Sunday, 24 December 2017

"Their hearts are far from me" - A Very Tory Christmas

"Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen" - John 1, 4.20

As usual, our political leaders have seen fit to bless us all with a Christmas message. Why they think we want to hear from them at this time of year, who knows?

There's Lib Dem Vince Cable, wandering about in a long black coat and a fedora, like some vampiric George Galloway, bothering homeless people with his sudden shock that they are sleeping on the streets. Meantime, Jeremy Corbyn is hailed as the Second Coming by some of his more fervent followers, but in spite of his shared initials with a certain other JC, his elevation is more akin to a slightly baffled Life of Brian than a would-be King of Kings, and his message is suitably personal, asking people to look after their neighbours and not let anyone be lonely this Christmas. He may not be the Messiah, but he is ready to stand up to Elvis.

But the one who takes the biscuit, and the whole Christmas pud, is of course our dearly beloved Prime Minister, Theresa May. Not only does she issue her sermon sitting in regal pose, she invokes Britain's "Christian heritage" and talks of love, service and compassion lived out every day in Britain. Darkly, she warns of Christians persecuted in the Middle East.

Yet perhaps Saint Theresa should stop and think why, in Alistair Campbell's infamous words, Prime Ministers shouldn't "do God"...

Because when she talks of compassion, hers is the Government that has plunged four million children below the poverty line. It is the government that has presided over the exponential rise of foodbanks in this, the 5th or 6th richest nation on the planet. It is the government that, when May was Home Secretary, locked up an Indian couple who came on holiday to the UK because the wife had her degree certificate with her, leading to suspicion she might be looking for a job; then kept her detained even after her husband died in custody and she begged to be allowed to take him home for his funeral...

And as for Christians persecuted in the Middle East? While contrary to the common portrayal, around 15 million Christians in Middle East countries live and worship - the church in Iran is small but actually growing in numbers - there clearly is persecution in several Arab states. By far the worst is Saudi Arabia, where the practice of any faith other than Islam is illegal. Yet it was the Saudis to whom Mrs May personally flew to promote arms contracts worth billions of pounds.

So when Mrs May talks of Christian values, she may want to reflect on the deeds and acts attributed to the founder of Christianity. For Jesus Christ's teachings don't seem to bode too well for a Government that puts profit before people and stigmatises the weak and vulnerable.

Tories rail against "health tourists"; Jesus taught the need to give medical help to foreigners without asking for payment (The Good Samaritan).

Tories test disabled people to check if they are lying; Jesus healed them without questioning them.

Tories have set up all sorts of tax dodges for the rich; Jesus told people to pay their taxes (render unto Caesar).

Tories praise the accumulation of wealth; Jesus flogged financial speculators. (The cleansing of the temple.)

Theresa May quite possibly prays for God's aid every day for all we know - given the mess she is in, who could blame her? Her own faith is clearly lifelong and there is no intention here to question the sincerity of her personal belief. But it is manipulative beyond belief for her to try to associate herself with values she then attributes both to to the nation as a whole, and to God.

Of course, May wouldn't be the first leader in the world to try to use religion for political ends - but those who have done so have rarely found a happy ending.So no, she's not the Messiah either...

 (Jesus) replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “ ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.' " - Mark 7.6

Happy Christmas!  (n.b. this salutation does not represent or claim to represent any endorsement by any Divine Being. All wording contained herein, however penetratingly insightful, is of purely temporal origin.)

Monday, 18 December 2017

Kissing The Machine - the robot dividend and the death of want

“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote these words in “The Manifesto of the Communist Party” in 1848, Europe was in the grip of multiple revolutions and their channelling of Shakespeare’s prose on impermanence was apt indeed.

In the previous half-century, three key technological advances – Arkwright’s spinning machine, Watt’s steam engine and Cartwright’s power loom – had made real the Industrial Revolution, itself the offspring of revolutions in thought and learning stretching back over three centuries from the birth of the Renaissance to the enlightenment of the Age of Reason. Powerful new mechanised productive forces swept aside the remnants of the feudal age, with liberalism tearing down the privileges of the old nobility and the hierarchy of entitlement and obligation that had governed society for over a millennium and longer.

As Marx and Engels observed, global transportation opened up whole new industries with the potential to create a world of abundance. Raw materials could be transformed into hitherto unimagined goods and services in undreamt of quantities. All that was solid was indeed melted – not into air, but recast into new forms with ever new uses and benefits to their owners.

Yet the liberal world was not one of benefit to all – for the system that forged this change was one of capitalist exploitation and accumulation. While feudal lords had fixed the lives of their serfs to an unchanging existence of mostly agrarian toil, this had its limits and compensations – feast days most weeks, commonly held land and the protection of their overlord. As that system was swept away, a largely rural Continent was swept by Acts of Enclosure, alienating previously commonly held land and resources to new private owners. Tens of millions were forced off the land to be delivered into the gaping jaws of urban factories and poorhouses, which consumed human labour with less regard than that afforded the iron pigment dripping from the hellish blast furnaces tended by these disposable workers.

It was then against this backdrop that the Manifesto was written as the social and economic dislocation of the early 19th century spilled onto the streets in scores of European cities in the form of revolutionary violence. While these uprisings ultimately failed, the vision of constant change summoned up by its authors was to become ever more prescient as liberal capitalism continued its march far beyond Europe’s heartlands to grip the globe in its all-encompassing embrace.

Technological change was both the enabler and the product of this new system – as the ecosocialist Murray Bookchin observed in his “Towards a Liberatory Technology” (1965), the eight decades after the Manifesto saw humanity go through two further major transitions. First was what he called the Paleotechnic Age of coal and steel in the 1850s and 1860s, and then from the 1890s, the Neotechnic Age of electricity, synthetic chemicals and the internal combustion engine. Yet as Bookchin also observed, in spite of the exponential enhancement of power granted by mechanisation, “Ironically, both ages of technology seemed to enhance the importance of toil in society.”

Prior to industrialisation, tools such as spades and axes were used to augment and enhance human effort, while manufacturing was in the hands of craft workers, who rendered raw materials into finished products usually from start to finish – leather hides to hand-made shoes; clay into wheeled crockery, and so on. Industrialisation changed this irreversibly – while the sheer scale of 19th and early 20th machinery required large numbers of operatives, in a sharp reversal of roles, humans increasingly augmented the effort of the machines. Capitalist management specialists like F.D. Taylor developed and applied theories where the human element meshed with the technological into the so-called “Man-Machine”, where processes were broken down as near as possible to single, repetitive, often physically demanding tasks. Any need for the complex and individual knowledge of the craft-workers of old was removed, deskilling and alienating the worker from the eventual product of their labour.

Lang's Metropolis
Marx had foreseen the liberatory potential of new technology, but he also knew that in the mid-19th century it was not yet at a stage that could free humanity from the need to work – hence his acceptance of the necessity of a bourgeois stage of economic transformation. Even without the inequity of the accumulation of surplus wealth by the ruling class, industry could not yet provide abundance, whatever the economic system. While the combination of the importance and the exploitation of labour put the newly emergent working classes at the heart of revolutionary thinking, socialism itself continued to emphasise the nobility of hard work.

