That Faustian bargain with the characterless monster of unfreedom

4 04 2007

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In his famous book, The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn speaks of a function to praise Stalin where everyone got up and started clapping after the tribute was read out. The clapping went on, as no one wanted to be the first to stop. No one dared, as the secret police was watching to see who would quit first. This was their way of identifying who the independent-minded people were. Finally, after more than 10 minutes of unceasing applause, the director of the factory where the function was being organised stopped clapping and sat down. As if on cue, the entire congregation stopped clapping and sat down. Solzhenitsyn goes on to say that the director was arrested that same night.

While Solzhenitsyn has been dismissed by supporters of the Soviet Union as a Western agent, this account seems believable because there are so many other, more objective, records of the lack of freedom of thought and expression in the Soviet Union and other communist states.

There is a famous photograph of Lenin from 1920, where he stands on a wooden platform addressing the soldiers going to fight for the Bolsheviks in the civil war. Next to him stands Trotsky, the leader of the Red Army. But you will not be able to see Trotsky in the photos circulated by the USSR, since Trotsky’s photos were airbrushed on orders of Stalin. Generations of Soviet children, and other communists who read Soviet publications, saw this doctored photo of Lenin without Trotsky to accompany him. Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, among others, were members of the Bolshevik Politbureau along with Lenin at the time of the Russian Revolution. As each of them fell foul of Stalin, they were assassinated by kangaroo courts and once murdered, the photographic and other written records of their contribution to the Russian Revolution was summarily airbrushed away from History. Other than the unparalleled book-burning of the Nazis, the Soviet erasure of history remains, perhaps, the single largest such exercise in thought control in human history.

Stalin may have been the pioneer in this unglorious chapter of socialist legacy, but unfortunately he was not the last of the communist leaders to have distorted history so deliberately. There is an equally famous photo from China where the “gang of four” were airbrushed away after they fell out of favour. It was not merely the distortion of history to fit their current political needs, but the almost complete absence of freedom of thought and expression in communist societies which so rankles everyone. There was no free press, nor independent political parties, trade unions, or women’s organisations in communist countries. This has led to an understandable equation of communism with totalitarianism and lack of freedom. In fact, so deep has this association become that one often finds supporters of communism defend this lack of freedom by counter posing, “But the people had food, shelter and clothing!” As if this Faustian bargain of exchanging freedom for social equity and economic security is necessary for communism to prosper.

But this is not what communism or Marxism is about!

Marxism, and its political programme called communism, is about maximising human freedom, of unchaining the potential of human beings which is crushed under the burdens of economic deprivation and social discrimination. Marx’s critique of bourgeois society was precisely that the political freedoms it enshrines remain hollow without a complimentary unshackling of human productive powers and creativity.

In his essays on press freedom, written as far back as 1842, Marx argues, “Freedom includes not only what my life is, but equally how I live, not only that I do what is free, but also that I do it freely.” It may sound strange to those whose introduction and understanding of Marxism and communism come from the experience of the once-existing socialist states like the former USSR and present day China, but Marx himself was very clear that “…lack of freedom is the real mortal danger for mankind.” This is precisely why I would argue that as long as this Faustian bargain of exchanging freedom for material security remains a central feature of communist societies, they would continue to fail.

Significantly for our times, when tyrants, irrespective of ideology, try to coerce and censor the press into becoming their propaganda tool, Marx defends the free press as a founding pillar of human freedom. He writes, “The essence of the free press is the characterful, rational, moral essence of freedom. The character of the censored press is the characterless monster of unfreedom; it is a civilised monster, a perfumed abortion.” Further he adds, “The free press is the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people’s soul, the embodiment of a people’s faith in itself, the eloquent link that connects the individual with the state and the world, the embodied culture that transforms material struggles into intellectual struggles and idealises their crude material form.”

A journalist for much of his life, Marx well-anticipated the argument of those who want to censor the press and deny its freedom in the name of protecting public morality, political stability or social harmony. He accepted that a free press was liable to “abuse” its freedoms, but he was clear that, “The free press remains good even when it produces bad products, for the latter are deviations from the essential nature of the free press.” On the contrary, “The censored press remains bad even when it turns out good products, for these products are good only insofar as they represent the free press within the censored press, and insofar as it is not in their character to be products of the censored press.”

