Sunday, July 10, 2011

Commonplaces 2

There are very few books which I would place next to Orwell's Homage to Catalonia for their historical interest and importance, both in matter and in mere existence. I found just such a book at a coffee shop near campus which - oh, my happy stars - also cheaply sells pieces of historical arcana. Were it not for this, I doubt I would have ever found Encounters with Lenin, along with several other gems amongst the ore.

The author, Nikolay Valentinov, is himself something of an enigma; `Nikolay Valentinov' is one of many pseudonyms employed by Nikolay Vladislavovich Volsky. But he and the translators (Paul Rosta and Brian Pearce) have done an excellent job in the composition and form, which is in many good ways stereotypically Russian. Encounters with Lenin discusses the background, process, and aftermath of Valentinov's time spent with Lenin in late 1903 to early 1904. Those familiar with Soviet history will recognize the importance of the date: this is the most important period in the Bolshevik-Menshevik split in the Russian Social Democratic Party. Valentinov, a rather low-ranking agitator at the time, had the fortune of listening to Lenin while he composed One Step Forward, Two Steps Back. Valentinov would ultimately fall out with Lenin and the party over a philosophic dispute concerning empirico-criticism, an early positivist critique of naive materialism propounded by e.g. Ernst Mach. The ultimate aftermath of this dispute within the RSDP would be the publication of Lenin's Materialism and Empirico-criticism, which under Stalin became unquestionable `holy writ' (p.256). And once Stalin makes it an issue, "the problem inevitably passes from the realm of philosophy to the realm of the G.P.U.-N.K.V.D.-M.G.B." (p.157).

This is what I mean whenever I say of books like Homage to Catalonia, Encounters with Lenin, and The Time of Stalin (similar to The Gulag Archipelago) that they are important in both matter and existence. Valentinov is very introspective and philosophical. By this virtue, his memoir is important as psychological insight into a young Bolshevik, psychological insight into Lenin, introductory material to the philosophy of Marxism and critical materialism, foreshadowing of the Leninist and Stalinist tyrannies, and important historical arcana such as that the orthodox Marxists did not expect the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the essential voluntarism in Leninism, the essence of the Bolshevik-Menshevik split in reality and as according to Lenin, and that Lenin's expectation that he would see a socialist revolution even in 1903-1904 -- a deviation from the contemporaneous orthodoxy.

What attracted the young revolutionaries to Marxism?

We seized on Marxism because we were attracted by its sociological and economic optimism, its strong belief, buttressed by facts and figures, that the development of the economy, the development of capitalism (this was why we were so interested in it), by demoralizing and eroding the foundations of the old society, was creating new social forces (including us) which would certainly sweep away the autocratic régime together with all its abominations. With the optimism of youth we had been searching for a formula that offered hope, and we found it in Marxism. We were also attracted by its European nature. Marxism came from Europe. It did not smell and taste of home-grown mould and provincialism, but was new, fresh, and exciting. Marxism held out a promise that we would not stay a semi-Asiatic country, but would become part of the West with its culture, institutions and attributes of a free political system. The West was our guiding light.

But Marxism was not entirely satisfactory. As I mentioned earlier, it put the revolutionaries in a rather uncomfortable place: according to Marxist formulae, the revolution was far away, probably beyond the lifetimes even of the youth. They had to content themselves with reformism, developing the working class which was still insignificant in Russia and doing their best to propagandize it. But propaganda had little effect; revolutionaries remained a tiny minority. Naturally, the young Marxists were discontent. What they ultimately did was what their predecessors, e.g. the Will of the People (Narodnaya Volya) who had assassinated the Tsar, did, which was to adopt (under Lenin's direction) the Jacobin approach to revolution. More properly, the revolution of 1917 was a coup, not a socialist revolution, the philosophy of which traces back to the Jacobins, the Narodnaya Volya, Tkachev, Chernyshevsky, and other Russian revolutionaries.

Replying to a question about what the authors of `Young Russia' [a famous Jacobin pamphlet] had known and read, Zaychnevsky answered: `At that time we hadn't read the Marxist stuff yet.' A most interesting remark. The inference seems obvious that the October Revolution led by Lenin could have been accomplished without any `Marxist stuff', simply by following the precepts of Chernyshevsky, who had `transformed' Lenin's mind. (p.76)

In all this the party was guided by Lenin:

"Rejection of the Jacobin method of struggle leads quite logically to rejection of the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is, of the coercion which is necessary and obligatory, which is indispensable for the smashing and annihilation of the enemies of the proletariat and for securing the victory of the socialist revolution. A proper bourgeois revolution cannot be carried out without a Jacobin purge--to say nothing of a socialist revolution. [...]. The dictatorship of the proletariat is an absolutely meaningless expression without Jacobin coercion." - Lenin (p.128)

It was the question of centralized power, especially in the hands of Lenin who saw himself as the only person capable of wielding dictatorial power, that divided the RSDP.

It became quite obvious from what Lenin was saying that the right to the conductor's baton inside the party could belong only to him. Was this bombast, an exaggerated vainglorious emphasis on his own special qualities and merits? No, his right was asserted with such simplicity and such certainty that he might have been saying: two and two make four. For Lenin this was simply a matter which required no proof. I was at first shocked by his unshakeable faith in himself, which many years later I called his faith in his destiny, in his conviction that he was pre-ordained to carry out some great historical mission. (p.114)

This consequences of centralized power and the mantras of `party discipline' which inevitably attended it are now obvious. But I think it worthwhile to see who saw the problem coming more or less in advance. In part, Rosa Luxembourg deserves credit, as does Bertrand Russell. But it was interesting to me to see how Valentinov was (partly) inoculated to domination, namely through his previous exposure to unorthodox intellectual material and his understanding of scientific philosophy -- which Marxism was and is not, despite its pretensions otherwise.

Speaking of science, this is roughly what it looked like:

``Guided by principles laid down by Comrade Stalin, we have studied the development of complex life units (cells) from the simpler forms of living matter, from albuminous bodies capable of metabolism. In this way Virchow's idealist theory (it states that cells and their components can originate only from cells through fission, and that nothing is alive if it is not cellular) has been experimentally refuted and a new dialectical materialist cell theory has been created--a theory which teaches us that every cell consists of living matter and that beyond the cell, there is a lower and simpler form also consisting of living matter.'' - Olga Borisovna Lepeshinskaya, (Pravda, 1 Jan. 1951)(p.85-86 in footnote)

You read this correctly. You might know of Lysenko, but Lepeshinskaya is now less known. She made a name for herself by rejecting cellular biology. Never let it be said that the Soviets were `scientific materialists'.

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