Reflecting this, Lenin was heavily influenced by Taylorism and had a portrait of the Taylorite founder of US production-line mass manufacturing, Henry Ford, in his Kremlin office. Even under Soviet socialism, with Russia’s proclaimed need for massive modernisation, humans were ultimately resources to be minimised in terms of cost and subordinated to process. In the Stalinist USSR, the shock brigades of Stakhanovite workers (so named after a miner who allegedly dug 14 times the average amount of coal produced by his colleagues) were perhaps the apogee of this.

Fritz Lang’s 1929 dystopian film Metropolis stunningly evokes the Man-Machine in a scene where rows of human workers perform repetitive, isolated tasks, swinging levers to and fro in their individual compartments, stacked on top of each other, machines themselves in all but flesh and name, more cogs in the service of an industrial megalith. Perhaps more gently satirical, but equal damning, was Chaplin’s Modern Times. In this, following the implementation an automated feeding machine for workers intended to eliminate wasteful lunchbreaks and keep ahead of their competitors, Chaplin’s employers force factory operatives to keep up with an ever-faster production line, with perhaps predictable, but nevertheless telling, slapstick results. 

Fast-forward seven decades and technology’s relentless development has reached an entirely new epoch.

While Lang and Chaplin satirised the contemporary theme of humans enslaved by machines, strikingly, the very first use of the word “Robot”, derived from an Old Slavonic word for “slave”, was in the 1920 Czech play by Karel Capek, R.U.R. – Rossums’ Universal Robots – which foresaw intelligent, autonomous androids – the robots - not enslaving humans, but replacing them altogether. And as time and technology have progressed, R.U.R. seems somewhat less fantastical than it did back in post-Habsburg Prague – or even in 1938 when it was the first ever sci fi TV programme broadcast by the BBC. 

The human factor has diminished, not only in physical effort but in mental processing too. Almost by stealth, unnoticed by many and incomprehensible to most, this is now the defining issue of our time, greater even than the danger of climate change because, in the end, it may be either our deliverer from disaster or the harbinger of our end. 

The development of computers and the rise of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) has transformed our world. First in the 1920s and 1930s as automated calculating machines capable of processing data much faster than humans and then, with huge investment by all the belligerent powers during the Second World War, used for a range of purposes including by Alan Turing as a decoding machine at Bletchley Park, drove the dynamic rapidly forward. As Martin Ford chronicles in “The Rise of the Robots”, its capacity now doubles every eighteen months or so – for example, there is many more times computing power now available in a Smartphone than used in the Apollo Moon landings. The invention of the silicon chip and subsequent miniaturisation, ever faster processing and increasing automation has led to more and more functions requiring little or no human input at all. 

From domestic appliances through the omnipresent internet to automated factories and semi-autonomous military machines, automation has made possible whole aspects of life that even two decades ago would have seemed fantastical. Seemingly light years on from the giant mainframes of the 1940s and 1950s, smaller and more powerful computers have become everyday items. Real robots, including a growing number in ever more human-like android form, have emerged in virtually every arena of society. And there is little sign of this slowing down.

The consequences have been and will be profound, far beyond the immediate purpose of any piece of technology itself. As the majority of this is being driven by profit-seeking companies, albeit often subsidised in one way or another by public funds, the appeal of employing automated tech rather than people is obvious - robots, living up to the origin of their name, don’t take holidays, fall sick, demand pay rises, join unions, go on strike, take breaks or need sleep. Yet there is precious little public debate and even less control over the new world that is being shaped by the R&D wing of post-(Henry) Fordist capitalism. 

Previous waves of new machinery have of course destroyed old industries and created new ones. While this often led to resistance from established owners and workforces, ultimately it provided sufficient benefit to be at least tolerated and often embraced by the societies it served. What Keynes referred to as “a temporary phase of maladjustment” ultimately gave way to new forms of previously unimagined work and in time to higher living standards for workers as well as owners. 

We can be replaced
So, some have argued, fears of the current wave of change leaving hundreds of millions, if not billions, of human workers surplus to requirements could be misplaced. While Oxford academics Carl Frey and Michael Osborne have infamously predicted artificial intelligence will replace 47% of current jobs by 2030 (a prediction for the US economy – their UK figure stands at around 30%), US Professor of Economics Robert Gordon argues it will be a somewhat more conservative 15%.
He is joined in this caution by Marxist academic David Harvey, who points to the exponential growth in the global labour force in the last few decades as a counter to those proclaiming the end of human work. While western countries like the UK and USA do show symptoms of the beginning of a shift to a low job, hi-tech economy, their recent “jobless recoveries” can equally be attributed to the outsourcing of jobs to new low wage labour markets first in post-Soviet eastern Europe and then in South and East Asia. Harvey has pointed to this though as a one-off process, unable to be repeated on our finitely sized planet.

However, others such as Martin Ford claim that, this time, the new tech revolution is different in a number of ways. In the past, changes in industrial processes often occurred over many years, even generations, and still required human input to function. Now, however, the pace is infinitely faster and the impact deeper and far more destructive than with past tech-shocks. There is far less time to understand and accommodate change and disruption is so great that the entire economic system itself seems increasingly unstable and inherently unable to correct itself. 

The destruction of whole labour forces at a macro-economic level could sound the death-knell of the very consumer markets that capitalism requires to survive and thrive. Yet, at the micro-economic level which predominates in our economic system, the self-interest of individual companies in maximising competitive advantage over their rivals means that the drive to replace the labour of human hands and brains with the micro-processing units and silicon chips of robots will continue apace. 

Auto-waiter McDonalds, Leeds
Apocryphally, this change can be most strikingly observed in High Streets everywhere – supermarkets led the way with the euphemistically named “fast-lanes” where customers scan and pack their own purchases, interrupted only by the barking tones of the A.I. warning about unexpected items in the bagging area and harsh metallic alarms demanding that the sole human employee on duty should guess the age of the person trying to scan porn DVDs alongside their cornflakes. Many other retailers have followed suit in whole or in part – McDonald’s are rapidly replacing human order-taking with a forest of large consoles in each of their outlets and some fully automated servers are already being trialled. Whilst humans will not entirely disappear from the retail experience for many years yet, our numbers are set to drop dramatically.

The migration of much consumer shopping online has further hastened this dehumanisation of labour. In Amazon warehouses robots perform ever more of the distribution sequencing required to get your exotic brand of toothpaste from the shelf to a box to a delivery drone. Even in the City of London, algorithms have replaced human traders to undertake the scandal that is “split-second trading”. 