But Marx’s opposition to censorship and denial of freedom is not merely premised on moral and philosophical principles; he argues that even as a practical policy of state, denial of freedom is fated to failure. “If the censorship law wants to prevent freedom as something objectionable, the result is precisely the opposite. In a country of censorship, every forbidden piece of printed matter, i.e. printed without being censored, is an event. It is considered a martyr, and there is no martyr without a halo and without believers.” Thus censorship and thought control make every forbidden work, whether good or bad, into “haloed martyrs” and thus provide them with public support.

Solzhenitsyn’s writings, by this logic, become heroic by the very act of writing outside the control of the censor. The act of declaring his personal freedom gives Solzhenitsyn’s work a certain gravity, which otherwise it may not have acquired if it had been produced in the context of general freedom and a free press. A free press, along with general political freedoms, provides the citizen with the scope for criticism and public scrutiny, which, Marx argues, is “true censorship”. Free criticism and public scrutiny is “the tribunal which freedom of the press gives to itself”, since it operates with the “sharp knife of reason” and not with “the blunt scissors of arbitrariness”.

This was no flash in the pan writing of Marx. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels declare that in a communist society, “in place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

It leaves one quite perplexed how people and movements, which claim an almost literal affiliation to the words of Karl Marx could deviate so radically from his own ideas and positions. Unless the key to this mystery is found, unless we, who claim affiliation to the ideas and ideals of Marxism and communism, are able to break this Faustian bargain with the characterless monster of unfreedom, it would be difficult to rescue Marxism and the communist movement from the dustbin of history.

~ ~ ~

A slightly different version of this article was published in my column in The Post on 4 April, 2007.

 

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10 responses

4 04 2007
chhavi

well said, well said. I also have to add that I’ve actually been to the Newseum outside Washington DC and saw that photographic sleight of hand (eye?). Great links and documentation. — journalist chhavi in another incarnation.

4 04 2007
janaki

this is a very important point you have made. its startling that it is actually quite a simple point and it needs to be made so constantly.
it also points to other things- why should marxists find it necessary to defend soviet union, or china or the tianamen square, as if a condemnation of these would result in the collapse of the philosophy itself, whereas it is opposite which holds true.

4 04 2007
unni

Though I agree with the broader issues presented in the article, enhancing the democratic rights and freedom inside a socialist system, the factual account that you have given deserves a re-look.

Trotsky,Bukharin,Zinoviev,Kamanev

Erasure of the person in a photo, is certainly not a good way, but can we discard the fact, even for a moment, that Trotsky had joined hands with the utmost reactionaries by early 30s,and became the worst enemy of socialism, not to mention his anti-Bolshevik political line in the past. Can we expect a socialist state to indulge in any activity which will inadvertently help the campaign launched by the Capitalist world, that the “leader of October revolution” had been thrown out of USSR? (This campaign was so powerful,Comrade.E.M.S had Trotskyist leanings at first,as well as Bhagat Singh, both owing to the shrewd campaign launched against USSR.)

Bukharin-In the last letter written to Stalin Bukharin admits that he was aware of the
Existence of clandestine groups inside USSR, and he states he had links with them, but he was trying to win over them and bring them back! And if exonerated he wanted to flee USSR, to US so that he could expose Trotsky from his vicinity !It is worth mentioning that Bukharin was arrested after his foreign trip, to Paris, and one of his aides in Comintern later revealed the fact that he was an agent of US imperialism.

( Bukharin’s letter to Stalin

http://www.yale.edu/annals/Reviews/review_texts/Walden_on_Getty_Ass._Newspapers_10.22.99.html

)

Zinoviev and Kamenev-Can we really call them October Revolutionaries? Can we forget the nefarious role played by these two gentlemen by leaking out the plans for October insurrection by writing an article in a Menshevik daily, which could have jeopardized the revolution itself? Just look at how many times they switched sides, formed groups inside CPSU(B).Also please look at how many times they were expelled and recanted.

