Movement of thought

September 25, 2009

Why I Threw The Shoe-By Muntazer al-Zaidi

Filed under: Politics — movementofthought @ 5:25 am

[where swords are useless, a needle is worthful.. muntjar-al-zaidi did the same.. he has done a wonderful job.. to hate bush and america’s imperialism, is much more needed demand of this era of politics……………..]

originally pubished at

I am free. But my country is still a prisoner of war. There has been a lot of talk about the action and about the person who took it, and about the hero and the heroic act, and the symbol and the symbolic act. But, simply, I answer: what compelled me to act is the injustice that befell my people, and how the occupation wanted to humiliate my homeland by putting it under its boot.

Over recent years, more than a million martyrs have fallen by the bullets of the occupation and Iraq is now filled with more than five million orphans, a million widows and hundreds of thousands of maimed. Many millions are homeless inside and outside the country.

We used to be a nation in which the Arab would share with the Turkman and the Kurd and the Assyrian and the Sabean and the Yazid his daily bread. And the Shia would pray with the Sunni in one line. And the Muslim would celebrate with the Christian the birthday of Christ. This despite the fact that we shared hunger under sanctions for more than a decade.

Our patience and our solidarity did not make us forget the oppression. But the invasion divided brother from brother, neighbour from neighbour. It turned our homes into funeral tents.

I am not a hero. But I have a point of view. I have a stance. It humiliated me to see my country humiliated; and to see my Baghdad burned, my people killed. Thousands of tragic pictures remained in my head, pushing me towards the path of confrontation. The scandal of Abu Ghraib. The massacre of Falluja, Najaf, Haditha, Sadr City, Basra, Diyala, Mosul, Tal Afar, and every inch of our wounded land. I travelled through my burning land and saw with my own eyes the pain of the victims, and heard with my own ears the screams of the orphans and the bereaved. And a feeling of shame haunted me like an ugly name because I was powerless.

As soon as I finished my professional duties in reporting the daily tragedies, while I washed away the remains of the debris of the ruined Iraqi houses, or the blood that stained my clothes, I would clench my teeth and make a pledge to our victims, a pledge of vengeance.

The opportunity came, and I took it.

I took it out of loyalty to every drop of innocent blood that has been shed through the occupation or because of it, every scream of a bereaved mother, every moan of an orphan, the sorrow of a rape victim, the teardrop of an orphan.

I say to those who reproach me: do you know how many broken homes that shoe which I threw had entered? How many times it had trodden over the blood of innocent victims? Maybe that shoe was the appropriate response when all values were violated.

When I threw the shoe in the face of the criminal, George Bush, I wanted to express my rejection of his lies, his occupation of my country, my rejection of his killing my people. My rejection of his plundering the wealth of my country, and destroying its infrastructure. And casting out its sons into a diaspora.

If I have wronged journalism without intention, because of the professional embarrassment I caused the establishment, I apologise. All that I meant to do was express with a living conscience the feelings of a citizen who sees his homeland desecrated every day. The professionalism mourned by some under the auspices of the occupation should not have a voice louder than the voice of patriotism. And if patriotism needs to speak out, then professionalism should be allied with it.

I didn’t do this so my name would enter history or for material gains. All I wanted was to defend my country

September 21, 2009

Art and the class struggle

Filed under: Art — movementofthought @ 1:36 pm

Speech by Alan Woods to a Marxist Summer School – Barcelona, July 2001

This is the first time that we have discussed this subject at an international meeting. And perhaps for some of you this requires justification. Some people consider that art is a secondary matter, not really important. Yet art is actually is one of the fundamental aspects of the human condition – so fundamental, that some anthropologists believe that one can express the beginnings of our species through the emergence of art.

It is a fact that one of the first serious indications of the emergence of our species, homo sapiens sapiens, is the existence of art, that is to say in a concrete expression of aesthetic sense. This theory has recently been disputed because of the discovery of certain artefacts belonging to a pre-human species – Neanderthal Man. These undoubtedly show a certain aesthetic quality. But what we have here is not yet art – only the embryo from which art could develop.

As a matter of fact, it is possible to argue that such elements exist in other animal species, even in some of the lower species. For example, the Bower bird builds what you could call architectural structures, which are not nests. They apparently have no practical function whatever, and the birds that build them decorate these structures with extraordinarily elaborate compositions. They select certain combinations of colour which you might argue indicate the presence of an aesthetic sense even in these birds.

But in fact, the structures of the Bower bird are not useless; they are in fact very practical structures. They are constructed by the male of the species in order to attract the female. In other words, they are for the purpose of mating. And one can find similar phenomena throughout the animal kingdom. Usually it is the male that dresses up in gaudy colours to attract the female who tends to be rather unattractive in most cases. But in any case, there is a fundamental difference between these cases which are found in many species and human art. These activities in lower species are instinctive, they are genetically determined. In this case, specifically for the purpose of mating.

Art as a form of communication

This animal activity it is instinctive and individual by its very nature, whereas human art is of an entirely different character. It is not inborn, but has to be learned, and it is essentially collective activity. As a matter of fact art is really a form of human communication although a very peculiar form. And it emerges together with human productive activity – with the production of stone tools in particular. Now if you compare the earliest stone tools to the stone tools of a later period, you will find the most extraordinary difference. The later tools are far more finished, far more elaborate, far more perfect than one sees in the early examples. This progression towards a greater perfection in the shape of stone tools reflects the evolution of the human mind, including the beginnings of a certain aesthetic sense.

Now, there has been a lot of mystical nonsense talked about aesthetics, that is, the sense of what is beautiful or ugly. What is this thing called beauty? At first sight, this seems to be a rather strange and mysterious thing. Have you ever asked yourself the question: what is beauty? We all believe that we know what is beautiful and what is ugly. But do we really know? If one looks at history, and the aesthetic values of different human societies, it will immediately become evident that there is no such thing as a general concept of beauty applicable to all times and all kinds of societies. The human conception of beauty has evolved – in the same sense as morality and religion have evolved over many thousands of generations.

Here it is necessary to say a few words about historical materialism. This affirms that ultimately – and I stress the word ‘ultimately’ – the development of human society and culture has a material basis, which is to be sought in the development of the productive forces. As it happens, it is somewhat easier to show this connection in the earliest forms of society, and more difficult with later, more complex societies.

This relation between culture and the economic basis of society is most clear in the earliest forms of art. Take for example the Masai tribe of East Africa. They considered a woman with a very long neck to be most attractive. And in order to achieve this effect, they actually stretched the necks of young women to quite an extraordinary degree to create this giraffe-like impression. This doesn’t seem to be particularly attractive to most of us. But it can be explained. The origin of this practice is as follows: the wealth of Masai society was calculated, on the one hand, in cattle and, on the other hand, in copper, which was very rare and therefore very highly prized. A woman was considered attractive if she wore a large quantity of copper bangles on her body – and particularly around the neck. Therefore by stretching the neck, a woman could wear more of these copper bangles.

That was the origin of this practice, but over a long of period of time the origins of such practices are forgotten. Nevertheless, through custom and tradition people began to accept that a long neck is an attractive thing per se. And one could cite many similar examples: for example, other African tribes knock the front teeth out. This is because certain ruminant animals that they raised represented wealth and status, and they tried to make themselves similar to these animals.

So what conclusion do we draw? Only this: that the conception of beauty is not an absolute phenomenon, but that is evolves historically and has changed many times. However, at this point we should strike a note of warning. There is a danger of approaching this question in a mechanical sense. Marx explains that things like religion and art cannot be related directly to the development of the productive forces.

I have a quote here from Marx which I will read: “As to the realms of ideology, which soars still higher in the air, they can fly high in the air, they become separated form their origin and they acquire a life of their own, an independent existence.” 

Marx here is talking about religion and philosophy, but we could also add art. And he continues: “These have a prehistoric stock, a prehistoric origin.” In other words they have deep roots in the human consciousness, going back for hundreds of thousands of years, if not longer. “They are found already in existence and taken over in the historical period.”

In other words, the roots of art lie deep in our collective subconscious, to use a psychological term – it goes back into the remotest periods of history and pre-history, just like religion. Now, if one looks at the first forms of art the first thing to see is that very little has survived. A lot of this art would have been in perishable material: wood and bone or even human skin, that is, tattoos. I see some of you have got tattoos. Obviously you want to go back into pre-history! This kind of art has almost completely disappeared, although they have found the frozen body of a pre-historic woman in Siberia, with a very elaborate tattoo on her body.

Cave art

Nowadays, when we think about pre-historic art, we most of all think of cave paintings, like the marvellous paintings in the Dordogne area of France and also in Altamira in Northern Spain. These paintings must surely represent one of the high points of human culture and art. It also has certain peculiarities which sets it quite apart from later art. For example, these are almost exclusively painting of animals. There are virtually no people I would say there are no people. But there is one very mysterious figure in the French paintings, which has a semi-human form: the body of a man, but the head of a deer. This has been generally regarded as a sorcerer, some kind of magician.

If there are no people, there are also no flowers, there are no plants and the animals that are depicted are only certain animals. And the way that these animals are depicted is quite extraordinary. It still seems beautiful to us, tens of thousands of years later. These things are beautiful to us because of their astonishing realism, because they are natural and they show a great awareness of anatomy which is really very scientific. It is so precise that every sinew, every vein, every muscle is precisely depicted.

But though these wonderful paintings seem beautiful to us, they are not beautiful in the same sense as they were beautiful to the people who painted them or looked at them at the time. I will explain what I mean in a moment. But let us return to my opening remarks and this idea that some people have that art is not essential, that art is not important, that art is not for the working class. Is this really the case? Well, let’s see. Just you just try to imagine for one moment a world without art, a world without music, a world without singing and dancing, a world without poetry. Just imagine that for one minute and you will immediately see how important art is for the masses, not just for the intellectuals but for everyone.

What is certainly true that in class society, particularly in present day Western society art has become the monopoly of the privileged classes. It is largely inaccessible to the masses who live in the most miserable conditions, not just materially but spiritually. Capitalism condemns the majority of people to a life of ugly, degraded and alienated conditions. And it is unfortunately true that men and women can get used to such conditions. Actually, human beings can get used to almost anything.

A slave can get to love his chains. People get used to bad houses, bad food, they begin to think that they like this bad food, bad television programs, bad music, particularly bad music, bad films, bad newspapers. They begin to believe that they have chosen all these things freely. The philosopher Leibnitz likewise said once that if a magnetic needle could think, it would believe that it pointed north out of its own free will. Actually, we are conditioned to believe these and many other things which are untrue.

This suits the ruling class very well. The masses are encouraged to accept this condition of material and cultural poverty, while, of course the ruling class live in beautiful houses, watch very good plays at the theatre, read very well-written books (sometimes), go on very nice holidays and eat out in expensive restaurants. So naturally they believe that any rubbish is good enough for the masses. That is natural. What is lamentable is that members of the working class – even advanced ones – have come to believe that this state affairs is natural and even quite satisfactory.

I do not usually talk about my own family background, but on this occasion I will do so. I will just say one word about my grandfather, who was fine man – a Welsh steel worker and a communist. I was brought up in his house in a proletarian area of Swansea. In that house, there were always books, including Marxist books like Engels’ Anti-Dühring. There was also classical music, especially Italian opera, which the Welsh workers, who were usually good singers, were very fond of

My grandfather, who introduced me to Marxism when I was still at school, once said something that I have never forgotten. He said: “Nothing is too good for the working class”. Personally, it makes me furious when I hear people, usually middle class people, saying that workers are not interested in culture. The whole of history shows that that is false, and particularly the history of revolutions as I will show.

But you see, this alienation, this division between real life and art this huge separation, which makes many ordinary working class people suspicious of art. “I don’t like this, I don’t like this music, I don’t like opera.” That is because they don’t understand it, and they don’t understand it because they haven’t had the opportunity to get to know it. They have had little or no access to that art. Yet this division between art and life was not always the case. In early society, art was a part of the life, part of the every day life of every man and woman and an important at that.

Let me deal with one idea, one very wrong idea put forward by the bourgeois and petty bourgeois artists: the idea of “art for art’s sake”. This is a very common idea, which considers art as if it was something in the stratosphere, nothing to do with real life, something that exists for itself, in splendid isolation from real life and society. As the great Russian materialist philosopher Chernyshevsky pointed out, that statement is a nonsense. It makes no more sense than “carpentry for carpentry’s sake”.

Art is for something and that was always the case. What was the earliest art for? What were the cave paintings for? Here we come across the first mystery, because these paintings were not for mere adornment, like the old painting above the mantelpiece. They not for decoration at all, and this is easily proved. They were painted in the deepest and most inaccessible recesses of the cave in complete blackness, which is even more incredible if you can imagine the technology of the time. The people who painted these paintings had to crawl under difficult conditions working by the flickering, smoky light of a small lamp made of animal fat – which is astonishing if you pause to think about it.

And what’s the reason for this? People didn’t live in the places where these pictures were painted. Probably they did not live in caves at all, or if they did, it would have been in the outer part, where there was some light. This was not art for art’s sake, it was art for a very practical, social, economic purpose. As a matter of fact at this time you could say that art, science and religion were one. They were mixed up.

These were hunter gatherer societies, that depended on the hunting of the animals depicted and their idea was that by painting the animal, the hunter somehow became endowed with power over the animal. In other words art was magic, it was mixed up with magic, and magic was the pre-historic version of science – an attempt by men and women to understand and dominate the environment. It may well be that this is a part of the enchantment of art even to the present day, that there is an element of this magic still there.

The same is true of music and dance. Music was born out of the dance and the dances of these ancient people were always collective, they were not individual people prancing around doing the tango, the hip-hop, or whatever they do these days, I am never quite sure. I think one can see the atomisation of modern society in the fact that people are prancing around on their own like this. The do not even look at each other when they dance, they are atomised in a little world of their own – and that was not the case in the past. Well, I dare say you disagree with my tastes in the field of music and dance, but I am about to make an important point here

The point is this: that the first dances were collective dances, they always involved the whole community, and were always connected to some kind of productive activity. Consider the dances of the native Americans that imitate the movements of birds and buffaloes and other animals that they used to hunt. Here we have an important and necessary social activity – not a luxury.

And what about the origin of poetry? Poetry is probably the oldest of the arts and has its roots in a society so remote that we have no record of it. That is no accident, because writing is a relatively recent phenomenon which has only existed foe around 5,000 years. Nowadays, it is difficult to imagine a society without radio, television, internet, books or newspapers. Yet human culture has got to be past on from one generation to another, or it is lost. We humans are not like lower animals. We are different, because all we know, our aesthetic sense and knowledge, our religion and science, our rules of conduct, traditions and morality – all of this vast and complex knowledge cannot be passed on genetically, as is the case with most other animals.

All this information has to be learnt, and this is very difficult without the aid of writing. Don’t forget that the rules of early societies, which we incorrectly call primitive, were quite complicated rules. There was no writing and yet all of this lore, this highly complex tribal lore and mythology had to be passed on from one generation to the next. how was this done? There was only one way: verbally. This is the origin of what we call epic poetry which was common in the period of barbarism, this period.

The finest examples are what has been written down in the name of Homer, although it is not certain that Homer ever existed. It is wonderful poetry and it belongs to an incredibly old oral tradition. This ancient tradition had a practical purpose. For example, if you read the first book of the Iliad, you will find rules for the treatment of prisoners of war; later on you will find rules for chariot racing, and you will also find an interesting description of the beginnings of class society very clearly expressed.

The world of the Iliad and the Odyssey is a society already dominated by tribal chiefs, like Agamemnon, but there were still the elements of primitive tribal democracy present. Here you will find debates in which they express themselves in very forthright un-parliamentary language like when Achilles refers to his chief, to his king – and I quote – “dog face” and similar epithets. In this society there was a figure called the bard (which by the way is a Welsh word, and in fact, the Celtic people retained this institution until quite late)

The task of the tribal bard was to memorise a colossal amount of information and recite it on special occasions in front of the whole tribe or whole clan. Nowadays even those of us with very good memories couldn’t possibly memorise all those verses, but in those days it was common for certain people to do that. And as a way of remembering these very long pieces of information they used tricks, certain rhythms, certain repetitions and certain other devices, alliteration, metaphors, similes were all used to help them to remember. That is the origin of poetry.

Of course we are already in the phase of class society. And there is a change in the nature of art and culture. Rob Sewell explained very well the other day how the early primitive tribal communism was overthrown and society began to be divided into classes. And this meant a fundamental change in everything, in the position of women, in religion. As a matter of fact, if you study Greek mythology carefully you will see that most of Greek myths are based upon one thing: the overthrow of mother right and its replacement by a patriarchal society.

In the earliest society they didn’t have gods, but goddesses, you see that the subject of the earliest sculptures are all women, the so-called Venuses of the Palaeolithic period. On the other hand, the gods of Olympus are already male gods, reflecting a male-dominated society.

Slavery and culture

The first form of class society is slave society, the masses are reduced to slavery. To us slavery appears to be a bad thing – something extremely abhorrent. But Hegel, who was a very profound philosopher, made the following observation. He said: “It is not so much from slavery but through slavery that man becomes free.” These are very profound words. Because if you think about the development of human society, what strikes one is the extreme slowness of our initial development. For millions of years, we had a very slow, painfully slow development. And it begins to take off. With what? With slave society. Our civilisation comes from slavery.

It was Aristotle, almost 2500 years ago, who said “Man begins to philosophise when the needs of life are provided.” A most important observation! And he continued “Consequently mathematics and astronomy were discovered in Egypt because the priests did not have to work.” They were freed from the necessity to work. To use the expression of one Marxist writer, Paul Lafargue, under socialism men and women will acquire that most important right: the right to be idle, the right to do nothing. This right is now the privilege of a few wealthy exploiters, and they make good use of it! Some spend their time lying on beaches in the Caribbean. But not all. Most people prefer to make better use of their free time, and this is the basis of the development of art, science and all culture in general.

The priest caste of ancient Egypt had the necessary time to think: they could look at the stars and make important discoveries. That is the basis of Egyptian culture. It arises on that basis an extreme division of society into classes in which art for the first time becomes entirely separate from the masses, entirely separate from life. What is the basis of Egyptian art? On the one hand it is infinitely more developed than the most developed of earlier art, but it is also not art for art’s sake: it is certainly art for something. It has its purpose and its reason to be. But what is it?

First of all it is religious art, and therefore it is highly conservative art. Moreover it is mainly anonymous art. There were great artistic creations, yes, but we do not know the names of the people who created them. There is no Egyptian Rembrandt, there is no Egyptian Picasso and the reason for that is that art was also collective and social, not individual. It was the function of the priest caste to control art. It was they who determined absolutely all of its rules, the artist could not depart one millimetre. It is this stultifying regime which explains the curious lack of development of Egyptian art over a period of a thousand years. Although its finest productions are very fine indeed, it somehow lacks the vitality of Greek art.

This is also art that is aimed at creating an image of one man – the Pharaoh, the god king, who is celebrated in those colossal pyramids, and those huge statues. In the British Museum you can find just an arm of the statue of a pharaoh, and just the hand alone is as big as a man, or perhaps a little bigger. This art tells you something. Here is what it says: “I am the king, I am all powerful, you are nothing. So you will worship and obey me always”.

The same message will also be found in Assyrian art, which is mainly relief painting because of the absence of stone in Mesopotamia. Most of these works have a very warlike character. But the message is the same. There are very life-like pictures of the king hunting and killing lions from a chariot. They show an exact knowledge of anatomy. We can see every muscle and sinew in the king’s powerful arms as he slays the lion without mercy. A wounded lion is spewing blood, another is transfixed by arrows. This is a picture of power, unrestricted and implacable.

The same idea is contained in the scenes of war. The king leads his army against a town. The town is sacked. The women, children and animals are led away as booty, while the male prisoners plead for mercy on their knees before the king’s throne. But there is no mercy. Alongside the throne is a pile of severed heads, and we see other prisoners being skinned alive. This art is the document of a particular society: a highly militarised totalitarian state run by a god-king who laughs while he tramples his enemies underfoot. There is no attempt at perspective in this art. One figure towers above all the rest: that of the king.

In antiquity we see the most important development in classical Greek art. In ancient Athens the means of production, science and technique arrived at the maximum level possible in antiquity. Of course, all these achievements were based on the labour of the slaves, but for the free population of Athens there was genuine freedom. And somehow the spirit of this freedom permeates this art, especially its marvellous sculpture.

This art is not like that of Egypt. it is something quite different. Here for the first time we have a great flowering of human expression, of human culture, of human art which – albeit in an embryonic way – gives us a slight idea what the future under socialism will be like. Here for the first time art becomes truly human in content. The mind of people has gone beyond the narrow bounds of religion. Greek philosophy no longer needs gods to explain the universe: the whole meaning of Greek philosophy is an attempt to find an explanation for nature without gods.

And just look at the fantastic achievements of Greek sculpture. This is the high point of human artistic development for many people. Unfortunately most of it was destroyed, not by the barbarians, by the way, but by the Christians, who deliberately vandalised and destroyed a colossal amount of this art. But sufficient of this wonderful art is still available for us to appreciate its beauty and its meaning.

I advise all of you, even those who are not used to go to art galleries to go into a gallery and just stand in front of one of these statues for a while. For the first time you will feel that you are in the presence of a genuine human creation, of human art. These statues seem to speak to us – you can’t believe that they are made of stone. And yet they are still not entirely realistic, it is not exactly realism that you have here. We have the human form, the beauty of the naked human body both of men and women. But it’s really idealised art. It reflects part of Greek thinking and philosophy, where idealism played quite a big role, in the works of Plato and Pythagoras. The latter thought that mathematics and harmony based on numbers was the basis of everything, and this idea had a big influence on Greek thinking for a long time. Hence, Greek art is very harmonious, with all the proportions carefully maintained. The same is true of Greek classical architecture.

Roman art is the continuation of Greek art, but it is much more realistic. At this point, of course, we have a fundamental change. The history of art does not – and cannot – exactly reflect the development of human history. That is an erroneous conception which has nothing to do with Marxism. For example it does not necessarily follow that because the productive forces increase, art will necessarily experience a revival (as the history of the past half century shows only too well), nor does it follow that a period of crisis and economic downswing cannot produce great art.

Sometimes in the period of decline in society you get a peculiar dialectical development, where human consciousness turns in on itself and that can produce very important philosophical and artistic, consequences. it is true that in the last analysis, all human culture depends on the development of the productive forces. And a general collapse of the productive forces must inevitably signify a general collapse of human culture in the end.

The dark ages

There is a marvellous little story by Jack London, the American socialist writer, which Ted Grant is very fond of. It’s called ‘The Scarlet Plague’. And it is a frightening view of the future. it describes a society where all diseases have been eradicated, and an unknown new disease, which cannot be controlled by medicine comes into existence and kills most of the population of the planet. As a result, civilisation collapses.

