Archive for the 'USSR/E. Europe' Category

01
Aug
16

Teaching Russian Revolutionary History in the Centenary and Beyond: Sources, Approaches, Events

Teaching Russian Revolutionary History in the Centenary and Beyond: Sources, Approaches, Events

 

Location: University of Leicester

Date and Time: September 6, 2016. 10:00-13:00.

We are delighted to announce the following workshop, to be held at the University of Leicester on the morning of September 6, 2016 (10:00-13:00). The initiative is funded by the East Midlands Centre for Teaching History and Learning (EMC – http://historycentre.org/) and is organised by Dr. Sarah Badcock (University of Nottingham) and Dr. Zoe Knox (University of Leicester). Looking forward to the centenary of 1917, it will explore ways of bringing the Russian Revolution to life in the classroom. The workshop will be accessible and open both to specialists working and teaching directly on the Revolution and to scholars teaching broader modules touching on the Revolution.

The workshop aims to disseminate and develop best practice in teaching aspects of the Russian Revolution across the East Midlands. It will:

  • bring together scholars researching and teaching revolutionary history to discuss latest research agendas and assess the state of the field;
  • produce a critical teaching guide and bibliographic survey for teaching the Russian Revolution;
  • share information on innovative teaching initiatives and public facing events relating to 1917.

The workshop will consist of short several presentations on research and teaching innovation in the field, followed by a structured discussion on teaching materials and methods. Confirmed speakers include:

  • Sarah Badcock (Nottingham)
  • Nick Baron (Nottingham)
  • Alexandre Christoyannopoulos(Loughborough)
  • Alistair Dickins (Manchester)
  • Zoe Knox (Leicester)
  • Paul Maddrell (Loughborough)

 

Limited funding is available to support the travel costs for attendees and lunch will be provided. Due to limited space, all potential workshop attendees are asked to register their interest to teaching1917@gmail.com by no later than midday on August 26, 2016.

04
May
14

May Days in Moscow, 2014 – two demonstrations

Since I had a free day in Moscow on 1 May, it seemed appropriate to check out the May Day events. These days in Moscow, there are several parades, demonstrations and public events on May Day – not all of them political, and certainly not all of them of the left. This year there were three large enough to have streets closed off for them. I decided to take a look at two of them. I did not bother with the largest one, which culminated in a rally in and around Red Square. It was organised by the main (pro-government) trade unions together with the Edinaya Rossiya party, as a show of support for Vladimir Putin and his domestic and foreign policies. The press reports would suggest that it was slick, well-resourced, and largely lacking in spontaneity.

The first demonstration I went to was organised by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF). Compared to the Putin jamboree, its style and (some of) its messages are more easily recognisable to those of us familiar with May Day rallies in Western cities. Unfortunately, some other messages – see the pictures below – seem rather remote from the ideas of internationalist working-class solidarity that are supposed to lie at the heart of the May Day celebrations.

Some of Russia’s neo-Nazi ultra-right also held a march, later that day – a so-called “Russian May Day” – to disturb the peace of an otherwise quiet and pleasant suburb of north-west Moscow. Given the prominence of such characters in the Ukrainian events of the last few months, I was interested to see how many their Russian equivalents could mobilise. Happily, it was possible to observe that demostration without having to mix with it.

The KPRF-organised march numbered in the low thousands. It mainly consisted of KPRF members and associated organisations, but there were also small contingents from other groups. A (very) noticeable absence was the organised wider labour movement – apart from one contingent of Sheremetyevo Airport workers engaged in an industrial dispute there were no banners representing any trade union organisations.

KPRF leader Gennadiy Zyuganov (in the white cap) waits to lead the march off.

KPRF leader Gennadiy Zyuganov (in the white cap) waits to lead the march off.

The Nizhniy Novgorod Komsomol was one of the best turn-out contingents

The Nizhniy Novgorod Komsomol was one of the best turned-out contingents

Some of the more exotic groups on the march provided some different colour. The “Course of Truth and Unity” – whose programme combines religious, moral, social-justice and nostalgic themes with a somewhat eccentric economic theory – had a banner thanking Stalin for their happy childhoods, while a small contingent of supporters of the late Libyan leader Qadhafi, aided by the Red Youth Vanguard, held up the banner of Green Book socialism.

