Reappropriating the Bourgeois Revolutions

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” -Tom Paine, Common Sense

here is a rather unfortunately amusing predicament a student of bourgeois revolutions will notice upon first foraying into online research databases for primary documents. The databases you frequent, and are in many cases forced to use, hold  a noticeable connection to modern libertarianism and whig liberalism. Revolutions of peasants and merchants are now revolutions of only ingenious merchants; of Locke and Hobbes, and not Lilburne or Winstanley. A professor and I were in one particularly odious case forced to print off John Milton’s Eikonoklastes (in which Milton defends tyrannicide and lampoons the historically stagnant) from the “Online Library of Liberty” (a collection of scholarly works on individual liberty and free markets, as the header proudly proclaims), much to our own perturbation.

One finds this elsewhere, as the popularly published and circulated history of the American revolution is extraordinarily conservative and deterministic with some notable exceptions such as Zinn and Linnbaugh, amongst others. A statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest (the first grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan) stands proudly in Memphis, but there is not a single statue of Tom Paine (author and catalyst of American revolutionary nationalism) in the United States. The peasant rebellions subsequent to the American victory are a mere footnote in history textbooks, only glossed over in most junior high and high school level history courses while the story of George Washington and an unlucky cherry tree endures in cultural memory (in spite of its relationship with truth).

Consistent with the bourgeoisie’s own narrative of its historical finality, the fire of the 17th and 18th centuries has been turned into a stone buttress holding up modern capitalist mythos of free enterprise and personal liberty. To such gentrified narratives, Milton’s Areopagitica is a treatise exclusively on modern freedom of speech and the press, the Leveller’s Agreement of the People is merely anticipatory of american radicalism, the Diggers are an insignificant minority, the English Revolution (sorry, the English Civil War) a battle to get rid of an ineffective and catalytic king (Russel), and the Ranters didn’t even exist at all!

The gentrification, or revision as author James Holstun calls it, of the bourgeois revolutions is a two-way street, however, with many leftists rejecting the revolutionary legacy of the English Revolution (for Cromwell and Ireland), the American Revolution (for slavery) and the French Revolution (for  the “Reign of Terror” and Napoleon). Such an ideological decision plays into the hands of modern counterrevolutionaries who endeavor to appropriate revolutionary history.  The history of class struggle and warfare, even if the victors are the left’s contemporary enemies, is by right (not divine, of course) the area of Marxists and Marxist critics. There is no doubt that the bourgeois revolutions advanced through crippling dialectical contradictions (between liberty and slavery, for example), and Marxists must never let bourgeois theory escape from these historically objective contradictions. Such an activity, however, requires an appreciation of the movement of these revolutions down class lines and their ultimate failure to fufill their most radical goals; requiring mass repressions of radical peasants and workers in each case.

At the heart of historically highlighting the bourgeois revolutions is the central thesis of a modern Marxist approach – revolutions are what change history. Mass movements of people, not singular heads of government, forge in the fire of violent upheaval the existing social order. The Bourgeois revolutions do not suggest the eternal triumph of the bourgeoisie, as many mainstream critics and historians have sought to prove through historical revision and post-modern diffusion, it is, instead, proof of the universality of class struggle; the power of the working classes, and the greater trend of humanity towards the democratization of production. To write off the bourgeois revolutions as historically necessary and inevitable is not only lazy Marxist analysis but it also silences the voices that actively fought against both feudalism and emergent capitalism. To ignore the struggles of peasants and workers in an era before developed capitalism and Marxism is to rob ourselves of a rich history and context for the establishment of our current struggles and dynamics. It is to chain Marxist analysis to the material conditions of the 19th century, an idea Michael Foucault and other post-modernists have endeavored to  establish for several decades; and an idea we must continue to oppose.

Let us then appropriate in this essay, as the bourgeois revolutionaries did in their revolutions, history. Just as Milton would highlight the democratic “nature” of the English people in Saxon times, let  us tell a history that leads to an understanding of these revolutions developed for many decades by Marxist historians across field and era. An understanding that renders the revolutions as a crucible where revolutionary anti-capitalist voices erupted from anti-royal struggles and were violently silenced by emergent capitalist states; revealing, in turn, the true nature of modern capitalist states and mythos.

Armed with Book and Lance: England and the Danger of Peasant Power

 “For the army are acted by their own principles; they are an army that  understands themselves.” -John Saltmarsh, A Letter from the Army, on the New Model Army

Perhaps the most obvious positive outcome of the bourgeois revolutions was the destruction of the feudal mode of production and the states that supported it. In England, in spite of the ultimate failure of the Commonwealth, the bourgeoisie continued to reign supreme into Restoration England, orchestrating the dubiously titled “Glorious Revolution” when fears of James II tolerance of Catholicism was used to bring about liberal reforms. England had become, as author J.G.A Pocock alludes to in his recommendable book The Machiavellian Moment, a society where economic stability was tied to political stability, where stability was tied to the prosperity of all; a convenient ideological strand given the frightening upsurge of peasant consciousness and resistance during the interregnum.

There are two things of import in highlighting this ideological turn in the restoration era bourgeoisie in England. First, the feudal economic system was undone. No longer did a King hold the leash of a parliament, long, short or in between; parliament now held the leash of King and Queen; rather tightly, as the Glorious Revolution illustrates. Second, the economic stability of capitalist England was tied to political stability (read Pocock’s chapters “Court, Country and Standing Army” and “Virtue, Passion and Commerce”) to nurture the later blooming English fear of chaos caused by violent revolution, manifested in Alexander Pope’s rational exultation of inaction in his Essay on Man, Samuel Butler’s lampooning of puritan revolutionaries in his Hudibras, rabid anti-Jacobin tracts, and fearful early-Victorian tracts on continental upheaval (1848). Just what had happened in England during its revolution to elicit such fearful sentiments from the triumphant bourgeoisie and their culture? That, in our effort to render the bourgeois revolutions as class wars alight with ultimately snuffed out peasant consciousness, is worth answering.

The English Revolution is remarkable for its firstness in executing a king, and paradoxically, the revolution’s fairly conservative goals. The poetry of Andrew Marvell and John Milton (Marvell’s Horation Ode, Milton’s 16th Sonnet) reflect a deep anxiety with the violent revolution that killed 100,000 in a nation of five million. The political developments of the period (the Presbyterian parliament, the general unpopularity of the commonwealth government, and the ultimate betrayal of the military in the Restoration) show a keen conservative discomfort with what the revolution had uncovered; notably an English heritage of peasant revolt and consciousness, found politically in 1381 and even in literature in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

The Commonwealth government, despite its enemies’ accusations, advocated itself for fairly conservative measures. Cromwell, and his fellow Grandees (landed gentry and other nobleman of the New Model Army, of which Cromwell was one, who opposed the agitators at Putney) advocated for very little past greater representation and parliamentary autonomy. That’s not to say, however, that radical and future-looking rebel voices didn’t emerge. In fact, the English Revolution is remarkable for the level of dialogue modern readers can find, be it through the Clarke Papers (which record, by quote, the Putney Debates) or the political tracts of Winstanley, Lilburne, Milton, Presbyters, Grandees, Fifth Monarchists and beyond, all of which survive to this day.

These tracts were read by an ever-diversifying populace. When John Milton was born in 1608, approximately 30% of the population in England could read, by the time he died, in 1688, nearly 50% of the society could read. What is the function of this change? Put simply, revolution and puritan egalitarianism (two connected concepts, no doubt), and what Jurgen Habermas would call the public sphere. Gone were the days of Latin texts read by only a handful of souls deciding the fate of an entire nation. In revolutionary England, working class New Model soldiers read and circulated texts, arguing with each other on points of organization, terror, and agitation. These texts, of course, were written in the vernacular. They were printed by the hundreds and thousands with ease. Political consciousness in peasants, women (see: Lucy Hutchenson, Anne Trapnell) and urban proletariat soared. Bibles were read by everyone in a pike battalion and everyone in a parish. The same anti-slavery verses that would so attract radical African slaves to the old testament worked unfiltered through the minds of revolutionary puritans via the Geneva Bible.

Of course, this consciousness and ideology wouldn’t be worth very much if it was not itself conscious of its own potential for realization. This potential was elicited, rather unwittingly, by the Grandee officers who gave the same peasants who had rebelled in 1381 pikes and muskets to do battle against the King. The New Model had, by its very own organization and revolution in military leadership and command, toppled one of the most powerful monarchs in the world. This experience, as James Holstien highlights with precision in his chapter “New Model Soviets” in his book Ehud’s Dagger, garnered a previously unseen level of political, communal consciousness. At Putney, a debate between New Model radicals and Grandees, battalions elected there very own agitator to represent their interests. Agitators verbally acknowledge in the debates that they speak not for themselves but for their troops. This, fundamentally, was revolutionary democracy. Without the legitimacy of state and constitution, New Model soldiers struggled against what they saw as Grandee betrayal.

Predictably, Cromwell and Ireton (a frequently quoted Grandee from the Clarke Papers) responded to these agitator’s cries for universal suffrage with accusations of anarchism and banditry. Cromwell retorted to Rainsborough, the oft quoted agitator, by claiming, “No man says that you have a mind to anarchy, but that the consequence of this rule tends to anarchy, must end in anarchy.” Ireton condemned the leveling ideology at the meeting by asking, “by what right may I not take your property?”

These responses to peasant power, in letter and musket, is anticipatory of the universal repressions of peasants and workers subsequent to each major bourgeois revolution. Critically, we see a keen tension between what the bourgeois revolutions produced as bi-product and what they were prepared to procure politically. Elevated consciousness in the peasants and the wars they were willing to wage to bring together ideal, both religious and political, and reality, posed a grave danger to the triumphant bourgeois state of England. It is for this reason that repressions occurred, and that even through restoration and glorious dynasty change, the bourgeoisie continued to reign supreme in England; in stability, profit, crushing urbanization, and growing inequality.

We must never silence the voices of these agitators because they are inconvenient to our analyses, both left and right. The bourgeois revolutions were not simply anti-feudal, inevitable struggles born of inherent contradiction, nor were they wars for universal freedom and liberty. In between lies a world of both Grandee and Agitator, where both parties battled, and the latter lost. This battle and its belligerents are not insignificant. In the battle, many aspects of modern bourgeois democracy and the mythos that supports it were forged. The martial metaphor, as will be elucidated, is apt indeed.

Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell

A Republic of Burned Letters

“-no man hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom… that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom.” -Ireton, Putney

The battles and its ultimate outcome is worth stopping upon, to illustrate how the failures of the bourgeois revolutions to meet their revolutionary ideals can be used as a catalyst in understanding the dominance and weaknesses of modern bourgeois mythos.

I had previously mentioned Jurgen Habermas’ concept of the public sphere and highlighted then only the core and mostly well-respected movements of his theory; chiefly that in Early Modern Europe you see the emergence of a republic of letters (not his term, but a popularly used one) in which textual voices discoursed over vast geographical distance critical problems and issues in society, philosophy, and so on. What many Marxist critics notice upon reading Habermas (a Frankfurt Marxist himself) is that the idea is too glorified, that Habermas believes too strongly that this system actually worked in any measurable amount.

I do not dispute the idea of the public sphere (obviously, having used the concept previously), but I do agree with other critics that Habermas’ vision of it is too idealized. The public sphere functioned down class lines, and was, as alluded to above, working in a society where only half of the population knew to read and write. We must guard cautiously against dubiously claiming the public sphere was anything more than an inter-bourgeois mode of critique and debate. Clearly, as we will revisit and hash out below, many voices in emergent bourgeois society were crushed utterly and violently.

In England, many leveling New Model soldiers refused to go to war in Ireland, earning them jail and expulsion from the army. The Diggers, lead by Gerrard Winstanley, numbering only 50, were attacked by hired thugs of landed gentry (on whose land they lived on the outskirts of) and were eventually dissolved forcefully by Thomas Fairfax and Commonwealth soldiers, with their crops torn out, their hovels burned, and their common buildings torn to the ground. Radical preachers were thrown in prison by a parliament preaching religious freedom. Licensing of texts continued in spite of John Milton’s famous protestation Areopagitica. Perhaps most famously but least importantly, Christmas was cancelled due to peasant revelry and the associated sinning.

Clearly, this was a society much to John Milton’s liking; a society where a privileged, intellectual few men made the decisions for an entire nation, and not a society were millions discoursed on national policy free from repression. What we see in England is, as Pocock is right to trace, republican governance in the true Roman and Greek sense; as Vladimir Lenin was astute to point out, freedom for wealthy men, and not plebs, lest we find ourselves in tyranny (or anarchy, as Cromwell suggested at Putney). Indeed, this was, explicitly, what Milton and many other Commonwealth intellectuals (such as Marvell) advocated for. The rule of the rich was universally preferable to the rule of the emotional and chaotic “thralls” (as Milton called the working class in his Readie and Easie Way).

As many recent scholars have been right to point out, the American revolutionary generation inherited much from its English younger brother. Ben Franklin reflects in his autobiography reading Milton’s political tracts in his grandfather’s library. Tom Paine quotes Milton’s Satan in Common Sense, and Lilburne was widely read. Interestingly, the repression of emergent peasant radicalism was not transcended by a purely temporal shift forward (as a Whig historian might suggest). We see in the Whiskey Rebellion and more particularly Shay’s Rebellion, opposition to the failure of even the Constitutional (as opposed to the confederated) government to achieve the aims of revolutionary peasants and workers met with violent repression instead of an open republican hand or even a concession like the tribune or plebeian council.

In France we find an extremely similar story. The sans-culottes, essentially rioting urban proletariat, were originally used and championed by the Jacobins and their leader Maximilian Robespierre. It was the sans-culottes who most vigorously defended the “terror” against reactionaries and enemies. When Robespierre was executed himself and the Directorate rose to supremacy, the sans-culottes were repressed violently as remnants of a chaotic and tyrannical period. Those two words associated with peasant power should be familiar to you at this point. The offspring of Greco-Roman republicanism shared its deep fear of true democracy and the crucible of plebian control.

“The secret in freedom lies in educating the people, whereas the secret of tyranny is to keep them ignorant.” – Maximilien Robespierre

In total, studying the true, if often not recounted, nature of the bourgeois revolutions; in their deep fear of true democracy and in their brutal repression of emergent peasant power, we find a fruitful theoretical avenue for understanding the formation of modern bourgeois states and their mythos. A Marxist will be eager to use the simple fact that the bourgeois revolutionaries never attempted to provide true democracy or freedom. They never sought to hear the voices of every citizen, and this is flagrantly obvious with the tangential study of bourgeois repressions of peasant movements in each major revolution found above. In spite of capitalist mythos of unlimited freedom and a republic of letters, the history of the revolutions alone (to say nothing of imperialism) proves these to be completely false and even never explicitly desired by the founding fathers in each case.

Given what we have highlighted above, we must refute both whig and crude marxist renderings of the bourgeois revolutions that leave them a lifeless husk of nebulous progress and inevitability. What we find in a true study is quite the opposite – a period alight with bloodshed, rebellion, revolutionary discourses, and tyrannical bourgeois republicanism; where each tract and battle titled the scales of history. Critically, we find in the bourgeois revolutions as an almost unintentional bi-product the empowering of peasants past what the bourgeois leaders were comfortable with. We see peasants and urban proletariat waging war against capitalism as well as feudalism, and forming their own independent organizations with their own representatives.  Their voices are important for us now, in light of whig history coming from both left and right, we find in history that the contradictions of capitalism have not moved an inch. From 1640 to today, from Lilburne to Hampton, the bourgeoisie maintains its deep fear of a people’s tyranny, repressing violently any who would suggest something more; any who would suggest for true universality and not the universality of Rome and Athens, who would endeavor to fulfill the true promise of the revolutionary movements in England, France, and America. Such is the function of the bourgeois state from its inception as we have seen above, but in the history of its forging, what we have endeavored to reappropriate to the history of class struggle, we can find in their own deeds the means for procuring an end of true, universal “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Academic, American, American Revolution, Capitalism, Class, Class Conflict, Dialectics, Early Modern, English Civil War, France, History, Humanism, Imperialism, Intelligentsia, Marxism, Milton, Republic, Revolution, Whig

On Marxist Literary Criticism, Its Problems, and Its Value

A Marxist does not have to spend much time in academic, literary circles before they, as I have become so familiar, receive the “anti-marxist eye roll.” This eye roll is usually catalyzed by the usage of cobwebbed-covered terms such as “proletariat” and “bourgeoisie” or perhaps, if the perpetrator is feeling daring, “class conflict.” Postmodern academia, like the Victorians to the Romantics, wants nothing more than to distance itself from “the red decades” where titans from the Frankfurt school, French philosophical and economic discourses, and the Communist Party Historians Group in the United Kingdom made significant advances in the fields of history and literary criticism.

It is a process with a historical precedent – we make the dominant discourses of the day concrete through an interaction with its negative; we mock the Romantics for their idealism, and we castigate the Victorians for their racism and imperialist attitudes. As the latter example proves, this process is not always in error. Dialectical advancement in thought is a necessary and often fruitful endeavor, but for this process to move forward beneficially, it must be based on accurate depictions and renderings. This, sadly, has not been the case for modern Marxist literary criticism, and the purveyors of a bastardized Marxism are diverse in politics and theory.

For too long have postmodern ideologies used Marxism as a crutch for their synthetic construction of antithetical ideologies. For example, Michael Foucault claimed proudly, “Marxism exists in nineteenth-century thought as a fish exists in water; that is, it ceases to breathe anywhere else,” suggesting inexplicably that postmodern discourses are free from the chains of history. (4) Of all the anti-Marxist lingo that floated and floats around 20th and 21st century universities, this one is worth stopping upon as it is the root of many others. There is a deeply held belief that, as alluded to above, Marxism is “outdated.”This seems like a rather dubious accusation coming from departments still proudly teaching Russian Formalism and New-Criticism, two aged, if not sometimes useful, critical schools; and that is to say nothing of the present admiration of digging up obscure classical documents that our favorite early modern authors must certainly have read in Renaissance studies.

That’s not to say postmodern critics are the only ones castigating and co-opting Marxist literary theory. There is a distinct feeling on the left that theory, and even more so for literary theory, is for “academics.” Marxist literary critics are seen by many leftists as a bunch of less significant Althussers running around from journal to journal stringing five-dollar words together into a generally unintelligible mass of intellectual ego stroking. This is partly true, and party our fault. The pressures of making a living in academia are partly to blame, but that is the subject for an entirely different article. In this abbreviated medium, I shall explore the accusations that Marxism is outdated, historically dependent and abstract, and offer, with the help of Friedrich Engels (the first Marxist literary critic), some avenues for movement between abstract and real.

History and Propaganda:

The perceived crudeness and historical particularity of Marxism, as alluded to above by Michael Foucault, is a two-fold problem. For one, the idea supposes any ideology is not “crude” in terms of its relationship with the historical epoch in which it was created and resides. For another, many Marxist critics have indeed been crude in their analyses; seeking propaganda over truth, or, as critic Gaylord Leroy wrote, “seek(ing) songs of social significance” (3). The former can be unraveled by a peripheral study of history and theory, and the latter can be undone by an analysis of Marx and Engels’ very own vision of literature and criticism.

The postmodern love of accusing all other forms of literary criticism as being “outdated” or tied to limiting and historically specific metanarratives is one of the foundational aspects of their critical method. Lyotard, one of the first writers to identify “the postmodern condition,” elaborates, “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives[. ..] The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language-” (8). Lyotard goes on in his canonical The Postmodern Condition to lump essentially all past human thought into the “metanarrative” camp. Marxism, a materialist strain, was particularly guilty. An ideology dependent on a progression towards communism, a conclusion based upon the implementation of the grand critical method of class struggle, was surely vanquished; dispersed into the netherworld of narrative and discourse.

However, we need only consider postmodernism’s own place in history to reject its authority (or should I say metanarrative?) on the issue of historical dependency. It’s quite peculiar that a critical method so vitriolically opposed to Marxism and even New-Historicism should suppose itself to be free of the chains of history. Indeed, a rejection of societal metanarratives is uniquely and keenly suited for our present historical epoch, sitting but a decade after “an age of extremes” as Hobsbawm would call it. The 20th century, and the modernist ideas that defined it, was a crucible of war, genocide, poverty, contradictory ideologies, states, and globalization. It is not so surprising that theorists would, in reaction to the tail-end of this age, reject the grand narratives of society. The very construction of postmodern thought, through its chief purveyors, was done through a specific rejection of not only Marxism but also the myths of bourgeois progress.