During 30s clandestine groups, whose aim was the overthrow of Bolshevik power
operated in USSR, and they often took to sabotages. With the emergence of Fascism spy
penetration became a real threat ,and suspicion and mistrust was on the rife. The Great Purge certainly went to paranoiac extremes, but as Marxists it would be wrong for us to discard the flipside, the existence of anti-Bolshevik and counter-revolutionary elements whose deeds would invariably lead to the initiation of great purge. Also it will be wrong to pinpoint Stalin for the sectarian line that emerged during late 30s,which even Togliatti had pointed out, it was the Soviet Party which committed mistakes, which still had old Bolsheviks like Kalinin,Voroschilov,Molotov,Kaganovich,Mikhoyan and Shvernik at the helm. Beatris Webb’s remarks on Stalin is really worth reading.

(Link which gives factual accounts about the sabotages inside USSR

http://www.plp.org/books/Stalin/node100.html

Beatris Webb on Stalin

http://www.mltranslations.org/Russia/webb1.htm

)

I would like to see the whole phenomenon as a revolution that occurred in a backward peasant nation, without a republican or liberal democratic past, which
as per Gramsci, was a “revolution against the capital”. The cultural and administrative elements that the centuries long Tsarist rule had left behind,
lingered even inside the socialist society. And the historical circumstances under which socialist construction took place in USSR, under isolation and siege from the capitalist world, gave birth to certain undesirable ways of the mode of Governance,
the culmination of which lead to the great purge.

Now about free press, if there should be a free press ,it should be free from the class bias as well. Muting the voices that arise the regime is undesirable, only when those voices belongs to those who carry genuine opposition to the socialist state and it programs and whose aim is enhancing the socialist cause. Recent move by Chavez against the Channel which acted as an imperialist agent, is a good
example. And eventually in a socialist system, as Govt expropriates all forms of capital, the existence of media outside state control is unlikely, so the thrust should go to combining the democratic criticism inside state mechanism. It is certainly a big challenge, to single out imperialist agents and their malicious propaganda, and take administrative as well as political measures against them, not without silencing the whole opposition. This is a challenge that the socialist regimes of 21st century will have to live with.

7 04 2007
Ravikant

बहुत अच्छा अनिकेत. मार्क्स के उन लज़ीज़ उद्धरणों के लिए एक बार और शुक्रिया.

रविकान्त

8 04 2007
Saibal

Very interesting! The comments, specially by Unni, are equally interesting too!

While the transformation from a capitalist or feudalistic state to a socialist state happen, vestiges of the erstwhile era, with its thoughts, philosophies, and opinions remain. Building socialism is a gradual process, and the leaders of this state has to cope up with these remnants of past social norms and thoughts.

Just changing the rulers of a state does not mean entire population of the state has become “social” population, since the erstwhile ideas are still deeply entrenched.

Freedom of press, thoughts, and ideas are important, and at the same time it is important to defeat the reactionary principles and ideas that might revert back the forward movement of society. This seems to be a fine balance, yet to be achieved.

We shall look forward to this column, HOW we would be able to achieve this, in a socialist state.

12 04 2007
Ahmad Arslan

Aniket, dear , as i started reading your blog, my eyes caught “Alexander Solzhenitsyn”, and i said “o my god, they will eat him alive”. you are very right Aniket, bout the oppression under Stalinism, and i am very happy that people are finally breaking the silence, as a new Marxist future cannot be built on worshiping the demons of the past! Where the boundries of Fascism and Marxism merge, we should refuse to accept that demonic caricature of Marxism!
By defending the atrocities, denying them altogether and refuse to accept the “Libertarian” spirit of Marx, we become nothing but what the French postmodernist call “a grand meta narrative” . That has lost it appeal to masses! and intellectuals

