again until I joined the Earth First! Journal and from there worked my way back into academics.
What is your understanding of how the Nazi party gained power in Germany? What lessons are there for us in that history?
There’s so much that your historical account articulates that’s true—a lot of blame to go around, for sure. The Depression was perhaps most responsible, because the Nazis existed on that street level and built infrastructure for people disenfranchised from political life. They were a motley fringe, and when unemployment skyrocketed, reality fell apart, and their syncretic mythopoesis provided a way for people to restructure their lives around “self-help.” The Conservatives were the actors who actually facilitated the Nazis’ rise most effectively, and also in a totally haphazard and foolish way. The Center Party and the Peoples Party used the Nazis to try to get the upper hand on one another, while also encouraging the paramilitary forces. The main issue with this cut throat polity is that they didn’t expect or anticipate the future backfire. And lastly, the left became from the start a fractured force that undermined itself at every turn. After the Depression, the public did not trust the SPD, while the KPD worked with the Nazis to undermine both the SPD and the mainstream conservatives. So I think the political situation was frenzied without a lot of clear thinking and with a lot of emphasis on cloak-and-dagger betrayal.
Paxton writes about a phase of a fascist movement where the leadership is sort of the guest of conservative forces and has to work to somehow expand its power. How far do you think Trump’s movement has gone in expanding its reach?
I think the Trump case is fascinating, because it skipped the total fascist state phase. It used fascists to enter power, and has aspects that are fascist—particularly visible in immigration policy. It works toward an authoritarian-conservative world system, though, which incorporates international fascist groups. It’s hard to say how much these groups have benefited from Trump. The answer is likely complex. Some fascists have been able to enter prominent positions, but the street-level fascist movement does not think Trump ultimately supports their goals, and some regret supporting him. I think there was an arc where fascist groups tried rearing their ugly face in public at Charlottesville, were disgraced immediately by their own members, and then went into a terrorist phase, which appears to have been unwound by important FBI actions earlier this year. They’re in disarray at this point. Although white nationalists have climbed important structural ladders under Trump, this can also be undone. The important thing now is to repudiate their academic positions, eugenics, and so forth, so that they can’t root into the public consciousness.
In your personal experience, is the Spanish Civil War still a big deal in radical circles? Do you have a favorite story from the Spanish Civil War?
The Spanish Civil War was more significant when the left support for the YPG/YPJ returned to that Bookchinite evangelism for veterans of the war and for rescuing its legacy. I had never heard of it until I visited Barcelona in 2008. In Spain, it’s obviously extraordinarily significant. It was also significant in the legacy of post-war revolution and anti-colonialism, as you find autogestion policies in the early years of Algerian independence and elsewhere. The intellectuals who were involved—Hemmingway, Orwell, and Hughes, for instance—left their mark on our aesthetic memory, and its cultural importance can be seen with recent films like Pan’s Labyrinth. Its complexity is also extremely important, and the legacy is often left behind, due to the conflicts that arose within the Popular Front, which was itself a fairly unique model based on important discourses taking place in the mid-1930s that differed from the Second International blocs (like the SFIO-involved Bloc des gauches or the SPD-KPD drama in Germany). In a way, it is more of a wound than a glorious history. And when you look at what has happened in Syria, the splits and factionalism, the sectarianism, I suppose that the comparisons and the relavence of the war remains in the terrible defeats and terror of the left.
What is your understanding of why the Spanish Republic was lost?
The easy answer is that Republic was lost because it did not receive support from the Anglo-American alliance, although Hitler and Mussolini sent support to Franco. Sending equipment to the Spanish government, which was being invaded by its own army, would have made a significant difference, and could have forestalled Hitler’s quest to conquer the world, saving millions of lives. Instead the West left ramshackle groups of anarchist militias, Trotskyite subversives, and Stalinists to fend for themselves against a formidable opponent. However, when you get into the granular details of the Falangists and other far-right parties, you will find that, working within the state were serious political agents who sought to devastate the left through brutal violence as well as censure. They chased left-wing politicians out of many towns throughout the country, hounded journalists, and set the stage for the Franquista invasion. And deeper still, Republican agents made huge mistakes, like the political assassination of a highly regarded Catholic politician, Calvo Sotelo, shortly after their greatest electoral victory. There were waves of church burnings and murders of religious leaders, as well, which marked revolutionary excesses that would be used against the Republic in France and the US to prevent intervention. Many people say it was the anarchists or the Stalinists who broke ranks and fought among one another that ultimately destroyed the Republic, but their infighting was also a symptom of the larger fact that they were losing—like dogs cornered who fight themselves instead of the one cornering them—and they lost the war in Madrid after Durutti was shot largely because they were simply outgunned, out-trained, and overwhelmed.
Who is Andy Ngo?
He’s a weasly propagandist who masquerades as a journalist while promoting far right extremists. I think his parents were forced into exile from Vietnam, and he is a devout anti-Communist as a result. I do not understand how one would support people who hate refugees with that history, but everyone makes compromises.
In the whole Andy Ngo saga, what did you learn about the media that surprised you?
I think Newsweek’s behavior was shocking. They rolled out the red carpet for this professional embellisher and far-right enthusiast. I did not think that they were so incompetent and bad at decision-making.
What does this episode teach us about how to consider the media we consume?
I think it showed how the mainstream media is not in fact a monolithic bloc as many on the left believe, supporting some general propaganda model that doesn’t actually function in daily life. There are different media groups with different objectives and opinions, and those are often inscrutable. I am not a media studies scholar so much as I study information networks, so I can’t really speak further on that.
Why did people call you part of an anarchy-neocon cabal?
It mostly goes back to my hatred of the lunatic President of the rump state of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, who is a blight on the world. I supported the movements of Arab Spring that opposed dictatorships. In Syria, these movements were non-violent at first, but brutally crushed by Assad. In response, militants formed the Free Syrian Army, a nebulous force that existed in name alone and included a number of different factions. The FSA’s more democratic elements were overshadowed by the Islamists, who had more experience fighting, and as Assad buried hundreds of thousands of civilians in the rubble of barrel bombs, ISIS and the Islamists attacked those democratic forces too. The US refused to intervene to protect the civilians of Syria with a no-bombing zone, allowing Assad to perpetrate gas attacks against rebel-held areas. When in 2016 and 2017, members of the American left began ridiculing the people dying in their thousands, denying the atrocities, and antagonizing humanitarians. By that point, it became too much for me, and I started to investigate the networks that were perpetrating terrible disinformation campaigns. When I published some articles about these people and their collaborators, not out of a desire to intervene but a pure disgust for the contempt of humanity, one of the ringleaders, Max Blumenthal, insisted I was involved in a “cabal of interests” targeting peace activists. He claimed I was engaged in a conspiracy with people I’d never met (or heard of), and insisted that I was trying to push the US into another Iraq War (which I opposed at the time). Anyway, that’s what happens with conspiracy theorists—everyone’s in a cabal to them.
Can you outline for us the network of geopolitical actors and media outlets pushing conspiracy theories about a new McCarthyism?
It really kind of started with The Nation and Glenn Greenwald. Fascists often insist they’re targeted by McCarthyism of the left, and Greenwald has been defending them for thirty years or more, so he’s got the experience. When the Democratic National Committee figure Robby Mook stated that the DNC hacks were likely tied to Russian information campaigns, Greenwald tweeted that this was a McCarthyite campaign against Russia. The Nation is involved in an important Russian lobby group in the US, the Committee for East-West Accord, and so went to work pressing this ball up the court. This lobby group and the people tied to it tend to support an axis of geopoliticians who come from right and left and desire a “multipolar world” in opposition to neoliberal “unipolarism,” with Moscow gaining ground as the major power in a Eurasian sphere of influence. Of course, since Moscow wanted Trump in power (and so did Assange), these interests manifested the populist promise of white nationalism in an authoritarian-conservative world system with hack leftist pundits doing the dirty work of making illiberal arguments to prop up a conservative state.
Major newspapers like the LA Times and the Washington Post hosted editorials by The Nation’s publisher and their allies accusing the Dems of McCarthyism almost immediately, which was crazy. Regardless, a host of state-connected propagandists with bylines in alternative media in the US were able to encourage this discourse with the amplification of Russian state media like RT and Sputnik, all while claiming the mainstream media was implicated, without noting that major newspapers were publishing the same accusations at the time. There was, by October, complete saturation of the media with these claims of McCarthyism against liberals and leftists who criticized Trump for, among other things, denying connections between his campaign and Russian politicos, encouraging Wikileaks hacks, and claiming those hacks were tied to a disinformation campaign centered in Russia.
In Black Earth Timothy Snyder discusses Hitler’s environmentalism, his obsession with lebensraum and a struggle for scarce resources. What is the connection between Dugin and environmentalism, and what is the appeal of fascism to environmentalism more broadly?
Dugin explicitly calls for fascists making inroads with “green theorists,” which broadly means greens who endorse a Marxian understanding of political ecology, because he sees these actors (people like me) as focal points for a potentially nativist uprising against liberal capitalism. Dugin holds a weirdly Heideggerian Traditionalist point of view that sees the global economy as a destructive force, and one of his favorite US theorists is John Zerzan. He believes in returning to smaller patriarchal communities not unlike peasant collectives under a powerful, central Imperial ruler (although he may not use that term). The roots of Dugin’s contacts with the US go back to the 1980s third positionist movement with people like Derrick Holland, a reactionary Catholic who supports distributism and the organic food movement, and Roberto Fiore, who was involved in the Italian fascist movement that produced the eco-radical “Hobbit Fest.” Ecological movements since the 19th Century have had sections that involve strange nativist fantasies about “returning to blood and soil,” in which Jews are viewed as the central power over modern urbanism (despite mostly living in poor, rural shtetls at the time), and perfect “Aryans” are viewed as emerging from “rootedness in the land” rather than cross-cultural communication. Fascists view modern conservatives as dominated by Zionist Jews, and see themselves as anti-Semitic missionaries in the quest to reunite the people with their nation in ethno-territorial terms. For this reason, their idea of a “state” is not the same as a nation-state, but more of an updated version of an archaic empire like Tsarism, Kaiserism, and Bonapartism.
Back in March, 2018 you wrote an article for the SPLC about multipolar spin. Would you tell us what that article was about, and what occurred after it was published?
The article was about the networks of disinformation purveyors mobilized by Russian media to cast doubt on cases involving Russian interests, like the downing of MH17, the Skripal case, and the use of chemical weapons by Assad. Max Blumenthal, one of the worst actors, threatened to sue the SPLC, insisting that I was involved in a conspiracy against peace activists. The SPLC folded, issuing a retraction and apology, which stated that my article was not removed due to inaccuracies but to the upswelling of resentment that it caused. In short, I presented an actual propaganda model, which was clearly proven by the groups and networks that assembled to oppose my article. However, their networks were too deeply rooted in the left and too powerful for even the SPLC. It was very depressing for many people who want justice for Syrians, myself included. Blumenthal has since threatened a number of publications, like The Guardian and Buzzfeed, if I’m not mistaken, but my article was referenced in a review of his latest screed in the London Times, which found that not only did the book include brazen falsities but that it had “blown a hole” in his publisher’s reputation. And it has. At this point, he is now peddling the right-wing conspiracy theory that Covid-19 is a bioweapon invented by the US and Gates Foundation.
It’s a little over a month now since we started social distancing, and we have seen far right groups publicly rallying to reopen the economy. What are they thinking? What does Alex Jones gain from these public displays?
These are really quite small rallies, and they’ve been encouraged by the far right all the way up to the President of the US. They serve multiple purposes, keeping the grift going for right-wing media like Alex Jones to sell his snake oil and make money. They also act as a strategic operation in the ongoing hybrid war against liberals from the far right, which involves disinformation and violent paramilitary threats. These groups, such as Joey Gibson’s Patriot Prayer, make incursions into urban and liberal enclaves in the Pacific Northwest from more rural areas where the Patriot movement is stronger. In doing this, they transfer the feeling of being under siege that is promoted in their own radio shows—i.e., survivalists who believe they are surrounded on all sides by their enemies bring the same paranoia to urban areas by leading violent rallies where they are often outnumbered 2-to-1. Currently, the impact of “stay at home” orders matched with violent paramilitaries in the streets might spread a feeling of being “under siege,” but mostly it makes people frustrated because it’s stupid. People have more freedom than Joey and Alex want us to have, and when the time comes to rise up, rise up they will.
