Category Archives: Politics

The Question of Socialist History for the New Left


The emergence of a new generation of Socialist-leaning thinkers is one of the defining elements of contemporary American politics. While the right coagulates so-called anarcho-capitalists, fascists, and old school American conservatives under one party banner, the Democratic Party continues its age-old struggle to either sublimate or eliminate the Socialist trends that reached national audiences in the continually popular Bernie Sanders campaign. The movement of the american left to the center undoubtedly plays a part in the labeling of FDR liberals as Socialists—and many of the growing “Democratic Socialist” parties pursue a Socialist project in an embryonic fashion—but it would be a mistake for leftists to ignore the real change occurring in American politics. For the first time since the 1960s, millions of people are fighting against an explicitly named and reckoned capitalist system.

A denotative quality of resurgent democratic Socialism is a departure from the perceived failures of 20th century Socialism and even from some of the central arguments of Marxist analysis like ownership of the means of production (1). It is a risky ideological gambit, particularly in the United States, to appropriate the language and vernacular of Socialism while ignoring historical attacks of 20th century Socialism, and in many cases, actively enforcing various myths and overstatements. It’s a rhetoric strikingly similar to that employed in capitalist and fascists narratives—that one can support the free market without reckoning the crimes of imperialism, or advocate for right wing racial politics without dealing with the legacy of Nazi Germany. It is not a compelling rhetoric. History is the great crucible of political ideology, and no system, critical or political, should be used as the basis for any contemporary movement if history has proven it a failure. The history of 20th century Socialism (across the world, including the US) is not an esoteric concern for the academy, but a critical matter regarding the tenability of a Socialist movement in America. Socialists of all kinds cannot continue to run from the history of Socialism, to adjust terms and vernacular to obfuscate the real connections between left anti-capitalist movements from Petrograd to Havana to Chicago.

To be clear, the task of Socialists is not chiefly one of historical study. It is organizing working class people around their concerns to empower their communities to redress the injustices of the capitalist system. It is essential in an era of growing frustration with political dishonesty that Socialist movements pursue this goal through an honest rendering of their history and future, and an open acknowledgement of the historical realities of the Soviet Union, Cuba, and American Socialist movements. For that overarching goal to be achieved, Socialists must prove with rigorous academic study that Socialism, as Michael Parenti said, “has worked for hundreds of millions of people.”

The history of the Soviet Union from 1926-1953 weighs most heavily on modern Socialist movements, given the undeniable failures of collectivization. I’ve written previously on the contradictory though hegemonically successful Soviet industrial revolution (2), but have not addressed the so-called purges. Addressing the deeply exaggerated and commonly cited death total in the Soviet Union from 1926-1953 is a task fraught with peril for both Socialists and anti-Communists. Socialists are attacked for being “tankies,” (3) while non-partisan revisionist academics are attacked for covering up crimes of historic proportions. The archives  speak for themselves. Robert Conquest, famous cold-warrior, exaggerated GULAG populations in the early 1950s by almost a factor of 6 (12,000,000 to the only 2,000,000 that were actually there) (4), and his total estimated number of deaths (20 million) is by even a generous rendering 5 times higher than what the archive suggests. Getty, Rittersporn, and Zemskov further found that political prisoners where a small percentage of the total GULAG population, contrary to popular histories that emerged in the 1990s, and that GULAG labor accounted for only 2% of the Soviet labor force in 1937 at the height of the terror.

These statistical realities put Socialists in a vexing position politically. To deny the outrageous claims of magnitude made by partisan historians is seen as squabbling over the extremity of suffering in the period, to gradate horrors. Yet, Socialism is vanquished so commonly by arguments of magnitude. It’s an argument with no apparent victory, which is perhaps why so many members of the new Socialist movement reject to address it completely and render it is a merely academic concern that is counterproductive. This is an error—anyone who has spent even a small amount of time as a dedicated Marxist doing political or academic work knows that these numbers, occasionally in the hundreds of millions, are the first objection and query levied against us. It’s a rhetoric of evasion to claim that Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Honecker, Mao, Deng, and others pursued something so different than what the new Socialists advocate as to be irrelevant to the conversation. It is further a mercenary and cruel intellectual step to render the deaths of millions as insignificant to modern Socialist movements, if true. If tens of millions (or even hundreds of millions) of people died directly because of Communist rule, we shouldn’t be Communists. If this is untrue, it is essential to our political viability that we address these claims with academic, fact-based responses. It is not a waste of time but rather the defense of the accomplishments of our ideology as an implementable system rather than a mere opposition position to despotic capitalist practices. If the aims of democratic Socialists are ever to be established, Socialists must reckon their history, openly acknowledge the faults, and be committed to defending its achievements. History cannot be vanquished from the minds of the people—to hope it can be by equating all authoritarian regimes as antithetical to Communism robs us of the critical task of evaluating and changing Socialism to work in America, and underestimates the intellectual rigor and predisposition of the working people in America to Socialist ideas.

