Sometimes you stumble on a real piece of tripe – to wit, this supposedly challenging piece from the ‘Open Democracy’ bunch called ‘Is China More Democratic than Russia‘. They trot out some stunners, such as: if an alien landed on earth today with a political science degree (as aliens do), they would mistakenly assume Russia is democratic and China not. Ah yes, the universality of ‘democracy’. Always dangerous when the qualifier drops away – bourgeois democracy. I also like this one: the Russians are faking democracy while the Chinese are faking communism …

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, the five points suggested, but replace ‘Russia’ with USA, as in ‘Is China more democratic than the USA’.

1. Rotation of power: The United States (or Australia, or Germany …) clearly has elections, but no rotation of power … the role of the elections are not to secure the rotation of power, but to avoid it.

2. Listening to the people: The United States’ rigged elections are a much weaker test to judge the mood of the people and the ability of the regional leaders to deal with them.

3. Tolerance of opposition, tolerance of dissent. Democratic decision-making depends upon both diversity of views and the acceptability of disagreement … If you compare the USA and China, you will see that in USA there is certainly much more tolerance for organised opposition. The process is completely screwed up, but you can register a party, you can go on the street to protest, you can even ask the president to resign. But while Capitol Hill broadly tolerates the opposition, it does not listen to it.

4. Recruitment of elites. First, the great majority of the American elites went to a few Universities. Second, the most important factor influencing membership of this elite circle is to have known a leading politician. In short, the United States is governed by a circle of friends. This is not a meritocratic system in any sense: most of these people have not had proper careers, but have simply ended in this ruling group.

5. Experimentation. My last point comparing these two systems is to emphasise the way in which the Chinese and Americans  totally differ in their view of the experimental nature of politics. Chinese political and economic reforms are organised around the experimentation of different models in the different regions and try to figure out what works from the point of view of the leadership. This is emphatically not the case in the United States: experiment is, basically, a dirty word there. They are not experimenting in the process of trying to build a governable state.

Then again, honour to whom honour is due: when read in this way, in China the government rotates power, listens to the people, tolerates opposition, recruits not merely elites but across the board, and experiments. That makes it a whole lot more democratic than the USA, or Australia, or Germany …

Last week at the garage blackboard lectures, I was asked a simple question: what is a successful revolution?

I had been talking about Marxism and theology, and mentioned that the Russian Revolution was the first successful communist revolution. But what is the answer to that question? At a minimal level, it is a revolution that has been able to withstand and defeat the counter-revolution (inevitably heavily supported by international capital, as with the ‘civil’ war in Russia). When it has done so, it can gain some precious space to begin the process of constructing socialism.

That was the answer I gave then. But I suggest there is another part to the answer: a successful revolution provides inspiration for other revolutionary movements. Let me give one example, from the 1930s in China and the sheer inspirational power of the Russian Revolution among Chinese communists.

America, England, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, and other capitalist or imperialist powers had sent thousands of political, cultural, economic, or missionary workers into China, actively to propagandize the Chinese masses with credos of their own states. Yet for many years the Russians had not had a single school, church, or even debating society in China where Marxist-Leninist doctrines could legally be preached. Their influence, except in the soviet districts, had been largely indirect. Moreover, it had been aggressively opposed everywhere by the Kuomintang. Yet few who had been in China during that decade, and conscious of the society in which they lived, would dispute the contention that Marxism, the Russian Revolution, and the new society of the Soviet Union had probably made more profound impressions on the Chinese people than all Christian missionary influences combined (Edgar Snow, RSOC, 352-53).

Sergey sent me this great link to Zyuganov‘s speech on the auspicious day of 27 October this year. As everyone should know, Zyuganov is the chairman of the central committee of the Russian Communist Party. And the event was the 14th joint plenum  of that committee. The theme: the importance of and need to renew Marxist theory. He points out that Gorbachev took advantage of theoretical stagnation in Marxist thought and was thereby able to defeat the CPSU ideologically. It was the mark of a liberal-bourgeois revolution, from which it was a short step to the dismantling of the USSR. Perestroika is the signal of that ideological defeat. Of course, he calls for a deep re-engagement with the work of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, the latter of whom observed: ‘Without theory we are dead’.