Among people you know in the radical community, what is the general attitude about the 2020 election?
It is quite split. There are a number of people who don’t believe it’s important—either way we lose, it’s “lesser of two evils,” down with the system, and so on. There are others who support Trump, like Žižek did in 2016, thinking he will continue to oppose the “Deep State,” and will be better in foreign policy terms than the neoliberals under Biden (won’t attack Iran or Syria or Russia). There are some who are so disenfranchised by Sanders’s failure that they haven’t made up their minds yet—they want to try to push Biden toward the left by remaining as critical of him as Trump, but from the left. This is a petulant strategy in our current conditions. “Trump is building a wall and banning all green cards, but we want free college, so we can’t endorse Biden” is in my view a totally irresponsible position. Sanders, himself, said as much. I don’t support a Popular Front strategy, partly because there are no left-wing groups relevant or smart enough to stand autonomously from the liberals without embarrassing themselves. I support socialism from below, which means taking electoral politics seriously and not in some vulgar “politics of domination,” as Jeet Heer called it. While unions have their problems, and the Democratic Party is not an uncompromised entity by any stretch of the imagination, it is vastly superior to the white nationalism currently riding shotgun on the Trump bandwagon, both in terms of social movement strategy and in terms of real value.
music by: The Hoarders, Rudy in the Rain and Harry Koniditsiotis
June 18th, 2020 | 59 mins 29 secs
activism, anarchism, berniesanders, communism, democratic, fascism, germany, hitler, karl leibknecht, lenin, leninism, national socialism, progressivism, revolution, rosa luxembourg, russia, russian revolution, socialism, socialist, stalin, strategy, the russian revolution, trotsky, victor serge
Some of my listeners, I hope, are committed antifascists, people who show up in public to fight the fash. Welcome, brothers and sisters! I too have counterprotested the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. We deplatform them and deny them a legitimate presence in the public square. This is all for the good. The German SPD also did those things, and they were organised for fighting fascists on a much grander scale than we currently are. What the German SPD failed to do was to block Hitler’s ascent to power politically. Understanding this history is crucial if we are to understand how to work for political progress when the occupant of the White House is an open fascist.
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to mention here the sources I draw on for my understanding of the German revolution and just make the citations in the transcripts. These books are excellent: Pierre Broue’s The German Revolution reprinted in 2005, a collection edited by Marrius S. Ostrowski called Eduard Bernstein on the German Revolution first available in English in 2019, Arthur Rosenburg’s excellent 1936 History of the German Republic [HGR], and for general Prussian history Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom. Do you ever think to yourself Marxists would save themselves a world of error if they would just read a good history of Prussia. Just me? Okay.
Ferdinand Lasalle founded the General German Workers’ Association, the forerunner of the German SPD, in 1863. Lasalle was a true believer in big government and in the Prussian bureaucracy, and in private he courted Otto von Bismarck because Lassalle was convinced that Bismarck could be persuaded to provide universal suffrage. This was not an unreasonable expectation, as the Prussian state had a long history of progressive reform, but a meaningful vote had proven elusive. In the Prussian Landstag the deputies were chosen by the vote of a college of representatives. The college of representatives was split into three equal parts which were each elected by a different tax bracket. This meant that low income people, the vast majority, could only ever get one third of the vote in the college of representatives which elected their version of the house of representatives. Moreover, Bismarck systematically abused the process to ensure the Landstag remained in conservative hands, favoring the interests of rural constituencies, that is rent collectors (Clark, 560). In such circumstances a movement for radical democracy was necessarily a revolutionary movement, and this is why Marx uses the terms democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat interchangeably (Marik, 191, 208). As discussed in a previous episode, the dictatorship of the proletariat as Marx understood it was an armed force comprised of the working classes that would defend the gains of a democratic revolution. The failure and scandal of Lassalle’s collusion with Bismarck, alongside the Imperialist ideology of the middle German classes, led in Germany to a widespread discrediting of working in Democratic coalitions, and a kind of workers’ chauvinism. Marx and Engels did not realize that the German worker’s movement they had inspired had lost faith in radical Democracy. Arthur Rosenburg comments: “The relation of the Social Democrats to the German middle classes, and in general to all the other groups of the population who were not industrial workers, was indeed very different from what Engels imagined. Engels believed that it would be possible to bridge the gap between the socialist party and the middle classes; social democracy as the only actually progressive party of the nation might then be a real popular movement, capable of attracting ever increasing groups without great effort. Actually the rigid contrast of “bourgeois” and “social democratic” and the isolation of the socialist skilled workers, which could not be removed even by the occasional entry of middle-class individuals into their ranks, already existed at that time...The old social-democratic movement of 1848 had vanished from the political horizon of Europe. Its place was taken, even if very inadequately, by the various socialist parties and groups” (Rosenberg, Democracy and Socialism [D&S], p. 299). Lenin's Leftwing Communism an Infantile Disorder is paradigmatic of Lenin the small 'd' democrat.
In 1920 when the Bolsheviks were at the peak of their power and prestige, radicals around the world were attempting to repeat the experience of the Russian Revolution, mostly failing. As previously noted, Lenin’s party rode a mass democratic movement into power, but in these other places like Germany, communists set up committees and attempted to seize power with or without a democratic mandate. Though the Bolsheviks were desperate to spread the revolution to avoid the isolation that they ultimately fell into, they tried to convince the international movement to work within democratic parlements where they existed and to address society at large, not just the workers movement. The classic text of Bolshevik strategy that came out of these discussions is Lenin’s Leftwing Communism-an Infantile Disorder. (The word “infantile” would be more accurately translated as “naive” meaning the disorder comes more from the inexperience of the new communist movements than from an inability to mature).
Lenin’s argument hinges on the insistence that a small party, one that does not represent a large part of society, must realistically assess its reach and not attempt too much too soon. “One must not count in thousands, like the propagandist belonging to a small group that has not yet given leadership to the masses… we must ask ourselves, not only whether we have convinced the vanguard of the revolutionary class, but also whether the historically effective forces of all class -- positively all the classes in a given society, without exception -- are arrayed in such a way that the decisive battle is at hand…” (351). In a situation where the party has been unable to lead society, unable to capture a plurality with its program, Lenin says that revolutionaries must support liberal bourgeois candidates, that to not do so would be a crime against the proletariat. This orientation was informed by Lenin’s experience organizing for socialism as a party that was outlawed by the Czar. Without the right to free speech and assembly, which the political right wing were constantly threatening, socialists had no path to power.
Lenin could change strategy in an instant. For instance the slogan of all power to the soviets was his line in April of 1917, but that wasn’t his line in March of 1917, and it wasn’t his line in December of 1917. But when it comes to the electoral strategy of the revolutionary party Lenin is categorical: the Bolsheviks always before 1920 participated in liberal parliaments, and never putting up candidates where doing so could spoil an election against the center left. In the context here “Labour” refers to the moderate center left, and “Liberal” refers to right wingers like Churchill. While Trotskyists have historically rejected the idea that Labor was a bourgeois party, it is clear that Lenin did think that Labor was a bourgeois party, right or wrong (Hicks). Knowing that Lenin thought the Labor party was bourgeois is essential to understanding his electoral strategy laid out here. “If the Hendersons and the Snowdens [center left] reject a bloc with the Communists, the latter will immediately gain by winning the sympathy of the masses and discrediting the Hendersons and Snowdens; if, as a result, we do lose a few parliamentary seats, it is a matter of no significance to us. We would put up our candidates in a very few but absolutely safe constituencies, namely, constituencies where our candidatures would not give any seats to the Liberals [i.e. Churchill] at the expense of the Labour candidates... In September 1917, on the eve of the Soviet revolution, the Bolsheviks put up their candidates for a bourgeois parliament (the Constituent Assembly) and on the day after the Soviet revolution, in November 1917, took part in the elections to this Constituent Assembly.” (346). One should recognize here the utter commitment to democracy that Lenin adopts from Marx in the phrase “give leadership to the masses,” which he urges all mature revolutionaries must do (p. 351). This was the same spirit that moved Marx to write in 1848 that he hoped a revolutionary National Assembly would “win over public opinion, a power against which all bayonets and rifle butts would be ineffective” (Marik, 191). Lenin insisted that communists must participate in this way in bourgeois parlements even in contexts where democracy was handicapped by autocracy, under the Czar, and even after a revolutionary seizure of power, after November 1917. What’s of first importance in all of this is that the party participates in educating society, and especially the working class, on the importance of lifting up leadership that is independent of privileged classes. Liberal reformists [Labor] had to be supported where socialists couldn’t win, and the party had to explain in clear terms that such reformists could not be sufficient to the needs of the most vulnerable.
Overreaching, Lenin argues, means failing to even do what is within one’s ability. “Science demands… that account be taken of all the forces, groups, parties, classes and masses operating in a given country, and also that the policy should not be determined only by the desires and views, by the degree of class consciousness and the militancy of one group or party alone… It is true that the Hendersons, the Clyneses, the MacDonalds and the Snowdens are hopelessly reactionary. It is equally true that they want to assume power (though they would prefer a coalition with the bourgeoisie), that they want to ‘rule’ along the old bourgeois lines, and that when they are in power they will certainly behave like the Scheidemans and Noskes [whom Lenin blamed for the murders of Leibknecht and Luxembourg]. All that is true. But it does not at all follow that to support them means treachery to the revolution: what does follow is that, in the interests of the revolution, working-class revolutionaries should give these gentlemen a certain amount of parliamentary support… the fact that most British workers still follow the lead of the British Kerenskys… indicates that the British Communists should participate in parliamentary action, that they should, from within parliament, help the masses of the workers see the results of a Henderson and Snowden government in practice, and that they should help the Hendersons and Snowdesn defeat the united forces of Lloyd George and Churchill. To act otherwise would mean hampering the cause of the revolution, since revolution is impossible without a change in the views of the majority...” (pp. 340-343). Let me put a fine point on this by updating Lenin’s formula: if most American workers follow the lead of the Bidens, then socialists must participate in electoral work to help workers see the results of a Biden presidency in practice, and we must help Biden defeat the forces of Donald Trump.
In a situation where the majority supports not the socialist but the liberal candidate, Lenin said that socialists must support the liberal while loudly criticizing them. This is what he considered meeting society where it was. This is further proof that Lenin believed in democracy as a fundamental value, that he rejected the idea that a small enlightened clique should seize power and impose their will on other people. Considering the history of 20th century socialisms, we should embrace his tactics, unite with the center to smash the right, and build for the moment when our message can be heard: society must rally democratically to the most vulnerable under their own leadership.
As we saw in Russia in 1917 a network of democratic soviets, which had begun in 1905, fought for power against the Czar and won. In Germany, soviets were not institutions that had similarly sprung up amongst the people because of a governmental vacuum spanning decades. The bulk of the German soviets developed amongst the soldiers and sailors in Germany’s armed services, people who were not motivated by any ideology but rather solely for the purpose of ending the war.
The situation of German socialists at the end of WW1 was very similar to that of the French revolutionaries of 1789. They inherited the position of state power after the collapse of the former regime. The nation had a military that was organised partially into soviets, but that was completely behind the government. We’ve spoken earlier about how the Prussian state provided a managed democracy where rich peoples’ votes meant more. Underneath that official form of state power was a patchwork of compromises the Kaiser had made with the various regions that were brought under his rule. The cabinet that was tasked with leading the work of forming a government was composed of six socialists, three of each tendency. “Ebert, Scheidemann and Landsberg represented the Majority Socialists, and Haase, Dittmann and Barth the Independent Socialists. ” [HGR] What kind of government would these socialists produce was the question of the day. Would they create a democratic republic or would they create a soviet style socialist state based on the Russian model?
There was already at the end of the war a split between socialists who had voted for war bonds and supported the war (the Social Democratic Party, SPD), though as we saw many of these supported military defense of Germany but not expansion, and those who had opposed the war from the beginning (the Independent Social Democratic Party, USPD). The SPD more or less preferred a democratic republic that would respect the property of the big landowners. There is something to the idea that at this juncture the SDP was following the LaSallean line of working within a democracy dominated by the bourgeoisie, with one major difference: the new German state was offering real equality of representation while the Prussian state systematically worked to make sure poor people were not represented.