In short, Socialists should not be ashamed of their history, should honestly look at it, and actively seek to contradict the myths spread about 20th century Socialism. This does not render our movement as a historical one, but rather as one with historical viability—one of the mainstay arguments of the capitalist system from its embryonic stage in the early modern treatises on the bourgeois nature of Roman democracy. The Socialist movement cannot progress past FDR liberalism (5) if it continues to evade its history. We must, as Lenin suggested time and again, listen to the working class. One of their major concerns with Socialism is the threat of tyranny and bloodshed, and it is essential that Socialists acknowledge openly the faults of the Soviet Union, China, etc., while rejecting the lies of partisan historians and underlining the incredible achievements. 700,000 people were executed in the Soviet Union from 1926-1953 in a national environment of paranoia fostered by a fascist menace and an international siege. This was tragic and wrong. Socialists must reckon the reasons just as capitalists must deal with the incredible crimes in India, Africa, and in urban environments across the world today. While acknowledging this, we must reject the myths that dominate the discourse of our ideology, and highlight the elimination of the literacy gap between men and women, the training of more women scientists in the 1970s than the US today, the elimination of homelessness and unemployment, and the defeat of fascism by a multi-ethnic national alliance of men and women. We can correct our history if we own it, and our history implores us to develop a platform for the empowerment of working class people and not only an oppositional platform. Capitalists ignore their history of violence and underplay its magnitude, repeating the crimes of the 19th century over and over again in countries across the globe. The crimes of Socialist states pale in comparison, but we cannot make the same mistake.

Further Reading at Waiting for Putney:

On Marxist Literary Criticism, Its Problems, and Its Value

A Beginner’s Guide to Soviet Industrialization

Reappropriating the Bourgeois Revolutions

 Works Cited:

(1) (3) That is, totalitarian socialists with a fetish for Soviet militarism. (4) All of this information is coming from Getty, Rittersporn, and Zemskov’s 1993 study: (5) This is not to say we shouldn’t be a part of the fight for 15 and national healthcare.


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The Center Cannot Hold

Forward to a bright future of ..forward…ness

Not long ago I sat in a Medieval History course at my undergraduate institution. That day’s topic was the Spanish Inquisition, and we had prepared by reading a chapter in our textbook that highlighted the glory of Al-Andalus, the terror of the inquisition after its fall, and the merciful harboring of Muslims and Jews within the Ottoman Empire by Sultan Beyazid the Second with an executive order for their protection. Ottoman failures aside, I expected that day to participate in a lecture condemning religious hatred and The Inquisition of the Catholic Church. As the professor began, she asked us what our impressions of The Inquisition were, and we responded as we should have – torture, executions, and repression. She glibly and triumphantly retorted, “the truth is somewhere in the middle.” The professor went on to highlight in great detail  the “real” Spanish Inquisition where material conditions made certain events inevitable and out of the control of the people who committed the crimes. Such is the danger, it must be said, of “the middle.”

One who traverses academia will be all too familiar with the promised land known as “the middle.” In the mystical land known as “the middle,” all ideas come to wine and dine in extravagant intelligence pageants displaying opulent intellectual fairness and nonpartisan reason. The middle isn’t just the promised land of academics, of course, but the society at large. Children are taught the value of every opinion, college students are put through endless peer (sic) review, “movements” of detached reason against supposed frothing at the mouth religious individuals have cropped up(1), President Obama is praised for his nonpartisan approach to immigration, and “across the isle” became a failed rallying cry for national unity in spite of political differences.

