Saturday, September 27, 2008

Guest Post: Victor Serge- Memoirs of a Revolutionary

This little composition is not intended to be a recapitulation of the historic and biographic content that was eloquently disposed onto the pages of Serge's memoir. So though this review may appear to be on a work of belletristic nature, it is only because it is the aesthetic properties of his memoir that I found to be particularly profound. The francophonic author, born in Belgium, had joined the Bolshevik party after his arrival in Russia, which was only a short time after the October revolution of 1917. His experiences within the Soviet borders are largely what are expounded upon in the work. After the death of Lenin, he joined the Trotskyist/Left Opposition camp of Soviet politics in disgust of Stalin (though even broke relations with that movement over disagreements regarding the Krondstadt uprising and the role of the Cheka), which ultimately led to his arrest (he was eventually able to obtain a visa allowing him and his immediate family to depart from the Soviet Union, unfortunately the rest of his friends and family died in prisons and gulags).

Serge beautifully narrates in his memoirs a despondent environment but coupled it with a reluctant, but still, sanguine attitude. His memoirs are a reflection of an immensely complex personality, an extremely moral character, and above everything else, a genuine and categorical humanist. A piece of romanticism that really could melt the hardest of hearts, it puts the transcendentalists to shame! Throughout his memoirs, Serge recollects from his childhood, through the tumultuous beginning of the Soviet Union, the Spanish Civil War, and the Nazis moving through Europe. Solemnly, he describes the transition of many of his comrades shift from romantic idealists to brutal pragmatists. In contrast, it is also a tribute to his comrades who would sooner give up their lives than their principles, friend after friend, comrade after comrade, their lives prove to be nothing more than ephemeral, giving way to suicide, to execution, to illness, to starvation, to madness. Serge struggled internally with the concept of violence, with his utmost priority focused on humanity, he defended the initial revolutionary violence, but as he witnessed the ideology descend into bleak and brutal nihilism, he broke relations with all his former comrades, including Trotsky, who he affectionately referred to as "Old Man".

I beyond recommend this piece of literature, it is a must read for everyone.

Some closing words from Serge himself, of what he learned from his direct and personal experiences:
"What can I say that is at all essential, to these forty faces gathered together in the twilight between sky and sea, and blending with the stars? I have a faint inkling of what is really essential: that we have not lost after all, that we have lost only for the moment…It is no longer the revolutionaries who are making the world's tremendous revolution; it is the tyrannies that have set it going, it is the actual technique of the modern world that is breaking brutally with the past and throwing the peoples of entire continents into the necessity for starting life afresh on new foundations. That these foundations must be of social justice, of rational organization, of respect for the individual, of liberty, is for me a wonderfully evident fact which, little by little, is asserting itself beyond the inhumanity of the present time. The future seems to me full of possibilities greater than any we have glimpsed throughout the past. May the passion, the experience and even the faults of my fighting generation have some small power to illumine the way forward!"


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Guest Post: Salo: Film Review

As those of you close to me know, of all the modern arts, I have a certain special affinity towards the cinematic medium. My tastes I consider to be fairly eclectic, never leaning towards any specific genre, I will watch anything, silent German expressionism, Italian Neo-realism, Bollywood spaghetti westerns, trashy seventies exploitation, modern blockbusters, I will watch ANYTHING. With no guiding criteria regarding genre, I make an effort to watch the supposed zeitgeists of any given epoch, the cultural vanguards, or simply films whose singular purpose is to push certain cultural boundaries. Trash and sleaze included… Throughout my viewing history, I have seen a rather large amount of sleaze, films that are sordid even to me. Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust, the Japanese Guinea Pig series, anything that was ever put onto celluloid under the guidance of Jesus Franco. I have seen almost just about all of it. I then recently came across a film which had developed quite a notorious representation since, well probably before it was even released. It was a little piece of work created by a filmmaker that I greatly admire, Pier Paolo Pasolini. Though I have been vaguely aware of its existence, I never actually took the time to watch it (until recently of course), never really paying attention to the reputation that the film had acquired, that was….until someone told me it was probably the most vile thing they have ever seen, which I took to be a challenge. The film is titled Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

