Monthly Archives: June 2014

Trotsky: ‘Our Party is for civil war!’

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 1777-1789:

The story of the Civil War is often told as a conflict in which the Bolsheviks were forced to fight by the Whites and the Allied intervention in Russia. In this left-wing version of events the Reds were not to blame for the ‘extraordinary measures’ they were forced to take in the Civil War—the rule by fiat and terror, the requisitionings, mass conscriptions and so on—because they had to act decisively and quickly to defend their revolution against counter-revolutionaries. But this misses the whole point of the Civil War and its relationship to the revolution for Lenin and his followers.

In their view the Civil War was a necessary phase of the class struggle. They embraced it as a continuation of the revolution in a more intensive and military form. ‘Our Party is for civil war!’ Trotsky told the Soviet on 4 June. ‘Long live civil war! Civil war for the sake of the … workers and the Red Army, civil war in the name of direct and ruthless struggle against counter-revolution.’

Lenin was prepared for a civil war and perhaps even welcomed it as a chance to build his party’s power base. The effects of such a conflict would be predictable: the polarization of the country into ‘revolutionary’ and ‘counter-revolutionary’ sides; the extension of the state’s military and political power; and the use of terror to suppress dissent. In Lenin’s view all these things were necessary for the victory of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. He often said that the defeat of the Paris Commune was explained by the failure of the Communards to launch a civil war.

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Marxism in Tsarist Russia

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 345-371:

Marx’s Capital had been published in Russia as early as 1872. It was the book’s first foreign publication, just five years after the original German edition and fifteen years before its appearance in English. The tsarist censors had passed it by mistake, assuming that ‘very few people in Russia’ would read the heavy tome of political economy, and ‘even fewer understand it’. Contrary to expectations, Marx’s critique of the capitalist system would lead to revolution earlier in Russia than in any of the Western societies to which it had been addressed.

The intelligentsia were drawn to Marxism by its ‘scientific’ nature—it was seen as a ‘path of reason’, in the words of Lydia Dan, offering ‘objective solutions’ to the misery of poverty and backwardness—and by its promise that Russia would become more like the capitalist West. ‘We were attracted by its European nature,’ recalled a veteran of the movement in Russia. ‘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.’

Here perhaps was the root of Marxism’s attraction to the Jews, who played such a conspicuous role in the Social Democratic movement, providing many of its leaders (Trotsky, Martov, Axelrod, Kamenev and Zinoviev, to name just a few). Where Populism had proposed to build on peasant Russia—a land of pogroms and discrimination against the Jews—Marxism offered a modern Western vision of Russia. It promised to assimilate the Jews into a movement of universal human liberation—not just the liberation of the peasantry—based on principles of internationalism.

Even the young Lenin only became fully converted to the Marxist mainstream in the wake of the famine crisis. Contrary to the Soviet myth, in which Lenin appeared as a fully fledged Marxist theorist in his infancy, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution came late to politics. In his last school year he was commended by his headmaster (by an irony of fate the father of Kerensky, his arch-rival in 1917) as a model student, ‘moral and religious in his upbringing’, and never giving ‘cause for dissatisfaction, by word or deed, to the school authorities’.

Lenin’s father was a typical gentleman-liberal of the type his son would come to despise. His noble background was a source of embarrassment to Lenin’s Soviet hagiographers. But it was a key to his domineering personality. It can be seen in his intolerance of criticism from subordinates, and his tendency to look upon the masses as no more than human material needed for his revolutionary plans (during the famine he argued that the peasants should be denied aid because it would make a revolution more likely). As Maxim Gorky wrote in 1917, ‘Lenin is a “leader” and a Russian nobleman, not without certain psychological traits of this extinct class, and therefore he considers himself justified in performing with the Russian people a cruel experiment which is doomed to failure beforehand.’

