Archive for the ‘Stalinism’ Category

More Thoughts on Reading ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’: The Enigma of Stalin

February 16, 2015

joseph-stalin

In her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt notes numerous similarities between Nazi Germany, on the one hand, and the Soviet Union under Stalin on the other. In particular, the use of terror – that is, the violent persecution of whole sections of the population – which Arendt sees as the defining characteristic of totalitarianism. (According to Arendt, the Soviet Union became totalitarian in 1930, whereas Nazi Germany didn’t become fully totalitarian until the Second World War.) According to Arendt, the aim of this terror is “total domination”, which will eventually lead to some ultimate goal: in the case of Nazi Germany, “world conquest”; in the case of Stalinist Russia, “world revolution”. I think Arendt was right about the first, but wrong about the second. It seems to me that Stalin pretty much gave up on world revolution after Hitler came to power in Germany (and maybe before then). Whet, then, was Stalin’s aim? Some have suggested that it was rapid industrialization, but Arendt argues that Stalin’s purges actually hampered industrial development. Scientists, engineers, and managers were swept up in the purges, depriving Soviet industry of needed expertise. Others have argued that Stalin was paranoid, although this fails to explain the deep trust that Stalin showed towards Hitler. (Stalin refused to believe his agents when they told him that Germany was preparing to invade the Soviet Union. According to Krushchev, Stalin suffered a nervous breakdown when he was informed of the attack.)

So, what was Stalin’s aim? It seems he enjoyed wielding power as an end in itself. He persecuted people because he could. At the time of his death, he was planning another massive purge, one that would begin by targeting Jews. It’s hard to see what this could possibly have accomplished. After Stalin’s death, the purge plans were dropped, and the Gulag was emptied out. According to Arendt, the Soviet Union ceased to be totalitarian at this point, reverting to a one-party dictatorship.

One is struck by how much Stalin’s personality drove events in the Soviet Union. As someone who has always been critical of the “Great Man” view of history, I find this troubling. As a Marxist, I have always tried to take as strictly materialist approach to historical events, but there seems to be times when this approach becomes inadequate.

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Leviathan

January 21, 2015

Leviathan_2014_poster

Leviathan, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, is a powerful film about corruption and decay in contemporary Russia.

Kolia (Alexei Serebriakov) lives in a run-down town on Russia’s Arctic coast with his wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and his son, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev). The property his house stands on is coveted by the town’s corrupt mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), who connives to have it taken away from him. Kolia gets an old army fried of his, Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who is now a lawyer, to help him fight the mayor.

Zvyagintsev shows frequent shots of abandoned and decaying buildings. Leviathan was filmed in the town of Kirovsk, located near Murmansk. This town has been steadily losing population since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Indeed, one possible interpretation of the film’s title is that the characters are living in the decaying carcass of the Soviet Union. In one scene, some of the characters go target shooting. They use for their targets pictures of Soviet leaders.

It’s perhaps an indication of Maxim’s venality that instead of fixing up one of the abandoned buildings, he desires a property that is occupied. Maxim expresses open contempt for Kolia as well as for the other residents of the town. His closest confident is the local high priest. When at one point, Maxim considers giving in to Kolia, the priest tells him, “All power comes from God. As long as it suits Him, fear not.” This moment sets off the series of events that ultimately destroy Kolia.

In the final scene, we see the rich people of the town listening to the high priest give a sermon. Maxim leans over and whispers to his son, “God is watching you.” This is the intertwining of religion and corruption.

Leviathan is a great film.

The Lives of Others

October 14, 2013

Leben_der_anderen

The East German Stasi were cavemen compared to the NSA. Their low-tech and labor-intensive bugging of individuals’ apartments seems crude and childish compared to the NSA’s wholesale monitoring of the Internet. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film, The Lives of Others is an un-nostalgic trip back to those more primitive days of government spying.

Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is a Stasi agent who has been assigned to spy on Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) a highly regarded East German playwright whom the Culture Minister, Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), suspects of having disloyal thoughts. The Stasi plant listening devices in the apartment that Dreyman shares with Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler proceeds to listen in on their private conversations. At the beginning of the film, Hempf tells Wiesler that “people don’t change”. (This is about as un-Marxist a statement as one could possibly make.) Yet as Wiesler learns about the tender relationship between Georg and Christa-Maria and about Georg’s grief over the suicide of a friend who was blacklisted by the government, he begins to change. He ends up falsifying his records to conceal the fact that Georg is planning to smuggle a document out of the country.