This inherently suggests that such ideology does indeed have fruitful uses, namely the rejection of capitalist notions of the individual and unlimited progress. We should read it as a reaction to the collapse of modernity and its ideology in the fires of the 20th century, just as we should also read Marxism as a reaction to the heightening of contradiction in heightening capitalism in the 19th century. We should not think that since we have escaped the confines of a particular historical epoch that birthed both, for we are certainly no longer in the same historical conditions that procured Lytoard and Derrida, that the contributions of both schools are no longer valid.

In use, the contrary is true. It is a critical method’s interaction with its historical epoch that lends the most use-value to contemporary readers and implementers. In seeing a theorist interact with his or her specific historical circumstances, we see his or her method in action. We are able to, as John Milton would say in his canonical Areopagitica, discourse with the author and their historical moment. We, perhaps most importantly, are able to substantively look at theory in relation to the material world, and judge freely on its merits and pitfalls in the divergent historical circumstances of today and tomorrow. It is the historical specificity of a critical method that lends the theory a long historical shadow. Ultimately, to tie history to a school of thought is to only add to its richness for contemporary readers. To strive for ahistorical thought as many postmodern critics have, is to rob not only Marxism but also their very own critical method of much of its intellectual meat.

With this in mind, we can look in the mirror and ridicule those marxist critics that fail in this important task of presently implementing historically specific theory. For Freidrich Engels, the job of literature was to portray society, that is, a historically specific and identifiable one, realistically. Engels meant “real” denotatively; a marxist novel portrayed the relations in society exactly as they existed, an inherently challenging act. It was for this reason that Engels’ favorite author was Balzac, a political reactionary. For Engels, the marxist seeks realism at all costs. Engels elaborates,

“I think however that the purpose must become manifest from the situation and the action themselves without being expressly pointed out and that the author does not have to serve the reader on a platter — the future historical resolution of the social conflicts which he describes. To this must be added that under, our conditions novels are mostly addressed to readers from bourgeois circles, i.e., circles which are not directly ours. Thus the socialist problem novel in my opinion fully carries out its mission if by a faithful portrayal of the real conditions it dispels the dominant conventional illusions concerning them, shakes the optimism of the bourgeois world, and inevitably instils doubt as to the eternal validity of that which exists, without itself offering a direct solution of the problem involved, even without at times ostensibly taking sides.” (Engels, Engels to M. Kautsky)(2).

Thus, the author needn’t concern him or herself with “taking sides” or “serving” marxist analysis on a platter to the reader. This is as true for critics as it is for authors. Marxist critics should avoid at all costs taking a critical stamp to every text or event, but seek instead to unravel the social reality of the text. We need, in short, to avoid propaganda and seek analysis. The previously quoted Gaylord Leroy elaborates on a useful marxist analytic method, “The critical principle involved is that symbolic form should not be assigned to a closed and self-relating universe of meaning; it should be derived from social reality (as represented in the work), and that social reality should be recognized as primary” (3). Thus Marxist criticism must seek this second reality, one that is dialectically attached to our primary reality but fundamentally made different through individual synthesis and authorial creation. Attached to this is the foundationally Marxist concept that the individual, like the theory that sprouts from his hands, mouth and mind, is historically specific.

In short, our job as critics and as authors is to seek the social realities of a text using the critical methods of Marxism and apply them sensitively to history, time and place. Engels elucidates,

“Failing to comprehend the ‘external circumstances’ and ‘class grounds’ for the development of the new, she (Kautsky) creates heroes that are ‘incarnations of a principle’… prepared models of ideal new people, standing outside society- Not analyzing the real live forces of social development Kautsky ardently strives for the ‘new’ principles my means of declarations, standarized propaganda.” (5)

We must analyse the “real live” forces at work within a text, and not bring into it fabricated notions and Marxist buzzwords and instead take the synthesized, historically specific method of Marx, Engels and others, and apply it to our specific historical moment or the specific historical moment of the text and the person who wrote it. Marxist literary criticism cannot be effective in using lazy analyses and crude class reductionism on texts that would be better served with an Engelsist elucidation of the real social relations at play within the text. We must stand inside of the society of the work and author, and in doing so, move from abstract to “real,” as defined by Engels.

From Abstract to Real:

Having considered postmodern critiques of Marxist literary theory and the school’s own faults, it’s high time we analyzed the notion that literary theory is a useless academic endeavor offering little to no value to a leftist movement. I will not argue, for reference, in defense of the liberal arts or humanities at large; as that is a job better left for an LAS administrator. I will, instead, argue for the relevancy of literary criticism in the collective consciousness of the left.

The notion that the study of literature is a “petty bourgeois” (who knew shop-keepers had such an interest in literary criticism?) or “academic” endeavor that is largely useless to the left and working people is a prime example of the “crude Marxism” highlighted above. It supposes that the arts (of which literature is but one part) and criticism of the arts has no use to a working person which is a ridiculous claim. Literature impacts the consciousness of those who read it, with very little doubt. On this issue, Engels agrees, writing,

“The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form.” (Engels, Engels to J. Bloch)(1).

As Mariela Castro, daughter of Vilma Espin and Raul Castro and member of the Cuban Communist Party said in a talk she gave in Havana in 2013, “-revolutions cannot transcend the minds of revolutionaries.” This, essentially, is the point Engels is making. A revolution is undoubtedly a class war, but a class war is fought by warriors – each with a consciousness interacting with varying discourses, religions, and politics (to use Engels’ examples). Literary theory is but a part of the consciousness of part of the revolutionaries, but the effect is substantive in both revolutionary movements and the establishment of revolutionary states. In Cuba, for example, Nicolas Guillen inspires an urban renewal project in the streets of Havana. Maxim Gorky’s socialist realism had material impacts on the Soviets’ conception of themselves and the ideal.

In summary,revolutions are indeed class wars, but they are fought by people influenced by their society. Engels castigated the bastardized Marxism that renders economics as the only catalyst in revolution in his letter to J. Bloch, writing,

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase” (7).

Engels’ word choice is convenient (or manufactured?) for our point. When we reduce revolutions and the people who fight them to pawns in a game of class chest, we move from the real to the abstract. Literary theory practiced correctly and grounded in Marxist ideas of society and the real can and has had substantive effects on revolutionary societies. Thus, Marxist literary criticism is not abstract as many leftists suggest when partaken by a careful and sensitive practitioner, but the opposite. It is a catalyst of real thinking, an illuminator of those troublesome facets of the societies of today, yesterday, and tomorrow.

When we truly look at Marxist literary criticism and its supposed weaknesses, its historical specificity as a weakness, its crudeness, and its supposed uselessness to leftist movements, we find the opposite is true in each case. We find instead historical specificity as a mark of effective criticism for modern implementation, its crudeness a product of bastardized and lazy readings, and its supposed uselessness a product of an incorrect rendering of true abstraction.

As Marxist critics in a critical world that seeks to annihilate history and reduce texts to microcosms of the untouchable intellect of its author (or even its reader), the important task of finding Engels’ reality falls to us. To our various eras and literary movements we must seek that primary reality in the secondary reality of literature, avoiding with care a propagandist approach. Our job, as Engels suggests, is to find the tendrils connecting those primary and secondary realities and bring them to the fore; and in doing so, we proactively, if not explicitly, advocate for change in both.

Works Cited:

(1)http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1890/letters/90_09_21.htm#s

(2)http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1885/letters/85_11_26.htm

(3) http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/375283?uid=3739656&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21103610862593

(4) http://www.amazon.com/The-Lives-Michel-Foucault-Biography/dp/0091753449/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1393745187&sr=8-1&keywords=9780091753443

(5) http://books.google.com/books?id=8Brl14Nk5rgC&pg=PA89&lpg=PA89&dq=engels+propaganda+literature&source=bl&ots=4q7YntOmQt&sig=yESUaycK_x3miFounCRg7BNrnqY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=sPYfU_XUOMLl2QXH44H4Dg&ved=0CDkQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=engels%20propaganda%20literature&f=false

(6) http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/introduction.htm

(7) https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1890/letters/90_09_21.htm

(8) https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/fr/lyotard.htm

Leave a comment

Filed under Academia, Dialectics, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Marxism, Student

Scars of Thunder: Walter White, Satan and the Material Roots of Remergent Miltonic Theodicy

 photo satainbreakingbad_zps29ea6f4a.png

*Breaking Bad spoiler warning. Turn back now if you have not finished the show.*

“Mr. White, he’s the devil” -Jesse Pinkman, 5.12

As Breaking Bad came to its climactic conclusion, much dialogue occurred on at what point one could consider the series’ protagonist, Walter White, “gone.” At what point, many wondered, does Walter recede into Heisenberg? Some, as it has become clear to me upon traversing the enormous world of Breaking Bad social media, held out hope for Walter deep into the fifth season and even after the season had ended.  After all the violence, domestic and otherwise, some still supported Walter as a vigilante against omnipotent force, one with “unconquerable will” and the “courage never to submit or yield” (PL. I.). Of course, these famous lines were used to describe the prideful Arch-Fiend of Milton’s Paradise Lost  as he gazed over his host of rebellious demons, thrown flaming through the ethereal sky into the burning pits of Hell.

Much like Milton’s epic, Breaking Bad was pedagogically involved with its audience from the start. Walter and Satan in their first appearances to us are vulnerable and courageous, warriors against fate made to feel deep regret at the plight soon to be and presently being suffered by their family and comrades . First impressions, as they say, are important.These first images, of Walter pointing a gun at arriving police in his underwear and Satan lamenting the pain and disfigurement of his once beautiful friend, attach themselves to our imaginations with an anchor of precedence. These original images residing in the heads of viewers and readers serve as a point of comparison for every contradictory piece of information we will discover, explicitly and interpretive, in both show and epic. This contradiction is a function of theodicy; the catalyst with which the ways of god and evil are textually reconciled. 

Theodicy, a text that seeks to “justify the ways of God to man,” as Milton put it, and more generally, explain the existence of evil in a universe with a God, was a form popular in Early Modern Europe. Theodicy’s popularity at the time is seemingly a historical singularity, born of the interchange between an Enlightenment desire to explain the machinations of man and nature and a Protestant urge to render an omnipotent and distant god. Certainly the Early Modern theodical projects to reconcile these two things are no longer as apt as they were then. How, then, can the two theodical projects be compared in any way? How can Breaking Bad be considered a “Miltonic” theodicy, if it was born in such disparate historical circumstances? We can begin to find the answer, an answer rooted in the two periods’ fundamental yet obfuscated similarity, in what each story uses as a catalyst for its core crises.

 photo walterwhiteandsatan_zpsca262c1f.png

Milton’s and Gilligan’s catalyst in the dialectical exchange that is theodicy is choice. Evil exists because we have the power to chose, a power inherent in possessing consciousness, a power that takes us to the highest summit and the deepest pit, depending. Choice is the solvent both  Milton and Gilligan apply to the fundamental theological and ideological impasse of a good man turned to abject evil. Choice is at the center of each work, as both anti-heroes consciously ponder their choices in light of personal and social limitations. Satan, in his memorable lament at the beginning of book IV, remarks,

“Nay curs’d be thou; since against his thy will
Chose freely what it now so justly rues.
Me miserable! which way shall I flie
Infinite wrauth, and infinite despaire?”(PL. IV. 71-74

Satan’s inner torment is said by some critics to separate the reader from our once heroic warrior, yet to this critic, the tragedy of his character becomes crystallized in this scene of weakness.  Indeed, many Breaking Bad fans celebrate Walter’s journey to “take control of his life,” to, in effect, chose as Satan does in the face of known consequences. Satan elucidates the relationship between his choices and their inevitable consequences, and the outcome tempers his heroic nature and tempers, more importantly, the power of choice in the epic. This unhappy lineage of choice is the precise relationship Walter comes to have with his own choices. Satan has chosen poorly, and his initial choice has limited him to but one choice; infinite wrath or infinite despair. Walter comes to a similar conclusion as Satan, to face what will come with courage and malevolent darkness to ease his woeful condition (PL. IV). Walter remarks before his climactic and character changing battle with Gus Fring, “I’ve made choices. I alone should suffer the consequences of those choices, and those consequences, they’re coming.” (4.12). The fatalistic acceptance of consequences contrasts starkly to Satan’s heroic and rousing speeches and Walter’s once innocent desire for choice, typified by his early expression, “But, what I want, what I want, what I need, is a choice. I feel like I never actually make any of my own, choices, I mean. My entire life, it just seems like I never, you know, had a real say, about any of it.” (1.05)

So we see that choice is central in each epic, but more importantly, that choice in both is refracted through a lens of past choices. These past choices are themselves refracted through a foreknowledge of concrete consequences, consequences bred of a break with society, heavenly and non. Satan breaks with angelic hierarchy, and Walter breaks with civil law to ease their “suffering” (PL. IV) born of a tragic flaw (pride in both cases). The consequences, as each character predicts, come down upon them with tremendous effect. Satan writhes as a deformed serpent for all eternity, and Walter fades into his feared death as a look of relief emerges from his disheveled features. Such is the price for waging war against omnipotent force.

Of note, this bringing of destruction from a combination of personal choice from within and environmental consequences from without brings to the fore the crux upon which both stories move to their grander underlying narrative. It is where choice meets society that both show and epic connect across time and place, where they illuminate the same human struggle in Milton’s time and in our own; and that struggle is the power of the individual to battle the “omnipotent force” of a perceived unjust society.

It is here that we must make the distinction between the show and epic, as the former urges the viewer to oppose this unjust society and the latter urges the reader (as Stanley Fish highlights brilliantly) to see how just society falls to the ignorant and the prideful. They are, ultimately, different sides of the same coin. Where Gilligan endeavors to elucidate the fallen ideals of a society, Milton highlights the fall itself and the conditions upon which its occurrence was understandable and “justifiable.” Critically, both anti-heroes fail in their efforts. Their failure, itself a contradiction of that first image we are given, is pedagogical; a pedagogy deeply involved with the material conditions of a fallen society surrounding both epic and show.

To that point, in both Milton’s society and ours, irreconcilable contradictions erupt every day. The value of a hard day’s work and outsourcing, the american dream and growing static unemployment, the value of the individual and skyrocketing medical costs, puritanical destiny and counter-revolution, the eternal rule of the saints and Charles II, the Areopagus and the hangman. Satan attempts to solve these contradictions, but he goes about it in the wrong way and fails, just as Walter does. Both epic and show, in short, exist to navigate and illuminate these contradictions and counsel us through the pedagogical, theodical process of plotting the course of one who breaks free from the shackles around them, only to contradict this with their inevitable re-shackling under the mounting pressure of consequence. Each’s course is a failed one, and in our, the readers, traversing of this path, lies a profound message. We are to, like our grandparents Adam and Eve, walk forth from this failure. Yet each tale counsels us to walk a different path, the course of which is only ours (with a little help from providence, literary and non)”to choose” (PL. XII 647).

So we return to choice. A fitting way to end, as is it choice that moves both epic and show to their own tragic and satisfying endings. In its use of Miltonic theodicy in secular American society, in its reappropriation of Miltonic choice (a tempered choice) and Miltonic renderings of man and society, Breaking Bad and its creator Vince Gilligan have achieved something extraordinary in modern television and fiction at large. As Milton did for his fallen Restoration readers, Gilligan reminds us of our ultimate power to choose. The power is ours to choose against Walter and Satan, to choose against their creation and rise to power, to choose against their torments.

Our sympathy for each character is nothing to be ashamed of (as some Miltonists are a little too eager to suggest), but rather it is to be rendered as the beginning of an understanding of both show and epic’s true purpose. We admire Walter and Satan’s courage and bravery, and we admire their battle against unjust societies and hierarchies (in the case of Milton’s epic certainly a product of an increasing secular interaction with the work). We admire their ability to choose. In their failure and their incorrect choices, we discover the power residing in the text of Paradise Lost and the movements of Breaking Bad. It is a power that resides there because it resides in both author and reader; it is the power to chose a path, together not alone, where a Walter or a Satan would never have come to be.

Further Reading on Milton’s Satan and the Theodicy of Paradise Lost: (If you like Breaking Bad and haven’t read Milton, read Paradise Lost!)

Carey, John. “Milton’s Satan.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Richard Danielson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 160-74. Print.

Danielson, Dennis. “The Fall and Milton’s Theodicy.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Richard Danielson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 144-59. Print.

Fish, Stanley Eugene. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997. Print.

Hill, Christopher. “Paradise Lost.” Milton and the English Revolution. New York: Viking, 1978. 354-412. Print.

Rogers, John. “The Political Theology of Milton’s Heaven.” The New Milton Criticism. Ed. Peter C. Herman and Elizabeth Sauer. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. 68-84. Print.

Von Maltzahn, Nicholas. “Milton’s Readers.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Richard Danielson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 236-52. Print.

Leave a comment

Filed under AMC, Breaking Bad, Jesse Pinkman, Literature, Milton, Milton's Satan, Paradise Lost, Satan, Theodicy, Walter White

Liberation Through Submission: Sexism in The Taming of the Shrew

William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is a play that winds its way through issues many common Englishmen could understand, making it characteristic of the venue in which it was truly meant for – the theatre. The main “vast appeal” issue in this play is the notion of a rebellious wife or women, and this woman eventually getting her comeuppance. Indeed, Shakespeare’s own version of a popular play in which a women was wrapped up in a rug and beaten is considerably less fierce, but the play is still marked with a profound level of misogyny. In spite of the fact that Shakespeare in other works portrays many strong feminine characters, The Taming of the Shrew portrays the domination of male culture on Katherine and the plot follows her coercion to its ultimate end – goading the reader to feel relieved at her ultimate subjugation at the ending of the play. By studying three key episodes in the play a greater sense of the actual plot mechanics that lead to the general misogyny of the play can be formed. These episodes are the opening scene and our introduction to Kate, Petruchio’s comparison of Kate to a falcon and lastly the final and climactic speech delivered by Kate. The synthesis of these three episodes illustrates that, regardless of whatever marginal power Kate gets in spurning her sister and peers, it is firstly through and only through a man she achieves this, and secondly Shakespeare has crafted a play that calls for the reader to consider the ending happy. The latter of these points profoundly illustrates that the idea of ‘taming’ is portrayed as positive and necessary, thus, making the play ultimately misogynistic. The first episode requiring an analysis is the opening scene of the play.

Perhaps in the time it was originally performed Kate would have appeared as out of her place and aggressive in the opening scene of The Taming of the Shrew. Yet, when all the characters are taken into account, a sense of just how right Kate is becomes clear. The first thing we need to establish is that all the male characters in this scene are profoundly foolish and hostile to Kate. Lucentio for example says, “Hark, Tranio, thou mayst hear Minerva speak” (83-84) in response to a rather neutral statement by Bianca. Kate, as will be analyzed later, says merely the truth and is ridiculed, yet Bianca says essentially nothing and is considered a Goddess. Further, Baptista makes a rather revealing remark with a specific designation in one of this statements. He says to the suitors, “Schoolmasters will I keep within my house, / fit to instruct her (Bianca’s) youth…And so farewell. Katherina, you may stay, / For I have more to commune with Bianca” (94-95, 100-101). Quite simply, Baptista has established that he has the greatest of gifts within his house, including education for Bianca and then tells Kate to wait outside. Already we see the great walls being built between Kate and those around her by fools and other males in powerful positions. The things Kate herself says in this section are also preeminently important. A rather memorable remark is her appraisal of the situation, saying, “I pray you, sir, is it your will to make a stale of me amongst these mates?” (57-58). Her summation of the situation is, frankly, correct. Hortensio is offended by her use of the word “mates” in reference to him and Lucentio, yet no one seems offended in the basic premise of the situation which is nothing less than the sale of Baptista’s daughters to the highest bidder. What this scene establishes is the odd dichotomy between systemic oppression of women and being “polite” or “proper.” Within the realm of The Taming of the Shrew, it seems it is more important to be proper and to subsist in a society than it is to actually say anything truthful – and this is illustrated in the play goading the reader to dislike Kate in this scene, when she has only told the unaltered truth. She is intended to come off as rude, when the entire setting is an insult to both her and her sister Bianca. The uneven power relationship between Kate and her male counterparts can be further illustrated in the revealingly apt comparison of Kate and the falcon.

The soliloquy delivered by Petruchio comparing Kate to a falcon can be portrayed two ways. I will elucidate the perspective that it is a favorable comparison first, in order to illustrate why in its essence the soliloquy is against feminine independence (in other words, Misogynistic). On one hand, the monologue does advocate for the treating of one’s wife favorably and also naturally in the comparison is the fact that a trained falcon still requires some of its natural instincts. Perhaps an important quote to begin our distinction is when Petruchio makes an interesting causal relationship by saying, “That all is done and revered care of her, and in conclusion, she shall watch all night, and if she chance to nod I’ll rail and brawl, and with the clamor keep her still awake. This is a way to kill a wife with kindness, and this I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humor” (203-209). Admittedly, Petruchio is saying that you tame a shrew via kind methods. Yet, this is a profoundly misogynistic gesture, in spite of how pleasant the methods he may use to coerce Kate. The causal relationship he is drawing considers Kate as an object that responds to a call. This can be illustrated further – earlier in the soliloquy, Petruchio says, “My falcon now is sharp and passing empty, and till she stoop, she must not be full-gorg’d, For then she never looks upon her lure” (190-193). Aside from the blatantly sexist language focusing on the “lure” and the use of “meat” to control the falcon (Kate), this statement continues the idea that Kate will predictably respond to a specific kind of call. Even in the most optimistic reading of this soliloquy, Petruchio is still considering Kate as something to be conquered or reasoned with – as if she needs some kind of revelation to become a proper woman. Kate as she existed before, one who saw the truly degrading nature of 16th century feminine life cannot exist, it is as if she suffers from an illness. This revelation, or cure, can be found in the final speech.

The final speech by Kate in The Taming of the Shrew is somewhat of an enigma in light of all the past events recounted thus far in the essay. On the surface, it would seem that Petruchio is empowering Kate in one final gesture of defiance against Bianca and the widow. In many ways, this is true – yet, on a deeper analysis it becomes clear that the theme elucidated above remains. Firstly, Kate is only allowed this small victory over Bianca through a male ‘tamer’ and secondly that it is better to be proper, right and perceived well as a woman in society than it is to be truthful and willful. Kate says, “But now I see our lances are but straws, our strength as week, our weakness past compare, that seeming to be most which we indeed least are” (173-175). Even in the most open reading, and even if we assume that Kate is saying this to spurn her sister and the widow – she is doing so only by degrading her power. Is it truly any form of victory to gain some level of power over one’s peers, only by condemning the power of one’s very being? What is perhaps most profound in this ending is that it’s tone is, frankly, happy. The tone of the language and the prompt exeunt leave the reader with what seems like a triumphant ending. This is perhaps the most damning part of The Taming of the Shrew in relation to its misogyny. Regardless of Kate’s personal contentment, the audience is supposed to be joyous over the coercion, repression and fundamental changing of Kate. Regardless of any interpersonal gain Kate makes the entire female sex is taught one and only one thing – to tamper with yourself to the liking of men at the expense of one’s actual personality. This is seen deeply in the entirity of Kate’s final speech. Quite simply, it is hard to contend that under any circumstances that, “And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour, And not obedient to his honest will, What is she but a foul contending rebel..”(156-158) is anything other than an unconditional surrender of Act 1 Kate. What this speech illustrates in both its framed happiness, and its male-centered liberation, is that The Taming of the Shrew is just that, a taming.

Shakespeare’s own version of a taming story is notably less humiliating and violent to women, yet the misogynistic nature of the yarn remains. The story is centered around males, and even the brief empowerment Kate receives at the end is solely tied to and reliant upon a man, as well as demeaning to the rest of women. Indeed, Shakespeare makes strides towards a more reasonable portrayal of woman in “a shrew” tale, yet the play itself does not make the entire stride. As it stands, the play portrays a profoundly misogynistic portrayal of the feminine protagonist, Kate. The men around her patronize and demean her and she is not allowed to reciprocate and function properly in her world. By analyzing the first scene, the falcon comparison and the final speech by Kate, a greater understanding of why the text itself illustrates a misogynistic perspective of Kate, regardless of any personal gains she made have attained in the process. In general, The Taming of the Shrew is a step towards a more reasonable understanding of woman in society – it just cannot escape from the profound misogyny it was authored in, Leaving Kate a pawn to be manipulated by male masters instead of the burning person she was.

1 Comment

Filed under English, Literature, Sexism, Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew

Self-Undetermined: The Role of Sexism in Two Canonical Early American Works

 photo temple_zpsa9c6b61a.png

             Charlotte Temple by Susana Rowson and Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown both tell the story of great tragedies that befall two female characters, Charlotte Temple and Clara Wieland respectively. Both novels take place during the period of the French and Indian War yet both were written subsequently, and have each become canonical examples of early American literature. The novels are certainly different, as Brown breaks from the sentimentalist narratives found everywhere in Rowson for a more gothic thematic, yet the two stories share portrayals of women profoundly impacted by the patriarchal society that surrounded them. Where Charlotte is fooled by Montraville and shamed into not breaking off the relationship, Clara is shamed by Ciceronian reason to suppress her from expressing the totality of what was happening to her. By studying the shame levied upon both characters, the absolute nature in which both characters are seen by their male counterparts, and the solutions each character must use to end their suffering a clearer conception of the impact of sexism on both novels becomes clear. Both female protagonists are firmly seated in the patriarchal society that existed in Colonial America and the later United States. It is this very sexism that catalyzes Charlotte’s death and the deaths of the Wieland family at Theodore’s hands. While Charlotte and Clara both blame themselves within the texts, the critical reader need only look to their profound lack of self-determination in their lives, a product of the patriarchal nature of American society; and a significant factor in both characters’ downfall. Sexism is not merely present, but an active player, in both Charlotte Temple and Wieland.

Both Charlotte and Clara are shamed by male characters into neglecting their fears, and because of this, their respective downfalls are hastened. Charlotte Temple keys on shame as one of its primary sentimentalist expressions of extreme emotion, and the shame expressed in the novel is almost exclusively a product of societal expectations on Charlotte and Montraville’s usage of it to achieve his ends. The seduction sequence at the beginning of the novel revolves around Charlotte’s inability to call of the relationship due to her own shame regarding the matter. In the climactic seduction scene, Charlotte says refutes Montraville saying, “I hope my affection for them will ever keep me from infringing the laws of filial duty” (43). Here we see an initial statement by Charlotte that is later changed by the pressure of another, in this case, Montraville. Charlotte has her own consciousness and knows without a doubt the right path to take; yet as Rowson says throughout the book, Charlotte is simply too “innocent” to act upon it. Montraville’s response is telling, and filled with shame eliciting statements. He states, ” had it been my fate to fall, that your tenderness would cheer the hour of death, and smooth my passage to another world. But farewell, Charlotte! I see you never loved me. I shall now welcome the friendly ball that deprives me of the sense of my misery” (43). Montraville, whether sincere or not, levies shame upon Charlotte for “mislead(ing)” him. Montraville is playing on the idea of filial duty, portraying Charlotte as his ideal caretaker in the new world; and eliciting conflict in Charlotte’s ideology. To Rowson, it is Charlotte’s lack of experience that allows her to be so easily manipulated; yet her fall is specifically catalyzed by multiple acts of shame and seduction by Montraville, seen in his continued pleading for one more visit with Charlotte at the end of every visit. Clara Wieland experiences a similar level of coercion when strange events begin to happen to her within her own house. In the first incident, when she hears gruff voices plotting her murder. She runs frightened from her quarters and collapses outside her brother’s house, where in short order she is told it was nothing but a dream. Clara reflects, “That solitude, formerly so dear to me, could no longer be endured. Pleyel, who had consented to reside with us during the months of spring, lodged in the vacant chamber, in order to quiet my alarms. He treated my fears with ridicule, and in a short time very slight traces of them remained” (53). Again we see a change, or in this case a “transformation” in the female protagonists perceptions due to a male character’s influence and ridicule. Clara has experienced something that should truly have caused fear, yet her concerns are “ridiculed” by Pleyel and repressed. Just as Charlotte’s convictions are attacked by the deceptive pleadings of Montraville, Clara’s fears are written off by the Ciceronian mind of Pleyel. Both characters form an original analysis, which is indeed correct, that is later coerced into something else by a male character. The identities of each player is less important than the societal factors they represent – Montraville and Pleyel both representing specific aspects of a patriarchal society in reaction to a female character who is emotionally vulnerable. Ergo, the shame levied on both protagonists in relation to societal norms and stereotypes prevented both protagonists from stemming the tide of their own downfall.

The character of each female protagonist is reckoned by the male characters in each novel as absolute in nature, and this is another example of the impact of a sexist society on each narrative. In Charlotte Temple, Charlotte is first seen by Montraville as angelic and pure of heart, as his initial letter to her illustrates. Even when Montraville begins to part with Charlotte in favor of Julia, he expresses empathy and respect for the character of Charlotte Temple. Yet in one climactic event he immediately rescinds it all, saying, “Treacherous, infamous girl…from this instant our connexion is at an end….I have done with you forever” (89). When Montraville sees Charlotte in bed with Belcour, he immediately withdraws his respect for Charlotte, and she becomes “treacherous” and “infamous.” Thus, Charlotte is either pure of heart and action, or a traitor to Montraville. Her character is absolute; she is either true to filial duty or a fallen and destroyed character. Here we can see the more conservative thematic within Charlotte Temple in comparison to Wieland, as the latter conceives of Clara as absolute only from the perspective of Pleyel and not in the actual persuasive rhetoric of the novel. Yet, a congruent thread between the two female protagonists can still be found. A key scene in Clara’s descent into despair is Pleyel’s accusations towards her in regards to her dignity and fidelity. Clara reflects after the incident, “I saw him in a few moments hurrying along the path which led to my brother’s. I had no power to prevent his going, or to recall, or to follow him. The accents I had heard were calculated to confound and bewilder. I looked around me to assure myself that the scene was real. I moved that I might banish the doubt that I was awake. Such enormous imputations from the mouth of Pleyel! To be stigmatized with the names of wanton and profligate!” (126) This section is rich with keen insights from Clara, as she remarks upon her own “powerlessness” to change Pleyel’s perceptions of her. Clara is either pure or a wanton to Pleyel, and as Clara remarks upon, the entire community and society she is a part of. She even notes the “stigmatized” nature of these accusations, showing her own consciousness of the society she moves in. Clara knows that these accusations will gravely injure her perception within her community, even considering its small scale. In this episode, the absolute nature in which Pleyel conceived Clara becomes clear as well, as he goes from pure admiration to cruel hatred and accusations. What is found in both of these cases is a profound lack of self-determination in the formation of identity in both characters. There is a difference in each author’s portrayal of the absolute nature of the character, as Rowson seems to agree that Charlotte’s fall was absolute from innocent child to disgraced maiden contrasted to Brown who delivers the reader Clara Wieland; a more nuanced and interactive player in the dialogue of being a woman in a sexist society. Yet both protagonists are not merely bystanders in the sexism of the society and  historical epoch in which they live, this sexism impacts their stories specifically and profoundly; as both characters are bound to identities not of their choosing. Each woman is one thing or another, robbing each of autonomy of identity and self-determination within their own stories.

The solution for each female protagonist is rather telling of the society in which each character moves and acts; chiefly that both characters either die or get married. The former solution is common in sentimentalist novels, as the deviant female protagonist usually dies in disgrace or is sent off into exile. Charlotte Temple, a thoroughly sentimentalist novel from beginning to end, mirrors this unfortunate end for its protagonist.  As highlighted above, Charlotte’s destruction is almost exclusively because of the manipulations of Montraville and Belcour, yet it is Charlotte who pays the price. The narrator paints a scene of pure drama, “but to describe the agony of his sufferings is past the power of any one, who, though they may readily conceive, cannot delineate the dreadful scene. Every eye gave testimony of what each heartfelt– but all were silent.” The end is tragic by the author’s design, yet the ending is also absolute in nature, further evidence of the thematic highlighted above. Charlotte’s downfall is so complete, within the rhetoric of the novel, that death is truly the only escape. Indeed, Charlotte herself wishes for death on multiple occasions. This is truly a troubling part of Charlotte Temple as it removes any sense of redemption short of death and rebirth, through her unborn child. The depth of Charlotte’s downfall at the hands of Montraville is such that death is the only escape. This set of circumstances is a manifestation of sexism – where as Montraville continues to live Charlotte must die. The role of sexism moves Charlotte’s story and in the end, kills her for the fulfillment of the narrative persuasion. Brown’s solution for Clara is more nuanced as it moves away from Sentimentalism to a more gothic thematic. Yet the end of Clara’s story is still tied to the vindication of her relationship with Pleyel. Further, her uncle plays a key role in her liberation to Europe. Clara’s autonomy is so thoroughly robbed that she is unable to determine her own fate, and even when she achieves this it is only through marriage. Clara writes, ” If you reflect upon that entire confidence which had subsisted from our infancy between Pleyel and myself; on the passion that I had contracted, and which was merely smothered for a time; and on the esteem which was mutual, you will not, perhaps, be surprised that the renovation of our intercourse should give birth to that union which at present subsists.” The placement of this section is important, as it is the end of the tale. In many ways the marriage demonstrates a return to normality and movement towards something better than what is recounted in the novel. The story offers something more transcendent than what is in Charlotte Temple yet the solution is still a man and arranged by men – a product of the society in which both characters  and their creators lived. Due to the shame levied upon each character and the absolute identities assigned to each, the end of each of their stories is not merely influence by sexism but a product of it;  the limited nature of each solution directly in relation with their lack of self-determination.

Charlotte Temple and Wieland both portray female protagonists fighting against calamitous events that befall them. For Charlotte, the fight ends in melodramatic death and tragedy and for Clara it ends in the novel, itself a symbol of moving past the calamity. Each character is profoundly impacted by the sexism present in their society; yet the influence does not stop at mere influence but the sexism of the male characters and the specter of a judgmental society actively moves the plot. By studying the shame levied on characters and its impact on the furthering of their downfall, the absolute nature the women in the eyes of the narrative and other characters and the “solution” to each of their calamities a greater depiction of sexism’s role in Charlotte Temple and Wieland emerges. It was not a lack of “equanimity” or “foresight” that brought destruction to the women, but it was rather the sexism of their society, friends and communities that left the double-tongued antagonists free to baffle and deceive.

Cited Editions:

Brown, Charles Brockden. Wieland, Or, the Transformation: An American Tale, with Related Texts. Ed. Philip Barnard and Stephen Shapiro. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 2009. Print.

Rowson, Susanna. Charlotte Temple ; And, Lucy Temple. Ed. Ann Douglas. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Penguin, 1991. Print.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Literature, Charlotte Temple, Early American, Feminist Readings, Literature, Sexism, Wieland

A Dystopian England: The Literary Imagination as a Mode of Critique in More’s Utopia

File:Hans Holbein, the Younger - Sir Thomas More - Google Art Project.jpg

Thomas More’s canonical Utopia perplexes as it advances, as More weaves a tale of a magnificent civilization located in the newly discovered and mysterious “new world.” The tale is delivered by one Rafael Hythlodaeus (his last name meaning ‘dispenser of much nonsense’), a traveler and unique personality, who tells the tale to More himself in character form. A fundamental question that crosses every reader’s mind upon encountering Utopia is just what is More suggesting by outlining the lives of the Utopians. Reactions range from Karl Marx coining the term “utopian socialism” to others saying the satirical nature of the work suggests it is in fact anti-communistic as it would later be understood. By studying the legitimacy given to Raphael in Christian-Humanist terms, the criticisms Rafael expounds upon in book one and the relation between the problems in book 1 and the Utopian solutions in book 2, a greater understanding of what More was trying to achieve becomes clear. Utopia is indeed an ideal society as conceived by Thomas More, and he uses his cleverly devised world as an answer to the problems of England outlined in Book 1 by Raphael. In short, Utopia is a vehicle or a medium with which More enables himself, through a literary imagining, to critique English society. The text is not an active call for the establishment of Utopia in 16th century England as conceived in the text, but moreover a conceptualization of a truly ideal society to compare to the depravity of Early Modern England.

Before analyzing the  cases of critique in Book 1, the first issue that must be addressed is why Raphael’s voice can be taken as More’s own, or why Raphael’s criticisms of England are anything more than an idealistic romp by a long-winded ship captain. Throughout the dialogue between Peter Giles, More and Raphael, Raphael uses a large amount of evidence ranging from scripture (728) to historical evidence (741). At the end of book one, Peter Giles questions whether a better civilization than the European one could possibly exist elsewhere. Raphael refutes this claim by saying simply, “As for the antiquity of commonwealths…you could have a sounder opinion if you had read the historical accounts of that world” (741). Certainly the usage of reason, scripture and history was something More, as a Christian-Humanist, would not have disagreed with. More, who is silent in this section, would certainly not agree with Giles’ assumption that European civilization was unequivocally the most advanced in history, given More’s own classical background. Raphael goes on to say Romans and Egyptians who founded Utopia, emblems of the renaissance of classical thinking occurring in England at the time, stayed in Utopia (741). What we can synthesize from this example is that Raphael is not saying untruths and is given a significant level of legitimacy by More the author. The inability of any of the skeptical listeners, More included, to prove Raphael wrong or unsettle his consistently supported argument suggests that Raphael is more a mouthpiece of More than the character of More himself.

Raphael criticizes kings and enclosures in Book 1 of Utopia, and this is perhaps the most profound demonstration by More’s critique of England. Given the fact illustrated above that Raphael is given a high level of legitimacy within the text suggest that Raphael’s title as the “dispenser of much nonsense” is to lessen the impact of his poignant critique. Raphael first engages arrogant kingship in response to More’s own question why Raphael doesn’t attach himself to a king in service, as More later would to Henry VIII. Raphael responds thusly, “And yet, no matter what excellent ideas our forefathers may have had, we very serenely bid them a curt farewell. But if in any situation they failed to take the wiser course, that defect gives us a handle which we greedily grab and never let go” (723). Raphael is delivering nothing short of a scathing assault on reactionary kingship that justifies its past-looking ways with tradition that is, as he points out, picked and chosen instead of consistently utilized. Interestingly, More does not respond to this statement in any way, moving on to talk about Raphael’s time in England with a cardinal More himself knew outside of the text. More’s silence cannot simply be without meaning, More deliberately chooses not to respond to Raphael’s argument against arrogant kings, leaving the argument to stand for itself in the text. Raphael’s next target is the topic of Enclosure which is a common problem in England throughout its history, which impoverished many peasants. Raphael states, “They (the rich) leave no ground to be tilled; they enclose every bit of land for pasture, they pull down houses and destroy towns, leaving only the church to pen the sheep in” (726). This statement is rich with symbolism as the image of the “sheep” and the “church” illustrate the relationship More would later resent in the Church of England under Henry, devoid of faith and utterly political. The fact that Raphael is directly speaking about England in this scene as well as the usage of the terminology of “enclose”, illustrates clearly that Raphael is critiquing a negative part of 16th century England. Enclosure leaves English peasants landless, without a job, without any purpose; which, as Raphael points out, leads them to a life of crime which is unjustly punished by the English state.

Not coincidentally, Utopia addresses both the problems of arrogant kings and enclosure, along with all the other grievances expounded upon by Raphael. For the purposes of this blog the focus will remain on the issue of the importance of counsel in leadership and the economic exploitation of workers in a society. The government More establishes in Utopia is essentially an enlightened monarchy, as the “governor” reigns for life unless suspected of tyrannical behavior. The officials dubbed the trainbors and syphogrants also remain in power unless “good reason” is found to overthrow them. Interestingly, council is brought up often in the section about officials and the Utopian have made taking private council a “capital offense.” Raphael states, “their measures…is to prevent it from being easy, by conspiracy between the governor and the tranibors and by tyrannous oppression of the people, to change the order of the commonwealth” (745). The system is diametrically opposed to the machinations of royal courts of More’s time which dealt almost entirely in secret and amongst the oligarchic elite. What More has created is a direct answer to Raphael’s criticisms of arrogant kingship not listening to the council of his advisors. Here we see a trend in Book 2 of Utopia, each segment of utopian society directly addresses the issues raised by Raphael. Book 1, having been written after book 2, is essentially an introduction to the issues that Utopia will fix in More’s grand thought experiment. The issue of enclosure and economic injustice in general is dealt with in-depth by More. In addressing enclosure and economic injustice, More and his storyteller Raphael almost sound like Karl Marx in his groundbreaking 1848 manifesto. Raphael states, “Yet when these evil men with insatiable greed have divided up among themselves all the goods which would have been enough for all the people, how far they are from the happiness of the Utopian commonwealth”(783)! More directly addresses a counter argument used against Raphael in Book 1 which is why would one give up their own self-interest for a common goal? Here Raphael, More’s persona in the text, says that only by communal production and consumption can people know true happiness. More sets up the system of production and labor to maximize production and minimize negative factors, with workers only working six hours a day; yet this decrease is accounted for by More in the fact that literally all Utopians work. More states, “This phenomenon you too will understand if you consider how large a part of the population in other countries exist without working” (747). Here More again directly addresses the issue presented in book 1 about enclosure driving potential workers to crime. In short, More’s Utopians are a direct answer to the problems of England, not so that More can advocate for Utopian revolution but rather that he can criticize the court of Henry through a less threatening medium.

Thomas More’s Utopia is a profound thought-experiment on a society so very different from any that has ever existed even in our own time. Yet the Utopians represent a conceptualized ideal society, one that any person would want to strive for. By studying the legitimacy given to Raphael, Raphael’s critique of England in book 1 and the Utopian answers to each problem raised by Raphael, a greater understanding of what More was trying to accomplish emerges. Raphael finishes his narrative by saying, “But I readily admit that there are very many features in the Utopian Commonwealth which it is easier for me to wish for in our countries than to have any hope of seeing realized” (784). This is the heart of what Utopia is, a wish upon parchment for a better society in which all may work and have a purpose. By making this world, More inherently critiques England without attacking specific policy as to avoid persecution. Utopia  is not a diagram for societal reformation or even a call for reform, but rather a rich imagination of what we as humans are capable of if not in the present, then on the limitless horizon of the literary imagination.

Cited Edition:

More, Thomas. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Ed. Joseph Laurence Black. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2010. Print.

Leave a comment

Filed under Catholicism, Christianity, Early Modern, English, Humanism, Literature, Thomas More, Utopia

The Classroom of Revolution: The Revolutionary Cuban Intelligentsia’s History and Legacy

A truck used by student insurgents in their attack on the presidential palace in Havana, 1957.

The Cuban Revolution is a historical singularity; a revolution, unlike its socialist counterparts, that included a vast left-center coalition that resulted in the establishment of soviet-styled socialism (Wolf). Yet, the parts that made up that coalition, so critical for revolutionary success, did not vanish from Cuban Society nor did they simply appear in 1959.  The college students and the intelligentsia at large as a part of this coalition is worth stopping upon, as Education and its ease of access in Cuba is commonly highlighted as one of the most successful aspects of the historical Cuban Revolution and the revolution of today.

When I went to Cuba I intended to find the remnants and ancestors of those first college students from the early 20th century to the mid-20th century students that stormed Batista’s palace in Havana, and appraise in what relation these remnants interact with the Cuban Revolution of today. By studying (1) the historical role of the Cuban college students and greater intelligentsia in the revolution of 1959 and earlier oppositions movements, (2) and the dynamic of the University of Havana in Cuban revolutionary society a greater understanding of the relationship between past rebellion and present reform concerning the intelligentsia emerges. I found in my trip to Cuba that the intelligentsia remains detached yet critically engaged with Cuban socio-political life in a uniquely Cuban way, one that critiques the Communist Party but rejects North American hegemony and is desirous of true Cuban autonomy. It is my contention that this is a remnant of the historical presence of a critical yet skeptical opposition movement centered in the urban intelligentsia in Havana , that saw the necessity of revolution and at the same time remained ever critical of socialist policies.

The first era that I will highlight as important in the development of the Cuban Intelligentsia’s keen desire for self-determination is the period of the Platt Amendment’s domination (subsequent to the original Cuban Revolution of Marti), and the periods of disillusionment before and after the presidency of Gerardo Machado and Ramon Grau San Martin from 1925 to 1933. The revolutionary upswing of the turn of the 20th century is still remembered in the countless statues of Jose Marti throughout Havana. These revolutionary sentiments and victories were future looking but inherently chained to the occupying North American forces who entered Cuba in 1912 and 1917, to finally leave in 1923 (Sweig 13). Before the rise of Machado, author Julia Sweig highlights in her book Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, that, “Throughout the 1920s, public frustration and fervor grew pervasive among an ever wider swatch of Cubans. Intellectuals, labor activists, veterans of the Wars of Independence, and student movements all grew jaded by the failure of Cuba’s leaders to fulfill the idealism and potential of the independence movement itself” (Sweig 13). It is here that we see the first unique character of the Cuban intelligentsia that we see still today; a keen sense and desire for self determination. Sweig continues, “the liberal-democratic student movement remained not so much anti-American but anti-interventionist” (Sweig 14). This is a concept keenly reflected today in Cuba, were a desire for self-determination transcends any national rivalry, even in the case of the United States who has quite literally attacked Cuba from every side.

Author Eric Wolf would elucidate this point further in his chapter on Cuba in Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century; quoting the Cuban historian Herminio Portel Vila, who wrote, “The incendiary torch, the struggle the reconcentration camps, the defeat of the Spanish party, were preparing the future for a new Cuba when North American intervention re-established and consolidated the economic and social aspects of the destroyed regime, with all their political implications” (Vila 255). Wolf concludes, with the reader, “In this perspective, Cuban intellectuals long spoke of a ‘frustrated revolution,’ frustrated by the United States” (Wolf 255). Even before the disappointing presidency of Machado, the Cuban intelligentsia and student movements had developed anti-imperialism without the name – a desire to be free of the tyranny of the Platt Amendment and be at once free to self-create a state of their making. So we see that the Cuban intelligentsia and indeed the Cuban revolutionary movement had its roots in opposition to foreign occupation in the nationalist movement of Marti, made more concrete by the Platt Amendment  and Machado’s failure to free Cuba from US hegemonic control (Sweig 15). The impulse for self-determination  is one that is profoundly seen in Cuba today where reform is seen as necessary in the face of “Stalinist bureaucracy” as professor Antonio Romero Gomez (University of Havana) called it – the specter of reform is ever present but in a “Cuban way” as professor Rafael Betancourt (San Geronimo de la Havana) stressed so keenly in a lecture. This idea will be highlighted later in this article, but first we must move our historical narrative forward were disillusionment in the intelligentsia would become even more crystallized in the failed regime of San Martin and the rise of Fulgencio Batista.

Both during Machado’s reign and the short-lived regime of Grau San Martin, students at the University of Havana staged an occupation of the campus; demonstrating their power and fervent participation  in these opposition movements before the final triumph of 1959 (Wolf  267), and the fall of San Martin and the rise of Batista made concrete through synthesis the previously highlighted desire of the Cuban intelligentsia for self-determination and introduced another unique characteristic of the Cuban intelligentsia – a contentious relationship with the Cuban Communist Party before the revolution and its post-revolution reconstruction . In the “campus seizures” during Machado’s reign, the youthful communist party played a preeminent role but the CP would quickly oppose mass action in fear of an foreign intervention, oppose Grau and eventually actively support the Batista regime (Wolf 267). This tension between student unrest and CP policy mounted during the years of Grau’s fall and Batista’s rise, as the official communist party fell monumentally short of the revolutionary student’s ideals. Due to the communist party’s failure to either reconcile with student radicalism  or fully support Grau, Grau San Martin found himself attacked on all sides, by conservatives for his radicalism, by radicals for his liberalism (Sweig). It was perhaps for this reason that Grau San Martin lasted for so short a time, yet some of the socialist sources I have consulted on this period have over idealized the connection between the Communist Party and early student radicals.

Author Ricardo Alarcon De Quesada, and president of Cuba’s national assembly for many years wrote in an article “Cuba: Education and Revolution” found in the “Monthly Review” that during this period,

“Public education was a refuge for Cuban patriotism throughout the first half of the twentieth century. But during the U.S. domination of the island, either in a direct form or via repressive and corrupt U.S.-sponsored regimes, it was education that enabled the student movement and the best of Cuban intellectuals to resist. In fact, student movements and Cuban intellectuals participated decisively in the political and social struggles of the Cuban nation both during the long period of Spanish colonialism and U.S. hegemony, initiating and developing socialist and anti-imperialist thinking.”

While it is objectively true that the University of Havana did and continues to shelter opposition to the regime and offer an avenue for criticism in Cuban society, it is important to note that while socialist thought intermingled in the student radicalism of this period, as Wolf points out, there was a keen sense of separation between the radicalism of the students and the institutionalized leftist parties that self-labeled as socialist and this separation grew in the period of the fall of Grau San Martin, his ultimate return at the head of the Autenticos, the subsequent return of corruption in Havana and eventually the rise of Batista, the political “chameleon” (Swieg 19).

The emergence of violent radicalism in Cuba can be traced, as we have here, to two key problems in Cuban Society; (1) The Cuban Communist Party was a front for counterrevolutionary statesmanship and (2) elected liberal parties failed utterly to meet the expectations of the revolutionary intelligentsia in Havana. For these reasons the student movements against Batista became increasingly violent and increasingly threw their support behind the July 26th movement (not explicitly a socialist movement). Of import, the students of this period before the struggle against Batista were critical of the regime but skeptical of the Communist Party, a theme that remains today. So we see that each period beget the next, or at the very least, each period of student rebellion cast its shadow on the next; the revolutionary sentiment of  Marti leading to a desire for self-determination that ousted Machado under pressure from  the urban intelligentsia in Havana (Sweig) that intern lead to a disillusionment with institutionalized parties and leaders; leading the students of Havana to more radical means to their ends in the period of Batista – which was not unnoticed by the populist turned dictator.

The early 1950s marked the high-tide of student resistance to the Cuban regime, and much of this resistance was violent and radical in nature. Yet not all resistance was this way, as evidenced by the Orthodoxo Party, founded by Eduardo Chibas, himself a former student activist (Sweig 19) in opposition to yet another former student activist, Carlos Prio Socarres, standing President of Cuba and Autentico. Fidel Castro was originally a member of the Orthodoxos yet following Chibas suicide on public radio, the Autenticos turning the University of Havana into the capital of “political gangsterism” in Havana, and the ever present fear of the growing clout of the Orthodoxos and leftism in general, Batista launched a coup months before an election he was certain to lose (Sweig 19). This coup, as Sweig points out, made concrete the disillusionment with electoral systems in the face of such corruption and willing disrespect for the comparatively radical constitution drafted by the Batista regime but a decade earlier (in the coup of 1933). This frustration, rooted in the first failure of Grau and even the Platt Amendment of the early 20th century, came to a head in Havana when Batista subverted the electoral process. The year 1953, merely a year after Batista’s rise to power , proved violent and  radical. Fidel launched his attack on the Moncada Barracks and University of Havana professor Rafael Barcena lead a short-lived anti-Batista conspiracy (Sweig 28). Fidel and his rebels were banished, but revolutionary sparks met dry tinder in Havana in their absence. Tensions reached a fever pitch with the arrival of the Granma and the actions of the Revolutionary National Action group headed by Frank Pais, which, as Sweig points out, played a critical role in exporting Sierra socialism to the country entire in 1956.

In March of 1957, a group of clandestine students, members of the Revolutionary Directorate and future enemies of Fidel, stormed Batista’s presidential palace, the bullet-holes of the event still adorn the wall of the building. Ultimately the attack failed and its members defeated and killed, but the stunning success of the rebels in the Sierra Maestra both elevated Fidel’s power and inspired continued struggle (Wolf 271).  Keenly, the directorate’s leader, a student named Jose Echeverria was killed in a shootout at a radio station in a related assault. The directorate itself stands as a historical testament to the division of students and the intelligentsia on the subject of socialism, given the directorate’s staunch anti-communist approach that lead to their forceful dissolution and incorporation into the newly formed Communist Party of Cuba in 1961. It’s important to note, as Sweig does, that the newly formed Communist Party of Cuba was indeed a coercive attack on fractious student revolutionary movements, but it was also a move against the PSP that had backed Batista and was subservient to Moscow; as Fidel himself desired the unification of student groups under the tent of the CPC to allow for truly autonomous nation-building to begin in earnest (Sweig). So we see that ultimately the student revolutionary movements that moved in the era of Batista, notably the directorate, were indeed absorbed and dissolved, but their influence was a dialectical one, one that does not simply vanish when the institution of their ideological power vanishes. Put simply, Cuban society after the triumph of the cuban revolution retained much of the ideas that formed in the days of Marti, Machado and Grau, namely a desire to be truly autonomous, a deep skepticism of outside influence and to be skeptical of organized parties and ideologies including the PSP and future CPC. The influence of the intelligentsia, put differently, the purveying desire of the Cuban revolutionary movement to be autonomous, can be found in one final place, and that is in the very sailors of the Granma.

For socialist revolutionaries, Fidel and his fellow rebels aboard the Granma were keenly abstracted from the rural proletariat they endeavored to liberate. Eric Wolf makes note of this in his class analysis, but the fact is not lost in an analysis of the importance of the intelligentsia in the Cuban Revolution namely because Fidel was a member of the intelligentsia. Wolf remarks, “How did the rebel group galvanize the masses? The original core of the rebel force was composed primarily of what have been called “revolutionary intellectuals,” mostly middle-class origins. Some were students (Raul Castro, Faure Chomon), some lawyers, (Fidel, Dorticos), some doctors, some teachers (Frank Pais)…”(Wolf 269). Che Guevara himself went on to remark, “none of the first group who came on the Granma …had worker’s or peasant’s backgrounds” (Wolf 269). Wolf continues his analysis in saying that Fidel’s move to guerilla tactics after the catastrophe of the Granma’s original landing was keenly anti-Marxist, from a Leninist perspective. Here we see the role of the intelligentsia in action; socialist revolutionaries heeding not the words of Marx or Lenin (or his Muscovite successors) but the realities of their material conditions. So we see, not only was the revolution a conglomerate of revolutionary students, lumpen proletariat, proletariat, petty-bourgeois peasants and even bourgeois elements but also one that preserved the original revolutionary urge to attain autonomy in practice. These urges remain today, and I found that out profoundly upon visiting Havana and its university.

The University of Havana remains a center, as Ricardo Alarcon De Quesada remarked upon its historical role, of dissent and criticism for the regime. I learned about this role by simply being around it, hearing lectures from professors and talking to a few students and college-aged youths in the city of Havana. Dr. Antonio Romero Gomez of the Universities’ international economy department gave a lecture with a keen sense of both factors I have highlighted about the historical role of the intelligentsia in Cuban society.  Firstly Dr. Gomez highlighted the necessity of change in light of the special period and critiqued the lack of foresight in the planning of the Cuban Economy. When the crises occurred, Dr. Gomez and his colleagues had encouraged Fidel and the Communist Party to take immediate action (Gomez), but the CPC leadership for too long blamed the crises on external factors according to Dr. Gomez. Immediately I saw the relationship I had read about in action – the intelligentsia centered in Havana ever skeptical of party dialogue and urging for reform. Yet, this reform was not like that in Guatemala, Chile and others where national movements were crushed by foreign backed coups – the reform advocated for by Dr. Gomez was one intimately interested in Cuban sovereignty.

I found in my historical survey that such a motion was in line with over a hundred years of revolutionary development. The classroom of revolution had taught the Cuban intelligentsia much about reform, practicality and defending their autonomy. Admittedly, the perspective was historical and validated, but I remained skeptical that such reforms could occur while at the same time respecting their original tenants – mainly remaining autonomous and free from international monetary control. Indeed, a recent Reuters article declared that school enrollment had dropped 27% between 2008 and  2012 and that extensive cuts had been made to education spending (Reuters). I agreed with Dr. Gomez critique of the old system in a world without the Soviet Union, yet this point was something to stop on – had Cuba really achieved the autonomy it so desired during the period of its alliance with the Soviet Union? Dr. Gomez suggested not, given that the fact that imports decreased over 70% after the fall (Gomez) and planning had lacked the backwards and forwards linkages between industries with an over-focus on industry in the soviet-style. Perhaps, I pontificated, could this period after the special period produce a true autonomy of Cuban development devoid of a greater state’s influence? Could the reforms be the outcome of a historical process spanning back centuries, made possible by the revolution, but necessitating a new approach to reach? This idea was elucidated further by another professor.

Rafael Betancourt, himself a professor in Havana highlighted the victories of the revolution while in line with the long history of the intelligentsia in Havana critiquing the weaknesses of the bureaucratic system currently in place.  Having seen Dr. Gomez’ presentation previously, I went into Professor Betancourt’s presentation with the questions raised above in mind. Professor Betancourt highlighted in detail the Guidlines published in 2011 by the Communist Party on the new reforms, chief among them that the state will continue to own the main means of production while at the same time giving more autonomy to the private sector and also to state-run operations. Again the distrust of bureaucracy yet focus on making something of unique Cuban character was at the heart of the professor’s analysis. I remained skeptical, as the professor claimed that 7% growth for almost 30 years was necessary to stabilize the Cuban economy, and in an era of scarcity, growth every year will become impossible. That notwithstanding, Professor Betancourt stressed, as Dr. Gomez did, the necessity of change in a Cuban way. The analysis seemed universal in the Cuban Intelligentsia and Cuban society at large; change is necessary, but the Cuban people most come to it through consensus and mutual work, to come to their own synthesis of planned and private, in their own national way. I found, by surveying the historical struggle of the intelligentsia in Cuba that such a desire was an inevitable product of the political developments of the first half of the 20th century and into Cuba’s soviet-influenced, socialist transition.

Cuba was for me a place of socialist victory, my choice to go a sign of solidarity; and it is perhaps for this reason that their move away from socialist policies left me fearful for the future of the Cuban revolution’s gains. Yet by studying history and looking to the ancestors of those first professors and students who fought against the Platt Amendment a keen insight emerged about the revolution of 1958/9; its socialist character was crucial and influential, and from this base came an emergent quality of the revolution – the revolution had empowered all of the people of Cuba, the intelligentsia included. By studying the history of the student movements and their influence on the Cuban revolution at large and then offering two anecdotes on my experience with modern Cuban intellectuals at the University of Havana a greater understanding of the thread I am connecting between past revolution and current reform emerges. We should not be surprised that in the nation born out of student riots and Sierra idealists should continue to be a synthesis of these two competing yet irrevocably attached ideological threads. Cuban Socialism has, after all, been but one step in a long historical progression towards autonomy for Cuba manifested noticeably in the intelligentsia’s unending desire for it; and perhaps in time, history may “absolve” both  Fidel and his compatriots in their struggle for political autonomy and procure a future best fit for Cuba – at the decision of none other than Cubans themselves.

Works Cited:

Alarcon De Quesada, Ricardo. “Cuba: Education and Revolution.” Monthly Review. N.p., July-    Aug. 2011. Web. 25 July 2013.

Betancourt, Rafael. “Cuba in Transition: Towards a New Economic Model.” Colegio  Universitario San Gerónimo De La Habana, Havana. June  2013. Lecture.

Gomez, Antonio R. “Cuba: Economic Transformations and International Re-Insertion.”   University of Havana, Havana. June 2013. Lecture.

Sweig, Julia. Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford: Oxford UP,   2009. Print.

“With Cuts, Free Education Is No Longer a Cuban Birthright.” New York   Times. Reuters, 3 Oct.   2012. Web.

Wolf, Eric R. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.    Print.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cuba, Cuban Revolution, Education, Intelligentsia, July 26th Movement, Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, Movements, Revolution, Socialism, Student, Uncategorized, University of Havana