A Whig American historian will tell you that “moderation” is part of the American spirit, as American as civilian collateral damage and a hard day’s work. Never mind the 600,000 soldiers who died in the middle of the 19th century, the atomic bomb(s), or the millions of slaves brutally beaten into service – the true american way is fancied to be taking two extremes and bringing them to an agreeable middle. Mythos, fictional as it is, has impact. It is for this reason that we must discuss here the danger of the middle intellectually and politically. At our universities and in our departments, through postmodern middle-worship, we have marginalized ourselves into the disagreeable position of borderline pointlessness. Politically, we have paralyzed ourselves into believing the critical contradictions of society can be navigated by mutually agreeable compromises. As current events illustrate with crystal clarity, this is not always the case. While we at the university and at the capitol building search for an agreeable intellectual middle, thousands are butchered for naught but their born identity, millions are homeless in a nation with millions of empty domiciles, and violence rages across urban environments gripped with systemic oppression and hopeless employment situations.

Like William Butler Yeats in his anthologized “The Second Coming” (2) we must conclude that in our age of extremes “the centre cannot hold.” Unlike William Butler Yeats, we needn’t feel like a falcon who has lost his way. We need only to do the truly hard work, the work of recognizing the radical nature of our social maladies and the radical nature of the solutions to these problems. If we can do this, Yeats’ “rough beast” will be of our own making – its origins at the very least not mysterious as they were to Yeats and his generation of the Great War.

Being Unbiased and Other Pipe Dreams

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” -Karl Marx, Eleven Theses on Feuerbach

There is a deep held belief in academia that to reach the promised land of the middle, we have to be “impartial” and free from “bias.” We must first address this before we can establish how this and the middle itself has lead to an utter marginalization of the academic fields. Naturally, the supreme unbiased arbiters of all things reasonable, arch-enemies of the barbaric analysis of Marxists, first to the front line of the historical specificity battle, need to understand the origins of their own analytical method of unbiased critique.

I know a time when capitalism didn’t exist seems nearly impossible to imagine, but in the revolutionary years of the 1640s and 1770s, an approach based on detached reason was in fact rebellious. The grandly named Enlightenment set the stage for these approaches. Enlightenment thinkers from Milton to Jefferson endeavored to “justify the ways of god” (3) in the former case and declare the natural rights of  well off white men in the latter case. Of import, these narratives always reached for nature and detached observation or explanation of the state of things on earth presently. This is Enlightenment thinking. Even the devoutly religious Milton endeavored to define an English “nature” in his History of Britain. The conditions of earth justified god or elucidated the natural rights and qualities of man. Through “unbiased” observation of history and nature, Early Modern thinkers justified their actions in a discourse opposed to the impersonal dedication to feudal monarchs. Milton in his famous Areopagitica portrays himself as a mere messenger of history, spending page after page on histories of Greece and Rome.

I think most postmodern critics will notice quite clearly the true bias behind both thinkers and many Early Modern thinkers who endeavored to pursue social science (Hobbes, for example). Yet, this search for “unbiased” analysis continues, in spite of its historical invalidity. What’s more, by even picking this critical heuristic (the goal of unbiased and impartial analysis), one has already become biased towards Enlightenment notions of the critic. Our critical methods,  to put the point most frankly, are social and thus political. Postmodernism’s rejections of metanarratives is biased towards the conditions of the late 20th century; an age of extremes and the failure of big men and big ideologies. Marxism is biased towards analyzing the heightening of class division in eras of unrestricted capitalism (the 19th century, for example). The point here is that you have to chose. You cannot be impartial and apolitical. The very means by which you endeavor to achieve impartiality are themselves tied to historical, social, and political conditions. Give it up. We are biased creatures. We must chose a method we believe to be true, and we must defend and propagate it (4).

Now, the fact that human thought inherently suggests bias is no reason to condemn all of humanity as degenerate louts who bit the apple. Rather, our ability to chose and advocate are redeeming and distinct qualities. By removing these qualities from our theory (theory is one of the few things that trickles down these days), our departments and courses have been robbed of their intellectual meat. Departments have preached impossible impartiality and have removed the true fruit of the work we love – developing and integrating schools of thought to help us better understand -and change- the world. We have been reduced from active participants in our world to mere passive observers seeking one arcane truth over another. We have, in short, marginalized ourselves.

