Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Gorky Parks; Lenin Drives: What does Gorky’s Critique of the CP have to say to the era of PC?*

By Barry Rubin

If most people know of Maxim Gorky today it is as Vladimir Lenin’s favorite writer; a novelist, playwright, and journalist of such towering reputation that even Joseph Stalin never touched him. But it is forgotten—and deliberately so, buried by the Soviet Communist government—that Gorky, like many Russians on the left in 1917 and early 1918, was horrified by the Bolshevik revolution and became in the early days its most articulate critic. (Oh, and also Moscow’s most famous park is named after him, hence Gorky Park.)

Why should this matter to you? Because Gorky’s problem is that faced by many today who are from left of center yet disgusted at dominant world views and mistaken policies that claim to be progressive and to serve the interests of the people and social justice. (If patriotism is the last refuge of [right-wing] scoundrels, social justice is the first refuge of left-wing ones.)

Like Lenin, but without the violent repression, the currently dominant worldview silences critics or opponents in two ways by proclaiming them to be reactionaries: first, by discrediting them with their potential audience (don’t listen to him he’s an icky conservative or a racist); second, by making them fear for their reputations if they speak out. No left-of-center intellectual wants to be labeled a reactionary, after all as that also challenges his own self-image, a fate worse than death in psychological terms.

Of course, the contemporary situation is far different from the tyranny unleashed by the Communist revolution—and all exaggeration should be avoided here, even though tall yokes from little acorns grow. We live in a post-Marxist, post-Communist world, though there are those who want a transformation of existing society in the name of their version of utopia based on an ideology which they believes tells them all truth.
Still, some of the things Gorky wrote in his column, “Untimely Thoughts,” and experiences he had may be applied to our era. Two lessons in particular are worth recounting: the arrogance of those claiming to be the tribunes of the people and the way they disarm criticism.

The first of these is the cold-blooded arrogance of those who make changes that look good in their ideology but damage the real interests of actual people. In an appeal to the Russian working people discussing that era’s charismatic leader, Gorky wrote:

“Lenin is only carrying out some sort of experiment on [your] hides….He is of course a man of exceptional powers….He possesses all the characteristics of a leader, among them…a genuinely lordly lack of compassion for the life of the popular masses….Life in its complexity is unknown to him. He does not know the popular masses, for he has never lived among them. Out of books, he has learned…by what means to whip up their instincts most easily to a fury.”

Second is the demonization of anyone who disagreed with him. Lenin saw such people as merely clinging to religion, or antipathy to the proletariat, or anti-nationalization of the means of production sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations. He reacted to Gorky’s rather humanistic religiosity with frenzy:

“Every religious idea, every idea of any little god...is unutterable vileness,” wrote Lenin to Gorky.

It was this basic disrespect for the basis of morality and for individual human dignity, Gorky warned, that was the real danger from people who “have not the slightest idea of the meaning of freedom of the person.” The new rulers claimed that they represented the working people and yet, “The proletariat has not won a victory in anything or over anybody.”

Nevertheless, after opponents, many of them workers, demonstrated against the Soviet government, the state-supporting media, Gorky complained, lied: “When it writes that the demonstration…was organized by the bourgeoisie, bankers, etc.”

Gorky was denounced as a reactionary, strikes were organized in his newspaper’s printing plant; demonstrations were assembled calling him a supporter of the old ruling class. But Gorky refused to be cowed: “We will continue our polemics with the government which is leading the working class to its ruin.”
On July 16, 1918, Lenin ordered that Gorky’s newspaper be closed down, the last one not in the state’s hands. It was sort of a fairness doctrine since the Bolsheviks viewed all media to have been in the hands of the bourgeoisie and hence not free.

Even then, Lenin was able to win over Gorky, which offers a further lesson for our time.

How? First, since Gorky’s newspaper was shut down and the rest of the media, all controlled by the Communists, wouldn’t publish him, the great writer had to choose between being silenced and seeing his career end or going along with the regime. It would be like someone today knowing that unless he toed the line he’d never get a university position, a good publisher, or access to writing for leading newspapers.
Second, he appealed to Gorky’s pride in having been for so long a fighter on behalf of the downtrodden people of Russia. “Who is not with us is against us,” Lenin told him. “People independent of history is a fantasy….No one needs them.”

Third, Lenin persuaded Gorky by warning that the Communist government’s enemies were rightists, who were repugnant to him. Did he really want to be allied with those who wished to restore the Czar?
Incidentally, that’s a key reason why the opposition wasn’t able to overthrow the Communist revolution in its first years. The “White” Russian armies and Cossacks would have nothing to do with the liberals (Cadets), populist pro-peasant leftists (Social-Revolutionaries), or the democratic socialists (Mensheviks), and vice-versa.

The refusal of the “conservatives” to work with the democratic left-of-center forces, reacting against the revolution by moving even further to the right, was catastrophic. The real liberals—supporters of democracy—often reacted by joining forces with the Communists as the lesser of two evils.

And so a regime representing a minority managed to consolidate power, stayed in office for 70 years, go far beyond what even most of its original supporters wanted or expected, and dragged the country into disaster.
Naturally, most of this has nothing much to do with contemporary conditions in the West, but if you want to perceive some lessons, be my guest.

*Note on title: CP= Communist Party; PC= Political Correctness

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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