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Nexus of War, Bureaucracy, Totalitarianism

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 1860-1883:

The totalitarian state had its origins in War Communism, which attempted to control every aspect of the economy and society. For this reason the Soviet bureaucracy ballooned spectacularly during the Civil War. The old problem of the tsarist state—its inability to impose itself on the majority of the country—was not shared by the Soviet regime. By 1920, 5.4 million people worked for the government. There were twice as many officials as there were workers in Soviet Russia, and these officials were the main social base of the new regime. This was not a Dictatorship of the Proletariat but a Dictatorship of the Bureaucracy.

Joining the Party was the surest way to gain promotion through the ranks of the bureaucracy. From 1917 to 1920, 1.4 million people joined the Party, nearly all from lower-class and peasant backgrounds, and many through the Red Army, which taught millions of conscripts how to think and act like ‘Bolsheviks’, the foot-soldiers of a disciplined revolutionary vanguard. The leadership was worried that this mass influx would reduce the Party’s quality. Levels of literacy were very low (in 1920 only 8 per cent of Party members had more than four years of primary schooling). As for the political literacy of the rank and file, it was rudimentary: at a Party school for journalists none of the students could say who the British or French leaders were, and some believed that imperialism was a republic somewhere in England. But in other ways this lack of education was an advantage for the Party leaders, for it underpinned their followers’ political obedience. The poorly educated rank and file mouthed the Party’s slogans but left all critical thinking to the Politburo and the Central Committee.

As the Party grew it also came to dominate the local Soviets. This involved a transformation of the Soviets—from local revolutionary bodies controlled by an assembly to bureaucratic organs of the Party-state where all real power was exercised by the Bolsheviks, who dominated the executives. In many of the higher-level Soviets, especially in areas deemed important in the Civil War, the executives were not elected: the Central Committee in Moscow simply sent in commissars to run the Soviets. In the rural (volost’) Soviets the executives were elected. Here the Bolsheviks’ success was partly due to the open system of voting and intimidation of voters. But it was also due to the support of the younger and more literate peasants who had left the village in the First World War and returned in the Civil War. Newly skilled in military techniques and organization, and well versed in socialist ideas, these were the peasants who would join the Bolsheviks, and dominate the rural Soviets by the end of the Civil War. In the Volga region, for example, where this has been studied in detail, two thirds of the volost’ Soviet executive members were literate peasant males under the age of thirty-five and registered as Bolsheviks in the autumn of 1919, compared with just one third the previous spring. In this sense the dictatorship depended on a cultural revolution in the countryside. Throughout the peasant world Communist regimes have been built on the ambition of literate peasant sons to join the official class.

One-party-dominated democracies always fighting a War on This and a War on That against their internal enemies display the same tendencies.

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The October 1917 Coup d’Etat

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 1480-1493:

In the big industrial cities there was a similar process of radicalization in the wake of the Kornilov crisis. The Bolsheviks were the principal beneficiaries of this, winning their first majority in the Petrograd Soviet on 31 August. The Soviets of Riga, Saratov and Moscow fell to them soon afterwards. The rising fortunes of the Bolsheviks were due mainly to the fact that they were the only major political party which stood uncompromisingly for ‘All power to the Soviets’.

This point bears emphasizing, for one of the most basic misconceptions about the October Revolution is that the Bolsheviks were swept to power on a tide of mass support for the Party. They were not. The October insurrection was a coup d’état, actively supported by a small minority of the population, but it took place in the midst of a social revolution, which was focused on the popular ideal of Soviet power. After the Kornilov crisis there was a sudden outpouring of resolutions from factories, villages and army units calling for a Soviet government. But almost without exception they called on all the socialist parties to participate in its establishment, and often showed a marked impatience with their factional disputes.

The real significance of the Kornilov Affair was that it reinforced the popular belief in a ‘counter-revolutionary’ threat against the Soviet—a threat the Bolsheviks would invoke to mobilize the Red Guards and other militants in October. In this sense the Kornilov Affair was a dress rehearsal for the Bolshevik seizure of power. The Bolshevik Military Organization emerged from the underground—where it had been since July—with renewed strength from its participation in the struggle against Kornilov. The Red Guards were also reinforced: 40,000 of them had been armed in the crisis. As Trotsky later wrote, ‘the army that rose against Kornilov was the army-to-be of the October revolution’.

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Literacy Spreads Nationalism

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 242-270:

Until the development of rural schools and networks of communication, nationalism remained an élite urban movement for native language rights in schools and universities, literary publications and official life. Outside the towns its influence was limited. The peasants were barely conscious of their nationality. ‘I myself did not know that I was a Pole till I began to read books and papers,’ recalled a farmer after 1917. In many areas, such as Ukraine, Belorussia and the Caucasus, there was so much ethnic intermingling that it was difficult for anything more than a localized form of identity to take root in the popular consciousness. ‘Were one to ask the average peasant in the Ukraine his nationality,’ observed a British diplomat, ‘he would answer that he is Greek Orthodox; if pressed to say whether he is a Great Russian, a Pole or an Ukrainian, he would probably reply that he is a peasant; and if one insisted on knowing what language he spoke, he would say that he talked “the local tongue”.’

The growth of mass-based nationalist movements was contingent on the spread of rural schools and institutions, such as peasant unions and cooperatives, as well as on the opening up of remote country areas by roads and railways, postal services and telegraphs—all of which was happening very rapidly in the decades before 1917. The most successful movements combined the peasants’ struggle for the land (where it was owned by foreign landlords, officials and merchants) with the demand for native language rights, enabling the peasants to gain full access to schools, the courts and government.

This combination was the key to the success of the Ukrainian nationalist movement. In the Constituent Assembly elections of November 1917, the first democratic elections in the country’s history, 71 per cent of the Ukrainian peasants would vote for the nationalists—an astonishing shift in political awareness in only a generation. The movement organized the peasants in their struggle against foreign (mainly Russian and Polish) landowners and against the ‘foreign influence’ of the towns (dominated by the Russians, Jews and Poles). It is no coincidence that peasant uprisings erupted first, in 1902, in those regions around Poltava province where the Ukrainian nationalist movement was also most advanced.

Throughout Russia the impact of modernization—of towns and mass communications, the money economy and above all rural schools—gave rise to a generation of younger and more literate peasants who sought to overturn the patriarchal village world. Literacy rose from 21 per cent of the empire’s population in 1897 to 40 per cent on the eve of the First World War. The highest rural rates were among young men in those regions closest to the towns (nine out of ten peasant recruits into the Imperial army from the two provinces of Petersburg and Moscow were considered literate even by 1904). The link between literacy and revolution is a well-known historical phenomenon. The three great revolutions of modern European history—the English, the French and the Russian—all took place in societies where the rate of literacy was approaching 50 per cent. Literacy promotes the spread of new ideas and enables the peasant to master new technologies and bureaucratic skills. The local activists of the Russian Revolution were drawn mainly from this newly literate generation—the beneficiaries of the boom in rural schooling during the last decades of the old regime, now in large enough numbers to pass on the new ideas to those still illiterate. In its belated efforts to educate the common people, the tsarist regime was helping to dig its own grave.

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Wordcatcher Tales: ai no muchi, bentatsu, tekken seisai

From Target: Rabaul: The Allied Siege of Japan’s Most Infamous Stronghold, March 1943–August 1945, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2013) Kindle Loc. 5242-5252:

From the beginning of the Meiji period in the late 1800s, the military achieved unswerving discipline through a culture of physical abuse. As Japanese historian Yuki Tanaka would later explain: “Discipline was conducted through bentatsu [鞭撻 ‘whip-strike’] (the routine striking of soldiers), which was presented as an ‘act of love’ by the officers for the soldiers. Even the Japanese Navy—which was far more Westernized in conduct than the Army—adopted a practice of harsh discipline known as tekken seisai (the iron fist) [鉄拳制裁 ‘ironfist punishment’] in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War. It was often called the ai-no-muchi, or ‘whip of love’ [愛の鞭 ‘love’s whip’].”

