I have just received yet another collection of Stalin’s writings, this one called Stalin on China. But what drew my eye on opening it is the preface by Chen Pota, from 1949:

On the basis of concrete analysis of the concrete conditions in China, Stalin, this great scientist of dialectical materialism, the teacher of world revolution, formulates at the time of the first Great Revolution of China, a series of questions concerning the Chinese revolution, to which he offers extremely brilliant solutions. By this means he demolished the nonsense on the question of China advanced by the counter-revolutionary Trotskyites and assisted the Communist Party of China to embark on the path of Bolshevism.

Great scientist of dialectical material, teacher of world revolution, brilliant solutions … and above all, concrete. You don’t find reviews like that any more – except perhaps self-written pieces on academic profile pages.

2014 May 228a

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A student in China first stated it clearly: ‘I like Putin’, she said. As she explained, I realised that I don’t necessarily like him, but I admire him. Why? Basically, because he has the nous and nerve to stick it NATO, the EU and the USA in a way that reminds them how their power is weakening. And it infuriates them. Massive economic deals with China, new arrangements with BRICS, a reopened spying base in Cuba, the list goes on.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not admire his politics, manipulating the oligarchs in Russia. I do not admire his populist stance on gays and lesbians. But I admire his ability to stand firm when the corporate press and some governments have been all too quick to blame him for shooting down the Malaysian Airlines plane over Ukraine. He quietly reminds people that if the coup had not happened earlier this year, then there would not have been an independence movement in eastern Ukraine.

On that matter, one of the dismaying features I notice now that I am back in Australia is how some politicians are all too ready to make political mileage out of the deaths of hundreds of people. ‘Putin is guilty’, they scream, and the corporate media follows with one voice, whipping up warlike frenzy, before any investigation has taken place. I have to remind myself that this takes place only in parts of the world. For instance, the Chinese media seems positively sober by comparison – such as the China Daily and Xinhua News.

Stalin was rather fond of the Bible in his library, reading it often and memorising quotations. So it should be no surprise that occasional echoes should appear in his writings. This one appears in his speech after the October Revolution, given to Finnish workers in November 1917:

I should like first of all to bring you the joyful news of the victories of the Russian revolution, of the disorganization of its enemies, and to tell you that in the atmosphere of the expiring imperialist war the chances of the revolution are improving day by day.

The bondage of landlordism has been broken, for power in the countryside has passed into the hands of the peasants. The power of the generals has been broken, for power in the army is now concentrated in the hands of the soldiers. A curb has been put on the capitalists, for workers’ control is rapidly being established over the factories, mills and banks. The whole country, town and countryside, rear and front, is studded with revolutionary committees of workers, soldiers and peasants, which are taking the reins of government into their own hands.

Compare the ‘Magnificat’, spoken by Mary in Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour …
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name…
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

I am thoroughly enjoying Domenico Losurdo’s book on Stalin, not least because I am thrilled at being able to read the French text with relative ease. Plenty of food for thought, but three items struck me recently.

First, one of the great achievements of the Bolsheviks was to restore the Russian state, albeit in an entirely new way. For more than forty years, from the late nineteenth century, it had been unravelling. By the time of the Russian Revolution, it was well on the way to becoming a failed state. After the revolution, the ‘civil’ war was the time of the greatest danger, but with the victory of the Red Army against an array of international forces and the White Armies, the state began to be recreated. Losurdo points out that the brilliance and energy – and ‘foi furieuse’ – of the Bolsheviks played a huge role. By the 1930s and under Stalin’s leadership, that task had largely been achieved.

Second, Losurdo shoots down the common comparison between the Gulags, or re-education camps in the USSR, and the Nazi ‘concentration camps’. For the former, the purpose was to create potential ‘citizens’ and comrades’ and everything was geared in that direction. By contrast, the fascist concentration camps were fundamentally racist, setting out to destroy the Untermenschen. In that respect, the Nazi camps are of one with the treatment of African slaves in the USA, of indigenous peoples in Canada, and so on.