Scholars could tell you what a certain word means in a sentence from 1634, but they would genuinely struggle with telling you why any of this is important. This is a direct product of seeking “the middle” via an impossible impartial and unbiased approach. We have robbed our books, historical events, and social phenomena of our own participation in them. Paradise Lost is an elaborate theological trap for unbelievers. Life during the Bubonic Plague of the 14th century wasn’t that bad. The Battle of Verdun was actually waged by generals who tried their best with what they had. Yes, all of these are actual opinions I have heard in the classroom and read on JSTOR. The madness has to stop. We are not unbiased and cannot be. We all use derivative heuristics and radical assertions of uncompromising truth. Put the bias back in theory, abandon the quest for the middle, and you put the person back in theory; and in doing so, you make our fields potentially relevant to anyone instead of a group of 15 people on any given Saturday at the local library.

Reality and Contradiction:

Outside of academics the glorification of the middle is rampant and, quite frankly, incredibly dangerous. As we look on, thousands of Palestinians are killed by Israeli super weapons for firing rockets that only killed Nazis (in 1943) with massed fire that Hamas does not have. Yet, when the truth is so very clear to anyone who would look, many still hold to the glorification of the middle. John Kerry, after receiving a punitive phone call from Washington for suggesting carpet bombing civilian areas was maybe a bad idea, presently preaches the necessity of both sides to “come to the table.” In such a situation, it seems amazing for anyone to suggest middle ground, but it is quite common if one is to traverse the sulfurous pit that is comments sections on articles about the conflict in Gaza. In politics, even more so than in academia, the center cannot hold. It always falls back to one way or the other.

Similarly to Yeats feeling of powerlessness, many onlookers looking for moderation in Palestine conclude that both of the warring sides are to blame, that a solution between the two sides is impossible, and quite oddly that the two sides will always hate each other . This is the dangerous and potentially deadly side effect of seeking the middle in situations that require something more. This is not an unprecedented phenomena. The great compromise of  1850 lead to the bloodiest war in American history. Neville Chamberlain was a true intellectual and compromised with Nazi Germany. England urged the Holy Roman Empire to talk it out with its rebellious protestant princes, which was followed by a pithy period of war lasting thirty years. Alexander II freed the serfs in the Russian Empire. The founding fathers decided, in good faith, that an African slave was only 3/5 of a person, which itself lead to the aforementioned “great compromise.”

The fact is, societies have critical contradictions that can be solved only by the radical road. Compromise and “the middle” only prolong these contradictions. Would it truly be better, you ask, to have waged the Civil War in 1850? Yes, yes it would have, for a number of reasons. Contradictions must be solved and not avoided, for by avoiding them through the moral detachment of the middle and compromise, one only prolongs the festering of that synthesized contradiction; which is a circumstance that hardly bequeaths moral supremacy. Instead, such a position suggests a true indifference to the suffering of others so long as we may uselessly grasp for stability. Let history be your guide. When contradictions arise, they must be addressed with force and radical means, not with bills and edicts that side-step the issue. Solutions can be difficult and far from moderate. Reality is like that – our tasks are sometimes difficult. That does not change the fact that we must do them.

This overwhelmed powerlessness many feel, the anxiety that Yeats felt when he looked at a world in ruins, is not all that surprising when we see that our international community and ideology is based chiefly around the quest for the middle. If the UN cannot find a solution to the slaughter in Gaza, what hope do we, the people, have? We must conclude with Yeats, in such a rendering, that we are powerless in the creation of the new “beast” from Bethlehem that is our future. As alluded to above with regards to academic theory and its detached pointlessness, when we make ourselves observers we truly are powerless to fashion that beast. When we seek the middle in situations that have none, we make ourselves impotent.

Our world and ourselves need not be this way. As highlighted above in academics, history, and politics, the center cannot hold – and that’s a good thing. Our world is rife with contradiction, our classrooms and departments full of troubles and challenges. By attempting to remove bias and reach a transcendent analysis, we have made ourselves incapable of analyzing our world as it stands. We have removed ourselves from our world, and in doing so, removed what drives us to speak (5). As John Milton once remarked on writing, when a deep desire for truth is matched with a deep desire to express it, all other things fall into their places (6). When many begin to abandon the middle in favor of a true analysis of the critical contradictions of our society and the potentially radical solutions to them, and are further catalyzed to speak of such things, then, certainly, “the centre cannot not hold,” and a future of our own making from Bethlehem will “come round at last.” (2)

(1) Query “New Atheism” for more information, or take a look at this atrocity (
(3), line 26
(4) “Must” doesn’t imply that we do not already do this, whether we deign to admit it or not.
(5) Postmodern discourses often stress the importance of finding voices.
(6) Milton, “An Apology for a Pamphlet”

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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.

 photo sovietgdplatin_zps19f64559.png


 photo sovietgdplatin_zps19f64559.png


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.

