In the process of writing a second article for the flagship Chinese newspaper, the People’s Daily (first article here), I am working my way through a journal called Marxist Studies in China. It’s published by the Institute of Marxism in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Some articles leave, shall we say, a little to be desired and some are real gems.

The journal also carries regular pieces by Russia specialists, one of them called ‘Why Is the Stalin Debate Raging Again in Russia?’. This is from 2010 and the debate has by no means abated. The authors identify four main positions: left-wing communists hold high the banner of Stalin and seek to march to a new socialist society; right-wing liberals want to uproot the legacy of Stalin and hold faith in liberal democracy and capitalism; the moderate conservatives affirm Stalin’s achievements but criticise his methods; and the patriotic faction, which seeks to avoid the political polarisation and borrow from Stalin’s experience for a new modernisation of Russia today. Guess where Putin and the United Russia Party stand?

The question remains: why is Stalin the topic of so much debate? Apart from long-term reasons, the authors focus on the Great Recession in parts of the world from 2008. Despite Russia’s stabilisation fund and Putin’s efforts to strengthen the management of major industries, the underlying problem is a fundamental shift in Russia’s economic situation. It has become primarily an exporter of raw materials as the basis of its economy. This makes it particularly vulnerable to global trends. So calls began for a new modernisation of Russia. And when did the last economic modernisation take place, turning an economic backwater into a superpower? Under Stalin’s watch. No wonder that Stalin is the topic of so much interest in the search for a new modernisation. Indeed, the authors suggest that ‘a new Stalin will come soon’.

Many strange things happen in Russia, but this is one of the more intriguing. Not so long ago, I was told while in Russia that one could not speak of Marxism directly in many circles. Marxism is a dirty word, I was told; indeed, there are no Marxists of any influence. The only way to undertake research on Marxism and find a job in a university was to focus on the various forms of the opposition to Lenin and Stalin.

Something has changed. It began with an invitation from Algoritm Press to write a book on Stalin that would be translated into Russian. Debate is heating up over Stalin’s legacy, with an increasing number of people calling for a reassessment. They also want foreign engagements with this debate. It has also generated works like Oleg Khlevniuk’s new biography of Stalin, which is an alarmed response to these developments.

But it really struck me this year at a couple of conferences, one celebrating 120 years since the death of Engels and the other called, innocuously, the World Cultural Forum. At the first conference, in Nanjing, a number of Russian scholars were present, with their journeys covered by the conference organisers. They spoke mostly of Chinese Marxism, although one chose to speak in Russian since it was ‘the language of Lenin’. However, one of them spoke of socialism as a cultural force, in both the Soviet Union and China, if not worldwide. Afterwards, I said to him, ‘I was told there are no Marxists in Russian any more’. He replied, ‘Well, I am one. She is one. He is one …’.

At the next conference, a few days later in Beijing, the handful of Russian scholars became scores. They had all attended an earlier conference there (which I had missed) called the ‘World Socialist Forum’ – which may be seen as the twenty-first century’s version of the Comintern. Now it became even more interesting. Some of the Russian speakers sought to draw upon and assess positively aspects of the Soviet Union. One spoke of Soviet education, another of Soviet cultural policy, another of Sino-Soviet ties. I dared to speak in front of such an audience (a little nervously) of the philosophical connections between the nationalities policy, affirmative action, anti-colonialism and the redefinition of ‘people’ and state in the Soviet Union. Quite a few came up to me afterwards with appreciative comments. One senior philosopher from the Academy of Sciences even told me that I had managed to identify some of the key philosophical developments he had been studying for 40 years.

So what is going on? I am not quite sure. Partly, it has to do with the recent development of very close ties between Russia and China, thereby negating much of the efforts of NATO and the USA. But it goes well beyond strategic and economic interests. Partly, it has to do with finding common ground between Russia and China, via the Soviet era, although an occasional Russian will assert that the Soviet Union was ‘more advanced’ than China. But I sense much more is under way, with both older scholars who spent most of their lives in the Soviet Union and younger scholars seeking to re-engage. What these developments might actually mean is still unclear to me.

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)