The Lives of Others is an understated film that creates suspense through the emotional states of the characters. It is also a film that affirms the possibility of human redemption. I consider it one of the best films of the last decade.

The film critic, Carrie Rickey, has claimed that The Lives of Others influenced Edward Snowden, but I have not been able to find any statements by Snowden that confirm this. In a way, though, this film does bear a similarity to the Snowden case, in that it depicts a government spy who comes to realize the wrongness of what he is doing.

Mad Russians and the American Left

August 31, 2012


Soon to be a contributor to CounterPunch and Dissident Voice.

Back in the 1930’s, there was a radio comedian named Bert Gordon, who was billed as the Mad Russian. His tagline was “How do you dooo!”, which you can hear in some Warner Brothers cartoons from that period. Gordon was enormously popular in his time, but, alas, he is largely forgotten today. Yet, the spirit of the Mad Russian lives on at some left-wing websites. At CounterPunch, Israel Shamir has become their resident authority on Russia, the Dreyfus Affair, and conspiracy theories.

Not to be outdone, CP’s rival, Dissident Voice, have their own mad Russian, Andre Fomine. His latest article is entitled Pussy Riot, the CIA, and Cultural Terrorism. In this article, we learn the shocking truth about Pussy Riot:

    No doubt it was not a single spontaneous act by a group of dissolute individuals but an episode of a much wider global campaign to shake and eventually ruin traditional societies and institutions. It is being carried out by the same powerful circles which inspired — e.g. offensive caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper in 2005.

Oh, my. From Pussy Riot to Danish cartoons. Who could possibly be behind this fiendish global conspiracy? Need you ask?

    It is an open secret that avant-gardism became popular in the West in 1950-1960s thanks to unprecedented support from the CIA and was used by the United States as a powerful ideological weapon.

The CIA. Why, of course! Aren’t they behind everything?

Fomine ends his article with a dire warning: “The puppeteers of Modern Art and Cultural Terrorism keep carrying out their mission.” [Emphasis in the original.]

Modern Art! Run! Flee! Hide!

In another article, entitled The Last Victory of Muammar Gaddafi, Fomine exposes the sordid truth behind the “Arab Spring”:

    First, there was nothing spontaneous in the wave of 2011 North Africa and Middle East revolutions. The popular unrests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, etc were carefully prepared, organized, financed and supported through international media. Quite surprisingly, Al-Jazeera played a critically important role in fueling the conflicts within Arabic societies spreading disinformation and blocking truthful and sober voices.

The media did it! And, as we all know, media = CIA. Fomine, however, ends his article on a cheerful note:

    Thus we are entering very interesting, perhaps decisive times. Muammar Gaddafi has won his last battle despite eluding vigor and insolent pressure from everywhere. Will there be any new Gaddafis born by Muslim mothers to resist the new world order? We hope and pray for that.

More Gaddafis! That’s exactly what we need! The comments on the thread for this article were adulatory. (“Excellent article. I am glad that the author had the courage to write it.” I’m not sure that “courage” is the right word.) When one commenter was churlish enough to point out that Fomine offers no evidence to support his claim about the Arab revolutions, he was promptly smacked down by another commenter who wrote:

    How do you expect the writer can supply you with what you call proof?!
    Do you expect him to hack computers or bulglarise certain offices and displays the documents here for you to see??!! Is that make sense?!
    There is something called commonsense combined with knowledge of history, precedents and good analytical ability!

Yeah, who needs evidence?

As you can imagine, I wanted to learn more about this truly original thinker, Andre Fomine. I found out that he edits a web journal called Oriental Review. There, you can find excerpts from a book by Nikolay Starikov entitled Who Made Hitler Attack Stalin. The latest installment is titled Leon Trotsky, Father of German Nazism. Lest you think that this title is meant as a joke, here is how the article begins:

    Who organized the February and October revolutions in Russia and the November revolution in Germany? The Russian and German revolutions were organized by British intelligence, with the possible support of the United States and France.