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.

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) (

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.


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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A Gentle, Christian Man: Dickens’ Refutation of the Victorian Gentleman in Great Expectations


Note: The works cited has been removed in an effort to impede plagiarism.

Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, as author Graham Law writes, is his “masterpiece” that is at the same time “unrepresentative” (Law 7). Certainly Great Expectations moves away from the uplifting conclusions of novels such as David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol, and the cutting, at times radical societal critique of works such as Oliver Twist  is replaced by a more subtle and pessimistic look on Victorian England (Law). Undeniably, as has been remarked upon by many scholars , Great Expectations is an exploration of the Victorian concept of the gentleman, a title that Dickens felt himself rejected from (Law), and one that is the subject of much of Dickens’ prosaic venom  in the novel. Indeed, Pip’s journey from working class boy to a gentleman of great expectations can be said to mirror Dickens’ own life journey to prosperity, yet Dickens’ autobiographical past is not as critical to Great Expectations as the authorial present moment; one noted by profound disillusionment with the concept of a Victorian Gentleman and the ability of a “poor man with a rich soul” (Smiles) to self-create an identity as one.

Great Expectations  is a novel in which Dickens utterly rejects the idea that a gentleman is defined by high birth and class, an argument perhaps best personified by the works of William Sewell. Yet Great Expectations  is also a novel that rejects the notion presented by Alexis de Tocqueville and Samuel Smiles that anyone, with enough morale character and elbow grease, could become a gentleman. Then what is a gentleman in Great Expectations, if it is neither men of high birth or men of “rich heart?” In Great Expectations the gentleman is a useless title that is destructive and unachievable, demonstrated by the fact that the gentleman of high birth is one that plays the part of the main catalyst in Pip’s dissolution of character from childhood to manhood, and the gentleman of labor and moral character is ultimately unachievable for Pip; denied him by his actions as a gentleman of high birth – illustrating the thread Dickens is tying between the two concepts and ultimately leaving Dickens unwilling to reappropriate the title for characters like Joe . This is demonstrated by Pip’s inability to reconcile completely with characters such as Joe, a relationship strained during Pip’s idealization of the gentleman in Sewellian terms . Dickens entry into the Victorian debate over what a gentleman was one of dynamic character; it is one where he rejects the concept of the gentleman completely, and endeavors to portray the destructive and ultimately unachievable nature of the title; and in this portrayal is a message that quality and not license is at the heart of being a “gentle Christian man.” In order to explore Dickens refutation of the title in general, one must first demonstrate the fraudulency of Sewell’s definition in the way it diminishes Pip’s strong sense of justice and then move to elucidating just why Dickens is ultimately unwilling to reappropriate the title for Joe.

An understanding of the conservative concepts of what the Victorian gentleman was that Dickens was interacting with is critical in discerning where Great Expectations lies in the debate. William Sewell is famous, or perhaps infamous from a modern perspective, for his very conservative view of what a Gentleman was in Victorian society. In a lecture to privileged school boys, Sewell states, “We have, I think, in England, owing to the freedom of our constitution, and the happy providential blessings which god has heaped upon us, followed the division of mankind which god himself has made, and struck the line between those who are gentlemen, that is, of a higher and superior class, and those who are not, to be ruled and governed” (Sewell 563). In a reply to Sewell who had sent him a volume of these speeches, Dickens’ remarked upon how far apart their views were (Broadview) on the subject, illustrating what is perhaps most obviously elucidated in Great Expectations; the rejection of a class and birth caste system deciding whether or not a man is a true gentleman. To Sewell, and undoubtedly to his ambitious and privileged pupils, to be a gentleman was to be in a position of power in society in which one could govern and rule over others, namely, the working classes. Further, not only was this position over others justified by practical necessity, but by God himself. This conception of a gentlemen, one based in class and family background, is one that is directly counteracted in the prosaic structure of Volume I in Great Expectations in the way that Pip’s sense of justice and his relationship with Joe and Biddy degrade significantly to a point of no return once he is made to feel his class by Estella, and when his quest to become “oncommon” begins; and this is a direct consequence of Pip’s definition of the gentlemen in Sewellian terms.

Pip’s relationship with Biddy is at first one of student and teacher, but it quickly becomes more personal and ultimately demonstrative of Pip’s loss of justice subsequent to his ambitions to becoming a Sewellian gentleman. Indeed, the just Pip admits aptly that “Whatever I knew, Biddy knew” and marvels at her for being an “Extraordinary woman” (Dickens 159).  Yet Volume I highlights Pip’s growing unrest with his situation, and ultimately, Biddy and the life she represented. Biddy is the victim of Pip’s bridge burning attack before leaving for his great expectations, as Pip levies accusations of jealousy at the true-hearted Biddy. Pip says, “I am very sorry to see this in you. I did not expect to see this in you. You are envious, Biddy, and grudging. You are dissatisfied on account of my rise in fortune, and you can’t help showing it” (Dickens 181).  It was not 50 pages prior that Pip was wishing an old, haggered convict hidding in a swamp happy eating; and it seems that Pip’s own anxieties over his class and family background, catalyzed by Estella,  have dissolved his so dearly held virtue of justice in favor of a dishonest “superior tone”(181) which narrator Pip regretfully admits. It’s worth stopping upon that narrator Pip, the flawed character that he is at the time of scribing the novel, still recognizes his actions to Biddy as unjust. It is not coincidental then that Biddy calls upon the specter of a gentleman and of justice, replying simply, “Yet a gentleman should not be unjust neither” (Dickens 181).  In this statement, Biddy essentially summarizes what Pip will only learn when it is far too late in Volume III and highlights the dissolution of Pip’s sense of justice which is catalyzed by his conception of the gentleman as one based in class and family. Pip has become a gentleman, but as he the narrator and Biddy point out, he had become unjust. Indeed, Pip laments that he “cannot get (himself) to fall in love with (Biddy),” (Dickens 163) and only after his revelations of Volume III will he realize how the specter of the Sewellian gentleman  made it impossible for him to love those who would “put him right” (Dickens 163), a fact further illustrated by Pip’s growing mistreatment of Joe.

Joe, like Herbert, is a character that is true of heart and indeed harmed by Pip’s conception of the gentleman as one of opulence and like Biddy is a character treated in a progressively unjust way by “Sir” Pip. At the start of Volume I, Joe is the flawed  gravy-disher that is unable to truly help Pip but is the only one to show Pip warmness; and Pip’s interactions with Joe comprise some of the only heartwarming sections of Pip’s young life. Joe however represents something more than a country simpleton with a good heart, he renders Pip valuable advice subsequent to his crises of identity and Satis House, as the narrator reflects, “This was a case of metaphysics, at least as difficult for Joe to deal with, as for me. But Joe took the case altogether out of the region of metaphysics , and by that means vanquished it” (Dickens 105).  Indeed, Joe serves as the materialist to Pip’s metaphysical ambition to become uncommon, offering a few lines later than even the king of England had to begin with the alphabet. Pip’s quest of becoming a gentleman is deeply metaphysical, from his conception of Estella as a princess waiting to be ridding off on horseback to the “gay fiction” of the finches.

Pip’s imaginative, or metaphysical, class affectation is driven home in several scenes in which Pip is ashamed of Joe in the presence of his class superiors, namely the visit to Ms. Havishams and Joe’s visit to London, only to realize later that the entire fault was his. Narrator Pip reflects in the remarkable Chapter XIV, “It is not possible to know how far the influence of any amiable honest-hearted duty-doing man flies out into the world; but it is very possible to know how it has touched one’s self in going by, and I know right well that any good that intermixed itself with my apprenticeship came of plain contented Joe, and not of restlessly aspiring discontented me” (Dickens 141). In a candid moment afforded to Pip through hindsight, Pip can realize how unjust he had been to Joe when he ” was ashamed of him” (Dickens 134) when his abstract notion of the gentleman in Sewellian terms, and his need to create a gentlemanly identity suitable for Estella’s “mischievous eyes,” (Dickens 134) turned him against those closest to him so he could pursue something he admits “I never knew” (Dickens 141).  In short, the gentleman of Sewell, the idea put into Pip’s head by Estella, and the one he will fruitlessly chase to a bitter end is the same gentleman that removed justice from Pip’s relationship with Joe and Biddy. The more Pip desires to be a gentlemen of wealth and taste, the less just he is to his peers and the more blind he is to the injustice he does to others – something he had as a boy been so sensitive to. Thus, the Sewellian gentlemen plays an integral part in the devolution of Pip’s sense of justice in Volumes I and II, physically made real by his geographical removal from Biddy and Joe and emotionally manifested in Pip’s utter emotional desolation at the beginning of Volume III.