But – and here it becomes really interesting – he has quite a bit to say about religion. He reasserts the old party platform of freedom of conscience in the party on matters of religion, the need for religious institutions and the party to operate in peaceful coexistence, indeed to attract people with religious belief to the party. And then he quotes Stalin to kick off a discussion concerning radical and revolutionary forms of religion, so much so that they share the goals of scientific socialism. Che Guavara turns up, as does Hugo Chavez, along with liberation theology. All of them oppose the Golden Calf of capital, whether socialist, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and so on.

And in outlining the measures needed for theoretical renewal that criticises the mistakes made and draws lessons from the achievements of the past – in terms of history, philosophy, science, religion and so on – he points out: ‘Soviet socialism is not only the past, but the future of Russia’.

I wonder if they need a resident theologian.

I have just returned from China, where an increasingly strong feeling is that a critical reappropriation of the Cultural Revolution is around the corner – as part of retelling the story of the past to open up possibilities for the future. More of that later, especially in relation to Confucius. But it is worth noting a few other signals, over against ‘romantic’ Western Marxism that I have taken to task in earlier posts and that always imagines the perfect revolution is yet to be achieved (the flabby Žižek, among others, take note).

From Russia comes a story of the steady increase of the Pioneer Communist Youth League:

Over 5,000 boys and girls clad in red ties and side caps flooded onto Red Square in Moscow to be accepted into the ranks of the Pioneer Communist Youth League.

Almost 90 years ago to the day, the Soviet scouting movement was created at the second All-Russian Komsomol Conference. Komsomol was the youth division of the Soviet communist party.

And while the original Pioneer youth organization of the Soviet Union has been defunct since 1991, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) has continued the tradition.

Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov told the youths gathered on Red Square“pioneers have always been model examples of how to love one’s motherland, how to be a good and honorable student, and how to help one’s elders and juniors alike.”

The children who were sworn in on Sunday came both from Moscow and surrounding regions.

CPFR secretary Yury Afonin says there were delegations from 30 different regions across the country, including Siberia and beyond, RIA Novosti reports.

Afonin insists “it isn’t just a tradition; they are doing real work with the children.”

He also said that around 4,000 youngsters from around the country take the oath to“warmly love and protect their homeland” annually, though the number who want to join is actuality much higher.

But while logistic and security concerns have limited the number of the movement’s slowly building ranks, next year even more youths will be wrapping themselves in the red pioneer scarf.

Despite a lack of state support, Afonsin believes the enthusiasm of today’s generation of pioneers keeps the movement alive.

For the children,“it’s a holiday that lasts a lifetime,” he concluded.

The video on the link noted earlier is worth watching.

(ht sk)

As you may or may not know, Russia has recently had elections, in which the ruling United Russia (ER) party was battered in the polls, and then a series of ongoing protests over the dodgy results. However, given the adage, ‘It does not matter how you vote, what matters is how they count’, the results look like they are actually far worse for the Putin-Medvedev bunch. As Israel Shamir reports:

Were the elections falsified? Independent observers reported many irregularities in Moscow; probably it was even worse elsewhere. It seems that the ruling ER party activists inserted many fake ballots, and probably skewed the results in their favour. A poll made by NGO Golos on the basis of a few polling places with no irregularities showed that the communists won big, while the ER almost collapsed at the polls. On the web, there are claims of massive distortions following the vote count. It is hard to extrapolate from the Moscow results to the whole country, but the Russians believe that the results were falsified. They are also tired of their Teflon rulers.

Official results versus popularly believed:

ER: 49% – 32%

SR: 13% – 17%

CPRF: 19% – 35%

LDPR: 11% – 11%

(CPRF = communists; SR = Just Russia, a breakaway from the communists; LDPR = Liberal Democratic Party of Russia)

Shamir concludes that even with the dodgy ‘official’ outcome:

The results were quite impressive and they point to great changes ahead. The Russians have said to communism: ‘Come back, all is forgiven’. They effectively voted to restore the Soviet Union, in one form or another.  Perhaps this vote will not be acted upon, but now we know – the people are disappointed with capitalism, with the low place of post-Soviet Russia in the world and with the marriage of big business and government … The twentieth anniversary of the restoration of capitalism that Russia commemorated this year was not a cause for celebration but rather for sad second thoughts. The Russians loudly regretted the course taken by their country in 1991; the failed coup of August 1991, this last ditch attempt to preserve communism, has been reassessed in a positive light, while the brave Harvard boys of yesteryear who initiated the reforms are seen as criminals. Yeltsin and Gorbachev are out, Stalin is in.