In the midst of this sits the military-industrial complex, now as in the days of Empire, driving and funding much of the research that is creating ever-more ingenious and terrifyingly powerful possibilities. The military application of A.I. has seen the rise of remote-piloted drone technology to the point that the USAF and the RAF are training more drone operators than pilots. Military robots akin to props out of bad science fiction movies are already a reality and the next major phase is to move towards truly independent, autonomous weaponry, guided and limited by nothing but the algorithms of its software. As human soldiers become redundant, the risk of conflict is likely to grow both in frequency and ferocity, with untold “collateral” impact.
AI Dog Soldiers

Robert Gordon and others may try to downplay it, but the human factor in the workplace is in long-term decline. According to the number-crunching analysis of Frey and Osborne, a host of roles from credit analysts, cooks and estate agents to crane operators, taxi drivers and baggage porters will disappear, while others such as solicitors will find software replacing large numbers of their profession.

Some human roles will be relatively immune – work requiring significant precision and manual dexterity, such as plumbing or gas engineering, will not be possible to replace using the level of robotic technology likely to be available in the next two decades. Similarly, while A.I. programmes like Deep Blue may be increasingly good at winning chess championships, even cutting-edge android robots like Asimo remain somewhat less adept at clearing and cleaning the spectators’ area after the match is over - so people with mops and dusters are likely to remain in demand. Likewise, “cognitive roles” requiring a high level of human interaction and understanding, such as psychologists, surgeons, engineers and fashion designers should be safer – so, perhaps sadly, will PR execs. For now.

Yet while there is much debate over both the pace of these changes and their foreseeable limits, nearly all commentators agree on though is that any future tech-driven capitalist society will be divided between an ever-smaller elite of owners and specialists on one hand and literally billions of dispossessed “surplus” humans on the other. Rampant inequality, far worse than even today, will become the norm as a world of abundance is skewed between utter excess for the few and deepening scarcity for the many. 

Martin Ford’s research shows in some detail how this is already happening – the share of surplus value paid to workers is falling rapidly as automation bites, even in newly prosperous economies such as China. In the UK, the percentage of national wealth distributed via employees’ wages has fallen by nearly a fifth since the 1970s in spite of GDP more than doubling in real terms and corporations raking in record returns. Under present conditions, this will simply get worse. Traditional professions and training routes via university courses and apprenticeships will be meaningless to individuals’ search for employment and there will be little time to adapt or invent significant new areas of work likely to generate well-paid work. 

In this new paradigm, the nightmare scenarios proliferate: will the rich elite exist effectively in their own supra-economy, operating apart from the rest of society, not unlike a virtual representation of the off-world gated community of capitalists in the film Elysium? Or, with their markets gone, will capitalists turn increasingly to the co-option of state power to keep them afloat, perhaps finally shedding even the slightest pretence of our current pseudo-democratic forms?

Though a good number of the rich are reportedly buying up post-apocalyptic bolt-holes for themselves, the second option seems for now the most likely and is probably the most appealing for most capitalists. Under this, the State steps in to save not capitalism, as it will be dead in even its most badly reanimated form, but rather the capitalists themselves. 

Neoliberalism has excelled in the seizure of public power and resources to the benefit of private companies and shareholders in the name of a non-existent free market. Its final, climactic purpose as the suicidal capitalist system passes into history, will be to cement the power of the final gang of owners of the world into a new plutocratic royalty for the Third Millennium. And with yet more irony, the leading advocates of one of the key economic measures to achieve this rescue of the damned elite see themselves as radical challengers to the very system that is set to incorporate their Big Idea.

That idea is known by many names – unconditional basic income, citizens’ income, universal credit among them – and has a diverse range of proponents. Broadly, the concept is that, in a society where high-producing technology means there is not enough human work to create big enough consumer markets to keep the economy functioning, the State intervenes to make a regular payment to its citizens which they can then use to purchase the essentials of life and, just maybe, a little bit more. In this way, the economy keeps turning with some minimum level of demand propping up the balance sheets of the big corporations. 
There have been various experiments with UBI including in Canada, the Netherlands and Sweden, and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has recently announced UBI pilots will take place in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fife and North Ayrshire. Some of the oil states, like contemporary Iran, provide a form of basic payment as a “dividend” to the countries’ citizens from their natural resources, while South Africa makes a healthcare payment (predominantly, but not exclusively, to women), examined in James Fergusson’s Give A Man A Fish, which is intended to ensure the well-being of the poorest. 

In the UK, as well as the SNP’s recent interest, the Greens have championed what they call Citizens’ Income, although they have done so in the teeth of vicious opposition from the media and from Establishment politicians who derided it as at best utopian and at worst a charter for the feckless. Given the psychological conditioning of the public to believe that money must be earned via ideally full-time work, the derision of the Greens as hopelessly idealistic struck a powerful chord with many voters. But times change and the Green Party’s trail-blazing had led more recently to Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell considering it as an option for a Corbynite social democracy. 

Capitalists have been relatively slow to advocate what, by the finest of Protestant work ethics would be derided as the sin of free money. Yet some are gradually concluding that it would be an effective means of saving capitalism from its inherently self-destructive genetic code. Ford himself recommends it as the basis for a new economy, though he argues that any basic income payment should not be unconditional but dependent on recipients undertaking some sort of currently unpaid community work, allegedly to avoid creation of a dependence culture.

By contrast, the left-wing argument for it as a dividend for sharing out the common wealth (the “robot dividend”, perhaps) is superficially appealing and even just. Much would of course depend on the level of payment, whether or not it was truly unconditional and how it interplayed with the rest of the economy. While ecosocialists argue it should not negate measures such as living wage legislation, other allegedly progressive proponents claim that a sufficiently high level UBI would remove the need for any wage protection as people could simply refuse badly paid work – a rather unworldly view of how the labour market works, especially in a world with huge surpluses of workers.

And this is the problem - by itself, UBI is just a tool and like any tool can be used to very different ends. Alone it does nothing to challenge the inherent inequality of capitalist society. It does nothing to rein in consumerist desire to pillage our planet of its diminishing resources. It does nothing to wrest control or ownership of the economy from the hands of a tiny elite – indeed, potentially it does quite the opposite, providing a basic level of demand in an automated economy, thwarting social change and locking citizens ever more into a system that kindly doles out their “income”. It does mark the end of capitalism as we have known it – nothing more will melt into air and the nostrums of private ownership and bourgeois hierarchy will be frozen like corpses in a morgue; and if we persist with a zombified market system, the morgue will be where we will stay.

And in that ossified condition, right-wing “libertarian” economist and author of “Average Is Over” Tyler Cowen salivates that, “This is not a world where everyone is going to feel comfortable…The world will look much more unfair and much less equal; and indeed it will be.” While the rich control untold wealth generated by automation, such human work as remains will be in serving their whims: “Making high earners feel better in just about every part of their lives will be a major source of job growth in the future.”