We have to decide that when we talk about the Nazi Holocaust, or the Indonesian holocaust, or Murder of Allende and Lumamba, we must keep in mind those workers who perished in great purges, those comrades who were killed in Siberia, those who were murdered in Spain by their own, we must ask our selves
why “Hungary” was invaded, why those who building worker democracy crushed! why Prague was raped, were they Fascists, no, they were our fellow workers who just wanted what Marx promised, freedom! but tanks killed the freedom
we must ask why on earth a situation arise where a Socialist state, who in its very conception represent the struggle for freedom, who has been the victim of censorship, torture, militarism, even genocide, does the same to his own people, those who are not on streets for capitalism or fascism, but demand the power to workers

why the Tanks had to run over the workers and students singing “Internationale” in Tyniman square?

every so called socialist state must be judged on “State and Revolution”, how much revolution is left in the naked stateism? State in Marxism is a transition to destroy the state itself, not to become a strangulating apparatus, killing and torturing students, poets and intellectuals, this converted us into our own “anti thesis”
Neither is this Anarchist
doctrine, nor is liberty the inherent property of Anarchism, Marx stands as a rational scientific choice between the utter nihilism of Anarchists and the capitalist barbarism, for its Marx who cried about the conversion of humans into nothing more than mere “exchange value”. where humans loose their corporal being in exchange rates, unfortunately humans are also not “coal” and fuel to be burned in the inferno of industrialization, Socialism is built by humans for themselves, not by becoming a raw material for a strangulating autocracy! Marxism was to built a new world free from exploitation, not a animal farm of exploited animals,
in our struggle where we remember millions killed by fascists and capitalist we must remember those murdered by our own , wu jo “tareek rahon” mein maare gaye, but no one wrote their noha!
why Paris of 68 abandoned, why those who built October murdered,
October is our legacy that we must defend, but we must not defend murderers, while we reject the bourgeois , imperialists
analysis of workers struggle, we must give a Marxist analysis of our failure!
“recognition” is first step to cure, and Denial lead to Cancers—-

Revolutionary regards

Ahmad

12 04 2007
kronstadter

@ Ahmed Arsalan

Aniket, dear , as i started reading your blog, my eyes caught “Alexander Solzhenitsyn”, and i said “o my god, they will eat him alive”.

And why should we NOT eat a despicable imperialist-sympathizer alive?

.

you are very right Aniket, bout the oppression under Stalinism, and i am very happy that people are finally breaking the silence, as a new Marxist future cannot be built on worshiping the demons of the past!

And just what exactly is “Stalinism”? Can you prove how it differs from Leninism? Or is “Stalinism” a mere figment of your imagination?

.

Where the boundries of Fascism and Marxism merge, we should refuse to accept that demonic caricature of Marxism!

OK, here you’ve gone and made a caricature out of Marxian class analysis. I had been under the impression that Fascism is an advanced, degenerated, predatory and militaristic form of capitalism.

How exactly are you going to set out to prove that the Soviet Union was ever Fascist?

.

By defending the atrocities, denying them altogether and refuse to accept the “Libertarian” spirit of Marx, we become nothing but what the French postmodernist call “a grand meta narrative” . That has lost it appeal to masses! and intellectuals

The masses don’t give a hoot for imperialist propaganda. And as for the “intellectuals”, if they cannot drag themselves out of the simplistic imperialist world-view of “freedom” vs “communism”, then perhaps they have no place in the working-class movement.

.

why the Tanks had to run over the workers and students singing “Internationale” in Tyniman square?

Perhaps, if Chairman Mao had shot Deng Xiaoping and his clique of revisionist cretins (which they richly deserved), you would have been going around proclaiming how China under Mao had become Fascist. 😛