That’s right, British intelligence must have engineered the Russian Revolution, since it was a strategic defeat for the British empire. This is common sense. Displaying his extraordinary narrative skill, Starikov tells us:

    Dropped into Russia by British intelligence, thanks to a secret agreement with German secret services aboard the “closed wagon,” the Bolsheviks refused to leave the political scene.

That’s right, the Bolsheviks (all of them) were parachuted into Russia inside a sealed train car. (It must have been awfully uncomfortable, but they were willing to endure anything for the revolution.) Later, we learn:

    The main funding supplied to the Russian Revolution from American bankers was transferred through accounts in neutral Sweden and briefcases of inconspicuous figures stealthily entering the country.

Because there’s nothing bankers love more than a government that’s dedicated to abolishing capitalism.

Just by clinking on certain links on the Dissident Voice website, you can find this treasure trove of occult knowledge.

How do you dooo!

Alphaville

August 14, 2012

Jean Luc Godard’s 1965 film, Alphaville, is a mixture of film noir, science fiction, and surrealist fantasy. At some time in the future, Lemmie Caution (Eddie Constantine) is sent as a secret agent to a city called Alphaville. Although Alphaville is located on another planet, Caution is able to drive there in his Ford Mustang (identified as a “Galaxie” in the film). Caution’s mission is to find a man named Leonard Nosferatu (Howard Vernon) and bring him back to Caution’s home planet. This task turns out to be harder than Caution anticipated, for it turns out that Nosferatu, who has changed his name to Prof. Von Braun, has taken over Alphaville, which he runs using a super computer called Alph 60. Von Braun has outlawed emotions such as love, as well as art and poetry. The government is continually eliminating words from the language, so it has to continually issue new dictionaries without the proscribed words. Von Braun believes that he is making the people of Alphaville into a “superior race”, who will be able to conquer the universe. Caution meets, and falls in love with, Von Braun’s daughter, Natacha (Anna Karina). She ends up risking her life to help him.

Alphaville is Godard’s protest against what he sees as the coldness and cultural vacuity of modern life. It is also an attack on totalitarianism. (These three things are apparently interrelated in Godards’s view.) The talk of a “superior race” is clearly meant to remind us of Hitler. The outlawing of words is meant to remind us of Stalin. (It’s also similar to Orwell’s notion of “newspeak”.) Von Braun is obviously named after Wernher Von Braun, the engineer who designed rockets first for the Nazis and then for the United States. He was seen by many people as the epitome of the amoral technocrat. For Godard, such a person acts an enabler for the political and social forces that are destroying our world.

My one criticism of this film is a lack of continuity in the character of Caution. In some scenes, he behaves like a cold-blooded killer, as well as a bit of a misogynist. Yet in other scenes, he talks about the power of love and of poetry. This inconsistency may due to the fact that the film was largely improvised.

Alphaville is prescient in some ways. Randianism, which calls for a world of self-interest without human connections, is becoming the unofficial philosophy of the U.S. ruling class. Welcome to Alphaville.

The East Is Red

November 15, 2010

There’s a scene in the film, Mao’s Last Dancer, in which a group of children sing The East Is Red in a schoolhouse. The lyrics to the song struck me as so incredibly fatuous, that for a moment I felt as though I were watching some anti-communist propaganda film paid for with CIA money. I found it hard to believe that those could really be the lyrics, so I looked it up on the Internet.

The East Is Red was the unofficial national anthem of China during the Cultural Revolution. I’m told that it was played over PA systems in the morning and at dusk. These are the lyrics:

The east is red, the sun is rising.
China has brought forth a Mao Zedong.
He works for the people’s welfare.
Hurrah, He is the people’s great savior!
(Repeat last two lines)
Chairman Mao loves the people.
He is our guide
To build a new China.
Hurrah, he leads us forward!
(Repeat last two lines)
The Communist Party is like the sun.
Wherever it shines, it is bright.
Wherever there is a Communist Party,
Hurrah, there the people are liberated!
(Repeat last two lines)

Can you imagine having to listen to this every morning? This is one of the reasons that I’ve never been an admirer of Mao, and I’ve always been wary of people who admire him. The Chinese Revolution was a progressive event, in that it was a massive defeat for Western imperialism and it destroyed feudal relations in the Chinese countryside, but beyond that there’s not much that can really be said for it. Mao’s dictatorship mainly served to carry out the primitive accumulation that has made China’s transition to capitalism possible in recent years.