So here comes the challenge for socialists: do we back UBI as anything more than an important but transitional arrangement to protect people from the worst ravages of the transformation of our economy? As long as a monetary system continues, a Citizens’ Income would be a useful method for ensuring a fair distribution of wealth, but this would be a very different use to the idea of using it to keep a market system ticking over in the absence of sufficient paid employment. So do we focus instead on how to embrace and harness the powerful changes underway to deliver a society where material abundance allows us to eventually do away with markets and much, if for now not all, labour?

For Cowen’s dystopian world is not the inevitable outcome of automation and improved A.I. While acknowledging some inequality is driven by technological changes, Robert Gordon stresses that this is because of a choice: previous post-war technological advance led to greater equality and a much larger share of GDP going to employees. But since the days of Reaganomics and Thatcherism, “The nature of innovation…has created a sort of winner-takes-all society. Part of the difference today is political.”
Back in 1965, Bookchin posited:
“The question is whether a future society will be organised around technology or whether technology is now sufficiently malleable so that it can be organised around society.”

He was writing in the days of giant mainframes and transistors – even something now as antiquated as dialup networks using telephone cables would have seemed a revolutionary fantasy to all but the most visionary. Where we are now, exponentially on from Bookchin and several epochs from the steam and iron contemporary to Marx and Engels, the needs of all can finally be met – but only if we revolutionise the whole pattern of ownership and crucially of distribution of goods and services.  

Bookchin’s own thinking was a synthesis of ecology, anarchism and socialism. His advocacy of small-scale communities and communal ownership has become increasingly feasible thanks to the decentralisation and specialisation permitted via ever more flexible software programmes and technologies such as 3D printing. As we urgently need to move to more localised economies in the face of resource depletion and climate change, his ecosocialism has become all the more urgent and essential too. In this, UBI will have a positive, transitional role to play, but it should not be a long-term objective – because that should be nothing any less audacious than removing markets from all but the smallest scale economic activity, eventually removing the very need for money at all.

Imagine a confederation of self-governing canton-like communities, using largely automated technology to manufacture goods from local resources and then distributing them according to need. Imagine a world where these communities are largely self-sufficient but where the internet, renewable energy and low cost, emission-free (driverless) public transport facilitates the exchange of items of cultural interest or significance. Imagine a world where, rather than firing and impoverishing half of us, technology has created a five-day weekend. Imagine a world where people are free to explore their creativity and enjoy leisure without guilt or capitalist concepts of being “time poor” or “debt-ridden”. Psychologically, freed of the burden of want and the desire for acquisition, society would seek out new ways to find human fulfilment, a society that unleashes what Bookchin argued is the “basic sense of decency, sympathy and mutual aid (which) lies at the core of human behaviour.”

These are all potential liberatory and egalitarian scenarios for the future of our species and our world. But we won’t find our way to them under capitalism or its pending Pluto-Corp PLC upgrade. For in this time of transition, or age of disruption, one thing is for certain – capitalism has served its historical purpose. Its relentless drive to put profit over people and planet has entered a stage of such excess that it renders the system dysfunctional and for some decades already only the deployment of the coercive powers of the very State have shored up its beleaguered hold on society. 

And all this comes before we face the full, deep impact of the changes that are coming ever faster on the horizon – changes which are just the first of many which will mark this century far more profoundly and irreversibly than any that have come before in the Anthropocene Era. For, far beyond anything anticipated by Ford, Frey or Karl Marx, the nexus of genetic engineering and cybernetic biotechnology threatens to transform the very core of what we consider to be human. 

Yuval Harari, author of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”, warned in a 2015 New Statesman essay that “They (the tech-elite) dream not only about remaking society and the economy, but also about overcoming old age, defeating death, engineering superhumans, creating the Internet of Things and merging human beings into the Internet of Things to form some kind of cosmic consciousness.”
Google has set up a Life Sciences investment company charged with a mission “to solve death”, while PayPal founder Peter Thiel is investing a chunk of his $2.2 billion fortune in research to upgrade humans and fight mortality. Much may be fantasy, but just as the potential of material utopia finally really does cleave into view, so too does the prospect of the rebirth of eugenics and its appalling consequences.

Harari berates the managerialism of contemporary mainstream politics, with myopic leaders rarely lifting their eyes from the four or five years ahead and, by default, ceding the great visions of tomorrow to the plutocratic geeks quartered in Silicon Valley. “The most important decisions in the history of life might be taken by a tiny group of engineers and business people, while politicians are busy arguing about immigration quotas and the euro.

We need visionary politics more than ever. We need a politics that transcends hustling for cyclical elections to powerless legislatures that are bogged down between bureaucratic paralysis and the bullying of the Establishment. No more gradualism or liberalism or even social democracy. We no longer have the time. Now, more than ever, we face the stark but very real choice espoused nearly a century ago by Rosa Luxemburg: that of socialism or barbarism. 

The socialism of a society where the great bounty of commonly-owned technology is equitably and sustainably shared among the inhabitants of our planet. A society where work is much reduced, replaced by leisure and learning, and where clean energy, an economy of the Commons and social justice keep Homo Sapiens safe, in some balance with the natural world and ready to finally fulfil all that we can be.

Or, alternatively, the barbarism of a pseudo-capitalist dystopia where the elite shore up their decaying economics by employing the very tech that could free us all to instead bind us with ever more virtual chains, weighing us down with suspicion and surveillance as our world is racked by resource depletion and climate change. A world where the genetically modified, trans-human inheritors of capitalism will soon enough build that Internet of Things, a veritable Skynet, in the profane name of public wellbeing and national security. And somewhere, arguing that if they don’t do it, a competitor will instead, someone will build a Terminator.

And it won’t have an OFF switch.

“In a future revolution, the most pressing task of technology will be to produce a surfeit of goods with a minimum of toil. The immediate purpose of this task will be to open the social arena permanently to the revolutionary people, to keep the revolution in permanence. Thus far, every social revolution has foundered because the peal of the tocsin could not be heard over the din of the workshop. Dreams of freedom and plenty were polluted by the mundane, workday responsibility of producing the means of survival…. The most critical function of modern technology must be to keep the doors of the revolution open forever!”
-          Murray Bookchin, “Towards A Liberatory Technology”

NB - this article originally appeared in The Point, online Scottish socialist journal.

Towards A Liberatory Technology”, within “Post-Scarcity Anarchism” by Murray Bookchin, AK Press, Edinburgh, 2004. Also available as free download at:
The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment” by Martin Ford, Basic Books, New York, 2015
 Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism” by David Harvey, Profile Books, London, 2014
Inventing the Future: Post-Capitalism and a World Without Work” by Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams, Verso, London, 2015
Who owns the future?” article by Yuval Harari, “New Statesman” magazine, 12-18 June 2015
You’re Next” article by John McDermott, “Prospect” magazine, April 2014
Immigrants from the Future” Special Report, The Economist, 29 March 2014

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Red Star Rising - Art, Culture and Betrayal in the Russian Revolution

End of St Petersburg film (1926)
The Dream of LeonTrotsky...