This is a very perceptive little story, a short story, because it shows the relation between the productive forces and culture. This is taken for granted by most people. Yet the collapse of the productive forces – science, industry, technology – has a dramatic effect. In just one generation, the children who were born after the catastrophe believe that when their grandfather – a scientist who survived the mass destruction – tries to explain to them that there was a society with cars and trains and planes, that it is an absurd fairy story. Even the memory of civilisation is being liquidated. While the old grandfather still speaks correct English, the grandchildren no longer speak an articulate language. They communicate with inarticulate noises because there is no longer a need to speak a complicated language.

The line of history has an ascending line, but it also knows a descending line, as when the Roman Empire was overthrown. In the end, Rome was not destroyed by the barbarians; they just gave it the last push. It was overthrown by its own internal contradictions. There was a collapse of the productive forces, as a result of the inner contradictions of slavery. The early Christians represented a revolutionary, communist movement which the defenders of the decadent old order referred to contemptuously as a religion of women and slaves. As so often happens with revolutionary movements of the poor and dispossessed, the early Christians, who turned their backs on the world as evil, and despised the luxurious life of the wealthy classes of Rome – “mother of harlots and abominations of the earth” – were impregnated with a spirit of austerity that was profoundly inimical to art, culture and science.

At this time, around the fifth century, there occurred the biggest movement of the peoples in the whole of human history. With the westward displacement of the Slavonic and German tribes the old slave society collapsed, although in truth it was collapsing anyway. And with this collapse also came the complete collapse of culture. I think it is difficult to imagine the depth of this collapse. Let me just give you one fact, which says much about the Middle Ages. In the year 1500, after 100 years of neglect, the roads built by the Romans were still the best on the European continent. Most others were in such a state of disrepair that they were unusable. So were all the European harbours until the eighth century, when commerce began to revive.

Among the lost arts were bricklaying. In all of Germany, Holland, England and Scandinavia virtually no stone buildings, except cathedrals, were raised for 10 centuries. In other words, there was a complete eclipse of culture, as a result of the collapse of the productive forces. Under conditions of such terrible collapse, why speak about the conditions of the masses? Let me just quote one extract from a medieval author, a monk called Aelfric, who wrote a book to teach Latin conversation at Winchester:

Master: What do you do, ploughman, how do you do your work? Pupil: Sir, I work very hard. I go out at dawn to drive the oxen to the field, and yoke them to the plough. However hard the winter, I dare not stay at home for fear of my lord; and having yoked the oxen and made the ploughshare and coulter fast to the plough, every day I have to plough an acre or more. M. Do you have anyone with you? P. I have a boy to drive the oxen with the goad, and he is now hoarse with cold and shouting. M. What other work do you have to do in the day? P. A great deal more. I have to fill the oxen’s bin with hay, and give them water, and carry the dung outside. M. And is it hard work? P. Yes, it is hard work, because I am not free.

The rise of the feudal system was accompanied by a long period of cultural stagnation. With the exception of two inventions: the water wheel and windmills, there were no real inventions for about over a 1000 years. And all of culture now was dominated by the Catholic Church. I am referring, or course, to European culture, because unfortunately I have no time to deal with world culture, that would take too long. We will have to develop the question of Asian, Middle Eastern, African and Latin American culture on another occasion. Suffice it to say here that the cultural stagnation in medieval Europe was not the case in the Islamic world. When Christian Europe was sunk in barbarism, remarkable scientific and artistic advances were being made in the Islamic countries of the Middle East and Moslem Spain which later helped to fertilise the culture of Europe. In turn, many of the discoveries made by the Arabs and Persians had their origin in India.

We are dealing here, however, mainly with the development of capitalism, which began as a predominantly European phenomenon. The Middle Ages in Europe is characterised by the cultural dictatorship of the Church which was the complete negation of classical culture. Greek and Roman art celebrated the human form. Feudal Christian art rejects, not just the human form, but it rejects the world and all the essential activities of humanity. It directs the eyes of men and women upwards to heaven, it teaches us that this world is a world of demons and devils, it is an evil thing and the body is evil, relations between men and women are evil. Women were seen as particularly evil, since the first book of Genesis tells us that all the ills of the human race came from women (“original sin”)

Music was banned from churches originally. I quote from St. Thomas who in his book the ‘Summa Theologica’ warns against the evils of musical instruments. He says the following: “Instruments have been excluded from worship and excluded from the churches, because they have the form of a body. They keep disturbing the mind and even induce one to carnal pleasure.” What a horrible idea, inducing one to carnal pleasure!

The high point of this culture, this art, are the Mediaeval cathedrals, the Gothic cathedrals, which again, like the Egyptian statues of Pharaoh, are a statement in stone. You enter into one of these cathedrals you immediately lower your voice, it is dark, the only light comes through sometimes stained glass windows, the only bit of colour that there is. It is a mystical vision of the darkness of the soul, and these huge buildings, pointing upwards, pointing to the skies, are designed to make men and women feel small and unimportant. Many people admire this art – though personally it leaves me cold. In my opinion, it is profoundly inhuman art – an expression in stone of humanity’s alienation from its own human condition.

The crisis of feudalism

In all this period millions of men and women were born, lived and died under this spiritual dictatorship. They could not even understand what was said in the churches as it was being said in Latin. And yet outside the church the sun shone, the birds sang, men and women made love, music and dance continued and ultimately you have a change in the class content of society with very profound artistic consequences.

Now in the latter stage of feudalism, the later Middle Ages, from may by the thirteenth century onwards, society enters into a profound crisis. And when a given society enters into this kind of crisis, it can last a long time. The process is not in a straight line, there can be ups and downs, but all within the general downwswing.

In periods like this, people feel that society is in a crisis, not only for economic reasons, I would even say not mainly for economic reasons. There is a general sensation of collapse, a crisis of morality, crisis of the family, crisis of the church, crisis of belief, crisis of science, crisis of art. And that was the case in the later Middle Ages. A colossal change was taking place in the midst of general suffering, collapse, wars, epidemics, famine. Many people believed that the end of the world was coming, and in fact, it was coming. Not the end of the world as such, but the end of feudalism, the collapse of feudal system. This idea of the end of the world was expressed in art in the wonderfully original paintings of Breugel the Elder and above all Hyeronimus Bosch which you can find in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

The rise of the bourgeoisie

Of course, the decisive question here was the rise of the new revolutionary class which was challenging the old society, its social order, its beliefs and its religion. The bourgeoisie of the towns gradually, piece by piece conquered a place for themselves in feudal society. In the same way as the modern working class, through the organisations of the labour movement step by step, carves out a place for itself in society.

The bourgeois established the towns as separate entities, based not on agriculture and the old feudal relations, but on trade, commerce, money, money-lending. They developed a new life style and together with there gradually arose new tastes and new artistic conceptions and above all a new religion, Protestantism.

Have you ever thought what the fundamental doctrinal difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is? Most people can’t answer this question, But it is very simple. The Catholic religion teaches salvation through works, the Protestant religion teaches salvation by faith. Put very crudely – but in a way which brings out the class nature of the difference – faith is very cheap, it doesn’t cost any money, whereas works tends to be somewhat expensive. What is the class meaning of this? It goes right to the heart of the difference between the bourgeoisie and the feudal aristocracy.

Under feudalism – a system based on agriculture, there was no need for innovation, there was no need to invest in information technology or anything like that (even supposing that it was available). The reason is that the feudal landlords had a mass of serf labour who were virtually slaves, chained to the land, although they were formally free. And if you have very cheap labour you do not need to have machinery in order to increase productivity. So why bother to innovate? There was a similar situation in slave society. Although the Greeks of Alexandria had invented a steam engine which actually worked, it remained as a toy and a curiosity, with no practical application.

But if there was no need to reinvest, the question arises what does the ruling class do with the surplus? Of course you can always give it away, and some of them actually did that. Some of these people were quite generous – they could afford to be. Or you can spend it on ostentatious dress and jewellery and things like that – which most of the aristocracy and their wives did. Or you can give it to the Church. So that if you lived a very bad life, as most of them did, the priest would pray for your soul for the next 500 years, so you would be guaranteed a first-class ticket to the kingdom of heaven.

That is why the mediaeval Church could afford to build huge cathedrals from the money they got from the aristocracy. Actually, the Bible says nothing at all about the Church being a building. Somewhere, Jesus says: ‘Wheresoever two or three of you are gathered together in my name, there am I’. That’s what the word church means in Latin: ecclesia means a gathering, not a building at all.

So when a man called Luther came along and translated the Bible into German – very good German, as it happens, which laid the basis for the modern literary language – and people started to read the Bible, that was the beginning of the revolution. The Protestants aimed to base ourselves upon this Bible and nothing else. This was the word of God, directly revealed to Man. “If we have faith, if we believe in Jesus Christ through the Bible we will be saved”, they said. And that was a very revolutionary message for the times.

This was a frontal attack against the Church, against this spiritual dictatorship; this colossal bureaucracy which was very expensive, wasteful and corrupt in every sense; this hateful clergy which taxed them for no good reason. Let us remember that we are talking here about what Marx terms the period of the primitive accumulation of capital. The bourgeois wanted to save their money for investment purposes.

Two centuries later, the slogan of the American revolutionaries was “No taxation without representation” while in the 19th century, the Liberals demanded “Cheap Government!” But the first slogan of the bourgeois was “Cheap religion!” We do not need all these churches and all these priests and all these bishops and all these Popes – this was the main idea. And this itself had an aesthetic artistic expression, of course.

The bourgeois revolution

The Puritans of Britain wore very simple black clothes. That was in itself a revolutionary statement against the rich, against all this ostentation, this over-dressing, this jewellery, this corruption. It had distinct revolutionary connotations. Capitalism, unlike feudalism or slave society, for the first time in history preaches the rights of man, the rights of the individual. Individualism and capitalism are really inseparable. And that has an important result in art because for the first time in human history, because all or nearly all previous art was anonymous art.

Here we have the emergence of great artists – people who are known to us as individuals. Starting in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In Northern Italy, and later in the Netherlands, we have the beginnings of that marvellous period in human history which we call the Renaissance. What is new about this art? Well in the case of Flanders, you have people like the Van Eyck brothers, Hubert and Jan van Eyck who painted religious subjects in a novel way. They were religious, but the whole content of these paintings was different to the previous art.

If you look at this Flemish art you see real men and women, the human being comes back into art. In philosophy we see the equivalent in the rise of humanism, which expresses the same bourgeois idea of the rights of the individual. This was represented by people like Erasmus and Sir Thomas More. The new schools of thought were above all a product of Italy where art reached its highest point since Greece. This was a direct expression of the rise of the bourgeoisie.

This revolutionary conception of man the individual finds a wonderful expression in the works of people like Botticelli. The Birth of Venus is one of the greatest high points of all painting. This beautiful painting has nothing to do with the Middle Ages or Christianity. It is a purely pagan subject – the goddess of love, Aphrodite being born out of the waves. At the centre is the female form, a naked body – a subject that was anathema to the medieval church, which regarded the body as evil, and woman the source of original sin. Here, by contrast, we have a glorious celebration of the human body. The human essence, life itself, thrusts its way to the fore, as it did in the times of ancient Greece.

There is a freedom about this painting, they way in which the flesh and the waves are described, but also the wind, expressed in the way that the gossamer-like clothes move. This is a revolutionary statement – a complete negation of the old rigidity, the old religious mystical nonsense. The old darkness has been completely banished. Here, all is light. Nothing is fixed, everything moves, dances and laughs. Here at last art ceases to be inhuman, it is really human art.

This reflects a fundamental change in men’s conception of the universe and our place in it. This is the same daring outlook which in science led to a new age of investigation and experimentation, and in politics led directly to a revolutionary conflict of the rising bourgeoisie against feudal Catholic reaction. Particularly in Holland, where the bourgeoisie was waging a heroic revolutionary struggle against the main reactionary power of Spain which one could compare to American imperialism at the present.

The revolt of the Netherlands

The revolt of the Spanish Netherlands was like the Vietnam war and the Russian Revolution mixed up into one. This was a very ferocious war, a revolutionary war in which at one stage the king of Spain condemned the entire population of the Netherlands to death with some exceptions. It was a time in which it was a crime punishable by death in the most terrible form to have a Bible in your house. Anyone found to be a heretic – that is, anyone who did not agree with the Catholic Church, would be roasted alive, but if you made a full confession and repented and denounced Protestantism, then the Holy Mother Church could show mercy. The men were beheaded and the women were buried alive.

After a long struggle the Dutch bourgeoisie succeeded in breaking free from Spain. It opened up a flowering of trade, commerce and prosperity and also of art and culture. This art of the Netherlands had some peculiarities. Many of these Dutch masterpieces breathe a spirit of complete tranquillity, of peace, of calm. What is the meaning of this? It is rooted in the previous period. After the ferocious struggle against Spain, the Dutch bourgeois, those sturdy and prosperous merchants, wanted a breathing space, a period of calm to enjoy the new peace, quiet, calm, tranquillity. That is what most of these paintings convey: a perfectly ordered and stable society.

This is also the first time in history when art really describes ordinary life, ordinary calm every day bourgeois existence. Here are women combing their hair, playing the spinet or reading a letter – as in the painting of Vermeer, one of the greatest representatives of this school. The very ordinary nature of these scenes answered to a very profound psychological need. By the way, even here economics and the class question makes an appearance.

A new kind of painting comes into existence: the still life. This usually consists of tables which are full of rather nice food, pheasants, jugs of wine and apples and other luscious fruit. The fruit is so beautiful that you honestly feel like putting your hand out and taking one of these apples and eating it. This is the message of the prosperous Dutch merchant who says ‘Here I am! I have arrived. Look what I can afford. Look what I have got in my kitchen!’ Even the paintings of flowers have an economic base, because this is the period of the first economic crisis of speculation, the Dutch tulip scandal where everyone wanted flowers and flowers were worth a lot of money.

Money and art

The basis of this new art is that there is a new consuming class, the prosperous merchant with a big house and lots of walls that needed covering. There were painting everywhere, there were paintings in shops, in inns, in pubs. Here art was not regarded as a high mystery, in the sense of “art for art’s sake”. It was regarded as a trade, just like any other trade. Vermeer painted a lot of pictures of his native town of Delft. One Delft baker actually owned two of Vermeer’s paintings which are now worth millions of pounds. And the reason why the baker had the two paintings is because they paid the bread bill: Vermeer could not afford to buy bread. He died in poverty, like many artists, and big business makes millions out of their paintings.

Of course with the rise of capitalism you get the elements of importance of money, greed, acquisitiveness the desire to possess things. In England in the seventeenth century there was a bourgeois revolution. Here we see the same clash between a new religious and artistic idea and feudal absolutism. Just look at the paintings of King Charles I painted by the Dutch painter Van Dyke, many of them are in the National Gallery. They are gorgeous paintings with aristocratic figures adorned with fine jewellery and lace . Their enemies, the Puritans dressed in black and lived simply. Here are two different conceptions of aesthetics, and two different moralities, based on two antagonistic classes. A famous incident illustrates the different mentality of the two classes. When Oliver Cromwell, the English revolutionary, had his picture painted. He was a very good bourgeois revolutionary, but he was not the world’s most handsome man. Cromwell said to the artist “Paint me as I am, warts and all!”

A new artistic sprit was abroad. The English revolution produced some great writers, such as John Milton, the author of ‘Paradise Lost’ and Andrew Marvell the wonderful old Puritan poet. But I don’t have time to go into the details.

The ancien régime and the French revolution

If one turns to France you see again a clash of two classes and the clash of two cultures expressed in art. Of course I repeat, one should not try to establish exact relationships, that would be a mistake. And yet sometimes, in a peculiar, distorted way you can see the dim outline of social relations expressed in art. Not always, just sometimes. Sometimes, you can see this even in such an unlikely thing as gardening. Did you ever go to Versailles in France? Maybe you looked at the famous gardens? What do you see? Geometrical forms, straight lines.

What does this idea reflect? It is also a statement. The absolute feudal monarchy of France was trying to control everything, rigidly, even nature. The gardens of Versailles express an idea: that we can control everything, we can control even nature, even the trees, even the rivers, even the grass must obey us. The artistic expression of this idea is classicism, which tries to establish rigid rules for drama, based on a misunderstanding of something that Aristotle wrote. Drama must take place in 24 hours, in one place, you can’t mix tragedy and comedy. They laughed at Shakespeare, whom they considered an ignorant barbarian, because he mixed up comedy and tragedy.

On the eve of the Revolution, the French state was bankrupt and the ground was shaking under the feet of the monarchy. It was therefore somehow to be expected that the art of the ruling class at this time should be characterised by a large element of escapism. The world of unreality we see in the paintings of Watteau was a faithful reflection of the dream world in which the doomed and decadent French ruling class actually lived. Marie Antoinette had a “farm” built on her estates where she dressed up as a shepherdess. Meanwhile, in the real world, real french shepherds and shepherdesses were suffering hardships that found no echo in Marie Antoinette’s artificial world.

The same mania to control everything, and also this world of dreams, which completely broke down in 1789. The French Revolution overturned everything. And the grounds for the French Revolution were prepared previously by an ideological struggle, particularly in the realm of philosophy. The revolution carried this struggle over into art, which was expressed initially in the form of neo-classicism, in the paintings of David the great revolutionary artist and later in romanticism.

You might say, what is the difference between the old classicism and the new classicism? There is a difference. The classicism of the monarchy was based on the decadent art of the Roman Empire, the classicism of the French Revolution referred to the Roman Republic and had a revolutionary character. It was fired by the spirit of heroism, sacrifice for the common good, patriotism. They were the qualities which the revolutionary bourgeoisie needed to overthrow the old regime and hold onto power against the combined power of the monarchies of Europe.

Effects of the French revolution

The French revolution had a colossal effect, not only in France, but on an international scale. In England a whole series of great poets, some of the greatest English poets, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Robert Burns in Scotland, William Blake, an extremely original writer and artist who was so advanced that in his time he was considered to be mad. If I remember correctly, he ended his days in the lunatic asylum. And now is recognised as a great artist and writer.

All of these great writers supported the French Revolution enthusiastically, although it was dangerous to do so. There was terrible oppression in Britain. William Blake wrote that if Jesus Christ was alive in Britain he would be put in jail. William Wordsworth was present at the time of the revolution, he was in France and in his great poem, The Prelude, he wrote the following wonderful lines:

“Bliss t’was in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven.”

Later, when the revolutionary wave receded and Bonapartist reaction usurped power, Wordsworth and Coleridge abandoned the cause. Something similar happened after the Russian revolution succumbed to the Stalinist political counter-revolution. But not everyone capitulated. Shelley was a marvellous poet who died tragically young. Marx greatly admired Shelley, who remained absolutely firm in his revolutionary beliefs, as did the great Scottish poet, Robert Burns.

Not only in Britain did prominent writers and artists find inspiration in the French revolution. In Germany, Goethe and Schiller enthusiastically welcomed the French Revolution and in the field of music, the greatest musical genius in history, Ludwig van Beethoven never vacillated in his support for the ideals of the French Revolution to the end of his life.

You might ask, is it possible to express the idea of that revolution in music? And I answer yes. Beethoven was a musical revolutionary who derived his inspiration from revolution. You compare any of Beethoven’s symphonies to anything that had gone before and you will immediately see that it is absolutely new. And it is in the essence of all great art that it must be something new, something that says something new to us.

Some of you may know the story of Beethoven’s third symphony, which is called the Eroica Symphony, that is, the symphony of a hero. Here is the very spirit of the French Revolution in music. You doubt that, you think that I am making it up? But it is a well documented fact! Beethoven thought that Napoleon was a continuation of the French Revolution and he was going to dedicate his third Symphony to Napoleon. In fact, it was going to be called the Napoleon Symphony.

When in the middle of writing it he heard the news that Napoleon had crowned himself emperor. And, snatching up his pen, he scratched the name of Napoleon from the score. This piece of paper still exists, you can see it in a museum and you can see that he scratched it out so furiously that he tore a hole in the paper. He re-named the symphony the Eroica Symphony – in the memory of a hero.

Now, many of perhaps don’t like classical music. That’s a pity. But I invite you just to listen to just the first two seconds of that symphony. And that’s a revolution in music. Before that people – rich people, of course – used to go to a symphonic concert, sit down, , fall asleep, perhaps, or maybe go home whistling a few pleasant tunes. You can’t do that with Beethoven and the Eroica symphony starts with two heavy blows, like a fist hammering a table or a door. It is not music, it is not a tune. It is a call to attention , or rather, a call to. arms.

Beethoven’s fifth symphony is better known, it starts with a very famous theme. Again it is not really a tune. And Nicholas Harnancourt, the Dutch conductor has said: “this is not music, this is political agitation. It is telling us: ‘this world is bad, this world is wrong, we must change it. Let’s go!’ ” This is Harnancourt, speaking, not me. And in point of fact, it has recently been discovered by John Elliot Gardener, an English conductor, that Beethoven’s fifth Symphony is based on French revolutionary songs. Yes, music can express revolution and does express revolution.

The relationship between the artist and society is a dialectical one. Art must come from the individual, must come from the heart, if you like. But there can be moments in which the internal contradictions of a person can coincide with broad social contradictions. And that can generate great art as was the case with Beethoven. Beethoven’s personal life was full of tragedy. He started to go deaf when he was 28 years of age. By the time he conducted his ninth symphony, his great choral symphony he was completely deaf.

This was a life full of personal anguish, which of course is reflected in his music. But Beethoven was a genius, and where another man would have been destroyed by this, Beethoven was not only not destroyed, but he rose above his personal situation and expressed in his music not a personal problem, but all the great contradictions and dilemmas facing suffering humanity.


The prevailing artistic tendency in the first half of the nineteenth century was Romanticism. What’s the meaning of romanticism? What does it represent?

In 1789 – 93 you have the enormous revolutionary leap in France which held out a promise of a better future for the whole human race, based on liberty, equality and fraternity. These were very high sounding slogans, which the bourgeois used to rouse the masses to fight, but given the prevailing level of the productive forces, the French Revolution ended in a bourgeois revolution and could only end in a bourgeois revolution.

With the consolidation of bourgeois rule, all the dreams of the artists and intellectuals that were aroused by the Revolution evaporated, and were dissipated in the cold light of day. Instead of the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, they had the rule of the banker, the merchant, the money-maker. Society was dominated by the cold hearted avarice of the bourgeois, which are very well reflected in the novels of Balzac, as I mentioned.

And as a reaction against this, many artists and writers tried to put forward a revolutionary alternative, if you like. They had an implacable hostility towards the bourgeoisie, towards the rule of money. And of course art must always strive for freedom. Genuine art must freely express something which is in myself, not something that is imposed from without by anything whatsoever, for such art is necessarily bad art. And therefore art rejects control by the state, just as it rejects the dictatorship of religion and of the church. And also rejects the tyranny of the market, which is an implacable foe of art and creativity.

In the early decades of the nineteenth century – up to the defeat of the 1848 revolution – many famous French poets and writers had revolutionary instincts. Delacroix, Gautier, Daumier, Baudelaire all sympathised with the revolution of 1848 and participated in it. By the way, while we are on the subject, let me give you a little surprise. One of those who participated, actively in the revolution in Germany was a young composer called Richard Wagner. At the time, he was a personal friend of the anarchist Bakunin, and he wrote quite a good lengthy article called “Socialism and Art”, which explains that true art and music is incompatible with capitalism .