The USPD held to what they imagined was the revolutionary aspect of Marxism interpreted now through the lens of the recent Russian revolution. But the context had changed radically, and the ideologues were largely unable to keep up. Under the rule of the Prussian Kaiser and Landstaag the only reasonable position for people who favored democracy was to be a revolutionary. Under a system where there was real democracy, one vote for each person, the Marxist position became ambiguous. It could mean that the working class had to be rallied to defend the democratic republic, or it could mean the time had come for the working class to abolish democracy. It all depended on whether you thought that socialism had to be democratic, had to respect the rights of people who differ from us, or if you thought it could be imposed from above. Within the German far left those who were losing their patience with democratic reform were beginning to favor what they took to be Russian style Soviet rule, the imposition of socialism from above by a minority of supposedly enlightened workers.
Now, as pointed out in previous episodes, Marx had expected a democratic movement to create republics where all people had a vote and had rights, and he advocated from 1848 onwards that when such a republic came about that it would have to be defended by the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The Russian experiment showed that if society were organized instead in democratic councils that the state could transition directly into socialism. In the attempt, the Russians ruined democracy by driving the masses out of government by the imposition of minoritarian rule, and ended up with a totalitarian state where a ruling clique owned everything and everyone. The far left fringe in Germany was trying to impose socialism from above without the democratic upswell that had vaulted the Bolsheviks into power to begin with in Russia. The Germans failed badly. Led by Karl Leibknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, they had to go to communities that didn’t have soviets yet and urge them to form soviets. Despite the antidemocratic ideas then circulating in the USPD, these groups were invited to help form the new government. The majority of the population, and of the socialist movement, even a large group among the Sparticists who wanted to end private property, believed that the existing institutions should not be attacked but discouraged through education and reform. For the most part the socialists in Germany wanted to win over the rest of the population. On the far left people believed that if workers were told the truth they would choose to run production democratically, i.e. they would choose socialism. But there was a further left fringe that did not want to wait for society to catch up to their point of view.
The German communists who split off from the German Social Democratic Party were the first to eschew democratic politics and try to take power as a minoritarian party in 1919. The slur that people leveled at Lenin, that he was anti-democratic, was true of Karl Leibknecht. Germany was the first place where the strategy people thought had worked in Russia was applied somewhere else, and because it was exported without the democratic component it failed. The resulting split in the German socialist movement coupled with an anti-liberal politics, made Germany vulnerable just at the moment when a new ideological virus was spreading throughout Europe. That virus was fascism, the highest form of which was that of the German Nazi party. But to understand how fascism arose and developed in Germany, we have to understand the splits in the socialist party, because it’s out of that wound that the infection would spread.
I spoke in an earlier podcast about Karl Kautsky being forced to vote for war bonds. Another socialist who was forced to vote for war bonds was Karl Leibknecht, who had been drafted and was part of the soldiers’ soviets movement. Karl Leibknecht played a key role in leading both the split in the socialist movement and the Spartacist uprising in 1919, and what’s clear from his actions throughout this period is that he acted not out of concern for his fellows, nor to mobilize society, but out of guilt over his participation in WW1. Leibknecht more than anyone in the movement was committed to leading Germany into revolution by the Russian method, regardless of whether the circumstances supported it. Though he and his group, the Spartacists, were invited to help form the new government, because the majority of Germany opposed the establishment of soviet style socialism he led a boycott of the republic. The agitations of Leibknecht led to a wave of protests in December 1918, with violence being committed on all sides. The Russians seem to have actively supported this agitation, seemingly oblivious to the different German conditions and the decline of democratic values in the movement. On the last day of 1918 the socialists who could not bear to wait and educate, those who abandoned democracy as such, founded the German Communist Party, the KPD. At this point the USPD withdrew its support for the republic.
The insurrection on their left imperiled the democratic coalition that the SPD was trying to form. If they were going to stop Germany from devolving into civil war, they had to show that the rules would be applied fairly to all. The KPD would test by open insurrection the SPD’s resolve to defend the republic. In Russia the workers of St. Petersburg could rely on certain parts of the military from the very beginning, and Bolshevik influence in the Russian military expanded throughout this period. In Germany on the other hand, the workers were being called to insurrection against a military that was firmly behind the republic. The departure of the USPD from the republican coalition government had one important exception: Emil Eichhorn was police chief in Berlin. The SPD tried to replace him, but failed. When protests broke out on January 4th in Berlin, they spiraled out of control.
Broue correctly compares this episode to that of the July days in the Russian Revolution. In July a mass protest movement took place in St. Petersburg that was not supported in the rest of the country. The Bolsheviks helped lead the protesters, who could not be persuaded against marching. Eventually, Trotsky was able to convince the protestors in St. Petersburg in July to disperse. The army arrived a very few hours later, and would have massacred the protesters. The Russian movement in July was not ready to take power nationwide, and the Bolsheviks bided their time. Not so with the Berlin workers led by Leibknecht.
Workers in Berlin, emboldened perhaps with the knowledge that the local police chief was in their pocket, became increasingly provocative. In fact, a large group of workers was allowed to occupy the police station and arm themselves, and the building had to be retaken by force of arms. Though the rest of the country was not behind the rebellion, they persisted. The SPD in power was facing on one side a sizeable minority to their left that was intent on wrecking their project, and on the right were people eager to see the young democracy fail for their own purposes. Unable to call upon a police force, the Socialists were forced to call upon the army to put down the rebellion.
Now, the Prussian army was well known for its tendency to flaunt civilian control. Going back probably before 1809 there was a culture in the army of insubordination, particularly to civilian authority, but in 1809 Major von Schill defied the Kaiser and together with Russia attacked Napoleon’s armies. Schill was afterward considered a national hero. Napoleon was so unpopular at that point that the Kaiser had to accept that because of the Major’s initiative Prussia was thereafter at war with France. In 1904 when there was an insurrection in the German colony of Namibia, General Trotha led a genocide against the locals over and against the protestations of the civilian authority there in the person of the Governor Theodor Leutwein. It’s not clear that the Kaiser could really command the army against the will of its generals, and for sure the SDP couldn’t.
The Freikorps shock troops who arrested Karl Leibknecht and Rosa Luxembourg took it upon themselves to execute the beloved socialist leaders. The socialists who had ordered the army to put down the insurrection, in particular Gustav Noske, a basket weaver from Brandenburg who had been made into the minister of military affairs, was villainized for the deaths of Leibknecht and Luxembourg. Though no one could ever prove Noske explicitly ordered their deaths, it was always blamed on him. According to this logic, opposing authoritarian socialists with state power will always make someone a traitor to the cause. The entire movement of socialists in Germany for a democratic republic was from this moment forward considered to be enemies of progress, enemies of the international communist movement. When the fascist parties rose up to attack the republic under the social democrats, they would find willing partners in the newly formed German Communist Party [KPD].
In the years that followed the Spartacus uprising, it was not the policies of the Weimar republic that angered people so much as it was that the poverty of the government crippled implementation. There were guarantees made for workers’ rights, but it didn’t seem to matter much in the context of high unemployment. Germany had to pay hard indemnities to the allies because of its ‘war guilt,’ which is still exaggerated to this day. And it must be said, the standard of living for regular Germans was severely impacted by the loss of its empire. When people lose their privileges, watch out!
The word “fascist” was coined by Benito Mussolini. It comes from an Italian word that can mean a bundle of items or a group. Mussolini started his political career as a prominent part of the socialist movement in Italy. He was put in jail for five months in 1911 for participating in a demonstration against Italy’s imperialist war in Libya. He translated two works of Kropotkin from Russian into Italian. He combined anarchistic libertarian ideology with a Nietzschean disdain for Judeo-Christian values and rejected the more traditional socialist values of democracy and equality. But as we have seen with the German KPD and the Stalinists, lots of socialists around this time were rejecting democratic values. Mussolini’s path from anarchism to fascism ran through Charles Maurras, George Sorel and the Cercle Proudhon. If you haven’t read Alexander Reid-Ross’ Against the Fascist Creep, then what are you doing with your life? Go read it. Also, if you are interested in the intergenerational cross pollination of fascism into and out of left politics, go read Alexander Reid-Ross. The important thing to understand about Musolini in the context of the aftermath of the German revolution, is that Adolf Hitler got the inspiration for his National Socialist party from Musolini, right down to both of them embracing anarchism.
Anarchism has a lot of different styles and flavors, and the only thing they really all have in common is the assertion that “you” should not be able to tell “me” what to do, ever. What the various anarchisms fill in the identities of “you” and “me” with determines the character of that anarchism. For Kropotkin the “me” that has to be free from “you” is the communal village. For Musollini and Hitler the “me” that had to be free from any outside control was the ethnically defined nation. They both envisioned a nation without a state. They both hijacked state power for the project of reviving a sense of ethnic nationhood that involved race war over resources. This is the core of fascist ideology: that the real world is just open warfare between racially defined nations for control of resources. Any idea of solidarity across ethnicity, whether that be in socialism or in Christianity or whatever, is just a lie people told you to make you do things you wouldn’t naturally do, things like protect the rights of minorities etc. Early fascist movements grow out of divided or defeated socialist movements and adopt similar rhetoric. Hitler attacked the Jew as the origin of Capitalism and of Communism. Once fascists got into power they never followed through with the socialist part of their program, but they did attack minorities.
In 1919 a young up and comer failed artist and army veteran named Adolph Hitler joined one of the multiple ultra-right patriotic parties in Germany. He joined the one called the German Workers Party. It seems Hitler was very charismatic, and after he took leadership of the party the renamed it the German National Socialist Workers’ Party. Alexander Reid-Ross does an excellent job at summarizing the moment in 1919 when Hitler’s party get its big break, so I’m going to quote him at length:
“The government attempted to dissolve the Freikorps, which responded by marching on Berlin. The putsch attempt was named after a civil servant named Wolfgang Kapp and was joined by Ludendorff, Ehrhardt, and Waldemar Pabst, the man responsible for the killing of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. After the military refused to act against the putsch, the government fled Berlin and called a general strike, which led to the end of the coup attempt. However, the general strike turned into an armed uprising, and militant workers in the industrial Ruhr region formed a Red Army, putting the government there under worker control. Although they had refused to move against the Kapp putsch, the military joined the Freikorps against the Red Army of the Ruhr, killing and torturing hundreds of people. The leftists fought back bravely, declaring “No atrocities, no revenge, no punishment; only love for humanity and justice!” But the uprising of workers’ and soldiers’ councils ended in bloody oppression. Ensuing economic destabilization compelled the Weimar government to ask France for a delay in payment of war reparations, but Germany was instead met with a coordinated occupation of the Ruhr by the French and Belgian armies in 1922. The Social Democrats and trade unions responded to the occupation with ‘passive resistance,’ and the French authorities expelled 100,000 unionists and state officials, along with their families. The Ruhr crisis and the ensuing political crisis with France created a political opportunity. Hitler seized on the model of Mussolini’s fascism, its populist pageantry, and the showmanship demonstrated in that year’s March on Rome. On the eve of November 8, 1923, Hitler proclaimed a ‘national revolution’ at a crowded meeting in a beer hall in Munich, leading General Ludendorff and other paramilitary members of the ‘Patriotic Movement’ in an abortive putsch attempt on the government of Bavaria. Though the sardonically named ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ in Munich failed, his ensuing trial gave Hitler an important public platform to espouse his anti-Semitic beliefs. During his light jail sentence, he dictated his political manifesto, Mein Kampf, to his deputy Rudolph Hess.” (pp.51-52). After the beer hall putsch Hitler’s career really takes off, not just in southern Germany where his party originated from, but throughout Prussia as well.
Robert O. Paxton’s Anatomy gives us a concise survey of the typical development of fascist movements. Typically, there is a period of grassroots mobilization. All across Europe, in the wake of failed Russia style coups people saw the left as an authoritarian threat, and part of the impulse of fascism is resistance to that. But also, capitalism was failing working people who turned to national solidarity in the context of a collapse of international solidarity. In Italy and Germany conservative governments faced with insurgent socialism from above movements, economic collapse and governmental disfunction were faced with a choice about whether to partner with far right groups or not. In the 20s and 30s fascists across Europe were reaching for state power, and in all but two instances conservatives successfully resisted them. Conservative governments in Romania, France, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Denmark, Holland and Norway rejected sharing power with fascists. In Italy in the 20s and in Germany in the 30s, conservatives who had lost any hope of ruling together with left centrists looked to the populist appeals of fascism to shore up their power. We see our own conservative movement split on this subject, with a small but important “never Trump” movement campaigning openly for Joe Biden in a rejection of the far right. What role did socialists play in all this, for better or for worse? We’ll continue to focus on the German case.