"Under socialism, solidarity will be the basis of society. Literature and art will be tuned to a different key. All the emotions which we revolutionists, at the present time, feel apprehensive of naming - so much have they been worn thin by hypocrites and vulgarians - such as disinterested friendship, love for one's neighbour, sympathy, will be mighty ringing chords of socialist poetry.... All the arts - literature, drama, painting, music and architecture - will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonised, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe or a Marx. And above this ridge, new peaks will rise." (from "Literature and Revolution")

The aspirations of this key architect of the October revolution were not only ambitious but, to a modern western reader they likely seem surprising, especially the references to physical changes in a post-revolutionary Homo Sovieticus. Yet their very antithesis to the realities of the early 20th century for the mass of Russian serve to illustrate just how barbaric Czarist society was.

For Russia in early 1917 was uniquely different to all the other major European powers that had been at war over the previous two and a half years. Unlike Imperial Germany, it had only a small industrial base - largely owned by either the Czarist state or by foreign investors - amidst an ocean of great rural estates and tens of millions of peasants. Unlike France, it had only a statistically insignificant bourgeoisie class which was completely incapable of demanding or consolidating even a mildly representative government.

And unlike Britain, although he was Queen Victoria's grandson, there was no constitutional limitation at all on the authority of the Czar. Nicholas Romanov ruled by the Divine Will and was answerable only to God; any claim otherwise was a sin against the Creator - the Orthodox Church said so. Indeed, the title Czar was derived via the medieval Christian Byzantine Empire from the Caesars of the Roman Empire and Moscow was deemed to be the Third Rome (after the New Rome of Constantinople, which had succeeded the eponymous one on the River Tiber).

Western propaganda has often sugar-coated the Russian Empire and its ruling class, epitomised by sickly sentimental cinema outings like Nicholas and Alexandria and the BBC 1970s TV drama Fall of Eagles. How awful, we are told, were the fates of the Imperial family and so many of the nobles and fellow-travellers, dispossessed of their lands and at best forced into exile or shot by firing squads or, even worse, forced to work for a living alongside everyone else in the new Soviet state. 

But, in truth, Russia was a dreadfully under-developed society. As well as a political system that subordinated everyone to the Emperor's Will and crushed all dissident political expression, it remained mired in medieval feudalism right up to 1881 when the peasantry was finally released from the bondage of serfdom. This meant that the predominant economic form was agrarian and indeed when Napoleon had invaded in 1812, he found a land with only three cities of any note existing - Kiev in the Ukraine, Moscow in the Slav heartlands and St Petersburg, the sole modern city, deliberately founded by Peter the Great in the extreme west of his domains to occidentalise the Russian elite.

From Peter onwards, the Imperial Government often tried to modernise Russia from the top and so developed state-owned heavy industry from the 1880s onwards, drawing several million peasants off the land and into giant factory complexes and the grinding poverty and disease of 19th century urban life. To link these, railways were built across the Empire, often using prison labour, with the Trans-Siberian line being one of the greatest, and bloodiest, achievements of its time, stretching from Moscow in the centre of European Russia all the way to distant Vladivostock on the Pacific coast.

There was no Empire-wide education system and illiteracy was rife. There were middle class professionals like doctors, lawyers and technical specialists, but they were few in number. There was a larger group of notaries employed around the Empire to run the Imperial bureaucracy, but given their position they were dependent on the state and so posed no challenge. Universities in the cities and larger towns did produce some open-minded students and teachers, but they were  met with suspicion and surveillance by the authorities.

Okhrana secret police 1905
Nervous of any challenge at all, the Czarist government created a secret police bureau - the Okhrana - which employed a huge range of methods to neutralise the opposition. This included setting up police-run trade unions to undermine the labour movement, routinely intercepting mail, torturing suspects and deploying agents provocateurs to infiltrate everything from revolutionary cadres to famine relief charities. Sometimes this reached ludicrous depths - one possibly apocryphal account from the town of Kazan claimed that the local Social Revolutionary Party committee disbanded after its 12 members gradually realised that they were all secret policemen.

This repression extended to imprisoning hundreds of thousands of real and imagined opponents in distant penal colonies in Sibera where a huge proportion perished in appalling conditions. Closer to the heart of the Empire, strikes were routinely crushed by the clubs of the police, and Jewish communities, already largely confined to the south of Ukraine, were singled out for bloody pogroms by the Czar's paramilitary organisation of Christian stormtroopers, the chillingly named Black Hundreds. Indeed, it was the Okhrana agent Matvei Golvinstei who is credited with creating the fake Protocols of the Elders of Zion, subsequently employed by Adolf Hitler to demonise the Jews and justify the Holocaust.
Jewish pogrom victims in Odessa, 1905
So at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Russia was a repressive, under-developed police state ruled by a despot who reneged on the limited political reforms of his grandfather and whose governance was a mix of arrogance, incompetence and sheer sloth. It was the epitome of imperialism, a Prison of the fifty-odd nations its borders encompassed, and its only impetus to modernise stemmed from its desire to match the military strength of its more developed rivals. It well deserved the name given to it by Daniel Beers' book on the Czarist penal system, The House of the Dead.


In this House of the Dead, people still dreamed and schemed of better times. Das Kapital was passed by the Czarist censors who clearly failed to grasp its significance, and it became required reading among opponents of the Czarist system. Anarchism and Marxism became the main strands of thinking among revolutionaries – the absence of any parliamentary outlet or a significant bourgeoisie class meant that liberalism was eclipsed from the outset by more radical beliefs. 

Unsurprisingly, it was in cultural activities that revolutionary feeling was first expressed – sometimes the censors caught it in time, other times not. And in the 19th century, it was in novels that socialist writers began to bring their hopes of new societies to wider audiences than the small study groups of professional activists.

Russian literature was beset for a long time by turgid novels praising the Slavic nation, wrapping up vaguely mystical concepts of race with Orthodox religion. It was relentlessly conservative in its values  - even if some like Tolstoi challenges the corruption of the moneyed classes, he looked backwards to an imagined community than forward. This changed in 1863 when the writer Nikolai Cheneyshevsky published “What Is To Be Done?” – a novel that inspired Lenin to political activism and famously gave him the title for his own polemic in 1903 when he outlined his view of the Bolsheviks’ strategy. Chernyshevsky was himself in prison when he wrote it but was given permission to send it to his former newspaper employer to publish it.

Cherneyshevsky’s central character is a woman, Vera Pavlovna, who escapes a traditional family and marriage to make her own way in the world. As she makes her way, he introduces her to co-operative societies based on the traditional peasant commune, gender equality and above all the duty of the wealthy intellectual to work for the revolution. This latter theme of an intellectual vanguard bringing enlightenment and liberation to the poor was to feature from then on all the way up to and through the 1917 revolutions and its influence on Lenin’s own thinking was to have a crucial impact on the fate of the revolution.

What Is To Be Done? introduced the concept of the dedicated revolutionary in the form of a character called Rakhmetov. To him, the end justified the means and he was prepared to both inflict and endure great suffering in the cause. He comes from a noble family but lives a life of poverty in order to spread revolutionary thinking to the masses, working as a boatman on the Volga and sleeping on a bed of nails just to prove to himself the extent of his devotion.

