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Archive for January, 2019

The French Yellow Vests: A self-mobilized mass movement with insurrectionist overtones-Kevin B. Anderson

Posted by admin On January - 22 - 2019 Comments Off on The French Yellow Vests: A self-mobilized mass movement with insurrectionist overtones-Kevin B. Anderson


January 22, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from New Politics — After rumbling on social media for weeks, the Yellow Vests (Gilets Jaunes) movement emerged suddenly on November 17, when no less than 300,000 protestors occupied roads, traffic circles in exurbs and rural areas. They wore the yellow safety vests the government requires all motorists to purchase, and which immediately became the emblem of the movement.  That week and the next, Yellow Vests also ventured into the heart of Paris, blocking the gilded Boulevard Champs-Elysées and almost reaching the nearby presidential palace.  From the beginning, women were unusually prominent in the local occupations and the street marches.  At the same time, the Yellow Vests chased away many politicians who visited their protest sites, including some from the left.

On November 17 and over the next several weeks of mass outpouring, the protesting crowds had to face typical French regime police brutality, whereupon they set up barricades on the Champs-Elysées and attacked the Arc de Triomphe and luxury shops. Slogans scrawled on walls and shouted in the crowds included calls for the immediate resignation of neoliberal President Emmanuel Macron, “Topple the Bourgeoisie,” and, in a reference harking all the way back to the Great Revolution of 1789, “We Cut Off Heads for Less Than This” (Alissa J. Rubin, “French Protestors Chide Macron,” New York Times 12/3/18).

But alongside this white-hot anger stood not the nihilism of pure destructiveness, but heartfelt aspirations for a more human future, what in dialectical terms is called the positive in the negative. As the Yellow Vests of Saint-Nazaire declared in November: “Our objective is not to destroy, but, quite the contrary, to build a more human world for us and future generations… The solution is in ourselves, workers, unemployed, pensioners of all origins and all colors” (Gilets Jaunes: Des clés pour comprendre).

Not since the near revolution of 1968 has France — or any of the so-called Western capitalist countries — witnessed anything like this, a massive, spontaneous, nationwide series of militant demonstrations that not only gained majority support, but also managed to block some crucial parts of the economy like oil refineries, putting the entire government on the defensive.  As one far left commentary put it, “a scent of revolution was hanging in the air” (“Une situation excellente?” Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes 12/6/18).  At the same time, it should be noted that 1968 was immensely larger, involving multiple sectors of society, and, with a smaller population than now, ten million workers on strike and nearly all major economic and educational institutions occupied by workers or students.  Nor should we forget the Black and Latinx ghetto uprisings in the US in the 1960s and after, or similar ones in France and the UK in recent years by impoverished people of color.  Still, the Yellow Vest movement is the first time since 1968 that a mass insurrectionary movement has burst out in a developed capitalist country that was based primarily in the white majority, let alone those in rural and semi-rural areas.

The French government, visibly shaken, was forced to give ground.  Despite promising in regal style in both his 2017 campaign and afterwards never to cede to street pressure, Macron was forced to back down partially and accede to a few of the protestors’ demands.

(The contagion crossed France’s borders too. Belgium experienced mass strikes by newly militant workers against austerity policies, while the iron dictatorship of Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi rushed to ban the sale of yellow vests as a precaution.)

The precipitating grievance of the Yellow Vest movement was a planned hike in the gasoline tax for 2019, which would have hit especially hard the working poor and lower middle classes outside the major urban centers. These sectors of the population are increasingly dependent upon their automobiles to get to work and accomplish other life activities in an economy that is growing more and more delocalized. Meanwhile, the centralized state apparatus has concentrated its public transport initiatives on flashy high-speed rail between major urban centers while allowing local bus and train lines to deteriorate.

Initially, the government and the international media presented the protest as one pitting the economic grievances of some rural people against the Macron government’s overly high-minded ecological aim of discouraging automobile use. This slanderous narrative only enraged the Yellow Vests further, as well as the majority of the French people, especially the fact that Macron has been widely decried as “the president of the rich.”  At the same time that he raised the gas tax, his ISF tax cut for the very wealthy meant that “the 100 richest people in the country received the equivalent of a million euros ($1.14 million) each in tax reduction” (Paul Elek, “The Popular Volcano Is Back!”, Transform! Europe 12-8-18). Or as Marxist environmentalist Andreas Malm put it: “If anyone needed another lesson in how not to mitigate climate change, they can thank Emmanuel Macron. Scrap taxes on the richest, then slap higher taxes on fuels… Capitalist climate governance… always makes sure any actual burdens end up on the shoulders of the poor” (“A Lesson in How Not to Mitigate Climate Change,” Verso Blog 12-7-18).

The movement’s list of grievances and its socio-political character
By November 29, a number of other “directives of the people” had been sent to the government, going far beyond repeal of the gas tax. Many of these demands exhibited a working class or leftist bent, including, (1) repeal the ISF tax reduction on the rich, (2) raise the minimum wage, (3) more secure retirement benefits for all, (4) peg the salaries of elected representatives to the median national income, (5) good treatment for asylum seekers, (6) jobs for the unemployed, (7) class sizes no higher than 25 from nursery school through the twelfth grade, (8) full retirement at 60, and at 55 for those performing heavy physical labor, (9) concentrate housing and promote rail transport of goods for ecological reasons, (10) stop the closures of local train lines, post offices, and schools.  Other demands were of a more protectionist or nationalist nature: (1) big chains like MacDonald’s or Google to pay higher taxes, small shops or artisans less, (2) protection for French industry, (3) forbid the sale of national assets like dams and airports (4) send asylum seekers home whose cases have been rejected, (5) better integration of all those living in France, who should become French by learning the French language and the country’s history (Robert Duguet, “Les Cahiers de Doléances,” in Gilets Jaunes: Des clés pour comprendre, Paris, Éditions Syllepse, December 2018).