All the same, the communists don’t have the guts of their predecessors and are overly keen to avoid a civil war. They’d also need to win over substantial parts of the army. Indeed, they ‘are ready to work with Putin any time. Can Putin change his spots and become Putin-2, a pro-communist president who will restore the Soviet Union and break the power of the oligarchs? He could certainly adopt some communist rhetoric and use the communist support.  Judging by his recent utterances at the Valdai forum, he is likely to turn Russia leftwards’. Either that or it’s time for another Lenin.

(ht sk via tp)

I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of these guys and meet them in a dark alley, or rather a moonlit field:

To top it off, they were actually elected to the Second Duma, despite the tsar’s best efforts to avoid these types getting in at all (it was stacked in favour of the ‘Black Hundreds’ et al). Why aren’t parliaments like this today, with people there solely for the purpose of using them as a platform to spread the revolutionary word?

In an interview with The New York Herald in 1921, Lenin says:

Some people in America have come to think of the Bolsheviks as a small clique of very bad men who are tyrannizing over a vast number of highly intelligent people who would form an admirable government among themselves the moment the Bolshevik regime was overthrown (Collected Works, vol. 36, p. 538).

What is remarkable about this anti-communist propaganda is both how boringly similar it has been for about 90 years and how pervasive it remains. Anyway, given that those cliques of ‘very bad men’ have now been overthrown and they have been replaced by ‘admirable governments’ of ‘highly intelligent people’, let’s have a look at the state of play in the ‘post-communist’ countries of Eastern Europe

Then there is this recent survey in Romania:

Only 27 percent of Romanians said communism was “wrong,” while 47 percent answered “it was a good idea, but badly applied” and 14 percent thought it was a “good idea, and well applied.” A striking 78 percent said neither they, nor their families, ever suffered under communism.

All of this took place under that evil, hated ‘dictator’, Nikolai Ceausescu.

Let us now move to Bulgaria, a place I know quite well. In a recent book, Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism, Kristen Ghodsee notes a growing nostalgia for the communist era. Why, especially in a supposedly Stalinist state? When capitalism was suddenly imposed in 1989, a few well-connected foreigners and a new local class of oligarchs and criminals took over the formerly state-owned assets – those we would call ‘business people’. Ordinary people felt they had been robbed, many lost their jobs just as the state’s social support system was dismantled. Is this unique to Bulgaria? No, it’s called capitalism as usual.

Mind you, these are states that were supposed to be unbearably repressive, paragons of dictatorship. And not, say, Yugoslavia, which was often held up as example of a humane and workable communism. While we are in Yugoslavia: four in five people with whom I speak from the ‘former Y’ tell me that it worked pretty well.

At this point the well-oiled reply of the Right will probably come in: yes, of course, older people can get nostalgic for dictatorships and autocracies, because they had some certainties in their lives, however bad things might have been. But we can dismiss these feeble longings of the old …

Crap. I have met young Russians, born either just before or after 1989, who have together raised toasts to – the USSR! Add to that the fact – as a colleague in Kiev reports after much research – that perhaps one or two countries in the former Eastern Bloc have attained the GDP of 1989 – after more than two decades of capitalism.

Maybe, just maybe people actually value things such as universal health cover, education, full employment, short working days, plenty of time to meet and talk. Maybe, just maybe, planned economies are in fact better. Even the hated (in Eastern Europe) and former anti-communist Zizek seems to think communism was better. As he puts it: we had cradle-to-grave security, never took our rulers seriously and had the mythical West to dream about.

Then again, as a friend from one of these places told me some time ago: when we learnt about capitalism at school, we all thought that it really wasn’t that bad, that our teachers were simply making it up; but now, living under capitalism, I realise that what they said was true.

I have just completed the 600-page work by Lenin called The Development of Capitalism in Russia (vol 3 of the Collected Works), written while he was in exile in Shushenskoye village in eastern Siberia. Nothing like ‘exile’ for some productive work! Before a few wayward comments on this text, I realised when reading it that I have been in this area, on the Trans-Siberian train. Shushenskoye is in the region of Krasnoyarsk and that city is a stop on the railway line. It’s a bloody long way from Petersburg:

Here’s the house, or rather shack, in which he lived for three years, from 1897-1900:

And today:

Not bad, really, although it gets a little chilly in winter:

Not quite the same village, but you get the picture.