The second part of the title probably sounds familiar to some of you who might be familiar with the works of the Marquis De Sade. The film is an adaptation of the work, so that should already give you a hint as to what the film might be like. Though, Pasolini was not the first, nor last, filmmaker to adapt a work by De Sade for the cinema, what differentiates his work from most of the others who had made film adaptations of works by De Sade is level of competence, and it is this competence which also gives it that certain quality that makes the film that much more repulsive, for what makes those other films so trashy is their tastelessness and intent of exploitation, Paolo's work of vulgarity is a work of class and art. Throughout the film there is a stark contrast, rather even a dialectic (for Pasolini was an outspoken Italian communist) between that which is beautiful and that which is grotesque, speaking about both the aesthetics and ideologies presented in the film. Pasolini presented De Sade's tale in the context of World War II, cleverly mixing philosophical Sadism (as a philosophy of nature and morality, not to be mistaken with the word sadism) with the branch of nihilism that was adopted by the Nazis with the help of Elisabeth Forster (though the setting of the film is in Italy). Aside from simply being an assault on fascism, (Pasolini grew up in Fascist Italy), it was also an enquiry into sex, and how a certain culture can mold not only ideas about sexuality, but ones sexuality itself. The film in short, is about four men who ranked in the upper echelons of fascist society, the Duke, the Bishop, the Magistrate, and the President, and the film is broken up into four different chapters. The film starts off with the four men agreeing to marry each others daughters, then from there, they organize the kidnappings of a number of youth, both male and female, throughout the city of Salo. The victims of the kidnappings are then brutalized throughout the entirety of the film, this includes (indiscriminate of either sex) rape, torture, murder, forced acts of coprophagia, and much more, and all of this while a former prostitute who takes delight in the sufferings of the youths tells tales of her former life concurrent with a live romantic classical pianist.

Obviously, this is not a film that I recommend to everyone, but for those of you whose interest I have piqued, it is undoubtedly a film that you will not forget, whether you "enjoyed" it (this isn't really a film one enjoys) or absolutely hated it. Pasolini, who I consider to be rather ground breaking filmmaker (and not even really referring to this picture, if one is unfamiliar with his works I recommend the Hawks and the Sparrows or the Gospel According to St. Matthew prior to seeing Salo) certainly rid himself completely of all inhibitions when he created this film, keeping the content of the film as close as one can to the works of Marquis De Sade, and he did this by focusing more on the philosophical nature of De Sade's work and not just the sexual nature of his work (as what most exploitation films do). So not only is the aesthetic content of the film troubling to the senses, but also…the imputations regarding man, nature, philosophy, and morality (or there-lack-of).

Just as a little heads up, here is the cover of the DVD.

Could be considered inappropriate....
Criterion Collection DVD cover:


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Against Ivan Karamazov

Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his 1821 Defense of Poetry, wrote, "The rich have become richer, and the poor have become poorer; and the vessel of the State is driven between the Scylla and Charybdis of anarchy and despotism." Increasingly it appears necessary, in forging our swords for the war of ideas which we are presently arming ourselves to wage, that these two disastrous tendencies are perennial, and must be decisively stamped out again and again. In rejecting what exists and setting oneself the task of subjecting the world to ruthless and sustained criticism, anarchism and fascism are the easiest, simplest, most immediate, and sometimes the admittedly most attractive alternatives. Just as the general structure of the world around us removes us from the decidedly uncomfortable realm of independent critical reason, so too does both anarchy and fascism remove from us our responsibility for critical thought. The anarchist and the fascist cannot abide critical reason: they demand utter obedience and sacrifice to their faith-based utopian principles and in return provide all the comforts of faith and certainty. And as such, they are agents of counter-Enlightenment just as surely as the deranged proponents of any seventh century death cult.
Due fortunately to our economic and social predispositions, though, the triumvirate of regular contributors to this platform are generally in staunch opposition to fascism. This is less of a danger, less of a seducing influence. Fascism is blunt and stupid, and is easily recognized. Anarchy, though, lies just over the horizon from the position of libertarian socialism which this author (though he has yet to show it in this venue) advocates. Anarchism is a constant intellectual presence, and must be dealt with seriously.
To that end, anarchism can be analyzed in three distinct forms: as a method of revolution, as a goal for societal organization, and as a philosophy. I propose to assault each in turn.