"Thank you, Comrade Stalin, for our happy childhood! From pensioners born in the USSR"

“Thank you, Comrade Stalin, for our happy childhood! From pensioners born in the USSR”

"Peace to Libya!"

“Peace to Libya!”

Other marchers took the opportunity to get particular issues off their chests, such as the dangers of feminism:

“Down with media propaganda of feminism and degeneration!”

“Down with media propaganda of feminism and degeneration!”

The proper internationalist spirit of May Day was represented by contingents, mainly of women, from Latin America, including Venezuela, and from Mozambique.

The international women’s contingent.

The international women’s contingent.

“Mozambican women against poverty, domestic violence, violation and sexual abuse of minors, human trafficking, HIV-AIDS and other scourges which afflict Mozambican society.”

“Mozambican women against poverty, domestic violence, violation and sexual abuse of minors, human trafficking, HIV-AIDS and other scourges which afflict Mozambican society.”

However, the KPRF is a diverse organisation containing many currents, including some chauvinist ones which call themselves “national patriotic”. These were also well represented on the march, although the worst examples seemed to have been the result of individual initiative rather than central party instruction. Large flags depicted the largely Russian-speaking districts of Ukraine. On the Ukrainian and Crimean questions, there is little to distinguish the mainstream KPRF position from that of Putin. Worse still, the anti-US rhetoric of official Russia these days can easily be served in a “left”-sounding “anti-imperialist” sauce, and extended to reject all sorts of “western” ideas, including, for example, anti-racism. Barack Obama’s race seemed to be an issue for some of the demonstrators. Translations of the slogans are given in the captions. Similarly, black shirts bearing old-style script, hailing the martial qualities of the Russians as a nation, seem strangely incongruous on people carrying communist banners.

Southern and Eastern Ukrainian cities: Odessa, Kherson, Khar’kov, Donetsk, Lugansk, Dnepropetrovsk, Nikolaev

Southern and Eastern Ukrainian cities: Odessa, Kherson, Khar’kov, Donetsk, Lugansk, Dnepropetrovsk, Nikolaev

Slogan on the central placard: “The collapse of Darwin’s theory! A big-eared black monkey is trying to rule the world!” This example of Russian national-patriotic wit did not seem to be particularly controversial in the KPRF contingent which was carrying these placards.

Slogan on the central placard: “The collapse of Darwin’s theory! A big-eared black monkey is trying to rule the world!” This specimen of Russian national-patriotic wit did not seem to be particularly controversial in the KPRF contingent which was carrying these placards.

I wonder whether this person was the author of the placards – he proudly posed with two of them when I pointed my camera. The one on the left says, slightly cryptically: “Hitler did not like pork fat, Ukrainian fascists!”, while the one on the right declares: “Obama, you lie brazenly without blushing! It must be good to be a negro!” His KPRF badge completes the dispiriting spectacle.

I wonder whether this person was the author of the placards – he proudly posed with two of them when I pointed my camera. The one on the left says, slightly cryptically: “Hitler did not like pork fat, Ukrainian fascists!”, while the one on the right declares: “Obama, you lie brazenly without blushing! It must be good to be a negro!” His KPRF badge completes the dispiriting spectacle.

Black shirts with the slogan “Russians do not surrender!”, holding a KPRF banner.

Black shirts with the slogan “Russians do not surrender!”, holding a KPRF banner.

“A spoonful of tar spoils a barrelful of honey”, says the old Russian proverb. However, the ultra-right’s “Russian May Day” contained no honey at all. In fact, it had only three redeeming features:

  • It was pretty small – maybe only 500 people
  • It was very thoroughly policed, which gave them little opportunity for mayhem
  • The noted neo-Nazi band Kolovrat, which was to have caused noise pollution at the end of the march, was banned from performing
  • It is worth noting that neo-Nazism is not at all attractive to most Russian national chauvinists, given its association with a regime which regarded Russians as Untermenschen to be kicked off their land, deported, enslaved or exterminated, and which launched a war of annihilation against the USSR in pursuit of that aim. There are other Russian national chauvinist traditions which have far greater traction among the population, which would not associate with the sort of elements to be found on the “Russian May Day”. The pictures below largely speak for themselves.