Chernyshevsky wrote a number of other political tracts about ideal societies and he even developed thinking on the architecture of self-contained communes that influenced a lot of Soviet planning in the 20th century. But it was the character of Rakhmetov that had the greatest immediate impact – it led to the founding of the Land and Freedom society. 

This was an organisation of younger middle and upper class revolutionaries who in the 1870s went out among the peasantry to educate them in revolutionary thinking.  It was very paternalistic and failed fairly quickly to engage the masses, but unlike previous groups, it was the first to use violence to pursue its aims and an offshoot of it, Narodnaya Volya, the Peoples Will, went on to assassinate the mildly liberal Czar Alexander in 1881. It was also bound by a tight comradeship and centralism. Among its members was Alexander Ulyanov, brother of Vladimir Illich Ulyanov, later Lenin, who was executed after a failed plot to assassinate the next Czar. Lenin himself praised both the organisation and Chernyshevsky’s book, and he read it many times during his younger days.

Unsurprisingly, just as revolutionary thinking was not monolithic, nor were revolutionary organisations. Very broadly, they divided between the Social Revolutionaries, who advocated a Russian agrarian socialism developed on from Marxism by the exiled noble Alexander Herzen and founded very much on the peasantry. It was like the Peoples Will and Land and Freedom still run by middle class activists – but unlike the Social Democrats, they tended to be people whose work took them among the poorer communities – so doctors, nurses and teachers were often in local SR leaderships, whereas the Marxist Social Democrats founded by the wealthy industrialist Plekhanov and joined by Lenin drew more heavily from lawyers, university lecturers, journalists.

So, very broadly, by the time of the 1905 revolution, the Social Revolutionaries were well established among the rural peasantry, while the Social Democrats were organised among the smaller but economically vital urban working classes. They had ideological differences over the status of peasant smallholders and whether to communalise or collectivize the land; they disagreed as well on tactics – the SDs confined their use of violence to sending Stalin, or Koba as he was known then, out on bank jobs to raise funds; the SRs on the other hand loved nothing more than a good assassination and they even set up the SR Combat Organisation to lead this – and the party’s Maximalist wing rejected the idea of two stage revolutions between bourgeois democratic and proletarian socialist phases, calling instead for immediate revolution.

The failure of the 1905 revolution was a blow to all revolutionaries even though nearly all their leaders from the outset were both surprised by its sudden emergence and sceptical about its success. Lenin and many others were in exile in western Europe at the time and the only prominent returnee was Trotsky, who chaired the St Petersburg Soviet and ended up in prison after a show trial staged by the Czarist state but directed by Trotsky – he even arranged for the defendants to have a group photo taken relaxing in the courtroom. Had TV existed then, who knows how it might have then played out. However, it didn’t and he was sent to jail and then Siberia, before escaping for a second time.

Trotsky and other Soviet members at their 1906 trial
The Social Democrats had themselves ruptured at their 1903 Congress held in Brussels and London between the Bolshevik faction – which means the majority although they were in fact the minority – led by Lenin and the Mensheviks under Martov, which means the minority although they were at first the majority. The nub of the dispute was over Lenin’s proposal for a small, tightly controlled party of full-time revolutionaries and Martov’s vision of a mass party engaged in street demonstrations and strikes.

Among the Bolsheviks, Aleksander Bogdanov had been in Russia throughout the 1905 events and was a rival for the leadership until he was expelled in 1909.  His background was in psychiatry and science, and he was attracted to the logic of Marxist systems and he is now himself seen as an originator of systems theory. Like Chernyshevsky, he used literature to advance his political ideas to a wider audience and in 1907 he used the new medium of science fiction to produce the book Red Star, now largely forgotten but which became one of the best selling novels of pre-first world war Europe.
In this, Bogdanov’s narrator is taken off to Mars in a spaceship by an interplanetary socialist called Menni who introduces him to an egalitarian world where individualism has been largely extinguished, there is no hierarchy, gender is fluid and love is free. The plot centres around an environmental crisis faced by the Martian Soviet and it is a good if different read. 

Alexander Bogdanov
Lenin was not at all impressed but the influence of the novel in exploring how a new world might work and what life could be like for its inhabitants had a deep resonance in contemporary Russia, where the Czar was quickly unravelling the limited concessions given to stem the revolutionary tide of 1905 and 1906.

Still, all these cultural initiatives to challenge the status quo remained the preserve of professional revolutionaries. Many were in exile and those that were still inside Russia did not develop extensive links with trade unions nor did they bring large numbers of workers and peasants into the party. Indeed, in January 1917, Bolshevik membership was a mere 24,000 people.

Lenin himself saw nothing contradictory in this and he was far from alone in his vanguardism. Yet his language was far from comradely towards the workers. In his own What is to be done? he wrote:
"The history of all countries shows that the working class exclusively of its own efforts is only able to develop trade union consciousness - i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers and compel the government to pass necessary legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophical, historical and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the properties classes, by intellectuals."
Like all elitism, this was very out of step with the reality. In late January 1917, Lenin in Zurich exile told some young revolutionaries that he doubted he would live to see revolution in Russia. Yet when it came about just days later, the Russian Revolution was to be a world away in its form from that he had anticipated.

For a start, it was begun not by the Bolsheviks or Mensheviks or SRs who had been banging on about it for years. Nor was it begun by a bourgeois vanguard. Instead, it was women factory workers, ignoring the demands of the local Bolshevik committee that they stay and work, who marched out on International Women’s Day from the Vyborg district and proceeded into the city centre calling for bread and peace and for the overthrow of the Czar. When troops blocked their way across the bridges on the river Neva, they bravely clambered down to the riverside and walked across the ice. Within three days, joined by huge crowds of workers and soldiers, they swept away the Czar's regime with barely a shot fired and just a handful of deaths.

The hated  professional police literally disappeared, changing out of uniform to run down the street, while peasant conscript troops confined their officers to barracks and released political prisoners from the Fortress of Peter and Paul in St Petersburg. Centuries of autocracy just melted away. All the levers of power, the Court, the judiciary, the secret agents and all the humiliating subservience they demanded vanished in just four or five days.

And this moment unleashed a dramatic change in Russian society, one that felt itself across all classes and all walks of life - for a time, almost like the transformation predicted by Trotsky. The author of Dr Zhivago, Boris Pasternak, later recounted his own feelings via his lead character when he ruminated that:
"Revolution erupted forcibly like a breath held too long. Everyone revived, became transformed, transfigured, changed. Everyone seemed to experience two such upheavals - his own personal revolution and second one, common to all."

This liberation was expressed in many ways from February onwards.

Politically, it led to the creation of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies within hours of the resignation of the last of the Czars Ministers. This council was a recreation of the Soviets that revolutionaries had spontaneously created during the 1905 revolution and while the revolutionary parties all participated, it was joined by people from far outside their orbit. And this model soon expressed itself across much of the Empire.