The theory of anarchism as a method rests on two faulty assumptions: first, that acts of individual terrorism are sustainable and effective in bringing about general upheaval, and second, that the increased state repression stemming from such violence will provoke the general population to revolt. These of course are based on philosophical assumptions: that general violent revolt is desirable; that victory over state, market, and society is possible through violent revolt; that an anarchist movement could be both coherent and effective in the ensuing conflict, and that such a movement would not be irrevocably changed in character by the experience of prolonged revolutionary violence. But these assumptions, while each flawed and contestable, are not sufficient arguments to destroy the central argument of anarchism.
As to the idea that a repressive police state will bring about general revolt, this claim has only been asserted, never proven. In fact, the weight of historical evidence is quite to the contrary. Stalin's Soviet Union was much more centralized and repressive than the Tsar's Empire, yet no uprising took place. The eventual fall of the Soviet state occurred in the context of political and economic liberalization. Mao's China was much more repressive than the patchwork of chaotic warlord states which proceeded it, yet no uprising took place even during the strictest period of political terror. The same goes for Franco's Spain as compared to its fractious republican predecessor, and the Third Reich as opposed to the Weimar Republic, not to mention modern North Korea. Certainly there are indications of unrest and protests and even small-scale attempts at rebellious violence, but in each case such action was brutally put down. Until a number of counter-examples are provided, I will consider this matter closed.
If the weight of this historical evidence is ignored, the best a modern anarchist campaign could hope for is a swifter repeat of 1848. In that year, revolutionary violence, sparked by individual terrorism and bolstered by popular support, led to uprisings in Sicily, Milan, Rome, Paris, Munich, Schleswig, Vienna, Budapest, Poland, and Romania. Of these, the revolt in France was perhaps the most successful, leading as it did to the founding of the Second Republic, but even that was to last only four years. In every other case, the rebellions were bloodily put down, often with a great deal of summary execution and public flogging. And the rebels of 1848 had a number of advantages which modern anarchist terrorists would not have: a relatively coherent political, social, and economic platform which drew wide support from the general population, and complacent opponents with underfed conscripted armies moving on foot, wielding muskets. The geography of cities was to their advantage: consequently, Napoleon III had Paris rebuilt with broad avenues, all the easier for mowing down rebellions. Frederich Engels wrote in a letter in 1883 that the experience of the Paris Commune (in those broad boulevards mentioned above) proved that the citizenry were no match for a modern army--and that was in a time when a trained soldier with the best possible equipment could fire six wildly inaccurate rounds per minute. In the contemporary United States, anarchists would face an armed and hostile population alienated from them and the most advanced military force in the history of mankind which can spend billions of dollars to fire a laser-guided missile through an open window at a target detected from orbit using several multimillion-dollar aircraft traveling many times faster than the speed of sound.
There is in fact a historical precedent for an attempt to incite uprising in the United States via anarchist terrorism: the abject failure of Luigi Galleani from 1914-1920. Galleani and his followers detonated a number of bombs across the United States over the course of several years, including one on Wall Street which killed 33 random bystanders--until Timothy McVeigh, this was the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil. Sacco and Vanzetti were members of Galleani's group, and even after Galleani was caught and deported, bombings in his name continued in the United States until 1927.
And absolutely nothing came of it. Even the earlier incident when Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist influenced by Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, assassinated President William McKinley, there was no general uprising. There wasn't even much state counter-repression. Czolgosz was tried and executed, which is repellent but only insofar as the death penalty is repellent, and is no special use of state repression--if anything, it is remarkable in its constraint. Emma Goldman was briefly arrested on the belief she had been involved, but was then released for lack of evidence. It is difficult to imagine what more a nascent anarchist movement could hope for: a presidential assassination, bank robbery, and a decade of bombing. And yet nothing came of it. Even before television, before the White House communications division, before the advent of modern "spin," when working-class agitation was at its height in the United States and socialists participated openly and popularly in mainstream political discourse, still nothing happened. And if nothing happened with that sort of "success" under those circumstances, one can only infer the disaster that would result today.
Quite opposed to this sort of glorious failure, public calumny, and enormous collateral damage, actual anarchists have thus far only succeeded in retarding their own cause with their recourses to violence. As Hugh Thomas put it in his analysis of the failure of Catalan anarchism in the 1920's, time and again anarchists only succeed in replacing a regime relatively open to the possibility of change with one far less to their liking.