To be sure, it is wrong to view the Yellow Vests as a conservative movement concerned only about high taxes and indifferent to the environment, especially since they moved to the left in the weeks after they burst onto scene on November 17.  But it is equally wrong to highlight solely the most progressive elements of their demands and other articulations.

The most concerning Yellow Vest demands are those about sending back rejected asylees and about becoming “French,” each of which have some racist overtones.  This is hardly surprising in a country that gave neofascist Marine Le Pen 34% of the vote in the 2017 national elections, with even higher levels in many rural areas. As Cédric Durand notes, “In this movement one finds cohabiting, amid great confusion, sentiments from the left and sentiments from the right, a large mass of people with little political experience, with anticapitalist activists and fascists” (“Le fond de l’air est jaune,” Contretemps: Revue de Critique Communiste 12-11-1. I will be quoting extensively from writers on the French. and global, in order to give a flavor of a debate that is still ongoing over the nature and meaning of the Yellow Vest movement.)

Or as the far-left Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes observed, during the December 8 protests in Paris, “New slogans appeared, like ‘Paris/Bourgeois/Submit,’ ‘Don’t Turn Out Migrants, Turn Over the Money to Us,’ and even the [singing of] the Internationale,” but at the same time some slogans were more ambiguous or possibly rightwing in nature. The Plateforme article also mentioned the “work carried out over the past four weeks by antifascist groups responsible for expelling the most openly far right groups from the marches.” This article also pointed to “the significant presence of youth from the suburbs in the riots,” a reference to the impoverished peripheries of Paris with large Black and Arab populations (“Macron ne lâche rien, le gilets jaunes non plus!” 12-13-18).

A November 28 declaration from the anti-racist, anti-police-murder Adama Committee, “The Popular Neighborhoods Alongside the Yellow Vests,” stated: “The popular neighborhoods are facing the same social problems as rural or exurban areas… affected by the hyper-[neo]liberal policies of Macron…. It also takes us several hours by car to get to work… plus we face 40% unemployment in some neighborhoods…. Racism, daily humiliations and police violence are added to these social inequalities. This [police] violence is also being experienced by the Yellow Vests today…. We are not ceding the ground to the far right, and we reaffirm our position against racism inside the Yellow Vests movement…. We call upon all residents of the popular neighborhoods to come out in massive numbers to fight for their dignity on December 1” (Gilets Jaunes: Des clés pour comprendre).

Despite some contradictions, the overall thrust of the Yellow Vests movement has been a progressive one: against neoliberalism, against economic inequality, against the centralized French state, and for grassroots democracy. Moreover, it has emerged outside the urban centers, in the very parts of France where the neofascists have been drawing much of their support. Let us look more at its social composition.

The Danger of Lassalleanism
The social strata that self-mobilized as the Yellow Vests were not typical leftwing constituencies, at least in the eyes of the dominant parts of the global left. More rural, more self-employed or working in small enterprises, they could be too easily dismissed as “petty bourgeois” by orthodox Marxists, who see them as the mass base of reaction and fascism.

This is a distorted perspective whose roots go back to Ferdinand Lassalle’s German socialist movement, a rival tendency to that of Marx, but which became an important founding influence on the Second (Socialist) International.  Lassalleans infamously regarded all forces outside the industrial working class as “one reactionary mass.” To Marx, this was a distortion of the Communist Manifesto, where he and Engels had declared: “Of all the classes that stand face-to-face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class.” However, Marx and Engels did not mean by that a dismissal of the revolutionary potential of other non-ruling classes. Marx therefore retorted, in his Critique of the Gotha Program: “Has one proclaimed to the artisan, small manufacturers, etc., and peasants during the last elections: Relative to us, you, together with the bourgeoisie and feudal lords, form one reactionary mass?” (Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, 1875, Ch. 1.)

Lassalleanism forms a major part of the intellectual origin of the class-reductionist “workerism” one finds even today in some varieties of Trotskyism. It is also tied to how a large number of US liberals declare either that the rural areas can be written off due to demographic change (optimists) or that these areas will continue to control the Senate and thus drag the government permanently to the right despite the popular vote (pessimists).  But as the Yellow Vests movement shows dramatically, rural areas have never been monolithic, as rural people also suffer under the weight of capitalism, whether in its monopoly stage a century ago (bringing about the leftwing U.S. Populists) or in its neoliberal stage today (bringing about the Yellow Vests).