The best book I’ve found detailing the struggle against fascism by the German SDP is William Sheridan Allen’s The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1922-1945. In this book Sheridan-Allen discusses how the fascist movement came to dominate German society by focusing on the experience of a small German town called Northeim in lower Saxony. He shows us the shift this community makes through the 20s and 30s from a place where there is no Nazi party at all, and even a strong Socialist Party, to one where the Nazis are strong enough to put all the socialists in camps. One of the more frightening things I noticed in this history is just how powerful the socialist movement was compared to our movement today. They held state power. Their membership included important community members. They ran electoral campaigns, held rallies and organized sports leagues. They still didn’t keep Hitler out of power.
In general the fact that the SDP sat in power during a time when the worldwide economy was tanking meant that people blamed them for the bad economy. Fascist governments somehow get more powerful the worse things get, because they can always blame someone else. Democrats, radical or moderate, are responsible for what they do in power. Antidemocrats, fascists and Stalinists don’t have to be particularly cunning to ruin the public’s perception of a government when forces beyond their control like a worldwide economic depression cause the public pain. But the SDP did fail at things they could have done, things within their control, and that’s what I want to focus on to better get a grip on how Socialists can resist fascism.
Because of their cynical orientation to truth, the Nazis were able to change and craft their message to suit the audience. If the only reality is race war, political ideas just weapons people use in that war. The National Socialists could be all things to all people. They could represent themselves as champions of workers against bosses. They could represent themselves as champions of the nation’s industry. Crucially, they communicated to Germans that they were both progressive and traditional. They had a radical program for change in a context where people were hurting, and they had a message of national greatness. Now, I don’t think we should try and win people over with “America First” rhetoric, but I very often wonder how the far left expected to gain popularity by consistently trashing America. It seems like we could easily communicate that America has great potential from a left perspective. We fail a serious hurdle leaving this emotion for the fascists.
The Nazis could be incredibly popular with the middle class who was losing their property. The SDP not only didn’t work in government to protect the property of the middle classes, but revelled in their immiseration. Anyone who lost their livelihood could collect unemployment, but people didn’t want to be a burden. People want to contribute to their community and be recognized as contributing something of value. The Nazi party gave people a sense of importance and self worth in ways the SDP could not. The Nazis put forward a rhetoric that blamed socialists for Germany losing WW1 and falling into an economic depression, but that rhetoric stuck because the SDP legitimately couldn’t connect to people beyond a politics of class. It was ultimately a failure of the socialist movement to lead society as a whole that doomed the SDP and Germany. From Sheridan Allen:
“To the Socialists the Nazis were a threat only insofar as they might attempt an armed coup d’etat. Serious politics was a matter of rational appeals and positive results. Since the NSDAP [the Nazi party] seemed incapable of either, they could not constitute a political threat. Nazi propaganda seemed to illustrate this, for it consistaently pinned two labels on the SPD ‘Marxisten’ and ‘Bonzen’ (approximately, ‘wardheelers,’ with overtones of corruption). The labels are of course contradictory; it is difficult to conceive of fervid radicals who are simultaneously comfortably venal. But effective propaganda need not be logical as long as it foments suspicion, contempt, or hatred. The choice of the two words not only had that effect upon the bourgeoisie, it summed up the dilemma of the Social Democrats precisely. The SPD was not ‘Marxist,’ though it used language that made it appear so. Thus it was doubly encumbered, for it was unwilling to be a revolutionary party at a time when the best defense of democracy may have been social revolution, and secondly, its revolutionary tradition made it incapable of seeking or receiving the support of any but the working class. Furthermore, the SPD’s defense of democracy meant, in practical terms, defense of a status quo which was identified in the minds of most Northeimers with national humiliation and economic ruin...Thus the SPD could not keep the middle classes from flocking to the banners of the NSDAP, for the Nazis were known as real radicals. It was not enough to preach loyalty to democracy or to the Republic. Most Northeimers obviously felt no reason to respond to such an appeal. The way to undercut Nazis was not by blind opposition but by a counterprogram sufficiently attractive to awaken in the hearts of the bourgeoisie the kinds of hopes that the Nazis were able to arouse. Instead, the Social Democrats concentrated on holding the loyalty of the working class and saw the Nazi threat in terms of armed rebellion. Thus, no matter how hard they tried, Northeim’s Socialists did not provide effective opposition to the Nazis.” (pp. 54-55). In other words, the German SDP wasn’t trying to lead all of society, and the parts that didn’t correspond to their idea of agency, anyone who wasn’t a socialist worker, slipped away from them into the ranks of the fascist opposition.
The communists made the mistake of imagining their rivals the Social Democrats were worse than the fascists. This led them to working with the Fascists at crucial junctures, leading to workers identifying fascism with progress. In March of 1931 the Communists joined forces with the fascists in a campaign to dissolve the Prussian Parliament. In 1932 the KPD helped the Nazis in promoting and supporting a wildcat strike in Berlin. The communist orientation to a politics of class resentment led them to opposing social democracy when they should have been uniting with the SDP to fight fascism. In fact, according to the KPD the social democrats were the main enemy, because they were a roadblock to top-down socialist revolution. The KPD thought somehow that if the Fascists took power, this would allow them to win a greater victory when the pendulum swung back the other way. That is not how history turned out. As it happened the Nazi victory led to WW2 and the holocaust. The German people didn’t so much react to Nazi governance with horror and a return movement to the left as they were exhausted by the war.
Last year Ece Temelkuran gave us an insightful book about how her country Turkey slid into authoritarianism. Ms. Temelkuran is a veteran of the Gezi Park protest movement of 2013. Her book is entitled “How to Lose A Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship.” I don’t agree with everything she says, but it’s worth the afternoon or so it takes to read the whole thing. She talks about this myth of a pendulum in regards to Slavoj Zizek, who endorsed Donald Trump in 2016. She talks about how as fascism gains power, there is no rock bottom from which one would have to turn upwards. “During the 2015 elections in Turkey, our post-structuralist anarchist/militant citizen and all those who theorised and believed that there is a political bottom to hit had to physically grapple with government supporters trying to put fake votes in the ballot box. They had thought that this was the lowest life could sink to, until they experienced the referendum of 2017 on extending the government's powers following the failed coup. Once again volunteering to monitor ballot boxes, they soon drew the depressing conclusion that election fraud was even more brazen than the previous time. Although volunteers meticulously monitored the voting process, when the counting began and it became clear that Erdogan would not win, the Higher electoral Board changed the election law from one hour to the next, following pressure from the leader himself, and egregious fake votes for Erdogan were deemed valid. The opposition came to understand that, with the authoritarian regime having seized state powers, even if there were to be a political reawakening, it was almost impossible to stop the political tide with their accustomed political behaviour. They were hurtling down past the new political and moral bottom, unimaginable until it had actually happened. And as for our post-structural anarchist, like half the country who voted against Erdogan in the referendum that made him sole ruler of Turkey, he felt this latest blow would be the death of him. He was not to know that the afterlife would be even worse. The death of our particular anarchist… wasn’t at all accidental. It would have been foreseen much earlier had the progressive opinion leaders of the time not wasted years expecting a political metamorphosis to occur out of the total collapse of politics, and thus been quicker to inform the masses.” (pp.130-131).
Robert O. Paxton’s Anatomy gives us a concise survey of how the various fascist movements historically ended. Fascist movements who successfully entered state power then had to struggle against liberal institutions to maintain and expand that power. They had to overcome legal institutions and norms. By the end of 1932 political differences in Germany had become so polarized, the Nazi agitation so successful in generating a mass base, and the socialist movement so disfunctional that the conservative von Papen government appointed Hitler as the Chancelor in an attempt to establish some kind of order. They saw the Nazi party as a way for them to give the nation direction, and they thought they could use Hitler without him getting the upper hand. This is precisely how Mitch McConnell has handled Donald Trump. In Hitler’s case the arson attack against the Reichstag building in February of 1933 allowed him to successfully persuade President Hindenburg to grant him special emergency powers. This began the final stage of the fascist movement, the stage that only the German movement was able to reach: radicalization. In this stage, Germany began the build up to a war of conquest where they colonized Eastern Europe in the name of German racial supremacy and a war against Bolshevism. Hitler weaponized the German state against the state powers of Eastern Europe in the belief that in the resulting chaos, with the German army occupying these other countries that the German race would awaken to its historical task of dominating other races and eradicating world Jewry. The Trump administration has been struggling to tame the justice department and foil the democratic party’s attempts to contain him, but in a second Trump term the radicalization of his movement will combine with his increasing ability to flaunt the law. There is no world where Trump supporters of today turn on him in his second term: they have to believe his narrative about coronavirus or accept guilt for having imperiled or sacrificed the lives of their family members. The psychological pain in admitting guilt over Trump’s crimes against humanity and democracy would be too great, so the false narrative must be believed, and greater crimes will be called for. This cycle of pain, corruption and degradation continues in this way until Trump’s enemies are all in camps, until America is ethnically cleansed, until a cataclysmic war stops the fascist juggernaut.
When I first came to socialist politics, I imagined that Fascism came about in Germany because the German revolution had failed. It’s closer to the truth to say that the German revolution succeeded in achieving a democratic republic, but then undemocratic strains in the socialist movement sabotaged that republic, creating the opportunity for Hitler to take power. German communists adopted the false idea of Lenin having successfully imposed socialism from above. If that were possible, they reasoned, then the real obstacle to socialism was democracy itself. The Spartacists and the KPD then believing that down was up and up was down, worked to undermine the democratic government believing falsely that a victory for the fascists would create a pendulum swing back to their side. They did not perceive that the fascist movement once in power could only be stopped by being pushed out of power by conservatives or if allowed to radicalize by the conclusion of a long war between the fascists and bare humanity. They did not have the benefit of hindsight that we do. German socialists attempted what they thought was the Russian route to power, and the reaction to that top down authoritarian socialism was an equally authoritarian right wing movement. Communist abandonment of democratic values and open collaboration with fascists allowed Hitler to take power.
Ostrowski, Marius S. Eduard Bernstein on the German Revolution: Selected Historical Writings. Springer Nature, 2019.
Paxton, Robert O. The anatomy of fascism. Vintage, 2007.
Rosenberg, Arthur. A History of the German Republic. Methuen, 1936.
Rosenberg, Arthur. Democracy and socialism: a contribution to the political history of the past 150 years. Beacon Press, 1939.
Ross, Alexander Reid. Against the fascist creep. Ak Press, 2017.
Temelkuran, Ece. How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship. HarperCollins UK, 2019.
Art: German SDP poster, Weimar Era, "Worker, open your eyes! Vote SDP!" (https://www.akg-images.co.uk/archive/Arbeiter--Augen-auf!-Wahlt-SPD-2UMDHUU7MBJ4.html).
At High Stakes by Alan Carlson-Green
Calculating Catastrophe by John Barzetti
June 16th, 2020 | 1 hr 11 mins
activism, anarchism, berniesanders, communism, democratic, lenin, leninism, progressivism, revolution, russia, russian revolution, socialism, socialist, stalin, strategy, the russian revolution, trotsky, victor serge
Spinoza is often thought of as the thinker who stated most strongly that might makes right. “By the right of Nature, then, I understand the laws or rules of Nature in accordance with which all things come to be; that is, the very power of Nature. So the natural right of Nature as a whole, and consequently the natural right of every individual, is coextensive with its power. Consequently, whatever each man does from the laws of his own nature, he does by the sovereign right of Nature, and he has as much right over Nature as his power extends” [Spinoza, Political Treatise, Collected Works p. 683). What the “might makes right” interpretation of Spinoza misses is that he doesn’t believe that we can know what exactly is possible in Nature, and that by our nature we seem to be constantly expanding that right. Spinoza doesn’t think that whatever human beings have done is right and shouldn’t be questioned. His point is rather that the action that the physical world presents us with, the arc of history, is something we only see a small part of, somewhere in the middle of it. Whatever a body can do consistent with its necessity is right, but we have no idea what all bodies can do or what is ultimately necessary for them. Whatever “the right” and “the good” are is still being striven for. Power and righteousness for Spinoza consist in humanity’s striving for a greater understanding of nature, that is for freedom. This freedom is the highest passion: it is the passion reason guides us to as we move towards a life we really want to live. The better we understand Nature, what is possible for us in it and how we want to act and exist, the closer our thinking is to the general historical act as it races on to completion in the thinking of god/nature. We’re really just repeating in a different language what we already covered in the previous discussion of Freedom, the problem of evil and WW1. What has been left out of that discussion up to now is what difference in our finite attitude or orientation is needed to progress towards that freedom. If whatever we try to do is finding its way to good, then how come it matters if we do one thing and not the other? Is just any kind of acting/living good because it's natural? Is there a good life, and a way to strive for it that is better than some other kind of living? We’re going to work towards an answer by returning to Spinoza’s discussion with Blyenburgh, and then we’re going to let this philosophical meditation on ‘the good’ inform a discussion of the Russian Revolution.