Tanaka, one of the first Japanese scholars to objectively study his country’s war crimes—and then publish them for a Western audience—attributes the military’s behavior to a steady corruption of Bushido. By the time of the Asia-Pacific war, General Yamada’s original notion of death with honor had been warped into an ideology known as gyokusai: literally, “glorious self-annihilation.”

[There are two serious errors in the previous paragraph. First, Gamble means to refer to the “father of Japanese militarism” he has earlier mentioned, Gen. Yamagata Aritomo (1838–1922), not a Gen. Yamada referenced nowhere else in the book. Second, although it is true that the real-world result of gyokusai ideology was often “glorious self-annihilation,” the term itself is highly figurative; its literal components are 玉砕 ‘jade/jewel-shatter’, i.e., ‘shattering of jewels’ —J.]

Curious why so many of his countrymen had committed heinous acts during World War II, Tanaka evaluated numerous aspects of the system. “Japanese military forces,” he concluded, “tended to undervalue the strategic importance of minimizing casualties. This tendency increased as the emperor ideology gained hold over the minds of the Japanese people and reached its peak during World War II, when the gyokusai ideology emerged. Gyokusai held that a soldier was expected to fight to the end for the emperor. Even when the situation was becoming hopeless … the Japanese military command, instead of trying to minimize casualties, forced gyokusai on its soldiers … further diminishing its manpower.”

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Origin of Australia’s “Ferdinands” in the Pacific

From Target: Rabaul: The Allied Siege of Japan’s Most Infamous Stronghold, March 1943–August 1945, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2013) Kindle Loc. 4766-4787:

THERE WERE SEVERAL mastas [white men] on New Britain and many of the other islands in the Bismarcks and Solomons, all linked by radio to a secretive unit called Ferdinand. Developed at the beginning of the war by two officers in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), the organization took its name from the 1936 picture book The Story of Ferdinand. The Aussies were more familiar with Walt Disney’s cartoon adaptation, “Ferdinand the Bull.” By the time the cartoon reached movie houses in Australia, Europe was on the threshold of war.

Enter the naval intelligence director, Cmdr. Rupert Basil Michel Long, RAN. A World War I veteran, he realized that the hundreds of landowners along Australia’s coast and those living among the islands in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea could be organized into a network connected by two-way radios. Most already had the equipment. At the time, the state of the art in long-distance communications was low-frequency (LF) radio, known to most Australians as “wireless.” Compared with high-frequency radio waves, which provide excellent clarity over short distances (but quickly loose strength and are easily bent or turned by obstacles), low-frequency signals travel great distances without degrading. The government had a monopoly on two-way radio equipment in those days, having purchased a majority share of Amalgamated Wireless of Australasia (AWA) stock in 1922. So the company was obliged to provide communication services across the continent as well as to the hundreds of populated islands in the mandated territory. Two-way radios were essential for relaying messages and news among the plantations, airstrips, mines, and settlements across the Pacific islands, many of which were separated by hundreds of miles.

Commander Long aimed to organize hundreds of civilians into a unified coastwatchers organization. In 1939 he appointed Eric A. Feldt, then a government administrator in New Guinea, to run the network in the islands from a headquarters in Port Moresby. A former RAN officer, Feldt was given a lieutenant commander’s stripes and spent several months traveling “by ship, motor boat, canoe, bicycle, airplane, and boot” along the coast of New Guinea, through the Bismarcks, down the Solomon chain, and finally to the New Hebrides. His four-thousand-mile journey achieved brilliant results. In the coming years, the coastwatchers would provide useful intelligence and perform extraordinary feats, many at the cost of their lives.

Who chose the organization’s name is unknown. Feldt later explained the logic: “The code name, Ferdinand, was … an order to the coastwatchers, a definition of their job. It was a reminder … that it was not their duty to fight, and thus draw attention to themselves; like Disney’s bull, who just sat under a tree and smelled the flowers, it was their duty to sit, circumspectly and unobtrusively, and gather information. Of course, like Ferdinand, they could fight if they were stung.”

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