    The far-right march began with some Orthodox imagery and the Imperial Russian flag...

    The far-right march began with some Orthodox imagery and the Imperial Russian flag…

    ...to be followed somewhat incongruously by a small troupe of drum majorettes

    …to be followed somewhat incongruously by a small troupe of drum majorettes…

    ...then the “Political Organisation ‘Russians’”, demanding expulsion of non-nationals...

    …then the “Political Organisation ‘Russians’”, demanding expulsion of non-nationals…

    ...and then a bunch with the slogans “Glory to the Heroes”, and “Sport, family, socialism”. What they understood by any of those words is hard to fathom.

    …and then a bunch with the slogans “Glory to the Heroes”, and “Sport, family, socialism”. What they understood by any of those words is hard to fathom.

    These were followed by a small group from the “National Union” (acronym in Russian: NS)...

    These were followed by a small group from the “National Union” (acronym in Russian: NS)…

    ...and the rear was brought up by the Russian Liberation Front “Pamyat”, with its slogan of “Faith, Race and Tradition”.

    …and the rear was brought up by the Russian Liberation Front “Pamyat”, with its slogan of “Faith, Race and Tradition”.

    It is clear that, compared to the size and influence of similar groups in Ukraine today, Russian neo-Nazism remains very marginal. There are however plenty of official channels through which entirely authentically Russian forms of authoritarian nationalism can be expressed, free from the taint of association with the foreign, and anti-Russian, ideology of Nazism. The danger in Russia is not that the open far right will get the sort of power and influence that it currently has in parts of Ukraine, but rather that authoritarian chauvinist ideas will further permeate the whole political spectrum, right, centre and left.

    02
    Nov
    09

    discussion on 1989

    A discussion has been underway in the pages of the SHS newsletter about the significance of the fall of the communist governments in the USSR and Eastern Europe 20 years ago. The contributions to which Tom Bailey is responding (see below) can be viewed here.

     

    THEY WERE SOCIALIST

    – Tom Bailey

    I disagree with Mike Squires’ claim that the Eastern European states were not Socialist. Yes, there were major faults and shortcomings in these socialist countries, but fundamentally, they were still Socialist. Capitalist restoration in these countries should be seen dialectically, as a process. These countries took many quantitative steps towards capitalism, I believe, after the death of Joseph Stalin. Aside from negating 30 years of Socialism by denouncing Stalin, a number of ‘reforms’ were implemented. Most notable is Khrushchev’s “State of the whole people” and the “Party of the whole people”, replacing the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, effectively ending the class struggle against bourgeois influence and ideas.

    Another notable reform was the economic reforms of 1965, or the ‘Kosygin Reform’, making enterprise profit the guiding principle in investment decisions by planners, rather than putting politics into action. However, these were not qualitative changes. As Stalin explained in Historical and Dialectical Materialism: “Contrary to metaphysics, dialectics does not regard the process of development as a simple process of growth, where quantitative changes do not lead to qualitative changes, but as a development which passes from insignificant and imperceptible quantitative changes to open’ fundamental changes’ to qualitative changes; a development in which the qualitative changes occur not gradually, but rapidly and abruptly, taking the form of a leap from one state to another; they occur not accidentally but as the natural result of an accumulation of imperceptible and gradual quantitative changes.”

    The “insignificant and imperceptible quantitative changes” being the post-Stalin reforms, and the “fundamental changes” being the events of 1989-1991. Concerning the class character of 1989-1991, yes the working class was the primary force on the streets demanding change; but what change were they demanding? In 1990, in the referendum asking people whether they wanted to dissolve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the overwhelming majority, 76% said “No”. In May 1991, an American poll found 54% of Russians wished to keep Socialism, 27% wished for a mixed economy and only 20% wanted a free market economy (Monthly Review 12/94). A similar poll, reported in the New York Times (12/1/89) found that 47% of Czechoslovakians wished for their economy to remain state controlled, 43% wanted a mix and 3% wanted majority private ownership.