For Spinoza, redemption is a matter of desire. The bad action is contrary to nature only in the sense that it displeases us. If a person can manage by circumstance or education to perceive their best interest then even grave sins should cause no regret since they worked for the greater good, or helped the repentant to better understand the good. Regret he thinks is bad for us in that it is a meditation on our limitations, something that cannot lead to us being better able to do what we think is good. Some people may be crippled by circumstance, i.e. they may be so impacted by circumstances that the good becomes unattainable, for most of us Spinoza thinks it's possible to make honest mistakes and then learn from them. The act itself is less important than the desires it enflames and is the result of. When we find ourselves captured by a passion or belief that does not serve our deeper intentions, then Spinoza says we are finding a deeper passion, the passion to not be constrained, the passion to be free. Crucially, this requires connected more strongly to the needs of the community that supports us. Here’s a quote from the Ethics:
“If we can always have in readiness consideration of our true advantage and also of the good that follow from mutual friendship and social relations, and also remember that supreme contentment of spirit follows from the right way of life, and that men, like everything else, act from the necessity of their nature, then the wrong, or the hatred that is wont to arise from it, will occupy just a small part of our imagination and will easily be overcome… We ought, in the same way, to reflect on courage to banish fear; we should enumerate and often picture the everyday dangers of life, and how they can best be avoided and overcome by resourcefulness and strength of mind.” Spinoza, Ethics V, 10, Scholium p369
-Spinoza, Ethics, p363
So, when Spinoza says that might makes right, he is saying that our greatest freedom lies in building a community that lifts each of us up into being the best people we can be. Anyone who is thinking about Hobbes at this point can compare and contrast, because Hobbes on the contrary thought people were essentially animals and that a powerful state was needed to coral them.
Spinoza’s claim, and I think he’s right, is that a conscience, an awareness that there is a right and wrong though the specifics may be murky, is part of human nature, part of what it means to be a person among people. Blyenburg may not have been able to understand Spinoza, or he may have chosen not to read his letters carefully. Whatever the cause, Blyenburgh accuses Spinoza of claiming that all people are animals, and not in a nice way. In this quote coming up, Spinoza claims that worship of God makes us better people, and what he means by that is that working to understand our world and place in it makes us a better person. For Spinoza God is the natural world. Notice how Spinoza is calling Blyenburgh in, trying to bring the other man back into a relationship of cooperation even as he sets some rigid barriers. He is using the language of God because that is the language that Blyenburgh understands: “I owe you many and sincere thanks for having confided in me in time your method of philosophising, but I do not thank you for attributing to me the sort of opinions you want to read into my letter. What grounds did my letter give you for attributing to me these opinions: that men are like beasts, that men die and perish after the manner of beasts, that our works are displeasing to God, and so forth?... For my part, surely I have clearly stated that the good worship of God, and by their constancy in worship they become more perfect, and that they love God. Is this to liken them to beasts?” (Spinoza L21, p.823)... If you had read my letter with more care, it would have been obvious to you that our point of disagreement lies in this alone: are the perfections received by the good imparted to them [mankind] by God in his capacity as God, that is, by God taken absolutely without ascribing any human attributes to him -- this is the view I hold -- or by God in his capacity as judge? The latter is what you maintain.” (823). Spinoza is saying that people are better, are more good and closer to their Nature, when they choose the good because it is good, rather than because they don’t they will be punished. The desire to do good is true when the heart wishes for the good, and false when the heart wishes the good not for its own sake but so as to avoid punishment. People who do the right thing out of fear of punishment will stop doing the good thing as soon as the credible threat of punishment is removed. He goes on to talk about how we are free to the extent that we affirm our actions, to the degree that our actions are intentional. I’m sure we can all think about some things we have done or from time to time still do that are not who we really want to be. The example I always give is eating Ice Cream. Most of the time I want to lose weight more often than I want to eat Ice Cream, but every now and then I’d rather have Ice Cream. Somewhere in all that its easy for me to lose sight of what food is about, which is to help me live a healthy life. Again Blyenburgh doesn’t understand, but the way he poses the question leads Spinoza on a particularly interesting path. Blyenburgh: “Let us now take for granted that God, as God and not as judge, bestows on the godly and the ungodly such and so much essence of will as he wills that they should exercise. What reasons can there be why God does not desire the actions of the one in the same way as the actions of the other?” (Spinoza, L22, p.829). Spinoza’s response gives us a clue about how the same physical action, taken with one of two different motivations, can lead a person towards the good or towards self destruction. The avatars for each tendency will be the classical figures from ancient Greece: Nero and his brother Oreste.
It’s pretty typical of Spinoza in a case like this to try and engage his interlocutors' imagination. It’s as if Spinoza had to break up the tight limits in the other that constrained what was believable, what was possible. Beyond that limit is an encounter with the infinite, and that is where we find a greater freedom, though it means losing some idea we are safe with.
Oreste and Nero are brothers. Oreste has been away at war with their father Agamemmnon. Nero stayed behind and ruled under the mentorship of their mother Clytemnestra. But Nero chafes under her control. When Agamemnon returns from the war, Clytemnestra kills him. The brothers then conspire to kill their mother Clytemnestra. Oreste does this out of a sense of responsibility to avenge his father’s death, and to cleanse his household of the taint of her incestuous relations with Nero. Nero wants Clytemnestra dead so he doesn’t have to put up with her domineering ways. One sees in Nero through the whole episode a confusion about what is in his best interests, a rejection of the natural order. Look, ancient Greece was a complicated place, and Spinoza isn’t trying to affirm the rightness or not of the Greek worldview, of its patriarchal values much less of the institution of Greek slavery. He’s telling a story to make a point, the same way he used the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. He isn’t a fundamentalist, but he see that in these stories people were finding a proximate language for true experiences that were no doubt bigger than those stories. Nero could not find redemption in his actions, because those actions could never give him what he wanted, power over other people. People saw his motivation, lifting himself over them and rejecting however the community had chosen to live together. Oreste humbly accepts the terrible act his cursed family heritage has forced on him. Nero could neither be recognized by his community after his crime, nor make sense of it from anything in his experience. The tale is told that Nero took his own life. Orestes, having humbly accepted the task he was fated to accomplish, and by letting all in his community know of his act and its reasons, was restored to his father’s throne, having ended a cycle of disfunction that went back in his family several generations.
Quothe Spinoza: “I have sufficiently shown that that which constitutes the specific reality of evil, error and villainy does not consist in anything that expresses essences, and therefore it cannot be said that God is its cause. For example, Nero’s matricide, insofar as it contained something positive, was not a crime; for Orestes too performed the same outward act and had the same intention of killing his mother, and yet he is not blamed, or at least not as Nero. What then is Nero’s crime? Nothing else than that by that deed he showed that he was ungrateful, devoid of compassion and obedience… Finally, I should like it noted that although the actions of the pious (that is, those who have a clear idea of God in accordance with which all their actions and thoughts are determined) and of the impious (that is those who have no idea of God but only confused ideas of earthly things, in accordance with which all their actions and thoughts are determined), and , in short, the actions of everything that exists, follow necessarily from God’s eternal laws and decrees and constantly depend on God, they nevertheless differ from one another not only in degree but in essence. For although a mouse is as dependent on God as an angel, and sorrow as much as joy, yet a mouse cannot on that account be a kind of angel, nor sorrow a kind of joy.” (Spinoza, L23, p.833).
Now we are ready to discuss the Russian Revolution, a movement that like all revolutions sprang from a sea of contradictory impulses.
The Czar’s government at the end of the 19th century was the greatest champion of reactionary politics in all of Europe. They partitioned Poland, colonized central Asia and preserved feudalism. The idea of the nation, of an ethnically homogeneous body of people who work together for their common good but often at the expense of minorities, competed in the early Marxist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the more humanistic idea of a united working class. In early 1905 these two ideas lived side by side with each other in Russia. The peasant communalistic philosophy of the Narodnik movement dovetailed with the smaller but important organizations of the industrial working class. Russian workers toiled under a double burden, to make a profit for their Russian bosses meant first clearing the hurdle of the cost Russian bosses incurred from the fees associated with the financing they received from French and British banks. At the same time, the peasant craftsmen were not concentrated in the urban centers the way they had been in revolutionary France, and the nobility retained their traditional privileges. It was a mess. There’s an idea of history that it should follow a linear progression. The story seems to be that a country develops guilds, then a strong mercantile class, then steam power and gunpowder, then representative Democracy... yada yada… end of history. Russia got industrial production before it had strong guilds and mercantile interests that could challenge the Czar, and that situation upset the usual story of historical progress. That traditional story, as we have seen, was not Marx’s ultimate idea, but it was the story told by traditional Marxists. The necessity of passing through a capitalist phase, which was synonymous across Europe with liberal systems having a severely limited democratic form was a dogma, and it’s why before 1905 no one in the socialist movement imagined that Socialism could be achieved in Russia (Lowy, p. 43). The next revolution in Russia, so they figured would be bourgeois democratic, that is a strictly limited democracy at the service of the class of bourgeois investors.
From its very beginnings, the Russian Social Democratic Party [RSDRP] was committed to democracy. Hell, it’s right there in the name! To get there from a context of autocratic rule over a mixed economy meant appealing to the working class, yes, but also to the broader society, especially including the peasantry. We return to the excellent and scholarly Soma Marik: “Lenin put forward a complex view. On the one hand, he was arguing that the working class had to fight for democracy, and in the course of doing so, to win over a majority. The struggle for democracy was an essential part of the struggle for socialism, because thereby the proletariat could ensure a majority bloc in a country where it was by itself in a minority. This was an argument directed towards the socialist activists and advanced workers. At the same time, he emphasized the democratic content of the immediate program to win over the non-proletarian masses. In particular, even at this stage, Lenin was turning to the majority of the nation. He wrote that the struggle to achieve political freedom could not be waged in isolation by the working class. The workers’ party had to: ‘Inscribe in its banner support for the peasantry… insofar as the peasantry is capable of a revolutionary struggle against the survivals of serfdom in general and against the autocracy in particular.’...Marik continues… The orthodox position, in 1898, was stated unambiguously in the manifesto of the First Congress of the RSDRP, held in Minsk. The manifesto stated that the Russian bourgeoisie was weak and cowardly, and the working class had to take up the task of winning political freedom in order to pursue more energetically the struggle against capitalism.” (pp.274-275).
Lev Davidovich Bronstein, aka Leon Trotsky enters our story here. He was the son of a fairly well off farmer in the Ukraine. The family was Jewish. After spending some time in a small study group where he moved from Narodnik ideas to Marxism, in 1897 at the tender age of 18 Trotsky broke his teeth as an organizer reviving a union that had been outlawed in Nikolayev. His efforts resulted in organizing 200 of the 10,000 or so dock and factory workers there, most of whom were Eastern Orthodox. In early 1898 the leaders of the Union and the reading group were all imprisoned. Trotsky ended up in jail in Moscow where he benefited from meeting other revolutionaries, and where he first heard of Lenin. Then the Czar had Trotsky sent to Siberia from which he escaped in the Summer of 1902. By October he was in London to meet with V.I. Lenin.