Moreover, if one is thinking about a real social revolution as opposed to electoral politics alone, or about fascist coups as a real possibility even in longstanding democratic republics, one has also to think about how the hard core of the state, the military-police apparatus, could be overcome. In that case, one has to consider that in most societies, the bulk of the military comes from the more rural areas and that on numerous occasions, from the Paris Commune of 1871 to the Chinese democratic uprisings of 1989, troops from outlying rural areas were sent in to crush the movement. They were able to do so in large part because the revolutionary movement had not succeeded in spreading outward to those rural areas, something Marx pointed out after 1871 with regard to France’s Paris Commune. Had that not been the case, those troops would more easily have gone over to the side of the revolutionaries, as occurred in Russia in 1917.  In countries like the US today, an attempted fascist coup seems nearer than social revolution. But that is all the more reason to consider how the left needs to go outside the urban centers, to interact with and win over those sectors of the population whose sons and daughters join the military in such large numbers.

This is not to deny the fact that downwardly mobile lower middle class (petty bourgeois) groups and rural populations drawn from the dominant ethnic groups (not of course members of oppressed minority groups like rural Blacks in the U.S. or Kurds in the Middle East) have at times formed the social base of rightwing populism and fascism, as theorists like Leon Trotsky and Erich Fromm have shown.  But such positioning is a product also of the state of the formation of revolutionary ideas and subjectivities at specific historical junctures, something that we as revolutionary leftists cannot control but that we are in a position to influence and help to shape.

The social composition of the movement
What does it mean to say, in the context of France and other industrially developed capitalist countries today, that the Yellow Vests are more rural, more middle class, and more white than other recent radical movements?  As the Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes notes: “First of all, the social composition of the movement. This novel uprising is characterized by downwardly mobile middle classes and social strata undergoing proletarianization. Certainly, the familiar strata of public and civil servants, service workers, wage earners from the industrial basins, and students are present. But a whole host of other social segments struggling to make ends meet seems to be at the forefront of the dynamic: employees of small and medium enterprises, shopkeepers, artisans, and the growing plethora of new forms of independent and precarious labor. The unity of this social diversity, beyond the rejection of Macron and his centrist politics (politics coming from right or left, it doesn’t really matter), lies in a generalized feeling of having had enough [ras-le-bol], anchored in the materiality of living conditions. The violence of downward mobility for some, the harshness of work for others; those who see their social rights crumbling or those who never really had these rights; those for whom the future suddenly appears to be much darker than they had expected, and those who grew up with a receding horizon of expectations” (“On a Ridgeline: Notes on the ‘Yellow Vests’ Movement,” Viewpoint Magazine 12-6-18).

Another new aspect, seldom remarked upon, is the large presence of women among the Yellow Vests: “Women are also at the traffic circles and blockades, at the leading edge of the demonstrations, and are acting as spokespersons. Visible on TV screens, they give the movement an unaccustomed image, since it is too often the men who do the speaking during social movements. First victims of precarity, of unemployment, and involuntary part-time hours, the women in yellow vests are denouncing the social conditions imposed upon them. They are a vital force in the movement” (“Nous sommes le peuple,” Gilets Jaunes: Des clés pour comprendre).

Rural sociologist Benoît Coquard amplifies this point: “In terms of gender there has been something remarkable in my view: There were almost as many women as men even though, as is typical, especially in rural areas, it is the men who assume public functions.  I would even say that the women took the initiative in creating the public gatherings. Many times, I observed here the divorced single mother eking out a precarious existence or the young single woman” (“Qui sont et que veulent les ‘gilets jaunes’?” interview in Contretemps 11/23/18).

The mainstream media obscured this fact, but women were also hit by brutal police repression, As the philosopher Frédéric Lordon intoned: “Whereas France Info had fed us to the point of nausea with images of the Necker hospital windows and a burning McDonalds, no midday news flashes last Monday [3 December] had yet informed us of the death of a woman in her eighties killed by a tear gas canister” (“End of the World?,” Verso Blog, Dec. 7, 2018).

One also has to think about how the working class has changed over the decades of neoliberal capitalism. As Jean-François Cabral notes, the working class of 1968 with its giant factories and powerful trade unions no longer exists in the same form, certainly not in France and other industrially developed countries: “The reality has become more complex.  Former proletarians have become self-employed entrepreneurs alongside small business owners who have to get their hands dirty? Is this really a problem?” (“Des gilets rouges aux gilets jaunes: la classe ouvrière introuvable?” Gilets Jaunes: Des clés pour comprendre).

These are problems that go far beyond France, but what is notable about the Yellow Vests is the emergence of a movement against concentrated wealth and for its redistribution, as well as a host of other progressive demands, in a country that was worried in 2017 about a neofascist electoral victory and where both racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and sexism exist at significantly high levels. To be sure, the Yellow Vests are not an anticapitalist movement, but they seem to offer some real possibilities for a mass left that would embrace all working people, regardless of race, gender, or geography.

Comparisons and contexts
How can we contextualize the Yellow Vests in terms of recent popular uprisings and movements around the world?

Several commentators have linked the basically leaderless, spontaneous Yellow Vest protests to those since the Arab Revolutions of 2010-11, when the Tunisian and Egyptian masses toppled their autocrats.  These in turn inspired Occupy, the Spanish Indignados and other similar movements outside the Middle East.  Chiding those who still think of radical movements solely in top-down terms, the anarchist David Graeber writes, in light of the sudden emergence of the Yellow Vests, of “horizontality” replacing “older ‘vertical’ or vanguardist models of organization.” He adds that “intellectuals” need to do “a little less talking and a lot more listening” in relation to these new movements (“The ‘Yellow Vests’ Show How Much the Ground Moves Under Our Feet,” Brave New Europe, Dec. 11, 2018).  It is certainly true that many revolutionary movements, from the storming of the Bastille in 1789 to those that pushed out several Arab tyrants in 2011, have been leaderless and horizontal.