Since there has been little to no coherent theory of an anarchist society, an assault on such a concept may be exposing the present author to justified charges of straw-manning. I hope this will be forgiven in the interest of being thorough.
The central idea of anarchist society is a repudiation of the state and the compulsion it demands from the people who live within the reach of the violence it dominates and permits itself. To a certain extent this is desirable: indeed, the strict curtailment of state power is a central goal in our project. Regardless of the short-term political expediency of his definition, R.J. Rummel's concept of democide points out quite unequivocally that in the modern age, the greatest violent threat to a given individual is that individual's own government. Likewise, in the critical tradition of our intellectual forefathers, it must be recognized that the state is a tool for the oppression of one group by another. This cannot be denied.
However, neither can the realities of the international system. An area without a government cannot exist. Contrary to the arguments of the anarchists and even of the communists (not to mention the activities of many modern dictators), the raison d'etre of a state is its own survival. To that end it protects itself from enemies real and imagined, foreign and domestic. Its utility is its oppression, yes, but its self-conscious purpose is its own perpetuation. It is part of our project to limit the former principle as much as possible, but the latter cannot be ignored.
To that end, the perhaps best conception of a state would be one which reverses the classic Weberian dictum: not a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within, but a monopoly on the prevention of violence from without. A free association of voluntary workers' cooperatives and villages joined together in mutual interest would certainly not be able to provide for the common defense. History has proven this. The only viable and desirable modern state is one which, through military and economic strength both uni- and multi-lateral can resist fascism and radical religion. At this an anarchist association is hopeless. It has no means for adjudicating the disputes which (should) arise in an intellectually vibrant society. Rather than institutionalize conflict resolution (as in a liberal democracy based on the impartial rule of law) conflicts must be settled according to that old Marxist observation that in the absence of a superordinate authority, between equal rights force decides. An actual existing anarchist society, fractured by internal disputes it cannot resolve, prone to economic disaster it cannot coordinate or mitigate, and prone to intervention by more powerful, organized neighbors, would resemble only a hellish failed state of the likes of Somalia or the more inefficiently tyrannized provinces of the Middle Ages.
Our purpose here is to avoid repeating the Middle Ages.