Yes, most of the creative artists were on the side of the working class, on the side of the revolution in 1848. But the petty bourgeoisie is a very unstable class. The intellectuals are particularly unstable. When the revolution was defeated they became depressed, rapidly lost all faith in the working class and turned inwards on themselves. That is the historical origin of the so called theory of “art for art’s sake”, which I mentioned in the beginning.

The movement called symbolism which was created basically by Baudelaire – a marvellous poet. But he was one of those who lost all faith in the revolution after 1848, and retreated into himself, writing mainly about things like sex and mysticism, which is always the case with the intelligentsia after the defeat of every revolution. You’ll find the same phenomenon repeated many times.

I will give you an example from my own personal experience. I was in Portugal at the time of the revolution in 1975. At that time there was an enormous movement of the working class after 50 years of fascist dictatorship. You walked through the streets of Lisbon and you’d see crowds of hundreds of people heatedly discussing politics, and bookstalls full of the works of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Mao Tse Tung. I went back later, a few years later after the defeat of the revolution, the left wing books had all disappeared, and in their place there was pornography, religious books, mystical books.

It is quite normal to see the rise of a reactionary cultural trend after the defeat of a revolution. Then when the revolution returns to the struggle under the impact of profound social crisis, you get the same ferment as before amongst the intelligentsia. But I’m afraid I will have to cut my story a little bit short. Because we need to deal with the place of art today. And also to try to see if there is a relationship between art and the class struggle.

Art and the class struggle

It is possible to give different answers to this question. If you asked me, should we judge all art from the standpoint of Marxist theory and the class struggle, I would say that would be ridiculous. Art is not necessarily revolutionary and it is possible to find quite great art which reflects a quite a conservative or reactionary idea. Let me give you just one example.

The French writer Honoré de Balzac who was Marx’s favourite novelist was a political conservative, actually he supported the monarchy. Yet, as Marx pointed out, he was such a great writer, such a great realist, that you could learn more from his novels about the history of France in the first part of the nineteenth century and draw revolutionary conclusions, than from anything else.

In the history of the twentieth century, art has on occasion reflected revolutionary ideas. For example, a painter who perhaps not all of you like, Pablo Picasso, was not a political person, but somebody who grew up in the fertile cultural soil of Spain in the beginning of the last century. This was a time when Spain was in ferment. Picasso was a friend of Federico Garcia Lorca, who had left wing sympathies. Lorca, probably the greatest modern Spanish poet, was murdered by the fascists in 1936.

In this country [Spain] there was a whole series of artists, writers, poets and musicians who were influenced by the general ferment in society, and who participated in the revolution of 1931-1937, some of them in a militant way. I am thinking particularly of Miguel Hernadez, a great poet who came from the labouring classes, and ended his life in a fascist prison.

Let’s go back for a moment to this stupid middle class prejudice that the masses are not interested in culture. Up to a certain point I think there is some truth in this. Because the masses sense that bourgeois culture is a monopoly of the ruling class, it is not for us. It is something alien, it does not belong to ordinary people. Yes that idea exists. And it sometimes leads to a rejection of art and culture by ordinary people. Yes it’s true, but it is also true of politics. Normally the masses take no interest in politics. Under normal circumstances of class society the masses leave the important to somebody else – the local councillor, the trade union official, the member of Parliament and so on.

So when we say that the masses are not interested in culture, all we are saying is that under normal conditions of class society the masses leave thinking in general to somebody else. But the essence of a revolution, as Trotsky explains, is precisely that the great mass of ordinary men and women, begin to participate in politics. They begin to change, they begin to raise themselves up to the level of real human beings, they discover that they have interests and needs that they didn’t realise before; hat they have a mind, that they have a personality, that they have human dignity, that they have soul. Al that comes out in a revolution.

Miguel Hernandez went to the front to read his revolutionary poetry to the Republican soldiers in the trenches. He was met with enormous enthusiasm everywhere from the workers and peasants. The interest in culture is present in the hearts and the minds of the masses, but it is suppressed and crushed by this barbarous and unjust class society. But it comes out in a revolution. And a genuine Marxist tendency must understand that, we must appreciate its significance and cherish it.

We find a reflection of revolution in a distorted way in things like surrealism. The Dadaist movement already anticipated the surrealist movement around the time of the First World War, particularly in Germany, where some outstanding artists and writers staged a revolt against militarism and capitalism. They produced some outstanding works, I am thinking in particular of people like George Grosz, Kurt Weil, Berthold Brecht. The last two collaborated to write the Threepenny Opera (Der Dreigroschenoper) which starts with the well-known song Mack the Knife (Meckie Messer)

The songs in this opera contain some marvellous lines, especially the ones which finish the work:

“Denn die eine sind im Dunkel, 
Und die and’re sind im Licht, 
Und mann siehet die im Lichte, 
Die im Dunkel sieht mann nicht.”

[“For some people live in darkness and some people live in light, you see those that live in the light, those that live in the dark you don’t see.”]

The Dadaist and Surrealist movements expressed the contradictions in capitalist society through the medium of biting caricature. Trotsky understood the revolutionary potential of this art and literature, especially as a weapon against totalitarianism in art and society (both fascism and Stalinism). He took a great interest in the surrealist movement, and actually wrote a manifesto on art and revolution together with André Breton, the French surrealist.

Even Cubism in some way reflect something about society. What does it reflect? Wars and revolutions represent colossal convulsions which transform everything, change people’s lives – and their minds. Cubism reflects a profound change in the way people saw the world in general. Before 1914 there was a long period of gradual upswing of capitalism. It was a bit like the period we have just passed through. Full employment, prosperity and the idea that this can go on forever. And then suddenly the dream is shattered, the illusion is dissolved by the trauma of the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Then came the German Revolution and the Hungarian Revolution and the rise of fascism in Italy. All of which shatters people’s world to pieces. The psychology of even the most conservative individuals is changed. How can this not be reflected in art?

Let us think for a moment of the art before the First World War. the dominant tendency was impressionism, born in France in the last decades of the 19th century. Personally I like impressionism. It conveys the idea of a tranquil, peaceful world, a world of flowers and sunshine and picnic on the lawn. After the First World War how could artists go back to such a world like this? How could they even consider it?

If you look at Picasso’s early paintings – the so-called blue period – you will see a very compassionate portrayal of the world of marginalised poor people, done with a technical perfection and a sense of mass. I am thinking of one painting, of a young girl acrobat on top of a huge ball. In the foreground an immense male athlete with huge muscles is sitting on a massive great block. Somehow the girl seems to be floating, seems to be defying gravity. While the other figure expresses a sense of mass of weight and the force of gravity pulling downwards.

This technical, almost geometrical aspect gradually takes on a live of its own and creates a new school. The human figure is now represented in a normal way, which we are used to describing as realism. The human form is shown from different angles, in a way which would not be possible in everyday life. Somebody might say that this is not art. People are not like that; how can you have a foot over there and a hand over there, and the face facing both ways?

However, the purpose of great art is not just to convey things as they are – or seem to be – any more than philosophy must portray things just as they are. The real task of both art and philosophy is to penetrate beyond the world of appearances, tear away the mask and show reality and people as they really are.

You know, it was not Picasso who began to split people into their constituent parts. In the period of 1914 to 1918, millions of men in uniform were chopped up into their constituent parts by bayonets and high explosives. If this art shocks, it is far less shocking than society in the 20th and 21st centuries.

I am thinking of one painting of Picasso in particular, it is called ‘The Portrait of a Lady’. Please note, not a portrait of a woman, but a portrait of a lady. It is a female figure in which the sexual organs are greatly exaggerated, breasts and so on, and the figure if you look at it has no hands. Why does the lady have no hands? Because the lady does not work. The sole function of a lady of the upper classes is precisely as a reproductive animal. By the way, Picasso wrote on the door of his study at one time: ‘Je ne suis en gentilhomme.’ I am not a gentleman. I could continue, but it would take a little bit too much time.

Picasso’s greatest painting was undoubtedly his masterpiece, Guernica. This is perhaps the most powerful artistic manifesto in history. Picasso said at one point: art is not for decoration, art should be a weapon of struggle. And Guernica, which I advise you to look at carefully, expresses the horror of the bombing of the Basque town. It is the best kind of militant art. It shows that art can be militant.

There have been militant artists in the twentieth century, like Diego Rivera and others. And is it not our responsibility – along with our trade union work, youth work and other work – to try to reach the best of the modern artists and writers and turn them into militant allies of the working class? I believe that art can play a revolutionary role, and we must show ourselves to be open and willing to have a dialogue with the best of the artists: to win them to the active service of the working class.

Art and the October Revolution

Leon Trotsky once wrote that revolution is the locomotive of history. And a marvellous proof of that was the October Revolution itself. The Russian Revolution was an earth-shaking act of human emancipation – in every sense. Not just the emancipation of the proletariat, but emancipation of women, the emancipation of the oppressed nationalities, of the Jews and yes, of art itself.

The October Revolution set art free. Contrary to the slanders of the enemies of Bolshevism, there was never any attempt by the Bolsheviks to impose a Party line on art. The decade after October were years of impassioned and free debate, experiment and innovation. What a galaxy of artistic talent arose in the years after the Russian Revolution, particularly in the 1920’s. There was a marvellous flourishing of culture and art. We have the poems of that great revolutionary poet, Mayakovsky – a Bolshevik from 1905 – who was called the drummer boy of the revolution.

After the October Revolution the beginnings of a marvellous renaissance. In the theatre with Meyerhold, in the cinema with Eisenstein, who I personally think was the greatest film director in the whole of history, in music with Shostakovitch – a man who would never have written a note of music without the Russian Revolution , and who wrote his first symphony in 1928 at the age of 26, if my memory doesn’t fail me.

There were highly original writers like Isaac Babel the Jewish authors who wrote ‘Red Cavalry’ a marvellous work about the Civil War. Mayakovsky, I have just mentioned, and there were others, who were not Bolsheviks, but also thrived under the revolution.

But this beautiful, fragrant flower was crushed under the boot of Stalinism. Meerholt died in a concentration camp, Babel died in a concentration camp, Mayakovsky committed suicide, Mandelshtamm died in a concentration camp, and so on. These were just some of the crimes of Stalinism in the field of culture.

Art and socialism

Now I realise that I have gone on rather long and have not covered a quarter of the ground that I intended to cover. But I would just like to finish with one idea about the future of art under socialism. Our main task, our most pressing task is to overthrow capitalism because the continuation of capitalism threatens, not just economic life it threatens it is a mortal threat for the future perspectives of human civilisation and culture. Because despite of all the marvellous advances of human civilisation of a period of ten thousand years, human culture and civilisation is really only quite a thin layer.

Civilisation is really quite fragile and beneath this thin veneer of culture the forces of primitive barbarism still exist. You saw that with Hitler’s Germany, and we have seen more recently in the Balkans, unless the working class takes power into its hands, the future of human culture and civilisation is in serious danger. But there is another side to this question.

Under modern conditions, the colossal development of the productive forces, of science and of technology a socialist revolution, especially on a world scale, would rapidly lead to a cultural revolution, the like of which has never been seen in human history. One of the greatest crimes of capitalism is that represses the ingenuity, the creativity, the potential of ordinary people. The majority of people never have the chance to develop themselves freely. Trotsky once said, “How many Aristotles are herding swine?” and he added, “How many swineherds are sitting on thrones?”

For hundreds of years, art has been the monopoly of a few. To the vast majority, it has been presented as something mystical, difficult and utterly inaccessible. The artist is presented as a special kind of being, uniquely gifted at birth, and not like the rest of us. Now, I am far from denying that there is a genetic element in our makeup which gives us a certain potential for development. It is also clear that not everyone can be, say, a Mozart. But this assertion really explains nothing.

Mozart’ genetic make-up clearly gave him the potential for becoming a great composer. But the environment in which he grew up played a determining role in realising that potential. His father was a well known composer, Leopold Mozart who was very ambitious for his child. From a very early age he encouraged his son to be interested in music. That Mozart, the child Mozart had a potential to become a great musician, of that there is no doubt. But does anyone seriously believes that if Mozart had been born instead of the son of a prosperous composer, if he had been born an Indian peasant, do you think he would have written symphonies? Of course not.

An English poet of the 18th century wrote the following lines:

“Full many a gem of purest ray serene 
The dark, unfathom’d caves of ocean bear. 
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen 
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

How well these lines express the colossal waste of human talent under capitalism!

If you want a fundamental definition of socialism, I give it to you. It is to make actual all that is potential in the human race. If one looks at the history of humanity, it is striking that the numbers of geniuses, like Mozart, are quite few. There are very few. Out of the thousands of millions of men and women who live on our planet I do not say that every one of them could be a Mozart – that would be false. But that there are amongst these people many potential geniuses in many different fields – of that, there is not an atom of doubt.

Just think back to your school years. How many kids in your school,do you know that under different circumstances could have been doctors, writers, composers, dancers, footballers, musicians? And how did they end up? We all start out with this dream, do we not? But very soon on the basis of capitalism this dream is crushed out of people. They become brutalised, to the point that some of them become like animals. The potential within them is crushed at an early age. The inner meaning of socialism is to bring back potential that human potential to its fruition.

Comrades, the inner meaning of socialism is not to fight for a crust of bread, that is not what we are fighting for. That is only the first step – a very important step, of course. The Bible says, “Man shall not live by bread alone.’ And actually human beings have never lived by bread alone”. And under a socialist society, men and women will be free from want from poverty and will have the necessary time to develop themselves as free human beings. For the first time, they will be free to develop their personality, to develop themselves physically and mentally.

Just imagine the colossal amount of capability of creative potential that will be released! It would make the gains of the Renaissance look like a very small affair. Art for the first time in history would once again be part of life, not shut away in a museum, Trotsky said that a museum was a concentration camp for art. Art must be freed from this prison and connect with life.

Art and the future

At the beginning of the 21st century, humanity is confronted with a very important question – that of so-called globalisation. This has a cultural dimension as well as an economic one. As Marxists, of course, we are internationalists, we should be free of any trace of nationalist prejudice. And Marx and Engels explained in the Communist Manifesto that the development of capitalism would create a tendency towards world economy, out of which there would eventually arise a world culture.

To some extent, that is already a fact. Over the last 20 or 30 years there has been an enormous transformation on a world scale. Practically everywhere you go now, particularly in the developed countries, and increasingly also in the underdeveloped world young people wear the same clothes, they listen to the same music, and there is a general tendency towards a kind of standardisation. Is this good or bad? We must be careful not to fall into a philistine nationalist position on this question. Because the cleaning of the decks, the cleaning away of a lot of rubbish eventually must lead to a world wide human culture under socialism. However, under capitalism, what this global “culture” boiled down to is the crude cultural domination of the planet by one powerful imperialism which crushes all other cultures in the interest of profit. And that cannot be good.

By the way, somebody mentioned the words ‘workers music’ or “workers art”. In fact, there is no such thing. Marx long ago explained that the leading ideas of every epoch are the ideas of the ruling class. And Trotsky explained that the proletariat cannot create its own culture before the revolution because of the conditions of its life under capitalism. On the other hand, after the socialist revolution there will not be a workers’ culture, but a genuinely human, socialist culture.

Comrades we must raise our eyes and broaden our horizons a little bit. We must understand that out of the present mess, the present crisis, the present degradation of the planet, a new civilisation is being prepared. Throughout history, when a social and economic system enters into crisis, as capitalism is now in crisis, that fact expresses itself in many ways: as a crisis of the family, a crisis of morality, a crisis of religion, a crisis of culture. And all those elements are present now under capitalism.

There is a general sickness a general sense of decline and decay which also affects art. Just look at the art that they produce now. I think I am a very broad-minded person, I am in favour of artistic experiment, I am interested in new ideas, but when you have an artistic exhibition in London which shows a sheep, a dead sheep in formaldehyde, and this is presented as art, then I begin to wonder.

I think this a symptom of decadence and people pay a lot of money for it. Other artists have produced works of art using their own excrement. This is – I am being absolutely serious – put on the market and I believe it also makes quite a lot of money. Well, the English have got an old saying, “Where there’s muck there’s brass.” And in the art world of decadent capitalism, where there is excrement, there is money. The bourgeois, as always, will make money out of anything!

If art represents a kind of mirror and it does represent a kind of mirror in which society can see itself reflected, then this is a very faithful reflection of bourgeois society in the 21st century. This represents a crisis of culture and its final degradation. But in a sense even this art has got something to say to us, it is telling us that culture under capitalism can no longer develop. It is a very serious message and therefore the task that now falls to the proletariat – like the task of the bourgeoisie in the 17th and 18th centuries consists of clearing all this rubbish out of the way and preparing the way for a new social order.

This is not only an economic question, I insist, but because the capitalists cannot use the colossal potential that exists for the development of industry, agriculture, science and technology, it is the task of the working class to take over control of society. Once the working class holds power in its hands then there opens up before us a limitless potential for human development, on the basis of a socialist planned economy.

This is what we are fighting for. We are fighting, not only for the economic emancipation of the proletariat, we are fighting for the soul of the human race. We are fighting for a society in which the potential of everybody can be developed to the full. And freed from the humiliating dependence on the slavery of capitalism we will finally raise ourselves up to our true human stature and reach out our hands to the stars.

In a socialist society, people would build beautiful cities, having torn down the ugly, polluted, overcrowded monstrosities which our cities have become, and build anew. People can and must have the right to live in beautiful houses, and to create genuinely human conditions to live under. Everyday life in the home, in the workplace, and even on the streets would become beautiful. Architecture would no longer be the Cinderella of the arts, but would be hotly debated. It would regain the kind of central position and prestige that it enjoyed in ancient Athens.

Art and culture and science would blossom as never before and above all, the highest art, the most important art, the art of life itself. To make life beautiful is the greatest of all causes, because we only have one life. As dialectical materialists, we do not accept the idea of life after death. It is up to us to ensure that people’s lives are no longer empty and meaningless, but that everyone is able to live life to the full, and when the time comes, to depart from it without regret.

This will be, in the words of Frederick Engels, “Humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.” That is the cause that we are fighting for – the only cause that is worth fighting for. Inspired and armed with these ideas, we will succeed.

Barcelona, July 2001.


The above lines are only a very rough sketch of a huge and complex subject. In order to do justice to this subject, I would need a whole day to lead off and we would need a whole week to discuss. But it is quite possible that the end of the day we will produce a book on the subject which would treat it as it deserves.

Ernst Fischer, the Austrian Marxist, posed the question of what art means. What is art? And he suggested that in art humanity is striving after a full life. What does this mean? Under class society we are not full men and full women. In the best of cases, we are only half realised as human beings. And although people don’t really understand it, most people feel that they are not fully fulfilling their potential in this life. They don’t understand why, but they are feeling that there is something missing in their lives, or rather that ‘I am missing something.’

For the great majority of people the big question is not ‘”Is there a life after death?” The question is “Is there a life before death?” It is an idea that torments people. When they stop to think about their life, people ask themselves: “Is this all there is? Is this all there is to life?” The reason why they look towards a life after death is because they have not really lived life. And this where art comes in. It allows people to dream, it gives them a broader horizon. They dream that things can be better, that life could be better.

Men and women who have no love in their lives they go to the cinema and watch these silly love stories, because they aspire to genuine human love, feeling and passion. They are attracted by colour because their lives are colourless. They are even attracted by the drug of religion because they live in a soulless world. I am talking about the masses, I am not just talking about intellectuals. Many people go to the cinema, many people watch these dreadful programmes on the television, which in England are known as soap operas. These are a very bad substitute for a real life, which millions of people watch because they have no life of their own.

In the cinema, or before the television screen, for an hour or so they see action, they see excitement, which gives them a little relief from the sheer, tedious, grey boredom of their existence under capitalism. That is he importance of art: it is a dream that suggests, however vaguely, that humanity can actually have a life and it also supposes that in their innermost hearts, men and women aspire to another kind of life – to something better than what they have got.

And therefore, in a sense, all art potentially contains the germ of revolution because it represents a discontent with what is. Of course we understand the limitations of art, we understand that for us it is not the fundamental area of struggle. It is just one more area that we have to comment on and try to intervene in, try to establish some sort of a contact and dialogue with the best of the artists, of course.

The contradictions expressed through art cannot be resolved through art, because they are contradictions of society that are only reflected in art, but can only be resolved in society through revolutionary struggle. Therefore, the consistent pursuit for freedom and truth in art must eventually lead to the road of social revolution and the ideas and programme of Marxism.