But Graeber’s argument has two major limitations. (1) He is still addressing the left, giving it lessons, not dialoguing with the actual movements, as seen in the fact that he doesn’t quote a single slogan or voice from the French protests, or any other one for that matter. Contrast that to our Marxist-Humanist tradition, which has published classics like Charles Denby’s Indignant Heart: A Black Worker’s Journal, recording the words of those from the deepest layers of the oppressed, and where mass upheaval from below is not only described and celebrated, but also analyzed critically.  (2) More crucially, Graeber is at such pains to deny the charge that the Yellow Vests are nihilistic or reactionary, that he simply celebrates them, without raising the kinds of critical questions that intellectuals, theorists, and members of radical organizations need to do if they are to truly support such movements. For example, Tahrir Square was a magnificent example of horizontal revolutionary subjectivity, but at the same time, the genuinely revolutionary elements did not have a chance to build up their organizations or to develop a really clear-headed theoretical perspective. This resulted in their oscillation between, on one hand, allying with the conservative Muslim Brotherhood, or on the other, with the nationalist but authoritarian military (Gilbert Achcar, Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising, Stanford University Press, 2016). This does not mean that Graeber is wrong, however, to view the Yellow Vests as part of the revolutionary tradition that began in 2011, and in which he played such a crucial part at Occupy Wall Street.

A second context for the Yellow Vests has not been noticed very much, the link to several other rural uprisings against economic oppression over the past year.  In Oklahoma and West Virginia, US teachers staged militant and massive strikes last spring, managing to win some significant victories. Women were in the forefront of many of these strikes, which targeted pay so low that teachers had to take second jobs to survive. For their part, the teachers’ unions were more dragged along by events than in the position of leading these strikes.  The fact that teacher militancy broke out most massively in these predominantly rural states that had voted overwhelming for Trump showed that those areas had radical possibilities beyond the imagination of leftists and liberals still under the spell of the Lassallean paradigm discussed above. As education researcher Lois Weiner concludes, “the teachers’ movements are laying the ground work for a new labor movement in the South” (“Walkouts Teach U.S. Labor a New Grammar for Struggle,” New Politics 65, Summer 2018).

A less discussed but even more apt analogue to the Yellow Vests can be found in the Iranian protests and riots in rural areas last winter. In late December 2017 and into January 2018 a series of violent uprisings occurred in 80 small cities and rural areas that had been thought to have been the political base of the Islamist regime.  As an anonymous correspondent from inside Iran wrote at the time: “The protests expanded horizontally, covering most cities in northern, southern, and western parts of Iran. Small cities and places farther from the center, which before this movement were government strongholds, are rioting. It was amazing to see how large numbers of people in small cities of western Iran, who were not active in political crises in the past, came into the streets. In these cities the time between peaceful street protest to taking over the government centers and putting them on fire was very short” (An Iranian Marxist, “Iran Uprising after Five Days,” International Marxist-Humanist 1-3-18 — see also the articles on this site that month by Mansoor M, Ali Kiani, and Ali Reza).  As in France, areas of the country often dubbed “reactionary” came to the forefront of protests that were mainly over economic grievances: declining or unpaid wages, unemployment, corruption and favoritism, and ecologically disastrous mismanagement of their water supply.  While women’s rights was not an explicit issue in the protests and riots, some significant women’s demonstrations against the veil occurred during the same period. Many of the urban residents who had supported earlier protests against the regime were stunned, and even suspicious, hanging back from supporting the new upsurges in the rural areas.

The Yellow Vests movement also has a particularly French resonance, sometimes with nationalist overtones. Recall though, that this is a country whose modern republican system was founded through one of history’s great social revolutions, that of 1789. That revolution paved the way for both a modern democratic system that allows labor and socialist groups to organize and also a new form of class society, capitalism, with all its exploitation and oppression. Recall also that that “republican” heritage — especially the tricolor flag and the “Marseillaise” national anthem — has at least since the Russian revolution of 1917 been used more by the center and the right than the left, which has carried the red flag and sung the “Internationale.”  In addition, the left has — for good reason — eschewed for the most part the language of “the people” in favor of that of the “working class” or “popular classes.” Thus, it was a bit jarring for the French left to witness protests against the rich and against deteriorating economic conditions accompanied by the singing of the “Marseillaise,” the waving of the tricolor, and references to the French “people,” especially when those same protests called for revolution and sometimes even the guillotine. Often, the modern left has also tended to regard locally based anti-tax movements with suspicion.

But as historian Gérard Noiriel informs us, local resistance to the state by peasants and other popular classes had a long tradition in the centuries preceding 1789.  In many cases that resistance took the form of opposition to royal taxes: “Struggles against taxation have played an extremely important role in a French popular history,” i.e., the struggles of the pre-revolutionary French popular classes, for example, peasants and artisans. For many years, this was subsumed under labor and socialist movements that supported a stronger state and that channeled class anger in a reformist direction (“Gilets jaunes et les ‘leçons de l’histoire,” in Gilets Jaunes: Des clés pour comprendre; see also Richard Greeman, “Self-Organized Yellow Vest Protest Movement Exposes Inequality and Hollowness of French Regime,” New Politics Online 12-3-18).