Having at this point demonstrated that an anarchist society is neither possible nor desirable, it is now necessary to dissect the philosophical problems which doomed anarchism from the beginning.
To a certain extent, anarchism as a political philosophy is inextricable from nihilism as a moral philosophy. But to equate the two is misleading: historical anarchists were very much convinced by the messianic aspect of their cause. Paul Berman has written eloquently and convincingly (if not always entirely accurately) on this topic. In that sense, likewise analyzed effectively by Camus, anarchism as a philosophy is just a natural, normal act of human rebellion which has metastasized into an embrace of death. It is a faith like any other, convinced that it is in possession of absolute truth and will eventually bring about utopia. In the face of that irrational certainty, the death of the individual for the cause is embraced, and the deaths of those who stand in the way is made not only excusable but required. Anarchism of this strain is a millennial death cult just like any other utopian faith.
The interesting subject is nihilist, rather than moralist, anarchism.
First it is necessary to dispense with the literal interpreation of nihilism. If nihilism is taken to mean "belief in nothing," then it is simple irrationalism and is not worthy of serious consideration. A belief system which is irrational in form is fundamentally flawed and anathema to all human progress, regardless of whether its content is the religious version of irrationality or the literal nihilist variety. Adoption of irrationality as a guiding principle utterly undermines every other tenet of the present author's intellectual project, and furthermore condemns its proponents to stagnation, repudiating as it does the use of reason and logic to make useful advances. Instead, nihilism can be constructively viewed as the negation of existing morality--of a denial in the rationality and utility of belief as a behavior, not an act of belief directed towards negation. Nihilism is therefore a rejection in the "belief" in God, in ideology, in anything that cannot be rationally proven.
As a logical proposition, we should proceed as follows. Scientific inquiry and reason have led to the conclusion that there is no God and that the materialist worldview is correct. Therefore, existing morality, which is based on the foundation of divinity, must be rejected. Then having done so, we must conclude by constructing a new system based not on divinity but on rationality.
Nihilism as it has been so far enunciated contains a number of useful propositions and critiques (as does anarchism regarding the state), but is itself so deeply flawed that it cannot be adopted wholesale.
Nihilism has a tendency to assume that all value judgments are moral judgments, and therefore, through its negation of the latter, to demand negation of the former. This is a reasoning error. Nihilism does not necessarily refute judgment: in fact, quite the opposite. Nihilism is strongest (and indeed is only sustainable) when it is a rational, logical rejection of the irrational strictures of an arbitrarily designed moral system. Nihilism ought to be a replacement of judgment based on illogical and subjective morality in favor of judgment based on objective reason. It is, in the old Nietzschian sense, a logical and self-critical re-evaluation of values, and contrary to the misunderstanding of most modern nihilists, a re-evaluation does not imply a destruction.
But judgment implies objective truth. Nietzsche claimed that the death of God removed any universal perspective and stripped away the foundation for objective truth. Here too, I would argue, he entangled himself in a reasoning error: equating truth and morality. Yes, the absence of God does provoke a crisis in morality, for if there is no God to dictate good and evil or to instill divinity in anything, then it is impossible to determine what is good and what is evil by any objective standards. This does not mean, however, that it is impossible to determine what is true and what is false, or even what is desirable and what is not. In a godless, material universe, truth can still be rationally determined: Bertrand Russell can, for instance, exhaustively and conclusively prove using the machinery of Boolean algebra that 1+1 does truly equal 2. Carbon dating can prove that the world was not in fact created in a week two thousand years after the Babylonians invented beer. When the Taliban banned applauding at sporting events and playing the trumpet (or that, in order to solve the vexing problem of being unable to execute a virgin, a woman could be sentenced to be gang-raped and then executed) , any standard of rationality would conclude, utterly independent of moral judgment, that living under or tolerating such a society is not desirable. Nihilism should, in fact, be the recognition that truth (however difficult to conclusively recognize!), being objective, stands outside the subjective structure of man-made morality.

A further trouble with nihilism is that it forbids all exclusivity and compulsion. If indeed nothing matters, than it cannot matter what others believe (or indeed, what others do). If, as Ivan Karamazov declared, everything is permitted, then I am permitted to restrict or exterminate nihilism itself, and nihilism can offer no coherent counter-argument. And yet nihilism must be generalized, otherwise it is simply the puerile desire to opt-out of responsibility and codes of civil conduct. The behavior of an individual nihilist in an otherwise moral society is just a self-indulgent person behaving badly at an otherwise pleasant cocktail party. This is not an effective or admirable basis for a philosophy.
Further, absolute freedom, while certainly desirable (and just as certainly impractical), absolute freedom is itself a contradiction, as it denies the existence of other, particular freedoms. It is not enough to have the freedom to do whatever one likes: an enlightened state and an enlightened society should recognize its obligation to provide for its citizens freedoms from certain rationally undesirable things. This is impossible under nihilism as it has been above explained: instead of enjoying comfort and tranquility, one is subjected to the tyranny of absolutely every other human being. Rather than rational utopia, this sounds like the sort of Hell Sartre was worried about.

To be sure, as Camus argued quite forcefully, the tendency to rebel is an inherently human trait, and as humanists (not to mention contrarians), we should embrace it and make it an integral part of our project. The anarchist tendency is a healthy one, and the compromises it forces, particularly in the form of constant criticism and the drive to curtail centralized power are absolutely essential. From that premise, and keeping the above critique in mind, our task becomes more clear: we must rescue anarchism and nihilism from the puerile solipsist tendencies it contains. For an individual without morals or values, the justification for all action is simply personal desire free from responsibility or accountability, and that is simply the behavior of an overindulged child. Instead, the philosophical underpinnings of our general theory of political economy must be those of the Enlightenment (reason, scientific inquiry, toleration) combined with the best intellectual virtues of the great bearded prophet of the British Museum Reading Room: sustained criticism, a constant search for truth, and an utter rejection of exploitation and domination.