September 18, 2009

ज्वार – संजीव

Filed under: Literature — movementofthought @ 5:20 am

[originally published on ]

माँ बताती थीं कि हम फरीदपुर के `सोनारदीघी’ गाँव से आये हैं, जो अब पाकिस्तान है। सन् 71 में `बांग्लादेश’ बन जाने के बाद भी वे इसे `पाकिस्तान’ ही कहती रहीं। उस पार से आये कई बंगाली `ओ पार बांगला, ए पार बांगला’ (उस पार का बंगाल, इस पार का बंगाल) कह कर दोनों को जोड़े रहते, माँ ही ऐसा न कर सकीं। जाने कौन-सी ग्रंथि थी! ऐसा भी नहीं कि `उस पार’ के लिए उन्होंने अपने खिड़की-दरवाजे पूरी तरह से बंद कर लिए थे। `इस पार’ आ जाने के बाद भी काफी दिनों तक उनकी जड़ें तड़पती रहीं वहाँ के खाद-पानी के लिए – वे लहलहाते धान के खेत, नारियल के लंबे-ऊंचे पेड़, आम-जामुन के स्वाद, चौड़ी-चौड़ी हिलकोरें लेती नदियाँ, नदियों के पालने में झूलती नावें, रात में नावों से उड़-उड़ कर आते भटियाली गीत –
मॅन माझी तोर बइठाले रे,
आमी आर बाइते पारलॉम ना;
बाइते-बाइते जीवॅन गेलो,
कूलेर देखा पाइलाम ना।
(हे मन के माझी, अपनी डाँड़ संभालो, मुझसे अब और नहीं खेया जाता। खेते-खेते जीवन बीता, लेकिन कहीं किनारा नहीं दिखा…।)
छुलक-छुलक पानी की आवाज मानो ताल देती और गीत की टेर दिगंत तक फैलती जाती!
मॉं अक्सर उन `टोंगा’ (मचानों) का जिक्र करती, जिन पर पानी से बचने के लिए पूरा परिवार बैठा होता। आम जामुन के साथ-साथ कभी-कभी `सिलेट करवे’ के कमला नींबू की याद करतीं जिनके सामने दार्जिलिंग और नागपुर के संतरे उन्हें फीके लगते। मछलियाँ तो मछलियाँ, कच्चू डाँटा (अरबी की डंठल) मोचाई (केले के फूल) ओल (सूरन) की ऐसी उम्दा सब्जी बनातीं कि हमें पूछना पड़ता, `माँ तुमने इतनी बढ़िया तरकारी बनाना कहाँ से सीखा?’
`वहीं से, वहाँ की औरतों के बारे में कहावत है कि जूते का तलवा भी राँध दें तो खाने वाले उंगलियाँ चाटते रह जाएँ।’
`सारा कुछ अच्छा ही अच्छा था तो आप लोग चले क्यों वहाँ से ?’ हम पूछते। माँ हर बार इस प्रश्न पर मौन साध लेतीं –
मैं कभी इसके पहले `सोनारदीघी’ आयी नहीं लेकिन माँ ने इतनी बार इन चीजों का जिक्र किया था कि मन के किसी अंत:पुर में एक सोनारदीघी बस गया है जहाँ सुविधानुसार मैं कभी नारियल, सुपारी के पेड़ों को एक ओर कर देती कभी दूसरी ओर। कभी नदी को बगल में ले आती, कभी दूर कर देती। कभी सारा परिवेश ही कच्चू के बड़े-बड़े पत्तों से भर जाता, और कभी आम-जामुन के पेड़ों से…। आज सोनारदीघी आते हुए मेरे कल्पना-लोक में बार-बार खलल पड़ रहा है। नदी भी है, पेड़-पल्लव भी हैं, मगर कुछ अलग-से। लुंगियाँ पहने पुरुष, धोती एक भी नहीं। अलबत्ता औरतें साड़ी में ही हैं। वह स्कूल जो अभी भी है, मगर पक्का बन गया है – माँ ने यहीं ककहरा सीखा होगा। दूसरा स्कूल भी तो हो सकता है? ज्यादा टोक-टाक ठीक नहीं।
सन् 47 में पार्टीशन के समय सिर्फ माँ, नानी और नाना ही बॉर्डर पार कर पाये थे। दंगाइयों ने मझली मौसी का अपहरण कर लिया था, एक मामा मार डाले गये थे, बाकी छोटी मौसी और बड़के मामा वगैरह जैसे-तैसे जान बचा कर लौट गए थे सोनारदीघी। स्थिति सामान्य होने पर वे मिलने आये। तब तक हम बर्द्धमान में बस गये थे। मेरा जन्म बांग्लादेश बन जाने के बाद हुआ था। पाँच साल की हुई तभी अणिमा दी को देखा था। छोटकी मौसी अपनी इस सात साल की बेटी को लेकर अपने इस परिवार से मिलने आई थीं। आज अणिमा दी को छोड़कर उस परिवार में कोई नहीं बचा। वे अपनी ससुराल से वापस सोनारदीघी आ गई थीं। पत्रों से इतना भर ही मालूम हुआ था। ये भी दस साल पहले की बातें। अब तो सालों से पत्रों का सिलसिला भी टूटा हुआ है।
क्या पता, कितने हिन्दू बचे हैं यहाँ। सुना था, बाबरी मस्जिद तोड़े जाने के बाद बहुत से मंदिर तोड़ डाले गए थे। अभी तक इस रास्ते में एक भी मंदिर नहीं मिला। खालिदा ज़िया के शासनकाल में मौलवाद फिर से लौट आया है। कैसे रहती होंगी अणिमा दी?
क्या खूब विडम्बना है? हमें भी यहाँ पश्चिम बंगाल में `ईस्ट बंगाल’ का माना जाता है – `बांगाल।’ मोहन बागान और ईस्ट बंगाल की फुटबाल प्रतियोगिता में `घोटी-बॉटी’ (कलश-कटोरे) या `ईस्ट-वेस्ट’ का फर्क पूरी तरह से प्रेसीपिटेट कर जाता है। लोग हमारी जाति तक पर शक करते हैं। बेचारी अणिमा दी अपनी ही जन्म-भूमि, अपने ही वतन में विजातियों, विधर्मियों के बीच निर्वासन भोगने को अभिशप्त हैं। हम इत्ता-सा बर्दाश्त नहीं कर पाते, `बांगाल’ कहते ही तिलमिला उठते हैं। कैसे सहती होंगी दीदी इसे आठों पहर?
मैं एक मुहाज़िब ज़ैनुल को जानती हूँ, उसका बाप बिहार से बांग्लादेश गया था, जो तब पूर्वी पाकिस्तान हुआ करता था। मुक्ति संग्राम के बाद फिर उसे भाग कर पश्चिमी पाकिस्तान जाना पड़ा। उनकी वफ़ादारी पर भारत में भी शक किया गया, बांग्लादेश में भी और पाकिस्तान में भी…! उसने धर्म को एक मुकम्मिल और भरोसेमंद आइडेंटिटी एवं सुरक्षा कवच समझा, पर ऐसा हो नहीं पाया। इंसानी मसले सियासत और मज़हब वाले तय करते हैं, वही तय करते हैं हमारी तक़दीरें… हमसे पूछा तक नहीं जाता। इथियोपिया, सोमालिया, तुर्की, मध्य एशिया, कैरेबियन कंट्रीज़- कहाँ नहीं! यहाँ भी तो वही…! समाजशास्त्री कहेंगे, सभ्यताओं और संस्कृतियों का यह एक सामान्य-सा अंत:प्रवाह है। मगर आबादियों के इस विस्थापन में हुई बर्बादियों की दास्तान कौन सुनना चाहेगा? एक तार जब टूटता है तो कितना कुछ टूट और छूट जाता है! जुड़ता क्या है… गाँठ पर पनपा जीवन का नया अध्याय! ओह! इस मनहूस ज़ैनुल की याद भी अभी ही आनी थी! मेरे साथ का पुलिस का जवान सुहेल साइकिल पर चल रहा था और मैं रिक्शे पर थी। गाँव में प्रवेश करते ही एक चाले (झोंपड़ी) में चाय की दुकान पर कुछ लोग अड्डा जमाये हुए थे। मैंने पूछा, `दा, एई ग्रामे नीहार सिंघॅ थाहेन कुथाय?’ (भाई, इस गॉव में नीहार सिंह कहाँ रहते हैं?)
जवाब में कई सवालिया आँखें मुझ पर उठ गईं। मुझसे क्या भूल हुई? अपने तईं तो मैंने पूरी सावधानी बरत रखी थी। जीन्स छोड़ कर साड़ी पहन रखी थी मैंने, भाषा भी… न न, भूल हुई `एई’ की जगह `हेई’ कहना चाहिए था। मैं कट कर रह गई। पर अब तो जो होना था, हो चुका। अड्डे वालों में आपस में कानाफूसी हुई, फिर एक साँवला-सा प्रौढ़ बोला, `की नाम कोइलेन, नीहार सींघॅ?’ (क्या नाम बोलीं, `नीहार सिंह?)
`आज्ञें हैं।”
(जी हाँ।)
`नीहार सिंघा बोइल्ला काऊ रे तो जानी ना…।’
(नीहार नाम के किसी आदमी को तो जानता नहीं।)
`सिंघॅ सोब पलाई गेछे।’ (सारे सिंह भाग गए हैं।) एक सम्मिलित ठहाके का श्लेष मुझे तेजाब-सा भिगो गया।
`आपनार बाड़ी कुथाय?’ (आपका घर कहाँ है?)
चुगली खाती मेरी भाषा विश्वसनीय नहीं थी, सो अब मुझे आँचलिक भाषा का दामन छोड़ कर सीधे मानक बांग्ला पर उतरना पड़ा। मैंने बांग्ला में बताया, `मैं बर्द्धमान, पश्चिम बंगाल से आयी हूं। बँटवारे के समय यहीं से गये थे हमारे पूर्वज। कभी इस गाँव में एक उज्ज्वल सिंह हुआ करते थे। मैं उन्हीं की नातिन हूँ। नीहार सिंह मेरे मौसेरे बहनोई हुए और अणिमा दी मौसेरी बहन। इधर आई थी तो सोचा अपना पुश्तैनी घर देख लूँ और परिवार के लोगों से मिलती चलूँ।
अब गाँव के कुछ और लोग भी जुटने लगे थे। वे आपस में बतिया कर मुझे घूर रहे थे। उनकी नजरों में मैं संदिग्ध थी या निषिद्ध।
उस प्रौढ़ ने एक किशोर को पुकारा, `ताहिर! जरा इन्हें सलाहुद्दीन शेख के घर पहुँचा आओ तो!
सलाहुद्दीन शेख! यह क्या बात हुई। मुझे अपनी पसलियों में एक मनहूस किस्म के ख़ौफ की चुभन महसूस हुई।
कच्ची सड़क पर एक मध्ययुगीन बैलगाड़ी चली आ रही थी। बारिश से बचने के लिए उस पर बाँस की चटाई का चंदोवा तना था। कुछ लड़के क्रिकेट खेल रहे थे। दूर-दूर पर वही पुआल के छप्पर वाले घर, कहीं-कहीं दो मंजिले भी और टीन की छत भी। जहाँ-तहाँ केले के स्तंभ थे, कहीं-कहीं बँसवारियाँ भी। सड़क के दोनों ओर नारियल के पेड़ थे, कुछ साबूत, कुछ टूटे हुए या ठूँठ। शायद बार-बार की आने वाली झड़-झंझा (तूफान) का प्रकोप था। खेतों में इस मौसम में उपजने वाली अन्न की बालियाँ लहरा रही थीं, कहीं-कहीं झींगा (तरोई) और दूसरी सब्जियाँ भी। थाने का सिपाही अपनी साइकिल घसीटते हुए ताहिर से बात कर रहा था। भाषा कहीं-कहीं अबूझ हो जाती। इतना भर पता चला कि वह यहाँ मजूरी करने आया है। आज काम नहीं मिला, सो बेकार है। पता नहीं, कब तक काम मिलेगा। माँ-बाप कौन थे, कहाँ का मूल निवासी है, उसे कुछ पता नहीं।
मुझे ढाका और दूसरे शहरों के हजारों लावारिस बच्चों के बारे में बताया गया था कि उनमें से अधिसंख्य वे बच्चे थे जो बांग्लादेश युद्ध के दौरान बाहरी फौजियों के बलात्कार से जन्मे थे। उन अभागों को किसी ने नहीं अपनाया, अपने ही ढंग से वे जैसे-तैसे पले-बढ़े, जवान हुए। फिर उनके बच्चे हुए। लावारिसों की दूसरी खेप। भयंकर गरीबी, ऊपर से मँहगाई की मार। दिल्ली, मुंबई, दुबई और लंदन तक फैल गई यह अमर बेलि।
सिपाही ने मेरी ओर इशारा कर ताहिर से कुछ कहा। ताहिर झेंपते हुए मेरे साथ-साथ चलने लगा, `मुझको भी साथ ले चलिए न दीदी, सभी तरह के काम कर सकता हूँ।’
`लेकिन मैं भला कैसे लिवा ले जा सकती हूँ तुम्हें?’
`क्यों सलाहुद्दीन के लड़कों को ले जाने आयी हैं। मैं तो उनसे भी गरीब हूँ।
उनके तो माँ-बाप भी हैं, जमीन भी है, नाव भी; मेरा तो कुछ भी नहीं।’
मैं अवाक रह गई, `तुम्हें किसने बताया कि मैं सलाहुद्दीन के या किसी और के बच्चों को ले जाने आई हूँ। मैं तो उन्हें जानती भी नहीं। मैं तो नीहार सिंह का पता करने जा रही हूँ, जो मेरे मौसेरे बहनोई हैं।
`ओह!’ ताहिर निराश हो गया, फिर बोला, `लेकिन मैं यहाँ छह महीने से हूँ, नीहार सिंह या किसी हिन्दू परिवार का नाम नहीं सुना। खैर, देखिए, पूछिए शायद पता लग ही जाय। बस्ती तो यही है।
मैं एक-एक घर को देखती हूँ, ये घर होगा, नहीं वो, नहीं, ताहिर तो आगे बढ़ गया, शायद आगे…। माँ किसी नदी का जिक्र करती थीं, जिसका पानी, ज्वार के समय मचान के नीचे तक फैल जाता। न अभी तक कोई मचान मिला, न नदी की झलक। एक घर के पास ताहिर आकर रुक गया, सिपाही ने साइकिल खड़ी कर दी, `यही है।’
फूस की छाजन। एक कोने में एक बकरा बँधा था, दूसरे कोने में एक गाय, सामने मुर्गियाँ और उनके छोटे-छोटे चूजे चिक-चिक करते टहल रहे थे। बच्चे सिर पर टोपी लगाए मदरसे में पढ़ने जा रहे थे। टिपिकल मुसलमानी घर।
`शेख मोशाय कहाँ हैं, देखिए आपसे मिलने आयी हैं।’ सिपाही ने आवाज दी। उस घर से एक औरत निकली, फिर देखते-देखते दूसरे घरों से अन्य औरतें। कुछ मर्द भी। सभी आँखें फाड़-फाड़ कर मुझे देखने लगे।
`सलाहुद्दीन तो ढाका गये हैं, उनकी बहू है।’ एक औरत ने बताया।
`उन्हें ही बता दीजिए।’ सिपाही सुहेल ने कहा।
`नया आदमी देख रही हूँ।’ आँखों पर हाथ की ओट बना कर एक बूढ़ी ने मेरे चेहरे में झाँका। मैं झेंप गई।
`हिन्दू प्रेस रिपोर्टर हैं। बर्द्धमान से आयी हैं।’
`यहाँ अपने बहनोई किसी नीहार सिंह को ढूँढने आयी हैं। कहती हैं, इनके पूर्वज इसी गाँव से गये थे।’
बूढ़ी थोड़ी गंभीर हुई, `थाने का परमिशन है?’
`हाँ, तभी तो मैं साथ-साथ आया हूँ।’
`बूड़ी, ओ अंजुमन बूड़ी, देखो तो भारत से कौन आया है तुमसे मिलने।’
`अंजुमन बूड़ी!’ शब्दों को मैंने चुभलाया। याद आया बर्धमान आयी थीं तब भी अणिमा दी का भी पुकारने का नाम `बूड़ी’ ही था। तो क्या अणिमा सचमुच ही `अंजुमन’ बन गई और नीहार सलाहुद्दीन?
अंदर से तेज-तेज चल कर कोई स्त्री आयी और चौखट के फ्रेम में फ्रीज हो गई जैसे हुलास के वेग पर असमंजस की लगाम लग गयी हो। हाँ, वही गंदुमी गोल चेहरा, चेहरे में जड़ी वही बड़ी-बड़ी बिल्लौरी आँखें!
मैं अपने को और रोक न सकी। मैंने दौड़ कर अणिमा दी को बाँहों में भर कर भींच लिया। `दीदी! दीदी! मेरी दीदी। कितने दिन बाद देख रही हूँ अपनी अणिमा दी को। पहचाना मुझे, मैं तुम्हारी शिखा हूँ – गुड्डी।’
`छोड़ो मुझे। मैं किसी शिखा, किसी गुड्डी को नहीं जानती।’
मुझे गहरा धक्का लगा। तो क्या मैं किसी मुर्दे को पकड़े हुए थी? हाथों के बंद ढीले पड़े। काफी औरतें जमा हो गई थीं। मेरी स्थिति हास्यास्पद होती जा रही थी। मैं सफाई पर उतर आयी `याद है दीदी, जब आप बर्द्धमान आई थीं, मैं इत्ती-सी थी।’ मैंने हाथ से पाँच साल के बच्चे का कद बताया, `मैं पाँच साल की थी, आप सात साल की। मुझे गोद में लेकर घूमा करती थीं। उठा नहीं पाती थीं पूरी तरह। एक बार लेकर गिर पड़ी थीं, इसके चलते आपको मार भी खानी पड़ी थी। यह रहा वह दाग भौंहों पर।’
अणिमा दी फटी-फटी आँखों से मुझे घूरे जा रही थी।
`आपने मुझे कई बार बुलाया था, मरने से पहले मिल लो… याद है? खेल-खेल में आपने मेरी शादी में मुझे झुमका देने की बात कही थी।’
अणिमा दी काठ की पुतली-सी निर्विकार खड़ी थीं। मुझे कुछ सूझ नहीं रहा था कि क्या करूँ? तमाशा तो बन ही गई थी मैं। शर्म और अपमान की एक ठंडी लहर शिराओं में रेंग रही थी। इतनी बाधाएँ पर कर, इतनी दूर चल कर तो आज उन्हें पाना नसीब हुआ, और आज भी वे न बोली तो कब बोलेंगी?
सिपाही ने ऊबते हुए पूछा, `और कितनी देर लगेगी?
`छोड़ो! उसे जब कुछ याद ही नहीं आ रहा है तो आगे क्या पूछोगी।’ पहले वाली प्रौढ़ा ने कहा, `जो बीत गई सो बीत गई। हाँ! ननिहाल आयी हो तो दो कौर भात और मछली तो पेट में डालना ही होगा।’
`लेकिन मासी मैं तो…।’
`कोई लेकिन-वेकिन नहीं। हाँ, अगर मुसलमान के हाथ से खाने से तुम्हारा धरम भ्रष्ट हो जाय तो और बात है!’
`नहीं मौसी ऐसी कोई बात नहीं। मैं बस जरा नहाना चाहती थी। सारी देह चिपचिपा रही है।’
`ये लो, बगल में ही तो नदी है। सभी लड़कियाँ जा रही हैं। दो डुबकी मार आओ न! अंजुमन बूड़ी लिवा जाओ इसे भी… लेकिन ज्वार का कोई भरोसा नहीं, होशियार रहना।’
उस दल में कोई दस-एक युवतियाँ और बच्चियाँ थीं, बूढ़ी एक भी नहीं, सो वे खुल कर बोल-बतिया रही थीं।
`अच्छा दीदी, आपके बर्द्धमान से कलकत्ता कितनी दूर है? एक ने पूछा।
`ट्रेन से डेढ़ घंटा लगता है।’
`बहोत बड़ा शहर है न, जमीन के अन्दर रेल चलती है?’
`आप कभी बैठी हैं?’
`हाँ। कई बार।’
`बड़ा मजा आता होगा। है न?’
`अयोध्या कहाँ है?’ एक ठिगनी-सी गंभीर दिख रही लड़की का सवाल।
`हमारे यहाँ से पद्रह घंटे लगते हैं।’
शुक्र था उसके आगे उसने कुछ नहीं पूछा। डर और नफरत के बिन्दु की ओर इशारा-भर किया, उसे छुआ नहीं?
`आप तो हवाई-जहाज पर भी चढ़ती होंगी?’ तीसरा सवाल।
`मुसलमानों को भी चढ़ने देते हैं?’
`क्यों नहीं?’
`अच्छा वहाँ रवि ठाकुर का शांति निकेतन है जहाँ लड़के-लड़कियाँ प्रेम कर सकते हैं?’
`क्यों गंगा-पद्दा (पद्मा) के तट पर रहनेवालों को प्रेम करने से किसी ने रोका है क्या?’
सारी लड़कियाँ हँस पड़ीं। मैंने कनखियों से अणिमा दी को देखा जो खुद में खोई कटी-कटी सी चल रही थीं, उनके चेहरे पर एक मुस्कान तक न पसीजी। दीदी आप कैसी प्रेस रिपोर्टर हैं, एक कैमरा लायी होतीं तो हम सबका फोटो हो जाता। `वाकई भूल हो गई।’ मैंने बहाना बनाया; मैं उन्हें कैसे बताती कि कैमरा, टेप और मोबाइल तीनों रखवा लिये गए थे थाने में।
गाँव से निकल आये थे हम। मैं बार-बार पीछे मुड़ कर देख रही थी।
`क्या देख रही हैं दीदी?
`माँ ने कभी बताया था कि हमारे घर के पीछे एक तालाब हुआ करता था। सामने कोई मचान हुआ करता था जिए पर ज्वार के समय पूरा परिवार बैठा रहता और रात को नावों की लालटेन की लाल रोशनी लहरों पर मचलती हुई आती। गाँव में आम, जामुन और नारियल के ढेरों पेड़ थे, नीचे कच्चू के पत्ते जमीन को ढके रहते।’
`तब से कितनी ही बार बाढ़ें, कितनी ही बार झड़ (तूफान) आए, न जाने कितनी बार सोनारदीघी उजड़ा और बसा।’
ठीक ही कहती है युवती, इतिहास और भूगोल के मलबे में सब कुछ दब-दबा गया जब मेरा अपना ही मुझे पहचानने से इंकार कर रहा है। लेकिन इस `नॉस्टल्जिया’ का क्या करूँ मैं?
टीले के नीचे हरे-भरे खेत थे, फिर नदी। मैं बूँद-बूँद पी रही थी सारा कुछ!
`आपके पास बदलने के लिए तो कुछ नहीं है?’ एक युवती को जैसे अभी-अभी याद आया।
`आप लोग…?’
`हमारा क्या है, गमछा पहन लिया या ऐसे ही…।’
`गमछा भी कहाँ है?’
`किसी का खींच लूँगी।’
लड़कियाँ खिलखिला पड़ीं। अणिमा दी के चेहरे पर क्षणांश-भर के लिए कोई मुस्कराहट उभरी, फिर जब्त हो गई।
रेत में दबे सीप और झिनुक के टुकड़े चमक रहे थे- नीली-सी कौंध! इन्हीं में कुछ-एक मेरे पुरखों की अस्थियाँ भी शामिल हों। शायद अतीत के उस पार से जल रहा है उनका फॉसफोरस!
`जल्दी करो दीदी। ज्वार आने से पहले लौट चलना है।’ उस ठिगनी-सी युवती ने कहा और नदी में उतर गई। अणिमा दी घाट पर एड़ियाँ रगड़ रही थीं जैसे उन्हें कोई जल्दबाजी न हो।
सागर की तरह फैली हुई थी नदी। जहाँ-तहाँ हिलकोरें ले रही थीं नावें; इक्के-दुक्के स्टीमर भी। मटियाला पानी छुल्ल-छुल्ल ताल दे रहा था पर इस ताल पर साथ देने वाला कोई भटियाली गीत न था। कोई कातर सा स्वर रह-रहकर उभर रहा था। यह कोरा वहम था मेरा या हकीकत? कहीं मेरे अन्दर की पीर उछल कर बाहर तो नहीं आ गई थी?
न! नहीं! तट पर किसी घड़ियाल ने बकरी को पकड़ लिया था। वही मेमिया रही थी कातर स्वर में। लड़कियाँ छप-छप करती हुई उधर भागीं। मेरे और अणिमा दी को छोड़ कर वहाँ अभी कोई न था। खुद के खयालों में डूबी अणिमा दी धीरे से पानी में उतरीं, जैसे एक सागर दूसरे सागर में उतर रहा हो। यही मौका था मेरे लिए। डुबकी लगा कर उठी ही थीं कि मैंने उन्हें बाँहों में जकड़ लिया, `किसे छल रही हो दीदी, मुझे या खुद को?’
वह देह एक बार काँपी, फिर स्थिर हो गई, `छोड़ दो मुझे, नदी में ऐसा मजाक नहीं करते।’
`नहीं छोड़ूँगी, पहले सच-सच बतलाओ। तुम्हें मेरे सिर की कसम, झूठ बोली तो इसी नदी में डूब मरूँ मैं।’
दीदी की आँख छलक आई, `याद है। सब कुछ याद है गुड्डी। तुम्हें क्या मालूम कि हम पर क्या-क्या गुज़री! घड़ियाल के जबड़े में फँसी बकरी की मिमियाहट हर कोई सुन सकता है, हमारी कोई नहीं।’ दीदी एक पल को रुकीं, खुद को सहेजा, फिर बोली, `जान बचाती या धर्म? हमने जान चुनी। कितना लड़ते, किस-किस से लड़ते हम? अब तुम अलग हो, हम अलग। तुम हिन्दू हो, हम मुसलमान। – तुम हिन्दुस्तान, हम पाकिस्तान।’
आश्चर्य! अणिमा से अंजुमन बनी मेरी मौसेरी बहन भी `बांगलादेश’ को बांगलादेश न कह कर `पाकिस्तान’ बता रही थीं, ठीक माँ की तरह।
`दीदी’ – मेरे अंदर बहुत-से सवाल घुमड़ रहे थे लेकिन उन्होंने होठों पर उँगली रख दी, `ना, कुछ मत पूछो, कुछ मत- खुदा के लिए अब इस बात का ज़िक्र भी मत करना। लौट जाना और कभी मत आना। बड़ी मुश्किल से सँभाला है खुद को गुड्डी।’
`ठीक है दीदी, जैसा तुम कहती हो, वैसा ही करूंगी। चली जाऊँगी, कभी डिस्टर्ब नहीं करूँगी तुम्हें। आँसुओं की तरह पी जाऊँगी सब कुछ… लेकिन एक बार, सिर्फ एक बार बाँहों में भींच लो कलेजे से लगाकर मुझे, चूम लो कस कर मन-प्राण आत्मा से मुझे। डरो नहीं पानी की इस दीवार में पर्दे की ओट है, ईश्वर के सिवा कोई नहीं देख रहा हमें।’
`जिद न कर मेरी बहना, मेरी प्यारी गुड्डी, इस तरह तो हम दोनों ही डूब जायेंगे।’
`डूब जाएँ तो डूब जाएँ। मेरे लिए यही पल पहला है, यही आख़िरी भी…।’
परस्पर आलिंगन में बँधी हम दोनों बहनें पानी के पालने पर झूलने लगीं। अद्भुत उल्लास पर्व था मेरे लिए वह। लगा, सारा ही परिवेश आम, जामुन, बाँस, केले और नारियल के पेड़ों से सघन हो गया। ऊपर पेड़ थे, नीचे कच्चू के पत्तों का टटका हरियालापन। देवता प्रसन्न थे, पृथ्वी महीयसी हो उठी थी। दूर से कोई मद्धिम-सी टेर कानों में बज रही थी, कोई भटियाली गीत- दुख और सुख से परे किसी अनजाने लोक से तिर कर आता हुआ। कच्चू के चौड़े चकले, पत्तों पर हीरे की कनी-सी दो बूँदें नाच रही थीं। नाचते-नाचते वे एक हो गईं…’
जाल डाल कर हमें बचाया गया था। सारा सोनारदीघी हमें देखने को उमड़ पड़ा था।
`तुम दोनों को ज्वार आने का आभास तक नहीं हुआ?’ एक सवाल।
`चीखते-चिल्लाते हमारा गला फट गया, तुम्हें एक भी चेतावनी सुनाई न दी?’
दूसरा सवाल।
दोनों बहनें अपराधी की तरह सिर झुकाए बैठी थीं। जवाब हमारे पास एक न था।