In the years before the first World War there was split in the Russian Democratic Socialist movement that deserves some attention. It has been used unjustly to paint Lenin as an anti-Democratic authoritarian. The split came our of a meeting where the majority got behind Lenin. From that moment forward, supporters of Lenin were called majoritarians, or Bolsheviks. This is so despite the fact that the Bolsheviks were a minority in the larger party. The Russian Social Democratic Party in 1903 was an illegal party, but besides its membership it had a larger realm of fellow travellers. In 1903 they debated about whether to include this larger periphery into voting membership status within the party. Lenin opposed bringing in these peripheral groups because under the conditions they had to face, being an illegal party, he did not think they could function democratically with a sudden influx of new members. This is the old democratic problem of education. If the new members were uneducated, then how could they be expected to benefit from having a vote? Instead of rushing to form a political party, as Axelrod insisted they do, Lenin rightly perceived that a process of education was necessary so that workers could understand the very demanding organizational environment that they all struggled under before making decisions regarding the overall direction of the party. Viewed from this angle, the fact that this vote happened at the same moment and meeting when Axelrod and his group were trying to kick Lenin out of the editorial board of the party’s paper, and the Menshevik side is revealed as the less democratic. The Mensheviks wanted to flood the party with a lot of uneducated members who they could mold after themselves, pushing to the side Lenin and those who thought like him. Note Lenin in 1903, showing not only care for open debate in the Democratic Socialist Party, but also holding back the Mensheviks’ tendency to confuse the party for the class as a whole: “There can be no talk of throwing anyone overboard in the sense of preventing them from working, from taking part in the movement. On the contrary, the stronger our Party organisations, consisting of real Social-Democrats, the less wavering and instability there is within the Party, the broader, more varied, richer, and more fruitful will be the Party’s influence on the elements of the working-class masses surrounding it and guided by it. The Party, as the vanguard of the working class must not be confused, after all, with the entire class.” (Lenin, p.286). [quote from One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (the crisis in our party), 1904] I want to repeat that last bit, because it will be important later: Lenin opposed forming a mass party in the specific context of Russia because he rejected the idea that the party should imagine it speaks for the people, that its prerogatives and priorities are the same as society as a whole. The devotion to the radical democratic tradition meant not having a party full of low energy members, being committed to education in the form of a newspaper and participation in struggle, and encouraging the soviets in 1905 without trying to replace the soviets with the party. The Russians, more than any other party at this time in Europe, debated and labored over the question of party organization. The debate is well worth studying in detail, and a good place to start is Moira Donald’s Marxism and Revolution: Karl Kautsky and the Russian Marxists 1900-1924. No one on either side of the debate in 1903 thought that they were arguing deep ideological principles: they thought it was a disagreement about party policy. They were wrong, and the faultlines the argument revealed were important for what came next. There were efforts at reunification sporadically through the next decade, but they came to nothing. The two groups organized separately, occasionally working together. Trotsky was not at the Congress where the RSDP voted in favor of Lenin’s side, and though he agreed with Lenin he remained with the Mensheviks’ organization and consistently argued for reunification. He stood a little outside of both parties because unlike almost anyone else in the Socialist movement at the time at least after 1905 he thought a socialist revolution was possible in Russia: maybe he thought that because in 1905 he worked so closely in the soviets. Over the next decade, Lenin’s ideas would come closer to Trotsky’s, culminating in 1917 with the excellent State and Revolution. We’ll get to that, but first we have to talk about 1905.
In January of 1905 the workers of St. Petersburg organized a peaceful march on the Winter Palace, Russia’s White House. They were joined in the march by Father Gapon who had organized a right wing worker’s organization. Their politics were different, but their immediate goal was the same. So, they marched separately and struck together. They came to the Czar in a spirit of humility, asking for reform and bread. The Czar refused to hear their petition and ordered the army to fire upon them. The resulting wave of strikes and protests threw the Czar’s government into disarray. Soon a condition of general strike brought the Russian economy to a standstill. Trotsky arrived from Vienna in time to join the newly minted soviets.
Trotsky at this time wrote his famous essay “Results and Prospects,” which declared that in Russia because the bourgeoisie was not strong enough to produce a parliamentary democracy as the French had done, that the peasants and workers would provide the muscle to overthrow the government and then because of their importance in the movement, these classes would immediately set about socializing the economy and state. He was alone in thinking the Russian revolution could spill over into socialist tasks. Lenin and Luxembourg both thought in 1905 that the peasants would accomplish the revolution but then the bourgeoisie would end up forming a government that consolidated their class rule as had happened throughout Europe in 1848. We should forgive people for imagining the future will be like what they have experienced in the recent past, and sometimes it’s true that what happens next is like what happened before. That is not how things went down in 1905. In October the movement successfully convinced the Czar to guarantee freedom of the press in what was called the October Manifesto. By November it was clear that these were empty promises, and the movement rallied that month to the cause of Polish independence and that of several sailors from Kronstadt who were going to be court martialed for participating in the strikes. Again and again we find these early Marxists combining anti-imperialism with radical democracy and an insistence on the freedom of the press. We’re still firmly planted in the garden of Epicurus, under that sky of many opinions. By December, People had just about made up their mind to stage an insurrection and take over the government when on December 3 a small army of the Czar’s police, backed up by Cossacks, encircled the preparatory meeting of the Executive of the Soviets, presided over by Trotsky. The assembly merely continued through its agenda. In “The Prophet Armed” Isaac Deutscher describes the scene, and you can read that in the transcripts. Essentially, the arresting officer interrupts the meeting, and Trotsky acting as the moderator insists that the officer wait his turn on stack. The officer waits his turn and reads his arrest warrant. The meeting carries on as if he weren’t there, so he goes outside to get a bigger force of police. Trotsky used the time this won them to have their documents destroyed.
“A trade-union spokesman was just declaring his union’s readiness to join in the general strike, when a detachment of soldiers and police occupied the corridors. A police officer entered the room where the Executive was sitting and began to read a warrant of arrest. It was now only a question whether the Soviet would carry its own weakness and humiliation with dignity. Resistance was ruled out. But should they surrender meekly, gloomy-faced, without a sign of defiance? Trotsky’s pride and his sense of stage effect would not permit him to preside over so flat and disheartening a scene. But as he could not afford any serious act of defiance, he could relieve the gloom of the situation only with humour. And so he turned the last scene of this spectacle into a witty burlesque of a bold performance. As the police officer, facing the Executive, began to read the warrant of arrest, Trotsky sharply interrupted him: ‘Please do not interfere with the speaker if you wish to take the floor, you must give your name and I shall ask the meeting whether it wishes to listen to you.” The perplexed officer, not knowing whether he was being mocked at or whether he should expect armed resistance, waited for the trade-union delegate to end his speech. Then Trotsky gravely asked the Executive whether he should allow the officer to make a statement ‘for the sake of information.’ the officer read the warrant, and Trotsky proposed that the Executive should acknowledge it and take up the next item on its agenda. Another speaker rose. ‘Excuse me’, the police officer, disconcerted by this unheard of behaviour, stammered and turned towards Trotsky, as if for help. ‘Please do not interfere’, Trotsky sharply rebuked him. ‘You have had the floor; you have made your statement; we have acknowledged it. Does the meeting wish to have further dealings with the policeman?’ ‘No!’ ‘Then, please, leave the hall!’ The officer shuffled his feet, muttered a few words and left. Trotsky called upon the members of the Executive to destroy all documents and not to reveal their names to the police. From the hall below rose the clangour of broken revolver-locks -- the delegates were carrying out Trotsky’s order. The police officer re-entered, this time leading a platoon of soldiers. A member of the Executive rose to address the soldiers: ‘The Tsar,’ he said, was at this very moment breaking the promise of the October Manifesto; and they, the soldiers, were allowing themselves to be used as his tools against the people. The officer, afraid of the effect of the words, hurriedly led the soldiers out into the corridor and shut the door behind them. ‘Even through closed doors’, the speaker raised his voice, ‘the brotherly call of the workers will reach the soldiers.’ At length a strong detachment of police entered, and Trotsky declared ‘the meeting of the Executive closed.’ Thus after fifty days ended the epic of the first Soviet in history.” (pp. 118-119).]
They say the past is a foreign country, and this is doubly true of Russia in the early twentieth century. I cannot recommend highly enough Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. It’s beautifully written by a scholarly eye-witness and participant to the events described, a classic of world literature. As you might expect, the very beginning of the 20th century in Russia saw an accelerating wave of strikes that peaks in 1905 and then recedes.
The revolution of 1905 failed, and its leaders ended up in jail or in exile. Trotsky would have to escape from Siberia a second time. But the revolution of 1905 saw the first formation of the soviets, and in 1917 those soviets would come back stronger as civil society stepped into the vacuum of governance that accompanied the collapse of the Czar’s regime. Writing in the 1920, Trotsky would have this to say about the period just after 1905: “The Russian proletariat learned its first steps in the political circumstances created by a despotic state. Strikes forbidden by law, underground circles, illegal proclamations, street demonstrations, encounters with the police and with troops -- such was the school created by the combination of a swiftly developing capitalism with an absolutism slowly surrendering its positions. The concentration of the workers in colossal enterprises, the intense character of governmental persecution, and finally the impulsiveness of a young and fresh proletariat, brought it about that the political strike, so rare in western Europe, became in Russia the fundamental method of struggle. The figures of strikes from the beginning of the present century are a most impressive index of the political history of Russia… Beaten in the December uprising of 1905, the proletariat during the next two years makes heroic efforts to defend a part of the conquered positions. These years, as our strike figures show, still belong directly to the revolution, but they are the years of ebb. The four following years (1908-11) emerge in our mirror of strike statistics as the years of victorious counterrevolution.” (Trotsky, pp. 26-27).
Lenin writes in 1905 that the party press should only publish authors who agree with the party line. This is often trotted out to paint him as opposed to free speech, but he never tried to stop party members from publishing criticisms of the party in nonparty press. Furthermore, he often insisted that minoritarian viewpoints be represented in the party press. From Soma Marik: “Lenin’s own pr-1917 practice show him to be more flexible than the article suggests. In 1910, when the Central Committee plenum decided to close down the factional papers, it also decided to issue a special discussion bulletin. Lenin took the position that articles defending the party line should be printed in the party press meant as the party’s mouth-piece, while articles questioning the party line would be published in the discussion bulletin. During the war years, when censorship tightened everywhere, a suggestion by Lenin showed that he did not actually rule out party activists writing in the non-party press. He only stressed that the official party press must reflect the party line.” (p. 288).
In February of 1917 a wave of strikes and protests occurred in Russia. The army was called out to massacre the protest movement. The army refused, and the Czar was deposed. The resulting provisional government, organized under the liberal Kerensky as executive and with a representative Duma, existed side by side with a network of soviets. The soviets represented workers in factories, but also various peasant communities. In other words, there were two forms of government: one cobbled together with remnants of the old regime and one that had crystallized within society over the course of the previous half century of struggle. The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks agreed that the resulting government would be a bourgeois, or in today’s parlance a limited or managed, democracy. And then German authorities smuggled Lenin into Russia where he set off an ideological bomb. When he descended the platform on April 3rd. Lenin pointed out that the conditions that had brought about the revolution of February were all still present: the war, famine, the claims of foreign bankers on the profit from Russian industry. He went further and said there would be yet another revolution led by workers and peasants. He went further, agreeing with Trotsky against the whole tradition of socialist thought, to claim that the state that resulted from these revolutions could be socialist. By October of the same year, events would prove him right. A few years later, the project would be hopelessly imperiled, and a decade later the revolution will have been buried by Stalin. But in 1917 Lenin’s party would champion the slogan all power to the soviets and mean it. The soviets would vote the Bolsheviks into power. The progress of Lenin’s party in 1917 is the rise of a democratic coalition ready to lead society.