But travelling through the area, it strikes you that the infamous ‘exile’ to Siberia, often for mere misdemeanours, was actually a large-scale resettlement program. Begun in the 18th century, the populous west was encouraged by whatever means to move to the sparsely-populated east. For example, during World War Two, whole populations, industries and universities were moved to Siberia, out of harm’s way and a big boon for resettlement. The result: in 1709 the total population was 230,000; now it is over 36 million. And cities such as Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Omsk and Perm  have populations of a million or more each.

As for the book, it covers in very sober detail (minus Lenin’s usual polemic and love of exclamations) the shifts in agriculture, handicraft and manufacturing that manifest the growth of capitalist relations. I must admit to being intrigued by discussions of the ‘melon crisis’, ‘pulling squirrels’, Lacanian-style diagrams, the measuring of horse-shit in ‘poods’ (as a feature of the economy), and the tendency to classify peasants as no-horse, one-horse or many-horse, so much so that he uses the intriguing term ‘horse employments’.

But above all a very Hegelian Lenin appears in this book, even before he had systematically studied Hegel (he knew Marx back-to-front by this stage). Hegelian? Like a bass-line, an underlying dialectical theme keeps re-emerging: capitalism is the best and worst thing that happened to Russia. So we find statements like:

Capitalism for the first time broke down these purely medieval barriers – and it was a very good thing that it did (p. 316).

Alongside assessments of working conditions:

People have to work in a stifling atmosphere filled with the harmful vapours emanating from accumulated horse-dung (p. 420).

The agricultural workers … travel on foot, since they lack the money for a rail fare … The journey takes from 10 to 12 days, and after such a long tramp (sometimes undertaken barefoot in the cold spring mud), the travellers’ feet swell and become calloused and bruised (p. 242).

How to make sense of such a contradiction?

Recognition of the progressiveness of this role is quite compatible (as we have tried to show in detail at every stage in our exposition of the facts) with the full recognition of the negative and dark sides of capitalism, with the full recognition of the profound and all-round social contradictions which are inevitably inherent in capitalism (p. 596).

Wouldn’t be bad reading in today’s Russia, it seems to me, although a post-script would need to be added on the transition from communism back to capitalism…

Lenin’s immediate theoretical targets in the book are the Narodniks, liberal romantics who saw the development of capitalism as completely evil. These Narodniks stressed the uniqueness of Russian history (which Lenin counters), the evils of multi-national industry, the value of small producers, communal bonds in villages and towns, the attachment of people to place, the great boon of cottage industries and mutual co-operation between master and servant. In short, they espouse locality, family, moral economy, virtuous elites and common popular customs – just like Alasdair Maclagan and the Red Tories.

How come Russia can build a railway line (with at minimum three sets of tracks) for 9259 km and electrify it the whole way, while Australia struggles to electrify a single line more that 200 km?

How come China has solar panels on nearly every village roof, humble city dwelling, apartment block and office building while countries like Australia cut back the government subsidy for solar panels?

How come the trains in supposedly ‘advanced’ and ‘wealthy’ western Europe, including the UK, are thrown into chaos with a hint of snow and ice, while the Trans-Siberian trains run ice-free through -40 degrees?

OK, the answer to the last one is easy: at each station stop, about three hours apart, a team works down the train with crowbars and hammers, removing ice. Maybe those incompetents in western Europe should spend a while training with the Russians and Chinese.

You know the joke about taxi drivers in China or Russia or Hungary or Bulgaria or Ukraine or …: never trust the one who asks you ‘Taxi?’ at the station door or even inside, for sure enough you will be led – as I have been – around the back, over a fence and into a car that has at least once been used as a car bomb. And then the ‘driver’, who plonks a light on the top and wires it up for the trip, will then charge you Yom Kippur rates. The sage advice is to go to a recognised taxi rank and get in line, or better still phone a reliable number. At least those cars have meters, licensed drivers, four wheels, brakes, doors …

Not so in the USA anymore. Dodge the ‘taxi drivers’ at the station or terminal door, line up, get in a yellow-looking vehicle with a sign that says ‘Taxi’ on the top and I guarantee it will be worse than those ‘illegal’ taxis mentioned above. The dashboard warning lights flash like a Christmas tree, meters have been dumped as so much unnecessary paraphernalia, the regular thunk, thunk, thunk on the rear right-hand-side sounds distinctly like a missing tyre, and on the off chance that a receipt is available it will be a piece from the year-old burger wrapper  lying on the floor .

It’s one thing to ponder the politics of decline from a distance, but quite another to experience it first hand.