रचनाकार परिचय:-

संजीव हिन्दी कथा जगत में एक सुपरिचित नाम हैं। 1947 में सुल्तानपुर (उत्तरप्रदेश) में जन्मे संजीव की शिक्षा दीक्षा पश्चिम बंगाल में हुई।संप्रति आप इंडियन आयरन एंड स्टील कं., कुल्टी के केमिस्ट इंचार्ज के पद से स्वैच्छिक सेवानिवृति के पश्चात “अक्षर पर्व” (रायपुर) का संपादन कर रहे हैं।
इनके अब तक दस कहानी संग्रह तथा आठ उपन्यास प्रकाशित हो चुके हैं। एक उपन्यास “सावधान नीचे आग है” के एक अंश पर “काला हीरा”नाम से एक टेलीफिल्म भी बन चुकी है।

इन्हें प्राप्त पुरुस्कारों व सम्मानों में प्रमुख हैं: सारिका सर्व भाषा कहानी प्रतियोगिता (१९८०), आनंद सागर कथा क्रम सम्मान (१९९७) तथा इंदु शर्मा अंतर्राष्ट्रीय कथा सम्मान (२००१)

September 16, 2009

Stalin and the Defence of Science

Filed under: Science — movementofthought @ 6:30 am

this article is about marxism and revolutionary science..and was originally published on lalkaronline….Editor

Ethan Pollock wrote Stalin and the Soviet Science Wars in 2006.  This review of the book shows how the Soviet archives provided evidence of the widespread debates and knowledge concerning science which took place throughout the Soviet Union during the period under consideration, namely 1945 to 1953, to which even this bourgeois academic had to attest.


The continuing plunder of Soviet archives by Western academia is having some unexpected, and for imperialism unwelcome, consequences.  The lavish grants and bursaries made available to send scholars out to Moscow to dig up anti-communist dirt are, in some cases, having quite the reverse effect to that intended, facilitating the rediscovery of documents that add fresh life and colour to what is already known of the great Soviet achievements in every sphere of social development.

When Ethan Pollock sat down to write the sensationally titled Stalin and the Soviet Science Wars, we need not doubt that his intentions were unimpeachably anti-communist.  Yet page after page of his book cannot help but reveal fresh evidence of the extraordinary vitality, creativity and scientific seriousness which continued to characterise Soviet existence in the period under consideration, between the end of the Great Patriotic War and the death of Stalin.

This period, which saw the intensification of anti-colonial struggle, the extension of socialism across Eastern Europe, the founding of the DPRK and the triumphant arrival of the People’s Republic of China, saw also the new danger to peace and progress in the world posed by US imperialism, armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons and the sworn enemy of communism.  Having weathered so many storms – battling against fourteen imperialist armies in the civil war period, building up socialist industry and making gains for socialism in the countryside, enduring and finally defeating invasion by the Nazi hordes – the Soviet Union now required the utmost unity and strength to resist the new menace posed by imperialism. That strength was not to be measured by economic indices and military inventories alone.  What was required above all was the unity and strength that springs from the unremitting battle for Marxism-Leninism, fought out on the widest possible social basis.

It was natural then that this period, which saw the Soviet leadership fully occupied with major developments in the international field, also witnessed the most intense ideological struggle in the Soviet Union, ranging across every branch of science.  And right in the thick of all these ideological struggles, to Pollock’s evident amazement, was that same Soviet leadership.

During that period, we are told, Stalin “intervened in scientific debates in fields ranging from philosophy to physics.  In 1946, when Stalin was sixty-seven years old and exhausted from the war, he schooled the USSR’s most prominent philosopher on Hegel’s role in the history of Marxism.  In 1948, while the Berlin crisis threatened an irreparable rift between the United States and the USSR,” he was busy with the genetics debate.  In 1950, halfway through negotiating a pact with the newly victorious People’s Republic of China, he was “also writing a combative articled on linguistics, carefully orchestrating a coup in Soviet physiology [= defending the materialist basis of Pavlovian science!] and meeting with economists three times to discuss a textbook on political economy…  [He] consistently spent time on the details of scholarly disputes.”

It turns out that records of all these ideological struggles are sitting in the Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences.  In interpreting these primary sources, Pollock naturally does his best to find the most cynical anti-communist angle.  Bolshevik efforts to repulse the debilitating ideological influences seeping in from the imperialist West are written off as a bone-headed attachment to Great Russian chauvinism, or as driven by anti-semitism.  Where scientific debates conclude with some questions still left pending, they are sneered at for failing to answer all questions; when those debates are thorough in organisation and decisive in outcome, they are damned as stage-managed.  Where Stalin or other influential leaders wade in with their own views, this is presented as intellectual bullying; where they hang back the better to let the discussion develop, this in turn is characterised as sinister manipulation from the wings.  In short, Bolshevism cannot be allowed to win!

Yet Pollock’s own exposure to the first hand archive evidence has clearly had an unsettling effect on his view of Stalin’s role.  Again and again, the author is brought up short by the deadly seriousness with which the communist leadership approached the struggle for correct theory – in all fields.

He took ideology seriously.  He was not simply [!] a megalomaniac and reclusive old man who used scholarly debates to settle political problems… He consistently spent time on the details of scholarly disputes… Thousands of newly accessible and previously unexplored documents from [Russian] archives reveal that he was determined… to show the scientific basis of Soviet Marxism.”

Most astonishing of all to the bourgeois academic mindset, taking for granted a universal disconnect between “high-minded” theory and cynical practice, must be Pollock’s discovery that Stalin’s “memos and top secret documents are saturated with the same Marxist-Leninist language… that appeared in the public discourse.  He did not keep two sets of books.”

Pollock  further reminds us that “Under Stalin’s guidance the USSR went further than any previous state in placing the support of science at the centre of its stated purpose”. And if science was at the heart of Soviet civilisation, then Bolshevism was at the heart of science.  Even in Pollock’s jaundiced summary, this basic reality shines through:  “The Party’s political authority relied on the perceived rationality and scientific basis of its actions… Stalin and the Central Committee insisted on the scientific discussions.  Scholars, in the course of debates that were closely observed (but never totally controlled) by the Party, were supposed to forge an understanding of their disciplines that was in harmony with ideology.”

In following Pollock’s whirlwind tour of the great public debates on science which unfolded in this period, it is no ambition of this review to give a proper analysis of the issues raised.  To do so would require a library, not a book review, and somebody much cleverer than the present author.  What can be grasped, however, even from such a cursory overview, is the huge revolutionary confidence and high sense of social duty with which the Bolsheviks, the Soviet scientists and the Soviet masses embraced the struggle for correct theory.  

The Philosophy Debate

The first branch of science to become an arena of ideological struggle was that of philosophy.  In 1946, the then-leader of Agitprop (the Bolshevik agitation and propaganda organisation) came under criticism for giving insufficient emphasis to the reactionary side of Hegelian philosophy.  Pollock is at a loss to understand Stalin’s approach to this issue.  After all, Stalin “could easily have instructed Zhdanov to draft a decree denouncing Aleksandrov… He could have signed a Politburo decree criticising the book… But despite his clear distaste for the book, Stalin did not make his views known to the public or restructure Agitprop.”  Such an approach would perhaps have sat more easily with the routine slander of Stalin as a bureaucrat and despot, imposing his will by administrative measures!

The reality proved to be very different.  Stalin recommended that the Institute of Philosophy should organise an open discussion of Aleksandrov’s book.  Acting on this advice, the Central Committee ordered a meeting that would, in the CC’s own words, “ensure complete freedom of criticism and exchange of opinions”. Arrangements were made for three different journals to publish the proceedings and for the audience to include communist leaders as well as academics and journalists.  Nearly 400 people attended this meeting in January 1947.  An even more ambitious discussion series was run in June, with an average of 300 people attending each of the eight sessions, including representatives from the Red Army and the Union of Soviet Writers.  After the conference, all the speeches were put in front of the Soviet public, even including the speeches of many who could not be squeezed in to speak at the conference itself.  This ensured that the fullest possible account of this philosophical debate could be heard by all.

Previous philosophers have interpreted the world, noted Marx, adding famously that the point however is to change it.  Only a society that took philosophy with deadly seriousness as a key front in the revolutionary war to overthrow imperialism could take such great pains to have the argument out properly.  At the penultimate session, Zhdanov (senior) talked about the “philosophical front” of the class struggle, which required a “detachment of military philosophers, fighting for the perfection of Marxist theory, leading the decisive blow against hostile ideologies abroad”.  In his view some contemporary philosophy looked more like a “quiet factory or an encampment somewhere far away from the field of battle”!  Other speakers demanded that more attention be paid to Russia’s own pre-communist revolutionary tradition, as represented by figures like Belinsky, Herzen and Chernyshevsky.  Pollock’s feeble effort on this evidence to denigrate the conference as pandering to Great Russian chauvinism hardly holds up when, on the same page, he cites a speaker from Tashkent who demanded closer analysis of the Arab philosophical tradition, and another from Erevan who wanted the scholars to have a proper look at Byzantine thought.

What started with criticism of one man’s book ended up as a profound examination of the proper role and future of philosophy in socialist society.  Aleksandrov made some self-criticism, and urged his fellow philosophers to struggle for the “elevation of philosophical work in the country and for the organisation of the wide propaganda of Marxism-Leninism”.  In July he transferred from his post at Agitprop to the post of director at the Institute of Philosophy, the better to contribute to this task.

The Biology Debate

The controversy within Soviet biology which erupted in 1948 was handled with no less seriousness. The struggle to advance agronomic science and put an end once and for all to the history of sporadic famine which had blighted peasant existence for long centuries was no less vital to the continued growth of socialism than had been to keep Soviet philosophy firmly rooted in consistent dialectical materialism.  Further, whatever may be the final judgement on the question of the heritability of acquired characteristics, the philosophical question underlying the conference (which began at the Agricultural Academy in July 1948) was one of the greatest significance for socialism: with what prospect of success one could hope, by transforming the economic environment of production relations, to raise up future generations of new Soviet men and women, qualitatively transformed by the experience of building socialism.

Over 700 attended the opening session to hear and discuss the talk given by T.D. Lysenko, the director of the Agricultural Academy, whose promotion and development of the ideas and practice of the late peasant-innovator Ivan Michurin had earned him enemies as well as friends.  On the second day Lysenko invited delegates up into the Lenin Hills to make their own assessment of the practical work being done by the Institute.  Then the floor was thrown open, and 56 delegates had the chance to speak their minds. Every day for a week extracts from the ongoing discussion were published in Pravda, so that everyone could follow the twists and turns of the debate.  The debate concluded with endorsement of the direction in which Lysenko’s work was proceeding.  On 12th August Pravda publicised the outcome with a front page editorial, and all through the autumn universities and academies ran workshops to explain the significance of the conclusions reached.  Even those who with the benefit of hindsight would dismiss some or all of Lysenko’s assertions can hardly deny the democratic thoroughness and high civic seriousness with which this whole public exercise was organised – again demonstrating the very different status of science in socialist society.

The Physics Debate

Soviet physicists of necessity acquainted themselves with quantum theory, not least because the post war defence of the USSR against US imperialist reaction required the urgent development of nuclear deterrence. However, these Western-led scientific developments arrived with a good deal of accompanying idealist baggage.  Physicists based at Moscow University expressed concern that their Academy-based colleagues were lax in regard to unmasking some of the idealist nonsense riding on the coat tails of these indisputably useful scientific breakthroughs.  In return, some at the Academy suggested that this concern was being overplayed, and there was a contrary danger that the scientific baby might be thrown out along with the idealist bathwater, to the detriment of Soviet physics.

To restore unity and common goals in this vital branch of science, the Ministry of Higher Education and the Academy of Sciences between them planned another conference.  Agitprop gave it the green light, and a 15-strong organising committee began the most thorough preparation for the conference, meeting no less than 42 times in a three month period.  It is worth recording these minutiae culled from the archive by Pollock.  Such dry as dust records, tedious in themselves, tellingly reveal the infinite pains that Bolshevism was prepared to take in order to strengthen the ideological defence of Soviet socialism.

Pollock would have us believe that the reason the conference never actually happened was the fear that progress towards securing the Soviet atom bomb might be impeded by too much controversy.  However, whilst it is clear that the defence and growth of socialism could only be achieved by accelerating scientific progress in all fields, it is equally clear that such progress could not be sustained on a diet of bourgeois idealism.  As the philosopher Maksimov had planned to say in his speech, “Physical idealism is a link that connects scientists to the hearse of capitalism”.  (Given the subsequent career of one notorious ex-Soviet physicist, Andrei Sakharov – now firmly hitched to the hearse of Zionism and hurtling with it towards a common and well-deserved destruction – such timely warnings were scarcely alarmist.)

The more probable explanation for the decision not to press on with the conference is that the preparation had been so thorough that the conference itself was effectively redundant.  Maksimov noted in a memoir that “the conference was cancelled precisely because of the Orgkom’s substantial work, since the Orgkom heard all the speeches and even all the proposed contributions to the conference”.  And indeed the discussion continued in print.  In 1951 some of the speeches written for conference were put before the Soviet public in a publication titled Philosophical Questions of Modern Physics, triggering further lively debate.

The Linguistics Debate

The next great scientific debate occurred in 1952, this time in the field of Soviet linguistics. In their eagerness to promote a science of language that could demonstrate clear roots in materialism, some argued that language itself formed part of the superstructure determined by the production relations obtaining in a given society.  The foremost proponent of this approach, the late Nikolai Marr, had great influence on the thinking of many linguists.  Not all agreed, however.  The first secretary of the Georgian Central Committee, Kandid Charkviani, forwarded a number of articles by the Georgian linguist Chikobava for Stalin’s attention.  In a covering letter, Charkviani identified a number of objections to the Marr orthodoxy.  If all languages were class-based, how should one account for language-use during the pre-class, primitive communist phase of development?  And how did the notion of language evolving in line with the dominant mode of production chime with the known facts about individual national cultures?  Getting muddled on these issues could lead to serious political mistakes with regard to the national question.

Stalin promptly invited both the linguist and the communist leader to come to Moscow to discuss the issues.  At the end of their meeting, he urged Chikobava to sum up his criticism in an article for Pravda.  Stalin edited the resulting article line by line before sending it off for publication on 9 May 1952.  Pravda then devoted two pages a week to, as the paper’s editor put it, “organise an open discussion in Pravda in order, through criticism and self-criticism, to overcome stagnation in the development of Soviet linguistics”.  The debate in Pravda raged on for week after week, with arguments for and against the Marr approach to linguistics.  Through all those weeks of heated debate, Stalin and the Central Committee declined to declare a Party line on the issues involved, preferring to let all the leading thinkers in Soviet linguistics have it out in the public arena.

Finally on 20 June, Stalin broke silence and added his contribution to the debate, in a piece for Pravda entitled On Marxism in Linguistics.  This article backed up those who saw in Marr’s theories a vulgarisation of Marxism, and contested the notion that language forms part of the ideological superstructure.  This decisive intervention was followed by one more week of contributions in Pravda, including some self-criticism.  In concluding the discussion, Pravda noted with justifiable pride that “The great and vital principle of the development of all Soviet science is contained in J.V. Stalin’s words: ‘no science can develop and flourish without a battle of opinions and without freedom of criticism’”.

The Physiology Debate

The debate which erupted in the discipline of Physiology followed naturally from the earlier struggle over genetics.  As with some of the predestinarian claims being advanced in the name of genetics (still around today in the present day obsession with tracking the “gay” gene, the “criminal” gene, and presumably soon the “terrorist” gene), some of the criticism being directed at the Pavlovian science of conditioned reflexes also seemed to reflect a fundamental pessimism about the degree to which human nature could transform itself in the process of transforming human society.

In 1949, to celebrate the centenary of Pavlov’s birth, the Ministry of Cinematography commissioned a film biography with the aim of showing “Pavlov’s struggle with reactionary trends in physiology and his hatred for idealist pseudo-science”, and Pravda published a birthday tribute to the great scientist on its front cover.  But some questioned whether Pavlov’s legacy was being correctly developed in current Soviet practice.  Yuri Zhdanov (Andrei Zhdanov’s son) criticised a failure to translate theory into clinical practice, and Stalin criticised those who paid lip service to the great man’s memory whilst in practice undermining the work he had initiated.

Zhdanov proposed an “organised offensive against the enemies and hypocritical ‘friends’ of Pavlovian science”, and the Central Committee agreed.  The Pavlov session was organised in the House of Scientists, under the auspices of the academies dedicated to medicine and biology. Over a hundred telegrams arrived daily from people desperate to take part in the great debate, and when the session finally got going, it included more than one thousand people from more than fifty cities and from the scientific academies of every Soviet Republic.  After thorough debate, the Pavlovian scientist Bykov noted without exaggeration that the whole country had followed proceedings, saying with pride that the Soviet people “love science, are interested in it, and are as concerned about its fate just as we are”.

In the wake of the discussion, some leading academic posts were reshuffled, promoting those who had most convincingly demonstrated their commitment to developing physiology along the materialist lines pioneered by Pavlov.  Extra encouragement was also given to the next wave of graduate students in Pavlovian science.

Readers may draw their own conclusions from the fact that many of these changes were reversed in the years after Stalin’s death.  Indeed, another raid on the archives could yield some very important data on exactly how and when Marxist-Leninist leadership of science and society was undermined by Khrushchevite revisionism, chipping away at the ideological foundation and preparing the way for the eventual capitalist restoration.

The Economics Debate

Of the greatest interest in such a sequel will be the gradual undermining of the Soviet planned economy by the influence of bourgeois economics.  It is the struggle for clarity in this scientific field that Pollock presents as the last of the so-called Science Wars.

In 1937 the Central Committee charged Lev Leontiev with the task of editing an introductory textbook on political economy to serve as the basis for educating, not just Soviet cadres, but communists everywhere.  Pollock tells us that Leontiev started sending Stalin drafts in 1938.  Stalin fed back regular comments and revisions, and also “solicited other economists’ comments, corrections and opinions on drafts”.  In 1941 Leontiev was invited to a meeting attended not only by fellow academics but also by important political leaders like Yuri Zhdanov, Molotov and Voznesenskii (chairman of the State Planning Commission).  At this meeting Stalin unpacked his ideas on the law of value under socialist state planning.  By Pollock’s account, the archive records Stalin as explaining that “The main task of planning is to ensure the independence of the socialist system from capitalist encirclement,” and counselled Leontiev: “You don’t need to praise our system too much and describe accomplishments that don’t exist,” urging him to deal concretely with the actual economic problems of building socialism.  It was necessary to get the socialist foundations built before mature communism could be attained.

Whilst we may regard with caution this second or third hand account of Stalin’s comments, the spirit of realism they breathe contrasts starkly with Khruschev’s later empty bragging about the imminence of a fully classless communist society led by a state of all the people.  “We have yet to get socialism in the flesh and blood” Pollock quotes Stalin saying, “and we still need to put socialism right, still need to distribute according to labour as is necessary… We have dirt in the factories and want to go directly to communism.  And who will let you in?  They are buried in rubbish but desire communism.”

So seriously did the Party take the task of educating its cadres in this field that the struggle to perfect the planned textbook continued for seventeen years, spurred on in 1952 by the publication of Stalin’s Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR.  It was finally published in 1954.  Pollock comments that the textbook “was released into a world of political uncertainty after Stalin’s death” in March 1953. In that new period of Soviet existence, during which the corroding influence of bourgeois ideology would begin to be felt even within the Party itself, there would never be a greater need for that Bolshevik legacy of honest theoretical struggle.

Soviet Science: property of the Soviet masses

Under socialism science applied to production was no longer an enemy to the worker but a dear friend.

Marx explains this very clearly in his chapter on the “General Law of Capitalist Accumulation” in Volume I of Capital.  Whereas under capitalism “all the methods for increasing the social productivity of labour are carried out at the cost of the individual worker”, making of him “a mere appurtenance of the machine”, under socialism every scientific advance adds to the power and authority of the working class. Whereas under capitalism every improved technique of production “estrange(s) from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in very proportion to the extent to which science is incorporated into it as an independent power”, under socialism scientific knowledge of all kinds is cherished by the working class as something belonging to it in the new socialist world, as the proud achievement of the revolution.

This was the basis of the astounding level of Soviet public interest in the scientific debates that erupted after the war.  Those who would dismiss the period of Stalin’s leadership as characterised by meek submission to administrative diktat need to think again.  Oddly enough, this little anti-communist work by Ethan Pollock might just prove helpful in this regard!

September 15, 2009

Revolting women: the role of gender in Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico! and U.S. Depression-era Left film criticism

Filed under: Cinema — movementofthought @ 5:48 pm

by Chris Robé

[This article was originally published on ]

Ian Christie aptly notes in his 1993 introduction for Eisenstein Rediscovered,

“Although Eisenstein was never able to edit his cherished Mexican footage, surprisingly little [scholarly] attention has been paid to what can be discerned from the mass of surviving film material.”[1] [Open notes in new window]

Twelve years have passed since Christie’s observation, yet relatively little scholarly work has been advanced on the study of Eisenstein’s Mexican footage. With the exception of Marie Seton, Thomas Waugh, and Harry M. Benshoff, film scholars have largely regarded Que Viva Mexico! as an interesting experiment but resistant to thorough close-analysis due to its fragmentary and incomplete nature.[2] Although one does not want to underestimate the difficulty in theorizing about such a tentative film project, a careful analysis of Eisenstein’s script, working notes, outlines, and the reconstructions of the film by his student Jay Leyda in the 1950s and his assistant Grigory Alexandrov in the 1970s suggest that Que Viva Mexico! might have become one of Eisenstein’s most sophisticated works to investigate gender’s relation to radical political transformation. More than any other of his films (with the exception perhaps being Old and New, 1929), Eisenstein’s Mexican footage interrogates the ways in which montage could be used to show how political revolution was directly dependent upon a radical transformation of gender roles.

Eisenstein’s notion of “overtonal” montage serves as a useful conceptual tool in analyzing the Mexican footage since it draws attention to the importance of evaluating the dominant and residual montage elements operating both within each shot as well as those operating between them.[3] As Vladimir Nizhny, Jacques Aumont, and David Bordwell suggest, mise-en-scène and mise-en-shot (montage-within-the-shot) become central in Eisenstein’s teaching. This is indicated by his lesson in filming one scene from Crime and Punishment without any cuts, done after his experience filming Que Viva Mexico!, which suggests that these elements were also important when he was working on this film.[4] The incomplete Mexican footage provides ample evidence of mise-en-shot. When analyzed in conjunction with Eisenstein’s and his contemporaries’ writings on the film, that footage allows one to make some inferences about the overall montage structure that his film might have taken if Eisenstein had completed filming and edited the film.

Yet in addition to the footage’s thematic importance within Eisenstein’s oeuvre and Soviet silent cinema, Que Viva Mexico! holds historical importance for 1930s U.S. Left film criticism. The failure of Eisenstein to complete Que Viva Mexico! invoked one of the most intense debates within domestic and international Left film journals and columns.[5] In particular, U.S. Left film critics were finally forced to recognize the impossibility of mass-distributing radical films within the United States. They had to re-evaluate how more mainstream cinematic techniques must be used within their politically progressive films if they ever wanted them to reach mass audiences.

Since I have recounted this history elsewhere, I would like to focus here on how an analysis of gender’s thematic function within Eisenstein’s Mexican footage helps elucidate the ways in which 1930s U.S. Left film critics tended to marginalize gender issues within their own columns on Eisenstein’s film (and its Hollywood release version, Thunder Over Mexico, assembled from outtakes taken by Edward Tisse and Eisenstein, and edited by Hollywood producer Sol Lesser).[6] In accord with such feminist scholars as Deborah Rosenfelt, Paula Rabinowitz, and Nan Enstad, who examine the problematic relations held by the historic, U.S. male Left towards gender politics and women’s liberation, my essay exposes how most 1930s, male, U.S. Left film critics used gender, at best, as a metaphor in their columns to help explain Hollywood’s monopolistic control of mass-distribution within the United States and the subsequent censorship of Eisenstein’s film.[7]

Rarely do they note the central importance that gender had in structuring Que Viva Mexico! This occurred despite all of them having access to Eisenstein’s written film scenario and some of them gaining privileged access to interview Eisenstein both on and off location and to view his outtakes. Although one can rightfully claim that limited viewing access and the film’s incomplete nature limited some U.S. Left film critics’ ability to identify gender as a central theme, I argue that their marginalization of gender arose from two more pervasive sources: 1) There was a political strategy that primarily viewed the championing of female desire and agency as nothing more than a consumption-based rhetoric that jeopardized class solidarity and collective action. 2) There was a male fear at how the Depression’s economic instability and 1930s consumerist discourses challenged their own “masculine” identities and privilege. This essay’s purpose, however, is not to discredit 1930s U.S. Left film critics but instead to identify some of the complex and divergent attitudes held by the cultural Left towards the imbrication of gender and politics.

Eisenstein and 30s U.S. Left film theory

Before engaging in a close analysis of Que Viva Mexico! and critics’ response to it, I first want to briefly address the context that made Eisenstein a significant figure for 1930s U.S. Left film theory. Eisenstein held significant prominence for U.S. Left film critics in the early 1930s. Not only had much of his theoretical work appeared in international film journals like Close Up and Experimental Cinema that U.S. Left film critics read, but during the summer of 1930 Eisenstein came to the United States to work for Paramount studios. While working within the bastion of capitalist cinema, Eisenstein wrote a scenario for a filmic adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, which the studio rejected as too political. But despite An American Tragedy’s consignment to only a written scenario, Left film critics circulated information about it in their columns, seeing it as a model of what a radical director could potentially achieve within Hollywood had he/she only been given the freedom by producers to pursue his/her plans.[8] Eisenstein, in other words, represented for U.S. Left film critics the most sophisticated theoretical stance taken by a Left director with regards to filmmaking and studying film. Critics appreciated his desire to explore the radical potential held within modernist aesthetics like montage and internal monologue, willingness to explore how radical film might be employed within a studio system, and ability to explore cinema’s links with other artistic mediums like writing, theater, and painting.

Yet it was Eisenstein’s next venture—Que Viva Mexico!—that U.S. Left film critics and writers held with great expectations. Despite the failure of An American Tragedy, Left film critics felt that Eisenstein would be able to utilize some of the new techniques he learned within Hollywood in Que Viva Mexico!’s structure, since its independent funding supposedly freed it from studio control. In a February 1931 issue of Experimental Cinema, Seymour Stern writes, “The picture that Eisenstein brings with him from Mexico will no doubt make history enough for our Hollywood-ridden hemisphere,” since the completed film would expose the genius that Hollywood denied.[9] Similarly, Adolfo Best-Maugard, the Mexican censor who helped Eisenstein location scout, states in Theatre Arts Monthly in 1932,

“Modern cinema is Viva Mexico!, a new achievement of a new technique, a more amazing technique than that of Potemkin, perhaps most adequately described, I should say, as ‘symphonic cinema.’”[10]

And after viewing the film’s raw footage, Edmund Wilson claimed “that Eisenstein is indeed in the process of creating the, to date, supreme masterpiece of the moving pictures.”[11] Because Que Viva Mexico! was held in such high esteem by such critics and writers, its subsequent failure to be completed created unanimous outrage among domestic and international Left film communities.

Ultimately, multiple factors prevented Eisenstein from completing the film: his political and aesthetic disagreements over the film’s composition with the film’s main backer, Upton Sinclair; his unfamiliarity with Mexico as a whole; the difficulty of gaining mass-distribution for the film; and Stalin’s belief that Eisenstein’s extended stay in Mexico signaled Eisenstein’s desire to desert the Soviet Union.[12] Eisenstein had only shot five out of the six episodes of Que Viva Mexico!, all of which he eventually shipped to Upton Sinclair. Despite Eisenstein’s subsequent pleas to gain access to the footage in order to edit it, Sinclair refused, believing that Eisenstein might try to smuggle this footage abroad, never to be seen again. Instead, Sinclair hired Hollywood producer Sol Lesser to take Eisenstein’s raw footage and condense it down to an hour and a half, resulting in the commercial film known as Thunder Over Mexico.

Thunder Over Mexico

Before the widespread release of Thunder Over Mexico in September 1933, Left film critics created one of the most organized campaigns against it and for Que Viva Mexico! Two main issues were at stake: 1) Que Viva Mexico! represented the potential to mass-distribute a radical film in the United States for the first time ever and thus to challenge the hegemonic hold Hollywood had upon theaters and audiences; and 2) Que Viva Mexico!’s illustrated montage’s superiority to the Hollywood cutting found in Thunder Over Mexico. In regards to the first issue, Left film critics believed that the prominence of Upton Sinclair as producer and Sergei Eisenstein as director would encourage Hollywood to distribute and exhibit Que Viva Mexico! since their fame would guarantee box-office draw no matter how experimental or political the film was in nature. As a result, Hollywood’s rejection of the film would force Left film critics to realize that mass-distribution of a radical film in the United States was impossible. In order to forestall such a conclusion, U.S. Left film critics spent column after column trying to create large-scale public protest against Thunder Over Mexico.

The second issue was a culmination of debates that began in 1927 in English language film journals about the importance of montage to cinema. Montage served as a central concept in structuring the debates of emerging Left film theory during the late 1920s for two main reasons: 1) It was a pliable enough term so that Left film critics could use it to pursue ideological analysis of a wide variety of films: Soviet, Hollywood, avant-garde, and independent. And 2) its emphasis on the inextricable links between film form and content not only provided a sophisticated method in analyzing the overall structure of specific films, but also in exploring cinema’s ability to offer spectators a more coherent vision of modernity’s fragmenting socio-economic processes and to explore how spectators could alter such processes in more humane and egalitarian directions.[13] Regardless of the different ways in which the concept of montage was employed by Left film critics, it revealed the interpenetration of aesthetics and politics. For example, Victor Turin highlights the importance of material factors in establishing the advent of Soviet montage cinema:

“Not a single art-work that has its origin in the Soviet Union today is the metaphysical brainchild of an artist; but all artworks are based on material of actual occurrence, which forms the best foundation for any kind of creative work.”[14]

Similarly, two years later, B.G. Bravermann addresses montage’s importance in all directors’ works:

“A film director is an artist in a complete sense when he employs his tools to present a dialectic treatment of nature and man … he seeks to develop new aspects of cinematic design in time and linear patterns, and image relationships, with which to intensify artistically the deeply realistic content of his thematic material; he seeks new forms and methods not for their formal values alone but for their integration with an understanding of social phenomena…”[15]

Such comments reinforce Tom Brandon’s own observations about the 1930s U.S. Left film movement, which he was a part of:

“Form and content were inseparable. For all their concern with technique and the need to innovate, to improve, to bring film nearer to the idea of the medium of our time ought to be, they never lost sight of the place of film in society, its role as a force for reform and revolution—film was to be a weapon in changing the world.”[16]

But the centrality of montage within their film columns did not simply translate into U.S. Left film critics solely praising Soviet films and rejecting Hollywood ones. Harry Alan Potamkin, by far one of the most sophisticated Marxist critics during the early 1930s, writes in 1929,

“So long as montage is understood as an inclusive creative (constructing) unity, it is the valid vantage point of film aesthetics, but the moment it shifts to the mere job of cutting or, as it frequently appears in the work and utterances of the Russians, a device for effecting the spectator, without regard to the level of the theme, it is contradictory of unity.”[17]

He continues,

“The entire mind of internationalism, whether it is the large scale of the American commercial viewpoint or the propagandistic reduction of the Russians, thwarts this penetration of the intrinsic theme, and its re-making into the form of the film.”[18]

By 1933, however, with the imminent release of Thunder Over Mexico, Left film critics’ discussion of montage became decidedly more polemical in its defense of Eisenstein’s Mexican footage against Sol Lesser’s Hollywood version of the film. Time and again, U.S. Left film critics establish the critical difference between Hollywood cutting and Soviet montage so that readers might see how Thunder’s very construction is at odds with Eisenstein’s intentions. Seymour Stern elaborates upon the differences found between the two types of editing within his article, “Hollywood and Montage.” The main problem with Hollywood cutting, for Stern, was that it was both too spectacular in its use of mise-en-scène and too realistic in its narrative construction. Individual shots must emphasize scenic backgrounds and/or the actor’s beauty while Hollywood continuity dictates that the narrative be simplified so that viewers could easily follow its trajectory.[19]

Montage, on the other hand, for Stern, serves a diametrically opposite approach: to integrate all its visual elements within the film’s overall theme(s), and to create a narrative structured around the filmed material and the director’s intentions, not based upon the viewer-friendly constraints of Hollywood “realism.” Film content and style must be interconnected to maintain the integrity of the film.[20] Montage, as a result, challenges audience members’ perceptions and thoughts not only by presenting radical content, but by presenting it in a new way that challenges “realism’s” limited ability to understand the socio-economic processes that structure our daily lives.

Stern illustrates the two different approaches to film construction by showing how Hollywood defines “excess footage” as any shot that is not related directly to character or the film’s narrative action.[21] But footage that is “excess” to Hollywood is necessary for Soviet montage since it is needed to create subtle associational links that build up the film’s complex dynamic that challenges spectators’ naturalistic way of viewing the world.

Stern’s comments about “excess footage” are particularly germane in grasping U.S. Left film critics’ problems with Thunder Over Mexico. Eisenstein originally intended Que Viva Mexico! to be comprised of six episodes, each chronicling a different epoch of Mexican history. He described the structure of the film to be like that of a Mexican serape:

“So striped and violently contrasting are the cultures in Mexico running next to each other and at the same time being centuries away. No plot, no whole story could run through this Serape without being false or artificial. And we took the contrasting independent adjacence of its violent colors as the motif for constructing our film: 6 episodes following each other—different in character, different in people, different in animals, trees and flowers. And still held together by the unity of the weave—a rhythmic and musical construction and an unrolling of the Mexican spirit and character.”[22]

But the film’s very lack of a singular plot or story, which Eisenstein saw as a cinematic breakthrough, prevented Hollywood executives from picking the film up for mass-distribution. Upton Sinclair explained the Hollywood point-of-view to Eisenstein in a letter:

“He [a man at MGM] then wanted to know the ‘story’ and pinned me down about it. He explained that a ‘story’ means one set of characters running all the way through the picture. If you haven’t that, then you have a travelogue, and there is nothing in between, from the trade point of view. I tried to explain your idea of a group of stories, and when I got through explaining, the man was absolutely cold … You are making the kind of picture that Hollywood does not want.”[23]

Without a singular story running throughout the film, Hollywood viewed the entire project as nothing more than “excess footage,” a “travelogue,” to use their euphemism, all of which Stern warned about in his column. As a result, when Sol Lesser became charged with transforming Eisenstein’s Mexican footage into a Hollywood film, he centered the story on Que Viva Mexico!’s most dramatic episode, “Maguey.” That episode shows the execution of Sebastian, a peon, and his friends who revolt against a hacendado after Sebastian’s wife, Maria, is raped by one of the hacendado’s men. As Marie Seton explains,

“Edited according to established Hollywood methods, the Maguey story, originally intended by Eisenstein to occupy but two reels in the total film, was spun out to six reels—seven including the Prologue and Epilogue.”[24]

U.S. Left film critics were well aware that “Maguey” was only one of six episodes of the film since the journal Experimental Cinema, as well as other Left film journals and columns, had been chronicling the developments of Eisenstein’s film since its inception in 1931 and published Eisenstein’s written scenario (among other pieces on the film) in February 1934.[25] As a result, Sol Lesser’s Thunder Over Mexico seemed nothing less than a “hack job” of Eisenstein’s original Mexican footage. In a manifesto in defense of Que Viva Mexico!, the editors of Experimental Cinema clearly laid out their problems with Thunder Over Mexico:

“Thus, Eisenstein’s great vision of the Mexican ethos, which he had intended to present in the form of a ‘film symphony,’ has been destroyed. Of the original conception, as revealed in the scenario and in Eisenstein’s correspondence with the editors of Experimental Cinema, nothing remains in the commercialized version except the photography, which no amount of mediocre cutting could destroy.”[26]

By eliminating three of the six episodes and not allowing Eisenstein to edit the film, Thunder Over Mexico, according to U.S. Left film critics, lost all thematic unity and development

September 13, 2009

The second English edition of Reason in Revolt – Authors’ preface

Filed under: Philosophy — movementofthought @ 6:00 pm

Written by Alan Woods, 07 May 2007, originally published on

[Reason in Revolt is one of those few books, which talk about the dialectic philosophy by taking the various examples of the modern scientific discoveries of the 20th century. The modern scientific discoveries provide us many more examples of the truth of dialectics than the examples that were available to Engels in the 19th century. The content of this book is also available at – Editor] 

The second edition of Reason in Revolt will shortly be going to the printers. Here we publish the new Preface which deals with some of the more important scientific findings since the book was first published. Again, they all confirm the validity of dialectics in a remarkable manner.

Philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways: the point, however, is to change it.” (Marx)

More than a decade has passed since Reason in Revolt was first published in English. The response to it has surpassed our greatest expectations. Sadly, Ted Grant, my old friend, comrade and teacher will not see the publication of the second edition. After a lifetime of tireless service to the cause of Marxism and the working class, he passed away last year at the ripe old age of 93.

Ted always had a passionate interest in Marxist theory, and philosophy in particular. He also followed all the developments of modern science very closely. In addition to the Financial Times and The Economist, he subscribed to The New Scientist, which he used to devour from cover to cover. He would often be infuriated by the mystical and idealist slant that some scientists gave to the discoveries of modern science. He would look up from the pages of his journal and shake his head in disbelief: “These people confuse science with science fiction,” he would exclaim indignantly.

There was one remark that struck me as particularly profound. He said that in the human mind, “matter has finally become conscious of itself”. A more beautiful way of expressing philosophical materialism would be difficult to imagine.

It is a matter of great satisfaction to me that in the last years of his life Ted could see the tremendous interest in our ideas that has been expressed in many countries. So far Reason in Revolt has been translated into Spanish, Italian, German, Greek, Urdu, Bahasa Indonesia, Portuguese and Turkish, and new translations are being prepared in French and Dutch. In addition, it has appeared in an “American” translation in the USA, and has also been published in separate editions in Venezuela, Mexico, Cuba and India.

Many of the discoveries made by science over the last decade have confirmed the positions of dialectical materialism defended in Reason in Revolt. In particular, the Human Genome Project has completely undermined the position of the reactionaries who sought to use genetics to justify racism, homophobia and creationism. This is a colossal advance for science and for socialism.

Other discoveries have made us reconsider some of our original opinions. In the first edition we were still unsure about the existence of black holes-those mysterious objects in which the compression of matter has reached such an extremity, that not even light can be emitted. These black giants suck in all surrounding matter, so that nothing can approach them without being crushed and devoured. Until recently there was little hard evidence for it. But the observations made possible by the Hubble telescope have shown that black holes play a fundamental role in the formation of galaxies.

They are present at the centre of every galaxy and serve to hold galaxies together, giving them the cohesion without which life, and ourselves, would be impossible. Thus, what appeared to be the most destructive force in the universe turns out to have colossal creative powers. The dialectical conception of the unity of opposites thus received powerful confirmation from a most unexpected source! 

Role of dialectics

The recognition of the pioneering role of dialectical materialism is long overdue. The theory of chaos, and its derivatives complexity and ubiquity, has provided a striking confirmation of many of the main tenets of dialectical materialism, but this debt has never been acknowledged. This is unfortunate, since knowledge of the dialectical method would have helped avoid a number of pitfalls into which science has occasionally strayed as a result of incorrect assumptions. This fact was acknowledged by the late Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote that if scientists had paid attention to Engels The Role of Labour in the Transition of Ape to Man, they could have avoided a hundred years of errors.

The great advantage of dialectics is that it deals with things in their motion and development, and moreover shows how all development takes place through contradictions. The dialectical method explains how quite small changes can, at a critical point, produce enormous transformations: the law of the transformation of quantity into quality. The importance of this law has only recently been recognised by science through chaos theory. Engels deals at length with the three fundamental laws of dialectics, which he specifies as:

The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa;
The law of the interpenetration of opposites;
The law of the negation of the negation.

This does not mean, of course, that philosophy-any philosophy-must dictate to science, as did the Church in the Middle Ages, or as the bureaucracy in Stalinist Russia. Science has its own methods of investigation, observation and experiment, and must follow these and these alone. Engels writes in The Dialectics of Nature:

“All three are developed by Hegel in his idealist fashion as mere laws of thought: the first, in the first part of his Logic, in the Doctrine of Being; the second fills the whole of the second and by far the most important part of his Logic, the Doctrine of Essence; finally the third figures as the fundamental law for the construction of the whole system. The mistake lies in the fact that these laws are foisted on nature and history as laws of thought, and not deduced from them. This is the source of the whole forced and often outrageous treatment; the universe, willy-nilly, is made out to be arranged in accordance with a system of thought which itself is only the product of a definite stage of evolution of human thought. If we turn the thing round, then everything becomes simple, and the dialectical laws that look so extremely mysterious in idealist philosophy at once become simple and clear as noonday.” (My emphasis, AW.)

Scientists necessarily approach their subject matter with certain assumptions, of which they are usually unaware. These assumptions invariably have a philosophical character. Behind every hypothesis there are always many assumptions, not all of them derived from science itself. For example, what led geneticists to conclude that humans possessed far more genes than is, in fact, the case? It is the method of reductionism, which flows from the mechanical assumption that nature knows only purely quantitative relations. Biological determinism considers humans as a collection of genes, and not as complex organisms, processes, the product of a dialectical interrelation between genes and the environment.

In reality, in nature changes in quantity eventually end in a qualitative leap. Very small modifications can produce huge changes. Tiny genetic mutations can give rise to huge differences. This is what explains the apparent contradiction between the size and complexity of humans and the relatively small number of genes involved. In Reason in Revolt, this was our criticism of the method of Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. Later, Dawkins himself retreated from his earlier position, shocked by the way in which it had been used by right-wing reactionaries.

The genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees is less than two per cent and most of the genetic material present in modern humans is very old. Organic matter has evolved from inorganic matter, and higher life forms have evolved from lower ones. We share most of our genes, not just with monkeys and dogs, but with fishes and roundworms. This is quite sufficient to demolish all the arguments of the Creationists and “intelligent design” merchants.

“Intelligent design”

The decay of capitalism is an expression of its inability to develop the productive forces as it did in the past. This inevitably has serious intellectual consequences. Dialectics teaches us that human consciousness in general is not revolutionary but profoundly conservative. It tends to lag behind the development of the productive forces. Men and women initially react to change by clinging to the old, familiar ideas, habits, traditions and routine. It requires great historic events to shake them out of this routine and impel them on the road to revolution. This process is neither simple nor painless.