For one thing, the party became a mass party, with membership increasing ten-fold in a matter of months, from 23,000 in February to 240,000 six months later (Marik, p.335). Lenin’s previous insistence that the party had to remain small to function democratically was adapted to the new conditions, that the party could now operate legally and openly. What Lenin didn’t adapt was his insistence that the party not consider its viewpoint to be the same as that of society at large. The slogan “All Power to the Soviets” dates from June of 1917: it was a sincere call for society to flood into these democratic bodies to create a government of the people. The democratic institutions would require defensive bodies, what Marx called the dictatorship of the proletariat, and that is why democratically run soviets were organized within the Czar’s army. The fact that revolutionaries were often punished by being drafted and sent to the front accelerated this tendency. The army, largely composed of peasants, then became a conduit for revolutionary messages to reach the peasants. Because the Bolsheviks had successfully organized within the army, they were able to lead the military operations that successfully resisted a rightwing coup led by General Kornilov in July. From a place of obscurity in February, by October the Bolshevik Party leading society. 20 million people were represented in the soviets, and even in the Duma, the Czar’s old Congress, the Bolsheviks had increased their votes from 75,000 to 198,000 in the context where support for other parties was plummeting (Trotsky, p.564). Following the July coup attempt, the Bolshevik campaign for all power to the soviets and a socialist government got majority approval in the Second Congress of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies of Urals, in a Conference of Factory and Shop Committees in Kiev, in the Petrograd Soviet, in the Kiev Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, in a regional congress of Soviets in Finland, in the Saratov Soviet, in Kronstadt, in Reval, Dorpat, Wenden, Petrograd and Moscow (Marik, p.348). Though a vote for a Bolshevik takeover narrowly lost in the Donetsk region of the Ukrain in October, a Bolshevik takeover got majority support in [from Marik]“the Moscow regional Congress, the All-Siberian Congress, the regional Congresses at Minsk (ByeloRussia), the Northern Caucusus, provincial Congresses in Vladimir and Tver, etc. But the most important was the Congress of Northern Soviets. Represented in it were Soviets from Petrograd, Moscow, Archangel, Reval, Helsingfors, Kronstadt, Vyborg, Narva, Gatchina, Tsarskoe Selo, the Baltic Fleet, the Petrograd Soviet of Peasant Deputies, the Petrograd district Soviets, and the soldiers organizations of the Northern, Western, Southwestern, and Rumanian fronts.” (p. 349)
To summarize, the Czarist government had been so weakened by its constant imperialist wars that civil society was forced to organize soviets to perform the functions of government. Then the Czarist government was overthrown by its own army, which refused to massacre the population to force them back into slave like labor conditions. Then a democratic movement within these soviets demanded that the Bolshevik party overthrow the remnants of the Czarist government. That is the context in which the Bolsheviks stormed the winter palace on the 25th of October, or November 7th depending on which calendar you use. Their takeover of power was further ratified at an All Russian Peasant Congress that met in December (Marik, p.355).
Now, theoretically, because workers in society have a real material interest to end exploitation, a state composed of them is supposed to require less coercion over time. Meaning the withering away of the state is supposed to be driven forward by the empowering of exploited people in democratic institutions. This faith was betrayed by the Bolsheviks after they took power. It is important to understand why.
The immediate task of the newly formed Soviets was to end Russian participation in WW1 and to protect the new revolutionary government. That was a conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e. the armed defense of democratic gains, which they had inherited from Marx and now felt duty bound to uphold. And so they did. There was an immediate tension created by the fact of armed conflict to protect the new democratic forms. The extreme situation the soviets found themselves in, having inherited a cycle of famine, a communications and transportation system marred by world and civil war, and being invaded by all of the former Czar’s allies America, Britain, France in addition to the ongoing German assault, having to then fight peasant uprisings, all of these threats compounded until in the defense of the new state the Bolsheviks were gradually forced to extinguish democratic soviet rule, free speech and individual rights. According to Spinoza, doing the right thing is an ability, and sometimes circumstances cripple us so we lose that ability.
On 29th of October, 1917, a coup led by a far rightwing Colonel Poldovnikov caused the deaths of 200 people in all. At the same time, the Railway Union was threatening to strike unless the Bolshevik government stopped fighting, and the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionary parties were calling for a coalition government that would exclude the soviets and Lenin and Trotsky. From Marik: “On the 30th [of November], Krasnov’s Cossacks went into action, but were defeated by the Red forces at the battle of Pulkovo Heights. On November 2, Krasnov was arrested in Gatchina. So mild was Bolshevik rule at this stage that he was released on his word of honor, which he violated immediately, by going to the Don and becoming the leader of a Cossack anti-Bolshevik movement.” (p. 383). Immediately after the Bolsheviks led a democratic movement to seize state power, moderate socialists joined forces with the far right to overthrow that democratic government. Similarly, in Finland, a democratically elected socialist government was smashed by a right wing coup accompanied by a terror campaign wherein 23,000 people were massacred. The right wing, pro-Czar reaction to the first democratic government Russia had ever had, took the form of brutal mass murder.
Victor Serge was the son of emigree Russian revolutionaries who returned to Russia in 1918 to support the Soviets. Though an anarchist from his teenage years, Serge became a member of the Soviet Secret Police,and then later after resisting the Stalinist turn he became a victim of the Soviet Secret Police. He was sent by Stalin to the Gulag before being saved by a campaign of international pressure led by Andre Gide. If anyone is really interested in all the details of the first red terror, I highly recommend Soma Marik again, but also Serge’s excellent books Memoirs of a Revolutionary and Year One of the Russian Revolution. In the latter book he gives us this summary that from what I can tell is completely true and unbiased. He begins by invoking the way the generals of the capitalist world used capital punishment to make their men go on killing the enemy: “Remember above all the experience of these last ten years. The discipline of all the armies of the Great War, all of them so lavish in heroism, rested in the end on terror: does anyone know the number of those sent to the firing-squad by courts-martial? In central europe, in Finland, in Spain, in Italy, in the Balkans, capitalism when threatened has resorted to the White terror, which is elevated by fascist dictatorship into a permanent system. Besides, it is out of White terror that Red terror is born. The workers and peasants, little enough inclined to take to the sword, in view of their inexperience in power and the generous idealism of many revolutionaries, learnt their lesson from the defenders of Tsardom and of capitalism. It is even somewhat disconcerting to see the leniency of the victors towards the vanquished, both after the fall of the autocracy and after the October rising. After the Red October, the ultra-reactionary leader Purishkevich was quietly set at liberty. The Cossack ataman Krasnov, captured with arms in his hands, was released on parole. The Moscow Junkers who massacred the workers in the Kremlin arsenal were simply disarmed. It took ten months of bloodier and bloodier struggles, of plots, sabotage, famine, assassinations; it took foreign intervention, the White terror in Helsinki, Samara, Baku and the Ukraine, it took the blood of Lenin before the revolution decided finally to let the axe fall! This in a country where over a whole century the masses had been brought up by the autocracy in the school of persecutions, flogging, hangings and shootings!” (Serge, p. 351).
Nevertheless, in the fall of 1917 the Constituent Assembly created a consitution declaring the “Rights of the Toiling and Exploited People” that asserted the separation of church and state, freedom of speech and assembly and abolishing legal discrimination based on race or nationality (Marik, p. 395-397). The All-Russian Congress of Soviets was established with one delegate for every 25,000 voters. It would meet every six months to elect the Central Executive Committee which combined the functions of executive and legislative branches. Though these soviets met fairly irregularly due to the ongoing civil war, they actually met more often than required by the constitution, and their actual makeup in those first few years was majority non-communist party members. The famine conditions led to the Bolsheviks requisitioning grain, which led to peasant rebellions and worsening famine conditions. In Baku Bolsheviks relinquished power after losing an election, and then were massacred. The civil war strangled soviet democracy, but for a brief period that soviet democracy did exist. Where the Bolsheviks failed is in not understanding that the governing system has to have room for people who disagree, even who disagree fundamentally. If there’s unanimity in your meetings something is very wrong. Soma Marik comments: “In this early period, the Soviets did make a beginning in replacing bureaucracy by elected and accountable officials. If, within a year, 25 percent of them at the gubernia level, and 50 percent at the city and volost level were replaced, it shows that despite civil war, this function of training common people remained with the Soviets for quite some time, and was accepted in principle by the Bolsheviks. Thus when Lenin said that ‘the socialist character of Soviet, i.e., proletarian democracy… lies in the fact that… for the first time a start is made by the entire population in learning the art of administration,’ he was not exaggerating greatly. Soviets went on developing everywhere… However, this growth of Soviet power was soon halted. The most important factor was the isolation of the revolution. No Russian Marxist believed that socialism could be built in one country, least of all in backward, peasant-majority Russia. As early as 1906, Trotsky had predicted that the russian Revolution would have to seek help from the world revolution, or perish in the face of world counter-revolution. Lenin repeated this view in 1918. But the world revolution could not be hurried along… The October Revolution was followed by a counter-revolution, which received unstinted support from the imperialists. And almost all opposition parties drew close to the counter-revolution, and failed to demarcate clearly between opposition to the government on the one hand and armed rebellion against the Soviet power on the other. Consequently, the democratic forms decayed. In Petrograd the last fully free and democratic elections were held in June 18-24, 1918. The Bolsheviks obtained 48.5 percent of the delegates, the Left SRs 12.2 percent, the Right SRs 17.6 percent, the Mensheviks 11.1 percent and independent 10.7 percent… the decline of multiparty Soviet democracy was closely connected to the Civil War, which began in July 1918. The sudden collapse of multiparty democracy turned the Soviets into administrative organs rather than the combination of executive and legislative bodies that Lenin had sought. Working class participation, however, did rise, not only in the lower levels, but also at the top. In 1918, in twenty of the most important departments of the state economic administration, officials of proletarian origin and delegates from working-class organizations accounted for 43 percent of the total, as against 38 percent with a record in the former Tsarist bureaucracy. But as the Soviets collapsed due to the Civil War and the dispersal of the proletariat non-elected ‘revolutionary committees’ or expanded party committees, replaced them in many places. Thus, non-elected, unrepresentative bodies began to be set up. With the elected, militant workers being replaced, functionaries now became more important. By the end of 1920, there were 5,880,000 such functionaries, and less than 2 million industrial workers. In Vyatka, Stalin found that out of 4,766 members of the staff of the Soviet authorities, 4,467 were former Tsarist officials. It was not a Bolshevik drive for complete power that caused this process. On the contrary, the Bolsheviks registered this process with great unease as when Lenin said in 1919, at the Eighth Party Congress: ‘The Soviets, which by virtue of their programme are organs of government by the working people, are in fact organs of government for the working people by the advanced section of the proletariat.’... Victor Serge spelled out the change with precision and clarity: ‘With the disappearance of political debates between parties representing different social interests through the various shades of their opinion, Soviet institutions, beginning with the local Soviets and ending with the Vee-Tsik and the Council of People’s Commissars, manned solely by communists, now function in a Vacuum: since all the decisions are taken by the party all they can do is give them the official rubberstamp” (p. 399-401). So much for Epicurus. As popular participation in the state receded, control of the factories was more and more taken over by the state. This was all taking place in the context of a famine. The Bolsheviks were forced to requisition grain from the peasants, and they reserved their sharpest personel for the army and the government. Meaning the people they sent to take grain from the peasants were the talentless and opportunistic. In places like Smolensk where soviets were set up early, their tended to not be rebellion. In places like Tambov province soviet style government was set up after grain requisitioning began and peasants joined the anarchist-extreme-right-wing armies that fought against the Bolshevik led state. In Kronstadt it was this later movement that revolted. For anyone interested in the Russian Civil War I cannot recommend highly enough a collection of essays edited by Donald J. Raleigh entitled Provincial Landscapes: Local Dimensions of Soviet Power 1917-1953. Go read all the books. Truly perceiving enemies on all sides, the Bolsheviks began to consolidate power for people who were proven to be on their side. The result of this was that the economy as a whole became property of the state. Over the course of 1920-21 the Bolshevik party took control of the factories, the unions and the press. In 1921, after many failed coup attempts against the Bolscheviks and an assassination attempt against Lenin they ban other parties, thereby shutting down the presses of the Mensheviks, the Social Revolutionaries and the Anarchists. Though these actions were considered temporary stop-gaps needed to face the crisis, Stalin would exploit the growing material interest of the bureaucracy itself to make these measures permanent. Lenin’s death in 1924 opened the field for hostilities between Stalin and the growing opposition to him within the Bolshevik party and society.