I had some experiences with Maoists when I lived in Los Angeles. There was a group called the Maoist International Movement (MIM). I never actually met anyone who was in this group, but I would find copies of their newspaper, MIM Notes, lying around at Los Angeles City College. I don’t remember much about it, except that it had an editorial policy of always spelling “America” as “ameriKKKa”. And I bet they thought they were really clever for doing that.

I knew some people who were in the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). They seemed nice, but a bit nutty. They had a bookstore in the downtown area. I went in there once. There was a picture of Stalin on the wall. They had copies of the writings of Marx and Lenin. They also had Selected Writings of Enver Hoxha. (I bet that was a big seller.) The RCP would form front groups, usually “coalitions” centered around local issues, such as police brutality. These would attract anarchists who prided themselves on never working with “Leninists”. Eventually they would realize that the RCP was calling the shots in these groups, and they would get mad and leave. This fits in with a pattern I’ve seen over the years. When one group with a particular agenda attempts to control everything in a coalition, it usually drives other people away.

Divided Heaven

October 24, 2009

In an effort to round out my required credits, I am currently taking a college course devoted to German cinema during the Cold War. There is one film that I saw recently that I found particularly interesting. It is called Divided Heaven (1964). It was made in East Germany and was directed by Konrad Wolf, based on a novel by Christa Wolf. It tells the story of a young woman, Rita (Renate Blume), who falls in love with Manfred (Eberhard Esche), an ambitious chemist. Rita spends part of her time attending a training institute for teachers and part of her time working at a factory that makes train cars. Manfred gradually becomes frustrated with the reluctance of authorities to adopt a new process he has developed for making dyes. He leaves for the West. Rita soon follows. She eventually becomes disenchanted with what she regards as the aimlessness of life in the West; she misses the sense of purpose she had in the East. She reluctantly decides to leave Manfred and return to the East.

One of the things I found most interesting about Divided Heaven was the portrayal of the factory workers. It quickly becomes clear that there are tensions between individuals: resentments, rivalries, petty jealousies. There are suspicions that the foreman, Meternagel (Hans Hardt-Hardtloff) is too eager to please management, and one of the workers, Wendland (Hilmar Thate) is regarded as a loud-mouth and a show-off. This is very different from the standard Stalinist portrayal of heroic workers selflessly devoting themselves to the cause of socialism. Another way in which the film departs from Stalinist “art” is that it doesn’t take a worshipful view of the Communist Party. For example, Manfred is contemptuous of his father, who was a Nazi during the Second World War, but joined the CP afterwards. (When Manfred departs for the West, his parents regard this as a good career move.)

In the scenes at the teachers’ institute, problems are caused by a student, Mangold (Uwe Detlef Jessen), who is a self-appointed enforcer of political orthodoxy. He tries to have a student expelled simply because she concealed that fact that her father had fled to the West. It takes an impassioned intervention by the institute’s director, Schwarzenbach (Günther Grabbert) to defeat his witch-hunt. Interestingly, political orthodoxy is not an issue for the factory workers. Perhaps because of the concrete nature of their work, it is simply impossible for them to concern themselves with ideological nit-picking. They are more concerned with practical questions, such as how much labor is reasonable to expect of people in a single day. The students at the institute, on the other hand, perhaps because of the more abstract nature of their concerns, are sometimes prone to drift into dogmatism and phrase-mongering.

Divided Heaven provides a sharp contrast to the cartoonish depiction of East Germany in another film I saw for this course, One, Two, Three (1961), an American film made in Germany , in which East Germans are shown marching around with signs saying “Yankee Go Home”. From what what I’ve read about this film it appears that, at the time of its release, critics thought this was brilliant satire.

I found Divided Heaven a bit hard to follow at times. The film jumps back and forth in time, and the characters are constantly referring to events in the distant past. (The voice-over narration doesn’t help much.) The fogginess of this film might at least be partly due to the fact that five different people worked on the screenplay. Nevertheless, Divided Heaven provides an interesting glimpse into that strange and evanescent place known as East Germany.