Rather than jump to conclusions, these are issues to consider and debate, given the changed world of neoliberal capitalism and, more recently, burgeoning rightwing populism and neofascism in the U.S., France, Italy, Germany, Hungary, and elsewhere.

Today, when Marxist and socialist discourse no longer dominates French intellectual life or plays major part in public discourse, and has even less influence outside the urban centers, is it surprising that a social movement of the 2010s has adopted (and adapted) the narratives that citizens receive in the public schools, which still cover the revolutionary origins of the republic.

That in no way makes the Yellow Vests a reactionary movement, as can be seen by its social content and context. Instead, it is a movement that expresses a type of revolutionary anger and energy that could really shake up the country, while at the same time it, like many other social forces today, faces the danger of seduction by the far right.

One issue of concern to the Yellow Vest movement is that the problem is not ultimately Macron or even neoliberalism, but capitalism itself. This is a system that for some decades now has been unable to raise or even maintain the standard of living that the masses achieved, in part through their own labor and social struggles, in the years 1945-75. But in this regard, left spokespersons like Jean-Luc Mélenchon of France Unbowed (or Bernie Sanders in the US or Jeremy Corbyn in the UK) offer no real solutions either, except the mirage of a return to Keynesian welfare capitalism.

If the Yellow Vests have achieved anything, it is to expose Macron as a last holdout of neoliberalism, of a type of “free market” liberalism that rejects nationalism à la Trump and believes strongly in the European Union.

Whether a truly revolutionary movement, based on solid theoretical ground, can arise in France or elsewhere remains the question.

But the Yellow Vests have at least opened a breach, showing to themselves, the French people, and the world, that mass self-activity by working people is not only the most powerful weapon we have had historically, but that this weapon remains in stock, sharp as a knife, and ready to strike.  The question is, in what direction and toward what ends?

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The Last Weeks of Valdimir Lenin’s Life-Anjan Basu

Posted by admin On January - 22 - 2019 Comments Off on The Last Weeks of Valdimir Lenin’s Life-Anjan Basu

Victor Serge was on a train in Austria when the news of Vladimir Lenin’s death reached him. It had been snowing endlessly on a late January day in 1924. Years later, Serge was to write about it in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary:

The train bumped out of tunnels into vast landscapes on a mountain glittering with snow, where sombre armies of firs made a sudden descent. In this compartment full of fat, stodgy men, someone opened a newspaper and I saw: Death of Lenin. Then these men talked about the death, showing that they felt that someone unique and very great had passed. I looked at their faces, folk from another world, Austrian petit bourgeois closed to all new ideas – and Lenin was there, too, before my eyes, his hands open in the familiar gesture of demonstration, hunching a little towards the audience, marshalling the historical evidence, with his great forehead and the smile of a man who was sure of the truth, sure of himself. Together with a few others, this man had endowed an immense movement of faltering masses with a political consciousness that was supremely clear and resolute. Even when favourable social conditions are granted, such a human achievement is rare, unique, irreplaceable at the time of its happening. Without it, the minds of those who marched would have been several degrees dimmer, the chances of chaos, and of defeat amid chaos, immeasurably greater; for a degree of consciousness, once lost, can never be measured.

Serge was very far from being a Soviet iconographer of the Stalin era, much less a Lenin epigone. An avowed anarchist who had thrown in his lot with the Bolsheviks in 1919 only because he believed the Revolution needed to be saved for the sake of world revolution, he had been a bitter critic of many things that Lenin’s party had done post 1917.

In fact, in the same Memoirs, he devoted an entire chapter of some 50 pages (‘Danger from Within, 1920-21’) to tracing the rise of totalitarianism in Bolshevik practice, mocking Lenin’s liberal use of the word ‘democracy’ even as Lenin seemed to justify a variant of Bonapartism in how he himself functioned.

It was, indeed, Victor Serge who first used the word ‘totalitarianism’ in the context of Bolshevism. Hounded out of the Soviet Union, he died in 1947 in Mexico City – stateless, penniless and heartbroken.

Also read: Leon Trotsky, the Socialist Who Dreamt of the Full Human Life Even at His Nadir

But Lenin had been ill for many months before his death on January 21, 1924, though Soviet authorities spared no effort to keep this a secret. Banished out of Russia on a Comintern ‘assignment’ to western Europe, Victor Serge knew precious little, till he was warned about Lenin’s crippling illness sometime in the summer of 1923 by Andres Nin, the secretary of the Red International of Trade Unions, who was passing through Vienna then (and who himself would be liquidated by Stalinists in course of the Spanish Civil War).

Lenin had suffered his first stroke in May 1922, was unable to speak or move the right side of his body for weeks, recovered somewhat by August, resumed his normal duties, but was laid low again by a devastating second stroke in December, 1922. This time his body, horribly overworked through decades of excruciatingly demanding organisational and theoretical work – much of the time in exile or in hiding or as a fugitive from the Czar’s gendarmes – extracted a much bigger price from him: the right side of his body was paralysed, he lost his speech and was unable to hold the pen any more.

His mind still worked with relentless clarity – as we shall soon see –but he had no power to express himself or do any work. Slowly and painfully, Lenin fought back, learnt how to write a little with his left hand, and managed to stutter out a few words with difficulty. Nin told Serge how, when he was a little better, Lenin wished to see the Kremlin again, and his office with its worktable and telephones. Once taken there

“(y)ou can see him, leaning on Nadezhda Konstantinova (Krupskaya) and Nikolai Ivanovich (Bukharin), dragging his feet weakly across his sudy, gazing, terrified in case he will no longer understand it, at the map on the wall, taking pencils between his fingers  to make a rough signature, all like in a  dream , like a despairing old man in his second childhood. Bukharin often visits him in his country house, the one that belongs to Gorky. Bukharin makes merry in his company, and then hides behind a bush looking at him with tear-dimmed eyes. …..It’s definitely the end, my friend.”

It is not difficult to know what was pushing Lenin inexorably to his death. Five years at the helm of a country that had been turned upside down by war, revolution, famine, foreign invasion, epidemics and a crippling Civil War would have taken their toll on any human being, however tough he was built, however super-human his mental resilience.

Those five years saw some of the most uplifting moments in the history of the 20th century, but also some of its bleakest, most dispiriting ones. There was the unremitting violence of the White Armies in the Crimea and the Soviet Far East during 1918-21, the humongous peasant rebellions of the same period, and the sombre tragedy of the Kronstadt uprising which, because it pitted the Revolution against itself in a very real sense, devastated large sections of the Bolshevik rank and file morally.

During those five years, the fate of October hung by only a very slender thread, and no one knew this better than Lenin, whose astringent realism was second only to his inexhaustible optimism. And Lenin’s five years in a position of power were preceded by the 25 years he was obliged to live as an outlaw, an underground fighter, a political prisoner and an exile, very often in straitened circumstances. He was organising, writing, explaining, pleading and fighting bitter internecine battles inside European and Russian social democracy, battles that left indelible scars on his highly sensitive mind – and on his body.

Then, from August 1918 onwards, he carried inside this body two bullets that were meant to kill him (but failed) – one had lodged in his collarbone after puncturing his lungs while the other got caught in the base of his neck. Both proved intractable to surgical intervention, and both continued to seep lead toxicity into his system for the rest of his life. It fell to the lot of few men to receive so many bruising blows from life.

But Lenin always knew what he was bargaining  for when he entered upon the life of a professional revolutionary under a brutal autocracy. He used to joke that a revolutionary needed to die before he turned 50, for after that he would be a spent force.

In sheer will-power, too, Lenin had no parallel. And yet, when the time came for him, he felt crushed by the knowledge that he was dying. There is a photograph of him in a wheelchair, a frozen, but piercing stare in his eyes, as he is flanked by Anna Ilyinichna (his youngest sister) and by A.M. Kozhenikov, one of his doctors. The photo, taken in the summer of 1923 after he had suffered his third stroke that left him a hopeless cripple, seems to suggest a spirit in torment, a man unable to come to terms with the approaching end. Was this an only too human frailty, or something more than that?

Also read: Year One of the October Revolution, One Hundred Years On

To answer this question, we need to take a look at what was unfolding around the sick man, steadily and surely. Lenin had spearheaded a revolution that aimed at ultimately creating a classless, stateless human society where man was free to live a life of dignity and material prosperity in brotherhood with other men. The transition to such a society, Lenin as much as all Marxists knew, would necessarily be a slow –painfully slow, given the isolation of the Russian Revolution in a sea of utter hostility – process during which a workers’ state would be in charge.

In the event, the Russian state became a  ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, buttressed by a powerful standing army and an awe-inspiring political police. All freedoms had to be curtailed, sometimes to be dispensed with altogether. The single-party system took shape. “What was to have been a mere para-state was in fact (now) a super-state,” as Isaac Deutscher summed it up memorably.
Lenin arriving in Petrograd (St Petersburg) in April 1917.
In the rush of the first post-revolution years, Lenin not only went along with these profound changes in the Bolshevik schema, he contemplated them with something approaching a calm conscience, because he was convinced that the retreat from his original principles was forced upon him by the overwhelming pressure of circumstances. Counter-revolution had to be put down, order had to be restored to a country in complete chaos, a devastated economy had to be rebuilt from scratch, and social disintegration had to be addressed in earnest.

Democracy, even a workers’ democracy, was sadly unequal to this task, especially as the working class itself was exhausted and demoralised. This knowledge gave Lenin the self-confidence necessary to make the formidable demands that he made upon himself, his comrades, and the -arty. His moral sense remained untroubled throughout this traumatic period.

And then, when debilitating illness gave him a pause, his self-confidence seemed to suddenly abandon him. Self-doubt, even remorse, assailed him. A stricken mind inside a stricken body would give him no rest. He was destined now to grapple with terrible misgivings for the rest of his days. The frigid, frightened look on his face in the photograph from the summer of 1923 mirrors the tumult in his soul.

But that is a story to be told another day.

Anjan Basu freelances as a literary critic, commentator and translator. He is based out of Bangalore and can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com.