Third, Losurdo refers to Terry Martin’s Affirmative Action Empire (2001). Martin argues that the Soviet state was the world’s first state based on affirmative action. It fostered national consciousness among its many ethnic minorities, established institutions, encouraged locals to become involved in education,  government and industry, and mandated that local languages would be official. In some cases, the Soviet government had to create written languages where none existed. Immense resources were invested in the publication of books, journals and magazines in local languages, in film, theatre, art, and music. For Martin, ‘nothing comparable had been seen before’. It became standard socialist policy afterwards.

Everyone is keen to blame someone else for the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines flight over Ukraine today. But you have to ask: who in their right mind would fly over an area where anti-aircraft weapons are in daily use? Only the day before, the armed forces of the independent republics of eastern Ukraine shot down two Ukrainian air force planes, and damaged another. One of them was flying at a high altitude, trying to avoid anti-aircraft fire. (In fact, the Ukrainian armed forces are losing the battle, with quite a number of planes shot down and troops surrounded.) Both the Ukrainian army and the independents have the Buk missile systems, which can reach 24,400 metres, way above a passenger plane height limit. And what government would declare its skies safe for passenger planes, as the Kiev regime did, when all this going on? Anyway, the tragedy was probably a mistake by one side in the conflict, thinking the plane was either Ukrainian or Russian.

But the conflict does reveal that rarely if ever is there a purely ‘civil’ war. In Ukraine, NATO and US advisors, equipment and personnel have been present for months, especially the notorious mercenary outfit, Academi (Blackwater until 2009). So you can hardly blame Putin for sending personnel and equipment to aid the separatists. Any of the ‘civil’ wars in memory always seem to be microcosms of international conflicts – the Spanish Civil War and the Russian Civil War after 1917, are perhaps the two most telling examples.

I could write of the beautiful woman with the sad face, or the strange man living in a tent in the middle of the track. Instead, I would like to write of an empty mind.

I first noticed– if I can put it that way – my empty mind on the third day of a recent hike in the mountains. It was an afternoon, when I would typically tire of the steep climbs and sharp drops, when I began to sense that my feet had had enough, when I automatically put one foot in front of the other with little thought for what was to come. All of a sudden, I had a thought. I do not recall the thought, but I was struck by the fact that it was actually a thought. Or rather, I became aware that this was the first thought that had come to my mind in more than two hours.

Until that moment, my mind had been completely empty of any thought whatsoever. Normally, my mind is full to overflowing. A crucial part of hiking or indeed cycling over long distances, day after day, is that my mind may run freely. Thrillingly pleasant and completely unpleasant thoughts run across one another without hindrance. I revisit old arguments and win them. I recall journeys once made, places where I stopped and camped, even retracing in detail the trails once followed. I talk to trees, thanking one for giving me some dropped wood for a fire or thanking another for taking care of my pack as I lean it up against the trunk. As I become older, I have ever richer memory tracks, conjuring up moments I thought forever forgotten.

But I have rarely had an empty mind. Once that solitary thought had come and gone on the third day of hiking, my mind became empty once again. Half a day it continued – blank. The next day was the same, and the next. In the mornings, I went through the routine of packing the tent and sleeping gear without thought for what I was doing. The evenings were the same, with pitching camp, lighting a fire and cooking a meal. Twelve hours sleep would follow and the day would begin again.

The day after I had finished my mountain hiking, some thoughts began to return. Above all, I wondered about – indeed, I marvelled at – my experience of an empty mind. Was it exhaustion, when all my energy was devoted to finding water, to determining how much food remained, to making it to the next camping spot? Not really, since I was not that exhausted. Normally, tiredness brings out old annoyances and arguments, even people with whom I no longer have any contact (in fact, I see little point in maintaining any contact whatsoever with such people). On a bicycle or out on a trail, I clear those annoyances from my system, leaving them beside the trail as I ride or hike on. By contrast, the empty mind was akin to the effects of meditation. My body’s repetitive acts, of walking for hours on end, up and down one mountain after another, brought my mind to a state of complete calm. Not an easy achievement in a time of information overload and endless stimulus, of massive diaries and appointments to keep. But it is one I wish to achieve again.