    It would appear, the working class in the socialist countries did not take to the streets demanding an end to Socialism. Rather, the protests, discontent and apathy to capitalist restoration was due to issues such as party corruption, comparatively low living standards and shortages in goods (exacerbated by market reforms in the late 80s). This popular discontent was exploited by a new bourgeois class, arising from within the Party and the explosion of the black market (in the case of the USSR) under Brezhnev. The roots of the black market are a result of policies such as Khrushchev’s mechanical levelling of wages, decreasing motivation (as “bourgeois right” was still existent), creating shortages. This problem was made worse by the large increases in wages, despite nothing to buy with them from the formal economy.

    The extent of this problem can be seen in 1969 when Soviet citizens would save 70% of their income (Bahman Azad – Heroic Struggle, Bitter Defeat). A shortage of goods available, combined with large amounts of unspendable income created the conditions for a black market. This black market created a class whose interests lay in private property and free markets. It was this class and their intellectual and political representatives, many of who were in their respective Communist parties, that led the movements of 1989-91 and made the qualitative leap to Capitalism. I was born only one month before the lowering of the Hammer and Sickle in Moscow, so I do not know what affect this must have had on Communists and other progressive people over the world, but I can only imagine it was a disaster.

    19
    Aug
    09

    Discussion: twenty years on from 1989

      Mike Squires: Why did what happened, happen?

    (from SHS Newsletter, April 2009)

    Twenty years ago the world changed. For some, dreams and hopes were shattered, while for others a promising new world had dawned. It was 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down, the year when, throughout eastern Europe what were termed as socialist countries collapsed one by one.

    The socialist world, or at least its European hard core led by its founder the USSR, fell like so many dominoes. These profound changes heralded a new world order where capitalism was literally the only game in town. The left, certainly throughout Europe, could no longer point to some kind of economic alternative, a different way of doing things to that offered by the proponents of the free market. State planning and controlled production were now passe and it was back to the days of the free for all.

    Communists in particular were rudderless. For years they had looked to the socialist countries of Europe as an example of a possible blueprint for a new society. The USSR since 1917 was hailed by communists, not only as the world’s first socialist state, but as the bulwark of the world’s progressive forces, and a beacon in the struggle against war, colonialism, and injustice.

    Now all that was gone. Without getting into a protracted debate about the merits or otherwise of those countries that were described by communists as ‘real existing socialism’- one issue that is worth looking at is why did they collapse so quickly, and why was there no organised resistance to this change back to capitalism?

    For Marxists, one of the defining features of society is which class owns and controls the means of production. Under capitalism it is the capitalist class, under socialism it is the working class and its allies. Another important tenet of Marxism is that ‘no ruling class gives up power without a struggle’. If any ruling class is threatened it will use whatever means at its disposal to hang on to power. So, what are we to make of what happened twenty years ago and how does it equate with Marxist theory?

    If the countries of Eastern Europe, where communists were in power were socialist, then by definition the working class must have owned and controlled the means of production. Why did the working class relinquish this ownership and control so quickly? Why did they hand over their factories, offices, distribution networks, transport, raw materials etc. so readily to the rising class of entrepreneurs?

    And why, if the working class was the ruling class, was there no resistance to this wholesale transfer of property from one class to another? Why were there no factory occupations, no armed rebellions, or protests against a return to the old ways? In short, what does it tell us about the Marxist maxim that no ruling class gives up without a fight?

    There is only one possible answer to these interlocking questions. It may be heretical to say so, but for this writer, the only solution seems to be that the countries of Eastern Europe, however they started, out could no longer be described as socialist. If they were, then the basic tenets of Marxism would have been undermined.

      Francis King: It depends what you mean by Socialism

    (from SHS Newsletter, August 2009)

    Mike Squires raised several important questions in his piece on 1989 in the last newsletter, including: “were the East European states socialist?” The simple answer has to be: “it all depends on what you mean by socialism”.

    We need to remember that the terms “capitalism” and “socialism” do not have equal scientific validity. Capitalism was developing as an economic order long before anyone named it or attempted to analyse it. Our understanding of capitalism is derived from actual observation of an existing economic system in operation.