Opposition to Stalin’s culture of patronage and corruption began with Lenin, who shortly before his death wrote against allowing Stalin to stay in government. Trotsky raised criticisms of Stalin’s course in the early 20s, and by the mid 20s was organizing a block within the party for democratic reform. There is a long period in the early twenties during which Trotsky argues for lifting the ban on other parties, but within the rules laid down previously by the Central Committee. This meant that beyond debating for reform within the Central Committee and discussing these matters with his friends he didn’t canvas, publish or otherwise try and organize people outside of the party. It’s important to understand that because Trotsky was not a part of the Bolshevik party until 1917, people inside that party thought of him as an outsider. Because he had been part of the Menshevik party between the years of 1905 and 1917 he was associated with the Menshevik party that in part was plotting to overthrow their government. Not just that, but Trotsky was constantly of a different opinion from everyone else in the Party. When the Party was ramping up grain requisitioning, Trotsky proposed selling the grain on an open market so the peasants would get paid for their product and would cooperate with its distribution and not hoard it. His ideas were voted down, and when the ongoing requisition policy inspired a revolt at Kronstadt, they sent Trotsky to put it down. Immediately after the revolt the Central Committee instituted the New Economic Policy (NEP) which allowed peasants to sell their grain on a market. No one listened when Trotsky called upon the Central Committee to open membership into the party for people willing to be educated. A year later, Stalin flooded the party with new people who were not educated by who depended on him for a paycheck. This was how Stalin guaranteed his power base, by building within the party and government a network of graft and corruption loyal to him. It wasn’t until the mid-1920, around 1925 that Trotsky and some others began to organize a resistance to Stalin among the public, against the laws the Bolshevik state had adopted. The government, which was by then in every factory, beat Trotsky and company to the workers, and in 1927 when the opposition attempted to hold a march in St. Petersburg the workers shunned them. There was a real social base to Stalinism.
Every now and then some smartass will suggest that Trotsky or someone else should have just shot Stalin early on. What this idea misses is that when you’re trying to be a legitimate government you don’t just shoot people you don’t like. You want to build institutions whose rules people respect and that are applied fairly. It was precisely because Trotsky followed the rules for so long, hoping that the workers would see through Stalin and that a democratic upsurge would sweep him out of power, that Trotsky finally lost. The rules were stacked against him. Lenin left a final testament urging people to remove Stalin from power, but Trotsky submitted to the rules of the Central Committee and didn’t publish it. In 1929 part of Lenin’s testament was leaked to the press, and had a limited effect. People involved in the communist movement had trouble believing that the thing was rotten at the top, and that it had to be resisted.
After 1991 lots of old soviet archives were opened up, and Pierre Broue, a historian and author of dozens of books about the Russian Revolution, was able to get at a trove of documents Stalin had suppressed referring to the left opposition. The result was a book published in 2003 called “Communistes contr Staline: Massacre d’une generation,” and if you can read French I highly recommend it. Much of what follows is drawn from those pages.
The organized opposition to Stalin, under Trotsky and Zinoviev, did not end with their deportation, though they were deported in 1927. Groups of activists that had worked with Trotsky began protesting forced deportations of opposition leaders from the very beginning, starting with a rally at the train station where Trotsky was sent away.
Adolph Abramovich Joffe had participated in the revolutionary movement in 1905 and the one in 1917. In fact, he had led the Bolshevik faction in the St. Petersburg Duma in 1917, and been a lead negotiator when the Soviets negotiated a peace treaty with Germany to end WW1. But Joffe had a medical condition that was very painful and difficult to treat. When the opposition was expelled from the Soviet Union, he knew that his health would make him a strain on the resources of the left opposition in exile, so he took his own life. His final letter to Trotsky is deeply moving. In it he blames Trotsky for not acting more forcefully sooner against Stalin. “Dear Leon Davidovich, we are bound together by ten years of work in common and, I hope, of personal friendship, and that gives me the right to tell you, at the moment of farewell, what seems to me to be a weakness in you… But you have often renounced your right position in favour of an agreement, a compromise, whose value you overestimated. That was wrong. I repeat: politically you have always been in the right, and now more than ever you are in the right. Someday the party will understand this, and history will be forced to recognise it.” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/joffe/1927/letter.htm). Joffe’s wife Maria was also politically active, and would survive being sent to Stalin’s camps for the Bolsheviks. In her memoir, One Long Night, she writes about how the Bolsheviks resisted Stalin to the end, many dying in hunger strikes, and many like her second husband being shot and buried in mass graves.
In the early 30s, when the left opposition in Russia was suppressed, workers in factories began organizing their own resistance. Stalin still wasn’t powerful enough to massacre them all, which would happen in the late 30s. When the second generation of opposition leaders were suppressed, workers struck spontaneously. Stalin appeased the masses and consolidated the security apparatus to hold them in check, using ethnic divisions and nationalist patriotism to straddle the heaving social body.
Though the opposition was broad, encompassing a left and a right within the communist movement, those who differed with Stalin on issues other than Democracy, who were willing to be silenced, eventually capitulated, as was the case with Radek, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Preobrajensky, Rhykov and so on. Their capitulations only meant their dishonor, since all of these old Bolsheviks were murdered essentially for having disagreed with Stalin. As with any political movement, the participants varied in their consciousness of their goal, but the one thing that lent moral clarity, what gave the opposition coherence, was the insistence on democracy and free speech. In June of 1929 Rakovsky urged his fellow oppositionists not to capitulate despite Stalin’s temporary left turn: “Above all, the total absence of a plan to restore democracy in the party means there is no guarantee that the gains of today will endure.” (Broue, p159). It is furthermore impossible to imagine that had the party been reformed that collectivization would have been pushed ahead so cruelly and stupidly as Stalin did starting in 1928 through 1932, causing the death of 6 million Ukrainian peasants. The Bolsheviks who disagree with Stalin were all murdered by him, some in gulags and others in show trials. From 1927 to 1929 Trotsky organizes the resistance from exile within the Soviet Union.
In 1929 Stalin banishes Trotsky to Turkey and cuts off licit correspondence between opposition members. Trotsky is defiant. If you didn’t know that the left opposition in the USSR had broad popular appeal, then the image of Trotsky tilting at windmills sets for you a bad example. This Trotsky fights when he knows he cannot win. “He felt nothing in common with those historic personalities of whom Hegel says that once they have accomplished their ‘mission in history’ they are exhausted and ‘fall like empty husks’. He would struggle to break out of the vacuum in which Stalin and events were enclosing him…” (Deutscher, TPO, p4). Deutscher here explains how Trotsky protested against his exile to Turkey by Stalin. “Even if at the moment it seemed vain to invoke history for justice, he could do nothing but invoke it.” What Deutsher gets wrong, and what Broue shows, is that Trotsky was appealing not just to posterity for symbolic justice, but to a vibrant resistance movement in the USSR for actual justice.
When Trotsky begins publishing in The New York Times in 1929 he is doubtless addressing himself to the opposition movement in the USSR and to the international socialist movement. He was addressing himself to textile workers who struck in Leningrad in May of 1928 (130). Soviet Society would offer its response with opposition movements that were led independently of Trotsky in 1931 when Lominadze and several other party officials are exposed trying to establish oppositionist peasant’s unions (213) and then spontaneously, without leadership when in April of 1932 2,500 workers struck in Ivanovo-Voznessensk (241).
Broue quotes Isabell Longuet:
“Stalin himself tells us, in a speech from November 19, how many there are. According to him 10,000 party members voted against the majority platform in the previous congress, and had therefore had their memberships revoked, but that 20,000 Trotsyists had not voted at all and ‘were not free from Trotskyist ideology.’” (133).
Deutscher seems to be aware of social unrest in the USSR of this time, but writes about it not as though it were an expression of people’s historical agency but as if it were simply another material condition: “amid the upheavals of collectivization and industrialization, he expected shifts in the nation to produce great shifts in the ruling party as well.”(Deutscher).
Trotsky wasn’t fighting the good fight against any and all odds: he was fighting with the knowledge that he could win. The subsequent activity of the Trotskyist left in the 20th century shows that this image of Trotsky as Don Quixote seriously damaged the left’s ability to attempt a politics engaged with real political possibilities, and what’s more it gets Trotsky completely wrong. Trotsky would be the opposite of Don Quixote, not someone who could not face the changes of a new world, but one who could see, though in a limited way, how the present world cannot remain as it is. That Trotsky is closer to the reality of what the man was, and a better example for all of us.
After murdering opposition to his tyranny within the party, Stalin moved on proactively to massacre people who might oppose him, beginning with Polish intellectuals and leaders in the communist movement, and after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact by massacring the leading figures in Poland itself.
The Polish purges targeted the most intelligent, educated and cultured groups because these were capable of free thinking, and because these stratum of Polish society were aware of Stalin’s intentional starving of the Ukraine. Having strangled those demanding free speech and democracy within his own movement, Stalin set about invading and dominating the countries all around him in an attempt to extinguish free thought itself. Those in the left opposition who capitulated in the early 30s did so because they did not see possibilities in historical progress but only necessities. “Capitulation is based on the perception of the current moment as permanent” (Broue, p217) declared the oppositionist Tsintsadze in 1931. If we think of Stalinism as inevitable, of these terrible moments of purge and show trial as exemplary of human nature when it tries for socialism, then we too are capitulating, becoming less Trotsky and more Don Quixote. What we have chosen to see in the Russian Revolution, a severe and distorted vision of human limitation, should instead be read as a measure of human resolve to resist. Like Robespierre, Stalin had to wage a war against society, and we should never imagine that he won a final victory. Society, after all, survives us all and can not indefinitely accept the yoke of servitude.
Lenin and his party went to extraordinary lengths to protect free speech and democracy. They gave up on these things only under the crushing weight of terrible circumstance. There are several reasons why this is important. The narrative that says the Russian revolution was led by authoritarians and that Stalinism was the necessary result is embraced by conservatives and Stalinists. The temptation to agree with the Stalinists on this point in the name of some kind of imagined realpolitik is ever present for the socialist left. That politics fails at every hurdle, because it does not understand that Stalin was vaulted into power by a democratic movement which he then strangled. The conservative mistake is the mirror image of the Stalinists: the conservative doesn’t see that socialism can be an expression of deep democratic values. For those of us who claim to be Democratic Socialists, a full accounting of the Russian Revolution is absolutely essential because of its successes and its failures. The false images of it survive in modern Stalinism and Maoism, calling to young radicals it syrren song leading them into political irrelevance and anti-Democratic values which are the same thing. There is a left that embraces the statist, top down socialism of Stalin. The difference between them and us is the difference between Nero and Oreste.
If, like Oreste, the socialist movement can stand before the community and make an honest accounting of this past, work together where we can and make the case for more, then we may find a place within the political community, a path to advocate our point of view. And because we are willing to model good behavior by working with those who cannot see as far as we can, we will win them over to a moment where society can dominate the state, or in other words we can win them over to a democratic way of life. On the other hand, if we decide that we cannot persuade those who oppose us, if we act as though war is our only path, as if we can impose socialism on people from above, then like Nero we will find every door closed to us. Roughly speaking, Stalin is Nero, and Trotsky is Oreste. They both killed the Czarist regime, Stalin for his own sake and Trotsky for the sake of revolution. The better we know that story, the better we know our own potential, and that potential is only as powerful as our politics is democratic. This is the natural corollary to the socialist root idea that we are better off cooperating with other people: that we are best lin ked in cooperation when everyone gets an equal say in what we do. Socialists have never won by imposing their ideas from above, and wherever they have tried to they have failed. In Russia we won by mobilizing democratic forces from every part of society, and then we lost when we were unable to continue that mobilization. If we consider for a moment just how dark and unjust the world was at the turn of the 20th century, we will no longer puzzle that the project of building a society based on mutual respect of all people had such a difficult time getting started and even had a couple false starts. In podcasts to come we will discuss the travails of socialists in Germany and Spain who struggled to relate to democratic values in the wake of the Russian Revolution’s stunning promise and betrayal.
Broué, Pierre. Communistes contre Staline. Fayard, 2003.
Deutscher, Isaac. The Prophet Outcast. Oxford University Press, 1963.
De Spinoza, Benedictus. The collected works of Spinoza. Vol. 2. Princeton University Press, 2016.
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich. VI Lenin. Selected works. Vol. I. Foreign Language Publishing House, Moscow, 1946.
Marik, Soma. Revolutionary Democracy: Emancipation in Classical Marxism. Haymarket Books, 2018.
Raleigh, Donald J. Provincial landscapes: local dimensions of Soviet power, 1917-1953. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001.
Serge, Victor. Year one of the Russian Revolution. Haymarket Books, 2015.
Sgambato-Ledoux, Isabelle. Oreste et Néron. Spinoza, Freud et le mal. Classiques Garnier, 2017.
Trotsky, Leon. History of the Russian revolution. Haymarket Books, 2008.