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Leon Trotsky, the Socialist Who Dreamt of the Full Human Life Even at His Nadir-Anjan Basu

Posted by admin On January - 22 - 2019 Comments Off on Leon Trotsky, the Socialist Who Dreamt of the Full Human Life Even at His Nadir-Anjan Basu


While convalescing in an Oslo hospital in September-October, 1935 after a bout of illness, Leon Trotsky wrote the preface to the Norwegian edition of his autobiography, My Life, which he closed with the following paragraph:

On the table where I am writing these lines lies one of the hospital’s bibles in Norwegian. Thirty-seven years ago, I had on my table in the solitary cell of Odessa prison – I had not yet reached my twentieth birthday – the same book written in different European languages. By comparing the parallel texts I practised linguistics – the style of the gospel and the conciseness of the translations make the learning of foreign languages easier. Unfortunately, I cannot promise anybody that my new encounter with the old and well-known book will contribute to the salvation of my soul. But reading the Norwegian bible text can nonetheless help me learn the language of the country which has offered me its hospitality, and whose literature I already in younger years learnt to treasure and love.

This was a man who, six years previously, had been banished by a state he himself had helped create. The borders of the Soviet Union had closed to Trotsky for good in January 1929. He sought refuge in Turkey, which was welcoming, but for only a few years. France offered him asylum in 1933, but soon found him too hot to hold, with Stalin seeking his deportation from France relentlessly, remorselessly. The Franco-Soviet Treaty of Mutual Assistance of May 1935 rang the curtain on Trotsky’s sojourn in the land of the French Revolution. Norway agreed to have him and the Trotskys moved to a friend’s home in Honefoss, not far from Oslo.

Soon enough, a clamour for throwing Trotsky out of Norway also started building up, with both the political right and left baying for his blood. Trotsky, ever the clear-eyed realist, had no illusions about his acceptability to any European regime and wryly observed in My Life that, for him, the earth was ‘a planet without a visa’. December, 1936 would see his deportation from Norway: he and his wife were to be put on an oil tanker bound for far-away Mexico, the country where he would eventually die at the hands of Stalin’s agents.
As the people’s commissar at the Red Square. Credit: Public domain image
Trotsky’s own future could only have looked bleak to him at the time. Weighed down by ill-health and anxiety about his younger son Sergei (who was in a Russian prison, tortured and awaiting death), he perhaps found his energy at its lowest ebb. Even more troubling for him were the shadows that were lengthening across the Revolution that was his very life. And yet incredibly, Leon Trotsky utilised the hospital interregnum learning a new language! Second only to Lenin among the leaders of the great October Revolution; chair of the Petrograd Soviet (which was the engine of the Revolution) both in 1905 and 1917; the first commissar of foreign affairs of the Soviet state; a peerless orator and a brilliant writer; the undisputed leader – indeed the builder – of the formidable Red Army and, above everything else, an outstanding leader of men, he yet could say, in all sincerity, that “…with a book in hand, I felt just as confident as … in the Smolny or the Kremlin”, or that “(i)n prison, with a book or a pen in my hand, I experienced the same sense of deep satisfaction that I did at mass-meetings of the revolution”.

E.M. Forster liked to think of himself as always standing ‘at a slight angle to the universe’. The same thing is true of Trotsky in large measure. He had been born to a Jewish Ukrainian family but, as a militant socialist, his parents’ religious faith or nationality meant nothing to him. Indeed, in the official paper-work he was required to fill out in the many countries he visited, he often described his own nationality as ‘Socialist’. And yet, when Lenin proposed his name as the commissar of foreign affairs in the first Bolshevik government, Trotsky remonstrated, arguing that as a Jew, he should be left out of such an important position. Trotsky’s concern was that, in the hostile capitalist world outside Russia, a Jewish foreign minister would excite far greater misgiving and antipathy than a non-Jewish one.

Lenin of course dismissed this suggestion and Trotsky duly became the first foreign affairs minister in the first socialist state in the world. A certain degree of ambivalence can be read into his political alignments also for a significant period of his life prior to October. When, in 1902, he escaped from his first exile in Siberia and came to London, he found himself in the company of émigré Russian revolutionaries and was soon writing extensively for Iskra, the revolutionaries’ mouthpiece. Only 23 then, he was already an accomplished columnist and political analyst whom the 32-year-old Lenin, by then one of the leading lights of Russian Social Democracy, took under his wing.

To the consternation of the old guard at Iskra led by the formidable Georgi Plekhanov, Lenin soon proposed that the editorial-board co-opt Trotsky as its seventh member, because he was “unquestionably a man of rare abilities, has conviction and energy, and will go much farther”. In turn, Trotsky greatly admired Lenin for the exceptional clarity of his thinking and the single-minded energy he brought to his work. He was miffed by the somewhat patronising manner in which many of the other veterans – whose lack of purposefulness in any case baffled Trotsky often – treated him. And yet, when Russian Social Democrats split into the Bolshevik and the Menshevik factions during 1903-04, Trotsky sided with the latter even though his intellectual/theoretical inclinations made him a natural ally of Lenin’s Bolsheviks.
Joseph Stalin, V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Alienation from the Bolsheviks

His alienation from the Bolshevik group was to last for well over a decade, and he began to come closer to Lenin’s position only around May/June, 1917. In between, he had emerged as the hero of the Petrograd Soviet after the Revolution of 1905 and was acknowledged as the Soviet’s most eloquent, most steadfast champion. His position had moved away from the Mensheviks’ as early as 1905, and in vain did he try to bring the two warring factions together. In the process, he found himself an outsider everywhere, both sides looking at him with suspicion, considering him untrustworthy.

The bitter polemical battles between the various groups left many scars – some of them permanent – on the protagonists and on their relations with another. Relations between Lenin and Trotsky were also frosty or worse. Trotsky later came to be among the October Revolution’s most recognised faces, one of its two tallest leaders, and yet he had little real access to the inner-party power groups all of which remained – with the sole exception of Lenin – deeply sceptical about Trotsky’s Bolshevik credentials as also jealous of his monumental achievements. On the Revolution’s first anniversary, Stalin wrote in the Pravda:

All political work in connection with the organisation of the uprising was done under the immediate direction of comrade Trotsky, the president of the Petrograd Soviet. It can be said with certainty that the party is indebted primarily and principally to comrade Trotsky for the rapid going over of the garrison to the side of the Soviet and the efficient manner in which the work of the military revolutionary committee was organised.

Stalin rapidly outgrew his admiration for Trotsky, however, and identified him as his own arch-enemy. No trick in the book was anathema for Stalin, no stratagem too ugly or too cynical, when it came to cutting Trotsky off the mainstream and barring all doors to him. A sick Lenin observed Stalin’s manoeuvres with rising dismay and unease and, concerned about a possible split in the party, proposed to the politburo on September 11, 1922 that Trotsky be formally made Lenin’s deputy in the council of ministers – apparently to clearly delineate the chain of command and succession. While the politburo approved the proposal, Leon Trotsky – the man who always ‘stood at an angle to the world around him’ – categorically refused the appointment. His reason, which he declined to share with others at the time, was that he hated to be seen as a pretender to the party’s top-most position.

Unlike Stalin’s other potential rivals like Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev or Nikolai Bukharin who were liquidated systematically and ruthlessly through show ‘trials’ based on truly bizarre ‘confessions’, Trotsky was a giant demanding a more nuanced approach. Hence Stalin’s decision to exile him, a decision he may have bitterly regretted later, as Trotsky, undaunted by the terrible odds he faced, waged an unyielding polemical war against Stalin’s domestic and international policies. Orders were passed on for destroying Trotsky. It was to be a cloak-and-dagger operation, so that it would be difficult to trace it back to the Kremlin.

Exile in Mexico

The Trotsky family had been welcomed into Mexico and put up with the well-known left-leaning painter Diego Rivera at his Coyoacan house. Trotsky felt at home and happy, and resumed work on the project then closest to his heart – the Fourth International that Trotsky fondly, if unrealistically, hoped would help resurrect the true spirit of October by freeing it from Stalinist shibboleths. He continued to write prolifically, commentating on international issues, fascism, socialist re-construction and the great Moscow purges that Stalin had set in motion where Trotsky was now the main accused in absentia. His spirited reply to Stalin’s macabre allegations against him was presented to the Dewey Commission by way of an address titled I Stake My Life.

In April 1939, Trotsky moved out of the Diego Rivera home to a nearby house on Avenida Viena. War clouds loomed ominously over Europe and Trotsky’s own health was worsening steadily as his blood pressure kept rising. By then, he had lost all his four children and his first wife had also been murdered in Stalin’s prison. He contemplated suicide but hated to think that it might be construed as moral capitulation. He had premonitions of his violent death at Stalinist hands. “Stalin would now give a great deal to be able to retract his decision to deport me,” Trotsky noted in his diary.

The first major attack on his life came on May 24, 1940, when assassins machine-gunned his home, wounding Trotsky’s 14-year-old grandson and abducting a young bodyguard who was later murdered. Trotsky himself escaped with his life and, on June 8, wrote an article titled ‘Stalin Seeks My Death’. The next attack was not long in coming. On the afternoon of August 20, Ramon Mercader, a young Spanish communist who had wormed his way into the Trotsky household by striking up a friendship with a house-maid, dropped in on Trotsky ostensibly to show him an article Mercader had written. As the old man bent over his table preparing to read, the assassin rammed an ice pick-axe repeatedly into his head. Bleeding profusely, Trotsky was rushed to a hospital where he died the next day. Mercader served a 20-year sentence in a Mexican prison. Joseph Stalin presented the assassin with an ‘Order of Lenin’ in absentia. And, upon his release from jail in 1961, he was awarded the title of ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’. Unbelievable, but true.
The house where Trotsky was murdered. Credit: Special arrangement
Six months before his death, on February 27, 1940, Trotsky wrote what later came to be known as his testament, a note of some 500 words which contained his parting message to the world. He left instructions that the note be not made public before his death. In his testament, Trotsky speaks with great tenderness of Natalia (Natasha) Sedova, his long-suffering wife of thirty-five years, who had gone through so much pain and loss but had remained “an inexhaustible source of love, magnanimity and tenderness”. He goes on thus :

For 43 years of my conscious life, I have remained a revolutionist; for 42 of them I have fought under the banner of Marxism. If I had to begin all over again, I would of course try to avoid this or that mistake, but the main course of my life would remain unchanged. I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future of mankind is not less ardent; indeed it is firmer today than it was in my youth.

Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.

Even at his nadir, Leon Trotsky dreamt of the full human life.

Anjan Basu freelances as literary critic, commentator and translator.

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This web site may contain copyrighted material the use of which we are making only for educational purposes. This is a non -profit web site and does not accept any type of advertisement, paid or otherwise. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance the understanding of humanity’s problems and hopefully to help find solutions for those problems.

We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is only for reading purposes that included information for research and educational purposes. For the original source we are providing “url” of that article which is a ‘fair use’ of anything you find on this web site. However, if you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

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