Parallel to this, former members of the Duma, which the Czar had suspended in 1915, emerged to create a Provisional Government which was populated by liberal and conservative Ministers under Prince Lvov as Prime Minister. Only one social revolutionary, Alexander Kerensky, took part as Minister of War and without the formal support of his party. This was as much as the old regime could muster in defence of some form of continuity and from the outset it was in competition with the soviets as it attempted to defend private property, continue the war and repeatedly asked the country to wait for a Constituent Assembly to be elected to draft a new constitution. 

So the deference of the Empire was gone and this reflected itself in thousands of individual and collective acts against the old ways of things – palaces were requisitioned by crowds of homeless and hungry people. Workers and soldiers began to walk among the bourgeoisie and nobles promenading down Nevsky Prospect in Petrograd, something they would never have previously dared to do. And when the Provisional Government continued with the war, even mounting a new offensive in the spring which collapsed almost before it began, the response was more and more strikes and large demonstrations in the cities demanding peace, land and bread. 

In July, this rising tide led to a Bolshevik demonstration for a transfer of power from the Provisional Government to the Soviets almost running away with itself, much against the wishes of Lenin and Trotsky, and the party was subsequently outlawed and Lenin fled to Finland shaved by Stalin and disguised in a wig.

Briefly, it seemed like a fatal reversal, but at this point the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks made on their part a huge error – rather than join the Bolshevik demands for a transfer of power, they backed and joined the Provisional Govt and supported its policies on the basis of waiting for the Constituent Assembly, even though elections for it had been repeatedly delayed. Kerensky now took office as Prime Minister and heartily embraced his personal delusion by installing a bust of Napoleon in his office in the Winter Palace in Petrograd.

But Lenin caught the mood of the masses far far more effectively  with his pamphlet the State and Revolution, which outlined a programme for change involving peasant control of the land and workers control of the factories, and peace. Especially after an abortive coup against the Provisional Government by its own military appointee General Kornilov during August, the Bolsheviks, who had rallied the workers against the militarists, saw their representation on local Soviets rise dramatically, gaining outright majorities over the SRs and Mensheviks in Petrograd and Moscow and in many other cities.

So by the time we reach October, or early November under the new calendar, while the storming of the Winter Palace by Bolsheviks under the direction of the party’s Military Revolutionary Committee can be exaggerated in terms of its drama, there can be little doubt that the mood of the majority of the population was firmly in favour of ending the Provisional Government and transferring all power to the Soviets.
Eisenstein's "October" - the looming figure is Provisional Govt leader Kerensky
In less than eight full months, we see the politics of the Empire transformed into the nascent Soviet Union. But it is far, far more than a change in form of government – it is a change in how society works and how people think about themselves and others.  And this is a question for socialists down the ages – how to challenge successfully the deeply embedded mindsets in anyone who has been born and raised in a culture of deference and repression towards the self-autonomy and collectivism of a socialist or communist form of society. It goes far beyond constitutions or even forms of ownership – the Russian State already owned a far larger proportion of industry than most capitalist states – but about how people express themselves, work with each other and think.

This question brought into sharp relief two different strands within the Bolsheviks: those around Lenin who saw the revolution first and foremost as focussing on politics and economics; and those around Lunacharsky and Bogdanov, who believed it needed to challenge much more deeply held social and cultural norms and values. 

Lenin’s view of literature and culture were originally expressed in “Party Organisation and Party Literature” in 1903 and although at that time it was referring to party literature, once a one-party state was established, it was in effect extended to wider society:

"It is not simply that, for the socialist proletariat, literature cannot be a means of enriching individuals or groups; it cannot, in fact, be an individual undertaking, independent of the common cause of the proletariat. Down with non-partisan writers! Down with literary supermen! Literature must become part of the common cause of the proletariat, a cog and a screw of one single, great Social-Democratic mechanism set in motion by the politically conscious vanguard of the entire working class."

In contrast, Bogdanov and Anatoly Lunacharsky, who became the Commissar for the education and culture ministry Nakompros from 1917 to 1929, held to a much more libertarian approach and one focussed on enabling the self-expression of the working class. They had collaborated on this in exile and Bogdanov now returned to public life to organise the Proletarian Cultural and Educational Organisations – Proletkult, which was an independent federation of leftwing communists which Lunacharsky granted one third of the national adult education budget – over 9 million roubles to begin with. It grew by 1920 to 85,000 members with 300 multi-media studios operating across the state.
Proletkult conference 1918

Lunacharsky emphasised this independence:
"The people themselves, consciously or unconsciously, must evolve their own culture...The independent action of workers', soldiers' and peasants' cultural-educational organisations must achieve full autonomy, both in relation to the central government and the municipal centres."

Proletkult had its own internal tendencies and contradictions. Many bourgeois artists tried to climb onto easy funding to push their own patronising agenda on the working classes, and taking ballet and orchestras to factories and farms had a mixed reception from the workers, who Trotsky openly declared "usually lacks the most elementary habits and notions of culture in regards to tidiness, instruction, punctuality, etc."

But many in Proletkult took a different view – the absence of a working class culture of music, books and art was because it had been repressed and downtrodden. Proletkult to them offered a means to liberate the inherent potential of the workers. Some took this to the extreme of wanting to burn down libraries and smash up the artifacts in museums to represent a complete break with the past, but Lunacharsky intervened to preserve these.

Proletkult itself and the whole atmosphere that surrounded it unleashed a huge range of creativity.

Art was developed that was the forerunner of agit-prop, with artists such as Alexander Apsit developing revolutionary poster art – this was particularly effective in a society where illiteracy meant that pictures were the most powerful means of bringing ideas to many people.
So you find developed new art styles expressing political slogans like this:



The state developed a series of Agit-trains which trundled around the Soviet rail network with these on their side as mobile posters, stopping to show films and plays to workers and peasants who had never seen the like before. There was also the brilliantly named Agitational Ship Red Star, which sailed up and down the Volga. During summer 1919, these methods took the revolutionary message to nearly 3 million people and were crucial in winning over the volunteers who later that year began to turn the tide in the civil war with the White, Black and Green armies.

Much of the cultural activities of both Proletkult and Nakompros were on mass participation: on the anniversary of the revolution from 1919 onwards, huge tableaus involving thousands of workers, peasants and soldiers drew on traditions from the French revolution to bring genuinely popular participation into the events. 

In music, instruments like the thermin were deliberately adopted to break with the past and the Soviet Union can rightly lay claim to be the birthplace of electronic music. One of the more avant garde efforts was Arsenij Avraamov's Symphony of Sirens, which involved thousands of people in the Caspian port of Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, for the Fifth Anniversary of the Soviet Republic on 7 November 1922. This used a huge cast of choirs, the foghorns of the entire Soviet Caspian flotilla, two batteries of artillery guns, a number of full infantry regiments hydroplanes, and all the factory sirens of Baku. Conductors were posted on specially built towers with coloured flags and pistol shots. A central "steam-whistle machine" pounded out "The Internationale" and "La Marseillaise" as noisy vehicles raced across Baku for a gigantic sound finale in the festival square. It was later repeated in Moscow and can be heard in full on Youtube HERE.