Pip is a character of dynamic and fluid nature, however, and indeed much personal progress is made from the beginning of Volume III. In short, the gentleman of class and blood, the gentleman of Sewell, has left Pip spiritually ruined, and it is from this total destruction that Pip begins to make personal progress. Here at the foundation of this progress, after nearly everything has been taken from Pip, he admits, “I thought how miserable I was, but hardly knew why, or how long I had been so, or on what day of the week I made the reflection, or even who I was that made it” (Dickens 353). Here we see a Pip who is utterly devoid of a sense-of-self or any purpose whatsoever. From this point of utter spiritual desolation, Pip does make significant gains as the prose advances. Interestingly, these revelations are coaxed out of him by an assumed death at the hands of a figure from his childhood. Pip’s abduction by Orlick catalyzes a great deal of emergent feelings of justice and empathy within Pip, and the rise in his moral character seems to lead the reader to believe that a happy ending is imminent; all catalyzed by Pip’s belief that he is soon to die. As Pip ponders his imminent doom, he laments, “Joe and Biddy would never know how sorry I had been that night; none would ever know what I had suffered, how true I had meant to be, what an agony I had passed through.. by the thought that I had taken no farewell, and never never now could take farewell, of those who were dear to me, or could explain myself to them, or ask for their compassion on my miserable errors” (Dickens 450). In this near-death moment, Pip almost miraculously is broken from his Volume II stupor and sees the true “great hearts” (Smiles) of Joe and Biddy, and laments deeply that he cannot explain himself to them. Indeed, Pip now reflects that his intentions were “true” but had left him in great “agony” and ponderous with “miserable errors.” In this moment near death, Pip is softened and returns to his sense of justice highlighted above, in this case, to do himself justice; to plead his case to those who cared for him truly and ask for their clemency. In a novel with very little repetition, the repetition of never is also noteworthy in the way it focuses on Pip’s desire to do himself justice in a farewell to Joe and Biddy and deal with them honestly for the first time in many pages. Is this, then, evidence of Dickens support for the progressive notion of a gentleman as one of true intentions and heart? A more finite understanding of what that notion is, is first necessary.

Samuel Smiles’ “The True Gentleman” is paradigmatic of a progressive urge in Victorian society to claim that any man with sufficient intuition, inclination and good moral character was a “true gentleman..” Smiles elaborates, “Riches and rank have no necessary connexion with genuine gentlemanly qualities. The poor man may be a true gentleman” (Smiles 582). Indeed, the “man with the great heart” of Smiles is identical to Joe’s own dubbing of his abusive father as a man with a good heart (Dickens 83) and Biddy’s own terming of Pip as “ever a man with a good heart” (Dickens 248). These two examples seem to lend a keen sense of ambiguity to Dickens’ acceptance of the idea that any man with a good heart is a true gentleman. Indeed, the latter half of Great Expectations is marked by a significant improvement in Pip’s character as elucidated above, one where he sees more feelingly the thoughts of others and one where he appreciates what he had not before. This notion, that Dickens is supporting a depiction of a gentleman as someone of a good heart only is contradicted by the critical scene were Pip emmerges from sickness to see Joe at his bedside subsequent to the gains he makes in a peculiar and violent event.