As incredible as it may seem, in the first decade of the twenty first century, religion is experiencing a revival, not only in the form of Islamic fundamentalism, but also of Christian, Jewish and Hindu fundamentalism. The President of the United States firmly believes that God created the world in six days, that man was created from dust and that the first woman was made out of one of his ribs, and so on. The Founding Fathers of the United States were rationalists and products of the French Enlightenment. Many of them were agnostics or even atheists. But if we were able to open the brain of George W. Bush and peer inside, we would see all the accumulated rubbish of the last 2,000 years.

At a time when the discoveries of science-particularly in the United States-are unlocking all the secrets of nature and establishing the material conditions for a new stage in human civilization, we are witnessing on all sides a monstrous regression of culture. It is as if capitalism in its phase of senile decay is returning to its childhood. And there can be few spectacles as nauseating as a decrepit old man who has lost his powers of reason and has become mentally childish.

“Intelligent design” is merely the resurrection under a more plausible name of the Creationist movement, which in the USA involves millions of people and is backed by some scientists. The ideas of Darwin are being challenged in the USA by supporters of the so-called intelligent design theory. They demand that American schoolchildren be made to read the First Book of Genesis as an alternative “theory” to Darwinism. If this movement were to succeed, we would be back in the Dark Ages when men and women prostrated themselves before graven idols and burnt witches at the stake.

The revelations of the Human Genome Project have cut the ground from under the feet of the reactionaries. It has decisively settled the old “nature” versus “nurture” controversy. It shows that the number of genes in humans is not more than 23,000. This has shattered the case for biological-genetic determinism at a single stroke. The relatively small number of genes rules out the possibility of individual genes controlling and shaping behaviour patterns such as criminality and sexual preference.

We share our genes with other species going far back into the mists of time. Evolution is very economical. It constantly fashions new genes from old parts. Thus, the idea of the supporters of “intelligent design” theory that humans are a special creation of God is exploded. Human beings have only about 3,000 more genes than the humble roundworm, a creature with a body of 959 cells, of which 302 are neurons in what passes for its brain. By contrast, humans have 100 trillion cells in their body, including 100 billion brain cells.

Thus, the human genome holds important philosophical and political implications. The biological determinists insisted that in some way genes are responsible for things, like homosexuality and criminality. They attempted to reduce all social problems to the level of genetics. We criticised these false theories in Reason in Revolt, but at that time we had no means of knowing that in a few years their unscientific character would be so clearly demonstrated. As I wrote in the preface to the second Spanish edition in 2001:

“The latest discoveries have finally exploded the nonsense of Creationism. It has comprehensively demolished the notion that every species was created separately, and that Man, with his eternal soul, was especially created to sing the praises of the Lord. It is now clearly proved that humans are not at all unique creations. The results of the Human Genome Project show conclusively that we share our genes with other species-that ancient genes helped to make us who we are. In fact, a small part of this common genetic inheritance can be traced back to primitive organisms such as bacteria.”

Marxism and optimism

Ted Grant was an incorrigible optimist all his life. Marxists are optimistic by their very nature because of two things: the philosophy of dialectical materialism, and our faith in the working class and the socialist future of humanity. Most people look only at the surface of the events that shape their lives and determine their destiny. Dialectics teaches one to look beyond the immediate, to penetrate beyond the appearance of stability and calm, and to see the seething contradictions and ceaseless movement that lies beneath the surface. The idea of constant change, in which sooner or later everything changes into its opposite enables a Marxist to rise above the immediate situation and to see the broader picture.

In the 15 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, we have witnessed an unprecedented ideological offensive against the ideas of Marxism. Ted and I wrote Reason in Revolt to answer the critics of Marxism. And history has not taken long to prove us right. In the space of little more than a decade not one stone upon another is left of the absurd delusions of the bourgeoisie. On a world scale the capitalist system is in crisis. War follows war. Terrorism spreads like an uncontrollable epidemic. Millions of people live in poverty on the edge of starvation. In one country after another elements of barbarism are appearing. The very future of the planet is threatened by global ecological degradation.

In the period of the decline of the Roman Empire people believed that the end of the world was approaching. This idea had its clearest expression in the Christian religion and the Book of Revelations. In the period of the decline of feudalism the same idea was revived by the Flagellants and other millenarian sects who confidently awaited the Day of Judgement when the earth and all its inhabitants would be consumed with fire. But in reality what was approaching was not the end of the world but only the end of a particular socio-economic system that had exhausted its potential for progress.

In the first decade of the twenty first century the capitalist system, together with its values, morality, politics and philosophy, finds itself in a blind alley. The ingrained pessimism of the bourgeoisie and its ideologues in this period is manifested in the poverty of its thought, the triviality of its art and the emptiness of its spiritual values. It is expressed in the wretched philosophy of post-modernism, which imagines itself to be superior to all previous philosophy, when in reality it is vastly inferior.

In its youth the bourgeoisie was capable of producing great thinkers: Locke, Hobbes, Kant, Hegel, Adam Smith and Ricardo. In the period of its decline, it is only capable of producing what Marx describes as flea-crackers. They talk of the end of ideology and the end of history in the same breath. They do not believe in progress because the bourgeoisie has long since ceased to be progressive. When they talk of the end of history it is because they have ended in an historical dead-end and can see no way out. When they talk of the end of ideology it is because they are no longer capable of producing one.

Capitalism is not something eternal, as its defenders would like us to believe. It is a very recent phenomenon with a turbulent past, a shaky present, and no future at all. The comforting illusions of the past, the notion that the free market economy held the key that could unlock all doors barring the way to progress and universal happiness, have all been shattered. In a vague way, the ideologues of the bourgeoisie sense that the system they defend is reaching its end. Naturally, they cannot accept this. A man on the edge of a precipice is not capable of rational thought. The spread of irrational tendencies, mysticism and religious fanaticism reflect the same thing.

It did not take long for all the contradictions to come to the surface. On a world scale the situation is characterised by extreme turbulence and volatility. This is expressed in the turbulence on world stock markets. The present slowdown shows that the boom is running out of steam, and this is preparing the way for a global recession, as Greenspan was recently compelled to admit. At bottom, what this expresses is the revolt of the productive forces against the straitjackets of private ownership and the national state. The system is being shaken by one shock after another. The earlier confidence has evaporated. The articles in the bourgeois press are full of foreboding.

The crisis of capitalism has produced an opposite reaction. There is now a growing interest in Marxist ideas. The so-called anti-globalization movement and the wave of “anti-capitalist” demonstrations show the existence of a ferment among the petit-bourgeois youth. The student and middle-class youth reflect the contradictions that are maturing in the bowels of society. Even before the crisis has properly matured, there is a general questioning of the kind of society that could generate such horrors.

In the next period ideas that now are listened to by small groups will be eagerly sought by hundreds of thousands and millions. The proof of this can be seen by what is happening in Venezuela, where socialist and Marxist ideas are being enthusiastically debated in every factory and village. It is no accident that Reason in Revolt is a best-seller in Venezuela, and has been warmly recommended by Hugo Chávez. What has happened in Venezuela today will happen tomorrow in Britain, in Russia, in China and the USA itself.

The main contradiction is that the big battalions of the proletariat in the industrialised capitalist countries have still not moved. The crisis of humanity can be reduced to the crisis of leadership of the proletariat. The right-wing leaders of the workers’ parties and trade unions-the product of decades of reformist degeneration-are holding the movement back. But that will change. In the next period these organizations will be shaken from top to bottom. At a certain stage mass left-wing tendencies will emerge, which will move in the direction of Marxism.

The discussion of socialism of the 21st century in Venezuela is an important development, which has led to an enormous interest in the ideas of Marxism. It is true that the revisionists of the Heinz Dieterich type are moving heaven and earth to erect a barrier between the masses and Marxism, alleging that Marxism is out of date and that we need to create a new and entirely novel system of ideas that will, they assure us, be the authentic “socialism of the 21st century”. But on closer inspection we see that this brand of ideas is neither new nor socialist, but only a rehash of the utopian attempts of the reformists to create “capitalism with a human face”.

We do not need to reinvent socialism, just as we do not need to reinvent the wheel. The most modern analysis of the world of the 21st century is the Communist Manifesto, written by Marx and Engels over 150 years ago. For in the pages of the Manifesto we have a precise description of the world, not as it was in 1848, but as it is today. This fact, in and of itself, is a striking proof of the superiority of the scientific method of Marxism, which is rooted in the method of dialectical materialism.

Does this mean that Marxism admits of no modification and change? Of course, not! Marxism must take into account all the changes in the objective situation, or else it would not be a scientific method but a lifeless dogma. But what is really remarkable is how few adjustments we have to make to the ideas that were worked out by Marx and Engels in the 19th century and developed and enriched by Lenin and Trotsky in the 20th century. We may make this or that change, but in all the fundamentals the basic ideas retain all their vigour and actuality.

In writing Reason in Revolt, I was deeply impressed by the fact that the discoveries of modern science furnish us with many more examples of the truth of dialectics than the examples that were available to Engels in the 19th century. The method of Marxism provides one with all the basic tools needed to analyse and understand living reality. Dialectical materialism allows us to study reality, not as a series of dry, unconnected, senseless events or “facts”, but as a dynamic process, driven by its internal contradictions, ever changing and with an infinitely rich content. Marxism is much more than a political doctrine, or a theory of economics. It is the philosophy of the future.

London, March 15, 2007 

September 11, 2009

Tora Bora cinema

Filed under: Cinema — movementofthought @ 6:12 pm

by Sobhi al-Zobaidi

[ This article was originally published on  -Editor ]

In Palestine, a new and independent cinema is emerging, and by independent I mean from the authorities of state, religion and commerce. Independent filmmaking in Palestine is better understood as individual filmmaking because of the absence of the institutional base such as foundations, film collectives, film schools, groups, and most important censorship. In fact Palestinian filmmakers act competitively, most often incompatible with each other. Very rarely do they work with each other. An increasing number of filmmakers compete for the same resources. With no institutional bases whatsoever, the whole thing is left to individual improvisation. And maybe that’s a good thing, because if institutionalized, who knows what it would be like?

The Palestinian cinema developing now is one driven by artistic impulses to resist, travel, and otherwise negotiate the world — a body of work shaped only by the filmmaker and his or her circumstances. Impulsive, passionate films, bad quality films, homemade, homegrown, and desperate, but in their own way they reflect a great deal about the inhuman condition that Palestinians live in.

Ultimately we can sum up the Palestinian dilemma with the question, ”What can people do without a geography?” Since 1948 with the founding of Israel, Palestinians have been living in an ever-diminishing space, a constantly transformed and disappearing geography. This has radically changed the way Palestinians practice space and the way they orient themselves in the world. Palestinians have emerged as disoriented people not only in the sense that they don’t know where they are going but also in the sense that they know where they want to go but can never reach there. To combat this loss, Palestinians resort to poetic and imaginary means such as those found in the arts, religion, and digital media. These provide Palestinians with the virtual worlds they need in order to negotiate their loss and confinement.

If the Palestinian is a prisoner, digital media has made it possible to make a film about his life in his prison cell. All that is needed is a small video camera mounted on a tripod and the tape always rolling. But what will the inmate film? Himself or the iron bars or his cell’s concrete walls? And how would the prisoner convey his confinement within these few square meters? How would the prisoner film himself “doing time,” as the word goes? Maybe through a lifelong-zoom-in to a concrete wall (as in Wavelength by Michael Snow)? Would he try to show his thoughts, his imaginings? Or maybe invoke all the other space, the outside space that he has no access to? My quest in this paper is partly inspired by this imaginary situation: What kind of film would be made by an inmate in his prison cell “doing time.”

In this paper I focus on a number of films made by Palestinians within the last few years, a period mostly marked by the Israelis’ building an apartheid wall that further segregates Palestinians into isolated ghettos. The films I discuss here are films by people made immobile, not only in the sense of their inability to travel, but more essentially in terms of their inability to reaffirm their identities as they relate to space. I posit memory at the core of this problem. And by memory I don’t mean only recollections of the past (the lost paradise) but also dealings with the present moment, with the actual, the bare fact. A Palestinian’s memory is mostly composed of an uninterrupted flow of uncertainties, insecurities, wars, and a general and detailed sense of destruction. What causes disorientation and loss is not “memories of things past” but of things present. The films I discuss here are more than just concerned with the present moment. They are the very product of it, images of it.

Fundamental to these films is a dislocation between memory and geography, a distorted sense of space, some kind of non-correspondence, and the result that the individual is driven towards virtual worlds in search of continuity. Memory in these films, to use a metaphor, is very much like fantasy in the psychoanalytical optic, where fantasy is the mise-en-scène of desire (Laplanche). Gilles Deleuze conceives of memory as a dynamic movement resulting from a

“fundamental split in time, that is to say, the differentiation of its passage into two great jets, the passing of the present and the preservation of the past” (Dialogues II: 151)

Memory is the internal projector that sets in motion our perceptions, thus producing our sense of orientation in the world. My quest in this paper is to trace moments where memory dysfunctions, where there is a loss of orientation, where memory does not correspond to geography.

I do so through ideas and insights from Deleuze’s chapter on the “Power of the False” in his book Cinema 2, especially his thesis on the emergence of the “crystalline regime of the image” as a sign for the collapse of a normal sense of space or “sensory-motor schemata.”I also use Laura Marks’s text on “intercultural cinema”(2000) where she reads Deleuze’s ideas into cinematic works made in the last two decades by a new generation of filmmakers who are refugees, immigrants, and exiles who settled in the West. I also build on images and observations made by Edward Saïd and W.J.T. Mitchell in two separate essays published in Critical Inquiry in winter 2006 in a special issue on “Geopoetics, Space Place and Landscape.” They provide valuable insights and critical perspectives on the invention and production of both memory and geography.

My reading is also powered by images, such as the image of the inmate in his cell. But I also use the image of Tora Bora. Yes, Tora Bora, the one in Afghanistan. I use Tora Bora as a site, a performance, and a metaphor. Tora Bora as a terrain, a passage, an escape, a maze of some sort, a very different kind of relation to space. These images of Tora Bora and the inmate in his cell serve as a shortcut to the kind of experiences that I want to convey in my reading of these films. By image I don’t mean just visual image or representation of a thing, rather I follow Bergson’s notion in Matter and Memory;

“and by “image” we mean a certain existence which is more than that which the idealist calls a representation, but less than that which the realist calls a thing – an existence placed halfway between the “thing” and the “representation.” (1991: 9) [highlights in the original]


In a way, it is against my own memories of incarceration, of being made immobile and absent, that I conduct this whole reading. In what follows I want to pursue a reading of Palestinian cinema that goes beyond categorizing them as “roadblock movies” around which identities clash, power is practiced, and struggles take place (Gerz and Khlefi). As informative as they can be, these readings tend to simplify a much more complex and radical Israeli-Zionist discourse that aims at erasing the Palestinian. In the “road-block-movie” model, the Palestinian character is faced with an obstacle, which, most often is overcome metaphorically or defied by use of the camera. In the films I discuss, it is not the roadblock that presents the crisis, but memory itself. These films are “space block” movies, where no camera tricks can overcome the obstacle.

September 10, 2009

Christopher Caudwell His aesthetics and film

Filed under: Art — movementofthought @ 10:14 am

This is very sound critic of Caudwell’s work. When imperialist cultural onslaught is going on very fiercely we have to turn over to Caudwell’s work. Caudwell explains very clearly about imperialist mass art and its false consciousness and about creating class art.

This article is originally published on -Editor

by Ellen Sypher

Christopher Caudwell’s career as a Marxist culture theorist was very brief. Two years after he began serious Marxist writing he was killed fighting in the Spanish Civil War at the age of thirty. Yet in that brief time his output was prodigious: a reputable book on physics from a dialectical materialist perspective (The Crisis in Physics) and four theoretical works on culture. One of these is dedicated to poetry (Illusion and Reality), another to the novel (Romance and Realism) and two to general essays in such fields as history, psychology and religion (presently combined in a single volume, Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture). Caudwell’s reputation, based solely on these five works, is considerable. His name has been a familiar one to Marxists since his death, and he is known of by the literary establishment. Serious evaluation of his writings is, however, only a fairly recent phenomenon.(1) This more recent assessment of him from a Marxist perspective is generally that while immature and deeply flawed, he is so richly suggestive and often so sound that every serious Marxist thinker on culture should deal with him.

He was and remains more or less of a maverick. From upper middle class roots, he left school at fifteen to work in aeronautics. After his commitment to Marxism he moved to Poplar, a working class section of London, where he wrote and did menial party work for the British Communist Party, whose leadership did not even know of him until after his death. He apparently undertook his serious theoretical work in isolation. His work bears all the weaknesses of such an individualistic position in that he uncritically accepts prevailing attitudes. Especially he ignores proletarian culture, and he depends too much on the then very influential Freud. Yet notwithstanding these narrow dimensions of his work, some of his perceptions of literature’s basis and workings stand alongside those of the best of Marxist aestheticians. Caudwell’s work, undoubtedly because of its mixed character, has not substantially influenced any writer on aesthetics although he is undisputedly the major Marxist writer on aesthetics in the British and U.S. tradition.

Literature and especially poetry is Caudwell’s first love. Yet in Illusion and Reality he frequently branches out to mention other cultural forms: music, dance, drama, and film.(2) The comments on film are theoretical and frustratingly brief, yet always provocative and never mechanical. By themselves they cannot stand as a cornerstone for a Marxist theory of film. Placed, however, in the context of his general views on culture and particularly literature, his comments form a springboard for other Marxist film theoreticians.

Unlike more mechanical Marxist writers, Caudwell approaches art neither as primarily a reflection of historical reality nor as a mere vehicle for expressing the author’s class perspective. Rather, for Caudwell art is ultimately an instrument in social production. For Caudwell as for Marx, it is the act of social production which makes humans human, non-animal. Art thus is guaranteed its place as a necessary feature of human social life. Science serves this same end of fostering social production and is likewise necessary. Science, however, operates more in the realm of cognition, while art operates primarily in the realm of emotion. Poetry seems to operate more directly on the emotions, while the novel in its more literal representation of social relations contains somewhat more of the reflective, cognitive, or as Caudwell calls it, “referential” element.

Yet in each case, art serves ultimately to direct the participant’s subjective life toward social production. Art achieves this end by creating an “illusion” of reality which many people can participate in together. It draws out what is common in people’s socially formed, yet idiosyncratically experienced thoughts and emotions. Caudwell seems to suggest that the poem is more effective than the novel in ensuring this collective response. In any case Caudwell is insistent (see particularly his essay on D.H. Lawrence in Studies on a Dying Culture) that there is no area of consciousness or the unconscious, no area of thought or feeling, that is asocial as Freud and Lawrence believe. Both areas are repositories and transformers of one’s social, historical experience. Thus art’s effect in focusing common responses can be profound. Art can be a powerful instrument in encouraging social cooperation, social production.

Caudwell recognizes, however, that in a class society all art is class art, or, the life experiences of people and their interests are class specific. The shared pool of experience and thus art’s potential reach is limited. This brings up the question of which art is “good” art. For Caudwell art which encourages cooperation in the revolutionary class in any era is the period’s progressive art. Only art that can help people move forward in human social evolution is the art that can free people. For as Caudwell reminds us through Hegel,

“Freedom is the consciousness of necessity.”

In his essay “Liberty” Caudwell examines the idea that freedom is the consciousness of one’s potential efficacy in the context of the larger forces that make up historical process. Art from the revolutionary class is the only art which can squarely face this process.

Other art, rooted in the perspective of the dying class, cannot reflect necessity accurately because such a recognition would invalidate that class’s position. Thus this reactionary art cannot be liberating art, art which fulfills its raison d’etre as promoter of cooperation in the further evolution of human society. This art rather promotes a false consciousness. Caudwell observes that artists of the late capitalist period (capitalism is the only class society Caudwell examines) who retain the view of the now dying class, the bourgeoisie, do suffer intensely because of their false consciousness. At once they rebel against the alienating and dehumanizing effects of capitalism (art is humanistic by nature), yet seek only individualistic retreats from society. This is because the dominant characteristic of bourgeois consciousness is individualism. Throughout his works Caudwell refers to individualism as the “bourgeois illusion” that the subject, the human, can separate himself or herself from the object, or social process.

The question posed above has not, however, yet been answered: Where is the “good” art of the present? For Caudwell this is a sticky question, one that he does not answer to the satisfaction of many Marxists today. For while he recognizes that only proletarian art now can be liberating art, and while he theoretically accords art an important role in social change, he hardly discusses progressive tendencies in existing art that the proletariat is involved in. Rather he seems to despair of its capability as “good” effective art until the revolution has already been won. Caudwell examines only artists who retain strong ideological ties with the bourgeoisie—the proclaimed major artists in the British tradition.

It seems as if his writings were primarily addressed to these bourgeois artists in the hope of getting them to change sides—not to proletarian artists seeking a tradition. This is presumably because he feels bourgeois artists have a sensitivity and technique lacking in proletarian artists (or artists who address the proletariat) of today. Caudwell categorizes most contemporary art as “high” or “low brow” art, where bourgeois or “high brow” art is refined and artistic, and “low brow” art is escapist and trashy, art only “for the proletariat.” For Caudwell “low brow” art is less significant as art than bourgeois art. To him, such popular art is only an expression of the poverty of the proletarian intellectual and emotional life that helps to perpetuate that poverty. “High brow” art, on the other hand, is more sensitive to thought and feeling, and more technically innovative, and so offers something worth saving for socialism.

It is in the passage describing the characteristics of “low brow” art that Caudwell makes one of his few references to film and particularly to popular films. Caudwell observes that mass production art helps

“…enforce a dead level of mediocrity.. art’s role is now that of adapting the multitude to the dead mechanical existence of capitalist production, in which work sucks them of their vital energies without awakening their instincts [or potentialities], where leisure becomes a time to deaden the mind with the easy phantasy of films, simple wish-fulfillment writing, or music that is mere emotional message … Immense technical resources and steady debasement and stereotyping of the human psyche are characteristics alike of factory production and factory art in this stage of capitalism … The modern thriller, love story, cowboy romance, cheap film, jazz music or yellow Sunday paper form the real “proletarian” literature of today—that is, literature which is the characteristic accompaniment of the misery and instinctual poverty produced in the majority of people by modern capitalist production. It is literature which proletarianizes the writer. It is at once an expression of real misery and a protest against that real misery. This art, universal, constant, fabulous, full of the easy gratifications of instincts starved by modern capitalism, peopled by passionate lovers and heroic cowboys and amazing detectives, is the religion of today, as characteristic an expression of proletarian exploitation as Catholicism is of feudal exploitation. It is the opium of the people; it pictures an inverted world because the world of society is inverted. High-brow” bourgeois art grows on the bourgeois class’s freedom. “Low-brow” proletarian art grows on the proletariat’s unfreedom, and helps, by its massage of the starved revolting instincts, to maintain that unfreedom in being. Because it is mere massage, because it helps to maintain man [sic] in unfreedom and not to express his [sic] spontaneous creation, because of that, it is bad art. Yet it is an art which is far more really characteristic, which plays a far more important and all-pervasive role in bourgeois society than, for example, the art of James Joyce.” (pp. 197-98)

This mass art Caudwell describes characteristically reproduces alienation and false consciousness by providing only escape, only a vent for “starved” desires—not a vision for the solution of problems. Presumably Caudwell would include with the “easy phantasy” of the opiate film (the detective, cowboy, and sentimental films of the forties and fifties) the more recent cult of violence films. Just as earlier films play on people’s need for ingenuity, heroism and passion, so the modern violence films play on people’s desperate need for power in a system where war, genocide, crime, police brutality, unemployment, and a higher rate of exploitation have become commonplace.