    Socialism, on the other hand, was at the outset an imagined system – a utopia. It existed as an ideology, an economic critique of capitalism and as a vision of how things could and should be, long before any serious attempt could be made to realise it in practice. Socialists identified certain social ills in capitalism, and imagined an alternative system without those defects. So, for example, instead of crises, there would be planning; instead of competition, there would be co-operation and solidarity; instead of bosses giving orders, the workers would rule; instead of oppression, there would be freedom and democracy; security would replace insecurity; equality would replace inequality, a rational economy and society could eliminate poverty, boost labour productivity, and increase leisure, etc. etc.

    But there has never been any unanimity amongst socialists as to which of these features are the most important, and, moreover, the fact that a social order is imaginable does not necessarily make it possible in practice. Some of its components might be quite incompatible with one another. Conversely, parts of the programme may be perfectly feasible on their own. Overall, there is not, and cannot be, one single gold standard of “socialism”, against which all claimants can be assessed. It is a very elastic term.

    The communist parties that used to rule the USSR and Eastern Europe all claimed to be building “socialism”, en route to “communism” – the full and final realisation of the maximum socialist programme. Socialist ideas – at least, certain socialist ideas – were clearly very important in shaping those regimes and societies. Capitalist economic relations, along with the capitalist class, were largely suppressed there. Most productive resources were allocated by the state, according to politically-defined criteria that had little to do with profit and loss. The residual private capitalist sector was generally small. Their state-run economies, in theory at least, operated in accordance with a plan, and they all provided a considerable measure of (basic) social welfare. On the other hand, those states’ strictly hierarchical political structure, closed borders, censorship and powerful secret police, together with backward technology and low labour productivity rendered much of the talk of working class power, democracy and economic rationality meaningless.

    Was this socio-economic system nonetheless “socialist”? Those of us who were communists use to think so (although many other socialists never accepted that view). But, having decided that these states were “socialist”, we then tended to
    ascribe to them – on very slender evidence – all the features of the traditional socialist utopia, such as working-class power, economic rationality and so forth.

    Although some of us recognised that there were serious deficiencies in those countries, we almost all believed that their fundamentally healthy, historically progressive, socialist basis would enable all these problems to be overcome in time. Rather than looking dispassionately at those societies and their institutions and then deciding how best to characterise them, we had started with the designation “socialist”, and had then tended to assume that they operated in accordance with our understanding of socialism. The events of 1989-1991 exposed the rather basic error of that approach.

      John Manning: “People in High Places Serving Themselves”

    (from SHS Newsletter August 2009)

    Mike Squires asks – on the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall – why ‘real existing socialism’ collapsed as it did, undefended by those it claimed to represent. And whether the cause lay in there being in the end no ‘socialism’ left to defend.

    While inner-GDR debate accepted the role of the state and nationalisation, it also talked of the market, competition, individual enterprise and ways to mobilise the productivity and innovation needed by socialism. This produced the GDR’s single real economic success phase (early 1960s). Protected by the newly built Wall, it in some ways echoed Lenin’s 1920s NEP. It brought economic dynamism, and with that a cultural upsurge. However, some saw in this a challenge to the ‘leading role of the Party’. So it slowed down, and was over by the ’70s.

    Which raises wider questions. If socialism had its source in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, with democracy and the rule of law, why did it end as command/voluntarist economics, part-suspension of the rule of law and centralist control? Francis King’s fine piece on Bazarov (Socialist History 34) quotes him (1928!) criticising the way a too rapid ‘socialisation’ could weaken the ‘growth of productive forces’ (p.31). Is that perhaps also why GDR productivity lagged behind the West?

    Another part of the same problem: Why was the Jacobin phase of the French Revolution so idealised by some on the Left, ignoring the damage it did? GDR paranoia was due to West Germany’s place in US hegemonic plans – an implicit threat, which in part explains why the GDR, in its response, became so much associated with dictatorship and repression. But the hyper-control was counter-productive.
    In the end many lost faith. The GDR had idealism and a lot going for it. Yet in the end many lost faith. People won’t endlessly accept centralised bureaucracy as a way of life. And closer home, without suggesting direct similarities, are there not at least distant echoes audible in today’s UK? For instance, economics which don’t add up; people in high places serving themselves, not the community; a massive distrust towards the leadership; and to cap it, sundry bits of the ‘secret state’ keeping watch on it all. George Orwell would have smiled!




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