Pip’s improvements after his abduction by Orlick and then his subsequent almost idyllic period with Joe during his recovery from what can only be considered a broken heart leads the reader to expect an ending similar to that of Oliver Twist or David Copperfield. Certainly Joe emerges as a man of rich heart, caring for the boy who had so rudely treated him in London. Yet in what can only be considered intentional by Dickens in a novel that uses the word “gentleman” ad nauseum, Dickens refuses the title to Joe in the one moment where he can rightly be considered nothing else in Smilesian terms. Pip implores Joe to dislike him for his “ingratitude” (Dickens 483) which Joe ignores and remarks that they were “ever the best of friends.” Pip then proclaims, “god bless this gentle Christian man”(Dickens 483). Why would Dickens use this language, if almost to specifically deny Joe the title, after a sequence where Joe’s good heart has been highlighted so deeply in his self-sacrifice and forgiving heart towards Pip? This is the first appearance of Dickens disinterest in reappropriating the title of gentleman  to his characters that truly resemble one. Indeed, when Joe is truly a good person to Pip, his class status and his title, are truly unimportant which is reflected in Dickens deliberate side-stepping of the term. After Pip’s moral downfall from chasing the title of gentleman elucidated above, Dickens is unwilling to call Joe a gentleman, only a “gentle Christian man,” demonstrating that perhaps, being such a man was all that really mattered; regardless of the license of title associated with “the gentleman.” Indeed, when Joe is forced into an environment of gentlemanliness in Mrs. Havisham’s company, Pip remarks, “that he looked far better in his working-dress… I could hardly have imagined dear old Joe looking so unlike himself” (Dickens 132).  It is no coincidence that Joe, a character who is so very kind to Pip, who is a gentleman in behavior but not in name as per Dickens deliberate use of a similar yet different term, is “unlike himself” in a suit or a mansion. Dickens critique is clear, Joe is a gentle Christian blacksmith, and that is all the license he needs to be dubbed good, wholesome and kind. Pip’s denial of true reconciliation with Joe is then a further elucidation of Dickens’ rejection of the gentleman as a title. Pip’s past quest for gentlemanliness denies Pip reconciliation, with Joe, just as the specter of the Sewellian gentleman denies true Smilesian self-determination.

Dickens’ denial of Pip true reconciliation with Joe is demonstrative of Dickens’ unwillingness to allow Pip’s journey to come to a wholesome end due to the aftershocks of Pip’s quest for uncommoness. Reflecting upon the good times they had spent together, Pip realizes, “I too had fallen into the old ways, only happy and thankful that he let me. But, imperceptibly, though I held by them fast, Joe’s hold on them began to slacken; and whereas I wondered at this, at first, I soon began to understand that the cause of it was in me, and the fault of it was all mine…Had I given Joe’s innocent heart no cause to feel instinctively that as I got stronger, his hold up me would be weaker?”(Dickens 490).  Not only does Dickens deny the title of gentleman to Joe, he denies true reconciliation between Pip and Joe because of Pip’s actions as the Sewellian gentleman. Pip’s past denies him Smilesian self-creation, as the aftershocks of his actions as a gentleman of high class has disallowed him from coming to equal footing with Joe in their relationship. Thus in Dickens’ prosaic construction, the gentleman of Smiles is unachievable and barred by the specter of the traditional gentleman; just as Pip is disallowed present self-creation by past self-destruction. This relationship is best summarized by Joe himself, who says to Pip in apology for not being able to save him from the tickler, “my power were not always fully equal to my inclinations” (Dickens 489). This statement summarizes the ending of the novel with precision, as Pip’s power is not equal to his inclination in reconciling with both Joe and Biddy; and this greater narrative structure, that is, the denial of Pip any sort of happy or reconciled ending, is demonstrative of Dickens’ rejection of the Smilesian gentleman and the title at large.

Great Expectations  is a novel that frustrates the efforts of readers who seek an emotional synthesis for its flawed protagonist, as its deeply ambiguous nature leaves the reader wanting  a finite conclusion to Pip’s personal struggle. As Graham Law points out in his introduction, it is perhaps the ambiguity itself that is driving force of the novel; an ambiguity concerning what a gentlemen is and one’s ability to rehabilitate relationships long strained. By studying Pip’s loss of justice from his acceptance of  a Sewellian vision of a gentleman and Pip’s ultimate prevention from Smilesian reconciliation and self-elevation by the specter of Sewell’s gentleman, a greater understanding of the gentleman in Great Expectations emerges. The gentleman,  in short, is destructive and unreachable for Pip; demonstrative of Dickens own disillusionment with the license the title supposedly represented. Great Expectations is a sometimes uncomfortable reminder of the permanency of “miserable errors” and the inescapable social barriers that surrounded 19th century England. The reader’s duty is that of Estella;  to not be incompatible with the admission of the ambiguity of love and identity in emerging modernity, and give the sad story of Pip’s quest for uncommonness a place in their hearts, and in doing so, witness the folly of chasing license over authentic virtue.

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