14 04 2007
Ahmad Arslan

@kronstadter

Thank you very much comrade for your kind notice! First of all i want to assert that i dont want to engage in a polemic . Marxism for me [as should be for every Marxist] is neither a “faith” , nor a “Religion”. Marxism is a science , a philosophy that was developed by great teachers like Marx. They taught us a method by which we can analyze any situation. In this way Marxism stands in sharp contrast to Religion, where Prophets and saints are “imitated”. Like in my country where temperature in summer rises 45 to 50 C but the “comrades” use to wear “Russian over coats”. [These things are thrown at our faces when we talk to people, this particular incident was thrown at my face when i was talking to students and professors in a University in Pakistan]

why i am writing this , is to high light a “fundamental principle” of Marxist understanding of “history” , not as an “Abstract Idea”, but a product of living Humans, a constant class struggle! Thats why a Marxist Analysis is “Living analysis”, a “human analysis” a “scientific analysis” , not a religious Analysis that “Awaits a Messiah” and is bound in “deterministic fate” and is “dogmatic”.
saying all this i will only comment of a few things you wrote:

” the masses don’t give a hoot for imperialist propaganda”

Comrade thats a very “good” Marxist Analysis , the correctness of it is a “Manifest fact”. Thats why we are today living in a “communist world”, Red flags are flying in Moscow, Romania, Yougoslavia, India, Pakistan, Washington DC,

Thats why Union of India is today “Union of Soviet Socialist Republic of India”.

Comrade i only dare to ask a small question, “Imperialist Propaganda” is some sort of “divine revelation” that in an instant killed Revolutions in half the world? comrade Did USA and Nato attacked destroyed with help of Nuclear Bombs, chemical weapons the countries of Socialist Block to end revolution, unfortunately i only saw people dancing on the streets of Moscow and Berlin, not a single bullet fired

that all was the result of “Imperialist Popaganda” and “Imperialist conspiracy” [that was a factor, nevertheless] but Comrade, “Masses” that support the “Marxism” [read stalinism] they didnt even protested to the extant , the “semi barbaric” people of “Afghanistan” are to Imperialism, or People of Iraq are! if “direct foreign occupation” is needed for such resistance, why dont we saw a mass movement in the “fallen eastern block” that we are seeing in Latin America ?

Why even today where Left wing is surging every where , its still no where to be seen in the former “socialist block” from Poland to Moscow

and comrade this is the difference between Marxism and Stalinism, the Marxist made October, and no imperialist propaganda or even Imperialist War, or civil war, could end it, despite the country being in ruins and it was “de stalinized” [pathetic metaphysics] Stalinist that destroyed the revolution , and not a single window was broken by “Proletariat”. Lenin and Trotsky both predicted this sad demise .

Red China is now on a “Long March” to Capitalism.

Revolution was put on a plate and presented to Bourgoies by our great Marxist comrades in Nepal, Barrels of the Guns now dont produce “Revolution” but “flowers” of class collaboration and that from those who use to condemn “Russian Revisionism”, Marxists even than wrote there is no difference between Mao and Khurchev , today’s Nepal and China is living testament

When leaders are made “Gods” and Party head quarters “temples”, and “Inquisition” is started this happens. Cults of Personality produces “Suicide Bombers” , not revolutionaries

To this “irony” of explaining the difference between Marxism and Stalinism, let me leave you with the following excerpts from the “official biography” of Great Leader and son of “Eternal President of North Korea” [i dunno why Marx and Lenin had problem with Life after death] His Socialist Highness Kim Jong ill

“The official biography also holds that his birth at Mount Paektu was foretold by a swallow, and heralded by the appearance of a double rainbow over the mountain and a new star in the heavens”

Why to cursereligious superstition, star of david, star of betelhem we have great Marxists———

25 04 2007
Pankaj Molekhi

Lovely Ahmad, lovely. This is the way to argue a point. Mr Rabid Kronstadter must pick up a few lessons — floating an idea with logics and facts is more effective than pushing a baton down someone’s throat. Unni’s arguments were academic but they betrayed a leaning for a ‘totalitarian’ socialist regime, with scant respect for freedom.
Like imperialists and capitalists, Marxists are humans too, given to human fallacies — from greed, lust to heroic pursuits et al. When a personality takesover a system, Marxism (as by Stalin) or Democracy (as by Musharraf), results are for all to see. Once again, hats off to your ideas and soft punches that you pulled.

26 04 2007
Unni

@Pankaj Molekhi

Perhaps you can study Marxism-Leninism first and come back.
I think its better not to leave comments to make somebody’s presence felt.

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