Schematic for Symphony of Sirens
Writers also responded to the revolution with new styles of writing. Maxim Gorky had been a massively popular dissident writer under the Empire with his works like Mother and his reputation enabled him to establish the House of Arts as an independent force in literature. This was also sponsored by the Bolshevik Government through Nakompros and for three years it gave lodgings and food to writers to protect them from the privations of the civil war while they developed new revolutionary ways of writing. 

Translations of socialist writers such as H G Wells and Jack London were published by it, while Russian authors like Yvgenny Zemyatin, returned from exile in Newcastle, wrote plays that were intended to shed the verbose sentimentality of traditional Russian literature. By developing Soviet "NeoRealism" in writing - the florid, repetitive language of the Old Days was to be swept away. The Revolution was not just about breaking down the old barriers and extreme inequalities; it was also about a new way of thinking, living and expression - rational, efficient, and all the more powerful for it. One word should convey what in the past a dozen were used to describe; "written with 90-proof ink", as Zemyatin put it.

Similarly, in theatre, although Nakrompos protected traditional performances of Shakespeare, Proletkult Theatre brought avant-garde plays to the stage as well as adaptations of plays and prose by progressive western writers. Platon Kerzhentsev, a playwrite and ally of Bogdanov, headed this section of the movement and encouraged among others the later film-maker Sergei Eisenstein to direct and stage satirical pieces. 

First Workers' theatre
But the fostering of independent thinking and experimentation didn’t last.

Late 1920 into early 1921 saw the end of the civil war as the last of the Whites were expelled from Crimea and Vladivistock fell to the Red Army. The Soviet Union was exhausted and, although the fighting was largely over, the challenges it faced were potentially overwhelming. 

Trotsky, initially opposed by Lenin, argued that rather than demobilising the Red Army, the state itself should be militarised to repair the economy and infrastructure: the “war communism” adopted in 1918 primarily to ensure the Red Army was supplied would continue – so the ban on all parties but the Bolsheviks remained in place, strikes were prohibited, workers strictly disciplined, rationing continued, and any food surplus would be requisitioned from peasants by the central govt. Taylorism, the man-machine management philosophy of Henry Ford, was experimented with at Lenin’s instruction and Alexei Gastev, Head of the Institute of Soviet Labour proposed re-imagining workers as “proletarian units” with designation codes replacing their names.

It was in this environment that within the party, groups like the Left Communists and the Workers Opposition agitated for a return to grassroots democracy, while in the military fortress of Kronstadt soldiers and sailors mutinied and demanded that the Bolsheviks restore free elections to the soviets.
The response within the party was to ban all factions, while infamously Red Army units crossed the ice to retake Kronstadt and suppress the mutiny with over 3,000 mutineers killed in the fighting or executed afterwards.

In the midst of this crackdown, Lenin condemned Proletkult as dominated by petty-bourgeois intellectuals imposing decadent artistic schemes on the working class and in a notice in the party paper Pravda announced that from December 1920 it was to be subsumed into Nakompros. His wife, Nedezda Krupskaya, who was Lunacharsky’s deputy in charge of adult education had always opposed the Proletkult and she was heavily involved in developing cultural and education policy after its effective dissolution.

The change could be seen soon after.

Zemyatin tried to publish his science fiction novel WE in 1921. It is a satire on totalitarianism and Aldous Huxley admitted that it inspired him to write Brave New World. George Orwell denied ever reading it, but if you read We, it is quite obvious that he did.

In any case, WE became the first novel to be officially banned in the Soviet Union by Glavlit, the government body for literary policy. It was not published in the USSR until 1989 and Zemyatin had to get a single copy smuggled to Prague to get it published in his own lifetime. He was subsequently arrested several times but was allowed to go into exile in France after Gorky interceded on his behalf with Stalin.

The Commission for Newspaper Supervision was set up in 1922 as was the Commission to Monitor the Private Book Market. The head of AgitProp, Bubnov, every article and book published by non-party publishers was checked for subversion and authors were categories as revolutionary, Menshevist or Kadetist. Their fate was typified by the arrest of 61 non-party authors in September 1921. Although Gorky secured Lenin’s agreement for their release, the Cheka, the new state security organisation, shot all of them without trial.

And so, as time went by, the authoritarian nucleus at the heart of Bolshevism gradually suppressed much of the freedom of expression that was unleashed in 1917. Lenin’s own cultural tastes were very conservative – he admired Pushkin and classical music, and was baffled by much of the new forms in art and literature. Stalin was to continue this theme of falling back from the mass democracy of February 1917 through the leadership of the vanguard of October to the Red Tsar of the 1930s. 

 In cultural form, this was parallelled by the progression from the mass collective cast of the film The End of St Petersburg through the mix of leaders and people in Eisenstein’s 1927 celebration of the Bolshevik takeover October to the single prince-hero of his 1937 Alexander Nevsky. It was a trend that culminated under Stalin, but the gradual closing down of all but a single strand of party orthodoxy in politics and in culture began earlier and to return to Lenin’s original quote on the powerlessness of the working class in the absence of bourgeois leadership, it is a trend that it is fair to say was inherent in bolshevism from its inception.

Eisenstein's heroic noble Alexander Nevsky
But while we might lament the failure of true socialism in the Soviet Union, it would be wrong to suggest as some do that it was a complete failure or that there was some viable alternative in October 1917. Russian society was as a whole under-educated and under-developed at the time. The other socialist revolutionary parties were hopelessly compromised by their collaboration with the war parties and it was they, not the Bolsheviks, who excluded themselves from the revolutionary governmentt in November 1917. There were real threats from foreign powers and internal rightwing forces who would have shown no mercy at all if they had triumphed. Lenin, Trotsky, Lunacharsky and the other commissars of Sovnarkom faced existential crises for more years than they did not.

So in the end, that they created a society that dragged what had been the backward Empire up to superpower status in barely 20 years, eradicated illiteracy, developed the sciences to the point it was Soviets who were first in space and hugely improved the living conditions of the average Soviet citizen at work, in health and in housing, was an achievement unparallelled in history. It is one which, albeit with many qualifications, we should have some cause to celebrate and to remember the spirit that rose in 1917 and which we can only hope will soon rise again.
"Proletarian creation guarantees the world commune!"

"No Less Than Mystic" - John Medhurst, Repeater Books, 2017
"Trotsky", Edited by Irving H Smith, Spectrum Books, 1973
"Russian Writers and Soviet Society" -  Ronald Hingley, Methuen, 1981

N.b. - the core of this piece was orginally one of several contributions to a Wakefield Socialist History Group meeting on the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution.