Category Archives: Class Conflict

Reappropriating the Bourgeois Revolutions

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

here is a rather 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 only one statue of Tom Paine (author and catalyst of American revolutionary nationalism) in the United States in a small New Jersey town. 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.

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 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 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 fulfill 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. They are, 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’s tolerance of Catholicism was used to bring about liberal reforms. England had become, as author J.G.A Pocock alludes to in 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 in Ehud’s Dagger, garnered a previously unseen level of communal consciousness. At Putney, a debate between New Model radicals and Grandees, battalions elected their 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.

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 to any measurable degree.

I do not dispute the idea of the public sphere, 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 how 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.”

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A Beginner’s Guide to Soviet Industrialization

There’s been a lot of confusion in the modern left over just what happened in the Soviet Union from 1928 to 1940. On one hand, there are those who peddle bourgeois propaganda and castigate all the victories of this period as the machinations of a “totalitarian” dictatorship endeavoring to order life so that it could control the lives of every citizen, or a bloody mess that resulted in millions of unnecessary deaths. On the other, the defeats of the period are often simplistically rendered as the product of nature or capitalist aggression, ignoring the internal contradictions debated over by the Soviets themselves.

This essay, then, will be a utilitarian introduction to the statistical realities of the period. This is nothing more than a review of what one can find Robert C. Allen’s Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution, which is itself an excellent analysis of the period that I recommend to anyone desirous to learn more than what is summarized here.

A.) Properly Comparing the Soviet Union’s Economic Gains

It is the first trick of anti-communists to compare the gains of the Soviet Union to Western Europe and the United States – a comparison perhaps made easy by their rivalry in the Cold War. Economically speaking, the comparison is fraudulent. The Soviet Union in 1900 was comparable to China, the Latin-American periphery, Japan and South-East Asia – not the US and Western Europe.

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As the graphs illustrate, the Soviet Union performed very well in comparison to countries that did not have significant American and Western European aid (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) and began 20th century development at a comparable starting point.

B.) Tsarist Potential in Comparison to Soviet Development

Many bourgeois historians have suggested that if the Kerensky Government (or even the Tsarist Autocracy) had continued, the countries that become the Soviet Union would have developed a higher rate than they historically did. Certainly, in the years leading up to the Russian Revolution, Russia saw gains in almost all economic sectors.
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It’s worth noting all the sectors that grew the least where sectors that served the general population, such as housing, Medicine and Domestic Service. As Allen points out, Tsarist Russia would have had to grow at a rate of 2% every year until 1989 to achieve the success the USSR actually achieved. This doesn’t seem unreasonable, but when you consider Germany, a country with significantly more of an industrial base than Russia grew at 2% in this time span on average per year, the claim becomes nearly impossible. Even at its largest growth rate per year, Tsarist Russia achieved only about 1.7%. Therefore, factoring in both World Wars it is unreasonable to suspect Tsarist Russia would have even come close to achieving what was actually achieved by the Soviet economy (Allen 33). The Soviet Union grew at 5-6% per year from 1920-1970.

C.) Collectivization and the Big Push for Industrialization: The Debate

Collectivization deservedly receives much criticism from modern leftists – it was not entirely successful by any calculation. One must understand the process as one under constant debate in the Soviet Union and one that went forward dialectically from a flawed starting point, inherently suggesting its own flaws. For the sake of simplicity, we can personify two main thought-clouds in the industrializing Soviet society – The “Big Push” for heavy industry coming from Preobrazhensky and the support of “balanced” growth between agriculture and heavy industry coming from Bukharin.

File:Eugenio Preobrazhenski.jpg

As Allen highlights, the problem of development in the 1920s in the Soviet Union was a severe lack of consumption. Many bourgeois economists will make a distinction between consumer and planner goals, as if they must be antithetical, but in the case of the Soviet Union it can legitimately be asserted that both consumer and planner wanted the same thing – increased consumption and the increased quality of life that comes along with that. Where would the Soviet Union procure the money needed to do this? How would they go about it?

A problem dating back to far before the October Revolution was just how Russia would fit into a Marxist analysis. Would Russia, as Bukharin suggested, need some capitalist development before socialism could be legitimately built? The Bolsheviks originally rejected this theory, but later accepted it in Lenin’s “tactical retreat” that was the NEP. This debate would remain central as planning begun in the 1920s for economic development. Preobrazhensky argued that the construction of heavy industry must be funded by the “primitive accumulation of wealth” in peasant populations, similar to what had occured in capitalist countries in the late 18th and 19th centuries. This accumulated wealth would then be used to fund heavy industry, essentially hitting two birds with one stone, decreasing the influence and number of peasants while also increasing industrial potential.

Bukharin argued against this, suggesting that the two (industry and agriculture) should mutually fund each other (Allen Chapter 4) at a slower pace, much in line with his NEP politics. While balance always seems desirable, such an approach could have led to a restoration of capitalist discrepancies in wealth that we see in China when the CPC pursued a similar line after the failings of the Great Leap Forward. Thus, the debate itself over collectivization retrospectively foreshadows the failures of implemented collectivization, in the way both avenues for socialist development were impeded by obstacles in Russia’s backwards economy.  On one hand, the expropriation of primitively accumulated wealth from the peasantry would make of the countryside a crucible, on the other, the risk of capitalist restoration that would occur in the 1960s and beyond. Ultimately, even though the ideology of Preobrazhensky was associated with Trotsky and other Lefts within the Bolshevik Party, is would drive collectivization under Stalin in the 1930s.

D.) Collectivization: Outcomes and Lessons

Under Preobrazhenskite theory, planning proceeded with a major focus of capital investment in the iron and steel industries. Collectivization of farming was a tool Stalin used, as he said, for the “intensification the class struggle,” as collectivization was aimed to empower the low to middle peasant and disenfranchise the Kulak, or middle-class peasant.  Prices for agricultural goods were kept low by Stalin and the Bolshevik leadership in the years leading up to the five-year plans, so that prices for manufacturers could remain high to encourage investment and growth. This lead to decreasing incentive for Kulak farmers to sell their grain to state vendors, leading to their accumulation of surplus that could not be reallocated to industrial means. Stalin compared this form of Kulak resistance as “primitive accumulation by the methods of Tamerlane” – suggesting that the Kulaks demanded tribute from Moscow to provide grain for the nation. In response, collectivization began. This, as elucidated above, had dire consequences. Many Kulaks resisted, and collectivization was unpopular. Resistance was common, from sewing less crops to slaughtering livestock for personal use. From this conflict born out of the double-edged necessity of heavy industry and increased consumption, came some of the worst facets of the Soviet Industrial Revolution. Output and GDP fell and stagnated between 1928 and 1932, and famine occurred due to a merciless natural drought.

Over time, though, Preobrazhenskite theory advanced in the way the price paid to farmers for their grain increased by 6.2x between 1928 and 1937. In the same period, the price of food to urban consumers increased 8x, illustrating the heavy tax levied on farmers that fueled, as Allen states, the investment boom that would produce the vast industrial sector in the Soviet economy, and not an increase in wealth disparity. Allen also concludes that there is little evidence to suggest that Tsarist Russian farming could have avoided the famines. Certainly the 60,000,000 Indians who died in famines under British rule suggest that capitalist modes of production are not immune to famine. Additionally, convict labor for which many liberals and anti-soviet theorists explain the economic growth, accounted for only 2% of labor in the entire country (Allen 108).

Reflective of Soviet Industrialization’s dialectical nature, the pseudo-civil war occurring in the country side forced many into the cities, a process that allowed for the Soviet Union to triple industrial output over the course of the 30s.

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Urbanization is a facet of capitalist development, necessary for the industrial booms that occurred in all western nations. Historically, without collectivization, Soviet society could not have urbanized at the rate it did – giving reason to our earlier conclusion that Tsarist development could not have produced equal early GDP gain. Collectivization, as Allen states, can be summarized as a catalyst in the reaction from Farm to Factory, for good and ill.

What were the positive impacts of the Soviet Industrial Revolution, to name a few, given the knowledge highlighted above of its inherent weaknesses and impediments?

1.) A yearly growth rate of 5.3% from 1928 to 1940, impressive for even the Asian miracle markets.

2.) Labor time for growing grain fell from 20.8 days in 1920 to 10.6 days in 1937 due to mechanization, significantly increasing free time.

3.) The production of consumer goods rose 79% between 1928 and 1939

4.) Education and Health Service sectors grew by 12% per year in the five-year plans

5.) Literacy rose from 21% in 1897 to 51% in 1926 to 81% in 1939. In 1897, a man was 3x more likely to be literate than a woman, this disparity was almost completely eliminated by 1939. Similar gains were seen in class size at the secondary and high level, as well.

6.) Unemployment and homelessness were eliminated in the Soviet Union in this period. Not having a permanent home was made illegal, and almost no residences were left vacant. Compare this to the United States were there are 6x as many vacant homes (18 million) than there are homeless persons (3+ million) (http://blog.amnestyusa.org/us/housing-its-a-wonderful-right/)

7.) The urban decay associated with rapid urbanization and industrialization were essentially avoided by a post-industrialization focus on improving housing. The slums of its economic peers were absent from soviet urban environments.

8.) Industrial output was tripled in the decade of the 30s

9.) The USSR avoided the post-war depression even in an international market full of protectionist nations. Other grain exporters like India suffered significantly more economically than the Soviet Union did.

10.) Consumption rose significantly after the Second World War, resulting in increased quality of life, made possible by industrialization in heavy and light industry.

Conclusion:

Collectivization and Industrialization in the Soviet Union must be thought of in a different way than it is commonly thought of in western society. The process was debated at length and impeded by inherent weaknesses in the Tsarist economy and thus Russian development. A revolution cannot transcend the material conditions in which it is born. The errors of industrialization are not the product of cartoonish villains who co-opted the revolution and willingly threw the Soviet Union into rural warfare. They were a product of the dialectical relationship any socialist society has with its capitalist predecessor and the internal contradictions that will arise in constructing a socialist economy amongst the vestiges of capitalism.

With that said, the gains of the Soviet Union in this period, as highlighted above, were monumental. Russia would surge from European backwater to international power, capable of throwing down the tyranny of Nazism and rebuilding the nation from the grievous injuries levied upon it by the invaders and capable of establishing educational and healthcare systems that would be the envy of the developing world.

As Michael Parenti would say in a lecture on the topic, “Communism transformed desperately poor countries into societies in which everyone had adequate food, shelter, medical care and education.” This, in essence, is the mechanism of the Soviet Industrial Revolution. Given our peripheral study of this revolution above, we must conclude with Parenti that, “To say that socialism doesn’t work is to overlook the fact that it did work for hundreds of millions of people.”

La Lucha Continua

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Fact Check: Cuba

In just under five days I will be boarding a flight to Miami, where my bags will be searched, my background thoroughly looked over and a dirty look given over my passport as I funnel through TSA checkpoints to a singular flight leaving Miami where it will take to the air for just under an hour and land in Havana, Cuba. For any Marxist the prospect of travelling to the Prometheus of Marxist history, daily attacked by embargo and lies by its mere proximity to what Che called “the beast” is an exciting one, yet I embark with a keen sense of trepidation.

Cuba is changing, and many socialist onlookers (http://redantliberationarmy.wordpress.com/2010/10/18/a-new-economic-policy-why-cuban-socialism-is-still-very-real/)   have remarked upon the similarity between Cuba’s attack on the “special period” (the depression following the collapse of soviet support) during the 90s and the New Economic Policy of Vladimir Lenin. Yet, whether we will see Collectivization or a Dengist return to capitalism on the other end of these reforms remains to be seen. It is with this sense of trepidation that I will expose some of the most common myths associated with Cuba, with a little help from my friends (sarcasm) at the ISO, for publishing this gem: http://www.isreview.org/issues/51/cuba_image&reality.shtml.

Myth: Fidel wasn’t a socialist and that is important

This is a classic misunderstanding of the Communist Party of Cuba pre and post revolution. Fidel was originally a member of Partido Orthodoxo, essentially tantamount to New-Deal liberals. As is commonly recounted Fidel renounced liberalism and lead an armed attack on a Cuban Army Barrack on July 26th. After the failure of the July 26th Movement, Fidel had plenty of time do to some reading in prison; and it is here where he first read Marx.  The CPC before the revolution can for ease be compared to the CPUSA of today, that is, legislative, counterrevolutionary, ideologically bankrupt and thereby ineffective as a party. Fidel rejected this party, as an organ of the Batista parasite government, and rightfully so. After Batista had been replaced, Fidel certainly had the support and political clout to turn to the communist party to change it significantly, which occurred in 1965 where the party was reformed with Fidel as its first general secretary. (Julia Sweig’s book “Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know” goes into this in depth).

Also, one has to ask themselves, does it really matter if Fidel was a die-hard Marxist? His personal opinions, which in subsequent years during the time of troubles, have become increasingly focused on Cuban Socialism as opposed to Soviet models, are rather irrelevant. One must look to who benefited from the revolution he headed, and to what end it marched, not what was in the heart, itself impossible to discern, of the figurehead.

Myth: The Cuban Communist Party was formed by a bunch of strongmen who did/do not represent the workers

The ISO and other anti-communists look to Fidel’s proclamation of his socialist beliefs a mere day before the Bay of Pigs as the last resort of a populist, and as evidence for this, drum up the lack of peasant involvement in the formation of the Cuban State. It is not surprising that trotskyists would envision revolution only achievable by dirt-under-the-fingernails workers and thereby ignore, as Erik Wolf points out at length in his book Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century, the element of college students in the Cuban Revolution. Wolf elucidates the unique nature of the Cuban Revolution, one where a massive left-center coalition was lead to radical ends – a historical singularity.  The role of the Cuban intelligentsia cannot be overlooked, as due to the lack of great repressions (highlighted below) they formed a large portion of the recreated communist party.

Also, the ISO and others often overlook the virtual continuation of the Civil War that went all the way through the Bay of Pigs invasion, itself something Fidel jokingly wished to thank JFK for. Fidel was fighting US Imperialism and armed rebellions at home, not unlike the intervention of allied powers in Russia and the drastic measures seen there to simply keep the worker’s state alive. In the lead up to the Bay of Pigs, dissidents were repressed, but this was not on a class basis, and indeed, the class nature of the Communist Party of Cuba can be seen in the survival of the party in the face of imperialism and rebellion. Even today, as recounted by  historian Felix-Masud Piloto, debates rage informally and formally in Cuban society, voices advocating for total privatization float about the air freely, and a current debate on Afro-Cuban involvement in Cuban society is raging as we speak.

Immediately after the revolution and residential nationalization, rents were reduced to a fraction of their cost under Batista, and education was nationalized and made free – with Afro-Cubans, sons and daughters of illiterate Afro-Cuban urban poor, graduating with undergraduate, masters and doctorate degrees in the 1960s, and that’s to say nothing of the oft-praised Cuban Healthcare revolution. These, in short, are not the actions of a government detached from worker’s control, given that such actions cost the threatened, developing State much. Even liberal writer Sweig admits, “The Cuban Revolution retained a strong base of domestic legitimacy, based not only on nationalist pride for resisting Cuba’s defiance to the United States….but also on a marked improvements in the material lives of the majority of Cuba’s people.” And this improvement is not, as the ISO would claim, congruent to the improvement of life in Nazi Germany for the below reason.

A word on elections. Julia Sweig highlights the process of Cuban elections which require all candidates to publish their credentials and biographies in frequented spaces in towns and collectives and multiple public debates are held in front of live crowds in each district. Raul Castro has to do this very thing in his home district, every election, as did Fidel for the many years he was general secretary. It is a common practice for a non-communist  to win an election and gain entry into the assembly by simply navigating a loophole by becoming a party member. In short, workers have as much control in Cuba as they did under the Soviets (Councils) in the Soviet Union if not more.

Myth: Women did not benefit from the Cuban Revolution

This one is heard quite often in conjunction with the next myth I will tackle, but to stay on topic, this is plainly and empirically false. In 1960, Vilma Lucila Espin, spouse of Raul Castro, formed the Federation of Cuban Women which provided education, job training and counseling for women in Cuba. This organization took on “doble jornada” (“double day” in spanish -working during the day, and taking care of a husband and child at night) directly and established that women as domestic slaves was in the past. Their work lead to the passing of the 1975 “Family Code” which legally established equal rights for women in the home. According to studies, the distribution of work in the home empirically improved after the code was put into law. Women’s representation in cultural, political and especially professional life improved, with female membership in the Communist Party increasing significantly after 1976. In short, the opposite is true of this myth. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Cuban Revolution is the work that was done and the work that is being done, notably by Espin’s daughter Mariela, for women in Cuba.

Myth: Cuban Socialism is Homophobic and Sexually Repressive

This, sadly, was true for many years; but it is no longer. Vilma Espin’s daughter, Mariela Castro, now heads a government organization called CENESEX, which advocates for LGBT rights and endeavors to sexually educate the people of Cuba. In recent news, a transexual was elected to the Cuban general assembly, showing of the progress being made by CENESEX (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/18/cuban-transsexual-adela-hernandez-elected). Fidel Castro even publicly declared that his homophobic policies were wrong and misguided. On my return from Cuba I will have much more information on this as I will be visiting CENESEX headquarters and speaking with Mariela Castro.

Myth: The Cuban Revolution created Gulags and Executed Tens of Thousands

This is a classic case of trotskyists and anti-communists importing Soviet Myths to every other case of implemented 20th century socialism. Conservative scholars list the highest population of political prisoners at 20,000 immediately after the revolution and the number of executions at about 5,000 people. I am not interested in a body count, but suffice to say more soldiers have been uselessly thrown to their deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan than were killed by revolutionary tribunals in Cuba, and there have been more causalities in terrorism committed against Cuba by american-tolerated terrorists from Miami than the 5,000 (if we are to believe such an estimate) executed. A historical study of revolutions, including all of the Bourgeois Revolutions, will note the relative tepidness of the violence in the Cuban Revolution. It is perhaps for this reason that Trotskyists and anti-communists must import myths. Today, less than 1,000 people are in prison for political reasons according to conservative scholars, it could be even less.

It’s worth noting that Cuba has consistently offered to free American spies imprisoned in Cuba for the freedom of the Cuban Five, counter-intelligence agents fraudulently imprisoned for defending their country, and the US has refused.

To be Continued…

There are many more myths about the cuban people’s revolution. I will return to the topic once I have seen the country for myself. I will do several write ups on sexual education, LGBT rights and the comparison being drawn between the NEP and the new Cuban experiement.

La Lucha Continua

Further Reading:

Abrahams, Harlan, and Arturo Lopez-Levy. Raúl Castro and the New Cuba: A Close-up View of Change. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 2011. Print.

Brouwer, Steve. Revolutionary Doctors: How Venezuela and Cuba Are Changing the World’s Conception of Health Care. New York: Monthly Review, 2011. Print.

Carnoy, Martin, Amber K. Gove, and Jeffery H. Marshall. Cuba’s Academic Advantage: Why Students in Cuba Do Better in School. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2007. Print.

Koppel, Martín, and Mary-Alice Waters. The Cuban Five: Who They Are, Why They Were Framed, Why They Should Be Free. New York: Pathfinder, 2012. Print.

MacDonald, Theodore H. The Education Revolution: Cuba’s Alternative to Neoliberalism. Croydon: Manifeston in Association with the National Union of Teachers, 2009. Print.

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

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

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Filed under Class Conflict, Cuba, Cuban Revolution, July 26th Movement, Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, Revolution, The Soviet Union, University of Havana