What kind of films, then, would Caudwell assess as being good art? Seemingly he would gravitate toward “high brow” bourgeois films rather than “low brow” ones. Of course he would not find “high brow” films wholly acceptable, even as he finds the vision embodied in “high brow” literature deeply flawed by bourgeois illusion. In the passage quoted above, it is true, Caudwell seems to contradict his general theory of art outlined earlier as he speaks of “high brow” bourgeois films growing on the “freedom” of the bourgeoisie. This suggests perhaps that the artists who address this class are still capable of producing films which reflect reality accurately, thereby fostering the freedom of the bourgeoisie. To achieve consistency with his general theory, however, we must interpret “freedom” here as the bourgeois illusion of freedom, a consciousness fostered by their wealth and power that individual retreat is possible. Thus we would have to extrapolate that Caudwell does not see “high brow” art films of today as liberating films.

While Caudwell would certainly have studied Bergman even as he studied Joyce—for technique and sensitive, unsentimental, and critical depiction of human interaction—he would undoubtedly find Bergman’s films limited and ultimately bourgeois. Even as Caudwell criticizes writers such as Joyce and Eliot for their individualist and idealist perspective, so he would undoubtedly find films like CRIES AND WHISPERS and SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE a reaffirmation of the bourgeois vision of the limitation and temporality in contact and commitment among humans. In the case of Bergman, however much contact is urged, whether it be responding to the cries and whispers or continuing human relationships throughout life, the cause of alienation which limits contact is not located in historical and materialist social forces. Anna’s isolation from heterosexual relationships and possibly even her religiosity, rather than her proletarian history, are the only reasons offered for her emotional responsiveness. Likewise, the difficulties in communication between husband and wife in SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE are presented as aspects of male and female patterns of behavior rather than as a consequence of a petty bourgeois alienation that would encourage the development of such patterns. Caudwell would undoubtedly find in filmmakers such as Bergman another example of the bourgeois artist who recognizes the ossification and alienation of the society yet who is not able to recognize the transforming and cleansing power lying dormant in the proletariat. Such artists develop an attitude of despair or moralism but do not advocate class struggle.

But is Caudwell’s preference for “high brow” over “low brow,” more highly commercialized films politically acceptable? Aren’t there trashy, escapist films in the “high brow” camp? What about the technical excellence of some “low brow” films? What about Charlie Chaplin, or Hitchcock? Where would Caudwell rank them? Presumably they are “low brow” and commercial, but clearly these films do not enforce a “dead level of mediocrity.” Caudwell’s categories of “high” and “low” brow for art which is not overtly revolutionary are clearly of dubious utility and would probably better be scrapped. Caudwell is too easy on the degeneracy of the bourgeoisie and too elitist in his idea of what appeals to proletarian tastes.

As mentioned above, Caudwell does not spend much time discussing existing genuine, liberating proletarian art. He hints briefly that the Russian filmmakers are beginning to show us both the extent of our alienation and a way out of it. Presumably he is referring to people like Eisenstein. Were he living, Caudwell would undoubtedly have much to praise in directors such as Humberto Solas and Pontecorvo, who show us proletarian revolutionary struggle as historically necessary and positive.

The summary and extrapolation above of Caudwell’s views on class art and class film—his scrapping of mass art, his failure to discuss revolutionary proletarian artists—is characteristic of a strong trend particularly in European Marxism. It is also probably a consequence of Caudwell’s living at a time when socialist revolution and flourishing socialist art to inspire the rest of us was not the world-wide phenomenon it now is. Caudwell’s narrow focus on “high brow” culture does not hold interest for us except as an historical phenomenon and as an example of a perspective we shouldn’t adopt. Nor is Caudwell useful in providing observations on how to make revolutionary films (as is Eisenstein for example). Caudwell’s more original and positive contributions to a Marxist theory of film lie elsewhere: in his theoretical comments on some basic generic features of film.

Caudwell already perceived in his time that, like drama, film as “starring” vehicle would remain with capitalism. He could not, of course, imagine the extent to which this hero/heroine worship would be carried. Yet Caudwell makes an important distinction between drama and film in this respect. This distinction does not lead him quite into Lenin’s estimation that cinema is the most important of all arts for socialism, but it at least leads him to estimate that film would be the more appropriate of the two forms for a collective society. Dance, drama, and film, Caudwell maintains, are all related forms in that they are mixed in their effect. Like the novel, they are symbolic forms. That is, they tend to refer us immediately out toward the world of external social relations. Yet, like music and poetry, they also contain a non-symbolic dimension, encouraging us to remain more within the medium. That is, they focus us toward our inner, emotional world, where social relations appear in a ““refracted, masked state. Just as the sounds of music or the carefully selected words of poetry do not direct us immediately toward a moving social reality beyond the music or the words, so the human dancer or actor keeps us riveted on himself or herself. A tension thus emerges in these forms between the non-symbolic and symbolic dimensions. The person mimicking, the vehicle of the non-symbolic dimension, conflicts with the director, the one who forces attention on the thing mimicked, the symbolic dimension.

Such a tension, Caudwell affirms, can be successfully overcome only in film

“where the mechanical flexibility of the camera makes the cast wax in a good producer’s [sic, director’s] hands.” (p. 255)

The egoism of the actors and actresses, their tendency to emphasize the non-symbolic side, or said another way, their individualistic attitudes, can be more easily contained by the director’s moving the camera from static close up to other characters, to larger events. Such flexibility, such ability to restrain individualism means that film is therefore a more appropriate form for a collective society. In fact, Caudwell feels film’s potentiality as a form can only be fully explored when freed from reflecting the fragmentation and individualism of our society, epitomized in the star system. This does not mean that individuality of character will cease in a collective society, as Caudwell is careful to note. Rather, individuality can be “given more elaborate and deeper meaning because it will be a collective meaning,” (p. 296) as directors more effectively create a sense of human interdependency through the flexibility of the camera than can the dramatist. Caudwell is not saying here that drama will disappear with socialism, for under socialism the individual actor or actress will develop a less individualistic consciousness. But film, for Caudwell, seems the higher socialist art form because it can achieve this sense of individuality through collectivity in a “richly powerful and more flexible form.” (p. 296)

There seems to be, however, another reason why Caudwell finds film a highly appropriate art form for socialism. Caudwell observes that dance, drama, and film fall into the category of “temporal arts,” those arts which reflect various individual actors and actresses “crisscrossing” in time. (p. 254) All these forms developed their present character under capitalism, which intensified the division of labor to create highly differentiated people. The novel, Caudwell asserts elsewhere, likewise reflects various individuated humans interacting in time. While socialism certainly works to remove the alienating division of labor of a class society, it nevertheless seeks to encourage individual development. These art forms, shorn of their individualist aspects, would thus have a strong support under socialism.

Yet perhaps there is an even more special suitability of film for socialism than Caudwell suggests above. It may not be insignificant that film and the novel are the forms born in capitalist social relations. Insofar as socialism builds upon certain aspects of these relations, perhaps there are qualities in these two forms alone which make them especially suitable for socialism. When contrasting the novel with the poem, Caudwell intimates at least one aspect of the novel that would make it a crucial form for socialism. Perhaps his observation could be applied to film too. Caudwell observes that capitalism produces the notion of “life as process, as dialectic” (p. 205) and that the novel embodies this consciousness in its form in contrast to the poem.

Caudwell here seems to be fumbling toward the kind of more extensive and more powerful explanation formulated by Lukács some years earlier in History and Class Consciousness, Lukács observes that capitalism is the first fully “social” society, the first mode of production to break down every artificial barrier of religion, caste, or race to draw all areas of life and all peoples into its all-penetrating nature.(3) This, of course, flows from its expansive, commodity-dominated character. Such a fully social society means that people are for the first time in history able to see that they, and not some supernatural force, make history and themselves. Thus emerges the notion of life as dialectical process between human and environment, the notion of evolution. Thus emerges a qualitatively new kind of incursion of the time element into human consciousness and art. Socialism, of course, transforms the alienating effects of this social society created by private ownership, eventually creating in communism a society where all humans will be fully conscious of their role in making history and themselves, and not thwarted by the exigencies of class.

If Caudwell were to adopt this fuller description and explanation for capitalist and communist consciousness, he would have to show how the novel and film actually reflect this consciousness in their forms. Do these forms alone communicate a sense of life as dialectical process? How is this different from the sense of time passing created by dance and drama, forms born long before capitalism? These questions need answering to establish film as a dominant, crucial form under socialism.

As do all critics of Caudwell, I can only reiterate regret over his untimely death. Ideas such as those analyzed above are incomplete and too abstract. Yet these ideas are nevertheless highly provocative. Particularly important is Caudwell’s concept of film’s greater potentiality than drama as a collective form in terms of film’s ability to combat egoism and present the individual more flexibly in a collective context. In addition, his observation on film’s projection of individuated lives interacting and changing in time suggests film’s eminent suitability for a socialist society which encourages diversity among individuals. More especially, one wonders if, like the novel, the other form born in capitalism, film reflects a consciousness of life as dialectical process—a consciousness which Lukaçs explains emerges only with capitalism to become dominant under socialism. If so, both these forms, transformed of course, will become major art forms in socialist society. Caudwell’s suggestions concerning the relation between genre and social relations and the questions they raise should surely be stimulating of further work.


1. Following scattered introductory essays and dissertations on him over the years (the best of these is Stanley Edgar Hyman’s essay appearing in the hardbound edition of The Armed Vision), in 1967 David Margolies published the only book thus far on Caudwell, The Functions of Literature, in which he compares Caudwell’s views of literature’s function with those of George Plekhanov. Two recent dissertations continue raising the level of scrutiny of Caudwell. Francis Mulhern’s dissertation (a portion of which appears as “Caudwell’s Literary Theory” in New Left Review, 35, May-June 1974, 39-57) examines from a Marxist perspective some of Caudwell’s theoretical weaknesses. My own dissertation (“Christopher Caudwell: The Genesis and Function of Literary Form,” University of Connecticut 1976) studies Caudwell’s views on literary form as they contribute to a Marxist approach to the meaning of genre.

2. Christopher Caudwell, Illusion and Reality (New York: International, 1937). Page numbers in text refer to this book.

3. See George Lukács, History and Class Consciousness (Cambridge: M.I.T., 1968). pp. 55-59.

September 9, 2009

The Hidden State by D. Bandyopadhyay

Filed under: Books — movementofthought @ 4:56 am

This article is a review of ‘Rogue Agent…’ , a book by Nandita  Haksar. This is a must read book for everyone who wants to know about the functioning of intelligence units in general and RAW in particular. Unlike CIA of America and KGB of Russia, very little is known about RAW. In this particular sense, this book is very helpful. It is originally published in the renowned magazine ‘Mainstream Weekly’ –EDITOR

[(Book Review)]

Rogue Agent: How India’s Military Intelligence Betrayed The Burmese Resistance by Nandita Haksar; Penguin Books Ltd, New Delhi; 2009; pages 242; price: Rs 299.

The benign and serene face of an Atal Behari Vajpayee or a Manmohan Singh does not reflect the ugliness of the innards of the Indian state. Perhaps every state has this hideous feature neatly packaged to keep it out of sight of its own citizens. From the Devil’s Island of France, the penal settlement in Australia of the United Kingdom to the Guantanamo Bay of George Bush’s US (mercifully abolished by Barack Obama) represent the sinister character of every regime. India is no exception. Notwithstanding the high-sounding principle that the care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the first and only legitimate object of a good government, every state possesses its M15/M16 or KGB or CIA or Mossad or IB/RAW—non-accountable, non-transparent, non-responsive instruments of oppression and torture for the safety of the state. In course of time, some of them gather so much of power and unaccountable authority that they sometimes pose a threat to the democratic features of the state.

Nandita Haksar is both a well-known human rights lawyer and a strident activist and advocate of the essential principles which form the basis of any civilised society. Her book is a bone-chilling account of how our intelligence agencies operate often beyond the limits of law apparently for the safety of the state established by law. In narrating her experience with 36 Burmese freedom fighters languishing in an Indian jail, she travelled far beyond her lawyer’s brief. She exposed audaciously how simple and innocent men get caught in the vortex of geo-politics and how they are discarded like squeezed lemon when they are no longer required. The heartless, cruel and brutal facet of the hidden state has come out clearly in all its ugliness. Ordinary citizens of this country have no idea about the frightfulness of a ruthless state. Nandita Haksar has done a signal service to the civil society of the country by making them aware of the beastly leviathan they are up against in fighting for human rights and state oppression.

One of the innovative aspects of the book is that there is no rigid sequential chapterisation. The ebb and flow of events have been brought in the natural sequence of the ebb and flow of a river. Excluding the forward by Colonel Lakshmi Sehgal and acknowledgements, there are 12 “episodes”. This touch of furriness adds a tangy taste to the book. It kindles excitement not expected in a book seemingly meant for the narration of a legal case.


The real merit of the book lies in gathering primary source materials from sworn affidavits of the prisoners. This is its unique feature. Oral narrations often suffer from errors arising out of loss of memory or deliberate suppression of inconvenient issues or wilful inclusion of blatant falsehood. Because of the penalty of perjury a sworn affidavit is a more reliable source material.

There are intrigues and trickery at every twist and turn of the story. The creek of this rather long narration could be found in the affidavit of Soe Naing s/o Maung Nyo. He avers: “The Indian military intelligence wanted us to provide them with information on the movement of Chinese fishing boats in Burmese waters, because these fishermen were being used as spies by the Chinese Government to spy on Indian military and naval positions. They also wanted information on the Chinese radar stations in Coco Islands which is very near the Andaman Islands. My leader told me that in return for this information the Indian Government was going to allow us to operate from Landfall Island which is the northernmost point on the Andaman Islands.”

From the tales of unknown, simple, seafaring Arakanese sailors and Karen fighters the author spins her narrative to involve the Indian military intelligence, RAW, the Chief of Naval Staff and the Defence Minister. Kings and cabbages have been superbly woven in this fascinatingly true novel.

The murky tale of corruption, betrayal and double-crossing by the MI agent Colonel Grewal sends chill down the spine. These are supposed to be the protectors of our democratic republic which promises “justice, social economic and political” to all. Stories of extortion of money and other costly gifts by the military intelligence officer from the Burmese freedom fighters make one sick. Strangely, a man of integrity like Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat stood by him solidly, presumably for “reasons of the State”. As a lawyer, the author may consider filing a PIL to bring the culprit to book.

The book is written to a higher, subtler and more convincing standard than the readers of the modern Le Carré model thrillers are used to. The proverb “truth is stranger than fiction” comes out with such a devastating force that readers would feel overwhelmed.

I got deeply involved personally while going through the book because it discussed the role of two of my friends in it. Vishnu Bhagwat, the former Chief of Naval Staff, was shown to be totally against these Burmese prisoners. To him, they were gun-runners and smugglers who deserved no sympathy. The author strongly contests Admiral’s point of view, though she praises him sky-high for his integrity and patriotism. There could be honest differences of opinion among conscientious and honourable persons. The same issue could be looked at from different angles. Such differences would not detract an iota from the authenticity of the participants of the debate. If such events resulted in the breaking down of human relationship, that would be unfortunate.

The other person mentioned is my old friend late Bibhuti Bhushan Nandy who was the Additional Director of RAW. Only after going through the book I could understand the strong resentment he had against the continuing imprisonment of the Burmese freedom fighters in the Presidency Correctional Home at Kolkata. In fact at his instance I attended a protest meeting at the Indian Association Hall, Kolkata. Not having read the book then, I could not fathom the intensity of repulsive feeling that Bibhuti Nandy had against the Indian establishment. I regret, I did not involve myself deeply in his crusade to free these freedom fighters.

Nandita Haksar’s passionate plea for the release of the Karen and Arakanese freedom fighters from their continued incarceration in the Indian jail led her to set a new high standard for the real-life thrillers where ordinary people have shown extraordinary courage, fortitude and determination in over-throwing a corrupt and tyrannical military junta for the sake of democracy and human liberty

September 8, 2009

Is China Africa’s new imperialist power?

Filed under: Politics — movementofthought @ 12:58 pm

There is a debate going on about china.. whether china is a capitalist country or an imperialist one. What is your opinion?

This is an old article, originally published on . But as far as this debate is concerned, this is a very useful article. If china is imperialist one or going to be in future, it is bound to follow a big upheaval in world politics, isn’t it?? -Editor

Eva Cheng

2 March 2007

China’s much increased economic activities in Africa in recent years — investments in energy and natural resources extraction and loans to African governments — have provoked accusations that it is becoming a new neocolonial power in the continent.

German development ministry parliamentary secretary Karin Kortmann has led the charge, warning last November in the wake of China’s US$1.9 billion new trade deals with African countries that “our African partners really have to watch out that they will not be facing a new process of colonisation”.

South African President Thabo Mbeki joined in weeks later, cautioning that “China cannot only just come here and dig for raw materials and then go away and sell us manufactured goods”. Calling for greater Chinese investment to build up Africa’s manufacturing capability, Mbeki warned of the “potential danger” of China’s relationship with Africa becoming similar to that which existed in the past between African colonies and the European colonial powers.

“In the 10 years to 2004, China had made over $5bn in loans to African countries — prompting the IMF [International Monetary Fund] to warn of a return to the bad old days of crippling African debt”, the German DPA news agency reported on January 26.

In his eight-nation tour of Africa in February, Chinese President Hu Jintao cancelled a visit to Zambia’s Copperbelt province due to the threat of protests. A hostile reception was least expected for a Chinese leader in the Copperbelt region, considering Beijing financed and built the 2000-kilometre Tanzania-Zambia (Tanzam) Railway between 1970-76 at an estimated cost of $400 million, linking Copperbelt with the Indian Ocean ports at Dar es Salaam and Mombasa. The link is crucial to the export of Zambia’s prime foreign exchange earner — copper.

Anti-Chinese sentiment grew in Zambia after 46 workers were killed in July 2005 by an explosion at an explosives factory at the Chinese-owned Chambishi copper mine in an accident blamed on lax safety.

China’s economic presence in Africa has risen dramatically over the last 10 years. Its trade with the continent surged from $4 billion in 1995 to $55.5 billion in 2006, fuelled by African oil sales to China.

From a very low base, Africa now provides 30% of China’s oil imports, with Chinese investments in 27 major oil and gas projects, mainly in Nigeria, Sudan, Angola and the Congo, with rising investments in Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Zambia, Algeria, South Africa and Chad.

Two-thirds of Sudan’s oil exports go to China, whose state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation owns 40% — the largest single share — of the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Corporation, a consortium that dominates Sudan’s oil fields in partnership with the Sudanese national energy company and firms from Malaysia and India.

The February 17 British Guardian observed that the wave of Chinese investments and government-to-government loans has been welcomed by many African leaders “as an alternative to Western governments that preach free trade and investment but provide little of either. China is also giving African countries billions of dollars in aid without the political and economic strings attached by the West, and building roads, hospitals and stadiums across the continent.”

As part of its drive to gain increased trade with minerals-producing African countries, China wrote off $10 billion of African debt in 2000 and it forgave another $1.2 billion in 2003.

Today, more than 700 Chinese companies are operating in 49 African countries.

Does this mean that China is emerging as a new neocolonial, or imperialist, power in Africa, as Kortmann and other Western officials allege?

World capitalism entered its imperialist stage at the end of the 19th century. It was marked most significantly by the rise to dominance within the international capitalist economic system of a few hundred super-rich families that owned monopolistic industrial and banking firms with investments centred in the developed capitalist countries of Europe, North America, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, but which also economically dominated the underdeveloped capitalist countries of Africa, Latin America and Asia.

Despite the winning of nominal political independence by nearly all the formerly colonial-ruled countries in Africa and Asia in the 1950s and ’60s, their economies remain dominated by the big Western corporations, which utilise their monopolistic control of advanced technology to extract above-average profits (“super-profits”) out of the capitalistically underdeveloped countries.

In these conditions there is little room for any Third World country to break into the First World imperialist club of rich nations. This also remains true of China, a formerly underdeveloped capitalist country that underwent a socialist revolution in the early 1950s, but in which capitalism again became dominant in the last decade.

Despite its rapid industrialisation over the last two decades, China remains a poor nation (with a per capita GDP of $1740, one-third that of South Africa’s, and just a little more than that of war-torn Iraq), dependent upon Western corporations for access to advanced industrial technology.

Beijing’s unwillingness to obey the imperialist powers’ rules in making trade deals and loans with other underdeveloped countries, however, has attracted the Western corporate and political elites’ disapproval. The Western-dominated IMF, for example, imposes a neoliberal agenda of privatisation of public assets and cutbacks in government health and education spending as conditions for granting much needed loans to Third World countries. Beijing’s role as an alternative loan provider to some African countries has weakened the IMF’s blackmail of these countries.

Thus, Beijing’s 2004 $2 billion credit line to Angola on generous terms came after Angola refused the IMF’s conditions.

China has increasingly become the imperialist West’s main workshop for the production of cheap consumer goods, draining China’s energy, water and other natural resources, and polluting its environment.

Chinese-owned companies’ investments in Africa are largely driven by a basic agenda of seeking fuel and minerals inputs for the production in China of manufactures by Chinese firms working as subcontractors for big Western corporations, with the bulk of the profits going to the latter.

In 2002, exports by Chinese subsidiaries of First World corporations accounted for 25.8% of China’s exports — up from 20.3% in 1997, according to the World Investment Report 2006. According to the WIR 2006, the value added in China by the subsidiaries of First World corporations amounted to US$103.6 billion, and their pre-tax profits from such operations totalled $22.7 billion.

According to the November 29, 2004, China Business Weekly, the US-based Wal-Mart corporation, the world’s biggest retailer, bought $15 billion worth of products from China, mostly through a network of 5000 China-based firms. Today, Wal-Mart alone accounts for one-third of the $60 billion in manufactures exported from China.

No matter how big a share of the world’s low-technology processing and assembly work China takes on, the imperialist corporations will retain their monopoly of superior technology in the decisive industries.

And while Chinese companies are becoming significant investors in some African countries, most of the continent’s industries are dominated by foreign direct investment (FDI) from US and European corporations.

As the February 10 New York Times noted, “China is not yet an overwhelming presence in Africa. The juggernaut image aside, China imports less African oil, invests less money and spends less on aid than does the United States or Europe.”

According to the most recent UN figures, toyal FDI holdings in Africa in 2005 were worth $96 billion, of which European firms accounted for 61%, US firms 20%, Asian firms 8% and South African firms 2%. Of the $29 billion of FDI that went into Africa in 2005, only $1.2 billion (4.1%) came from China.

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